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Mr. Heald: Will the Secretary of State give way?

Mr. Byers: No, I want to make an important point. An e-mail was sent to two individuals—Alun Evans and Robin Mortimer—and copied to another special adviser. The advice was not acted on; the press notice went out, as planned from the week before, on 12 September. It really is as simple as that.

Mr. Heald: Will the Secretary of State give way?

Mr. Byers: No. That is the position in relation to councillors' allowances. The other information that the hon. Member for Maidenhead alleged was rushed out as a result of the events of 11 September was planning guidance in relation to the south-west. That is the other substantive allegation that was made. It was alleged that we rushed out information on councillors' allowances: not true. The second allegation was that we rushed out information on planning.

The situation in relation to planning guidance in the south-west is as follows: I agreed the final text at the beginning of August, and agreed at that time a planned publication date of 5 September. The delay between the beginning of August and 5 September was to allow the document to be published. As a result of production delays in the Stationery Office, it became clear that printed copies would not be ready in time. As a consequence, it was agreed before the end of August to delay publication by a week, until 12 September. Copies were finally received in the Government office of the south-west on 10 September. They were posted to all who had taken part in the public examination on the morning of 11 September, in advance of the formal publication the next day. I have to say that the idea that a document of such size could suddenly be brought together overnight, to be put out on 12 September, really beggars belief. That is the reality of the situation.

Mr. Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Byers: No, I want to make this point. The two central allegations of information being rushed out on

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councillors' allowances and on south-west planning simply do not stand up when we look at the facts. That is the reality of the situation.

Mr. Duncan: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Byers: Is the hon. Gentleman's question on south-west planning?

Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington): Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Byers: Yes, of course.

Ms Abbott: The minutiae of the Conservatives' motion are a matter for them. The Secretary of State will be aware that the question in the public's mind is whether, for this Government, questions of news management take precedence over every other issue. We are all aware that the Tories, in their time, were as ruthless at news management as anyone. However, is the Secretary of State also aware that it is not enough to say to the country that the Tories were just as bad? People in 1997 voted for something different and better.

Mr. Byers: I accept the thrust of the argument that it is important to ensure that we can properly debate such matters and that people have confidence in the information provided. In addressing the two central allegations on councillors' allowances and planning for the south-west made by the hon. Member for Maidenhead, I have sought simply to go through the facts, so that people are aware of them, and the facts are very clear and precise. There was no news management. Those announcements went ahead as planned on 12 September. That is the truth of the situation. No innuendo; no accusations—that is the reality.

Mr. Alan Duncan rose

Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire) rose

Mr. Byers: I give way to the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice).

Mr. Paice: I am grateful to the Secretary of State for giving way, but he is being very selective about which allegations he wishes to rebut—[Interruption.] He has listed only two. I draw his attention to the announcement about the receivership of Railtrack. Does he think that many people in this country will believe that it was a coincidence that that announcement was made during a weekend, just a few hours before the military action in Afghanistan began?

Mr. Byers: I have to respond to five or six allegations, and I have only got to No. 2, but as Railtrack has been mentioned specifically, I shall address the issue. There were two aspects, but the precise point that the hon. Gentleman raises was not mentioned by the hon. Member for Maidenhead. She referred to Alan Bloom and a conversation that allegedly took place on 11 September, and I shall come to that in a minute.

On the timing of the Railtrack announcement, it beggars belief that someone would have timed those events to coincide with the outbreak of hostilities in

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Afghanistan. When I met John Robinson on the evening of Friday 5 October, I had no idea that hostilities would begin on the Sunday; I am not even sure that that had been agreed at that time. But once that meeting had taken place, we were on course to apply for administration by petition to the High Court on Sunday 7 October. That was the sequence of events; it had nothing whatever to do with the outbreak of hostilities in Afghanistan. When the hon. Gentleman has time to reflect on that, he will realise that that simply must be the case.

Mr. Alan Duncan rose

Mr. Byers: I want to answer the point on Alan Bloom, and I shall then come to the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan).

Kevin Brennan (Cardiff, West): Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Byers: I want to answer this point first. The hon. Member for Maidenhead refers to the front page of The Independent on Sunday, which said that Alan Bloom, who is the Ernst and Young administrator with responsibility for the administration of Railtrack, spoke to me on the afternoon of 11 September. There is no truth in that; Mr. Bloom has said very clearly on the record that no such conversation took place on 11 September, and I hope that the hon. Lady will accept that. Perhaps she should not believe everything that she reads in newspapers. That article was wrong and inaccurate, but I am afraid that it is an example of what we see reported in the press. When there is a smell of a good story, we often do not see the facts reflected in some of the information that is printed.

I come now to the allegations about Alun Evans, who was director of communications in my Department. The hon. Lady says that there was a disagreement about the provision of information in relation to the London underground and that, as a result, he was moved to another post five days later. Alun Evans took up his new post on 1 October, and I understand that the disagreement that people are referring to took place in the middle of July. My mathematics is not too good, but I know that there are more than five days between the middle of July and 1 October, so there is no substance to that allegation. The important point is that—

Mr. Blunt: Will the Secretary of State give way?

Mr. Byers: I shall explain the circumstances, and then I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman. When Alun Evans first took up his appointment, it was envisaged that he would return to policy work at some future date in the civil service, which is where his expertise lies. That has now been done. He has taken up an important post working with Dr. Iain Anderson on his inquiry into the handling of the foot and mouth outbreak. I understand that Mr. Evans discussed his next posting with the permanent secretary in the normal way and that he welcomed the opportunity to work with Dr. Anderson on such an important issue. That is the position with regard to Alun Evans. He was not forced out of his post; he is developing his career in the civil service.

Mr. Blunt: Will the Secretary of State give the House an undertaking that Alun Evans' replacement as director

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of communications for the Department will not be, as has been the case with many other appointments under this Government, someone like the ex-Daily Mirror journalist who is head of the news department at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, but someone drawn from the Government Information and Communications Service?

Mr. Byers: The appointment of a director of communications is not made by the Secretary of State. It would be improper for me to try to influence that decision. The hon. Gentleman is showing his ignorance of how the civil service works. The appointment is made by an independent body and, as Opposition Members who have been in government will know, not by the Secretary of State. That is the truth of the matter—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. Let the Secretary of State speak. I cannot hear him at times because of the noise.

Mr. Byers: I must give way to the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan) who has been up and down like a jack-in-the-box.

Mr. Alan Duncan: What explanation did Ms Moore give the Secretary of State for singling out the issue of councillors' expenses in her memo as bad news to be buried when, according to him, the process for announcing it the next day anyway was already in train?

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