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In the devastating evidence that Mr. Winsor shared with the Committee, he admitted his surprise at the suddenness of the Secretary of State's decision to put Railtrack into administration, at the fact that the company's financial situation could have deteriorated so badly in so short a time and that his office had no inkling of Railtrack's impending insolvency. Mr. Winsor explained to the Secretary of State that, in his view, Railtrack would exercise its right to apply for an interim review to keep it afloat.
It is my firm belief, which the Secretary of State is free to contradict in the House, that he had effectively neutralised and neutered the power of the Office of the Rail Regulator, Mr. Tom Winsor, to process such an interim review. In fact, the Secretary of State had countermanded that application. He expected that Railtrack would make such an application and he fully intended to bring emergency legislation before the House to enable him to instruct the regulator.
In that well-thought-out, well-prepared, swift move, the Secretary of State completely neutralised the Rail Regulator and blew his independence out of the water. The implications and ramifications of that move are enormous and deeply alarming, both to the House and outside, for Railtrack as a company, for its shareholders and especially for the Office of the Rail Regulator. Furthermore, there are implications for the regulation of other industries.
The implications for the travelling public are clear. The question that the Secretary of State must answer in the House today, or perhaps tomorrow in the Select Committee, is: how can he give an assurance to train operators and investors that whatever the successor to Railtrack may be, it will be adequately funded and that that investment will be protected by an independent regulator?
Successive sectors have used this model: energy, telecommunications and transport depend on the role of an independent regulator for the smooth operation of the industry and for the ultimate protection of the interests of shareholders.
There are also ramifications for the public sector. Clause 24 of the NHS Reform and Health Care Professions Bill deals with the independent regulation of the health service and the reform of the General Medical Council, yet clause 25(2) providesyet againfor power of direction to the Secretary of State to overrule the very independence of that regulator. That threatens the principle of the independence that the Bill is intended to create.
The inadequacies of the Secretary of State are well rehearsed. His lapses of memory are only too familiar, but his poor record in this matter is noteworthy: for example, his decision not to award a 20-year franchise to GNER, against the clear advice of the Strategic Rail Authority. The Select Committee heard in evidence that neither the Secretary of State nor any of the Department's Ministers had tried to hold a meeting from the date that the right hon. Gentleman took office to the date of the announcement of Sir Alastair Morton's retirement. That meant that the two major applicants in that east coast main line renewal spent £4 million apiecea total of £8 millionin promoting their bid. At present, that money is not recoverable.
The cost of putting Railtrack into administration runs at £2 million a weeka cost to be met by the Government and thus the taxpayer. Following the demise of the independence of the Rail Regulator, one question remains to be answered. In the bidding for Railtrackthe new not for profit company, limited by guaranteewho will set the base line?
The Secretary of State may care to answer that question this evening, but is he the man in whose hands the travelling public want to see the future of the railways? The answer is no, and I beg the right hon. Gentleman to consider his position.
Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar): Before I begin my speech, I wish to associate myself with the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) and the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions about the people of New York who continue to suffer. We all admire their bravery.
The debate got off to a marvellous start with my hon. Friend's speech. There were distinguished contributions from my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke), my right hon. Friends the Members for North-West Cambridgeshire (Sir B. Mawhinney) and for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood), and my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh). We are grateful to her for all her hard work on the Select Committee, and especially for exposing the truth about these matters.
It is a cause of regret to the Opposition that the Secretary of State has not seen fit to be in the Chamber much today, and in particular that he is not here for the winding-up speeches[Interruption.] Ah, here he is! I am glad that he has made it; we can all be late.
I have felt a little sorry for the right hon. Gentleman[Interruption.] No, I have, because we have made history today. This is the first ever vote of no confidence in a member of the Cabinet and not a single member of the Cabinet thought fit to turn up to support the right hon. Gentleman. He said that he had sent a message to his colleagues: "Don't come today, you've got more important things to do." I am sure that we would all like to see that particular e-mail.
We knew that the right hon. Gentleman was in trouble when he tried to present himself as a Gucci-suited class warrior, talking about the fat cats and reeling off sums of moneythe many millions of pounds of bonusesyet those sums pale into insignificance against the amount of extra interest that we shall all have to pay for our infrastructure projects because of the Secretary of State.
The right hon. Gentleman failed to answer the principal question: on 5 October, when did he first receive the information from the Treasury that it was not prepared to fund Railtrack? On 5 October, did he receive information from the Treasury: "Well, basically Steven, do whatever you like. If you want to give it billions of pounds, we are right behind you"? I do not believe for one moment that the Treasury said that. The right hon. Gentleman should understand that, sooner or later, we will find out the date and that from that point on he will have been guilty of creating a false market in shares. Sooner or later, that date will come out[Interruption.] In reply to the Whip, the hon. Member for Hove (Mr. Caplin), I am certainly on the side of the workers who have been robbed of their savings by the Government.
As the Secretary of State is thought to be relying on his notes of 25 July, he has no alternative but to place them in the Library. We look forward to being able to study his version of the minutes. We have seen everyone else's minutes for that date, so we should see his.
The right hon. Gentleman made a great statement that he did not feel that he threatened the regulator and that he should be acquitted of that. As one of my hon. Friends said, we do not think that the right hon. Gentleman is a physically imposing or intimidating person. Even if he took a dose of steroids, we would not find him very frighteningas might have been the case with his predecessor. We were interested in the substantive point of whether or not he had promised to produce legislation. We now know that he said that he would produce legislation.
Let us be blunt with the right hon. Gentleman. He said no to the House when he should have said yes. At the very least, we should have received a qualified no. We completely accept that the right hon. Gentleman did not threaten the regulator. Instead, he chose the well-trodden path of the Corleone family, by making the regulator an offer he could not refuse. Railtrack is in administration because the Government refused to provide additional public money, as was their right. More importantly, Railtrack is in administration because other modes of finance were cut off by the Secretary of State. No one can save Railtrack because the Secretary of State was determined
Mr. Pickles: I will not give way to a part-time attender of the debate. The hon. Gentleman cannot expect to swan in at the beginning and then again at the end. I am not taking interventions from someone who has not had the courtesy to attend the debate. He can sit down.
Hugh Bayley: On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The reason I left the Chamber after the hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) had replied to my intervention was because she inadvertently misled the House. I have been to the Library to get the facts