The Diary: We don't know what it is, but it's disgusting

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The Independent Online
Last Tuesday, while the House of Commons was debating the Budget, the House of Lords turned its noble attention to the subject of obscenity. Lord Halsbury - I presume the grandson of The Laws of England - introduced a Bill which listed 43 activities that, if his wish is granted, it will be illegal to portray in whole or part in any article. As I understand the Bill's intention, the word "article" covers a multitude of potential sinners - newspapers, films and television among them.

There is a terrible irony in what Denis Healey calls "the house of the dead" attempting to prohibit the popularisation of necrophilia. But it was some other allegedly obscene practices, set out in the schedule to the Bill, which caused their Lordships genuine concern. The problem was that they did not know what at least half-a-dozen of the prohibited activities were. One elderly peer said, and then instantly regretted it, that he was sure his wife would know. Another claimed that he could identify 39 out of the 43, but attributed his superior knowledge to a classical education rather than to a misspent youth.

I regret that I heard nothing of the debate. I only called in to the Lords to get advice from various professors of economics about how I should respond to questions about the Budget on Newsnight. But I understand that the Bill passed its Second Reading and was sent on to committee of the whole House. Reading it on my way to the television centre, I found a profoundly disturbing clause. It is not to apply to Scotland and Northern Ireland. What is the possible justification? Are the Celts beyond corruption or past redemption? Will devolved government mean that the individual nations of the Union can take their own decisions about the public display of Scopophilia? And why in Lord Halsbury's Bill are all these activities - natural, perverted and incomprehensible - printed with a capital letter at the beginning?

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I SPENT most of Thursday in Manchester, speaking to a seminar which a firm of accountants had organised to brief their clients on the Budget. My role was to provide light relief after partners in the company had finished their lectures - each one a miracle of authoritative detail. The clients who sat in the audience must have been greatly encouraged to discover that their financial advisers neither slumber nor sleep. Within 36 hours of the Treasury "explanatory notes" being published they had read the small print and between the lines.

Much fun was had when one of the accountants revealed a fiscal change which had not been given much prominence in the Budget statement. Apparently, there is to be a corporate tax allowance to cover the cost of bicycles used for business purposes. Journeys from home to work do not qualify for relief. Deductions can, however, be made for essential pedalling between clocking on and clocking off. The calculation offered to Thursday's potential cyclists was that any firm with an employee who covered 8,000 miles in a year would qualify for a tax rebate of pounds 1,000.

That advice was typical of the seminar, most of which was devoted to an examination of how the Chancellor's new proposals could be interpreted in a way that minimises tax bills. Everything that the accountant suggested was absolutely legal, unquestionably proper and undoubtedly honourable. But I have to confess that I found something eerie about clever men and women working away, within two days of the Budget, to find methods of avoiding (not, I hasten to say, evading) payment.

Such advice is only available to the well-heeled. Few people on average wages take advice about how to reduce tax bills. I could not help thinking that, instead of cutting the standard rate by a penny, the Chancellor should have increased it by the same amount - to compensate for leakage.

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TIME AFTER TIME throughout the week I have been telephoned by journalists who wanted to know if I thought that Chris Woodhead, Chief Inspector of Schools, should be sacked. I gave what I believed to be a newsworthy answer. "Not for some alleged offence which, it is claimed, took place more than 20 years ago but because of the way he is offending the whole teaching profession, demoralising the schools which he chooses to excoriate and being a generally bad influence on David Blunkett, who is clearly susceptible to every fashionable educational theory that blows his way from Downing Street." My comments were never published. Believing me to a critic of government policy - which in some particulars I am - newspapers and broadcasters telephone me whenever anything goes wrong. When they discover that I am on the Government's side, they always sound hurt. At first I used to apologise for letting them down. Now I bring the conversation to a quick conclusion with the frank and almost guilty admission that I am the opinion they are looking for.

I try not to be offended by the clear implication that my views are not intrinsically worth broadcasting or printing. But here, just in case anyone is interested, is my opinion of Mr Woodhead's future. He exists to convince the public that New Labour is tough on teachers. Philip Gould, the focus group man, wrote in his recent book that Tony Blair knew that he had won the election when the Evening Standard published the headline "Labour will sack bad teachers". It seems that teacher bashing is popular and that the head of Ofsted is regarded as that activity made flesh. That, and only that, is the reason why I want him to go.

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