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It is wrong for the House to regard a civil servant or special adviser as in some way employed by us. Indeed, the employment tribunal would be a wonderful spectacle if we were to succeed in sacking somebody. The hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale has not been here very long, so perhaps he does not know that it is Ministers who are responsible to the House. That is why my right hon. Friend also said that he felt that the Secretary of State's position had been corroded by what had happened in recent weeks. I am glad to put that on the record, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will correct his statement.
There have also been episodes in recent weeks of briefing against other public servants within the Department. However, we should be concerned not just with that Department and those individuals. Indeed, I submit that we should be grateful to Ms Jo Moore because she has exposed a degree of cynical manipulation of the media and political pressure on career civil servants. In the process there has been a deliberate attempt to avoid parliamentary accountability. That is the arrogance of office, and that is what concerns us.
In any other great national institution in this country, that individual would have resigned in such circumstances. The climate and atmosphere of irresponsibility mean that the Government have to consider changing course and making themselves truly accountable to Parliament, and through Parliament to the people.
Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside): Shortly after the last general election the public were told that the Conservative party, which had suffered yet another traumatic loss, was going to have a long, deep look at itself and consider changing its policies to make itself more electable. I can only imagine that one of those changes of policy must be a recanting of its record on producing information to the House and the public. One of the indictments of the last Conservative Government was the way in which they acted in secrecy. They attempted to hide information from the House and tried to stop and limit their accountability to the public for what they did.
It seems that in initiating a debate on public information and accountability, the Conservatives have forgotten the arms to Iraq scandal and the Scott report, when wilful action was taken to deceive the public on matters of grave
Since then, a number of things have changed. I am pleased that this Government have widened access to information for the House and the public by changing the rules on agencies. The Conservative Government's rule, under which Ministers were not accountable to Parliament for the work of agencies, has been rescinded. I remember the great concern when the Conservatives cut welfare benefits. Local authorities made representations to the Government and were told that the Minister of the day did not have to answer those queries in the House because the Benefits Agency was in charge and it did not have to report to Parliament. The Government have changed that and similar practices.
Chris Grayling: The hon. Lady will remember sitting with me in the Transport Committee when time after time we asked the Secretary of State straightforward questions and time after time he declined to answer them. Surely nothing in history, and no changes by the Government to the way in which information is disseminated by agencies, can justify a Secretary of State sitting in front of Members of Parliament and refusing to answer straightforward questions, or at best giving evasive answers to them.
Mrs. Ellman: The hon. Gentleman gives his interpretation of events in the important Transport Committee meeting. I will refer to some of those matters in relation to public information later in my comments.
One major problem that we face is the privatisation of the rail industry by the Conservatives, which other hon. Members have mentioned. When the Conservatives set upon privatisation as a matter of policy, they deliberately erected a barrier between public representatives and the provision of and accountability for public services.
Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh): The hon. Lady replied to a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) about what a Minister did or did not say in a Select Committee. On the subject of accountability to the House, will she at least give credit where it is due and accept that the Conservative party set up Select Committees in 1979 so that Ministers could be held to account on specialist parts of their brief?
Mr. Soley: It was indeed a Conservative Member, Norman St. John-Stevas, who took the initiative, but he disappeared from Government fairly quickly afterwards, largely because many Conservative Members did not like
Mrs. Ellman: I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. As I said, I believe that Select Committees are an extremely important part of our democracy, and I would like to see them strengthened and their remit widened. That is important for accountability and openness.
Mr. Redwood: The hon. Lady criticised the Conservative party for privatising the railways. Is she aware that the Government's policy is to re-privatise them by selling them back to a private sector company? Is it also her understanding that the Government want to privatise the tube, splitting track from trains, and air traffic services? Why is she so strongly against privatisation?
Mrs. Ellman: As I understand the situation, a decision about the successor to Railtrack has not been made. The matter is still being considered by the administrators and a final decision will be made by the Secretary of State. One proposal is for a company limited by guarantee, which despite being private would not issue shares or dividends to outside members, thereby preventing conflict between shareholders and the public. Such a structure could well operate in the public interest, and I have experience of such companies doing so very effectively. We do know that the privatised rail system set up by the Conservatives was inadequate; it failed to deliver, and it has cost the taxpayer a great deal of money with no great result.
Under Conservative-inspired privatisation, regulation is one of the few forms of accountability and means of providing information to the House and the public. When we considered what had happened to the utilities, particularly water, while the Conservatives were in power, we saw that the situation was unacceptable. There was increasing public uproar as the fat cats of the privatised water industry gained more and more finance while the public received an inadequate service. I am pleased to say that this Government have improved the situation, and regulation in the water industry appears to be effective, although we need constantly to monitor its progress.
I cannot say, however, that regulation of privatised rail services has been equally effective. I was extremely concerned to receive only today a letter from the Rail Regulator, Mr. Tom Winsor, informing meas he had informed the press over the weekendthat he was unable to investigate Virgin for increasing rail fares on the west coast main line. My complaints to Mr. Winsor go back 18 months and refer to an increase of 100 per cent. in rail fares from Liverpool to London as a result of Virgin arbitrarily deciding to redefine peak time. Now, people who travel from Liverpool to London have to pay at least £153; they cannot arrive before the afternoon without paying that fare, which is entirely unacceptable.
It is equally unacceptable that it has taken Mr. Winsor 18 months to decide that he is unable to conduct an investigation into Virgin's abuse of its monopoly on the west coast main line. That is indicative either of a weak