HC Deb 18 February 1971 vol 811 cc2265-91

10.10 p.m.

Mr. John Prescott (Kingston upon Hull, East)

I beg to move, That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty' praying that the Consular Relations (Merchant Shipping) (Kingdom of Greece) Order 1970 (S.I., 1970, No. 1908), dated 17th December, 1970, a copy of which was laid before this House on 12th January, be annulled.

Mr. Speaker

It would be for the convenience of the House if we discussed at the same time the Motion: That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Consular Relations (Merchant Shipping) (Spanish State) Order 1970 (S.I., 1970, No. 1913), dated 17th December, 1970, a copy of which was laid before this House on 12th January, be annulled.

Mr. Prescott

Before dealing with these Orders—[Interruption.]—it would be—

Mr. Stanley Orme (Salford, West)

On a point of order. May we have a little order so that my hon. Friend can be heard?

Mr. Speaker

Order. Will hon. Members leave the Chamber as quietly as possible?

Mr. Prescott

These Orders relate to Greece and Spain. A number of countries were involved but these two have been chosen for specific reasons. They are Orders for limiting the jurisdiction of the courts of the United Kingdom to entertaining proceedings relating to the remuneration or any contract of service of the master or commander or any member of the crew of any ship or aircraft belonging to a State.

Article 3 refers to: Proceedings relating to the remuneration or any contract of service of the master or a member of the crew of any ship belonging to the Kingdom of Greece shall not be entertained by any court in the United Kingdom unless a consular officer of the Kingdom of Greece has been notified of the intention to invoke the jurisdiction of that court and has not objected within a period of two weeks from that date of such notification and a statement to that effect is included among the details on which the claim is based at the time when the proceedings are commenced. Under the Order, English courts will be limited in entertaining any illegal actions concerning wages for Greek seamen.

It is necessary to explain the industrial situation in the industry to which the Order applies, namely, the shipping industry.

Mr. Albert Booth (Barrow-in-Furness)

My hon. Friend has said that the Order has the effect of preventing British courts from entertaining claims in respect of Greek seamen's wages. Would he make it clear that it also applies to seamen of any other nationality on a ship registered in Greece? That appears to be the scope of the Order.

Mr. Prescott

That brings to light one of the legal difficulties. The Order could apply to a number of ships not necesarily flying the Greek flag. The Orders deal with Greece and Spain. Shipping is international. Ships flying the British flag may have British crews. A Liberian ship may have a Greek crew. A Greek ship may have a mixed crew. A ship of one country may be manned by the nationals of another country and registered in yet another country. This illustrates the difficult and complex legal problems involved.

The traditional maritime countries like Britain and some of the European countries employ their own nationals. But on the flags of convenience ships, about which complaints are constantly made because of the threat which they constitute to international standards of safety, welfare and wages, there is less concern for safety, good wages, welfare and satisfactory conditions on board. There is a great economic incentive for countries to register ships in flags of convenience countries because of the taxation policies which they pursue.

The number of flags of convenience ships is growing at a considerable rate. Many of them, though registered under the Liberian flag, are crewed by Greek nationals as well as other nationals. Recently a Greek ship owner who had many of his ships registered under the Liberian flag transferred them to the Greek flag, not because he had become patriotic, but because of the wages paid to Greek seamen and less concern for safety and welfare on Greek ships.

In 1949 Liberia had no vessels, but in 1969 it had 1,662 vessels with over 26 million gross registered tons—a considerable proportion of world shipping. A lowering of standards on these ships in an industry which is international inevitably lowers the international standards of traditional maritime countries. There is an economic incentive to register in flags of convenience countries, because it makes cheaper the operation of running the ship.

International control is exercised by all Governments through the International Labour Organisation, which is a body older than the United Nations set up under the League of Nations in 1919. The I.L.O. sets international minimum standards which all nations are requested to observe. Yet many flags of convenience countries—Liberia being the most flagrant offender—have observed only three of the 26 minimum standards contained in Conventions passed by the I.L.O. The United Nations has complained constantly about this and advocated that there should be a genuine link between the flag the ship carries and the responsibility of the nation, but that does not mean a great deal at this stage.

A ship called the "Kathy Hope Maline" came to the constituency of the hon. Member for Salford, West (Mr. Orme) crewed by Greek seamen who had not been paid for five months. Their wages were between £30 and £40 a month. They had been three days without food and the ship's water was blocked. The hon. Member for Salford, West tried to resolve the problems on the "Good Fortune". A further example is the "West Port". I could give many examples where no money had been paid for three months, where the men's families in Greece had received no money and were starving because of the company's refusal to pay and where the seamen required medical assistance. It is these rotten hulks of rat-infested vessels which constitute a threat to the maritime countries and to their standard of service, wages and conditions of employment. All this is dedicated to the glories of profit and competition and the international conventions are entirely ignored.

When unions receive complaints about these ships in our ports and men go on board to investigate the complaints as members of the International Transport Federation, they attempt to get the captain to pay the overdue wages and to improve the conditions on the ship. Our only hope is to appeal not to the captain's moral obligations but to the international trade union call of solidarity, which means, "If you do not give these men their rightful due we will see that the dockers will not unload your ship." The captain recognises this and we are able to force him to pay the overdue wages and, above all, to pay the men the average international wage.

