HC Deb 26 February 2002 vol 380 cc563-78 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: Dear Jo, there is no way I will allow this Department to make any substantive announcements next Friday. Princess Margaret is being buried on that day. I will absolutely not allow anything else to be. 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, every aspect of your story is correct. I'm happy with it. 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 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 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: I had absolutely nothing to do with and no discussions about Mr. Sixsmith's departure. Yesterday, however, the permanent secretary made a statement in which he said: It was clear to me this situation could not continue and that Jo Moore and Martin Sixsmith should both leave their posts, because relationships within the Department and with its Ministers had broken down. I discussed this with Mr. Byers. He agreed with my proposal. 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— [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—

Hon. Members

Bye, bye.

Mr. Speaker

Order. Let the hon. Lady speak.

Mrs. May

How can the Secretary of State come here today and yet again attempt to put the blame for his own failures on the civil servants in his Department? Just what does it take for this Secretary of State to go? Is he content to stay at any price—a despised Secretary of State who no one trusts and no one will deal with? He has said that his Department needs a fresh start. He has prided himself on taking tough decisions. Let him salvage something from his shattered reputation: give the Department the fresh start it needs and go now.

Mr. Byers

I think that that was prepared a little earlier, before the hon. Lady had read my statement. The important point that the House needs to address—

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

Answer the questions.

Mr. Byers

I will answer the questions. Mr. Forth: All of them.

Mr. Byers

I will answer all the questions. When Opposition Members have had the opportunity to read my statement, they will see that most of the questions have already been answered in it.

The situation is this. The hon. Lady referred to the Dimbleby programme, on which I was very clear about the circumstances of the resignations. That was reaffirmed by the points made in yesterday's statement by the permanent secretary, Sir Richard Mottram. His view was that the situation of both Martin Sixsmith and Jo Moore was untenable in the light of circumstances in the Department's press office and that we should seek their resignations. I agreed with that. It was a recommendation from the permanent secretary, and I made that clear. If hon. Members see the transcript of the Dimbleby programme, they will see that I said that.

The crucial issue, I think, relates to whether, in the circumstances, Martin Sixsmith's resignation was communicated to me. As yesterday's statement from Sir Richard Mottram makes very clear, he informed me and the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Richard Wilson, that Martin Sixsmith had agreed to resign. It was on that basis that I made the announcement. The hon. Lady raises the issue that the condition of Jo Moore resigning was that Martin Sixsmith should resign as well. There were no such conditions attached to Jo Moore's resignation.

On the issue of whether I have been involved in the detailed discussions relating to Mr. Sixsmith's termination, the situation—I hope that I made it clear in my statement, but I shall try to clarify it for Opposition Members—is that I made it clear to Sir Richard Mottram that, in my view, which I believe has been strengthened by events over the past few days, Mr. Sixsmith should not be given a job elsewhere in government. The crucial issue addressed in the Dimbleby programme, however, was whether I had in some way blocked his appointment. Ultimately, as I have said, I am not in a position to block any arrangement regarding his future employment elsewhere in the civil service, and I accepted that discussions between Sir Richard Mottram and Mr. Sixsmith would continue. It is appropriate that they should.

Those, I think, are the key issues raised by the hon. Lady. I am clear that, given the way in which he conducted himself in the Department, Martin Sixsmith was not a suitable person to remain in government; but that, ultimately, was not a decision made by me as Secretary of State. It is a matter to be discussed between the permanent secretary and Mr. Sixsmith himself, and those discussions were continuing up until last Friday.

Andrew Bennett (Denton and Reddish)

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his determination to deal with the real problems that his Department faces in sorting out local government finance, securing a modern transport system for us, and making a reality of urban regeneration. Does he accept that he will be judged at the end of this Parliament, both by Labour Members and in the country, on his success in those areas rather than on the minutiae of today's debate?

Mr. Byers

Of course—and I must stress that not just my ministerial team but the vast majority of civil servants in the Department are committed to achieving those objectives. They are impartial: they serve the Government of the day. We have experienced difficulties in this particular instance, but they have occurred in the communications department and, thankfully, not in a department that has been responsible for delivering on those important aims.

