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Wednesday, May 5, 1999 Published at 16:15 GMT 17:15 UK

Election campaign hits Commons

Tony Blair: Labour councils have lower tax rises

By Political Correspondent Nick Assinder.

The "Super Thursday" election campaign erupted in the Commons with a bitter clash between the prime minister and William Hague over their parties' record in local government.

The opposition leader staged a robust fightback from two weeks of Tory civil war, claiming the only convictions Labour had left were those of their local councillors found guilty of fraud.

On the eve of the vital elections to town halls and the Scottish and Welsh assemblies, Mr Hague attempted to regain some ground for the Tories in the wake of the "dump Thatcherism" row that has split the party and undermined his leadership.

But Mr Blair hit back at the sleaze allegations and Mr Hague's claims that Labour councils charged the highest council taxes.

Both leaders fear low turnouts in the crucial elections could prove damaging for their parties and both were determined to whip up a bit of enthusiasm for the polls.

Mr Hague started the bust up by asking the prime minister during question time why the council tax in his own Sedgefield constituency was one of the highest in the country.

"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
"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?"

Mr Blair hit back, 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".

But Mr Hague's performance - one of his best for several weeks - put some heart back into Tory MPs who fear they may suffer some poor results in the polls.

The eve of devolution

[ image: Teresa Gorman:
Teresa Gorman: "Why can't the English have a Parliament?"
The electioneering was taken up by Tory backbencher Teresa Gorman, who broke the official party line by demanding the creation of an English parliament.

She asked the prime minister to confirm that after devolution the same number of Scottish MPs will still be coming to Westminster to: "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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