HL Deb 04 April 1979 vol 399 cc1943-50

4.41 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that the INMARSAT (Immunities and Privileges) Order 1979 be approved. This order, which will be made under the International Organisations Act 1968, was laid before the House on 29th March. The reason why I am moving this order today is one of urgency. It is of considerable importance that the United Kingdom should be able to ratify the INMARSAT Convention on or before the next meeting of the INMARSAT Preparatory Committee, which is to take place from 14th to 18th May. At that meeting it is expected that a sufficient number of States—that is, those representing 95 per cent. of the total initial investment shares in the organisation—will have become parties to the Convention. This will enable it, in accordance with Article 33, to enter into force 60 days later.

The INMARSAT Convention was drawn up at an inter-Governmental conference held in London in 1975 to consider the establishment of a world-wide maritime satellite system under international control. At the final session of the conference a convention and operating agreement establishing the International Maritime Satellite Organisation (for which "INMARSAT" is, I hope, an acceptable acronym), and setting out the details of its operation, were opened for signature. The United Kingdom signed the convention, subject to ratification, on 3rd September 1976. The Post Office, as the entity designated by the Government to participate, signed the operating agreement on 30th March 1979.

Your Lordships will wish to be aware that the purpose of INMARSAT is to procure and operate the so-called space segment; that is to say, the satellite system which will provide, in conjunction with national earth stations, the particular service or services necessary for: first, developing communications to improve distress and safety of life at sea communications; second, increasing the efficiency and better management of ships; third, maritime public correspondence services; and, fourth, accurate ship position fixing by radio. There can be no doubt that it is in the interests of the United Kingdom, as a major maritime nation, to participate in an international organisation designed to meet the need for more efficient communications at sea. Because of frequency limitations and other technical constraints, it is becoming progressively more difficult to maintain an adequate system of ship-to-shore communications. The disastrous accidents involving super-tankers which have occurred in recent years illustrate only too well the need to improve existing communications facilities. The use of satellites to develop a system of safe and efficient maritime communications and to improve navigational aids should go a long way towards reducing the risk of similar disasters in the future.

My Lords, it has been decided that, at the invitation of Her Majesty's Government, INMARSAT will establish its headquarters in the United Kingdom. Thus, when the convention comes into force, it is proposed that the Government shall enter into a headquarters agreement with the organisation in order to define the privileges and immunities which will be required to enable it to exercise its functions here. A further Order in Council will need to be made to implement the provisions of that headquarters agreement, and the House will, at that time, have the opportunity to give full consideration to what is then proposed.

The draft order now before your Lordships is required to give effect to Article 25 and Article 26, paragraph (1), of the INMARSAT Convention, thereby enabling the United Kingdom to ratify the convention. These articles require that the organisation shall have legal personality, and that it shall be exempt from direct taxes and from Customs duties on communication satellites and components, and parts for them, to be launched for use in the INMARSAT space segment. It will be seen that the effect of the order is very limited, and I therefore hope that your Lordships will approve this draft order and so demonstrate the support of this House for the valuable work of the INMARSAT organisation. My Lords, I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft Order laid before the House on 29th March, be approved.—(Lord Goronwy-Roberts.)

4.48 p.m.

Baroness ELLES

My Lords, we are grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Goronwy-Roberts, for having endeavoured to explain to your Lordships what this new word in our vocabulary means. Clearly, it has a great many implications for this country, and I think it regrettable that, not only because of the time of the day but because of the date in the year, with its political implications, we are not going to be able to debate this and give it, perhaps, the merit that I think this important organisation deserves. Undoubtedly, in a world of peaceful and friendly relations the concept of an internationally organised global system of communication satellites for commercial shipping is a very attractive one; and the concept of a convention to enable this system to operate successfully, smoothly and beneficially is, again, a quite admirable one.

What I am a little concerned about—and I have given notice to the Minister that I am concerned about some of the articles in the convention—should, I think, be just mentioned. Perhaps I should say to the Minister straightaway that I have no intention of holding up the draft order, so he need not be too worried. Nevertheless, I think I am under an obligation to draw to the attention of your Lordships some of the articles which give rise to concern and which, at any rate, should be looked at by whichever Government are returned after 3rd May, to see that this operates smoothly and to the benefit of both the United Kingdom and Western nations.

