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Talking of the City, I remind the House of another comment that the Secretary of State has made in the Chamber on two or three occasions recently. It was one of the few things that my hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) did not mention. He has repeatedly told the House that he has had discussions with people in the City and that they were all enthusiastic about putting more money into private finance initiative and public-private partnership projects.
The ISC also called on Bank of England Governor Sir Edward George to intervene in the situation to prevent lasting damage in relations between the City and the Government.
The committee states that it has written to Sir Edward 'to explain its concern over the need for a stable and productive relation between the Government and the City'".
I turn to the question that the Secretary of State did not answer. He was asked repeatedly whether he consulted the Treasury before the decision of 5 October. Indeed, he patronised my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) by telling him that he did not understand what he was asking because he had never been in government. Well, I have. I believe the Secretary of State when he says that he signed the documents on 5 October. I do not believe the Secretary of State when he says that the decision was made on 5 October. I shall tell the House what the Minister for Transport knows to be true, although he will not say it at the Dispatch Box. Because transport is one of the big spending programmes, the relationship between transport, the Treasury and No. 10 is extremely close.
My private office talked to the private office of the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the private office of the Prime Minister regularly. My senior officials talked to senior officials in the Treasury and in No. 10 regularly. The idea that I as Secretary of State would have made such a decision without its having been talked about and cleared by the Chancellor and the Prime Minister is bunkumplain, ordinary, common or garden, copper- bottomed bunkum. That is why the Secretary of State would not answer the question this afternoon, though it was put to him repeatedly. The truth is that he signed the paper on 5 October, but the decision was made primarily by the Chancellor and the Prime Minister some time in advance. They said to the Secretary of State, "Go out and handle it."
My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe was not always the easiest Chancellor for a Secretary of State for Transport to relate to, but my guess is that he was a jolly sight easier to relate to than the present Chancellor. If he would not have allowed me to make that decision, I do not think that the present Chancellor and the present Prime Minister would have allowed the Secretary of State to float off freely and on his own behalf, without reference to anyone, to make a decision and to announce it to the world. If the House thinks that that is what happened, it is more gullible than I know it to be. All that sums up the indictment of this debate, from which the Secretary of State has fled.
I accept that the Secretary of State is unlikely to take advice from me, but I would like to offer him three pieces of advice in a spirit of co-operation. First, he should get back to the positive and constructive things that he said about the railways when he first took office, before he understood the massive damage that his predecessor the Deputy Prime Minister had done to the rail network.
Secondly, the Secretary of State should work extremely hard to extricate the railways from the political football stadium in which he has placed them, which was demonstrated yet again by his speech today. Some of us who are keen to see an effective railway system might be more willing to respond positively to trying to help establish the railway system if it were done in a much less partisan and politically driven way.
Thirdly, the Secretary of State is in the Cabinet. He is a grown-up in political terms. As a grown-up in political terms, he should understand that what counts is not the volume of applause behind him or the vitriol of those in front of him. He will be measured by his effect on the railways. He has damaged them almost beyond repair. It is now time that he tried to redeem some of that damage.
Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield): As one who experiences the joys of the west coast main line most weeks, the issue of how to get our railway system up to scratch is of some importance to me. As one who represents a midlands constituency, I know that the future of our railway system is a far more important matter than whether my train gets to London on time. Establishing a rational structure in our rail industry is critical to the economic health of the region that I represent. As my hon. Friends the Members for Weaver Vale (Mr. Hall) and for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman) said, a rational structure is also vital to the north-west.
The issues and decisions that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has faced in the past few months are enormously important, and I believe that the public expect them to be treated as such by politicians of all colours. The public expect us to get our priorities right. Although I did not agree with many of the comments of the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke), I think that he was at least attempting, certainly in parts of his speech, to address some of the real issues facing the rail industry.
If the public saw how Opposition Front Benchers have approached this debate, I would be surprised if they thought that the Opposition were getting their priorities right. The public know that, when Conservative Members privatised the railways, the theory was that the rigours of the market mechanism, with its winners and losers, would lead to service improvements. Many hon. Members were not convinced by that theory, and polls at the time suggested that the public were not convinced. However, the subsequent management failures and incompetence have exceeded the expectations of even the most cynical of us.
If the public were not convinced when the railways were privatised, they will be even less convinced that Conservative Members have their priorities right now or that they have the interests of the travelling public at heart. Conservative Members seem to be concerned most about the losses sustained by shareholders because of the operation of the very market mechanism that they introduced. Although no one wants shareholders to lose money, Conservative Members need to say clearly, as I
If Conservative Members are arguing that they would not have got into this situation, they have to say whether they would have written a blank cheque to Railtrack. If they would not have done so, what would have been the upper limit to their support?
Getting our railway system up to scratch will cost money, and it will be expensive regardless of which party is in government. We have to face that fact. The key point is that we have to be confident that the structure by which investment is delivered has the interests of the travelling public, our industry and our economy as its first priority and not somewhere down the list.
Conservative Members initiated this debate not to discuss priorities or the railways, but to try to get at the Secretary of State. Last week, the shadow Secretary of State saidit has been repeated by the Leader of the Opposition and, today, by the right hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Sir B. Mawhinney)that the Secretary of State has "form". In alleging that, they have attempted to draw parallels between the way in which he has handled Railtrack and his handling of the Rover crisis last year, when he was at the Department of Trade and Industry. As I was pretty close to last year's events, if there are parallels to be drawn, I should like to share a few of my own recollections that are relevant to today's debate.
I recall that within 24 hours of BMW making that appalling announcement, the Secretary of State was in the region talking to BMW and the unions, and getting involved right from the word go. I recall that when most industry experts and Opposition Front Benchers were saying that Rover was finished and thousands of job losses were inevitable, he was one of the few people saying that we should try to find another way. I recall that when he acted in that manner he was attacked for interfering and meddling, much as Opposition Front Benchers have been trying to attack him today on Railtrack. However, were it not for his interference and that of a few other people, 20,000 jobs would not have been saved and MG Rover would not be the successful company that it is today. If parallels are to be drawn, my right hon. Friend's "form" bodes rather well for his handling of Railtrack.
My right hon. Friend is, of course, not the only one with form, and there are other parallels to be drawn between last year's events at Rover and this year's events at Railtrack. One is very clear. Last year, when thousands of jobs were at stake at Rover, the Opposition's priority was not to work out how to defend the jobs or to get the company back on its feet, but to engage in endless public tittle-tattle about who said what to whom and when they said it. Scoring party political points, both then and today, was and is not a means to the end of illustrating a serious political alternative; they have been seen by Conservative Members as an end in themselves. Scoring party political points is the precise purpose of today's Opposition day debate.
Despite Conservative Members' crocodile tears and everything that they say about investor confidence, I think that no one would be more pleased than them if their words and this debate further damaged investor confidence. Their objective is to score points, not to deal with the matter.
There are huge issues facing our railway service, including how to provide it with the necessary investment. There are huge issues about finding the right structure to deliver the interests of the travelling public and ensure that Great Britain has a railway service of which it can be proud. If we are to have a debate on those issues, we need a different approach from the Opposition. They had no credibility last year when they tried to discuss the car industry, and they have no credibility this year as they try to talk about Railtrack.