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8.12 pm

Mr. Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh, North and Leith): Like every Labour Member and, indeed, like members of other parties, I condemn Jo Moore's actions and e-mail, by which I was deeply shocked. I will go further; although she is certainly not the issue that my constituents are raising at my surgeries, I accept that there are important issues about the role of advisers and politicians, as well as their relationship with Parliament and the media, which are worthy of serious debate. However, the very fact that an error may have been made which our constituents are not raising on a daily basis emphasises that it is our role as Members of Parliament to pay attention to the health of our parliamentary system.

Although some Conservative Members, including the hon. Members for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb) and for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie), sought to make thoughtful contributions, it must be said that the Conservative motion is not worded in such a way as to contribute to a serious debate. Moreover, it cannot be said that the way in which the hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) opened on behalf of the Opposition contributed to such a serious debate. What we got instead was an attempt to whip up a simulated, media-centred frenzy and the type of yah-boo politics that the hon. Member for Chichester later deplored. Those who were angered by Jo Moore's e-mail, as I was, will be utterly disgusted and sickened by the cynical way in which, as a result of her very first words this afternoon, the hon. Member for Maidenhead tried to capitalise on the public sympathy and feelings arising from the horrible events of 11 September.

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Nevertheless, we are debating the conduct of Ministers at the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions. If we are going to discuss the conduct of Ministers and conduct worthy of condemnation, let us talk about ministerial behaviour that is truly deserving of condemnation. I am talking, of course, about the behaviour of Ministers who, from 1993 to 1997, left us with the botched privatisation with which the Labour Government have had to deal ever since. A lot could be said about that botched privatisation, but I shall refer to just two examples, which have continuing political relevance. The first is the scandal of the sell-off of the rolling stock leasing companies, in which, I remind hon. Members, the privatised companies were sold off for £1.8 billion and, a few months later, were sold on for £2.7 billion—a cool £900 million profit for doing nothing much at all.

That sell-off is one for which Opposition Members, or at least their predecessors, must take full political responsibility. It is instructive to read the conclusion of the Public Accounts Committee when it investigated the sell-off. The summary in its 65th report points out that the members of the committee asked civil servants in the relevant Department for the reason for the timing of the sale of the rolling stock leasing companies. Paragraph 23 states:

The civil servants said that that was because

In other words, because those Ministers were scared of losing the 1997 election, they pushed through a botched privatisation, which cost the taxpayer £1.5 billion to £2.4 billion. That is a genuine scandal; it affects the real world, as opposed to any scandals arising from spin which, important though they are, are issues in the beltway—a word used earlier—of our political system.

The second example concerning the privatisation of Railtrack to which I want to refer is the monumental failure of the company itself, for which Opposition Members must take direct responsibility, because the privatised Railtrack was created by the Conservative Government; it was a creation driven by political dogma. On top of the defects with which the company was saddled at the start for political reasons, it managed to add a woeful failure to manage its own business and an inability to make decisions. Those failures in turn prevented others from making decisions.

Members have spoken about major schemes that have had problems as a result of Railtrack's failures, particularly difficulties arising on the west coast main line. My experience of Railtrack is more local, but it concerns similar failures and delay. Next year, passenger trains and stations will return to a line in south-east Edinburgh from which they have been absent for decades. However, they should have been running last autumn—a year and a half before they are due to return. That delay is the result of difficulties arising from Railtrack and its decision making. In Edinburgh, we are still waiting for a decision about the future of Waverley station in the centre of our city, which is important for east coast mainline services, services from elsewhere in Scotland and the transport infrastructure of my city. Because of its location,

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the station is also important in several key decisions on planning and urban development in the city of Edinburgh. However, Railtrack's decision making seems to have dragged on and on; other schemes in Scotland have suffered similarly as, I know, is the case with schemes throughout the country. I therefore welcome the Secretary of State's proposal to replace Railtrack with a not-for-profit company. He and his predecessors have tried to work with the structure that they inherited and were right to say "No more" when asked for yet another blank cheque by Railtrack.

I want to take this opportunity to urge my right hon. Friend to move ahead as quickly as possible with the establishment of a new company, because, as he is well aware, if administration continues for more than six to nine months, difficulties for investment will begin to arise. Railtrack delayed some decisions for too long. My right hon. Friend knows that I am particularly keen that the decision on Waverley station be taken as soon as possible.

I also urge my right hon. Friend to think carefully—I am sure that he will—before adopting the vertical integration model for the railways which I know is being pressed on him by a number of train operating companies and industry experts. Such a model is almost certainly appropriate in certain circumstances, but adopting it runs the risk of replacing one type of conflict between different parts of the railway with another, especially between train operating companies that have a regional focus and those operating longer-distance services and freight companies. Indeed, I was interested to note that the Rail Freight Group today circulated a briefing to many Members making that very point.

In putting their arguments in this debate, the Conservatives have tried to take the very same advantage of the tragic events of 11 September as they have—perhaps rightly—accused Jo Moore of doing. The difference is that Jo Moore's proposals were not acted on. The Conservatives have tried to take advantage of 11 September for their own narrow political gain, and I hope that when they reflect on the matter, they will realise what a great mistake such an approach has been.

8.21 pm

Mr. Gregory Barker (Bexhill and Battle): I am grateful to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for calling me in this debate, not least so that I can add my voice to those who have condemned the disgraceful actions of the Secretary of State's special adviser, Jo Moore, in sending her now infamous e-mail on 11 September. As one of the newest Members of the House, I am particularly pleased to find myself able to concur wholeheartedly with the highly articulate sentiments of the Father of the House, the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell).

I say to Labour Members who have tried to make out that this debate is merely about a disgraced official at the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions that it is nothing of the sort. It is about ethics, trust and issues that go to the very heart of the governance of this country.

Most people to whom I have spoken in my constituency are not angry or even very surprised at Ms Moore's e-mail. They simply shake their heads in sad resignation at the fact that such appalling behaviour should go on at the very highest level of government. Ms Moore's

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extraordinarily cynical and shameful comments do not tarnish the reputation just of Ms Moore or even the Secretary of State. They undermine all of us on both sides of the House who are trying hard to win back the electorate's trust. That trust is vested not exclusively in any one party, but in all who try to serve as politicians.

Unless the Government act decisively to break with Ms Moore and all her kind, they will send the most terrible signal to the electorate that the careers of professional, political spin doctors are far more important to them than public confidence in the British political system. However, the latest actions of Ms Moore merely highlight an endemic problem that plagues this Administration: total obedience to special advisers, spin doctors and opinion pollsters.

The culture of spin in the previous Parliament seemed to know no bounds. Yet in opposition, the Labour party was critical of any increases in the number of special advisers. Back in 1995, when the then Secretary of State for Scotland, Michael Forsyth, increased the number of special advisers in the then Scottish Office from one to two, George Robertson, then a leading member of the shadow Cabinet, commented:

So, how have this Government's deeds matched their high-minded words in opposition? Have they reduced the number of special advisers whom they attacked? No, they have more than doubled the number—there is now an army of special advisers—from 38 in 1997 to 81 so far this Parliament.

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