HC Deb 19 January 1968 vol 756 cc2107-32

Order for Second Reading read.

11.10 a.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs (Mr. William Rodgers):

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

Although the Bill is a fairly long and complex one, the basic conception is quite simple. There are three main purposes: first, to enable Her Majesty's Government to ratify and apply the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations; secondly, to give effect to certain provisions in our bilateral consular conventions which either differ from the corresponding provisions of the Vienna Convention or relate to matters falling outside its scope; and, thirdly, to make certain arrangements with regard to Commonwealth countries.

What I propose to do is to say something about consular work in general, and to explain the background to and the basic concept of the Bill. In order to save the time of the House, I shall try to avoid too much detail at this stage. If the House gives me leave at the end of the debate I shall then endeavour to satisfy Members on any matters of particular interest; or if it is more appropriate or convenient, I hope to do so in Committee.

The Bill is intended to help consuls to carry out their proper functions which, in turn, are designed to serve the ordinary citizen who travels abroad in the course of his work or for pleasure. The Bill, of course, facilitates the work of consuls of other countries in the United Kingdom. It will help other countries and they, in return, will facilitate the work of United Kingdom consuls. It is really a case of, "Do unto others as you would wish them to do unto you."

The United Kingdom has extensive interests abroad. More than almost any other country, we depend for our very existence upon foreign trade. Our merchant fleet is the second largest in the world. There are numerous communities of United Kingdom citizens permanently resident in various countries. For example, there are over 17,000 residents in Buenos Aires, about 10,000 in Paris, nearly 7,000 in Geneva, while the British community in South Africa runs into many thousands. Approximately 5 million British subjects visited foreign countries last year either as tourists or for business reasons and this figure is bound to continue to rise. All of this generates an enormous amount of consular work. Almost all our diplomatic missions abroad include a consular section, or its equivalent in Commonwealth countries —which means over 100—while there are, in addition, 235 separate consular posts. The staff concerned amounts to something over 400 officers and approximately twice as many other staff. These figures are, however—and this is the important point—relatively small in comparison with the volume of work and at times, especially during the summer, it can only be handled by the willingness of staff to work at all hours of the day and night and all days of the week.

A very important part of a consul's work is on the commercial side. The House will wish to note this at a time of increasing emphasis on our export performance. A consul has to deal with inquiries addressed to him by the Board of Trade or by individual firms in the United Kingdom. He is also expected on his own initiative to inquire into and report upon openings in his consular district for British trade and to collect and communicate information regarding the importers of different classes of goods, the standing of local firms, suitable agents for British manufacturers and so on. I should also mention other aspects of a consul's work, the background against which the Bill, its purpose and how we expect it to work should be seen.

At posts in sea or river ports, a great deal of the time of a consular officer is likely to be taken up by shipping work. As a rule, his intervention is necessary whenever any change takes place at a foreign port affecting the articles of agreement with the crew of a British ship.

The performance of notarial acts, the administration of oaths and the taking of declarations in connection with documents required for use in British territory are permanent features of the work at most consular posts. Then there is routine passport and visa work, the registration of British residents and the registration of births and deaths. At certain posts, consular officers celebrate marriages under the Foreign Marriage Act and are also authorised to register marriages celebrated according to the local law.

Information work is another important side of the work at many consular posts. The consul must maintain close contacts with journalists and with the staffs of broadcasting and television organisations as well as with political personalities and members of university faculties.

In time of emergency, the consul may well have to undertake the responsibility of arranging for the evacuation of the British community and British tourists and businessmen. The House will remember well the discussions we had and the questions put in the House last summer following the difficulties in the Middle East and elsewhere. At that time, about 1,400 British subjects were evacuated from the Middle East and about 1,200 from Nigeria. But, under modern conditions, an increasingly prominent part of consular work at many posts consists in giving advice and assistance to United Kingdom citizens who run into difficulties while abroad. Of course, this is only a very small proportion but even a small proportion of 5 million each year means rather a large number. During 1966 –67 the Consulate-General at Paris dealt with something like 700 individual cases, the Consulate-General at Barcelona with 7,500, while the small Consulate at Palma had to cope with 5,000 cases.

There are a multitude of circumstances in which a consul may be called on to help. My own first personal contact with the Consular Service was precisely in this way, when I fell ill hitch-hiking across the Continent as a student 20 years ago. Misadventures range from the comparatively trivial to the very serious, from the loss of a wallet to a motor car accident or serious illness or death or a sentence of imprisonment in a foreign gaol.

Of course, some people inevitably demand more from a consul than he can give. They imagine that they are the only person with whom he has to deal. They expect him to repay their debts or get them exempted from the processes of law. In practice, he must decide at all times what priority to give to the demands made upon him, given that they sometimes involve travelling considerable distances. He will try to help someone who has lost a passport or his luggage, but he may possibly be delayed in doing so by the need to deal first with a serious motor accident.

