Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich): My right hon. Friend will be aware that the British civil service not only performs important tasks, but, in his Department, provides skilled and intelligent back-up for transport policies that are desperately needed in a country where the railway system is breaking down and there are considerable problems with roads and aviation. Will he bear in mind that those civil servants are worthy of much better appreciation? Will he make it clear that the politicisation of the civil service relationship—begun under a previous Conservative Prime Minister—will not be tolerated by those who want the transport system of this country to be rejuvenated under the aegis of those who are prepared to take difficult decisions?

Mr. Byers: I have never taken the view that one should judge a civil servant on whether or not they were one of us, and I know that certain Opposition Members would not disagree with that approach. My hon. Friend makes an important point. As Chairman of the Transport Committee, she deals with many officials in my Department and she will know that they are dedicated and hard-working. They want to work with me in meeting the challenges posed by the railways, roads, buses, underground and aviation. Big challenges lie ahead, and I am confident that we will be able to meet them together as a Department. I honestly believe that the resignations of Jo Moore and Martin Sixsmith mean that we are in a stronger position to meet those challenges.

There is no doubt in my mind that the impartiality of the civil service is one of its greatest strengths. I have done nothing as Secretary of State that would in any way compromise that impartiality, and that is how I intend to continue.

Sir Brian Mawhinney (North-West Cambridgeshire): Given that this morning the Prime Minister's official spokesman repeatedly refused to answer the simple, direct question whether the Prime Minister believes that the Secretary of State has told the truth, on what basis should the House form a judgment about the latter's statement? Clearly, the Prime Minister no longer believes him.

Mr. Byers: The Prime Minister will make his position clear. Had the Prime Minister's official spokesman in the Lobby briefing this morning gone through the statement that I intended to make to the House, the right hon. Gentleman would have been the first to criticise that. The House has had an opportunity to hear at first hand from me about the circumstances of Martin Sixsmith's resignation. I have declined invitations to go on numerous television and radio programmes to provide the House with this opportunity, and I have been open and honest, knowing the consequences that would follow were I to mislead the House in any way. My statement, confirming the points made yesterday by Sir Richard Mottram, set out the facts of the events that occurred in my Department over the past two weeks.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow): What were the circumstances in which so equable a civil servant as

26 Feb 2002 : Column 570

Sir Richard Mottram, whom some of us have known for 20 years, since the time when he was Michael Heseltine's private secretary and gave evidence at the Old Bailey in the trial of Clive Ponting, was prompted to say that the Department was—let me use the word "stymied"?

Mr. Byers: I have heard it expressed in many ways, but "stymied" is not one of them. My hon. Friend's question had a serious point, however. The permanent secretary felt deeply frustrated at the way in which communications in our press office had broken down and there was a lack of confidence and trust. Sir Richard Mottram has indeed had a long and distinguished career in the civil service, and he shared my frustration at what had been going on and expressed himself accordingly. In his statement yesterday, he made it absolutely clear what had happened. I invite all right hon. and hon. Members to study carefully the statement that he made yesterday, as well as the statement that I made this afternoon, because they represent an accurate recollection of events as they took place.

Mr. Richard Shepherd (Aldridge-Brownhills): Whatever the Secretary of State may gloss over, does not he realise quite how demeaning this is for himself, Sir Richard Mottram and the standing of Government? He is evasive on key points. He says that he does not involve himself in personnel matters, but does not recommend that a particular person should find a position in another Department. This is a demeaning process. The House is concerned about the standard of public administration, and this looks like a considerable failure on the part of the Secretary of State and his Department. This is shaming.

Mr. Byers: When the hon. Gentleman has had an opportunity to look at the sequence of events that occurred in the week in question, I hope that he will be able to see exactly what Martin Sixsmith was involved in and will draw his own conclusions. It was in the light of that that I expressed the view that he was not a suitable person to remain in the senior civil service. That is the situation, and when hon. Members consider the points that I have made, I think that they will be able to recognise that.

The hon. Gentleman is right to point out that these are serious issues in terms of ensuring that the civil service is impartial and can get on with its job. I believe that what we have done will ensure that that impartiality remains.

Mr. Brian H. Donohoe (Cunninghame, South): I assure my right hon. Friend that not many people on the streets of Cunninghame, South are worried about the future of Mr. Sixsmith. They are worried about the state of the roads and the railways. I have been a member of the Transport Committee for many years, and have heard many Secretaries of State give evidence. I assure my right hon. Friend that he is among the best that I have encountered. Perhaps the main reason why he is taking such flak today is that Conservative Members, who were responsible for the privatisation of the railways, now condemn him for taking Railtrack into administration. That is the real reason why they are baying for my right hon. Friend's blood today.

Mr. Byers: Some tough decisions have been taken. Many have been opposed by Opposition Members, which is always an indication that we are moving in the right

26 Feb 2002 : Column 571

direction. More difficult decisions will be taken in the months and years ahead. I look forward to appearing before my hon. Friend the Member for Cunninghame, South (Mr. Donohoe) and the Transport Committee for many years to come.

Sir Teddy Taylor (Rochford and Southend, East): Will the Secretary of State clarify the situation, as no one ever believes anyone about anything nowadays? The right hon. Gentleman has said that Mr. Sixsmith has resigned, but that gentleman says that he has not and that he was told that he had done nothing wrong. In those circumstances, does Mr. Sixsmith have the right to go for an impartial hearing on unfair dismissal? I hope that the Secretary of State will answer that clear and specific question.

Mr. Byers: The resignation was agreed with Martin Sixsmith and the permanent secretary. It is still the case that the precise terms of his departure are being negotiated and discussed by Martin Sixsmith and the permanent secretary. Mr. Sixsmith's resignation has been accepted, and the terms under which he is to depart are being negotiated.

Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton): Will my right hon. Friend explain how the situation that he has set out to the House this afternoon compares with the occasion when Colette Bowe, a press officer in the Department of Trade and Industry, was ordered by Bernard Ingham to leak a letter from the Solicitor-General against Michael Heseltine? At the time, John Biffen described Bernard Ingham as the sewer, not the sewage. Will my right hon. Friend explain how that action might have compromised the impartiality of the civil service, to use the words of the hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May)? Will my right hon. Friend accept it as a compliment that the BBC—which spent the whole of last Monday ringing Labour MPs to get one to criticise the Government on air—and the Tory press are using this matter as a distraction—

Hon. Members: Give way.

Mr. Speaker: Order. The House must let the right hon. Gentleman put his question.

Mr. Kaufman: They are using this matter as a distraction from the fact that the Government have a lead of 17 per cent., according to the latest ICM poll. The Opposition's present performance will only serve to increase that lead. Is my right hon. Friend aware that, in the Gorton division—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. I think that the Secretary of State can answer.

Mr. Byers: Once again, my right hon. Friend has done the House a service by reminding us of the events of 1985 and the role played by Bernard Ingham. I am conscious of the great support that I have had from my right hon. and hon. Friends. This is not an argument about one civil servant, but a real conflict about the direction in which the Government are going. The Conservatives simply cannot understand that the Government have a commanding lead

26 Feb 2002 : Column 572

in the opinion polls because we are putting the priorities of the people first. We will continue to do that and will not be distracted by events such as this.

Next Section

IndexHome Page