Smiles ahead in the ministerial `rat' race

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The new public service minister John Horam was at the despatch box smiling through the taunts of his erstwhile Labour colleagues within hours of the announcement that Robert Hughes had resigned over an extramarital affair.

"You dirty double rat," snarled Dennis Skinner - about Mr Horam. The last time Mr Horam had been at the government despatch box was in 1979 as a junior transport minister under the Labour prime minister Jim Callaghan.

He was an opposition spokesman on economic affairs until 1981, when he joined the Social Democratic Party. He lost his Gateshead West seat in the 1983 general election, joined the Conservative Party in 1987 and re- entered the Commons as MP for Orpington in 1992.

For all the suddenness of the promotion, Mr Horam fielded questions on charter marks, science and the Internet with aplomb. Among Tory well-wishers, Ian Bruce, MP for Dorset South since 1987 but still to make the front bench, congratulated Mr Horam "on his journey from highways to superhighways".

But Mr Skinner, with an aversion for turncoats as deep as his NUM roots, and other Labour members saw the journey differently. Labour's Civil Service spokesman, Kevin McNamara, said he sympathised with Mr Horam's predicament. "Having started off with such high hopes in this House as a sponsored member of the TGWU, he should have ended up as a junior minister in the most discredited government of the century," said Mr McNamara in mock sorrow.

Another Labour frontbencher, Douglas Henderson, recalled that the last time Mr Horam had been in office he had held the job for three years.

"I have to say the people of Gateshead were terribly disappointed when his party at that time lost office and he had to switch sides," said Mr Henderson, MP for nearby Newcastle upon Tyne North. "They may be less than disappointed on this occasion if it is a period of less than three years."

But Mr Horam was unruffled. He paid tribute to "the commitment and the humour" of Mr Hughes, adding, without a hint of schadenfreude: "He will indeed be much missed."

The Criminal Appeal Bill, intended as a safeguard against miscarriages of justice, was given a Second Reading last night, though with deep misgivings expressed that only the police would carry out investigations.

The justice campaigner Chris Mullin said Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, was acting out of "misplaced loyalty" in clinging to the idea that investigations for the new Criminal Cases Review Commission should be the job of the police.

"It flies in the face of just about all the advice he has received from all those with a first-hand interest in this matter," said Mr Mullin, Labour MP for Sunderland South. Nor was it in the interests of the police.

"It is no part of my case that all police inquiries are dishonest," he said. Honest inquiries had helped to clear the Birmingham Six and Guildford Four, but only after several investigations. And so far there had been eight inquiries into the case against those jailed for killing the 13- year-old newspaper boy Carl Bridgewater in 1978.

"Millions of pounds have been wasted on phoney police inquiries that are not intended to go anywhere," Mr Mullin said. While he accepted "large numbers of police officers" were as concerned as he was about justice, a "culture of perjury" had developed in some forces, particularly in detective squads.

Jack Straw, Labour's home affairs spokesman, supported the Bill but said it would be far better if the system of investigation was independent. "If the police are seen as judge and jury in their own cause, public confidence in them and in this system will not properly be established."

Mr Howard denied that the use of police was a "fatal flaw" in the new arrangements. The Royal Commission on Criminal Justice, on whose recommendations the Bill is based, had concluded there was "no practicable alternative" to using the police, given the size and scope of inquiries.

"Many of the best known cases in recent years came to notice through the efforts of Mr Mullin and others. But each, crucially, required thorough police investigation to uncover evidence on which the cases were referred and the convictions quashed," Mr Howard said.

With tomorrow being International Women's Day, Joan Walley, a Labour transport spokeswoman, made an early call for ministers to put women's transport issues at the top of their agenda.

Ms Walley asked why Steven Norris was refusing to look at proposals from an all-party select committee that convicted sex offenders should be banned from driving taxis. Mr Norris said he had endorsed the recommendation and blamed others.

"I hope Ms Walley will tell her friends in the TGWU who have incited taxi drivers to oppose the checking of minicab drivers for suitability on the grounds that this somehow offers a spurious legitimacy to their activities that they are quite wrong."

Helpful as ever, John Marshall, Tory MP for Hendon North, said there had been a 40 per cent drop in violent crimes on London's Underground over the past five years. Mr Norris said he would "guarantee Mr Marshall that none of what he says will appear in any report of these proceedings tomorrow despite the fact that it is of course the kernel of the matter".

The minister was quite wrong.

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