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Wednesday, May 5, 1999 Published at 15:25 GMT 16:25 UK

Hague lauds Labour 'convictions'

Tony Blair: Labour councils have lower tax rises

With only hours to go before the polls open in the English local elections Tory leader William Hague and Prime Minister Tony Blair have come to verbal blows over Labour's record in local government.

Speaking during Prime Minister's Questions, Mr Hague lashed out at what he said was Labour sleaze in local government and high council taxes.

Rounding on the prime minister, Mr Hague asked why the council tax in his constituency of Sedgefield was one of the highest in the country.

Defending Labour's record the prime minister said that the councils' popularity could be measured by the backing it received from the voters.

Mr Hague replied: "When we are talking about the prime minister's constituency something's wrong and it's nobody's fault at all?"

[ image: William Hague poured scorn on Labour convictions]
William Hague poured scorn on Labour convictions
The Tory leader continued: "Why is it that people who live under Labour councils have to pay higher council taxes for poor services, for incompetent administration and for Labour councillors, a string of whom have fiddled the books."

Citing sleaze in Labour controlled councils in Blaenau Gwent, Lewisham and Doncaster, where some of those involved have gone to jail, Mr Hague said: "Isn't it the case that these are the only people left in the Labour Party with genuine convictions?"

The prime minister met Mr Hague head on saying: "Not merely is it the case that Labour councils have lower than average increases in council tax ... and people pay lower council taxes in Labour than in Conservative areas, but not only that they get better services - better education services and better local government services.

"As for the respective merits of candidates I can do no better than to quote to him the sole Conservative candidate for Rutland Council, a Mr John Duckham."

The prime minister quoted Mr Duckham saying: "Nobody came forward. It was not as though there were no suitable candidates.

"We've long put behind us scruples about endorsing people purely on the grounds of their suitability."

Faced with that kind of competition Mr Blair said he thought Labour candidates "stand rather a good comparison".

The eve of devolution

With voters in Scotland and Wales preparing to vote in the first elections to their new devolved chambers, Mr Blair faced Tory calls for an English parliament.

[ image: Teresa Gorman:
Teresa Gorman: "Why can't the English have a Parliament?"
Tory MP Teresa Gorman asked the prime minister to confirm that after devolution the same number of Scottish MPs will still be coming to Westminster to, as she put it, "poke their noses into English affairs".

She asked: "Would he then turn his mind to being fair to the rest of the population and tell us why it hasn't crossed his mind that we should also have a parliament for England?"

Mr Blair said that devolving power to Scotland and Wales was the middle path between the status quo and separation adding that the new assemblies would provide "the chance for the UK to be strengthened for the 21st century".

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