HL Deb 06 March 1980 vol 406 cc397-400

3.18 p.m.

Baroness VICKERS

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they will state how many employees of ambassadors and high commissioners in Great Britain are covered by diplomatic privilege.


My Lords, 5,264 officials of diplomatic missions in London, together with their families, are entitled to full or restricted diplomatic privileges and immunities. A further 846 are entitled to some privileges and immunities under the International Organisations Act 1968, mostly for official acts only.

Baroness VICKERS

My Lords, may I ask my noble friend whether his attention has been drawn to the case of an employee of one of the embassies who was deemed to be drunk while driving a car and had an accident and killed a woman, the mother of two children, and is now claiming diplomatic immunity? Is there any chance of action being taken and perhaps obtaining compensation for the family concerned?


My Lords, the particular case to which my noble friend refers—and I am obliged to her for giving me notice of her intention to raise it—was an unhappy one indeed. But I should tell the House and my noble friend that the prosecuting authorities decided that the evidence could not support a charge of causing death by reckless driving, and at the inquest the coroner brought in an open verdict. The police are still considering whether lesser charges can be preferred in the light of the evidence. No request for a waiver of immunity in respect of any charge has yet been made, and indeed it cannot be so made unless and until the police decide to prefer charges. If they do, and if it then appears that the case cannot be dealt with in the United Kingdom, the Finnish authorities, with whom we have kept in close touch and who have been very co-operative, have already told us that it will be dealt with by them.


My Lords, can my noble friend say when this accident took place?


Last October, my Lords.


My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that our practice in this matter stems fundamentally from our accession to the various Geneva agreements which bind a large number of countries;and secondly, from the obligations we incur, like other signatories, when we accede to protocols to agreements in regard to specific international arrangements? Further, will he confirm my impression—I think it is fairly well-founded, but I should like it confirmed—that this country accords this type of privilege and immunity very much to the same extent and to the same numbers of personnel as comparable countries like, for example, the Republic of France and Western Germany do?


Yes, indeed, my Lords. The privileges which we accord to diplomats in London are in line with those accorded to our own diplomats in almost every country in the world. They stem from the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations of 1961 which was given effect in United Kingdom law by the Diplomatic Privileges Act 1964.


My Lords, can the noble Lord assure us that our diplomatic corps does not systematically abuse the laws of foreign countries with regard to the parking and driving of motor vehicles? Would he further agree that the diplomatic corps in London—there are, of course, exceptions —has been systematically abusing those laws? Is it not time to say to our diplomatic people that, if they are to have private cars—I am not, of course, referring to ambassadors' cars—they must, in advance, waive their diplomatic privileges as to the utilisation of those cars?


My Lords, it would not be true to say that there is widespread abuse of these arrangements. There are a few well publicised abuses which we do our best to deal with. However, we could not unilaterally restrict the privileges of visiting diplomats without risking the genuine and very necessary privileges accorded to our diplomats overseas.


My Lords, would my noble friend add to what he said about the Finnish authority's willingness to deal with the matter vis-à-vis the man concerned? Will he also tell us what they would do as regards compensation?


Yes, my Lords, I can readily deal with that matter. The compensation is not affected by diplomatic immunity. Diplomats, like everyone else, are required to have proper insurance arrangements and that is certainly the case with regard to the recent Finnish incident.


My Lords, does the noble Lord realise the wonderment with which this House is witnessing the number of subjects which he is able to cover? As a result, does he realise that it is leading to the under-employment of his Front Bench? Is that consistent with the Government's general employment policy?


My Lords, reverting to the Question of the noble Baroness, would the noble Lord perhaps agree that diplomatic privilege ought not to extend to exemption from the normal obligation to give evidence at a coroner's inquest?


No, my Lords;I am afraid that I would not agree with that. There are good reasons why that should be the case, and that is why it is provided for in the agreements.


My Lords, I wonder whether I might interrupt for a moment because the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, invited a change of occupant at the Dispatch Box. I wonder whether it might be appropriate to move on to the next Question after the noble Baroness, Lady Wootton of Abinger, has had her go?


My Lords, I am much obliged to the noble Earl. Does the noble Lord regard it as an absurdity that diplomatic privilege has been used to excuse children of 10 and 11 from stealing in London stores?


My Lords, I am not aware that that is the case, but perhaps I can look into it if the noble Baroness will draw my attention to a specific incident. I can only repeat that, if that were so, it would arise from the agreements which we have entered into.