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Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD): If the view was reached that there was no longer sufficient evidence for a realistic prospect of conviction, and if the defence of necessity was known to the Crown at the outset, does that mean that the Crown decided that it could no longer rely on evidence on which it was initially going to rely, for reasons of admissibility, credibility or reliability? How on earth does the defence of necessity have any bearing on the decision to discontinue proceedings?

The Solicitor-General: The defence of necessity has to be looked at in respect of the evidence in any particular case. I am afraid that I cannot add to what I have repeatedly said: when counsel reviewed the case—that happens on an ongoing basis—his view was that there was no longer sufficient evidence.

Hugh Robertson (Faversham and Mid-Kent) (Con): Does the Solicitor-General accept that the Government's inability to prosecute a civil servant who leaked state secrets to the press—particularly given that she worked at GCHQ—will send a shiver down the spine of every man and woman who works for our intelligence services? What steps are the Government going to take to ensure that, in their review of the Official Secrets Act, the security of those people is paramount?

The Solicitor-General: The issues that the hon. Gentleman raises are ones for reflection on the part of the Home Secretary and the Foreign Secretary. He speaks of the Government's inability to prosecute, and without labouring the point I should perhaps remind him that it is not the Government who prosecute under the Official Secrets Act; it is the prosecution service, and that is indeed what happened in this case. The Official Secrets Act has a long history, which I shall not go into.

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Points of Order

2.7 pm

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. In view of the reply that the Solicitor-General gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) about the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Clare Short) being subject to the Official Secrets Act, have you received any indication that a Minister will make a statement to this House about whether an offence was committed through a former Cabinet Minister's making remarks such as those that the right hon. Lady made on the "Today" programme this morning?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): No such communication has been received, but I should tell the hon. Gentleman and the House that it is not the custom to make allegations about the conduct of other Members of this House in a point of order. Indeed, any such remarks are extraneous to the strict scope of today's statement.

Mr. William Cash (Stone) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Given what the Solicitor-General said about the need for the Foreign Secretary to come to the House, would it be in order to suggest that we have clarification that he will in fact do so?

Mr. Deputy Speaker: The hon. Gentleman will know that there are other ways of pursuing that matter. It is not something on which the Chair can rule.

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Employment Relations Bill [Money]

Queen's recommendation having been signified—

2.8 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Mr. Gerry Sutcliffe): I beg to move,

The Employment Relations Bill deals mainly with the regulation of trade unions and with employment relations more generally. Its provisions make various minor changes to the existing regulatory regime to improve its operation. Many of its provisions flow from the review of the Employment Relations Act 1999, which we launched in July 2002. The review concluded that the 1999 Act was working very well, but that some relatively minor adjustments were required. None of the Bill's existing provisions requires additional public expenditure, so we did not table a money resolution when the Bill was introduced and had its Second Reading. It is now being considered in Standing Committee. On 10 February, I tabled an amendment to the Bill that gave a power to the Secretary of State to spend money on the modernisation of trade unions.

Mr. Andrew Mitchell (Sutton Coldfield) (Con): Will the Under-Secretary give way?

Mr. Sutcliffe: I will not give way.

If the amendment were incorporated into the Bill following its consideration by the Standing Committee, it plainly would have implications for public expenditure.

Mr. Mitchell: Will the Under-Secretary give way?

Mr. Sutcliffe: I will not give way. There is a maximum of 45 minutes for this debate and the hon. Gentleman will have an opportunity to contribute.

The amendment plainly would have implications for public expenditure. Its tabling therefore necessitates that a money resolution be attached to the Bill. The wording of the money resolution—

Mr. Mitchell: For the third time, will the Under-Secretary give way?

Mr. Sutcliffe: I have indicated to the hon. Gentleman that I am not going to give way.

The wording of the money resolution takes the standard form authorising this type of expenditure. My amendment involves the insertion of a new section into the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992. The legal basis for the expenditure will be located in the 1992 Act. The reference to "any other enactment" in the money resolution reflects the way in which the power is drafted and the position of the legal basis for the expenditure.

26 Feb 2004 : Column 443

On the day the amendment was tabled, I made a written parliamentary statement to explain the relevant background—

Mr. Mitchell: On a point of order Mr. Deputy Speaker. What the Minister is describing is a simple, classic bung. Should not he come clean to the House and admit to that?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): That is not a point of order.

Mr. Sutcliffe: Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will contribute to the debate in due course.

On the day the amendment was tabled, I made a written parliamentary statement to explain the relevant background. I indicated that we would use the power to establish a union modernisation fund, the total size of which would be between £5 million and £10 million, with the expenditure spread over several years. We do not envisage the fund opening until the 2005–06 financial year because further work needs to be undertaken that will involve—I stress—full public consultation in the autumn on the details and design of the fund.

I commend the motion to the House.

2.12 pm

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): I am sorry that the Under-Secretary did not give way because, as he said himself, we are meant to be debating the issue and my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Mitchell) wanted to contribute.

As the Under-Secretary said, the Bill was the result of substantial public consultation. The explanatory notes show that we had the DTI discussion paper, "High Performance Workplaces: The role of employee involvement in a modern economy" in July 2002. Last year, we had "High Performance Workplaces: Informing and consulting employees" to seek the views of a wider audience on the proposed scheme. The Under-Secretary knows that there was a great deal of discussion between the trade unions and the employer organisations, particularly the CBI. Those organisations basically agreed on the measures included in the Bill.

There was consensus, although the unions would have liked to go a bit further and the CBI and other organisations felt that parts of the Bill had gone a little too far. In the spirit of what was agreed, we have supported quite a lot of the Bill. However, the original Bill did not require a money resolution. The understanding of all the employer organisations was that there would not be any major demand on the public finances.

On Second Reading, my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury (Mr. O'Brien) said that he was concerned that the Bill would be a Christmas tree upon which other measures and demands by the trade unions or other parties would be hung. The Under-Secretary said that that was not the case and that no other concessions would be made to the trade unions, employers or anyone else. The Bill would remain exactly as it stood.

26 Feb 2004 : Column 444

Out of the blue, we had the new clause, which requires the money resolution that we are debating. The new clause makes it clear that the Secretary of State may provide money to a trade union to enable or assist it to carry out various measures. We on this side support much of the work of the trade unions. I am meeting the TUC, with which my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield has had a number of meetings. We have also met individual trade unions. We support the idea of trade unions providing a good service to their members and we support the idea of trade union modernisation. We feel that there is a great deal that they can and must do to help their members.

The Under-Secretary said that he envisaged the size of the fund being between £5 million and £10 million. However, nothing in the Bill states what the ceiling will be; the amount could be much, much more. There is plenty of money washing around in the DTI, such as the post office renewal fund, the Business Link budget and other budgets. It would be easy for the Secretary of State to take some money from one of those budgets and put it into the modernisation fund. Indeed, the amount could go well beyond £10 million.

Furthermore, the measure is open-ended. The new clause states:

That is extremely open-ended.

There are a lot of purposes for which the money may be spent. The note accompanying the new clause suggests that the money may be used for training union representatives in, for example, business and people management. It may be spent on helping to promote the development of high performance workplaces, on reviewing internal union structures and organisations, on enabling unions to broaden their dialogue with members by greater use of the internet or on making union systems more accessible.

Those are all noble measures, but surely any organisation doing its job properly in the modern world—with the internet and IT—is doing that sort of thing already. The unions are doing that already. My hon. Friends and I in the Opposition business team have great respect for the trade unions, which we think are well-run organisations.

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