HC Deb 24 April 1961 vol 639 cc181-90

11.0 p.m.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs (Mr. J. B. Godber)

I beg to move, That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (Immunities and Privileges) Order, 1961, be made in the form of the draft laid before this House on 27th March. This draft Order is necessary to enable Her Majesty's Government to ratify the Convention establishing the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development signed at Paris on 14th December, 1960. When the Convention comes into force, the O.E.C.D. will be set up and will replace the Organisation for European Economic Co-operation. The O.E.C.D. will in fact be the O.E.E.C. remodelled to meet the tasks of the 1960s. The United States and Canada will join the eighteen Western European O.E.E.C. countries as full members of the new organisation.

The aims of the O.E.C.D. will be to promote policies designed to achieve the highest sustainable economic growth and employment in member countries, to contribute to sound economic expansion in member and non-member countries in the process of economic development, and to contribute to the expansion of world trade on a multi-lateral, non-discriminatory basis.

Consultation and co-operation between member Governments will lie at the heart of the work of O.E.C.D., as in its predecessor the O.E.E.C. Like its predecessor, the O.E.C.D. will be an important international organisation. I regret having to burden hon. Members with so many initials.

Supplementary Protocol No. 2 to the O.E.C.D. Convention of 1960 provides for the same privileges and immunities to be accorded in the United Kingdom as were contained in Supplementary Protocol No. 1 to the O.E.E.C. Convention of 1948. Her Majesty's Government are not, therefore, asked to extend more privileges and immunities to O.E.C.D. than were required for O.E.E.C. I would stress that.

The O.E.C.D., like the O.E.E.C., will have its headquarters in Paris. All its meetings will normally be held there. The present O.E.E.C. has a staff of 931, of whom 178 are British nationals. The numbers are expected to remain about the same when O.E.E.C. becomes O.E.C.D.

The O.E.E.C. has only very rarely held any meetings in London and we expect that this will also be the case with the new body. So far as we can foresee, no O.E.C.D. staff will be stationed in this country. No O.E.E.C. staff are resident in the United Kingdom at present. The Secretary-General, and the senior officials of the organisation, will pay short visits to this country from time to time on official business. I would not expect that more than five or six officials of the organisation would be here at any one time. Normally they will be in Paris. All this means that only a few people at a time will enjoy the privileges and immunities under this Order in the United Kingdom, and that only at infrequent intervals.

The draft Order confers privileges and immunities no greater in extent than those required by the Protocol to the O.E.C.D. Convention or those authorised by the International Organisations (Immunities and Privileges) Act, 1950. It revokes and will replace the existing order referring to the O.E.E.C. The immunities to be enjoyed under it by the organisation itself do not differ from those enjoyed under existing Orders by most other international organisations to which we belong.

Of the international staff, only the three high officers—the Secretary-General and his two deputies—will enjoy a diplomatic scale of privileges and immunities. Although the Protocol did not require it, the 1949 O.E.E.C. Order conferred a diplomatic scale of privileges and immunities on the families of the deputy Secretaries-General. This will not be the case in the new Order.

The remainder of the staff will enjoy only immunity from suit and legal process in respect of their official duties, and exemption from Income Tax on the emoluments they receive from the organisation; that is to say, they will enjoy no more than the necessary immunity to do their jobs as international officials without interference from national authorities. This is normal in all international organisations. Exemption from taxation is also normal in international organisations, because otherwise the member countries who share the cost of the salaries would be contributing in taxes to the exchequer of the host Government. That is an important point, and I must draw it to the attention of the House.

The Order specifies that only established members of the organisation's staff will get the privileges and immunities. Experts other than regular staff employed on missions for the organisation will continue to enjoy the immunity from jurisdiction in respect of official acts and from personal arrest or detention and seizure of their baggage normally accorded to such persons. Such experts have only occasionally been employed by O.E.E.C. and we would expect that visits to this country by persons in this category employed by O.E.C.D. would be equally rare.

