Labour 'pairing' ban under fire from within

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THE LABOUR leadership was attacked last night by a Labour-led Commons select committee for blocking foreign visits by select committees.

The Opposition's ban on 'pairing' with Conservative MPs had the effect of blocking a visit to South Africa by the Trade and Industry committee, chaired by Dick Caborn, the Labour MP for Sheffield Central.

The cross-party committee last night agreed a special report, protesting against the action by Labour.

'The committee feels strongly that, having been entrusted by the House with the duty to scrutinise a government department, it should be permitted to carry out that duty without interference.

'Political disagreements elsewhere related to the conduct of legislation should not impede security of the executive,' it said.

Sir Terence Higgins, chairman of the Commons liaison committee, the body that runs the committee system, said: 'It is quite wrong that the row between the two sides should affect the work of the all-party committees. It is completely irrational because the idea that fouling up the select committees will damage the Government and bring it back to the negotiating table is ridiculous.'

Although a Tory MP, Sir Terence rarely criticises Labour as chairman of the committee which co-ordinates the work of the powerful cross-party select committees shadowing government departments.

The committee's report came after Tory MPs backed down on their threat to vote Mr Caborn out of the chair of the Trade and Industry Committee in retaliation against Labour. That would have brought the committee system to a standstill.

The criticism underlines the frustration felt by some leading committee members on both sides at the Labour ban on 'pairing' which has halted committee trips abroad.

Labour has already agreed to relax its rule in order to allow members of the Defence committee to visit Bosnia.

The next test will be the Foreign Affairs committee, which will be prevented from visiting Brussels unless Labour is prepared to compromise.