I beg to move,
That this House
condemns the repeated instances of inadequate or incomplete records of meetings and conversations involving Ministers since 1997;
deplores the culture of secrecy and inefficiency evident in the Government's failure to answer Parliamentary Questions or correspondence adequately and promptly;
deprecates the pursuit of cynical news management strategies in all Departments, but notably in the Department of Transport, Local Government and the Regions;
and urges the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions to change his approach to informing this House and the public.
Let me make it clear at the outset that the Opposition have no criticism whatever of a certain absence on the Government Front Bench. I refer, of course, to the Deputy Prime Minister, who is not present today to defend the record of the Cabinet Office or of the Government's policies with regard to the civil service, for the perfectly legitimate reason that the right hon. Gentleman is on an official trip overseas which was arranged several days ago, and he graciously wrote to me about it some time ago. However, we find it simply breathtaking that the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions should have refused point blank to come to the Chamber to debate a motion that is specifically and personally critical of him. In all the annals of arrogance for which the Government and that Secretary of State have become notorious, this utter display of contempt for Parliament bulks large.
We gather that the Secretary of State's more pressing engagement was a minibus tour of a new bridge on Tyneside. We learned on "The World at One" today—
I am grateful, Mr. Speaker. Mr. Hall may have assumed that his intervention would find favour with the Government Whips Office and with No. 10 Downing street. I am sorry to say that he has further shattered what little political career he had.
We learned today on "The World at One" from the BBC's much respected political editor, Andrew Marr, that the Secretary of State's behaviour on this matter has once again produced a lot of irritation in Downing street.
Before I give way to the hon. Gentleman, who I know has aspirations regarding ministerial office, I warn him not to try to defend the Secretary of State, because were he so to do he might find himself in trouble with No. 10. However, I am happy to give way to allow him to bury his career further if he wishes.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. Certain others of us in the House listened to "The World at One". Perhaps the hon. Gentleman would like to read into the record what was actually said by the BBC's political correspondent, which did not match what he has just told the House?
Not only did I hear "The World at One", but, as the hon. Gentleman will have noticed, I appeared on it, so I am probably more in touch with what happened on it than he is.
I simply say to the Secretary of State, who might actually read our proceedings some time this week—as that seems to be the only contribution that he will make to them—that it is here, not in Tyneside, that he should be building bridges. He needs to build a bridge with No. 10 Downing street. I will have a little more to say about his behaviour later.
I have a declaration, not so much of interest but of past form. For two years, ending a decade ago, I was a special adviser in what were then the Department of the Environment and the Department of Employment. At that time, the only civil servant who answered to me was a secretary. For clarification, I should explain that that was a typing secretary, not a permanent secretary.
In the 1992 election, I served as the press secretary to the then Prime Minister, as an employee of the Conservative party, not as a civil servant. [Interruption.] The Minister for Transport, Mr. Spellar, says that that was a great success. Yes, it was. In the 1992 election, the then Prime Minister secured not only more votes than any political leader in British history but 35 per cent. more votes than the right hon. Gentleman's leader got in June. So yes, it was rather successful, and I thank the Minister for allowing me to put that on the record.
In those days, John Major invariably had a career civil servant as his press secretary outside general elections, and the utter political neutrality of the holders of those posts is demonstrated by the fact that two of them are now working as very senior and diligent servants of the present Administration. Indeed, one of them—Mr. Gus O'Donnell—is so highly regarded that the Chancellor and the Prime Minister recently became involved in a spat over who was to have his services.
I should also make it clear that I was briefly a member of the Prime Minister's policy unit in Downing street. I do not believe that it was a case of post hoc, ergo propter hoc, but John Major resigned at the time to contest the leadership of the Conservative party. I immediately left my post to serve once more as his press secretary. Again for the benefit of the Minister for Transport, we won that particular campaign, for which I took unpaid leave for two weeks. [Interruption.]
Thank you, Mr. Speaker.
My reason for pointing that out is to make it clear that there was a time when there were clear dividing lines between what civil servants and political appointees could do. The Conservative party has always had a much clearer understanding than the Labour party of the difference between exercising a proper electoral mandate and riding roughshod over all rules of propriety. That issue is at the heart of the debate.
The motion is in part about the Government's general failure to discharge their duties of accountability towards Parliament and in part about the specific problems that relate to the conduct of the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions. Some of us do not know whether he has refused to come here today because he is too big headed, or because he knows that every time he comes before Parliament these days a serious allegation is made about the accuracy of his remarks. Perhaps he has concluded that he is physically incapable of providing the full facts to the House and that the only way he can avoid being caught out is to go into hiding. We look forward to the success of the media search parties in flushing him out.
The motion starts by reminding us that last week's extraordinary saga of the censored minutes of a meeting featuring the Secretary of State and the chairman of Railtrack was not the first time that records have been inadequate, or perhaps even doctored, under this Administration since 1997. Let me take the House back to the days of the Ecclestone affair, which led the Prime Minister to race on to our televisions to tell us all that he is
"a pretty straightforward kind of guy".
I refer to that seminal tome "Servants of the People", the true story of new Labour, which I am sure has been on the reading lists of all my hon. Friends. Page 93 of that wonderful volume refers to the time in October 1997 when the tycoon Mr. Ecclestone was ushered into Downing street. Mr. Rawnsley refers to two errors that he believes the Prime Minister committed. He says:
"Blair's first error was to have granted a privileged audience to a man who had given £1 million to his party and at a time, it would subsequently emerge, when the party was soliciting for more. The second mistake was to keep no formal minute of the meeting."
A pattern begins to emerge.
The Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport reported only a few days ago on the conduct of the former Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport as it related to the wonderful triumph of the Government's policy on Wembley stadium and Picketts Lock. I did, of course, alert the office of Mr. Smith that I would make a brief reference to this matter. On the £20 million agreement between the then Secretary of State and the Football Association, under which the FA was to return the sum to the Government, the Select Committee concluded:
"This agreement—which after two years has yet to result in a single signed legal document, let alone a single penny being paid over—represents a scandalously inept treatment of public money."
Indeed, we are told that agreement was reached by a handshake in the absence of any note or minute by an official. Again, a pattern begins to emerge.
The pattern is also evident in the minutes of the meeting between the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions and the chairman of Railtrack. We have been told that officials were instructed at a particularly sensitive part of the meeting to put down their pens and not record what occurred. It is important to state for the record that the other party to that meeting, the chairman of Railtrack, cannot recall requesting that a part of the meeting should not be recorded. He also denies having said what Ministers subsequently alleged was said.
I have spoken about the matter to many Privy Councillors on both sides of the House who have served as Ministers for a cumulative period of decades. They tell me that they cannot recall any instance of officials being instructed not to record a particularly sensitive part of a meeting. It simply beggars belief that the Secretary of State should rely for his defence, his credibility and his reputation for probity on the belief that his officials could be instructed to fail to do their duty in the normal manner.
Has the hon. Gentleman considered the fact that, had Mr. Robinson said what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State says he said—in other words, that Railtrack would be in serious trouble if the Government did not provide a letter of comfort or additional funding—Mr. Robinson would have been in breach of his fiduciary duties under company law? Does that not give him an excellent motive to disclaim what he said during that meeting?
I am a little surprised to hear the hon. Lady say that. Like me, she regularly uses the west coast main line, so she will know that far from having improved on that line since the Secretary of State acted, things have become a great deal worse. On her specific point, if it is her contention that she has evidence that leads her to believe that she is justified in making a serious allegation about a board director of a FTSE-100 company deliberately behaving as she describes, I challenge her to repeat her remarks outside the House, where she does not have legal protection for doing so. We look forward to finding out whether she is willing to do that.
I was speaking about the state of the railways under the current Administration. That is at the heart of our concerns. The incompetence, lack of probity and lack of candour of the current Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions is not of interest solely to people in the Westminster village: it has serious implications for the state of our railways, their safety and their reliability. We learned last week that since the right hon. Gentleman acted, in his own words, "against Railtrack"—[Interruption.]
My right hon. Friend says that deliberate wrecking is going on. There has certainly been deliberate wrecking of the railway industry by the Labour party. I shall provide the proof.
In the two months since the Secretary of State acted "against Railtrack"—a significant choice of words by the right hon. Gentleman—and since he destroyed Railtrack and took responsibility for the network away from the company, what has occurred but a 45 per cent. increase in train delays caused by track and signal failures? The Rail Passengers Council describes that rise as particularly "alarming" because it came after a period of several months of improvement in performance. A leap from 3,300 hours per week total train delays attributed to infrastructure faults to 4,800 hours per week was reported last week. That sharp and alarming increase is occasioned by the fact that the morale of those working for Railtrack has been devastated by the Government's actions. It is specifically caused by the fact that many senior employees of Railtrack are considering their future: 70 key employees have already left.
In their 10-year transport plan, the Government said that they would rely heavily on private sector investment to improve rail infrastructure, as people of all parties want. However, they should recognise that they have devastated their reputation and the prospects of investment in the rail industry in the eyes of investors around the world. In a letter to the United States embassy in London, quoted in The Sunday Times yesterday, the Minnesota State Board of Investment expresses
"outrage at recent actions by the UK government."
"This action displays a remarkable lack of judgment and foresight on the part of the UK government."
That is part of a pattern. Again and again the Government claim that they are taking action to improve the railways, but they are in fact making matters far worse. Several of my right hon. and hon. Friends, including the shadow Chief Whip, many Government Members and our constituents depend on the west coast main line.
What has been the result of the Government's action on Railtrack? Phase two of that project has been cancelled and phase one postponed for at least a year. The prospect of getting a quality service—
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Those of us who are desperately trying to come to terms with the organisation of the House are rather confused by the way Mr. Collins is moving away from the subject. Could you advise the House, Mr. Speaker, whether the subject being debated is the west coast main line or the dissemination of information?
I am grateful, Mr. Speaker. The motion, for Government Members who seem to need the benefit of the Government's literacy hour, refers to the conduct of the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions.
We have serious concerns about the lack of clarity on rail safety provisions. My right hon. Friend Mr. Redwood has been extremely successful in setting out a problematic lack of clarity about who is responsible for rail safety matters; again, that is a failure by the Secretary of State.
It is always a pleasure to hear from people who declare themselves to be the effective Opposition. On this subject, they invariably come to the defence of the Government; the hon. Gentleman has done it again. For the record, there were only two years in the 20th century in which nobody died on Britain's railways. Both occurred when Britain's railways were run by the private sector; one was before the first world war, the other was 1998. Although the railway safety record was certainly not good enough in the Railtrack years, it was a great deal better than it was in the state socialist era to which Norman Baker and his colleagues would like to return us. However, I am delighted that he intervened because—
The hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale might say that he is not deliberately misleading the House. Is that what the hon. Member for Chorley is suggesting?
Facts are something that I have no control over.
The title of the motion is about information, and we should not concentrate our remarks solely on Railtrack, as seems to be happening.
Thank you, Mr. Speaker. The next part of my speech relates precisely to the Government's failure properly to report to the House and provide it with information on its proceedings. Indeed, there have been increasing delays in responses to parliamentary correspondence and parliamentary questions, as was established by the diligent research of my hon. Friend Mr. Burns.
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is tremendously important for the House to understand that there has been a consistent pattern of behaviour by the Department and the Secretary of State? They say one thing then, a few weeks later, admit that something different is true—
Not only did my hon. Friend the Member for West Chelmsford make progress in establishing those delays, but there was devastating and, indeed, unprecedented criticism of Ministers by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration following investigations instigated by my hon. Friend Mr. Robathan, who managed to establish that the Government were withholding information from the House without any justification under the procedures or codes which should apply. My hon. Friend rightly pointed out that there is no precedent for the parliamentary ombudsman to be as critical as he was of the present Foreign Secretary, the former Home Secretary, for the Government's point-blank refusal to release information in the way set out under their own ministerial codes, as well as under the motions passed by the House.
Yet again, Mr. Speaker, as you will have noted over the weekend, there was a further repetition of the constant pattern under the present Administration of serious announcements being made outside the House, rather than in the Chamber. In an interview in The Observer, the Home Secretary pretty much published the entire contents of his proposed White Paper on the police, some days before he is due to bring the matter before the House.
The Government's dissemination of information has been hugely criticised by senior and entirely independent figures. I know that Labour Members are unlikely to be interested in the views of the chairman of Railtrack, but they might be interested to know that Jonathan Baume, the general secretary of the First Division Association of civil servants—a trade union; I can already see ears pricking up with excitement on the Government Benches—has called on Jo Moore, the well-known special adviser and side-kick of the Secretary of State to
"stand to one side and let the professionals get on with the job".
It is our contention that problems will continue to occur constantly with the running of the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions until Ms Moore and the Secretary of State have stood aside.
I will give way to the hon. Gentleman in a moment. Before that, I shall give him an opportunity to reflect on what he intended to say. The strategic communications unit at No. 10, and a chap called Alastair Campbell, whom the hon. Gentleman may know is a little bit influential in his party, reprimanded the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions for "contaminating"—that was the word—the pre-Budget statement by the way in which the Department reported the minutes of the famous meeting with the chairman of Railtrack. I look forward to the intervention from Mr. Rammell. Will he come in on the side of the Secretary of State or of Mr. Campbell?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. Did he read the letter in The Guardian on
The hon. Gentleman may be relieved to know that it was indeed one of the rare occasions when I read The Guardian letters page. He will recall that the person involved was an anonymous figure. In the two months that have passed since then, and despite frequent inquiries, we have never established even which Department that person allegedly worked in, let alone the substance behind the serious allegations that he made. We wait to hear what will happen.
