Orders of the Day — Diplomatic Immunities (Conferences with Commonwealth Countries and Republic of Ireland) Bill

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 24 January 1961.

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Order for Second Reading read.

7.26 p.m.

Photo of Mr Cuthbert Alport Mr Cuthbert Alport , Colchester

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

I think that I should start by saying that my right hon. Friend fully recognises the jealousy which the House has always shown in regard to proposals to extend immunities to new categories of individuals coming to this country for representational purposes. The object of the Bill, however, is to ensure that those who come from Commonwealth countries and from the Republic of Ireland do not do so in any less advantageous position than those coming to do precisely the same work in relation to their Governments and to our Government from foreign countries throughout the world.

The House will know, I am sure, that diplomatic representatives from Commonwealth countries who are appointed to this country have for some time past been accorded the same immunity from suit as is accorded to envoys from foreign States. The purpose of the present Bill, as I have said, is to correct the anomaly by which representatives of Commonwealth Governments, and their staffs, attending conferences in this country do not have immunity while representatives of foreign Governments on similar occasions do.

The Bill is concerned with representatives of the Governments of the countries listed in Clause 1 (5), and their staffs, attending conferences in this country with representatives of our own Government.

Under Section 4 of the International Organisations (Immunities and Privileges) Act, 1950, which in this respect was a consolidation of legislation first passed in 1944, representatives of foreign Governments attending conferences with representatives of the United Kingdom Government can, by their inclusion in a list published by the Secretary of State, be accorded diplomatic immunity. Burt there is at present under our law no means by which immunity can be conferred on similar occasions upon representatives of Commonwealth Governments. The purpose of the Bill is to provide machinery by which this can be effected.

The procedure provided for in the Bill is the same as that now in force in the case of conferences with foreign representatives. The Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs has power to publish in the London, Edinburgh and Belfast Gazettes the names of those representatives and their staffs qualified for immunity under the existing Act and the dates of the beginning and termination of that immunity. We propose in this Bill, in respect of Commonwealth personnel concerned, to follow precisely the same procedure.

The Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland is included in Section 1 (6) of the Diplomatic Immunities (Commonwealth Countries and Republic of Ireland) Act, 1952, which deals with the position of Commonwealth diplomats appointed to this country, and similar treatment is accorded to our High Commissioner in Salisbury and his staff. It is, therefore, I think the House will agree, appropriate that the Federation should be included in this Bill dealing with those coming to the United Kingdom for conference purposes.

The Republic of Ireland is also covered by this Bill because, under the Republic of Ireland Act, 1949, it is not a foreign country—that is, it is not a foreign country for the purpose of the United Kingdom law—and is, therefore, not covered by Section 4 of the International Organisations (Immunities and Privileges) Act, 1950. Again, therefore, from the point of view of fairness and equity, we wish to include the Republic of Ireland in this Bill. Clause 2 will allow its extension to other countries which may in the future become members of the Commonwealth.

The immunities conferred by the Bill are to be precisely the same as those which a diplomatic envoy of a foreign Power and his retinue enjoy at the present time. However, if a member of the staff of a representative from a Commonwealth country is a citizen of the United Kingdom and Colonies, and is not a citizen of the country repre- sented, he will have immunity only in respect of his official acts. He will, in fact, have a limited immunity.

Her Majesty's Government have asked other Commonwealth Governments and the Government of the Irish Republic whether they are prepared to introduce similar legislation in cases where this does not already exist. In some cases, it already exists; in some the matter is being considered and investigated to see whether local law already covers the problem; in others there are undertakings that, when the legislative programme permits, they will follow the same procedure which we are following, or are asking the House to follow, in this present Bill.

I am sure that the House would agree that it is important that representatives of Commonwealth Governments who come here to attend conferences with the United Kingdom Government should not be in a less favourable position than representatives of foreign Governments. The forthcoming Prime Ministers' conference is an example of only one kind, though the most important kind, of Commonwealth gatherings which are continuously taking place both in the United Kingdom and elsewhere. Representatives and staffs attending such conferences are entitled—and I think the House will agree with this—to expect that they should not, by doing so, lay themselves open to legal process which would not otherwise have been possible. The Bill will ensure, too, that, when a conference takes place in this country at which both foreign and Commonwealth Governments are represented, Commonwealth representatives will not be at a disadvantage vis-à-vis their foreign colleagues.

