The Sleazy State: Quiet operator ferrets out Whitehall's dark secrets: The inquisitor

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The Independent Online
ALAN WILLIAMS has never been busier - and the Government has never felt worse.

The two go hand in hand: the increasing work-rate of a sharp-eyed and persistent Labour MP and senior member of the Commons Public Accounts Committee; and the Government's growing sense of embarrassment at scandals affecting the Welsh Development Agency, West Midlands and Wessex regional health authorities, and the Pergau dam project.

At committee meetings, Williams makes civil servants wince. Sometimes, as he takes them down a seemingly pointless line of questioning - from paragraph three of a report by the National Audit Office (NAO), the public spending watchdog, to page 17, back to the beginning and then to an obscure detail in an appendix - you share their pain. As he says in a confident, lilting Welsh tone, 'and if we turn to . . . we see . . . and then if we turn to. . .' and they scramble around to keep up while trying to tell where it is leading, you sense their discomfort.

Away from the committee, Williams fires written questions at ministers, talks to journalists, tips off the NAO, meets informants and ferrets in the more obscure recesses of Whitehall.

The MP for Swansea West is always ready with a scathing quote: on Pergau, wastage of taxpayers' money, public service or quango impropriety. Yet it would be wrong to think of Williams as a publicity-seeker. He may be a skilled politician who saw ministerial office in the Wilson and Callaghan governments, but he is essentially a low-profile, quietly serious figure.

He was born in 1930, the son of a coal-miner turned local government official. Emlyn, his father, was in the NUM, then Nalgo; his grandfather was badly burned in the Senghenydd pit disaster. When a journalist asked the boys at Cardiff High what they wanted to be when they grew up, Williams said: 'A Labour MP.' He says: 'I never expected or wanted to be anything else. There was a certain inevitability about it.'

He took an external degree in economics from London University at Cardiff Technology College, then went to Oxford. He was chairman of the Oxford branch of the National Union of Students while at the more fashionable Union Society contemporaries like Michael Heseltine, Brian Walden and Peter Brooke were making names for themselves.

After National Service in the RAF he fought the 'hopeless' seat of Poole in Dorset. He went back to Cardiff, took a job lecturing and broadcast on economics for the BBC. He stood for Swansea West in 1964 and turned a Tory majority of 403 into a Labour one of 2,637. In 1992, his majority was 9,700.

Now in his 30th year at Westminster, his career has not been a bed of roses. He prospered under Harold Wilson, who made him Prices Minister, but rarely saw eye- to-eye with James Callaghan, although he served as Industry Minister. In opposition, he took the Welsh portfolio, before joining the Public Accounts Committee in 1989 and finding his true vocation.

Although he describes himself as a right-winger, not all his obsessions fall within that description. One constant niggle has been the cost to the taxpayer of the royal family. This year the royal yacht Britannia will bring the Prince of Wales to Swansea. 'It is grotesque - when Prince Charles looks out of his porthole of a ship that has cost pounds 4m to refurbish, he will see Town Hill, the oldest council estate in Swansea, which has been given pounds 1m to refurbish 1,200 homes.'

He will fight the next election and believes there is still plenty to do. 'There has been a massive erosion of faith in the public service under the Tories. If civil servants have done wrong they should be sacked. Occasionally, ministers do have to carry the can - and resign.'

(Photograph omitted)

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