The first thing we notice is, of course, the question of viability of commercial success of the organisation. I should like to know—and perhaps the Minister could give me a reply in writing later—what financial measures are going to be taken in order to at least attempt to make this a commercially viable organisation. Under Article 15 of the convention, the council is given an enormous number of powers. Again, I will not take up the time of your Lordships reading them all out, but I would draw attention to Article 15(a), which says: Determination of maritime satellite telecommunications requirements and adoption of policies, plans, programmes", et cetera. This really covers the whole field of satellite communication development.

What I should like to ask the Minister—and again, of course, I will not ask him to give me an answer now—is: Has this been discussed at all with the European Community in connection with any industrial strategy which is perhaps being thought out in relation to the development of satellite programmes under the European Space Agency programmes, which are obviously developing quite fast? Because we would hope that this would be an area of industry where the United Kingdom and the West as a whole could develop very considerably over the next 20 or 30 years. Would this particular aspect of the convention in any way prohibit, impede or prevent full and free development under the European Space Agency programme? I think this is a very important aspect for the United Kingdom, its own industrial policies and its own unemployment problems. So this is something which touches the individual citizen of this country.

Secondly, under Article 7, the INMARSAT space segment is going to be open for use by ships of all nations, subject to certain conditions; but it says that there will be no discrimination among ships on the basis of nationality. Of course, this looks quite harmless and very worthy, but it could lead to a considerable amount of difficulty; and at some stage I should like to know what kind of conditions the United Kingdom, which will obviously be a member of the council, contemplates will be imposed in order to limit the number of ships which will benefit from this system, obviously on a basis of their financial contribution. This is another aspect which is of some concern.

My Lords, a third article which gives some concern and which rather touches on what I have already said about the European Space Agency is Article 20(1), concerning procurement policy, because it says: The procurement policy of the Council shall be such as to encourage, in the interests of the Organisation, world-wide competition in the supply of goods and services". This, again, as will be seen from what I have already said, leads to certain implications which I can quite see the Minister has followed, and raises, I think, certain queries if we as a country are going to ratify this convention. Any United Kingdom Government ratifying any international convention stand by their obligations under the convention, and I would imagine that this could give rise to a certain conflict of interests, or may do so, with European obligations undertaken previous to this one.

One interesting point which I think would encourage those of us who pay our taxes regularly and without complaint is that under Article 26, which is the subject immediately under discussion, concerning privileges and immunities, Each Party undertakes to use its best endeavours to bring about, in accordance with the applicable domestic procedure, such further exemption from income and direct property taxation and customs duties as is desirable …". This is the first time that I have seen such wording in a convention and I wondered if it had any specific legal implication for the avoidance, if not the evasion, of Customs duty which befalls most individuals. It seems rather a surprising clause to put in and I wondered whether there happened to be any particular reason for having this clause.

Again, this may be considered a rather detailed and unnecessary thing to mention, but it is the kind of thing that you find that you have got into trouble with later on if not sufficient care is paid to the document concerned: that is, in the Annexe under Article 11 giving the kind of powers for the decision of the tribunal which would be set up in the case of a dispute, the basis for the settlement of any dispute between the signatories to this convention is international law based on the convention and generally-accepted principles of law. I am sorry to see that this is a very limited definition of international law and, as we know only too well in all our international activities, the views of some countries in the world on the generally-accepted principles of law differ very considerably from those of other nations, including our own. I should have thought that this particular definition was drawn much too widely.

I will not detain your Lordships further, except to say that I note with interest that in the investment shares prior to the determination on the basis of utilisation in the Annexe on page 39, the USSR, Byelorussian SSR and Ukrainian SSR together are going to contribute only 11 per cent., whereas the United Kingdom is going to contribute 12 per cent. The three Soviet Socialist Republics, of course, will have the right to three seats on the council despite their fairly low financial contribution and their enormous merchant shipping tonnage. The United Kingdom will, of course, have only the right (in proportion, anyway) to one seat on the council. I wondered whether this is to the best interests of the United Kingdom in this negotiation.

