Fourth Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c.


Wednesday 13 July 1988



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The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: Mr. Michael Latham

Bennett, Mr. Nicholas (Pembroke)

Bowis, Mr. John (Battersea)

Campbell, Mr. Menzies (Fife, North-East)

Carttiss, Mr. Michael (Great Yarmouth)

Cox, Mr. Tom (Tooting)

Dover, Mr. Den (Chorley)

Eggar, Mr. Tim (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

Fallon, Mr. Michael (Darlington)

Fyfe, Maria (Glasgow, Maryhill)

Greenway, Mr. John (Ryedale)

Griffiths, Mr. Peter (Portsmouth, North)

Hill, Mr. James (Southampton, Test)

Knight, Mr. Greg (Derby, North)

Neubert, Mr. Michael (Romford)

Radice, Mr. Giles (Durham, North)

Redmond, Mr. Martin (Don Valley)

Robertson, Mr. George (Hamilton)

Ruddock, Ms. Joan (Lewisham, Deptford)

Jack, Dr. M. R. Committee Clerk

3 Fourth Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c. Wednesday 13 July 1988

[MR. MICHAEL LATHAM in the Chair]

Draft Eumetsat (Immunities and Privileges) Order 1988

10.30 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Tim Eggar): I beg to move, That the Committee has considered the Draft Eumetsat (Immunities and Privileges) Order 1988.

The Chairman: With the agreement of the Committee, it will be convenient to discuss at the same time the other order before us, namely The Draft Eutelsat (Immunities and Privileges) Order 1988

Mr. Eggar: The European Telecommunications Satellite Organisation—Eutelsat— was created in May 1977. Its functions include the design, development, construction, establishment, operation and maintenance of the space segment of the European telecommnications satellite system or systems. Eutelsat's primary role is to provide the space segment required for international public telecommunications services in Europe. The three satellites were built by the European Space Agency and in each case British Aerospace was the prime contractor. The primary purpose of the European Organisation for the Exploitation of Metreorological Satellites—Eumetsat—is to establish, maintain and utilise European systems of operational meteorological satellites. In doing so, it takes into account as far as possible the recommendations of the World Meteorological Organisation—a specialised agency of the United Nations. The conventions provide that each organisation is to have privileges and immunities necessary for the performance of its functions. The United Kingdom is a party to both the Eutelsat convention and the Eumetsat convention. It has signed but not ratified the two protocols on privileges and immunities. We now want to ratify the protocols on privileges and immunities since, in the case of Eutelsat, members of the organisation have already arrived in the United Kingdom on attachments to companies. The draft Orders in Council will, when made, enable the Government to give effect to the protocols and therefore to ratify them. The draft orders follow precedents for similar orders made in respect of other international organisations. We are satisfied that the privileges and immunities accorded under these protocols are necessary for the effective functioning of the two organisations. They provide for officials of these organisations to have, 4 depending on their status and functions, immunity from legal action in respect of acts done by them in the course of their duties, inviolability of official documents and papers, and immmunity from United Kingdom taxation and customs duties. Ratification would further facilitate the letting of contracts by the two organisations in the United Kingdom. They provide a source of demand for European—especially United Kingdom— manufacturers.

