HC Deb 24 March 1981 vol 1 cc895-8

As amended (in the Standing Committee), considered

10.15 pm
The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. Douglas Hurd)

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

The Bill's two main objectives are to do away with provisions in the 1968 Act, which discriminate against organisations composed of Commonwealth States, and to afford certain privileges and immunities to international commodity organisations of which the United Kingdom is not a Member.

10.16 pm
Mr. Giles Radice (Chester-le-Street)

This is a highly uncontroversial occasion. There was no discussion on Second Reading, almost no discussion in Committee and no discussion on Report. In essence, this is a technical Bill, which corrects certain anomalies.

As the Minister said, our international organisation legislation has in the past discriminated against the Commonwealth. Secondly, our representatives at Western European Union and the Council of Europe have not had the same immunities as we accord to all Members of Parliament during Sessions of Parliament.

As I understand it, the only exception is clause 2, which enables a limited range of privileges and immunities to be granted to an international commodity organisation of which the United Kingdom is not a member which has an office in this country. What advantages are to be gained in the United Kingdom through such commodity organisations having an office in this country, and what organisations do the Government hope to attract in the future?

I hope that the Minister will confirm that this is enabling legislation, which will be operative by affirmative order. That means that the House will be able to consider individual Orders in Council and check whether immunities and privileges are being abused.

10.17 pm
Mr. Ivan Lawrence (Burton)

When a Bill is presented which purports to extend immunities to organisations and conferences sponsored by those organisations, and to sub-organisations of those organisations of which Britain is not a member, it is important for a Back Bencher on one side of the House or the other to question what is being done.

I noticed the speedy way in which my hon. Friend the Minister presented the Bill and the immediate acceptance given to it by the hon. Member for Chester-le-Street (Mr. Radice).

At a time of international terrorism, when diplomatic immunity has been blatantly seen to have been abused by terrorist organisations from other countries, when attacks on foreign nationals have taken place in London's streets and when British citizens have been threatened indirectly by warfare on our streets, we should consider more closely the diplomatic immunities which exist rather than gaily extend them in a minute and a half to organisations to which they do not apply.

I have no objection to the broad features of the Bill—

Mr. Cyril Smith (Rochdale)

It is a bit late.

Mr. Lawrence

It is not my choosing that the Bill is being discussed at this hour, nor is it my choosing that it was introduced in the House of Lords. It is never too late to question what we are doing.

On the whole, no one can object to reasonable extensions of tax relief or concessions to Commonwealth organisations and commodity markets. Indeed, I do not object to that. Under the Bill representatives of organisations of which Britain is not a member, representatives to conferences convened by such organisations, and members of subordinate bodies of those organisations may be exempted from searches of personal baggage.

I expect that my hon. Friend the Minister will reassure me that the possibility of inspecting baggage is not precluded. The authorities were not precluded from inspecting the baggage of the Libyans who probably brought guns and ammunition into the country by means of a diplomatic bag. On arrival they caused murder and mayhem. On several occasions the House has debated how, without breach of our international obligations, it can more easily search diplomatic bags and ensure that weapons are not brought into the country in personal baggage.

In the space of a minute and a half we may extend immunity to organisations with which we are not directly connected, and there will be no general power of search. The extension of immunity is limited, because action must be taken through an Order in Council and an affirmative resolution. Such proceedings usually take place at a late hour. Indeed, I have never seen so many Liberal Members in the Chamber at such a late hour. Nevertheless, I should like an assurance that terrorist organisations or any organisations that have the faintest hint of terrorism about them will be subject to more searching scrutiny than appears likely under the provisions of the Bill.

We should avoid extending immunity to countries which have relations with terrorist organisations. They may abuse the system and bring more terror to our streets. I hope that my hon. Friend will give the assurance for which I have asked. If he does, I shall not attempt to divide the House.

10.23 pm
Mr. Hurd

I shall briefly reply to the hon. Member for Chester-le-Street (Mr. Radice) and to my hon. Friend the Member for Burton (Mr. Lawrence). The hon. Member for Chester-le-Street concentrated on clause 2. He asked why the Government wanted commodity organisations to which we do not belong to be able to set up their headquarters in Britain. Traditionally, London has been the centre of the world commodity trade. Seven commodity organisations already serve the interests of producers and consumers in Britain. It is to London's advantage that, as they take shape, similar organisations should be encouraged to settle in London.

However, competition is involved. In competitions between cities that offer themselves as the sites for headquarters, one element is the ability to grant a certain amount of privilege and immunity. The hon. Gentleman asked for an example. The International Tea Promotion Association comes to mind. It has not yet made a decision. It is a producer organisation and therefore we would not be a member of it. Obviously, there is an advantage to us if it settles and has its headquarters in London.

Secondly, I confirm that this is an enabling Bill. It does not commit the House or grant privileges or immunities to anyone. It is primary legislation enabling the House, should the House so decide, to grant privileges and immunities to different organisations covered in the Bill. I hope that that answers my hon. Friend the Member for Burton.

If a proposal were made which contained some form of taint, to which my hon. Friend referred, the House would be quick to find that taint and to express its views. An affirmative order would be required on each occasion. The Government have no intention of extending the privileges and immunities except where, in our view, we would be bound to do so by negotiation and agreement to attract an organisation to settle here under clause 2.

We are as concerned as anybody about any abuse that may occur of the privileges and immunities which have already been granted or which may be granted. As my hon. Friend said, we have discussed this several times in the House. It is correct that we should do so. My hon. Friend referred to the the searching of baggage. The exemption which might—I underline "might"—be granted under clause 2 to any organisation would not preclude authorities from inspecting baggage if there were grounds for presuming that it contained prohibited articles. After recent experiences to which my hon. Friend alluded, that is an area about which we are careful. We are trying to ensure that everyone who possesses privileges and immunities is aware of the strong views that we take. In the light of that assurance, I hope that my hon. Friend will be content that the Bill should receive a Third Reading.

Question put and agreed to

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed, with amendments

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