Labour's TV slot outrages Conservatives

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Labour yesterday stood firmly by Wednesday night's party political broadcast which repeatedly called the Prime Minister a liar over tax, as a furious Tory party again rounded on it with allegations of gutter politics.

John Major rejected the televised claims during yesterday's Prime Minister's questions, accusing Tony Blair, the Labour leader, and his colleagues of peddling "blatant untruths".

The broadcast, one of the most negative in recent history, claimed 15 times in four minutes that Mr Major had "lied to every one of us" by allowing taxes to rise by £800 for the typical family since 1992.

Mr Major declared in response to questioning from Mr Blair that Labour had claimed council tax was lower in Labour areas. "They must know on a fair comparison of like-for-like and band-for-band that that is not true."

Mr Blair demanded: "Will you confirm as a matter of fact that having fought the election on a pledge to cut tax year on year, as a result of the 20 new taxes since you were re-elected, the average family is £800 a year worse off? True or false? Yes or no?"

The Prime Minister retorted: "The answer is that your figures are wrong - and the whole House will have noticed that you have not taken the opportunity to withdraw the blatant untruths that you and your colleagues have been peddling in recent days."

In fact, there is right and wrong on both sides. Labour's computation of the £800 extra tax is based on the typical two-parent, two-child family with a mortgage, while the Treasury's far lower assessment of the impact of tax changes is based on an average of the population, including thousands of pensioners and others who do not pay income tax.

But Labour's claim that average council tax in its areas is £37 lower than in Tory areas reflects the fact that Labour councils tend to cover poorer areas with more properties in lower tax bands. On a strict comparison of Band C homes, the average is £163 more under Labour.

William Waldegrave, Minister for Agriculture, who was Secretary of State for Health during the 1992 election campaign, said in a statement that the broadcast and the council tax claims was the "latest `Jennifer's Ear'," a reference to the controversy over the leaked identity of a glue-ear patient kept waiting for a grommet operation.

Yesterday, Jeremy Hanley, the Tory party chairman, complained that the "scurrilous" broadcast on Wednesday had brought the standards of party political transmissions to a new low. Labour not only stuck by the truth of its £800 figure, but said the broadcast had evoked more than 1,000 requests to join the party or offer help.