10.34 am

Mr. George Robertson (Hamilton): I see by the crowded Benches that we are dealing with a matter of common concern. It is clear that the Government are worried about the controversial nature of the measures, which is why there are a preponderance of Conservative Members in the Committee, although who knows who will arrive later. The orders are important, not perhaps because of immunities and privileges, which are the precise matters that we are debating, but because of the two conventions that establish those organisations. Having carefully studied the way in which the House has conducted its debates on international affairs in recent months, I regret that we do not have opportunities for debating treaties and conventions. Rather, we are left with the profoundly unsatisfactory position whereby statutory instruments Committees dealing with privileges and immunities provide possibly the only opportunities for the House to debate the issues that arise under conventions. I wish that the House would re-examine the way in which treaties are considered so that we might be able to debate them adequately and properly. I have found it extremely difficult, as I am sure have hon. Members on the crowded Conservative Benches, to obtain detailed information about the organisations whose privileges and immunities will be ratified at the end of our proceedings. The conventions are of some importance. They will prove costly for our country and have important implications for the sectors concerned, so I wish to ask the Minister several questions in the hope that his research will enable him to answer them. We should be considering the substance of the orders in more detail. The framework of the meteorological organisations has been established at a European level. No hon. Member would dispute that more co-ordination at that level would be to the advantage of this country and most others. Will the Minister say why it has taken so long to reach ratification? The 1983 convention document suggests that the United Kingdom will be contributing 14.4 per cent, towards the cost of the system, while Spain will be paying 4.5 per cent, and Belgium only 4 per cent. Why will those countries be contributing less money than us? I should also like to know, in the context of the convention and the work that the meteorological satellites will do, whether we can place greater reliability on future meteorological forecasts. Weather forecasting is a metter of great anxiety to many people, especially at this time of year. Most people do not give a jot for the privileges and 5 immunities involved in the organisation in London but wish for a more reliable weather forecasting system. With the great leap forward in European co-operation, may we expect weather forecasts to be more accurate? Perhaps the Minister will say whether the great storm of last winter might have been accurately predicted by Mr. Michael Fish and his colleagues had they had access to the undoubted skills and resources of the European Organisation for the Exploitation of Meteorological Satellites. I mention that because I come from a part of the United Kingdom that has had considerably better weather than the rest of the country. In the past few months tourist trade has exploded. However, I was reliably informed on the telephone this morning that my area is experiencing London-type weather. The European Telecommunications Satellite Organisation, in the European tradition, has been reduced to "Eutelsat" so that nobody will understand what it is. Will the Minister clarify the costs of that organisation and the United Kingdom's contributions to those costs? We shall be providing by far the largest slice of the initial investment—16.4 per cent, of the total sum identified in the convention. The Federal Republic of Germany, which has a much higher GNP than us, will be paying only 10.8 per cent., Belgium and Spain will by paying 5 per cent., and Italy will be paying 11.5 per cent. In his opening oration, the Minister said that British Aerospace was the prime contractor in the provision of the three satellites. Is that because we will be forking out the most money? I am sure that the Committee will be interested to hear the Minister's explanation of that. I give a general welcome to both organisations believing, as does the Labour party, in greater european co-operation in sectors where it makes sense and where it can produce tangible benefits for this country. I remind the Committee that it was the Prime Minister who stood out stubbornly against further co-operation by this country in the European Space Agency until public opinion—especially industrial opinion—forced her to make a U-turn. It was also the Prime Minister who held out the longest for the concessions that she was ultimately forced to abandon regarding the framework research programme of the European Community. The Labour party's record on European co-operation in those practical, pragmatic issues is much better than that of the Conservative party. I hope that the Minister will be able to answer my questions on the key issues not clarified in the debate.

10.40 am

Mr. James Hill (Southampton, Test): It would be unfair if the debate were to finish too quickly because there is much in the documents. The hon. Member for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson) mentioned several costing anomalies, and I wish to raise an issue which is especially relevant because the Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, is replying to the debate. We have few opportunities to talk about imunity and privileges for those living in our country and sometimes these privileges go too far. The fact that 6 a person is coming to this country to study the weather might seem fairly innocuous, but that person is given immunity from any suit or legal process during the time that he is working for the organisation and after he has left its service. That seems like overkill. He is free from taxes and VAT, and that is difficult to accept for taxpayers like me. I am most disturbed by the immunity from prosecution for grave crimes—an issue that has arisen many times in the past. The order states that representatives shall enjoy "immunity from any form of arrest and detention". A person may have privileges and be solving the problems of telecommunications satellites in this country, but immunity from any form of arrest and detention gives him diplomatic immunity— immunity from prosecution if he commits a grave crime. My hon. Friend the Minister no doubt knows the definition of a grave crime, but will there be immunity for cases of rape, murder, car stealing or almost any of the crimes that have occurred in diplomatic circles in the United Kingdom in the past? The orders will create another small army that will have absolute immunity from prosecution, and that is one of the problems of not having the full structure of that which we are asked to approve. The United Nations and the Council of Europe worked together in setting up the two organisations. I hope that they are aware that any delay is because there must be a suitable period between signing and ratification, not because of hesitation by the United Kingdom. Apart from the reservations that I have expressed, I give the orders my full support.

