Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Baroness Falkner of Margravine: My Lords, in broad terms, we are content with several facets of this Bill, but we feel that several other aspects need clarification. When I say "the Bill" I refer to the conventional interpretation of the Bill.

Most of my comments will deal with the Commonwealth Secretariat. As the bulk of my comments will be concerned with provisions relating to the Commonwealth Secretariat, I place on record that I was a member of the paid, full-time staff of the secretariat from 1999 to 2003. During my employment there, I was vice-chairman of the Commonwealth Secretariat Staff Association, CSSA, from 2000 to 2003. The CSSA elects its officers democratically, on the basis of one member one vote, at elections every year. My role on the CSSA was a voluntary and unpaid position undertaken concurrently with my other duties.

On these Benches, we have always supported the concept that our common good is better served by international co-operation and joint endeavour.

We recognise that working with others is better than working alone, that building alliances and entering into agreements based on respect and mutual consent is always better than going it alone and that international co-operation is the best method that we have for achieving peace and prosperity for future generations. Hence our commitment to the good governance and efficient functioning of international organisations.

The Commonwealth Secretariat is somewhat different to other international organisations, as it is unique in the closeness of its association with the United Kingdom. It was established in London, it is headed by our sovereign and is so closely bound up with our past that almost all of its countries, with the exception of Mozambique, have a tradition of government and jurisprudence related to our own and, above all, share a language and history which has been touched by our own. Therefore, we have a special duty to ensure that, whatever changes we make to the governance arrangements of the secretariat, they respect the highest traditions of good governance and employment standards that we believe in for ourselves in the UK.

I fear that the provisions of the Bill will dilute those standards rather than enhance them. I refer in particular to subsections (1), (2) and (3) of Clause 1 and to the provisions of Clause 2. The changes proposed in these clauses might serve to dilute the rights of staff with respect to their access to justice.
16 Dec 2004 : Column 1469

In terms of background, I will briefly touch upon the nature of staff arrangements at the secretariat. Its staff, most of whom are based in London, number some 300, of which approximately half are either British nationals, non-British UK residents or dual nationals. They are appointed by the Secretary-General, with the majority on fixed term contracts of three years, which are renewable for a limited period at the discretion of the Secretary-General. Their terms and conditions are set out in rules and regulations which form part of their contract of employment. Should an employment dispute occur between a member of staff and their employer—the Secretary-General—the legal recourse for settlement is the Commonwealth Secretariat Arbitral Tribunal (CSAT), the subject of Clause 2. All members of the tribunal are appointed by the Secretary-General, who is also responsible for their remuneration. There is no independent supervisory control to ensure independence. The method for staff to enforce their rights or seek remedy for a breach of obligations is to make a claim to CSAT, where there is no right to an oral hearing under its procedures and thus no right to question witnesses. There is no right of appeal.

Under the existing interpretation of the Arbitration Act 1996, the English courts have taken the right to entertain applications from parties challenging a decision by an arbitral tribunal in very restricted circumstances on the grounds of lack of independence or bias. English courts have, therefore, in those limited circumstances, been seen as the only recourse for someone seeking to challenge a CSAT decision. We fear that this minimal safeguard of natural law rights would be removed if the Bill were to become law, because blanket immunity would be provided which would leave no scope for any redress beyond that of CSAT. It is questionable whether this situation will be compatible under the European Convention on Human Rights and we expect to question that further in Committee stage.

For the moment, it would be helpful to hear from the Minister of other examples where access to justice is similarly restricted. It would also be illuminating to hear whether, in such cases that might exist, immunities have been further extended to restrict rights since the Human Rights Act came into force. If they have, this could be a diminution of the Government's stated intention to promote a human rights culture, both domestically and beyond.

Our concern with respect to the changes set out in Clause 3 relate to equality in employment. We understand that previous arrangements for taxation discriminated against British nationals and if this anomaly will now be corrected, that is to be welcomed. We shall seek further clarification in Committee. Those are our reservations with respect to the human rights of staff employed by the Commonwealth Secretariat.

In Clause 4, which relates to the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, it is peculiar that the OSCE, compared to other international organisations, does not have legal personality. We
16 Dec 2004 : Column 1470
understand that from its genesis, it started out as a conference but has now evolved to a situation where it has its own staff, secretariat and institutions. It would make sense to give it legal personality, as long as its flexibility, which is its much vaunted strength, continues.

Clause 5 is slightly opaque and it is unclear what the Minister envisages to be the practical application of the clause. Which bodies have been established under the provisions of the Common Foreign and Security Policy or Title VI? Are any new ones envisaged? On the remaining clauses, we understand that these are tidying up exercises and, therefore, we broadly welcome them.

In conclusion, I note the comments of the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in his regulatory impact assessment of the Bill. Mr Rammell described it as a,

Small and technical it may be, but its impact on the human rights of staff, as envisaged in Clauses 1 and 2, may prove significant. The danger in lowering thresholds is that we jeopardise the principles of universality and indivisibility to which we have long adhered. We hope that that will not be the result of the Bill.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire: My Lords, I, too, noted the Foreign Office briefing that this was a tidying-up operation, a non-controversial Bill, but I wish to peg on to our examination of the Bill some wider considerations and to argue in the opposite direction to the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan. If one is considering extending rights and privileges to international organisations, I should have thought that the example of the International Olympic Committee was not a happy one. It is a deeply corrupt body which has been through some reforms, but still—

Lord Moynihan: My Lords, I am deeply grateful to the noble Lord for giving way, but I never mentioned the International Olympic Committee because it would have been outside the remit of the Bill, as it is not an international federation based in the United Kingdom.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire: My Lords, I accept that, but I wish to argue my doubts about the emergence of a growing class of international officials in Britain, across Europe and elsewhere who are immune from domestic taxation and are beyond the obligations and protections of domestic law.

