Gordon Brown, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, has clashed with a powerful House of Commons committee by refusing to send a Treasury minister to give evidence to an inquiry into Railtrack.
Mr Brown's deputy, Andrew Smith, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, has refused a summons to appear before the transport sub-committee, which is investigating the Government's decision to take Railtrack into public control.
Gwyneth Dunwoody, the chairwoman of the committee, condemned the Treasury's decision as "very foolish. The sub-committee is astonished the Treasury is unable to assist with this inquiry," she said in a statement yesterday.
Mr Brown's refusal to permit a minister to attend will be seen as a snub to the parliamentary system. It is highly unusual for a minister to refuse to give evidence before a select committee, regarded as an important check on government power.
Committee members plan to refer the matter to the Commons liaison committee, which is made up of select committee chairmen. The liaison committee could bring the matter before the House for debate.
Mr Smith would probably have faced questions on the Chancellor's involvement in the decision to declare Railtrack insolvent.
The Tories accused Mr Brown of "an abuse of power" and a "cover-up". David Lidington, shadow Finance minister, said: "This is a disgraceful decision. I can guess why Gordon Brown has suddenly turned shy. He doesn't want to take questions about Stephen Byers' claims that the Treasury knew all along about the Railtrack decision. Tony Blair should order the Chancellor to end this cover-up and give an honest explanation to the British people."
Matthew Taylor, the Liberal Democrats' Treasury spokesman, said: "This is an outrageous decision by a Chancellor who thinks he can get away with everything.It has been clear from beginning to end that the Treasury has been involved in the decision on Railtrack. This speaks volumes that the Chancellor doesn't want to be held accountable for his own meddling in other departments' affairs."
The Treasury said it had not sent a minister because the inquiry did not relate to its work. A spokesman said the Chancellor had not been personally called before the MPs but that Mr Smith had received the summons. "It is not a Treasury matter. It would be pretty ridiculous for a Treasury minister to go along to a select committee to comment on another minister's work," a Treasury spokesman said.
The Treasury has in the past let ministers give evidence to select committees on Northern Ireland and Scottish affairs.
The Government has had a stormy relationship with Ms Dunwoody. An attempt to sack her after the election failed when MPs refused to back the Labour whips' move.
Her committee's inquiry into Railtrack has already proved embarrassing for the Government. Tom Winsor, the Railtrack regulator, contradicted Mr Byers' statement that he had made "no threat" to take away his independence.
Mr Smith has written to the select committee to explain why the Treasury will not appear at the question-and-answer session.Reuse content