HC Deb 10 April 1964 vol 692 cc1501-8

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Peel.]

4.4 p.m.

Sir Charles Taylor (Eastbourne)

May I take the opportunity of this very short debate, in all humility, Mr. Speaker, to wish you a very happy birthday? I am sure you will not expect me to refer to you or any other hon. Member, in view of your Ruling yesterday, in any "special terms of endearment", such as that which was used in an interjection from the Liberal benches yesterday afternoon.

The object of this debate is to draw attention to the situation governing the issue of corps diplomatiqué plates. Incidentally, I do not see why in this country we should not call them "D.C. plates"—Diplomatic Corps plates.

As far as I understand it, the legal position of these places is that any person can have them fitted to his car without committing any offence. Undoubtedly, the police, traffic wardens and many other people give special privileges to those with C.D. plates on their cars. Indeed, I am seriously considering giving up the House of Commons badge on my car and fixing C.D. plates to it because they command many advantages which are not accorded to hon. Members of this House.

I wonder whether it would be impertinent if, in view of the emptiness of the benches opposite, I crossed the Floor, came a little closer to my hon. Friend and so made the debate a little more "matey" and easier for him, since I should be able to address him direct.

Mr. Speaker

Order. Hon. Members should not move about in the course of their discussions. The hon. Member should return to where he was.

Sir C. Taylor

I will do so. Mr. Speaker. I thought that the move would make it slightly easier for me to speak to my hon. Friend in view of the lack of attendance of the Labour and Liberal parties on this occasion.

As I was saying, privileges attach to C.D. plates which are not granted to hon. Members of this House and to other people. The figures of those entitled to full diplomatic immunity are surprising. From Australia, 386 people are given diplomatic immunity in this country, which means that they are entitled to carry C.D. plates on their cars. From Canada, however, there are only 196 and from Ceylon 53. Strangely enough, there are 118 from Czechoslovakia and from West Germany 198. From Ghana—and there have been. I understand, certain complaints about some of the chauffeurs employed by the Ghanaians in this country—there are 188 people entitled to full diplomatic immunity.

The most astonishing figure is that of India—1,025 people with full diplomatic immunity. I have worked out that if all those people from India had cars those cars would, head to tail, stretch about four miles—from here to the north of Park Lane, including several times around the American Embassy in Grosvenor Square on the way.

From Nigeria there are 154, from Pakistan 331, from the Soviet Union, 207—the later is a surprisingly small number—and from the United States, 535—also a very reasonable number. In all about 7,500 people, including those belonging to various international organisations are given full diplomatic immunity in this country. On a rough estimate, if all these people had cars the queue would stretch about twenty-four miles.

I should like to ask whether wives of these officials also ride around in cars with C.D. plates. In Moslem countries men are allowed more than one wife—I believe up to four—and if one takes into consideration all the various hanger-son who are also entitled to use cars, if they all have C.D. plates, there is very little chance of you, Mr. Speaker, or me or anybody else without a C.D. plate being able to park in London without our car being towed away.

Why was it that a few weeks ago a Foreign Office spokesman gave instructions to the police that cars with C.D. plates were to be given special considertion and not be towed away? This was not an instruction which should have been given by the Foreign Office. If it were to be given at all, it should have been given by the Home Office.

This is a complete and absolute racket and a very irritating racket to all the law-abiding citizens of this country who try to observe the parking regulations and to play fair but who see all and sundry, all the attached people, even the personal household staffs of embassies, consulates and so on, being given special privileges for parking in London and elsewhere. If the C.D. plate cannot be legalised or licensed in some way, the special privileges should be withdrawn so that the people of the country can have equal rights with all these visiting diplomats and their staffs and everybody else concerned with them.

4.13 p.m.