Mr. Orme

Does not the National Union of Seamen, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) belongs, help to maintain these standards, in addition to the dockers who unload the ships, and will not the Industrial Relations Bill undermine the work of the National Union of Seamen on behalf of seamen throughout the world?

Mr. Prescott

Yes, I am grateful for that intervention and I am about to develop this point. By this Order the Government will deny many seamen all hope of getting their rightful dues. What is now called a sympathy strike will, under the Industrial Relations Bill, become illegal, if it can be defined. Having heard lawyers give four or five different definitions of the same matter I no longer look upon them with such awe when it comes to the interpretation of a legal Clause.

It is important that the only sanction we exercise in this country is the traditional one of withdrawal of labour. But if a Greek seaman withdraws his labour, he will be liable to all sorts of criminal charges because of the articles of agreement under which he serves. This is a response from one worker in one country to a worker in another country. The matter of international solidarity in trade unions is therefore most important. The International Transport Workers' Federation has an important role in interpreting the seaman's rights. It is a powerful organisation with over 6 million members registered in 80 countries, with 320 organisations, which are made up primarily of transport workers, railwaymen, seamen, dockers, aviation workers, and so on.

When we go on board vessels and Greek crew members complain to us, we bring pressure to bear through the international organisation to get these men their rightful dues. To give an example of how we work, when a captain has agreed to give the men their rights we give him a blue certificate. This means that when the ship next reaches port it will be recognised as coming under a proper agreement of acceptable proportions which must be maintained. If such an agreement is not observed, it can be rescinded through international action. This is the sort of pressure we maintain internationally to improve the wages and conditions of the Greek seamen.

If it is now to be proposed the courts are the only body to which reference can be made and that such reference should be limited, the only sanction available in regard to the rights of Greek seamen, or indeed Spanish seamen, is for the man concerned to return to his own country and apply through his own trade unions or apply to the Greek court in an attempt to ge his grievance justified. Those are the two avenues open to him.

As many of my hon. Friends will know, the Greek trade unions have undergone a considerable amount of change. The experience of the Greek seamen's union has been no different from the experiences of many other trade unions in that country. Their leadership has been changed by Government decree, junta representatives have taken over and the Greek seamen have no faith in them. When we go on board these ships we are provided with ample evidence about the conditions in Greece. We are told "Do not send our case to Greece. Please support it here in London because we have no faith in our trade unions to deal with the problem in our own country."

The Greek seamen's union has been seriously attacked by the junta and as in most fascist states the trade unions are always the first to be attacked. I do not think that we have yet got that fear in this country. However, in starting with legislation like the Industrial Relations Bill we are taking the first step on this road. It is the first step on the slippery slope.

Many of the arguments we have heard about the terrorising and replacing of trade union leaders and the gaoling of many of them in Greece had been borne out by a substantial report made by the International Labour Organisation.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Miss Harvie Anderson)

Order. The Chair has given great width to this debate, but I think the hon. Gentleman, on reflection, will agree that he is going rather wide on the Order which is now before us.

Mr. Prescott

I appreciate the difficulty, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and you have given me a considerable amount of latitude. But the position is somewhat difficult. The point I am trying to make is that if the unions in that country are not able to look after this man's case, I should have thought it was incumbent upon me at least to justify the point and not merely to say that those trade unions are dominated by the junta. I am quite prepared to say that you must believe what I say, but I think it is incumbent upon me to try to show to the Government that there is substantial evidence about the points I am making. But I take your point and will not deliberate too long on this.

Perhaps I may merely bring to the attention of the House the importance of the Commission which sat under Lord Devlin, and looked into this matter of trade union organisation and whether the Conventions of the country had been offended against—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I appreciate the point which the hon. Gentleman is trying to make. But I think he has made his point and it would be quite out of order if he were to continue along these lines for very long.

Mr. Prescott

May I take just one minute, Mr Deputy Speaker, to say that this Commission found that these two Conventions, which guarantee the right of association and the right to strike, had been seriously prejudiced; and that the actions of the Government in putting many trade unionists in gaol—

Mr Deputy Speaker

Order. The one thing that the hon. Gentleman really must not do is to go into the internal politics of another country to which he has referred in discussing this Merchant Shipping Order.

Mr. Peter Archer (Rowley Regis and Tipton)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. While, of course, my hon. Friend and all of us accept your Ruling, I think we may be in a difficulty here. The purpose of this Order is to deprive certain people of the right of recourse to the courts of this country. Whether we agree that this is an acceptable situation must depend to a very great extent upon whether the alternative recourse is a real and acceptable one. For that reason, we would very respectfully ask you to enable us at least to canvass whether these alternative methods of recourse might be acceptable.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I take the point of the hon. Gentleman and appreciate what he is aiming to do. But, nevertheless, the Chair must support the procedure followed with an Order such as this. The hon. Gentleman who had the Floor was straying rather far from that.

