HC Deb 25 October 1955 vol 545 cc80-102

Order for Second Reading read.

5.44 p.m.

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

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

As the Bill is dealing with diplomatic immunities, it might help the House if I first explained what is meant by "diplomatic immunity." This is a practice that dates back to very early times. There were occasions when an envoy who was despatched with a message to barbarian countries was summarily executed if the message was unpleasant. That made a diplomatic career unattractive—indeed, in the words of Hobbes, nasty, brutish and short. It also provided a deterrent to international communications. There was, therefore, designed the custom of according special protection to the person of the envoy and of granting certain exemptions from the jurisdiction of the State to which he was accredited. It was accepted that the conduct of any kind of negotiations between States would be quite impossible if the life of the envoy was in perpetual jeopardy.

Ambassadors no longer, we hope, go about in fear of their lives, yet they must still be protected in respect of the official acts that they perform; and in order that they may discharge their duties with confidence and independence, it is necessary that they should be granted immunity in both civil and criminal courts.

So far as this country is concerned, the earliest Act dealing with this subject was in 1708, in the seventh year of the reign of Queen Anne. The House might be interested to know the background of that Act. It was an Act described for preserving the Privileges of Ambassadors and other Public Ministers of Foreign Princes and States. The origin was that Mr. Matueof, the Russian Ambassador, unfortunately got into debt and was arrested for non-payment of his debts while he was proceeding in his carriage through London, and he was dragged out of his carriage and, I believe, rather inconveniently handled. After that, the Act was introduced.

The Act did no more than declare the existing common law but it served its purpose of making clear that diplomatic envoys and their retinues were not subject to the ordinary processes of law. Ambassadors, Ministers and members of their staffs enjoy diplomatic immunity, not only in respect of official acts, the need for which is axiomatic, but also in respect of personal matters. In granting this immunity we are only carrying out the requirements that are widely recognised as the requirements of international law. In some countries, however, the degree of protection that is given to British missions is much lower than that required by international law.

Since the 1914–18 War, there has in this country been a great extension in the number of those receiving diplomatic immunity. The first reason for this has been the growth of the number of accredited missions. In 1938 there were 54 foreign missions in this country and today there are 72.

A second reason has been the growth in the size of the staffs of these missions. The subjects and methods of modern diplomacy have become very complicated. Technical, economic and military liaison has become an integral part of diplomatic activity, and step by step with the development of more advanced techniques in office work, and the development of communications, there has been an increase in the numbers of clerical staffs in the mission offices.

I find that whereas, in 1938, there were about 1,000 persons in all who were receiving diplomatic immunity today the number has grown to slightly more than 2,500. Let me give the House some examples. In 1938, there were 44 enjoying diplomatic immunity in the Soviet Embassy; by 1951 that number had grown to 92; today, the number is 118. Let me give another example. In the United States Embassy, in 1938, there were 101 enjoying diplomatic immunity; by 1951 the number had grown to 1,058; since then it has been reduced to 604.

Not unnaturally, this increase has caused disquiet. It is sometimes claimed that too many in this country are above the law, and that this is a development that is distasteful to a democratic country. This is, however, not the fact. A diplomat enjoys immunity only from legal process: he is still subject to the operation of the law of the land, criminal or civil, and is under a special obligation to respect it.

There is little evidence of abuse of the immunity granted. Last year the number of motoring offences committed by members of the Diplomatic Corps and reported to the Foreign Office was 105. The majority of those cases were minor charges of parking and of breaking the speed limit, which, if they had been dealt with by the courts, would have been punished by small fines. In civil jurisdiction the number of disputes over property or civil debts was last year only 35. Out of the 2,500 persons entitled, that was not a considerable proportion.

Still, the disquiet existed. Six years ago the Labour Government set up an inter-departmental committee under Lord Justice Somervell to consider whether the law of the United Kingdom in regard to diplomatic immunity was in any respect wider than was necessary or desirable. The Somervell Committee reported on 13th July, 1951. It gave broad approval to the present practice, but recommended that consideration should be given to the possibility of legislation empowering the Government to reduce the immunities granted to the mission of any country so as to correspond with the immunities granted by that country to British missions. The effect of that recommendation would be to bring the law and practice of diplomatic immunity into line with the practice of the grant of diplomatic privileges which are, as a general rule, already based on the doctrine of reciprocity. The Committee did not recommend any change in the immunities and privileges of international organisations. While these cannot be described exactly as reciprocal, yet, as they result from international agreements, they are the same for members of the organisations in all countries.

