HC Deb 22 February 1966 vol 725 cc267-305

4.52 p.m.

The Minister of State for Commonwealth Relations (Mr. Cledwyn Hughes)

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

The Commonwealth Secretariat was conceived at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in 1964. The idea of some such central Commonwealth body was not new. I do not intend, nor is it necessary here, to give an historical summary of the various suggestions that have been made down the years for some such body. But when it had been raised previously, there had been misgivings on the part of some Commonwealth countries who felt that the activities of such a body might in some ways possibly encroach upon their sovereignty. The welcome given to the idea at the 1964 meeting was, therefore, the more striking.

The final communiqué of the meeting issued in July 1964, stated as follows, and I think that it is right to repeat the words, because they are the base upon which the structure has been built. It said: Finally, they were anxious that some permanent expression should be given to the desire, which had been evident through their deliberations, for closer and more informed understanding between their Governments on the many issues which engage their attention and for some continuing machinery for this purpose. They therefore instructed officials to consider the best basis for establishing a Commonwealth Secretariat". Then come the functions as they envisaged them— …which would be available inter alia to disseminate factual information to all Member countries on matters of common concern; to assist existing agencies, both official and unofficial, in the promotion of Commonwealth links in all fields; and to help co-ordinate, in co-operation with the host country, the preparations for future Meetings of Commonwealth Heads of Government and, where appropriate, for meetings of other Commonwealth Ministers. This Secretariat, being recruited from Member countries and financed by their contributions, would be at the service of all Commonwealth Governments and would be a visible symbol of the spirit of co-operation which animates the Commonwealth. The change of Government in Britain did not change the attitude of the British Government towards the establishment of the Commonwealth Secretariat. The meeting of officials which was envisaged in 1964 was held in January, 1965, and a plan for a Secretariat was produced. That was subsequently considered by Commonwealth Governments, who all confirmed their agreement in principle. Officials met again in June to identify matters requiring specific decisions by Heads of Government at their meeting later in the same month. The reports of officials were considered and approved by the Heads of Government, and a unanimously agreed memorandum on the Commonwealth Secretariat was attached to their final communiqué It is that agreed memorandum which was presented to Parliament in July last year as a White Paper (Command 2713).

The Commonwealth Heads of Government thought it appropriate that Britain should be accorded the honour of acting as host Government to the Secretariat. We responded by offering to house the Secretariat in Marlborough House, which Her Majesty the Queen has graciously offered for use as a Commonwealth centre.

Marlborough House has come to be accepted as a centre for Commonwealth meetings in London and particularly for meetings of Commonwealth Heads of Government. It was felt to be particularly appropriate that the Commonwealth Secretariat should be housed in part of this elegant and historic building situated in the heart of London. The Secretariat is now established in Marlborough House, for all practical purposes as a guest of Britain.

Commonwealth Heads of Government have throughout laid great emphasis on the need to attract to the service of the Secretarait the highest possible quality of Commonwealth servant. The Commonwealth now has the services of Mr. Arnold Smith, one of the most senior and experienced members of the Canadian Diplomatic Service. His appointment as Secretary-General was unanimously approved by the Heads of Government in July last year, and so was that of his two distinguished Deputies, Mr. A. L. Adu, from Ghana, and Mr. T. E. Gooneratne, from Ceylon. Mr. Smith has appointed other staff from other member countries of the Commonwealth, and it is expected that, within the next few months, the initial establishment approved in July will be complete.

Very commendably, Mr. Smith did not wait until all his staff were recruited before energetically embarking on the tasks laid down in the agreed memorandum to which I have already referred.

It was not to be expected that within the first few months of its existence, still not at full strength and with no collective experience behind it, the Secretariat would be able to undertake all the functions laid down in the agreed memorandum. But, as hon. Members will know, the Secretary-General and his staff have been far from inactive. There is hardly a function mentioned in the agreed memorandum which the Secretariat has not already undertaken, including one of the most important of its functions, the immense task of servicing, at very short notice, the meeting last month of Commonwealth Heads of Government in Lagos, and this they did to the satisfaction of all concerned.

The position of the Secretary General and the members of his staff is, therefore, one of great trust and responsibility. They will have in their care a great deal of confidential information about Commonwealth affairs. They must clearly be in a position properly to perform the duties allotted to them, and to bear the trust and responsibility placed on them.

I will deal briefly with the operative Clauses of the Bill. Clause 1(1) gives the Secretariat the legal capacity of a body corporate. The Secretariat has to be given this capacity so that it may undertake legal obligations and enter into agreements, and, if this should ever unfortunately prove necessary, to sue and to be sued in its corporate name.

Clause 1(2), read with the Schedule, confers on the Secretariat and the members of its staff similar immunities and privileges—with two exceptions to which I shall refer later—to those accorded to Commonwealth High Commissioners in London, and in other Commonwealth capitals, and members of their staffs. These privileges and immunities are those agreed by Commonwealth Heads of Government at their meeting last June, and they are specified in Annex "A" to the Agreed Memorandum.

During the several discussions on the establishment of the Secretariat, most careful and lengthy consideration was given to the question whether the Secretariat and its staff should, in respect of immunities and privileges, be given treatment comparable with a Commonwealth High Commission and its staff. It was appreciated that such treatment could not be as of right, as the Secretariat is not the representative of one sovereign independent State. But the Commonwealth is a unique organisation, and Commonwealth leaders saw the Secretariat as a unique body within that organisation at the service of all Commonwealth Governments and…a visible symbol of the spirit of co-operation which animates the Commonwealth". It is the servant of not one, but of 22, sovereign independent States, and answerable directly to them. It was considered to be of the greatest importance that this body should be treated in a special way, and this has been recognised by all parties in the House.

I have already mentioned the great stress which was laid by all concerned in the setting up of this Secretariat on the need to attract to its service the very best quality of Commonwealth servant, and I think that all right hon. and hon. Members will agree that this is right if the Secretariat is to be a continuing success. It was realised that in most cases the individuals of the calibre and experience required would come from the diplomatic services of the Commonwealth itself, or would certainly be qualified for senior posts in those services, and that their duties would bring them into constant and direct contact with the diplomatic staff of Commonwealth High Commissions in London.

It was, therefore, felt that it would be right that the status of senior officers of the Secretariat should be equated with that of the diplomatic staff of Commonwealth High Commissions. Other Commonwealth Governments said that they would be prepared to accord to the senior officers of the Secretariat treatment comparable to that accorded to the diplomatic staff of High Commissions, an existing class of people to whom they are closely related, and with whom they will be in close and constant touch. The British Government felt throughout that this was the right course.

The senior officers of the Secretariat must also be permitted to carry out the duties expected of them by Commonwealth Governments without fear or favour, without let or hindrance. The Secretariat will, as I have indicated, have in trust from these Commonwealth Governments a great deal of confidential information. To maintain this trust and the responsibility imposed on it, and to perform the confidential duties entrusted to it, the Secretariat must, clearly, be free from all other compulsion. It must be independent, and to this end the senior officers have been accorded immunity from suit and legal process, and other officers have been accorded immunity in respect of their official acts. The Secretary General, as hon. Members will see, has the power to waive this immunity in any circumstances.

There are, however, to be two important exceptions to this provision for immunity, and I should like to deal with these for a few moments because I think that they will be very much in the minds of hon. Members. The first is Income Tax liability. Paradoxically, the exception is necessary to ensure that, in practice, the staff of the Secretariat will be given the same kind of treatment in this respect as is accorded to the staffs of High Commissions in London. The staffs of Commonwealth High Commissions in London, who are nationals of the sending country, are exempt from United Kingdom Income Tax, but they are, of course, taxed by their own countries.

