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Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, on the subject of age discrimination, can the noble Baroness confirm that there will be no upper age limit for membership of a reformed House of Lords?

Baroness Blackstone: No, my Lords. I can neither confirm nor deny that.

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Central European Department: Staffing

2.59 p.m.

The Earl of Carlisle asked Her Majesty's Government:

    In view of the impending entry of eastern European nations, and especially Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, into western European institutions, whether they are satisfied with the level of manning of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office's Central European Department.

Lord Whitty: My Lords, yes. We are satisfied that the current level of staffing--and I use the term "staffing"--is sufficient to meet the demands facing the Central European Department. There are no current plans to increase the size of the department, but procedures exist for reviewing staffing levels where necessary.

The Earl of Carlisle: My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply. Will he join with me in thanking the former director for Europe, Mr. Francis Richards, and the head of the Central European Department, Mr. Howard Pearce--and indeed all members of that overworked and understaffed department--for the work they have done over the past three years? Will he also give this assurance to the House? If there is to be any further salami slicing in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office budget, the important Central European Department--it has much work to do to catch up in our relations with the 10 nations in that department which were so rudely interrupted over the past half century--will be left untouched?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, I am extremely happy to pass on the good wishes from the noble Earl. I am not sure that I can accept the reference to understaffing. As my Answer indicated, there is certainly a lot of work on the Central European desk in anticipation of accession. The staffing levels are under constant review, as are those of our embassies in the countries concerned.

Lord Janner of Braunstone: My Lords, will my noble friend be good enough to convey to Sir John Kerr, the new and excellent Permanent Secretary at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the best wishes of us all in his formidable task?

Noble Lords: Hear, hear!

Lord Janner of Braunstone: My Lords, will he also give him the assurance that the Government recognise that many of our missions, whether in central Europe or elsewhere, are under great stress and strain? Further, through Sir John Kerr, will the Minister express to those diplomats in those missions the deep appreciation of those of us in both Houses of Parliament who have received such a welcome and such help when in their countries on public duties?

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Lord Whitty: My Lords, I am extremely grateful to the noble Lord, and for the murmurs of approval around the House. I shall certainly pass to the Foreign Office the appreciation of this House for its work and for our diplomatic staff overseas. It will be much appreciated there.

Lord Moynihan: My Lords, assuming that the satisfactory manning levels about which the Minister spoke are sustained, what new proposals are being developed to help the applicant countries in central and eastern Europe and the Baltic states, which are not in the first wave of accession negotiations, to prepare for eventual entry to the European Union so that a negative signal on their prospects for becoming future member countries of the EU is not sent to them by the present member countries?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, I was gently pointing out to the noble Earl, and I point out to the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, that we use the term "staffing" these days rather than "manning" in the Foreign Office. However, as regards the central European countries, it is absolutely clear that the position of Her Majesty's Government and of the European Union is that none of the applicant countries should regard itself as being excluded from the process, but will be involved in the inclusive process of moving towards full membership of the European Union. The first six countries will engage immediately in formal negotiations from the end of March. Those other countries will continue to be supported to be brought into full membership of the European Union. The United Kingdom and the European Union will be providing resources to ensure that they meet the requirements.

Earl Russell: My Lords, does the Minister agree that, in the eyes of the Treasury, the proposition that levels of staffing or of funding are sufficient is a tautology? But can he say anything to convince those of us who use less circular terminology that his first Answer to my noble friend was correct?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, I am sure that all my answers to the noble Earl's noble friend are correct. Clearly, the Treasury has its job to do, as does the Foreign Office. It is the latter which assesses its priorities and we consider the staffing to be adequate, albeit well stretched.


3.4 p.m.

Lord Carter: My Lords, at a convenient moment after 3.30 p.m. my noble friend Lady Symons of Vernham Dean will, with the leave of the House, repeat in the form of a Statement an Answer to a Private Notice Question in another place on the latest developments relating to Iraq.

