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4.37 pm

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall): 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:

that is, me—

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:

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.

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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 the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) did not do it justice. [Interruption.] It is true that he suggested trench warfare—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. We must not have such a level of conversation in the Chamber when an hon. Member is addressing it.

Mr. Tyler: 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:

there are very few of them here this afternoon, even though this is their debate—

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.

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It appears impossible to discover, for example, information about the role, responsibilities and redeployment of Mr. Alun Evans. Questions tabled by several Members—the hon. Member for Thurrock (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.

Mr. Redwood: 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?

Mr. Tyler: 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—

Mr. Redwood rose

Mr. Tyler: 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

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Government's incompetence, not only in the way that they privatised the industry but in enacting unworkable legislation.

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