Spot of bother on the home front for `Mrs Brassy'

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The Independent Online
ONE OF Teresa Gorman's constituents owns a treasured copy of her 1993 book The Bastards, whose name plays on John Major's remark about Tory Eurosceptics. Inside the cover the MP has written: "It takes one to know one."

Those who know the outspoken right-wing Conservative MP for Billericay are unlikely to be shocked by her private thoughts on the then prime minister. They may be more surprised though to learn that she omitted to mention she owned two bedsit properties in south London when she filled in her entry in the Register of Members' Interests.

Usually there are few matters on which the 67-year-old MP is reticent. An advocate of hormone replacement therapy and director of Aphrodite HRT clinics, she once said the treatment had improved her sex life. "My husband thinks it's terrific. Until you get to 50 he chases you around the bedroom but after HRT you are chasing him. HRT keeps you out of hospital, out of an old folk's home and out of the divorce courts."

"Brassy" is the word Mrs Gorman's political enemies use about her. "Feisty" respond her friends. The daughter of a labourer who started a demolition company, she left school in Fulham at 16. It took her 12 attempts to get into parliament and she once remarked that the Tory party simply did not like women. She finally made it in 1987, when she was selected for the seat vacated by Harvey Proctor after a sex scandal - the only time, she said, that her gender had helped rather than hindered her. Later she admitted she had knocked 10 years off her age, telling the local party she was 45.

Life at Westminster was no easy ride, though. In her book she tells how two male Tory colleagues accosted her at the height of the row over Europe, during which she had the whip removed for her Eurosceptic stance. "A woman's place is in the home," one told her. "Yes, flat on her back," the other added. "Do you think Teresa would be any good on her back? I wonder what sort of knickers she wears?"

Such incidents spurred her to express the feminist views for which she has become well known. They won her an ally in Clare Short, now Secretary of State for International Development, whose politics could hardly be further from hers.

But, despite the grudging respect Mrs Gorman has gained from many quarters in the Commons, she has been dogged by controversy, often over her property interests. In 1994 it was disclosed she had bought a house next door to her home in Lord North Street, Westminster, from the council and sold it for a profit. At the time she told The Independent she had lived at Number 14 for 20 years and had bought Number 13 and sold it to a businessman for pounds 445,000.

Within a year her other home was causing similar problems. This time it was Old Hall Farm, in Orsett, the Gormans' constituency home, which was at the centre of controversy. The Labour-controlled Essex County Council had threatened to take them to court over alterations made to the listed Tudor farmhouse. Planners said they had turned the half-timbered building, which was semi-derelict when they bought it in 1992, into a "pseudo-medieval" home, adding that they had done irreparable damage and did not have permission for the work.

In the end, the affair fizzled out. Despite predictions that she could face prison or bankruptcy, the 33 charges against Mrs Gorman and her husband, Jim, were reduced to one apiece, and each was fined pounds 3,000. They had to remove a porch and fill in two windows.

Meanwhile, the existence of other properties belonging to the Gormans had begun to emerge. But when a complaint was made to the then parliamentary commissioner for standards, Sir Gordon Downey, she denied letting out bedsits in south London and said a "tenant" had been paid to swear a false statement. The case was allowed to drop.

Now, though, it has come back to haunt her. And for once, Mrs Gorman must be regretting her propensity to shoot off her mouth. The events which ended in the latest disclosures started earlier this year, after she called striking Essex firefighters "shroud-waving hypocrites" and, what was more, many were moonlighting on European building sites while drawing pensions for their bad backs. The remarks upset a Chesterfield fireman, David Thomas, who checked on Mrs Gorman's interests at Companies House and found she had failed to register directorships of two companies.

While investigating Mr Thomas's complaint, the new Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, Elizabeth Filkin, came across the bedsit case in a file and questioned Mrs Gorman. "I am anxious to ensure that Mr Thomas's complaint should not trigger further complaints," she emphasised in a letter to the MP in April. Mrs Gorman told the commissioner the house she had owned in Hopton Road, Streatham, was purely for her personal residential use. She continued to maintain that the Norwood house had never been let to paying tenants, though the commissioner ruled she should have registered it because it was used by her business.

Now she has confirmed to The Independent that Hopton Road too was used by her business. That means the property should have been listed in the Commons Register of Members' Interests.

In a statement, which has been passed to the commissioner, a neighbour of the Streatham house said that last year, when the house was sold to a local couple, she saw Mrs Gorman and her husband clearing out furniture. "A few days before the new owners moved in, Jim Gorman spent the weekend there clearing out. We chatted among other things about the costs incurred on the Gormans' Essex house. I had the impression that this was their reason for selling," she said, adding that Mr Gorman gave no indication that they did not own the house. Mrs Gorman told The Independent they were merely collecting, with the owner's permission, tools which Mr Gorman had left behind four years earlier.

Although the house was divided into flats, Lambeth Council has no record of it being registered as a house of multiple occupation.The Norwood house is for sale through Bendall's as a registered house of multiple occupation consisting of nine bedsits and two self-contained flats,for pounds 400,000.

If Mrs Filkin finds further failings in Mrs Gorman's registration, the matter will be taken very seriously by the Committee on Standards and Privileges, which oversees MPs' conduct, because the MP was given an opportunity to clear up any outstanding matters less than three months ago.

Whatever the outcome, she will doubtless keep on fighting and will not welcome attempts to dig further into her affairs. "Mind your own business is the only moral law," she once said.