HL Deb 15 December 1980 vol 415 cc881-7

3.7 p.m.

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I beg to move that the International Organisations Bill be now read a second time. This Bill has two main objectives. The first is to remove those provisions of the International Organisations Act 1968 which discriminate against organisations composed of Commonwealth states. The 1968 Act applies only to organisations of which the United Kingdom and at least one foreign state are members; as Commonwealth states are not, legally speaking, foreign, Commonwealth organisations cannot at present be accorded privileges and immunities under the Act.

The second main objective of the Bill relates to the treatment to be accorded to international commodity organisations of which the United Kingdom is not a member. The Bill also makes certain minor changes in the 1968 Act which experience has shown to be necessary. I shall be giving your Lordships details of these in a moment.

Clause 1 of the Bill will enable us to treat Commonwealth organisations in the same way as other organisations. In the past we have had to pass special legislation whenever it was required to grant privileges and immunities to a Commonwealth entity. We did this for the Commonwealth Secretariat in 1966 by the Commonwealth Secretariat Act; and again for the Caribbean Development Bank in the Diplomatic and other Privileges Act 1971. But I am sure your Lordships will agree that there is no reason why parliamentary time should be taken up with primary legislation on each occasion when privileges and immunities are granted to Commonwealth organisations which would in all other respects qualify for them.

There is no justification for continuing to maintain provisions whereby all Commonwealth international organisations are treated differently from other organisations with comparable functions. Indeed, to do so might be considered as detracting from the high regard we attach to the Commonwealth and its 44 member states. Parliament will still have control in this matter, since an Affirmative Resolution by each House will be required for any Order in Council relating to these organisations. Clause 1 also contains a provision which will allow us to treat conferences attended solely by Commonwealth representatives in the same way as we do other international conferences.

There are two Commonwealth organisations in the United Kingdom which have sought similar benefits to those granted to the Commonwealth Secretariat. These are the Commonwealth Telecommunications Organisation and the Commonwealth Agricultural Bureaux. I very much hope that early enactment of the Bill we are now considering will allow us to demonstrate that we hold these admirable examples of Commonwealth co-operation in no less regard than other organisations. Clause 2 achieves the other main objective of the Bill by enabling a limited range of privileges and immunities to be granted to an international commodity organisation of which the United Kingdom is not a member but which has an office in this country.

Under the present terms of Section 4 of the 1968 Act, the only privilege which can be accorded to international organisations of which the United Kingdom is not a member is exemption from taxes on income or capital gains. No provision exists for according the staff of such organisations personal immunities and privileges such as exemption from United Kingdom income tax or Customs privileges on first arrival. London has long been recognised as the centre of the world commodities trade. There are now seven producer/consumer commodity organisations established here of which we are a member. We hope that the headquarters of future international commodity organisations will also be located in London. Such organisations are accustomed to receiving fiscal reliefs because their funds are provided by their member Governments and it is an internationally accepted principle that one state does not tax another in respect of non-commercial activities.

It may be that there are factors which prevent or preclude our membership of a particular commodity organisation. But it is our view, and one which I am sure finds support with our commodity traders and manufacturers, that if we cannot be a member of an organisation, proximity of its headquarters to our markets and marketing expertise can be to our mutual advantage. An example of the sort of organisation I have in mind is the International Tea Promotion Association. It was established in 1979 by tea-producing countries in order to promote the consumption of tea. The association decided to locate itself in another European country on a temporary basis, and we would wish to see London considered for its permanent headquarters. It is the sort of example of self-reliance among developing countries which we wish to encourage. We hope that the association would eventually become part of a wider international tea agreement in which both producers and consumers are members, and we would like to see London as the headquarters of the wider agreement.

Our present practice of distinguishing between organisations according to whether the United Kingdom is a member or not is not followed by all European countries. This therefore puts us at a disadvantage. We believe that we should now help to maintain London's pre-eminent position in world commodity markets by making available to such organisations a limited range of fiscal reliefs so as to make it more attractive for them to establish themselves here. Clause 2 of the Bill therefore empowers the making of orders whereby international commodity organisations of which the United Kingdom is not a member, and persons connected with such organisations, may enjoy certain privileges and immunities which are defined by reference to the schedule in the 1968 Act.