10.43 am

Mr. Peter Griffiths (Portsmouth, North): My hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test (Mr. Hill) has already mentioned the matter on which I wish to question the Minister. How many people will be given immunity under the orders? Why is it necessary to confer diplomatic privileges on those who, in the case of those working for Eutelsat, are either technical, scientific or commercial experts? The purpose of diplomatic immunity is to protect the representatives of a Government or agency that is temporarily unpopular and who might be harassed by the police or others. Why should that be so for scientists? Article 2(1) of the Eumetsat order ends with the words: "and includes its administrative activities." That phrase does not appear in the Eutelsat order. Thus, one order may involve a larger group of people—including administrative staff—than the other. If they are what we would loosely call civil servants—those who administer Government or quasi-Government bodies—why are they being offered immunity? How many people are likely to be granted privileges under each order and who, other than scientists, will be involved? How long does a person have to be in this country to qualify for this privilege, both for the time that they are in this country and 7 afterwards? If someone is travelling to a conference and stops overnight in London, is he subject to all these immunities? Can he purchase his car without paying VAT? Can he claim immunity in subsequent libel or commercial espionage cases? Is there a minimum period for someone to qualify as operating in this country? My hon. Friend the Minister drew attention to the fact that immunity from prosecution applies to people in the execution of their duties. How specific is that phrase? If a member of one of these bodies is in this country before taking up his duties, or remains after he has completed them, do the privileges continue, or does he have them only during the period that he is carrying out his duties for one or the other of these bodies? Almost everyone in London is worried about the so-called diplomats who park their cars in inconvenient places and do not pay fines. Will those people be granted immunity from parking regulations? If so, will it be only for the period during which they are operating as scientists or administrators, or will they be given a blanket privilege adding to the considerable numbers of those who ignore regulations in London? As my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test said, the orders have broader implications because the number of international agencies is multiplying. If we are to give privileges to everyone who works for them, the total number who will enjoy them will be very large. Should not the Foreign Office consider, with our partners in Europe, whether it is necessary to extend privileges to those who are not diplomats and do not need the protection that they receive?

10.49 pm

Mr. John Bowis (Battersea): I am glad that my hon. Friend's the Members for Portsmouth, North (Mr. Griffiths) and Southampton, Test (Mr. Hill) asked those questions. They represent great cities that are the bastions of defence against foreign invasion. The hon. Member for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson) is anxious about forecasts of further political problems arising among the mists of Scotland, but we are worried about the implications for the whole community and the effect of the regulations on our citizens. Will my hon. Friend the Minister state whether we are creating something more than the normal diplomatic immunity? The two organisations will include British citizens, so we are giving extra rights and immunities to British citizens and creating a super-class of citizen. I believe that motoring offences are exempt from the regulations, but that other more serious offences are covered. Frauds is a super-crime—I do not include Mr. Fish's weather forecasts—but I am not sure whether it will be covered.

Mr. Robertson: Has the hon. Gentleman noticed that visiting forces to this country, of which there are many, will be immune from the poll tax? May we assume that Conservative Members who are so worried about immunity from tax and the ability to libel and slander, will vote for amendments to ensure 8 that all visiting forces to this country are covered by the new poll-tax regime?

