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 Symons of Vernham Dean Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean Minister of State (Middle East), Foreign & Commonwealth Office, Minister of State (Middle East), Deputy Leader of the House of Lords 12:05 pm, 16th December 2004

My Lords, I was just coming on to that point, because the noble Lord was very clear in the question that he asked. Basically, he asked whether we needed to take a hard look at the sort of privileges and immunities conferred on the EU bodies that are established in the future and why such immunities and privileges would be appropriate. The fact is that privileges and immunities are conferred on organisations and bodies to ensure that they are able to carry out their functions without being impeded. That is the whole point.

The general policy of this Government—which after all goes back to the policy of the previous government in the 1980s—is that privileges and immunities should be granted primarily on the basis of functional need. So each time there is a proposal to set up an EU body, the Government take a view on whether the body needs legal capacity and/or privileges and immunities. It is only if such a need is established that we proceed to negotiate a privileges and immunities agreement.

So the short answer to the noble Lord's question is that we look at each case as it arises and judge whether the privileges and immunities are merited. We then negotiate an agreement and bring it into UK law by whatever means we can—sometimes by Order in Council and sometimes by primary legislation, as in the case of the Bill.

However, my blood ran cold when the noble Lord got to his feet and described this as "tidying up legislation". I hesitate to agree with that description; the last time a Minister did so we never heard the end of it. Especially as this Bill has a European dimension, I counsel the noble Lord to join me in using a good deal of caution with such descriptions.

The noble Lord asked why we were extending immunities to families. Where those involved are connected to senior court officials—such as those on the European Court of Human Rights—it is very important to ensure that those officials cannot be undermined by threats against close members of their families. That is why it is important to confer immunities on family members.

The noble Lord was also worried about the increasing number of people covered by immunities. In fact the Bill does not confer a huge number of immunities. Of all the bodies mentioned, the only one based in the United Kingdom is the Commonwealth Secretariat, which employs up to 280 staff. The figure is currently a bit below that, but that is the complement.

We need the legislation because of visiting members of other bodies such as the ICC, which is based in The Hague. When its officials visit this country they have to have those sorts of protections. We are talking about six international organisations, but I would not want your Lordships to think that this is a huge extension in the number of those covered by immunities and privileges. That would not be the case.

The noble Lord raised queries about the OSCE. The OSCE is an enormously important organisation. Of course we have recently had our difficulties, but, my goodness, it is a vibrant organisation, as I saw when I went to its recent meeting in Sofia. It played a vital role most recently in the elections in the Ukraine, and earlier this year in the elections in Georgia. We seek constantly and constructively to engage Russia in refocusing OSCE activity. We do not want to see any weakening of our relationship with the OSCE. I think that the relationship is a very valuable instrument to have at our disposal, and I hope that I shall be able to persuade the noble Lord that that is the case.

I thank very much the noble Baroness, Lady Rawlings, for her support—if not for the lengthy list of questions that she produced. I shall do my best to answer what I can of those. I assure her that this Bill has got nothing to do with the EU constitutional Bill; it deals with legislation that we need to have on the statute book.

The noble Baroness was quite searching in her questions about why we have waited so long to confer this provision on, for example, the ICC. I had hoped that I touched delicately on this issue in my opening remarks when I said that it had not been possible until now to find a legislative slot for this legislation. That is the truth. Many of us wish that it had been possible to find a slot before now, but at least we have the legislation in front of us now. So I hope the noble Baroness will be generous on that point.

As for the legal basis and why we need to deal with this matter when the EU does not have a legal personality, the bodies need legal capacity and privileges and immunities to operate. Once we have agreed to the Council decisions or other measures to establish these bodies, the UK is under an obligation to confer those under international law. I am sure that the noble Baroness will wish to probe the matter further in Committee. I am also sure that my noble friend Lady Crawley and I will have a great deal of fun in dealing with that in the future.

The noble Baroness also asked why the immunities to which I referred in answering the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, did not include civil partners. The aim of the Civil Partnership Act is that civil partners should be accorded parity of treatment with spouses. The Bill does not refer to spouses. The phrase used in the Bill is,

"members of their families who form part of their households".

We believe that that covers civil partners as it now covers spouses. Therefore, there is no need expressly to provide for civil partners in the Bill. We believe that other legislation has dealt with that issue.

The noble Baroness raised a number of other questions. I shall go through them very carefully and I hope to give her satisfaction in the answers I provide. I was happy to see that we agree on the excellent erudition and powerful arguments of the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan. However, I regret to say that we disagree on the appropriateness of the intervention.

On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Grand Committee.