Then again there are rules which he is bound to follow. He cannot simply provide money for anyone who turns up at his office who says that he has run out of cash or lost his travellers' cheques. If he is asked to repatriate someone to the United Kingdom, he is obliged to ask the applicant to sign an undertaking to repay the cost to the Government and to tell him that his passport will be held until repayment has been made.

Consuls know that it is their job to try to help British citizens in difficulties. They do this willingly, even when it can be argued that the person concerned has run into difficulties as a result of his own misjudgment or carelessness. I would like to take this opportunity of paying tribute to the outstanding way in which they do their work.

As a servant of one Government working in the territory of another, it is obviously necessary that a consul, if he is to perform his duties effectively and without hindrance, should be accorded certain immunities. For example, his official archives must be inviolable. He must be able to communicate freely, confidentially and speedily with his Government and his superintending diplomatic mission: he must be immune, at any rate in respect of his official duties, from the jurisdiction of the local courts. This reflects the sovereign immunity of the State whose agent he is. In most countries the immunities required are much less than those given to a diplomat. But in certain countries the full range of diplomatic immunities is indispensable.

Similarily, it is right that consuls should receive special treatment in other respects which, for want of a better term —this one is not wholly satisfactory— we perhaps misleadingly call "privileges". Take taxation. If the Government of the receiving State were to tax the salary of a foreign consular officer it would, in effect, be taxing the Government of the sending State. Fiscal privileges derive from the same principle that a Government should not tax another Government through its representatives or seek to gain a fiscal benefit from the presence in its territory for official purposes of the representatives of another Government. International law and practice relating to the treatment of consuls derives largely from these basic principles, which reflect the mutual needs and advantage of States.

Here I come back to the all-important point about reciprocity and so to the Bill itself. Immunities and privileges for our own consuls are a necessary and proper basis to enable them to carry out their duties effectively within the framework of official relations between Britain and other countries, but if we are to obtain these on an appropriate scale for our consuls abroad we must be prepared to give corresponding treatment to foreign consuls in our own territory. This is what this Bill is about.

Clause 1 of the Bill gives effect under our law to certain provisions of the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations. This Convention is the counterpart in the consular field of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations to which effect was given by the Diplomatic Privileges Act, 1964. It was concluded at a Conference in 1963 under the auspices of the United Nations and is part of the process of codifying international law undertaken by the United Nations under Article 13 of the Charter.

The United Kingdom participated actively in this Conference. We have since signed the Convention and this Bill, if approved by Parliament, will enable us to ratify it. The Convention entered into force on 19th March, 1967, after 22 countries had ratified or acceded to it. Five other countries have since become parties, so 27 countries have already taken the step which the House is being asked to support in the case of the United Kingdom today.

The basic rules of customary international law relating to diplomats have been well established for several centuries. In the consular field, however, development has been much slower and the practice of States has been less uniform. Until the conclusion of the Vienna Convention, consular relations were regulated partly by means of a network of bilateral agreements and partly according to the internal law and practice of individual States. The Vienna Convention codifies international law with regard to the status, immunities and so-called privileges of consular posts and consular personnel. It represents therefore an important step forward, and it is hoped that the rules which it lays down will gradully be accepted by States in general. I am sure that the House supports this move under United Nations auspices towards codification. It is a guarantee against a system which—the House may have had this in mind— might otherwise remain haphazard and open to abuse. Many of the provisions of the Vienna Convention can be applied administratively within the existing framework of our law. But others require to be given the force of law. These provisions are set out in Schedule 1 to the Bill and will be given the force of law by Clause 1. In this respect, the Bill follows the precedent of the Diplomatic Privileges Act.

As matters stand today, the status of the majority of foreign consuls and consulates in the United Kingdom is governed by one or other of the bilateral consular conventions concluded between the United Kingdom and other States. The effect of the Bill will be to extend roughly similar treatment on substantially the same scale to the consular personnel of other States. At present only 40 or 50 career consular officers are not covered by bilateral agreements—about one quarter of the total number in the United Kingdom. Although the Vienna Convention, for the most part, reproduces the existing practice, it does introduce some modifications, as might be expected.

I should first make it clear that what I am about to say relates to career consuls and staff and not to honorary consuls. These are treated separately in the Vienna Convention and, as Chapter III in Schedule I shows, receive immunity and privileges on a much more restricted scale.

I do not think that the immunities set out in Schedule 1 can be regarded as in excess of those required under existing circumstances. They are greater in some respects than have hitherto been accorded in the United Kingdom, but they are considerably less than those accorded to diplomats. Indeed—this is a sad fact, but hon. Members will recognise its weight—it seems increasingly doubtful whether they are sufficient. Events that have occurred in various parts of the world since the Vienna Conference—for example, the various attacks on consular premises and threats to the safety of consular staff which took place a few months ago in certain countries—suggest that, under the conditions of the modern world, consuls may require greater immunities. Certainly this is so in the case of some countries; I shall return to this when I deal with Clause 3.

