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EDITIONS
Wednesday, 24 July, 2002, 14:44 GMT 15:44 UK
Prime Minister's Questions
BBC News Online's Nick Assinder gives his instant view on the winners and losers during Tony Blair's weekly grilling in the House of Commons.

Tony Blair: "I still believe that the Belfast Agreement represents the best chance of a peaceful future. We have made substantial advances in Northern Ireland and I will defend this agreement to the uppermost."

Alan Beith, standing in for the Lib Dem leader who is on his honeymoon, referred to the government's tendency to centralise control over public services.

Then, after highlighting the damning report on the handling of the foot-and-mouth crisis he posed the prime minister the question:

"Who takes over a failing central government department?"

Iain Duncan Smith led off with a question on preparations for future terrorist attacks, which have come in for criticism in an all-party select committee report.

Mr Duncan Smith said the government had been more concerned with the appearance of activity rather than actual achievements. He called on the prime minister to take personal charge of the preparations.

The Tory leader also attacked the government's record on unruly pupils being excluded from schools. He claims ministers had undermined the ability of schools to deal with disruptive pupils by introducing appeal panels. An increase in assaults was leading to more teachers leaving the profession, Mr Duncan Smith said.

Deputy Liberal Democrat leader, Alan Beith, standing in for leader Charles Kennedy who is on his honeymoon, attacked the centralisation of control of local services and the threat by Labour to take over schools and hospitals that fail to meet targets.

He also took the prime minister to task over foot-and-mouth outbreak and the role of the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), which he said had failed to meet 83% of the performance targets set by government.

Other issues raised by MPs include: Heroin use in former mining communities, Dr Harold Shipman, possible military action against Iraq, the status of the ceasefire in Northern Ireland, the move of Wimbledon football club to Milton Keynes, the right of local people to decide on new housing developments, NHS funding for children's hospices, care for the elderly

Roger Casale, Wimbledon MP, was next question up after a prolonged debate about the search for peace in Northern Ireland.

In a jarring shift in tone he asked the prime minister to join him in condemning Wimbledon football club's move to Milton Keynes.

A triumvirate of Peter Kilfoyle, Tam Dalyell and Diane Abbott, in this the last question time before the summer break, all put the prime minister on notice that they wanted to have a debate in the House of Commons before there is any military action against Iraq.

Where on earth did Alan Beith suddenly suddenly come from.

After a three Weetabix breakfast he flew out of the sun, machine guns blazing and damn nearly blew Biggles Blair out of the sky.

With his leader Charles Kennedy enjoying his honeymoon, it had fallen to Mr Beith to stand in at question time.

And Biggles just wasn't ready for him.

To be fair, Mr Beith hasn't got too many kills notched on his fuselage but his assault on the government's plans to impose central control on everything from schools to the police blew the PM's tail fin-off.

His own benches loved it and even Mr Blair was forced to declare that, perhaps he should stand in for his leader more often.

Iain Duncan Smith, on the other hand, narrowly missed his target.

Fully aware that Mr Blair has now cottoned onto his tactic of asking him detailed, surprise questions about his claimed policy failures he switched tack with only limited success.

Then there was Iraq. And the prime minister was left in no doubt about the full scale of the potential backbench rebellion over this hugely serious threat.

Three of his own troops demanded the Commons should be given a say in any decision to commit troops to a war with Saddam before it happened.

They fear, with some reason, that the war will come before the end of the summer recess which has now started. And they may well be right.

They did not get the answer they wanted. But many believe this is now the major issue facing them.

Finally, as MPs went off on their summer holidays, the end of term reports for question time performances must read as follows.

Duncan Smith: a good start, shows the ability to apply himself but could still do better.

Charles Kennedy, often grasps the point better than his classmates but sometimes drifts off.

Tony Blair, works hard, possibly receiving private tutoring, but no longer the most popular boy in class.


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