HC Deb 12 July 1971 vol 821 cc99-103

Order for Second Reading read.

6.59 p.m.

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

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

Hon. Members will, I am sure, have noted that the Bill is similar to a Bill which had its Second Reading in Committee in May, 1970, but which was overtaken by the dissolution of Parliament. I think that hon. Members will agree that it is a Bill of comparatively minor scope. Its four Clauses are concerned with the privileges and immunities of diplomatic missions, international organisations and Commonwealth representatives and therefore hon. Members will no doubt have examined them with care, but they will have observed that the Bill will not introduce any changes in practice or policy of major significance.

Clause 1 is intended to put on a statutory basis certain financial reliefs which are already given administratively. It provides for the refund of the customs duty element in the price of hydrocarbon oil, which in effect means petrol and oil for heating, bought by diplomatic missions and certain persons connected with them and by the Commonwealth Secretariat. If hydrocarbon oil were imported directly by such persons for their own use, exemption from customs duty would be accorded under the Diplomatic Privileges Act, 1964, and the Commonwealth Secretariat Act, 1966. But as this is not practicable refunds have to be made instead.

At present, these refunds are made under the authority of the Appropriation Acts alone, but it is an accepted principle that specific statutory authority should be obtained for recurrent payments of this kind. Such authority has already been obtained for refunds to be made to entitled persons connected with consulates or international organisations by the Consular Relations Act, 1968, and the International Organisations Act, 1968. Clause 1 will amend the Diplomatic Privileges Act, 1964, and the Commonwealth Secretariat Act, 1966, to bring them into line in this respect with the Consular Relations Act, 1968, and the International Organisations Act, 1968.

Up to now, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has made all these refunds. On this Clause becoming law, we intend to transfer the administration of the refunds to the Department of Customs and Excise so that they will no longer be made out of voted money but will come from revenue instead. As always where diplomatic privileges and immunities are concerned, reciprocity is at the heart of the matter. Our missions in other countries are in fact accorded the privilege of duty-free petrol with consequent overall financial savings to us. Clause 1(3) will allow us to withdraw the privilege from any country which fails to give reciprocity. We have never yet wished to do this, but as reciprocity is at the heart of the matter, it is appropriate to have the power.

Clause 2 will enable us to accord privileges and immunities to the Caribbean Development Bank, which was established early last year and all of whose present members are States and territories within the Commonwealth. Its object is to provide capital for economic development in the countries in the Caribbean region, and it is a project which Her Majesty's Government consider to be very worth while. We ratified the Agreement establishing the Caribbean Development Bank in January, 1970, subject to a reservation concerning privileges and immunities. This Agreement requires limited privileges and immunities to be conferred on the Bank, and as Section 1 of the International Organisations Act, 1968, applies only to organisations which have at least one "foreign" member, legislation by way of a Bill is required.

Clause 2 will amend Section 1 of the International Organisations Act to extend it to the Caribbean Development Bank. It will then be possible to make an Order in Council, subject to Affirmative Resolution of each House, to give full effect to the privileges and immunities provisions of the Agreement. This Clause will, of course, have no effect on the privileges and immunities enjoyed by other international organisations some of which are dealt with by individual Orders under the 1968 Act or its predecessor.

Clause 3 will amend Section 2 of the International Organisations Act, 1968, to provide statutory authority for granting exemption from vehicle excise duty to the senior staff of the Inter-Governmental Maritime Consultative Organisation. As hon. Members know, I.M.C.O. is a United Nations specialised agency with its headquarters in London. Section 2 of the 1968 Act was intended to accord diplomatic financial privileges to those members of the staff of I.M.C.O. whose rank was comparable with that of a diplomatic agent.

However, Section 2 omitted to make provision for exemption from vehicle excise duty. There was an understanding between the Government and I.M.C.O. that this exemption would be accorded, and this has been done administratively up to now. The duty involved is about £800 a year. If the Clause becomes law, the Headquarters Agreement between the United Kingdom and I.M.C.O. will be amended to refer to vehicle excise duty, and a draft Order to give effect to the amendment will be laid before Parliament.

Clause 4 substitutes for Section 12 of the Consular Relations Act, 1968, the provisions set out in the Schedule to the Bill. These provisions will enable an Order in Council to be made which will confer on Commonwealth representatives performing functions of a consular nature, and on their staffs and families, privileges and immunities on the scale which is enjoyed by foreign consuls under the Consular Relations Act.

The intention of the original Section 12 of the Consular Relations Act, 1968, was to enable this to be done, but in a few minor matters powers are deficient, or there is some doubt about whether they are wide enough. For example, existing provisions do not cover clearly goods imported or hydrocarbon oil purchased for official use of a Commonwealth post nor do they cover members of their families and the private servants of members of their staffs. It is proposed to take the opportunity of the Bill to clarify the matter and this has been done in a way which will also make it possible to repeal the remaining part of the Diplomatic Immunities (Commonwealth Countries and Republic of Ireland) Act, 1952. No change of policy is contained in Clause 4, but it is a useful piece of legislative tidying-up.

Legislation in diplomatic and international privileges and immunities may appear to be somewhat complex and it may be that a scale of immunities and privileges could be drawn up which would be acceptable in all cases. But, as is stated in the Preamble to the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, the purpose of such privileges and immunities is to enable the efficient performance of the functions of diplomatic missions representing States. As the functions of the various persons and bodies enjoying these privileges vary considerably, the legislation required differs from case to case and this necessarily produces somewhat complex legislation.

I trust, however, that the House will recognise that the Bill is a reasonable piece of legislation which makes necessary amendments to our present law in this respect. It enables us either to ensure for our own posts abroad the privileges to which they are internationally entitled and which we wish them to have, or to redeem pledges given to international or commonwealth agencies of whose purposes we approve, and I hope that the House will be able to accord the Bill a Second Reading.

7.7 p.m.

Mr. S. C. Silkin (Dulwich)

I thank the Under-Secretary for that clear explanation of the purpose of the Bill. As I understand it, it is substantially a tidying-up measure. As he said, provisions relating to diplomatic and consular immunities and privileges are necessarily founded on the principle of reciprocity and it is for that reason that one may have more tidying-up than would otherwise be desirable.

The major part of the Bill is to give statutory effect to that which up to now has been done by purely administrative action. Clause 1 gives statutory recognition to existing practice and that is to be welcomed, for it is always desirable that wherever possible rules of this kind should be on the Statute Book rather than apparently left to the discretion of the Executive.

The other provisions put right minor omissions in previous Statutes, gaps which were left and which ought to be filled, and again they are to be welcomed. Clause 1(3) directs attention to the reciprocity principle, although I assume that even under the previous administrative procedure reciprocity was a principle to be effected, although that issue rarely if ever arose.

The Opposition had some share in the genesis of this legislation. We welcome it, and hope that it will have a speedy Second Reading.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

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

Committee tomorrow.