Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton) (Con): Surely this sets a precedent for any national member-based organisation to be able to obtain Government or taxpayer's money. For example, I was just thinking how much the women's institutes would welcome such a pot of gold.

Mr. Bellingham: My hon. Friend is right. The Bill is not even-handed. Plenty of employer organisations that were very much part of the consultation process—such as the CBI, the Institute of Directors, the Engineering Employers Federation and the Federation of Small Businesses, as well as the organisation mentioned by my hon. Friend—would love to have public funding to modernise. Many of them would love to do more research but most, unlike the trade unions, are leanly staffed. I was talking to a trade association yesterday—the Garage Equipment Association—which has

26 Feb 2004 : Column 445

precisely one full-time member of staff and a secretary. Such organisations would love to have Government money to modernise. That is why the money resolution is not even-handed—it gives money only to the trade unions and not to other organisations.

Mr. Colin Challen (Morley and Rothwell) (Lab): How many of those organisations have asked the Government for money?

Mr. Bellingham: The CBI and the IOD have in the past told the Government that they would like to be able to access public funds if they were available. However, they live in the real world and know that public finances are extremely tight. They know that they do not have a cat in hell's chance of getting public money to modernise. That is why the new clause is completely one-sided.

Furthermore, the new clause is open to abuse. The Under-Secretary's written statement says that the Government will publish for full consultation the draft rules and procedures of the fund after Royal Assent. We are making this money available; surely we should know now the draft rules and procedures. We are being invited to vote for an open-ended amount of money with no rules or procedures whatever in place.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby) (Con): I am listening to my hon. Friend with great interest. Is the £6 million to be given each year or is it just one lump payment? If it were each year, would that mean a transfer from taxpayers to the trade union movement or would it be a £6 million transfer from the trade union movement to the Labour party?

Mr. Bellingham: My hon. Friend has a suspicious mind, which brings me on to another significant concern. As he rightly points out, the arrangement is wholly open-ended and there is no ceiling, so when he talks about £6 million a year, it could really be £10 million or £15 million a year. The key point is that the money could easily be abused. No rules or procedures have been laid down, so the money could be used for blatantly political purposes—there is no question about that.

My hon. Friend believes that the raison d'être of the new fund is to help the Labour party. It may be no coincidence that, in the last financial year, the Labour party received almost exactly £6 million from the trade unions. When the Minister was asked how much would be in the fund, he said that it would be between £5 million and £10 million in total, spread over several years, but we have had no more detail.

We know that the Labour party's finances are under pressure. The National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers said that it was going to withdraw its funding of the Labour party, and Amicus is now in the hands of a pretty left-wing general secretary. Let us envisage the situation. Amicus might tell the Labour party that it is not going to pay any more funds to Labour from next year. The Secretary of State rings up

26 Feb 2004 : Column 446

Derek Simpson, and says with a nod and a wink that there is money in the modernisation fund, but Amicus is going to cancel payment—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I must tell the hon. Gentleman that he is straying rather wide of the terms of the resolution before the House.

Mr. Bellingham: We are talking about money and if Derek Simpson had such a conversation, the Secretary of State could say that money from the fund of exactly the same amount could be passed to the trade union.

This country's public finances are under substantial pressure. We heard only yesterday in Prime Minister's questions about a children's fund that supports many good causes such as dyslexic and dysphasic children, vulnerable young offenders and so forth, but that fund is being cut. Soldiers and marines are short of Arctic warfare equipment and 30 of them have frostbite because of the lack of Government money, yet the Electoral Commission has a budget of more than £25 million, the new supreme court will cost roughly £50 million and we now have a new fund up of to £10 million and possibly more.

There is no question that this amounts to nothing more and nothing less than what my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Mitchell) said—a bung to the trade unions. It is dressed up—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I have to tell the hon. Gentleman that, whatever the merits of his points, they are more suited to subsequent debates in Committee and on Report. They are not suited to today's debate on the money resolution.

