HL Deb 17 December 1973 vol 348 cc167-76

9.48 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be read a second time. The purpose of the Bill is to ensure that if, as is probable, the United Kingdom has temporarily to leave the International Sugar Organisation, there will be no difficulty about continuing to extend to it the immunities and privileges it currently enjoys. The International Sugar Agreement, 1968, of which Her Majesty's Government is a member, set up the Organisation in 1969. When this Agreement expires at the end of this month it will be replaced by a new, but more limited, interim Agreement, without economic provisions. This interim Agreement is designed, first of all, to keep in being the Organisation as a forum where preparations can be put in hand for the negotiation in due course of a fully comprehensive International Sugar Agreement with economic provisions. As your Lordships will be aware, it was not possible to conclude a comprehensive Agreement during the Renegotiation Conference which was held earlier this year in Geneva under UNCTAD auspices. This was mainly because of important differences between the major importing and exporting participants.

Now that we are in the European Economic Community it is necessary that we should move in step with the Community and take part in the new interim Agreement. Although we hope that a decision by the Community on taking part will be reached soon, it is unlikely that this will be before the current Agreement expires. This means that Her Majesty's Government will be unable to become a party to the interim Agreement (and therefore continue to be a member of the Organisation) as from January 1, 1974. There is therefore a strong probability that there will be a gap in our membership of the Organisation from the end of this year until such time as we can join the interim Agreement or a new comprehensive Agreement. We expect such gap to be of short duration and we shall be doing all we can to persuade the Community to join the Agreement without undue delay. But it will be necessary to ensure that, during any gap in our membership, there is no uncertainty about the status of the Organisation, which is located in London.

The International Sugar Organisation (Immunities and Privileges) Order 1969 gave effect to the Headquarters Agreement between the Government and the Organisation which was signed in May, 1969. Administration of the interim Agreement will also be the responsibility of the Organisation. If we have to leave the Organisation it is doubtful whether the 1969 Order will continue to be effective to carry out the Headquarters Agreement. This is because, under Section 1 of the International Organisations Act 1968, an Order such as the 1969 Order can be made only if the United Kingdom is a member of the Organisation. Because of this uncertainty the present Bill is necessary to ensure that the 1969 Order can continue in force during any temporary United Kingdom absence from the Organisation. The only alternative to this Bill would be termination of the Headquarters Agreement, which can be done only by agreement with the Organisation or if the Headquarters are moved from the United Kingdom.

I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, is deeply interested in this Bill and therefore I should be grateful for his attention. I should just like to say—


My Lords, if the noble Baroness will permit me to intervene, since she was really being a little bit naughty, may I say that I was seeking to give my noble friend some advice on how to deal with this particular matter.


My Lords, that had crossed my mind. Nevertheless, it is good to be listened to occasionally.


Occasionally, yes.


My Lords, Her Majesty's Government would be most reluctant to end the Agreement or to see the Headquarters moved from London. Such action could have serious repercussions in respect of the other commodity organisations which are already in London; those on tin, wheat, coffee, and cocoa. Moreover, action of this kind could in the longer term affect London's position as the main centre of the world's sugar trade.

My Lords, as any absence of the United Kingdom from the Organisation is unlikely to be of long duration, I trust that you will agree that the United Kingdom should continue to act as host to the Organisation, and I commend the Bill to the House. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Baroness Tweedsmuir of Belhelvie.)

9.58 p.m.


My Lords, I do not want to delay your Lordships at this late hour, although we get little assistance from the noble Baroness who apparently was much more prepared to argue than to explain the meaning of the Bill, and then wound up by saying that she did not mind being listened to occasionally. There are a great many speeches made in this House and frequently a great many people do not listen to them. The Bill is not quite so straightforward as the earlier Order dealing with cocoa, and there are some considerable differences in it.

I was interested to hear the noble Baroness refer to certain aims with regard to the International Comprehensive Sugar Agreement, although this Bill does not cover that. As one who was associated with the sugar-producing countries, the sugar-producing Commonwealth, I can say that this matter gave us considerable trouble and difficulty, but we felt it well worth while reaching agreements over a considerable number of years. Some doubt has arisen in recent times about the part that the Commonwealth sugar producers are going to play. All the noble Baroness could say tonight—and I hope I am not in any way detracting from what she said—was that she hoped Britain would get some agreement with her partners in the E.E.C. All I can say is that there are still countries in the Commonwealth which are dependent on sugar for their economic survival.

