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Mr. Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman seems to be taking a long time. He must raise a matter that the Chair can deal with.

Mr. Robathan: Sir, the ombudsman has found, for the first time, that the Government will not accept his recommendations, and has laid that before Parliament. Mr. Speaker, have you heard from any Minister that a Minister will come to the House to explain why they have defied the ombudsman for the first time?

Mr. Speaker: My answer is no.

Mr. Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. You are absolutely scrupulous and fair in trying to balance the speakers called from both sides of the House during Question Time, and the House greatly values that. I wonder whether you have noticed that Government Whips and Front Benchers are using your very fairness to try to suppress debate, discussion and questioning on the issues that are most contentious, by dissuading their own Back Benchers from rising and by getting them to withdraw questions. Thus today, having grouped three questions, one of which was withdrawn, on the key issue of the shortage of nurses and doctors, so few Labour Members rose—perhaps because they are not interested in the shortage of nurses and doctors—that only two questions from the Opposition could be asked on that key issue. Could you have words with the Whips, Mr. Speaker, about the way that this is handled?

Mr. Speaker: I can take the blame for many things, but not for the activities of the Whips.

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Opposition Day

[5th Allotted Day]


[Relevant documents: The transcripts of evidence taken before the Transport Sub-Committee of the Transport, Local Government and the Regions Committee on Wednesday 17th October, HC 239-i, Wednesday 24th October, HC 239-ii, Wednesday 31st October, HC 239-iii, and Wednesday 7th November, HC 239-iv, in relation to the Sub-Committee's inquiry into Passenger Rail Franchising and the Future of Railway Infrastructure.]

Mr. Speaker: Before we come to the main business, I inform the House that there is a limit of 12 minutes on Back-Bench speeches, and also that I have selected the Government amendment.

3.34 pm

Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead): I beg to move,

I am sure that the House will want to join me in expressing our sympathy for the families of those who died in the tragic air crash in New York yesterday and, indeed, our sympathy for the people of New York. All of us who have any interest in air travel or responsibility for it will realise that this latest incident poses further challenges to an ailing airline industry and should be a matter of concern to us all.

The Secretary of State has been brought to the House today to be called to account for the statements that he has made to the House in recent weeks, to explain why those statements have been disputed by third parties involved and to respond to concerns expressed across the House, as in the statement made on Radio 4 on Friday of last week by the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody), who said that there were "gaps" in the various accounts. Above all, the Secretary of State is here to face up to the damage that he has done to the credibility of this Government and to the future of our rail network.

Let us not be under any illusions. For this House, the Secretary of State's failure to account properly to Members for his actions is a matter of deep concern. For the travelling public, it is his failure to protect the interests of the railways that will hurt most.

Mr. Kevin Hughes (Doncaster, North): Will the hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. May: No, I will not give way at this stage.

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The Secretary of State has been guilty of a breathtaking sleight of hand that has dealt a savage blow to future improvements in the railways, left railway workers robbed of their life savings and damaged the Government's credibility.

Hugh Bayley (City of York): Will the hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. May: I will make some progress before taking interventions.

The Secretary of State stands accused of failing fully to inform the House of events leading up to the court's decision to grant an administration order for Railtrack. Let me remind the House that only last week, on 5 November, in response to my private notice question, the Secretary of State said that, on 25 July, the chairman of Railtrack had told him that, without Government financial assistance, on 8 November he would not be able to make the statement that Railtrack was a going concern. The very next day—Tuesday 6 November—the chairman of Railtrack disputed that, saying that that was not his recollection of the meeting. Indeed, he said, "It is not true".

Railtrack has now passed over copies of the notes of that meeting, and other relevant documentation, to the Financial Services Authority. Will the Secretary of State now commit to placing copies of his Department's note of that meeting in the House of Commons Library, and will he make a copy available to the FSA?

Sadly, that was not the only incident last week when the Secretary of State's account of events to Parliament was challenged by a third party.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (Mr. David Jamieson): Oh dear!

Mrs. May: I suggest that the Under-Secretary, a former Whip, pays a little more attention to matters relating to people giving statements to the House and the veracity of those statements.

On 5 November, I asked the Secretary of State if he had threatened the Rail Regulator with legislation if he used his powers to intervene in Railtrack. The Secretary of State replied that "there was no threat". Yet on Thursday last week, the Rail Regulator, Tom Winsor—in evidence to the Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions—stated clearly that, in a meeting on 5 October, the Secretary of State had told him that if he, the Rail Regulator, used his powers to intervene in Railtrack, the Secretary of State would introduce legislation to direct him.

As the regulator said, he had to pause

Not only was the Secretary of State going to direct the Rail Regulator in his powers to order an interim financial review, but he was going to direct him in all his powers: that is, take away his independence.

The Secretary of State says that he was not threatening the Rail Regulator. I was not asking the Secretary of State if he had bullied the regulator to make him cry, or if he had shut him up in a cupboard and thrown away the key. I was asking if he had told the Rail Regulator that he

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would legislate if the regulator intervened. The correct answer was yes; the Secretary of State, to all intents and purposes, said no.

Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside): Is the hon. Lady aware that the Rail Regulator also told the Select Committee that he was amazed that Railtrack had bypassed the normal procedures, and had in fact not come to him for a settlement?

Mrs. May: The hon. Lady might also like to note that the Rail Regulator told the Select Committee that what the Secretary of State had done put under threat Virgin projects for the purchase of tilting trains for the west coast main line—a line which I know is of particular interest to the hon. Lady—and for its new country networks, and had put under threat the independence of the Bank of England as well. Perhaps the hon. Lady would like to consider that before she intervenes in future.

Hugh Bayley: I wonder if we might establish one fact at the start of the debate. Does the hon. Lady believe that Railtrack made a sufficient contribution to rail safety and improved reliability of services in return for the hundreds of millions of pounds of public subsidy and billions of pounds of access charges that it received?

Mrs. May: If the hon. Gentleman would like to examine the record of rail safety under public sector ownership and following privatisation, he will find—[Hon. Members: "Answer the question."] Just listen. He will find that, notwithstanding the tragic crashes that did occur after privatisation, at Hatfield and Paddington in particular, the safety record under privatisation actually improved.

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