HL Deb 06 December 1984 vol 457 cc1508-12

7.1 p.m.

Baroness Young rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 22nd October be approved. [38th Report from the Joint Committee (Session 1983–84).]

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, I beg to move that the draft order be approved. The purpose of this order, which is to be made under the Consular Relations Act 1968, is to enable us to give effect to our obligations under the consular agreement concluded with the Chinese Government earlier this year. The agreement allows China to establish a Consulate-General in Manchester in return for a similar post which we wish to open in Shanghai for the more effective promotion of our export trade to that country.

The privileges and immunities accorded to foreign consulates in the United Kingdom are governed by the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, the relevant provisions of which are scheduled to the Consular Relations Act. However, it can be agreed bilaterally, within the limits prescribed by the Act, that a higher scale shall be conferred. The present order provides that where we allow a Chinese consulate to be set up in this country, that post and the persons connected with it shall, on the basis of reciprocity, be accorded a level of immunity which approaches, though does not precisely match, the diplomatic scale. The effect of the order will be quite limited so far as the number of Chinese officials are concerned. Under the terms of the consular agreement, the complement of the Chinese Consulate-General in Manchester may not exceed 10 consular officers and 20 employees.

Orders of similar kind have been approved by Parliament in 1970 and 1978 for the purpose of implementing consular agreements concluded with the Soviet Union and other Communist countries. The order now presented will secure for our Consulate-General at Shanghai reciprocal benefits, notably in the field of immunity, which will be greatly to its advantage in furthering our commercial relations in China, and safeguarding the interests of British nationals in that country.

The consular agreement with China guarantees precise time-limits within which the arrest of any of our nationals by the Chinese authorities must be notified to our consul and within which the consul shall be given early and frequent access to the persons detained. As a result, both the consular section of our embassy in Peking and the consulate-general in Shanghai will be able to render assistance more promptly to people who find themselves in this unhappy situation. The increased standard of immunity conferred on a Chinese consulate by the present order is, of course, closely related to the provision on arrest which I have just described, for unless our consular officers and staff are to enjoy a status which will enable them to carry out their duties without interference they will in turn be unable to give the necessary help to British nationals who may find themselves in trouble with the Chinese authorities. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 22nd October be approved. [38th Report from the Joint Committee (Session 1983–84).]—(Baroness Young.)

Lord Boston of Faversham

My Lords, I should like to thank the noble Baroness, Lady Young, for introducing this order and for explaining its provisions in her characteristically clear way and in such concise terms, too. I should also like to welcome the order itself. It marks a further stage in the development of what I believe are productive and happy relations between our country and the People's Republic of China and it represents another tangible example of the way in which these relations have been developing.

I must be careful not to overstep the bounds of order by dwelling upon another tangible example of these developments—the agreement on Hong Kong—especially as your Lordships will have a chance next Monday to debate that matter fully. But I think I can tonight go so far as to note that this consular agreement, which was signed on 17th April this year, was signed on the second day of the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary's April talks in Peking on Hong Kong; so it was a happy forerunner of that more major agreement, which we have had a chance to welcome already.

It is good to know that our consulate in Shanghai is being reopened and that the equivalent Chinese consulate-general is being established in Manchester. I wonder whether the Minister is able to give us any approximate idea of when, assuming Parliament approves this order, the two consulates-general are likely to be operating.

I take it that so far as the number of consular officers and other staff at the consulates-general are concerned, and which have been mentioned by the Minister tonight, both Governments must be satisfied that the maximum numbers allowed under the agreement are sufficient to meet their needs; otherwise I assume they would not have agreed those limits. But I wonder whether the Minister could say whether she expects that the consulates-general are likely to be operating at or around those strengths which she mentioned, right from the start.

One of the features of this, if I may say so, most acceptable order which will perhaps be most welcome to your Lordships is that it is not necessary for me to spend more time on it other than to join the noble Baroness, Lady Young, in commending it to the House.

Lord Kennet

My Lords, I, too, join the noble Baroness in commending the order to the House—that goes without saying. I do have one or two questions to ask because both Houses have in recent years, rightly in my view, taken an increasing interest in the pattern of diplomatic and para-diplomatic, including consular, privileges and immunities in this country. I think it would be of advantage to the House and to the public, if they choose to read Hansard, if the noble Baroness could tell us something about the general pattern and how the arrangement with China fits into it. So, I will put to her certain questions and I should like to preface them with the remark that we on these Benches (if there were any others of us here) share the general good opinion of our relations with China at the moment and believe that those relations should advance in intimacy and efficacity as fast as possible, and we are glad that this arrangement is part of them.

