HL Deb 25 April 1961 vol 230 cc759-68

3.10 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that an Humble Address be presented to Her Majesty praying that the European Free Trade Association (Immunities and Privileges) Order, 1961, be made in the form of the Draft laid before your Lordships' House on March 27. The convention establishing the European Free Trade Association is an agreement between its seven initial members—the United Kingdom, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Switzerland, Austria and Portugal —aimed at an expansion of economic activity and an increase in co-operation between them. It provides for the reduction, and the eventual elimination, of the tariffs on industrial goods between members.

Article 35 of the Convention, which was signed on January 4, 1960, provides that a Protocol should lay down the privileges and immunities to be granted by Member States in connection with the Association. A Protocol was accordingly drawn up and signed last July. The scale of immunities was carefully considered, both in relation to the precedents existing in the cases of other international organisations and to the provision of what seemed necessary to secure the effective operation of the European Free Trade Association. The present Order is required to enable Her Majesty's Government to ratify the Protocol of July 28, 1960, according legal capacity, immunities and privileges to the European Free Trade Association. The Protocol came into force as regards Denmark, Norway and Austria on March 22, 1961, when in accordance with Article 21 of the Protocol, the third signatory State had deposited its Instrument of Ratification.

The scale of immunities and privileges conferred under this Order is no different from that already granted to the majority of other international organisations in respect of which Her Majesty's Government have signed a Status Agreement. The Association has a small secretariat of about 50 officers, of whom only the Secretary-General enjoys a full diplomatic scale of privileges and immunities. If, as is now the case, the Secretary-General happens to be a citizen of the United Kingdom and Colonies, these full-scale benefits will of course not be accorded. In such circumstances, the status of the Secretary-General varies only from that of the other officers of the Association in that his documents relating to the work of the Association are inviolable.

The Headquarters of this body is in Geneva. There is to be a Ministerial meeting in the United Kingdom in June, but such an event is unlikely to occur more often than once in three years or more. There is no intention to establish an agency in the United Kingdom. I beg to move.

Moved, That an Humble Address be presented to Her Majesty praying that the European Free Trade Association (Immunities and Privileges) Order, 1961, be made in the form of the Draft laid before this House on the 27th March last.—(The Marquess of Lansdowne.)


My Lords, I do not rise for the purpose of opposing this Motion. I am conscious of the fact that things of this kind were done under the Labour Government and, therefore, one must exercise certain restraint. However, I am a little worried about the growing number of organisations of an international character which, by our decision and the decisions of other Governments, are allowed these immunities and privileges. The immunities and privileges are considerable and extend to the reckless driving of a motor car, duties imposed upon intoxicating liquors and other matters. If we go on at this rate, we shall have a substantial proportion of the foreign population of London exempt from British law. I really feel that the Government ought to try to put the brakes on the number of these immunities and privileges Orders which are brought before Parliament. Otherwise we are sacrificing not only revenues, but rights of British citizens against these people. I think we have reached the point where they are becoming a little too numerous and are going too far. I would ask the noble Marquess whether he can give some undertaking—not that the Government will reverse engines; that would be too much to expect him to do—that he will bring the matter to the attention of the Government with a view to reconsidering the situation.

3.15 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to support what my noble friend Lord Morrison of Lambeth has said, and to point out that these full immunities are enjoyed by nearly 6,000 persons, including some 1,800 wives. This occasions considerable and growing public concern. With regard to this particular Order, the noble Marquess said that this was only a small addition, and that, in so far as complete immunity was concerned, it would apply only to the Secretary-General. But if one studies the Order, it is not only the representatives and their alternates, but an army of advisers, technical experts, secretaries, and even trade experts employed on a trade mission who will be immune from local process in respect of their words and deeds, and immune also from arrest or detention. Further—and this, I think, is important—for taxation purposes, although living here, they will be treated as though they were living in the stratosphere: in other words, their salaries will be tax free. It applies not only to the Secretary-General but to all the people I have mentioned. Therefore it is useless to say that only the "top brass" will enjoy these extraordinary privileges. Paragraph 10 of this Order makes it clear that any officer of the Association, except those recruited locally and paid by hourly rates—and that means everyone except the porters, the lift men and the "Mrs. Mopps"—will be immune from legal process in respect of their words, their writings or anything they do, and exempt from income tax.

It is all very well to say that the office is in Geneva, but since we are parties to this Protocol it is possible that there may be an office here; and even if not, there is no purpose in having the Order unless it is expected that some of these officers will come here. I should like to put some questions to the noble Marquess, and I hope that I shall have rather more luck than my noble Leader had a few minutes ago. First of all, will the noble Marquess say what possible justification there can be for treating the entire clerical staffs of a trade mission as respects the immunities I have mentioned—because that is what it amounts to—at least in part, in the same way as we treat an Ambassador at the Court of St. James? Secondly, has any estimate been made of the number of persons likely to be granted immunity under these Orders? —and in saying that I do not mean only the Secretary-General, but all these people I have mentioned.