The same effect for senior officers of the Secretariat who are not United Kingdom citizens could be obtained by not levying tax at all and paying them a net tax-free salary appropriate for their rank and duties, but this would create a special class of Income Tax-free people, and this the British Government, as well as most other Governments, are anxious to avoid. It is therefore, proposed that the staff of the Secretariat should be paid the normal gross salaries appropriate to their rank and duties, and that they should be liable to British Income Tax on their salaries in the normal way.

But that would mean that the extra amounts payable by the Secretariat in paying salaries gross instead of net would all come back to the British Government as tax, and this would not be fair to other Commonwealth Governments, so it has been decided by Her Majesty's Government that the Treasury will refund the tax collected on the salaries to the budget of the Secretariat—not, I assure the House, to the officers of the Secretariat—in addition to this country's contribution to the expenses of the Secretariat.

That may seem to be an elaborate procedure—and a good deal of thought has been given to the Income Tax position during the last few months—but it is desirable that a new tax-free class of persons should not be created. It was thought that this was important. The alternative to this, that is, an internal tax levied by the Secretariat itself, would be an unnecessary burden at this stage on the administrative powers of so small an organisation. The House will note that in the case of some international organisations internal tax is levied, but these organisations are fairly large. In this case the organisation is at this stage so small that it was thought that this would not be the appropriate procedure.

Mr. Jeremy Thorpe (Devon, North)

I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman would deal with one point arising out of that, which was dealt with in another place. Do I take it that the contribution of £175,000 is exclusive of the tax money returned, that is to say, it is over and above the £175,000? Will he say a word later about the contribution to the budget, whether it is to be a fixed percentage, or a fixed sum?

Mr. Hughes

The hon. Gentleman is right in what he said. The £175,000 is exclusive, and the sum which will be refundable in the shape of tax to the budget of the Secretariat will be over and above that.

Mr. Hector Hughes (Aberdeen, North)

Does the exemption with regard to Income Tax and Capital Gains Tax apply to investments in this country in British stocks and shares, or to all stocks and shares wherever they are domiciled, or wherever they come from, in Britain or outside Britain?

Mr. Hughes

Additional sources of income in this country which accrue to members of the staff of the Secretariat, over and above their emoluments, would be taxable in the ordinary way, but income which accrues to the staff from overseas—that is, from the sending countries—would be free of tax.

I now turn to the second important question which concerns immunity from suit and legal process in respect of civil action for damage alleged to have been caused by a motor vehicle belonging to or operated on behalf of, the Secretariat, or of a motor traffic offence involving such a vehicle, or in respect of arbitration proceedings relating to any written contract entered into by or on behalf of the Secretariat. I do not need to explain the thought behind these limitations in the privileges and immunities of the Secretariat; the House over the years has been particularly sensitive on this point, and rightly so. These limitations are acceptable to all other Commonwealth Governments.

Clause 2(2) brings the Act into effect from 1st July, 1965, the date from which it was agreed at the June meeting that the Secretariat would come formally into being. The purpose of giving the Act retrospective effect is to establish legal validity to anything already done in the name of the Secretariat and to give legal cover to exemption from such matters as customs duty already granted to it and its officers. However, hon. Members will see that it is not intended that retrospection shall prevent the enforcement of any liability which has been incurred by the Secretariat or its staff for the period between the establishment of the Secretariat and the enacting of this Bill.

I have now put before the House the main features of the Bill. It is one which is desired by other Commonwealth Governments, to give the appropriate status to a unique Commonwealth organisation which we all hope will contribute considerably to the strengthening of the Commonwealth association.

I commend this short Bill to the House.

5.13 p.m.

Mr. Nigel Fisher (Surbiton)

At a point of time when the Commonwealth scene is somewhat sombre, and when in certain respects and in certain areas of the world the Commonwealth is in disarray, many of us here who believe in the Commonwealth and who have faith in its future, especially as a bridge between the races, would have welcomed the opportunity of a rather wide-ranging debate to refute the defeatism which we sometimes hear outside and to rebut the feeling of disenchantment with the Commonwealth which seems, wrongly and regrettably, to be gaining some currency in this country. Some people who criticise do so because they expected too much too soon.

I would dearly like an opportunity to make the case for the modern Commonwealth, and I know that most hon. Members who are now present would love to do the same, but I feel sure that if I tried to do that this afternoon you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, would rule me out of order, because the Bill is no doubt too narrow to use as a vehicle for a Commonwealth debate, much as we should like to have one.

But the Bill does show that the Commonwealth is evolving—slowly, perhaps and with several setbacks—and the creation of a Commonwealth Secretariat is a very good example of this. The idea of a Commonwealth Secretariat has often been discussed over the years, and for various reasons rejected; and as the Minister of State has said, it was not until the Commonwealth Prime Ministers' Conference of 1964 that it received general support and approval. I believe that it will prove a constructive, forward-looking and important factor in Commonwealth relations in the years ahead. I had felt for some time that for all Commonwealth relations and information to be handled by the Commonwealth Relations Office was becoming, in a sense—because it was resented elsewhere—an embarrassment to Britain. The creation of the Secretariat, for which this Bill makes provision, means that the Commonwealth will in future take a much larger part in the handling of its own affairs. I am sure that that is right in 1966 and that we should welcome and encourage it.

I do not know whether the right hon. Gentleman will feel inclined to reply to what I am now saying—no doubt it depends on the trend of the debate—but, if he does, I should appreciate his advice on the question of the addition of a legal section, to which I referred at Question Time some time ago and which was discussed and recommended by the Commonwealth Law Conference at Sydney last year. I wonder whether that addition is to be made to the Secretariat and, if so, when? The main object of the Bill is to confer upon the Secretary-General and the staff of the Secretariat the immunities to which their status and the importance of their diplomatic duties entitle them. This is probably the only opportunity that the House will have to say something about some of the people upon whom we are conferring special immunities. Many of us have already got to know the new Secretary-General, Mr. Arnold Smith, a senior and most distinguished Canadian diplomat, and his two deputies. I can only say that the Commonwealth is fortunate in their selection.

I first met Mr. Adu six years ago, in Central Africa, when he was advising the Government of Nyasaland, as it then was, on the development of the Civil Service there, and I have never forgotten the immense impression he made upon me at that time. I have not yet had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Gooneratne, but his record is a very distinguished one in Ceylon. Mr. Arnold. Smith is one of the most charming men I have met anywhere at any time. He is devoted to the concept of the Commonwealth, yet fully alive to its problems. He is constructive and progressive in his views and tactful and imaginative in the execution of his responsibilities. And as wives are always very important in diplomacy, may I say how fortunate the Commonwealth is that Mr. Smith married such a delightful one. It is more true of the Commonwealth than of almost any other institution that I know that if one likes the person with whom one is dealing one is more than half way towards solving the difficulty that one is discussing. No one could fail to like Mr. Arnold Smith, and he has already proved his value to the Commonwealth by his travels in East and Central Africa and by his smooth and successful organisation of the Lagos Conference. He and his staff, drawn from all over the Commonwealth, will have many such responsibilities in the future.

The Bill is designed to give them the facilities and privileges they need to discharge their duties effectively, and it is right that they should be accorded the same treatment and the same sort of immunities as are enjoyed by the diplomatic staffs of the Commonwealth High Commissions. The Bill makes two exceptions to the normal immunities— one the motor vehicle exception and the other the Income Tax exception. Mr. Arnold Smith and his senior staff will have all the usual motoring immunities when they are driving their own cars, but the more junior staff—including the drivers of official Secretariat cars—will not enjoy diplomatic immunity.

The House has always been rather sensitive about the extension of this sort of privilege to new categories of people, which puts them above the ordinary laws of the land, and I am sure that the strict limitations of this immunity in this case will be welcomed by most hon. Members so far as the tax exception is concerned.

As I understood the hon. Gentleman, the members of the Secretariat will be paid their salaries gross and these salaries will be subject to United Kingdom Income Tax, but, in order that the British Exchequer should not make a profit from these payments, the total of the tax will be refunded, not to the individuals who paid it initially but to the budget of the Secretariat. This is, possibly, a somewhat complicated procedure, but I see the point of it and I make no complaint about it.

