Helen Liddell in the Press

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Liddell job set to rouse English backlash


TONY Blair was last night determined not to give in to post-devolution pressure to reduce the number of Scots in his Cabinet despite signs that Helen Liddell's appointment to a largely English ministerial post will spark a backlash south of the Border.

Last night, Dr Liam Fox, the Tories' constitutional affairs spokesman at Westminster told The Herald: "I am sure a few eyebrows will be raised that a Scottish Member has jurisdiction over transport matters in England but does not have any say over transport matters in Scotland."

A Tory back bencher questioned whether there was now a "disproportionate" number of Scots in the Cabinet. Including Edinburgh-born Tony Blair, there are seven out of 22 members from Scotland. With Ms Liddell attending Cabinet on transport matters, the number rises to eight.

However, Ms Liddell, the MP for Airdrie and Shotts, hit back and rejected any criticism about her taking the transport post.

"It has to be according to the abilities of the individual. It's not about nationality. We are a UK Government and I am a UK MP," she stressed.

Her appointment and that of Mr John Reid as the new Scottish Secretary were defended by one Labour MP, who said: "There's no doubt that there are bound to be questions asked about the presence of Scots in senior jobs but in the cases of the new appointments there seems to be agreement that John Reid and Helen Liddell have been appointed for their ability. So, there is likely to be no uproar among Labour colleagues."

Downing Street also seemed impervious to any suggestions of barring Scottish MPs from top Westminster posts.

An official spokesman pointed out: "Helen has been promoted to the transport job which is an important job and John Reid will do an excellent job.

"She takes over the John Reid job in the same capacity as John [with] no Cabinet salary."

The spokesman continued: "We are the government of the UK and can I remind you that Scotland is part of the UK."

Significantly, he added: "Scotland elected a UK government and Scots MPs have a right to run English departments.

"This is a clear signal that being a Scottish MP is no bar. Certain powers have been devolved but the UK government continues to govern the UK."

Yesterday in the Commons, Speaker Betty Boothroyd urged a resolution to a clash over the rights of MPs and MSPs to represent constituents' interests.

Her call came after Mr Brian Donohoe, the Labour MP for Cunninghame South, insisted a new MSP for his area should not be allowed to make representations for people in his constituency over compensation for suffering so-called Gulf War Syndrome.

SNP MSP Michael Russell is reported to be also seeking to represent the interests of the individuals.

Mr Donohoe claims only he should be able to represent the veterans' case because it is a Ministry of Defence matter and therefore outside the jurisdiction of the Scottish Parliament.

Raising the issue in a point of order in the House, Mr Donohoe sought the guidance of the Speaker.

But Miss Boothroyd told him: "This is a problem which will have to be solved outside this House by good sense and mutual respect."

The issue of how the Commons changes to take into account the new constitutional settlement is beginning to filter through to the Westminster consciousness.

This week, the Commons Procedure Committee is due to publish its report on the workings of Westminster post-devolution.

It is expected to call for more "English only" Bills but looks set to spark controversy with MSPs by recommending against them having open access to facilities at Westminster. - May 18 1999