Clause 60 provides the Secretary of State and the CMA with absolute privilege against action for defamation as a result of the exercise of functions under or by virtue of the Bill. The clause has been included to ensure that the Secretary of State and the CMA have absolute privilege from defamation claims, on the basis that the function of the regime to protect national security is too important to be at risk or in any way curtailed by claims of defamation. It is, of course, not the Government’s intention to defame anyone through the regime or more widely. I hope that hon. Members will agree that this is an appropriate protection, supported by a well-reasoned regime that seeks to protect national security while supporting businesses and investors.
I understand the purpose of the clause and, as the Minister indicated, the question of national security is very important. I can imagine circumstances in which the Secretary of State may, for example, suggest that a company is an agent of a foreign power. That might be seen to be defamatory, but in terms of the inquiry that is being undertaken the Minister should be protected against such an action.
However, the clause states that there is absolute privilege, which appears to suggest that the privilege could be exercised even on a wholly unreasonable basis—that is, the Minister could say or write what he or she likes about anybody provided it is under the cover of, or could be attached to the purposes of, the Bill. That seems a bit of a wide-ranging provision.
I appreciate what the Minister said on the provision, and that he has already said that it would not be his intention to defame anybody, but might he provide us with an assurance today, on the record, that notwithstanding the very wide scope of the Bill, he does not see the clause as an opportunity for the Secretary of State to wantonly defame anybody if they felt like it, and that it would be strictly used in terms of inquiries that were being undertaken for the purpose of the Bill, and not for any other purposes?
I hope I have already made it clear that the Government would not intend to defame anybody. The reason for the clause is that there are various points in the regime where the Secretary of State will make statements that are, in effect, published and would include communications with other parties as well as those for general public consumption. He may therefore be open to such claims, which is why the clause is in the Bill.