I am sure that it is right that an organisation which exists to serve the 22 Governments of the Commonwealth collectively should have broadly the same privileges in Britain as the missions of the 22 Governments of the Commonwealth already enjoy here individually.

The value of the Secretariat and of the Bill is that they give the Commonwealth an organisational form and structure which it lacked and which I believe it needed. I do not think that anybody wishes—certainly I do not—the Secretariat to assume executive powers or to develop into a sort of Commonwealth United Nations; but its creation does give a substance to the Commonwealth relationship which was missing in the past and which I believe will be beneficial and unifying in the future.

On this side of the House, we welcome the Bill and hope that it will have as quick and uncontroversial a passage through this House as it recently received in another place.

5.22 p.m.

Sir Geoffrey de Freitas (Kettering)

I agree with a great deal of what the hon. Member for Surbiton (Mr. Fisher) said. Like him, I would have preferred to turn this into a general Commonwealth debate, but we have to abide by the rules of order. Therefore, I shall limit myself to finding out what the Commonwealth Secretariat will be doing to justify our giving it these immunities.

The establishment of the Secretariat is a clear sign that the Commonwealth of today is completely different from the Commonwealth of only 20 years ago. I should like to be corrected in what I say if I am wrong. I hope that the Secretariat, in interpreting its terms of reference, will be willing to put suggestions to Governments whenever it appears to the Secretariat that some Governments have not caught up with the new organisation and terminology of the Commonwealth today. The Governments concerned could turn down those suggestions, but I hope that the Secretariat—working as it does in private—will be able to make such suggestions.

I would give an illustration by taking an example of terminology. Some people still refer to the Commonwealth as the "British" Commonwealth, although the title "Commonwealth" was designed some years ago to make it clear that this is a voluntary association of States in no way subordinate to Britain. From time to time we appear to confuse people by slipping into the terminology "British" Commonwealth.

At a reception after Sir Winston Churchill's funeral service I was asked by some Francophone African Heads of Government, including Mr. Tshombe, what was the constitutional significance of the fact that in the prayers in St. Paul's reference had been made to "people of this land and of the British Commonwealth".

They pointed out to me that one of the great differences between the French association with its former colonies and we with ours was that France still dominated the association not only in fact but in name, whereas we were only one of 22. I answered that there was no significance in this at all: it was simply that the Church of England had not caught up with the constitutional lawyers and that—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Samuel Storey)

I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman is doing exactly what he said he must not do—widening the debate.

Sir G. de Freitas

May I not ask what the Commonwealth Secretariat will do in order to justify our giving it these immunities? Supposing a point had not been settled which was the sort of point which a Government could not bring to the notice of another Government because, for instance, it would give offence to another Government. Suppose we were asked, "Why do you call your Governor in Aden a High Commissioner, thus confusing a man who is really a Governor with a man who is a diplomat"?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I am afraid that I cannot see what this has to do with the single purpose of the Bill.

Sir G. de Freitas

If we are to give these immunities, surely we have to be satisfied that the Secretariat will do something in return for them. I seek to know whether they will be encouraged to make such suggestions as would otherwise never be made because Governments are frightened of giving offence to other Governments. I will not develop the point, but I seek to know whether they will be encouraged to make these subtle points which will never be made Government to Government but which could be put by anonymous civil servants for the future of the Commonwealth and to remove possibilities of misunderstanding. I will not mention any more of these points.

We have seen, even in the House, misunderstandings about the nature of the Secretariat's work. I remember one Question in the House which implied that the Secretariat was taking over work from the Commonwealth Relations Office. In fact, the Question asked what, in view of the establishment of the Secretariat, would be the reduction in the staff of the Commonwealth Relations Office. Of course, the Commonwealth Relations Office is like the Foreign Office: its task is to carry out Government policy, that is, the policy of the British Government. It serves only one Government, the Government of the United Kingdom, whereas the Commonwealth Secretariat serves 22 Governments.

One last point made by the hon. Member for Surbiton was that, in a small organisation—I understand that there are only seven senior officials in the Secretariat—quality is very important. I know one of the three senior officers very well indeed—Mr. Adu of Ghana. He is a most distinguished civil servant who has served not only his own but other countries in Africa and the United Nations and who is in every way a remarkable man. The Commonwealth is fortunate that he is working for the Secretariat.

I hope that the House will give the Bill a Second Reading.

5.29 p.m.

Mr. Douglas Dodds-Parker (Cheltenham)

Like other hon. Members, I will be very careful how I tread, because I realise that this is a narrow Bill. I am glad that the Minister of State widened it a little to explain some of the background, which will be of use not only to us in the House but to others beyond. I should like to support my hon. Friend the Member for Surbiton (Mr. Fisher) in welcoming the Bill as an addition to the structure of the Commonwealth.

It must be some satisfaction to the Secretary of State, because 20 years ago he and I, from approximately the same position, discussed this matter and wondered whether some such secretariat would not be useful to the Commonwealth. As the hon. Member for Kettering (Sir G. de Freitas) said, it is a different Commonwealth today to what it was 20 years ago. There was in those days some suspicion—entirely unjustified—that some of the enthusiasts in the House were trying to construct something which had an ulterior motive.

It was, therefore, satisfying to the Secretary of State, as to all of us who are interested in the Commonwealth, that the Prime Ministers' Conference in 1964 took a sufficient interest to suggest that the Secretariat should be established. I am certain that it will further strengthen the Commonwealth association, and I join in the tributes which have been paid to Mr. Arnold Smith and his colleagues.

The House is rightly sensitive about the granting of immunities. We guard these jealously. I am glad to hear that the immunities proposed are the same as those applying to Commonwealth High Commissions. However, one point is not clear to me. Reference is made to "officers and servants". In the past some hon. Members have wondered whether these individuals should be seconded from their own national diplomatic services or should be permanent officials recruited on their merits and taken into the Commonwealth Service with no national service to which to return. A case could be made out for either system, although today the latter is probably the best. I have always believed that the system of secondment has led to a cross-fertilisation which not only in this but in other instances has proved of the greatest use. I am not certain whether these seven individuals are permanent members of the Commonwealth Secretariat or have been seconded from their national services.

As yet, there is no such thing as Commonwealth citizenship. In this country one remains a British subject by our law. One remains a citizen of whatever Commonwealth country to which one belongs. Whether one day we will work towards the idea of Commonwealth citizenship I do not know and I appreciate that this is a difficult and dangerous path to tread because there are dangers which cannot be foreseen and which—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. This does not arise on this Bill.

Mr. Dodds-Parker

I apologise, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Suffice to say that I hope the Secretary of State will make it clear whether the seven individuals have been seconded or are permanent members of the Commonwealth Secretariat.

Until the Minister spoke it was not clear whether the privileges and immunities would be the same for any citizens of the United Kingdom who are appointed to the Commonwealth Secretariat. I regret what I might call the levelling down of Commonwealth citizens who will have to endure the rate of taxation which we at present must endure in this country. Although I understand that the tax to be levied will be refunded to the Secretariat, it must not in any way discourage those who will take up these occupations.

I do not suggest that we should create a special privileged class from the tax point of view, but I am putting in a word for those who must carry out diplomatic functions in a country in which they pay the local taxation. Various forms of social entertainment are not entirely covered by the allowance and I am sorry that these individuals will have to pay the full rate of tax. It is easy to say that they should do the job like the rest of us, but I trust that it will be remembered that they are carrying out these semi-diplomatic jobs and that on occasions they find these task difficult to perform.

5.34 p.m.

Mr. James Johnson (Kingston upon Hull, West)

Since entering the Chamber and looking through the text of the Bill, coupled with hearing your comments about what is and what is not in order, Mr. Deputy Speaker, this is obviously not the day for long historical speeches. Considering what has been said in past years by my hon. Friends and I about Commonwealth matters, it is only right that a back bencher on this side of the House should utter a few sentences to welcome the Bill.