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Tribunals of Inquiry (Evidence) Act 1921

The Lord Privy Seal (Lord Richard): My Lords, I beg to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper.

Moved to resolve, That it is expedient that a tribunal be established for inquiring into a definite matter of urgent public importance, namely the events on Sunday, 30th January 1972 which led to loss of life in connection with the procession in Londonderry on that day, taking account of any new information relevant to events on that day.--(Lord Richard.)

Lord Cope of Berkeley: My Lords, as the noble Lord the Lord Privy Seal is aware, on this side of the House we accept the Prime Minister's judgment in setting up this tribunal and do not oppose this Motion. But the Lord Privy Seal said on Thursday, when he responded to questions following the Statement, that the setting up of a new tribunal was in no way a criticism of Lord Widgery. That seems to me to be an extraordinary thing to say. He seems to be one of the very few people who believe that. After all, if the newspapers are correct about the papers given to the Government by the Irish Government, which include the new evidence and which have led to the new inquiry, they are filled with criticisms of Lord Widgery's tribunal, including the evidence that he did not take and the conclusions he came to.

The Lord Privy Seal also said that this was a wholly separate matter from the peace process. But, as I understand it, the Government hope that going into these matters will have a beneficial impact on the peace process. Whether it does or not only time will tell. We hope that it will. Is it not already clear that Sinn Fein/IRA are going to milk this new tribunal for maximum propaganda throughout? The Government should be prepared to respond to that.

The Lord Privy Seal did not respond to the question on prosecutions which he was asked last Thursday. There is another opportunity for him to do so in support of this Motion. But perhaps he would prefer to do so in correspondence.

Lord Richard: My Lords, I am perfectly prepared to respond. Such researches as we have been able to carry out lead us to believe that questioning of this sort on such Motions is virtually unprecedented in this House. Certainly on two occasions since 1994, when the previous administration set up tribunals of inquiry, the time for questioning was when the Statement was made and not when the Motion was presented. But there we are. If the noble Lord wishes to ask questions I suppose he is entitled to get answers.

I said that the tribunal was not a criticism of Lord Widgery, and I still say that. The great difference between now and then is that there is new evidence which he did not have. In those circumstances, to say to

2 Feb 1998 : Column 433

a court of appeal that there is fresh evidence that the judge who presided over the trial would have considered if it had been available is no criticism of the first judge. It is merely saying that he did not have the evidence. That is what I said last week and that is what I am saying today.

The noble Lord asked that I expand on how this inquiry is separate from the peace process. It is self-evidently separate from the peace process. That process is a set of negotiations which are taking place. They are highly political and highly charged issues. This is an inquiry into events which took place 26 years ago. Of course the Government hope that it will have an effect in bringing the communities together. There is nothing wrong with that. There is nothing sinister in the Government expressing a hope that one of the results of setting up the inquiry, which is justified, is that the communities may come together rather than be driven further apart.

As to whether I have anything to add on immunity from prosecution, I say this. The establishment of a public inquiry does not preclude a criminal investigation or prosecution if in the light of all the evidence which may emerge either course seems justified. It will be open to the RUC to commence a criminal investigation at any stage where it is felt that the evidence so warranted it. Such investigation will receive full government co-operation. Any subsequent proceedings would be subject to any undertaking on immunity which had been given to those who provided evidence to the inquiry.

Perhaps I may say a word about immunity so that we can clear the matter up beyond peradventure. Because the inquiry is to be established under the 1921 Act, any person who can give material evidence will be under a legal obligation to do so, subject only to the right not to incriminate themselves. If the exercise of that right by any individual or group of individuals were to hamper the ability of the inquiry to obtain significant evidence, it could invite the Attorney-General to consider providing the witness with a suitable undertaking, or in an extreme case, immunity. Each case will be considered on its merits. I hope that that clears up the matter to the satisfaction of the noble Lord.

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