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BBC BREAKFAST WITH FROST INTERVIEW: STEPHEN BYERS, MP Transport Secretary MAY 12th, 2002
Please note "BBC Breakfast with Frost" must be credited if any part of this transcript is used
DAVID FROST: Well we've been talking a lot about you this morning, Stephen Byers is here with us this morning. May I just a lightening quick question that came up all through. You were the person who had to make the decision whether the Express bid should go through or not, and then we've heard about the hundred thousand with suspicious timing or whatever. Can you tell us why you reject, if you do reject, the suggestion that this was connivance?
STEPHEN BYERS: Well I reject it absolutely and I have in fact brought with me the announcement I made way before the Desmond approach for Express Newspapers, which was agreed I think early in 2001 and on the 26th of October, in the year 2000, when I was Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, I announced that from today I would accept the advice received from the Director General of Fair Trading on whether or not to refer merger cases to the competition commission. And in fact what happened here was that the Director General of Fair Trading, after my announcement, recommended to me that this should not be referred to the competition commission. So in line with the policy which I had announced long before Desmond's approach for Express Newspapers, I fell in line with that advice.
DAVID FROST: Right. So in this case one and one didn't equal two, as it were, but it does, the timing, makes it look bad, that's really the problem isn't it?
STEPHEN BYERS: Well some people might say that but what I would say to them is look at the policy that was announced before Desmond's approach for Express Newspapers. The policy was very clear. I said that in future, in relation to references to the competition commission, I would take the advice of the Director General of Fair Trading.
DAVID FROST: But should it have been made public sooner, this donation - since it sort of seems to be dynamite today?
STEPHEN BYERS: Well I understand it will be made public in the Labour Party's annual report, which is the normal way in which these things are done, and that will happen in the next few months.
DAVID FROST: But that's a long time later than it happened, isn't it? It was a loophole, it was a loophole, a legal loophole.
STEPHEN BYERS: Well I think that it's worth saying that the Labour was the first party to actually, on a voluntary basis, disclose donations that were received and we've been very open about that and that's been the case. But I think in this particular example - I mean if people look at the policy which I announced, which was that I would accept the advice of the Director General of Fair Trading - I'm being criticised today for actually working in line with the policy that I'd announced previously. And if I hadn't of done that, then there would have been a real scandal.
DAVID FROST: And of course you were criticised this week too over not saying to the House of Commons - obviously your original statement on the 25th of February did mislead the people who heard it, you would say of course, instantly, unintentionally, but why didn't you apologise and say it was an accident, I didn't know the facts or whatever, I apologise for that but I didn't seek to mislead you in any way? That would have been a much more -
STEPHEN BYERS: Well - I feel it would have been the wrong thing to do because I was, I was very strong about this on Thursday, because if people look at the statement that I made on the 26th of February, there was nothing misleading there. It was very clear what had happened and -
DAVID FROST: But there were 14 or 15 references to Martin Sixsmith having resigned.
STEPHEN BYERS: But if you look at the context in which the statement was being made, and the statement the previous day on the 25th of February, by my permanent secretary Sir Richard Mottram, I don't think people would have been misled. People are choosing to analyse in particular -
DAVID FROST: But ... we were all misled - I mean you said he'd resigned and he hadn't.
STEPHEN BYERS: Yes because if you, if you see the context in which the statements were being made - and I think it is important to look at it in the round - then people would not have been misled and I think that, that is the -
DAVID FROST: But it actually says the resignation of Martin Sixsmith - that was the title.
STEPHEN BYERS: But if you - David if you -
DAVID FROST: So that is entirely misleading.
STEPHEN BYERS: But no, if you look at the statement that I made to the House on the 26th of February and my permanent secretary's statement the day before, then I think people got a very clear picture of exactly what had happened.
DAVID FROST: We didn't get it at all, everybody, everyone says you should resign because you weren't being honest and frank and so on - in fact Martin Sixsmith goes further and says in fact not only did you mislead the House of Commons on that day but you knew that he hadn't resigned because he'd got a special note to you to make it clear to you, before you spoke, that he had not resigned. So he's actually - I'm saying you should have apologised and said, you know, it was unintentional, I didn't mean to do that, but he actually says you did know because he had told you and you'd also had 11 days to find out the facts.
STEPHEN BYERS: But what I would say is that if people look at the statement - and I would urge them to do so - the statement made by my permanent secretary the day before I made the announcement in the House of Commons, that outlined the events on the 15th of February. And I then on the 26th of February made my statement to the House of Commons. The reason why I was so strong about it was -
DAVID FROST: Yes but it said "the resignation of Martin Sixsmith". I mean, of course, every time you used the word resign you were wrong.
STEPHEN BYERS: Well if you look at the statement I made in the round -
DAVID FROST: I've read it.
STEPHEN BYERS: - people would not have been misled. Now what is interesting about this is that we had all of the sound and fury in the House and Commons about this matter. The reason why I was so strong about it was because I do not believe that reasonable people would have been misled. Now what's important to me, as Secretary of State for Transport, is that these issues are not going to divert me from the big issue which we've got, for example ...
DAVID FROST: Well trust is, trust is a big issue. I mean another complete turnaround from between the two. I mean you said this, this latest statement from the ministry says that the department wish Martin well in the future, he'd been a successful director, and things like that, but for these unfortunate events for which no blame is being apportioned he would continue to be a successful director of communications in this department. Heart-warming words about Martin Sixsmith. Back then in February you said he wasn't fit to be in the government, he was unfit to hold a post in a government department. I mean that's another complete volte face.