Mr. Prescott

I made the point that the Greek trade union movement is no longer effective. It has therefore been expelled from the international trade union movement and other bodies of which it was a member. So while I appreciate the point you make, Mr. Deputy Speaker, about internal politics it is fair to say this. If the man cannot have recourse to the courts of this country, then he must go to the courts of that country. I assume it is felt that justice can be achieved by going back to Greece, lodging a complaint about his contract and trying to get back his five months' wages which he has been denied. It has been shown by reports commissioned by the Council of Europe, which lawyers have investigated, that the very impartiality of the courts is seriously doubted. It is a country which has been dominated by a military dictatorship, with the courts ruled by the military, and their whole integrity is being seriously undermined. May I make one quotation from what the Prime Minister of that country said in regard to the courts?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. That really would not be in order, and the hon. Gentleman must accept that he is straying too far from what the Chair can allow, with the greatest good will in the world for the hon. Member. I would ask him to make his point without further reference in that direction.

Mr. Prescott

I accept your Ruling, of course, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am glad that the Foreign Secretary is present, and I am sure that he understands points and the difficulty of making them in moving this Prayer.

I want the Government to realise that this Order will deny to our seamen their rights to pursue claims in countries where those rights are not guaranteed in the way that they are here. This is very important, because it affects the character of international trade unionism. Many seamen come to this country with considerable sums owing to them. If it were possible to take contracts to court in the same way as collective agreements can be pursued in our courts, there would he more chance of getting justice in a British court than men in that position could hope for in the courts of a fascist State.

It is important to bear these points in mind. The Government must realise that this Order seriously limits the civil and human rights of certain individuals to appeal for justice. Those rights are guaranteed in this country. They are denied in their own. By denying such people those rights when they come to this country, the Government are assisting the operations of the junta.

10.36 p.m.

Mr. Albert Booth (Barrow-in-Furness)

As my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) has made clear, our basic objection to this Order is that it places British seamen and those of a number of other nations outside the jurisdiction of British courts when they try to pursue claims arising out of their contracts of service. It has the further effect, in certain circumstances, of enabling them to be detained on ships registered in Greece, and detained in a way which would not be lawful but for this Order. However, our basic objecttion to the Order is that it leaves seamen to the mercy of foreign courts, since it rules out a line of defence which otherwise would be open to them.

Since we are considering two Orders, I submit that we are entitled to refer to the differences in practice between the courts of this country and those of Spain and Greece, and we are entitled to put before the House evidence of the differences since the Government has drawn a distinction between Spain and Greece in the Orders.

In the Spanish Order, certain additional protections are given to seamen serving on ships registered in Spain. They are not given to those serving on ships registered in Greece. If the Government make that distinction, we are entitled to discuss the reasons why we object either to such distinctions being drawn or such differences of jurisdiction being applied to a British seaman or even a Swedish seaman who happens to be serving on a ship registered in Spain, as opposed to a ship registered in Greece or, for that matter, one registered in the United Kingdom. That is the serious scope of the Orders.

The régimes of the countries whose courts will have jurisdiction as a result of the Orders have denied to their subjects liberties which we would consider fundamental. The experience of those who have represented seamen is that seamen do not trust the justice of those courts.

The Order relating to Greece extends the jurisdiction of Greek courts to all matters concerned with the contracts of service of ships registered in Greece. The nationality of the crew members may bear no relation to the country of registration of a ship. The tax system, the conditions of charter which apply in a particular maritime country and the insurance conditions of a country may have much more effect upon where the ship is registered than the nationality of the crew. Those international lawyers who had the highly complex task of examining where jurisdiction lay in the case of the "Torrey Canyon" found that five countries could claim some jurisdiction because of the highly complex arrangements of ownership and registration of international shipping today.

I further contend that the nature of a seaman's job is such that it can be more difficult for him to seek redress in a court than for people in many other trades and professions. By virtue of the short time that he is ashore in certain places, any restriction of access to a court of his choice can be more serious in his case. I believe that the serious restriction which these Orders place upon a seaman are intolerable and would make it impossible for him to obtain justice.

Article 4 of each Order enables a member of the crew of a ship registered in Greece or in Spain to be detained on board if it is alleged that he is in breach of the Greek or the Spanish law. I appreciate that certain defences are open to the man on board a Spanish registered ship which are not open to the man on board a Greek registered ship. Nevertheless, the Orders make lawful detention which otherwise would be unlawful. Therefore, the Orders considerably restrict the legal rights of a large number of seamen.

I question the practicability of operating Article 4 of either Order because a judgment has to be made whether a seaman is in breach of the law of another country. Who will make that decision? Who will represent the seaman if he contends that he is not in breach of the law of Greece or of Spain? Is the captain of the ship to be his judge? Is the captain's allegation to be sufficient to hold that man on board ship against his will'? Will he be denied, as I suspect, access to his consul? If so, a further traditional right of seamen is being denied in the laying of these Orders. This is further evidence that these are intolerable Orders. The Government must justify not only the taking away of legal rights of seamen in these Orders, but the difference between the two Orders.

Because the Government have sought to distinguish between Spain and Greece, it is for the Government to say why we should apply different standards to different countries. If the Government were being completely consistent and saying that every country should be accorded the same rights over seamen, that would be one thing, but that is not their position. They are saying that seamen who serve on ships registered in Spain need greater legal protection than those serving on ships registered in Greece. Are they doing this because Greece is a member of N.A.T.O.? It is up to them to say so: they have to justify these instruments.

