Exit Blunkett, but where were the Tories?

Tom Richmond THE enforced resignation of Pensions Secretary David Blunkett was a gift to the Tories. It meant that they could, once again, place the Government in the sleaze spotlight.

It was a tactic that Labour used to great effect during the final years of John Major's administration, not least Mr Blunkett himself.

Yet, eight years later, it appears that the Conservatives have still to master some of the basic arts of opposition.

Take Mr Blunkett's case. He took pensions questions for an hour in the Commons on Monday, the day he authorised the sale of his DNA Bioscience shares.

However, during this grilling, his Tory shadow, Sir Malcolm Rifkind, asked just one question – and that was on the vexed issue of public-sector pension reform.

Curiously, Sir Malcolm was more forthcoming the following morning on the Today programme, firing off a series of salvos about the Minister's business dealings.

However, this was mistaken. For, if governments are to be properly held to account, there is no better forum than the Commons chamber when they can be subjected to a sustained period of questioning from all sides.

Furthermore, if the Tories were to do their job properly in Parliament, rather than seek easy headlines outside its environs, there may be less likelihood of poorly made laws making it on to the Statute Book because the ill-conceived whims of politically nave Ministers have not been subjected to proper analysis.

David Blunkett's political career is now in ruins. His paranoia about bugged conversations was reflected when he confessed: "On my walks in Derbyshire I have often suspected at times that the birds in the trees were wired up". But this has certainly not been the blood-hungry Conservative Party's finest hour. Far from it.

ON the subject of policy failures, Tony Blair's suggestion that alcohol sales should be banned on all forms of public transport further reflects his Government's muddled thinking since coming to power.

In 1997, it emerged that Ministers were powerless to stop under-age children buying alcohol on boat trips. The reason? A legal loophole meant that anyone over the age of seven could purchase alcohol on any train, boat or plane that was physically moving.

Initially, the Home Office was reluctant to act, claiming that the problem was not widespread. Among the many excuses offered by Ministers was that the problem of under-age drinking had been exaggerated. Only the intervention of Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott led to the law finally being changed.

Presumably, Mr Blair's latest intervention – regardless of whether his suggestion is eventually implemented – is an admission of his Government's lamentable record on licensing matters; a record that will be exacerbated if, as expected, pub chain JD Wetherspoon brings forward its daily opening times to 9am.

THE fact that former Beverley MP James Cran did not claim one penny for postage, staff travel or computers during his final year in Parliament came as a no surprise.

He was, after all, the Conservative MP – dubbed The Invisible Cran – who did not table a single question, or contribute to a single debate on the Commons floor, from 2001-05.

Mr Cran's low profile, and reluctance to discuss his record, irritated and surprised many, not least John Major.

At the height of the Maastricht rebellions, which Cran helped to orchestrate, the then Prime Minister singled out the backbencher as an MP with a "good career ahead of him".

It is a candid remark that makes Mr Cran's long years of silence even more baffling.

IT looks like the Scarborough and Whitby MP, Robert Goodwill, may regret his suggestion that portly parliamentarians spend more time in the gym.

"Do you think we should practise what we preach and encourage MPs to take more exercise and eat more sensibly?" asked the Tory as he praised celebrity chef Jamie Oliver's campaign for healthier school meals.

But he was soon made to eat his words when Commons leader Geoff Hoon replied: "I haven't seen you in the House of Commons gym at 7.15 each morning, but I look forward to seeing you on the next occasion that I am there, together with quite a number of my colleagues on the front bench."

The coup de grce came when Mr Hoon added: "Incidentally, Jamie Oliver has paid tribute to the Government for its efforts to promote better food in schools."

Ouch.

TALKING of Mr Hoon, he has been lamenting the shortage of debates staged in Westminster Hall, next to the Commons, where issues of local concern are now commonly discussed.

Here's a suggestion for the Minister to consider: the Government's failure to provide fair funding for Yorkshire's transport needs, an issue made even more relevant by the new powers that MPs have given – unopposed – to the Welsh Assembly to improve public transport in the principality.

These mean that the devolved administration will have a duty to implement policies promoting "safe, integrated, efficient, economic and sustainable transport facilities and services". Welsh Secretary Peter Hain has said that the powers – which will now be debated by the Lords – would help to deliver a "world-class transport system".

If the Government is prepared to make a special case for Wales, Ministers should be challenged by MPs over their failure to treat English regions, such as Yorkshire, in a similarly generous manner after the Leeds Supertram rejection.

It is an important issue that requires urgent debate. And with motorways grinding to a halt, and many train services uncomfortably overcrowded (Yorkshire-bound passengers were stranded for nine hours on a faulty Virgin train with no water last week), time is running out before this region grinds to a halt.

Indeed, the Government's perfunctory attitude towards public transport was all too evident at Sheffield station last week.

Three clocks on the platform were more than six hours late last week. And that was before the clocks went back an hour. Little wonder the trains never run like clockwork.

tom.richmond@ypn.co.uk