Mr. Bellingham: I have a speech prepared for Committee and I will indeed— on your advice, Mr. Deputy Speaker—reserve some of my best phrases for that debate. However, it is clear that the Minister's statement was dressed up in modern business school management consultancy jargon, and nothing can disguise the fact that this is a rotten use of public money. That is why we will vote against the resolution this afternoon.

2.24 pm

Malcolm Bruce (Gordon) (LD): I might not have chosen the same language as the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham), but on the substantive issue we are in agreement with the Conservative Opposition. We support the principles of the Bill and we voted in favour on Second Reading, and I am sure that the Minister will testify that we have engaged constructively in Committee.

I respect the Minister and his personal good faith, but if he is saying that £5 million to £10 million will be devoted to certain purposes, why does not the money resolution say that, rather than giving an open-ended commitment? Money resolutions usually have a figure attached. I appreciate that they do not have to have one, but it is reasonable for the House to be concerned about being asked to vote for a money resolution that literally has no price tag attached but only the Minister's

26 Feb 2004 : Column 447

indication in his speech. As a matter of principle, I believe that the House should expect the courtesy of a figure.

Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne) (Con): It occurs to me that the position might be even worse than the hon. Gentleman fears. He suggests that we have been given an indication that the amount might be £5 million to £10 million, but we have not been told whether it is a one-off payment or one that will be made every year, every other year, every month or whatever. It is a seriously open-ended commitment that amounts to a blank cheque to the trade unions.

Malcolm Bruce: The wording on the Order Paper shows that it clearly is. I am prepared to accept the Minister's good faith, and I assume—perhaps he will make it clear—that he is talking about a total figure. The hon. Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) is right that it could be anything, and the new clause that amounts to the requirement for the resolution is even more open-ended.

The connection, it seems to me, should be a matter of awkward embarrassment to the Government. It rather has the shape of a reverse takeover. The Labour party was originally the creature of the trade union movement and it is essentially a wholly owned subsidiary of the trade union movement. That is why it is called the Labour party. We now have a position in which the trade unions may become a wholly owned subsidiary of the Labour party through the courtesy of the taxpayer.

It is a matter of clear concern and Ministers know perfectly well that the public will draw conclusions from it. Personally, I believe that it is unwise for the Government to take this course. There has been, in several ways, a respectable distancing of the relationship between the Labour Government and the trade union movement, but the money resolution blows away what I had thought was a real division. It now looks more like a façade.

The timing is also uncomfortable. Many of us expect that we are likely to be at the hustings within 12 to 14 months, and money will change hands between the trade union movement and the Labour party. [Interruption.] The smiles on the faces of Opposition Members tell me that they know perfectly well what this is all about and that they are very comfortable with it.

Mr. Andrew Mitchell: A bung.

Malcolm Bruce: The hon. Gentleman uses his phrase again, but I have tried to express it more specifically and elegantly in my terms; I accept that both versions relate to the same basic issue.

On union modernisation, which I agree with, the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) made a point in her intervention that was not facetious. The reality is that the unions should modernise: unions are modernising and most of us have paid considerable tribute to the change in the character of the trade union movement over the last 20 or 30 years.

When I was a member of the Trade and Industry Committee I had experience of taking evidence from trade unions. I recall some extremely constructive engagements in which the trade unions made positive

26 Feb 2004 : Column 448

contributions to business interests, relations with management, market developments and all sorts of issues that were extremely beneficial to the good working of the economy. It seems strange that taxpayers' money is now required to achieve that.

To conclude, the Minister might have acquired my party's acquiescence—I doubt whether he would have secured that of the Conservatives under any circumstances—if the wording of the motion had been more specific about the money requirement. However, I still have a concern in principle about whether the Government should be doing this. My warning to the Minister, his Cabinet colleagues and perhaps even the Prime Minister is that I believe that the Government will come to regret their decision because the political damage will far outweigh the financial gain.

Next Section

IndexHome Page