Can the noble Marquess say, further (and this, I think, is the matter of main public concern), what steps are being taken to ensure that these extraordinary privileges are neither usurped nor abused? For example, C.D. plates can be bought almost anywhere; they are almost as numerous as G.B. plates, and every other large, sleek, black, chauffeur-driven car around these parts seems to carry one. Do the Government propose to control their issue? Otherwise, we shall have bank robbers with a big black car putting C.D. plates on it and getting immunity from arrest: indeed, I know of one elderly gentleman who is rather nervous in traffic who intends to fit one to his car under the impression that C.D. means "careful driver". It is not fair to the police or to the public for these privileges to be extended without limit and virtually without supervision.

Finally, will the noble Marquess clarify the position under this Order of our representatives and the members of the staff who are United Kingdom citizens? Is it the case, as paragraphs 9 and 10 appear to indicate, that if the head of the Secretariat Association is a United Kingdom citizen he will enjoy immunity from legal process and exemption from income tax? And does paragraph 10 confer a like immunity and exemption on any established officer who is a United Kingdom citizen? If my reading of those paragraphs is correct—and I can see no other possible reading of them—what is the justification for this, and what is the precedent? This is a matter of serious public concern, and I do not think that it should be allowed to go by default.


My Lords, on previous occasions, when similar Orders have been placed before the House, it has been my duty to raise this same question, and I am grateful to my two noble friends for having stepped in and put the position which on other occasions I have done. I do not wish to add or qualify anything that they have said, but I should like to point out to the House what this really means in practice, and to give one or two examples.

It means that these 8,000 people, or whatever the number is, can drive cars dangerously and can inflict damage on citizens of this country, without being answerable for the consequences. No action for damages can successfully be brought against them. They may inflict grave injury, and the persons who suffer from those injuries will have no remedy at all for damages caused by them. Secondly, it has been the case unhappily in the past that some of the people who have had these immunities have been involved in criminal offences, shoplifting and so on, and the short answer has been "Diplomatic immunity", and therefore no action has been taken. This sort of thing illustrates the danger of granting immunity on a large scale, and I would ask the Government to be very careful in granting this immunity, bearing these cases in mind. The last thing we want to do is to inflict injury on our own people. To leave them without a remedy at all where serious injury has been inflicted is, I think, going very far indeed.


My Lords, before the noble Marquess replies, I should like to associate myself with everything that has been said with regard to the extension of this right. It is not so many years ago that the late Lord Jowitt and I took this matter up and it was discussed thoroughly, as some of your Lordships may remember. It was already a bad abuse, and it is getting worse all the time; I do not think anybody can have two views on that. We were answered at great length by the late Lord Reading, who was then Under-Secretary, in his usual convincing and persuasive way, but it was not really an answer at all. I personally think that he and the Foreign Office were probably rather glad that we raised it. The answer was that you must look out for reciprocity. That is a foolish answer. It is an answer, it is true—but I will not go into it any further. I have only recently come into the House, but as a member of the Foreign Service for quite a number of years, and having seen this question at first hand with my own staff abroad, where, I may say we were very careful whom we had on the diplomatic list—we went through it with a fine comb—I am delighted that this attitude has been taken by noble Lords.


My Lords, I well remember the late Lord Jowitt saying, many years ago, that the next time one of these Orders came before the House he would advise the House to reject it. Since then there has been a constant stream of this type of Order, and we have swallowed each of them with reluctance, promising greater resistance next time. But "next time" never seems to come.

The arguments which have been deployed have been various. Once the argument used to be that with an international organisation it was necessary that its people should have this immunity in this country in order that ours should have immunity and a degree of protection in the other countries concerned, having regard particularly to the many countries in the world where law and order and the courts do not function in quite the same way as they do here. In this particular case, however, it seems to me that we are concerned with a small number of highly civilised European countries, whose courts and police are probably the best run in the world. I should have thought that, from that point of view, diplomatic immunity was absolutely unnecessary for any of these people.

I have not compared the terms of this Order with those of the ones that have gone before, but there is one phrase in Article 10 which strikes me (I may be wrong) as being unfamiliar. It gives immunity to any officer of the Association, with the exception of one who is recruited locally and assigned to hourly rates… I should like to know the significance of that. It seems to me that, on the face of it, any British citizen who happens to be paid by the month by this organisation has complete immunity from the courts and from taxation. It is a particular imposition, as Lord Jowitt used to say, on the rest of the citizens. Because suppose that a British citizen cannot afford to insure his motor car for other than third party risk, and is run dawn by one of these gentlemen—it is not his fault, and he wishes to sue him. He has no recourse to an insurance company for damages, and in being unable to sue this man, who pleads diplomatic immunity, he has suffered a wrong which is irredressible. I would ask the noble Marquess whether Her Majesty's Government have any remedy for that state of affairs. I would suggest to him that, if he cannot satisfy us with his answers, he ought to withdraw this Order and have another look at some of the phraseology.