I must declare an interest. My wife is director of the Robert Schuman Centre—part of the European University Institute, which is an intergovernmental organisation set up under the EURATOM Treaty. I am part of her family. I am classified as a dependent spouse and I must confess that she receives a dependent spouse allowance on my behalf, for which I am deeply grateful. I have mixed views on her immunity from domestic taxation and on the lower rate of notional taxation which she is forced to pay on her salary. I should also declare an interest of the noble Lord, Lord Roper. The Minister mentioned the European Union's Institute for Security
16 Dec 2004 : Column 1471
Studies, of which the noble Lord was the first director. I have no doubt that he was deeply upset by the manner in which his salary, too, was arranged under similar circumstances.

The justification for extending immunities to families, which is also included in the Bill, again seems to be questionable. There are some wider and longer term issues. After all, those of us on these Benches who are committed to the idea of a strengthened global order and higher global interdependence—which require active management—recognise that we will have a continuing proliferation of intergovernmental agencies to manage them. But that carries with it the danger that two classes of people will be operating—those of us who are subject to domestic law and pay our taxes and parking fines, and an increasing number of people who do not.

For global organisations, such as the International Criminal Court, diplomatic privileges are still necessary. I strongly agree with the Minister that the added security needed by bodies such as that are required in all member states and we cannot ask to be different. However, they are not always recognised in all member states. In late August, I found myself in the middle of a UN convoy in South Ossetia, surrounded by a group of people in Russian uniform but of uncertain provenance who certainly did not seem to regard the UN as having any privileges whatever under those circumstances. Therefore, we need that security for global organisations.

But it seems to me that, within the European Union, we should be putting down a marker about how many further agencies within the EU should have these kinds of rights and immunities. We can all agree that the EU is not a federation, but it is more than an intergovernmental organisation and it extends a great deal further into our ordinary lives. Therefore, we must question how extensive the privileges and immunities of those who work for European agencies should be.

As the Minister will know, I am a strong supporter of the further development of the European Union, but I regard the powers, privileges and status of the Commission and of many of its agencies with mixed feelings. I refer to the salaries of those involved, their access to duty-free sales and the extent to which the Commission and the various agencies are outside the remit of the employment law and regulations which the Commission itself imposes on member states and candidate countries. That is another area where Her Majesty's Government should be pushing further.

There is a real danger of a popular backlash against the emergence of this privileged elite. In this House we hear the noble Lord, Lord Pearson of Rannoch, going on endlessly about the privileged pensions received by former Commissioners. It is easy to imagine the press campaign which could build up as more and more such agencies develop. Indeed, the Minister mentioned some of them.

We now have the European Medicines Agency in London, the European Central Bank in Frankfurt, a food standards agency, which is not yet established, in Parma, the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia, and, under Titles 5 and 6 of the Treaty on European Union of Maastricht, a number
16 Dec 2004 : Column 1472
of others which the Minister mentioned and which come under Europol, Eurojust, the new European Defence Agency, the EU Satellite Centre and elsewhere.

ATHENA is also mentioned in the report of the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee. I have been trying to remember all the other activities or potential agencies that are developing within the second and third pillars. Odysseus is one of them—they almost all have Greek names. One can imagine a world in which new agencies grow up. We have the European Police College in Bramshill, in which the number of people who are, to some extent, outside the domestic law of the member states continues to proliferate a great deal. We may well wish to test that in Committee—in particular, the extension to family members of such rights and privileges.

My noble friend Lady Falkner talked in detail about the Commonwealth Secretariat, and so I shall not refer to that. So far as concerns the OSCE, the Minister will know that some of us have real doubts about its continuing value and, indeed, its uncertain status. There is clearly a case for strengthening its status and for making it a full intergovernmental organisation, but only if it is to be given the potential to play the role of a full intergovernmental organisation. As we saw at the OSCE council meeting last week, the Russian Government, in particular, seemed deeply resistant to the OSCE playing any positive role.

I say nothing about ITLOS beyond that some years ago I was privileged to attend a number of conferences on the reform of the Convention on the Law of the Sea and I remember eating the most superb seafood as I went from conference to conference. So I hope that they start again with a further revision of the Convention on the Law of the Sea.

Similarly, I query whether the European Court of Human Rights should have all the privileges of the International Criminal Court. The European Court of Human Rights operates in the European region, where its members are much less likely to have problems about their citizenship and their behaviour. The European region does operate under the rule of law, and therefore, here as in other places, we should be moving towards the assumption that, as one moves across the European Union, partly as European citizens, we do not need extra privileges in order to be able to operate.

Therefore, I ask Her Majesty's Government to take a more restrictive approach in general to the extension of diplomatic privileges. I recognise that much in that regard cannot be achieved by the United Kingdom alone but, most importantly, it should be placed firmly on the EU agenda and included in discussions on the reform of the United Nations and its agencies following the high-level panel report on UN reform.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page