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Session 2005 - 06
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Standing Committee Debates

Seventh Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation

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Seventh Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation

The Committee consisted of the following Members:


Mr. Eric Illsley

†Browne, Mr. Jeremy (Taunton) (LD)
Clegg, Mr. Nick (Sheffield, Hallam) (LD)
†Corbyn, Jeremy (Islington, North) (Lab)
†Donohoe, Mr. Brian H. (Central Ayrshire) (Lab)
†Gwynne, Andrew (Denton and Reddish) (Lab)
Hammond, Mr. Philip (Runnymede and Weybridge) (Con)
†Horam, Mr. John (Orpington) (Con)
†McCarthy, Kerry (Bristol, East) (Lab)
†McIntosh, Miss Anne (Vale of York) (Con)
†Pearson, Ian (Minister for Trade)
†Reed, Mr. Jamie (Copeland) (Lab)
†Robinson, Mr. Geoffrey (Coventry, North-West) (Lab)
Selous, Andrew (South-West Bedfordshire) (Con)
†Tipping, Paddy (Sherwood) (Lab)
†Walker, Mr. Charles (Broxbourne) (Con)
†Ward, Claire (Watford) (Lab)
Jenny McCullough, Committee Clerk

† attended the Committee

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Tuesday 12 July 2005

[Mr. Eric Illsley in the Chair]

Draft International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (Immunities and Privileges) Order 2005

10.30 am

The Minister for Trade (Ian Pearson): I beg to move,

    That the Committee has considered the draft International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (Immunities and Privileges) Order 2005.

Mr. Illsley, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning. The order was laid before the House on 30 June 2005, together with an explanatory memorandum. It is required to enable the Government to ratify the agreement on the privileges and immunities of the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, which was opened for signature in New York on 1 July 1997, and signed by the UK on 24 August that same year.

The International Organisations Act 2005 allowed for the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea to be treated for the purposes of section 1 of the International Organisations Act 1968 as an organisation of which the UK and other sovereign Governments are members. Before that, it had been possible only to confer privileges and immunities on the members of the tribunal, and limited privileges and immunities on the registrar of the tribunal under section 5 of the International Organisations Act 1968. That was done by the first International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (Immunities and Privileges) Order 1996. This second order confers legal capacity on the organisation itself, as well as extending immunities and privileges to various other categories of persons employed by, or connected with it. It revokes the 1996 order.

The tribunal was established by the 1982 United Nations convention on the law of the sea—UNCLOS—but it did not come into existence until the entry into force of UNCLOS on 16 October 1994. After the election of the first judges, the tribunal took its seat in Hamburg on 1 October 1996. It is an international court and has jurisdiction to hear disputes submitted to it in accordance with UNCLOS and all matters specifically provided for in any other agreement that confers jurisdiction on it.

Funding is through a budget adopted annually by the meeting of states parties to UNCLOS, on the basis of budget proposals submitted by the tribunal. The states parties to the tribunal pay contributions based on the scale of assessments of the budget of the UN, adjusted to take into account participation in UNCLOS. The 2004 budget was set at $8.039 million, with the UK contributing $373,320.

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I am satisfied that the order is compatible with the rights contained in the European convention on human rights. The order is important but, I trust, non-controversial. I hope that it will receive the full support of all members of the Committee.

10.33 am

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): May I first of all welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Illsley, and say what a great pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship. I congratulate the Minister on moving the regulation so eloquently. The pity for the Committee this morning is that the law of the sea has long been a passion of mine, and I would like to take a few moments to consider the implications of the order. However, I shall not detain the Committee for too long, or test your patience, Mr. Illsley.

I had the opportunity to study the law of the sea at Edinburgh university as part of the public international law course under the then Government adviser, Mrs. Pat Birnie. I pay tribute to her for imparting whatever knowledge she may have done. I take entire responsibility for any mistakes that I make, and would not like to blame her for them. I take this opportunity to welcome the regulation on behalf of the official Opposition, but I would like to question the Minister closely on it. I am drawing heavily on the excellent explanatory memorandum.

I notice that the Minister said that the judges took their seat for the first time in October 1996 in Hamburg. Out of interest, my parents met in Hamburg, so I have a close affinity with Hamburg—this is not my life history, it is all right. I realise that Hamburg is an important port, but I wonder why London was not chosen for the seat of the tribunal, since most of the maritime cases will take place in this country, indeed in this city. We are sitting not too far from the headquarters of the International Maritime Organisation.

