HC Deb 20 February 1967 vol 741 cc1055-61

10.14 a.m.

The Minister of State, Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. George Thomas)

I beg to move, That the Diplomatic Privileges (Citizens of the United Kingdom and Colonies) (Amendment) Order 1967, a draft of which was laid before this House on 18th January, be approved. The Diplomatic Privileges Act, 1964, lays down the privileges and immunities to which members of the staff of diplomatic missions are entitled and gives the force of law in the United Kingdom to certain provisions of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations of 1961. One effect of the Act was to restrict the privileges which could be enjoyed by United Kingdom citizens employed by Commonwealth and foreign diplomatic missions in this country. It has, however, been considered necessary to provide for the cases of certain individuals, few in number, who possess both citizenship of the United Kingdom and citizenship of the mission in which they are serving in this country.

The Diplomatic Privileges (Citizens of the United Kingdom and Colonies) Order, 1964, accordingly provided that members of Commonwealth diplomatic missions who possess dual citizenship should be treated as though they did not have United Kingdom citizenship. This Order was made under powers contained in Section 2(6) of the 1964 Act, and Article 2(2) of the Order lists the countries to which these provisions apply. The present Order is merely the latest of a series of amending Orders made necessary by the addition to the Commonwealth of newly independent member countries. The amendment is effected by adding the names of the countries concerned—Singapore, Guyana, Lesotho, Botswana and Barbados—to Article 2(2) of the principal Order to which I have referred.

The Order is made under Section 2(6) and Section 6(2) of the 1964 Act, the latter subsection giving power to amend the principal Order previously made under the former subsection. It will be clear to the House, therefore, that the Order does not involve any alteration in the nature or extent of diplomatic privileges but simply applies the existing law contained in the Act and the principal Order to the above-mentioned newly independent Commonwealth countries. I know that it will be the wish of both sides of the House that this Order should now be approved.

10.17 a.m.

Mr. Richard Wood (Bridlington)

I thank the Minister of State for his brief and lucid explanation of what even he will admit to be a quite complicated matter, but I have one or two questions to ask. I am very conscious, Mr. Speaker, of a reminder which you gave a month or so ago that Orders of this kind are extremely narrowly drawn and I shall, therefore, do my best not to offend as I did on that occasion.

Article 38 of the Vienna Convention, as set out in Schedule 2 to the 1964 Act, made clear that any national of the receiving State employed by a foreign mission receives immunity only in respect of official acts performed in the exercise of his functions. The first Order made under that Act provided that nationals of Commonwealth countries employed in diplomatic missions, even though they were citizens of the United Kingdom and Colonies, should be treated as though they were foreigners for the purposes of diplomatic privileges. We all recognise that this was not only a sensible provision but a necessary change in order to take into account developments in the Commonwealth; and the last Order added Malta and The Gambia. As the Minister said, this Order merely adds further countries to the list of those qualifying in this way. My first question is the general one: does the immunity now to be accorded to the representatives of the five new countries in Britain and the immunity accorded to the representatives of Britain in the five new countries proceed simultaneously? In other words, are the privileges and immunity always the same for the representatives in this country and the representatives of this country in the other countries concerned?

My second question relates to the timing of the Order. Why has it been brought forward at this precise moment? Will the hon. Gentleman make clear whether another Order will be necessary whenever there is a substantial change in the membership of the Commonwealth? In particular, will another Order be necessary to deal with future representation in Great Britain of the new States in the West Indies which almost at this very moment are coming into their new status of association?

My third question is to ask the Minister for his interpretation of … official acts performed in the exercise of his functions. I am anxious to know, for example, the position in regard to newspaper articles written by representatives of a Commonwealth State in this country. Are the writers of those articles—

Mr. Speaker

Order. One cannot discuss the privileges and immunities themselves except as they apply to the countries referred to in the Order. We are discussing whether we add those new countries to those already granted certain privileges and immunities.

Mr. Wood

I knew that this question would be very difficult, Mr. Speaker, because the Order is obviously very narrowly drawn. but am I not right in thinking that we are discussing whether the privileges which you have in mind should now be enjoyed by those new Commonwealth countries, and is it not in order for me to ask whether the privileges that will be enjoyed if the Order is approved by the House includes certain privileges about which I am in doubt?

Mr. Speaker

I think that it is, but the question must apply merely to the countries that are mentioned in the Order.

Mr. Wood

It very much applies to a country that is mentioned in the Order, because it refers to what I think was an unfortunate article written by a representative of one of those five countries about the relationship between Britain and that country. I do not know whether the article is privileged under the Order. But whether or not it is privileged, I hope that the Minister will see fit to make representations to the Government of Lesotho about the action here of their High Commissioner in writing an article in this month's edtition of New World, in which he expressed views directly contrary to those of the present Prime Minister, Chief Jonathan, at the Basutoland Independence Conference last June.

I shall not read the article, because I think that that would strain your toleration too far, Mr. Speaker, but the hon. Gentleman probably has it in mind, and I should be grateful if he could give me an answer on the principle of the matter. Whatever rules we and other countries make, and are making today, for the immunity and protection of official representatives, they are presumably framed to allow those representatives the better to represent their Government without let or hindrance. But in cases like this, where views are expressed which are not only offensive to the receiving country but are plainly in contradiction to the known views of the home Government, I ask the Minister at the very least to undertake to make perfectly clear that they offend against the spirit, if not also against the letter, of the Order.