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

Mr. Speaker, may I first associate myself with the good wishes of my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Sir C. Taylor) on your birthday? You may not be aware that it happens also to be the birthday of my hon. Friend. As I was listening to him, I was wondering what would be a suitable gift that I could give him on this occasion; but, having listened to his speech, I shall present him with a C.D. plate which he will be able to attach, instead of his House of Commons badge, to his motor car, and be within the law, as he rightly said.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving me the opportunity to express the Government's views and to tell the House what action has been taken on this vexed and difficult matter. The question has been recently the subject of some comment in the Press, most of it inspired by the recent issue of a circular letter to the heads of foreign and Commonwealth missions in London by the Foreign Office and the Commonwealth Relations Office. When my hon. Friend refers to an instruction given by an official of the Foreign Office, it must be this letter which he is describing, because no instruction in the terms which he suggested was made by either the Home Office or the Foreign Office. If it had been made by either, it would have been wholly improper.

Brief passages from the circular letter have often been taken out of their context, implying quite different motives for the sending of it from those which were intended. As a result, a totally misleading impression has been given to many people, and much uninformed comment has been made about the matter. I am, therefore, placing the letter in the Library, but I want to refer to it to show the House that, far from emphasising the privileged position of foreign diplomats, it insists that they should comply with traffic regulations in the same way as everybody else.

Since my hon. Friend asked for this debate, I have taken the opportunity to speak to policemen and traffic wardens dealing with parking in the area where I live. The reply I have received in every case is, "If I see a car with C.D. on it I treat it the same as any other car".

The letter says: I think it may be useful to write to the Heads of all Diplomatic Missions on the intractable subject of car parking, on which I have been consulted by the doyen. I do so because car parking incidents have sometimes brought members of the Diplomatic Corps into direct dispute, if not conflict, with the Metropolitan Police; and I am anxious to do all I can to reduce possibilities of friction. After explaining that it is hoped soon that each embassy should have one parking space allotted to it, the letter goes on to stress the difficult traffic conditions in London and the need for all persons who use the public roads to obey the regulations for driving and parking on them. The letter concludes with a request that all members of the Diplomatic Corps should do their best to co-operate with the police in their very difficult task of keeping traffic moving in London, and that they should observe the law in the same way as the citizens of this country. The fact that that letter was written last December shows that Her Majesty's Government have not been unaware of this problem.

My hon. Friend referred to the number of people entitled to diplomatic immunity. I shall refer in a moment to the mileage figures of diplomatic cars with C.D. plates, but I must tell him straight away that, by international usage of many years' standing, all heads of mission are granted diplomatic immunity. This immunity attaches to their wives and to the members of their staffs who help them in their capacity as direct representatives of their Heads of State to do their work in this country.

Immunity from jurisdiction is of longstanding, and has been accorded by all countries to foreign representatives accredited to them so that in the State to which they are accredited they shall be free to represent their country's policies and views without fear of hindrance or reprisal. In the present state of international law it would not be permissible to attempt unilaterally to deny immunity for one type of activity, such as traffic offences, while according it for another.

Hon. Members will appreciate that this normal diplomatic usage, which is of long-standing, is reciprocal. Our missions have to serve all over the world, in places where conditions are often widely different from those in this country, and the withdrawal of the normal diplomatic immunities and courtesies could in some cases be the greatest hindrance and embarrassment to them in their work. This, however, does not mean that foreign diplomats are not required to obey the laws of the country to which they are accredited. International practice specially requires that they should. Their immunity frees them from the jurisdiction of the host country's courts, but it does not preclude other action by the host country if a foreign diplomat fails to comply with the laws of the land.

I do not wish to enlarge on this, for obvious reasons. Suffice it to say that when a diplomat is reported to the Foreign Office for some offence the matter is always referred to his ambassador, and often the result is more serious for the offender than any penalty that a British court would have awarded.

Sir C. Taylor

If a chauffeur-driven car which had diplomatic immunity drove into my hon. Friend's car would he be able to claim any damages, or take any action whatsoever?

Mr. Mathew

I could not bring an action in this country, because he would be immune from the jurisdiction of our courts, but action could clearly be taken through diplomatic channels, through the Foreign Office, with the head of mission of the diplomat whose car was involved, and in all cases diplomatic missions maintain a strict discipline on their diplomats to behave properly and to meet what, if they did not have diplomatic immunity, would be their legal obligations in this country.

Sir C. Taylor

Would there be any monetary compensation?

Mr. Mathew

I have explained to my hon. Friend that I would not be able to claim it as of right, because if the offender had diplomatic immunity he would not be subject to the jurisdiction of the courts, in accordance with international practice.

