HC Deb 15 May 1984 vol 60 cc239-55

'(1) If, on an application made by a constable, a county court judge is satisfied that there are reasonable grounds for believing that a diplomatic bag which is presented at a port of entry of the United Kingdom for importation may contain firearms, ammunition, or materials for causing explosions, and that both of the conditions specified in subsection (2) below are satisfied, he may issue a warrant authorising a constable to perform a search of the diplomatic bag in accordance with the provisions of subsections (5) to (7) below.

(2) The conditions mentioned in subsection (1) above are—

  1. (a) that a member of the diplomatic mission entitled to open the diplomatic bag has refused to do so on request by a constable who has stated his grounds for believing that the bag may contain any of the items specified in that subsection; and
  2. (b) that the Secretary of State has not given permission for articles of a description falling within that subsection to be imported.

(3) A constable may detain a diplomatic bag at the port of entry into the United Kingdom until an application under subsection (1) above has been decided; provided that the diplomatic mission may remove the bag from the United Kingdom at any time after the request mentioned in subsection (2)(a) above has been made, in which case the application under subsection (1) above may be abandoned.

(4) The hearing of any application under subsection (1) above shall be decided inter partes, and shall be held as soon as reasonably practicable after the application is made.

(5) If a warrant is issued under subsection (1) above, the diplomatic mission may remove the bag from the United Kingdom, but if they do not, a constable shall first make an external search of the diplomatic bag and then, if he still has reasonable grounds for believing that the bag contains any of the articles mentioned in subsection (1) above, he may search the bag for the articles, and seize any which he finds.

(6) In subsection (5) above, "external search" means a search made by non-invasive means, without opening the bag, that is to say by x-rays, magnetometry, ultrasonic or other similar means.

(7) Any search under this section shall be conducted in the presence of a member of the diplomatic mission responsible for the diplomatic bag and of a person appointed for the purpose by the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs.

(8) In this section "diplomatic bag" has the same meaning as in the Diplomatic Privileges Act 1964; and that Act and any other enactment relating to privileges and immunities shall have effect subject to the provisions of this section'.—[Mr. Eldon Griffiths.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

10.15 pm
Mr. Eldon Griffiths

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

This new clause stems from a unique and terrible killing —I prefer to say murder—of a young police officer in London.

I make no apologies for recalling in some detail the death of Yvonne Fletcher. She was 25 years of age, full of life and with all to live for. She was doing her job, as she had always been determined to do. As she walked in St. James's square one April morning, her thoughts might well have been on her forthcoming engagement to another police officer, Michael Liddle, who was on duty with her. Her task that day could not have been more routine. It was to escort one of the many hundreds of small demonstrations that take place in central London every year.

The demonstrators were a group of foreigners anxious to protest against their country's regime outside their embassy in London. It had nothing to do with us—or so the police might have thought—but Britain prides itself on allowing free speech to all who are resident here. The police go along with such marches to ensure that there is no breach of the peace, that the traffic is not unduly disrupted and that those who wish to protest may do so.

Suddenly, there is a burst of gunfire and Yvonne Fletcher is among the wounded, lying on the ground. An hour later, after a vain fight by doctors and nurses who tried to save her life, she is dead.

That is one of the only two certainties about the tragedy. The other is that Yvonne Fletcher's killer was one of the Libyans expelled from Britain on the same day that her funeral took place.

When a police officer is murdered in the execution of police duty in London and it is then discovered that the killer cannot be brought to justice in this country because of overriding political and legal complications, a sense of outrage and disgust is the natural reaction of all other police officers. I believe that that goes for the people of this country at large.

It would be wholly wrong and against every tradition of the House to allow a single incident to precipitate changes in our legislation. Therefore, when I addressed myself to this problem, I thought it my duty to do some careful research into whether this kind of terrorist incident has become so serious and, indeed, so common in the modern world that general action against it is required.

I was glad to read that my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary has moved, in the EEC meeting in Brussels, for common action to be taken among the western nations. I also congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary on his robust stand on this matter during the difficult days through which he had to live.

The incident that led to the death of Yvonne Fletcher is only part of what is coming to be a sinister pattern. In the years in which I have been connected with the police service, I have done a fair bit of research into these matters but rather than weary the House with my own experience, I shall quote some of the findings of Patricia Clough, the correspondent of The Times, who has studied the matter in depth.

The Times reported that, though diplomatic bags may not be opened or detained, it is now the fact that throughout the world they are frequently used as cover for the trafficking in drugs, guns, missiles, ammunition, artworks, antiques, and in at least one case a man. Diplomatic bags, it said, have been used to take alcohol to 'dry' countries, contraceptives to the Irish Republic, a naval officer's collars from Moscow to London for starching and espionage equipment almost everywhere. Some Arab states have made"— and do make their diplomatic bags and diplomatic 'passports available to Arab terrorists. I shall give four examples. The Pakistan authorities recently found 300 sub-machine guns, 60,000 rounds of ammunition, a radio receiver, a transmitter and guerrilla training equipment in the office of an Iraqi consular affairs attaché, and the Pakistan Government said that they had all been shipped into that country as diplomatic baggage.

A Palestinian guerrilla who took part in the kidnap of the OPEC officials in Vienna in 1976—

Mr. Greville Janner (Leicester, West)


Mr. Griffiths

Terrorists, if the hon. and learned Gentleman wishes to call them that. The guerrilla subsequently said that the weapons used in that incident were smuggled in in the diplomatic bag of an Arab ambassador.