This Bill is being introduced to carry out the Somervell Committee's recommendations. If hon. Members will turn to the Bill they will see that Clause 1 enables the Government, by Order in Council, to withdraw personal immunities where envoys, their families and servants, and members of the official staffs of such envoys and their families, are at present receiving personal immunities in excess of those accorded to our missions in their own territory. The House will notice that no attempt is made to reduce the immunity for official acts, which, as I said earlier, is a necessary foundation of all diplomacy.

Power is taken in this Clause not only to make Orders in Council but also to vary or revoke them. The justification for this is that first we must discover how far our present practice is reciprocated; we must see whether as a result of this Bill certain countries are going to increase their standards of diplomatic immunity to our level, and also indeed to the level prescribed by international law. I hope that one of the consequences of the Bill will be that some countries will indeed give our representatives that immunity which is prescribed by international law, and that there will be some relaxations of the difficulties some of our representatives now endure in certain countries. Then we must have the power to alter our Orders when other countries take subsequent action reducing or increasing the diplomatic immunity they extend to our missions.

It may be of value if I give a summary of certain disparities in practice that have already come to our notice. Whilst we give immunity from civil action to all the non-diplomatic staff of all countries, in 25 countries such immunity is either not granted at all or it is at best doubtful whether it is accorded to the non-diplomatic staff of our missions. While we give personal immunity in civil actions to all the personal servants of an envoy who are not citizens of the United Kingdom, in 30 countries this immunity is denied to British servants of our ambassadors and ministers.

The power conferred by Clause 1 will enable us to withdraw immunity in such cases. I cannot at present tell the House how many persons will be affected, but I think I can reasonably say that the figure of 2,500 of entitled persons will be reduced, and that it will be a substantial reduction.

Clause 2 is to carry out another recommendation of the Somervell Committee. That was, that in future any local national holding any position in a foreign embassy, including the position of a domestic servant, should not be accepted except on the condition that he shall not enjoy personal diplomatic immunity. This merely gives the sanction of law to current practice. Citizens of the United Kingdom employed in capacities other than that of domestic servants have not enjoyed this immunity since 1786, and since 27th August, 1952, this practice has been extended by administrative action to include such domestic servants who entered employment subsequent to that date.

Mr. Hector Hughes (Aberdeen, North)

Before the right hon. Gentleman leaves the point about withdrawing immunity from the representatives of foreign nations in this country, would he deal with the correlative point? Is it not provocative on our part to withdraw immunities from ambassadors and other representatives of foreign countries? If we pass this Bill, may we not expect from those countries further withdrawals of the immunities they accord to our representatives to them?

Mr. Turton

All we are suggesting is that the conduct of diplomatic immunity, which is a courtesy provided by international law, should be reciprocal. If the 25 countries I have mentioned are not giving our non-diplomatic staff personal immunity—which is inconvenient to our non-diplomatic staff—it is perfectly right and proper, in my submission—it is for the House to decide—that we should take powers to reduce the immunities of the non-diplomatic staffs of those missions.

I think hon. Members will see that that can hardly be described as provocative action. If there has been any provocation it is that certain countries are still denying us the normal diplomatic immunities accorded by international law. It may well be that, if Parliament passes this Bill, some countries may now take the hint and increase the immunities they accord to our staffs so that they are appropriate by the standards of international law.

Clause 3 (1) defines personal immunity as immunity from suit or legal process … and inviolability or residence. It excludes any action arising out of acts committed in the course of official duties. As I have already explained, that exclusion is necessary in order to uphold the ancient principle of the protection of an envoy when he is acting in his official capacity. Clause 3 (2) merely protects the existing immunities accorded in other legislation. It is merely a drafting provision.

I hope that the House will agree that the Bill carries out the recommendations of the Somervell Committee. I submit to the House that it is a necessary Measure and I hope that the House will give Her Majesty's Government its unanimous support in passing it swiftly into law.

6.2 p.m.

Mr. Alfred Robens (Blyth)

We on this side of the House would not oppose this Bill. As the Joint Under-Secretary has said, it provides for reciprocity so that our nationals who represent us abroad are treated in the same way as the nationals of other countries who serve in missions in this country are treated by us. To that extent it is fair and right and deals with one aspect of the problem. The Joint Under-Secretary, however, must be well aware that, from time to time, from all parts of the House, there has been mounting criticism of the increasing number of people who have diplomatic immunity. It is keenly felt that it is wrong that by reason of increasing missions, and so on, there should be an increasing number of people with diplomatic immunity which takes them above the law.

What the right hon. Gentleman says about the origin of all this is interesting and perfectly sound, but we are now in 1955 and there is not much likelihood that what took place at the time of which he was speaking might take place now. It seems inconceivable to me that people who are here representing their countries are required to have diplomatic immunity to the extent to which it is now granted. Equally, it seems unnecessary that many of our people abroad should not observe the ordinary rules, laws and regulations of the country in which they serve. The Bill does nothing to reduce the number of people who have diplomatic immunity. It merely says that if a particular country does not grant our nationals in that country facilities and privileges which we grant to that country's nationals here, we should reduce those facilities and privileges in this country on a reciprocal basis.

