Wiggin affair hangs around the House like a bad smell

Speaker to examine alleged breach Privatisation takes back seat to 'stink'

In the space of a few minutes yesterday, MPs switched from discussing the "stink" that used to rise from the river beyond the chamber to the reek within over commercial lobbying.

It was Alan Duncan, Conservative MP for Rutland and Melton, who set the scene at the end of Environment questions with a poser about the number of salmon in the Thames. "In days gone by sittings of this House were suspended because of the stink coming from the Thames during the summer," he said.

But Labour MPs waiting to hear the Speaker, Betty Boothroyd, pronounce on the Wiggin affair could think of only one stink, and jeered and pointed at the Tory benches at the mention of the word.

Sir Jerry Wiggin, Tory MP for Weston-super-Mare, used the name of a colleague, Sebastian Coe, to table amendments to the Gas Bill concerning the mobile and holiday homes industry. Sir Jerry is a paid adviser to the British Holiday and Home Parks Association, but, unlike the former Olympic gold medalist, was not on the committee considering the Bill. Mr Duncan was also on the committee and reportedly took up the caravans issue after the Coe amendments were withdrawn.

Still on the salmon run, Mr Duncan said the increase in the number swimming up the Thames to spawn "proves beyond doubt that it can rightfully make its claim to be the cleanest metropolitan river in Europe". Sir Paul Beresford, Under- Secretary for the Environment, told him the National Rivers Authority recorded 238 salmon in the Thames in 1994, confirming the "marked improvements" of recent years. "The success of this Government, particularly in the Thames, is shown by the fact that those of us in committee rooms can risk opening the windows."

The Speaker is intent on doing more than opening committee room windows. She told the House she had already had a letter alleging a breach of privilege by Sir Jerry, who was not in Britain at present. "In spite of that, I am seriously examining the situation ... with all speed."

Raising the issue on a point of order, Ann Taylor, shadow Leader of the Commons, said: "The House has taken action against those members who we know took cash for questions. It now appears that we need to investigate the issue of cash for amendments, because any action of this kind is very clearly in breach of the existing rules in Erskine May [the Commons rule book].

Tony Benn said that the ruling Miss Boothroyd would give may have historic importance and be studied over many centuries. "Just as your predecessor dealt with the King when he tried to interfere, so I believe that commercial interests are now trying to dominate the Commons by other means," the former Labour Cabinet minister said.

The drama relegated Labour's two debates opposing the privatisation of rail services and the nuclear power industry to status of any other business. Michael Meacher, transport spokesman, repeatedly pressed the Secretary of State, Brian Mawhinney, for the cost of rail subsidies. Mr Meacher said a public subsidy of at least pounds 330m to pounds 500m a year would have to be paid to private train operators to compensate them for the loss of revenue under the cap on fares.

It was the "biggest market rigging operation in modern history", he said, before challenging Mr Mawhinney to reveal his estimate of the subsidy. Would it be less than pounds 500m or more?

Mr Mawhinney did not respond, but later said that it was not possible to predict the subsidy because of the competitive bidding process and the restructuring of the industry to produce efficiencies. Invitations to tender for the first three passenger franchises went out yesterday. "We want to see the relative decline of the railways halted and then reversed. There's only one argument to address: Can that be done in the public sector alone? After 40 years of relative decline, the answer is clearly 'No'."

Tory backbench worries about the electoral wrath of disgruntled home- owners were aired in typically trenchant terms by Nicholas Winterton, MP for Macclesfield. Initiating a short debate on the state of the housing market, he warned ministers: "Politically, we cannot afford to alienate home owners or to treat their fears or aspirations with contempt."

Blaming "Treasury-inspired blows to confidence", Mr Winterton, chairman of the Manufacturing and Construction Industries Alliance, said estate agents reported sales were almost 20 per cent down on the period to the end of April compared to 1994. Government action could not wait until the Budget and should include raising the ceiling on Miras from pounds 30,000 to pounds 50,000 at the 25 per cent standard tax rate for first-time buyers.

Tony Banks, Labour MP for Newham NW, urged a boost to house renovations and construction to put unemployed building workers back to work. He said it was "amazing" that in the 1990s there were still 2,000 households in his constituency that had outside toilets.

The Housing minister, Robert Jones, offered little of substance to Mr Winterton. But, departing from his brief, he offered an unusual personal vignette as he sympathised with Mr Banks.

"Like him, I began my life with access only to an outdoor loo. But, perhaps unlike him, had one other hazard. When I went to stay with my Great-aunt Linda in North Carolina, you had to bang loudly on the outdoor loo with a stick to dislodge the rattlesnakes if you didn't want to end up with a greater vulnerability than I think you would find in Newham."

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