We know that the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, whose conduct is rightly the subject of criticism in the motion, is in some difficulty. The headline in The Independent today states: "Blair 'growing worried' by Byers' performance". The Prime Minister has nothing to worry about with respect to the Secretary of State's performance in the House today, as he is not delivering a performance in the House today. We learn that Minister after Minister, official after official, Labour Back Bencher after Labour Back Bencher wants Ms Moore to go, wants the Secretary of State to accept that he is responsible for her conduct, and is deeply unhappy about the way his Department has provided information to the House and to the public.
Does my hon. Friend think that the worry of No. 10 is not just the botched news handling, but the fact that the Government announced in the pre-Budget statement £1 billion extra for health, and said nothing about the £2 billion-plus extra that they will have to provide for the railways, because they have made such a mess of it? Did not the Secretary of State overshadow the pre-Budget statement by raiding the till, as well as by his botched news handling?
I agree entirely with my right hon. Friend. The escalating costs of the Government's decision on the matter are not the least reason for our grave concerns about them.
The Secretary of State has one group of wholly loyal, absolutely staunch and unequivocal friends in the House. I refer, of course, to the party which is, in every sense, to our left—the Liberal Democrats. Many of us were highly amused—no doubt you were, too, Mr. Speaker—to read at the weekend that the Liberal Democrats were to call for the departure of Ms Jo Moore over the matters set out in the motion. Having read about that, I looked up the parliamentary record. What did the Liberal Democrats do when we last debated in the House a motion calling for the dismissal of Ms Moore, on
I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman in a moment. I am sure that he is as affectionate towards the Liberal Democrats as I am, but I should like to finish my point.
The Liberal Democrats call themselves the effective Opposition. In our crueller moments, we might wonder when their leader will get 45 minutes with the President of the United States. Perhaps we should not hold our breath in that connection, but we notice that if a party wants to be an effective Opposition it helps if it opposes the Government. I shall give way on that note.
I do not want to intrude on a personal battle between the Opposition parties about which of them is pre-eminent.
The hon. Gentleman has made much of what he sees as some sort of grand conspiracy in the Government, in which people are being told to be less than truthful on occasions. Will he remind me of the circumstances surrounding a previous Government with regard to the Peter Wright "Spycatcher" case? The then Government's representative was, by his own admission, economical with the truth. Was he economical with the truth at the order of No. 10, by his own volition or at the instigation of special advisers who were working in the Government at the time?
The person to whom the hon. Gentleman refers was, of course, a career civil servant, so I do not think he is making the point that he thinks he is making.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, as he has just pointed out to the House very effectively the record of the Liberal party on this matter. Bearing in mind its votes in the past, can he explain why the leader of that party said last week on radio that both the Secretary of State and Ms Jo Moore should resign or be sacked?
Like my hon. Friend, I am somewhat puzzled. Perhaps the Liberal Democrats will change their attitude and vote with the official Opposition tonight. Given the nature of the amendment that they have tabled, however, I rather doubt that they will do so.
The final point that I want to make in response to Mr. Kilfoyle is that I do not accuse the Government of running a grand conspiracy, as I think he called it. Our charge is that they are not capable of making the trains run on time, let alone of running a grand conspiracy. They are utterly hopeless at everything.
This is a Secretary of State who has twisted and evaded, and rewritten the truth and hidden the facts time and again. He is someone who has moved at a snail's pace to answer questions, improve transport and raise safety standards on the railways. As long as the Prime Minister ignores all considerations of honesty and honour and keeps this man in office, this Secretary of State will, like a snail, produce a trail of slime leading across Downing street and right up to the door of No. 10.
Naturally, I withdraw it, Mr. Speaker.
In their conduct of parliamentary business, their approach to parliamentary questions, their honesty and candour towards their public and their determination to hang on to Jo Moore, this Administration in general and this Secretary of State in particular have been condemned by the civil service unions, the City, Select Committees and their own Back Benchers; and tonight, they should be condemned by the whole House of Commons, so that at the next election they will be condemned and booted out by the people.
I beg to move, To leave out from "House" to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:
"deplores the attempt by HM Opposition to draw attention away from their lack of coherent policies on public service improvement;
welcomes the Government's determination to uphold the highest standards of integrity and honesty in public life;
acknowledges that the Government has been open about the standards Ministers, Civil Servants and Special Advisers are expected to uphold;
welcomes the publication of the new Ministerial code including the requirements on greater transparency never seen before, attaching the highest importance to the prompt and efficient handling of Parliamentary Questions and correspondence;
and commends the professionalism and integrity with which the Government continues to conduct departmental business in the best traditions of public service.".
That was a fascinating beginning. I had not expected to hear an edition of "What the Papers Say" so early. However, the Government welcome the opportunity to debate the important issue of accountability. It is sad that Mr. Collins disregarded the title of the motion.
"Last time round we hadn't learned how to engage in opposition. We were too inclined to spot an opportunity for grabbing a headline and too exposed to having to reverse the decision later."
That sums up Conservative Members' approach this afternoon. They will repeat it time and again. That is why they altered the subject of the debate, which was raised in points of order with you, Mr. Speaker.
The motion deals with accountability, which is vital in our parliamentary democracy. [Interruption.] The shadow Leader of the House mocks, but I believe that parliamentary democracy is important. [Interruption.] Am I the only one who believes in it? I am surprised at that attitude. I have known Mr. Turner for a long time. We were at university together and I remember his record there.
The line of parliamentary accountability runs from Members of Parliament to the Government. Ministers are accountable to Parliament for their decisions and actions; Parliament ensures that we are accountable to the British people. The ministerial code includes a clear statement by the Prime Minister of his strong personal commitment to the bond of trust between the British people and their Government. [Interruption.] Again, Conservative Members laugh. The ministerial code is vital and I shall show what we mean by accountability.
The Prime Minister stated in the code that we must be clear about the way in which Ministers should account and be held accountable to Parliament and the public. The code sets out those responsibilities clearly and builds on a resolution on Ministers' responsibilities that the House passed in 1997. I am surprised that Opposition Members have ignored it and believed it to be unimportant.
The Government's record on statements compares favourably with that of our Conservative predecessors. One hundred and five statements were made in 1997–98, compared with 98 in the post-election Session in 1987–88. On average, the Government made a statement almost every other day in the 1998-99 Session. We will take no lessons from the Opposition on Ministers accountability to Parliament.
Why do so many Secretaries of State refuse to answer the simplest factual questions? For example, I asked the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government, and the Regions for the proportion of freight that went by rail and the proportion that travelled by road in May 1993, May 1997 and May 2001. The answer was that the figures were not available. Can we genuinely believe that?
As the Speaker and the Table Office would tell the right hon. Gentleman, he should persist. When I was elected as a Member of Parliament in 1992, I frequently received inadequate replies. The right hon. Gentleman, as an experienced former Minister, knows that if the figures do not appear in the precise form that he requested, they are not available. Perhaps he should reconsider his method of asking the question.
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. You very wisely advised the House last week that if hon. Members did not receive a satisfactory answer from the Government, they should persist and ask the question in a more simple, straightforward and factual way. I would have thought that my right hon. Friend Mr. Redwood had just given an example of the most succinct, factual and simple question possible. Does it puzzle you, as it puzzles me, Mr. Speaker, that we have yet to receive an answer from the Government?
These university reunions always get people going, Mr. Speaker.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention. The point that he made shows that it is important for Members of Parliament not only to read the answers that they get, but to understand them as well.
The introduction of Westminster Hall means that Back Benchers and Select Committees set the agenda. This has improved accountability and is part of the modernisation programme. Select Committees' powers to hold the Government to account have been vastly increased. Before, they had three prime-time debates on the estimates, and those remain. Instead of six Wednesday morning debates, the Liaison Committee now sets the business for two Thursdays out of every three in Westminster Hall.
On parliamentary questions, in a normal Session, some 400,000 questions are answered, and that is certainly evidence of our accountability to Parliament.
Treasury Ministers are accountable to Parliament and to the Select Committees on matters for which they are responsible. If we were to take the hon. Gentleman's question to its logical conclusion, Treasury Ministers would have no time to run the affairs of Her Majesty's Treasury because they would be dealing with every other Department's business.
What is the Tories' attitude to the House and to accountability? Let us look more closely at the views of the shadow Leader of the House, Mr. Forth. We all had the opportunity to read his memorandum of
Given the right hon. Gentleman's views on private Members' business, it seems that his elevation to the Front Bench has not appeased what I can only describe as his bizarre lust for blocking sensible pieces of legislation on the ground that they ought to be Government Bills. The right hon. Gentleman presents himself as a doughty defender of the legislature over the Executive, and is keen to defend Back Benchers' rights, just so long as they do not do anything as foolish as to propose any legislation. I remember, for example, the great dismay in the Jewish community when he wrecked a very sensible private Member's Bill that would have meant that Jewish women trapped in religious marriages could have escaped from them. His actions caused great offence.
We will conduct our legislative programme in the normal way. We will also ensure that we give private Members' legislation every consideration. It is very important that we do so.
Lest the Minister think the relationship too cosy, may I remind her that during the Government's first year in office I came second in the ballot for private Members' Bills, and introduced a Bill to improve conditions for people who suffer catastrophic mental breakdowns and need institutional care? The Government wasted five hours of precious parliamentary time talking the Bill out. Let us keep a sense of reality in regard to the Minister's claims for the Government's attitude.
Of course the hon. Gentleman's Bill was important, and I am sure that the Government listened to what he had to say, but it is also right for other legislation to be discussed properly.
We should consider other actions that were taken during the Conservative years. In July 1996, following a discussion at a policy unit seminar chaired by the then Deputy Prime Minister—now Lord Heseltine—permanent civil servants were asked to find
"panels of people associated with the public services who could be vigorous and attractive proponents of our policies".
That is best remembered as "recruitment of cheerleaders". I will take no more lectures from the Conservative party on cynical news management.
Subsequently, the then Cabinet Secretary said that such action was not appropriate for civil servants, and the request was withdrawn.
The Minister, quite properly, compares her party's record with that of the Government whom I supported. Will she now tell us on how many occasions during the 18 years of Conservative government the parliamentary ombudsman found that the Government had refused point-blank to publish answers to parliamentary questions, despite being asked to do so by the ombudsman? The Minister knows why I ask the question: I do so because that has happened under the present Government in the last couple of months.
If we are talking about accountability on the part of Governments, including the last Government, we should bear in mind that some of the biggest scandals and cover-ups, some of the greatest secrecy, were perpetrated by the Conservatives. They covered up the BSE scandal, and the export of arms to Iraq. [Interruption.]
Before my hon. Friend leaves the question of how the last Conservative Government disported themselves, does she recall that I tabled more than 800 questions in a very short period to elicit information from them on who sat on quangos, how much they were paid and how they were appointed? Does she recall that on many occasions the then Ministers refused point-blank to answer? It was down to me to find whatever methods I could to elicit that information. Is that not the standard that epitomised the previous Government?
It is. I take as my text not only what my hon. Friend has said, but what
"May we have a debate next week on the growing practice among Ministers of leaving long delays in answering straightforward and uncomplicated priority written questions?"—[Hansard, 7 March 1996; Vol. 273, c. 460.]
He said that about his own Government. Again, we have that difference between what the Conservatives say and what they did in government.
The Government attach the highest importance to the duty of Ministers and civil servants to be as open as possible with Parliament and the public. What I really found unacceptable in the speech by the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale was the attack on our civil service: it was an underlying current throughout. I regard our civil service as the best in the world. On the civil service's behalf, I resent attacks on it.
I want to make some progress. I have been generous with interventions.
There is a recognition within Departments that communication has a vital role to play. The Cabinet Secretary, Sir Richard Wilson, has said:
"Communication is something we used to tack on at the end of the policy process. In the future it must run alongside it. It is not about spin or . . . control. It is about making sure that the public understands how policies and services will be delivered and how they will affect them."
The Government are committed to maintaining a non-political permanent civil service. They have given a commitment to legislation for the civil service. The legislation will include a limit on the number of special advisers. It is no wonder that that was never contemplated during the Tory years when we consider how many former Conservative specialist advisers are now on the Conservative Front-Bench team.
The Government are putting in hand arrangements for wide consultation in advance of the introduction of the legislation. In the meantime, a clear published framework for civil service activity in the form of the civil service code and other key guidance documents set out for Parliament and the public the framework within which the civil service operates.
Mention is made in the motion of correspondence, although it did not feature greatly in the speech by the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale. The Government attach the highest importance to the prompt and efficient handling of hon. Members' correspondence.
I shall not give way. I want to make some progress.
All Departments report regularly on their performance on replying to correspondence from hon. Members. The overall volume of correspondence has gone up year on year since 1996. Although the volume has increased, the overall record on replying has improved.
All Departments set a target for answering correspondence. The most recently published figures show that during 2000 around 8,000 more letters were replied to within the target times set by Departments than in 1999, an improvement in overall performance of 4 per cent.
As one can take knowing someone for a long time only so far, the answer is no.
At the beginning of his speech, the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale rightly raised the issue of his past form. As he said, he was the Conservatives' director of communications from 1992 to 1995, after which he became a special adviser. Very fortunately for Labour Members, he is also no stranger to spin. Although he has just quoted The Guardian, he has been described by The Observer as the
"brains behind Back to Basics", and by The Independent as the
"spin doctor of back to basics".
For those who do not recall it, back to basics was the rather ill-fated attempt of the previous Tory Government to persuade the British people to vote for them. I should like to place on record my gratitude, and that of my right hon. and hon. Friends, for that fine service to our country, if not to the Conservative party.
The hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale will also recall that, in 1993, before he became a Member of Parliament, the Home Affairs Committee decided to hold an inquiry—which hon. Members will recall—into the very important subject of party political funding. He described the decision to look into that matter as "an impertinence". I think that, at that stage, he was at Conservative central office. The point is that someone who now poses as the shadow Minister responsible for the Cabinet Office believes that it is impertinent for a Select Committee to examine an issue of such great importance for parliamentary democracy and accountability. It is amazing that he has had the gall to come here today.
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I believe that the motion and the Government amendment to it are on public information—[Interruption.] The speech that my hon. Friend Mr. Collins made was interrupted no fewer than three times on points of order. The Minister is referring to matters that were funded privately and had nothing, so far as I know, to do with public information. Is she in order?
If the Minister had not been in order I would have stopped her. The hon. Gentleman's point is a matter more for debate than for the occupant of the Chair.
I am of course tempted to give other examples—[Hon. Members: "Go on."] My problem is that, although some of my right hon. and hon. Friends press me to do so, I am kinder than they are—[Hon. Members: "Oh."] It may get me into dreadful trouble, but I cannot give more examples. The record and the previous convictions—or the lack of them—in this sphere of accountability speak for themselves.
In this debate, we are faced yet again with the sight of Conservative Members trying to persuade people that they have changed. Today, they have moved a motion on accountability, correspondence, record keeping, and all sorts of things, but did any of those things feature significantly in the opening speech of the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale? Of course they did not.
The British people know which party tried to destroy the national health service and which party genuinely believes that it should be publicly funded and free at the point of use. Conservative Members do not want to debate those issues. Everybody knows who gave us boom and bust, two massive recessions, record unemployment and bankruptcies, and that after nearly five years of Labour government, we now have the lowest unemployment, interest rates and inflation for a generation.
The people know which party gave us the poll tax and tried to destroy local government, and which party has devolved more and more power from the centre.
The hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale had the cheek to talk about the state of our railways. I am always amazed when Conservative Members talk in that way. They know why the railways are in the state that they are in. They know that the Conservative Government took a national rail system with assets built up over half a century and rushed through a botched privatisation before the 1997 election with poorly drafted and ill-conceived legislation. They were a dreadful Government—that much is obvious—but we also know, after five years, that they are a dreadful Opposition.
Once again, I have some sympathy there. We know, from our own experience in the party of which I have the honour to be a member, that it takes a long time to understand the ways of opposition and become effective at it. I wish the Conservatives very many years in which to become more effective.
The true test of accountability in any democracy is the judgment of the electorate. The British people have made their judgment on the Conservative party in two successive general elections, as well as the recent Ipswich by-election.
The Conservatives could have chosen to debate issues of the utmost concern to the British public and the electorate, but instead they chose to table a motion that is ill conceived and without merit. I invite the House to reject it completely.
I am delighted that this debate is ranging more widely than some previous debates on the narrow issue of what a particular individual did on a particular day. That will make for much healthier debate. I acknowledge that the Conservatives have both a right and a duty, as we have, to hold the Government to account. If we feel that the mechanisms of government are not helping us in that task, we have a right to draw attention to that.
Indeed, it is right that, for once, we are discussing the wood rather than simply the tree. Far too often over recent weeks too much attention has been paid to the activities of one special adviser—who I would suggest is a rather insignificant tree—and not enough to the wood, which is the arrogance of office of a Government who seem to think that media manipulation, the politicisation of the civil service and disdain for Parliament are more important than our being able to hold them to account. That individual may have been an objectionable symptom of the wider disease, but we should be conscious that there is a disease and it needs to be treated. Ministers, not civil servants, are accountable to the House, and we must hold them to account.
I am sorry that the Deputy Prime Minister is not here, because I want to cite what may seem a trivial example of how senior Ministers treat the House with appropriate respect or otherwise. I hope that the Minister will report back to him. In early October I wanted to ask a question on the co-ordination of rural policy. I went to the Table Office and was advised that the Cabinet Office was responsible for that, so I tabled an oral question to the Deputy Prime Minister.
Lo and behold, within a matter of days, the question was transferred to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which immediately meant that I did not get an opportunity to put a supplementary question to the Deputy Prime Minister. As we all know, he has a great deal of expertise and experience in matters rural. I was surprised when the answer from DEFRA explained that the co-ordination of rural policy was—guess what—undertaken by the Cabinet Office. So, I brought the matter to the attention of the Speaker, who responded:
"In the circumstances he"— that is, me—
"describes, where the line of ministerial responsibility is not clear cut, I deprecate the transfer of a question tabled for oral answer, which has the effect of depriving the Member of the opportunity to . . . put a supplementary question to the Deputy Prime Minister."—-[Hansard, 8 November 2001; Vol. 374, c. 379-80.]
Most of us would take that as a clear statement of the Speaker's view that that should not happen in the future.
Lo and behold, within a matter of days, I received an extraordinary letter from the Deputy Prime Minister. It made me so angry that it went straight in the bin and, indeed, it has tea stains on it. [Interruption.] Perhaps it should have been teeth marks. The Deputy Prime Minister stated:
"I have . . . seen the Speaker's ruling" and he went on to disagree with that ruling. That is the way in which a most senior member of this Administration treats not just the House collectively but the Speaker, who represents this House.
A moment ago, the Minister was eloquent on the subject of accountability. The Government are accountable to the House and the Speaker is our representative. He is the guardian of the House in relation to all matters on which we hold the Government to account. If the Deputy Prime Minister, no less, does not even take the trouble to come to the House to argue the case with the Speaker—I do not mind if he does not come to argue the case with me—how can the Minister claim that the Government hold themselves accountable to the House of Commons?
That is clearly nonsense, but it is the ethos under which the Government have operated in recent months. That is why the examples that have been brought to the attention of the House and of the public are occurring. It is not because one individual has stepped out of line, but because one individual has stood the line precisely where the Government thought that he—or, in this case, she—should stand. If Ministers want to challenge the House, and the Speaker of the House, they should have the guts to come here in person. Perhaps the letter was drafted by a political adviser.
Reference has already been made this afternoon to the attitude of the Conservative Opposition, and they cannot escape some criticism. [Interruption.] The reference to the infamous trench warfare memorandum from Mr. Forth did not do it justice. [Interruption.] It is true that he suggested trench warfare—
I am grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, because the memo deserves the widest possible audience. I am sorry that its author is not in his usual place, because he suggests that legislation should move on to the other place "imperfectly scrutinised" by this House. That is saying that the House should not do its job properly.
The memo also contained a lovely little passage about what the right hon. Gentleman thought his colleagues were capable of. He said:
"The responsibilities which involve a lot of travel and time away from Westminster should be allocated to colleagues who are likely to be here very little anyway"— there are very few of them here this afternoon, even though this is their debate—
"and ideally not to those who could contribute significantly to Chamber or Committee work."
If that is the attitude of the Conservative party, is it any wonder that the electorate also think that the House is not performing effectively in scrutinising legislation and the actions of the Executive?
My hon. Friends, especially the hon. Members for Winchester (Mr. Oaten), for Bath (Mr. Foster) and for Lewes (Norman Baker), have spent much time since Parliament came back in October trying to obtain the best possible information from Ministers, precisely within the terms of this debate. What is so extraordinary is that, despite the code of practice on access to Government information, we find it more difficult to extract information now than before the code was introduced in 1997. It is a cumbersome suit of armour to protect Ministers from the light of day and from the scrutiny of questions from Members of Parliament.
It appears impossible to discover, for example, information about the role, responsibilities and redeployment of Mr. Alun Evans. Questions tabled by several Members—Andrew Mackinlay as well as my parliamentary colleagues—have failed to produce evidence of precisely why that gentleman, who held a highly respected and responsible position in the civil service, was moved to a different Department. There was no explanation and no adequate reference to particular papers, minutes of meetings or their content. Who was responsible for deciding whether he should be moved? It is impossible for us to obtain such information through parliamentary questions.
I have in my hand a copy of the code, although I shall not refer to it in great detail because several hon. Members want to speak. However, what is clever and obvious about it is that there are so many steps along the way before one reaches someone outside the Government—in the case of the parliamentary ombudsman—that most people would never get that far when seeking information. Questions as to how or why information is withheld or made available cannot be left to incestuous, introverted and internal Whitehall inquiries.
The Liberals claim to be not the poodles but the scriptwriters of the Government's policy on railways, favouring as they do a not-for-profit company. As the Government are unable or unwilling to tell us how much public money such a company would need to be able to make a successful bid and then to run the railways, would the Liberals care to tell us or are they equally unwilling to give us any information on that crucial matter?
I am flattered by the right hon. Gentleman's obvious respect for our ability to extract information from the Government. What I can tell him is that he voted for the Railways Act 1993 that set out the terms on which the administration of the rail track company was to be undertaken. I can also tell him that the administration is costing him, me and our fellow taxpayers £500,000 a week. The terms for which he voted made it certain that the administrators, Messrs Ernst and Young—he probably thinks that they are more expert in such matters than anybody in the House—have now come up with—
The right hon. Gentleman should let me finish the answer to his first question before he intervenes again.
The administrators have come up with the extraordinary answer that their only responsibility is to the members and creditors of Railtrack, not to the travelling public—not to us as taxpayers and not to the House. The terms of the legislation for which the right hon. Gentleman voted are causing the incredible and impossible situation that we all face. In the past, the right hon. Gentleman has expressed great interest in saving taxpayers' money, but we as taxpayers will be suffering as a direct result of his Government's incompetence, not only in the way that they privatised the industry but in enacting unworkable legislation.
I have already given way and I want to make progress. The right hon. Gentleman will have an opportunity to speak later.
Under the code of conduct for special advisers, they are supposed to record all contacts with the media. That was not true only on
Last week, there was an extraordinary situation when Mr. Jonathan Baume of the First Division Association was questioned on the "Today" programme. He said that there had been selective leaking of last week's information—as hon. Members will recall the minutes of the meeting were issued just as the Chancellor was getting up to make his autumn statement. However, Mr. Baume—a civil servant of great experience who represents his civil service colleagues in the First Division Association—said that the leaking was done at a political level. How can we find out who is responsible for what and who is accountable to the House when there appears to be a civil war between the professional civil servants on the one hand and the special advisers and their ministerial masters on the other? Surely some degree of codification must be established.
Of course, we have been promised that the Freedom of Information Act 2000 will be fully implemented. The House was assured that, by now, we would be well on the way to full implementation, yet we are told that, as with the trains under Railtrack, it has got stuck up a siding somewhere, and we do not know whether it will come this year, next year, sometime or never. Indeed, the notice board in the station says that it might come in 2005, but—who knows—it might be cancelled altogether.
The right of access, on which the debate rightly concentrates, is stalled somewhere in the system, but, worse than that, the Minister referred to the civil service Bill, which was promised in the 1997 manifesto. Indeed, it was an integral part of the agreement between my party and the then Labour Opposition that should have been introduced in the 1997 Parliament.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for saying that. It is first time that I have heard that that Bill was part of the agreement between the Liberal Democrats and the Government. Will he tell us the timetable for any other undertakings? If he believes in open government, perhaps the British people should know what under-the-table deal was done when the Government had the majority that they then had.
The hon. Gentleman's memory has clearly collapsed because the agreement—it was known as the Cook-Maclennan agreement—was published in full in March 1997 and was given a great deal of coverage. My hon. Friends are nodding wisely. It is unfortunate that the hon. Gentleman clearly slept through the whole of the last Parliament because many items, including devolution for Scotland and Wales, were undertaken during that time and were very much part of that agreement.
We are now told that the civil service Bill, to which the Minister referred, is not likely to appear for years. Why? We are told that it is very difficult to get legislation through the House. We believe that such legislation should be introduced as quickly as possible, and I am sure that Conservative Members would welcome it equally sincerely.
The Chairman of the Select Committee on Public Administration, Tony Wright said just a few weeks ago that there is a "creeping politicisation" of Whitehall. The only way to reverse that is by ensuring transparency and honesty and by codifying the proper roles and responsibilities of the professional civil service, and that involves legislation. There is nothing new about politicisation or media manipulation, but perhaps they have been used slightly more successfully in the past.
Mr. Bernard Ingham, as he then was, indulged in some very splendid spinning. Hon. Members on both sides of the House will be interested to hear that, when I referred to that on the "Today" programme, that gentleman, now Sir Bernard Ingham, indulged in some correspondence with me, denying that he had actually undertaken any negative spinning involving members of the Government. Indeed, he said that he was coming to their aid and defending them. He said:
"I did not, as you assert, attack them. I was trying to defend them from Lobby demands for their sacking after some rather extraordinary behaviour on their part. I sought to do so by referring to their natures. I was successful in my efforts, even though those efforts have been consistently misrepresented."
In fact, as has been said in British Journalism Review, Mr. John Biffen, whom, as hon. Members will recall, the then Prime Minister's spokesman called a "semi-detached member of the Government", was hung out to dry,
"to twist in the wind for another year, before eventually being cut down and deposited on the Back Benches two days after the 1987 General Election".
All I can say is that, if it was not spinning that damaged those gentlemen, I cannot imagine what that spin doctor would have done if he had really wanted to attack the two people involved.
There has been a change, and let us give credit to the Government. The same secrecy does not now surround the spin doctors. We tend to know, in a matter of hours, who is spinning against whom. In those days, the master spinner himself was cloaked in anonymity—well, for a few hours any way. At least now, such information comes out remarkably quickly because it seems that, as soon as a spin doctor indulges in anything of that sort, someone in another part of Whitehall, or in the Labour party, quickly jumps up to say, "It wasn't me, guv," and tells us where the origin lies. That is a step forward in the circumstances.
I congratulate the Government on the fact that the transparent spinning against one another in the Labour party and the Government at least offers us an occasional vignette of the civil war that is going on.