Again, although the Bill will result in some increase in the number of persons who receive fiscal privileges, the number is not great. The majority of consular personnel already receive privileges under existing bilateral agreements and the effect of the Schedule is to extend similar treatment to the remainder. The grant of fiscal privileges necessarily involves some loss of revenue, but what we lose in the United Kingdom we gain abroad; for the treatment accorded in the United Kingdom to foreign consular personnel in the United Kingdom will be met by reciprocal treatment for British consular personnel abroad. We can, in fact, as it happens, expect to recover more than we lose. If our consuls abroad did not receive appropriate privileges it would be necessary to give them larger allowances.

Clause 3 deals with the bilateral conventions concluded by the United Kingdom. Subsection (1) provides that Orders in Council may be made in pursuance of such agreements, existing and future, between the United Kingdom and other States to grant immunities and privileges on a scale in excess of the "Vienna" scale but within the limits set out in Schedule 2.

Let me explain why, because this is an important point, on which hon. Members may have questions. Between 1951 and 1967 the United Kingdom negotiated 16 bilateral consular conventions. Fourteen of these have already been brought into force, while two await ratification. Others are in process of negotiation and it is proposed to conclude further such agreements where this is in our interest. The 14 conventions already ratified follow a common pattern, though there are variations in points of detail. They have two main purposes. First, they regulate the status, immunities and privileges of consuls. Secondly—and this is important —unlike the Vienna Convention, they contain detailed provisions concerning the exercise of a wide range of consular functions. These provisions relate to such matters as the protection of nationals, the promotion of trade, merchant shipping, the administration of estates, the guardianship of infants, the performance of notarial acts and so on. They include very satisfactory provisions with regard to the notification to consuls of arrests of nationals of the receiving State—again, more important than we should wish it to be—and the grant of consular access to nationals held in detention awaiting trial or serving a sentence of imprisonment.

As regards immunities and privileges, the 14 Conventions already in force depart in certain respects from the Vienna standard. It may be asked whether it will be necessary to retain these once we have ratified the Vienna Convention. The answer is that we would not wish to terminate them, particularly in view of the valuable provisions concerning consular functions which they contain. Moreover, not all the other States concerned have yet ratified the Vienna Convention. We might, of course, attempt to renegotiate the provisions relating to immunities and privileges in our bilaterals so as to bring them into line with the Vienna Convention in all respects, but this would take time and we cannot be sure that the other parties would necessarily agree.

However, the main reason for not wishing to take this course is that we consider that the wider privileges provided in the bilateral conventions and in paragraphs 1, 2 and 3 of Schedule 2 of the Bill are beneficial and in our interests having regard to the reciprocal treatment accorded to our personnel in the other countries concerned. In negotiating future bilateral conventions regard will naturally be paid to the provisions of the Vienna Convention, but, in the case of some States, it may be in the interests of the United Kingdom to negotiate certain departures from the Vienna standard within the limits of Schedule 2.

The two conventions awaiting ratification are those with the Soviet Union signed on 2nd December, 1965, and with Poland signed on 23rd February, 1967. These two conventions differ from our other bilaterals in one important respect, namely the provision which they make with regard to immunities. They contain more extensive provisions as regards immunity from jurisdiction, personal inviolability and inviolability of offices and residences. This is considered essential. In certain countries consular personnel require the same degree of protection as the corresponding grades of diplomatic personnel if they are to fulfil their duties effectively. Other conventions of the same type are currently under negotiation. Paragraphs 4, 5 and 6 of Schedule 2 will enable effect to be given on a reciprocal basis to these provisions in the United Kingdom.

While on the subject of the Anglo-Soviet Convention, I would like to draw the attention of the House to its relevance to a matter which is much in the minds of Members—that is to say, the case of Mr. Gerald Brooke. Article 36 of the Convention provides, among other things, that the consular officer shall be entitled to pay visits on a recurrent basis to nationals serving a sentence of imprisonment after conviction. Upon the entry into force of the Convention this right would apply in the case of Mr. Brooke in the same way as in other cases. Provided it is clear that there is no question of discrimination in the case of Mr. Brooke, the United Kingdom will be ready to exchange instruments of ratification at an early date after the passage of this Bill and an Order in Council, subject to affirmative Resolution, under it. We are at present seeking assurances from the Soviet authorities on this point.

The third main purpose of the Bill is to make certain provisions in the matter of our relations with Commonwealth countries. Consular relations are not at present maintained between the United Kingdom and any Commonwealth country. Nor is it the present intention to establish such relations, although such a development may come about at some future date.

Meanwhile, there are a number of officers of the independent Common- wealth countries serving at posts in the United Kingdom who perform functions which in the case of foreign States would be performed by consular officers. At present these officers can be granted the immunities specified in Section 1(2) of the Diplomatic Immunities (Commonwealth Countries and Republic of Ireland) Act, 1952, which, in fact, correspond to those of a foreign consular officer. They are accorded privileges roughly equivalent to consular privileges on an administrative basis.

It is desirable and logical to substitute for those immunities and privileges the immunities and privileges of consular officers and their staff under the Bill. Clause 12 accordingly provides for the amendment of Section 1(2) of the Act of 1952 so as to permit the extension to Commonwealth officers and their staffs by Order in Council of the same treatment as is provided for consular personnel under the Bill. This represents a rationalisation of the present law.

