Tory `flogger' let off with a mild answer

Inside Parliament
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BOOT camps may be on their way for young thugs but John Major so far appears reluctant to follow the prescriptions of Elizabeth "flogger" Peacock. The Conservative MP for Batley and Spen was reported at the weekend as wanting violent criminals flogged live on television just before or after the National Lottery draw.

At Question Time yesterday it became clear this was not a desperate attempt to inject real drama into a dire programme: the matronly Mrs Peacock really meant it.

Rising to shouts of "flogger" from the Labour benches, she pressed the case: "Is the Prime Minister aware of the massive support in the United Kingdom for the reintroduction of corporal punishment for mindless violence?"

After another Yorkshirewoman, the Speaker Betty Boothroyd, had calmed the baying House, Mrs Peacock urged Michael Howard, the Home Secretary,to "look more carefully at what people in the UK are now demanding as punishment".

Sidestepping neatly, Mr Major said he thought there were "many measures" that could be taken to deal with crime, particularly juvenile crime. "I know my Right Honourable Friend [Mr Howard] will have heard what my Honourable Friend [Mrs Peacock] has to say, and I know my Honourable Friend will give strong support to my Right Honourable Friend's measures." He did not need to add that flogging, on the National Lottery or otherwise, is not one of those measures.

Later, Mr Major joined another senior Conservative, Sir Anthony Durant, in attacking Labour's crime policies. With Tony Blair charged with stealing Tory clothes on behaviour and duty in his Spectator speech on Wednesday, Sir Anthony, MP for Reading West, said it was by deeds not words that Labour would be judged.

The Prime Minister said he shared the Opposition's wish to prevent crime, but: "They say they want to ensure the guilty are convicted, yet they opposed our changes to the right of silence. There are a range of areas where they have talked tough on crime, but when it has come to being in the right lobby to provide the right laws to prevent crime, we have found them in the wrong lobby."

THE money-saving Jobseekers Bill, which replaces unemployment benefit with a more limited allowance, was given a second reading by 269 votes to 239, but not before Alan Howarth had slid a stiletto between the shoulder blades of the employment minister Ann Widdecombe.

Mr Howarth, MP for Stratford-on-Avon, is a perpetual rebel on social policy, hardly seeming to inhabit the same party as Miss Widdecombe or Flogger Peacock.

As Miss Widdecombe hammered home her claims for the Bill on Third Reading, Mr Howarth intervened to ask if she was "personally looking forward to a world of benefit cuts and boot camps?"

Miss Widdecombe spluttered that she had made no such proposals, later adding that she was looking forward to a "world of focused targeted benefits". The Bill was a prudent, just and "actually very caring measure".

For Labour, Keith Bradley pointed to the cut in jobless benefit from 12 months to six. The main purpose of the Bill was to cut public spending, he said. "This Bill, ironically called the Jobseekers Bill, doesn't create a single job but instead inflicts further hardship on those people without a job."

DAVID Hunt, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, later defended the use of civil servants to back up the Cabinet committee for "co-ordination and presentation of policy" - better known as a "gaffe committee" after the ministerial embarrassments which spawned it.

Kevin McNamara, Labour's Civil Service spokesman, pressed, during a Commons debate, for an undertaking that no civil servants would be employed in any form of political work for the new committee "appointed to look for banana skins and look forward to the next general election".

Peter Mandelson, MP for Hartlepool and Labour's former communications director [chief spin doctor] asked if it was really a proper function for civil servants to spend their time "cleaning up" after Jeremy Hanley, the Tory party chairman.

But Mr Hunt insisted Mr Hanley was on the committee in his capacity as a minister without portfolio. "Civil servants are well aware of the need to retain independence and political impartiality," he said. They had been dealing with the co-ordination and presentation of government policy for as long as he could remember.