Inside Parliament: House questions return to haunt Duncan: MP urged to repay part of gain on purchase - Apology follows 'discourteous' departure - Puns litter debate on dogs' mess in street

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Indy Politics
More than 200 Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs have signed a Commons motion calling on the wealthy Conservative Alan Duncan to repay some of the tens of thousands of pounds profit he made on a council house deal in Westminster.

Mr Duncan, MP for Rutland and Melton, resigned his minor post as a parliamentary private secretary or ministerial bag carrier when the lucrative 'right to buy' transaction was disclosed in early January.

But though his prompt resignation spared any embarrassment for his then boss, the health minister Brian Mawhinney, the 36-year-old former oil trader reckoned without Dale Campbell- Savours, MP for Workington and one of the Commons' obsessives. The Labour backbencher has hounded Mr Duncan relentlessly, asking questions of ministers and barracking and demanding he pay back the money whenever the young Tory has risen in the House.

On 3 March Mr Campbell-Savours was expelled from the Commons for the day after claiming Mr Duncan had 'ripped off the ratepayers of Westminster to the tune of pounds 50,000'. The Speaker Betty Boothroyd judged 'ripped off' an unparliamentary expression.

His name heads 212 signatories to a motion stating that Mr Duncan has failed to respond to legitimate questions being asked by members of Westminster City Council and Labour's front bench about the arrangements he made to buy the council house next to his own home in Gayfere Street. Mr Duncan is urged to 'enter into negotiations with the Conservative chairman of Westminster City Council with a view to returning a proportion of the substantial profit he made on this transaction'.

Mr Duncan lent a neighbour pounds 140,000 in 1990 to buy the house in a fashionable part of Westminster under the right-to-buy scheme. At the end of the three-year limit, the neighbour transferred the ownership to Mr Duncan. It was valued by the council at pounds 190,000 and, after improvements, is now said to be worth pounds 300,000.

Mr Campbell-Savours was lying in wait at Environment Questions yesterday for one tabled by Mr Duncan asking about the correlation between political control and the highest council taxes. It was a loyal entree for a bit of electioneering around the theme that Labour councils cost you more. 'While Labour continues to play its childish games, it is the Conservatives who will stand and deliver better local government,' Mr Duncan said.

More predictable party ding- dong followed. Most eyes, however, were on Mr Campbell-Savours, repeatedly rising in the hope of asking Mr Duncan to stand and deliver pounds 50,000. But Miss Boothroyd did not call him.

Even so there was more discomfort for Mr Duncan. David Winnick, Labour MP for Walsall North, pointed out that Mr Duncan had left the chamber before exchanges on his question had finished. 'Was he being sought by the district auditor who is looking into Westminster Council?'

Miss Boothroyd replied: 'I caught out of the corner of my eye Mr Duncan leaving before his question had been completed. I consider that a great discourtesy to the House and to me as Speaker.' The MP for Rutland and Melton 'unreservedly' apologised. 'I didn't realise question seven was still being discussed.'

Robert Atkins seems to have taken to his role as the minister responsible for dog mess, revelling in the scope it offers for excruciating double entendres.

Pressed by Chris Mullin, Labour MP for Sunderland South, to 'take a lead' in making parks, beaches and public places available to everyone, he said it was primarily a matter for local authorities. 'We would like to encourage owners to recognise the importance of not leaving this mess in places where it can be of damage to children and other people and society as a whole.'

But the Minister of State for the Environment went on: 'There is a difficulty here with those who believe their pets can do no wrong, and those who take a differing view, and I don't want to fall between two stools.'

Mr Atkins said a recent study by the Tidy Britain Group found one in six streets were fouled by dogs and 76 per cent of adults considered it one of the worst aspects of environmental damage. On Tuesday he announced that consideration was being given to redefining dog mess as litter - putting owners at risk of a pounds 2,500 fine instead of the present pounds 500.

Charles Hendry, MP for High Peak, said that as a result of compulsory competitive tendering, Tory councils were more efficient at cleaning up dog mess. 'Does this not mean that you don't just have to watch how much you pay in a Labour local authority, you have to watch where you walk as well?'

Question Time had turned into playtime. MPs gleefully got down in the stuff and threw it about. Angela Eagle, Labour MP for Wallasey, was on target: 'How can the Government possibly help the nation clean up its dog mess when it can't even clean up its own mess?'

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