The Bill does not deal with the real problem and for that reason I am rather disappointed. We have discussed this matter before in the House, particularly when we were dealing with representatives of the Schuman Plan Assembly. I thought that it was generally agreed in the House that we should confer diplomatic immunity on as few people as possible and, within missions, only to those people for whom diplomatic immunity is right and proper. I am not sure that we should go right through to members of the domestic staff of an ambassador's household merely because they happen to be of another nationality.

I am not sure that it is necessary that a domestic servant inside an embassy in this country should have diplomatic immunity because he or she happens to have the nationality of the country from which the envoy comes. There is no question of a domestic servant coming along with some unpleasant news as a result of which he or she might have his or her head chopped off. It is right and proper that accredited heads of missions should have immunity and that high officials within an embassy should have it, but I am not sure that it is necessary to go as far as we do and as far as some other countries also do.

In these days business itself is international and there are in various capitals of the world missions belonging to business interests, such as oil interests and the like. They do not require diplomatic immunity to carry out their business. It seems to me that at the moment we have far too many people who have diplomatic immunity and who do not necessarily require it. I do not think it helps the case by saying that only 35 people out of about 2,000 broke the law in respect of debts incurred. That is a very high proportion. If one were to take that proportion out of our total population of 58 million and that proportion ran away from debts incurred I doubt very much whether a Minister of the Crown would say that that was a small matter.

Mr. Turton

I said that only 35 people had any disputes over property or debt. That is rather different from saying that only 35 people had debts. It was a question of how many had disputes. That was 35 out of 2,500 which, I say, is not a high proportion.

Mr. Robens

I think that it is. If we had litigation by 35 out of every 2,500 of our population in relation to disputes over properties or debt we should have to do something about our law courts, because they would not be able to deal with the cases. The proportion is high and I am rather surprised that the Minister should tell us that it is not. It is far higher than the normal proportion of disputes among citizens in this country in relation to property and debt and I suggest that the Minister should not be complacent about it. However, that is not a matter of moment. What is really important is the question whether we are giving diplomatic immunity to more people than is really necessary.

Is it not a good thing that people who are in this country, representing their own country, should conform as far as possible with the law like any other citizen? In the same way, is it not a good thing that our representatives abroad should conform with the laws of those countries as far as is commensurate with the duties which they perform? The Foreign Office must have been considering certain matters in connection with the behaviour of members of British missions abroad in a famous case which is not under discussion now but which will be discussed later in this Parliament—the question of disgraceful behaviour by two people. If those people had not had diplomatic immunity they would have been called before the court for unseemly behaviour and for breaking the law. Would not that be a good thing? I do not think that it is a good thing to protect large numbers of people by raising them above the law.

I would not permit anybody, either a British national abroad or another national here, to have diplomatic immunity unless it was proved beyond doubt that the position he occupied ought to have that immunity. Obviously, every Ambassador should have diplomatic immunity, but how far below the ambassadorial rank should we go? I do not think that we should go as far as according immunity to domestic servants. It is a great mistake.

I hope that the Minister will take note of some of the comments which have been made before in the House on this subject and that he will have read some of the articles and comments in the newspapers. I hope that he will realise that this is not a matter for complacency. I hope that he will realise that we are concerned about the growing number of people who have diplomatic immunity but who, to do their job efficiently, do not require it. I would say immediately that anyone whose job requires diplomatic immunity certainly should have it.

I do not believe that we should send people abroad to have diplomatic immunity extended to them unless their jobs really require it. The right hon. Gentleman must have visited many countries abroad in his time and must have met many people who are accredited to various missions. He must have come to the same conclusion as that to which I have come—that a very large number do not require diplomatic immunity in order to do their jobs.

I repeat that businessmen throughout the world are doing their hard, day-to-day business work without diplomatic immunity, but conforming to the rules, regulations and laws of the countries in which they operate. I commend further consideration by the right hon. Gentleman and his friends to this matter of diplomatic immunity. This Bill, however, does not deal with the wider considerations, but is restricted to a small point, and as the hon. Gentleman said its aim is to treat others as they treat us. That is not a bad precept, but it does not touch this question of the growing numbers of people who are outside the law.

I am sure that public opinion in this country which voices itself on this matter is against this growing number of people who enjoy diplomatic immunity. Personally, I am convinced that a great many people who have immunity do not require it in order to do their jobs efficiently. I hope that in due course the Foreign Office, in its own interests, will go much more carefully into the whole question, and, in accord with other Governments, evolve a scheme whereby the number of people in this world who enjoy diplomatic immunity can be considerably reduced.