We have had, and will continue to have, I hope, a very large number of meetings in the United Kingdom with our Commonwealth friends to discuss various matters of common interest to us. I am sure that it is in the interests of the United Kingdom that every facility should be given to ensure that these conferences take place here and that they do so in an atmosphere which ensures their success. From the point of view of fairness, therefore, and in the interests of the United Kingdom, I recommend to the House that the Bill be read a Second time.

7.34 p.m.

Photo of Sir Frank Soskice Sir Frank Soskice , Newport (Monmouthshire/Gwent)

I think that we all must agree that the very limited purpose of the Bill is one which cannot be opposed. At the moment the representatives of foreign countries attending conferences with representatives of the United Kingdom Government in this country are entitled to a common law privilege in relation to their immunity. I understand that the Bill simply extends that immunity to representatives of Commonwealth countries coming to this country for the same purpose. With that limited objective nobody can quarrel. Indeed, if we believe, as I am sure Members on both sides of the House believe, in the immense value for the future of civilisation of our Commonwealth system, and in the reality of independent Commonwealth countries adhering to it by consent and for no other reason, we must commit ourselves readily and without reluctance to what that involves.

One of the results of the acceptance of that system is that we must regard Commonwealth countries' official representatives—whether diplomats in the full sense or representatives—who come to this country for a limited purpose as being on precisely the same footing and entitled to precisely the same privileges as diplomats and representatives coming from foreign countries. For that reason, I readily assent to the general purpose, limited as it is in scope, of the Bill.

However, I equally agree with the right hon. Gentleman that we both do and should view with a considerable degree of jealousy the progressive extension in this country of privileges which put certain persons above the law. Perhaps, as hon. Members must recognise, we ourselves in many respects fall in that category, and I am sure that all of us feel a full sense of responsibility when we avail ourselves of the immunity we possess, in respect of matters stated in this House, from the law which affects other persons who make statements outside the House.

For that reason it would be quite wrong—and the right hon. Gentleman intimated that this is also his approach —simply to regard this Bill, technical though it is in purpose, as the sort of Measure which should go through on the nod without inquiry and examination. It is appropriate to spend a little time looking at precisely what it does.

The number of persons who are privileged from the application of the ordinary law seems to grow almost every year. The number of Bills I speak upon at this Box which deal with immunities afforded to one category of person or another grows at an alarming pace. I do not know how many Acts there are now on the Statute Book conferring various sorts of immunities. We should, as time goes on, look at that with growing care to see that we are not extending the privilege beyond what is really necessary.

Following that approach, it would be right to put certain questions to the right hon. Gentleman. If the House gives him leave to speak again I will be grateful to him if he will answer these questions. I would like him to tell the House, and the country, roughly speaking, what the common privilege is which a representative, as distinct from a diplomat, from another country—whether it be a foreign country or, under the Bill, a Commonwealth country—now gets or will enjoy when the Bill is passed. What is the extent of the immunity?

Everybody will agree that in matters of statements which are made in the course of conferences there should be some protection to enable a representative or diplomat to speak with perfect freedom in the discharge of his duties. We also say, however, that outside the conference room he should, in general, be on the same footing as the ordinary citizen. We view with some degree of doubt whether the privilege should extend very far beyond statements.

If the right hon. Gentleman makes a closing speech I would like him to say what other immunities—apart from the making of statements and the immunity accorded with regard to statements made —representatives of a foreign country have when attending a conference here together with representatives of the British Government. As he has told us, those immunities now are accorded by the Act of 1950 confirming, in that regard, the common law. That Act uses the same language in respect of foreign Governments as is now used in Clause 1. It confers immunity on representatives coming here to attend conferences with representatives of the United Kingdom Government.

To be certain of the scope of the Bill, I think that it is necessary to know what is meant by a conference in that sense. I do not know of any definition of "conference" in the 1950 Act. It may be that the phrase is well recognised in common law and, if so, I would like the Minister to tell us. What the Bill enables the Minister to do is to draw up a list of persons who, because they are attending conferences, are entitled to the immunity, and in order to know exactly to what persons the list applies we must know exactly what a conference is.

It may be that "conference" is something which is incapable of a completely precise definition. But is it meant to be a conference which takes place formally in a conference room, or would the immunity extend to casual meetings between a few persons around a luncheon table? That may seem to be a technical matter, but it is of some importance, if we are to give immunity in respect of conferences, that we know in respect of what conferences the privilege will be accorded.

