Byers denies misleading MPs over Railtrack's future

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Stephen Byers launched a strong defence of his role in the collapse of Railtrack.

The Secretary of State for Transport fiercely rejected Tory allegations that he had threatened to remove the independence of the rail regulator, Tom Winsor, and had misled MPs. He also insisted the Railtrack chairman, John Robinson, raised the prospect of the company's collapse on 25 July, despite Mr Robinson's repeated denials.

Theresa May, the shadow Transport Secretary, led Conservative calls for Mr Byers to resign, accusing him of "stringing the company along" to bring it back into public ownership. She told MPs: "He knew a way of renationalising without compensating shareholders. He would drive the company to the wall, put it into administration and renationalise on the cheap."

She accused Mr Byers of jeopardising rail improvements and destroying the savings of small shareholders. "He has let the railways down, he's let passengers down, he's let railway workers down. He's let taxpayers down, he's let savers down and he's let the Government down."

She warned: "For this House, the Secretary of State's failure to account properly to members for his actions is a matter of deep concern. For the travelling public it is his failure to protect the interests of the railways that will hurt most."

Mr Byers, responding to a second Opposition debate on his conduct, lambasted the Conservatives for supporting the interests of 250,000 Railtrack shareholders over 2.5 million rail users and said allegations against him were a "smokescreen" for the failure of privatisation. He accused Ms May of relying on "innuendo, smear and allegation".

The Secretary of State said: "The travelling public knows Railtrack was a failure, the city knows Railtrack was a failure, the railway industry knows Railtrack was a failure. The only people who regard it as a success are the architects of Railtrack – the Conservative Party."

He accused Ms May of promoting "vested interests" in the company and the last Conservative government of "sprinkling money like confetti" on Railtrack shareholders.

He won cheers from Labour backbenchers as he told the Commons: "The Tories in this debate and before, are backing the interests of a quarter of a million shareholders against the interests of 2.5 million people who travel every day on the railways. They cannot come to terms with the fact that the failed privatisation has been brought to an end by this Government."