HC Deb 16 May 1928 vol 217 cc1171-8

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Commander Eyres Monsell.]


I desire to draw the attention of the House to the position of the law with reference to what is known as diplomatic immunity, that is to say, the immunity of diplomatic officers and their servants from any process of law, whether in civil or criminal cases. Before giving notice of my intention to raise this question, I gave proper weight to the objections that might be advanced against such a course, and I hope that, when I have finished, the House will consider that my action has been justified. It may be for the convenience of the House if I briefly recapitulate what is the law on this question. Under the present law, it is impossible for any action, whether civil or criminal, to be brought against a foreign Sovereign, or his diplomatic representative in this country, or against certain of the servants of diplomatic representatives. I do not suggest that that diplomatic immunity should be completely abolished. It is essential that the independence of foreign monarchs, and the dignity of their representatives in this country, should be protected against action by any litigious persons, who may desire, from various motives, to bring some kinds of action against them. But I submit that for many years past, cases have arisen which show that this law is liable to some abuse, and, furthermore, is by no means clear or equitable in its operation in different countries.

There was a case quite recently, in which the motor car of the Spanish Ambassador—His Excellency himself was not in the car—was involved in a collision with a motor cycle and sidecar. A man was driving the cycle, and his wife and child were in the sidecar. The child was seriously injured, and the other passengers were also injured. When it was sought by the driver of the cycle to bring some action against the Spanish Ambassador, the plea of diplomatic immunity was successfully raised, and, when the injured person wrote to the Spanish Ambassador, he replied with a letter in which he did not merely state that he claimed diplomatic immunity, but in which he entered at some length into the merits of the case. He attributed in strong terms, which I would not like to read to the House for several reasons, blame to the driver of the motor cycle and sidecar. Quite recently, also, there was a similar case, in which the American Ambassador's motor car was involved, and that is a case to which I would ask the particular attention of the House, because I think that it is a case—I shall not use any strong language, either on the action of the insurance company, or of the Ambassador where diplomatic immunity has been abused.

The facts are these. A car from the American Embassy was being driven by a chauffeur in the service of the Ambassador when it collided with a boy aged 14 riding a bicycle. The boy was injured. He suffered injury to his knees, including synovitis of both knees, and a certain amount of shock. He lost a considerable number of days work and his machine was damaged. He brought an action against the American Ambassador, who referred it to the insurance company. The claim was for £20. The insurance company pleaded diplomatic immunity and when the mother of the boy wrote to the American Ambassador stating that she claimed £20 the American Embassy issued a statement that £5 had been offered to the boy in full payment of his claim, and that as diplomatic immunity was a statu- tory right of the Embassy, no further action could be taken, and it lay in the hands of the insurance company.

I suggest that diplomatic immunity is not a right, of which an Ambassador is compelled to take advantage. He may voluntarily submit himself to the jurisdiction of the Courts by entering an appearance against a summons and allowing the case to go on in the usual way, and although I am not going to suggest to the Under-Secretary for Foreign Affairs that he should ask the United States Ambassador to take that course, I am quoting this and two or three other cases to show that the whole subject of diplomatic immunity should be brought up for consultation between the various Powers. It is not so long ago since the car of the British Ambassador in Washington was involved in an accident. It almost seems as though these diplomatic privileges, including that of driving through traffic, engender a spirit which may be described as "Thrusting." I think motorists do describe it as "thrusting" on the part of the chauffeurs of these diplomatic motor cars. Here we have the strange coincidence that within a short space of time there have been these three cases. When the case of the British Ambassador at Washington came up for discussion in that country considerable abuse was poured upon the whole system, and both in the Senate and in Congress foreign diplomats were abused in terms which I shall certainly not reciprocate, because when we are able to see from this side how ridiculous some of these things look we realise that no good purpose is served by speaking of them in strong terms.

There are two or three other cases which I wish to quote. All diplomats who have been involved in this plea are not quite so respectable as the American and Spanish Ambassadors. There have been cases in which Sultans of semi-independent Powers have successfully pleaded this privilege. For example, there was the case of the Sultan of Johore, in 1894, I think. He came to this country and under the name of Albert Baker, engaged the attentions of a young lady. Later he was the subject of an action for breach of promise, and successfully pleaded diplomatic immunity. This is a plea which can be advanced for any conceivable form of crime, tort, or civil wrong. I can conceive that it might be a great convenience for some hon. Members if they could enlist on the staff of some of these Ambassadors. I see the Noble Lord the Member for South Battersea (Viscount Curzon) sitting on the Treasury Bench.

