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Mr. Byers: It is important to remind ourselves that Railtrack went into administration because of its financial circumstances. We have to use that as an opportunity to remodel the railway industry, which our proposals will do. As a result, Railtrack's successor will be able to put the interests of the travelling public first. As we know, Railtrack was compromised on that and found it very difficult to achieve.
Mr. Kilfoyle: Is my right hon. Friend aware that Labour Members in general welcome the expeditious way in which he has moved against Railtrack? Will he remind the House of the extra handout that it demanded at the crucial moment?
Mr. Byers: My hon. Friend asks a difficult question. The proposal was uncosted and Railtrack wanted a blank cheque. Contained in the bundle of documents that we put to the High Court, which are in the House of Commons Library, was the statement that Railtrack would have a deficit of £1.7 billion by next March. We decided to put taxpayers' interests first and that Railtrack would have to
Mr. Shepherd: Is not the Secretary of State missing the point on behalf of the Government? The country has entered a perilous time. We are engaged in Afghanistan and our citizens, whom we represent, are vulnerable. Of all times, this is when we must be most able to trust the Government, but Ms Moore has put into our minds the thought that this is a manipulative episode. We want to be able to trust, and the Prime Minister will want us to be able to trust him, so that when he asserts something, we believe that it is true.
Mr. Byers: I have a great deal of time for the views of the hon. Gentleman, but the hon. Member for Maidenhead made assertions and I have tried to address each one in turn, factually and specifically. With respect, I think that the record will show that I have done that. I have no reservations about responding. It is right that I should and I hope that I will satisfy Opposition Members about the circumstances that we are in.
Lynne Jones (Birmingham, Selly Oak): I welcome my right hon. Friend's announcement on Railtrack's successor body, which will be able to raise capital in the financial markets. Can he give a logical reason why the same facility should not be extended for investment in London Underground and other transport projects in respect of which a revenue stream is generated?
Mr. Byers: When my hon. Friend looks at the proposals for London Underground, she will recognise that it will continue to be a publicly owned and operated system. It is important always to remember that. People have made the comparison with Railtrack, but the two companies are quite different. London Underground will remain publicly owned. There will be no privatisation of that company.
Mr. Smith: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. Before he leaves the subject of Railtrack, we all welcome the moves that he has made but will he assure us that, whatever arrangements he makes, projects to which funds
Mr. Henderson: I thank my right hon. Friend. Does he now agree that it was wrong to give shareholders £700 million while the industry was crying out for further investment into its infrastructure for safety reasons? Does he think that it was wrong that although the company would have suffered from a £700 million deficit by the end of this year, it gave shareholders another £88 million? Does he agree that that was a sign of a directorship that was out of control and had no interest in the industry?
Mr. Byers: My hon. Friend is right about the figures, which show the conflict that was at the heart of Railtrack. On the one hand it obviously had to enhance value for shareholders, but on the other it needed to invest in the railway network. It was a conflict with which it could not come to terms. We all know the results.
The Department is involved in regeneration and community renewal and in ensuring that our regions share in national prosperity and that every part of our country has decent housing that is fit for the 21st century. Within three years, we will ensure that 300,000 children are no longer in unfit homes. We will meet our target on rough sleepers by March next year.
On Saturday, I announced proposals for the private licensing of landlords, which will help local authorities to ensure that private landlords can no longer neglect communities. Our new deal for communities is targeting support for those areas in greatest need and our neighbourhood renewal project will ensure that all neighbourhoods get the prosperity that some are receiving at present.
The charges laid against us today have been serious. I hope that we have been able to deal with all of them. We will not allow those charges to divert us from our task. We must deliver a new and positive agenda for the future. In so doing, we must ensure that the negative forces do not stand in the way of measures to build a better Britaina Britain of opportunity where all can achieve their full potential and a fair Britain underpinned by social justice. This is a bold and ambitious vision for our country. It is one that we can achieve and I commend the amendment to the House.
Mr. Don Foster (Bath): Given the present international situation, it is perhaps surprising that the Conservatives have chosen to use precious parliamentary time to debate this issue. It is less surprising that they have chosen in their motion to deal with the style of Government operation rather than to engage in debate on key policy issues, as the Secretary of State said.
Mr. Andrew Turner: My hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) asked the Secretary of State whether trust was at the heart of the issue. The Prime Minister asks for our trust. If we believe that we cannot afford him that trust, is not that a very serious problem? Does not it justify raising this matter today?
Mr. Foster: If the hon. Gentleman can be a little more patient, he will discover that I have much sympathy with the points that he has just made, as I believe that the Government have brought on their own head this debate on their conduct in government. The Secretary of State attempted, towards the end of his lengthy remarks, to deal with new and important announcements in respect of Railtrack. I worry that that shows the very desire to manipulate the media about which many hon. Members are concerned.
However, the debate should not concentrate solely on the behaviour of one of the Government's special advisers, Jo Moore. The debate should deal with the climate of spin and manipulation that is evident right across the Government. Jo Moore's e-mail plumbed new depths, but the Government have taken spin and manipulation to new heights. At the taxpayer's expense, they have doubled the number of so-called special advisers, raising it from 38 to 81. The Government have become past masters at double counting figures, and announcing good news stories again and againeach time pretending that the story is new. They have sought to become adept at manipulation but fortunately they do not always get away with it.
The Secretary of State was asked what the purpose of the Jo Moore e-mail was if the timing with regard to the question of councillors' expenses was already planned. Many hon. Members will have been slightly confused by his answer, but it served the purpose of ensuring that people looked carefully at what the Government did on 12 September.
On that date, the Government published a consultation paper on the issue of councillors' pensions. I hope that the Minister for Transport, when he responds to the debate, will confirm that that document recommends a set of procedures that run counter to what was agreed following a Liberal Democrat amendment during the passage of the Local Government Act 2000. The Government agreed then that it would be right to allow all councillors, regardless of their function, to have access, if their councils wished, to a pension. In the consultation document, the Government have completely reversed that decision. It is no wonder that they wanted to keep that out of the public domain.
As we have heard, the Minister for the Cabinet Office, Lord Macdonald, only yesterday had to make a personal statement in another place to apologise for giving an unclear reply about the number of political advisers on the Government's payroll. I argue that it is just that
In such a climate it is no wonder that an editorial in today's Daily Mail can suggest that "a zealous spin doctor" such as Jo Moore might feel it perfectly okay to suggest that Government bad news could be buried in the immediate aftermath of the 11 September atrocities. So far, both Ministers and the media have understandably tended to focus on Ms Moore's e-mail, but it was astonishing to discover that the wider concerns, expressed by many people over the years, about the conduct of special advisers should have been proved to be so right, in such tragic circumstances.
I can agree with at least one element of the Government's amendment. It rightly states that Jo Moore's e-mail was "horrible, wrong and stupid". It certainly was. Jo Moore clearly has no sense of public service, and no notion that there is a difference between party interest and public interest. I am absolutely convinced that no one who operates or thinks in the way that she did should be working in the public sector.
Ms Moore would have us believe that this error of judgment was a lapse in an otherwise blameless career. What other construction could possibly be placed on her remark that she could not believe that she had sent the e-mail? But it was not a momentary lapse. It is clear from what civil servants and others have said that she has been controversial throughout her career in government. Ministers, other advisers who have no interest in public exposure and civil servants who risk their career if they make complaints are usually the only ones who see what special advisers are up to. The difference this time is that Jo Moore's particular style of operation has been laid open to public scrutiny.