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6.40 pm

Mr. Nick Gibb (Bognor Regis and Littlehampton): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for North Warwickshire (Mr. O'Brien). I share his views on the dangers of identity cards, but I am disappointed by his failure to understand the danger to democracy posed by issues such as Jo Moore. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell). It was refreshing to hear such an honest, sincere and non-partisan speech in the House. It is an important moment when the Father of the House questions the survival in post of a Secretary of State from his own party.

This is an important debate—it not only highlights the appalling behaviour of Ministers and their advisers in one Department, but demonstrates yet again that we have a much wider problem with politics today. For a Minister's special adviser to say to a reporter from The Sunday Times that if he were to write that Railtrack was bankrupt and about to be taken over by the Government he would be viewed by the public as—I almost quote—a certain type of idiot is, not to put too fine a point on it, a blatant lie. He would not have been seen as an idiot, he would have been seen as prescient and well informed. Jo Moore was trying to deceive. From their unwillingness to do anything about it, it is clear that she was doing so with Ministers' backing.

Mr. Spellar: If the hon. Gentleman looks beyond the first paragraph of the article in The Sunday Times, he will

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see that the reporter asked not only whether it was true that the Government were not going to bail out Railtrack, but whether they intended to renationalise it. That was the question posed. As the Government had no intention of renationalising it, clearly to have said that they did would have been making a mistake. The hon. Gentleman should look at the real question that was posed.

Mr. Gibb: I have looked at it. The full question was whether Railtrack was bankrupt, whether the Government were going to take it over and whether it was to be renationalised. Jo Moore also denied the two other points, about Railtrack going bankrupt and the Government taking control of it. She denied those suggestions point blank.

Sneaking out bad news stories while the country—let alone the media—was focused on the terrorist atrocity in the United States was another outrageous attempt to deceive, this time by concealment. Such an approach is all about protecting the image of a political party and has absolutely nothing to do with good government. It is about keeping one party in power. It is as though the whole purpose of politics was to keep a certain group of individuals in control of the levers of power, in their salaried ministerial positions.

Those two incidents reveal clearly, for all to see, the state of politics in this country today. It is no wonder that the popular perception of politicians is that they are all the same and all in it for themselves. The previous Speaker, Lady Boothroyd, said in her valedictory speech:

I am afraid that there seems to have been very little reflection of those concerns in the House until this afternoon. If I were to say that politics should not be about personal ambition, that politicians—including Ministers—should be honest in their pronouncements and motivated by conviction and a determination to do good, I am sure that many would regard such a statement as naive. Some hon. Members follow such an approach to politics, but many do not and the public believe that none of us does.

One thing is clear—Ministers in the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions are certainly not seen by the public to be conducting themselves on that basis, yet that should be what motivates us all. There is a hunger among the public for a new and honest approach to politics, and if we are to restore people's faith in our democratic process we need to adopt it.

There are thousands of examples of the deeply cynical approach to politics practised by all the political parties. Jo Moore provides an example of the worst excesses. The Prime Minister led us to believe in 1997 that he had no plans to raise taxes, but over the past four years taxes have risen by 4.8 per cent. a year. The Conservative party was elected in 1992 on a clear platform to cut tax year on year, yet over the following five years taxes went up by the equivalent of 7p in the pound.

The Prime Minister said before the 1997 election that he loved the pound. Straight after it, he announced plans to join the euro, in principle, when the economic

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circumstances made it beneficial. It is no wonder that people are so deeply cynical about politicians and the political process.

The classic example of deeply cynical politics was the handling of the National Air Traffic Services issue by the then DETR. In opposition, the Labour party was totally opposed to privatising the air traffic control service. The current Chief Secretary to the Treasury, the right hon. Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith), famously said,

but in government Labour went ahead with a public- private partnership, the next best thing to privatisation.

As the PPP was the next best thing to privatisation, one would have expected the Conservative Opposition to support it, but the prospect of a potential defeat of the Government by joining the hard left of the Labour party in the Lobby was too great a temptation for us to resist. It was not our finest hour of principled politics.

There is no doubt in my mind that politics has become far too tribal: Tory good, Labour bad, or vice versa. The yah-boo of Prime Minister's Question Time infuriates the public, who find the whole process a bizarre way of conducting business.

Political parties are a useful shorthand, bringing together people of broadly similar views and outlook, but it has now gone beyond that—the tribalism of contemporary politics, the desire to control everything, seems to require us as Members of Parliament to behave in a way that hon. Members in the past would not have countenanced.

In discussing any issue—health, education, transport—I am expected to cite statistics that have March or June 1997 as the point of comparison. Government Members are expected to denounce the whole 18 years of Governments up to 1997, but how can the Prime Minister and his colleagues denounce the whole of that period, when he and the whole new Labour project are about how Labour got it wrong in the 1980s and have adopted huge swathes of our policies from the 1980s and 1990s, including a wholesale acceptance of monetarism, which was the very hallmark of those 18 years of Conservative Government?