The third example — the hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Ms. Short) may agree that it supports the case that I made a few moments ago—is that of a diplomatic trunk belonging to the Egyptian embassy in Rome. The trunk was found by the Italian police to be giving off what was described as a muffled thumping from inside. They did not hesitate. They required the bag to be opened and found that the trunk, lined with leather and fitted with a chair and clamps for ankles and the head, was well worn, as well it might have been, because it also contained Mordecai ben Masuud Louk, an Israeli on his way, gagged and drugged, to Cairo. It was obvious that that diplomatic bag had been used for this purpose on previous occasions.

I shall give one final example. The bags being carried by Mr. Manlio Blais, a courier for the Italian embassy in Paris, proved at the airport to be too heavy for the porters to lift. That was not surprising, because when opened it was found to contain 2,000 watches.

A case can be made out for saying that while the vast majority of diplomats—certainly all our own diplomats —never indulge in such malpractices, there is today an increasing use of diplomatic baggage for the support of terrorist organisations. Plainly, that must stop, but what is this country to do about it? This is not a matter that divides the House, or divides the Government from the country.

I welcome the robust stand of the Home Secretary and the clear-cut statement made by the Foreign Secretary in seeking the support of our allies at the EEC meeting in Brussels. But it behoves the House to support the Government when trying to achieve international action to prevent the misuse of diplomatic bags such as we know contributed to the death of Yvonne Fletcher. In Parliament we must take what opportunities present themselves and I have taken the opportunity to propose one way in which our domestic law could be amended—the House can do it if it wishes—to make a start in containing the terrorist use of diplomatic bags.

New clause 21 has been drafted carefully with the benefit of parliamentary counsel. I propose that if the police—almost certainly the Special Branch acting on intelligence from international sources, including our own —formed the judgment that a diplomatic bag presented at a British port for entry contained weapons, ammunition or the means of making an explosion such as microdetonators, new clause 21 would allow them to hold the bag while they went to a county court for an order allowing the bag to be searched if the court was satisfied that the police had made out a case. Once the court determined that the police had a prima facie case for believing that the bag contained such items, it could make an order that would operate in two phases. The first would be for a non-invasive search that involved no opening of the bag but the use of all the techniques that are available to make an external survey of its contents.

I listened carefully to my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary when he assured the House that X-ray techniques can be thwarted and are by no means conclusive. He will accept that other devices, including the magnetometer and scanners, could be brought to bear, if necessary, to make a non-invasive preliminary investigation. It would be open to the diplomat, when the police sought the court order, to remove the bags from the country if he did not wish such a surveillance to take place. If the preliminary search sustained the police's suspicion and there was prima facie evidence tending to confirm what they believed, the second phase of the court order would come into play and the police would be allowed to open the bags and search them.

I must emphasise, however, that it would always be open to the diplomat, if he did not wish to allow a search, to remove his bags from the country. I also expect that the Foreign Secretary would need to be informed and consulted.

The hearing at the court should be inter partes, so that all concerned are aware of what is going on. Subsection (8) of the new clause says: 'diplomatic bag' has the same meaning as in the Diplomatic Privileges Act 1964; and that Act and any other enactment relating to privileges and immunities shall have effect subject to the provisions of this section". In other words, we should amend our domestic law and our domestic law would take precedence over the Vienna convention.

I am well aware that when the Government enter a treaty, it becomes the sovereign law of our country. I know too that if the House were to pass the amendment, an anomaly would be created, as our domestic law would be in conflict with our treaty obligations. I hope that my right hon. and learned Friend will not rebuke me for not recognising that position.

10.30 pm

The important point is that we should take the opportunity tonight, not necessarily in the Division Lobby, to strengthen the arm of the Government—that objective need not divide the House — and of the Foreign Secretary in his negotiations. I believe that we shall have assisted the Government in the difficult negotiations that lie ahead if the Foreign Secretary is able to show that the House, our sovereign legislature, demands that action be taken to prevent further outrages.

We cannot let the killing of WPC Fletcher pass by and do nothing. The very least that we must do is seek to change the convention. If the amendment receives support tonight, it will assist the Government in doing that.

Mr. Janner

The House has listened with interest to the speech of the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Griffiths) and will associate itself fully with his sentiments regarding the assassination, murder, killing — call it what one will—of Policewoman Yvonne Fletcher. We take every opportunity in the House to tell her family how we feel with them in the awful disaster that has struck them. What steps can be taken? Are those proposed by the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds appropriate? We must approach the problem with care for two reasons, the first of which stems from a sentence of Freudian significance that was slid in by the hon. Gentleman who said that, as usual, the demonstrators were foreigners. One of the glories of this country is that we have the freedom to demonstrate in peace.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

indicated dissent.

Mr. Janner

People who live and work here have the freedom to demonstrate in peace. When there is interference with that freedom, there is an immediate outcry. The hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) is waiting to cry out because the police are involved throughout the country in an attempt that is causing dismay because many people regard it as going beyond the area of crime prevention that is the proper duty of the police.

We are concerned tonight to preserve the rights of citizens of this country and of our visitors to express their views in freedom. The fact that they happen to be foreigners is totally irrelevant. What matters is that we should preserve the right to demonstrate in freedom.

We must consider what is possible and what is right to meet the situation. It has not arisen after the recent tragedy, but it is something for which some hon. Members have been campaigning over many years; namely, the abuse of diplomatic immunity by many of those who come here, presumably to serve and to work, but who misuse the rights conferred upon diplomats and their families and staff by the Vienna convention.

