HC Deb 07 July 1955 vol 543 cc1466-9

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the Clause stand part of the Bill.

11.26 p.m.

Mr. Alfred Robens (Blyth)

I do not want to detain the House at this late hour. We had an interesting debate on Second Reading, when most of the points that arose on the Bill were well covered and we had fairly satisfactory replies from the Government. I would merely ask the Joint Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs what different treatment will be accorded to the two groups of staff mentioned in the Clause.

The indication is that staff with the office of the level of attaché upwards have some additional amenities or concessions which are not given to those who are below that rank. I raised the point on Second Reading but I do not think that we had a reply to it, because we were dealing with other matters.

In my own experience, and I am sure that the same conclusion has been drawn by other hon. Members who have travelled abroad, I have come to the conclusion that there is no real reason why any special privileges should attach to any particular group of people who are serving abroad, with the possible exception of the ambassador or chief representative himself. But very often junior staff and those on the lower scales of salary are in need of additional assistance because of the problems which arise in living abroad. Whilst, no doubt, the group arrangements in the Clause are similar to those which operate under other Bills which confer immunity, and with general practice in the diplomatic service, I should like the Joint Under-Secretary to explain what is meant by, … shall in addition be entitled to such other exemption or relief from taxes as is accorded to the members of the official staff of such an envoy holding equivalent rank. Is it that staffs are divided into two groups, one enjoying greater privileges than the other? If so, what is the reason? At this stage, is this the right way to deal with the matter?

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs (Mr. R. H. Turton)

I am obliged to the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Blyth (Mr. Robens) for his question. The answer is that those with the rank of attaché and above receive exemption from United Kingdom Income Tax on their official emoluments, on their income arising abroad, on their income arising from certain British Government securities, and on the annual value of premises owned and occupied by them as their official residence. For those who are in the clerical grade, there is the distinction that they receive only exemption from Income Tax in respect of their official emoluments. It is true of this grade that they receive a lower scale than is normally awarded; in normal diplomatic posts, clerical staffs are allowed exemption from Income Tax on income arising abroad.

11.30 p.m.

In the debate on 21st February, the right hon. Gentleman asked the Government what were the views of Sir Cecil Weir about what should be the minimum diplomatic immunities and privileges which should be conferred. We had already discussed this with Sir Cecil Weir, and this Bill comprises the privileges and immunities which he regarded as the minimum essential for carrying on the work. That is why there is this distinction.

Mr. Robens

I do not follow why there is the distinction. I understand that what has been done is to get diplomatic immunities at the lowest level consistent with the work to be done. But I do not understand why members of the British staff should be treated differently from one another.

Mr. Turton

We are not here dealing with the British staff but with a foreign delegation. Clearly, it is unnecessary to give clerical grades exemption from the annual value of the premises owned and occupied by them as their official residences, because they do not have official residences. I think that the argument of the right hon. Gentleman is that we should not follow the advice of Sir Cecil Weir, but give greater exemptions from tax, which is not a policy which I could recommend to the Committee.

We believe it necessary to curtail these immunities and privileges so far as possible. Some of the clerical staff will be coming to and fro, and so Sir Cecil Weir did not think that we should give them a large exemption.

Mr. Robens

When I referred to the British staff, I had in mind the fact that this was a reciprocal arrangement. Whatever we do for those coming from Luxembourg will be done for our people who go to Luxembourg. I accept the view of Sir Cecil Weir about what is the lowest amount, and I am sure that he has given the best advice to the Government. But I cannot accept the premise that junior members of the staff should have anything less than is accorded elsewhere. If it is not necessary for the junior members of the staff to have this exemption, why should it be necessary for the senior members to have it? In the matter of tax exemptions I should have thought that we would have treated the whole delegation alike, either one way or the other.

I accept the advice of Sir Cecil Weir and of the Government, but I do not like this distinction. Any hon. Member who has visited our embassies abroad will know how difficult it is, very often, for junior members of the staff to manage in a foreign country. I am not saying that there should be an exemption or that there should not. I think it strange that there should be a division in the staff of any delegation; that some members should be told that because they hold a rank less than that of an attaché they may not have a tax exemption, and others that, because they hold the rank of attaché or above they may have the exemption. The cost of living abroad is identical for all the members of the delegation according to their means, and I do not understand the reason for the difference among people who are all working for a common end.

Mr. Turton

I do not want to prolong this argument. We must remember that the division of the grades is between those in a purely representative capacity and those in a clerical capacity. In our view, it is the minimum necessary. It is true that we can be more generous, but I do not think the House would like us to be more generous. Therefore, I ask the Committee to accept the Clause as it is.

Clause ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 2 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Bill to be reported.

Bill reported, without Amendment; read the Third time and passed.