§ Order for Second Reading read.
§ 7.9 pm
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Tim Eggar)
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
The Bill concerns the acquisition and disposal of diplomatic premises in the United Kingdom. It would meet four separate needs. First, it would prevent missions from setting up offices in sensitive parts of the capital; for example, near the Palace of Westminster or the royal palaces in the Mall area. Secondly, the Bill would deal with the problem of empty former diplomatic premises by acquiring title to them and then selling them. Thirdly, the Bill would allow diplomatic status to be removed from premises which are being misused. Fourthly, the Bill would allow the Government to retaliate in kind if an overseas Government insisted that we move from existing premises or withheld consent for the acquisition of new premises.
Those powers would bring the United Kingdom into line with the laws and practices of many other countries, including the United States of America. The Government regard the powers in the Bill as being fully consistent with their obligations under the Vienna convention on diplomatic relations. The Government consider that the Bill is a modest but useful measure. I commend the Bill to the House.
§ Mr. George Robertson (Hamilton)
I have no wish to delay consideration of the Bill or the House's progress on other more contentious issues. The Opposition will give a fair wind to the Bill, none of whose provisions are of any contention. The Bill will tidy up a grey area and, in that sense, it is useful and should be welcomed. I refer only to the situation that may arise if England and Wales were to impose the poll tax according to the model proposed for Scotland. The provisions of the Vienna convention mean that diplomatic premises do not attract normal rates or local taxes, but notional payments are made by the Government on behalf of the diplomatic premises in lieu of rates. Many newspaper headlines over the years have referred to the failure of Governments to pay their rates.
The question may arise, if the poll tax were introduced in England and Wales, as to what amount would be paid 238 by embassies. Would the amount be levied on the total number of diplomats accredited to the mission? Would all diplomatic premises attract the poll tax in an equal quantity? Would the missions be reduced by proportionate amounts so as to avoid increased taxation by the Government on their behalf? Have these matters, such as those in the Abolition of Domestic Rates etc. (Scotland) Bill, been left indeterminate for the bureaucratic jungle and a nightmare to catch up with after the event?
§ Mr. Eggar
I appreciate the support of the lion. Member for Hamilton (Mr. George Robertson) for the Bill which, as he said, is a modest but important step in the right direction towards clearing up a grey area. I am delighted that the hon. Member has turned his mind to problems which may occur after the election. The hon. Gentleman is nothing if not honest about the prospects of his party winning a majority in the coming election. The hon. Gentleman referred to the Scottish Bill which, we hope, will pass through the House in the next two days and which provides for the continued application of rates to office premises; therefore, consular premises will continue to be assessed for rates. However, diplomatic missions will pay only that element of the rates from which they are deemed to derive benefit under a net-back systetn. The question of what will happen when the poll tax is introduced is, of course, one for further consideration.
§ Question put and agree to.
§ Bill read a Second time.
§ Bill committed to a Committee of the whole House—[Mr. Lennox-Boyd].
§ Further proceedings postponed, pursuant to Order [this day].