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8.44 pm

Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire): I am very grateful to be called, Madam Deputy Speaker. I want to associate myself with the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb). He has thrown down a challenge to all Members to approach politics with a real sense of integrity and honesty. I was moved by his speech, and I hope that other Members will reflect on what he said.

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I am grateful for the opportunity to look at the work of this important Department and its Ministers and advisers. That work needs to be clear, open, accessible and concentrated on the areas of greatest need. I want to raise four issues of substance affecting my constituency on which the Department's work, sadly, does not meet those criteria.

The first issue is the Government's proposed 33 per cent. cut in the civil defence grant. I understand that there is a legal challenge to that measure by the Merseyside fire and civil defence authority. If the cut is made, my county will lose one emergency planning officer and one emergency planning assistant. Their services will be denied not only to the county council but to Bedfordshire's three district and borough councils. It is the opinion of senior figures in the county council that its operational response to any emergency will be compromised if the cut is made. In an incident, it is normal to have three eight-hour emergency shifts, and if the cut is made, only two of those shifts will have specialist emergency planning input. At this time of heightened tension, it is highly irresponsible of the Department to press ahead with that proposal.

The second issue is DTLR Ministers' unwillingness to leave their Whitehall bunkers and go out and see some of the problems that the Department is supposed to be addressing. I asked in a written question for a Minister to come to the Dunstable and Houghton Regis conurbation, which has a population of 50,000, to see the appalling traffic congestion that my constituents face daily. The reply was that no Minister was prepared to come to my constituency, and the buck had been passed to a multi-modal study. I echo my distinguished predecessor, Sir David Madel, who called throughout the previous Parliament for a Minister to come and see the unbelievable traffic congestion against which my constituents battle. That area has lost 1,500 jobs in the past year—as many as went at Vauxhall, where special assistance was given. In Dunstable, a quarter of the shops are empty because of the traffic congestion in the town. Yet no Minister will come to see the problem for himself.

Thirdly, I ask Ministers to take seriously the seemingly complete opposition to Translink, the guided busway scheme that the Government propose to install between Luton and Dunstable. In my time as a Member of Parliament, not a single person has said to me that they are in favour of it. As far as I am aware, no one, at any public meeting, has spoken in its favour. I understand that local parties, including even the Dunstable Labour party, have said that they are against the scheme. I am not sure about the policy of the Liberal Democrats, but there is certainly a huge majority against Translink. Ministers propose to spend some £63 million on a scheme of highly questionable and highly marginal benefit to my constituency. Furthermore, Translink would remove the possibility of reintroducing rail to the area, be that heavy rail, light rail or tram.

Fourthly, if Ministers have £63 million to spare on a scheme that none of my constituents want, I respectfully request that they redirect at least some of that money towards the extremely hard-pressed Bedfordshire social services budget. There is a shortfall of about £3.5 million for the social services budget of Bedfordshire county council.

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The new money announced by the Government recently was welcome, but I am sure that Ministers and all hon. Members appreciate that an increase of £223,500 a year will not go far towards a social services deficit of about £3.5 million. The county council has to undertake statutory duties and it has no discretion as to their fulfilment. Furthermore, the situation as regards social services is not helped by a reduction of about 49,700 in the number of care-home beds, as reported this year in the Laing and Buisson independent survey of the sector.

Those are four areas of substance and I ask Ministers to rethink their positions and to re-engage with those issues which are of vital concern not only to my constituency but to those of many hon. Members.

8.51 pm

Mr. Siôn Simon (Birmingham, Erdington): I am extremely grateful to have the opportunity to make one point about spin. I want to make only one point because I remember reading that Lloyd George said that almost all speeches in almost all circumstances should contain only one point. I took that very much to heart, as I so rarely have more than one point to make.

Before I make that one point, I offer the—

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire): That is two points.

Mr. Simon: As I said, I would normally make only one point, but this is a special extra point. My non-point, intermezzo point, is to offer the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Mr. Barker) the opportunity to retract the erroneous and unpleasant allegation he made about a special adviser who attempted to have the House of Lords Hansard corrected. In fact, it was a civil servant, so I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will want to take this opportunity—[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman does not want to speak.