The hon. Member for Surbiton (Mr. Fisher) spoke about the organisational form of the Commonwealth. This matter has been discussed and advocated for many years, notably by the first post-war Labour Government. The Bill is to be welcomed for that reason, recalling that at least 20 years, ago Lord Attlee took this line. The Commonwealth is indeed a particularly fluid organisation. Some call it dynamic.

The Minister of State referred to the suspicions of some Colonial Territories. A formal set-up along the lines proposed for the Commonwealth Secretariat could not be contemplated just a few years ago. Those past ideas have gone, particularly since the Secretariat is not based on London. It will convene conferences in, for example, Lagos. The last one was an extremely successful conference. Bearing in mind our difficulties in Rhodesia, we see that the Secretariat is able to serve the sort of purpose which was mentioned by the Minister and which Mr. Arnold Smith and his distinguished colleagues will be able to carry out.

The Minister of State spoke about the Ghanaian and Singalese colleagues of Mr. Smith. They are all men. We are fortunate in our choice of the Secretary- General because, Being a Canadian, he is midway between Washington and Paris, so to speak, but—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman is getting away from the purpose of the Bill.

Mr. Johnson

In that case Mr. Deputy Speaker, I fear that the odd notes which I jotted down will have to be decapitated, truncated and almost amortised. I was able to say that there is a place for women in the Commonwealth Secretariat. This was mentioned in another place, and I am sure that the hon. Lady the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dame Joan Vickers) will refer to this if she catches your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

In a debate such as this it is difficult to keep within the rules of order. I will conclude merely by saying that I believe in the Commonwealth, I believe in cementing the bonds of the Commonwealth and I believe that the Commonwealth Secretariat, with able people like Mr. Smith in it, will do that. I wish them a very happy future and all success in their endeavours.

5.37 p.m.

Dame Joan Vickers (Plymouth, Devonport)

I rise to welcome the Bill and the setting up of the Commonwealth Secretariat as a body with a corporate identity. This is a major achievement. Considering how difficult it is to get hon. Members of this House to agree on certain problems, for 22 Commonwealth countries, comprised of different races, to set up this corporate body is an amazing achievement.

It is interesting to consider the powers which this corporate body will have. I always remember President Nehru of India saying that the Commonwealth was all the stronger because of its invisible links. I hope that this corporate body will bind those links even tighter together, but I equally hope that the organisation will not be too formal; the more informality there is in its operation the better. I therefore suggest that the co-operation which would be most successful in this organisation would be that of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association. I do not want to see the Commonwealth Secretariat taking over the work of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, but it would be an enormous asset if the two could work together.

In the debate in another place the question of recruiting people to the Secretariat was discussed, along with the question of who would be given these diplomatic privileges. It was pointed out: This Secretariat, being recruited from member countries and financed by their contributions, would be at the service of all Commonwealth Governments and would be a visible symbol of the spirit of co-operation which animates the Commonwealth.—[OFFICIAL REPORT, House of Lords, 25th Jan., 1966; Vol. 272, c. 12.] I would like to know the method by which these high calibre people are recruited. Is it done on an area basis? So far we have three major appointments, one from Canada, one from Ghana and one from Ceylon. Will we try to keep it on a Commonwealth area basis so that a really good representation from the Commonwealth is achieved?

The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, West (Mr. James Johnson) spoke about the recruitment of women to the Secretariat. I was disappointed to learn that no women are to get this diplomatic immunity because no women have been recruited. I hope that they will be able to play their part in the future, as we have to remember that we have already had two women Prime Ministers in Commonwealth countries.

How will these individuals on the staff work in future? For instance, mention was made in another place of …helping with the processing of Singapore's application for membership of the Commonwealth".—[OFFICIAL REPORT; House of Lords, 25th January, 1966; Vol. 272, c. 14.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. This does not arise on the Bill.

Dame Joan Vickers

The gentlemen for whom we are asking for this immunity have done the work, and if we are to give them the privileges I should like to know just how their work will be done. If these individuals are to arrange conferences in future, how will they get their agendas together? Will this be a Commonwealth exercise, or will it be settled in this country—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Lady must keep to the purposes of the Bill.

Dame Joan Vickers

When these people travel overseas to another country—because I hope that all meetings will not be held in this country—will their diplomatic immunities go with them? What salaries are we to pay these individuals—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. That does not arise either.

Dame Joan Vickers

I am having a rather difficult time.

In Part II of the Schedule, we read in paragraph 5(1): Every senior officer of the Commonwealth Secretariat, who is a citizen…. Can we be told how many senior officers will get this immunity? Perhaps we could also be told their salary scales.

As other territories become full members of the Commonwealth, will they be able to joint this corporate body? For instance, when Fiji becomes independent, will it automatically become a member of the Commonwealth Secretariat, or will it have to apply to join?

I hope that what I have said about women being employed in the Commonwealth Secretariat and being given the same immunity as men will be specially considered, as I think they can be additional assets to the work of the Secretariat. I would like formally to welcome this Bill.

5.42 p.m.

Mr. Hector Hughes (Aberdeen, North)

I congratulate the Minister on his lucid presentation of this Measure. My intervention earlier was not intended to unbalance my hon. Friend but to draw attention to one peculiarity in the Bill. Before turning to that point, however, let me say that I welcome the Bill, because I welcome anything that may increase the solidarity and effectiveness of the Commonwealth, which stands for the rule of law in international and in national affairs.

My criticism of the Bill is twofold. It contains no Interpretation Clause. There is nothing to indicate what the Commonwealth is. It is implied, of course, that it means the British Commonwealth of Nations, but there is nothing explicitly in the Bill, as there should be in any Act of Parliament, to indicate what the Commonwealth is.

The Schedule to the Bill mentions certain inviolabilities, of which there are three. The first is: The Commonwealth Secretariat shall have the like inviolability of premises… That is correct. Just as an embassy has inviolability of precises, so should this Secretariat.

The second is that the Secretariat …shall be exempt from income tax and the capital gains tax… It was on that point that I ventured to interrupt the Minister in order to find out whether that referred only to Commonwealth stocks and shares or to all stocks and shares. Does it apply to the stocks and shares envisaged by last year's Budget in this country? We are now dealing not only with Britain but with various parts of the Commonwealth, and the elements or entities in the Commonwealth which are having this benefit of inviolability from Income Tax and Capital Gains Tax should have that inviolability clearly defined.

The third inviolability is: The Commonwealth Secretariat shall be exempt from duties on the importation of goods… That, again, should be clearly defined.

I do not make these criticisms in an adverse way. As I have said, I welcome the Bill and anything that will increase the effectiveness and solidarity of the Commonwealth. This Commonwealth is a natural sequence and development from the time when we had the British Empire consisting of colonies rightly struggling to be free. They got their freedom, and became representative entities in the great Commonwealth. I shall not go further into the history, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I only gave that little bit of history in order to say that in giving these inviolabilities and benefits and advantages of the Commonwealth we are doing a very good thing.

It is an anomaly that the more we benefit the entities—or whatever we may choose to call them—in the British Commonwealth of Nations, and the more we develop them and give them individuality, the more we increase the solidarity of the Commonwealth. That seems to me to be an anomaly of a very beneficial kind. I therefore have great pleasure in offering these few words of welcome to the Bill.

5.48 p.m.

Mr. Jeremy Thorpe (Devon, North)

I, too, welcome the Bill on behalf of the Liberal Party. It represents a new and exciting development in the history of the Commonwealth. It seeks to clothe with diplomatic status those who have already become the civil servants of the Commonwealth. These provisions are necessary, first, to enhance the status of those who are called upon to serve the Commonwealth and, secondly, to give them the powers it will be necessary for them to hold if they are to discharge the obligations which the Commonwealth has placed upon them.