I have spoken rather longer than otherwise I should have wished, but I thought it necessary to make clear the purposes of the Bill and the background against which it is presented. I would only add that the proposals contained in the Bill seem to me at once moderate and desirable. They are designed to enable consuls to carry out their work effectively and efficiently—no more. There are today well over a hundred independent countries in the world, some of them still with comparatively little experience of Government or of conducting international relations. It is important that the status of consuls should be adequately defined and that their right to perform their necessary functions should be widely understood and accepted.

commend the Bill to the House.

11.38 a.m.

. Richard Wood Bridlington)

should like to begin by thanking the Minister for the explanations which he has given, not only of the varying duties which consuls perform, but also of the rights which are necessary to the performance of those duties, and the other explanations which he has given of the Bill in general.

The hon. Gentleman will not be surprised to hear that we have no quarrel whatever with the principle of the Bill, because, as he made clear, the procedure which he is following closely follows that which was followed by the Conservative Government in the Diplomatic Privileges Bill, 1964. I assume from what he said that the present Government intend to accede to the new Vienna Convention as soon as the Bill receives the Royal Assent.

Following the remarks which the Minister made, I hope that I may take the opportunity to put on record my gratitude and admiration for a very considerable number of consuls and consuls-general in Europe, Turkey and North Africa who have given generous help to my wife and myself in the last three years. Like the hon. Member on the one occasion about which he told us, I am ashamed to say that I have made considerable demands upon them, to which in every case they have responded readily and willingly, often going well beyond what their duties strictly seemed to require. I have no doubt that many other hon. Members have had similar experiences.

While I welcome the general principles of the Bill, there are certain general and a few particular questions which I should like to ask, either now or in the later stages of the Bill as it goes through the House. The hon. Member talked about the 14 bilateral conventions which exist with other States and the other two which are awaiting ratification with the Soviet Union and Poland.

Although it will soon be a matter of history, I am not clear about the present basis of consular relations with States other than the 14 with which we have conventions. Moreover, where these bilateral conventions provide wider rights than those provided by the Vienna Convention, I gather that the Government intend to preserve them by means of their powers under Schedule 2. In view of the considerable scope, which seems to be wide, of the additional privileges listed in Schedule 2, I want an assurance that only in the sort of circumstances I have mentioned do the Government intend to use these powers.

While I understand that an affirmative Resolution of both Houses will be necessary before these additional privileges can be conferred, I want an assurance that Parliament will not be asked for such a Resolution unless these privileges can be shown to be absolutely necessary for the efficient working of the British consulates concerned.

In discussing privileges of this sort, it is natural that the case of Mr. Gerald Brooke should occupy a good deal of our attention. I listened with interest to what the Minister said. There are thousands of people in this country and elsewhere who, I imagine, fervently hope that, in his visit to Moscow next week, the Prime Minister will be successful in the pleas which, we hope, he will make on Mr. Brooke's behalf. However, we want to avoid saying anything which might frustrate the efforts of the Prime Minister.

Having said that, it seems relevant to say, in discussing this Measure—which will give to Her Majesty's Government an opportunity to ratify the Anglo-Soviet Convention; I understand that the Soviet Government are willing to ratify it— that I hope that, by the time we reach the later stages of the Bill, there will be no doubt of the recognition of the right of access by the consul who, I understand, has not seen Mr. Brooke for more than a year, especially as this elementary right is established in international practice, in the Vienna Convention which we are discussing and in this bilateral convention between the British and Soviet Governments. A number of detailed points need to be raised, but they may be left until a later stage.

There is, however, a general issue raised by Clause 8, which gives to the Government statutory authority to refund Customs duty on hydrocarbon oils. We have recently been told that this statutory authority does not, in fact, exist in the case of diplomats, although we have, at the same time, been told that steps are to be taken to put this right. Can the Minister say whether those steps have been taken or how they are to be taken?

It seems hardly satisfactory that items of this kind should be included in the Foreign Office Vote. It is certainly not satisfactory to assume that Parliament's approval of that Vote is adequate. I understand that the Government take this view, too—that they want to establish a proper statutory authority for concessions of this kind. I hope that the Minister will say whether any other concessions are now being made, or intended to be made, either to diplomats or consuls without the proper statutory authority.

There is one further point which could be of considerable importance to a number of local authorities. I refer to Article 32 in Schedule 1. Without quoting the whole of the paragraph, the sense of this provision is that consular premises … shall be exempt from all national, regional, or municipal dues and taxes whatsoever, other than such as represent payment for specific services rendered". It has been explained that consulates, like embassies, will pay for the element in the rates which cover services like drainage, fire services, street maintenance, and so on—services from which they directly derive benefit.

That is obviously fair, but the exemption will now apply—obviously because this is a consular relations Bill and will apply outside London—to a large number of local authorities, which will lose part of the rates for some quite valuable properties. Will the Minister say, first, whether the Government have any plans to make compensation to local authorities for this loss, and, secondly, whether they consider it right that one of the exempted services should be the police, from which they would seem certain, potentially, to derive some benefit?

