Tory divide deepens over gay sex

TORY divisions over gay sex equality surfaced again this week when a backbench bid to block the repeal of legislation banning the use of taxpayers' money to promote homosexuality was heavily defeated in the Commons.

TORY divisions over gay sex equality surfaced again this week when a backbench bid to block the repeal of legislation banning the use of taxpayers' money to promote homosexuality was heavily defeated in the Commons.

As the world waited anxiously for the outcome of negotiations at the United Nations on a second resolution on Iraq, MPs this week debated a range of subjects including specialist schools, women's pensions, and rural housing.

On a free vote, a Tory amendment to the Local Government Bill to keep existing anti-gay legislation was rejected by 368 votes to 77, majority 291. It again highlighted Conservative splits – especially among East Anglia's MPs – on how far the party should go in modernising itself and presenting a more "caring" image to voters.

Repeal of the now notorious Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988, brought in by Mrs Thatcher's Conservative Government, was backed by 19 votes to two during the Bill's line-by-line committee stage.


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In the report stage on Monday, the Opposition put forward a compromise' plan to make the repeal subject to "safeguards"' on appropriate sex education guidance and parental ballots. But two MPs, Edward Leigh and Ann Widdecombe showed just how far apart the two sides are in the Tory ranks by spearheading the move to go further and retain Section 28 by blocking its repeal.

This came in the face of strong opposition from some Tories, including John Bercow, who quit the Tory front bench over the party's stance on gay adoption rights.

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During the two and a half hour debate, Mr Bercow – a former president of the Conservative association at the University of Essex at Wivenhoe Park – said he would back repeal of Section 28 and against the "obnoxious amendments."

Among the 71 Conservative MPs who backed the bid to block repeal of Section 28 were Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith, John Baron (Billericay), Mark Francois (Rayleigh), Sir Brian Mawhinney (Cambridgeshire North West), and John Whittingdale (Maldon & Chelmsford East).

Included in the list of Tories backing repeal were Richard Spring (Suffolk West) and Tim Yeo (Suffolk South).

Those who either deliberately abstained or found excuses not to be in the Commons voting lobbies were Bernard Jenkin (North Essex), David Ruffley (Bury St Edmunds), John Gummer (Suffolk Coastal) and Simon Burns (Chelmsford West).

LABOUR'S vote collapsed in two council by-elections last week, including the Wickham division of Suffolk county council where the vacancy was caused by the resignation of Colin Barrow, who now sits on Westminster city council.

At Wickham, Tory Peter Bellfield took more than 50% of the vote to win by a majority of 244, although there was a swing of 0.6% to the Liberal Democrats. Labour's share fell by more than 15% compared to 2001, while the Tories went up more than 7% and the Lib Dems climbed 8%

If this was a backlash against the swingeing council tax rise, then it spells bad news for the Labour Party in Essex and Suffolk in May's council elections. And Labour's majority was slashed to just 72 votes in one of its traditional outer London strongholds, the Ravensbury ward of Merton council. The closely-fought battle saw turnout rise compared with last May to 33.7% – respectable for a by-election – resulting in a 7.4% swing from Labour to the Tories.

SURPRISE, surprise, our MPs do not like their new working hours, which were designed to modernise the way the House of Commons works.

On Tuesdays and Wednesdays, Parliament packs up at 7.30pm, leaving legislators with time on their hands to pass convivial evenings among the delights of our fair capital city.

To be fair, some MPs use the night hours to catch up on constituency case work. But for others, it's too late to dash off for curtain up at Covent Garden which leaves those with families scattered around the UK to prop up a friendly bar or two.

The so-called Blair's Babes, the 100 or so new women MPs, who pressed for the change, have also been wrong footed. The new times mean that most Select committees start at 8.55am, which does not allow those bringing up children in London to do the school run.

And by the time they get back to their pads at night, the kids have been tucked up in kids by the domestic help.

Hence Early Day Motion 607, which "regrets the revised sitting hours, notes that the business of the House has been adversely affected, and calls for a review of the arrangements."

More than 120 MPs from all parties have signed the motion, sponsored by Labour's George Howarth (Knowsley North & Sefton East). Other names include Father of the House Tam Dalyell, Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble, senior MPs Tony Banks and Gerald Kaufman (Labour) and Douglas Hogg (Conservative).

Among the region's MPs who are calling for change are Gillian Shephard (Con, Norfolk South-West), Mark Francois (Con, Rayleigh), Andrew Mackinlay (Lab, Thurrock), Bob Spink (Con, Castle Point) and Sir Teddy Taylor (Rochford & Southend East).

It won't happen during this Parliament but don't be surprised if after the next General Election, MPs with fond memories of all night sessions – in the Commons chamber that is – happily vote to return to their old working arrangements.

ANOTHER early Day Motion, which has been languishing in the Commons since December 11 last year, calls on the Government to say how it is going to fund the £720,167 shortfall in Suffolk as the councils in the county grapple with the EU directive to dispose of redundant refrigerators.

Strangely, none of the county's seven MPs has signed the motion, which was lodged in the name of Jonathan Sayeed, the Tory member for Mid Bedfordshire and attracted 17 other supporters.

As the county is groaning under the weight of the growing fridge mountains at Suffolk landfill sites, it doesn't seem unreasonable to have expected perhaps even one of our members might have shown some interest in the matter.

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