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By LGCnet political correspondent Robert Hedley ...
By LGCnet political correspondent Robert Hedley

Recently-appointed shadow secretary for health and education Tim Yeo was rebuked by the speaker after launching a verbal attack on children's minister Margaret Hodge.

Speaking during the continuing debate on the Queen's Speech, Mr Yeo said Conservatives looked forward to seeing details of the Child Protection Bill, and hoped to give it broad support.

'Before that can happen, one important change must take place - the minister for children must be replaced,' he declared.

'No member of the house is less suited to the task of introducing a Bill to improve child protection than her. It is astonishing enough, given her disgraceful record as leader of Islington Borough Council, that the prime minister should have appointed her to this sensitive and important job in the first place; the fact that she remains in place now, however, is beyond belief.'

Mr Yeo then claimed the minister had tried to prevent the BBC from exposing her record on child protection issues and had branded a totally innocent victim of child abuse as a seriously distrurbed person. She refused to give any explanation or apology until forced to do so by the threat of legal action.

As Mr Yeo continued, the speaker, Michael Martin, intervened. 'I have listened carefully to the honourable gentleman and he is going too far in this matter. Any criticism of the nature in which he is indulging should be on a substantive motion of the house. I hope he will move on,' he advised.

When Mr Yeo continued to mention the children's minister, the speaker said: 'I like to give good advice. Of course he can talk about the Bill, but he is referring to an individual member of the house, which requires a substantive motion. I let him make his case to an extent, but it must now stop. It must cease.'

Mr Yeo said he was grateful for the advice, but added: 'What worries me is whether the government are more concerned about protecting ministers or children.'

He added that the government had plans to end free school transport which will be set out 'in what appears to be an innocent draft Bill' which, according to the Queen's Speech, would enable some local authorities to pilot new arrangements for school transport.

'At the moment, families with children who live more than three miles from their school are entitled to free school transport - a right that the government want to remove but do not want to say so. With that in mind, the Bill will refer to road congestion and giving local authorities discretion,' claimed Mr Yeo.

He said most of the children who would lose their right to free transport lived in rural areas. 'As with top-up fees, the children who will suffer most at the hands of the secretary of state (Charles Clarke) are from the poorest families,' he added.

A Conservative amendment which, among other things, deplored the introduction of univerity tuition top-up fees despite Labour's 2001 manifesto pledge not to do so, and regretted the absence of any measures in the Queen's Speech decentralise and democratise the national health service, was defeated by 340 votes to 189.

Hansard 3 Dec 2003: Column 509 - 619

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