I also congratulate the Conservative party. What other great political party would have decided to pick on the rail industry over recent weeks to indulge in endless debates in the House? It is very public spirited—every time the words "rail" and "Conservative" appear in the public prints, the public remember that it was the Conservatives who did it.
As transport spokesman for my party, I spent hours, as did my hon. Friend Nick Harvey, pointing out the mess we would get into if the then Government insisted on privatising the railways. We told the Labour party, then in opposition, that if we two parties stood shoulder to shoulder and told the public and the institutions that if British Rail was privatised by the Conservative party, we would try and make sure in the next Parliament that it was brought back under public control, that there would be a bond payment and no profit to anyone who bought shares, the railway industry would not be privatised. It could not have been. No institution would have dared to do that when a Conservative defeat was in prospect.
I am delighted that the Conservative party refers constantly to the incompetent way in which it ruined one of our great national industries. It was confirmed again on "Today". I am not sorry to keep giving a plug to Sue MacGregor, for she is a good friend of mine, and I think that before she goes she should be congratulated on the work that she has done. On "Today" this morning, a spokesman for Stagecoach—one of the companies that has rolled with the cash of privatisation—said that everybody agrees that the way in which privatisation has gone through was a mistake. I hope that the Conservatives will tell us later that they, too, feel that it was a dreadful mistake.
In the mean time, we who are responsible to the public for what is going on, must take notice of the fact that today we are told that Railtrack investors will have to go to law to get the documentation that they require to establish what the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions has been doing. We cannot do that. We Members of Parliament—the High Court of Parliament, as it were—are having such difficulty in getting information out of Ministers who say that they are accountable to us that it seems as if the lawyers will be the only people to obtain it.
I am a little confused. The hon. Gentleman seems to be saying that the railways—the way in which the Government have handled the industry and the lack of communication about it—is a legitimate argument for debate, but earlier he said that it was not. Which is it?
I have never said that it was not a legitimate argument for debate. I have simply said that the accountability of the Government to this House, not just of the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, is what we are discussing. I have not suggested that the activities—in this field or any other—of the Secretary of State, the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions or the right hon. Gentleman's special adviser are improper. What is improper is if the House starts passing motions demanding the sacking of a civil servant or special adviser. We demand the sacking of Ministers. We have done that in the past—they are responsible to us.
I have the quotation that Mr. Collins was shouting about earlier in his statement, and it does not say what he says it does.
Can the hon. Gentleman confirm that the leader of the Liberal Democrats did not call for the dismissal of Ms Jo Moore in his appearance on "Today" a few days ago?
No, he did not, and I have the quotation here. My right hon. Friend Mr. Kennedy said that that individual
"should look in the mirror and consider her position".
She should resign.
It is wrong for the House to regard a civil servant or special adviser as in some way employed by us. Indeed, the employment tribunal would be a wonderful spectacle if we were to succeed in sacking somebody. The hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale has not been here very long, so perhaps he does not know that it is Ministers who are responsible to the House. That is why my right hon. Friend also said that he felt that the Secretary of State's position had been corroded by what had happened in recent weeks. I am glad to put that on the record, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will correct his statement.
There have also been episodes in recent weeks of briefing against other public servants within the Department. However, we should be concerned not just with that Department and those individuals. Indeed, I submit that we should be grateful to Ms Jo Moore because she has exposed a degree of cynical manipulation of the media and political pressure on career civil servants. In the process there has been a deliberate attempt to avoid parliamentary accountability. That is the arrogance of office, and that is what concerns us.
In any other great national institution in this country, that individual would have resigned in such circumstances. The climate and atmosphere of irresponsibility mean that the Government have to consider changing course and making themselves truly accountable to Parliament, and through Parliament to the people.
Shortly after the last general election the public were told that the Conservative party, which had suffered yet another traumatic loss, was going to have a long, deep look at itself and consider changing its policies to make itself more electable. I can only imagine that one of those changes of policy must be a recanting of its record on producing information to the House and the public. One of the indictments of the last Conservative Government was the way in which they acted in secrecy. They attempted to hide information from the House and tried to stop and limit their accountability to the public for what they did.
It seems that in initiating a debate on public information and accountability, the Conservatives have forgotten the arms to Iraq scandal and the Scott report, when wilful action was taken to deceive the public on matters of grave national security and grave public concern. They have forgotten that as the Government who set up the quango state, to which my hon. Friend Mr. Kilfoyle referred, they deliberately put into the hands of unelected and unaccountable people more responsibility and funding than remain in local government. In setting up numerous agencies and instructing them to deal with things on their own, and by preventing Ministers from being responsible to Parliament for the work of those agencies, the Conservatives again blocked public access to important information on matters that affected them.
Since then, a number of things have changed. I am pleased that this Government have widened access to information for the House and the public by changing the rules on agencies. The Conservative Government's rule, under which Ministers were not accountable to Parliament for the work of agencies, has been rescinded. I remember the great concern when the Conservatives cut welfare benefits. Local authorities made representations to the Government and were told that the Minister of the day did not have to answer those queries in the House because the Benefits Agency was in charge and it did not have to report to Parliament. The Government have changed that and similar practices.
The hon. Lady will remember sitting with me in the Transport Committee when time after time we asked the Secretary of State straightforward questions and time after time he declined to answer them. Surely nothing in history, and no changes by the Government to the way in which information is disseminated by agencies, can justify a Secretary of State sitting in front of Members of Parliament and refusing to answer straightforward questions, or at best giving evasive answers to them.
The hon. Gentleman gives his interpretation of events in the important Transport Committee meeting. I will refer to some of those matters in relation to public information later in my comments.
One major problem that we face is the privatisation of the rail industry by the Conservatives, which other hon. Members have mentioned. When the Conservatives set upon privatisation as a matter of policy, they deliberately erected a barrier between public representatives and the provision of and accountability for public services.
The hon. Lady replied to a point made by my hon. Friend Chris Grayling about what a Minister did or did not say in a Select Committee. On the subject of accountability to the House, will she at least give credit where it is due and accept that the Conservative party set up Select Committees in 1979 so that Ministers could be held to account on specialist parts of their brief?
It was of course the House of Commons that set up those Committees, but I give great credit to the Conservative Members of the day who supported, and indeed suggested, the initiative.
It was indeed a Conservative Member, Norman St. John-Stevas, who took the initiative, but he disappeared from Government fairly quickly afterwards, largely because many Conservative Members did not like the way in which Select Committees worked. The Conservatives also set up evidence-taking Committees, which was also St. John-Stevas's idea, but promptly stopped using them because they found them a great embarrassment. Now we use them regularly for Bills, and I hope that we will continue to do so.
I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. As I said, I believe that Select Committees are an extremely important part of our democracy, and I would like to see them strengthened and their remit widened. That is important for accountability and openness.
The hon. Lady criticised the Conservative party for privatising the railways. Is she aware that the Government's policy is to re-privatise them by selling them back to a private sector company? Is it also her understanding that the Government want to privatise the tube, splitting track from trains, and air traffic services? Why is she so strongly against privatisation?
As I understand the situation, a decision about the successor to Railtrack has not been made. The matter is still being considered by the administrators and a final decision will be made by the Secretary of State. One proposal is for a company limited by guarantee, which despite being private would not issue shares or dividends to outside members, thereby preventing conflict between shareholders and the public. Such a structure could well operate in the public interest, and I have experience of such companies doing so very effectively. We do know that the privatised rail system set up by the Conservatives was inadequate; it failed to deliver, and it has cost the taxpayer a great deal of money with no great result.
Under Conservative-inspired privatisation, regulation is one of the few forms of accountability and means of providing information to the House and the public. When we considered what had happened to the utilities, particularly water, while the Conservatives were in power, we saw that the situation was unacceptable. There was increasing public uproar as the fat cats of the privatised water industry gained more and more finance while the public received an inadequate service. I am pleased to say that this Government have improved the situation, and regulation in the water industry appears to be effective, although we need constantly to monitor its progress.
I cannot say, however, that regulation of privatised rail services has been equally effective. I was extremely concerned to receive only today a letter from the Rail Regulator, Mr. Tom Winsor, informing me—as he had informed the press over the weekend—that he was unable to investigate Virgin for increasing rail fares on the west coast main line. My complaints to Mr. Winsor go back 18 months and refer to an increase of 100 per cent. in rail fares from Liverpool to London as a result of Virgin arbitrarily deciding to redefine peak time. Now, people who travel from Liverpool to London have to pay at least £153; they cannot arrive before the afternoon without paying that fare, which is entirely unacceptable.
It is equally unacceptable that it has taken Mr. Winsor 18 months to decide that he is unable to conduct an investigation into Virgin's abuse of its monopoly on the west coast main line. That is indicative either of a weak regulator or of insufficiently strong regulation that needs to be revised in the interests of the travelling public. I intend to pursue that matter both directly with Ministers in the Chamber and in the Select Committee. It is clear that rail privatisation has been unsatisfactory and has not served the public.
I thank the hon. Lady for giving way to me a second time, and I look forward to interesting discussions with her and other members of the Transport Committee on our recommendations on regulation. Does she agree that the structure and nature of regulation of the rail industry was reshaped by the Labour Government; and that despite the praise she pours on to the regulation of other industries and the Government's approach to them, when the crunch came in the rail industry, the Secretary of State felt the need to threaten to bypass the regulator to get things done?
In terms of general regulation, I agree that rail industry regulation is not satisfactory. I intend to press for improvements, because the interests of the travelling public are not well served by the current structure. When looking to the future of Railtrack, Ministers should consider the functions and responsibilities of the Rail Regulator and the Strategic Rail Authority. The system has failed, as well as the management of Railtrack as an individual company.
I shall now speak about some of the issues mentioned by Mr. Collins and to the reference in the motion to the conduct of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions. I refer in particular to the contentious note and minutes of the
It is important to remember that the note and the minutes were made accessible to public view solely because the Transport Committee requested that they be made available. When answering the Committee's queries, the Secretary of State said that it was most unusual, if not unprecedented, for notes and minutes of that sort to be made available, but added that to assist the Committee, and if that was what the Committee wanted, he would make them public. That is another illustration of the Committee's importance and underlines the significance of having Select Committees that are open and determined and that want to act in the public interest.
The note and minutes of that important meeting fall into two parts. It is clear that the uncontested part of the note reinforces the indictment made against Railtrack's management by many sources. According to the note, Mr. Robinson said that
"He was trying to build a better relationship with the Rail Regulator"— presumably something was wrong. He said that
"He was taking personal control of the West Coast Main Line upgrade"— presumably because Railtrack had failed. In evidence to the Transport Committee, it was made clear that because Railtrack had failed to modernise the west coast main line, Railtrack and Virgin were already discussing compensation of at least £300 million. Moreover, we now learn that Virgin intended to increase its fares by a further 33 per cent. as part of the compensation deal because Railtrack failed to deliver. The undisputed part of the note recorded that the chairman of Railtrack said:
"In all of this his aim was to follow on the key things Railtrack needed to do to run a safe, reliable railway".
Presumably, Railtrack was not doing so before. The note also stated that the chairman said:
"Turning things round was not a question of more investment, but rather running the company properly."
That echoes Mr. Winsor's evidence to the Select Committee, in which he spoke about Railtrack's incompetence and its disregard for its customers.
In the now published and undisputed part of the minutes, the indictment of Railtrack's management grows increasingly clear and severe, but what about the important part of the note, now a public document, which is disputed? It concerns what the Secretary of State says John Robinson, the chairman of Railtrack, said and what Mr. Robinson says he did not say. The only responsible conclusion to be drawn from the minutes is that it has not been proved that the Secretary of State is right. He says that the chairman of Railtrack stated that he needed a letter of comfort for his bank before he could obtain bank resources and needed extra funding from the Government; otherwise he would not be able to say that Railtrack was a going concern at the meeting at which he was to give an interim statement on
The notes do not prove that the Secretary of State was right, nor do they prove that he was wrong. We must look at people's motives either for agreeing or trying to dispute what they said. Ministers and Secretaries of State are accountable to the House of Commons, so we can ask those questions of the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions and it is right that we should do so, but Mr. Robinson is the chairman of a private company, so we cannot ask him directly what he said. He is responsible to his private board and shareholders, who are supposed to call him to account, but have Railtrack's minutes been disclosed? Do we know what its chairman reported to his board or shareholders following his meeting with the Secretary of State or, perhaps even more critically, following further discussions with the Secretary of State and his officials? We do not know that, so we cannot challenge or question it.
I shall give way in a moment.
We are dealing with two separate things: a Secretary of State is responsible to the public and the House, but a chairman of a privatised company, responsible for a public service, answers not to elected Members of Parliament but to a private board that does not have to disclose its minutes and is not subject to public questioning in a place such as the House of Commons.
I am sure that the hon. Lady is aware that the chairman of Railtrack has made his notes of the
My point concerns disclosure and responsibility on the part of the chairman of a private company that is running a public service. I am not aware of the chairman of Railtrack making publicly available the minutes of his board meeting on
It is not clear whether the chairman of Railtrack met his fiduciary duties in relation to his shareholders and his board, in terms of his understanding of the possible critical financial situation of Railtrack as a going concern? We do not have that information. I am not certain that the public are entitled to have such information. We are dealing with a private company, and we see the conflict when a private company is running a major public service, yet is not responsible to the public.
Railtrack has featured large in the debate, because it represents the failure of privatisation and the problems of public accountability for a public service when it is run by a privatised company. The Government have done much to restore confidence in the public services.
