Commons debate a cut above the rest:Education Bill

13th March 1998 at 00:00
Local authorities are to be sidelined by the new legislation. Frances Rafferty reports. Shirt-sleeved MPs turned to Elizabethan beef for light relief during their six-week discussion

For Roger Gale, MP, the landmark Labour Government legislation to raise standards in the nation's schools will be remembered as the "clod and stickings" Bill.

One of the lighter moments during the six-week grind of the School Standards and Framework Bill through its committee stage saw debate stumble over food.

During an amendment to ensure school meals provided the right nourishment to help children hit literacy and numeracy targets, standards minister Stephen Byers recalled 1966 regulations where beef played a prominent part.

He listed the recommended cuts, from topside to chuck and clod and sticking, then challenged Angela Browning, Conservative education spokeswoman, former food minister and home economics teacher, to define them.

Mr Gale, co-chair of the committee, ruled that the debate had strayed from the amendment, but even he could not suppress curiosity when the minister brandished a note with the answer from an enterprising official. "I am not certain that is in order either, but we're all dying to hear it," he said.

First recorded in Queen Elizabeth's Household Book (1601), clod was a gristly cut from the neck. Not exactly the dish for a McDonald's generation.

All the members agreed it had been a good-humoured committee and opposition MPs said the Government had listened to their points.

Mr Byers thanked John McWilliam, the other chair, for allowing the gentlemen to remove their jackets, adding that he had not taken advantage as he only ironed the front of his shirts. Mr McWilliam earned a reputation for upkeeping Parliamentary protocol. His dry Scottish tones were frequently modulated into admonishment. He celebrated the committee's end by marrying his third wife and setting off to Rome on honeymoon.

Ms Browning spoke of her new-found friendship with the chairman - during a debate on grant-maintained schools they had shared their views on Lady Chatterley's Lover.

Observers agreed that Stephen "third way" Byers was highly effective and contributed to the good humour and non-confrontational atmosphere. Stephen Dorrell was commended for his intelligent and persistent probing. David Jamieson, the "silent whip", livened matters with his dubious waistcoats and mischievous asides. Sir David Madel, Conservative whip, was the perfect gentleman.

Don Foster, for the Liberal Democrats, was, as ever, well informed and his sidekick Phil Willis won the anecdote award for his tale about having to cane a headteacher to clinch a teaching job.

For Labour backbenchers, Bill committees can be dull. They are expected to sit pretty and vote the right way. This time, they were given 15 minutes to rebut opposition points. Gordon Marsden was credited for raising the tone with his quotes from John Betjeman and Marie Antoinette.

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