6.12 p.m.

Captain J. A. L. Duncan (South Angus)

Since 1945, mine has been almost a lone voice protesting against the extension of diplomatic privilege and immunity in the way in which it has been going on ever since the war. I was out of Parliament after the 1945 Election until 1950, by which time the Diplomatic Immunity Convention had been agreed to by the former Government, and I think that many of the things against which the right hon. Member for Blyth (Mr. Robens) has been protesting have been caused by that Convention, to which his Government agreed in 1950.

I am very glad that the right hon. Gentleman today, and the former Solicitor-General, speaking, I think, on 20th June, have returned to my view. I hope we are all now agreed that diplomatic immunity should be restricted in numbers and in degree to those for whom it is necessary, so that the missions concerned can carry out their statutory and diplomatic duties in the countries concerned. To that extent, I welcome this small Bill, because it carries out some of the Somervell recommendations that diplomatic immunity should be reciprocal, and to that extent we are gaining. I agree with the right hon. Gentleman, however, that it might well be restricted further in order to exclude domestic servants, and so on.

I should like to illustrate that argument by suggesting the case of the chauffeur of an ambassador driving the latter to some Guildhall banquet in a hurry. The ambassador tells the chauffeur to "put his foot on it" in whatever foreign language may be appropriate, and as a result the chauffeur is involved in an accident. Would the chauffeur be liable under British law, although the responsibility was really that of the ambassador? This illustrates some of the difficulties, and there may be some case for diplomatic immunity being extended to servants when engaged on official duties, although I hope it will be restricted as much as possible.

Mr. Robens

The hon. and gallant Member has a very good point there, and that it is a matter for careful consideration. Would not the hon. and gallant Gentleman agree that if the ambassador's car was being used to take the wife of the ambassador shopping and a similar instruction was given followed by a similar result, it should not be covered by diplomatic immunity?

Captain Duncan

I would agree with that, if it should be possible to make such arrangements.

In the debate on 20th June, I tried to obtain from the Joint Under-Secretary the numbers of people enjoying this immunity, but the right hon. Gentleman would not give them. I am very glad he has given them today, because they show that from being about 1,000 in 1938 they are 2,500 today. I hope that as a result of this Bill the latter figure will be reduced, and that alternatively the privileges accorded to our representatives abroad will be increased. There are many cases—we all know them—in certain countries in which the members of British missions receive far less by way of diplomatic privilege and immunity than the members of foreign missions from those countries serving here in London. I hope that restriction will not only reduce the numbers but also extend diplomatic privilege and immunity to the degree to which we are entitled in those foreign countries.

I am not quite sure how far the matter comes within the scope of this Bill, but there is one thing that is beginning to annoy me, and that is the number of C.D. plates on motor cars. I gather from the reply given by a Foreign Office spokesman some months ago that these plates signify nothing. Surely, it is time that they signified something. For instance, I could put a C.D. plate on my car and the right hon. Gentleman opposite could do the same with his, and nothing could stop us. This proliferation of C.D. plates on cars ought to be stopped. If the Foreign Office can do something under the provisions of this Bill or by administrative action to reduce the number of C.D. plates on cars in London, I think that would not only be in the interests of the country as a whole but definitely of benefit in international relations generally.

6.19 p.m.

Mr. Eric Fletcher (Islington, East)

A great many people, including some hon. Members on the other side of the House, will have been very considerably disturbed by some of the things which the Joint Under-Secretary said this afternoon in recommending this Bill.

There is no doubt that throughout the country there is a very widespread feeling of dismay and disturbance at the extent to which diplomatic immunity in this country has increased in recent years. I do not think it was appreciated until the Minister spoke that the number of persons enjoying diplomatic privilege has more than doubled since 1938; it has gone up from about 1,000 then to about 2,500 now. This is a circumstance which causes a great deal of legitimate unrest and disquiet.

I want to ask the Minister whether it is necessary, and whether steps should not be taken to reduce the extent of this immunity. Some persons may have been misled into thinking that this Bill was intended to restrict diplomatic immunity, but it became more and more obvious as the Minister spoke that that was not the intention at all. Indeed, the Minister spoke as if he were trying to increase the present range of immunity. He said that as a result of this Bill the immunities being given to British diplomatic personnel abroad, in some cases where there is no reciprocity today, would be improved and increased, and, therefore, orders under the Bill would not be required. That is not the view I take, and it is not the approach which the Minister should entertain.