My last complaint is that the Government have sought to prevent discussion of these instruments by the House. It was communicated to a number of my hon. Friends that these instruments would not be debated unless they gave an undertaking not to vote upon them. This is an underhand way of obtaining a disgraceful piece of delegated legislation. The only way in which the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary can leave the House tonight with a clear conscience about these instruments is to withdraw them and let the House have a proper debate on the rights of seamen which are being taken away under this legislation.

10.46 p.m.

Mr. John Fraser (Norwood)

It is not in dispute that we are dealing with two consular instruments which deny access to the British courts for seamen in certain circumstances, and mean that, in practice, a seaman will have to have recourse to courts within one of two Fascist States. The House should be extremely careful and circumspect about giving the possibility of denying jurisdiction in the British courts and returning men to States which do not know civil liberties but only a denial of human justice. The Under-Secretary would not do himself any discredit, but would command both the respect and the commendation of the House, if, after listening to the arguments, he decided to allow the Orders to be annulled. One is talking only of these two Fascist States and not of the others where the Orders have been allowed to go through.

There is a long-standing tradition that someone coming from an oppressed country on a ship has recourse to British courts and justice as we know it. The tradition goes back at least as far as the case of James Somerset, a slave who lay aboard ship in the Port of London and was released from his slavery on the writ of habeas corpus. This is a long-standing tradition which should not be breached.

These Orders mean that, if there is an objection by the consular official, the seaman is returned to the spider's web of the Fascist country from which he comes. I hope that I do not stray from the Rulings which have been given, but surely the only justification for denying the jurisdiction of the British courts to a seaman on board a ship which is registered in Spain or Greece is the knowledge or the assurance that the man will get equally good treatment in his own country.

I have some personal experience of the system in at least one of these countries. I was for a short time detained by the secret police in Athens. I will not give the whole story, but the explanation which was given when I was arrested was that they thought that I was a Greek. I was arrested for placing a wreath on Byron's statue. That gives some idea of the judicial system in question.

If there is going to be a guarantee of alternative good justice in another country, it really must be proved to the satisfaction of this House. There is no evidence that the judiciary—I speak only of Greek—will give the same guarantee as would be given in this country. To give one example, the examining magistrate in the Lambrakis case has been detained incommunicado, without access to his lawyer, since November of last year. For the Greek seaman who returns to Greece to sue for his wages, that is the sort of thing he faces and not the sort of thing which this House should countenance.

Just one other example—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I hope that the hon. Gentlemen's other example will not be quite the same as his previous one, because we are now getting very near the borderline.

Mr. Fraser

I obviously wish to obey your Ruling, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I would give only one short example—the fact that many of the Greek judges, civil, not criminal, were dismissed arbitrarily and summarily because they tried to uphold the constitution. It is into those circumstances that one would be returning seamen.

I have also had dealings in this country with Greek consular officials. It sometimes happens that a seaman or other employee of an organisation which is based in Greece comes here intending to escape from oppression, from arrest and, in some cases, to put it bluntly, from conscription into the army, which operates as a political force. That individual comes here wishing for freedom and for political arrest.

I have nothing but gratitude for the attitude of the Home Office and the Foreign Office in dealing with these cases sympathetically, and I am pleased to be able to say so. If, however, a man who comes aboard a ship, wishing to seek political asylum here and to escape from terrorism and pursuit in his own country, cannot claim the wages that are due to him when he arrives on our shores, if he has to return to that country to exercise his rights to recover his wages he is denied not only the right to obtain his wages in this country, but the right to freedom.

I hope that the Under-Secretary will give this matter most careful consideration. It could be an affront to the reputation of this country for upholding liberty and the right of persons who have come to our shores to obtain justice. I hope sincerely that the hon. Gentleman will allow the Orders to be withdrawn.

10.51 p.m.

Mr. Peter Archer (Rowley Regis and Tipton)

I say at once that I do not like the regimes in either Greece or Spain. I say that by way of a declaration of interest. I do not propose to enlarge on it, because I respect your Rulings, Mr. Deputy Speaker, because my hon. Friends already elaborated to some extent on the reasons and because I have given reasons on other occasions. It was for that reason, however, that I was led to take an interest in the Orders. Having perused them, it strikes me that they raise questions which, if not of deeper significance, may be of wider significance.

Perhaps I may speak specifically of Statutory Instrument No. 1908, although most of my comments are equally applicable to both Orders. The avowed purpose of Statutory Instrument No. 1908, however, is to give effect to the consular convention of 17th April, 1953. If one looks at that convention and at Article 28, sure enough the result of the Order is to give effect to the obligation which we undertook under that convention.

The first query which springs to mind is why it took so long for us to implement it. That was 18 years ago. Normally, one would accept that it is eminently right that we should give effect to our international obligations. If, however, no one has complained over that long period, where has the situation altered so that it suddenly becomes necessary to take these steps? What recent events, what change in their attitude of the Government and what change in the nature of the requests made by the Greek Government have suddenly brought this matter to the attention of the authorities? If the world could live with the situation for 18 years, why is it suddenly impossible to live with it any longer?

I suppose that the obvious answer which the Under-Secretary may give—I am trying to assist him in replying to the debate—is that until the Consular Relations Act, 1968, it was not possible to make these Orders. There was no statute on the Statute Book which gave the Government authority to make them. They had no power to make them. Problems of this kind, however, partake rather of the nature of Medusa's head: we dispose of one and we are then confronted with a number of others.

