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The Minister of State, Department of Health (Mr. John Hutton): Ministers in the Department of Health meet regularly with representatives of health care professionals to discuss all aspects of the Government's strategy for investment and reform in the NHS.
Mr. Stunell: Is the Minister satisfied that in the north-west cancer patients are being diverted from treatment simply to meet the Government's two-week waiting target when treatment does not affect survival? Would it not be more satisfactory to move to average waiting times when setting those targets, as the Liberal Democrats advocate?
Mr. Hutton: To be honest, I am probably not alone in not quite knowing what the Liberal Democrats are saying about access to treatment. As I understand it, they want waiting times to come down, but they cannot say by how much or even give a time when patients should be treated. The majority of the hon. Gentleman's constituents, and
The Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (Mr. Stephen Byers): With permission, Mr. Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the circumstances surrounding the resignation of Mr. Martin Sixsmith from the post of director of communications in my Department.
On 14 February, the Daily Express and The Mirror reported that my special adviser Jo Moore had sought to schedule an announcement on the day of the funeral of Princess Margaret. Both papers reported that an e-mail had been sent from Martin Sixsmith to Jo Moore in the following terms:
On the morning of Friday 15 February, I met my permanent secretary, Sir Richard Mottram, to discuss the situation. Sir Richard told me that in his view, the positions of both Martin Sixsmith and Jo Moore had become untenable. He felt that the best thing for the Department would be if they both left their posts, because relationships within the Department and with its Ministers had broken down. He recommended that we should seek their resignations. I agreed with Sir Richard's recommendation. I said that I would talk to Jo Moore, and Sir Richard said that he would talk to Martin Sixsmith.
We were clear that the Department could not carry on with the communications department in the state that it was. As I made clear on the Dimbleby programme at the weekend, I believed that both should go. Jo Moore agreed to resign. Martin Sixsmith agreed to resign. I announced the resignations. The details of the events that day are set out in Sir Richard Mottram's statement of yesterday.
Since then, there have been a number of meetings and discussions involving Mr. Sixsmith in an attempt to resolve the detailed terms of his departure. I have not been directly involved in those negotiations. I have not met or spoken to Mr. Sixsmith since his resignation, and the detail of those discussions has been conducted by Sir Richard Mottram. I made it clear to Sir Richard
Ultimately, I was not in a position to block any arrangement about his future employment elsewhere in the civil service and I accepted that discussions between Sir Richard Mottram and Mr. Sixsmith should continue. Those discussions focused on him either getting another job in government or being compensated according to the terms of his contract. It was because, in the end, this decision about his future beyond his leaving my Department was not for me to take that I sought to make it clear on the Dimbleby programme that I was not personally involved in the discussions with Mr. Sixsmith on an alternative civil service job. But if my answers on the programme gave the impression that I did not put forward a view or make clear my views to others inside and outside the Department, that is obviously something that I regret and I welcome this opportunity in the House to clarify matters.
It is true that I was not personally involved in the negotiations. It is also true, however, that I believed that Mr. Sixsmith should not be given another job. I did not see the Dimbleby programme as a suitable place for detailed discussion about a personnel issue. Indeed, it is with some regret that I stand here now making clear what my views of Mr. Sixsmith actually are.
I should emphasise that this is not an argument between elected politicians and civil servants. As the Prime Minister has repeatedly made clear, the dedication, professionalism and political impartiality of the British civil service is one of this country's greatest assets. [Interruption.] I wholly endorse that view. [Interruption.]
Mr. Byers: My Department, like every other, is staffed by dedicated, hard-working people who impartially serve Governments of any colour. What is at issue is whether one or two unnamed officials, acting quite contrary to the traditions and ethos of the civil service, can be allowed to disrupt and undermine the vital work of a Department of State. I do not believe that they can. I will not allow this issue to distract myself, my ministerial team or my Department from delivering on the challenging agenda ahead of us. Long before this issue is forgotten, people will judge us by what really matters. I will not shy away from taking the tough decisions, whether in relation to Railtrack, reforming local government, or making sure that none of our regions is left behind.
What matters to the people of our country is seeing improvements to our transport system, value given once again to local government, providing decent homes for our people and the regeneration of our communities. That is what we are committed to doing as a Government, and that is what I am deliveringand will continue to deliveras Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions.
The Secretary of State's version of events is simply not credible, as he yet again he resorts to blaming civil servants for his own failures. He is ducking and weaving around the facts, and resorting to the last bastion of new Labour: the desperate attempt carefully to choose the words to give one impression, when the reality is very different. He is spinning constantly; spinning to the very end.
Throughout all the claims and counter-claims about the events surrounding Mr. Sixsmith's resignation, two key facts stand out. First, the Secretary of State announced on 15 February that his Department had accepted the resignation of Mr. Sixsmith and Jo Moore; Mr. Sixsmith had not resigned. Secondly, the Secretary of State said on the Dimbleby programme on 24 February:
When the Secretary of State announced on Friday 15 February that his Department had accepted Mr. Sixsmith's resignation, had he been told by the permanent secretary, Sir Richard Mottram, that Mr. Sixsmith had resigned? Will the right hon. Gentleman now confirm to the House that, contrary to his clear statement on the Dimbleby programme, he did indeed have discussions with the permanent secretary about Mr. Sixsmith's departure? Will the Secretary of State also tell the House what Mr. Sixsmith did wrong that required his resignation from the Department?
Did the right hon. Gentleman at any time say that he would accept Jo Moore's resignation only if Mr. Sixsmith resigned at the same time? Will the Secretary of State also clarify whether Mr. Sixsmith has now resigned? Since the Secretary of State's announcement on 15 February, has he contacted or sought to contact or been contacted by anyone with a view to discussing a pay settlement for Mr. Sixsmith? Did the Secretary of State see Sir Richard Mottram's statement of 25 February before it was issued?
Does the Secretary of State believe in the impartiality of the civil service? Does he believe that that impartiality has been strengthened or weakened by his actions? Has he no pride? How dare he come to the House today