My questions refer to the general pattern and have nothing to do with China particularly. There are, of course, infinite gradations of privilege and immunity, and it is easier to understand the general pattern perhaps by looking at, to coin a phrase, the relativities rather than at the absolute position of a given country such as, for instance, China in this order.

I will come to my questions. First, can the noble Baroness confirm what I believe is the case, that all consuls-general of all countries in London have something very close to full diplomatic privilege and all have the same degree of privilege and immunity, and that therefore we are talking now only about consuls—that is, provincial people, heads of consular missions in provincial cities, starting with Manchester and going on?

I have quite a lot of questions coming up, and my next one is whether these consular immunities and privileges are always, and with all countries, reciprocal whatever their degree.

Now I come to the crux of the questions which I think are of importance: does any group of countries have greater consular privileges and immunities than the generality of countries, and, if so, what are the countries in that group? If there are more than two groups—as it were, a kind of privileged group and a less privileged group—how many groups are there, and which countries are to be found in each group? Following from that, rather naturally, why are there different groups enjoying different degrees of consular immunity and privilege, and how did they come into existence? Lastly, which of these groups, if indeed there are a plurality of groups, will China fall into?

That is the end of my list of questions, and I hope the noble Baroness and her governmental colleagues here and in another place will not think that it is an impertinent or irrelevant question because, given the increasing difficulties this country and others have had—and let me repeat this has nothing whatever to do with China—with regard to safe administration and preserving the safety of their own citizens in the face of the growing privilege of immune representatives of other sovereign states, I think it is right that Parliament should be as fully informed as possible about these matters.

7.10 p.m.

Baroness Young

My Lords, I should like to thank both the noble Lord, Lord Boston, and the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, for their reception of this order. As they say it does mark a new stage in our relations with China, and this is to be welcomed.

The noble Lord, Lord Boston, asked me two quite specific questions about the order. He asked, first, when is it expected that the two consulates might open. I can tell the noble Lord that as soon as the British and Chinese Governments have notified each other that the procedures required by their respective national laws have been completed, the consular agreement will enter into force and the way will then be clear for the two Governments to determine by mutual agreement the dates on which their respective consulates-general will open. Preparations for opening our consulate-general in Shanghai are currently in hand. We hope that they will be completed in the first part of 1985. The time-table for establishing a Chinese consulate-general in Manchester is, of course, a matter for the Chinese Government. We have not so far been notified of any firm decision.

The noble Lord also asked about staffing levels when the consulates-general open in Manchester and Shanghai. Article 4 of the consular agreement stipulates that no more than 10 consular officers and 20 employees shall form the complement of each post. The Chinese Government have not announced when their post will open, and its staffing level has yet to be made known. Initially, the number of staff in Shanghai will be well below the limit provided for in the agreement.

The noble Lord, Lord Kennet, asked me a series of questions. I am grateful to him for giving me notice of them because they go slightly wider than the particular order that is in front of us, but I will attempt to answer them all. The first question concerned whether all consuls-general of all countries in London have something near to diplomatic immunities and privileges. I can confirm that nearly all countries would have their consuls in London named on the Diplomatic List and they would therefore be entitled to privileges and immunities on the full diplomatic scale of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations. I can confirm that, as the order has said and as I have indicated, the cases are reciprocal.

The noble Lord then asked whether some countries have greater immunities and privileges than others. I can tell him that there are broadly three groups of countries. The first group contains most countries which have adopted the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations. There is a second group, which includes certain Western European countries and the United States, which has privileges and immunities slightly above the Vienna Convention on the consular relations scale. Thirdly, there are Communist countries where the consulates have privileges and immunities on the diplomatic relations scale or nearly so. The reason why there are different groups is that each case is considered separately and circumstances can vary. But I should like to confirm that the principle of reciprocity applies in all cases.

Finally, the noble Lord asked me into which group China might fall. It would be into the last group of the three that I have named. This would include Communist countries which, as this order indicates, have privileges and immunities on the diplomatic relations scale or very nearly so. I hope that that has covered the questions that have been asked.

Lord Kennet

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I should like to thank the noble Baroness for answering my questions so very fully and helpfully. I believe that her answers will be of considerable public interest.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now adjourn during pleasure until 8 p.m.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

[The Sitting was suspended from 7.15 until 8 p.m.]