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Mr. Byers: I stress to the right hon. Gentleman and his colleagues that they should examine the record. They should look at my statement to the House on 26 February and my permanent secretary's statement on the public record on 25 February about events on 15 February. When they do that, they will know that I have not misled the House.
Tony Wright (Cannock Chase): My right hon. Friend has rightly come to the House today to correct an inaccuracy. I commend him on that because it is important that those matters be corrected. He mentioned that his permanent secretary had written to me, as Chairman of the Public Administration Committee, this week. He said:
When the Committee discussed the matter with the Cabinet Secretary, he agreed that there was "chaos" in that section of the Department on the day in question. Is not the important issue to ensure that such chaos never happens again?
Mr. Byers: My hon. Friend makes an important point, and I am sure that hon. Members look forward to the recommendations of the Public Administration Committee when it concludes its report. There is no doubt that there were problems in the Department; they have been resolved. The agreed statement on Tuesday is part of the resolution of the difficulties, and drew a line in sand. I am pleased that that is the case.
Mr. Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden): Twelve thousand constituents who travel on the trains every day are primarily concerned that, following the Secretary of State's renationalisation of Railtrack, punctuality has deteriorated. That is more important than his prolific loss of spin doctors. They also note that he has disowned, dismissed or seen depart the chairman of the Strategic Rail Authority, the chairman of Railtrack, the Rail Regulator and another regulator. They were all appointed by him or his Government. If he cannot get on with those people and they do not trust him, how can my constituents trust him to run the railways properly? And if none of those people was required to be paid £200,000 to keep quiet, why is the taxpayer, and not the Labour party, required to pay that sum to Martin Sixsmith?
Mr. Byers: I have great respect for the Rail Regulator, who I believe is doing a very good job. On the issue of changes at the top of the Strategic Rail Authority and Railtrack, I have to say to the right hon. Gentleman that I do not think that those organisations were delivering to his 12,000 constituents coming in from St. Albans. There is a choice: we can either make big changes to have the opportunity of improving our railway system, or we can tinker around at the edges. I have chosen to make the big changes that are needed. The right hon. Gentleman may criticise me for doing so, but in the end, his 12,000 constituents who travel every day will be the judge. By the time of the next election, what will really matter to them will be not the debate that we are having here this afternoon but whether their trains are safer, more punctual and more reliableand they will be.
Gillian Merron (Lincoln): The Opposition are baying for my right hon. Friend's blood. While the payment to Martin Sixsmith was legal, my right hon. Friend will be as appalled as I was to learn that, in the public interest report on Lincolnshire county council which found its Tory leader guilty of £750,000 of illegal payments
Mr. Byers: My hon. Friend makes the point that really matters to the people of this country. We face huge challenges, and she has just given a good example of where the railway system is not delivering the quality that we all expect it to. Obviously, we need to take steps to ensure that it is improved. Those are the big issues. I have to say to my hon. Friend that, while there has been all this froth from the Opposition, we have not been diverted from delivering what really matters to the people of our country. When hon. Members look at my statement on 26 February, specifically referring to my permanent secretary's statement on 25 February, they will realise that I did not mislead the House.
Mr. Byers: I will simply say to the hon. and learned Gentleman that he should look carefully at what I have said to the House, and at my permanent secretary's statement. He will then realise that there is no conduct for which I should apologise.
Mr. Peter Kilfoyle (Liverpool, Walton): Could the Secretary of State assure Labour Ministers that he will not be distracted by the pedantry of the most mendacious of Oppositions? Can he also assure us that he and his Ministers will get on with the really important business of ensuring that local councils such as my owna Lib Dem councilare transparent, and that they properly engage with local communities in the essential business of regeneration, which affects them far more than whatever happens to Martin Sixsmith?
Mr. Byers: My hon. Friend makes an important point, and I am grateful to him. It is not always the case that, when a Secretary of State sees my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Kilfoyle) rising to speak
Mr. Byers: Yes, sometimes they are terrified, or at least slightly worried, because my hon. Friend speaks independently. He speaks his own mind on behalf of his constituents. What he has done today is to articulate the view of his constituents, and the constituents of all hon. Members, that there are far bigger issues that need to be addressed.
Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that, whatever the substantial differences between him and Martin Sixsmith, the one thing they have in common is that they have both taken an inordinate amount of time to tender their resignations? If it subsequently emerges that the House has been misled about any of these matters, will the Secretary of State tender his resignation?
Mr. Byers: The ministerial code is absolutely clear: a Minister who knowingly misleads the House should tender his resignation. That is absolutely right. [Interruption.] Opposition Members who are shouting should look at my statement. I will say this again[Interruption.] Right hon. and hon. Members may not want to hear, but if they look at my statement of 26 February and my permanent secretary's statement of 25 February they will realise that I have not misled the House.
Paul Farrelly (Newcastle-under-Lyme): When the House debates the substantive issue of the railways, as a new Member I often shake my head in disbelief at the number of statements by Conservatives who are simply trying to reinvent history. Will my right hon. Friend please ask the amnesiac Conservative party to apologise[Interruption.]
Mr. Byers: The key issue is that we should be debating those big policy issues relating to our transport system, regeneration, planning, housing and local government. The Conservatives are running away from those big issues, for a simple reason: either they have no policy in those areas, or they know that many of them will be required to invest massively over a long period. As their party is committed to cutting investment, they want to run away from the debates and the arguments about those issues of substance.
Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston): The hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) referred to Cheshire county council. I for one would like it to be abolished very quickly, and I am delighted about the White Paper that was announced today. While it still exists, however, will my right hon. Friend ignore the froth and nonsense that we are hearing and concentrate on some of the things that are going on in the council? There are appalling employment practices, and cuts in services that are affecting my constituents.