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More debate, not less, is best hope for transport


It is almost two months since New Labour won a second term in office and confirmed itself as the most powerful political forces since Margaret Thatcher's Conservative party.

But Labour appears unsatified with the renewal of its huge majority, and with five more years of government ahead, it remains determined to maximise control of the political agenda and of who says what about it.

During its first term a tight grip on the media and access to information characterised the Labour government. Now it appears to be extending this practice to the inner workings of Parliament, notably the cross party House of Commons select committees. As a consequence it prompted a back-bench revolt over its plan to sack the 'difficult', but highly respected, Labour chairs of the transport and foreign affairs committees.

Of course, select committees are a vital part of the democratic process. They are there to probe government policies and initiatives; and they have the right to grill ministers, civil servants, or anyone else as they test assumptions made by policymakers.

They can also deliver critical reports which can make uncomfortable reading for ministers, but which can inform and raise the level of debate on key policy issues.

Among those central to the row was Labour MP Gwyneth Dunwoody, the formidable chair of the transport sub-committee. Dunwoody is tough, no nonsense and very much her own woman. She does not suffer waffling ministers or slippery civil servants gladly, which could explain why the government wants her replaced.

But why should Labour care?

It is at the beginning of a new five year term and has an almost unassailable majority in Parliament. Does it really think the post-Hague Conservatives will become a formidable opposition force by 2006?

Dunwoody's problem is that transport policy is in a mess and it does not look as though the new government will hit the ground running in its attempts to make sense of all the studies, White Papers, daughter documents, plans, strategic agendas and consultation documents produced since 1997.

In particular, there is a strong suspicion that the ambitions of last year's 10 year transport plan are optimistic and ill thought out. Indeed, this week employers' body the Confederation of British Industry has called for the whole thing to be overhauled on a more realistic level.

Constructive, transparent debate might be the only way to help the government knock it into something meaningful and achievable before it is too late. A strong, independently minded transport select committee chairman could play a valuable part in promoting this.

And perhaps the prospect of such a grilling before Dunwoody might even help to focus the minds of transport secretary Stephen Byers and his ministerial team on turning the transport hopes raised over the last four years into something which can be described as an achievement.

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