Inside Parliament: Sympathy for vulnerable Patten: White Paper on BBC greeted by Tory jeers - Labour tries to slow teacher training reform

Patricia Wynn Davies
Wednesday 06 July 1994 23:02

Hot on the heels of the long-awaited appearance of Tony Blair on his front bench came two of the government ministers tipped to be dislodged from theirs. Peter Brooke, the too gentlemanly by half Secretary of State for National Heritage, conceded 'we are here today and gone tomorrow' as he produced his BBC White Paper.

John Patten, Secretary of State for Education, presiding over the remaining Commons stages of his Education Bill, exhibited altogether more puzzling behaviour, popping in and out, yawning, and sitting motionless with closed eyes. Whether bored, asleep or merely composed in the hope he might get a reshuffle reprieve - Tories feel increasingly sympathetic over his troubles - it was hard to say.

There was a two-tier response to Mr Brooke's paper - mainstream contributions from speakers who got to their feet, and jeers of 'shame', 'cop-out' and 'rubbish' from mostly right- wing Tories annoyed over retention of the licence fee. 'You must be joking,' muttered the hard-to-silence Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman, (Lancaster) when Mr Brooke got to the BBC's duty to be impartial.

Opposition MPs concentrated their fire on issues such as the low morale caused by the introduction of short-term contracts under the director-generalship of John Birt. 'It would be valuable if you would emphasise the value of staff loyalty that can result from the stability that long-term contracts bring,' Marjorie Mowlam, shadow heritage secretary, said.

Austin Mitchell, Labour MP for Great Grimsby and a former television journalist, declared that the corporation had been 'forced into a Birtian corset. The best way of helping the BBC . . . is to keep up both its confidence and the supply of money necessary to do the job.'

John Gorst, Tory MP for Hendon North, urged Mr Brooke to make clear that the paper was not a 'preservation order on a grade one listed building which must not be tampered with by developers or entrepreneurs'.

Mr Brooke did not demur from that - nor from an unpopular intervention from the maverick right-wing Tory Tony Marlow (Northampton North). At his obnoxious best he demanded that the 'ethnic minorities' who read the news be told that 'British culture and British attitudes should predominate.' Responding weakly that this was a matter for BBC management, Mr Brooke managed to let himself down rather badly.

The most intriguing aspect of the exchanges, however, was the incipient conflict on the Labour benches that was revealed when Gerald Kaufman, chairman of the Commons national heritage select committee, extolled the virtues of the BBC associating itself in partnership with a large communications company like British Telecom in order to become a 'major international player in the media game' while discharging its public service role.

Brian Sedgemore, formerly on the staff of Granada television and the MP for Hackney South & Shoreditch, warned later that any merger of the BBC with British Telecom or Mercury would lead to loss of editorial control and, ultimately, privatisation.

Ms Mowlam herself had earlier declared it sad that the Government had 'just gone for the status quo . . . we would have been more ambitious . . .' Watch this space.

In the Education Bill proceedings, Labour was driven to attempting to delay the Government's plans to create a national Teacher Training Agency and introduce school-based initial teacher training.

The House of Lords - where the Bill began life - had watered down the latter provision by limiting schools to running teacher-training in partnership with higher education institutions. This was easily reversed during the Commons committee stage - although the Government's climbdown over student union changes remains.

Labour's amendment, ultimately withdrawn, sought to slow down what Ann Taylor, shadow education secretary, called a 'ludicrous timetable'. Don Foster, the Liberal Democrat education spokesman, backed the call, saying it would give the Government a chance to 'realise the error of their ways'. Previous changes had been introduced in haste, then needed revision; teachers were suffering from 'innovation fatigue', he said.

Ministers might well be spared battle fatigue when the European Union (Accessions) Bill to ratify the admission of four additional states comes before the Commons on Monday. The Government has designs on pushing it through all its Commons stages in a day, a task that last night's Shadow Cabinet agreed Labour should assist in. Because the Bill is so narrowly drawn, there will be no potential timebomb in the form of a Labour amendment on the Social Chapter. Despite lingering resentment over qualified majority voting, any Tory Euro-sceptic revolt is expected to be small beer.

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