HL Deb 28 January 1980 vol 404 cc650-5

5.11 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that the INMARSAT (Immunities and Privileges) Order 1980 be approved. This order, which will be made under the International Organisations Act 1968, was laid before the House on 19th December 1979. The order is required to confer upon the International Maritime Satellite Organisation and persons connected with it, the privileges and immunities provided for by the Draft Headquarters Agreement concluded by the United Kingdom and the organisation. Copies of that Agreement were laid before your Lordships on 13th November 1979.

Before speaking to the order, your Lordships will wish me to say something about the background to the creation of INMARSAT—to give the organisation its more familiar title. The radio services operating in the high and medium frequency bands once provided satisfactory ship-to-shore communications. But, as the wave bands available became busier because of the growing demand, maintenance of a satisfactory standard of communications became progressively more difficult. It was therefore necessary to find a way of providing a greater number of channels and at the same time to try to overcome some of the other draw backs of the service then provided, namely, interference of varying kinds, not to mention the occasional blackout.

Almost all the problems are overcome by the use of the Very High Frequency and Ultra High Frequency bands. except that, unlike MF and HF, VHF and UHF signals do not in general follow the earth's curvature, but travel in more or less straight lines. Thus, effective exploitation of these new techniques, especially for long-range application, had to await the availability of communications satellites, more particularly the geostationary satellite, that is to say, one that remains stationary in relation to a fixed point on the earth's surface.

Accordingly, the major maritime nations began to consider the possibility of developing a maritime satellite communications service to meet the future requirements of the shipping industry. In 1972, the Inter-Governmental Maritime Consultative Organisation, which is the only specialised agency of the United Nations to have its headquarters in London, set up a panel of experts to study all aspects of the problem. This panel recommended the establishment of a maritime satellite communications system under international control, the setting up of a new inter-governmental organisation for that purpose and the convening of a conference to formulate appropriate instruments.

The first session of that conference, in which 54 countries participated, was held in London in 1975 and approved these proposals. Two further sessions the following year produced an agreed text of a convention and an operating agreement. These came into force on 16th July 1979, thereby establishing the organisation. The purpose of the organisation is to make provision for the space segment necessary for improving maritime communications, thereby assisting in improving distress communications, efficiency and management of ships, public correspondence services and radio determination capabilities. The initial INMARSAT system will include the following service capabilities: telephones, handling of priority traffic (including facilities for emergency position-finding and distress calls), facsimile, broadcast facsimiles, medium and low-speed data, slow scan television, broadcast telephony, telex, telegram. broadcast telegraphy, and recorded information services.

At present, only about 300 of the world's merchant ships are equipped to make use of satellite communications, and they use the American MA RISAT satellites which are now obsolescent and will fade out in 1983. They will, in any case, be superseded by INMARSAT. However. by the mid-1990s more than 2,000 ships of all nations will be able to use the services which INMARSAT will then be offering.

Britain has played a major role in the establishment of INMARSAT. It is our belief that satellites, which now have a significant place in fixed land-to-land communications, present the only practical means for the continued development of safe and efficient maritime communications services.

There have been two meetings of the INMARSAT Council, which is responsible for providing and managing the system, since the organisation formally came into existence. These meetings, understandably, concentrated on the initial needs of the organisation. A director-general, Mr. Olof Lundberg of Sweden, was elected and he took up his post early last December. We expect that when they next meet, the council will be moving toward decisions on the satellite system, decisions which we hope will be beneficial to those British firms working in the aerospace and communications industries.

The first meeting of the INMARSAT Assembly, which is the governmental review body, was held, under British chairmanship, in London last October. The most important issue which it then resolved was the completion of the membership of the council by electing to it four representatives from those countries whose investment share did not qualify them for a seat.

Your Lordships will be pleased to learn that the council accepted Her Majesty's Government's invitation to set up its headquarters here. This order is required so that the draft headquarters agreement can be brought into force to provide the organisation with the privileges and immunities it needs to exercise its functions.

INMARSAT's services will be provided on a repayment basis. This, together with the fact that some of the signatories to the operating agreement are not governmental agencies, led us to the conclusion that some of the privileges and immunities regarded as customary for international organisations would not be appropriate for INMARSAT. The headquarters agreement accordingly differs in some respects from agreements negotiated with other international organisations, and the order before your Lordships reflects these differences. For example, INMARSAT will have only the limited immunity from suit provided in Article 6. Under Article 15, the director-general will enjoy certain immunities, but he will not receive those diplomatic privileges which are often conferred on the executive head of an international organisation. I am sure that your Lordships will welcome the fact that the order contains no provision which confers any immunity from motor traffic offences; and these include parking offences.

Your Lordships may remember approving a previous order concerning INMARSAT. It was made on 11th April 1979, and is revoked by the present order. The 1979 order was very limited in extent and was necessary to enable us to ratify the INMARSAT Convention on 30th April 1979. The provisions of that order are repeated in the order before us today. I very much hope that your Lordships will, by approving this draft order, signify your support for the interesting and essential work which the International Maritime Satellite Organisation is about to begin. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 19th December, be approved. —(Lord Trefgarne.)

5.20 p.m.


My Lords, we are all greatly indebted to the noble Lord for his careful and interesting explanation of this order. We certainly welcome the order. Some of us were in at the birth, one might say, and we are delighted to see such progress in bringing to fruition the consultations of 1975 in which, as the noble Lord rightly reminded us, this country played a major role. There is certainly no reason why affirmative approval should be withheld from this order; it is an order to which the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments do not draw any special attention in reporting to the House. It will enable the United Kingdom Government to give effect to the headquarters agreement that the noble Lord has once more described to us, the agreement between the United Kingdom Government and the International Maritime Satellite Organisation. The order will come into operation on the date on which the agreement enters into force.

One is gratified with the number of countries that have acceded to the system—I use those words because some are more forward than others, as often happens in these matters—and also the governing body, the assembly, is so representative. That fact augurs well for the administration of this very helpful and indeed essential system. The Minister has described the wide range of communications which will be greatly expedited. There may be new ways in which the system will be able to help communications that at the moment we are not very clear about. This is a continuing process. We are calling in the satellite to adjust the curvature of the world. We cannot alter the shape of the world, but we can affect the circumstances that arise in communications from the fact that the world is, as we have been told for the past few centuries at least, round.

I hope that all the countries which accede to the system will take the fullest advantage of it. It will be administered and made available, as the Minister reminded us, on a repayment basis. One hopes that with the passage of time and the increase of user, especially the increase in the number of ships equipped to take advantage of the system (the Minister gave us some interesting figures on that), the familiarity with the system, the increase in the number of countries and the number of operations which will fit in with the system, a kind of revolving fund will prove possible—both as to administrative, maintenance and possibly some research purposes—and the self-funding provision will be able to meet all those objectives.

Even so, even if there may be from time to time a shortfall in the income—and I put a purely personal view here which no doubt is shared by many on both sides of the House—in relation to the costs both of operation and of forward planning, I am quite sure that this country at least, and a large number of other countries, will not hesitate to look at the financial position and to intervene if necessary with new money. This is really one of the waves of the future, literally; and while we would hope that its finances can be as effective conventionally as possible, we must not lay down a hard and fast line on that point which might tend to defeat the ultimate expansion and progress of this extremely helpful and hopeful development.

On Question, Motion agreed to.