STEPHEN BYERS: ... I think as most people know when there is a dispute like this, in the end people will agree a statement, to draw a line under it, and I think what we've said is without apportioning blame - and the agreed statement says that - we all want to move on. Martin does, and I want to. And what's most important, I think for both of us, is that we recognise that there were difficulties in the department, the agreed statement is a resolution of the matter and now we can sort of ensure that we follow the big issues.
DAVID FROST: But what was your role in it, because you said "I wasn't involved in Martin Sixsmith's departure." There was no ministerial involvement. But Richard Mottram, Sir Richard Wilson, Alistair Campbell and Mike Grenett agreed - all four of them apparently - agreed a deal that would have got him a job in another government department and they say that you blocked it, personally.
STEPHEN BYERS: No I said - and I think if you do look at my statement in the Commons on the 26th of February - I made it very clear what my involvement was. The agreed statement on Tuesday of this week, when it talks about no ministerial involvement, is referring to the actual agreement that was made public on Tuesday, that there was no ministerial involvement in those detailed discussions.
DAVID FROST: But I don't see how, Stephen, with the best will in the world, something that says that somebody has resigned when they haven't resigned, it may be accidental but that is misleading.
STEPHEN BYERS: No I think once again if you -
DAVID FROST: I mean those words are misleading.
STEPHEN BYERS: - if you look at the total statement that I made on the 26th of February to the House of Commons, then people would have not been misled about the circumstances.
DAVID FROST: All right well I -
STEPHEN BYERS: Combined with the statement made by Sir Richard Mottram the day before. If one looks at both of those, and I would urge people to do so, because they would then, they would then see what actually was said, and they would see that people have not been misled.
DAVID FROST: Right, well I'd love to carry on with that but we must come to the other vital news, and sad news of the week, in terms of the crash - what is your summation at the moment? Are you hopeful that it will be seen to be just a terrible accident or that there may be vandalism, there may be sabotage?
STEPHEN BYERS: Well I was on the site yesterday and I had a very detailed briefing from, from all of those people very closely involved. They've been able to identify, very quickly I think, what actually did happen and I think it's, it's useful to know, at this early stage, exactly what did occur. The Health and Safety Executive and the Railway Inspectorate are saying that they think this is a unique, a one-off event. I think you've heard from John Armitt earlier that they've tested -
DAVID FROST: Yes, he was very, very cogent.
STEPHEN BYERS: - something like 400 points up and down the country. So it does appear to be a one-off, isolated incident affecting this set of points, 200 yards to the south of Potters Bar station.
DAVID FROST: So what next? I mean do you believe there should be a public inquiry to put people's minds at rest?
STEPHEN BYERS: I think the first thing to do is to find out exactly how this happened, so, so we know the circumstances in detail and then we will be able to find out whether or not it was mismanagement; whether it was the fault of an individual worker not carrying out their job properly; whether it was a deliberate act of vandalism. We don't know answers to those questions yet but the Health and Safety Executive, the inspectorate, who I spoke to yesterday, were very clear that through detailed examination they would be able to find out exactly how this happened. Now I think when we get those results, that will be the time to decide whether or not a public inquiry will be necessary.
DAVID FROST: And in terms of - the papers have got comparisons which you'll have seen, the front page of the Mirror yesterday, noting that eight people died on the railways over the last five years of the Tory government and 60 have died during the first five years of the Blair years. Is that just bad luck?
STEPHEN BYERS: I think with something like the railways you've got to look at the long term trend because when there is an accident there are obviously often a large number of fatalities. So what you need to do is to look at the trend, and if you look at the trend then rail, rail travel, per passenger mile, is actually getting safer. And that's the situation. So we need to do more, there are no grounds for complacency, we need to find out exactly what happened at Potters Bar to make sure that we have a railway system which is as safe as possible.
DAVID FROST: So that would be your message to people setting out on the railways today?
STEPHEN BYERS: Yes. I travelled by rail yesterday and what I would say to people is all of the measures are being put in place to ensure it is as safe as it possibly can be. This would appear to be a one-off, unique event affecting this particular set of points. It's not a generic problem which applies across the railway network.
DAVID FROST: And you think whatever inquiries that take place that Railtrack's maintenance will pass the test - will sail through the test?
STEPHEN BYERS: Well Railtrack have now got more money, they've got a billion pounds this year to spend directly on maintenance. John Armitt, who is head of Railtrack, is an engineer - it's not being run by accountants or lawyers any more. And I think that's good news. They're concentrating on renewal and maintenance. We obviously need to find out exactly what happened here but the money is there and Railtrack, the new Railtrack, with new people at the top, is concentrated on doing maintenance and renewals to their best ability.
DAVID FROST: Well let's hope all of that works. What's the next move in terms of, when will Railtrack be up and running as a separate company - all be it non profit, not for profit?
STEPHEN BYERS: Well Network Rail have put in a bid to take over Railtrack. It is, as you say, it's a not for dividend company which means that all of the operating surpluses can be put back into the railway network to ensure that the interests of the travelling public are put first. Those discussions are continuing and obviously the sooner Railtrack comes out of administration the better.
DAVID FROST: Stephen, thank you very much indeed.
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