Mr. Bowis: The hon. Gentleman raises the issue of reciprocity, of which I had not thought. Perhaps we should ask from what laws British citizens in other countries will be immune and what excitements they may indulge in abroad that are not permitted abroad. I wish to know the implications of the regulations on public liability and negligence. I do not know much about the equipment used in these organisations, but I imagine that some of it could result in damage being done to personal property. It seems that the immunities will exempt people and organisations from bearing the cost of their actions. Will my hon. Friend the Minister reassure the Committee on that?

Mr. Eggar: I congratulate the hon. Member for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson). His oration led to a 100 per cent, increase in the attendance on the Opposition Benches and he gave the impression that he chose this important Committee to announce yet another Opposition policy on Europe. I look forward to reading the Hansard record to discover whether there has been yet another U-turn in Opposition policy. I congratulate members of the Committee on the ingenuity of their questions and apologise in advance if I am unable to cover every point. I shall examine the record and write to them in detail. I am unable to guarantee an improvement in the weather in the constituency of the hon. Member for Hamilton as a result of the orders, but I am sure that his local newspaper will note his concern for the tourist trade, an increase in which should follow from an improvement in weather forecasting. It is generally believed that the activities of Eumetsat will eventually lead to an improvement in the quality of forecasting, but that cannot be linked directly to the passage of the order. The cost to the United Kingdom of Eumetsat will be approximately £8 million to £9 million this year. The cost of Eutelsat is met by British Telecom, which is the direct funder. The cost is partially offset by a Government contribution. The Government and BT contributions vary from year to year, depending on Eutelsat's precise investment opportunities. The delay in ratification was caused by technical discussions on the detailed texts. The number of people who will benefit from the orders will vary since neither Eutelsat nor Eumetsat plans to open an office in the United Kingdom; there will be no permanent resident beneficiaries. At present, only two people are seconded from Eutelsat to Marconi, and they will be here for about a year. That indicates the likely number of people involved. My hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test (Mr. Hill) will be interested to know that the privileges and immunities of international organisations were considered by the Committee of Ministers at the Council of Europe some years ago. It was generally thought that the approach that we have adopted is appropriate and will be applied throughout for members of the Council of Europe. 9 Currently, 152 people are employed by Eutelsat, only two in the United Kingdom. It is important to stress that immunity from legal processes in the United Kingdom will apply only to Eutelsat and Eumetsat officials regarding acts performed in their official capacity. It would be extremely difficult to conceive of rape or assault being performed in an official capacity, and suet acts will not have immunity. I was asked what a "grave crime" was as defined in the Consular Relations Act 1968. It means an offence punishable on first conviction with imprisonment that may extend to more than five years. The execution of duties relating to official acts will be for the courts to decide. My hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, North (Mr. Griffiths) mentioned the differences in wording between the Eutelsat order and the Eumetsat order. The reason is that we have tried to follow protocols and, as the protocols differ, the orders differ. My hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, North referred also to parking fines. There were 108,000 unpaid fines in 1984—an appalling figure—but last year the number reduced to 14,400. That is a direct result of tough action by the Foreign Office, and we are working hard to reduce that figure further. I am sure that Kensington residents have benefited from that. I hope that I have covered all the points that were made, but if not I shall write to hon. members.

