HC Deb 01 March 1960 vol 618 cc1169-72

10.25 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 Council of Europe (Immunities and Privileges) Order, 1960, be made in the form of the draft laid before this House on 29th January. As shown in the Explanatory Note, this Order consolidates the original Order of 1950 with the amending Orders of 1954 and 1958. In asking approval of the Order, we are not seeking to increase the privileges or immunities which the House has already granted the Council of Europe, nor are we adding to the number of those who enjoy them. I hope that with these two comforting thoughts the House will feel enabled to agree to the Order without further recommendation from me.

10.26 p.m.

Mr. Eric Fletcher (Islington, East)

The Joint Under-Secretary is asking the House to give approval to the Order. While I imagine that the House will not wish to dissent from the suggestion that it should be approved, nevertheless it is always the duty of the House to scrutinise rather carefully these Orders which come forward from time to time and which confer very unusual immunities and privileges on a increasing number of people.

The hon. Gentleman has explained that the Order, while being primarily a consolidating Order, introduces certain technical and drafting changes in the Order which was previously in operation. He might have pointed out that some of the changes which are now introduced were inspired by suggestions that emanated from the Select Committee on Statutory Instruments. I am, therefore, personally glad to see that the Committee's recommendations, for which I was partly responsible, have been adopted. For example, Article 9 of the Order now contains the additional words which make it clear that a place of meeting of the Assembly covers the place of meeting of committees or sub-committees.

There are, nevertheless, some phrases in the Order which it would be as well if the hon. Gentleman were to clarify, as otherwise I think that they are liable to give rise to considerable misconception. We agree, of course, that in bringing the Order before the House the hon. Gentleman is primarily attempting to give effect to international obligations. Nevertheless, we must make sure that in doing so the Order does not go further than is absolutely necessary for that purpose. I therefore invite the hon. Gentleman to say something about Article 8 (1, b). I think that we can all understand that representatives, whether from this House or from any other European Parliament, who attend the Consultative Assembly should be entitled to the same privileges in respect of anything which they might say in the exercise of their functions at Strasbourg, and similar immunities are, of course, applied to representatives attending meetings of the Committee of Ministers.

But I ask myself why it is necessary for these immunities to extend to the time when representatives are not merely attending the meetings of the Council, but during their journeys from London to Strasbourg or some other place. Why is it necessary, for example, for a person who chooses to travel by road from London to some other Continental capital to have any special privilege for anything he may do during the course of his journey?

For example, he may be involved in some road accident and other people may be injured who would normally have rights. Why should they be deprived of their rights? In other words, why should a person, while travelling to meetings of the Assembly, have any privilege over and above those which hon. Members should have while travelling from their homes or place of business to the House? If the hon. Gentleman would answer that question, it would certainly ease my mind in joining him in asking the House to approve the Order.

10.33 p.m.

Mr. Michael Clark Hutchison (Edinburgh, South)

I do not wish to oppose the Order to the extent of going into the Lobby to vote against it, because it is really an enactment of an old Order with some minor amendments, but I wish to protest most strongly against these privileges and immunities which are granted to all these bodies, Western European Union, the Council of Europe, the Sugar Council and so on.

Such immunities and privileges should be confined to ambassadors and their immediate staffs. Historically, ambassadors were given such immunities because they represented the persons of their sovereigns. None of these people represents a sovereign. They are just a lot of officials and what we are doing is to make one law for these officials and one law for the rest of the citizens of our country. That is bad practice, bad law, unjust and dangerous.

I ask my hon. Friend two questions. First, in exactly what way does granting these immunities help the officials to carry out their jobs efficiently and rapidly? Secondly, will my hon. Friend start negotiations with foreign countries to cut down all this arrangement of special privileges and immunities so that we can return to granting them only to ambassadors and high commissioners who are the only people who really deserve them?

10.34 p.m.

Mr. R. Allan

If I may, by leave of the House, reply to what has been said, I would say that I have a fair amount of sympathy with the general attitude of my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, South (Mr. Clark Hutchison), but I must point out that we are not creating two sorts of British citizens, because, in most cases, with certain exceptions, United Kingdom citizens, subjects of Her Majesty, are not given the privileges which other representatives to or officers of these organisations enjoy in this country.

The main object of these immunities and privileges is to allow these international organisations and their servants or representatives to carry out their work more efficiently. This applies particularly to immunities such as the inviolability of their residences and archives. I admit that it would be more difficult on grounds of efficiency to justify the immunities relating to taxation, but these Orders are a direct result of international agreements already reached. I will see that my right hon. and learned Friend is made aware of what my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, South has said and will urge him—although I do not know with what success he will be able to do it—to consider this point in the future when negotiating these international agreements.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Islington, East (Mr. Fletcher) for his reference to the Select Committee. I think three amendments were made while we were consolidating the Orders as a result of the recommendations of the Select Committee. I have no doubt that those amendments have considerably improved the Order which we are now laying before the House. The hon. Gentleman is right in saying that we must not grant greater privileges than the agreement requires, and that duty is, in fact, specifically laid down in the 1950 Act. That is why all these Orders cannot be the same. Each one has to accord with the international agreement that has been signed. Under the 1950 Act we are prohibited from going further than those international agreements stipulate.

As to the question of journeys, this gives effect to the agreement which was made. In fact, this agreement was made in 1949. The reason for granting this protection to these people on their journeys is simply to ensure that they reach their destinations. They are representatives at the Committee of Ministers and Ministers' Deputies. They are, therefore, important people and should get to their destinations.

I understand, although I am not quite sure about this, that we in this House are also protected from civil arrest. That, I am afraid, is the only explanation that I can give, and I hope that, with that explanation and my earlier remarks, the House will now agree to this Motion.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Council of Europe (Immunities and Privileges) Order, 1960, be made in the form of the draft laid before this House on 29th January.

To be presented by Privy Councillors or Members of Her Majesty's Household.

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