That is not a new problem. What is new is that on this occasion a British person, rather than a foreigner, was killed. I answered the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds because there is a temptation to call a person a guerrilla when he kills other nations' civilians and a terrorist when he kills our own. So far as we in the House are concerned, I hope, a terrorist is a person who kills civilians and innocent people in the pursuit of his political aims.

The Vienna convention was passed in May 1961. It was published along with other accounts and papers. It sold so well that it was reprinted in 1962 at the fabulous cost of 1/6d. It deals with matters that came before the electronic age to which the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds referred. Before we decide whether new legislation is necessary, it is essential at least to look at the convention and see whether any such amendment as this is required. It is my contention that the Government had the power, which they saw fit not to exercise, to examine the diplomatic bags taken out of the Libyan embassy and to prevent anything from being exported from this country, including the gun that was undoubtedly used by a diplomatic terrorist to shoot at civilians, which eventually killed the unfortunate policewoman.

The convention, which was signed by representatives of countries including Libya, includes article 27, which states: The diplomatic bag shall not be opened or detained. The packages constituting the diplomatic bag must bear visible external marks of their character and may contain only diplomatic documents or articles intended for official use. One would presume that "articles for official use" do not include guns or ammunition to be used by officials.

In my contention, there was no need for the diplomatic bag to be opened if there was a real suspicion that it contained weapons, explosives and articles other than diplomatic documents or articles intended for official use. The Government, particularly the Home Secretary, could have ordered that either the bag be returned whence it came or that the diplomats concerned themselves opened the bag to show that they were not abusing diplomatic privilege and article 27.4 of the Vienna Convention by using the bag for purposes other than for diplomatic documents or articles intended for official use. In article 36, the convention says that The personal baggage of a diplomatic agent shall be exempt from inspection, unless there are serious grounds for presuming that it contains articles not covered by the exemptions mentioned in paragraph 1 of this Article". Those exemptions are not relevant to this argument.

Therefore, we have yet another article that the Home Secretary may consider, on reflection, could have enabled him to prevent the export of the murder weapon from this country. Were it possible to do what the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds wishes—to introduce into our law a new and vibrant power that does not exist in the Vienna Convention — I might support him, but in my submission, first, it is not possible to do that, as the hon. Gentleman well-nigh admitted, and secondly, far from strengthening the Government's determination to achieve change, the hon. Gentleman is giving the Government the opportunity once again not to use the powers that they already have.

While it is true, as Ministers have frequently stated, that most countries do not permit diplomatic bags to be opened even if they contain such oddities as the articles and people to which the hon. Gentleman referred, there are exceptions to that rule. While the convention also makes it improper to search people on the diplomatic list, it is notable that when people left the so-called Libyan People's Bureau, they were not only subjected to search but were taken away, and, we were told by the press, cross-examined before they left the country. If that is incorrect, no doubt the Home Secretary will correct me in due course.

If I am right in my interpretation of the Vienna convention, there is no need for the hon. Gentleman's amendment. If I am wrong, and there is need for an amendment to the law, it cannot be brought about in the way that the hon. Gentleman seeks. It has to be achieved by the nations that introduced the Vienna convention; it has to be done on an international basis. Either way the amendments do not assist. All hon. Members wish to see change and an end to incidents, such as were described by the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds. However, his new clause will not assist that end. For that reason, I shall not vote for it, as I may have done in other circumstances.

Mr. Peter Bottomley (Eltham)

My hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Griffiths) did the House and the country a service by tabling new clause 21.

Mr. Bermingham

Cheap political propaganda.

Mr. Bottomley

I hope that the hon. Member for St. Helens, South (Mr. Bermingham) will at least allow me to deploy my arguments before he accuses me of cheap political propaganda.

Mr. Bermingham

I was referring to the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Griffiths).

Mr. Bottomley

We must first consider the position of the police in controlling demonstrations and protecting foreign missions. The events in St. James's square brought from many experienced members of the press —both domestic and international—who covered the developments, many tributes to the Metropolitan police. During the hours after the start of the incident many of them said to me that they could not think of a better police force for handling such an incident once it had started.

The new clause seeks to prevent such incidents from happening. I admire the family of Police Constable Yvonne Fletcher for their bravery and forthrightness in speaking openly after her death. The House will wish to pay tribute to them as well as to the police officers in St. James's square.

I do not support the new clause. My hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds talked about drugs and people in diplomatic bags, as well as about guns and ammunition. The smuggling of hard drugs can kill as many, if not more, people as the gun that was used at the Libyan People's Bureau.

As the hon. and learned Member for Leicester, West (Mr. Janner) said, we must work within the international convention, which either gives the powers, or prevents them from being taken unilaterally. My approach is different. If we are to take a unilateral step, it should be to say to other countries that as we do not abuse the dipolmatic bag, we are willing for our bag to be examined by non-intrusive methods — ultra-sonic examination, X-ray, sniffer dogs and other apparatus—to show that we are not moving drugs, people, weapons or missiles. Among the community of nations, a growing majority of countries will be prepared to make the same offer. It is always better for us to say what we are willing to do, than to force conditions on others.

Where we have evidence, which a constable would need in order to go to court to ask for permission to examine diplomatic bags, we should use it whether or not a diplomatic bag is returned to the country of origin unexamined, or is allowed into the country, having been inspected. It is not sufficient merely to rely on special information. If we believe that foreign missions or diplomats are misusing privileges, although we perhaps cannot examine their bags or—on a more minor scale—prosecute them for accumulating 4,000 parking tickets during a year, we should ensure that the country concerned knows that the diplomats are no longer acceptable and should be removed within a reasonable period, or as soon as possible.

