Byers insists he did not mislead MPs over 'resignation'

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Stephen Byers refused to apologise yesterday when he told a rowdy House of Commons he had not misled MPs about the controversy surrounding the departure of his director of communications.

The Secretary of State for Transport insisted he had acted "in good faith" when he made a Commons statement in February about the "resignation of Martin Sixsmith". On Tuesday, his department admitted Mr Sixsmith had not agreed to resign.

During heated exchanges with Tory MPs, Mr Byers declared: "I have not misled the House as some have alleged. All of my statements have been based on the information available to me. That is precisely why the agreed statement with Mr Sixsmith explicitly says that any misunderstanding over his resignation was in good faith."

As Tory MPs kept up a barrage of calls for him to resign, the Speaker, Michael Martin, had to call them to order several times. Patrick McLoughlin, Tory MP for West Derbyshire, threw some papers towards Mr Byers. The MP was reciting from photocopies of Hansard and accused Mr Byers of misleading the Commons. When Mr Byers started to repeat his answer of telling MPs to look at his previous statement, the yellow photocopies were flung on to the Table of the House. The Speaker forced Mr McLoughlin to apologise for his behaviour.

Mr Byers told his critics: "Look at my statement of February 26. Look at the statement by the Permanent Secretary [Sir Richard Mottram] on February 25, which refers explicitly to the events of February 15. Look at the agreed statement of Tuesday of this week.

"I think MPs, on reflection, will recognise, putting away the party political points, that this House has not been misled by this Secretary of State."

He said: "There is nothing new here and indeed nothing that was not a matter of record at the time of my statement on 26 February which explicitly referred back to my Permanent Secretary's account.

Mr Byers insisted: "The reality is that, while there is all this blather and froth coming from the Conservative Party, this department is delivering on the things that matter to the people of this country."

Theresa May, the Tories' transport spokesman, told Mr Byers: "This House is always immensely forgiving to those who explain how they made a mistake.

"Today we have heard no remorse, no regret and no glimmer of an apology.

"Last year, you told your electorate you were 'open and honest'. Is it not clearly the case that you have not been remotely open and honest when you claim today that what you said on February 26 is the same as what your department said on Tuesday.

"If you had a single shred of decency left, wouldn't you go - and go now?" Her attack was met with prolonged Tory cheers, more calls of "resign" and Labour jeers and derision.

The Liberal Democrat transport spokesman, Don Foster, asked Mr Byers: "How many lives are you going to have? You are the Secretary of State who wishes to talk about the record of your department under your leadership."

But Labour MPs rallied behind Mr Byers. Peter Kilfoyle, the MP for Liverpool Walton, urged him to "get on with the really important business" of transport, local government and regeneration." He said people were more interested in that, "far more than whatever happened to Martin Sixsmith".

Tony Wright, the Labour chairman of the Commons Public Administration Select Committee, said: "Isn't the real conclusion and real issue here to ensure that such chaos never happens again?"

Mr Byers said: "There were problems in the department. They have been resolved."