Mr. George Thomas

I am very grateful for the customary courtesy shown by the right hon. Member for Bridlington (Mr. Wood) this morning; he always approaches these subjects with a great deal of courtesy.

The Order simply extends to these new members of the Commonwealth, as sovereign Powers. the privileges and immunities enjoyed by the other High Commissioners who serve in this country. To that extent, there is no change in the privileges applying to the High Commissioner of Lesotho any more than to the High Commissioner of Canada. I have taken note of what the right hon. Gentleman said, but I would have thought that if Lesotho's High Commissioner is out of harmony with his own Government that is a matter for them.

Mr. Evelyn King (Dorset, South)

In so far as the High Commissioner misrepresents his own Government, that might be an internal matter between the High Commissioner and the Government, but the point is whether he would be covered by privilege if he were to libel or slander a British subject.

Mr. Thomas

If the person referred to is of dual United Kingdom and Lesotho citizenship, the Order would give him immunity from civil jurisdiction of the courts in respect of the newspaper article. The Order has nothing to do with immunities and privileges outside the United Kingdom. Although I understand the reason for raising the matter, I would soon be in trouble with Mr. Speaker if I went into details, and the House will appreciate that I must confine myself to the Order.

However, I promise the right hon. Member for Bridlington that I shall write to him about the points he has raised, and perhaps we can discuss any doubts that still remain in his mind.

10.26 a.m.

Sir John Langford-Holt (Shrewsbury)

I do not want to introduce an unnecessary note of discord into the air of geniality which has pervaded our discussions so far, but the Order extends diplomatic privilege to the representatives of a number of countries, to their staffs and, under certain circumstances, to subjects of the United Kingdom working for them. The Minister said nothing about how many people the new extensions will apply to, nor did he tell us the number of people to whom the immunities and privileges already apply. To bring that point into order, I should like to ask to what figure the new additions will raise the number of people who will now enjoy diplomatic immunity in this country.

Those people are exempt from the process of civil law and I believe that unless the diplomatic privilege is withdrawn from them they are also exempt from the criminal law, although I am not sure on that point. They have enormous privileges, both concerning the operation of the law and on the question of taxation. Their numbers are growing year by year—I recognise the reason—until one day we shall find that more people are exempt from the law than are subject to it.

I wish that the hon. Gentleman would take an early opportunity to put clearly before the House and the country the numbers of those people that the Order affects. How many people are not subject to our civil and criminal laws, and the laws concerning Purchase Tax and Excise Duties? Those matters should be brought to the notice of the House. I do not ask the hon. Gentleman to answer my questions now necessarily, but I hope that he will take an early opportunity, perhaps by means of an Answer to a Question, to say what the dimensions of this matter are.

10.30 a.m.

Mr. Evelyn King (Dorset, South)

I shall be very brief. I want, however, to make one single point—which my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury (Sir J. Langford-Holt) has, to a large extent, already made—and one suggestion. We all accept—certainly I do—that we must treat these new countries with precisely the same degree of respect with which, we believe, we treat the older countries. I accept and I understand the Minister of State's difficulties.

But the fact remains that, with the vast extension in the number of countries, the number of diplomatic staff enjoying these privileges is becoming almost intolerable. Since it might cause awkwardness to other countries, I shall not draw the hon. Gentleman's attention to some of the personal difficulties which have arisen, of which he may be aware, such as matters of debt and other things that I would not like to mention. But these have arisen and are likely to arise again.

Surely, when a new country for the first time seeks diplomatic representation, it would not be unreasonable to place some limit on the number of diplomatic staff it might have here. We might point out to it that we are willing and anxious to grant immunity but that we should like to know how many staff will be involved. Is that question ever asked? Is there any reason why it should not be asked? It would reduce to a large extent the area of the problem if the number of staff bore some relation to the size of the country.

10.32 a.m.

Mr. Thomas

Do I need the permission of the House to speak again, Mr. Speaker?

Mr. Speaker


Mr. Thomas

Perhaps the House would have refused it, in which case I would have been saved quite a lot of trouble.

The hon. Member for Shrewsbury (Sir J. Langford-Holt) exaggerated so much that I must draw attention to what he said. He claimed that we were now getting to the position when more people had diplomatic privileges than not. I am afraid that he lives in a fairy land. What concerns the House today is whether we are to deal with people of the new Commonwealth on the same basis as we deal with the diplomatic missions of older countries here. As more new sovereignties are acknowledged, there are bound to be more diplomatic missions. The number of British missions abroad has increased as the number of overseas missions in London has increased.

The Order deals only with those people who enjoy dual nationality. The missions of these four newly independent countries already have immunity under the Act but not under this Order, which merely deals with dual citizenship. I am quite sure that hon. Members on both sides of the House are anxious to extend the same facilities to these countries as we have extended to others with which it is our privilege to work.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the Diplomatic Privileges (Citizens of the United Kingdom and Colonies) (Amendment) Order 1967, a draft of which was laid before this House on 18th January, be approved.