We can return to many of these questions at later stages of the Bill. As I said, with the general principle of the Measure we are wholly in agreement and my hon. Friends hope to see the Bill on the Statute Book without delay.

11.46 a.m.

Mr. Eldon Griffiths (Bury St. Edmunds)

Like my right hon. Friend the Member for Bridlington (Mr. Wood) I agree that the principles of the Bill are entirely right and that it should have a speedy passage. Like him and the Minister, I wish to add my compliments to so many of our British consuls and consuls-general abroad who serve our country well and who are invariably helpful to hon. Members who have the pleasure of visiting the countries to which they are accredited. They are often unfairly criticised in this House. Those in the commercial and public information sections do a first-class job as well.

The Bill strikes me as being an extremely complicated one in its drafting. I find much of it difficult to understand and, in particular, the constant need to refer to Articles of the Vienna Convention to discover what it means. However, at this stage I will comment on only two aspects of the Measure; first, the Parliamentary and legal considerations, and, secondly, one or two of the practical aspects of it from the point of view of our citizens abroad.

Under the Parliamentary and legal matters, I draw the Minister's attention to Clause 3(1) which envisages that, in certain circumstances, the Government may grant to another Government privileges additional to those laid down in the Vienna Convention. In the other place on Second Reading, the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, explained that in Eastern European countries such as the Soviet Union and Poland, British consuls, if they are to be effective, will need privileges beyond those listed in the Vienna Convention and that, therefore, the Government want Parliament to give them powers to conclude agreements giving additional privileges to both our consuls there and their consuls here. There is a good deal to be said for that. But it seems to be asking the House to delegate one more large area of power to extend privileges which may not always be wise or necessary. Like my right hon. Friend, I ask the Minister to give the House an assurance that no such additional privileges will be sought to be given to consuls of these countries unless there is an absolutely paramount case for so doing.

I draw the Minister's attention to Clause 8. Here I am somewhat worried about the expenditure which has apparently been going on without any clear authority. The fact that Parliament approves the Foreign Office Vote, in which the concession on hydrocarbon oils was included, has apparently been thought to be sufficient authority in the past. This is not satisfactory. I can see no evidence in the Foreign Office Vote that Parliament has willed the expenditure on this concession of £6,000 a year. Therefore, the Government should lose no time in putting this concession on hydrocarbon oils on a proper statutory basis.

There seems to be a certain amount of confusion about, of all things, whisky and gin. I am sure that they differ from hydrocarbon oils, but in the other place it was explained that diplomatic missions are given a concession in respect of whisky and gin "— and then the explanation— because it is considered rather a good advertising proposition that whisky and gin should be drunk in the various Embassies in this country."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, House of Lords, 16th November, 1967; Vol. 286, c. 895 –6.] Coming from a British Minister, that is an extraordinary proposition.

In my view, and, I am sure, the view of many hon. Members, whisky and gin are tools of the diplomatic trade. They are apt to be drunk in Britain in sufficient quantities for the job to be done, and done well, whether or not a concession falls upon the British taxpayer. I gather that the cost of this concession is not known, or is certainly not calculated by the Government. They should look at this one and provide at least a somewhat better explanation than that given by the noble Lord in the other place.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Bridlington has dealt extensively with Article 32 and the question of compensation to local authorities. I underline his point that it is difficult to understand how the police protection that is provided to consuls can be regarded as "non-beneficial". That is an extraordinary description of the benefit that the police give to foreign consuls in our country.

In Clauses 4, 5 and 6, which deal with ships and foreign persons on ships in British ports, there seems to be a need to clear up the language of the Bill. In Clause 4, we have the statement that Her Majesty may by Order in Council make provision for excluding or limiting the jurisdiction of any court in the United Kingdom ". That is an extensive power. No doubt it is similar to the one existing previously for diplomats rather than consuls, but I hope that in Committee the Minister will explain why it is necessary for so many consuls to be excluded or limited from the jurisdiction of British courts.

In Clause 5, there is to be no power of prosecution in respect of the masters or members of crews of foreign ships in this country unless the offences complained of are as listed in paragraphs (a), (b) and (c) of subsection (1). I notice that there is no inclusion of the question of nuclear hazards. Public health is included, as are oil pollution and wireless telegraphy, but in an age where there are bound to be many more ships propelled by nuclear means it is important, or it could be useful, to include in the Clause the question of nuclear hazards. These, however, are probably Committee points, and I pass now to the more general practical aspects concerning our own citizens.

The Minister said that the essence of the Bill is reciprocity and that it proceeds from the proposition of doing unto others as we would they should do unto us. How well are they doing unto us? What reciprocity are we getting? I ask this because, when the Government are getting more powers from the House, it is reasonable to ask in advance whether we are likely to get reciprocal benefits from the countries in question.