All of us should take note of two things, the first of which is the importance of public services being run by publicly accountable bodies. Until we have that, it will not be possible for the House or the public at large to know that services are being run properly or to have the answers that they require and, indeed, deserve. Secondly, the House must register the importance of Select Committees. The work of the Transport Committee in particular is proving increasingly important in the matter of Railtrack. If it were not for the questions asked by the Committee, the notes would not have been requested and would not have been made available.
It is incumbent on all elected Members to recognise the importance of Select Committees in accessing and making available public information in the public interest. I hope that no Government, including the present Government, will be tempted to curtail the activities of Select Committees. Their powers should be extended, as it is the Select Committees above all that represent the people of this country and allow democratic accountability to be far more stringently applied than is possible on the Floor of the House.
I have declared my interest in the register.
The Government treat public information as though it were private property, and are grasping in the way that they hold it to them and will not release it. They are rather like Scrooge with public information, before he underwent his remarkable conversion and discovered that Christmas could be fun and one should be generous. My worry is that the Government, having launched their new code, and having penned an amazing amendment to the motion about how much they believe in openness, are not about to convert as Scrooge did, just before Christmas. However, I shall be delighted to give way to the Minister if he wishes to answer the many questions that I tabled concerning the conduct of his Department, and in particular the conduct of its railway policy.
Trying to get to the bottom of what has happened, what is going on and the Government's estimate of what will happen next, I have discovered a series of roadblocks and railblocks placed in my way, which I shall share with the House as we are debating how impossible it is to get information out of this miserable Government, while they pretend to be very much in favour of openness and full disclosure. In their amendment to the motion, they have the brazen cheek to refer to
"the publication of the new Ministerial code including the requirements on greater transparency never seen before".
That takes the breath away. When will we see and benefit from the greater transparency in which they proudly say they believe?
Let us start with an easy question for the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions. I asked the Secretary of State recently
"what proportion of freight went by (a) road and (b) rail in May (i) 1993"— there has been quite enough time to collect those figures—
"(ii) 1997"— a good long time to collect those—
"and (iii) 2001"— a little closer to the present, but several months ago. The question was a very simple and factual one. Why did I ask it? I have a hunch that the proportion of freight travelling by rail rose after privatisation. Indeed, in support of that view, I have the testimony, in general terms, of the Deputy Prime Minister, who expressed that view when he was Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, as well as the testimonies of Ministers in the Department. Thus, we know from statements made by the Deputy Prime Minister and one of the junior Transport Ministers that they have studied the issue and must have the figures. Yet, I was told in reply:
"The figures are not available in the form requested."—[Hansard, 4 July 2001; Vol. 371, c. 156W.]— greater openness, "never seen before". I rest my case on that point. The Minister does not jump up to help the House or to explain whether the Deputy Prime Minister knew what he was talking about when he said that the proportion of rail freight had risen sharply under privatisation.
I then started to ask a few more difficult questions about what the Government were doing and why they were digging a huge hole for the railways by forcing them into administration. I asked the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions when bids would close for the assets and liabilities of Railtrack plc in administration. I have read in the newspapers that the Government have an estimate—presumably, this information comes from good sources that are close to them—of when Railtrack will come out of administration.
In order to come out of administration, however, the administrator must first invite bids. Of course, the Government must know when the bidding process will take place. They will have to supply an enormous amount of information for the sale memorandum. We have read in the papers and have heard in a statement made in the House that they are interested in proposing a particular model company that they want to bid. Presumably, therefore, they take an interest in when bidding might open and close. However, this was the answer that I received:
"This is a matter for the administrator."—[Hansard, 22 November 2001; Vol. 375, c. 389W.]
Again, we are reminded of greater openness never seen before.
I then asked the Secretary of State for his estimate of
"the gross assets to be transferred to the new Railtrack company and . . . the debt to be set against those assets."
Again, the Department presumably investigated the issue with great thoroughness and with the aid of all the accountancy and legal advice that it received at our expense before deciding to petition the court for an administration order. The Minister for Transport, who is now sitting on the Front Bench, gave this answer:
I referred to that previous answer, which contained some interesting things but nothing about the Government's estimate of the gross assets to be transferred or the debt to be set against them.
If the Government are serious about getting on with the task of getting Railtrack out of administration and back to work properly, they need to tell potential bidders when the bidding will take place and what they are bidding for. Why cannot the Government come clean with the travelling public and the taxpayer and tell us what is on offer, when the bids will open and when they will close? I and my constituents are impatient to see the railway back on the road to recovery. We know that that means getting it out of administration as quickly as possible and getting it back into private hands, which is the Government's policy.
How disappointed Labour Back Benchers will be when they realise the full horror of what the Government have done in collapsing the railway into administration and learn that they are spending a fortune and will be force feeding a large number of advisers large fees for the hard work that they will definitely have to do with the muddle that has been created, after which they will re-privatise the railway. The Minister shakes his head, but he will not spring up and say that that is not his policy, as he knows full well that he has no authority from the Prime Minister or the Chancellor—of course, they have different views on most subjects these days, but they agree on this one—to say that the Government will renationalise the railways.
The Government have no wish to stand behind the safety and track problems and the huge cash drain that the railway would be if it were returned to nationalised control. They should be more honest and open with their Back Benchers, who will be bitterly disappointed when they discover that what is happening is a recipe not for nationalisation but for a very expensive re-privatisation, with the Government holding out the hope of an extraordinary type of company that will need massive sums if it is to have any chance of getting off the ground.
I went on to ask the Secretary of State
"what advice the Government had sought about the timing of an announcement to the stock exchange of the changed plans for Railtrack plc."
The answer stated:
"In reaching his decision on
I asked what advice the Government had sought, not whether the Secretary of State had considered it properly. I did not ask about his decision. I expected the answer to identify the advisers and, even better, the cost of the process. Instead, I received an answer to a completely different question. Another example of greater openness never seen before.
I asked the Secretary of State what action he had taken on the plan to cuts costs at Railtrack plc that the board drew up before the company was put into administration. I had heard a rumour, perhaps in the press, that the Government had been keen to abort the decision of Railtrack's board before it went into receivership to cut costs by reducing staff. I could understand the Labour party wanting to make such a decision. However, the answer stated:
"The running of the company during administration is a matter for the Administrator."—[Hansard, 22 November 2001; Vol. 375, c. 389W.]
Again, that is not a specific answer to the question.
I should still like to know what happened to the outgoing board's plans to reduce costs. Why did the Government decide that there was no need to reduce cost? The rail industry is experiencing a horrendous loss of cash in the hands of the administrator, and is propped up by a reluctant Government, if we are to believe what we read about the Treasury's attitudes.
I asked the Secretary of State
"what his estimate is of the fees of the administrator for Railtrack plc".
One would think that one of the first questions that the Secretary of State and the Treasury would ask during the many months of deliberation about whether to place Railtrack in administration would be about the costs, specifically those of accountants, lawyers and administrators, of undergoing the gruelling and difficult process. If we believe, as we must, the Government's answer, we have to believe:
"It is not possible at this stage to make an accurate estimate."
We are therefore invited to believe that the Government have bought a pig in a poke. They have bought something undesirable and they have no idea of its cost.
Before a policy was agreed in government in my day, we held bilateral meetings with the Treasury, which always argued about our estimates of the cost. A compromise was struck or, in some cases, the policy was vetoed if the Treasury decided that it was too dear. Yet it seems that it is not possible to tell us how much money the taxpayer will spend on administration—greater openness never seen before.
I asked the Secretary of State
"what the . . . daily rate of (a) loss"— profit before tax—
"and (b) cash outflow at Railtrack plc in administration has been since
Again, one would think that the Treasury and the Department would monitor that question day by day as it is such a large item in the public budget.
In the pre-Budget statement, the Chancellor claimed enormous credit from Labour Back Benchers for announcing £1,000 million extra for the national health service. That is not a large sum, given the size of its budget. He did not mention the more than £2,000 million extra that, according to the Government's figures, will be needed for Railtrack in administration until March 2001, let alone the sum that may be needed in 2001–02. Money will be required to continue paying for losses, start paying for investment, which cannot be delayed for ever, and to get the company out of administration. It will also be needed to pay all the fees, and, if the Government have their way, the huge sum needed to capitalise the not-for-profit company that they believe the private sector will finance in the future. That is breathtaking.
Again, I received an extraordinary answer to my question. It stated:
"This is a matter for the Administrator. The premature release of unaudited financial information may prejudice the Administrator's . . . release of commercially sensitive information".
I could understand that answer if Railtrack was a public limited company that had to report to its shareholders in the normal way. I should not have dreamed of asking the question in that case because such companies are answerable to the markets, their shareholders and their customers and they have to report according to a defined cycle.
However, the House of Commons made its reputation and built its strength on making the Executive answerable for the amount of money that they spend and how such spending is financed. How, then, can a company as huge as Railtrack be in administration, losing hundreds of millions of pounds as the months go by—on the Government's forecast, possibly losing or absorbing £3.5 billion in the year to March 2001—when we believe that the Government budgeted only £900 million for Railtrack if it had stayed a fully fledged, private sector, public limited company? That represents a massive change in the Government's figures. Greater openness, never seen before.
I then asked the Secretary of State what money was available for the successor company to Railtrack in 2001-02, 2002-03 and 2003-04 from Government sources and from Strategic Rail Authority sources. I knew that I had to specify both sources, otherwise the Government would play tricks with the answer. The Minister replied:
I re-read the reply given to Mr. Hendrick—indeed, I had the pleasure of making a speech on the subject of that reply on the day it was hurried out to the media to try to deal with some media management problem that the Government were having. It is a very full answer, untypically for the Government, but, once again, it has nothing to do with the question that I tabled. There are no figures in the reply to the hon. Member for Preston on how much money is available for the successor company in the years specified.
My question to the Secretary of State was not a scholarship question. It was more a GCSE question, by public expenditure standards. I was simply asking how much money was available for a very big chunk of our rail industry in the next three years. We know that the Government budget in three-year dollops, and we know that the Chancellor has just produced a pre-Budget statement, so presumably he has put all these figures to bed. Why, therefore, is this a state secret? Why cannot we prise these figures from the Government? Why cannot we know how much money is going to be spent?
Labour Members might welcome such information and say that it is great that so much money is to be poured into the railways. Or they might be critical and say that it is not quite enough for the west coast main line, or whatever is their preferred tipple in railway investment terms. My Conservative colleagues might share my view that the figure might be rather too big, and that there might be better ways of running the company and spending the money. To receive absolutely no reply on the matter is a disgrace.
This is also a matter of great public interest. I am not making a party political point here; I am interested in this because if we are going to get the company out of administration quickly, any bona fide bidder is going to want this information. It must have been agreed with the Treasury in the run-up to the pre-Budget statement. Should not it be published now so that people can consider, on the basis of the money available for the next three years, whether they think that they have a chance of putting in a sensible bid for the railway, or whether they think that the money is too little and that there is no point in bidding?
Would not it also help Labour Members—who still favour that extraordinary animal, the company limited by guarantee that neither makes profits nor pays dividends—if they knew how much this company was going to get in the form of public subsidy, when they were deciding whether to go on the board, and going to the City to raise the billions that the company will need? That information could be crucial to getting the company going.
Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that a company limited by guarantee does indeed make profits, but instead of distributing those profits to outside shareholders it reinvests them in the business of the company? Does he accept that that is the strength of a company limited by guarantee?
That might be true or it might not be true. In the original version, I think that the Minister was calling it a not-for-profit company, and I assumed that it would follow the long tradition of such Labour adventures, and that the Government would run it rather like they ran the dome—very successfully not for profit, if I remember rightly. They ran the dome at a thumping loss, and there is a grave danger that they would do the same with a company limited by guarantee in the railway industry.
The Minister subsequently amplified his answer, and said that the intention would be to run the company for profit and to plough the profits back to build a stronger balance sheet out of retained profit. That is still a return to the equity holder. It is just the same as any other private sector company trying to build capital value and asset value. A company in the private sector can always decide whether to distribute some or none of its profits, and makes half-yearly or annual decisions on that issue. Some companies in the private sector choose not to distribute anything, because they take the view that they can reinvest at such a good rate of return that it would be in the interest of their shareholders to do so.
Any company limited by guarantee would be wise to try to budget for a profit and to build up reserves. What Mrs. Ellman does not seem to understand—the Government clearly do not—is that there is a cost to capital involved. That cannot be avoided. The Government are trying to design a body that gets practically all its money by borrowing rather than by raising equity from private shareholders. The short-term effect of that will be dearer capital, not cheaper capital.
The current price of raising bond money for a vehicle like this would be 6, 7 or 8 per cent. The price of raising equity money would probably be 4 per cent. In the early years, adopting the Government's preferred route rather than the more normal route—involving a balance of "for profit" and "for dividend" shareholders, as well as some bondholders—would probably double the cashflow cost.
The hon. Lady must also understand this. If the Government want a grade A credit rating—as they said they did in response to a rare question that received an answer—they must realise that the cost will be enormous. They must now tell us how much money they will put on the balance sheet of the not-for-profit, or not-for-dividend, company to give it a chance of gaining a grade A credit rating.
Such ratings do not grow on trees. People do not suddenly say, "Here is Railtrack, in administration, with junk-bond status. Now it is to be transferred lock, stock and barrel to a company limited by guarantee. Whoopee! It has a triple-A rating! Aren't we lucky!" The bunch of assets and liabilities remains the same, and unless the Government inject an extremely large sum into its "not-for-dividend, not-for-profit, like the Dome" company, no one will touch it with a bargepole. It will still be given a junk-bond rating, and raising the capital will be very dear.
As you see, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I found my right hon. Friend's analysis so compelling I had to move to my present place in order to intervene.
The most important consideration is, surely, the time cost. For such a rating to be given by the agencies, at least a three-year—perhaps a five-year—track record will be required. As well as the cost of the money itself, there will be a time element. The Government will have to underpin that by ensuring that there is no potential loss during the period involved.