With permission, I will recite these briefly. First, the organisation's premises and archives may be granted inviolability; secondly, the organisation may be exempted from taxes and Customs duties and be given relief from rates; thirdly, representatives to the organisation and members of their diplomatic staff may have their personal baggage exempted from search, but this does not preclude the authorities from inspecting their baggage if they have grounds for presuming that it contains prohibited articles; fourthly, the official papers of representatives and their staff may be made inviolable; fifthly, representatives and their staff may be accorded immunity from suit and legal process, but only in respect of their official acts; and sixthly, officers of the organisations may be exempted from national insurance contributions and income tax and be granted Customs privileges on their first arrival in the country.

What Clause 2 does not do is to allow such organisations to be accorded any immunity from suit or legal process. Thus, actions can be instituted against the organisations and against their staff and representatives if, for example, they do not pay their bills. Your Lordships will be glad to note that Clause 2(4) specifically precludes representatives and their staffs from receiving immunity in respect of motor traffic accidents and offences, including of course parking offences.

Those, then, are the privileges and immunities which we propose should be available for certain international commodity organisations. But it does not follow that every organisation which comes here will in fact enjoy them all. The Bill will give us the power to accord them, but only when we have an obligation to do so by means of an agreement negotiated with the organisation. Such an agreement would set out precisely the extent of the privileges and immunities, within the limits I have just outlined, which it had been agreed were essential for the efficient and effective functioning of the organisation. To give effect to that agreement, an Order in Council will have to be made and that order will require an Affirmative Resolution from each House. This procedure will ensure that Parliament retains its control over the extent of the privileges and immunities conferred in each case.

Existing commodity organisations do not have very large staffs and it is unlikely that the numbers of persons who might be covered by the provisions of Clause 2 will be large. The proposals will not therefore significantly increase the numbers of persons enjoying immunity, and such immunity will in any case be strictly limited to the official acts of the persons concerned. We therefore believe that this move to enhance London's position in world commodity trading can be achieved without any untoward effects. The tax exemptions provisions may appear to show that there will be some loss to the Revenue, but we know that without tax exemptions organisations will not come here. We would not then enjoy the gain of tax resulting from the taxable trade which the organisations and persons connected with them will generate here. Any loss is apparent and not real.

I turn to the other provisions of the Bill which are to rectify deficiencies discovered in the 1968 Act during the 12 years of its operation. Clause 3 is concerned with representatives to a conference convened by an international organisation. Under the present terms of the 1968 Act, provision may be made by Order in Council for privileges and immunities to be granted to representatives to an organisation covered by Section 1(1) or to members of any subordinate body of the organisation. Such privileges and immunities are normally required for meetings of the organisation or subordinate body in the United Kingdom. However, if an organisation holds a conference in the United Kingdom to which representatives of member countries are invited, those representatives can be granted privileges and immunities only if a separate order is made in respect of each such conference under Section 6 of the Act. This is an unnecessarily complex requirement. We need a simpler procedure so that when an order is made to implement any future agreement with an international organisation, that order may contain a provision to cover representatives to conferences convened by the organisation. Clause 3 inserts in the Act a new Section 5A which achieves this aim.

Clause 4 of the Bill relates to immunities for representatives of the United Kingdom to the Assembly of the Western European Union and the Consultative Assembly of the Council of Europe. We are bound by our agreements with the Western European Union and the Council of Europe to ensure that our representatives to the respective assemblies enjoy in the United Kingdom the immunities we accord to all Members of Parliament during Sessions of Parliament. We were able to provide such immunity under the International Organisations Act 1950, but when that Act was replaced by the 1968 Act, the wording of the appropriate section was changed so that representatives of the United Kingdom are excluded from any privilege or immunity. That the change in wording should have had this effect was quite unintentional; Clause 4 restores our ability to comply with our international obligations in respect of the Western European Union and the Council of Europe.

Clause 5(1) of the Bill has the effect of adding a new paragraph 9A to Schedule 1 to the 1968 Act to enable inviolability to be accorded in respect of the official premises of a representative. We expect that the growth of international organisations having their headquarters in London will lead some states to establish here permanent missions to these organisations. If so, we should be able to accord to these official premises similar inviolability to that accorded to diplomatic missions. Not to be able to do so is illogical and inconsistent with the existing provision in the Act granting inviolability to the private residence of a representative to an international organisation.

Clause 5(2) and (3) make amendments to paragraphs 10 and 16 of Schedule 1 to the 1968 Act relating to import privileges. Some of our agreements with the international organisations based here provide the right for senior officers, by analogy with diplomatic agents, to import goods for their personal use, and for the use of members of their families. Although the 1968 Act provides for such imports to be exempted from Customs duties or taxes, it does not provide for the right to effect such imports. Diplomats enjoy this right, although of course they must comply with our laws and regulations. This fairly technical amendment ensures that senior officers of international organisations are not treated differently from diplomats in this respect. It will not grant the right to import items such as drugs, arms, or explosives in contravention of the law.