The right hon. Gentleman gave us an historical resumé of the circumstances in the time of Queen Anne which made diplomatic immunity necessary in order that international relations might be carried on, diplomatic exchange effected and the comity of nations preserved.

The real charge against this mischievous increase in the extent of diplomatic immunity given today is that it is quite unnecessary for the only purpose which in its origin justified it. The charge against those who enjoy it, whether they are representatives of foreign States in this country or representatives of Her Majesty's Government abroad, is that this privilege has been considerably abused. It is the abuse of diplomatic immunity to which the people object, and I think that the Minister and the Foreign Office would be well advised in the public interest to turn their attention to the cases of abuse of immunity that come to their notice, whether in connection with British representatives abroad, or in connection with foreign States in this country.

I hope that before we part with this Bill we shall have a little more information than the Under-Secretary has given us this afternoon. He told us that there were 35 cases out of 2,000 in which persons enjoying diplomatic immunity had become involved in some dispute about property or debt. That is a very large figure, far larger than the average. What does it mean? Does it mean that these 35 persons out of a relatively small number have refused to pay debts they ought to have paid? Does it mean that they have got into some dispute with their landlords about property which they have leased? Does it mean that 35 people have relied on diplomatic immunity in their private commercial concerns in order to excuse themselves from liabilities which they would otherwise have met? Is that what it means?

We want far more information about this. We can all concede that there is a clear case for putting ambassadors, heads of missions and perhaps senior members of their staffs in a situation in which they can carry out their diplomatic functions without any fear or favour. But there is no case today, in the middle of the twentieth century, for excusing diplomatic personnel and their domestic, secretarial and other staff from observing the ordinary decencies of life in the country in which they live. If they contract debts, they should pay their debts and honour their obligations like other people. If they take up tenancies, they should pay their rent like other people and if they become involved in law suits, litigation about commercial transactions into which they are free to enter or not to enter, they should abide by the law of the land and not plead diplomatic immunity.

What is the case for it? What is the justification for it? Is this not merely another instance of the close, hide-bound privilege of the Foreign Offices of the world, which has led to so much mischief in the past and which is leading to so much mischief today? The Under-Secretary said that there were certain concepts of international law which were observed by some countries and not observed by others. The whole subject needs to be studied. I am not in favour of this Bill being used merely to build up and extend privileges of British diplomatic personnel abroad. Very many of them would do their job better if they had to observe the law of the land in which they live.

Mr. Turton

I have repeated this again and again. I have said that all diplomats have to abide by the law of the land in which they live. It is not a question of immunity from the law, but of immunity from legal processes. I hope that the hon. Member for Islington, East (Mr. E. Fletcher), who is a lawyer, will remember that fact.

Mr. Fletcher

But what does that mean? The Under-Secretary says that they have to observe the law. Does he know what he means by diplomatic immunity? It means that they are immune from the legal consequences of what they do. If they have incurred a debt to a tailor in Germany, or Finland, or wherever it may be and choose not to pay their debt, they can rely on diplomatic immunity and plead that exemption if they are sued.

That is what diplomatic immunity means. That is what it means in this country. It means that if a person enjoying diplomatic immunity in this country goes to a tailor in Savile Row and orders a suit and does not pay for it, he cannot be sued. There is no justification for that. It means that they are immune from the civil processes of the law courts. The Under-Secretary implied that they are not immune from criminal law. I suppose that if a diplomat committed murder, or some other serious crime, he could be tried under criminal law. But what is the case with minor offences, such as motoring offences? In view of what has been said, it is not clear to me how that stands. It is on this point that I want some more information. If the police catch somebody—I hope we shall get a specific answer on this question—and that person has a C.D. plate on his car and is on the diplomatic immunity list and the offence is concerned with parking, or exceeding the speed limit, or something of that kind, what happens? Is he merely reported to the Foreign Office, or is he liable in the same way as a British citizen is liable to be summoned and brought before the police court and fined?

The Under-Secretary said that they were not above the law. If he will tell us that diplomatic immunity does not absolve them from the ordinary liability of British citizens to observe traffic laws like other laws, I shall not only be surprised, but delighted. The general impression is that a C.D. plate—which any- body can put on his car, without committing an offence—in fact confers some relief, some exoneration from the ordinary law of the land. I hope that the Under-Secretary will tell us whether this is so or not.

If it is the case, the Minister should justify it, for it cannot be necessary for diplomats to have immunity of that kind to enable them the better to fulfil their diplomatic duties. I am sure that there are plenty of other people in this country to whom it is just as necessary from time to time either to exceed the speed limit, or to park a car where technically they are not supposed to park it, as it is to the minor servants of a foreign ambassador.