If we have information we should use it and not have to rely on the odd occasion when a diplomatic bag is held up for examination. For the benefit of those who do not know what diplomatic baggage looks like, I should say in passing that it is not just a small sack of mail. It may be an enormous packing case containing all manner of things. We should use the information that we have to ensure that others do not abuse privileges and we should lay ourselves open to reasonable, non-intrusive examination of what we carry in our diplomatic bags. Therefore, although I support my hon. Friend's aims, I do not support his new clause.

10.45 pm
Mr. Bermingham

I begin by apologising to the hon. Member for Eltham (Mr. Bottomley) and putting it clearly on the record that my jibe about cheap political propaganda was not aimed at him.

The background to this debate is an extremely tragic and almost unforgivable occurrence in terms of international incidents. It is utterly wrong that anyone should die on our streets at the hands of any other person, especially if the deed is carried out from an embassy. We should not, however, allow that incident to drive us to precipitate action.

In this context, if I may pay a rare tribute to a member of the Government, I pay it to the Foreign Secretary for the answers that he gave in the House at that time. His answers were important in that he counselled caution in considering the Vienna convention. In answer to a question from me about seeking variations in the terms of that convention, he agreed that any variation would affect not only foreign diplomats here but our own diplomats abroad and that if we sought to withdraw any privileges from foreign diplomats here our own diplomats abroad would be similarly affected. At a time when international diplomacy is perhaps more valuable to us than it was in the past, it is important that in dealing with these matters we consider the interests not only of our own sovereign state but of those who serve it abroad.

It is against that background that I turn my mind to the new clause and hope that the House will reject it, for a series of reasons.

First, I regret to say that, although I usually listen with care to the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds on these matters, I was saddened by much of what he said on this occasion. The new clause is ill-conceived, ill-thought out, ill-constructed and would probably do more harm than good in the long term. It suggests that on the basis of information from our security services and so on an order may be sought in the court to examine a bag.

It was a pity that the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds declined to allow my intervention, as I intended merely to ask how the evidence was to be obtained. How is the officer making the application to know what is in the bag? Is it suggested that the bags should be subject to some form of electronic surveillance when they enter the country or that a member of our secret service should apply to the court in camera? The new clause, however, specifies that the application must be inter partes, so presumably any security source would have to be revealed when the application was made. The whole idea is nonsense. I hope that the House now understands the basis for my sedentary interjection about cheap political propaganda. As there is clearly no way in which such evidence could be available to an English court, the whole basis of the new clause falls.

Ms. Clare Short

Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government's approach is the wrong way to solve the problem of what happened from the Libyan people's bureau? The Government's fault was that they failed to act against the Libyans when they were attacking their own people for many months before the incident. It is virtually impossible to ensure that any foreign Government cannot obtain arms here. That problem was caused by the Government's lack of readiness to act, and it is happening again with the Iraqis, who are harassing their students who are critical of their Government.

Mr. Bermingham

I appreciate my hon. Friend's point, because it has highlighted mine. Such incidents happen not only through the Iraqi embassy, but through the Iranian and other embassies. However, that is a side road down which we should not go while we are pursuing the matter before the House.

I find it remarkable that when an hon. Member introduces a new clause, which has been reported in the press long before it came to the House, he says that he will not press it to a vote in any event. One has to ask why he has brought it before the House. I apologise if I have his words wrong, but, if I understood him, the matter is not being put to the vote. These matters should be put in another way if they are to be put before us in the appropriate spirit. It is important that the House should not be used in an almost cavalier approach to matters that are of the utmost importance, not just in the context of one event, because we are here dealing with matters that are broader and wider than the events in St. James's square. I say that with great care and feeling to the hon. Gentleman. We are dealing with the whole problem of how we conduct our international relations.

I put down a question for oral answer to the Foreign Secretary, which asked whether there had been any vetting of South African embassy employees as to their involvement with security forces. I have now received notification that that question will be transferred to the Home Secretary. No doubt, I shall receive a reply from the Home Secretary in due course. However, that raises a simple question. If the Foreign Office is not vetting the employees of an embassy who are coming into the country, and the Home Office is, one must ask the Home Secretary whether, when people come here to an embassy, they are vetted. We have the right to refuse entry into the country, and might it not be in our interests if we refused entry to those who are known to be involved in security whether they are South African, Iranian, Russian or anybody else? We might think more carefully and say, "No" occasionally. If we did, we might not give leave for entry to people who may be of danger to our citizens.

Mr. Lawrence

The hon. Member for St. Helens, South (Mr. Bermingham) did not do justice either to himself or to the seriousness of the matter before the House by spending so much of his speech criticising my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Griffiths) for raising a matter that is at the forefront of the minds of everybody in the country, and certainly in the House.

One thing is clear. Although the Libyan embassy siege has highlighted the matter, it is a fact that the diplomatic bag has been abused, in Britain and in other parts of the world, over many years. Although it is sickening to note the killing of WPC Fletcher and it is timely to understand the risk at which the British police place themselves when patrolling embassies and doing their duty in preserving the right to demonstrate, the fact is that in recent years there has been a long list of assassination attempts and killings, even in London. The British public are heartily sick of waking up in the morning and reading in the newspaper or hearing on the radio that once again the streets of London are being used as an arena for middle east hit men and their assassination squads.

