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Party Lines.

Byline: By Zoe Hughes Political Editor

There are few topics that rouse as much passion in the North-East as red squirrels.

Whether it's calling for their grey cousins to be served up to children as a healthy school meal or demanding their immediate death, MPs are eager to demonstrate their loyalty to the threatened native red squirrel.

It was somewhat of a surprise therefore that Hexham MP Peter Atkinson took a more realistic approach to the problem during a Commons debate last week, by calling not for a nationwide cull, but for them to be given protected European status.

As he rightly said, it was too late to stop the greys completely but only by preventing their "remorseless advance" into traditional red territory ( by using contraceptives and vaccines ( would the smaller red squirrel have any hope of survival.

It was a serious point, accepted by all sides, including the Government minister Barry Gardiner. However it's hard to put MPs in a room together for an hour-and-a-half without someone starting the jokes.

On this occasion it was Tory spokesman Bill Wiggin along with chairman and Stockton North MP Frank Cook who, during a break for voting, decided to discuss out loud exactly what would happen to Mr Atkinson if he failed to return to the debate he himself initiated.

FC: "There would be consequences undetermined."

BW: "Would he be given Squirrelpox?"

FC: "No, he'd be stuffed."

IT may have been Elvis's favourite dish, but even Barry Gardiner was forced to admit he couldn't eat squirrel pie during last week's debate on the issue.

Not because he's a Government minister, but because it'd turn him off his musical hero. "The principle of eating a grey squirrel to save a red is not something that I as minister for biodiversity could promote," Mr Gardiner told Hexham's Peter Atkinson after explaining Brunswick Stew was a favourite of the King.

Instead, the minister was forced to pause before admitting to everyone in the debate: "It would probably put me off his music for a long-time."

BUSINESS leaders are probably breathing a sigh of relief that Newcastle Central MP Jim Cousins' first chance to play a major role in shaping legislation in nine years was cut short.

Mr Cousins was placed on a standing committee to scrutinise the Company Law Reform Bill.

It was the first such committee he has sat on since 1997. "You can draw your own conclusions as to the reasons for that," he said. But he certainly grabbed the chance with both hands, tabling a series of amendments largely aimed at ensuring companies are obliged to show a bit more social responsibility.

Alas, when he had to go into hospital for a minor operation, he was replaced by the much less forthright Nick Palmer.

But any bosses hoping they will escape Mr Cousins' amendments will be disappointed. He plans to bring them back on the floor of the House of Commons.

THERE may be plenty of water in the North, but it appears the entire South of England is desperate to get their hands on our stuff after weeks of glorious weather and hardly any rain.

Plans for a national water grid have abounded with ideas of pumping water via a network of huge pipes to diverting it through the national river system.

Many have already dismissed it as an engineering impossibility, while others have warned Northumbria Water ratepayers, who are still paying for the building of the Kielder reservoir, wouldn't take the issue lying down.

Now though a new obstacle has been placed in the idealists' way ( because it's the wrong sort of water for the South.

As Tory spokesman Richard Ottaway explained to astonished MPs recently: "The water on one side (of the country) is different from the water on the other." It's like leaves on the line.
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Publication:The Journal (Newcastle, England)
Date:Jul 5, 2006
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