It may be that other matters will occur to other hon. Members, but those are the two of some importance which occur to me and on which I think that the Minister should enlighten the House. The two questions on which he ought to enlarge are, first, exactly what the immunity is. It would not be enough for him simply to say that it is the same immunity which is now given to representatives of foreign countries, and I am sure that he will not try to give such an incomplete answer. What is the immunity which representatives of foreign countries now have and which representatives of Commonwealth countries will have, when and if the Bill is passed? I would accept an answer in general terms, for I do not want the right hon. Gentleman to constitute himself into a kind of legal dictionary.

The second question is whether the right hon. Gentleman will tell us where we should look when we want to know what is meant by a conference. Is there a definition in a Statute? If so, I have missed it. Is it a word well recognised in common law, which has been explored by some judicial decision, so that we can see the decision and know approximately what is meant by a conference? Those are the two matters which I want to raise and I hope that the Minister will be able to answer.

I sometimes think that we make too heavy weather over conferring immunities. I am not sure that we do, but we must watch the position carefully. Having said that, I agree to the principle of the Bill and do not cavil at it at all. I support its Second Reading.

7.43 p.m.

Photo of Sir Raymond Gower Sir Raymond Gower , Barry

I echo the words of the right hon. and learned Member for Newport (Sir F. Soskice) and welcome the Bill, which remedies what appears to be an anomalous shortcoming in the existing law. It reminds us that our relations with the nations of the Commonwealth on an official plane are somewhat newer than our relationships with foreign countries.

I think that there is room for slight apprehension about the number of persons who may be given immunity from time to time. In some respects it is an indefinite number, because it can be changed by the action of the Secretary of State. It would be interesting to know, roughly, how many people on any given date can have immunity in this way. I appreciate that it is impossible to state a permanent number, but it would be interesting to have some idea of the approximate number in any one month of the present year, for example.

The Bill meets a shortcoming in our law and I think that most hon. Members will feel that it is more than proper that the representatives of Commonwealth countries should be in a position as good as that of representatives of foreign territories. I did not agree entirely with the right hon. and learned Gentleman. He suggested that outside the conference hall representatives should be in exactly the same position as the ordinary citizen.

Photo of Sir Frank Soskice Sir Frank Soskice , Newport (Monmouthshire/Gwent)

What I meant to do was to raise the question of how far outside the conference hall the privilege should extend.

Photo of Sir Raymond Gower Sir Raymond Gower , Barry

With some diffidence I suggest that that might be too rigid, because to fulfil their duties properly in the conference ball the representatives will obviously require further privileges beyond those of the mere ordinary citizen. However, with those few remarks I, too, welcome the Bill.

7.45 p.m.

Photo of Mr Hector Hughes Mr Hector Hughes , Aberdeen North

This is a good Bill and I welcome it, but the speech of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Newport (Sir F. Soskice) raised a very important topic. Good as the Bill is, I suggest that it might be improved by a definition Clause. What "immunity" means and what "conference" means and how far the immunity extends are points which could well be defined in a proper definition Clause and I hope that when the Bill goes to Committee the Minister in charge of it will take steps to deal with those matters.

As I have said, I welcome the Bill in general and, in particular, I welcome the last five words of Clause 1 (5), which apply the benefits of the Bill to the Republic of Ireland as well as to the sovereign and independent realms which constitute the British Commonwealth of Nations. The express inclusion of the Republic of Ireland, although it is not actually a member of the British Commonwealth, is a further recognition of the special place which the Republic of Ireland now occupies in these Islands. The Bill accords with that special place and with the history of these islands and of that republic in our constitutional, political and economic affairs.

This was well summed up more than 100 years ago by Henry Grattan. when he said: You have the Irish Sea protesting against Union and the Atlantic Ocean protesting against complete separation. Those words accord with the inspiration and the spirit of the developing Commonwealth today and it would be anomalous, in those circumstances, if that position were not recognised, as it is recognised, in the Bill.

As an independent republic, Ireland has attended many conferences of the kind mentioned in Clause 1 (1). I hope, and I am sure that the House hopes, that the Republic of Ireland will be represented at many more conferences. Pars passu and as a result of such conferences, Ireland has played her part with the Commonwealth in various ways. She has given a distinguished chairman to the United Nations—Mr. Frederick Boland. She has sent troops to the Congo and suffered for that. Those things involve conferences of a kind analogous to those mentioned in the Bill and it is, therefore, right and proper that for future conferences of that kind the Republic of Ireland should be, as it is, expressly mentioned in the Bill.

