Straight talk on politics of inequality

Leaders clash on reasons for great gap between rich and poor Lord Lester apologises to peers over cash-for-questions leak
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John Major yesterday conceded that governments had a duty to reduce inequality, just hours before publication of a report showing the gap between rich and poor is at its widest for 50 years.

Anticipating the findings of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation at Question Time, Tony Blair said that, far from creating a nation at ease with itself, the Prime Minister had created a Britain that was divided and unjust.

But Mr Major maintained that the Government was tackling inequality by ensuring greater choice and opportunities.

Mr Blair opened the exchanges with a straight question: "Does the Prime Minister accept it is a responsibility of government to reduce inequality?" And got a straight answer: "Yes".

Opposition MPs reacted to what they saw as a significant admission, a possible hostage to fortune. "If the Prime Minister accepts that," Mr Blair came back, "isn't it a matter of shame that Britain today is more unequal than at any time since the Second World War?"

Mr Major said that if people were relatively less well off then he would agree. "What the primary concern of all governments has to be is to make sure that those people who are most vulnerable and those most in need are not ignored by the legislation of the day, and that special care is taken to look after their particular interests."

That was what the Government had continually done, he said. It was the way to develop policy on social security and through the whole gamut of government responsibilities.

Noting Mr Major had not contradicted the inequality claim, Mr Blair said the most telling fact of the week was that the Cabinet would "do nothing about the head of a privatised utility awarding himself 70 times as much as a teacher, 100 times as much as a nurse," while at the same time devising a strategy that might see teachers sacked and classroom sizes rising?

"Far from reducing inequality or creating a nation at ease with itself, his Government after 16 years has created a Britain that is divided, inefficient and unjust."

Mr Major retorted: "It is an extremely good soundbite, but it isn't true.

"There are two ways in which one can deal with the sort of people Mr Blair and I are both concerned about. One is by ensuring that their chances and opportunities are greater, so that inequality falls. That is the right way and that is what the Government are doing," he said.

"The other way is to try and restrain success, which is what Mr Blair strives to do, and that is the wrong way."

Meanwhile, along the corridor, Lord Lester of Herne Hill was apologising to peers about the leak of allegations that four peers took cash for putting questions to ministers. The disclosure a week ago led to a challenge from Viscount Cranborne, Leader of the Lords, for the barrister peer to substantiate the charges.

And with "several" unnamed MPs also implicated, the Speaker, Betty Boothroyd, urged that the matter be referred to the Commons Privileges Committee.

The allegations were contained in a memorandum by Lord Lester, a Liberal Democrat, to a committee under Lord Griffiths, a former law lord, considering whether a register of peers' interests should be set up.

In a short statement, Lord Lester said he did not know who leaked the memorandum, but he was "satisfied that the leak took place outside the House".

He said that in the circumstances, he would be seeking an early opportunity to explain his views in public to the committee.

Asking peers to accept that in making his submission to the committee he believed he was "acting in the best interest of the House", Lord Lester went on: "I profoundly regret the embarrassment my note and its public disclosure have caused to the House and to another place [the Commons].

"It has caused me great personal distress. I apologise for having inadvertently caused offence to the House and risked blemishing its reputation," he said.

The bulk of the Commons day was taken up with a debate on the future of the BBC, but since publication last year of the Government White Paper and its acceptance of the licence fee as the best means of funding at least until 2001, the political heat has gone out of the subject.

Chris Smith, Labour's heritage spokesman, defended the "adversarial style" of political interviews criticised by the BBC director general, John Birt, last week. Assuming the BBC's own John Humphrys and Jeremy Paxman to be the targets, Mr Smith hoped theywould continue to lift a cynical eyebrow. "If Mr Birt was telling the Today programme in a not-very-coded fashion to be gentle to Health Secretary Virginia Bottomley, or indeed to me, I hope they will take no notice whatsoever of him."

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