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The Minister for Transport (Mr. John Spellar): Yes.

Mrs. May: Will the Minister put it on the record, rather than saying so from a sedentary position?

Mr. Spellar rose

Chris Grayling: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mrs. May: Yes.

Chris Grayling: Is my hon. Friend aware that the Minister accepted at the Select Committee meeting that no such request for financial assistance had been made? I am a little confused by the Minister's response.

Mrs. May: I think that we are all confused by the Minister's response, given that the official minute does not substantiate the Secretary of State's claim, as the Minister has just reiterated. Indeed, the chairman of Railtrack has disputed what the Secretary of State said. He disputed it publicly on "Today" on Radio 4.

This is not simply about what the Secretary of State has said to Members. This is an important matter because of its impact on the railways and the travelling public; and it is important because as a result of what the Secretary of State has done, the Government may face legal action. The Railtrack shareholders action group has today written to the Secretary of State and the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions requesting certain documents. The group has said that it has been hampered in its ability to obtain all the relevant facts, most notably by the Secretary of State's inconsistent account of events. [Interruption.]

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order.

Mrs. May: There was inconsistency regarding the project Renewco and the minutes of the meeting on 25 July. There is inconsistency between the evidence given by the Secretary of State to the Select Committee that Railtrack was in financial meltdown and that given by Railtrack's directors that the company was solvent prior to the Secretary of State's actions.

We have seen inconsistency from the Secretary of State at every turn. It is important because it may land the Government in legal action; it is important because

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of how much it will cost the taxpayer, which the Government simply do not know; and it is important because of the impact that the Secretary of State's shoddy handling of this sorry saga is having on the railways and on rail passengers. There has been a 45 per cent. increase in delays since administration. Phase 2 west coast main line upgrade—forget it. Special purpose vehicle for improvements to South Central—abandoned. The travelling public know the misery of the railways under the thin controller that is the Secretary of State.

Since Railtrack was put into administration on 7 October, the Secretary of State has made disputed statements to the House, his memory of events has been found wanting, there have been indications that he may have misled the House, he has blocked questions from Members of Parliament, he has threatened the Rail Regulator, jeopardised future private sector investment in the railway, presided over increased train delays, contaminated the Chancellor's autumn statement and been reprimanded by No. 10 Downing street—and he does not even have the guts to come to the House and explain himself.

It is time for the Secretary of State to come clean. His cunning plan has failed. The railways are in a mess. The public are waiting—they are waiting for answers, they are waiting for their trains and they are waiting for the Secretary of State to go.

6.45 pm

The Minister for Transport (Mr. John Spellar): It was deja vu all over again tonight. In our last debate, I said that history repeats itself—in the first debate as tragedy and in the second as farce. Today was unmitigated tedium. I have had to sit here suffering it—Conservative Members did not even bother to stay. Even when the winding-up speeches started, they managed only a dozen on the Back Benches. At one stage, only two Conservative Members were here, but we will come back to that in a minute. They could not keep the crowd, even when their own were speaking. Old Trafford on a Saturday does not compare with the numbers streaming away from the debate.

We must look at what this is about. It is about the sort of game playing that was revealed by the memorandum of the shadow Leader of the House, the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth). It bears further consideration. He gave some thoughts of the Conservative party's possible approaches to the new Parliament, saying:

Tonight we have had the experienced, the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood), and the new, the hon. Member for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois). That was the lot, but at least the Conservatives achieved their objective of getting the right balance.

Mr. Redwood: Instead of giving us this childish drivel, will the Minister answer the questions that we have asked in the debate? Will he tell the travelling public how much money is available, when Railtrack will come out of administration and who can bid?

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Mr. Spellar: I know that it is childish drivel, but the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst wrote it. He continues:

the trading mechanism obviously broke down today—

Mrs. May: The Minister is very keen to talk about matters for which he does not have responsibility. As Minister for Transport, he has responsibility for the running of the railways now that Railtrack is in administration. Will he answer the question? How long will Railtrack be in administration, and how much will it cost the taxpayer?

Mr. Spellar: Had the Conservative party wanted a debate on the railways and Railtrack, it would have tabled a motion to that effect, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush (Mr. Soley) said in response to the right hon. Member for Wokingham. How the right hon. Gentleman must suffer, seeing the mess that Conservative Front Benchers are making—how he must grieve. That was the issue that he tried to raise, but that is not what we have had from the Opposition. Instead, we have had endless trivia and dross. [Interruption.]

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. The House must come to order.

Mr. Spellar: The key point about this evening's debate—

Miss McIntosh: On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Does the statement made by Mr. Speaker last week extend to the right of the Opposition to have an answer to the questions put in the course of a debate? This goes to the heart of Mr. Speaker's statement.

Madam Deputy Speaker: The Minister must relate his remarks to the motion on the Order Paper.

Mr. Spellar: I am also responding to the debate—or rather the lack of it. I have to confess that I am not responsible for the fact that we are being subjected to such a load of political trivia and nitpicking from the Opposition. It is interesting that Opposition Members are getting up to defend the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst—who, heaven help us, is the MP for the area where my London house is—when he does not want to explain things himself. His memorandum and the motion demonstrate a degree of disregard and contempt for the Commons.

Chris Grayling: While the right hon. Gentleman is on the subject of contempt for the Commons, will he explain why last week, as a member of a Select Committee, I received the papers on the minute of the meeting of 25 July, to which hon. Members have referred, after it had been distributed to members of the national media?

Mr. Spellar: I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman attacks the civil service for distributing material that had to go out on that day. Given the likelihood of it being

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leaked, it also had to be distributed appropriately to the press. If Opposition Members want to claim that they never leak Select Committee documents to the press, I will be interested to hear them make that argument stand up.

The memorandum from the shadow Leader of the House went on to mention other actions that the Conservatives would have to take. It stated:

Obviously quite a few Conservative Members must be part of that category because very few bothered to turn up for the debate. The shadow Leader of the House, the shadow Chief Whip and the shadow deputy Chief Whip had to bomb around and intervene because they could not find Back Benchers to do the job. That is the state to which the modern Conservative party has sunk, and I will return to that when I comment on the role of the Liberal Democrats.

The hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Collins) began with some confessions, and he asked for several other offences to be taken into consideration. He was not entirely forthcoming about his complete role. He was press secretary to John Major in 1992, director of communications for the Conservative party from 1992 to 1995, a member of the Prime Minister's policy unit at Downing street in 1995 and media consultant to the Conservative party chairman from 1995 to 1997. Those were, of course, periods of immense success for the Conservative party. I gather that they will be published under "Tim Collins: The Golden Years".

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