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6.14 pm

Mr. Mike O'Brien (North Warwickshire): It gives me great pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood), who gave one of the most extraordinary—not to say bizarre—speeches that I have heard from a former Conservative Cabinet Minister. It was bizarre because the right hon. Gentleman seemed to suggest that Railtrack ought to be given more than another £1 billion in taxpayer's money—even though my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State knew that the company would be in debt by more than £1 billion by April next year, and close to financial meltdown.

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The idea that the Government should throw good money—taxpayers' money—after bad in that way belies almost everything that Baroness Thatcher stood for when she was Prime Minister. The right hon. Member for Wokingham seems to have turned on its head the notion that companies should not be bailed out by the taxpayer. He seems to be a convert to some form of Keynesianism—or to a form of left-wing socialism that even the former Member of Parliament for Chesterfield might have found a little too red.

Mr. Redwood: The hon. Gentleman has misunderstood—probably deliberately—what I said. I said that, if the Government promise £1.5 billion, they should deliver. They will find out that their ridiculous alternative to the company that they have decided to bankrupt will cost them much more than £1.5 billion. The bankruptcy occurred because the Government intervened and over-regulated the railway.

Mr. O'Brien: Railtrack's financial meltdown occurred because of the way in which the industry was privatised by the previous Conservative Government. There are Conservative Members who have been in the House a long time who bear a major responsibility for the problems of poor services on this country's railways. They also bear a responsibility for the problems faced by shareholders who invested in the botched privatisation of the railways which created Railtrack.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State faced a clear choice. Railtrack was in serious financial difficulties. It was demanding further inputs of taxpayers' money which would have been lost in due course. There was a need for the Government to intervene. The Tories' only answer to the problem is to throw more taxpayers' money into a company that was collapsing. My right hon. Friend did what the public wanted. Years of privatisation had failed to deliver effective services, and some services had deteriorated badly. For example, Water Orton station in my area of north Warwickshire used to win awards, when the railways were a nationalised industry, for being one of the best-kept and best-run stations in the country. Since privatisation, services have constantly gone down hill. The responsibility for that lies in the privatisation of the railways, and especially in the failures of Railtrack.

The public wanted action, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State delivered it. He has set out new proposals to deal with the problems of under-investment in our railways. The proposals will ensure that private investors will be able to invest in the railways in the future. They will also ensure that creditors can be paid by the company itself, in so far as that is possible, and that employees' pay and pensions are safeguarded. That is an important consideration for me, as my father and most of my other relatives worked—or, indeed, still work—in the railway industry. They want to ensure that their pay and conditions are protected.

Mr. Redwood: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. O'Brien: I have given way to the right hon. Gentleman once. I shall be generous to him and give way again, even though in his ministerial past he showed no such generosity to Back Benchers. I forgive him that,

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as Labour Members belong to a forgiving party. However, we will not forgive him for voting for privatisation of the railways.

Mr. Redwood: I think that the record will show the hon. Gentleman that I was very generous, as a Minister and shadow Minister, when it came to giving way. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way now.

Is the hon. Gentleman saying that the Government will stand behind all the court actions brought by the families and relatives of people involved in rail crashes? Those actions could result in substantial and successful claims. The hon. Gentleman will know from the Railtrack balance sheet that there are many unresolved claims. Will the Government pay damages to the victims?

Mr. O'Brien: I very much hope that the Government will stand behind the British public and ensure that we have a decent rail service, that taxpayers' money is spent properly and that we are not constantly bailing out the failures of a Conservative privatisation that has caused all the problems.

I had not intended to speak in this debate because the matter of Jo Moore has not caused me a great deal of angst, but I was moved by the sheer hypocrisy of the approach adopted by Conservative Front-Bench Members. Jo Moore is, after all, a fairly junior adviser who sent a very stupid and wrong e-mail. If every Member of the House who had done a stupid or wrong thing were sacked as a result, the Benches on both sides of the House would be far more sparsely populated than they are even today.

The Conservatives' position shows us how deeply out of touch they are with the British public. They do not even understand that there is a great deal of national concern about very serious issues such as the anthrax scare, the way in which the war on terrorism is being conducted and the fact that, today, it appears that there has been an historic announcement about the Provisional IRA. Those are the sort of matters that the House would have been debating if we had a serious Conservative Front-Bench team.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Have you received any information about whether there is to be a statement to the House about the historic announcement to which the hon. Gentleman referred? I understand that the Prime Minister is speaking to the media. Surely the House should be addressed.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): A point of order was made earlier, and the Chair gave a ruling at that time which I cannot go beyond. This is not strictly a point of order for the House, but no doubt Ministers will have heard the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. O'Brien: It is indeed a bizarre turn of mind—to use the phrase employed by Opposition spokesmen—that has caused the Conservatives, on this of all days, to choose to discuss the career of a junior official and the Government's long-term relationship with the press. These are matters that one might say are, to use an American expression, inside the beltway. They are not of immediate concern to most members of the public.

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My hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) referred to constituents of his who are concerned about these matters and who raised them with him, and he might be surprised to hear that the only comment made to me by a constituent came from a councillor, who said, "They're not going to sack that woman, are they? It seems that she was very stupid, but is it a sacking offence?" This matter is on the front pages of the newspapers, and is of deep concern only to Conservative Front Benchers.

I accept that matters to do with the morality and proper running of the Government are ones about which the House ought to be concerned. I accept also that the Government's relationship with the press is a matter of public interest and concern, but there is a question about the priority that one affords those concerns when there are so many more important issues before us.

Ms Abbott: I listened with care to my hon. Friend saying that the general public are not interested in the details of the Jo Moore affair, and I am prepared to concede that the man or woman on the No. 73 bus is not discussing it as we speak. However, my hon. Friend must understand that the accumulated weight of such incidents is a concern of the general public, and it breeds a cynicism that lies behind the very poor electoral turnout in many constituencies earlier this year. If colleagues insist on claiming that the ordinary public are not concerned about the aura of sleaze created by such incidents, we will see an even greater drop in turnout in forthcoming elections.

Mr. O'Brien: My hon. Friend plays right into the hands of Conservative Front-Bench Members, who seek to make the issue of what they call "spin" into sleaze, which damaged them when they were in government. They have not got us on that; there are no incidents of sleaze that they can hang on the Government, so they are now trying to use the Government's relationships with the press to suggest that we cannot be trusted.

I turn now to the reasons why we should, from time to time, be conscious of being—I say this advisedly to my hon. Friend, whom I have known for many years—on-message.

Ms Abbott: It is a bit late for that.

Mr. O'Brien: Yes, it is.

The Conservative party's hypocrisy in this matter was clearly set out in the speech of my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman), but he omitted a reference, which is well worth making, to the leak of a certain memo sent by a special adviser to the then Prime Minister in 1992. The memo, which was about campaigning, dealt with the fact that the Conservatives were failing to make enough of the asylum and immigration issue to stir up votes. Conservative Front Benchers will realise who drafted that memo, because it was a colleague of theirs who now sits on the Front Bench. There was no call from Conservative Front Benchers at that time for the dismissal of the individual involved. Perhaps what is good for one person ought to be good for another.

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