I welcome the two somewhat different diplomatic provisions—that relating to taxation and that relating to liability for civil proceedings in regard to damage caused by motor vehicles. They are very happy compromises and, in a sense, are the sort of compromise one would expect of any legal arrangement in regard to the Commonwealth. One example of compromise is that we have High Commissioners as opposed to Ambassadors, and we therefore expect to find somewhat different legal treatment when dealing with the Commonwealth than when dealing with other countries.

There are two matters about which I wish to ask. The first relates to the granting of diplomatic status. In the Schedule to the Bill in paragraph 10(3) there is the provision: References…to the United Kingdom shall be construed as including references to the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man. This perhaps is a drafting point. There is not any reference in the Bill to the United Kingdom. I speak subject to correction, but since this body is to extend diplomatic immunity to Northern Ireland and to Scotland, the provision could perhaps be improved in Committee and we could put in some greater definition.

Very often when we grant diplomatic status questions are asked as to what reciprocity there is to be; that is to say, whether the same privileges are to be accorded in return. If the Secretary of State is to reply, I hope he will indicate whether it is the intention, as I assume it to be, of the 21 other Commonwealth countries to accord the same sort of diplomatic status to these Commonwealth servants that they are accorded in other Commonwealth countries.

Clause 2(3) specifically refers to the budget. It is that part of the Bill marked by a black line in order that another place shall not raise questions of privilege between the two Houses. The question was asked in another place, what the contribution of this country would be. The reply was made that it would be £175,000, which represented a third of the proposed budget. I should like to know whether that is a percentage which will vary as the budget varies, or a once-and-for-all block grant of £175,000. I think it relevant to ask this particularly as the Secretariat, clothed with these powers, will, we hope, greatly extend its activities and we shall see a growing budget in the next two or three years.

I think it in order—I shall be told very quickly if it is not—before we grant power to any body to ask rhetorically what it has already done and, more pertinently, what it is likely to do? Can we justify the grant of these very extensive powers? This organisation came into being only in July 1965. All told, down to the humblest typist, I think the total staff is 35, but it has already held one meeting of Commonwealth trade officials and a second is to be held, which we hope will lead to a Ministerial meeting in May. It has already entered the diplomatic sphere by setting up a committee dealing with the question of Rhodesian sanctions and a sub-committee dealing with Zambia.

It therefore seems that this aspect of diplomatic immunity and certainly diplomatic status is of the very essence of the job the Secretariat is being asked to do. This Bill is most timely in that regard. As the Minister said, it was this body which organised the Lagos Conference and, so to speak, even before the introduction of this Bill, was given a supra-national character in relation to the rest of the Commonwealth. So much for the powers which it has already exercised, which clearly make the case for granting this measure of diplomatic immunity enshrined in the Bill.

I think that equally we shall see an extension of its operations both in the economic and political spheres which will make it essential that it should have the status envisaged by the Bill. As I think was said in another place, the diplomatic activities—after all it is diplomatic immunity that we are granting—and diplomatic exchanges which now take place between the Secretary-General and his colleagues and members of Commonwealth Governments are a vital part today in international diplomacy. It is particularly important that this diplomatic status should exist at a time when two members of the Commonwealth have broken off relations with this country, and the same is also true in regard to Malaysia and Pakistan.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

The hon. Member is now getting far too wide.

Mr. Thorpe

Mr. Deputy Speaker, I shall try very strictly to keep in order. In regard to the individuals upon whom we are granting this status I re-echo what every hon. and right hon. Member has said in this debate. We could not be more fortunate in the Commonwealth than to have someone of the character and calibre of Mr. Arnold Smith as the Secretary-General. Within the British Commonwealth there are Smiths and Smiths and he is a good one.

When I visited Marlborough House and had discussions with members of the Secretariat I thought the heading of this Bill "Commonwealth Secretariat Bill", could not be more appropriate. There one meets within two or three minutes not only a Canadian Secretary-General but a New Zealand deputy, a Ceylon national in charge of the economic sphere, a Nigerian, a Ghanaian and representatives from practically every member country of the Commonwealth. I hope that these powers will enable the Secretariat to carry out and expand its duties in strengthening the Commonwealth and, to quote the 1964 communiqué, be: A permanent expression of closer and more informed understanding. It is particularly appropriate that it should be housed in Marlborough House, a very historic building last occupied by a most gracious lady who herself did a tremendous amount for the British Empire, as it was then, who was much travelled and beloved in many corners of the world. I hope this Bill will do something to indicate to the Secretariat that we wish it well and want to see that it has all the powers needed to discharge its functions.

5.58 p.m.

Mr. Gordon Oakes (Bolton, West)

Like every hon. Member who has spoken in this debate from both parts of the House, I welcome the Bill. I apologise to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and to the House for the fact that I was not present when my hon. Friend the Minister of State opened the debate.

The hon. Lady the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dame Joan Vickers) quite rightly said that it was a remarkable feat of statesmanship, understanding and diplomacy that people from 22 nations should get together and agree to set up the Secretariat. It is particularly fortunate that the Secretariat is here in London. We tend to take the Commonwealth for granted a great deal, both in this House and by the ordinary man in the street.

There are many other nations in the Commonwealth which no doubt would welcome the Secretariat in their countries. There are Commonwealth nations which are larger and some which have a civilisation as old as ours. There are many which have a climate far better than ours. Yet we have the Secretariat in London and by the Bill we are welcoming it and conferring on it the status of a body corporate.

The Bill exempts members of the Secretariat, and the Secretariat itself as a body corporate, from diplomatic immunity in respect of civil actions arising from motor accidents and proceedings for motoring offences. As members of the Secretariat will be living here amongst us, it is important not only that the House and Government Departments but that the ordinary public do not get at cross-purposes with them. The average British citizen, no matter what his political party and no matter where he lives, has a healthy dislike of official cars, whether they be Ministerial cars—I hope that my hon. Friends on the Front Bench are listening—whether they be mayoral cars, embassy cars, or Secretariat cars. The general public dislikes cars being on the road which operate under a law different from that under which all other motorists operate. To them these cars are something foreign and faintly sinister. If any incident takes place, the Press echoes this distrust felt by the ordinary citizen.

The last thing we want is for a minor official of the Secretariat to be involved in a motor accident, or to commit a motoring offence, and then to find that, although he might be willing to waive diplomatic privilege, under ancient Acts he is not able to do so. That would be the position, unless a provision is inserted into the Bill. The whole Secretariat would have to waive its immunity, and there is some doubt whether it could waive it retrospectively.

I wonder whether this could not be extended to senior officers and their families, because there is no reason why these citizens of the Commonwealth would ever seek to use their diplomatic privilege to avoid the consequences of traffic accidents or motoring offences. This is a departure from most diplomatic practice, which has gone on possibly since Roman times, certainly from an Act of 1708, when motor cars were not foreseen. This is the first Measure which, in terms, excludes from diplomatic privilege actions of tort or criminal offences arising from motoring. The 1964 Act does not do it. I do not think that the 1950 Act, which relates to other international organisations, does it.

Although this is a very minor point in the Bill, it is one to be welcomed because of the precedent it sets and also because, when the Secretariat or any member of it is, through no fault of his own and from some minor reason, involved in an accident, or jumps the traffic light, or commits a minor traffic offence, he cannot claim to be in a separate class of motorist. Consequently, there cannot be any Press uproar and the public can accept him as a motorist who must obey our rules, as they must.

6.3 p.m.

Mr. Brian Harrison (Maldon)

I hope that the House will forgive me if I strike a somewhat discordant note. I shall try, if I may go so far as to quote one phrase from the White Paper, to begin modestly and remain careful not to trespass on the points of order.