We need to ensure that we concentrate on the key issues that concern people in our country. Those issues are very clear. I can understand why the Conservatives do not want to talk about them: they were responsible for 18 years of neglect. Communities in our country are still suffering the scars inflicted by that Conservative Government, and that is what the Conservatives do not want to talk about. They will concentrate on the contract of employment of one senior civil servant. What about the millions who lost their jobs under a Conservative Government? We hear nothing about that. But this Government, this Department and this Secretary of State are dedicated to improving transport, to reforming local government, to giving decent housing to our people, and to the regeneration of our communities. That is our agenda, that is the country's agenda, and that is what we will deliver on.

Mr. Don Foster (Bath)

It would be all too easy to call for the Secretary of State's resignation over this one issue. After all, the Tories do it at the drop of a hat. But does not this particular issue demonstrate the feuding that has been going on for far too long at the very heart of the Secretary of State's Department? Not only has that feuding detracted from the Department's ability to do its work; it is symptomatic of a crisis of management within the Department—a crisis of management that has led to chaos on our railways, in London Underground, and in National Air Traffic Services.

Does this not mean that the Department no longer even knows what is going on? For example, it does not even keep records of the research that it has commissioned, and does not know whether or not vital safety recommendations to improve our railways have been implemented. Even today's statement was entitled "Resignation of Martin Sixsmith", although it is absolutely clear that he has not resigned at all.

Even more important than the crisis of management over which he presides, however, is the Secretary of State's own behaviour. Section 58 of the ministerial code specifically requires ministers not to issue instructions contrary to the civil service code, and requires them to behave as good employers. As it is clear from his statement that the Secretary of State was directly involved in the removal of Mr. Sixsmith, how can he claim not to be in breach of section 58 of the ministerial code?

How can a senior member of the right hon. Gentleman's Department be removed without any inquiry into allegations of misconduct, particularly when it is now claimed that Sir Richard Mottram has said that there has been no misconduct? Surely if the Secretary of State and his Department are behaving as good employers, Martin Sixsmith should have the same employment rights as anybody else. Like the Secretary of State, Martin Sixsmith deserves to have a hearing. Can the Secretary of State tell the House of what Martin Sixsmith is actually guilty?

Is it any wonder, with all this going on, that it appears that the only person retaining full confidence in the Secretary of State is the Prime Minister? Given all of these causes for concern about the crisis in his Department, would it not be right for the Secretary of State at least to move over and make way for somebody else to lead the Department and to go now?

Mr. Byers

I have looked carefully at the ministerial code as well, and the hon. Gentleman will know that section 58 clearly talks about issuing instructions. I thought that I had made it clear in my statement—certainly Sir Richard Mottram did yesterday—that Sir Richard Mottram came to me on 15 February to say that, in his view, in the interests of the Department, the best outcome would be if Jo Moore and Martin Sixsmith resigned. That was his recommendation to me, and I agreed with it. There is no question of instructions; a permanent secretary came to me and made a recommendation. That was the substance of the allegation that has been made.

The hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) says that the Department is not doing anything, and that it is in paralysis and crisis. This is a Department that, in the last eight months—[Interruption.] Conservative Members immediately talk about what we did in relation to Railtrack. I know that it is very difficult for the Conservatives to come to terms with the fact that we have acted in relation to their failed privatisation, but the reality is that we have. In addition, we have issued a White Paper on the reform of local government structures and finance. For the first time since 1947, we have issued a Green Paper on changing the planning system. We have also changed the Strategic Rail Authority to provide greater focus. We have the new deal for communities, which is making a difference to literally hundreds of thousands of people in our country.

That is what we have been able to do in the Department. It is not a Department in paralysis; the Department is taking action. The Liberal Democrats disagree with much of what we have done; I wear that as a badge of compliment. We are doing the right things and we will continue to do so in the interests of the people of this country.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)

My right hon. Friend will be aware that the British civil service not only performs important tasks, but, in his Department, provides skilled and intelligent back-up for transport policies that are desperately needed in a country where the railway system is breaking down and there are considerable problems with roads and aviation. Will he bear in mind that those civil servants are worthy of much better appreciation? Will he make it clear that the politicisation of the civil service relationship—begun under a previous Conservative Prime Minister—will not be tolerated by those who want the transport system of this country to be rejuvenated under the aegis of those who are prepared to take difficult decisions?

