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2.29 pm

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby) (Con): We have just heard a courteous and elegant speech.

Mr. Andrew Mitchell : Two speeches.

Mr. Robathan: Of course; both of which attacked the measure before the House. I have always had a high regard for the Minister, whom I know well and like, even though he is not listening. We have taken part in a tug of war together and on some obscure occasion we went running together, so I make no personal attack on him. It is a matter of principle. Government Members are smiling, as though this were not a matter of principle. Some of them are members of trade unions, which is absolutely fine. As far as I am concerned, free association and trade unions are important. However, I wonder whether Labour Members would like to explain to the national media and their local press how they can support an open-ended commitment of taxpayers' money to trade unions that give the Labour party large amounts of money and will receive large amounts of money back from the taxpayer. How can Labour Members sit there smiling and rubbing their hands together?

It is a great matter of principle as to whether we, as guardians of the public purse, are to give trade unions money. I would like the Minister to defend the motion on that basis alone.

2.30 pm

Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne) (Con): The resolution refers to

and it is clear that the measure is necessary for the purposes of a clause that the Government want to introduce into the Employment Relations Bill. I fully accept that it would be wholly inappropriate to get into a discussion about what the Government may want to do in Standing Committee. However, the House is being asked to sign a blank cheque.

I had a good working relationship with the Minister in a different capacity, when he was part of the usual channels, and have the highest regard for him. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan), I mean him no discourtesy and none of my observations is meant personally, but a matter of principle is at stake.

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The Minister will understand that when principles are discussed, the person concerned is sometimes dragged in. I apologise in advance if he feels that is happening in this instance.

The Government could guarantee that the arrangement that the Minister described cannot be departed from.

Mrs. Browning: Does my hon. Friend share my concern that no cost analysis has been presented? Normally that information would be presented in Committee. I hope the Minister will confirm that will be done. Specific costings should be available to the Committee.

Mr. Wilshire: I have a shrewd idea that if I were to discuss whether the figure should be £5 million or £10 million, I would be straying into the business of the Committee. The Committee can resolve whether or not it is appropriate for funds to be used for trade unions. I would love to discuss whether the figure of £5 million or £10 million is right. I would love to discuss whether or not the measure has been properly costed, how the figures have been arrived at and whether or not it is appropriate to make payments to trade unions. However, Mr. Deputy Speaker, you have said that one should not touch on those matters, so I will leave them alone.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. If this helps the hon. Gentleman, it would be perfectly in order to talk about the amount of money that could be made available. Only moving beyond that subject would be likely to lead the hon. Gentleman into difficulties.

Mr. Wilshire: I am most grateful. I was trying to get there without being told that I could not.

Missing from the motion is any indication of how much money is involved. We have the Minister's word, but given the way that politics work, he might not be the Minister tomorrow.

Hon. Members: Oh.

Mr. Wilshire: I am suggesting that he might be promoted rather than sacked. He is such a good Minister that he might be doing something else. While I respect his explanation to the House, I cannot say that I have the same confidence in all his colleagues. It may be that tomorrow, the day after or next week the figure of £5 million to £10 million that the Minister suggested will become something entirely different. Who knows how much pressure may be exerted?

Mr. Challen: Will the hon. Gentleman remind the House of the cap placed by Margaret Thatcher on the cost to the taxpayer of trade union political fund ballots when she introduced them? In the main, trade unions chose not to use that taxpayers' money. I remind the hon. Gentleman that more than 7 million trade unionists are themselves taxpayers.

Mr. Wilshire: I would like to discuss Margaret Thatcher and her sensible policies but I suspect that that

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would be well beyond allowable debate. If the hon. Gentleman wants to discuss that issue, let us meet in the Strangers Bar and see how we get on. We would not be constrained by the terms of the motion.

It is important that there should be some justification for the appropriateness of the figure of £5 million to £10 million. The Minister's estimate is pretty sloppy guesswork. The Government should have known that devising a resolution to give money to their trade union masters would be controversial and be seen as a party political move. The least they could have done was explain how they calculated the figure.

Malcolm Bruce: Is there not a remarkable coincidence as regards the sums quoted by the Minister and the amounts voted by trade unions to the Labour party? Would it not be sensible for trade unions to use the political money to fund their modernisation?

Mr. Wilshire: The hon. Gentleman is being very kind, for a Liberal Democrat. Perhaps he is being kind to the Government. That would make some sense. I take a more cynical view. I do not believe that it is a coincidence that the two sums of money are much the same. That is exactly what the resolution is all about. A figure has been announced by the Government's trade union masters, and the Government feel obliged to pay up. Since the trade union masters have not said precisely how much the Government must pay, there is a 100 per cent. variation in the figure that should be in the resolution, but is not. The Liberal Democrat view that there is a coincidence is too generous by half given how the Government work and the way in which they are controlled by the trade unions.

If the Minister wants to continue to be held in high regard, all he need do, since the money resolution is unamendable, is to confirm that he will arrange for a new motion to be brought before the House that imposes a limit. Whether the figure is £5 million or £10 million, there must be some justification for it. Surely somebody in the Minister's Department or the Treasury is capable of doing some sums, rather than saying simply that there may be a 100 per cent. variation in the figure first suggested. It should not be difficult for the Government to present definite figures to the House and say, "If we need more, we guarantee that we will return to the House for further discussion."

Although we are told that the purpose of the measure is to enable a particular clause to be added to the Employment Relations Bill so that a bung can be given to the trade unions, the motion does not say that but refers to

I accept the Minister's assurance, but if that is the resolution's purpose, why does it not say so? If the motion stated that a maximum amount of money should be made available for a specific purpose, we would know exactly where we stood.

The Minister may be promoted shortly and his successor may say, "I have thought of another reason. The motion refers to 'any increase', and I do not need to come back to the House to justify a payment."

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman is straying into territory that must be explored by the

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Standing Committee in connection with the relevant substantive clause. It is not appropriate for the money resolution debate.

Mr. Wilshire: I understand, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I would not dream of quarrelling with you, but I am bothered by the motion's wording. The Standing Committee will debate the use of the money when it considers the relevant clause, but the House should not write blank cheques to whichever organisations the Committee inserts into the Bill. It is a question not only of the amount of money involved, but the purposes to which it is put. I do not like the fact that the motion uses the phrase "any increase attributable". I should prefer it to be specific.

I hope that the Minister will live up to his justified reputation, and that he will prove it to anyone who has doubts about his ability, integrity or sincerity by saying that he understands the error of his ways and will use his influence to put the matter right. He should guarantee a maximum amount, and limit the purposes to which the money is put.

2.41 pm

Mr. Bill Tynan (Hamilton, South) (Lab): I declare an interest as a member of a trade union. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Minister on the motion before us. It is a money resolution, and I am sure that it will be subjected to some debate in Standing Committee, but I am surprised at the anger that it has generated among Opposition Members, which means that my hon. Friend must be getting something right.

I expected that the process of modernisation—of trade unions or business—would be supported by the House as essential in a modern society. The Government have given considerable amounts of money towards the modernisation of business, with the support of hon. Members of all parties, including those who belong to trade unions. Sums have been mentioned of between £5 million and £10 million. For obvious reasons, I should like the amount to be much higher. The modernisation of trade unions is essential.

In the dark days of the distant past, trade unions often used to act in ways that could not be called honourable. The trend is different today. Trade unions have earned the right to support for modernisation that is vital in today's world.

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