No change to Bill as meter runs on;Parliamentary Sketch;Opinion

1st May 1998 at 01:00
Fresh from their holiday, MPs viewed the Teaching and Higher Education Bill with new energy. Frances Rafferty reports.

What does being stuck in a traffic jam in a taxi and listening to a speech by the Liberal Democrats have in common?

According to the waspish David Willetts, Conservative education spokesman, it is "that peculiar combination of boredom and expense as you watch the cost add up on the meter".

Mr Willetts was baiting his opponent on the standing committee of the Teaching and Higher Education Bill. Phil Willis, the amiable Lib Dem for Harrogate and Knaresborough, had been providing sport for MPs, full of beans following the Easter break.

Every time he suggested an amendment to the Bill - to extend the student loans to part-timers and to scrap tuition fees - one of the Labour backbenchers or Tories popped up to ask:"How much will it cost?".

Mr Willetts said one of the many pleasures of sitting on the committee was seeing Mr Willis and fellow Lib Dem Don Foster "embellishing, adjusting or slightly nudging" the contributions of the other. But while the "formidable duo" were nicknamed Pinky and Perky, Mr Willetts needn't be so smug. His own, less than harmonious twosome with Stephen Dorrell, has been dubbed Hinge and Brackett.

Frank Cook, the committee's Labour chair, felt his tolerance stretched to the limit more than once. The MPs had forgotten their protocol over the vacation and he threatened them all with lines. When Mr Dorrell described the Secretary of States's discretion in the Bill as eye-wateringly wide, he replied: "The word eye-wateringly certainly struck a chord with me."

Some of them should know better, especially those who suffered the chairmanship of stickler John McWilliam during the other education Bill's committee stage. One hapless member found himself being given a lecture on Parliamentary etiquette when he bumped into the indomitable Scot in the taxi queue outside the House of Commons.

Stephen Byers, the school standards minister, had led on the easy bits of the Bill - the general teaching council, an induction year for new teachers and qualifications for heads. It was left to Kim Howells, his junior minister, to grapple with the controversial parts - the introduction of tuition fees and new loan arrangements for students.

Mr Foster during the early stages of the Bill managed to introduce an amendment which bore an uncanny resemblance to one already on the Bill. Fortunately his colleagues were indulgent - after all it was his 51st birthday.

David Jamieson, the Labour whip kept an eye on backbenchers, but did tolerate the occasional robust contribution by Gedling MP Vernon Coaker and even a squeak from "Babe of the House", 25-year-old Christopher Leslie.

The Bill, which had been severely Blatched in the Lords (where the Baroness secured three defeats), has now been repaired and heads off to the House of Commons for its report stage.

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