HL Deb 31 January 1978 vol 388 cc659-69


2.53 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that the European Patent Organisation (Immunities and Privileges) Order 1977 be approved. With your Lordships' permission, I shall at the same time move the International Rubber Study Group (Immunities and Privileges) Order, as set out on the Order Paper. These orders, which were laid before the House on 10th January, will be made under the International Organisations Act 1968.

The order relating to the European Patent Organisation will enable us to fulfil our obligations under the Convention on the Grant of European Patents and the annexed Protocol on Privileges and Immunities, which entered into force on 7th October 1977. The protocol requires that the Organisation be given legal personality in the territory of each member State and that certain privileges and immunities be accorded to the Organisation and persons connected with it. The present draft order confers corporate status on the Organisation and accords those privileges and immunities which are specified in the protocol. The scale of these privileges and immunities is broadly similar to that accorded to the European Centre for Medium-range Weather Forecasts and its staff, except that the president of the European Patent Office is accorded the status of a "high officer", together with certain additional privileges and immunities appropriate to that status. These do not, however, extend to immunity from suit and legal process in any matters concerning the infringement of traffic regulations or damage caused by a motor vehicle belonging to or driven by him, or it may be her.

The European Patent Convention has been signed by 16 European States, including all the EEC countries, and of these seven have so far ratified. The United Kingdom, in depositing its instrument of ratification on 3rd March 1977, became one of the founder members of the Organisation. The European Patent Office has now been established in Munich and by June this year it is expected to be ready to receive its first applications. Under the Convention an applicant, by means of a single application filed in one language (either English, French or German) and processed according to common rules and procedures, will be able to obtain patent protection in all of the member countries he chooses to designate. All examining work will be concentrated at the Munich headquarters, except that under the protocol on Centralisation which forms part of the Convention there is provision for entrusting some national patent offices (and the British Patent Office in particular) with examining work on an agency basis for a transitional period of 15 years.

There is also a branch of the European Patent Office at The Hague, which took over an existing patent searching institution—the International Patent Institute—on 1st March. Together with a small branch in Berlin taken over from the German Patent Office, this office will be concerned with searching and the initial formalities examination. The Convention provides that, for the purposes of information and liaison, sub-offices of the European Patent Office may be set up in the contracting States; but at present it is thought that this purpose can be adequately fulfilled by the national patent offices. It is unlikely, therefore, that a sub-office will be set up in the United Kingdom or that the European Patent Organisation will have any permanent employees working in this country.

The effect of this order on the Exchequer is expected to be minimal, since we shall not be called upon to accord any privileges to officials of the Organisation in the foreseeable future. In the case of representatives who might come here for meetings, they will enjoy no immunity in respect of motor traffic offences (which of course includes parking) and only such immunities and facilities as are required to enable them to fulfil their functions without constraint.

May I now turn to the order relating to the International Rubber Study Group, which I shall move separately. This order is required to enable us to sign and give effect to an agreement with the International Rubber Study Group relating to its headquarters in London. The agreement, which will come into force on signature, provides that the Group shall have legal personality and that such privileges and immunities as are necessary for an international organisation of this nature to function efficiently shall be accorded to it.

The International Rubber Study Group has evolved through various forms since its inception as a British-Dutch Liaison Committee on Rubber, set up at governmental level in 1930. It has grown over the years to become a world-wide body, in which the Governments of 30 countries participate, representing the major producers and consumers of natural rubber. At its headquarters in London, a permanent secretariat is concerned with compiling and publishing statistics, as well as organising symposia and preparing special reports on specific questions as they arise.

Recent years have seen a growth of interest throughout the world in commodity questions. In the context of the North-South dialogue, the role of the commodity trade as a major source of wealth for any developing country has been stressed. For the consuming countries, in turn, the regularity of supply of commodities such as rubber is of direct relevance to their manufacturing industries. The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, at its fourth session in Nairobi in May 1976, resolved to set up a programme of study for the major commodities. This programme, under the name of the Integrated Programme for Commodities, is now in progress, examining closely the characteristics and problems of 10 main commodities, including rubber, with regard to both their production and their trade. A further part of the programme is the conference on the proposed Common Fund, the second session of which ended in December last.