It is equally clear that the application of the law has been inadequate to prevent the entry into this country of weapons of the types used by the hit squads. There is ample evidence throughout the world that the use of the diplomatic bag has been abused. Why, if it has been abused elsewhere, should it not be abused here? Common sense says that if a man does not want to be exposed as a hit man bringing in a weapon to be used to assassinate, he will not carry it on his person as he walks through the doors of Heathrow airport. He will probably not buy his gun here, because there is a scarcity of adequate weapons and, even if he could, he would not want to do so. The hit man would not want the guns and the ammunition to go in the hold of the plane because they would be out of his sight and he could not be sure that the hold would not be searched. The one place about which he can he secure when bringing such guns and ammunition into this country is the diplomatic bag.

When the hit man arrives here, he remains secure. I asked my hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Mr. Mellor), the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, whether it was necessary for accredited diplomatic representatives to obtain licences or register firearms in their possession. On 11 May 1984, he replied that they are already expected to comply with the law and … are reminded of this requirement."—[Official Report, 11 May 1984; Vol. 59, c. 482.] There is, however, no way of proving that they have done so, and no means of checking the source.

I asked my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, the hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Hurd), about the sources of the guns at the Libyan embassy. I was told that there was no evidence that any of them were obtained legitimately in the United Kingdom."—[Official Report, 11 May 1984; Vol. 59, c. 482.] That seems to underline the fact that they were likely to have been imported by the only secure means available to them.

On 15 March — a long time before the Libyan embassy seige—I asked whether the Government were satisfied that weapons were not being brought into the United Kingdom secretly in diplomatic bags. The interesting answer I received stated: We cannot be certain of this, since we are precluded by article 27 of the Vienna convention on diplomatic relations, from opening or detaining diplomatic bags; but we regularly remind diplomatic missions of the need for strict compliance with our laws … If evidence were to come to light that these laws had been flouted by a person enjoying diplomatic immunity, we should not hesitate to take firm action."—[Official Report, 19 March 1984; Vol. 56, c. 324.] That statement is not very reassuring. If the bags are not searched, the evidence will not be found. The mere restriction upon "opening or detaining" does not, as the hon. and learned Member for Leicester, West (Mr. Janner) has said, prevent an electronic search.

I wrote a letter to that effect to my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary pointing out that article 27 does not preclude us from taking an electronic scan of the diplomatic bag and praying in aid the leading authority as a guide to diplomatic practice, Satow's "Guide to Diplomatic Practice", 1979 edition, page 117, paragraph 14.30 of which states: The receiving state of the airline authorities may subject a bag to detector devices designed to show the presence of explosives, metal or drugs, since this does not involve opening or detaining it. In due course, my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary wrote to me and conceded that article 27 did not expressly rule out the electronic scanning of diplomatic bags. He went on to say: Scanning would be of only limited usefulness in preventing the use of the bag for the unlawful import of weapons which could be disguised. 11 pm

I have made some inquiries about that, and I am told that, although it is perfectly possible to wrap ammunition in tin or metal foil and so defeat the scanner, it is much more difficult to disguise, for example, a gun, by virtue of the metal used in making it. A thorough investigation should be made into the matter. I simply do not accept the assurance that my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary has given, that it is impractical to scan the diplomatic bag because an electronic scanner would not discover such things. A thorough inquiry should be carried out into the methods by which we can adequately scan items to detect the presence of guns, ammunition, and so on.

I shall not criticise the new clause, other than to say that it is too long, too complicated and involved, and too contrary to the convention to be accepted. However, I am sure that my hon. Friend introduced it as an issue, and did not seriously expect the Government immediately to accept it, and include it in the Bill. That is a proper way of raising things, and we should not complain. Indeed, we should congratulate my hon. Friend on taking the initiative in introducing such a new clause.

If the law means that we can electronically scan a diplomatic bag, we should do that. We should not need to be afraid of infringing article 27 of the Vienna convention. If the machine pings because there is something suspicious in the bag, we do not need to go through the complicated procedure of raising the matter before a county court, or any other court. All that is necessary is that the officer who notices it should say, "I'm awfully sorry, Sir, but there appears to be something wrong. Could you very kindly open your bag and just make sure to my satisfaction that there are no guns or ammunition in it?" If the man refuses to do that, he can be given his ticket back. He does not have to be let into the country. He can be turned round. If that happens a few times, it will not be long before his country does something about the attempt to abuse the diplomatic bag.

The man can be sent back under, I think article 36 of the Vienna convention, which says that such people have no right to bring in anything other than the normal and proper contents of the diplomatic bag.

I am heartened by the fact that my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary has raised this matter in the councils of the EEC. I am also heartened that he should have asked the Foreign Affairs Committee to consider the Vienna convention. We shall shortly be starting on that. I shall be even more heartened when I hear that a firm stand is being taken in the United Nations International Law Commission. I know that the issue is being raised and discussed there. In that way, a thorough and determined effort can be made to bring together all those countries that are seriously concerned about international terrorism, in order to agree that the rules should be properly followed and obeyed.

There will be a successful outcome only if countries are determined to stamp out international terrorism. We only expect my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary to declare his utter and complete determination to do whatever he can in the international councils of the world, and to stand ready to fulfil the Vienna convention to the full. That means scanning diplomatic bags electronically if necessary. If, occasionally, that does not reveal all the weapons that they contain, it is no reason for not scanning them. We must make every effort to ensure that this disgraceful state of affairs is brought to an end. Our Governments can do more than they have done to end the abuse of the diplomatic bag.

Mr. Skinner

When I came into the Chamber and heard the discussion about diplomatic bags, I thought that at long last we were going to see some real action on the subject. After all, the rent-a-quote crowd who say that something must be done every time there is an incident at an embassy were in evidence.

The hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Griffiths), who sometimes speaks on behalf of the police, had tabled a new clause, and taking part in the discussion was my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Leicester, West (Mr. Janner), who I hope is not about to leave the Chamber. Whenever there is trouble with people at an embassy, he is ready to sort them out. There is bound to be a vote on the issue, I thought, after all the talk about diplomatic bags, and I began to consider how I would vote.

The hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds was not long into his speech before he was retreating. Indeed, he referred to the Home Secretary as having acted in a robust fashion over the Libyan issue. He could have fooled me. Most people feel that the Home Secretary and the Foreign Secretary failed dismally. One reason why they failed, and certainly did not act robustly, was that not long before the Libyan incident the Government sent 12,000 policemen into the coalfields to kick lumps out of the miners.

When two coaches filled with hooded anti-Gaddafi demonstrators came to London from Manchester the police did not stop them—though they stopped miners in Kent from taking part in a peaceful picket — but escorted them to the Libyan embassy picket line. That showed the double standards that the Conservatives operate. The Government allowed demonstrators to come to London by coach, whereas miners who were fighting for the right to work were stopped, when their only desire was to alter the Government's policy, save jobs in the pits and prevent more people from joining the dole queues.

The hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds gave the story away when he said that diplomatic bags could not be opened. Then he spoke of the Italian bag and said that when it was opened a body was found inside. How was it opened without breaking the Vienna convention? Is the hon. Gentleman saying that the Italians are more robust than the British Home Secretary? It seems that the Italians are prepared to break the convention, whereas the British Government will go crawling to Vienna, and hopefully in 20 or 30 years a conclusion will be arrived at.

Any suggestion of taking the matter to the Common Market is laughable. What could be done there, apart from spending British taxpayers' money? Do the Government intend to set up another EEC committee to go into this issue — another gravy train that will cost a small fortune? Do the Government expect the Common Market, bankrupt as it is, to solve this Libyan diplomatic bag problem? They must be joking. It is shadow boxing, and we all know it.

It is ridiculous. Here we are debating a vital issue—the opening of diplomatic bags—and the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds says that he will not put it to a vote, and his hon. and learned Friend the Member for Burton (Mr. Lawrence) agrees with him. We know why. They do not want to embarrass the Home Secretary. They do not want to go down this road because, with embassies in about 146 countries, Britain has 146 diplomatic bags. I have no doubt that the Home Secretary will come to the Dispatch Box and try to kid hon. Members, but he will not kid me. The Government are hoping tonight to get by without a vote, and then they will move back to attacking the miners and the wealth creators in the country, because that is their main purpose.

One of the most galling things is that, while the House is discussing the Police and Criminal Evidence Bill, as it has been for two days, and the police chief in Nottingham today is talking about introducing charges of riot against the miners, the Libyans go off scot free. That puts it in a nutshell. The Home Secretary thinks he will ensure that the miners are driven into the ground, while those diplomats are allowed to escape.

The diplomats in this country and all the rest of them are part of the club, but the millions of people who have to earn a living, and those who would like to earn a living but have been deprived of the opportunity to do so by the Government, have been given very different treatment.

We have had the promise of a great rebellion, but it has all fizzled out. Tory Members have not the guts to go through with their intentions.

Mr. John Farr (Harborough)

I support the clause, and the sooner that something is put into effect along these lines, the better.

I wish to pay tribute in particular to the police in St. James's square, and to the relatives of the dead policewoman. The House extends its sympathy to them.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Griffiths) is rightly seeking to call the House's attention to what is a disgraceful state of affairs. I think that he is right in not pressing the matter to a vote. However, it is important that the House should know the reaction of my right hon. Friend to the suggestions that have been made by both sides of the House of how we can overcome the problem that arises here. Some countries have been named, and others have not. Indeed, one could compile a long list of suspect countries which could well have compiled an arsenal of weapons and ammunition in Britain over the years through the use of diplomatic bag. None of us would wish to see that continue.

Reference has been made by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Burton (Mr. Lawrence) to examples of murders of diplomats that have occurred in Britain. In these cases, the weapons have not been traced to any owner in Britain. Indeed, they are regarded as probably having been smuggled into the country in the diplomatic bag. These instances serve to illustrate how large is the pool of illegally held hand weapons in Britain at present.

An examination of the Firearms Act 1968 shows that legal ownership of a hand gun in Britain is limited by that Act, and 17,000 to 18,000 such weapons are licensed. They are difficult to obtain, and they have to be kept under lock and key, generally on a range armoury, in safe conditions. It is estimated that there are approximately 100,000 illegally held hand guns in Britain. It is clear that that vast reservoir of illegal weapons—handguns such as pistols and revolvers are the preferred weapons of the criminal when he is committing an armed robbery—has not come into Britain from other countries via the diplomatic bag over the years. It is important that my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for the Home Department should recognise that there is real concern on both sides of the House about the source of the vast reservoir of illegally possessed firearms. It is not coming from the licensed law-abiding owner. Much of it is coming in in the hand baggage of ordinary travellers at the port of entry, but no doubt some of it is coming in through diplomatic bags.

11.15 pm

I support the new clause of my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds, which has the germ of a very good idea. When my right hon. and learned Friend replies, I hope that he will give us some idea of the knowledge that the police have of the origin of some of the weapons which appear on the scene in crimes of violence in Britain. I hope also that he will be able to give the House some idea of the extent to which the exterior surveillance of non-diplomatic baggage is carried out at ports of entry. There is undoubtedly a vast flow of illicit weapons entering Britain and I think that the clause helps to draw attention to a pressing problem.