Perhaps the first and obvious question which arises from that answer-assuming that that is the answer that the Under-Secretary will give—is why it took so long to put these powers on the Statute Book. Was the matter of so little urgency that until 1968 no one thought it necessary to invite the House to give the Government these powers? If it is said that the exigencies of the parliamentary timetable were such that for 16 years it was not possible for the House to be asked to give these powers to the Government, one can only conclude that against the weighty considerations which have been urged by my hon. Friends, there are very few considerations of weight in the other direction. For all that time, no one seemed to think that it was necessary to take this action.

If it is true that the parliamentary timetable did not admit of the passing of this legislation for all that time, what were we doing in 1953 in undertaking this obligation in the first place? Unless we are given the reasons why the situation has altered, one is driven to the conclusion that the considerations advanced by my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) remain unchallenged.

I wondered why we undertook this obligation. What was the purpose, I wanted to know, of this whole exercise. What purpose is served if one deprives seamen on certain sea-going ships of their right of recourse to British courts? There is nothing in the Order, in the Convention or in the Act to give an answer to this question. Finally, having examined those provisions, I went in desperation to the Second Reading debates when the Act was passing through the House. I thought that at least then the Government—admittedly, at that time it was a Government of a different political complexion—might have ventured the reason why this Measure was necessary. But they had not done so. Indeed, nobody showed sufficient curiosity to inquire about it. I must take my share of responsibility for that lack because I was an hon. Member at that time. Suffice to say that nobody inquired and nobody gave the answer.

At last I was driven to look up the OFFICIAL REPORT of the debates in Standing Committee. There, at one point, I found an inkling of the reason behind this whole exercise. It arose in a curious way because an hon. Member who is now a Minister—I will not take the matter further because I have not had an opportunity to warn him that I should be raising this issue—advanced a somewhat curious Amendment to what was then Clause 4, giving power to make this Order. He wanted to add the words "and aircraft", because at that time it referred only to sea-going vessels. The Minister who will reply to this debate supported him in that matter.

The argument advanced on behalf of the Amendment was curious in the extreme. It was that so many exciting and vital things were happening on aircraft that it was important that we should extend the jurisdiction of the British courts to take account of them. It was not explained how, by adding those words to a Clause the purpose of which was to restrict the right of access to the British courts, that would be achieved.

But in replying on that occasion, the then Minister responsible gave an indication of the purpose of the exercise. The reason is that what goes on on board a ship between master and man is an internal matter, and it would be inconvenient if, at least without reference to a consul, the matters were brought before the courts of the country in which that ship happened to find itself in harbour.

That was, in some ways, a puzzling answer. Generally speaking, if the proposition were that Greek seamen on a Greek vessel should bring their disputes before a Greek court, I would accede to that proposition, but my hon. Friend the Member for Barrow-in-Furness (Mr. Booth) indicated one respect in which that principle cannot be stated with such pristine clarity because there is no reference in the Order to Greek seamen. They might be seamen from Mexico, Malaya or Britain, but they are equally barred from access to the British courts. If that is to be justified, we shall need more reasoning than we have heard so far.

Again, my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, East, explained that what we have so far referred to as Greek ships, for the sake of shorthand. means nothing more than ships registered in Greece and carrying the Greek flag. We have heard a great deal about flags of convenience. It would not be within the rules of order to elaborate on all the disreputable reasons why sometimes ship owners resort to flags of convenience. They may be anxious to avoid their obligations to pay tax on their profits. They may wish to avoid their obligations to the international community in relation to pollution. Nothing has been said to indicate why a British seaman or even a Greek seaman on a Mexican vessel should find himself barred from the British courts by a Greek consul simply because the vessel happens to be flying a Greek flag.

The other argument that might be advanced is that the principle of reciprocity applies. It might be said that if we object to giving this power to Greek consuls possibly it will be equally denied to a United Kingdom consul in Greece, and a party to a dispute on board a British ship might find himself able to bring his dispute before the Greek courts. If he really wants to do it, that does not disturb me, although I find it hard to believe that anyone whom I know would be desperately anxious to resort to that. The principle of reciprocity does not help, because it would be just as easy and acceptable that the principle of reciprocity should apply in reverse as a reason for not implementing the agreement as for implementing it.

The Minister might well be able to give us at least some information that will enable the House to form a judgment. How many such Conventions have been made altogether? With how many countries? Are all those Conventions before the House, or are there some that have not been brought before the House? If not, why not? Can the hon. Gentleman tell us roughly how many ships flying the Greek flag are not owned by a Greek citizen, by someone domiciled in Greece or by a company registered in Greece? In other words, what is the extent of the use of the Greek flag as a flag of convenience? Can he give us some idea of what proportion of the crews of Greek ships consist of Greeks, and what proportion of people who are foreigners in Greece? If he says that he has had fairly short notice that this information would be required, can he tell us of the way in which in due course it will be placed before the House? Might he regard this as a reason for withdrawing the Orders meanwhile?

Mr. Booth

Does my hon. Friend agree that to test the principle of applying this equally to all countries it would be very interesting to inquire what percentage of Liberian-registered ships are crewed by Liberians?

