HL Deb 12 July 1983 vol 443 cc715-6

2.55 p.m.

The Earl of Kinnoull

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

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether the former Iranian Embassy in Prince's Gate is still in a dangerous condition and whether a repairs notice will he served.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, the building is still in a potentially dangerous condition, but Westminster City Council have shored it up with temporary scaffolding. The council have not served a repairs notice: they arc awaiting detailed proposals from the Government of Iran for the reconstruction of the building.

The Earl of Kinnoull

My Lords, may I thank my noble friend for that reply. Is he aware that Westminster City Council should be congratulated on their responsible action on carrying out the repair work to these premises? Is he able to say whether they obtained permission from the Embassy to enter upon the premises; and, secondly, have they recovered the costs? Thirdly, is my noble friend able to say whether the Government have ultimate powers to acquire the premises if the Iranian Embassy continues to flout its responsibilities under our planning laws?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, I agree that Westminster City Council should be commended on their prompt action in this matter. A dangerous structure notice was served by the district surveyor after the unfortunate incidents in 1980. The Iranian Government chose to ignore it and so the city council went in and erected the scaffolding. I understand—although this is subject to confirmation—that permission was neither sought nor obtained. As regards my noble friend's last supplementary question, I am not sure that this would be the appropriate action to take as of course there is something of an analogous situation with British Government property in Iran at the moment.

Lord Sandys

My Lords, while I hope my noble friend will agree that Westminster City Council are to be highly commended in their prompt action, may I ask whether there would be a possibility of exercising call-in powers by the Secretary of State for the Environment if the matter becomes too prolonged and difficult?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, I accept that on the face of it this might be regarded as an ultimate sanction. Of course, the Section 101 notice could require the Iranians to carry out basic minimum repairs or alternatively a Section 115 notice could require more extensive repairs. But in that event the only sanction would be compulsory purchase. But given the vulnerability of our diplomatic compound in Tehran to which I have already referred, the sensitivity of diplomatic relations and the United Kingdom's counter-claim of damage to the Tehran Embassy, repairs notice action would seem inappropriate and possibly also counter-productive.

Baroness Birk

My Lords, while appreciating the delicacy of the negotiations, may I ask whether the Minister is aware that I know there have always been great problems regarding actions—not necessarily of this sort—in dealing with foreign embassies? Can he say to what extent progress has been made by the FCO with Iran and what further pressures can be brought to bear? Is it not true—and I think that the Minister has said so—that if it were not an embassy a repairs notice could certainly have been served? Although I appreciate the problems, we should like to be more satisfied that some action is being taken. If they ignore this, what action will be taken in the future?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, that of course is a hypothetical question. There is no dramatic need for action to render the building safe or anything else until it becomes distinctly unsafe which, as I said in my original Answer, has not yet occurred. However, I take the noble Baroness's point. If it were not a diplomatic immunity situation there would be recourse to the courts: but regretfully that avenue is not open to the Government.

Baroness Ewart-Biggs

My Lords, does the Minister agree that as we are talking about the safety of one building it would not be straying too far from the point to inquire after the health of the old Kensington Town Hall?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, as I remember I answered a Question at some length on the Kensington Town Hall within the past three months or so, and I refer the noble Baroness to the answers I gave then.

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