My Lords, I think your Lordships might like to know of a small incident which occurred a few months ago in London. Two small boys, aged 12 and 13, pleaded guilty in court to shoplifting in the Kensington area. Their own account of the incident was as follows: "We went to the Saturday morning pictures and the picture was rather boring. So Tom said to Bobby 'Let's go out and do some nicking'"—"stealing", in brackets, in case the court could not understand what that meant. "So we rang up the chief, and the chief said to Bobby, 'You take everything blue' and to Tommy, 'You take everything red'". So they went out in the Kensington area, and Tommy stole some blue diaries and Bobby stole some red notebooks. They were detected and, as [say, they were brought before the court. Being rather young and naive, they included "the chief's" telephone number, and the court therefore asked the police if they had followed up the telephone number. The answer was, "Yes, but he has diplomatic immunity". I hope that we may have an assurance that this Order is not likely to inflate criminal statistics further.


My Lords, Her Majesty's Government, as I have assured your Lordships on previous occasions, are just as jealous of the privileges and immunities as. Is any other Member of your Lordships' House. Of course one understands the anxieties that have been expressed this afternoon—indeed, the warning and anxieties expressed by the noble Baroness. I tried to make it clear to your Lordships, in explaining this Order, that there is nothing in it which does not conform with the normal type of procedure which we have adopted in respect of previous Orders of this kind.


That is what we are worried about.


The arguments which the noble Lord, Lord Morrison of Lambeth, and others have put up apply with equal force, of course, to other Orders which your Lordships have had to accept—


It is time we stopped it.


—for the sole reason of making it a practical proposition for these organisations to work. It has always been our endeavour—and I think we have succeeded—to cut down these privileges and immunities to the minimum..


Does the noble Marquess seriously contend that if this Order were not granted this organisation could not be made to work? That seems to me nonsense.


That is my belief; that is why this Order is presented to your Lordships, and for no other reason at all.

There is one point that I should mention, and many of your Lordships are aware of it: there has never been, I am told, a case of a person being unable to sue because of one of these Orders. That has never happened. That is the advice I have received; I will certainly check it, but that is the advice I have received from the experts in this matter. I think the points that have been raised, some of them, are complicated and technical, but I would only say to your Lordships that there is nothing here concealed, nothing sinister and nothing that does not conform with the normal practice. So I hope your Lordships will approve this Order.


My Lords, may I put this point to the noble Marquess? He has said that if we do not approve this Order this organisation will not work. Does he realise the logic of his argument? That this organisation must be composed of potential criminals.


My Lords, before the noble Marquess answers, may I remind him that he did not answer my question, except in a roundabout way? Will he tell me if Her Majesty's Government have any arrangements by which they can recompense one of our citizens unable to sue one of these people for damages because diplomatic immunity has been proved?


Perhaps I may put this to the noble Marquess. Surely he could answer me and say whether my interpretation of Articles 9 and 10 is correct, and if the Government are going to do something to control "C.D." plates?


My Lords, if I may take the question of the noble Lord, Lord Hawke, first, I do not know the answer, but I will endeavour to find out and see that he receives it. As to the question of the noble Lord, Lord Stonham, that referred to Article 10 in Part III; I think that is correct. As I understand it, this Article covers all the officers of the agency other than those recruited locally. Its intention is to secure for the individuals concerned a proper freedom and independence in the exercise of their official duties, and, of course, exemption from income tax on their salaries. That is the interpretation of that Article. Exemption from taxation, as I think the noble Lord is well aware, is also normal in international organisations, because otherwise the member countries who share the cost of the salaries would in fact be contributing large sums in taxes to the Exchequer of the host Government. I hope that that answers the noble Lord's point.


I do not think it does, because paragraph (b) of Article 10 surely applies to British citizens, provided they are paid otherwise than hourly rates; so that a British citizen employed at so much a week or so much a month would be free of income tax and free from any damages. Furthermore, I do not think that we ought to pass an Order when the Government are unable to tell us whether there is any method of indemnifying our citizens for damages done by these people for which they are unable to be sued.


My Lords, a great many of us on this side of the House as well are disturbed about this matter. Would it not be possible to delay the passing of this Order to-day, so that we can have a little more information? I have listened most carefully, and I do not think the noble Marquess's answers have been satisfactory.


My Lords, I quite appreciate the anxiety that has been expressed by your Lordships, and I will certainly arrange that this Order be postponed and will have the matter further looked into. I will endeavour to satisfy your Lordships on a later occasion.


My Lords, in the circumstances, may I move that this debate be adjourned. I think that is the correct procedure.

Moved, That the debate be now adjourned.—(Viscount Hailsham.)

On Question, Motion agreed to, and debate adjourned accordingly.