I am profoundly disappointed with the Bill; I am profoundly disappointed with the Government's approach to it. I think that when the public read what the Under-Secretary said about it they will feel that the Government are neglecting their duty in failing to overhaul the whole range of diplomatic immunity. I very much hope that as a result of this discussion the Government will have further thoughts on the matter and bring a further measure of reform to the House.

6.27 p.m.

Mr. Hector Hughes (Aberdeen, North)

In some ways this is a provocative Bill and will need more consideration than we can give it before it passes into law. It has been said that we must do unto other nations as they do unto us, but we must take care that the Bill will not operate in such a way that other nations will do to us in a restrictive way what the Bill wishes us to do to them. If we are taking power to reduce their immunities, let us take care that they will not take power to reduce our immunities.

The Bill may be the beginning of a vicious circle which may react upon ourselves and inflict damage upon our own ambassadorial services in other countries. At the same time there is no doubt about the need to reform the law relating to diplomatic immunities, but it is not so urgent that now, after centuries of delay, in a hasty manner, by an inadequate Bill, without consulting the other nations of the Commonwealth, we should rush the Bill into law. The Commonwealth is vitally interested in diplomatic immunity and next year at the forthcoming Commonwealth Conference will be able to discuss it, if the Bill is postponed. I suggest that it should be postponed until after that Conference.

There is no need for haste. The law has worked reasonably well, comparatively few problems have arisen and most of them were pleas of privilege in actions of law, or repudiations of claims by insurance companies. In the main these have been settled by administrative methods, or by adjustment between the parties.

Last July, when this Bill was presented to the House, I took the precaution of writing to the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs and asking him some questions about it. I got from him a letter giving me a very explicit reply. He said: In fairness to the Diplomatic Corps I should say that there is in fact no evidence of widespread abuse. Bearing in mind that there are more than 2,500 resident foreign diplomatic officials in this country who are entitled to claim personal immunity, the hundred-odd motoring offences of all degrees of gravity (including the most trivial) and the three dozen or so of civil claims which come to the notice of the Foreign Office in the course of an average year do not point to any general disregard of the law or failure to comply with contractual obligations on the part of the members of the Corps. In face of that, I submit to the House that there is no urgency about this Bill. We should not hastily attempt to press it through without consulting the Commonwealth. There are larger considerations of a non-party-political character, and of an all-party character, which this House should take into account in considering a Bill of such importance as this. I ask hon. Member on both sides of the House to view these problems today in a broad, Commonwealth and planetary way, because this Bill affects Britain's relations with Europe, Asia, America, the British Commonwealth and the world. In the hope of carrying with me hon. Members on both sides of the House, I venture to quote what their leader said not so very long ago. The right hon. Member for Woodford (Sir Winston Churchill) said this: We here in Britain have always to think of the British self-governing Dominions—Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa. We are joined together by ties of freewill and affection which have stood unyielding against the ups and downs of fortune. We are the centre and summit of a world-wide Commonwealth of Nations. It is necessary that any policy this Island may adopt towards Europe and in Europe should enjoy the full sympathy and approval of the peoples of the Dominions. I say that is relevant today, and I say that the Commonwealth should be consulted before we take the invidious steps of which this Bill is the dark and ominous threat. Therefore, let us postpone this Bill until after the Commonwealth Conference next year.

There has already been long delay in taking the necessary steps to that end. This branch of the law, as the Minister has said, goes back many centuries and it has survived many vicissitudes. It has served many diverse causes as well as our own. Now the Government are attempting to pass this Bill through Parliament without waiting for the Commonwealth Conference which will be held next year. I say that such procedure is wrong, because it may increase international tensions; because the Commonwealth has a right to be consulted; because of the intrinsic demerits of the Bill, which were referred to by my right hon. Friend the Member for Blyth (Mr. Robens) and for other reasons which I shall give.

The problems are not new, but the international circumstances are new, and the solutions should be new. They should be calmly considered by us and by the Commonwealth, and should not be rushed. The Minister has referred to history. Let us look at what is old and what is new in this matter.

The practice of sending ambassadors abroad to conduct particular international negotiations dates from remote antiquity. To such persons diplomatic immunity had and has always been accorded under the national constitution then extant, and is today under the law as it stands without the passing of this Bill. Today, there are different constitutions and groupings, different international relationships and different needs. The Babylonian and Roman Empires, and later the Holy Roman Empire, the several British Empires, and the Russian Empire are not comparable with today's international groupings and complications, and something more is needed in these complications than is contained in this little provocative Bill. The matter should be carefully considered by the Commonwealth Conference next year.

Today, we have blocs of nations, international organisations, and unions of states where once we had the simpler ideas of single nations, kingdoms and empires. Today, the exigencies are different from what they were. The needs are different. The solutions too must be different, but they are not found in this trivial Bill. Today these modern aggregations of nations under the shadow of the hydrogen bomb are seeking unities and not differences; world government and not the exclusions of which this Bill would be the provocative instrument.

