June 14, 2002 ,

FOR most backbenchers it's not every week that you get what the Americans call ‘face time' with the Prime Minister. However, this week I've had the opportunity to meet Tony Blair twice with a small number of colleagues.

The first occasion was at a gathering to mark the anniversary of the General Election with new members of Parliament. It was more of a social than a political occasion.

Having made three speeches that day his voice was hoarse, and I wondered if he would be fit for Prime Minister's Questions less than 48 hours later.

His voice recovered, because the second occasion (more business than pleasure) was a meeting with half a dozen new backbenchers after Prime Minister's Questions, to discuss the delivery of Government policy.

We talked about education, health, crime and anti-social behaviour. I told him about my recent visit to the new St David's hospital in Cardiff, which is to be officially opened in July. We also talked about the new ‘StepUP' pilot scheme in Ely, which will provide jobs for all the long term unemployed.

In a week when the media has been obsessed with stories about spin, our discussion with the Prime Minister was also about what the Government is trying to do about real issues.

How can we make sure that the extra money being put into the NHS delivers a better service? How can we do more to stamp out anti-social behaviour in our communities? How can we improve education and housing? It was useful opportunity to have a serious discussion, in contrast to the public pantomime of Prime Minister's Question Time which preceded it.

People often ask me about Prime Minister's Questions because it is the part of parliament most familiar to them. I believe that it creates a false impression of what the House of Commons is really like.

Most parliamentary work goes on quietly in committees, where legislation is written, debated and amended, and ministers are carefully questioned about Government policy.

Nevertheless, it is an important feature of our democracy that the Prime Minister has to come to the House each Wednesday to answer questions. He highlight this week came from my good friend, Stephen Pound, the MP for Ealing North.

Not surprisingly, coming from Ealing, he is known for his comedy. Like most fine comedians, Steve is a thoughtful man, but so sparkling is his wit that his politics are not always taken seriously by his colleagues. In politics, those gifted with a sense of humour are equally cursed and blessed.

Steve opened by cheekily referring to the most controversial headline of the week. It was a quote from Peter Mandelson, which inspired less than comradely feelings towards Mandy from his fellow Labour MPs.

‘It is said that we are “all Thatcherites now”,' said Steve. ‘May I, as a Bevanite who aspires to be a Blairite, tell my right hon. Friend that there are those of us who would rather undergo root canal surgery without anaesthetic… than accept such a description? May I ask the Prime Minister for his view?'

It was a brilliant question, at once funny and serious, gently reminding the Prime Minister of Labour values, but giving him the opportunity to reassure the troops and tell the country about his political principles.

As for my colleague Steve, this was one occasion on which there had definitely been a noticeable appreciation of the Pound.