I am grateful for your guidance, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but it so happens that I want to proceed to the subject of information relating to timing, which is relevant to my hon. Friend's query and, indeed, probably what he had in mind.
I asked the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions for his estimate of the time that Railtrack would remain in administration. The longer it stays in administration, of course, the worse its track record will be—so far we have seen mounting losses, worse delays and cancelled or delayed investment—which will make it even more difficult for money to be raised on any sensible basis for any company that the Government may wish to create after Railtrack ceases to be in administration.
One would have thought that the Government would have an estimate of the time that Railtrack would remain in administration. I have read estimates in the newspapers, and I have not seen Ministers rushing to deny them. Those estimates looked as if they had come from Government sources, but apparently not: when I asked my question in the House of Commons, which should always be first to hear interesting news, I was told that it was a matter for the administrator. So, no go there. What remarkable openness—never seen before.
My right hon. Friend speaks of estimates. Will he take this opportunity to ask whether it is true that this is one Department that does not expect to reach the total of its estimated expenditure?
While we are on the subject of railway administration, may I mention that I tabled a written question to the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions about routine track and signal maintenance? The answer I received was that that was the responsibility not of the Government, but of the administrator. Does my right hon. Friend find it worrying that the Government are not concerned about safety in this context?
I do indeed—and that is another point I was coming to. Having been thwarted after tabling so many written questions to the Secretary of State, I wrote a letter asking him to set out the position on safety. I think the Government have a clear moral and political obligation to accept ultimate responsibility, now that they have taken the law into their own hands and persuaded the court to put the railways into administration.
Labour, in opposition and subsequently in government, was always ready to rush to attack the privatised industry whenever a dreadful tragedy occurred. We all hate dreadful tragedies, and we all want the railways to be as safe as possible. I have never believed that company directors deliberately create unsafe companies—they know that that would be morally wrong and inhuman, as well as being bad for business—but the Labour party has sometimes appeared to allege that privatised companies somehow cannot be safe.
Now the Government have their way temporarily. The body is in administration; effectively it is operating under a lot of guidance, control and influence from the Secretary of State. Surely there is a moral and political obligation, if not a legal one—given the way in which the body is currently drawn up—for the Government to reassure us all that railway safety will be paramount, crucial and that no corners will be cut during administration.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that, by that very act, the Government have so undermined the morale of those working in the industry that it could have ramifications in the run-up to Christmas, which is a particularly busy time for the railways?
That is absolutely right. For that reason, we need more information about safety and morale. The terrible figures that are coming out of the railways show how much damage has been done to morale. That is not surprising when the shareholding of small shareholders and employees has been wiped out, and when many of the senior management have left because they have found it insufferable to work under those conditions. I believe that more senior management will leave, for understandable reasons.
Finally—there were many more examples, but I have taken just a selection for the purposes of this debate—I asked the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions what his estimate was of the cash needs of Railtrack in administration. I was told that any estimate of the cash needs would be "purely speculative". There we have it—the Government do not have a clue; or can it be that they are trying to withhold information from the House because it is deeply embarrassing? Surely not, so it must be that they do not have a clue; yet we have read in the newspapers that the industry has already gobbled up £800 million in administration—guaranteed by the Government, drawn down, presumably completely spent and used up—and that the cash requirement up to the end of March could be £3.5 billion.
Can the Government in this debate give an estimate of how big a financial black hole they have dug for themselves just up to March next year? It is not asking much. Surely they have to tell the administrator how much money will be available; surely he has to tell them what he thinks he may need. Huge sums of public money are involved, far bigger than the Government's increase in health expenditure. Should not the House of Commons be told?
I have asked today and in questions for a timetable setting out when the bidding will take place and when we can expect the railway to return to a life that may get it back to normal. I have asked the Government to set out their policy towards the railways. Again, answers came there none. I have asked them to set out how much money is available; there have been no answers. I have asked them to say who is allowed to bid; they have not told us. I have asked them to give a proper report on the progress of the company limited by guarantee; there has been one written answer with a few sketchy ideas, and since then a stony silence.
If the Government are serious about getting Railtrack out of administration within the next six months, surely the company limited by guarantee should be up and running. Can we hear more about that today? Can we have some information about how the Secretary of State can both be presiding over the whole process and working with one of the bidding companies? Is he going to get that company off the ground? How much money has he got from the taxpayer, promised by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, to try to make it work? Can he give us a few more figures on the balance sheet of that incredible company, which the Government think will answer their prayers but which will be very difficult to get up and running?
Some Labour Members seem to think that the railway industry that is now in administration is on a magical mystery tour that will end up in a cost-free nationalisation. The truth is that it is on a misery tour where the reality is declining services, cancelled trains, delayed trains, cancelled investment, delayed investment, hopes shattered, share price bombed out, employees robbed and shareholders about to sue the Government. What do we get from the Government? We do not even get any straight answers to simple factual questions. It is time they owned up and told us the truth.
If Mr. Redwood had seriously wanted answers to those questions, rather than putting out another spin of his own, he would have put in for a debate on the railways. [Hon. Members: "We have already done that."] Opposition Members have not done that. The motion covers a bit of Railtrack, Government management of news—spinning—the civil service, political advisers, parliamentary and Government standards, reform and modernisation of Parliament and how to use Parliament. It does not offer a serious debate about the future of the railways.
It is not for me to advise Conservative Members on their general election strategy; as a Labour Member, I think that they were remarkably successful in managing their strategy in the previous two general elections and I wish them great success in the future. However, if they think that this argument about Railtrack is going to help them with the public, they are so fundamentally wrong that it is not true. The reality is that two railways issues impact on the British public: that it is an expensive, slow, uncertain and uncomfortable way of reaching a destination; and that it was privatised by Conservative Members. That is what the public know and what they will remember.
If Conservative Members want to make any political progress at all—although when I listen to this type of debate I sometimes think that they do not—they will have to start by recognising that they got it very badly wrong on railways and try to move on to a new agenda.
My hon. Friend has made my point for me. Nevertheless, does he agree that this constant bluster from Conservative Members is simply a grotesque attempt to shift the blame from them to us for the mess that they created?
My hon. Friend has made the point more briefly than I did.
There are, as I indicated, several important issues wrapped up in the Opposition motion—several of which have been identified by Mr. Tyler—that cross party lines and are relevant to the debate. The first issue is parliamentary reform, which is in some respects what the Opposition seem to be talking about. The right hon. Member for Wokingham and other hon. Members have described what they regard as a lack of opportunity to hold Ministers to account. As the hon. Member for North Cornwall knows, the Modernisation Committee—which the Government established as soon as they won in 1997—has attempted to move the agenda forward to increase the House's effectiveness. However, we have almost always found ourselves fighting Conservative Members to make those changes.
Westminster Hall is the first example of that conflict. I take some pride in Westminster Hall, especially because I was, I think, the first person to present to the Modernisation Committee a paper suggesting that we establish a second Chamber. Conservative Members opposed the proposal. Given that even I was not sure that Westminster Hall would work as well as it has, I suppose that that opposition was fair enough. The point, however, is that that Chamber has increased the number of opportunities to hold Ministers to account. Although I—like the majority of hon. Members on both sides of the House, as I understand it—think that Westminster Hall is a remarkable success, I suspect that the majority of Ministers do not like it that much, because they are expected to go there far more often than they were ever expected to reply to debates and answer questions in this Chamber.
Westminster Hall was a major achievement that was won in the face of early opposition from many Conservative Members who have now come round to seeing it as a good thing. If we tried to abolish Westminster Hall, which I am happy to say that we would not attempt to do, the outcry from Conservative Members who opposed it only a few years ago would be enormous.
In an intervention on my hon. Friend Mrs. Ellman, Mr. Francois said that a previous Conservative Government were the first to establish Select Committees. They were not the first Government to do that, as the House had Select Committees in the 19th century and, I think, in the early part of the 20th century. Nevertheless, those Committees lapsed. However, when the current Select Committee system became increasingly successful, Norman St. John-Stevas—who, on the Conservative side, deserves much of the credit for establishing it—fairly quickly found himself outside the Cabinet. I do not know whether Select Committees were the reason for his removal, but I do know that he was the author of the Special Standing Committee concept which enables the House to take evidence before legislating. Consequently, in the early 1980s, several Bills were considered in Special Standing Committees. However, as those Committees were an embarrassment to the then Government, that Government stopped using them. From 1983, I think, to about 1997, only one or two Special Standing Committees were convened; now, however, it is fairly common practice to hold them. They not only take evidence from the public but give the public an opportunity to influence legislation. Conservative Members had the opportunity to do all that from the early 1980s onwards but they did not take it.
I am sorry that Mr. Collins has left the Chamber, although I am sure that he has done so for good reason, because I want to take up one of the points that he made in his speech. He said that he was a political adviser to the previous Conservative Prime Minister, John Major, and he went on to complain about the way in which the current Government manipulate the news. As the Opposition motion states, he does not approve of the Government's "news management" strategy. The hon. Gentleman, however, presumably was the political adviser advising John Major when he—rightly, but secretly, without telling the House and denying the fact—opened talks with Sinn Fein.
In their own terms, the then Government's reason for deciding on secrecy were good enough: it was their dependence on the votes of Unionist Members to stay in power. It was a political decision. From the speech of the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale, however, I presume that he told John Major, "We must open up this debate and tell the television channels in time for the 6 and 10 o'clock news that we are having secret talks with Sinn Fein." Of course the hon. Gentleman said no such thing. When I hear Conservative Members talk about news management, I realise why the previous Conservative Government got into so much difficulty on double standards.
That is my point. The then Prime Minister kept them secret because he needed the political support of Unionist Members. In reality, however, an awful lot of hon. Members and people in the media knew that those talks were being held. Indeed, the vast majority of hon. Members supported those discussions. However, Conservative Members could not go public on the talks because their Government depended on the Unionist votes.
Conservative Members sometimes talk as though spin has just been invented, but that is not so. Occasionally, both the media and politicians spin, as I shall describe later. First, however, I should remind Conservative Members of Bernard Ingham, of whom we were reminded by the hon. Member for North Cornwall. Bernard Ingham was a civil servant, but he was referred to as Margaret Thatcher's "handbag" by the media, many hon. Members and many members of the public because he was occasionally known to go round duffing up the Opposition. On one occasion, I wandered by mistake into one of his press briefings and heard him lambasting the Labour party. He saw such activity as a perfectly normal part of his role.
There is a lot of truth in that. The hon. Gentleman has also given the example of Bernard Ingham describing one Cabinet Minister, John Biffen, as "semi-detached", not long after which he was out of the Cabinet.
The relationship between Margaret Thatcher and Bernard Ingham was very close, very important to the success of that Conservative Government and very effective. What they did, however, was to manipulate the news in a big way. When they chose to do so, they would also undermine Conservative Members. They also continued the policy which has been operated under various Governments of trying to present the news in the best possible manner for themselves. That is why I should like to have a bit more common sense in the debate.
Today and in previous debates, various hon. Members have mentioned Jo Moore. I think that the hon. Member for North Cornwall was right to say that much more is being made of that matter than need be. I should tell the House—I do not know whether it is a declaration of interest—that Jo Moore worked for me on one occasion, when I was the shadow housing Minister. She is a very capable press and media officer. That does not justify her comments on that occasion, as they were by any standard gross and incredibly insensitive. As many hon. Members know, the incident has probably also ruined her career—[Interruption.] It is true.
As Opposition Members have said, one could fire someone who has acted in that manner. However, one would probably run into trouble with an industrial tribunal if one were to fire her on that basis. What Opposition Members are really asking us to do is to lean on such people to resign, but the reality is that the Minister, not the civil servant, is accountable.
We try to maintain a rather artificial distinction between civil servants and political advisers. In the United States, all such people are political appointees. I do not want to go down that road, but it is impossible to maintain an absolute distinction. A couple of years ago, as chairman of the parliamentary Labour party, I went to a meeting in Paris with the French and British Foreign Secretaries and various officials. The French Socialist party members, civil servants and advisers all entertained us at lunch in the French Foreign Office. They all talked about foreign policy issues, regardless of their different roles. I am not saying that the French system is better than ours, but it is more honest. There is a role for political advisers.
I suspect that Jo Moore got into so much trouble because of the constant tug of war between civil servants and political advisers. The Conservative party in government had the same problem. Political advisers feel that they are being kept out of the Government machine but they want to be in there to protect their Minister for a policy or a position that is dependent on a political party. Unless we recognise that, the tensions will continue. We need a slightly more relaxed attitude to get the balance right. Political advisers should not need to have battles with civil servants about their level of involvement or information. There is no simple answer, but the French way seems to have more common sense to it than ours.
The hon. Gentleman is trying to excuse the Government's spinning by comparison with the Conservative Government, but it is incontrovertible that the Labour Government make numerous announcements to the press before making them to Parliament. For example, today an important announcement on the abolition of the rough sleepers unit was made by the Prime Minister to the press. Does the hon. Gentleman approve of that, or is it bad for Parliament and bad for democracy?
It is not as black and white as the hon. Gentleman suggests, but there is certainly a problem that we need to work on. I am saying not that the Government are wholly innocent but that if every single item has to be announced in the House, the Government, of whatever party, will spend all their time on announcements here. One needs to decide what to announce here and what to announce outside.
The hon. Gentleman says that the issue of announcements being made to the House or to the press is not black and white. Does he think it right that advisers at the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions made available to the press the minutes of the meeting on
Because it depends on what the papers are and what the decision is. The primary issue is whether we feel that the papers should be made available to the public, after which there is a decision about whether that is done through Parliament or through a public statement. It might be perfectly in order to choose the latter. As I understand it, the Speaker normally expects major statements—not all statements—to be made in the House first. If every announcement had to be made here, the Government would never issue a press release on anything. It is not clear cut. One has to draw a line.
