HL Deb 20 December 1955 vol 195 cc365-9

4.10 p.m.

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, this is a short Bill and can. I hope, be shortly expounded to your Lordships. The important word in the Title is the word "Restriction." This is the Bill which has been several times mentioned in your Lordships' House in the course of recent discussions which we have had on this somewhat vexed question of diplomatic immunity. Perhaps before saying what the Bill does, it would be better if I made clear certain things which it does not do. That will, I hope, have the effect of removing some false hopes and also some false fears.

First, the Bill does not apply to the Commonwealth missions in this country. Any questions between us and other countries of the Commonwealth on this matter can, as we have always found and shall no doubt continue to find, be settled by amicable discussion. The second thing it does not do is to apply to international organisations. No doubt some of your Lordships may be a little disappointed about that, but they will realise that it is not possible so to apply it, because in the case of these international organisations the adherence to the agreement setting up the particular organisation carries with it acceptance of certain principles and obligations of diplomatic immunity; and there are therefore, among the members of these various organisations,no inequalities between one and another which fall to be redressed. Another thing the Bill does not do is to extend in any way the area of diplomatic immunity in this country—indeed, it is designed to reduce it. Further, it does not take away from any British subject immunities of this kind which he or she has hitherto enjoyed. Lastly, it does not contravene the long-established principle of International Law on this subject.

My Lords, the Bill has its origin in the Report of the Committee presided over, now a long time ago, by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Somervell of Harrow. That Committee were appointed by the Government of noble Lords opposite, and their Report was published, I think, In 1952. Noble Lords may say that we have not rushed legislation in this matter, but a considerable amount of examination and scrutiny have been required before a Bill could be put into shape. Next, a word on what the Bill does. It gives power to Her Majesty, by Order in Council, to withdraw from any foreign diplomatic mission here personal immunities—and what those personal immunities are is defined in Clause 3 (1) of the Bill—which are in excess of those granted by the home country of the mission to members of the British mission in that country. There seems no good reason why we should give immunity, for instance, to clerks in the Ruritanian Embassy if in Ruritania no such immunity is granted to clerks in our mission there.

As a result of the passing of this Bill, of course, one of two things may happen. Either the Ruritanian Government will think it worth while to extend the existing immunity so as to cover our clerks, in preference to our withdrawing immunity from theirs under the power conveyed by the Bill, or, secondly, we shall be in a position to reduce the immunities granted by us to the Ruritanian Embassy here, so that they conform in every respect to the immunities granted to our Embassy in Ruritania. It is surely right that privileges of that kind should be reciprocal. This Bill gives us the power to enforce that reciprocity—a power which hitherto we have not enjoyed. The only other thing the Bill does is to put into statutory form what is I think an already recognised practice, and to lay down that United Kingdom citizens who are employed in foreign missions in this country shall not be entitled to claim personal immunity. But the new provision does not act retrospectively, to divest of that immunity such persons as are at present covered; it merely prevents such persons from being covered in the future.

In another place an additional provision, now subsection (2) of Clause 3, was inserted. On first examination it appears somewhat cryptic, but it was put in to cover a contingency which was thought to be possible, although perhaps most unlikely. The necessity for it arose from the fact that Section 4 of the British Nationality Act, 1948, provides that every person born within the United Kingdom and Colonies after January 1, 1949, which was the commencing date of that Act, with the exception of persons falling within two categories, shall be a citizen of the United Kingdom and Colonies by birth. One of the exceptions is a child born of a father who, at the time of the child's birth—now I quote from the Act: possesses such immunity from suit and legal process as is accorded to an envoy of a foreign sovereign power accredited to His Majesty, and is not a citizen of the United Kingdom and Colonies. The purpose of this Amendment in another place (I agree that it is rather technical) was to ensure that this provision is not affected by the withdrawal of personal immunity from the father, whose immunities of an official kind are still preserved. What was in our minds in inserting this subsection (2) was that if certain of these personal immunities were withdrawn, while the official immunities, on the other hand, remained valid, it might be possible that a child of a man in that position would become a British national, whereas the children of other diplomats would remain of their own nationality. That would be an undesirable situation, and although, as I say, it may be a remote contingency, it was thought right to put in that additional subsection in order to provide against even the possibility of its coming about. My Lords, that is the short position in regard to the Bill. I beg to move that the Bill be now read a second time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a —(The Marquess of Reading).

4.17 p.m.


My Lords, I welcome this Bill. I think that for all too long we have gone down the wrong path—the "primrose path of dalliance"—on this question of immunities. It is high time that we turned our steps to the strait and narrow path. Speaking for myself, and I think for many noble Lords on that side of the House, I am quite satisfied that this question of diplomatic immunity has got altogether out of hand. I think we shall all agree about that. Of course, it is difficult, once this position is found, to correct it. But at any rate, as a start —I will not say a change of heart, though I hope it comes to that—we see that the Government are now taking steps, albeit, so far, small, faltering steps, to put themselves on the right road to try to reduce rather than extend these immunities.

I hope that we shall have no more of these Orders in Council conferring diplomatic immunity on all sorts of people who have performed their tasks perfectly well and happily without it. Of course, it is necessary that diplomats accredited to the Court of St. James should have immunity for themselves—they always have had, and always will. But nowadays they seem to gather round them a crowd of people. I do not think that that vast congregation (if that is the right word) of people is necessary to enable them to carry out their duties effectively. Although this Bill does very little, the tendency of the Bill is rather to reduce this congregation, and from that point of view 1 welcome it. When I heard that this Bill was coming I said I would do all I could to facilitate its passage. So far as I am concerned, if the Government want to pass it through all its stages—I do not know whether that is proposed—I shall raise no objection.

The noble Marquess was good enough to refer to the last clause of the Bill, Clause 3 (2). I confess that, having read through that clause, I wondered what on earth it meant. And when I think that we are speaking the English that Shakespeare wrote I wonder whether it is really necessary to cloak our intentions in these obscure words, which I venture to say no ordinary person, unless he be the present Lord Chancellor, can hope to understand. It seems lamentable to me. I believe that ultimately a situation will arise in this country in which, after we have passed our Bills, we shall send them to some expert committee asking, "Will you please put this into English so that the ordinary man in the street, if he applies himself to it, can hope to understand it?" Before my time, in the great days, we had people like Chalmers and others drafting such Acts as the Bills of Exchange Act, the Bills of Sale Act, and the Reinsurance Act. Those were drafted in simple, limpid language. It is a most difficult thing to do. I believe that one gets this obscurity of language sometimes to conceal political difficulties and sometimes because we have not clearly in mind what we want to do. Very expert people, with plenty of time at their disposal, are needed to translate these things into simple English. The noble Lord, Lord Teviot, in a speech on an earlier Bill this afternoon, drew attention to something which could not be comprehended. I am glad to have the noble Lord among my allies in this matter. We might well look into this to see whether we cannot produce our Statutes in somewhat simpler language.

Although this Bill does not go very far, it seems to show the sense of Her Majesty's Government. It is to-day widely felt that the present situation is too wide. The Bill is an endeavour, in certain given circumstances, to reduce the number of people affected; and, that being so, I welcome it and will certainly give it my support, if necessary, in getting it through all its stages now.

On Question, Bill read 2a; Committee negatived.

Then, Standing Order No. 41 having been dispensed with (pursuant to the Resolution of December 13), Bill read 3a, and passed.