I have gained the impression, from listening to the debate and from hearing the House talking with its usual thinness and enthusiasm about the Commonwealth, that we are perpetrating one of the things that makes me feel that the U.K-ers—I must not use the word "British"; I do not want to offend the hon. Member for Kettering (Sir G. de Freitas)—still have their sense of humour, because they have welcomed the granting of diplomatic privileges to a Secretariat that emerged from a Commonwealth conference that caused us to lose Rhodesia from the Commonwealth and which is an institution being built up after the Commonwealth has stopped meaning anything in the world.

It seems to me that we are now trying to institutionalise something which has failed almost completely in modern times. We are trying to give dipomatic privileges to a small "United Nations", an organisation which will probably conflict with some of the jobs which could be done much better by the United Nations itself. This effort at reviving in the last dying days of the Commonwealth an institution to try to keep it alive, giving it diplomatic privileges and developing at this stage a Secretariat with ill-defined duties, is a joke which has gone a little too far.

After reading the White Paper which was referred to by the Minister of State, with all its "ifs", "buts" and "possibilities", "guided by principles" this way and that, but containing practically nothing definite, no one, if he is honest, can fail to come to the same conclusion as I do. The moment has come when the House must pull itself together, particularly after the statements we heard earlier today, when it was shown by the conflict which has arisen over the defence of the Commonwealth that Britain is quite incapable of defending the Commonwealth.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Samuel Storey)

Order. This does not arise on the present Bill, which deals only with two small points.

Mr. Harrison

The granting of diplomatic privilege to an institution which is set up to maintain an non-existent Commonwealth seems to me to be a farce which is going almost beyond a joke. I hope that the Government will think very seriously before they go much further with this. I ask them to consider whether they are not making this country, by giving these powers and exemptions to the Secretariat, a laughing stock.

6.8 p.m.

Sir Frederic Bennett (Torquay)

First, may I say how truly delighted I am that my first appearance at this Dispatch Box should be on a Commonwealth subject. I think that hon. Members on both sides of the House will concede that we have worked together in the interests of the Commonwealth for many years past. For this reason, I was perhaps all the more distressed at parts of the last speech we heard, but I had better try to remember my rôle and speak on that a little later.

It is lucky that the Chair has been so severe, because any sort of controversy is almost totally precluded. In some way, I rather regret this, because in my usual position on the back benches I rather enjoy controversy. I realise, however, that I shall in any event be granted a certain amount of indulgence by right hon. and hon. Members opposite.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Surbiton (Mr. Fisher) was allowed to say a few general words about the background of the Secretariat, and in view of the last speech we have heard, I hope that I shall be forgiven one general observation very much along the lines of what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Surbiton.

In this debate and generally in talking about the Commonwealth we are in danger nowadays of falling into the second of two traps. Over the years, there has sometimes been a tendency to expect more of the Commonwealth and to overrate its possibilities. Many of us have been deluded at times on that account. Now, there has been an altogether too dramatic conversion to down-rating the Commonwealth and granting it no influence at all in the world today. It is for this reason that I regard the setting up of the Secretariat as a positive step forward.

There is one matter of history in connection with the setting up of the Secretariat which is of importance in connection with our thoughts on how we see it working. In earlier times, it was usually the British who wanted to create some sort of organisation which would integrate the Commonwealth centrally, and the other Commonwealth countries at that time were, quite naturally, suspicious that this might tend to undermine the advance to sovereignty which they wanted to achieve.

Nowadays, as we have heard, the boot is on the other foot. It is the other Commonwealth countries which look for greater organisation in the Commonwealth, for no more noble motives, I suppose, than we used to have, save that, naturally, they feel that their numerical importance is such that their influence in the Commonwealth entitles them to a greater say in the central direction and organisation of it than they have had in the past. I think that it is for this reason that we have been able to secure agreement so readily on the setting up of the Secretariat and the rôle which it has to fulfil.

I differ on one point from the hon. Member for Kettering (Sir G. de Freitas) in that I hope that the Secretary of State will not yield to the invitation to be more precise about the rôle which the Secretariat has to play. This is an extremely tender plant and, if we try to overload it at the beginning, we may cause to arise fresh suspicions of the sort which have now died away. All the words of the White Paper in this respect are very wise. Whether we like it or not, this is an innovation, and it is a matter very much of "softly, softly" if we are not to create suspicions which, I am sure, it would be a pity to create.

Sir G. de Freitas

It was for that reason, to show that there was no need to suspect Britain of trying to dominate the Secretariat, that I deliberately referred to points which could be critical of Britain.

Sir F. Bennett

If that is the line, I have some sympathy with my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon (Mr. Brian Harrison). But we are also British in this House, and in these matters we must be careful of our own sensitivities as well as of those of other Commonwealth countries.

I hope that, at least in the initial stages, the Commonwealth Secretariat will move very slowly—this is the whole purpose of the White Paper—lest we cause more discord than concord between the various countries concerned.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I have allowed the hon. Gentleman a certain amount of latitude. He is now going very far from the Bill.

Sir F. Bennett

I was only trying to answer a point which was made, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and at that point, if I may say so, I was replying to an intervention.

I come now to a matter of fact which I should like the Secretary of State to clarify. I had thought that it was intended that the Secretariat should do some of the work previously done by the C.R.O. in matters of information and organisation, and, therefore, it is not quite true that the C.R.O. has always been completely the servant of the United Kingdom in this respect. Is it not a fact that, in the past, it has fulfilled a certain rôle in connection with information and the organisation of conferences which will now be taken over, or which to some extent has already been taken over, by the new Secretariat?

I was glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Mr. Dodds-Parker) reminded the House, on such a happy all-party occasion, that both sides have done a great deal together over the years to achieve this sort of end.

I should like a little information—I have not been able to glean it from the Bill, after a very careful study of it—on whether the senior and other officials are meant to be permanent in the same way as other civil servants in other international bodies become, so to speak, international individuals, although they are to be seconded from their Governments or come as volunteers from other countries and be liable at any time, at the wish of their Governments, to revert to their national rôles. This is an important question to be answered at this stage, because it must affect our view of the privileges and immunities which we expect these people to have.

After your warning, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I do not know how far I can go in support of my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dame Joan Vickers) and the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, West (Mr. James Johnson), but, as you allowed each of them a word or two in support of the female element in this organisation, perhaps I may add my earnest plea to the Secretary of State to consider this matter carefully. I remind the right hon. Gentleman that the present Prime Minister of the largest country in the Commonwealth is a woman and that the Leader of the Opposition in the second largest is a woman. There are one or two notable women ambassadors as well. This is a question to be taken quite seriously for the future.

I hope that I shall not be thought in any way unsympathetic to someone we all like very much when I say of the hon. and learned Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hector Hughes), who is not in his place at the moment, that I at least found it rather difficult to understand the somewhat complex questions which he put. I can only hope that the Secretary of State has been more successful in that effort than I have been.

In response to what was said by the hon. Member for Bolton, West (Mr. Oakes), I can only say that, as I understand it, it is only the senior officers who are to have this rare exemption in respect of motor traffic offences. In view of the doubts which the hon. Gentleman cast on the matter, I should like the point to be cleared up. I believe that there is not, as the hon. Gentleman suggested, an innovation here, because these senior officers will be very much in the same position as a High Commissioner or Ambassador in any other country, and we should, indeed, be making an exception if we did not accord them the same privileges as are accorded to other people of similar rank.

Mr. Oakes

I think that the hon. Gentleman is quite right when he says that only the senior officers will have this privilege, but I was pointing out that many embassy representatives, including even junior members of the staff and the Ambassador's household have these privileges. This would not be so as regards the Secretariat.

Sir F. Bennett

Then we are not at cross-purposes.

I welcome what is proposed in the respect of the Secretariat, but I understood the hon. Gentleman to be suggesting that we were making a departure. I do not believe that we are, because it is expressly stated that only the senior officers will have diplomatic rank in this context, and the others cannot be compared with junior diplomats and the like at embassies because they are seconded personnel from their Governments without the diplomatic rank which would otherwise go with it.