I will not go further than that. I hope that the international convention will fulfil the task for which it is set up. which is to make merchant shipping safer and that it will accrue to the benefit of the Western nations in a progressive, successful and commercial satellite programme.

4.57 p.m.


My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for her contribution which, as always, fastens on to very important questions. I will do my best to answer them. If I do not answer them all it is because I take advantage of her graciousness in saying that I may at a later stage and by written communication make my views and news known. I go on to say that the noble Baroness's implied confidence in my being in a position to do that after tomorrow is rather encouraging.

Baroness ELLES

My Lords, perhaps if I may set the record right, I understood that during Question Time it was made clear that all Ministers are paid for the next four weeks and, therefore, undoubtedly, the noble Lord will be fulfilling his task fully for the next four weeks.


My Lords, I find that financially reassuring and constitutionally most acceptable. To address myself to the very important questions that she raised, certainly, if I miss out any point of substance I will see that the noble Baroness is given the information. At the moment I think that I am in a position to answer some of the most important points that she has raised. There will be only one Soviet seat on the INMARSAT Council; so that her justifiable doubt on this point has been clarified for the benefit of all of us; for I am sure that there are others with the same doubt as she had. The wording of Article 26(1), which she rightly questioned, is unusual. The second sentence of paragraph (1) has no implications for us, but we consider that wording of a more precise kind is needed before we can implement any such obligation; so that the noble Baroness has made a point there. It may have implications for other countries, too; so the point is taken and we shall watch that one.

As to the role of the European Space Agency, the ESA's Marix satellites are largely a field of activity for this country. We are the prime contractor. Indeed, that kind of satellite, in the construction of which we have a major part, is a front runner in the competition to provide a satellite system for INMARSAT.

Part of the urgency of getting this order for ratification through is that as the prospective locale of the headquarters of this new organisation, we could hardly turn up between 14th and 18th May and say, "We are not going ahead with this" and, in the same breath, press our point about providing the satellites which are necessary for the operation of these activities. I understand that three satellites from this country are pretty well in the front running. This means a volume of employment which is most acceptable to us and also a quality of employment which meets our increasing expertise in this branch of technology, a branch which is of increasing competitiveness in the world, and in which this country, given this kind of opportunity, can prove its efficacy.

The third point of substance that the noble Baroness raised related to the financial viability of this organisation. The designated entity, as she reminded me outside the Chamber, is the British Post Office, a national corporation. It has given very careful consideration to the financial viability of INMARSAT. It is on the strength of its findings on this score that it has now signed the operating agreement as the United Kingdom designated entity. Indeed it may be asked why the Post Office was somewhat late in putting its signature as the designated entity to the agreement. It is precisely because of the importance of the point which the noble Baroness rightly raised during this debate.

The other point that she raised as to procurement is covered by what I have said about the role of the ESA and Britain in relation to the ESA. As to Article 26, relating to the two broad categories of privilege and immunity, the order relates to the position under taxation and Customs duties of the organisation for the things it needs. The personal privileges and immunities, if I may call them that, will of course be, as the noble Baroness implied, the subject of a later order which I confidently hope to move from this Box in due course.

The contributions from signatories is an interesting point. At first glance of course it seems that this country is contributing a somewhat large proportion of the totality of at least the initial investment subscription—12 per cent.—second only to the amount to be contributed by the United States of 17 per cent., and 1 per cent. more than the composite contribution of the three Soviet Republics.

Most countries which look at this matter carefully would not mind "upping" their contribution because with the increased contribution goes technological and commercial influence, so that the issue may well be not that one's partner is subscribing less than he ought to; the issue may well be that we should like to contribute more than our partners are doing for proper national advantage within this international organisation. It will be an interesting meeting, I suspect, in May when various countries come forward and give their opinions about how much more of the equity, if I may call it that, they would like to provide. Once more, I am most grateful for the attitude of the noble Baroness and for the substantial points that she has raised. I hope that I have been able to clarify the position in regard to the major ones.

On Question, Motion agreed to.