International Organisations Bill [HL]

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

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Photo of Lord Wallace of Saltaire Lord Wallace of Saltaire Shadow Minister, Foreign & Commonwealth Affairs, Deputy Leader, House of Lords 12:05 pm, 16th December 2004

My Lords, I accept that, but I wish to argue my doubts about the emergence of a growing class of international officials in Britain, across Europe and elsewhere who are immune from domestic taxation and are beyond the obligations and protections of domestic law.

I must declare an interest. My wife is director of the Robert Schuman Centre—part of the European University Institute, which is an intergovernmental organisation set up under the EURATOM Treaty. I am part of her family. I am classified as a dependent spouse and I must confess that she receives a dependent spouse allowance on my behalf, for which I am deeply grateful. I have mixed views on her immunity from domestic taxation and on the lower rate of notional taxation which she is forced to pay on her salary. I should also declare an interest of the noble Lord, Lord Roper. The Minister mentioned the European Union's Institute for Security Studies, of which the noble Lord was the first director. I have no doubt that he was deeply upset by the manner in which his salary, too, was arranged under similar circumstances.

The justification for extending immunities to families, which is also included in the Bill, again seems to be questionable. There are some wider and longer term issues. After all, those of us on these Benches who are committed to the idea of a strengthened global order and higher global interdependence—which require active management—recognise that we will have a continuing proliferation of intergovernmental agencies to manage them. But that carries with it the danger that two classes of people will be operating—those of us who are subject to domestic law and pay our taxes and parking fines, and an increasing number of people who do not.

For global organisations, such as the International Criminal Court, diplomatic privileges are still necessary. I strongly agree with the Minister that the added security needed by bodies such as that are required in all member states and we cannot ask to be different. However, they are not always recognised in all member states. In late August, I found myself in the middle of a UN convoy in South Ossetia, surrounded by a group of people in Russian uniform but of uncertain provenance who certainly did not seem to regard the UN as having any privileges whatever under those circumstances. Therefore, we need that security for global organisations.

But it seems to me that, within the European Union, we should be putting down a marker about how many further agencies within the EU should have these kinds of rights and immunities. We can all agree that the EU is not a federation, but it is more than an intergovernmental organisation and it extends a great deal further into our ordinary lives. Therefore, we must question how extensive the privileges and immunities of those who work for European agencies should be.

As the Minister will know, I am a strong supporter of the further development of the European Union, but I regard the powers, privileges and status of the Commission and of many of its agencies with mixed feelings. I refer to the salaries of those involved, their access to duty-free sales and the extent to which the Commission and the various agencies are outside the remit of the employment law and regulations which the Commission itself imposes on member states and candidate countries. That is another area where Her Majesty's Government should be pushing further.

There is a real danger of a popular backlash against the emergence of this privileged elite. In this House we hear the noble Lord, Lord Pearson of Rannoch, going on endlessly about the privileged pensions received by former Commissioners. It is easy to imagine the press campaign which could build up as more and more such agencies develop. Indeed, the Minister mentioned some of them.

We now have the European Medicines Agency in London, the European Central Bank in Frankfurt, a food standards agency, which is not yet established, in Parma, the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia, and, under Titles 5 and 6 of the Treaty on European Union of Maastricht, a number of others which the Minister mentioned and which come under Europol, Eurojust, the new European Defence Agency, the EU Satellite Centre and elsewhere.

ATHENA is also mentioned in the report of the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee. I have been trying to remember all the other activities or potential agencies that are developing within the second and third pillars. Odysseus is one of them—they almost all have Greek names. One can imagine a world in which new agencies grow up. We have the European Police College in Bramshill, in which the number of people who are, to some extent, outside the domestic law of the member states continues to proliferate a great deal. We may well wish to test that in Committee—in particular, the extension to family members of such rights and privileges.

My noble friend Lady Falkner talked in detail about the Commonwealth Secretariat, and so I shall not refer to that. So far as concerns the OSCE, the Minister will know that some of us have real doubts about its continuing value and, indeed, its uncertain status. There is clearly a case for strengthening its status and for making it a full intergovernmental organisation, but only if it is to be given the potential to play the role of a full intergovernmental organisation. As we saw at the OSCE council meeting last week, the Russian Government, in particular, seemed deeply resistant to the OSCE playing any positive role.

I say nothing about ITLOS beyond that some years ago I was privileged to attend a number of conferences on the reform of the Convention on the Law of the Sea and I remember eating the most superb seafood as I went from conference to conference. So I hope that they start again with a further revision of the Convention on the Law of the Sea.

Similarly, I query whether the European Court of Human Rights should have all the privileges of the International Criminal Court. The European Court of Human Rights operates in the European region, where its members are much less likely to have problems about their citizenship and their behaviour. The European region does operate under the rule of law, and therefore, here as in other places, we should be moving towards the assumption that, as one moves across the European Union, partly as European citizens, we do not need extra privileges in order to be able to operate.

Therefore, I ask Her Majesty's Government to take a more restrictive approach in general to the extension of diplomatic privileges. I recognise that much in that regard cannot be achieved by the United Kingdom alone but, most importantly, it should be placed firmly on the EU agenda and included in discussions on the reform of the United Nations and its agencies following the high-level panel report on UN reform.