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Wednesday, 8 May, 2002, 05:34 GMT 06:34 UK
Byers in spin chief pay-off row
Stephen Byers in the House of Commons
Mr Byers is accused of misleading the Commons
Fresh controversy is looming over Stephen Byers after it emerged the 'resignation' of his media chief cost the taxpayer nearly 200,000 in compensation.

The transport secretary was already facing new calls to quit after it was admitted on Tuesday that he mistakenly announced the resignation of his communications director, Martin Sixsmith, back in February.

Attention is now focusing on the payout to Mr Sixsmith - who says he first heard about his resignation on the radio - which will be funded by the taxpayer.

Martin Sixsmith
Sixsmith struck a deal with the transport department
It is the latest twist in the controversy that began with the infamous e-mail sent by transport department spin doctor Jo Moore about burying bad news after the 11 September attacks.

Following a publicised row between her and Mr Sixsmith, who feared Ms Moore may repeat the gaffe on the day of Princess Margaret's funeral, it was announced the pair had resigned.

The transport secretary announced both resignations on 15 February and made a Commons statement repeating it 11 days later.

But three months on the transport department had to admit the resignation announcement concerning Mr Sixsmith had been "incorrect".

Contract terminated

Tuesday's statement said: "The department regrets that, while acting in good faith, they announced that he had resigned on what turned out to be an incorrect understanding of earlier discussions that day."

No details of any financial pay-off for the public relations chief were mentioned in the text, but it added that Mr Sixsmith's contract would finish "by mutual agreement at the end of May".

Prime Minister Tony Blair's official spokesman supported Mr Byers, stressing: "It was the understanding that Mr Sixsmith had agreed to resign.

"It turned out that understanding was based on an incorrect understanding of the earlier discussions.

"Mr Byers did not mislead the House. He explained on February 26 the basis on which Mr Sixsmith had agreed to resign."

Contradiction?

But, Mr Byers told MPs in the Commons: "Jo Moore agreed to resign. Martin Sixsmith agreed to resign.

"I announced the resignations ... since then there have been a number of detailed 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."

The Conservatives reacted by demanding Mr Byers apologise to MPs and, if necessary, stand down for having misled the House of Commons.


This latest revelation suggests Mr Byers either misled parliament, the press and the public, or that he has no grip on his department

Theresa May
Shadow transport secretary
The BBC understands Mr Sixsmith's compensation is a compromise figure that totals almost 200,000.

Neither Mr Byers nor Mr Sixsmith are commenting because they have agreed to observe a gagging clause as part of the pay-off.

But it appears the transport secretary sees no need to apologise because he was merely repeating what he had been told by his most senior civil servant, Sir Richard Mottram.

Mr Sixsmith always disputed his employer's version of events, saying he had first heard of his "resignation" on the radio.

Conservative transport spokesman Theresa May said Mr Byers should come to the House of Commons to answer the allegations.

'No grip'

She said: "Stephen Byers told Parliament that Martin Sixsmith had resigned.

"This latest revelation suggests Mr Byers either misled parliament, the press and the public, or that he has no grip on his department.

"Either way he must now come to the House of Commons and answer allegations that he misled MPs and spell out the cost of the compensation package offered to Mr Sixsmith."

That call was echoed by Liberal Democrat Paul Tyler, party spokesman on Commons' affairs.

"Clearly, if Stephen Byers misled the House of Commons - even if it was by mistake - he should be explaining and apologizing to MPs first, not simply admitting the mistake to the press," he said.

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 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Norman Smith
"It is a bizzare sequence of events"
See also:

07 May 02 | UK Politics
Spin row PR chief did not resign
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