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 Baroness Rawlings Baroness Rawlings Shadow Minister, International Affairs 12:05 pm, 16th December 2004

My Lords, I thank the Minister, the noble Baroness, Lady Symons, for her detailed introduction to the Bill. This afternoon's short debate has been constructive and informative.

There is no doubt that closer co-operation through international organisations can help all the people involved in working towards meeting the challenges that we face today. We would support "mutual recognition" here rather than straight harmonisation. More importantly, we on these Benches will continue to work to ensure that within these various organisations, particularly the European ones, measures that undermine civil liberties are not extended.

We want to ensure that all the organisations and their members remain accountable for their actions. Therefore, while the Minister described the Bill as a relatively small and technical one, we shall still study all the proposed changes with great care, as she would expect.

I am afraid that today, unlike yesterday, I have many questions to which of course I do not expect an immediate answer. Having looked at the agreements referred to in the Explanatory Notes, I see that the most recent one appears to have been in relation to the International Criminal Court in 2002, as referred to in Clause 6. The noble Baroness stated that the Government are committed to providing these immunities and privileges to the specified organisations, their members, their members' families and their members' households, but that they have not had the mechanism to do so until this Bill. In the light of that, and as it is simply a "technical Bill", my first question is: why have the Government waited so long to bring it forward?

In relation to the immunities and privileges that may be awarded to bodies established under the Treaty on European Union, can the Minister, before the next stage, provide the House with a full list of the bodies to which the Bill will apply? I understand that so far the Library has been unable to find a comprehensive list of these second and third pillar European bodies.

In relation to Clause 5, I want to highlight a point that has been made before by the European Scrutiny Committee. Can the Minister explain the legal basis for conferring the privileges and immunities of the European Communities on EU bodies when the EU itself does not enjoy a legal personality? This issue has been raised by the House of Lords European Union Committee as well as by the House of Commons European Scrutiny Committee. For example, I understand from the Scrutiny Committee report that the Government wish to make the European Police College a body that will fall into this category. Can the noble Baroness inform the House whether the Government have responded to the specific questions raised by the European Scrutiny Committee and explain the effect that these orders, which were discussed last Thursday, might have on the issue?

Will the noble Baroness also assure the House that the powers provided in this Bill will not allow the Government to act in anticipation of the decision of Parliament on the EU Constitutional Treaty and any bodies that will flow from that?

Throughout the Bill, immunities and privileges are granted not only to the people concerned but also to various family members and members of their households. Will the Minister inform the House why that does not include civil partners, as recently enacted? We will also be looking to ensure that these immunities and privileges are limited to those recommended in the agreements; for example, with regard to the International Criminal Court, they will have privileges only in regard to customs and quick repatriation in times of crisis. I hope there is no possibility of British taxpayers subsidising shopping trips for members of these organisations and their spouses. Will the noble Baroness give a categorical assurance to Parliament that that cannot, and will not, happen under this Bill?

Clause 4 of the Bill deals with the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, which I understand includes among its members some states such as Belarus, whose record on human rights leaves much to be desired. Does the noble Baroness agree that we must be careful about giving immunities and privileges to the ruling elite of such countries, notwithstanding the signal that that gives out to those struggling, even as we speak, against anti-democratic regimes?

In the light of Article 1 of the Sixth Protocol, I understand we signed a reservation when we agreed the ECHR overall. Can the noble Baroness confirm that this reservation was included in the instrument of ratification deposited in November 2001 and that that was reaffirmed in 2003 in respect of the Isle of Man? Will the Minister please explain to the House what has happened to that reservation? Is it now changing? Why, if it is so important, was it not dealt with earlier? Will she ask the Joint Committee on Human Rights to report on this issue while the Bill is in this House? That would be in line with the committee's expressed duty to do so on all human rights treaties or amendments to such treaties.

I am sure that your Lordships will agree with me that the Joint Committee on Human Rights report will help to inform the debate, but it will not be much use once the opportunity to discuss it has passed. Can the noble Baroness also explain how tax immunities for judges of the European Court of Human Rights sit alongside Her Majesty's Government's domestic plans for judicial pensions? What exactly will the tax immunities be and how far will they extend? Will they cover, for example, share portfolios?

We shall be looking for further clarification on monetary immunities and privileges in Committee. Some have questioned why, when we have already waited so long to implement these changes, we should choose to implement them now, regardless of how low the cost is said to be. The country is already so highly taxed, with 66 new stealth taxes introduced since 1997.

It has been suggested that there are some concerns for the human rights of employees who work in the Commonwealth Secretariat as regards transparency and their ability to air grievances, and the accountability of the organisation should employees be made immune from the British court system. Will the noble Baroness please comment on that issue and reassure the House that that is compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights?

I cannot end without a brief word on the excellent contribution of my noble friend Lord Moynihan. I fully support his views on sport. In international terms, sport is vital in so many ways for our country and for its inhabitants, although this is not the right occasion to debate that.

I have outlined some of our concerns on which we shall wish to seek detailed assurances and clarification during the progress of this Bill. We on these Benches have expressed reservations about aspects of the International Criminal Court and European bodies. Those are well known. Against that background, we intend to carry out our role as the scrutinising upper House to ensure that this legislation meets the agreements upon which it is based and no more.