Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 594 - 599)

WEDNESDAY 16 JANUARY 2002

RT HON STEPHEN BYERS, MP AND SIR RICHARD MOTTRAM KCB


  Chairman: I will just ask Members to declare their interests.

  Mrs Dunwoody: Rail, Transport and Maritime Trade Union.

  Mr Betts: Transport and General Workers' Union.

  Mr Donohoe: Transport and General Workers' Union.

  Mrs Ellman: Transport and General Workers' Union and Adviser to the Local Government Association.

  Miss McIntosh: GNER Car Parks and member of the RAC Breakdown Services. Small shares in BA and, BAA and EuroTunnel Rail, Track and Services. I would also like to register a farm in the north of England.

  Chris Grayling: I am a small-scale private landlord.

Chairman

  594. Can I welcome everybody to the fourth of the Select Committee's inquiries into the Departmental Estimates and Annual Report 2001 and questions on recent policy developments from it. Secretary of State, can I welcome you and the Permanent Secretary, and can I ask you to introduce yourselves to the Committee please.
  (Mr Byers) I am Stephen Byers, the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions.
  (Sir Richard Mottram) I am Richard Mottram, the Permanent Secretary of the same Department.

  595. Does either one of you want to say anything by way of introduction or are you happy for us to go straight into questions?
  (Mr Byers) Just get on with it, I think.

Mrs Ellman

  596. The 2001 Annual Report talks about the virtues of linking together environment, transport and planning. Why then were these responsibilities split?
  (Mr Byers) I think the reason why the Prime Minister took that decision after the last Election was to allow the Department to focus, I think, to a greater extent on what he believed would be one of the key delivery areas for the second term of this Labour Government which was transport, and I think he has been proved to be correct by that analysis, but, most importantly I think, in doing that, in putting environment into a new Department and making links with food, agriculture and rural affairs, it was very important that we did not lose the close relationship and the importance that environment clearly has on the areas which the new Department has responsibility for, whether transport, local government and the regions, planning and so on. I would like to think that we have been able to develop a very good and constructive working relationship with the new Department, but I think the main reason was to ensure that we could focus more readily particularly on transport, because that is a key priority, and a big decision needed to be taken early on in this Parliament, but also on areas like planning, urban regeneration, renewal, housing, the regions and so on, so it allows us a greater focus on those issues, I think.

  597. You are suggesting in your answer that transport was not given proper attention because it was mixed up with too many other policy headings in one Department, yet the Prime Minister said that he took a gamble on the railways and the gamble failed.
  (Mr Byers) Well, he said on the Frost programme on Sunday, actually repeating something I think the Deputy Prime Minister said over Christmas and New Year, that early in the first Labour Government in 1997 a gamble was taken in relation to Railtrack, specifically in relation to Railtrack, whether action should have been taken with regard to Railtrack or whether more money should be given in the hope that Railtrack would begin to deliver as a licensed operator, and I think that was the context in which he said that the gamble was taken with regard to the position relative to Railtrack. Just to clarify the position, I hope the implication of what I said by way of the background to the decision was not an implication that not enough had been done in the first Parliament, but it was an indication, I think, that a greater focus was going to be needed on transport in this Parliament, bearing in mind that if we look back to the very clear statements made in 1997, the priorities identified by the Government then were, first of all, to stabilise public finances and then, secondly, as we began to do that and as the economy began to grow and we got more money which we could then devote to public services, the two priorities were education and health. That was made very clear in 1997 and in many respects those were the priorities as far as the people were concerned as well and now that we have made improvements in education and health, we have still got those as priorities, but we have also got the need to drive forward on crime and on transport as well, so those are now the four key delivery areas as far as the second term is concerned.

  598. Under the new structure, regional policy is now separated from sustainable development. Does that give you concerns and what are you doing to bridge the gap?
  (Mr Byers) It does not give me concerns because in all of this I think there is a political priority and you can develop good working relationships and make sure that people know what they are doing, why they are doing it and the direction in which they wish to pursue policy. I agree with the thrust of the point you are making in that the regions of England are almost a sort of ignored powerhouse and we have got to do a lot more to make sure that they can deliver more effectively than they are at the moment. A great concern to me, as a North East Member of Parliament, is that the disparities within the regions of England are not narrowing, but they are actually growing and one of the big challenges, I think, for a Government elected to govern for all our people is to make sure that all of the regions of England can benefit from the economic prosperity that we are seeing in a few regions of England and sustainable development is going to be a key part of that. In terms of where policy lies, there is joint policy work going on between the Deputy Prime Minister and myself in terms of a White Paper that we will be publishing on the whole question of English regions, including elected regional assemblies and there is work we are doing with my old Department of Trade and Industry in relation to regional development agencies and so on, so it is good working relationships that are going to be important if we are going to deliver the sort of improvements that we want to see and deliver on sustainable development of the regions.

  599. We are told in evidence submitted to us by your Department that there are liaison arrangements between DEFRA and the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions. How often have ministers, say, John Spellar and Lord Falconer met Michael Meacher?
  (Mr Byers) Well, Sir Richard may want to say something about the official-level working relationship because there is a concordat between the two Departments which does not just cover politicians, but also covers officials as well and I think it is very positive. I meet Margaret Beckett on a regular basis. We meet every week in Cabinet, but we also meet informally over a drink or we meet more formally just to make sure that we all know what we are doing and at Minister of State level, there are meetings in the diary on a regular basis.


 
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