Against this background of the highest governmental interest throughout both the developed and the developing worlds, your Lordships will readily appreciate the invaluable role played by a body such as the International Rubber Study Group. Its statistical work casts light on the complex interactions of the world rubber trade, and it provides a forum in which countries may reach an orderly settlement of such problems as arise between different interest groups. In time, and with the favourable progress of the commodity programme, the task of the study group will doubtless grow even more in importance. We may expect, indeed, that it will one day provide the natural foundation for a full international rubber organisation having regulatory functions.

The United Kingdom is already host to five full international commodity organisations, which is a measure in itself of their importance to us. Furthermore, the Government are participating actively in the integrated programme established by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development. I therefore recommend that your Lordships approve this order and demonstrate the support of the House for the contribution being made by the International Rubber Study Group to the well-ordered development of this important commodity. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft European Patent Organisation (Immunities and Privileges) Order 1977, laid before the House on 17th January, be approved.

That the draft International Rubber Study Group (Immunities and Privileges) Order 1978, laid before the House on 17th January, be approved.—(Lord Goronwy-Roberts.)

3.4 p.m.


My Lords, on behalf of those who sit on these Benches, may I thank the noble Lord, Lord Goronwy-Roberts, for his detailed and comprehensive explanation of the two orders which are now before your Lordships' House. I do not have any detailed questions to put to the noble Lord, but I should like to ask him whether there is any real difference between the immunities conferred by the two different orders that we are discussing. There are minor variations in phrasing as between the two orders, one of which is coloured blue while the other is coloured white. Is there any significance in the fact that one is blue, or is it merely a political omen? Your Lordships will be wanting to turn to the Theft Bill and therefore, with that question, I once again thank the noble Lord for his explanation of what these two orders are now setting in motion.


My Lords, I must apologise to the noble Lord, Lord Goronwy-Roberts, for the fact that I was not in my place when he started his address to your Lordships on these two orders. But when an order is entitled the European Patent Organisation (Immunities and Privileges) Order, and purports to give privileges and immunities which the ordinary citizen in this country does not have, no doubt the noble Lord will expect somebody from these Benches to make some observations about them.

There are one or two questions which I should like to ask about this order, and I apologise if the noble Lord raised these matters in the part of his address which I did not hear. What is the position of experts, and what is meant by "experts" in Part V? Does this order give immunity to experts of the kind who would be expected to go to the European Patent Office in Munich, which I understand is part of the European Patent Organisation, and who would be dealing with applications for patents lodged in Munich which might then, for some procedural reason, be transferred to the United Kingdom Patent Office for further prosecution? Who are these experts who are to have immunities and privileges over and above those which citizens of this country have? Prima facie, it appears that there may be a large number of them, but perhaps I am wrong in my interpretation of the word "experts" in Part V.

When I was a representative of this Party in the Council of Europe I raised, from time to time, a protest as to the form in which these matters came before the Houses of Parliament, because they arise under a Convention. According to the explanatory note, the Convention of 1973, which was signed by the United Kingdom Government, had annexed to it a schedule which was the protocol on privileges and immunities. As a result of the manner in which this Convention was conceived, and therefore the manner in which the protocol on immunities and privileges was conceived, there was no opportunity for Parliamentary discussion before any body.

I tried, when I was a representative at the Council of Europe, to get the Council to have a discussion on this type of Convention. But the Convention was conceived at the Council of Europe and it has been discussed and it is probably made into a very good form by representatives from Governments without any Parliamentary discussion at all until the matter comes before this House in a more or less finished form.

That is my apologia for addressing your Lordships at such length on this matter: no doubt, the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack will have answers to the questions which I have raised. The other matter about which I should like to ask the noble Lord is this. Is it likely that the United Kingdom Patent Office will be considered a subordinate body nuder Part III, paragraph 13, of the order?

3.8 p.m.