When we are debating the important issues of the future of our railway system and roads network, the public expect a debate on the issues themselves, such as whether the railways should be run by the private sector or by the state. If they should be run by the private sector, should the tracks be owned and operated by the same company? What type of regulator should we have? Simply to attack Conservative Members for mishandling the railways until 1997, as some hon. Members have done today, or to attack Labour Members for mishandling the railways since 1997, as some Opposition Members might do, is tedious and irrelevant.

Moreover, the Government's whole approach to the problems faced by Railtrack reveals a deeply cynical mindset. When the Secretary of State reached the conclusion that Railtrack needed to be restructured, he should have come to the House and explained that Railtrack needed a new structure, how that structure should be created, and how shareholders would be compensated. However, rather than facing up to the

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restructuring of the whole industry after careful thought, he has simply pulled the plug on shareholders and Railtrack, thereby precipitating a crisis. He has redesigned the whole industry on the back of an envelope and in a hurry. That is no way to run a railroad, and it is a deeply cynical ploy by the Government to acquire shareholder assets on the cheap.

The conduct of Transport Ministers on the disgraceful e-mail and the misinformation on Railtrack have starkly highlighted how very much we all need to change the way in which we do things. We have to be scrupulously honest in our use of statistics; we must use facts and figures with integrity. We should not pick a date to demonstrate a point when a date two months earlier would demonstrate the opposite of that point. How often have all hon. Members used that trick? It is wrong and it lacks integrity.

In the past few years, the Red Book, for example, has become an instrument of Government propaganda rather than an objective collection of economic facts and figures. Recategorising expenditure on family credit benefit as a reduction in tax revenues simply because it will be paid through the payroll is simply dishonest. It is simply dishonest also to include, in a table summarising the Budget's tax measures, public expenditure on the provision of the winter fuel allowance, which costs £640 million, as a tax cut.

The media can also take their share the blame. They report only the sensational, personality politics, splits and big events. Debates in the House on proposed legislation that affects thousands of people rarely get a mention even in the broadsheets. Such legislation is dull but important, whereas the press want excitement even if it is unimportant.

For anyone with a really serious interest in politics, it is almost impossible to discover from the media what is going on in the House of Commons. It is no wonder that people do not take politics seriously. Moreover, as a consequence, hon. Members tend not to take politics and Parliament seriously. We tend to measure our own and one another's achievements in newspaper column inches and air time, not in the quality of the argument that has been made. There is a tendency to use exaggerated language to attract media attention, all of which is off-putting to the public.

There is an enormous amount at stake. Turnout in elections is at an all-time low, with only 59 per cent. of the electorate voting in the most recent general election. More alarmingly, only 39 per cent. of 18 to 24-year-olds turned out in that election. There is among the public a pressure for decision making to be taken out of the hands of elected politicians and put into the hands of unelected officials. Interest rates set by the Monetary Policy Committee and the Bank of England, more discretion for judges, numerous new and increasingly powerful commissions, and the increasing prominence of experts: down that road lies the decline of democratic government.

Experts are not the answer. They do not always get it right. Sometimes they cannot tell the difference between a cow's brain and a sheep's brain. Experts do not always take into account the wider philosophical issues, and they rarely take into account how decisions in one sphere can affect activities in another. Experts should give advice, but decisions should be taken by Ministers who are accountable to Parliament at the Dispatch Box and scrutinised by powerful Select Committees. Increasingly,

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because of the way in which politics is conducted, public opinion wants the opposite—for experts and non-elected people to take those important decisions.

We need an end to the ranting at Prime Minister's questions. The Prime Minister's exaggerated attacks on Conservative Members and Conservative Members' attacks on Labour should be replaced by a calm and forensic questioning of policy. We saw the beginning of such an approach in questions during the current war, and I hope that that approach will continue when the hostilities have ended. The division of opinion between the two parties today is too narrow to warrant that type of exaggerated language.

When the Government have it right, the Opposition have to acknowledge it. The Opposition have also to explain why the Government have it right and actually vote for the relevant measures in the Lobby. Conservative Members should also oppose the Government when they have it wrong, even if doing so will make them unpopular.

A concept of new politics is developing. It is refreshing, and those who practice it will have the support of the public. Those who continue the old approach will expose themselves as out of touch. In the most recent recall of Parliament, my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack) praised the Prime Minister's conduct in the war against terrorism. However, his comments were greeted with murmurs of derision from some Labour Members who failed to comprehend that a Conservative Member could voice support for a Labour Prime Minister. Their response marked them out as people who simply do not understand what the public want from their Members of Parliament. It marked them out as practitioners of old politics and as people who put their party before their country.

Politics is about doing good. If we want to restore people's faith in politics, in politicians and in democracy, we all need to change the way in which we do our business.

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