Captain Viscount CURZON (Lord of the Treasury)

May I ask the hon. Member why he selects me?


I have not been able to keep track of all the motorcar offences with which the Noble Lord has been charged. I trust the Noble Lord did not think I was referring to anything else. The Noble Lord must not pretend that his skill as a motorist and his notoriety have not penetrated to the Liberal Benches.

Viscount CURZON

Is the hon. and gallant Member making any allegation against me?


I was only making a suggestion that might be for the convenience of the Noble Lord. I hope I shall have a reply from the Under-Secretary. All this procedure is based upon the Diplomatic Privileges Act, which was passed in 1708. It was passed because the Muscovite Ambassador had been set upon by his creditors to a sponging house at the sign of the "Black Raven," where he was detained until the Earl of Feversham and a City merchant bailed him. Naturally he was very cross about this, and he made representations to the Foreign Office. He said that those who took part in this offence must be arrested, and, seven persons were arrested, but still he was not satisfied. Afterwards they arrested 10 more, and then the Russian Ambassador retired to Holland and wrote a letter of protest, which culminated in a letter being written by the Tsar, which stated that those involved should suffer capital punishment, and in the words of the Hansard Report of that day: This has caused the greatest uneasiness to the Queen and the Ministers of the day. I mention that to show that the legislation upon which this is based was passed in a moment of panic. It is not clear what are independent countries. There are many on the border line. It is not clear who are diplomatic officers. There is a case before the Courts to decide whether an officer is a diplomatic or consular officer. The law is not clear as to what particular class of privilege is enjoyed by servants, and it is not clear whether the members of a diplomatist's family are to enjoy these privileges as well. Although up to the present we have been very fortunate in the representatives of foreign countries in this country we may not always be so fortunate, and for these reasons I hope something will be done to put the law on a proper basis.

The UNDER-SECRETARY of STATE for FOREIGN AFFAIRS (Mr. Godfrey Locker-Lampson)

The hon. and gallant Member gave me notice that he was going to raise this question, and we have had a certain amount of correspondence about it. It is rather difficult for me to reply in the short time which has been left for me. If the claim had been a good one, the compensation would have been paid in full. The hon. and gallant Member mentioned the case of the American Ambassador the other day. I have gone into that case very carefully, and there is no doubt in my mind, and I am sure there would be none in the mind of the hon. and gallant Member if he saw the correspondence in the case, that it was not in the least the fault of the driver of the American Ambassador's car. What happened was that the chauffeur was driving very slowly, when suddenly a boy on a bicycle rode out of a side street right in front of the car, and was knocked down. The chauffeur immediately offered to take the boy to a hospital, but the boy refused, and walked off, apparently quite uninjured, and it was not until some days later that the boy's mother wrote to the Ambassador and demanded compensation. The Ambassador replied giving the address of the insurance company, and advising her to apply to them, so that in this case the boy was at absolutely no disadvantage from the point of view of diplomatic immunity, because the insurance company, if the claim was a good one, would naturally pay the money.


Surely, the right of the boy is to have his case tested by the Courts. There are witnesses who aver the contrary of what the hon. Gentleman has stated.


I will read the statement of one independent witness. This independent witness was Mr. Willis Rees, of 132, Henry Street, St. John's Wood, and this is his statement: Shortly after 5 p.m. on the 19th July, I was driving a motor car through Holles Street, proceeding in the direction of Welbeck Street, and observed another motor car coming towards me on the opposite side in the direction of Manchester Square. Suddenly a boy riding a pedal bicycle dashed out of a side street in front of the car previously mentioned. The driver of the car was going very slowly, and, as soon as the boy was struck, pulled up at once. In my opinion, the youth was entirely to blame, as he had no control over his machine, and was at the time carrying a parcel in front of him. As a matter of fact, I do not believe for a moment that in this case the claim was a good one; if it had been, I have no doubt that the insurance company would have paid. In fact, although the claim was a bad one, the insurance company offered £10 as an ex gratia payment, which was refused.

You cannot possibly abolish the privilege of diplomatic immunity which is one of the first principles of international law. Our people enjoy them as much as diplomatists in this country do. These are representatives of friendly States. I cannot imagine anything that would be more derogatory to the dignity of a country than that its representatives should be able to be haled before a Court of Law and fined or sent to prison. These diplomatic representatives are all insured without exception, and if they did not think the insurance was going to be paid they would not go to the trouble of paying the premiums to be insured. I feel certain it would be extremely bad for the dignity of our diplomatic representatives if at any moment some unscrupulous person was able to blackmail them and hale them before a Court of Law.

It being Half-past Eleven of the Clock, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House, without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.