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Government Targets (Clinical Decision Making)

10. Mr. Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove): What recent discussions he has had with representatives of health care professionals on the impact of Government targets on clinical decision making. [34709]

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

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other Members of this place, want patients to be treated at the earliest opportunity, especially if there is a diagnosis of suspected cancer. It is right that we have set targets, which patients and the public support. The hon. Gentleman may be interested to note that the death rates

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for two of the country's major killers, cancer and heart disease, are coming down, and that more than 90 per cent. of cancer patients are now being seen within two weeks of urgent GP referral. That is progress and not, as he would like to characterise it, a step back.

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Resignation of Martin Sixsmith

3.31 pm

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:

In fact, no such e-mail was sent from Martin Sixsmith to Jo Moore. Nevertheless, The Mirror reported yesterday that Martin Sixsmith apparently told the reporter concerned on 14 February,

On the morning of 14 February, the Prime Minister's official spokesman briefed the Lobby on the allegations contained in the Daily Express and The Mirror using an explanation that had been agreed with Martin Sixsmith. Subsequently, that lunchtime and into the afternoon, it seems that one or more officials from my Department began to brief the press that the line used by the Prime Minister's official spokesman was incorrect. At least one official appears to have spoken on the basis that he was ringing on behalf of Martin Sixsmith. So what we had was a concerted attempt by a very small number of civil servants in the press office to undermine the Department—[Interruption.] I should stress that only a very small number were involved and their actions are being investigated. The vast majority work in a very good, committed and dedicated manner.

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

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Mottram, however, that in my view—this view is strengthened by the events of the past few days— Mr. Sixsmith should not be given a job elsewhere in government.

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. Speaker: Order. The Secretary of State is entitled to have a hearing and the House should give him one. He is going to be questioned and he should be given a hearing.

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 delivering—and will continue to deliver—as Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions.

Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead): Today is a day of humiliation for the Secretary of State, that he should have

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to come to the House once again to explain how his version of certain events differs from that of other people involved. His Department is in a state of paralysis, key issues are not being addressed, and there is a breakdown in trust between him and the civil servants. He has compromised the impartiality of the civil service and today, yet again, for the third time running, No. 10 has abandoned him.

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:

Yesterday, however, the permanent secretary made a statement in which he said:

Today, the Secretary of State needs to answer a number of questions clearly and accurately, with no more words chosen carefully to give an impression that is different from the facts, no more phrases that mean different things to different people, and no more passing the blame on to others. He says that he prides himself on taking tough decisions; let him put those words into action today.

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—

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[Interruption.] After the chaos and paralysis that he has brought to his Department, after compromising the impartiality and neutrality of civil servants, after making statements to the press and on television that do not reflect the reality of the situation, how can he come here today and attempt, yet again, to put the blame—

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