For those reasons, I support the Bill, but I hope that it will be improved in Committee. I give it such blessing as it is within my power to give.

7.50 p.m.

Photo of Mr Cuthbert Alport Mr Cuthbert Alport , Colchester

With the permission of the House, perhaps I may try to answer one or two of the points which have been raised. In reply to what was said by the hon. and learned Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hector Hughes) I think it very appropriate that we should hear a quotation in the House from one graduate of Trinity College, Dublin, from the speech of someone who, I think, was also a graduate of that College.

I am grateful to the House for the welcome which has been given to the Bill. True, it is not a very exciting Measure, but I think it is recognised as being part of the build-up of the whole diplomatic structure which has been created over the last few years within the Commonwealth, and which is so important today.

For reasons which, I think, would be precisely the same as in the drafting of the 1950 Act, it has not been possible to define precisely the conferences which will be covered by the publication of lists under the provisions of the Bill. As I said, it is intended that the meetings of Commonwealth Prime Ministers will be covered. Also, conferences at which Ministers represent their Governments, those held for the purpose of concluding agreements between the United Kingdom Government and the Government of another Common wealth country, will also normally be covered.

Under the provisions of the Bill only people attending a conference for the purpose of representing their Government may be granted the immunity, and, therefore, discussions between civil servants wild not normally be covered. We hope that the House will agree that in this case it is right to give discretion to the Secretary of State for Commonwealth Relations in the same way as discretion was given to the Foreign Secretary in relation to foreign representatives coming to conferences here.

Although I cannot give the details asked for by my hon. Friend the Member for Barry (Mr. Gower), I think that the House may be interested to know that during the last ten years on only six occasions have lists been published under the International Organisations (Immunities and Privileges) Act, 1950. Therefore, the use of this Act has been limited, although I must say. frankly, that because there are many more Commonwealth conferences, we anticipate that the use of this legislation will be more extensive than the use of that dealing with foreign representatives in the United Kingdom. But it is not intended that it should be abused. Indeed, I can assure the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Newport (Sir F. Soskice) and the House that the sense of jealousy with which the House regards these things will be carefully borne in mind by my right hon. Friend, and no doubt by his successors, in the implementation of this Measure.

I was asked what immunities are covered by the Bill. There is the inviolability of persons and official premises and residences; the inviolability of archives; the exemption from liabilities under social security legislation and for personal service, which, of course, includes jury service and included National Service, which no longer applies.

Photo of Mr Hector Hughes Mr Hector Hughes , Aberdeen North

Would that include torts and actions for negligence, and running-down cases, and that kind of thing?

Photo of Mr Cuthbert Alport Mr Cuthbert Alport , Colchester

I am neither a legal dictionary, nor a legal expert, but I understand that it would give that immunity; unless, I think I am right in saying, immunity is waived at the discretion of the High Commissioner or the head of the Mission. I see that the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Newport is shaking his head, so I will not venture too far on that. If the hon. and learned Member for Aberdeen, North wishes for further information, I shall be only too glad to get it for him, and if I am wrong on this subject, to correct the matter. It includes exemption from taxation. The House will recognise that this is hardly applicable to the people with whom we are concerned under this Bill, because they will be here for such a short period of time that they are unlikely to benefit very much.

Photo of Sir Raymond Gower Sir Raymond Gower , Barry

Does that include exemption from Customs on entry and departure?

Photo of Mr Cuthbert Alport Mr Cuthbert Alport , Colchester

There is also exemption from Customs duty and from the inspection of their personal baggage when coming into the United Kingdom.

It is true that this list sounds extensive, but the fact is that in a great many cases these immunities will not have very great practical effect on the vast majority of those people coming into the United Kingdom on this form of representational employment. In any case, these immunities are already provided for those coming from foreign countries, and I think that the House will recognise the importance of ensuring that those coming from the Commonwealth shall not be at any disadvantage vis-à-vis their opposite numbers when they come to the United Kingdom to transact business on behalf of their Government for the benefit of their country and ours and the Commonwealth as a whole.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

Committed to a Committee of the whole House.—[Mr. Peel.]

Committee Tomorrow.