HC Deb 20 February 1941 vol 369 cc329-35

Order for Second Reading read.

The Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs (Mr. Butler)

I beg to move, "That this Bill be now read a Second time."

This is one of the few occasions on which the Foreign Office has been responsible for a Bill in Parliament. The object of the Bill is to confer certain immunities and privileges upon members of foreign Governments and envoys accredited to Allied Powers. We have in London at the present time a miniature Europe. We wish, consequently, to adjust the law of our country in order to meet the international character of our capital. I feel confident that the House will wish to honour these Allied Governments by giving to them the independent and dignified status to which their position and Sovereign powers entitle them. We shall be all the more inclined to take this step by reason of the courage and policies of these administrations, which are in every respect worthy of their traditions. The House has already passed the Allied Forces Act, which confers on the Governments concerned power over their own nationals in respect of those forces which are so gallantly massed on our shores. We have already had many occasions to admire the heroic exploits which the Allied Forces have performed in defence of our own shores. We have also reason to be grateful for the material contribution which they are making to our common war effort. I refer in particular to the great assistance we have derived from the co-operation of the Colonial Empires of the Netherlands, of Belgium and of Free France. We are fighting not only for the freedom of individual conscience but for the free rights of peoples and the free functioning of government. Our cause is greatly strengthened by the example of these gallant Allied Governments, who, though forced to live in exile, are continuing to discharge their legitimate functions thus rendering London the focus of the resistance of a free Europe.

By conferring the privileges suggested in this Bill, I trust we shall make this country a real home of freedom for these determined representatives of national resistance. It is important that they should not live here as strangers in our midst, but should be assured of the status and privileges of their situation. Such privileges were accorded to the Government of Belgium during the last war by the French Government; while in this war, before the fall of France, privileges similar to those suggested here were afforded by France to the Poles. The representatives of a foreign Power accredited to the Court of St. James enjoy certain privileges in this country. These are, notably, freedom from local jurisdiction, the special protection of residence, and certain fiscal advantages. The legal position of the sovereigns or heads of States is covered by international law and recognised in our own courts, but the individual members of Allied Governments and their official staffs are not so covered.

If hon. Members will turn to Clause 1 of the Bill, they will see that it proposes to confer a position corresponding to that of members of the Diplomatic Corps upon the members and senior officials of the Allied Governments of Poland, Norway, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and the provisional Czecho-Slovak Government. The privileges and immunities will also be conferred on the leaders and senior officials of the Free French movement established in this country. No doubt there will be general agreement that the Ministers of Allied Government and leaders of national movements should enjoy a status not less favourable than the diplomatic representatives accredited to the Court of St. James. As regards the official staffs of these Governments the House will no doubt, wish to know upon whom it is proposed to confer immunities and privileges. It has been decided that the names of the individuals falling within our definition shall be included in a list to be published in the "London Gazette." His Majesty's Government and the Allied Governments will agree upon the names that are to appear in this list.

Turning to Clause 2, the House will see that this treats of the position of diplomats accredited to Allied Governments at present in our country. Allied Governments at present here have in most cases diplomats of other Powers accredited to them. It is suggested that protection corresponding to that afforded to diplomatic envoys accredited to the Court of St. James should be granted to those representatives. With these explanations, and taking into account the sentiments of my opening remarks, I trust that the House will give a Second Reading to this Bill and will rejoice in doing so. My right hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General will be very glad to answer any points which may arise.

Mr. Wedgwood (Newcastle-under-Lyme)

I have not studied this Bill, and I should like an explanation on this one point. It will be within the memory of the Solicitor-General that long ago the Chinese Empire, which was represented here, took advantage of their immunities to imprison Sun Yat Sen, and he was very nearly deported and executed. We cannot stop that happening under ordinary circumstances, but we ought to be very careful in connection, particularly, with the Polish Government here. We have had a lot of people who are not Polish citizens and who are not members of the Polish Army imprisoned. We do not want that to occur again. We do not want to turn the grant of immunities into a right of having a private prison here in London. I have no doubt that that point has been looked into and will be borne in mind, but it would be detrimental to our principles in this country if through this Bill we provided opportunities for police action which are not strictly in accordance with our own practices.

Mr. Mander (Wolverhampton)

I am fully in sympathy with the object of this Bill. It seems to me only proper and right that our Allies who are in this country—temporarily and we hope not for long, before they are restored to their own countries—should be surrounded with every atmosphere of dignity that we can possibly give them, and diplomatic immunity is certainly one of them. I think we are at times rather too much inclined to say that we are fighting this war alone. Naturally, that is not a remark that goes down well with the splendid Allies who are rendering us very great services under most difficult circumstances, and this is one of the occasions which enable us to emphasise the point that we are not alone, that we have some very good friends, and are going to give them the recognition to which they are entitled in this country.