Mr. John Browne (Winchester)

I support the sentiments that are set out in the new clause which has been introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Griffiths). Right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House have talked about the abuse of the diplomatic bag and have paid tribute to Woman Police Constable Fletcher, who was so tragically killed. The killing of a police officer is considered to be an extremely serious matter in this country, but in other countries, including the United States, it happens every day of the week.

I understand that we cannot agree to a new clause that would go against our international obligations. Indeed, it would be ridiculous if we were to do so. However, I ask my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for the Home Department to recognise that there is a vast ground swell of opinion, which is reflected in the House, that something must be done to prevent the abuse of the diplomatic bag continuing. I urge my right hon. and learned Friend to take effective international action to ensure that that is proceeded with.

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Leon Brittan)

I welcome the fact that my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Griffiths) has given the House the opportunity to express its concern over the abuse of the diplomatic bag and to show that the events in St. James's square have raised considerable concern in the country generally, to which a response is called for. It is wrong for any Labour Member to seek to denigrate my hon. Friend's admirable motives and action.

There is no doubt that we have a problem and that there has been abuse of the diplomatic bag. There is no doubt also in my mind that the present position requires consideration. It was for those reasons that in the statements made in the House on the events in St. James's square both my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary and I made it clear that the enforceability and operation of the Vienna convention required serious consideration. My right hon. and learned Friend has begun that consideration. He is raising related issues in various international forums and I am sure that he will be greatly assisted by the fact that the House, though not necessarily uniting on a particular proposition, has expressed its concern.

The hon. and learned Member for Leicester, West (Mr. Janner) kindly told me that he would not be able to be here for my response to his remarks, but for the record I should make it clear that I cannot accept his interpretation of the law, which is that it would be permissible under the law as it exists, or under the Vienna convention, to open diplomatic bags. That is not so.

There is a very important distinction to be drawn between articles 27 and 36 of the Vienna convention. Article 27 relates to the diplomatic bag, and article 36 relates to the personal baggage of the diplomatic agent. Whereas article 36 makes it clear that in certain circumstances inspection of the personal baggage of the diplomatic agent may be permissible, article 27 does not contain, in relation to the diplomatic bag itself, any such exception. It is therefore clear, as a matter of construction and as a matter of law, that it is not permissible to inspect the diplomatic bag. Indeed, the language of the article is quite unequivocal on this point.

Similarly, the proposal that scanning should be attempted and that if anything suspicious is shown the diplomat concerned should be required to open the bag or to return it cannot be carried out because of the provisions of article 27.

Ms. Clare Short

I am sure that we are all deeply honoured that the Home Secretary has joined us to discuss this important piece of legislation. May I ask for his comments on the piece from The Times read out by the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Griffiths), who told us that there was a live human body in the Egyptian diplomatic trunk when it was opened by the Italians? May we know what happened to them when they opened the trunk?

Mr. Brittan

The answer is simple. That incident occurred before Italy became a party to the Vienna convention.

Under the Diplomatic Privileges Act 1964, the Vienna convention is incorporated into the law of this country and therefore the only way in which it would be possible to take the sort of action that has commended itself would be to remove it from the law of this country. There is no doubt that, in regard to our domestic law, it would be open to Parliament at any time to do that. If we were to do that unilaterally we would be in breach of our obligations in international law. I am sure that both sides of the House would not commend that course.

It is exactly for that reason that my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary, recognising and agreeing entirely with the views expressed in the House about the problems caused by the recent incidents, of which the tragic incident in St. James's square was the most blatant and the most serious, has begun to embark upon a review of these matters and to raise them in international forums. The purpose that my hon. Friend advanced of strengthening my right hon. and learned Friend's arm in this matter by showing the concern of the House has been well used. I am sure that my right hon. and learned Friend will be as grateful as I am for the opportunity in considering these matters to be aware of the strength of feeling in the House and the country.

Mr. Eldon Griffiths

I am most obliged to my right hon. and learned Friend. I think the House now wishes to get on. I have achieved the purpose that I had in mind. I think that the House has been able tonight to demonstrate its feelings in this serious matter and to give to my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary and to my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary the support that they need and deserve in the important task that they are undertaking.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Ernest Armstrong)

Is the hon. Gentleman seeking to withdraw the motion.

Mr. Griffiths

Yes, Sir. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Hon. Members


Mr. Deputy Speaker

Then I must put the Question.

Question put, That the clause be read a Second time:—

Mr. Griffiths

I am not going to take part in this charade.

The House divided: Ayes 40, Noes 180.

