HL Deb 13 March 1986 vol 472 cc691-3

3.14 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 what effect the recent High Court decision concerning the Iranian Embassy in London will have on the ratepayers of Westminster.

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

My Lords, may I refer the noble Lord to Westminster City Council for the details he requires since the matter is one for them. I understand, however, that Westminster City Council are considering alternative courses of action following the recent High Court decision.

The Earl of Kinnoull

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that Answer. I recall that Westminster City Council have so far spent over £200,000 on simply making the structure of the building safe. In view of the very unusual circumstances surrounding the situation, are Her Majesty's Government considering any plans to indemnify Westminster City Council against the costs which they have already incurred until there is proper satisfaction between themselves and the Iranian Government?

Baroness Young

My Lords, I understand the point behind my noble friend's question, and I can say to him that, of course, we are sympathetic to the difficulties which Westminster City Council face. The requirement to carry out work on environmental grounds and the recovery of the costs are matters for the city council. However, I can assure my noble friend that FCO officials keep in very close touch with the city council officials and give them assistance and advice. Also, Westminster City Council is kept fully informed of the negotiations with the Iranian Government over damage to diplomatic property both in the United Kingdom and in Iran.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, will the noble Baroness confirm that the difficulty arises in the main because we are not in diplomatic relations with Iran? Will the noble Baroness say what is the reciprocal position in relation to our embassy in Tehran?

Baroness Young

My Lords, we are involved in quite complicated negotiations with the Government of Iran which cover both British property in Tehran as well as Iranian property in London. I am sure that the noble Lord will appreciate that it would not be appropriate to go into the details, but I can assure him that we are actively engaged in negotiations.

Lord Strabolgi

My Lords, will the noble Baroness treat this as a matter of urgency? Is she aware that the burnt-out shell of this building has been disfiguring a distinguished terrace of houses in Princes Gate, and is it not time that something was done? Have the Government no powers to take it over?

Baroness Young

My Lords, I can very much sympathise with the point that the noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi, makes in this matter. As he will be aware, legislation is under consideration to enable the Government to acquire the title, in exceptional circumstances, of premises formerly used for the purposes of a diplomatic mission which the government concerned refuse to dispose of. However, I cannot, of course, give any commitment about when that may take place or when it could be used.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes

My Lords, will my noble friend inform me about whether this is a parallel situation to that of Rhodesia House, which remained empty for a number of years because relations ceased with that country? In that instance a rate bill of approximately £¾ million mounted for Westminister. Or was that a different situation because it concerned a Commonwealth country, and a foreign nation creates different problems?

Baroness Young

My Lords, I cannot give an answer to my noble friend specifically on Rhodesia House. However, in order to make the position quite plain about what lies behind the Question of my noble friend Lord Kinnoull, let me say that it is not a question of non-payment of rates; it is a question of costs which Westminister City Council have been put to in order to make sure that the building is safe.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, the noble Baroness has explained that there are difficulties between Great Britain and Iran and that the normal diplomatic sources do not exist. Usually in those circumstances some other government will act on behalf of the other two. Is that situation being examined by the Foreign Office so that the matter can be properly cleared up?

Baroness Young

No, my Lords, in this particular situation we are negotiating directly with the Iranian Government over our properties in Teheran and the Iranian Government's properties in London.

Lord Mowbray and Stourton

My Lords, I should like to follow up the matter by asking my noble friend why it is not possible for the Government to answer Lord Strabolgi's question. Why can they not repair the property concerned before it deteriorates further and then add that sum to the bill already accumulating?

Baroness Young

My Lords, as I understand the position the Westminster City Council have now spent a considerable sum of money making the building safe under the health and safety regulations. One of the subjects of negotiation between ourselves and the Iranian Government concerns the claims with respect to damage to the property which occurred when there was the difficulty in the then Iranian Embassy, and they are balanced against the claims which the British Government have against Iran for British property in Teheran which was affected by the Iranian revolution. There are a number of complex interlocked negotiations going on. What I can say to my noble friend is that we are actively engaged in trying to make some progress in them because we should all like to see progress made.