Some weeks ago I asked the Minister for details of British citizens held in foreign gaols without charge and not visited by British consuls. I had in mind our pilots who had been held in Algeria after being hi-jacked along with Mr. Tshombe, our citizens on ships held in the Suez Canal, and the missionary nurse who was most foully murdered in the Congo six months ago and about which the Minister and I have talked. He was, however, unable to give me that list of British nationals, and I understand—

Mr. Anthony Royle (Richmond, Surrey)

I am sorry to interrupt my hon. Friend, but did he also have in mind the position of Mr. Anthony Grey, sitting in a house in Peking, to whom there has been no consular access since July last year?

Mr. Griffiths

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I have Mr. Grey's case in some detail and I was about to come to it after making the general point. I understand the Minister's reasons for withholding names which he explained to me in a letter, but he will understand that in being asked to provide these considerable new privileges in our own country, the House should be sure that similar consular access will be available to our own citizens abroad if they fall into difficulties.

As to Mr. Brooke, I am well aware that on his visit to Moscow the Prime Minister must hope to achieve progress. When the Foreign Secretary went to Moscow, we were given a hint that there would be an improvement. That hint was unfounded. I trust—and I am sure that all hon. Members trust—that the Prime Minister will at least be able to gain consular access for Mr. Brooke and also that a doctor known to our Embassy, a British doctor if possible, should be allowed to examine him. I hope that the Prime Minister will press this. We must wish him well.

The general point arises, however, that the Soviet Union has not even adhered to the Vienna Convention. I understand that a provision similar to that offered by the Bill is contained in the bilateral Anglo-Soviet Consular Convention which was signed in 1965. That is not yet in force. One effect of passing the Bill will be to enable Her Majesty's Government to ratify that Anglo-Soviet Convention. I gather that the Soviet Government have indicated that they are willing to ratify it, but if they do they will have no vestige of an excuse for continuing to refuse consular access to Mr. Brooke.

Another of our citizens about whom we are rightly concerned is Mr. Anthony Grey, the correspondent of Reuters in Peking, who is held in that city. The facts as my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Surrey (Mr. A. Royle) outlined then in his intervention are very simple. Mr. Grey has been under house arrest since 21st July. His telephone has been cut off, his staff have been assaulted and humiliated and slogans have been daubed inside his house. I also understand that constant efforts have been made by our consul to gain access to him but this has not been permitted. I hope that when the Minister replies, he will comment on how the Bill will help the case of a man such as Mr. Anthony Grey.

A third British citizen is Mr. Ian Graham Pahl. He, with two other men, an Australian and a South African, for both of whom the British Government had consular responsibility, was murdered, as far as we know, quite re- cently in the Congo. The Foreign Office only recently made a grave statement on this matter and was right to do so. The Bill, however, will give to the Congolese authorities, among others, the right to have their consuls in many towns of this country with considerable privileges. I should like to know from the Minister what response there was by the Congolese Government to the many requests by our British consuls in Leopoldville to have information and to have access to the bodies of these British citizens who were done to death.

This is a Second Reading debate but there are many other detailed points I should like to mention. The important thing is that if the Government wish to have this Bill they of course will seek to explain some of the more detailed points in Committee. Nevertheless, in granting important new concessions to foreign nationals in our midst this House of Commons has a right to ask that similar concessions should be made available to our nationals and consuls abroad. I hope that the Government will press that point very strongly.

12.1 p.m

Mr. Frank Hooley (Sheffield, Heeley)

I welcome any Bill which helps to ratify conventions concluded under the auspices of the United Nations, and I particularly welcome this Bill. There has been a great deal of disquiet internationally over the general question of diplomatic immunity and consular immunities and privileges. I get the impression that international standards of behaviour in these matters have been deteriorating. Even in our country we have had the unhappy experience of a foreign embassy being invaded by our own people.

The Under-Secretary and the right hon. Member for Bridlington (Mr. Wood) referred to the case of Mr. Gerald Brooke. I wish to touch on this matter, because Mr. Brooke's mother is one of my constituents. She has represented to me on many occasions her unhappiness about the position in which her son finds himself. My only concern in this case is that the Government shall represent as strongly as possible to the Soviet authorities that adequate access shall be had to Mr. Brooke and that all the normal consular privileges shall be accorded so that, in accordance with the ordinary terms of behaviour between countries, he can receive the help, guidance and advice to which he is entitled in his circumstances.

It seems to have been represented that those of us who are concerned and disquieted about Mr. Brooke are in some way unfriendly to the Soviet Union. That in no sense is my feeling. I am solely concerned that an individual who is the son of one of my constituents should have the normal accepted international treatment which he is entitled to expect under the rules of behaviour which we and most other countries practice.

I add my voice to those who have complimented our consular staffs abroad. I have not had occasion to lose my documents or passport, but I had an example of extremely skilful and helpful behaviour when the consular authorities in Tel Aviv aid Amman contrived to make my travel over the Allenby Bridge there and back without the slightest mishap. This was a display of great diplomatic skill on which I compliment those concerned.

During my very brief visit abroad last year I was impressed by the serious concern of the consular authorities for the trading interests of this country. I received in Italy and in Tel Aviv certain knowledge about our overseas trading which was very important and relevant to the economic problems of this country. Our consular authorities abroad seem to be very much alive to this aspect of their work.

