John Major let his temper show yesterday as Tony Blair challenged him over greed and injustice in British Gas and again when it was alleged the Commons was breaking for Christmas a day earlier than planned so that he would not face another Questio n Time.
The House will now rise next Tuesday and return on 10 January. Keeping to tradition, the final day's business will be a series of short backbench debates without any Question Time session.
Mr Major was on the front bench when Tony Newton, Leader of the House, announced the change and was incensed when Ann Taylor, for Labour, presumed the extra day's holiday was "because the Prime Minister doesn't want another day of Question Time". Nor didhe want to see the introduction of the Dudley by-election winner.
An angry Mr Major started forward, stabbing his finger at Mrs Taylor and reportedly saying: "You asked for it." Mr Newton told MPs that he and the Prime Minister had received a request for the House to rise on Tuesday from Mr Blair's office. The Prime M i nister deserved an apology from Mrs Taylor.
Derek Foster, the Labour chief whip, left the chamber to make inquiries and 40 minutes later the row resumed. Mrs Taylor said that whatever Mr Newton had been told by the Prime Minister or anybody else, inquiries had "confirmed that no request at all wasmade by the leader of the Opposition to have Tuesday's business cancelled". So did Mr Newton intended to restore PMQs?
To the private relief of all in the chamber, he did not. "The last thing I would want to do, especially at this time, is to raise the level of acrimony," Mr Newton said. He thought there had been a "misunderstanding" by Mrs Taylor.
"Manifestly the impression had been created in the Prime Minister's office that something approaching a request had been made,'' he said. But as the protests rose, he declared that he, Mr Major and Mrs Taylor were all acting in "good faith" - it was justthat they could not agree.
The disclosure that British gas showroom workers face cuts in pay and holidays while their chief executive, Cedric Brown, pockets a 75 per cent rise, taking him to £475,000 a year, was meat and drink for Labour.
Tony Blair asked Mr Major to confirm that by next year, Mr Brown would earn as much in a week as his employees earned in a year. "Isn't it time the Prime Minister took a grip on these privatised utilities and put a stop to excesses that are offensive to the British sense of justice?"
Mr Major said the Labour leader would have to decide whether he wished to have a private sector with rigid government controls over every aspect, in which case it was not private, or to renationalise industries like British Gas. But Mr Blair asked since the utilities were regulated why couldn't they be regulated to stop salary excesses. "Isn't the point one of efficiency as well as justice? If we want a modern, motivated workforce we can only do it on the basis of investment, partnership and fairness - not on the old Tory notion of greed at the top and insecurity for the rest."
Thumping his briefing papers down on the Despatch Box, Mr Major said the Labour leader should sort out his lines with Gordon Brown, the shadow chancellor.
Two hours earlier, in a radio interview, Mr Brown had said wage rates in industry were matters for negotiation between the unions and the employers, and government should not interfere.
The troubled Child Support Agency came in for renewed criticism during a Commons debate, though Frank Field, chairman of the social security select committee, said he no longer believed the agency would collapse. Among reforms he urged on the Government were an appeal system and a simpler tax-take formula.
Sir Jerry Wiggin, Tory MP for Weston-super-Mare, also wanted a less complex assessment formula. After speaking of the trauma of his own divorce, he told the House: "Never have I been so ashamed as a supporter of this Government in having to defend what the CSA has been up to."
While Kenneth Clarke, the Chancellor, dealt easily with aftermath of the VAT-on-fuel defeat during Treasury Questions, one of his juniors, David Heathcoat-Amory, seemed less comfortable dealing with VAT on sanitary towels. Kate Hoey, Labour MP for Vauxhall, said sanitary attire was not a luxury but a necessity and didn't the minister agree they should be zero-rated for VAT? Mr Heathcoat-Amory, the Paymaster General, could not bring himself to use the words. "No, we have no plans to reduce VAT on the items mentioned by the honourable lady," he replied. Nor would European Union rules allow it.
But the minister seemed more at home with donkeys, which along with other pleasure rides became subject to VAT in the Budget. Michael Brown, Tory MP for Brigg and Cleethorpes, said that there was great concern in the resort about VAT on donkey rides on Cleethorpes beach, an important part of the local economy.
"Public transport will continue to be zero rated," Mr Heathcoat Amory began."Unfortunately I do not believe that beach donkeys constitute public transport, even in Cleethorpes. But I am sure that even at the standard rate of 17.5 per cent, they do represent excellent value."
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