Mr. Byers

I have never taken the view that one should judge a civil servant on whether or not they were one of us, and I know that certain Opposition Members would not disagree with that approach. My hon. Friend makes an important point. As Chairman of the Transport Committee, she deals with many officials in my Department and she will know that they are dedicated and hard-working. They want to work with me in meeting the challenges posed by the railways, roads, buses, underground and aviation. Big challenges lie ahead, and I am confident that we will be able to meet them together as a Department. I honestly believe that the resignations of Jo Moore and Martin Sixsmith mean that we are in a stronger position to meet those challenges.

There is no doubt in my mind that the impartiality of the civil service is one of its greatest strengths. I have done nothing as Secretary of State that would in any way compromise that impartiality, and that is how I intend to continue.

Sir Brian Mawhinney (North-West Cambridgeshire)

Given that this morning the Prime Minister's official spokesman repeatedly refused to answer the simple, direct question whether the Prime Minister believes that the Secretary of State has told the truth, on what basis should the House form a judgment about the latter's statement? Clearly, the Prime Minister no longer believes him.

Mr. Byers

The Prime Minister will make his position clear. Had the Prime Minister's official spokesman in the Lobby briefing this morning gone through the statement that I intended to make to the House, the right hon. Gentleman would have been the first to criticise that. The House has had an opportunity to hear at first hand from me about the circumstances of Martin Sixsmith's resignation. I have declined invitations to go on numerous television and radio programmes to provide the House with this opportunity, and I have been open and honest, knowing the consequences that would follow were I to mislead the House in any way. My statement, confirming the points made yesterday by Sir Richard Mottram, set out the facts of the events that occurred in my Department over the past two weeks.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

What were the circumstances in which so equable a civil servant as Sir Richard Mottram, whom some of us have known for 20 years, since the time when he was Michael Heseltine's private secretary and gave evidence at the Old Bailey in the trial of Clive Ponting, was prompted to say that the Department was—let me use the word "stymied"?

Mr. Byers

I have heard it expressed in many ways, but "stymied" is not one of them. My hon. Friend's question had a serious point, however. The permanent secretary felt deeply frustrated at the way in which communications in our press office had broken down and there was a lack of confidence and trust. Sir Richard Mottram has indeed had a long and distinguished career in the civil service, and he shared my frustration at what had been going on and expressed himself accordingly. In his statement yesterday, he made it absolutely clear what had happened. I invite all right hon. and hon. Members to study carefully the statement that he made yesterday, as well as the statement that I made this afternoon, because they represent an accurate recollection of events as they took place.

Mr. Richard Shepherd (Aldridge-Brownhills)

Whatever the Secretary of State may gloss over, does not he realise quite how demeaning this is for himself, Sir Richard Mottram and the standing of Government? He is evasive on key points. He says that he does not involve himself in personnel matters, but does not recommend that a particular person should find a position in another Department. This is a demeaning process. The House is concerned about the standard of public administration, and this looks like a considerable failure on the part of the Secretary of State and his Department. This is shaming.

Mr. Byers

When the hon. Gentleman has had an opportunity to look at the sequence of events that occurred in the week in question, I hope that he will be able to see exactly what Martin Sixsmith was involved in and will draw his own conclusions. It was in the light of that that I expressed the view that he was not a suitable person to remain in the senior civil service. That is the situation, and when hon. Members consider the points that I have made, I think that they will be able to recognise that.

The hon. Gentleman is right to point out that these are serious issues in terms of ensuring that the civil service is impartial and can get on with its job. I believe that what we have done will ensure that that impartiality remains.

Mr. Brian H. Donohoe (Cunninghame, South)

I assure my right hon. Friend that not many people on the streets of Cunninghame, South are worried about the future of Mr. Sixsmith. They are worried about the state of the roads and the railways. I have been a member of the Transport Committee for many years, and have heard many Secretaries of State give evidence. I assure my right hon. Friend that he is among the best that I have encountered. Perhaps the main reason why he is taking such flak today is that Conservative Members, who were responsible for the privatisation of the railways, now condemn him for taking Railtrack into administration. That is the real reason why they are baying for my right hon. Friend's blood today.

Mr. Byers

Some tough decisions have been taken. Many have been opposed by Opposition Members, which is always an indication that we are moving in the right direction. More difficult decisions will be taken in the months and years ahead. I look forward to appearing before my hon. Friend the Member for Cunninghame, South (Mr. Donohoe) and the Transport Committee for many years to come.