I wish to raise only one other general question on which I feel some uneasiness. I should like to know whether Her Majesty's Government regard themselves as obliged to extend full consular protection to those of our citizens who hire themselves out as professional killers to organisations in other countries. I refer to mercenary soldiers fighting in quarrels which are not their own, quarrels which do not concern the interests of this country, and who are in no way involved in the protection or defence of the interests of this country but who hire themselves out for mercenary reward to unofficial bodies of killers as professional soldiers.

The trade of the soldier is an honourable one in the defence of his own country, but the trade of the soldier for pure personal profit with no motive of honour or idealism, is a different matter. I should like to know whether those British subjects who go out to practise this trade are regarded as automatically eligible for all the consular protection and facilities which we accord to our nationals on their peaceful, lawful pursuits. This is important for the image of our country in Africa and the image of this country in the world. On the Second Reading of this Bill, it would not be irrelevant to ask this question and to seek an answer.

Mr. Eldon Griffiths

Will the hon. Member give way?

Mr. Hooley

The hon. Member has made his point. I am asking a question of the Minister.

Mr. Eldon Griffiths

I wished to ask a question.

Mr. Hooley

I welcome the Bill. I do not think that there is a need for a long speech, but I should like to have the comments of the Under-Secretary on the questions I have raised.

12.7 p.m.

Mr. Frank Taylor (Manchester, Moss Side)

I wish to raise a point on the employment of staff at our embassies and by consular officials. I should like to be fully assured that the facilities available to our consuls abroad are completely identical to those of foreign consuls here.

I have particularly in mind the fact that the Soviet Union has far more of its nationals in England than our consulates have in Russia. I understand that this applies particularly with reference to chauffeurs. It can be seen that, as our consulates have Russian chauffeurs around them whereas Russian consulates have their own chauffeurs around them, the position is in no way equal. It would be valuable and important to have some extra concessionary agreement. I should like to have an assurance that die facilities are completely reciprocal regarding the employment of staff.

12.8 p.m.

Mr. William Rodgers:

With permission, I shall try in reply to answer some of the points which have been made, although, as the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Eldon Griffiths) rightly said, some of them will probably be dealt with in Committee if we are not to involve ourselves in a long dialogue this morning, which I do not think would be the wish of the House.

I start by commenting on one or two points made by the right hon. Member for Bridlington (Mr. Wood). I was very glad that he paid such generous tribute to what the consulate staffs do, a tribute which has been endorsed by everyone who has spoken in this short debate. The right hon. Gentleman's first question was: what was the present basis of our consular relations with countries with which we do not have a bilateral convention? Our bilateral conventions cover almost all the countries with which consular relations are, or have been, of special importance. I hoped to say in my speech that they are partly dependent on general international custom and partly on the law of the receiving State. This is one reason why they are untidy, and why the Bill is required.

The right hon. Gentleman also asked —this view was echoed in the House and I think that it represents the common view of all hon. Members—about the extension of additional privileges. I repeat that the word "privileges" is shorthand. What I was trying to emphasise, and what I think that the right hon. Gentleman and others understand, is that there is a basis for privileges. It is not simply making a gesture out of courtesy which is related only to status. For the most part it is related to the very difficult problem of taxing—or, rather, not taxing—foreign nationals. I fully understand the views of the House, and we should hesitate to bring before the House anything which extended privileges for which we did not believe there to be a case. As is understood, Orders in Council subject to affirmative Resolution will be required in so far as we choose to adopt standards other than those of the Vienna Convention.

A question has been asked about gin and whisky. In case there is any misapprehension, it is not the case that a consular officer can go out to the shop round the corner, buy his gin and whisky, and then get his tax back. The only entitlement of consular officers is that which applies to continuing Customs privileges, which relate to the import of liquor duty-free for their personal use. This is an important point, not perhaps because it is misunderstood here, but because it is one of the so-called privileges which, if it is not carefully controlled, might be the subject of abuse. It is a privilege about which, for the many reasons which have been suggested, people are from time to time concerned.

I turn now to the three cases mentioned during the debate which involve the detention abroad of British subjects. I do not think there is anything which I ought on this occasion to add to what has already been said in the House today and on previous occasions about Mr. Gerald Brooke. When I answered a Question I said that Mr. Brooke's detention, and, in particular, the denial of consular access, was disgraceful and indefensible and uncivilised." —[OFFICIAL REPORT, 6th November, 1967; Vol. 753, c. 636.] and intolerable. Nothing which has happened since would lead me to withdraw that description. I am sure that we share the right hon. Gentleman's expressed hope that some successful conclusion will emerge, on the occasion of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister's visit to Moscow, to this most unhappy story and this impediment to improved Anglo-Soviet relations.