I have worked very closely on Commonwealth affairs with my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon, and I was sorry that he spoke as he did today. However valid his criticisms of new trends and tendencies within the Commonwealth may be, I feel that the best answer to those criticisms is to try to strengthen the organisation which he now feels has become too weak. This Bill is designed precisely for that purpose, representing at least one element of unity at a time when there are so many elements of discord in the Commonwealth and elsewhere in the world.

If my hon. Friend has excuse—I think that he has—to feel doubtful about certain trends in the Commonwealth, his energies, like those of all the rest of us, should be directed towards an acceptance of the reality of the situation and an effort to mend bridges. If the Secretariat is to be any good at all, it will work by consultation and by trying to iron out differences; and if we all bend our efforts in this direction the end which we desire can be achieved.

Mr. Brian Harrison

Will not my hon. Friend admit that the Commonwealth has ceased to exist completely, and, therefore, we ought to recognise the true realities of the situation?

Sir F. Bennett

I am sorry, Mr. Speaker, but I have now been asked whether I will admit that the Commonwealth has ceased to exist. If I were to answer that question, I should, I am sure, bring down your displeasure. May I say merely that I would not accept that conclusion at all, certainly not if the interpretation which most of us put on the Commonwealth is the right one, that it is an organisation which, though it has its imperfections, is in the interests of the world as a whole and which we ought to try to keep going and to improve.

Mr. Speaker

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for keeping within the realms of order.

Sir F. Bennett

I think that it was a very near thing, Sir.

I come now to the two detailed points which, I am sure, are strictly within order. The first is on the question of Income Tax. After the Minister of State had spoken, I thought I realised why we had adopted the rather cumbersome method proposed. Now, however, I am not quite sure, and I do not follow why it should apply to the officials of other Governments who, as I have said, will be seconded, but will be working with the Secretariat on a temporary basis as though they were in a High Commission. Why should they have to pay British Income Tax and then have it paid back to the Secretariat? It seems a little odd.

I understand the reasoning in the case of British citizens, who will pay British Income Tax and be given commensurate salaries and which will then have the tax returned to the Secretariat. I have no quarrel with that proposition. But I find it a strange and new principle that overseas citizens in the permanent employ of their own Governments and seconded here for temporary employment should be treated in this way. An explanation is required of what is, however, a minor anomaly.

The hon. Member for Devon, North (Mr. Thorpe), in discussing the financial aspects, asked whether the figures mentioned—£175,000, or 30 per cent. of the total—were permanent. Of course, the Commonwealth is a changing body. Unless the Bill gets the Royal Assent very rapidly—and that depends on the election intentions of the Prime Minister—by the time it gets the Royal Assent one or two more members of the Commonwealth will soon be entitled to be members of the Secretariat.

At the moment, the table of cost is set out in percentages. Whenever a new member joins, is the percentage to be varied or will the total subscription go up while the percentage remains the same? The British taxpayer is entitled to know. Is there to be an annual review so that membership of the Secretariat dates only from a certain period after a country becomes a Commonwealth member?

Again, with the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon in mind, one remembers how, a long while ago—it seems now to have been almost in one's childhood—one was told that the strength of the Commonwealth was as an association of like-minded peoples. That was a proud boast. But now it is the only association in the world of non like-minded peoples who manage to work together. I welcome that development of the Commonwealth and I therefore welcome the Bill.

6.23 p.m.

The Secretary of State for Commonwealth Relations (Mr. Arthur Bottomley)

It falls to my lot to congratulate the hon. Member for Torquay (Sir F. Bennett) on his first appearance on the Opposition Front Bench—and I welcome it the more because his speech was so competent and agreeable. I particularly liked the way in which he dealt with the hon. Member for Maldon (Mr. Brian Harrison) who, unusually, failed to show the same strong support for the Commonwealth that he has in the past.

All of us, with the exception of the hon. Member for Maldon, I am sure, welcome the Bill. We believe that the creation of the Secretariat is a Commonwealth initiative of major importance. The idea of some form of central Commonwealth organisation is perhaps as old as the Commonwealth itself. Certainly the proposal for a secretariat was made in the 1940s. As the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Mr. Dodds-Parker) has said, it arose in the 1945–46 period when I was on the Government and he was then also in Opposition. After that, it was my good fortune as a "shadow" Minister to press for a Secretariat. Thus it gives me great pleasure today to be the Secretary of State responsible for introducing the Bill.

In 1946 there was a feeling of suspicion about a Commonwealth Secretariat—a feeling that a central organisation would somehow be used as an instrument of British control over the policies of other Commonwealth Governments. Since those days the Commonwealth has greatly evolved. No one now would question the concept that each and every member country is free and in control of its own policies and that no machinery of Commonwealth co-operation should, or indeed, could, get in the way of that concept.

It has clearly been in the minds of the Commonwealth Heads of Government that, in the situation resulting from this evolution, the objections could no longer be sustained and it was for this reason that the Secretariat was formed. The Prime Ministers' Conference during the period of office of the last Government unanimously decided that the Secretariat should come into being. Thus, an all-party effort has resulted in the Secretariat being formed.

I was glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Sir G. de Freitas) mentioned the Lagos conference and I take the opportunity, as other hon. Members have done, to pay tribute to Mr. Arnold Smith for the very helpful part that he played. I agree with the opinion expressed about him. He is a great Commonwealth officer and will be an admirable Secretary-General.

For the Secretariat, the Lagos conference was a baptism of fire and as a result of its experience it has grown much stronger. But it has also helped in the administration and organisation of other conferences. In September, there was the Commonwealth Finance Ministers' meeting in Jamaica and then the Commonwealth Medical Conference in Edinburgh in October. Indeed, Mr. Smith's activities have included consultations with Commonwealth Governments and their representatives on a wide range of subjects, including helping with the processes of Singapore's membership of the Commonwealth, which was sponsored by the Prime Minister of Malaysia. There have also been meetings between Mr. Smith and the Ministers and officials of Commonwealth Governments and with representatives of Commonwealth organisations. In addition, Mr. Smith has visited countries in East and Central Africa and has met Heads of Government, Ministers and officials.

So it may be seen that the Secretariat has already done a good deal of very useful work for the Commonwealth and it is hoped that, in November, it will be able to service the Commonwealth Trade Ministers' Conference which will be held, I believe, in Jamaica.

The Secretariat also has the responsibility of looking after two committees set up, as a result of the Lagos Conference, to deal with Rhodesia, as was mentioned by the hon. Member for Devon, North (Mr. Thorpe). One is to deal with sanctions and the other is giving training assistance so that Africans can go into Rhodesia and run services in due course. It may be seen that the unanimity of the Commonwealth heads of Government in wanting the Secretariat demonstrates their faith in the Commonwealth.

The hon. Lady the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dame Joan Vickers) asked about the recruitment of women to the Secretariat. I hope that I am not committing a breach of confidence or privilege in revealing that Mr. Smith has told me that he himself has a bias towards enlarging the staff to include female employees. The problem is to persuade Governments to let these very competent and charming ladies leave their own countries. However, I am glad to tell the hon. Lady that a former member of the Jamaican Foreign Service, Mrs. Robertson, is in charge of information and public relations within the Secretariat. In addition, as hon. Members know as well as I do, the Commonwealth itself leads the world because it has had two Lady Prime Ministers. I assure the hon. Lady that what she wants is very dear to the heart of Mr. Smith.

The hon. Lady also asked whether I could give details about appointments. There are now 11 senior staff and the countries of origin are Canada, Ghana, Ceylon, the United Kingdom, India, New Zealand and Australia. Four posts are vacant and these will be filled in due course.

