Major puts faith in attacking tactics

Inside Parliament: PM targets Labour front bench Scaremonger claim over nuclear power
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Indy Politics
Faced with the claim Tory-controlled Westminster city council housed homeless families in asbestos-riddled tower blocks, John Major yesterday adopted the line of defence that he and his Government have made a standard tactic - find a Labour target.

Westminster may have put lives at risk in pursuit of its "homes-for- votes policy", as an independent report suggests, but what MPs should be concerned about is rents and empty council homes in Lambeth and Hackney. That was the Prime Minister's Question Time logic.

Mr Major went on to blame Labour for undermining confidence in British beef and the farming industry. And as an unsurprised Tony Blair pointed out, the same had occurred over the Scott report on arms-to-Iraq when Mr Major heaped opprobrium on Robin Cook, the shadow foreign secretary. "Does he not realise this country expects him as Prime Minister to take responsibility?" the Labour leader asked.

A report published on Monday on Hermes and Chantry Points in Paddington, west London, said danger warnings were ignored or played down by the Conservative group's leaders as they attempted to ensure likely Labour voters were housed in Labour wards.

Raising the issue, Robert Wareing, Labour MP for Liverpool West Derby, noted that two weeks ago when he had asked about unemployment, Mr Major had "lambasted" Liverpool city council. "Will the Prime Minister now unequivocally condemn Tory Westminster council for risking the health of its people for political purposes by housing them in asbestos-ridden flats?"

Mr Major said the issue was "very properly" investigated by Westminster who had commissioned an independent report and taken action in the light of it. Almost drowned beneath Labour jeers, he suggested that since Mr Wareing was sensitive about his own local authority - "appalling as it is" - he should compare two other Labour councils with Westminster.

"He might actually compare the rent arrears in Lambeth, at six times the level at Westminster, and at Hackney, 10 times as great; and 21 times as many unoccupied dwellings in Lambeth and 23 times as many unoccupied dwellings in Hackney.

"Whose housing policies really are the disgrace?" Mr Major demanded to Tory cheers, the deeds of Dame Shirley Porter's old council swept aside.

Margaret Beckett, the shadow industry secretary, was the next to be accused of "scaremongering" when she called on the Government to halt the "folly" of its pounds 2.6bn nuclear power sell off.

Opening a Labour-initiated debate, Mrs Beckett said there was real fear a privatised nuclear power industry was likely to make "small erosions into safety margins for commercial gain". Tim Eggar, Minister for Energy, dismissed the claim as "pure scaremongering".

Mr Eggar was pressed by the former Labour energy spokesman Martin O'Neill over the safety investigation launched after an emergency shutdown during refuelling at Heysham 2 power station, in Lancashire.

Mr Eggar reminded MPs that the Heysham incident occurred as a fuel rod was being lowered into the reactor. Some 150 fuel changes had been carried out "without any problems". On-load refuelling was continuing at Hinckley Point B in Somerset and Hunterston B in Ayrshire, he said.