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EDITIONS
Wednesday, 27 November, 2002, 15:33 GMT
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.

Tory MP John Taylor asked: "Will you confirm that modernisation means 10,000 firefighters losing their jobs?"

Eric Illsley kept up what has become a weekly assault from Labour's back benches against the idea of students having to pay higher fees to go to top universities.

Voicing concern for poorer students, Mr Illsley argued that if collective provision was right for the NHS, it was right to the health service too.

The government's plans will be published in January - probably after a good few more parliamentary questions - but Mr Blair stressed there would be nothing to put people off from going to university.

Helen Jackson was asking for trouble by starting her question: "I'm not a killjoy, but...."

After a pause as the laughter died down her question was revealed to be about stopping "using fireworks like a toy that children can play with..."

Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith kicked off by asking the prime minister if he considered a strike ballot of tube drivers, prompted by the fire dispute, as secondary strike action.

"The whole of London Underground is likely to grind to a halt and you don't give a straight opinion," he said.

Mr Duncan Smith later taunted the prime minister over stakeholder pension schemes, saying 300,000 of them had no members and more than half of occupational schemes were closed to new members.

Lib Dem leader Charles Kennedy asked if the prime minister was embarrassed that his government had presided over the longest period of manufacturing recession since the Second World War.

He pressed Mr Blair to say how long it would be before he took action, particularly with a timetable for a referendum about joining the euro.

Other topics covered included: Raising standards for all pupils, treating fireworks as "fairly dangerous explosives", deaths in young offenders' institutions, Northern Ireland, university top up fees, anti-social behaviour, flood protection, keeping Somerset County council, hoax calls to 999 centres, abusive Catholic priests, firefighters' strike, missing people following Turkey's invasion of Cyprus, airport expansion and domestic violence against women.

It was a low key intervention, but Labour MP Eric Illsley's question to the prime minister was none the less effective for that.

With all attention focused on the firefighters' strike, the looming backbench revolt over top up fees has been overlooked for the past few days.

Mr Illsley was careful to remind the prime minister of the anger he was facing over the plan.

If collective provision was good enough for the NHS, why was it not an equally good model for the education system, he wanted to know.

The reception his question received from the Labour benches should have served as a clear warning to the prime minister - if he needed another one.

This issue may have been postponed with yet another of the government's famous reviews, but it will not go away.

And the prime minister's response will have left many believing he is personally persuaded of the case for top up fees.

The backbenches did not like it at all. The prime minister is on notice over this one.

Iain Duncan Smith, meanwhile, looked decidedly opportunistic with his attempt to embarrass the prime minister over the firefighters' strike.

He hit the mark, however, when he returned to his old tactic of embarrassing the prime minister over an allegedly failed policy - stakeholder pensions in this case - and answering his own questions when the prime minister ducked them.


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