International Organisations Bill [HL]

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:05 pm on 16th December 2004.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Baroness Falkner of Margravine Baroness Falkner of Margravine Liberal Democrat 12:05 pm, 16th December 2004

My Lords, in broad terms, we are content with several facets of this Bill, but we feel that several other aspects need clarification. When I say "the Bill" I refer to the conventional interpretation of the Bill.

Most of my comments will deal with the Commonwealth Secretariat. As the bulk of my comments will be concerned with provisions relating to the Commonwealth Secretariat, I place on record that I was a member of the paid, full-time staff of the secretariat from 1999 to 2003. During my employment there, I was vice-chairman of the Commonwealth Secretariat Staff Association, CSSA, from 2000 to 2003. The CSSA elects its officers democratically, on the basis of one member one vote, at elections every year. My role on the CSSA was a voluntary and unpaid position undertaken concurrently with my other duties.

On these Benches, we have always supported the concept that our common good is better served by international co-operation and joint endeavour.

We recognise that working with others is better than working alone, that building alliances and entering into agreements based on respect and mutual consent is always better than going it alone and that international co-operation is the best method that we have for achieving peace and prosperity for future generations. Hence our commitment to the good governance and efficient functioning of international organisations.

The Commonwealth Secretariat is somewhat different to other international organisations, as it is unique in the closeness of its association with the United Kingdom. It was established in London, it is headed by our sovereign and is so closely bound up with our past that almost all of its countries, with the exception of Mozambique, have a tradition of government and jurisprudence related to our own and, above all, share a language and history which has been touched by our own. Therefore, we have a special duty to ensure that, whatever changes we make to the governance arrangements of the secretariat, they respect the highest traditions of good governance and employment standards that we believe in for ourselves in the UK.

I fear that the provisions of the Bill will dilute those standards rather than enhance them. I refer in particular to subsections (1), (2) and (3) of Clause 1 and to the provisions of Clause 2. The changes proposed in these clauses might serve to dilute the rights of staff with respect to their access to justice.

In terms of background, I will briefly touch upon the nature of staff arrangements at the secretariat. Its staff, most of whom are based in London, number some 300, of which approximately half are either British nationals, non-British UK residents or dual nationals. They are appointed by the Secretary-General, with the majority on fixed term contracts of three years, which are renewable for a limited period at the discretion of the Secretary-General. Their terms and conditions are set out in rules and regulations which form part of their contract of employment. Should an employment dispute occur between a member of staff and their employer—the Secretary-General—the legal recourse for settlement is the Commonwealth Secretariat Arbitral Tribunal (CSAT), the subject of Clause 2. All members of the tribunal are appointed by the Secretary-General, who is also responsible for their remuneration. There is no independent supervisory control to ensure independence. The method for staff to enforce their rights or seek remedy for a breach of obligations is to make a claim to CSAT, where there is no right to an oral hearing under its procedures and thus no right to question witnesses. There is no right of appeal.

Under the existing interpretation of the Arbitration Act 1996, the English courts have taken the right to entertain applications from parties challenging a decision by an arbitral tribunal in very restricted circumstances on the grounds of lack of independence or bias. English courts have, therefore, in those limited circumstances, been seen as the only recourse for someone seeking to challenge a CSAT decision. We fear that this minimal safeguard of natural law rights would be removed if the Bill were to become law, because blanket immunity would be provided which would leave no scope for any redress beyond that of CSAT. It is questionable whether this situation will be compatible under the European Convention on Human Rights and we expect to question that further in Committee stage.

For the moment, it would be helpful to hear from the Minister of other examples where access to justice is similarly restricted. It would also be illuminating to hear whether, in such cases that might exist, immunities have been further extended to restrict rights since the Human Rights Act came into force. If they have, this could be a diminution of the Government's stated intention to promote a human rights culture, both domestically and beyond.

Our concern with respect to the changes set out in Clause 3 relate to equality in employment. We understand that previous arrangements for taxation discriminated against British nationals and if this anomaly will now be corrected, that is to be welcomed. We shall seek further clarification in Committee. Those are our reservations with respect to the human rights of staff employed by the Commonwealth Secretariat.

In Clause 4, which relates to the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, it is peculiar that the OSCE, compared to other international organisations, does not have legal personality. We understand that from its genesis, it started out as a conference but has now evolved to a situation where it has its own staff, secretariat and institutions. It would make sense to give it legal personality, as long as its flexibility, which is its much vaunted strength, continues.

Clause 5 is slightly opaque and it is unclear what the Minister envisages to be the practical application of the clause. Which bodies have been established under the provisions of the Common Foreign and Security Policy or Title VI? Are any new ones envisaged? On the remaining clauses, we understand that these are tidying up exercises and, therefore, we broadly welcome them.

In conclusion, I note the comments of the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in his regulatory impact assessment of the Bill. Mr Rammell described it as a,

"a small, technical and uncontroversial Bill".

Small and technical it may be, but its impact on the human rights of staff, as envisaged in Clauses 1 and 2, may prove significant. The danger in lowering thresholds is that we jeopardise the principles of universality and indivisibility to which we have long adhered. We hope that that will not be the result of the Bill.