HC Deb 07 December 1959 vol 615 cc179-84

10.26 p.m.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs (Mr. Robert Allan)

I beg to move, That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Western European (Immunities and Privileges) Order. 1959, be made in the form of the draft laid before this House on 30th November. One of the outcomes of the revision of the Brussels Treaty in 1954 was the establishment of the Arms Control Agency of Western European Union. The Revised Treaty declared that there should be provision for due process of law in respect of the activities of that Agency. The Agency was given the fullest powers to inspect factories and examine all documents, including specifications, orders, and so on, of any arms company it was investigating. The investigators, if they were to do their job properly, were bound to come across secret commercial information, special techniques and other confidential information of importance to the companies.

It might be thought that some of this information was being misused by members of the Agency, but no individual or company would be able to sue the Agency since it is an organ of Western European Union which is immune from legal process. It was therefore decided that private individuals and companies should be provided with a means of recourse to law against the Agency. In December, 1957, the Governments of the members of Western European Union signed a Convention establishing a tribunal for this purpose. The Tribunal cannot be set up until all member governments have ratified the Convention which provides for certain immunities and privileges. These were not catered for in the original Immunities and Privileges Order of July 1955, relating to Western European Union, because at that time the Convention had not been signed.

The Order, therefore, revokes that earlier Order and re-enacts it to include the judges, of whom there will be three, and the Clerk of the Tribunal. The immunities are very limited and only apply to the three judges and the Clerk of the Tribunal. They are to be given immunity from suit and legal process and, if they are British, this immunity is limited to official acts only. The only other immunity granted is exemption from Income Tax on official salaries. All income from other sources is subject to taxation.

It is most unlikely that the Tribunal will operate in this country at all. It will be based in Paris, and the cases with which it will deal will concern the mainland of Europe principally. As a Member of the Western European Union, however, we have signed the Convention. We cannot ratify it until this Order is made. I hope, therefore, that the House will feel able to approve the small and limited privileges which the Order seeks to give.

10.30 p.m.

Sir Frank Soskice (Newport)

The Minister has concentrated his observations on only a small part of the Order that we are considering. Speaking for myself, I would have no objection. On the contrary, I would highly applaud the conferring of immunities on members of a tribunal who are entrusted with this delicate and difficult jurisdiction. The Order, however, confers a wide variety of immunities.

From time to time, we come to the House and we enlarge the scope of those persons in this country who are privileged beyond the other people whom they meet and converse with and with whom they have dealings in our communal life. It occurs to me to ask how far all this is going. How many people are we to meet in our daily journeys along the streets who, if we stopped and asked them, would be bound to concede that they do not have to pay Income Tax lawfully—I do not mean unlawfully; who can say exactly what they like about us without our being able to bring any action against them, however defamatory their utterances, and who have a wide variety of privileges and immunities spread over Orders like the one we are considering tonight in an almost infinite variety? It becomes a matter of interest to wonder how many such persons there are in the 50 million people who live in our islands. There are not 50 million yet—I suppose it will take some time before they reach that figure—but the figure is enlarging itself rapidly every year.

Having had, if I may so describe it, my grumble, I quite understand that this sort of Order is unavoidable. Not only is it unavoidable, but it is very useful, because it marks the growing influence in our destinies which is exerted by these international bodies. That is something for the good, and I recognise that the Order is necessary.

I would the more readily recognise that it was necessary if I could understand all of it. I have studied it, but I find great difficulty in understanding a great deal of it. Paragraph 2 confers immunity on the organisation as a whole. The organsation is the Western European Union, and paragraph 2 confers on that organisation a privileged position. There is, however, a provision for waiver of that immunity. That, however, is subject to this exception: No waiver of immunity shall be deemed to extend to any measure of execution or detention of property. I hope that that does not mean execution of human beings. If it means execution of property, I do not understand what that phrase connotes, and I would be glad if the Minister would be so good as to tell us.

Then, I look down and I see what, to me, is most puzzling language in paragraphs 7 and 8. If I may, if any hon. Member feels in the mood for a kind of crossword puzzle, I would like to read paragraph 7: Except in so far as in any particular case any privilege or immunity is waived by the Government of the member whom they represent certain consequences are to follow. What on earth do the words "whom they represent" in that context mean? Who is "they"? To whom is the word "whom" relative in that context? When we look at paragraph 8, we find another variant of it. The plural "whom they represent" in paragraph 8 has become transformed into a singular in a very similar context, "whom he represents," but singular and plural seem to me to present the same mystery and to be equally incapable of determination.