In paragraph 7.2 of the explanatory memorandum, we are told that since

    “the Tribunal is based in Hamburg, and is unlikely to move to the United Kingdom, the practical implications of the Agreement for the United Kingdom are limited.”

My first question, therefore, is: why is it based in Hamburg? Why is it not likely to move, and could we not make a bid to move it to London for the reasons that I gave? Because most of the cases will probably come from this country, it would seem practical for it to be based here. To strengthen that argument, I understand that Ireland took Britain to the tribunal over the shipping of mixed oxide nuclear fuel from Sellafield. On that, I understand that feelings among the public do not run high, but I can imagine that feelings among maritime lawyers do run high. I do not know whether the Minister has to hand any other casework on the matter, but it strikes me that there are probably compelling arguments for the tribunal to sit in this country.

Mr. Geoffrey Robinson (Coventry, North-West) (Lab): I know that it is a matter of great difficulty to my hon. Friend the Minister, but given the recent dreadful events in London, on the one hand, and the
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tremendous success of the Olympic bid on the other, would not such a move be seen as a vote of confidence in London and a propitious gesture? When my hon. Friend makes his winding-up speech, will he consider whether there is any chance of achieving that?

Miss McIntosh: I endorse the proposal put forward by the hon. Gentleman. I am mindful of the fact that when the Baltic Exchange was destroyed in an IRA bombing, the whole exchange had to be re-housed, which affected the whole British Chamber of Shipping. That is, if not the biggest, one of the biggest shipping organisations in the world. I endorse the sentiments that the hon. Gentleman expressed. I also deprecate the decision of the US to tell their soldiers not to come into London after the dreadful atrocities last Thursday. I am mindful of the fact that when the twin towers were bombed on 11 September 2001, the Prime Minister was among the first from the United Kingdom to go over to New York and show solidarity.

Moving rapidly on to stay in order, Mr. Illsley, I hope that the Minister will take the opportunity to suggest that now is a good time to move the tribunal here. It has been sitting for less than 10 years, and now would be a good opportunity for making the case to have the tribunal in London. I am sure that we could find some other suitable organisation to be based in Hamburg instead.

We are told that no regulatory impact assessment has been prepared for this instrument, although the Minister mentioned the contributions towards the cost. He read out the figures in US dollars. Will he be good enough to confirm that they are annual contributions? As it is not an insubstantial sum, why has no regulatory impact assessment been prepared, as that is customary in such circumstances?

We are then told in paragraph 8.2 of the explanatory memorandum that any

    “loss in revenue to the Exchequer in respect of the relief from taxes and other exemptions provided for in the Agreement will be small.”

That prompts the question as to what the size of the loss is, and why this Committee has not been told about it. That would be helpful. I would also like to ask why, as the tribunal has been sitting since October 1996, it has taken this long to come forward with the implementing legislation to give legal capacity to the organisation. How has it been able to sit for nine, almost 10, years without legal capacity? As a non-practising lawyer, that concerns me. Why has there been such a delay for the people who, through this instrument, are having their privileges recognised for the first time?

Will the Minister be good enough to tell us who sits on the tribunal? What is its composition? What is the international nature of those who sit on it? What is the make-up of the judges, and what is the nationality of the registrar? That would enable us to understand what we are passing here. Who are the other people whose privileges we are seeking to extend?

We seek satisfaction on the questions that I have asked. Can the Minister also confirm that, as paragraph 4.5 of the explanatory memorandum suggests, the order will come into effect in all parts of
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the United Kingdom? Does any further action have to be taken in the Scottish Executive? We give the order a warm welcome and look forward to the Minister’s response.

10.41 am

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): I support the order before us, but I shall be grateful if the Minister will deal with a couple of points. First, he mentioned that $373,000 is the UK’s contribution, out of a budget of $8 million. Is that, in his view, sufficient? Secondly, the organisation has been in existence for 10 years, and there are massive issues surrounding the law of the sea, such as on pollution, environmental protection, protection of sea mammals and fishing issues, as well as issues of oil exploration and transport of nuclear materials—across the Irish sea being one such case in point, as the hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) mentioned. What is the process by which such cases are dealt with, in terms of time? Clearly, time is of the essence in ensuring that, if a major pollutive exercise is in operation, international law can be brought into place to prevent it continuing? If too long a period elapses, the problem can continue and worsen as a result.

