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Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough): The Secretary of State has so far given the impression that Mr. Sixsmith was removed because he was inconvenient. Can the right hon. Gentleman tell us precisely what Mr. Sixsmith did wrong to warrant his removal, when the allegation was put to him, so that he knew what he had to deal with, and who put that allegation to him?
Mr. Byers: As I think I said clearly in my opening statement, the permanent secretary, when I met him on Friday 15 February, said that in his view the situations of both Jo Moore and Martin Sixsmith were untenable because of the way in which the press office was operating and that it would therefore be in the best interests of the Department if the resignations of both of them could be secured. I agreed with the permanent secretary's recommendation and, as a result, both individuals resigned.
Mr. Peter Kilfoyle (Liverpool, Walton): May I say to my right hon. Friend how welcome is the clarity of his exposition of the events leading up to the resignationwith hindsight, the welcome resignationof Martin Sixsmith? I remind him of the full support that he has from those on the Government Benches for the objectives that he has set for his Department. I urge him to ignore the futile fumblings of a mealy-mouthed Opposition and the feeding frenzy in the media and get on with what matters outside Westminsterthe delivery of those objectives.
Mr. Byers: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I am sure that in the streets and clubs of Walton, in Liverpool and in the country generally, Martin Sixsmith is not the issue of the day. The issues are about improving our transport system, regenerating communities such as those on Merseyside which have been battered for far too longwe are taking steps theregetting decent housing for our people and ensuring that we have an infrastructure fit for the 21st century and the fourth largest economy in the world. We do not have that at the moment. We are about investing and reforming. Conservative Members do not accept that. They would take the money away and would not put reforms in place either.
Norman Baker (Lewes): It is indeed brave of the Secretary of State to lay down his civil servant's life to save his skin. What happened to the convention that Secretaries of State take responsibility for what happens in their Department, instead of passing it on to civil servants? The Secretary of State has been very keen this afternoon to rubbish Martin Sixsmith and to say that Jo Moore should have resigned. What responsibility does he take? Does he think that he did anything wrong in this episode, or is he perfection personified?
Mr. Byers: The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the convention is that Secretaries of State do not get involved in the detailed personnel matters of the civil service. That is the reality of the situation. What happened in this case, as I explained in my statement, is that the permanent
Mr. Clive Soley (Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush): Will the Secretary of State keep it firmly in his mind when he looks at some of the headlines in newspapers whose journalists spend too much time watching soap operas that the British people are not terribly interested in a conflict between two individuals in one section of his Department, whereas they are extremely interested in putting right the botched privatisation of the railways? In a few months' time, people will remember only one thing about thisit is a story of the media, by the media and for the media.
Mr. Byers: My hon. Friend makes an important point and there is a lesson for us all. When this issue is long forgotten, people will still be looking to us to improve the transport system, whether rail, road, bus, the underground or aviation. Those are the big issues that matter to people, as do regeneration, decent housing and sorting out our planning system. The Opposition may regard this as the big issue of the day, but if they fight the next general election on such a basis they will end up with even fewer Members of Parliament.
Mr. John Gummer (Suffolk, Coastal): The Secretary of State must know that he has yet to give an explanation of why Mr. Sixsmith was sackedor of why he resignedthat would stand up in any employment tribunal. He has suggested that Mr. Sixsmith had to go because he could not get on with other people in the Department, but is it not clear that the Secretary of State cannot get on with those people? Does that not suggest that, according not to employment law rules but to his own, he ought to resign?
Mr. Byers: I made it clear that, in the view of the permanent secretary, the positions of Martin Sixsmith and Jo Moore had become untenable and that it would be best for the Department if we could secure the resignations of both. I spoke to Jo Moore and the permanent secretary spoke to Martin Sixsmith, and in the light of that both agreed to resign.
Kate Hoey (Vauxhall): The Secretary of State says that he does not want to be distracted from important issues. On leaving the House, will he go back to his office and get out the map for congestion charging in London, which was announced today by Ken Livingstone, and explain to me why Kennington is regarded as being in central London but Harrods is not? Will he also do what he should have done beforecall in this ridiculous plan, so that a full public inquiry and environmental audit can be undertaken?
Mr. Byers: I understand my hon. Friend's concerns, and we made clear representations about the matter in discussions with the Mayor of London, but under the terms of the Greater London Authority Act 1999 we are not allowed to deal with it. It has been devolved to the Mayor, who will be answerable for the scheme that he wants to introduce.
Mr. Mike O'Brien (North Warwickshire): This is a sorry affair. If it is true that Martin Sixsmith, while a civil servant, telephoned a journalist on The Mirror on 14 February to make allegations about a fellow Government official, will the Secretary of State confirm that such behaviour was a breach of the civil service code and civil service impartiality, and should have merited instant dismissal?
Mr. Byers: Members of the House will have seen the reports in yesterday's edition of The Mirror, which have been accurately reflected in my hon. Friend's comments. The allegations are clearly serious and simply could not be ignored.
Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet): The customs and conventions of the civil service are absolutely clear: resignations are placed in writing. The Secretary of State has said time and again this afternoon that Mr. Sixsmith has resigned. Would he be good enough to place in the House of Commons Library the letter from Mr. Sixsmith, dated 15 February, offering his resignation, and say what time it was delivered to him?
Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South): I have known my right hon. Friend for several years and I know him to be a person of integrity. I suspect that part of his problem is that he has upset some mighty vested interests with his decision on Railtrack. If he is guilty of anything, it is of showing excessive loyalty to a colleague and friend. In these days of shifting values, that is not a very great crime. By his statement this afternoon, my right hon. Friend has lanced the boil and we must not surrender to the feeding frenzy. We now need to look forward and move on.
Mr. Byers: I thank my hon. Friend for those comments. I chose to make a statement to the House this afternoon for exactly those reasons. I felt that it was appropriate that the House should have the opportunity to hear my account of events. I will be held to account for the comments that I make in the House and I appreciate that. The statement that I have made and Sir Richard Mottram's statement yesterday reflect accurately the sequence of events that have taken place over the past 14 days.
Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate): My hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) asked the Secretary of State whether he required Martin Sixsmith's resignation as a condition of Jo Moore's resignation. The Secretary of State replied that no conditions were attached to Jo Moore's resignation. As he knows, that is not an answer to the question that was put. Given that his
Ms Karen Buck (Regent's Park and Kensington, North): I have not always been an uncritical friend of my right hon. Friend's Department, especially in relation to London Underground, but it is to his considerable credit that we have been able to have those disagreements without rancour. Will he accept my confirmation that he has many friends on the Government Benches and in local government, where he is widely seen as the most visionary and supportive local government Minister for a quarter of a century? Does he accept that the delivery of personal social services and housing to millions of people is vastly more important than who said what to whom in a row between two press officers, especially when it is essential that Ministers are able to retain confidence in their press officers?