Possibly my inability to understand is partly owing to my own limited capacity in that respect and partly owing to the lateness of the hour, but if the Minister will satisfy me that it is due solely to those two causes and that any fresher and other mind than mine would easily penetrate that mystery, I certainly would support the Order with much more peace of mind. I hope that when the Minister obtains the necessary spiritual assistance from the advisers in the Box, he will be able to enlighten me on this.

10.35 p.m.

Vice-Admiral John Hughes Hallett (Croydon, North-East)

Before my hon. Friend replies to the questions which have been put to him by the right hon. and learned Member for Newport (Sir F. Soskice), I should like to ask a rather more fundamental question. At the close of his short remarks, he said that this Order is necessary as a preliminary to the ratification of the Agreement which we signed in December, 1957. As the House is aware, the long delay in the ratification of this Agreement has been a source of great concern not only in this country but, I think I am right in saying, in the whole of the Western European Union Assembly.

I should like to know whether we can assume that, in the event of the House approving this Order tonight, it is the intention of Her Majesty's Government to ratify the Agreement in the very near future.

10.36 p.m.

Commander J. W. Maitland (Horncastle)

The Joint Under-Secretary of State said that this Order referred only to the mainland of Europe. I always thought that this country, which is a member of Western European Union, was included. Would he please develop the point?

10.37 p.m.

Mr. R. Allan

If I may answer first the last question, asked by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Horn-castle (Commander Maitland), the part of the Order to which I was referring related to the Arms Control Agency, the authority of which under the Revised Treaty is limited to the mainland of Europe. It would not, in fact, normally operate in the United Kingdom at all.

In reply to my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Croydon, North-East (Vice-Admiral Hughes Hallett), it is indeed the intention of the Government to ratify this Convention as soon as possible, and this is an essential preliminary in the process of ratification. In fact, I think I am right in saying that no country has yet done it.

The right hon. and learned Member for Newport (Sir F. Soskice) put me in a very embarrassing position in having to try to instruct him, of all people, in the meaning of legal phrases. Before I come to his specific questions, may I say that I quite understand his grumble. Indeed, I have a sneaking sympathy with him. We do our best to see that these immunities and privileges are kept to the minimum and are offered to the fewest number of people consonant with our international obligations. I do not know the total number of people who enjoy these privileges, but this Order extends it by only four.

On the two questions which he asked—and he was good enough to give me some indication of what was worrying him before the debate—"execution" means, as I think he knows very well, the legal procedures for the enforcement of a judgment—for instance, the seizing and selling of the organisation's goods to satisfy judgment for damages against it. In other words, they can operate their waiver, but not in that respect. This is, I am told, the standard provision in agreements of this sort. It is analogous to the position of ambassadors, who may waive their immunity and be sued but cannot have their embassies sold up for the debt. This is an analogous position for this tribunal.

As to the other questions relating to Articles 7 and 8, in each case the person who is represented is the representative mentioned in the Article. In the case of Article 7, it is the principal permanent representative, and in the case of Article 8 representatives of the Council, Ministers and so on.

I am sorry to say that there has been a misprint, and it should be expressed in the singular. The first "whom they represent" should therefore read "whom he represents," while the second case is correctly put in the singular. I will undertake to see that that printing error is corrected before the Order is finally made.

Sir F. Soskice

I am very grateful to the Under-Secretary for his explanation. I suspected that some slight error lurked in the wording. However, whilst I do not seek in any way to be obstructive or difficult, I am left wondering whether, consistently with the statutory procedure applicable in this case, the error can be rectified without withdrawing and re-laying the Order. It is, of course, for the Minister to say, but I am not quite sure what power there is, once an Order has been made in draft, to amend it in that form. So far as I know, there is no power to amend an Order.

I do not oppose the Order in its present form, except to say that if the court were trying to interpret it it would come to the conclusion that there was an error but could only interpret the Order as worded. It would be somewhat unfortunate if we were to agree to an Order that had in it a typographical error that introduced confusion.

Mr. Allan

I am grateful to the right hon. and learned Gentleman for drawing my attention to that, and I do apologise to him and to the House for this printers' error. In fact, I am informed that I was exceeding my authority when I said that I would see that it was corrected before the Order was made. I am told that that cannot be done, in which case I am afraid I must beg to ask leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.