This old-fashioned Bill reeks of the seventeenth century, up to which time ambassadors were chosen for each occasion. It was at about that period that an important change occurred. For the first time permanent ambassadors instead of ad hoc missions were sent to represent the interests of independent states. The Diplomatic Privileges Act of 1708 in the reign of Queen Anne, to which the Minister referred, gave such public ministers complete immunity from all suits and processes. That suited those times, but would not suit these, when we have career ambassadors and career high commissioners.

Since then international relations have changed; three British Empires have risen in turn; the Empire of the Czars has passed away; the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics has arisen; the forty-eight separate States of North America have become the United States of America. During these picturesque changes this antique branch of the law remained unchanged and is today out-moded. But it should not be hastily changed by Britain alone without the careful consideration of this House in conjunction with careful consideration at next year's Commonwealth Conference.

It might be otherwise, were the Conference not being held next year. It might be otherwise were there some urgency about the Bill. But the Foreign Office itself, in the letter which I have just read, indicates that there is no urgency about it, and we have imminent the Commonwealth Conference which can be consulted. What will the other Members of the Commonwealth say if we hastily rush this Bill through this House without consulting them when the Conference is so near? I suggest that everything points to the desirability of postponing the passing of this Bill until after the Conference has been held.

It is only fair to say that in this dark field one illuminating spark was struck by the Prime Minister of Britain during the war years, when he suggested that France should join the British Commonwealth of Nations. Is any nation likely to wish to join the Commonwealth if we pass provocative legislation of this kind? I venture to suggest that by so doing the Government will defeat themselves. By passing a Bill of this kind they will tend to defeat any peaceful international policy and any chance of the expansion of the Commonwealth of Nations.

The late Mr. Ernest Bevin, when Foreign Secretary, with his characteristic realism and foresight appointed the interdepartmental Committee out of which this Bill sprang. I am concerned only with the second term of reference. It reads Whether the law and practice of the United Kingdom affords to persons possessing diplomatic immunity an immunity in any respect wider than is desirable or is strictly required by the principles of public international law. Such persons, it seems to me, include the diplomatists of the Commonwealth nations inter se and also vis-à-vis foreign nations, and of the Colonial Empire as well as those of foreign nations in relation to Britain. For advising upon such aspects, it is to be noticed that the Committee included the legal adviser of the Colonial Office, as well as the principal legal adviser of the Foreign Office—both very able, learned and distinguished men.

That Committee, appointed on 23rd November, 1949, produced an interim report which has not been published, as the Report says, because of its nature. On 13th July, 1951—four and a half years ago—it produced the careful Report which is now before us. Does not that show—four and a half years ago—that there is no urgency about this, and that we can wait at least one other year in order to consult our brothers in the other realms of the Commonwealth at the Commonwealth Conference? During that four and a half years there has been no frantic haste to implement that useful Report. Now, in October, 1955, we are asked to consider this Bill which is, I submit, wrong in its approach to the problem, unworthy of the Report on which it is based, inadequate in its purpose and should be postponed until after the Commonwealth Conference in 1956.

I shall briefly indicate my reasons for saying this. This Bill is wrong in its approach because it is completely negative. It ignores the realms of the Commonwealth which are free and independent nations in their own right. They have diplomatic representation—indeed, they have diplomatic immunity. It is unworthy of the Report because it narrows the implications of the Report—notably the first wide and unnumbered paragraph and also paragraph 4. It is inadequate for its purpose, as its four clauses show. Clauses 3 and 4 deal with interpretation and short title—mere machinery—but look at Clauses 1 and 2. Clause 1 provides for Reciprocal withdrawal of personal immunities, and Clause 2 provides for Exclusion of personal immunities in case of citizens of the United Kingdom and Colonies. There is nothing more in the Bill than these quite inadequate Clauses. There is nothing in it to attract international support. The Bill is not attractive of international, or indeed, of Commonwealth support. It is repellent of both. There is nothing in it to indicate preferential or most-favoured treatment for those who are our brothers in the British Commonwealth of Nations, for those who seek to become our brothers; for Colonies and dependencies climbing towards independence; or for friendly foreign nations who may wish to be accepted into our brotherhood of nations—and there are indications that some foreign nations may so wish. These defects will be apparent if we inquire into the present state of the law and what improvements in it are needed.