Sir Teddy Taylor (Rochford and Southend, East)

Will the Secretary of State clarify the situation, as no one ever believes anyone about anything nowadays? The right hon. Gentleman has said that Mr. Sixsmith has resigned, but that gentleman says that he has not and that he was told that he had done nothing wrong. In those circumstances, does Mr. Sixsmith have the right to go for an impartial hearing on unfair dismissal? I hope that the Secretary of State will answer that clear and specific question.

Mr. Byers

The resignation was agreed with Martin Sixsmith and the permanent secretary. It is still the case that the precise terms of his departure are being negotiated and discussed by Martin Sixsmith and the permanent secretary. Mr. Sixsmith' s resignation has been accepted, and the terms under which he is to depart are being negotiated.

Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton)

Will my right hon. Friend explain how the situation that he has set out to the House this afternoon compares with the occasion when Colette Bowe, a press officer in the Department of Trade and Industry, was ordered by Bernard Ingham to leak a letter from the Solicitor-General against Michael Heseltine? At the time, John Biffen described Bernard Ingham as the sewer, not the sewage. Will my right hon. Friend explain how that action might have compromised the impartiality of the civil service, to use the words of the hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May)? Will my right hon. Friend accept it as a compliment that the BBC—which spent the whole of last Monday ringing Labour MPs to get one to criticise the Government on air—and the Tory press are using this matter as a distraction—

Hon. Members

Give way.

Mr. Speaker

Order. The House must let the right hon. Gentleman put his question.

Mr. Kaufman

They are using this matter as a distraction from the fact that the Government have a lead of 17 per cent., according to the latest ICM poll. The Opposition's present performance will only serve to increase that lead. Is my right hon. Friend aware that, in the Gorton division— [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. I think that the Secretary of State can answer.

Mr. Byers

Once again, my right hon. Friend has done the House a service by reminding us of the events of 1985 and the role played by Bernard Ingham. I am conscious of the great support that I have had from my right hon. and hon. Friends. This is not an argument about one civil servant, but a real conflict about the direction in which the Government are going. The Conservatives simply cannot understand that the Government have a commanding lead in the opinion polls because we are putting the priorities of the people first. We will continue to do that and will not be distracted by events such as this.

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 resignation—with hindsight, the welcome resignation—of 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 Westminster—the 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 long—we are taking steps there—getting 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 secretary came to me with what he regarded as the best way forward, given the difficulties that we had, and I agreed with his recommendation.

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 this—it 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 sacked—or of why he resigned—that 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 before—call 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. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire)

Will the Secretary of State say whether Mr. Martin Sixsmith was a civil servant in his Department on 22 February?

Mr. Byers

As I said earlier, Martin Sixsmith offered his resignation, which was accepted, on 15 February.

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. Byers

That issue was addressed in yesterday's statement by the permanent secretary, and I ask the hon. Gentleman to read it.

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 o 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 integrity is on trial, will he now answer the question directly? Did he make Martin Sixsmith's resignation a condition of Jo Moore's resignation?

Mr. Byers


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?

Mr. Byers

I thank my hon. Friend for her kind words. It is important not to lose sight of the issues that really matter to her constituents and others, including the reform of local government and—especially in her constituency—tackling the problems of children growing up in bed and breakfast accommodation. Far too many children are denied life chances because of the conditions in which they are being brought up, and we want to take action to address that. Those are the real, big issues that matter to people outside this place.

The present issue is a media story, because it is linked with a director of communications. The media have focused on it and are not interested in anything else. However, I have the responsibility in my Department to deliver on the big issues that people really care about, such as transport, quality of life, decent homes and the regeneration and restoration of hope to communities. I and the Government will not be diverted from delivering on that agenda.

Sir Peter Tapsell (Louth and Horncastle)

The Secretary of State told the House some time ago that the notorious e-mail that started all these discussions was never sent by Mr. Sixsmith to Miss Moore. Can the Secretary of State say whether that e-mail, or a similarly worded one, was sent to anyone else in his Department by Mr. Sixsmith, or was a hoax within the Department, or was just an invention of the newspapers?

Mr. Byers

The e-mail to which I referred in my statement was clearly false. What actually happened has been made public, and I shall be more than happy to place a copy of the relevant e-mail in the Library of the House so that all hon. Members may read it. The director of communications, Martin Sixsmith, sent an e-mail to me at my personal e-mail address rather than, as is normally the case, to a private secretary. That e-mail was sent on the Monday following the weekend of the death of Princess Margaret. The Friday of that week had already been announced as the date of her funeral. The e-mail was sent at about 12.30 pm to me as Stephen Byers MP. It began—these words may not be exactly correct, but they are fairly precise—"You asked me to reschedule an announcement to Friday".