Representatives of member countries to the principal and subsidiary organisations of O.E.C.D., that is to say, the Council and its various Committees, will enjoy a diplomatic scale of privileges and immunities. The occasion of bringing in the present Order has been used to alter the terms of the 1949 O.E.E.C. Order to accord closely in this respect with the terms of the Protocol in the terms of Part II of the Schedule to the 1950 Act. As O.E.C.D. meetings would normally take place in Paris, this section of the Order will apply only occasionally. On the other hand, the permanent United Kingdom delegation to the O.E.C.D. in Paris will benefit from the relevant provisions of the Protocol.

I have tried to explain what is involved in this Order. I stress the fact that this is a replacement of the existing Order in relation to O.E.E.C. and I would suggest, therefore, that we are not in effect expanding the immunities and privileges of which I know this House is always very jealous.

I accordingly ask the House to approve this Order.

11.7 p.m.

Sir Frank Soskice (Newport)

I do not think that the House would desire to spend very long over this Order, particularly in view of the very clear and full account given of it by the Joint Under- secretary of State, for which I am sure we are all grateful. Our approach, however, I think would have this in common, wherever we sit in this House, that we would think it wrong to pass it sub silentio. That is because it is an Order which lifts certain persons above the law of this country when they are here enjoying the privileges of this country.

The Minister has pointed out that this Order is in a sense a replacement of a previous Order, and I do not know whether I might have your permission, Mr. Speaker, with a view to saving time, to refer to the present organisation as "C.D." and to the previous one as "E.C.", forgetting the "O.E.". Even the "C.D." is only a replacement for "E.C.". Nevertheless, this is one more of a series of Orders which literally strew our legislation, as the months go by, like falling leaves.

I do not know how many physical persons in this country at the moment may thumb their noses at the law of the country while they are here, but one has the impression that they really are of an immense number. Having said that, and having, as it were, got my grumble off my chest, may I say that I think it is inescapable that we should confer these privileges, I hope in as sparing a manner as we possibly can?

With regard to the actual form and content of the Order, I would ask the Minister, although the Order in itself is necessary, to give some thought to whether we do not go too far in it. It is perfectly permissible, I should have thought, to constitute the organisation a corporate body and give it, as a corporate body, certain privileges as such, but the Order goes on to extend privileges first to "representatives" of the organisation. That, surely, is an extremely wide term. It is very difficult to say who is a representative and who is not. If somebody sends a boy round the corner to get a newspaper, is not he a representative in a sense, and if he rides his bicycle and knocks somebody over in the course of doing so, I suppose he is immune from process? At any rate, the word "representative" would seem to involve that consequence.

One then has a second category, officers, and a third, experts. Those are very wide descriptions of persons within which each of these persons has immunity from any process in our courts when he is doing anything in the discharge of his official duties. I can well understand that such persons should be immune from any process; in respect of words spoken and should not be subject to slander actions if, in the course of their official duties, they use words defamatory of individuals. We do not like the idea of giving that privilege to anybody, but I suppose that we must.

But it seems somewhat difficult to understand—to go back to the street accident situation—why they should be allowed to drive their motor cars negligently or, as I suggested, ride their bicycles negligently. Is it really necessary that persons should be subject to the risk of being knocked over by negligent drivers without having any redress against them if those persons are driving their cars negligently in the discharge of their duties, in the discharge of their duty of going from one office to another, in the discharge of their duty of going from their home or residence to their office?

I put it to the Under-Secretary of State, as a matter which he should consider when further Orders are brought forward for approval by the House, whether in this respect we do not go too far. We have had a great deal of this, and I am sure that both parties are responsible, and no doubt I have my own responsibility for having proposed this sort of thing many times. Nevertheless, it is never too late to repent and, whatever the precedents which have bedevilled us, at long last we ought to consider whether it is necessary to maintain these privileges at the expense of citizens of this country who might suffer damage, when perfectly innocently going about their lawful occasions, because some representative or officer or expert, whatever the differences among those three categories of persons are, chooses to disregard his obligations as a road user when driving along our streets.