Division No. 300] [11.24 pm
Alton, David Maginnis, Ken
Ashdown, Paddy Marek, Dr John
Banks, Tony (Newham NW) Maxton, John
Barron, Kevin Molyneaux, Rt Hon James
Beckett, Mrs Margaret Nellist, David
Beith, A. J. Parry, Robert
Bruce, Malcolm Penhaligon, David
Campbell-Savours, Dale Pike, Peter
Carlile, Alexander (Montg'y) Powell, Rt Hon J. E. (S Down)
Conlan, Bernard Ross, Wm. (Londonderry)
Davies, Ronald (Caerphilly) Sheerman, Barry
Evans, John (St. Helens N) Skinner, Dennis
Fisher, Mark Smith, Cyril (Rochdale)
Howells, Geraint Smyth, Rev W. M. (Belfast S)
Hughes, Sean (Knowsley S) Steel, Rt Hon David
Hughes, Simon (Southwark) Walker, Cecil (Belfast N)
Kennedy, Charles Wallace, James
Kirkwood, Archibald Whitfield, John
Lloyd, Tony (Stretford)
Loyden, Edward Tellers for the Ayes:
Maclennan, Robert Ms. Clare Short and
Madden, Max Mr. Stuart Bell.
Alexander, Richard Butler, Hon Adam
Amess, David Carlisle, John (N Luton)
Ancram, Michael Carlisle, Kenneth (Lincoln)
Arnold, Tom Carttiss, Michael
Ashby, David Cash, William
Atkinson, David (B'm'th E) Chalker, Mrs Lynda
Baker, Nicholas (N Dorset) Chapman, Sydney
Baldry, Anthony Chope, Christopher
Batiste, Spencer Clark, Dr Michael (Rochford)
Beaumont-Dark, Anthony Clarke, Rt Hon K. (Rushcliffe)
Bellingham, Henry Colvin, Michael
Bendall, Vivian Conway, Derek
Benyon, William Coombs, Simon
Berry, Sir Anthony Cope, John
Best, Keith Corrie, John
Biffen, Rt Hon John Couchman, James
Biggs-Davison, Sir John Cranborne, Viscount
Blaker, Rt Hon Sir Peter Currie, Mrs Edwina
Bonsor, Sir Nicholas Dorrell, Stephen
Bottomley, Peter du Cann, Rt Hon Edward
Bottomley, Mrs Virginia Dunn, Robert
Bowden, A. (Brighton K'to'n) Dykes, Hugh
Bowden, Gerald (Dulwich) Eggar, Tim
Brandon-Bravo, Martin Evennett, David
Brinton, Tim Eyre, Sir Reginald
Brittan, Rt Hon Leon Fairbairn, Nicholas
Brooke, Hon Peter Fallon, Michael
Brown, M. (Brigg & Cl'thpes) Favell, Anthony
Browne, John Fenner, Mrs Peggy
Bruinvels, Peter Forman, Nigel
Buck, Sir Antony Forsyth, Michael (Stirling)
Burt, Alistair Fox, Marcus
Franks, Cecil Moore, John
Fraser, Peter (Angus East) Moynihan, Hon C.
Gale, Roger Neubert, Michael
Galley, Roy Newton, Tony
Gardiner, George (Reigate) Nicholls, Patrick
Garel-Jones, Tristan Ottaway, Richard
Goodhart, Sir Philip Powley, John
Gorst, John Raffan, Keith
Gregory, Conal Robinson, Mark (N'port W)
Griffiths, Peter (Portsm'th N) Rumbold, Mrs Angela
Ground, Patrick Ryder, Richard
Hamilton, Hon A. (Epsom) Sackville, Hon Thomas
Hamilton, Neil (Tatton) Sainsbury, Hon Timothy
Hanley, Jeremy Scott, Nicholas
Hannam, John Shelton, William (Streatham)
Hargreaves, Kenneth Sims, Roger
Harvey, Robert Smith, Tim (Beaconsfield)
Hawksley, Warren Soames, Hon Nicholas
Hayward, Robert Speed, Keith
Heathcoat-Amory, David Speller, Tony
Henderson, Barry Spencer, Derek
Hickmet, Richard Squire, Robin
Hind, Kenneth Stanbrook, Ivor
Hirst, Michael Stanley, John
Hogg, Hon Douglas (Gr'th'm) Steen, Anthony
Holt, Richard Stern, Michael
Hooson, Tom Stevens, Lewis (Nuneaton)
Howard, Michael Stevens, Martin (Fulham)
Howarth, Gerald (Cannock) Stewart, Allan (Eastwood)
Howell, Rt Hon D. (G'ldford) Stewart, Andrew (Sherwood)
Howell, Ralph (N Norfolk) Stewart, Ian (N Hertf'dshire)
Hubbard-Miles, Peter Sumberg, David
Hunt, David (Wirral) Taylor, Teddy (S'end E)
Hunt, John (Ravensbourne) Temple-Morris, Peter
Hunter, Andrew Thompson, Donald (Calder V)
Hurd, Rt Hon Douglas Thompson, Patrick (N'ich N)
Johnson-Smith, Sir Geoffrey Thorne, Neil (Ilford S)
Jones, Robert (W Herts) Tracey, Richard
Jopling, Rt Hon Michael Trippier, David
Kershaw, Sir Anthony van Straubenzee, Sir W.
Key, Robert Viggers, Peter
King, Rt Hon Tom Wakeham, Rt Hon John
Knight, Gregory (Derby N) Waldegrave, Hon William
Lamont, Norman Walden, George
Latham, Michael Waller, Gary
Lawler, Geoffrey Ward, John
Lawrence, Ivan Wardle, C. (Bexhill)
Leigh, Edward (Gainsbor'gh) Watson, John
Lennox-Boyd, Hon Mark Watts, John
Lilley, Peter Wells, Bowen (Hertford)
McCurley, Mrs Anna Wheeler, John
MacGregor, John Winterton, Mrs Ann
Maclean, David John Winterton, Nicholas
Malins, Humfrey Wolfson, Mark
Mates, Michael Wood, Timothy
Mather, Carol Woodcock, Michael
Maxwell-Hyslop, Robin
Mellor, David Tellers for the Noes:
Meyer, Sir Anthony Mr. John Major and
Mills, Iain (Meriden) Mr. Ian Lang.

Question accordingly negatived

Mr. Cyril Smith (Rochdale)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is it in order for an hon. Member to delay the House for 17 minutes when moving a new clause and, when it is put to a Division, refuse to vote for it and, furthermore, describe those who vote for it as taking part in a charade?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

It is in order. It is not for me to compel anyone to go into the Division Lobby.

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