Mr. Archer

The answer to that question certainly might give rise to some very interesting statistics. For the moment I am prepared to confine myself to the questions of the Greek ships. I suspect that a number of ship owners might wish to fly the Greek flag as a flag of convenience, because presumably as a member of the international community which on occasions has been found lacking in its responsibilities, the Greek Government are not very assiduous in controlling their shipping.

But there is one consideration which for me goes very much further than all these matters. It would be a serious enough matter if a seaman found himself deprived of the right of recourse to any court to claim his wages or to insist on the enforcement of a contract of employment.

But another matter in the Order goes even further. It has been mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Norwood (Mr. John Fraser). My attention was drawn to it by the Explanatory Note, which is not part of the Order. This limits the jurisdiction of the courts of the United Kingdom in relation to the detention on board of a member of the crew for a disciplinary offence… I would not have recognised that it has this effect where the provision appears in the Order, because Article 4 is legislation by reference. Although I appreciate that there might be good reasons for that, it is not a particularly helpful kind of reference.

One turns to the Act. Section 6 says that, in certain circumstances, a seaman who is detained on board a Greek vessel, even in a British port, shall not have recourse to the British courts. This is a very worrying matter. There is a very long tradition, as has been said, in these islands that anyone who is threatened with the loss of his liberty or with persecution for his political or religious beliefs or with the possible loss of his life, may come to the area where the writ of the British Sovereign runs and may there find a guarantee of freedom. That is a principle too precious to be lightly jeopardised in a Statutory Instrument at eleven o'clock at night.

There are safeguards, of course, in Section 6, and it is only fair to point them out. It does not apply if … his detention is unlawful under the laws of … the State of the ship, or if …the conditions of detention are inhumane or unjustifiably severe; or there is reasonable cause for believing that his life or liberty will be endangered for reasons of race, nationality, political opinion or religion … One would expect to have safeguards of that kind in this legislation. But it raises a number of very serious questions which cannot be lightly disposed of in a debate of this kind, and some of them have already been referred to.

It is true, of course, that the courts will inquire into whether these conditions obtain. But the courts may make mistakes. There is no built-in safeguard against courts being misled on questions of fact. There are times when they must inevitably embark on questions of this kind. This is not one of those occasions, because here there is no necessity for it, and therefore no necessity to run the appalling risks which will obtain if the courts are misled.

Secondly, the onus of proving that these conditions obtain will be upon the seaman, and, as my hon. Friend has pointed out, there is no guarantee that he will have access to his lawyers or to the necessary evidence or the necessary correspondence which may have to be addressed to people back in his own country. He has to prove that his life or liberty are endangered in this way, and there is no guarantee that he will be afforded the instruments of proving them. It is difficult always when a British court has to decide a question of foreign law, but there are times when they have to embark upon it and there is no way of avoiding it. In this situation, the stakes are simply too high.

Neither the Greek nor the Spanish Governments have given us any reasons in the past to have any confidence about the way in which they will operate this kind of provision. So I return to the original question. What has transpired in the last 18 years that has suddenly made all these risks worth the running, that has suddenly required that we satisfy the Greek Government in this way? Why have they suddenly become more urgent in their demands? Is it really essential at this late hour that we give them what they ask?

11.9 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Anthony Kershaw)

For the reasons which I shall explain, I shall ask the House to reject the Motion. First, let me make clear the scope of the remarks I shall make. I shall address myself to the content of the two Orders. I do not regard this as a suitable occasion for a general debate on our relations with Greece and Spain, still less for comment on their internal affairs. Nevertheless, I will try to satisfy hon. Members about the misgivings I know that they sincerely feel and which have led them to criticise the Orders. I hope to show them that their fears are unfounded.

It may be useful if at the outset I explain the background against which the Orders are made. The two Orders are part of a group of 18 such Orders made on 17th December under Sections 4, 5 and 6 of the Consular Relations Act 1968 and all but three of them were brought into force on 1st January, 1971, the date of the entry into force of the Act itself. Incidentally, I would point out that these Orders were laid before the House on 23rd December and not on 12th January as the Motions state. Some other countries in respect of which Orders were made include Sweden, France, the United States, Japan, Poland and the Soviet Union.

As the House is aware, the Consular Relations Act had three main purposes: first, to give effect to the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations of 1963; second, to make certain arrangements in connection with the Commonwealth, and third, to permit Her Majesty's Government to give effect to or continue to give effect to certain provisions in bilateral consular or similar agreements. Sections 4, 5 and 6 of the Act belong to a group of Sections designed to serve the third of these purposes.

The general aim of Sections 4, 5 and 6 is to enable Orders in Council to be made which will provide for certain limitations upon the exercise of jurisdiction by British courts in respect of foreign ships and crews. Although it is not a requirement of the Act that such Orders should be made only in the case of States which have agreed to accord reciprocal treatment as regards British ships and crews whilst in their waters, as a matter of policy Orders are made only in these circumstances. Thus, in the case of each of the States in respect of which the 18 Orders mentioned were made, including the two under discussion, substantially reciprocal treatment is secured by the relevant provisions in our various consular conventions.

In view of our position as a State with major shipping interests, it is very much to our advantage to obtain such immunities. It is undesirable, inconvenient and expensive if a British ship is detained, possibly for a lengthy period, in a foreign port while matters which are essentially internal to the vessel, and which should therefore be settled in British courts are disputed before a foreign court.