Does my hon. Friend agree that it seems somewhat strange for the Opposition to complain on the one hand that everything is being covered up and kept from them and on the other that the Government are too keen to give information to the press and the public?
Indeed. There is a constant tug of war. We are being asked to give more and more information. That is right. We should have open government. I am surprised that we have not made more progress with the Freedom of Information Bill, but the motion does not mention that. The motion is a mess, frankly. There is a case for giving the public more information, but how we do it depends on the nature of the information and the situation at the time. There is a difficult judgment for the Speaker on whether it should have been given to the House first.
I have dealt with the press over many years and recently wrote a book on the subject. We need to step back from the argument about news management and take a long, hard look at it. Spinning has gone on since time immemorial. Let us be honest: no one is going to say, "Here's a bad story about me. I want to issue it now to get maximum publicity." If any politician or party wants to kid anyone that they do anything other than try to manage the news, no one will believe them. It is not an unreasonable thing to do. No private organisations, including businesses, voluntary groups and charities with the holiest of reputations, will give maximum exposure to anything that is embarrassing to them.
We should all recognise—[Interruption.] Do not worry. I have sent that pager message back marked "Not known at this address".
The hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale says that we should stop news management and simply issue the stories as they emerge. Can anyone imagine people in the Tory party eagerly issuing a story that humiliates them in time for the evening television news and the next day's press? Of course not, although at certain points over the past few years, it seemed that they were indeed doing that—but I always put it down to political incompetence rather than moral purity.
Any organisation will try to present itself in the best light. We must be as honest as possible about the news and recognise that it is important not to lie—and there are even exceptions to that, as we all know: at times, in war or on crucial economic issues, politicians find themselves in the difficult position of having to cover something up in order to prevent a worse disaster. The use of troops is perhaps the time-honoured example.
It can be, although I would not want to say so categorically. Bernard Ingham was the equivalent of Alastair Campbell, and the two were both effective at operating the relationship between the media and politics for their respective political parties. We should be honest and say that we know that it happens.
The second issue concerns the media, members of which often talk as though it is only the politicians who spin. The reality is that the media spin too. All Members of Parliament will know that journalists often say, "Do not use that story first" and then give a reason why it should not be used yet. Or a journalist might suggest developing another part of the argument first. We know that that happens. What matters in the end is that the relationship between the media and politics is robust enough to withstand the rows and disagreements, and for the media to expose what the politicians are trying to hide. However, no one should believe that either side is pure, in some moral sense. Indeed, it was the late Enoch Powell who said that for politicians to complain about the press was like sailors complaining about the sea. That is equally true the other way round, and the media and politicians should recognise the need to co-operate on stories at times, as well trying to conceal them from each other. I could give several examples, but I shall move on.
The motion also mentions the way in which we use Parliament. During both the Falklands war and the Gulf war, I cannot remember how many debates we had, but the number was minimal. During the present situation in Afghanistan, we have had on average a debate a fortnight. We never had that under the previous Government, and it is one of several areas in which we have been much more open.
The Conservatives have also laid themselves wide open in tabling a motion on standards in Government and in Parliament. My advice is that they should acknowledge that many members of the Conservative party in Parliament got things badly wrong, in terms of honesty and integrity, in the last 10 years of their time in government. Many people would say that John Major was a good man, but he could not prevent his Back Benchers taking cash for questions. However, the motion suggests that standards have deteriorated. Whatever else the British public believe, they do not believe that standards have deteriorated. There are no stories about cash for questions any more. Instead, we have codes of conduct for Ministers and the party funding regulations, which have dramatically limited how parties can collect and spend money in a way not seen since the first legislation to restrict parties' spending in the 19th century.
The legislation on party funding causes problems for all of us. It is difficult to find people to be the local party secretary, because they discover that it is a criminal offence not to reveal certain information about how much money the party receives. We have never asked voluntary organisations to bear that burden before, but that is what political parties now have to do. That is a huge jump forward for political accountability and integrity, and the public know that. No party will be wholly clean, because people slip up and a few are just dishonest. They are in a minority, however, and we should keep it that way. In any case, for the Conservative party to table a motion that suggests that standards have deteriorated is plain wrong.
The motion is a mess and tries to cover too many issues. We are using Parliament better to hold Ministers to account, but we still have not got it right. The standard of integrity for MPs is better than it was and is still improving. The Conservatives know that they must never again get into the mess they got into in the 1990s. However, we still have not resolved the problem of the relationships between political parties and civil servants. We expect our Ministers to have political advisers—they are necessary in a complex modern Parliament—but at the same time, they must be accommodated in the system, not in a way that makes them civil servants but that recognises the importance of their job.
The Government are broadly on the right track in terms of restoring honesty and integrity to Parliament and to public life generally. We are also reforming Parliament and making Ministers and the Government more accountable. The debate on spin between media and politicians is alive and well, as it will probably still be in 100 years time. We should exercise some common sense about the issues, instead of trying to focus on one aspect. It is a complex area, but the standards being set now are an improvement and the Conservatives would do well to remember that. If they really want to vote on this weird motion, they can do so, but they will not win the vote and even if they did, I doubt that they would know what it meant anyway.
In so far as the motion relates to transport, I wish to declare my interest in Railtrack, First Group, Eurotunnel and the RAC. I am delighted that we are discussing the Government's record on compiling and disseminating information, especially against the background of the claim by Mr. Soley that they were re-elected on a platform of open government. However, the freedom of information legislation has been famously delayed.
We cannot even get the Government, or individual Ministers, to answer straight questions with a straight answer on the Floor of the House, by written answer or in Select Committee proceedings, which Mrs. Ellman mentioned. I shall share some gems with the House. I tabled a question on
I was referred to the answer given to my hon. Friend Mrs. May, which claimed that the date of the draft legislation directing the Secretary of State to overrule the Rail Regulator and give powers of direction could not be released. The written answer claimed that it was not in the public interest to disclose internal departmental communications which were, in effect, draft orders due to come before the House. Since when was draft legislation considered an internal communication, especially when it was intended to block the interim review application from being considered and applied for by the rail regulator?
In his evidence to the Select Committee on
"Mr. Byers said that they had thought of that"— that Railtrack would apply for an interim review—
"and that if such an application were made, he"— the Secretary of State—
"had the necessary authority immediately to introduce emergency legislation to entitle the Secretary of State to give instructions to the Regulator. After pausing to consider whether I had really heard what I had just heard, I asked whether that would be to over-rule me in an interim review or in relation to all my functions. Mr. Byers said that it would cover everything but that its first use would be in relation to an interim review which the Government did not want to proceed . . . I added that taking me under political control would go entirely against the grain of the major theme of the Government's policy position in the General Election campaign, which was about getting private sector capital into the provision of public services. I told them that such a step would do considerable harm to the ability of the Government to get companies to put money into public projects."
The significance of the date of the draft orders should not be overlooked. The date may have been as early as July, August or September this year, so it could be proved that the Secretary of State allowed the market in Railtrack shares to continue long after he first considered putting the company into administration.
In defence of the Secretary of State, however, he is not alone. I have written to Mr. Speaker to seek his guidance about correspondence that I sent to the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on behalf of my constituents and to which she has not yet replied. That correspondence dates back to June, July, August and September of this year. Indeed, the failure of the right hon. Lady to reply has become the subject of a "Dear Colleague" letter of
I shall not refer to the letter as right hon. and hon. Members will have already received it. However, another letter has come into my possession—I am not entirely sure whence it came. It is a "Dear John" letter—[Hon. Members: "Oh!"]—not to my husband John, or even to my right hon. Friend Mr. Redwood who is in the Chamber this evening; it is a "Dear John" letter from "Dear Tony". Yes, indeed. I have a letter from the Prime Minister to the Deputy Prime Minister in which he writes:
"The way we as a Government deal with communications from the public reflects our attitude towards those contacting us. I regard the letters, telephone calls and e-mails that we receive as being extremely important. They give a useful insight into the way the public thinks. Too often correspondence is seen as the poor relation and although over the last few years we have made good progress in the way Departments handle all forms of correspondence, I believe there is still more that can be done.
Staff in all Departments continue to do a fantastic job coping with the vast amount of correspondence received each year. Ministers too need to ensure that they are doing their bit by supporting staff, being clear about their requirements and making certain that they sign off letters on time."
What a pity that the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs could not heed that advice.
I return to the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions—caught in a minibus in Tyneside, thus preventing his attendance in the House—and support the call made by the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside. In fact, we requested that the minutes of the meeting held between the Secretary of State and the chairman of Railtrack be made public—or at least be passed to members of the Select Committee. What a tortuous exchange that was. We could not even get the Secretary of State to say whether, yes, he would release the minutes or, no, he would not. In fact, he said, in effect, "If it would be helpful, I would wish to be helpful".
As my hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead pointed out, the timing of the release of the minutes is not without significance. I was phoned by the Clerk of the Select Committee—the first time I can recall that happening—who told me that the papers were on the Board. That was at 5 o'clock last Tuesday, when the Secretary of State—
I hope to finish my remarks soon, in order to give the hon. Gentleman time to make his speech.
The event that I described is not normal practice. I realised only subsequently that the press and media—indeed, only certain chosen members of the press corps—were given an advance copy at 3.35 pm, just as the Chancellor of the Exchequer was rising to his feet to give his pre-Budget report. If that is not an example of cynical news management, I do not know what is.
Like the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside, I attach great importance and value to the work of the Select Committee and to my membership of it, under the august and robust chairmanship of Mrs. Dunwoody. It shows gross discourtesy and a lack of respect for the Committee that the press were given the minutes before—about an hour and a half before—they were received by members of the Committee. The minutes did not even give a full account; not for the first time the discrepancy between the minutes and the Railtrack chairman's recollection of the meeting was revealed.
The Select Committee invited the Treasury team to give evidence on aspects of the rail franchise renewals procedure, especially the public sector borrowing requirement, on which only a Treasury Minister is accountable. Even the Leader of the House had to admit that no Treasury Minister had appeared before a Transport Select Committee since 1999. Treasury Ministers still refuse to attend the Committee.
Furthermore, why has the Secretary of State blocked the publication of any figures showing the increasing delays on the rail network since Railtrack went into administration? Could it be because such figures reveal a 45 per cent. increase in delays? Again, the culture of secrecy prevails over the spirit of openness.
We still await details as to what shape the son of Railtrack will take. That is a matter of great urgency. It is of such importance that I have received a letter from the chief executive of GNER, who states:
"Clearly there is a difficult balance to be struck between wanting to get the right solution for Railtrack and not rushing into a fudge. On the other hand, if it drags on for ages it will be disastrous for the railway industry in terms of falling morale."
The evidence of that falling morale is there for all to see.
I commend and support the motion. I hope that the House will draw its own conclusions: as well as the pursuit of a cynical news management strategy, there is a culture of secrecy and inefficiency, all of which I deplore.
My contribution will be brief and, I hope, constructive, with a positive suggestion at the end.
I approached the discussion of recent events in relation to transport with a relatively open mind. I have no hidden agenda. I am certainly no lover of Railtrack whose demise I regard as inevitable. It was a flawed project: massive public investment can never be coupled with private profit.
Furthermore, I have no difficulty with the Secretary of State's proposal for a not-for-profit company. Like the right hon. Gentleman and all hon. Members, my feelings are with the travelling public—not only because of correspondence from my constituents, but because I was turfed off a train at 6 o'clock this morning due to poor maintenance. It is probably unfair to mention the company and perhaps I should not refer to Arriva, but I was badly served—as much as anything else by the outcome of privatisation.
I believed that the Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions provided a substantial counterweight to an overweening, over-dominant Executive; and that the model it offered for holding the Executive to account was so powerful and rigorous that it would be marketed to local authorities in the form of scrutiny committees that they would all be empowered to establish. I came to the debate with those thoughts: I had no prior agenda. However, I have had to change my mind and have come to share some of the concerns that have been voiced by Opposition Members.
I have listened while Ministers, the Strategic Rail Authority and the Rail Regulator gave their accounts of the uproar that surrounded the demise of Railtrack. I have listened to the accusations of bullying, and it is as though people have had to be separated after rowing in a school yard. As a former school teacher, I am sensitive to the fact that there is more than one side to the story in any accusation of bullying.
I do not side with Mr. Winsor or with the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, but there is a flaw in the Secretary of State's approach. Whenever and wherever he has endeavoured to prove his side of the story, he has failed to do so. In the latest episode, the minutes released last Tuesday were supposed to bear out the Government's view, but, at the critical moment, the pens were put down and the evidence is simply not there. In the bits of paper that really count, there are no notes on the items that we wish to investigate.
To persist with the analogy, it is as though the bully had offered to get a note from his mum as verification, but had returned without it. In those circumstances, in a school or elsewhere, we know that something is afoot. Regrettably, that is what I have had to conclude. Often in cases of bullying, where people are not completely open and frank, someone else is behind the story that people need to investigate, and I have come to the conclusion that it is the Treasury in this case. The Treasury has been deeply implicated at operational level in all the major decisions surrounding the railways.
Will the hon. Gentleman clarify his definition of a bully? Is the Secretary of State, who is acting in the public interest a bully; or is Railtrack, which is gobbling up public funds and facing a deficit of £3.5 billion, the real bully?
