OUTLOOK: ERM/Railtrack

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The Independent Online
MY, IS the Information Commissioner, Richard Thomas, going to be a busy fellow. One of the first things on his plate will be to adjudicate on just why it was possible to publish extensive Treasury documentation under the new freedom of information act on Britain's exit from the ERM while material concerning Stephen Byers' decision to declare Railtrack insolvent is deemed by the Department of Transport as too expensive to make put up on its web site.

In the absence of a better explanation, the public is entitled to take the cynical view - that it suits the Government to a tee in the run up to the election to remind the world what a shambles economic policy became under the last Tory administration, but that it would cause too much damage to the political rehabilitation of Stephen Byers also to remind us what a disaster he was as secretary of state.

The Department of Transport might have claimed that in view of the fact that Railtrack's administration is still the subject of litigation, it would be sub judice to publish. It might even have claimed commercial confidentiality, though this would have been harder given that Railtrack is now dead and buried. But to use the excuse of cost, given the hundreds of man hours that must have been applied at the Treasury to deciding what should and what should not be published about the ERM, then sanitising the material that was, looks plain disingenuous.

As for Mr Byers, it is quite obvious that he's already been assigned a seat back in the cabinet for after the next election. He's being used by the Prime Minister as the political outrider for all kinds of weird and wonderful initiatives from climate change to the totally crackpot idea that school applications be brought forward a year so as to promote the good schools and weed out the bad ones.

Mr Byers was an extraordinarily bad minister, both at the Department of Transport, which descended into a state of near chaos under his watch, and at the Department of Trade and Industry, where his capricious and unreliable decision making went unnoticed outside the business pages only because the DTI is such a backwater of government.

It will no doubt help his cause that the Department of Transport has decided to "bury the bad news", but we already largely know the truth. If Alastair Campbell can make a comeback, so can old "pants on fire".

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