The implication was that I, after Princess Margaret's death, had approached Martin Sixsmith and said that I wanted to change the date of an announcement to the Friday. That is totally inaccurate. Anyone who read that e-mail would have drawn the same conclusion as I did. I do not know why Martin Sixsmith sent the e-mail in that form, but, without any explanation behind it, it clearly had the potential to put me, as Secretary of State, in a difficult situation.

Mr. Peter Pike (Burnley)

Is it not a fact that anyone who analysed Martin Sixsmith's talk on Radio 4's "Today" programme this morning and Richard Mottram's statement yesterday would fully accept the statement that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has just made? Is it not also the case that much of the protest today results from the fact that my right hon. Friend had the guts to take action to deal with the Tory shambles of rail privatisation? That is what the Opposition are protesting about. We should let him get on with doing the rest of his job in the same bold and courageous way that he has done it for the past few months.

Mr. Byers

I have started, and I intend to finish.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

In answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Norman Baker), the Secretary of State referred directly to the ministerial code—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. Please let hon. Members put their questions.

Mr. Tyler

In his response to my hon. Friend, the Secretary of State made great play of the fact that he had not instructed that the resignation or dismissal of Mr. Sixsmith should occur. The word "instruct" does not appear in paragraph 58; can he explain that discrepancy? Furthermore, if the Secretary of State did not instruct that Mr. Sixsmith should lose his job, did he agree with the proposition that Mr. Sixsmith had to go? Was that connected with the e-mail that he has introduced at this late stage of our discussion, and will he place that e-mail in the Library so that we may see the context of the statement that he has just made?

Mr. Byers

In response to a previous question, I said that I would place a copy of that e-mail in the Library. I shall of course do so because it is right that hon. Members should read it. I have also said that I agreed with the recommendation made by the permanent secretary. I made that absolutely clear.

Mike Gapes (Ilford, South)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that among the so-called pundits called on by the BBC and other media organisations over the past few days is a man—one Andy Wood—who worked from when our Government were elected in 1997 to undermine their efforts to obtain an agreement in Northern Ireland? Is not the reality that although the vast majority of civil servants have worked loyally to implement the reforms that we have tried to make and to support the efforts of my right hon. Friend and his colleagues to improve investment in the London underground, reform Railtrack and much more, some people follow their own agenda and wish to support the Tories—

Mr. Speaker

Order. I do not think that the Secretary of State need reply to that.

Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton)

On "The Frost Programme" on Sunday morning, the Secretary of State for Scotland dismissed Mr. Sixsmith as a spin doctor who was seeking to negotiate his exit package. Does the Secretary of State agree with that description of a senior civil servant in his Department? Are we to infer from that that when Cabinet members say that senior civil servants are spin doctors, it is a dismissable offence?

Mr. Byers

The terms of Mr. Sixsmith's departure are being discussed between him, his representatives and the permanent secretary. That is the appropriate way of dealing with these matters.

Mr. Andrew MacKay (Bracknell)

Will the Secretary of State categorically state that at no time did he insist that he would not accept the resignation of Jo Moore without the resignation of Mr. Sixsmith?

Mr. Byers

I hope that I have made that clear, but I shall try to do so again. There was no linkage between the two. Jo Moore resigned without any conditions being attached. I understand from the statement made by Sir Richard Mottram— [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. There is no point in the right hon. Member for Bracknell (Mr. MacKay) asking the Secretary of State a question if he does not allow him to answer it. The right hon. Gentleman should let the Secretary of State answer.

Mr. Byers

The statement made yesterday by Sir Richard Mottram made it clear that it was a condition of Martin Sixsmith's resignation that Jo Moore should resign.

Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell)

Does the Secretary of State believe that the shambolic events of the past week reflect well or badly on the leadership of his Department, including himself?

Mr. Byers

I think that we have done the right thing by securing the resignations of Jo Moore and Martin Sixsmith. As I said earlier, I honestly believe that the Department is now in a stronger position to move forward and to meet the challenges that lie ahead.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Speaker


  2. c578
  3. Point of Order 382 words