Mr. Francois: We have been told ad nauseam this evening that special advisers are civil servants, so what is the difference?

Mr. Simon: If the hon. Gentleman does not know the difference between a special adviser and a civil servant, I shall certainly not—

Mr. Francois: The hon. Gentleman certainly does not know the difference.

Mr. Simon: I certainly do.

Mr. Barker: If the case was as described by the hon. Gentleman, I stand corrected, but the thrust of my argument stands absolutely.

Mr. Simon: I want to make my one point about spin because I like to think I know something about it. I have a fairly rounded view of spin. I was once a humble, junior spin doctor. Indeed, for a short while I even worked under none other than the now notorious Ms Moore, which experience enables me to confirm that she is a most unusually single-minded and unsentimental woman. I think that Ms Moore's own interests would have been better served had she chosen to apply to her own

23 Oct 2001 : Column 228

expendability the same sense of ruthless pragmatism for which she has been so much admired professionally by so many of us for so long.

Not only have I been a humble press officer, I have also been a newspaper columnist and from that position it behoves me to say something that has been completely missing from the debate. As a newspaper columnist I was certainly—as are all newspaper columnists—by far the most naked, mischievous and unaccountable type of spin doctor there is.

Mr. Barker: The hon. Gentleman may have been mischievous and naked, but he was not paid for by public funds.

Mr. Simon: The point is that the whole notion of spin over substance, which Opposition Members think this is about, is a completely incoherent concept. Spinning is no more than a derogatory term for the gentle and ancient art of communicating the substance. Twenty years ago, the Labour party was hopeless at spinning. Before the 1983 general election, our national executive committee met especially to reaffirm its confidence in its own leader. That was not clever presentation. We were not then the party of spin. It was the same general election in which we fought on what my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) notably called the longest suicide note in history. That reminds me of a letter in The Times a couple of weeks ago wondering whether the Conservatives' recent three-month leadership contest might not be the longest suicide vote in history.

The point is—[Hon. Members: "The point, the point."] Yes. The point is that the tables have been turned. Twenty years ago, we were hopeless at spin and not very clever at substance. Those were the glory days of spin for the Tories, with the Saatchi boys, Tim Bell and "Labour Isn't Working". Those people invented the modern theory and practice of spin. In those days, when the Tories were the sultans of spin, they were also not half bad at substance—they destroyed our manufacturing industry, put 5 million on the dole and gave us 15 per cent. interest rates and boom and bust. We all know the story. We might say that 5 million unemployed and the annihilation of the economy was not a very good thing—that it was a despicable business—but we could hardly say that it was insubstantial.

Communication is not the opposite of substance. Spin can exist only if one has something to communicate. The supposed accusation of so-called spin is incredibly patronising to the British people. They have voted for us in overwhelming numbers for the second time, while the Tory party is at its lowest ebb for 200 years. Perhaps it provides Conservative Members with some comfort in those cold, dark hours of the night to believe that that is all down to spin. Perhaps it makes them feel better about themselves to believe that the people are stupid and voted for us because they were tricked by the astonishing mind-controlling techniques of Alastair Campbell's evil spinocracy. If that is what they want to believe, it is fine by me—they can stay in opposition for even longer than we did—but the truth is that people are not fools, bamboozled by spin, as the Tories seem to be. The people, like the Labour Government, are obsessed with substance.

Conservative Members will start bellowing and complaining if I talk about the substance—the millions of jobs that we have created, the lowest interest rates,

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inflation and unemployment for generations, and the new schools and hospitals being built all over the country. [Interruption.] There we are; they do not want to hear it. They do not want to hear the substance because they are obsessed with spin. The fact is that we are rebuilding this country, which they almost destroyed. That is the substance. The spin lives only in once place. What we have heard from Conservative Members today has nothing to do with ordinary people's lives. It is nothing but spin.

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