ABOVE PICTURE: James Wharton MP, third left, at the Hitachi site alongside Communities and Local Government Minister Brandon Lewis. Sharing the platform, from left, is Geoff Hunton, director of Merchant Place Developments, Neil Matthias, senior project manager for Shepherd, Darren Cumner, plant manager for Hitachi Rail Europe, and Paul Woolston, chairman of the North-East LEP

A NORTH-East MP was slapped down by the Commons Speaker in an extraordinary row about how long he visited a neighbouring constituency.

James Wharton, the Stockton South MP, was accused of a lack of “common sense”, after claiming the visit did not take place – because he merely “dropped off” a Government minister.

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But The Northern Echo published a photograph of Mr Wharton alongside Brandon Lewis, the local government minister, at the site of the soon-to-open Hitachi Rail Europe train factory, in the Sedgefield constituency.

And an eye-witness at the event – to announce Government funding for new road and power services – estimated the Conservative MP was present for up to 25 minutes.

Westminster etiquette demands that MPs give advance notice of any official visit to another MP’s constituency – prompting Phil Wilson, Sedgefield’s Labour MP, to make a protest in the Commons.

Mr Wilson said: “It now appears, in the local media, that his role was more than that of a chauffeur - as the photographs suggest that he was an integral part of the visit.”

At first, Mr Wharton insisted he was simply Mr Lewis’s driver, asking: “Are honourable members obliged to inform other honourable members when they drive through, or drop people off, in their constituencies?”

But, he then switched tack, saying: “I did not stay throughout the full visit. I dropped him off, spoke briefly to the media, got a quick photograph and left before the visit was complete.”

John Bercow, the Commons Speaker, replied: “I do think that we should operate in a fashion informed by common sense.”

The Speaker said the issue of the length of a visit was “pretty immaterial”, adding: “If, in fact, he took part in the visit, I think he must know the logic of that.

“I appeal to members, particularly in this sensitive time in the run-up to a general election, to take care to observe, not merely the letter, but the spirit of the convention about prior notification.”

Speaking afterwards, Mr Wilson said: “The lesson here for James is that, when you are in a hole, stop digging.”

Mr Lewis went to the Hitachi site, in Newton Aycliffe, to promote the Government’s “local growth deals”, which promise to create up to 9,000 jobs across the North-East and Yorkshire.

Among the schemes getting taxpayers’ cash is the installation of a new road and power services to attract more businesses onto the Merchant Park development.

The site is the location for the Hitachi Rail Europe train factory, which will employ 730 people when it starts production in 2016, and could house suppliers, warehouses and a technical college.”