HC Deb 17 July 1984 vol 64 cc197-9

5.9 pm

Mr. Paddy Ashdown (Yeovil)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend certain provisions of the Visiting Forces Act 1952 and the International Headquarters and Defence Organisations Act 1964, so as to restrict their application to persons attached to or working at locations specified by Order in Council and their dependants. What with one thing and another, immunities have been much in the news recently. The British public, and hon. Members in this House, have been justifiably concerned about whether it is right to offer immunities to diplomats, which allow them to commit crimes against British law, offend the standards of civilised behaviour and then avoid the consequences of their actions. However, it appears that it is not only diplomats who enjoy immunities from British law for unlawful acts committed in this country.

The Visiting Forces Act 1952 and the International Headquarters and Defence Organisations Act 1964 offer visiting forces in Britain a form of immunity from appearing before British courts in respect of nations committed against British law on British territory, so long as they can claim to be on duty at the time, or if the acts involve only visiting forces personnel or property.

It is the view of the Home Office, judging by a recent parliamentary answer which I received, that the rights enjoyed by visiting forces are not, technically, immunities as such. I am grateful to the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department for being present. The Home Office argues that service courts of a visiting force are allowed by the Act to have primacy over British courts in cases which fall under the Act. One can accept that this is not the same form of total immunity as that enjoyed by diplomats, but it is a kind of immunity nevertheless—if not from some jurisdiction, then at least from the jurisdiction of British courts for acts committed in Britain.

I can understand why such provisions may be required by visiting forces helping to defend Britain in time of war. Indeed, there seems little doubt that the two Acts were instituted to regularise the position as a result of the de facto immunities enjoyed by visiting forces in Britain during the second world war.

In that sense the Acts are a leftover from 40 years ago. There can be no justification for the continuation of those anachronisms today. Indeed, the immunities, far from fostering good relations between visiting forces and the people of Britain, have instead in some instances proved a source of provocation and resentment, which has inevitably damaged those relations.

I acknowledge that visiting forces in Britain, by and large, appear to have exercised some restraint in seeking to make use of the provisions of the Acts. However, there have been disturbing individual examples of foreign service men avoiding the consequences of British law because of the Acts.

Since obtaining this ten-minute Bill, I have been informed by several hon. Members of a number of individual cases of that sort, some of which are serious and some relatively trivial.

Perhaps the most disturbing case in recent years was that involving Mathew Cheshire, a 17-year-old RAF technician at St. Mawgan in Cornwall, who was killed in a road accident on the base by a United States service man driving a jeep on the wrong side of the road. Using the provisions of the Act, the United States Navy interrupted a local inquest on Mathew Cheshire, and prohibited the coroner, Mr. Alan Harvey, from continuing. Six months later the United States Navy tried the marine concerned at a court martial in London. They fined him one dollar.

The attitude of the United States authorities in that case and in others infuriated not only Mr. Cheshire's parents, but local journalists and police officers. After Mathew Cheshire's death, local police were prevented for three hours from entering the base to investigate the accident. A local journalist, covering the case, was misled by a United States official in an attempt to prevent him from attending the court martial

In a similar earlier case a British judge expressed his anger about the immunities offered under the Act in the following terms: It did seem rather unfortunate if visiting sailors or airmen could leave the country and leave an action of this kind to proceed in their absence. One would have thought that … the responsible authorities would attend to the material results of the judgment. There is nothing I could do about it. There did seem to be a large lacuna and a loophole if visiting service men could drive cars all about the country and then leave before a civil action came to trial". I should make it clear that United States visiting forces do not uniquely make use of these provisions. It merely happens that, since there are more United States forces stationed in Britain, there are, naturally, more cases which relate to them. It will not be lost on those who follow these matters that this subject has been elevated in importance because of the stationing of cruise missiles in Britain. They have already caused conflicts between United States forces and civilians. But those conflicts will be as nothing to those which may occur not only with British civilians, but with British forces, because British people have no de facto physical control over the firing of the missiles through a dual-key system.

This anxiety has received yet further impetus as a result of an answer recently given by the Secretary of State to the right hon. Member for South Down (Mr. Powell), who asked the Government what the legal provisions were, under which American service men had the right to arrest British citizens, for instance, at Greenham common. The right hon. Member received, at the end of last week, a reply—which I understand is to be published in the Official Report tomorrow — which stated that United States service men had citizen's rights of arrest in such circumstances, similar to those enjoyed by British service men, because of the provisions of the Visiting Forces Act 1952. The position, therefore, seems to be that United States forces have the same powers of arrest and detention as British forces as a result of these Acts; however, whereas British forces can be taken to court if they use excessive force or abuse these powers, American forces could, under the very same Act, escape from such legal redress. The same Act which confers powers on United States forces to arrest British citizens also, it seems, provides the means by which United States forces can escape British law if those powers are abused. Surely that cannot be correct.

We know that in 1980–81, the last year for which figures are available, no fewer than 1,123 offences committed by foreign service men in Britain could have been subject under the Act primarily or exclusively to foreign jurisdiction. What is extraordinary, however, is that, according to a parliamentary answer given to me on 5 April, we do not know how many times the immunities under the Act were claimed, because the Home Office does not think it important to keep such figures. It seems remarkable, to say the least, that the Home Office does not regard it as important to keep a record of how many times those who have committed offences on British soil against British law were able to remove themselves from British justice in favour of foreign jurisdiction.

Visiting forces in Britain enjoy a greater degree of immunity than in other NATO states. Even in West Germany, where the legacy of post-war occupation still gives allied forces unusual powers, the police have the right to decide whether cases involving the interests of German citizens should be heard in German courts rather than under the law of the military forces concerned. In 1980, a secret document leaked to the press revealed that certain NATO countries would have to sign an emergency agreement to give local United States commanders certain immunities from their law before United States reinforcements could be deployed in Europe. Britain was the only major NATO power not required to give such an undertaking, presumably because it was considered that the Visiting Forces Act 1952 and the International Headquarters and Defence Organisations Act 1964 already gave such immunities.

It is not my purpose with this ten-minute Bill either to seek to remove those so-called immunities or to withdraw those two Acts, although there will doubtless be many hon. Members who believe that that is what should happen. But before any Secretary of State can grant immunities to visiting forces in Britain, he should bring the matter before Parliament for approval. It is not the Secretary of State, or even the Government, who make the laws of this country; it is Parliament itself. The granting of immunities from jurisdiction under the laws which Parliament makes, should be in the gift not of the Secretary of State, but of Parliament. In the hope of bringing about that position, I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Paddy Ashdown, Mr. Russell Johnston, Mr. Dafydd Wigley, Mr. Alex Carlile, Mr. Gavin Strang and Mr. James Tinn.