What process exists for reviewing how it works, how efficient it is, and how well the tribunal operates? Is it capable of coping with the enormous commercial pressures that are placed on it not to act in defence of the environment, in the way that it ought to act? Who are the UK representatives on it? The important thing in my view is that there is serious ministerial observation of what is going on, and if necessary, an increase in the budget to ensure sufficiently speedy decision making so that the law of the sea can bring about the environmental protection that everyone in this Room wants to achieve.

10.44 am

Mr. Jeremy Browne (Taunton) (LD): I wish to speak briefly on behalf of the Liberal Democrat party in support of the order. I endorse the comments made by the hon. Member for Vale of York, the shadow Minister and others, about the desirability of having London as the location of the tribunal rather than Hamburg. In fact, as well as being the Liberal Democrat representative on this Committee, I am also the Member of Parliament for Taunton, which is the home of the UK Hydrographic Office. That is one of the few centres in the entire world that seeks to map on a global scale the sea beds, and the oceans and seas of the planet. If there is only one location that is more suitable than London, it is Taunton. I say that with a lack of optimism, but only as a point of observation.

It will be interesting to hear the answer to the questions asked by the hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn). However, we think that the order is a good measure, and we give it our support.

10.45 am

Mr. Robinson: If we are bidding for the organisation, Coventry has the very epicentre of England located within it, so it has a claim as well.

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I follow on from the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North made earlier about resources. It seems that the budget is tiny and that the work is good. We are pushing not to increase the budget, but merely to be reassured that it is enough. I also say to my hon. Friend the Minister that we do not want to pay more than our fair share. Among those who meet the bill, how are the proportions paid decided on?

10.46 am

Ian Pearson: I will try to answer the questions raised in the debate.

First, hon. Members asked whether it was possible to move the tribunal from its location in Hamburg. It is important to recognise that 146 different states are party to the agreement. Hamburg was chosen to be the seat of the tribunal by the representatives of the states that participated in the third UN conference on the law of the sea by secret ballot on 21 August 1981. It is my strong suspicion that there is no consensus that we should move the tribunal to London, but I am sure that those who read the proceedings of meetings such as this one will consider the possibility with interest. That is not to deny the importance of London as a maritime centre. The hon. Member for Vale of York made a number of valid points about that. For example, we have a long and successful tradition in maritime insurance. The Government are keen to ensure that the success of the UK’s sector continues.

The hon. Member for Vale of York mentioned one case and seemed to imply that the majority of cases involved the UK. In fact, they doe not. Since the tribunal began, only one of the 13 cases submitted to it has related to the UK.

Mr. Brian H. Donohoe (Central Ayrshire) (Lab): Is it possible that the massive wind farms that will be parked in the bays of many of our ports will mean that there will be more cases relating to the UK than at present?

Ian Pearson: That is possible, but it is important to recognise that we are talking about an international court in which a Government take a case out against another Government. Many of the wind farms will be in the territorial waters of the relevant state. I do not think that the international law of the sea would apply in those circumstances, but if there is any differing information about that, I will get back to my hon. Friend. The normal 12-mile limit on territorial waters is set by the tribunal. That limit would exclude most wind farm developments.

The question of the budget was raised by my hon. Friends the Members for Islington, North and for Coventry, North-West (Mr. Robinson) and by the hon. Member for Vale of York. I confirm that the UK contribution for 2004 was $373,320. That is an annual sum.

Mr. Browne: Is that figure in dollars or pounds?

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Ian Pearson: Dollars. The tribunal’s budget is adopted annually by the meeting of states parties to UNCLOS, on the basis of budget proposals submitted by the tribunal. My hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North questioned whether the budget was adequate. It is my understanding that the budget is currently adequate, given the level of work required of the tribunal. However, as he will have heard, the budget is adopted annually, and if there were a requirement to change the budget, consideration would be given to that. I hope that the fact that we are ensuring value for money will satisfy my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, North-West.

Mr. Robinson: Is our contribution proportionate?

