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Pesticides Bill

11.31 a.m.

Report received.

Clause 2 [Enforcement of controls on pesticides]:

Baroness Anelay of St. Johns moved the amendment:

Page 3, line 5, leave out ("other than perjury").

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, the amendment seeks to clarify the new powers of interrogation detailed in Clause 2 of the Bill. At Second Reading and again in Committee I sought to obtain clarification about the application of what might be called the new Clause 2(2) powers. There had been some confusion on the issue when it was debated in another place. The purpose of the power in question is the effective but fair questioning of witnesses, in particular when the witness might be an employee storing illegal pesticides on behalf of an employer who might be reluctant in normal circumstances to give information about such activity to an officer. In return for being required to answer the officer's questions, there is a kind of quid pro quo within the Bill--the recognition that information supplied by the interviewee which might incriminate either that person or his or her spouse shall not be used against that person or the spouse in any criminal proceedings other than perjury.

In answer to questions I posed at Second Reading, the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, wrote two letters to me to explain further the Government's view of the operation of the Clause 2(2) powers. Unfortunately, the Government's interpretation of the Clause 2(2) powers caused me great concern. I believed that the fair treatment of the interviewee would be seriously jeopardised. I raised my concerns in some detail in Committee. They are on the record in Hansard. I shall not test the patience of noble Lords by repeating them today. I realise that that gains some agreement within the House.

Subsequently, the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, kindly arranged a meeting which I attended to discuss my concerns with him, the Minister of State, Mr. Rooker, and lawyers from MAFF and the Health and Safety Executive. I thank the noble Lord for arranging that meeting and others for their co-operation. They were all able to reassure me on many points that I raised, but not on all. I have therefore tabled the amendment today which I hope the noble Lord, Lord Stone of Blackheath, and the Government will be able to accept. I believe that it will resolve the core issue of the fair and effective questioning of witnesses under Clause 2(2) powers.

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My amendment makes clear that information obtained from a witness during an interview conducted under the Clause 2(2) procedure cannot be used against him or his spouse in criminal proceedings in any circumstances. I believe that that will resolve the confusion to which I referred in moving my amendment in Committee. It should provide a clear and fair resolution of the difficulties which I rehearsed through previous stages of the Bill.

However, there is one remaining area of confusion which I mentioned at the meeting last week and which I believe the Government or the noble Lord, Lord Stone, may be able to resolve today by giving an explanation to the House. An amendment may not be necessary, but it merits further explanation. I refer to what may happen when an interview conducted under the Clause 2(2) procedure is aborted because the interviewee makes an admission. For example, the interviewee simply says, "Yes, I am storing illegal pesticides. I know them to be illegal but my employer told me to do so or I would be fired"--a simple, straightforward admission. At that point the officer may decide that it is necessary to prosecute the person being interviewed rather than continue with the Clause 2(2) procedure. In those circumstances the officer will halt the Clause 2(2) interview and start a new interview under the PACE procedure in England and Wales and, as I understand, the common law procedure in Scotland.

Can the Minister or the noble Lord, Lord Stone of Blackheath, reassure me that, first, this procedure has been in operation in other areas of the law without undue difficulty heretofore? Secondly, when the PACE procedure, or the common law procedure in Scotland, then follows, do those two procedures protect the interviewee to the extent that there is a break between the interviews during which the interviewee is told that he may consult a solicitor? If the Minister or the noble Lord, Lord Stone, is able to assist me on that matter, I believe that it will resolve all issues over which I expressed concern and an amendment at Third Reading will not be necessary. I beg to move.

Lord Carter: My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, on the drafting of the amendment. I have rarely seen such clarity and economy of language. The specific issue is what happens when the person being interviewed under the Clause 2(2) powers becomes a suspect and is then interviewed under the PACE procedure in England and Wales or the common law in Scotland. The same issue arises under existing legislation which gives enforcement officers the power to require answers to questions. The obvious example is the Health and Safety at Work Act which has been on the statute book for almost a quarter of a century. So the procedure has been in operation without apparently causing undue difficulty.

Nothing in this Bill cuts across, undermines or contradicts the Police and Criminal Evidence Act or the common law procedures in Scotland. On the rare occasions when a person is required to answer questions and is then to be interviewed as a suspect, there will always be a clear break between the two interviews when that person is formally cautioned and advised that

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he or she does not have to say anything. The position would be as follows: in England and Wales, the PACE procedures will apply, affording full protection under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act, such as requirements to caution the suspect and to give him or her the opportunity to consult privately with a solicitor. In Scotland, where PACE does not apply, the common law procedures on the questioning of suspects will apply, ensuring that the suspect is treated entirely fairly at all times. I hope that that reassures the noble Baroness.