We are not without indications that certain foreign nations might wish to join the British Commonwealth of Nations. This Bill will repel them. It is on record that Mr. Yoshida, the former Prime Minister of Japan, said to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth that he wished Japan to join the British Commonwealth of Nations. We have fellowship and understanding with the Scandinavian nations, and we had that rapprochement with France during the war. We have indications that our great Commonwealth may be enlarged, not only by additions from the dependent Empire, not only from the developing Colonies, but also from foreign nations. Let us take care that we do not pass through this House repellent legislation which will have the very reverse effect. I submit, therefore, that this Bill should be postponed in order to give our brother nations in that great Commonwealth an opportunity to consider it at the conference next year.

6.45 p.m.

Mr. Turton

If I may be permitted, Mr. Speaker, there are one or two points with which I should like to deal in reply. The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Blyth (Mr. Robens) seemed to think that this Bill did not go far enough in the reduction of immunity. He has to remember, as I said before, that in this country we have to comply as far as we can with international law. We are doing so; some countries are not.

It is very desirable that some of those countries should be encouraged to improve what they do, because it is difficult for some of our diplomatic servants to fulfil their duties without having that immunity. But certainly we are intending to see if we cannot improve on the number of 2,500. I think that we had better see how we get on. It may be that after this Bill has been passed and put into operation, we shall have other thoughts about these matters, but I have made a note of what the right hon. Gentleman has said.

I do not think that he went very far wrong except when he referred to the 35 civil cases. Those are not cases but points of disagreement which have been reported to us, and considering that there are 2,500 foreigners living in a strange land who have to get their lodgings or furnished rooms I do not think that is a very, very high proportion. I gave that figure because one reads in the Press great stories of the large number of abuses there are of this privilege. I gave the figure for motoring offences and the figure for civil cases. I do not know—the hon. Gentleman for Islington, East (Mr. E. Fletcher) might be able to get a comparable figure amongst another section of the population—but I would have said that only 35—not cases but points of disagreement—concerning the 2,500 people here was not very bad.

Mr. Robens

But surely these points of disagreement must have reached the stage when there was real conflict, otherwise they would not have been reported to the Foreign Office. There must have been lots of cases where there was disagreement but in which there was a friendly settlement. These, however, are cases which obviously have turned from disagreement to real conflict and have had to be reported to, and resolved by, the Foreign Office.

Mr. Turton

Reported to us. What happens is that we go into the matter and normally there is an arbitration, and the foreign embassy abides by whatever the arbitrator suggests. There is thus, in fact, a settlement. Then there is the position, whether in civil or criminal processes—and let us not hide from the fact that in both criminal and civil processes there is an immunity—when we have to find out, on its being reported to us, whether the head of the mission is desirous of waiving the immunity. In any case, even if he is not so desirous, in certain civil actions there is arbitration but where it is a grave criminal case, then our action is to declare that person non grata, not acceptable to this country. He then leaves this country. That seems to me to be a reasonable way of dealing with it.

With regard to motoring offences, it is clear from the Report that all these motor cars have to be insured against third party risks. There is no abuse in that direction. I believe that there is a danger of exaggerating this position. I realise its importance, but remedies are provided; arbitration in civil processes, reporting the case to the Foreign Office and the withdrawal of the name from the Sheriff's list in grave cases, civil or criminal. I think that is the answer to the question posed by the hon. Member for Islington, East which he asked me specially to answer.

The only thing I have not dealt with is the question of C.D. plates. I have repeated again and again that the carrying of such plates means absolutely nothing. It is not for the Foreign Office to bring in legislation as to what people do or do not put upon their motor cars. All I can tell the House is that in order to see that the heads of missions have some way of indicating the nature of their duties, the Foreign Office sees that they have a special plaque, which is only carried by the head of the mission and is displayed to policemen on duty so that proper facilities can be given. That is the only way in which we recognise the diplomat in his motor car.

Captain Duncan

My right hon. Friend is now speaking for the Government and not for the Foreign Office. Cannot he do something to ensure that the carrying of C.D. plates can be a diplomatic privilege?

Mr. Turton

It would be very improper for me to announce legislation which would be introduced by the Minister of Transport. I have told the House on previous occasions that many curious emblems are displayed on motor cars, which I believe to be a great mistake. I warn hon. Members that some of them are in peril. Many of them have on their motor cars special grilles, which they believe to give them special privileges. I am sure they are justified in having them, but it is hard for them to say that other people should not have certain letters upon their cars, because it gives them some extra distinction.

In reply to the hon. and learned Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hector Hughes), I would say that this Bill does not affect the Commonwealth representatives. I have noted what the hon. and learned Gentleman said. He said that the Bill will defeat the expansion of the Commonwealth. I consider that he has no ground for making that allegation, and I hope that upon reconsideration he will find himself able to vote for it.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

Committed to a Committee of the whole House.—[Mr. R. Thompson.]

Committee Tomorrow.