This we cannot exaggerate in any way. So if agreement must be reached it is most important to a considerable part of the Commonwealth. The Bill, as I see it, provides some tax reliefs, concessions on income tax and duty free supplies. I think this is what it means and this is what we have to extend to certain countries if we want them to come here. I do not dissent from it at this moment, although the noble Baroness is bound to know that in another place and on many occasions she has heard this disputed because these concessions were becoming so extensive we were nearly reaching a stage when more people in the centre of London were enjoying concessions than those who were paying taxes. It gave this Government some trouble and they had to take action over it. While I do not dispute this concession that has been made, let us remember that the Government had to take action to deal with what they thought was becoming an abuse.

The other point that arises is that we propose to extend these concessions to an organisation of which we are not a member. I think this is an innovation such as we have not had to face before. The noble Baroness is saying that as from January 1 we shall be outside this organisation, perhaps temporarily—she hopes temporarily. But we shall be outside, and having got outside we propose to give an organisation of which we are not a member concessions which were born out of our membership of the organisation. In all my long time in Parliament I cannot remember this ever having happened before. I find it difficult to understand how it is done, although I accept the noble Baroness's word for it that we are passing an Act of Parliament in that respect and then we are going to put it right. I should like her to confirm or deny whether there is a precedent for this action. I cannot remember one. So while I will raise no objection at the moment, because I can see the purpose of it, I certainly would like some assurances specifically with regard to our own sugar producers, and in that respect I am speaking about Commonwealth sugar producers; secondly, on the benefits that we are giving to this organisation, or will continue to give it; and thirdly, has there ever been a precedent for taking action of this kind?

9.57 p.m.


My Lords, I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Hoy, was so busy consulting with his noble friend Lord Shepherd that he did not hear my explanation of the Bill in detail. I should like to reply to the three questions he put to me. They were very important questions.


My Lords, may I interrupt the noble Baroness? I do not want to take this matter too far, but I began by saying that the noble Baroness wanted to prolong the proceedings. I would give an assurance now that she is going the right way about it. I listened to every word she said, and if there has been any deficiency in understanding it has been due to her own lack of clarity.


My Lords, I am sure I am greatly lacking in clarity, naturally, but the fact remains I gave a rather extensive explanation of the Bill—perhaps rather longer than most people would expect at this time of night. But the noble Lord, Lord Hoy, said that he thought that maybe I had not explained it sufficiently yet. However, I should like to reply to his specific questions, of which there were three. The first was: What are the implications for the hopeful agreement on the Commonwealth sugar entry? The Bill which I have presented to this House in no way affects the assurance which the Government gave to the developing Commonwealth sugar-producing members, or the Commonwealth Sugar Agreement, at meetings in Lancaster House, which are well known, in June, 1971, and March, 1973, which were all about the access of their sugar into the enlarged Community after the Commonwealth Sugar Agreement expires in 1974. It is hardly necessary for me to repeat that the Government stand by those assurances. But your Lordships will recall that we have assured the Governments concerned that the Community's undertakings on sugar represent a firm assurance of a secure and continuing market in the enlarged Community on fair terms for the quantities of sugar covered by the Commonwealth Sugar Agreement in respect of all its existing developing member countries. We have clearly made it known to our Commonwealth partners that we attach great importance to the developing Commonwealth countries continuing to have this assured market in the Community after 1974, and for the full quantity of sugar which they, at present, send us under the Commonwealth Sugar Agreement.

My Lords, we are confident that satisfactory arrangements on Commonwealth sugar will be concluded. We are encouraged by the fact that the Commission seemed to agree our interpretation of the Community's undertakings on sugar. The proposals which they tabled in July, and which are being considered within the Community, include provisions to import 1.4 million tons of sugar from the developing countries, mainly the Commonwealth, covered by Protocol 22 of the Treaty of Accession, and India. The noble Lord, the Lord Hoy, was rightly exercised about the privileges and immunities which are enjoyed by the International Sugar Organisation. I think that every time such an Order or Bill is presented to your Lordships' House this is a question which exercises all of us. In the case of personnel, they consist of full diplomatic status for the Executive Director, whereas the other members of the staff, who number 27 altogether, have immunity from jurisdiction only in respect of their official acts. They are also exempt from United Kingdom income tax on their emoluments which are subject to an internal tax for the benefit of the Organisation. As the present Executive Director is a citizen of the United Kingdom and Colonies he in fact enjoys only the same privileges and immunities as the other members of his staff.