I ask the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) to bear this in mind—Greek seamen may in some circumstances which are set out in the Order have been deprived of action in the British courts, but if these Orders do not go through and are not reciprocated by Greece, we would be exposing our seamen to the jurisdiction of the courts of Greece, which he said were very unfairly run. I am surprised, also, that the hon. Member for Rowley Regis and Tipton (Mr. Peter Archer) should say that reciprocity is not important. I believe that it is very important indeed, and as a great maritime nation we have rather more interest than almost anyone else in making sure that our seamen are not exposed to risk in all the ports of the world to which they constantly have to go.

At the same time, I perfectly agree that there are limits to the degree to which it would be appropriate to derogate from the jurisdiction of our own courts over foreign shipping, and the Sections in question accordingly provide for certain safeguards to which I will briefly refer. I hope that the House will agree that we have struck a correct balance between the two considerations I have outlined.

Section 4 permits Orders to be made limiting the jurisdiction of our courts to entertain proceedings relating to the remuneration or contract of service of the master or a member of the crew. These are matters for the flag State of the vessel and with which other States should normally not concern themselves.

Section 5 permits Orders to be made limiting jurisdiction where offences are alleged to have been committed on board by the master or a member of the crew. The Section contains appropriate reservations to safeguard the interests of the United Kingdom as a coastal State. For example, it does not apply to offences which constitute serious crimes—that is, crimes attracting a sentence of more than five years' imprisonment in our law—or which are alleged to have been committed by or against a person who is a citizen of the United Kingdom and Colonies, or where questions of port safety or pollution, for example, arise.

Orders under Section 6 of the Act limit the jurisdiction of the courts to issue—

Mr. Archer

Before the hon. Gentleman leaves that other point, can he give an example of the kind of proceedings which might be brought in the Greek courts against British seamen?

Mr. Kershaw

The sorts of proceedings which would be brought in a Greek court, in the absence of any of these provisions, could be any proceedings for an affray, a fight, or anything like that. The slightest infraction of Greek law aboard a British ship in Greek waters could be taken to the Greek court. That would then be the forum in which it would have to be decided. The hon. Gentleman may ask how the police would know that an offence had been committed on board a British ship. Clearly that is not a very solid argument.

We are seeking to ensure that our seamen have the advantage of British law for offences of a minor sort when they are in Greek waters and that Greek seamen, again, on a reciprocal basis, shall not have to submit to British law when in British waters in such cases.

Mr. Booth

Surely what the hon. Gentleman is saying is not the case under the terms of the Order. A British seaman serving on any vessel registered in any country other than the United Kingdom will, on the application of this principle, be answerable to the court of the country in which the ship is registered. He will not have access to British courts, and therefore the right of access to British courts by British seamen is being taken away by the Orders.

Mr. Kershaw

The hon. Gentleman is not on the same point. The law applying to the ship is the law of the flag, in the absence of anything else. If a British seaman enlists on a ship registered anywhere else, it is the law of the country where the ship is registered which applies. If I did not express myself well, that is what I was trying to say.

Mr. Prescott

I have here a contract of agreement that is drawn up for one of these vessels. It contains a clause which specifically states that, although it is a ship under a Liberian flag, jurisdiction under the agreement will be in the Greek courts.

Mr. Kershaw

Flags of convenience are not relevant to this. The hon. Gentleman was barking up the wrong tree there. Flags of convenience do not arise here. It is only ships which are registered in Greece and Spain. That is what the two Orders are concerned with.

Mr. Prescott

There is a flag of convenience.

Mr. Kershaw

There is a flag of convenience, but not under these Orders. The Orders under Section 6 of the Act limit the jurisdiction of the courts to issue a writ of habeas corpus in respect of the detention on board ship of a member of the crew for a disciplinary offence.

Mr. Archer

What still puzzles me is that the examples which the hon. Gentleman gave are not examples of proceedings relating to remuneration or a contract of service. That is what this is about.

Mr. Kershaw

That is in Section 4. I am on Section 6. An offence under Section 6 is usually the internal concern of the vessel, but once more the Section contains safeguards. For example, it does not apply if the conditions of detention are inhumane, if the detention is contrary to the law of the flag State, or if there is reason to suppose that the life or liberty of the person concerned will be endangered for reasons of race, nationality, political opinion or religion in any country to which the ship is likely to go. The hon. Gentleman read that himself when he was speaking.

The hon. Member for Norwood (Mr. John Fraser) was disturbed by the possibility that we were in some way restricting what might loosely be called political asylum. He will see from the Section read out by his hon. Friend that that is not so.

Mr. John Fraser

I understand the problem about detention aboard ship. In practice, if a man has a large accumulation of wages due to him and has to return to Athens to claim it, it is not a question of a restriction on his freedom but it prevents him from coming off the ship into a free country.

Mr. Kershaw

That is assuming that he is unwilling to return to Greece in any circumstance, but that has nothing to do with the Orders. I gave the answer to the hon. Gentleman when I said that remuneration must be a matter for the flag State. If a seaman is unwilling to return to the courts of the country for other reasons, I am afraid that we cannot deal with that in these Orders.