I said, first, that I did not propose to ask the House to spend long on this Order; secondly, that I wanted to grumble and, thirdly, having grumbled, to say that the Order is necessary. I have done all three, and I have made a suggestion which I hope that the Undersecretary of State will bear in mind when he proposes further Orders. I do not know when the next will be, but I suspect that it will be in a few minutes.

11.12 p.m.

Mr. Michael Clark Hutchison (Edinburgh, South)

I agree with almost every word that the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Newport (Sir F. Soskice) has said. I have been in the House only four years, but this is the fourth or fifth occasion on which I have been asked to approve an extension of immunities, and I am getting tired of it. I see no reason why these people from abroad should be given special status in this country so that they are above the law which is applicable to the ordinary citizen. It is absolutely wrong and entirely futile, and I wish that the Foreign Office would make a stand against it.

I do not know whether my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State realises that by extending these immunities he is lowering the status of those people to whom the immunities originally applied many years ago—ambassadors. No one other than ambassadors and first secretaries should have any immunity.

I would be very glad if Ministers at the Foreign Office would take up this matter in the United Nations and with their colleagues and opposite numbers abroad, to see whether the whole matter could not be brought into proper perspective and the range of immunities cut down so that we should not be asked to grant any more of these immunities and privileges. I must give warning to my hon. Friend that on future occasions I shall do my best to oppose them and throw them out.

11.15 p.m.

Mr. Godber

May I have the leave of the House to reply to the right hon. and learned Member for Newport (Sir F. Soskice) and my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, South (Mr. Clark Hutchison)? I appreciate the right hon. and learned Gentleman's comments and I am somewhat grieved that my hon. Friend feels so disturbed about this Order, particularly as I have pointed out that in this instance we are merely replacing one Order with another and are making no extension, although I may be arguing somewhat differently in a few minutes.

I have always realised the way in which the House regards such Orders, I think rightly, in that we are giving benefits and privileges and should not do so without the most careful thought; but these matters have been established by international agreement in relation to these international bodies and, whether we like it or not, the world is beset by many more international bodies than we had in the past.

The protocol of the organisation lays down the amount of immunity and privilege which each country should give—and it is not merely a question of this country. As I showed in the figures in my opening remarks, there are a large number of British nationals in this organisation who are stationed permanently in Paris and who will benefit from the arrangement; we should note that fact. We gain more benefit in this instance than we give.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman said that these Orders came like falling leaves. I am surprised that he used such a metaphor at this time of the year. Had he likened them to opening blossoms, that would have been a happier choice of words at this time of the year.

Sir F. Soskice

I said "falling leaves" because that seemed to me to have a connotation of sadness which might express regret on the Minister's part. If he regards them as opening blossoms, I am filled with apprehension, and I am sure that the hon. Member for Edinburgh, South (Mr. Clark Hutchison) shares my feeling.

Mr. Godber

I will not take that point any further. The right hon. and learned Gentleman, speaking of representatives, talked of "sending the office boy round", but in normal cases "representatives" in this sense nearly always means the governmental representatives, who are usually Ministers or Members of Parliament for the countries concerned. I thought that the right hon. and learned Gentleman would be interested in seeing that they were treated as well as the officers. Representatives are usually accorded the higher rate of immunity.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman spoke of officers being involved in a civil suit as a result of their negligence. It should be drawn to his attention that these paragraphs start Except in so far as in any particular case any immunity or privilege is waived". I assure him that we should certainly bring pressure to bear, if it were obviously a civil suit, for the privilege and immunity to be waived in such a glaring instance as he mentioned. He will see that those words occur in each paragraph, and it is an important point. I make it as a point of mitigation of a proposal which he said he considers necessary but which the House nevertheless dislikes. I can understand that view and I appreciate it, but I hope that, with that explanation to both the right hon. and learned Gentleman and my hon. Friend, they will allow the Order to be passed.

Mr. Clark Hutchison

Is my hon. Friend aware that I do not want these immunities for British people abroad and I do not want them for foreign people in this country? I should like to know what the Foreign Office intend to do to cut down these proposals in future.