The last question was: does this Bill extend privileges and immunities to any additional persons? My short answer is that it does not extend them in any way. It continues the scale of privileges and immunities accepted by the House when it approved the draft International Sugar Organisation Immunities and Privilege Order 1969. I think I have answered the noble Lord's three questions.


There is one question that I did put to the noble Baroness—I am sure she heard it, but I expect that she forgot it. What about having a precedent for an action of this kind in extending this to an organisation of which we are not a member?


My Lords, it is not a question of extending this to an organisation. I said that it does not extend the privileges or immunities in any way. But I think maybe what the noble Lord was asking was whether there was a precedent for our not being a member of an organisation to which these privileges and immunities which were approved by this House apply. To my knowledge there has not been a precedent, and we hope that the gap between now and our entering into this new agreement will be very short indeed.

On Question, Bill read 2a.

10.3 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move this Bill be not committed.

Moved, That the Bill be not committed.—(Baroness Tweedsmuir of Belhelvie.)


My Lords, the noble Earl, the Chief Whip will now appreciate that he is very much at the mercy of your Lordships' House because, quite clearly, if we had a Division on the Motion that is now before us, a quorum would not exist, and the agreed procedure between the usual channels would not be fulfilled.

I raise this point only because here again we are meeting at just beyond 10 o'clock. This is not the first time, and it looks, so far as this week is concerned, that we shall be sitting very late right through the week. Many noble Lords who ought to be here are not here because of the problems of getting home. It may be that Ministers sitting opposite will have their cars to see them home. Noble Lords on this side may have their own, or there may be difficulties.

I put the point to the noble Earl: is it really tolerable that we should sit and take legislation under these conditions? We are not like another place, where the Members receive a salary. We have other work to do before we come to your Lordships' House, and when we do come some of us have been in this building for at least 12 hours. There is no meal provided during the course of the evening. I should not have thought that the noble Earl would regard this as a tolerable situation. I in no way criticise him, because I recognise the difficulties, but I hope he will approach the noble Lord the Leader of the House and say that if this is being forced upon the House, putting the House in a position that we have to undertake the procedures which the noble Baroness is putting before us, then the proper services of a Second Chamber ought to be provided. If they are not provided, there will be a moment in which the worm will turn and the Government will find themselves without the quorum that is needed for the passage of their legislation. I say this to the noble Earl in the friendliest of terms because I am fully appreciative of all his difficulties, but I hope the noble Earl will accept, and will respond to me, that the situation to-day is intolerable and that steps will be taken.

I know the difficulty in terms of the Refreshment Department, because the provision of meals is an important factor. They do not wish to run into a deficit, but if another place can have its departments sustained by a Treasury grant in order to provide a service to a Chamber of this Parliament, I should have thought that this should not be a prohibiting factor in the provision of the proper services which your Lordships require. Perhaps if such services were provided we might get a much better attendance in this Chamber and the noble Earl would not be quite as exposed as he is to-night to the generosity of an Opposition.


My Lords, I accept a great deal of what the noble Lord has said. He knows almost, if not quite, as well as I do that, try as one will, one cannot always forecast satisfactorily how business will develop, particularly when we are dealing with the Committee stage or the Report stage of a Bill, where a number of noble Lords are taking a very keen interest. One can only attempt to forecast how long the discussions on various Amendments will take. I appreciated that the discussions on the Report stage were going a great deal slower than either I or his noble friend thought was likely, and therefore I agreed with noble Lords opposite that we would finish at a certain point in the Marshalled List of Amendments.

Equally, I did my best to try to meet the requests of noble Lords opposite when I extended the debate which we are having tomorrow over to Wednesday, so that I hope it will be possible to rise at a reasonable hour. Dinner will be available if there are sufficient speakers. I fully accept that this is not a reasonable hour and I am grateful to the noble Lord for his co-operation.


My Lords, I would not wish to detain the House, but I am sure the noble Earl will know that he has lived on borrowed time since half-past eight this evening. There were occasions on the Report stage when it might have been justifiable to have a Division, but if there had been a Division that would have brought the procedure to a dead stop, which would have created infinitely more difficulty for the noble Earl on Thursday. All I am raising is this question: Is this the right way for the Second Chamber of the British Parliament to conduct its business?

Then, Standing Order No. 44 having been suspended (pursuant to Resolution):


My Lords I beg to move That the Bill be now read a third time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 3a.—(Baroness Tweedsimuir of Belhelvie.)


My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lady for the explanations and what she had to say. I am sorry that the questions put were not put with the greatest clarity, but her explanation was very good. May I say I do not object to the Third Reading?

On Question, Bill read 3a, and passed.