Although it was found expedient to incorporate Sections 4 and 6 in the Act to remove any doubt as to the state of the law, it was considered that the various provisions in our consular treaties dealing with these matters were sufficiently in accordance with the law as it stood when they were concluded to permit effect to be given to them without specific legislation. It was always recognised, however, that the matters for which provision is now made in Section 5 would require legislation before the relevant provisions in our bilateral consular conventions could be implemented. Consequently, the entry into operation of these provisions was suspended pending the passage of the necessary legislation.

We have reached agreement in principle with the States concerned that the suspended provisions will be brought into operation when we are in a position to implement them. This is one of the purposes of Article 4 of the Spanish State Order.

The Spanish Order provides for the application to Spain of Sections 4, 5 and 6, whereas the Greek Order provides for the application of Sections 4 and 6 only. The hon. Member for Barrow-in-Furness (Mr. Booth) asked about this. This distinction arises from a difference between the two Conventions, in that the Anglo-Greek Convention does not at present impose any specific obligations as regards the matters dealt with in Section 5 of the Act—that is, the exercise of jurisdiction over offences committed on board a vessel. However, it does contain in Article 28(2) a statement of principle in which both parties express approval of the international practice whereby the coastal state does not exercise such jurisdiction. Certain other conventions contain a similar provision and it is hoped that at a convenient opportunity the relevant articles in the Anglo-Greek and the other Conventions mentioned can be amended and re-cast in mandatory form.

To sum up, there are three main reasons why the Government feel bound to oppose the Motions. First, if the Orders were to be annulled the United Kingdom would risk being in breach of its treaty obligations arising under the Consular Conventions with Greece and Spain. To fall into breach of a treaty would be contrary to the frequently expressed views and long-standing practice of the United Kingdom as regards the sanctity of international obligations.

Second, as I have explained, it would be against our interests since it is important for the United Kingdom, as one of the greatest maritime States, to obtain for its ships a similar degree of immunity from the exercise of jurisdiction by foreign States.

Finally, jurisdiction over shipping is only one of a number of matters which are dealt with in our consular treaties. Greece and Spain alike are countries to which very large numbers of British tourists and businessmen go every year. Both the Anglo-Spanish and Anglo- Greek Convention contain valuable provisions guaranteeing the status of our consulates and consuls and their right to exercise a wide variety of functions in protection of our nationals and their interests; for example, both Conventions provide valuable rights with regard to the notification of arrests and consular access to detained persons. The annulment of the Orders might well place these valuable rights in jeopardy.

The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East was incorrect in thinking that these provisions applied to flags of convenience. The Orders apply only to ships registered in Greece and Spain. I have nothing to say in answer to the remarks made by several hon. Members about trade unions in Greece. This is not a matter dealt with in the Orders and I do not wish to say anything on the matter at this time.

Mr. Peter Archer

Are we in some way being misled? If a ship other than a Greek or Spanish ship is registered in Greece or Spain, is not that a situation where a flag of convenience applies?

Mr. Kershaw

A flag of convenience is not a legal term. What we are doing here is talking about Orders, which apply to ships which are registered in two countries. Whether those ships are re- garded as rat-infested hulks or whatever they may be, they are the ships we are talking about and none other.

Mr. Booth

The hon. Gentleman will agree that the Act to which these Orders relate refers to ships belonging to a country and in the definition Section it is laid down that "belonging to" means registered in. The general understanding of "belonging to a country", as far as 99.9 per cent. of our citizens are concerned, is "owned by that country". Many ships owned by a country are registered elsewhere and that is a practice of convenience.

Mr. Kershaw

I follow the hon. Member. I can assure him that these Orders apply only to ships registered in these two countries.

A word about habeas corpus. We are asked who is to decide whether the detention is lawful. Our British courts can investigate the circumstances under which someone is held and can decide whether his detention is unlawful under the laws of the flag State or whether he is held in inhumane conditions, in which case the Order would not apply to preclude intervention.

I was surprised to hear what the hon. Member for Barrow-in-Furness had to say about the Government having said that these Orders would be brought forward provided no one voted against them. I see the former Patronage Secretary sitting on the Opposition Front Bench and I am sure that he would never have agreed, or could have agreed, to such an arrangement. I assure hon. Members that no such proposition was ever made. If hon. Gentlemen feel they would like to go ahead and divide the House let them go ahead and do it. I hope that they will not feel that it is necessary.

Mr. Robert Mellish (Bermondsey)

Before the Minister makes statements of that kind he ought to have consultations with his own Patronage Secretary.

Mr. Kershaw

I understood that there were no consultations at the moment. These great mysteries are not revealed to me.

Hon. Members have taken this opportunity to attack the Greek, and, to some extent, the Spanish, Governments and in particular their trade union arrangements. I do not think that those remarks help relations between our countries.

Mr. Prescott

They were not intended to.

Mr. Kershaw

The Greek Government is a member of N.A.T.O. —

Mr. John Fraser


Mr. Kershaw

—which defends the freedom of which hon. Members have been making use tonight. It is not for us to tell the Greeks how to order their internal affairs, but as long-time friends of Greece we look forward to the restoration there of democratic processes.

Mr. Orme

Hear, hear.

Mr. Kershaw

Our relations with Greece are important to us and we intend that they shall be realistic and constructive. With regard to our relations with Spain, we welcome the new climate we have seen there. I do not think that hon. Members are helping very much by the attitude that they have taken to these countries tonight. I ask the House to reject this Motion.

Question put and negatived.