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Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley) (Lab): Will the hon. Gentleman and the Conservative party accept some responsibility for the creation of Railtrack and thus the deaths of a number of people due to lack of maintenance by that organisation?

Mr. Duncan: That is not a debate for the Chamber today. We are discussing the conduct of the Government, not the merits of Railtrack.

The House, by election and majority control, lends authority—

Mr. John Spellar (Warley) (Lab): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Duncan: Yes. Here is one of the culpable ones.

Mr. Spellar: I can understand why the hon. Gentleman does not want to consider the conduct of Railtrack, which, as the judge rightly said, was lamentable, and was not only failing on the ground of safety but sending the business towards bankruptcy. Why does he not want to defend his Government's creation?

Mr. Duncan: I am defending the motion, which outlines a charge against the right hon. Gentleman and others of what I believe to be grave misconduct in the Government. By the end of the debate, he will have no excuse to rise to his feet again.

We have, over centuries, established proper and abiding procedures for scrutinising the conduct of the Executive. Parliament and its many Governments have earned an enviable reputation in the world for honesty and incorruptibility in our dealings. That is why we have a ministerial code, which makes it clear that announcements should be made in the House. Policy should be clear and openly expressed; that is why we have Green and White Papers. Significant changes in policy and significant decisions should be explained to the House.

Let me trespass for a moment on the comments of the hon. Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer). It is as far as I will go today, but let me at least show her that courtesy. The debate about private versus public ownership has been at the heart of political difference for decades, if not centuries. In some respects, it defines the difference between left and right. However, today's debate is not the place for that argument. Our motion is only about the process of government and the conduct of Ministers and officials when the Government took back ownership of Railtrack.

We have, to some extent, been here before. My right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) led a debate on the matter on 13 Nov 2001. In many respects, she made a remarkable speech because within
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weeks of Railtrack's demise, thanks to the thoroughness of her research, she asked some extremely prescient questions. Five years later, we can see that she homed in on exactly the right details and that she received in response evasive, mealy-mouthed and inaccurate answers.

Now, we know much more than we did then. During the High Court case this summer, a mountain of incriminating evidence was presented to the court and a stream of letters and meeting notes have been additionally released to me and to others. All that evidence shows a catalogue of impropriety—a deceitful plan to manoeuvre to present Railtrack as insolvent, and so force a railway administration order on the company as a means of getting it back for free.

The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Alistair Darling): The hon. Gentleman said at the outset that he wished largely to ignore the judgment and I can see why. It would be highly inconvenient for him if he did take it into account. Does he accept that all this evidence and all these documents were laid before the court, that the court was invited to find that the Government, Ministers and others had acted improperly, and that the judge found the complete opposite?—[Interruption.] No wonder the hon. Gentleman is seeking advice. The whole basis on which he is constructing his case seems to be falling apart before he gets going.

Mr. Duncan: The Secretary of State could not be more wrong and he knows it. The evidence before the court was to prove one particular aspect of the alleged misbehaviour of one person, the right hon. Member for North Tyneside. It was nothing to do with the conduct of the Government more generally. The judge specifically said in his judgment that it is for Parliament to adjudicate on the conduct of the Government. That is what we are doing today.

Mr. Darling: I am sorry, but the hon. Gentleman has either not read the judgment or has drawn the wrong inference from it. The judge, in respect of the evidence given in court by my right hon. Friend the Member for North Tyneside (Mr. Byers), said that that was a matter for the House of Commons. However, in his judgment he examined every piece of evidence put before the court, which of necessity meant examining the background against which Ministers acted, and he found at no stage that anyone in the Government had acted improperly. Surely the hon. Gentleman must accept that, unless he is saying that he does not accept the judgment.

Mr. Duncan: That was a nice try, but again it is completely wrong. As the Secretary of State well knows, the judge was only looking at the specific allegation put to the court about the conduct of the right hon. Member for North Tyneside when he was Secretary of State, which may explain why the Government's own QC accepted as evidence everything offered by the rail regulator in court, which I believe I will prove is damning for the Government.

It is clear that one thing that the Secretary of State and his predecessors ruled out was formal renationalisation. They believed it to be too expensive. They were not prepared to renationalise the company because they
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wanted it for free. It is as though they have got rid of their clause IV, but secretly replaced it with clause V. No more overt nationalisation of industry—replace it with the covert nationalisation of industry. No more budgets for nationalising a company—use clause V and simply pinch it.

However, the right hon. Member for North Tyneside was merely the front man for that; the real puppet master was in the Treasury. Crucial to the Chancellor's involvement was the aggressive and insensitive figure of Shriti Vadera, dubbed by Martin Sixsmith "Gordon's representative on earth." It was she who codenamed the plot Operation Ariel. It was she who first asked, and I quote from an e-mail of 31 July:

That was not something that the judge had to study and to judge upon. It is only now clear what a central role the Chancellor played in the whole plot.

The right hon. Member for North Tyneside told the High Court about a special list that had been nicknamed the 10 commandments—10 conditions that needed to be satisfied before the plan to crush Railtrack was hatched. Can we guess who the 10 commandments came from? Yes, they came from the Chancellor—and it gets better. I have obtained from the Permanent Secretary at the Department for Transport minutes of a very interesting meeting in September 2001, where further details of the plot were discussed behind Parliament's back. Let me quote a small part of the official record of the meeting. It states: "The Secretary of State"—to us, the right hon. Member for North Tyneside—

That shows that the Chancellor was in this up to his neck.

Abundant evidence was produced in the court case showing that from the very beginning of 2001—six months before the right hon. Member for North Tyneside became Secretary of State—the Government planned to seize Railtrack's assets and use railway administration as the means to that end. The papers show that right up to the day before they went to court—7 October 2001—the Government were seriously worried about not having adequate evidence of Railtrack's insolvency. Again, I could give the House scores of examples in which it is abundantly clear that that was so, but I shall offer only a few.

On 3 August, the right hon. Gentleman wrote a memo to the Prime Minister in which he deals with options for dealing with Railtrack. He talks of the not-for-profit trust, which became the company limited by guarantee option, which was soon after adopted, saying:

The House knows that to be lawful a Minister may use statutory powers, such as the power to apply for an administration order, only for the purpose for which they were conferred. The administration power of the Secretary of State was given to him by Parliament to enable him to react to the insolvency of a railway company. In the present case, the evidence is
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overwhelming that the right hon. Gentleman used— I would say misused—his powers to try to create that insolvency.

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