Tories jeer Byers for 'ducking questions'

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Indy Politics

Stephen Byers, the Transport Secretary, was accused of "running scared" from the problems of his department yesterday after he left his deputy to answer Commons questions on Railtrack.

Mr Byers was jeered by Conservative MPs when he responded to only nine out of 39 questions during question time for transport, local government and the regions.

The Secretary of State came under further pressure when Lord Hattersley, Labour's former deputy leader, became the most senior figure in the party to call for his resignation.

Lord Hattersley said Mr Byers was now "a subject of deep embarrassment to the Government", and had been "fatally damaged" by a string of controversies surrounding Jo Moore and Martin Sixsmith.

But the Conservatives reserved most of their fire for the Transport Secretary's failure to step up to the dispatch box yesterday. Mr Byers answered two questions on the Government's homelessness strategy and only one on the prospects of a replacement structure for Railtrack.

Tory MPs shouted "Where's the organ grinder?" when John Spellar, the Transport minister, answered a question about the estimated cost to date of Railtrack being put in administration. Mr Spellar said the estimated total amount so far, drawn down from the commercial loan facility, with the fees of the administrators, stood at £1.8bn.

David Lidington, the Treasury spokesman for the Tories, said last night Mr Byers was "running scared" of his own record in the department. "This was a cowardly display. Stephen Byers stayed in his bunker and left his juniors to take the rap for incompetence and misjudgement," he said.

Theresa May, the shadow Transport Secretary, was as equally scathing during transport questions when she wished Mr Byers "goodbye", claiming he would be sacked in an Easter cabinet reshuffle.

But a defiant Mr Byers responded: "Whether it is you saying bye bye to me or me saying bye bye to you – time will tell. The important issue, as far as this side of the House is concerned and as far as I am concerned, is that you may reflect the priorities of Westminster village. Myself and the Government will deliver on the priorities of the people of our country."

The Government's priorities were to improve transport and housing, regenerate the economy and, "ensure we deliver for all our people", said Mr Byers. "That is what I intend to do and that is what I shall continue to do."

Lord Hattersley, Labour's deputy leader under Neil Kinnock, suggested that Tony Blair was wrong to rule out a public inquiry into the role of special advisers such as Ms Moore in his Government.

Speaking to BBC News 24's Hardtalk programme, Lord Hattersley said: "I think he should go and I think he will go. I think he is fatally damaged."

"The important thing about Byers ... is that he has become a subject of deep embarrassment to the Government and, while he remains, attention will be deflected from the job he's supposed to do, to questions about his character."

Mr Blair "trusts the bright young men and women he's recruited to Downing Street far more than he trusts the other members of Cabinet", Lord Hattersley claimed.

Pressure on Mr Byers is certain to increase tomorrow when Sir Richard Mottram, the permanent secretary at the Department of Transport, Local Government and Regions, will be questioned by the Commons Public Administration Select Committee.

Sir Richard is expected to be asked by MPs to comment on remarks, attributed to him by Mr Sixsmith, the department's former communications director, that Mr Byers had given Ms Moore a "firm promise" that there would be a double resignation if she had to leave the Government.