11.00 am

Mr. Robertson: The Minister has not answered a number of points and it is encumbent on me to go over the ground slightly more. Before I do so, I relish the thought of the Minister poring over the Hansard report of our proceedings. I am sure that it will take him many hours, in the hope that he has covered a poor man's equivalent of a lunch at The Independent. I wish him a rewarding time. He will find that what I have said has been a long-standing policy, as has been the criticism of the Government over European matters. The Minister has been less than just in putting down his hon. Friends who were stimulated into participating in the Committee. They made speeches that were less about immunities and more about ensuring that the Whip does not choose them to attend any more Committees dealing with statutory instruments. The south-coast prejudices that manifested themselves this morning deserve a more robust reply from the Foreign Office. In the past, I have had to take part in programmes as diverse as "Good Morning Scotland" and the Jimmy Young programme to uphold the concept of diplomatic privilege and immunity. Conservative Members have referred to unpaid parking fines and outstanding library book fines, but it seems odd for them to go berserk and say that every diplomat in the country might be indulging in crimes that could be covered by diplomatic immunity, though we are aware that some abuse that immunity. I am sure that 10 the Minister will be parading in Kensington and elsewhere the one successful element of the Government's record on law and order—reducing the number of outstanding parking fines from 108,000 a year to 14,400. That is the only statistic of which the Government can be proud. Perhaps the statistic will be presented at Prime Minister's Question Time on Thursday. [Interruption.] The prejudices that arise all the time have to be robustly answered. I have heard the Minister doing so before, so I cannot understand why he was polite on this occasion. For every one of such technical abuses that take place in this country, hundreds of our diplomats are protected by precisely the same international conventions. A diplomat in Bucharest or Santiago, with the same immunities, will be protected from a system that does not have any tangible justice such as ours. That protection is valued in such instances. We can easily nitpick, and it is easy to play to the galleries of prejudice in the tabloid press today. The fact is that diplomatic privilege and immunities are reciprocal, and that is extremely important to our diplomatic representatives. I wish that the regular hysterie from Conservative Members on the matter could be seen in the context of the protection that we demand for our diplomats, which they deserve. The Minister did not answer one point in his reply and I understand that he will do so in writing. Will he explain the percentage of contributions paid by British Telecom and partly offset by the Government towards the telecommunications satellite? It is not clear why Britain should contribute 16.4 per cent, while the Federal Republic of Germany contributes 10.8 per cent. If the Minister would clarify that discrepancy, we could terminate our fascinating proceedings amicably.

11.05 am

Mr. Eggar: I am impressed by the excitement shown by the hon. Member for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson) over the alleged good performance yesterday by the deputy leader of the Labour party. It must be a matter of some concern to his leader as he cavorts about Botswana, having broken every international and national convention during his recent visit to—

The Chairman: Order. In fairness, I must interrupt the Minister, as I interrupted the hon. Member for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson). I suggest that we return to meteorological organisations and satellites.

Mr. Eggar: Thank you very much, Mr. Latham. I sympathise with your wish to save the hon. Member for Hamilton from further embarrassment. I tell the hon. Gentleman that the contribution reflects the usage made of Eutelsat facilities by the contributing telecommunications agencies—in our case, British Telecom. BT pays a higher percentage than its German equivalent because it makes greater use of the system. That is partly the result of BT's success in the international communications game. The percentage is not fixed and may vary from year to year. 11 I think that the hon. Member for Hamilton went over the top, if I may say so-. I do not think that my hon. Friends the Members for Portsmouth, North (Mr. Griffiths) and Southampton, Test (Mr. Hill) for one moment doubt the need for our diplomats to benefit from immunity, or question the right of diplomats in the United Kingdom to benefit from the terms of the Vienna convention. My hon. Friends were, quite rightly, saying that the orders are extensions of diplomatic immunity and asked a number of reasonable questions, which I hope I answered. It is quite fair for hon. Members to be 12 worried about the entitlement of individuals to be different to ordinary British citizens.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the Committee has considered the Draft Eumetsat (Immunities and Privileges) Order 1988.

Resolved, That the Committee has considered the Draft Eutelsat (Immunities and Privileges) Order 1988. -[Mr. Eggar.]

The Committee rose at nine minutes past Eleven o'clock.


Latham, Mr. Michael (Chairman)

Bennett, Mr. Nicholas

Bowis, Mr.

Campbell, Mr. Menzies

Carttiss, Mr.

Eggar, Mr.

Fyfe, Mrs.

Greenway, Mr. John

Griffiths, Mr. Peter

Hill, Mr.

Knight, Mr. Greg

Neubert, Mr.

Robertson, Mr.