HL Deb 24 June 1985 vol 465 cc543-5
Viscount St. Davids

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 they will consider establishing a method of compensation to individuals for any losses they may incur which they are unable to recover through legal action in cases when the defendants have diplomatic immunity.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Young)

No, my Lords. Arrangements already exist with authorised motor insurers to ensure that claims against diplomats in respect of traffic accidents are settled in the usual way. These cause few problems in practice. In other cases where diplomats rely on their immunity from civil jurisdiction to evade a legal obligation, we take action with their head of mission where appropriate. Our intervention is usually successful.

Viscount St. Davids

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for that reply. Is she aware that there are a large number of cases which are not covered by motor insurance or by any other form of protection? Is she aware that these people are losing their private right for a public purpose? Is there not a principle—and if there is not, should there not be—that where a private right is taken away for a public purpose 'suitable compensation should be made from public funds? Would the Government help a Private Member's Bill laid to bring this about?

Baroness Young

My Lords, the Government's view is that compensation out of public funds for the wrongful acts of diplomats would be inappropriate. The loss that is suffered does not flow directly from the Government's obligation under international law, and even if it did that would be no reason to provide compensation out of public funds.

Lord Denning

My Lords, is there not a point of principle here? When an ordinary individual suffers damage by a wrongdoer—it may be that he is run down by a motor car, or it may be that he cannot get possession of his own premises—in those circumstances he can sue in the civil courts for damages against the wrongdoer. But, if that wrongdoer claims, and is protected by, diplomatic immunity, then under the Vienna Convention the innocent person has lost his right of action altogether as a result of executive action by the Crown in affirming the Vienna Convention. Is it not a principle of our law that when a right of action, or right of property, is taken away for public purposes then there should be compensation payable to the innocent person and it should be payable by the Government?

Baroness Young

My Lords, I hesitate to embark on an exchange over the law with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Denning, but the position so far as diplomats are concerned is that under Article 14 of the Vienna Convention all persons enjoying the privileges and immunities are asked to respect the laws and regulations of the receiving state. In the case of diplomats who have offended against the law in some respect, we draw the attention of the head of mission to all serious offences alleged to have been committed by diplomats. In some cases we request either a waiver of immunity or the removal of the offender. Of course, to be sent home in disgrace can be a severe punishment.

Lord Elwyn-Jones

My Lords, can the noble Baroness tell the House what has been the outcome of these approaches in the relevant cases for a waiver of diplomatic immunity? Are we getting recognition from the embassies and legations in London, for instance, of that principle? A principle of international comity is at stake here. Of course there is another issue at stake: namely, the need for us to comply with the Diplomatic Privileges Act 1964, but it might be reassuring if we could learn—and I hope that the answer will be encouraging—the success rate of approaches for the waiving of diplomatic immunity, and the right thereafter to sue the offending diplomat.

Baroness Young

My Lords, as I indicated in the Answer to the original Question, most cases in which the Government have intervened have had a successful outcome. But as the noble and learned Lord will be aware, we published in April a White Paper setting out very fully the Government's view about the Vienna Convention and diplomatic immunities and privileges, and I think this has been well received by the diplomatic community.

The Earl of Lauderdale

My Lords, can my noble friend say what the ordinary citizen is to do when confronted by an offence committed by a diplomat? If I may weary the House for a moment, I remember a car being driven on to the pavement and narrowly missing a small child. The police said that they could do nothing because the car was driven by a lady employed by a South American embassy.

Baroness Young

My Lords, I think it is always rather inadvisable to give public advice across the Floor of the House as to what people should do in certain circumstances. The first move, I think, by any claimant with regard to a diplomat who is alleged to have offended in some way would be to write to the head of mission of the country to which the diplomat is accredited.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, can the noble Baroness give the House the Government's views as to the situation that arises when a person with diplomatic immunity incurs civil debt in respect of goods supplied and then declines to pay the bill or to settle the account?

Baroness Young

My Lords, the noble Lord has given an illustration of what could be an offence committed by a diplomat. As I hope I have indicated, the fact is that we would draw to the attention of the head of mission all serious offences which are alleged to have been committed by diplomats, and in those instances we should ask either for a waiver of diplomatic immunity or possibly the removal of the person from the country.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, I wonder whether the noble Baroness could follow what she has said to deal not with criminal offences but, as my noble friend Lord Bruce of Donington was trying to bring out, a civil matter: namely, a civil debt. What would be the position where somebody claiming diplomatic immunity failed to pay one of our traders his just due? What would be the position?

Baroness Young

My Lords, I have tried to explain how this might work. In circumstances such as that, the first matter would be that the claimant would write to the head of mission of the country to which the diplomat was accredited. If he failed to get a reply or if such a reply were unsatisfactory, then this would be a matter in which it would be possible for the Foreign Office to intervene and also make representations. When this happened, then some of the circumstances described would, if the offence were shown, follow on.

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