'So has he got away with it, Speaker?'

Inside Parliament Anger as Wiggin affair ends with his personal statement
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Indy Politics
Not for the first time, a blunt observation from Dennis Skinner summed up the whole business. "He's got away with blue murder," growled the Bolsover socialist as the Speaker, Betty Boothroyd, controversially sought to put a lid on the Wiggin affair.

Sir Jerry Wiggin had apologised "unreservedly" to the House for tabling an amendment to the Gas Bill in the name of his Tory colleague Sebastian Coe without telling him.

Moreover, Sir Jerry, MP for Weston-super-Mare, acknowledged that the amendment - quickly withdrawn when Mr Coe heard of it - would have benefited the British Holiday and Home Parks Association, for whom he is a paid adviser.

As apologies go, the one-minute personal statement was less than abject. Sir Jerry accepted his action was "at odds with the proper expectations of the House", but insisted there was no intention to deceive.

But it was enough for the Speaker, who said in a letter to Peter Hain that Sir Jerry's statement "disposes of this unpleasant matter and no interests of the House would be served by a reference to the Privileges Committee".

Mr Hain, Labour MP for Neath, wrote to Miss Boothroyd last week when the Wiggin "cash for amendments" story broke, requesting a referral to the committee, the nearest thing the Commons has to a disciplinary body.

Miss Boothroyd followed up Sir Jerry's statement with one of her own, and though she did not disclose the detail of her reply to Mr Hain, her reluctance to have yet another MP hauled before the Privileges Committee was plain enough.

"Whatever structures and procedures we have in this House we cannot legislate for integrity, and individual members should act in such a manner whereby their integrity is not called into question," she said. "I trust that this is the last distasteful occasion on which the Speaker is obliged to inquire into the conduct of an honourable member."

"So has he got away with it then?" shouted Mr Skinner, Labour MP for Bolsover, instantly grasping the words between the lines. On a point of order, he contrasted the treatment of Sir Jerry, chairman of the Select Committee on Agriculture, with that of David Tredinnick and Graham Riddick, who were suspended from the House for 20 and 10 days respectively after an inquiry by the Privileges Committee into their readiness to accept cash for tabling parliamentary questions.

"It seems an odd state of affairs," Mr Skinner said. "Two Tory MPs were done 10 days and 20 days for taking, or attempting to take, money and then not receiving it. It seems to be in contrast to the one from Weston-super-Mare, where he's still receiving it."

David Winnick, Labour MP for Walsall North, noted that one of the themes of last Thursday's debate on the Nolan report had been self-regulation. "Do we take it that self- regulation means in effect what we have heard today from Sir Jerry, and that's the end of that affair?" he asked the Speaker.

"I can assure you that many, many people outside this House will simply not be able to understand the position."

Miss Boothroyd told him: "The House must decide for itself what procedures it adopts. I am the servant of the House. I will follow those procedures."

Mr Hain, who had yet to see Mrs Boothroyd's letter, wondered what action could be taken to investigate allegations of a "widespread practice" of tabling questions and amendments in other MPs' names to conceal their commercial origins.

He mused: "Surely too many MPs are now regarded by members of the public as Arthur Daley-type lookalikes?"

The Arthur Daley tag could not be applied to Peter Bottomley, the MP for Eltham, who sat beside Sir Jerry as the House started work on the remaining stages of the Child Support Bill. Neither seemed deeply interested in Labour's attempt to secure more benefit for poorer single mothers, but for Sir Jerry, a few minutes earnest conversation with Mr Bottomley at least delayed the moment of leaving the security of the Commons chamber for the media gauntlet beyond.

Mr Bottomley might have tried to cheer the fallen grandee with the suggestion he had made during Transport questions for dealing with traffic congestion and pollution in London: "How about, for an experimental period, closing the House of Commons car park, giving each MP a week's bus pass, and putting a bus lane up and down Whitehall?"

Mr Bottomley is a former transport minister, but Steven Norris, his successor several times removed, did not share this dangerously progressive thinking.

"Somebody once told me that when Mr Bottomley was a Northern Ireland minister, he jumped out of his ministerial car to ask a couple of taxi drivers to put their seatbelts on," Mr Norris replied, to general amusement.

"I think that same brave attitude toward policy formulation perhaps lies behind that offer - which I shall leave lying on the table for members to consider."

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