The Government have listened to the points which were put extremely clearly by the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, in Committee and at subsequent meetings. She has demonstrated the complexity arising from the interactions of different legislation. As a result, the Government can support her proposed amendment to remove the three words "other than perjury". I shall not be at all surprised if my noble friend Lord Stone of Blackheath, after due consideration, also agrees to accept the amendment.

Lord Stone of Blackheath: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for tabling the amendment. A major reason for seeking to introduce the power of enforcement officers to require answers to questions is that other legislation gives enforcement officers similar powers which have been found to be effective in practice. I thank my noble friend Lord Carter for addressing the noble Baroness's concerns. However, he frightened me when he left the Chamber two minutes before we were about to begin. I hope that the noble Baroness is reassured.

With reference to Clause 2(2), the same issue occurs for existing legislation without causing undue difficulty in practice. The Bill will not change interview procedures either under PACE or in Scotland. However, I listened carefully to the issues raised by the noble Baroness and I have learnt much from the discussions we have had during the past few weeks. The existing text of Clause 2(2) needs clarification. I can therefore agree to her amendment to remove the three words "other than perjury".

Baroness Anelay of St. Johns: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Carter, for the assurances he has given with regard to the situation where Clause 2(2) interview procedure halts and a PACE or common law interview in Scotland starts. They settle my concerns and I shall not be tabling an amendment on the issue at Third Reading.

I am also grateful to the noble Lords, Lord Carter and Lord Stone of Blackheath, for accepting the amendment. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Carter, for his congratulations on the clarity of the drafting of my amendment. I hope that the situation arises again on many occasions in this House.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Fireworks Bill

Report received.

19 Jun 1998 : Column 1798

Public Interest Disclosure Bill

11.42 a.m.

Report received.

Clause 1 [Protected disclosures]:

Baroness Turner of Camden moved an amendment:

Page 2, line 35, at end insert (", or
(c) to an official of an independent trade union authorised by the union to accept such disclosure.").

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, I believe that this is a good Bill and I have no desire to delay its passage through Parliament. However, I have tabled this amendment because it is a matter of some importance.

It will be recalled that in Committee my noble friends Lord Wedderburn, Lord McCarthy and Lord Gladwin and I sought to amend the Bill to include a passage from the Act dealing with dispute resolution which sets out clearly precisely what is meant by a trade union within the context of that Act. Incidentally, my noble friends are sorry that they are not able to attend the House this morning, but they still support the general thrust of my amendment.

I have come back with a much simpler amendment setting out precisely what we are after. As I have said on a number of occasions, and on Second Reading and in Committee, an employee who is concerned about wrong doing, either on a health and safety basis or because he suspects that something fraudulent is going on, is likely in the first place to go to his trade union. That is likely to happen in a situation in which there is no union recognition, just as it may happen where there is already recognition and agreed procedures. Indeed, in non-union situations it is more than likely that there will be no proper procedure in place whereby issues of that kind can first be ventilated by the employee. That has happened on previous occasions, the most famous probably being the "Piper Alpha" disaster, where employees were engaged on short-term contracts and the employers were generally hostile to union involvement and the employees were too intimidated to complain.

The protection afforded by the Bill to someone who blows the whistle is available if the employee reports it--having tried in the first instance to go through internal procedures--to one of a number of listed agencies. We want to include an official of an independent trade union as an appropriate person to receive such disclosure.

A number of reasons were advanced in Committee for not doing so. Among them was a reference to the need to retain confidentiality. It was apparently believed that a lawyer or an accountant was bound by the ethics of a profession to maintain confidentiality, but the same constraints did not apply as regards trade union officials. I suppose that occasionally there may be maverick lawyers or accountants and they do not always play by the book. However, I believe that noble Lords who have advanced these arguments in relation to trade unions are perhaps sometimes inclined to accept the rather angled view of the media as to the way in which unions operate. The issues which receive media attention are the

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occasions when there are disputes because ordinary procedures have broken down. In any event, the reporting is often not accurate since the media has its own agenda!

I have spent much of my working life as a trade union official, latterly as a very senior one and one also with a responsibility for training younger officials. They have to be trained to appreciate that they must retain the trust and respect of people on the other side of the table. They have to do so because it is important in their members' interests to maintain a reasonable, continuous relationship.

Break a trust, fail to honour an agreement or break your word and even though they may seem to be an immediate advantage it is short-sighted and not in the long-term interest of the members or the union generally. That means that the maintenance of confidentiality, where that is required, is very important to the union and to its future success. You do not break your word. If you do it dishonours the union and long-term relationships are damaged, perhaps forever. That is a lesson we used to teach our young officials. As a result, I believe that I can say with some justification that my union had, and still has, a very good reputation. It is not alone, it is also TUC policy.

I come back this morning with an amendment which sets at rest our fears that unions in this important process as outlined in the Bill are being sidelined. It spells out that a union member may seek protection under the Bill by going to his union and to an official authorised by his union to accept such disclosure. I beg to move.

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