HC Deb 06 June 1962 vol 661 cc609-12

10.0 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs (Mr. Peter Thomas)

I beg to move, That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the International Wheat Council (Immunities and Privileges) Order, 1962, be made in the form of the draft laid before this House on 30th May. This Order is required to enable Her Majesty's Government to accept the International Wheat Agreement of 1962, which was signed in Washington on behalf of Her Majesty's Government on 10th May, 1962, and which, it is hoped, will come into force on 16th July. The present Council was established by the International Wheat Agreement of 1949. Since that time it has always chosen to maintain its premises and hold its meetings in London. The fact that the Council has its headquarters here is an important factor in keeping London as the centre of the international wheat trade.

The United Kingdom is among the leading world importers of wheat, and has a direct interest in the successful operation of the Agreement. It was for this reason that the United Kingdom rejoined the Agreement in 1959, when it was reframed to match new developments in the international wheat market.

As I have said, the Council was established by the International Wheat Agreement of 1949; Her Majesty's Government were signatories to the 1949 Agreement, but withdrew from the Council in 1953. The headquarters of the Council, however, remained in London.

Since, under the 1950 Act—which is referred to in the Preamble to the Order —it is not possible to accord privileges by Order in Council to any international organisation of which the United Kingdom is not a member, Income Tax exemption on the salaries of the Council's non-British officials was secured for them by means of Section 25 of the Finance Act, 1954.

When Her Majesty's Government rejoined the Council and when, in 1959, an Order conferring legal capacity on the Council gave effect in the United Kingdom to the new International Wheat Agreement of that year, Section 25 was retained. The Section corresponded exactly with the entitlement of the non-British officers under the Agreement, and it was, therefore, unnecessary to provide separately for these officers under the Order. This is still the case, and it is, therefore, thought that no useful purpose would be served by repealing Section 25 and by, instead, providing in the Order for the qualifying officers, of whom there are in any case only four at present.

The present Order confers two privileges on the International Wheat Council. First, it gives it the legal capacity of a body corporate. Secondly—this is the only respect in which it differs from its predecessors—it grants the Council exemption from rates and taxes. By exemption from rates is meant that the Council will be excused payment of that proportion of the rates earmarked by the local authorities for services from which it is deemed not to derive direct benefit. The proportion of the rates which is devoted to services, such as street lighting or the fire brigade, from which the Council benefits or may benefit will still be charged to the Wheat Council. Similarly, the Council is not altogether divested of its tax obligations since it will have to pay the usual Customs dues on imports.

Therefore, what the present Order does is to bring the Wheat Council into line in the matter of privileges with the Tin and Sugar Councils with which it shares its premises. I hope the House will agree that there is no valid ground for distinguishing between these three bodies, all of which have in their respective spheres done such valuable work in stabilising world prices, and to which we in turn are asked to afford only very modest privileges. It is in our own interests to approve the Order, without which we cannot become parties to the Agreement. I therefore hope that the House will agree with the Motion.

10.6 p.m.

Sir Frank Soskice (Newport)

I do not suppose the House will desire to spend a very long time on this Order. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] I am glad to hear the assent of some hon. Members. I certainly do not propose to spend very long on it.

At the same time, I think the House would agree that as we are discussing yet another Order which confers diplomatic immunity it is right not to pass it without, at any rate, some cursory examination. The arrangements described by the Minister seem to me to be at least as complicated as, if not a good deal more complicated than, the agricultural policy which we have just been discussing.

As I understand it, the Order exempts the corporate body which is brought into being from liability to pay British taxes and British rates, and the officers of the body are to enjoy similar immunity under Section 25 of the Finance Act, 1954. That is no doubt an arrangement which satisfies the Minister, and I suppose it has its logic if one can decipher it.

I should, however, like to ask why it is that this Order differs in other respects from the next Order that we are to discuss in that it confers no other immunities on the officers of the Council. Do they not have immunity in respect of words which they utter in the course of their duties? Do they not have the other usual privileges which go to the officers of bodies of this sort? Apparently not. I cannot say that I regret it. I think the House rather wonders when the list of those who are enabled to snap their fingers at some provisions of our own domestic law is to be closed.

I realise, however, that in the nature of things a number of people must enjoy some privileges, and I think the House does not grudge them at any rate a reasonable amount of privileges above those enjoyed by ordinary British citizens. But I think we should just mark our attention to this Order because, as I say, it is one more in the list and is, as I understand it, to be followed by a yet further Order conferring immunities. It differs from that Order. The Minister has given some indication why it does so, but why the officers do not get in this Order the privileges that I am glad they do not, but they do in the next Order, I should like to know.

10.8 p.m.

Mr. P. Thomas

The simple answer is that they are two different organisations. The next Order relates to the Central Treaty Organisation, which is in many ways an organisation of diplomatic quality, whereas the organisation with which we are dealing is more of an administrative nature. That is probably the reason why in the Agreement which was negotiated no further privileges were sought. The privileges and immunities which are contained in the Order are just as much as and no more than the privileges and immunities which are in the Agreement which we have signed.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the International Wheat Council (Immunities and Privileges) Order 1962 be made in the form of the draft laid before this House on 30th May.

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