As my hon. Friend has said, anybody can legally fix C.D. plates to his car. But diplomatic immunity attaches to the person of the diplomat and not to any vehicle. My hon. Friend referred to certain figures, and he apparently assumes that every member of a diplomatic mission has a motor car. That is not so. Therefore, his picture of a continuous line of vehicles, 24 miles long, bearing C.D. plates is entirely fictional and very wide of the mark.

As he said, there are 386 persons in the Australian High Commission, but there are only 70 motor cars. Ceylon has 53 members on its staff, and 15 motor cars. Allowing 20 feet for a motor car, 15 would stretch for only 300 feet. My hon. Friend will, therefore, appreciate that his calculations are a little wide of the mark.

My hon. Friend also mentioned India. He is right in saying that there are 1,025 members of the High Commission, but there are only 70 motor cars. That was the figure for 1963. I cannot tell him what the figures for 1965 and 1966 may be, but the figure that I have given has been a fair average over the past few years. That number of motor cars would stretch for 1,400 feet. Pakistan has 331 members on its staff, but only 48 motor cars. I therefore suggest that the case he has deployed is somewhat exaggerated.

The question of the use of C.D. plates is more for my right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport, but I can tell the House that during the last few years the question has been discussed at some length inter departmentally. As my hon. Friend said several times, C.D. plates have no legal significance in Britain. We have considered both the legalisation of these plates and also the possibility of issuing special plates for cars owned by diplomatic persons, but on balance we have decided against either course, for very good administrative reasons. We have concluded that it would be difficult to enforce the legalisation of C.D. plates.

Against these difficulties, there is no obvious advantage in being able to distinguish a diplomat's car when it is moving. What we have done is to provide a special windscreen licence disc for the identification of diplomatic cars when they are stationary. Further, ambassadors and high commissioners, are, for their convenience and that of the police and others who might have to direct them on special occasions, encouraged to display an emblem on their cars when used for official business.

Mr. F. A. Burden (Gillingham)

This is a very important point because if, in fact, the embassies would put this mark on the cars it would help the police very considerably to take action against those who were bogusly using C.D. plates, and some do use them bogusly, and save them the trouble of taking steps to report bona fide C.D. licence-holders.

Mr. Mathew

As I have explained, no action could be taken against what the hon. Gentleman calls the bogus C.D. plate, but everything is being done at present to try to encourage those who genuinely have diplomatic immunity to display one of these windscreen discs or some other emblem so as to make it easier for the police. As I have also told my hon. Friend, I have ascertained personally during the last few days that the police in the central London area are instructed, and so are traffic wardens, to deal with C.D. plate offenders in exactly the same way as everybody else.

We are about to, I hope, ask the House to ratify the Convention on this matter. This will, in fact, mean international agreement throughout all the countries concerned on a standard prac- tice in the matter of diplomatic immunity. My hon. Friend will be glad to hear that in a number of cases—he will see this if he looks at the White Paper on the subject—the immunities will be reduced and not increased.

May I conclude by saying that we have always made it clear to members of foreign missions that the 10s. charge on parking meters is payable by diplomats and that there is no immunity in this matter. I believe that some heads of mission have in the past also required their staff to pay the fixed penalty for parking notices. I may say, in particular, since my hon. Friend mentioned the American mission, that it is about to adopt this and to instruct all its people to pay all fines and penalties which they may incur as a result of motoring offences. This will be welcome since we do not regard members of foreign missions to be above the law—and it is worth restating this—and payment of these fines may help to provide the self-discipline necessary to reduce the number of these incidents.

Her Majesty's Government may have been somewhat lax in the past in not drawing foreign ambassadors' attention more often to these fixed penalty parking offences of which there were a little over 2,000 in 1963. The Foreign Office is, however, arranging for this to be done in the future. I also understand that the doyen of the Diplomatic Corps is circularising the Corps about car parking, and I hope that the measures to be taken by him and by the Foreign Office will eliminate this unfortunate and unnecessary cause of friction between the public, the police and the Diplomatic Corps in London.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes past Four o'clock.