HL Deb 14 May 1987 vol 487 cc804-7

8.7 p.m.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Young)

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. The Bill, which was foreshadowed in the 1985 White Paper on diplomatic immunities and privileges, is about the control of diplomatic and consular premises in this country. I hope that when I have explained its purposes and outlined its contents your Lordships will agree that it is both a useful and a necessary Bill.

At present, there are no legislative powers to prevent diplomatic missions from establishing their premises in any part of the capital, nor are there powers to acquire the title of former diplomatic premises which remain empty for long periods and cause environmental, health, security and other hazards.

The problems which arise from the absence of legislative powers fall broadly into four categories. First, we cannot prevent diplomatic missions setting up their offices in sensitive parts of the capital; for example, near the Palace of Westminster or the Royal palaces. However blameless and friendly the mission, it is a fact of life that today any mission can attract crowds which are noisy or even, regrettably, violent. This would clearly be inappropriate in some parts of London.

Secondly, there is no way of dealing with diplomatic premises which remain empty, sometimes for years, because the government which owns them cannot, or will not, dispose of them. I am thinking particularly of the former Cambodian premises in St. John's Wood which have been occupied since 1976 by squatters. Thirdly, at present we would be unable to remove diplomatic status from premises which were being misused. I have in mind here evidence over a long period of time that a mission was being used, for instance, in support of terrorist activity. Fourthly, at present we are unable to retaliate in kind if an overseas government insists that we move from existing premises or withholds consent for the acquisition of new premises.

The Bill before the House would now provide the powers to meet the needs that I have described. It would enable the Foreign Secretary to require diplomatic missions to obtain his express consent before any office premises acquired by them could be regarded as diplomatic premises and therefore entitled under the Diplomatic Privileges Act to inviolability and rating relief. It provides that such consent could be withdrawn in respect of existing premises in certain circumstances with consequent loss of inviolability and rating relief. It also empowers him to acquire the title of premises formerly used for the purposes of a diplomatic mission which the government concerned refuses to dispose of. The Foreign Secretary would then sell the premises and remit the proceeds to the foreign government in question.

Many countries, including the United States, already have in place powers of the kind I have described. The measure would simply bring us into line with them.

In all cases the Foreign Secretary could only give or withdraw consent or acquire the title of any premises if he was satisfied that to do so was permissible under international law. I emphasise that the Government are fully aware of their obligations under the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations and regard the powers in the Bill as fully consistent with them.

I have tried to summarise as clearly and as briefly as possible the main provisions of this short, but important Bill, and I hope that the explanation will have been helpful. I commend the Bill to the House. I beg to move.

Moved, that the Bill be now read a second time.—(Baroness Young.)

8.10 p.m.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, we are grateful to the noble Baroness for introducing and explaining the Bill to the House. Although its objectives are simple, the Bill appears to be rather long and complex. That is because of its legal implications and the requirements of international law, in addition to our own statutory obligations.

We cannot always predict when diplomatic relations will be severed, what the total consequences may be, or how long the breach may last. The Bill deals with one of the practical consequences of severance and the Government must, of course, deal with it. Therefore, we support the Bill and will facilitate its passage.

We are no longer in diplomatic contact with a number of countries such as Cambodia, Iran, Libya and Syria. In each case we were fully justified in breaking off relations with them because of their conduct. We also have the obligations of a civilised country to ensure that their property is protected, as we would expect our own properties to be protected elsewhere in similar circumstances.

As the noble Baroness has explained and as the Title of the Bill stipulates, the properties in question are diplomatic and consular premises which, under the law, includes land.

Clause 1(4) is important because it will reassure foreign governments and underline Britain's observance of the Vienna Convention. Clause 1 as a whole contains a number of important practical provisions. For example, Clause 1(7) gives the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs the sole power to certify as to facts. However, I should think that he will need the assistance of the Secretary of State for the Environment and the Home Secretary on some matters which are enumerated in Clause 1(5).

Clause 2 is, of course, central to the whole Bill because it gives the Foreign Secretary the power to acquire the property and, in due course, to sell it for the best price and thereafter to invest that money and hold it and the interest which accrues for the state which owns the property. However, I assume that the Government will also be able to deduct any expenses which have been incurred.

We understand that the Government recognise the comparative difficulties which exist between the treatment of different countries. For example, we have no contact with Cambodia whatever, and, as the noble Baroness said, the Cambodian Embassy has been full of squatters for years. On the other hand, there is still a small skeleton staff in the Syrian Embassy. Those distinctions are recognised in the provisions of Clause 2 and I was interested to note them.

For the purpose of clarification, will the noble Baroness confirm that the squatters in the Cambodian Embassy will be evicted after the Bill becomes law and that the property will be then sold? Will the proceeds then be held sine die by the Government—that is, until in Cambodia some sensible government emerges from the ashes of that unhappy and unfortunate country and normal relations are resumed?

I have one final question to ask on the contents of the embassies. There are instances in which they could be of immense value—perhaps more valuable than the premises themselves if they contain pictures by famous artists and other artefacts. We know what price they fetch these days. Will those be dealt with in the same manner as the properties, or will they be put in storage and held for the state in question?

I know that the countries concerned can rely on the British Government to deal with those matters in an honourable and efficient way. They are fortunate that that is the case. We give the Bill our full support.

8.17 p.m.

Baroness Young

My Lords, I am grateful for the support given by the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos. As I have said, the Bill is short but useful. The noble Lord asked two questions which I hope I can answer.

The first one concerned the case of the former Cambodian diplomatic premises and whether or not we can deduct expenses. That point is covered in Clause 3 and I can confirm that the expenses of the sale and of the repairs and security can be deducted from the proceeds of the sale.

On the question of the eviction of the squatters, yes, they can be evicted. As regards timing, it is important that that should happen. If the Bill becomes law, we are confident that there will be enough time to acquire the title before the squatters possibly gain a better title through adverse possession.

As regards the contents of the premises, once the premises are vested in the Secretary of State, he will enjoy the normal attributes of ownership of property. Accordingly, it would be a trespass for the former owner of the premises—that is to say the foreign state—to leave furniture in the premises. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office would make every effort to persuade the foreign state to remove the furniture. We believe that in most cases the foreign state would see the good sense in doing that. If the foreign state were to refuse to remove the furniture, the Secretary of State would be entitled to remove it. Moreover, there are various legal provisions—for example, the power of the courts to order a sale of the furniture—which one could consider using against the state.

I hope that that answers the points that the noble Lord has made, and I am grateful to him for supporting this little Bill.

On Question, Bill read a second time; Committee negatived.

Then, Standing Order No. 44 having been dispensed with (pursuant to Resolution of 12th May), Bill read a third time, and passed.