Ian Pearson: Yes, I can confirm that our contribution is proportionate. In 2003, we contributed $399,130. They are relatively small sums, but are dependent on the level of money required for the work.

The hon. Member for Vale of York mentioned the issue of losses, which I was coming on to. It is my understanding that the losses to which she referred were small, and were related to issues such as refunds of valued added tax on hotel bills, and air passenger duty on air tickets. We are talking about a small amount of money.

Miss McIntosh: I have to declare an interest as I am a former Member of the European Parliament and will be, in time, eligible for an MEP’s pension, which is identical to the House of Commons pension. Are there any pension liabilities due, and are the employees who are the subject of the order, subject to tax-free status and an enhanced pension? There was an article in the paper, which may or may not be true, showing that the Government’s liabilities for MEPs’ pensions have reached a high level. Are we going to face a similar situation here?

Ian Pearson: I am not aware that there is a problem in that regard. However, if there turns out to be a problem, I am content to write to the hon. Lady on the matter. My understanding is that the budget is set to meet its liabilities.

The hon. Lady also asked why there was no regulatory impact assessment. We must be clear about what the order does. We are ensuring that a limited number of individuals have the necessary privileges and immunities. There is a financial consequence to that. However, we are not scrutinising or approving the budget for the tribunal. That is set elsewhere. It is a case of a regulatory impact assessment not being needed for the legislation.

The hon. Lady asked why it had taken so long to get to this stage. The simple answer is that we implemented legislation to grant privileges and immunities so far as we were able, but we did not have the vires under legislation to complete the job. The International Organisations Act 2005, which the hon. Lady will remember was enacted just before the general election, means that we are now able to give the full immunities that are necessary as a result of the agreement.

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The last question that was asked by the Committee concerned the composition of the tribunal. There are 21 judges who serve nine-year terms. They are distributed geographically and come from Africa, Asia, western Europe, eastern Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean. We currently have one UK judge on the tribunal whose term expires on 30 September 2005.

Jeremy Corbyn: I asked about the efficiency of the tribunal in dealing with cases and what mechanisms there were for my hon. Friend or anyone else to review its efficiency and workings. I do that not because I am particularly critical of it—I am not—but because these issues are very important. The longer a decision is delayed, the worse an offence can be. It can be compounded by delay. It is important that there be a serious process of review and if the tribunal requires more resources at least we should know that.

Ian Pearson: I apologise to my hon. Friend for not getting back to him on that point. The tribunal acts as if it is an international court. It has legal proceedings to go through. As such, it is in the same position as many other international organisations with legal standing of which he will be aware. Often in such cases it can take some time before the full court proceedings are exhausted. I am not aware of any problem in relation to the tribunal’s current caseload. The question whether additional resources could speed things up, is reviewed on an annual basis at the moment. I do not think that that is the issue.

Mr. Robinson: Will my hon. Friend the Minister undertake to have that reviewed periodically and reported on?

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Ian Pearson: I can certainly ask for that to be looked at. Just to reinforce the point, we are just one of a number of parties to the agreement. We in the UK show an active interest in the way the tribunal works and in the law of the sea. It is right to do so.

Jeremy Corbyn: I fully realise that. The point that my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, North-West and I are trying to make is that we want the organisation to be effective. Obviously, it is not under the control of any one Government, and neither should it be. Nevertheless, it is Governments who contribute to it on behalf of their public. Therefore, they need to review how rapidly or otherwise it deals with the process. Resources may or may not be missing—they are probably not—but there is an issue about the huge amount of time that is taken before decisions are reached by this judicial body and the damage that is caused by the lack of decisions. There needs to be some form of scrutiny of what it does so that we can make our views known.

Ian Pearson: I take my hon. Friend’s point on board. We obviously monitor the tribunal’s work as a matter of routine. He suggests that we should do more than that. I will take his helpful suggestion away and talk to my officials about it.

Miss McIntosh: Let me ask one last question. Does further action have to be taken by the Scottish Executive?

Ian Pearson: No further action is required by the Scottish Executive. I think that I have covered the questions that have been raised here today. This is an important but largely technical and uncontroversial measure. I think that it should be passed today.

Question put and agreed to.


    That the Committee has considered the draft International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (Immunities and Privileges) Order 2005.

Committee rose at one minute to Eleven o’clock.


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