Sober standing committee avoids falling down fate

March 5, 2004

Ministers this week conceded that MPs needed extra time to scrutinise the HE bill. Paul Hill witnessed the latest Commons deliberations.

The Tories smelt a rat, Labour smelt tripe and one backbencher thought he had caught a whiff of beer and birthday cake.

After eight hours of forensic analysis of clauses about variable tuition fees, MPs on the higher education bill's standing committee seemed in the mood for some junior common room japery this week.

The Tories lobbed the first bun with the thought that there might be sinister motives behind the government's move to give the committee an extra day to debate the bill.

Could it be, asked Tim Collins, that ministers wanted to take the bill back to the floor of the Commons a week later, on March 16, so that it would coincide - and be overshadowed by - Gordon Brown's budget the following day? Surely not?

"It's also the day after the ides of March," chipped in Tory MP for Daventry Tim Boswell, hinting it was perhaps not the most portentous date for the No 10 diary.

Incensed, Graham Allen, Lab-our MP for Nottingham North, took up the challenge but not Boswell's Shakespearian flourish.

The Tories were "talking tripe", he said.

"They have been filibustering and sucking up and absorbing time for debate," Mr Allen said, implying that the Tories had sinister motives of their own. So there.

But this struck an unintended target.

Committee chairman Roger Gale interrupted to observe that "there has been no filibustering as everything has been done with the chairman's approval and is in order".

This, in turn, prompted former teacher Phil Willis, the Liberal Democrat's education spokes-man, to chide the Labour and Tory members for lowering the tone - adopting the pose of a housemaster weighing up whether lines or a detention would suffice.

People would be disappointed when they read the transcript of this section of the debate, Mr Willis said, conjuring up visions of citizens across the land pouring anxiously over Hansard columns on the internet.

For one, James Purnell, Labour MP for Stalybridge and Hyde, was disappointed the committee would not be debating late into the night - bearing in mind it was his 34th birthday and he had nothing better planned... apart from, hint hint, being bought drinks in Stranger's Bar by the other committee members.

Alan Johnson, the minister for higher education, declined the invitation and said he didn't want the "standing committee to be-come a falling down committee".

But not everyone was pleased with the extra day of debate.

Mr Boswell, a junior education minister under John Major, was troubled that he would now have to choose between the higher education bill and participating in debate about the gender recognition bill.

"It means balancing the needs of a small but important minority... against the needs of students," he said.

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