There is one point upon which I want to be clear. My right hon. Friend mentioned the names of various countries that come under the Bill. I want to be clear about the position of another Ally, Abyssinia. A statement was recently made that the Emperor Haile Selassie has returned to his dominions. The Bill speaks of "Governments established in the United Kingdom." I do not know whether that means that the Governments must be situated here. That is not the case in regard to the Abyssinian Government, who, I take it, are now in their own country. I want to be clear whether under this Bill or under the existing law full recognition can be given, to our gallant Ally at any time it may be demanded and thought appropriate, to that Ally who after some very troublous years and painful history looks like coming into its own again. It is possible that in the future, as events develop, there may be set up some kind of provisional Government in Albania such as does not exist at the present time. I should like to ask whether in the event of that taking place it will be possible for them to have recognition. Those are the points on which I should like to have assurances from the Solicitor-General, and I would ask him to explain the position.

Mr. Garro Jones (Aberdeen, North)

Before the right hon. and learned Gentleman replies, I would like to put a further point. Some years ago I had occasion to raise a Debate on this subject, and it gave rise to some very interesting discussion and information. I raised it on the question of civil liabilities incurred by a person entitled to diplomatic privileges, after he had committed an act of negligence in driving a motor-car.

While everybody will agree with the main purpose of the Bill, we still leave in an atmosphere of doubt and uncertainty what are diplomatic immunities, privileges and customs. While this may or may not be the appropriate time to go into that matter, some consideration ought to be given to it, because it gives rise to a very great deal of feeling if persons entitled to diplomatic immunity rely upon that immunity to escape their ordinary civil obligations. This has been done in the past. Therefore, I hope that the Foreign Office will make an attempt, as soon as the appropriate occasion offers, to give us a definite statement as to what are the customs in diplomatic immunity.

The Solicitor-General (Sir William Jowitt)

We certainly cannot complain of the reception which the Bill has had. Obviously it is designed as a matter of courtesy to the people whom we desire to shelter and because we recognise the very real help we are getting from them. It shows how fortunate we feel ourselves in having them as our Allies during this war. As the hon. Member opposite stated, it is wrong to think that we are fighting the war alone. The House has been, as ever, critical, and rightly so, of the proposal that is put before it, and I propose briefly to reply to the observations that have been made in the course of the Debate.

We have been reminded by the right hon. Gentleman opposite of the history of the Chinese Legation over here. He will perhaps know that since that incident took place corresponding incidents have taken place in various foreign countries. The law relating to diplomatic immunity has been considerably clarified by those events. I should say now, without hesitation, that, by international law, not merely the municipal law but the law which is recognised as prevailing throughout all civilised countries, immunity which is now extended to a diplomat does not entitle that diplomat to retain or imprison at his will any person whatever, whether a national of the country to which he is accredited or a national of his own country. I think that is now plainly established and stated as having been established by all the world-recognised books on international law. I therefore feel no hesitation in giving to the right hon. Gentleman the assurance for which he asked.

I was asked about Abyssinia's position. A statement was made by the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs not long ago regarding the exact position which we have adopted in regard to Abyssinia. We all recognise the splendid work which the Abyssinian patriots are now doing. The Abyssinian Government are established in Abyssinia, of course, and not over here. I hope that they will very shortly be established at Addis Ababa. Consequently the whole question of the Abyssinian Government does not some within the scope of the Bill. At the same time, it is open to our Government, following well-known principles of ordinary international law, to recognise any Government and to accord to that Government full status, both de facto and de jure, but that does not come within the scope of the Bill, which is designed merely to deal with the Governments which are established in this country.

With regard to civil liability, nothing has impressed me more than the fact that this question so seldom arises. It is a commonplace that people are very apt to regard debts of honour, that is to say, debts which are not payable in law, as the type of debt which they always make a point of paying first. When I have investigated the estates of bankrupts, as I sometimes have to do, I have found that they have almost always dissipated their assets to some extent, in the first place, in paying those debts of honour which are not legally binding. It is undoubtedly a fact, so far as civil debts which are owed by diplomats here or the civil liabilities under which they come are concerned, that they have been almost always discharged without difficulty. If difficulty ever arises, it can always be taken up by the Foreign Office with the head of the Commission over here, and the difficulty is almost always got rid of.

Of course, diplomatic status and diplomatic immunity, which, it must be remembered, is the immunity of the envoy himself—the retinue merely have a derivative immunity—are absolute, so long as the person concerned is on the list. In the Bill, we have adopted the very convenient course of proposing that the list shall be published in the three "Gazettes." That means that everybody will be certain and clear as to who is and who is not entitled to the immunity. After these observations, I hope that the House will now give us our Second Reading. If any further points arise, they can be considered in the Committee stage.

Question, "That the Bill be now read a Second time," put, and agreed to.

Bill committed to a Committee of the Whole House for the next Sitting Day.— [Mr. Munro.]