Mr. Godber

I have pointed out that these proposals are governed largely by the protocols of these various agreements. While I naturally take my hon. Friend's point, it has become international practice that there should be certain immunities and privileges. In so far as they relate to taxation, they help to reduce the cost to countries such as Britain, because if salaries were taxed we should have to pay these international civil servants at much higher rates, and these would have to be found eventually by the Government and the other countries concerned. I believe that, as long as there is a proper check on these matters, there is no real harm, and I hope that my hon. Friend will view these Orders in a more kindly way.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (Immunities and Privileges) Order, 1961 be made in the form of the draft laid before this House on 27th March. To be presented by Privy Councillors or Members of Her Majesty's Household.

11.20 p.m.

Mr. J. B. Godber

I beg to move: That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the European Free Trade Association (Immunities and Privileges) Order, 1961, be made in the form of the draft laid before this House on 27th March. I am sorry to inflict yet another of these Orders on the House. The Convention establishing the European Free Trade Association is an agreement between its seven members, the United Kingdom, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Switzerland, Austria, and Portugal, aimed at an expansion of economic activity and an increase in co-operation between them. It provides for the reduction and eventual elimination of the tariffs on industrial goods between member countries.

Article 35 of the Convention, which was signed on 4th January, 1960, provides that a protocol should lay down the privileges and immunities to be granted by member States in connection with the Association. A protocol was accordingly drawn up and signed last July. The scale of immunities was carefully considered in relation both to the precedents existing in the cases of other international organisations and to the provision of what seems necessary to ensure that the effective operation of the European Free Trade Association.

The present Order is required to enable Her Majesty's Government to ratify the protocol of 28th July, 1960, according legal capacity, immunities and privileges to the European Free Trade Association. The protocol came into force as regards Denmark, Norway and Austria on 22nd March, 1961, when, in accordance with Article 21 of the protocol, the third signatory State had deposited its instrument of ratification.

The scale of immunities and privileges conferred under this Order is no different from that already granted to the majority of other international organisations in respect of which Her Majesty's Government have signed a status agreement. The Association has a small secretariat of only about 50 officers, including both professional and subordinate staff, of whom only the Secretary-General enjoys full-scale benefits. If, as is presently the case, the Secretary-General happens to be a citizen of the United Kingdom and Colonies, these full-scale benefits will not be accorded. In such circumstances, the status of the Secretary-General varies little from that of the other officers of the Association.

The headquarters of this body is in Geneva. There is to be a Ministerial meeting in the United Kingdom in June, but such an event is unlikely to recur more, often than once in three years or more. Since, moreover, there is no intention to establish an agency in the United Kingdom, the effects of the Order can hardly be far-reaching.

Those are the facts relating to this Order. I can see, however, from what my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, South (Mr. Clark Hutchison) said, a little time ago, that even this will not satisfy him, because this is rather like the housemaid's baby, a very little one, but in principle he will disapprove. I am sorry that I should be incurring his displeasure again so soon, but I assure him that these matters are subject to international agreement, and it is very difficult for us not to concur in what has become in these post-war years a common form. These international bodies proliferate, it is true, but we must play our part in granting immunities and privileges in the same way as is the custom in other countries.

11.24 p.m.

Sir F. Soskice

I suspected that the Minister would not be able to get away from these Orders for very long and would come back very soon with a second one. I am afraid it is a new blossom which has the same sort of features as the old, and there is the same parade of officers and representatives.

The Minister is very fortunate in that his hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, South (Mr. Clark Hutchison) has already gone. I believe he left before the hon. Gentleman rose to his feet to move this Motion. However, I shall not seek to voice the grievances that his hon. Friend would have voiced, but simply say that the same comments as I made on the last Order apply to this one. I do not think I would be usefully detaining the House if I repeated them.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the European Free Trade Association (Immunities and Privileges) Order. 1961, be made in the form of the draft laid before this House on 27th March.

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