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Mr. Collins: Not only did I hear "The World at One", but, as the hon. Gentleman will have noticed, I appeared on it, so I am probably more in touch with what happened on it than he is.

I simply say to the Secretary of State, who might actually read our proceedings some time this week—as that seems to be the only contribution that he will make to them—that it is here, not in Tyneside, that he should be building bridges. He needs to build a bridge with No. 10 Downing street. I will have a little more to say about his behaviour later.

I have a declaration, not so much of interest but of past form. For two years, ending a decade ago, I was a special adviser in what were then the Department of the Environment and the Department of Employment. At that time, the only civil servant who answered to me was a secretary. For clarification, I should explain that that was a typing secretary, not a permanent secretary.

In the 1992 election, I served as the press secretary to the then Prime Minister, as an employee of the Conservative party, not as a civil servant. [Interruption.] The Minister for Transport, the right hon. Member for Warley (Mr. Spellar), says that that was a great success. Yes, it was. In the 1992 election, the then Prime Minister secured not only more votes than any political leader in British history but 35 per cent. more votes than the right hon. Gentleman's leader got in June. So yes, it was rather successful, and I thank the Minister for allowing me to put that on the record.

In those days, John Major invariably had a career civil servant as his press secretary outside general elections, and the utter political neutrality of the holders of those posts is demonstrated by the fact that two of them are now working as very senior and diligent servants of the present Administration. Indeed, one of them—Mr. Gus O'Donnell—is so highly regarded that the Chancellor and the Prime Minister recently became involved in a spat over who was to have his services.

I should also make it clear that I was briefly a member of the Prime Minister's policy unit in Downing street. I do not believe that it was a case of post hoc, ergo propter hoc, but John Major resigned at the time to contest the leadership of the Conservative party. I immediately left my post to serve once more as his press secretary. Again for the benefit of the Minister for Transport, we won that particular campaign, for which I took unpaid leave for two weeks. [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. Hon. Gentlemen should not shout.

Mr. Collins: Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

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My reason for pointing that out is to make it clear that there was a time when there were clear dividing lines between what civil servants and political appointees could do. The Conservative party has always had a much clearer understanding than the Labour party of the difference between exercising a proper electoral mandate and riding roughshod over all rules of propriety. That issue is at the heart of the debate.

The motion is in part about the Government's general failure to discharge their duties of accountability towards Parliament and in part about the specific problems that relate to the conduct of the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions. Some of us do not know whether he has refused to come here today because he is too big headed, or because he knows that every time he comes before Parliament these days a serious allegation is made about the accuracy of his remarks. Perhaps he has concluded that he is physically incapable of providing the full facts to the House and that the only way he can avoid being caught out is to go into hiding. We look forward to the success of the media search parties in flushing him out.

The motion starts by reminding us that last week's extraordinary saga of the censored minutes of a meeting featuring the Secretary of State and the chairman of Railtrack was not the first time that records have been inadequate, or perhaps even doctored, under this Administration since 1997. Let me take the House back to the days of the Ecclestone affair, which led the Prime Minister to race on to our televisions to tell us all that he is

I refer to that seminal tome "Servants of the People", the true story of new Labour, which I am sure has been on the reading lists of all my hon. Friends. Page 93 of that wonderful volume refers to the time in October 1997 when the tycoon Mr. Ecclestone was ushered into Downing street. Mr. Rawnsley refers to two errors that he believes the Prime Minister committed. He says:

A pattern begins to emerge.

The Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport reported only a few days ago on the conduct of the former Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport as it related to the wonderful triumph of the Government's policy on Wembley stadium and Picketts Lock. I did, of course, alert the office of the right hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith) that I would make a brief reference to this matter. On the £20 million agreement between the then Secretary of State and the Football Association, under which the FA was to return the sum to the Government, the Select Committee concluded:

Indeed, we are told that agreement was reached by a handshake in the absence of any note or minute by an official. Again, a pattern begins to emerge.

The pattern is also evident in the minutes of the meeting between the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions and the chairman of Railtrack. We have been told that officials were instructed

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at a particularly sensitive part of the meeting to put down their pens and not record what occurred. It is important to state for the record that the other party to that meeting, the chairman of Railtrack, cannot recall requesting that a part of the meeting should not be recorded. He also denies having said what Ministers subsequently alleged was said.

I have spoken about the matter to many Privy Councillors on both sides of the House who have served as Ministers for a cumulative period of decades. They tell me that they cannot recall any instance of officials being instructed not to record a particularly sensitive part of a meeting. It simply beggars belief that the Secretary of State should rely for his defence, his credibility and his reputation for probity on the belief that his officials could be instructed to fail to do their duty in the normal manner.

Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Collins: Of course; I shall be delighted to learn whether the hon. Lady defends the Secretary of State or comes in on the side of Downing street.

Mrs. Ellman: Has the hon. Gentleman considered the fact that, had Mr. Robinson said what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State says he said—in other words, that Railtrack would be in serious trouble if the Government did not provide a letter of comfort or additional funding—Mr. Robinson would have been in breach of his fiduciary duties under company law? Does that not give him an excellent motive to disclaim what he said during that meeting?

Mr. Collins: I am a little surprised to hear the hon. Lady say that. Like me, she regularly uses the west coast main line, so she will know that far from having improved on that line since the Secretary of State acted, things have become a great deal worse. On her specific point, if it is her contention that she has evidence that leads her to believe that she is justified in making a serious allegation about a board director of a FTSE-100 company deliberately behaving as she describes, I challenge her to repeat her remarks outside the House, where she does not have legal protection for doing so. We look forward to finding out whether she is willing to do that.

I was speaking about the state of the railways under the current Administration. That is at the heart of our concerns. The incompetence, lack of probity and lack of candour of the current Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions is not of interest solely to people in the Westminster village: it has serious implications for the state of our railways, their safety and their reliability. We learned last week that since the right hon. Gentleman acted, in his own words, "against Railtrack"—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. There is far too much noise in the Chamber. The House should come to order.

David Maclean (Penrith and The Border): Deliberate wrecking.

Mr. Collins: My right hon. Friend says that deliberate wrecking is going on. There has certainly been deliberate wrecking of the railway industry by the Labour party. I shall provide the proof.

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In the two months since the Secretary of State acted "against Railtrack"—a significant choice of words by the right hon. Gentleman—and since he destroyed Railtrack and took responsibility for the network away from the company, what has occurred but a 45 per cent. increase in train delays caused by track and signal failures? The Rail Passengers Council describes that rise as particularly "alarming" because it came after a period of several months of improvement in performance. A leap from 3,300 hours per week total train delays attributed to infrastructure faults to 4,800 hours per week was reported last week. That sharp and alarming increase is occasioned by the fact that the morale of those working for Railtrack has been devastated by the Government's actions. It is specifically caused by the fact that many senior employees of Railtrack are considering their future: 70 key employees have already left.

In their 10-year transport plan, the Government said that they would rely heavily on private sector investment to improve rail infrastructure, as people of all parties want. However, they should recognise that they have devastated their reputation and the prospects of investment in the rail industry in the eyes of investors around the world. In a letter to the United States embassy in London, quoted in The Sunday Times yesterday, the Minnesota State Board of Investment expresses

It adds:

That is part of a pattern. Again and again the Government claim that they are taking action to improve the railways, but they are in fact making matters far worse. Several of my right hon. and hon. Friends, including the shadow Chief Whip, many Government Members and our constituents depend on the west coast main line.

What has been the result of the Government's action on Railtrack? Phase two of that project has been cancelled and phase one postponed for at least a year. The prospect of getting a quality service—

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