I was asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, West (Mr. James Johnson) and by the hon. Lady the Member for Devonport how the staff were appointed. The Secretary-General is appointed by Commonwealth heads of Governments acting collectively and the Deputy Secretaries-General are appointed by Commonwealth heads of Government acting through their representatives in London. Other senior staff are appointed by the Secretary-General from panels of names submitted by Commonwealth Governments. Junior staff are appointed directly by the Secretary-General.

I was also asked what factors governed the selection of staff. The paramount consideration is the highest possible standards of efficiency, competence and integrity, but due regard is paid to the importance of recruiting staff on as wide a geographical basis of the Commonwealth as possible.

The hon. Member for Devon, North asked how long members of the staff would serve. Senior officers are to be appointed in the first instance for not more than five and preferably not less than three years. There must be some flexibility in contract terms in order to secure some continuity of administration. I was asked whether it would not be better to appoint staff on a permanent basis to provide continuity and stability. The view was taken that this would not be the best way to deal with it. The Secretariat is a new venture and no one would attempt at this stage to fossilise the Secretariat in the way suggested. The organisation is not big enough yet to afford the luxury of a permanent staff.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, West (Mr. Oakes) asked about the use of cars and diplomatic immunity. This is an innovation and I am glad that it has been welcomed. I can tell him that my experience with diplomats is that they seldom abuse their position. I remember on one occasion travelling with a diplomat in a car in London and being late for an appointment. The driver asked, "Should I go faster?" and the diplomat said, "Certainly not; we have privileges in this country and that is all the more reason to remember to keep the law." I do not think that there is much abuse, although there is a black sheep in every family.

The hon. Member for Cheltenham asked whether taxes could be a discouragement to recruitment. The evidence does not indicate that the Income Tax arrangements are in any way discouraging to recruitment. Salaries have been determined, as the Minister of State said, in such a way that after tax has been deducted, net salaries will be in line with those of comparable staff in High Commissions in London.

The hon. Member for Torquay said that the position was still not quite clear. I will do my best to try to explain further. We feel that it would not be right to create a special tax-free class. It is not the practice of other countries to do so, and we are conforming to customary international practice. It is only right to say that the Commonwealth Prime Ministers approve. An alternative would be to ask the Secretariat to operate its own internal tax system. It is too small an organisation to make that worth while. The administrative cost would be out of all proportion to the benefits which could be derived. It would also be necessary for locally recruited staff, in accordance with normal practice, to remain liable to British Income Tax law, which would further complicate the matter. The other alternative is to ask all of them to pay our taxes and we have decided that this is the best way of handling the matter. The staff of the Secretariat will be at no disadvantage compared with other diplomats.

Sir F. Bennett

I was asking only about senior officers who for this purpose are seconded from their own country and who would be compared in this innovation with High Commission Staff of equivalent rank who do not pay our Income Tax.

Mr. Bottomley

Their salaries and allowances would take account of the fact that they were paying British Income Tax, and net incomes would be in line with those of comparable staff of the High Commissions. To avoid in practice taxing the contributions of other countries, an amount equivalent to the tax collected is paid into the account of the Secretariat. Senior officers are no worse off.

The hon. Member for Devon, North wanted to know whether the contribution was a fixed sum or a percentage. The contribution of Britain, as of other countries, is on a fixed percentage basis of the actual cost of the Secretariat. The sum of £175,000 was an estimate of the cost for the first full year, of which Britain's share of 30 per cent. was £52,500. But, of course, the budget is bound to vary from year to year.

I was also asked whether the staff would have diplomatic immunities when going overseas. The Commonwealth Prime Ministers have undertaken to take steps to accord corresponding immunities and privileges to the staff of the Secretariat when visiting their territories, subject to whatever constitutional processes are required. This was in the agreed memorandum. I am not in a position to say whether all other Commonwealth countries have taken steps to make this possible, but there is an obligation to do so.

The hon. Member for Surbiton (Mr. Fisher) asked whether there was any news of the addition of a legal section. As the hon. Gentleman said, it was the wish of the Law Ministers meeting in (Canberra that Britain should initiate the setting up a legal section of the Secretariat. The British Government felt the best way to do this entirely within the spirit which led to the establishment of the Secretariat would be for the processing to be undertaken by the Secretary-General himself. There have been discussions about this with Mr. Arnold Smith and I have no doubt that in the near future he will be taking steps to bring this to the notice of other Commonwealth countries.

My hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Sir G. de Freitas) asked whether the Secretariat would be able to raise points of procedure with Commonwealth Governments. One of the reasons for the establishment of the Secretariat was of course to ease Commonwealth procedure. I have no doubt that when there is any question of the efficacy or appropriateness of Commonwealth procedures in current circumstances, the Secretary-General and members of the Secretariat will do their best to ease and, where possible, to modernise the procedures, without, of course, encroaching on the sovereign rights of other countries.

New members, once admitted to the Commonwealth, will accept their obligations and after a full year they will pay their percentage in accordance with decisions reached by the Commonwealth members as a whole.

The hon. Member for Cheltenham asked whether the senior officers so far recruited were on a permanent or secondment basis from their own services. None is permanent and they are all members of their foreign or home civil services according to their status in the Commonwealth Secretariat.

There is no doubt that over the years the Commonwealth has fashioned a lot of official and unofficial links, and this Commonwealth Secretariat is one of the latest. This is a difficult and dangerous world which makes these links even more valuable than before. It is only sensible that we should preserve the links we have and strengthen them where possible. It is remarkable that, with few exceptions, former dependencies have chosen to remain linked in free and equal association with each other and with Britain, the former Imperial Power.

Mr. Hector Hughes

My right hon. Friend has said nothing about the absence of an Interpretation Clause.

Mr. Bottomley

If the hon. and learned Gentleman had been here earlier he would have noticed that I deliberately avoided that, and now that he is back I am not in a position to give him the answer. I have already undertaken to write to him, and I will do so. I was going on to ask why it is that we still have Commonwealth ties stronger than in the past. The hon. Member for Maldon made the point that some of the Commonwealth countries such as Ghana and Tanzania had left. They have not left the Commonwealth but broken an association with Britain. Most African countries, although they belong to another organisation, when urged by that organisation to break with Britain did not do so.

This Secretariat has already proved its great value and service to the Commonwealth. I have mentioned the major part played by it in the servicing of the controversial Lagos Conference. I must confess that I was not looking forward with any joy to attending that Conference. There were many people who said, "The Commonwealth cannot last long now". There were some who did not like its multiracial nature. Many despaired of the Commonwealth, but all must agree that, following the Lagos Conference, the Commonwealth was strengthened. They were dark days in which many felt impelled to take a long hard look at the Commonwealth and what it stood for, its achievements and failures, its strength and weaknesses in the world.

I am very happy to say that within the Commonwealth, because we speak the same language, literally and metaphorically, we have developed a style of conversation permitting a franker and freer exchange of information. This is made possible by the establishment of the Secretariat. In all of this the relationship between Governments is given extra life and meaning by the links which exist in every conceivable form of human activity and which pass largely unrecognised because we take them so much for granted. I said that the first major task undertaken by the Commonwealth Secretariat was the servicing of the Lagos Conference. The Secretariat did a splendid job, unobtrusively and efficiently, justifying the high hopes that we had of it.

What happeneed at the Commonwealth Conference? The Commonwealth was confirmed and the critics confounded. I am a realist and in Lagos the Commonwealth weathered one more storm. It is because I believe in the Commonwealth that I believe that it is humanity's best bet for multiracial co-operation in a world bubbling with racial animosities. The birth of the Commonwealth Secretariat is a happy event and is visible evidence of the Commonwealth's faith in its own future. It is a voluntary strenthening of the airy ties that lightly bind 22 sovereign nations in a free and friendly association without parallel in history. It is because I believe the Commonwealth Secretariat will do much and play on important part in strengthening these ties that I commend the Bill heartily to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

Bill committed to a Committee of the whole House—[Mr. Harper.]

Committee Tomorrow.