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6.16 pm

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York): In so far as the motion relates to transport, I wish to declare my interest in Railtrack, First Group, Eurotunnel and the RAC. I am delighted that we are discussing the Government's record on compiling and disseminating information, especially against the background of the claim by the hon. Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush (Mr. Soley) that

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they were re-elected on a platform of open government. However, the freedom of information legislation has been famously delayed.

We cannot even get the Government, or individual Ministers, to answer straight questions with a straight answer on the Floor of the House, by written answer or in Select Committee proceedings, which the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman) mentioned. I shall share some gems with the House. I tabled a question on 16 November, which was finally answered on 22 November, about the Strategic Rail Authority's recommendation to grant a 20-year franchise to GNER on the east coast route. The Secretary of State decided on a two-year extension to the current franchise, but by that time the two bidders, GNER and Virgin, had spent £4 million each on the bid for the renewed franchise. I asked the Secretary of State why he had rejected the SRA's advice but answer came there none.

I was referred to the answer given to my hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May), which claimed that the date of the draft legislation directing the Secretary of State to overrule the Rail Regulator and give powers of direction could not be released. The written answer claimed that it was not in the public interest to disclose internal departmental communications which were, in effect, draft orders due to come before the House. Since when was draft legislation considered an internal communication, especially when it was intended to block the interim review application from being considered and applied for by the rail regulator?

In his evidence to the Select Committee on 7 November, the Rail Regulator referred to his shock. He said:

that Railtrack would apply for an interim review—

the Secretary of State—

The significance of the date of the draft orders should not be overlooked. The date may have been as early as July, August or September this year, so it could be proved that the Secretary of State allowed the market in Railtrack shares to continue long after he first considered putting the company into administration.

In defence of the Secretary of State, however, he is not alone. I have written to Mr. Speaker to seek his guidance about correspondence that I sent to the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on behalf of my constituents and to which she has not yet replied. That correspondence dates back to June, July, August and September of this year. Indeed, the failure of the right hon. Lady to reply has become the subject of a

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"Dear Colleague" letter of 14 November, in which she gives an explanation, in effect, and almost apologises although she does not actually excuse her Department.

I shall not refer to the letter as right hon. and hon. Members will have already received it. However, another letter has come into my possession—I am not entirely sure whence it came. It is a "Dear John" letter—[Hon. Members: "Oh!"]—not to my husband John, or even to my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) who is in the Chamber this evening; it is a "Dear John" letter from "Dear Tony". Yes, indeed. I have a letter from the Prime Minister to the Deputy Prime Minister in which he writes:

What a pity that the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs could not heed that advice.

I return to the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions—caught in a minibus in Tyneside, thus preventing his attendance in the House—and support the call made by the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside. In fact, we requested that the minutes of the meeting held between the Secretary of State and the chairman of Railtrack be made public—or at least be passed to members of the Select Committee. What a tortuous exchange that was. We could not even get the Secretary of State to say whether, yes, he would release the minutes or, no, he would not. In fact, he said, in effect, "If it would be helpful, I would wish to be helpful".

As my hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead pointed out, the timing of the release of the minutes is not without significance. I was phoned by the Clerk of the Select Committee—the first time I can recall that happening—who told me that the papers were on the Board. That was at 5 o'clock last Tuesday, when the Secretary of State—

Dr. Pugh: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Miss McIntosh: I hope to finish my remarks soon, in order to give the hon. Gentleman time to make his speech.

The event that I described is not normal practice. I realised only subsequently that the press and media—indeed, only certain chosen members of the press corps—were given an advance copy at 3.35 pm, just as the Chancellor of the Exchequer was rising to his feet to give his pre-Budget report. If that is not an example of cynical news management, I do not know what is.

Like the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside, I attach great importance and value to the work of the Select Committee and to my membership of it, under the august and robust chairmanship of the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody). It shows gross discourtesy and a lack of respect for the Committee that the press were given the minutes before—about an hour

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and a half before—they were received by members of the Committee. The minutes did not even give a full account; not for the first time the discrepancy between the minutes and the Railtrack chairman's recollection of the meeting was revealed.

The Select Committee invited the Treasury team to give evidence on aspects of the rail franchise renewals procedure, especially the public sector borrowing requirement, on which only a Treasury Minister is accountable. Even the Leader of the House had to admit that no Treasury Minister had appeared before a Transport Select Committee since 1999. Treasury Ministers still refuse to attend the Committee.

Furthermore, why has the Secretary of State blocked the publication of any figures showing the increasing delays on the rail network since Railtrack went into administration? Could it be because such figures reveal a 45 per cent. increase in delays? Again, the culture of secrecy prevails over the spirit of openness.

We still await details as to what shape the son of Railtrack will take. That is a matter of great urgency. It is of such importance that I have received a letter from the chief executive of GNER, who states:

The evidence of that falling morale is there for all to see.

I commend and support the motion. I hope that the House will draw its own conclusions: as well as the pursuit of a cynical news management strategy, there is a culture of secrecy and inefficiency, all of which I deplore.

6.27 pm

Dr. John Pugh (Southport): My contribution will be brief and, I hope, constructive, with a positive suggestion at the end.

I approached the discussion of recent events in relation to transport with a relatively open mind. I have no hidden agenda. I am certainly no lover of Railtrack whose demise I regard as inevitable. It was a flawed project: massive public investment can never be coupled with private profit.

Furthermore, I have no difficulty with the Secretary of State's proposal for a not-for-profit company. Like the right hon. Gentleman and all hon. Members, my feelings are with the travelling public—not only because of correspondence from my constituents, but because I was turfed off a train at 6 o'clock this morning due to poor maintenance. It is probably unfair to mention the company and perhaps I should not refer to Arriva, but I was badly served—as much as anything else by the outcome of privatisation.

I believed that the Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions provided a substantial counterweight to an overweening, over-dominant Executive; and that the model it offered for holding the Executive to account was so powerful and rigorous that it would be marketed to local authorities in the form of scrutiny committees that they would all be empowered to establish. I came to the debate with those thoughts: I had no prior agenda. However, I have had to change my mind and have come to share some of the concerns that have been voiced by Opposition Members.

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I have listened while Ministers, the Strategic Rail Authority and the Rail Regulator gave their accounts of the uproar that surrounded the demise of Railtrack. I have listened to the accusations of bullying, and it is as though people have had to be separated after rowing in a school yard. As a former school teacher, I am sensitive to the fact that there is more than one side to the story in any accusation of bullying.

I do not side with Mr. Winsor or with the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, but there is a flaw in the Secretary of State's approach. Whenever and wherever he has endeavoured to prove his side of the story, he has failed to do so. In the latest episode, the minutes released last Tuesday were supposed to bear out the Government's view, but, at the critical moment, the pens were put down and the evidence is simply not there. In the bits of paper that really count, there are no notes on the items that we wish to investigate.

To persist with the analogy, it is as though the bully had offered to get a note from his mum as verification, but had returned without it. In those circumstances, in a school or elsewhere, we know that something is afoot. Regrettably, that is what I have had to conclude. Often in cases of bullying, where people are not completely open and frank, someone else is behind the story that people need to investigate, and I have come to the conclusion that it is the Treasury in this case. The Treasury has been deeply implicated at operational level in all the major decisions surrounding the railways.

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