My Lords, I think the noble Lord will be aware that outside Parliament there is a good deal of criticism of the very wide spread of these immunities and privileges and therefore there is a considerable body of opinion that would expect Parliament to probe the proposal to add to them. I am sure the noble Lord will understand that, in these days when the ordinary citizen is subjected to every kind of restriction, the fact that the number of privileged people in our midst should be increasing is a matter that gives rise to understandable criticism.

I should like to direct my remarks to the second body concerned in these two orders, the International Rubber Study Group. In his admirable explanation of both of these orders, the noble Lord did not, I think—and I followed his argument very closely—give any indication as to whether or not this study group would be unable satisfactorily to discharge its functions if it did not have these immunities and privileges. It may be that it could not operate, but, with great respect, the noble Lord did not tell us what those difficulties were. I think that it might be helpful if the noble Lord could indicate to the House whether there is a positive, practical case for granting these immunities and privileges to the International Rubber Study Group or whether they are asked for as a kind of status symbol because, as the noble Lord said, five other commodity organisations already have them. Again in the context of the International Rubber Study Group, I should also like to ask the noble Lord whether among the immunities there are any immunities from taxation. As the noble Lord knows, those are the kind of immunities which give rise perhaps to the strongest of feelings, at least among those who enjoy no such immunities. Perhaps the noble Lord could tell us whether any tax concessions are involved and, if so, what they are.


My Lords, I have sat in this House for a great number of years listening to debates on immunities and privileges Motions. It is at least 10 years since I heard a Front Bench spokesman—I do not remember from which Party he came—say that the House would not pass any more of these Motions but would vote down the next one. I am still awaiting the great day when the next one is going to be voted down. Unfortunately, I did not hear everything that was said by the noble Lord, Lord Goronwy-Roberts, but the other matter, apart from taxation to which my noble friend has just referred, which enrages the general public is that so often these people are able to snap their fingers at parking regulations and accumulate a gigantic pile of unpaid parking tickets. Is that kind of immunity going to apply to these people?

3.12 p.m.


My Lords, in the first place perhaps I may address myself to the questions raised by the noble Lord, Lord Lloyd of Kilgerran. The experts whom he wished me to define—and who would define an expert? But I shall do my best—are independent consultants who are not employed by the Organisation but who are given contracts for specific purposes. It is difficult to estimate how many experts there will be at any one time. That is so far as I can go on the definition of experts in this or any other connotation.

I believe that it was the noble Lord who also asked about the future of the British Patent Office. Under Article 31 of this order, it is not, of course, a subordinate body and its future over the next 15 years will be very much what it is now. It will deal with all applications which come to it from internal sources and, in addition, will act in an agency capacity, as I said, for the Munich office. The 15-year period is deemed to be transitional from the agency basis to the point where Munich, presumably, will be handling everything. But I should imagine—indeed, I should expect confidently—that a British office for purely British patent purposes (some people apply for patent rights simply within their own country) would continue.

The noble Lord also raised a point about procedure. I cannot speak, unfortunately, for the procedure or non-procedure in any other Parliament, but to apply the noble Lord's point to the British Parliamentary procedure, when these agreed international conventions are ratified by this country they need to be approved in that form by both Houses of Parliament. Before, however, such conventions come to us or to the other place a joint select committee looks at them to see whether they are ultra vires in any way. This procedure was followed in this case as it is in every similar case, but I think I know what the noble Lord is after. Although these orders were put to the joint select committee, it is a fact that it was found later to be necessary for the committee to bring up points of deficiency about their drafting. This was instantly seen to and put right. I take it as a salutary reminder from the noble Lord—whose field, the patent field, this is—that we should be very careful to follow the proper procedure of a joint select committee before coming to the two Houses in regard to orders such as this, and I can give him an assurance that that procedure will certainly be followed. Those are the three points which I believe the noble Lord raised.

The noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, who is always kind and even more formidable, almost launched into a critical appreciation of the need for immunity and privilege. As a former very distinguished Cabinet Minister, he will know that this is common form; but again it is a function of this House—I say nothing about the other place—that on these occasions we should be reminded that what we are doing needs to be scrutinised and reaffirmed as to its necessity and extent and must not be taken for granted. The noble Lord knows, of course, that we rest on the Vienna Convention and other international agreements as to how much and how far to go in regard to diplomatic and similar privilege and immunity. As the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, himself hinted, these are matters of pretty common form. They are less in the extent of the privileges and immunities that they extend than some others that one could mention. In fact, I have armed myself with a rather neat list of the immunities and privileges to be accorded under these orders to the various categories of people who are doing the work covered by these orders. However, it is rather lengthy. I have no desire to hold back my noble friend Lord Harris of Greenwich from dilating upon some rather fascinating legislation which is to be considered by your Lordships, but I will make available this list to the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter.


My Lords, would it not be briefer if the noble Lord gave me a list of those international organisations which do not have these privileges?


No, my Lords: this is where one qualifies one's admiration for even the noble Lord. In my recollection there are no orders, and therefore no immunities or privileges accorded to various categories of officers, which are entirely similar. These, too, vary. As to 90 per cent. or more of the privileges and immunities accorded to the study group and to the Organisation, they are similar, but there are what I would call minor differences between even these two orders. There is a minutiae of variation from one organisation to another. Therefore I must resist the noble Lord's enticing invitation to cut that particular corner. I should not be misleading the noble Lord but I might be misleading myself if I succumbed. I repeat that this is a useful list which he and other noble Lords might find it interesting to study. I shall make it available in the Library so that a comparison can be made.


My Lords, might it not be more convenient for noble Lords and for others who are interested in this subject if the list were given in the form of a Written Answer to a Question?


My Lords, the matter is entirely in the hands of the House and the Members thereof. It is always possible for a noble Lord to put down a Question for Written Answer. In addition, I shall be doubly virtuous and will also place a copy in the Library. Perhaps I may proceed with these fascinating questions; I hope that I have taken note of them all. I have a certain facility by now for reading these orders, but I have a diminishing facility for reading my own handwriting. I come to the graceful speech made by the noble Lord, Lord O'Hagan, whom once more we welcome to his Party's Front Bench.


My Lords, before the noble Lord leaves that point, I think he was going to answer my question as to whether the International Rubber Study Group involved immunities from taxation and, if so, which?


My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, reads my handwriting better than I do myself, even from a sitting posture.


My Lords, if the noble Lord could see mine he would understand why.


It is a question of substance, my Lords. The invariable practice in this connection is, of course, to render immunity from internal or host country income tax, but that of course does not absolve any officer from whichever country from paying income tax: he pays his own country's income tax. There is a somewhat complicated procedure whereby this is done, but as the noble Lord well knows—although he is right to get me to remind the House of the position—these people are not absolved from taxation. They are immune from the taxation of the country in which they serve as foreign nationals but their own States take good care that they pay what they would have paid if they had stayed at home. I do not know whether from one country to another there is a certain bargain. I think it works both ways, depending on the two countries concerned. I am most grateful to the noble Lord for reminding me of that point. I know that I have made the position clear to him because he was well aware of it already.

I should like to refer to the speech made by the noble Lord, Lord O'Hagan, for its brevity and its appropriateness. We are all appreciative of my noble friend (if I may so call him), who speaks from the Conservative Front Bench: we rejoice in him personally although we may deplore him politically. He gave general support to these orders, and rightly so; he is familiar with the procedure and also their purport. As I have said, they vary a little from one order to the other, but not to such an extent, I suggest, as to create an issue for prolonged debate in this House. He made an interesting remark about the colour of the paper on which the two orders were printed; he said that, apart from the difference between blue and white, he could see no difference in them. I doubt whether there would be much greater difference between them if the difference in colour had been as between blue and red.


My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down I should be glad if he would answer my point. Are these people able to block up whole streets of London with impunity and immunity?


My Lords, I thought I had made it clear that they are not immune from the stringencies of our motor traffic Statutes, and I rather stressed the point "including parking offences", and I looked meaningfully in the direction of the noble Lord when I said that.

On Question, Motions agreed to.