I do not want to enter into a discussion on whether bullying has taken place in this case. All I can say is that, if there is a bully, it is probably not the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions; it is probably the Treasury. I have served on the Transport Committee and listened to what people say, and the experience of everyone in the industry—the witnesses who gave evidence to the Select Committee, Bob Kiley and all the seasoned commentators—clearly shows that the Treasury's hand is behind almost the entire plot, but Treasury Ministers will not allow their role to be scrutinised. That strikes me as like turning the Select Committee into a charade.
Every intelligent political observer in the land knows the extent of Treasury policy involvement in all the key Departments, and it is disingenuous of Treasury Ministers not to appear before the Select Committee. If they cannot and will not appear before the Transport Committee, given the manifest evidence of their involvement in railway affairs, the outlook for Select Committees is grim. If their policy involvement is as pervasive as I believe it to be—not only in the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, but in the Department of Trade and Industry and the Department of Health—Ministers who give evidence to Select Committees are like a kind human shield for the Chancellor, and Select Committees are doomed to interview a selection of monkeys while the organ grinder grinds on.
A Treasury that calls the shots but lets others take the flak represents not only bad news for Ministers' careers, but an appalling abuse of parliamentary government. The Minister turns around to talk to one of his hon. Friends, but one of the things that he could do to reassure the Opposition more than anything else would be to say that the Government have changed their mind, that they have been convinced by the arguments and that Treasury Ministers will soon appear before the Select Committee.
I am pleased to respond to this interesting debate. The fact that I am doing so reflects the importance that the official Opposition attach to the issue of access to Government information and, in particular, to the behaviour of the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions in refusing to provide information to Members, in making disputed statements to the House and, of course, in presiding over chaos and increased delays on the railways. I am here; where is he? [Hon. Members: "Where is he?"] All I can say is that it is a very long minibus trip to see a bridge on Tyneside, North. The answer is that he is not here because he is frit. He does not want to come to the House.
"The first right of a citizen in any mature democracy should be the right to information. It is time to sweep away the cobwebs of secrecy which hang over far too much government activity".
Today we have debated how far this Labour Government have departed from that ideal. Let me make it clear to the Minister of State, Cabinet Office, who opened the debate for the Government, that this is not an attack on civil servants, and her claim that my hon. Friend Mr. Collins made such an attack in his excellent speech was entirely unjustified. Perhaps she would now like to apologise for making that claim. She is not willing to do so.
We know where responsibility lies; it lies not with civil servants, but with Ministers. Ministers refuse to answer questions, and the Secretary of State who has made disputed statements in the House has refused to come to the House tonight to explain himself. It is little wonder that he is frightened to do so, given that virtually every time he makes a statement on Railtrack in the House it is disputed afterwards.
I am not surprised that he is frightened to come to the House, given the views of his hon. Friends. He cannot rely on Labour Back Benchers any longer. Mrs. Ellman talked about the meeting between the Secretary of State and the chairman of Railtrack on
Does the hon. Lady recall the fact that I added to that comment by saying that the minutes did not prove whether the chairman of Railtrack was correct? Indeed, I suggested that although the Secretary of State was accountable to the House, the chairman of Railtrack was not and that because of his fiduciary duty he might have had a motive in not telling the truth.
I have a little tip for the hon. Lady for when she intervenes in future: it is the phrase, "If you are in a hole, stop digging."
The Secretary of State cannot rely on his Cabinet colleagues. I was interested to see that, when he responds to debates on this matter, he does not have a single member of the Cabinet alongside him, whereas a member of the Cabinet is supporting the Minister for Transport in this debate. It is also interesting that, on
"Relations between the Chancellor . . . and the transport secretary . . . were strained last night when it emerged that the Treasury had embarked on a constitutional conflict with parliament by refusing point blank to answer MPs' questions about rail funding."
Was it not also interesting that when the Chancellor of the Exchequer listed the brilliant spending Ministers in this Government in an article in The Times on
Little wonder that the rest of the Government are distancing themselves from the Secretary of State, given his treatment of hon. Members, as shown in the examples given by my right hon. Friend Mr. Redwood. My right hon. Friend has been doing the House an excellent service in assiduously trying to wheedle the truth out of Ministers and has been blocked at every turn, as has my hon. Friend Miss McIntosh, whose telling questions on the Select Committee have revealed the extent of the Secretary of State's weasel words.
We are talking about a Government who in their ministerial code say:
"Ministers should be as open as possible with Parliament and the public".
"on what date he instructed parliamentary drafters to draft.. the Railway Administration Order Rules 2001 and . . . the legislation to give him power to direct the Rail Regulator"?
I was told:
That part of the code relates to information whose disclosure would harm the frankness and candour of internal discussion. How on earth does giving a date harm the candour and frankness of internal discussion?
Such a refusal to give details on such a question is what made the parliamentary ombudsman take the Home Office to task in his report. As my hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale pointed out, that was the first time that a Department had refused to respond to the actions required by the parliamentary ombudsman. The ministerial code means nothing to the Government and their Ministers.
Let us look at the minute of the meeting of
The Minister for Transport, who will respond to this debate, was present at the meeting of
"unless extra financial assistance from the Government was provided, on
Does the Minister agree that that was said by the chairman of Railtrack at that meeting?
I think that we are all confused by the Minister's response, given that the official minute does not substantiate the Secretary of State's claim, as the Minister has just reiterated. Indeed, the chairman of Railtrack has disputed what the Secretary of State said. He disputed it publicly on "Today" on Radio 4.
This is not simply about what the Secretary of State has said to Members. This is an important matter because of its impact on the railways and the travelling public; and it is important because as a result of what the Secretary of State has done, the Government may face legal action. The Railtrack shareholders action group has today written to the Secretary of State and the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions requesting certain documents. The group has said that it has been hampered in its ability to obtain all the relevant facts, most notably by the Secretary of State's inconsistent account of events. [Interruption.]
There was inconsistency regarding the project Renewco and the minutes of the meeting on
We have seen inconsistency from the Secretary of State at every turn. It is important because it may land the Government in legal action; it is important because of how much it will cost the taxpayer, which the Government simply do not know; and it is important because of the impact that the Secretary of State's shoddy handling of this sorry saga is having on the railways and on rail passengers. There has been a 45 per cent. increase in delays since administration. Phase 2 west coast main line upgrade—forget it. Special purpose vehicle for improvements to South Central—abandoned. The travelling public know the misery of the railways under the thin controller that is the Secretary of State.
Since Railtrack was put into administration on
It is time for the Secretary of State to come clean. His cunning plan has failed. The railways are in a mess. The public are waiting—they are waiting for answers, they are waiting for their trains and they are waiting for the Secretary of State to go.
It was deja vu all over again tonight. In our last debate, I said that history repeats itself—in the first debate as tragedy and in the second as farce. Today was unmitigated tedium. I have had to sit here suffering it—Conservative Members did not even bother to stay. Even when the winding-up speeches started, they managed only a dozen on the Back Benches. At one stage, only two Conservative Members were here, but we will come back to that in a minute. They could not keep the crowd, even when their own were speaking. Old Trafford on a Saturday does not compare with the numbers streaming away from the debate.
We must look at what this is about. It is about the sort of game playing that was revealed by the memorandum of the shadow Leader of the House, Mr. Forth. It bears further consideration. He gave some thoughts of the Conservative party's possible approaches to the new Parliament, saying:
"I believe that we should Consider dividing the Parliamentary party into four or five groups each with a mixture of experienced and new Members."
I know that it is childish drivel, but the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst wrote it. He continues:
"The group would undertake to cover all the business from 2.30 to after 10.00pm including as many divisions as necessary. Colleagues could arrange to 'trade' days"— the trading mechanism obviously broke down today—
"and a full turnout would be mounted once a month".
The Minister is very keen to talk about matters for which he does not have responsibility. As Minister for Transport, he has responsibility for the running of the railways now that Railtrack is in administration. Will he answer the question? How long will Railtrack be in administration, and how much will it cost the taxpayer?
Had the Conservative party wanted a debate on the railways and Railtrack, it would have tabled a motion to that effect, as my hon. Friend Mr. Soley said in response to the right hon. Member for Wokingham. How the right hon. Gentleman must suffer, seeing the mess that Conservative Front Benchers are making—how he must grieve. That was the issue that he tried to raise, but that is not what we have had from the Opposition. Instead, we have had endless trivia and dross. [Interruption.]
I am also responding to the debate—or rather the lack of it. I have to confess that I am not responsible for the fact that we are being subjected to such a load of political trivia and nitpicking from the Opposition. It is interesting that Opposition Members are getting up to defend the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst—who, heaven help us, is the MP for the area where my London house is—when he does not want to explain things himself. His memorandum and the motion demonstrate a degree of disregard and contempt for the Commons.
While the right hon. Gentleman is on the subject of contempt for the Commons, will he explain why last week, as a member of a Select Committee, I received the papers on the minute of the meeting of
I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman attacks the civil service for distributing material that had to go out on that day. Given the likelihood of it being leaked, it also had to be distributed appropriately to the press. If Opposition Members want to claim that they never leak Select Committee documents to the press, I will be interested to hear them make that argument stand up.
"The responsibilities which involve . . . travel and time away from Westminster should be allocated to colleagues who are likely to be here very little anyway, and ideally not to those who could contribute significantly to Chamber or Committee work."
Obviously quite a few Conservative Members must be part of that category because very few bothered to turn up for the debate. The shadow Leader of the House, the shadow Chief Whip and the shadow deputy Chief Whip had to bomb around and intervene because they could not find Back Benchers to do the job. That is the state to which the modern Conservative party has sunk, and I will return to that when I comment on the role of the Liberal Democrats.
Mr. Collins began with some confessions, and he asked for several other offences to be taken into consideration. He was not entirely forthcoming about his complete role. He was press secretary to John Major in 1992, director of communications for the Conservative party from 1992 to 1995, a member of the Prime Minister's policy unit at Downing street in 1995 and media consultant to the Conservative party chairman from 1995 to 1997. Those were, of course, periods of immense success for the Conservative party. I gather that they will be published under "Tim Collins: The Golden Years".
I am of course dealing with the issues that the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale thought pertinent to raise in his introductory remarks, one of which was his history.
"Mr. Collins's job is to harry and harass Labour"— the Tories do not want to hear this—
"at every turn to ensure that it does not inflict such a humiliating defeat that voters go to the polls in the general election with a stirring victory for Labour still fresh in their"—
I take your point, Madam Deputy Speaker. I merely point out that there was a 17.2 per cent. swing to Labour in that election.
Mr. Tyler made a fairly lengthy contribution in which he talked about openness and accuracy. We presume that he was not referring to Liberal "Focus" leaflets.
Another person who made an appearance during the debate was Mr. Bernard Ingham, now Sir Bernard Ingham, whose actions Conservative Members defended. In a previous debate on the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, my right hon. Friend Mr. Kaufman drew attention to the fact that
"Bernard Ingham ordered Colette Bowe, chief of information at the Department of Trade and Industry, to leak the letter to the detriment of Michael Heseltine. She was a conscientious civil servant and she refused to do that. Ingham said to her:
'You'll . . . well do what you're . . . well told.'
The letter was leaked and when Ingham was asked about his conduct, he said in a speech to the Independent Broadcasting Association:
'I must tell you that I—and I am sure my colleagues—have never regarded the Official Secrets Act as a constraint on my operations. Indeed, I regard myself as licensed to break that law as and when I judge necessary; and I suppose it is necessary to break it every other minute of every working day, though I confess the issue is so academic that I have not bothered to seek counsel's advice.'"—[Hansard, 23 October 2001; Vol. 373, c. 175.]
That was how Bernard Ingham saw his role.
The right hon. Member for Wokingham attempted to move the debate on to the railways but, surprisingly enough, that was not the subject of the motion. However, it is interesting, in the Holmesian sense of the dogs that did not bark, that no Conservative Member supported Railtrack. No one said what a good company it was or that privatisation was a tremendous and enormously successful wheeze, and that they could not understand how everything had gone wrong because John Major made such an impressive job of it. Equally, no one got up to say that Railtrack's management were doing such a good job that they could not understand why anyone thought it necessary to take action. No one mentioned that.
This is extraordinary. I talk about the political and constitutional issues, and the Conservatives say, "Why aren't you talking about the railway?", so I talk about the railway, and now they do not want to talk about it. It is clear that none of them wanted to talk about compensation, although in previous debates they were up and down asking about it. Now that I have asked what we are compensating for, who are we supposed to be compensating and for how much, they have gone remarkably quiet. They are all shtoom on the issue of compensation. It is clear that they have not got a clue about what they should do or what their policy should be.
It is in the public domain that I do not have much time for the Liberal Democrats, but their claim to be the Opposition party has, by default—
Once again, the Tories have shown themselves to be bankrupt of ideas and bankrupt of argument. If ever—heaven forbid—they were let loose on the public finances, they would also once again bankrupt the country. It is clear how they managed to double the national debt in five short years. They are seriously fiscally incontinent and have no clue about how to run the country. That, more than any other reason, is why they will stay on the Opposition Benches for a long time to come and why we will get on with government. As I said in previous debates, the electorate have decided that the Tories are unfit for government. Tonight. the Tories have once again shown that they are not even fit for Opposition.
Question accordingly agreed to.
Madam Deputy Speaker forthwith declared the main Question, as amended, to be agreed to.
That this House deplores the attempt by HM Opposition to draw attention away from their lack of coherent policies on public service improvement; welcomes the Government's determination to uphold the highest standards of integrity and honesty in public life; acknowledges that the Government has been open about the standards Ministers, Civil Servants and Special Advisers are expected to uphold; welcomes the publication of the new Ministerial code including the requirements on greater transparency never seen before, attaching the highest importance to the prompt and efficient handling of Parliamentary Questions and correspondence; and commends the professionalism and integrity with which the Government continues to conduct departmental business in the best traditions of public service.