There is then the problem of Mr. Anthony Grey. I have been fully aware of this, as the House has been, since his quite improper detention last summer. I do not think that this is the occasion to pursue the matter in detail, because I know that the hon. Member for Richmond, Surrey (Mr. A. Royle) has it in mind to raise it more fully at some time. I think that the House will already be aware that in this, and in some other cases, there is always a very delicate balance to be preserved between proper publicity, on the one hand, and the sensibility of foreign Governments, on the other.

Although this sometimes requires self-control on the part of all of us, the only consideration can be the best interests of the person concerned. Mr. Grey has been detained in Peking. Access has not been allowed to him. This is very much in our minds and we shall do all that we can to ensure his release. At present—I think that this bears on the point which was made—there would not appear to be much prospect of the Chinese People's Republic either acceding to the Vienna Convention or agreeing in any other way to putting relations on a more satisfactory basis. For that reason, it does not seem to be an auspicious moment to consider the negotiation of a bilateral agreement covering consular cases, which would in that sense, involve Mr. Grey.

On the other hand, although this is not the moment at which to pursue it at length, there has been some sign recently of a desire in Peking to develop better relations with foreign countries. We hope that as a result of this our Mission in Peking will begin to function more effectively, and this would enable it to carry out its proper function of protecting our interests and those of our nationals in that country.

I said earlier—this, after all, is one of the reasons why we think that it will be necessary and desirable to negotiate other bilateral agreements—that the world is not as civilised as we would wish and, for this reason, additional immunities are sometimes required to enable our representatives abroad to carry out their proper duties. If other countries were as stable, as law-abiding, and as courteous in the way that they deal with foreigners as we are, then it might not be necessary for certain items that we have included in the Bill.

The third case which was raised was that of Mr. Pahl, who was a mercenary employed in the Congo. I agree in general with what my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Mr. Hooley) said about mercenaries. I share his distaste for their profession. However, a distinction must be drawn between the feeling he may have about the profession, and the undesirability of British citizens participating in this way, and the continuing obligation at all times of the British Government, irrespective of a man's offence or character, to endeavour to help him when he is abroad. This applies not only in the case of a mercenary but also in the case of somebody who might be arrested abroad for a serious crime for which he is properly tried and sentenced. Even in those circumstances it is necessary for us to continue to have access.

Mr. Eldon Griffiths

Would the Minister be very careful about agreeing entirely with what his hon. Friend said about mercenaries? I accept the very real feeling that there is on this matter, but there are a number of cases where British officers are serving in the forces of other countries—for example, of the Sultan of Muscat in the Trucial Oman Scouts— and where the mercenary can indeed perform a useful function for this country.

Mr. Rodgers

The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point, and perhaps he is right to redress the balance against some of the sentiments which we may have towards mercenaries who we have seen performing, sometimes very unpleasantly, in Africa. After all, the point I was making was that, whether we like mercenary activity or not, whether we approve or not of the individual acts of British subjects employed in foreign armies, it nevertheless remains the case that we have a continuing obligation.

This applies in the case of Mr. Pahl. As the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds said, we made representations over a considerable period. We were asking for two things: first, consular access which is what we are concerned with today; and, secondly, if we were to be denied consular access, an indication of the fate of this man. When, after a period of time, we thought it possible at least that he had been murdered, we insisted that we should be told exactly what the course of events had been.

I myself saw the Congolese Ambassador only a matter of a fortnight or three weeks ago to warn him that, if we did not receive immediately an account of what had happened, it would be necessary to make the statement which I made at that time, which deplored the way in which, to the best of our knowledge, Mr. Pahl was dealt with and the total failure of the Congolese Government to offer an explanation or to make an apology. On that occasion we reserved our right to compensation.

I want to make it clear that in the case of these three men, and in the case of all other British subjects who are held abroad, we believe that it is necessary to maintain confidentiality, in so far as it would not be right that we should give their names, if it is not their wish or that of their relatives that their names should be given. In all cases we have endeavoured in the past, and we hope to do so even more effectively under the Bill in future, to look after their interests.

A final point was made by the hon. Member for Manchester, Moss Side (Mr. Frank Taylor).

Mr. Hooley

Would my hon. Friend say whether some countries have not a law prohibiting their nationals from undertaking this kind of mercenary activity?

Mr. Rodgers

I would not like to give an off-the-cuff answer, but I will certainly look into that matter and let my hon. Friend know

The final point, as I was saying, is that raised by the hon. Member for Moss Side about the employment of nationals. I think that he has an important point about the difference in practice. All I can say is that under the agreements which we have made, reciprocity is the principle and I see no reason to believe that we should depart from it in this respect. But if there is anything further on this point that I think the hon. Member ought to know, I will write to him or deal with it in Committee.

Mr. Wood

I assume that the hon. Gentleman would prefer to deal with the rating problem when we reach the Committee stage. If so, that is all right with me; but I just wondered whether it had slipped his mind.

Mr. Rodgers

I had in mind to deal with it in Committee. I would be prepared to deal with it now if that was the right hon. Gentleman's wish. Otherwise, I think it will be for the convenience of the House if we were to leave it till then.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

Bill committed to a Standing Committee pursuant to Standing Order No. 40 (Committal of Bills).