HL Deb 05 March 1964 vol 256 cc214-20

3.14 p.m.


My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

[The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether cars owned by members of the Diplomatic Corps in London are subject to traffic laws and rules, and to parking regulations; and, if not, what measures are taken to ensure that they do not cause danger to the public or obstruct traffic; how many cars are granted diplomatic status; and how many times in the last twelve months charges would have been brought if diplomatic immunity had not been claimed.]


My Lords, persons who are entitled to diplomatic immunity and who drive cars are expected to observe the traffic laws in the same way as citizens of this country. As guests, they are entitled to as much courtesy as can within the law be extended to them, but the Heads of Diplomatic Missions were reminded in a circular letter last December of the responsibility of all members of the Diplomatic Corps to observe the regulations and to do their best to co-operate with the police in their difficult task of keeping the traffic moving in London. If there is danger or obstruction, cars can be, and have been, removed.

I understand that since January 1 this year the London County Council has issued 1,975 Excise-exempt licences for diplomatic vehicles. During 1963 the Home Office received police reports of 50 traffic incidents in the Metropolitan Police District in which drivers claiming diplomatic immunity were involved. In addition, I understand from the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis that in the same year, in respect of parking offences for which fixed-penalty notices had been issued, no proceedings were taken in about 2,078 cases because the persons involved claimed diplomatic immunity. It is not possible to say whether charges would have been preferred in all these cases had it not been for the entitlement to diplomatic immunity.


My Lords, while thanking my noble friend for his reply, may I ask whether the Government are satisfied that the Heads of Diplomatic Missions in London are fully aware of the apparent inequity of the existing state of affairs; and whether they are bringing pressure to bear on those members of their staffs who are guilty of these offences?


My Lords, the Heads of Diplomatic Missions are well aware of the problem and, as I have already said, a circular was issued reminding them last December. I cannot answer for what steps they themselves take as regards their staff; that is a matter for the Heads of Missions.


My Lords, in view of the Minister's Answer may I ask whether he can comment on a report in the Press that the Foreign Office has recently circularised the appropriate Departments requesting that action be not taken?


My Lords, no such instructions have been issued by the Foreign Office; but I understand (and perhaps I had better amplify this) that the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis has instructed the police and traffic wardens to do their best for diplomatic persons in not enforcing parking regulations with full rigidity. Where, however, a car is holding up traffic, or is a danger to the public, it is the duty of the police to have it removed. I would stress what I have already said as to the responsibility of all members of the Diplomatic Corps to observe the regulations and to co-operate with the police in their difficult task.


My Lords, may I ask whether diplomatic representatives abroad have corresponding facilities and privileges to those of diplomatic representatives in this country?


My Lords, in general terms the answer is, Yes. I cannot say that there is no country that does not take a similar line—I am afraid that I do not know. I do not think that there is any country where that does not happen; but in the vast majority reciprocal treatment is accorded to our representatives abroad.


My Lords, now that the Minister has kindly given us these figures—and they are very important figures—in the Answer to Lord Molson's Question, can we ask the Government to produce, for example, statistics to show how many actions have been taken against British diplomats in countries like the United States of America, France, Italy and the like?


My Lords, I do not know whether that information could be obtained. I shall, of course, ask, but at the moment I have no information about that.


My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that from the figures given, some diplomatic representatives seem to show a cynical indifference to the citizens of this country; and is it not time that we withdrew the immunity from some of these offenders?


My Lords, I think I can perhaps best answer that question by referring to Article 41 of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, which is an international Convention and states that it is the duty of all persons enjoying diplomatic immunity to respect the laws and regulations of the country in which they are serving. That is the international position, and I think this is not a case where one can discuss taking away diplomatic immunity, remembering that our representatives abroad also have diplomatic immunity.


My Lords, in view of the Minister's statement that it is the duty of these people to have respect for the laws of the country in which they reside—he cited over 2,000 offences; yet apparently no action can be taken by the Government, and presumably no effective action be taken by the Heads of the Diplomatic Missions—cannot something be done, even under the international Agreement to which the noble Lord has referred?


My Lords, I cannot accept that no action has been taken by the Heads of Diplomatic Missions. There is not the slightest doubt that action has been taken. But that is a matter for them and not for us.


My Lords, can the noble Lord say, since it was not the Foreign Office, which Government Department or Minister asked the Commissioner of Police to have a word with members of the force? Is it true that this action was initiated through complaints from the Heads of Diplomatic Missions who said that the police here were dealing with their staffs too harshly?


My Lords, this is the normal procedure in most countries. They are not too rigid about parking offences. We carry out the practice which is usual in most countries. If a diplomat offends against the traffic laws, we notify the head of the Mission. Unless the offence is likely to cause danger to the public, the police do not operate the law too rigidly, if they can help it, because diplomats are guests here. This applies in other countries in exactly the same way.


My Lords, can the noble Lord say which Government Department made representations to the Commissioner of Police? He would not do it on his own initiative.


My Lords, the Commissioner of Police is responsible for traffic in London.


My Lords, is the noble Lord not aware that this question of diplomatic immunity has been debated in two full debates in your Lordships' House in the last few years, the whole gist of which was that it has been perverted for uses for which it was never intended. It was never intended to cover subordinate staff, such as chauffeurs. It was intended to apply to Ambassadors and their immediate staffs. How many people are now covered—2,000 or more? It is intolerable.


My Lords, I am very interested in the noble Lord's speech, but it has nothing to do with the Question.


My Lords, I consider that that is an extremely rude remark.


My Lords, may I ask a question, which I think the Minister will admit is pertinent? Would it not be more in accordance with reasonable procedure, and probably also helpful to Heads of Diplomatic Missions, if the instruction issued by the Commissioner of Police about these parking offences stated that in the ordinary course, people would be served with a notice and could, if they wished, plead their diplomatic immunity, but that if it was clear, on the face of it, that there was good reason for not giving a ticket, then it would not be given? At the present moment, it would appear that anybody—most probably a lot of young diplomats going to night-clubs, and not distinguished Ambassadors keeping important appointments—can get away with it. That really cannot be right.


My Lords, I think that I must make it clear that Heads of Missions are fully aware of what is going on in certain cases, when their staff infringe the law.


My Lords, is it not rather unfair of the Government to put all the blame and all the responsibility on to the Commissioner of Police? And is it not quite invidious to expect a policeman or traffic warden to have to decide whether or not to enforce the rigour of the law?


My Lords, perhaps I may go a little further in roughly describing what the Commissioner of Police has said to his police officers. As your Lordships may or may not be aware, the licence of diplomatic cars has a special marking on the licence holder—I am not referring to "CD" plates. The Commissioner of Police, who is responsible for traffic, with the agreement of the Home Office, has told his policemen where possible to find the driver of a diplomatic car and tell him to shift it; not to "run him in" straight away, if he knows that it is a diplomatic car. If the driver cannot be found, and if the car is causing an obstruction, or is a danger in any way, the car is towed away; and offending cars will continue to be towed away in these circumstances.


My Lords, if it is mainly a question of parking offences, would it not be reasonable to consider what is being done in certain capitals abroad—that is, in regard to special parking areas reserved for our Ambassadors—so that Heads of Diplomatic Missions would have greater facilities for parking cars outside their premises?


My Lords, I think that the noble Lord, Lord Killearn, suggested that diplomatic immunity was being gravely misused. I would suggest to your Lordships that perhaps Question Time is in danger of being misused on this occasion. If noble Lords want to debate this question, I suggest that we ought to do it properly and in order, and not allow Question Time to become a small debate.


Hear, hear!