Finally, I should like to mention the repeals made by the Bill. These are set out in the schedule. The list may appear to be inordinately long and colourful for such a Bill, but the repeals result mostly, almost entirely, from the provisions of Clause 1(3), which have the effect of allowing representatives to Commonwealth conferences to be treated similarly with "foreign" representatives. This makes possible the repeal of the Diplomatic Immunities (Conferences with Commonwealth Countries and Republic of Ireland) Act 1961, which made special provision for Commonwealth conferences. All the other Acts and orders mentioned in the schedule (except the 1968 Act itself) added the name of a specific Commonwealth country, on its attainment of independence, to the list of countries in the 1961 Act, and may now be repealed to the extent shown.

I should like to stress that these relatively minor provisions in Clauses 3 to 5 of the Bill are of an enabling nature only. The powers they confer may be exercised only by the making of an Order in Council, and that order must obtain an Affirmative Resolution from each House of Parliament before being made.

I hope that your Lordships will forgive the amount of time that I have taken, but knowing of your Lordships' interest in these matters, I thought that you would wish me to explain in some detail the provisions of the Bill. I wish to emphasise that it is, and remains, the policy of Her Majesty's Government that privileges and immunities will be granted only where it is in the public interest to do so, and in accordance with international practice. My Lords, I beg to move that the Bill be now read a second time.

Moved, That the Bill he now read 2a.—(Lord Trefgarne.)

3.33 p.m.

Lord Goronwy-Roberts

My Lords, I shall not detain the House. I notice a great many noble Lords already fastening their seat belts, and other noble Lords unfastening theirs. The noble Lord has already answered most of the principal questions that I intended to put to him. Therefore I content myself by saying that we welcome the Bill. In one sense it is a consolidating measure. In another sense it makes good the real deficiencies of the 1968 Act, particularly in certain directions, including the glaring anomaly of not conferring on our representatives in Europe, the Western European Union and the Council of Europe, what is regarded by every other country and all other representatives as a natural provision.

The provision in Clause 1 to add Commonwealth states to what in the 1968 Act are described as foreign states is obviously right and long overdue. At the same time it will cut out considerable tautology. We welcome that very much indeed. It is obviously right that Commonwealth states should be placed in exactly the same position in the statute, as in practice, with foreign states.

Clause 2 contains a somewhat different provision and I was very glad to have had from the Minister a prolonged explanation of it. It is intended to confer certain privileges and immunities on international commodity organisations, whether or not we are members of such organisations. Usually we are, of course, but if such an organisation has an establishment here, clearly it is a great advantage to this country, and certainly to London, as, in many ways, the centre of commercial and financial operations, that the organisation should come here and remain here. For that reason, we should not be less ready than any other country to provide the normal and requisite immunities and privileges that apply in these cases. I very much welcome what the Minister said about the importance of attracting commodity organisations to London. We have a very proud record. Seven, possibly eight, such organisations are already here, and they are giving great satisfaction to all who use them.

Clause 3 enables certain privileges to be conferred on representatives to conferences. I agree entirely that the technique of submitting an order to both Houses for affirmative approval does not mean that a separate order is needed for the provision covering conferences; it can be included with other, similar provisions. There is no reason at all why the provision regarding conferences should not be included in an order covering other, similar matters. The main point is that both Houses shall have an opportunity to discuss the order which implements the provisions. This is an enabling Bill in almost every particular, is it not? It enables the Government to bring forward orders to put into force the provisions.

Turning to the vexed question of expanding privileges and immunities, I cannot see that any new privileges and immunities are conferred for the first time in the Bill. It is really common form; this is what other countries do. We should not do less. Certainly we should not do more than they do, though I should be in favour of a degree of competition where it meant attracting certain organisations to this country; but that is another question. There is nothing here that raises the old bogey of whether this country is pouring privileges on others when it is not receiving the same treatment from them. That suggestion is not true, and the Bill does not contain any evidence that the position has been changed. I think that in every case the privileges and immunities are unexceptional. They are reciprocal in appropriate circumstances, and in the sense that this country will not be acting unilaterally, we can certainly support the Bill, which confers on others what others are bound to confer on us in similar circumstances.

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I am much obliged to the noble Lord. No doubt had the British electorate 19 months ago decided differently, it would have been the noble Lord, not I, standing at this Box promoting the Second Reading.

On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.