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9.25 pm

Mr. Tim Collins (Westmorland and Lonsdale): By any standards, this has been an excellent debate. Front-Bench speakers on both sides of the House have been challenged and there have been some brave non-partisan speeches. [Interruption.] I note that a number of those who are challenging the quality of the debate were not present for large chunks of it. Perhaps some of them were not present for what was certainly the highlight for me, when there was an extraordinarily vitriolic attack on the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Mr. Marsden) by the hon. Member for Reading, West (Mr. Salter). The hon. Members for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell), for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) and for Shrewsbury and Atcham all said that the Opposition motion reflects a subject in which wide sections of the public in their constituencies and throughout the country take a great interest.

I shall explain why it was entirely appropriate for the debate to take place when undoubtedly grave and significant events are happening elsewhere. The Opposition have rightly given unswerving support to the actions of the coalition forces, and specifically to the political leadership that has been given by both President Bush and the Prime Minister on these matters. I take up immediately the challenge issued by my hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb) to praise the Government when they get things right—by saying that in the matters relating to the global crisis the Prime Minister's conduct of his office has been simply superb.

It is precisely because we have sought to present a united front with the Government on such vital matters that it would have been inappropriate for us to use today's Opposition day, as some Labour Members have suggested, to debate international policies with which we on the Conservative Opposition Benches have no fundamental quarrel.

Also, because the crisis is so grave and its consequences so worrying for so many in the United Kingdom and beyond it, the Government must demonstrate that now, more than ever, they are acting at all times in perfect good faith. As my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge–Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) said in a telling intervention, there is a particular need for us all to be able to trust the word, the judgment and the truthfulness of Ministers, and that is threatened by the culture of spin that is mentioned in the Opposition motion, and why the debate is not only appropriate now but essential.

The motion is not about—

Hugh Bayley (City of York): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Collins: I will give way in a moment, but not now.

The motion is not about whether the Government should have any special advisers. Special advisers have served in Administrations formed by the past six Prime Ministers—three Labour and three Conservative—and they can perform a valuable and worthwhile role. That is something that the House might expect me to say because, in common with a number of Members on both sides of the House, I was a special adviser, as was the Foreign Secretary. [Interruption.] Those on the Government Front

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Bench who are expressing outrage at the idea of a former special adviser ever serving in the House might like to point that out to the right hon. Gentleman.

Special advisers were in post when the previous, Conservative Government left office, and no doubt there will be special advisers when the Conservative party next returns to power. My hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie) asked whether there will be fewer special advisers under the next Conservative Government. That was a specific policy on which we fought the last general election and, in common with all other policies, we are reviewing it. It seems that it is certainly a direction in which we would wish to proceed.

The issue is not whether we have special advisers, or how many we have, but how they do their job and whether it is acceptable for them to be in a position to give orders to career civil servants—an unprecedented innovation under the Labour Administration.

When I was a special adviser, the only civil servant who worked for me was a secretary—a typing secretary, not a permanent secretary. Under the present Government it is clear that many special advisers, including the now infamous Jo Moore, behave as if they have as much if not more power than Ministers who are accountable to the House. We know that this has been and is a matter of concern to both Back-Bench and Front-Bench Members on both sides of the House.

None of us is claiming to be perfect. All Governments in the past—no doubt this will apply in future—have from time to time sought to manage the news in their favour. The hon. Member for North Warwickshire (Mr. O'Brien) is quite right to say that all of us are capable of error, and no doubt all of us have said or done things that we regret. However, as Labour Members have said, it is precisely because the events of 11 September were so horrendous that Jo Moore's e-mail must be seen as much more than just an error of judgment. The Chairman of the Public Administration Committee, the Labour hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Tony Wright), has rightly said that Ms Moore's e-mail was

The Father of the House, the hon. Member for Linlithgow, in a deeply impressive speech, said that it was a moral lapse, and that if the Secretary of State could not see that Ms Moore had committed a sackable offence, the question would then arise about his own fitness to be a Secretary of State. The Secretary of State should dwell on the fact that that was said by someone on his own side.

Hon. Members on both sides of the House have shown that there is almost a complete cross-party consensus that Jo Moore should go. The right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) called on her to resign or to be sacked. The hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham said that, in the name of God, this special adviser must go. The hon. Member for Reading, West said that Jo Moore's position was no longer tenable. The hon. Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mr. Lazarowicz) condemned her action, and the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Simon) called on her to reflect ruthlessly on her own expendability. That was not exactly a vote of confidence.

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The Independent on Sunday stated last weekend that a member of the influential parliamentary committee of the parliamentary Labour party had told the paper that there was

Jo Moore—

We have had some excellent speeches from my colleagues on the Conservative Benches. My right hon. Friend the Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory) set out the detail of some very serious problems arising from the way in which the Government reach decisions on a range of matters. My right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) and my hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois) made a compelling case for questioning the Secretary of State's judgment on the rail industry, and described the damage that his decisions have done to the Government's standing with financial institutions at home and abroad.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton made a searching, challenging and, at times, moving speech in which he took no prisoners on any side and, I suspect, accordingly earned the respect of the whole House. He will be a very fine addition to the Public Accounts Committee. My hon. Friend the Member for Chichester—in my recollection he was a tremendous special adviser—was characteristically generous in his assessment of Ms Moore's e-mail, but rightly pointed to the other very damaging evidence of her behaviour that has since come to light. My hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Mr. Barker) made a very impressive speech, rightly drawing attention to the difference between the Government's attitude now that they are in office and the attitude that they took in opposition when the Conservatives increased the number of special advisers at the Scottish Office by the grand total of one.

My hon. Friends the Members for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) and for Leominster (Mr. Wiggin) raised important issues for their constituents in thoughtful speeches, and deserve an early reply from Ministers. My hon. Friend the Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson) pointed out how the culture of spin has undermined effective local democracy.

There remain serious allegations surrounding the Secretary of State and his special adviser. He may believe that he has satisfied those who are calling for answers. I have to tell him that he has not. We have yet to hear a proper answer to the report that his special adviser swore at and lied to a journalist from The Sunday Times on 6 October, a point made powerfully by my hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton. We have yet to be told that there will be a proper investigation—[Interruption.] Ministers may regard this as somewhat amusing. I have to tell them that the press and the public will not.

Mr. Spellar: Obviously, this is a speech that the hon. Gentleman prepared earlier before listening to the responses from this Dispatch Box. Let us take the quote from The Sunday Times journalist. According to the newspaper's report, he said that he would be running

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As we were not going to renationalise, it was perfectly correct to tell them what we were doing. Why does not the hon. Gentleman get it right?

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