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House of Lords

Tuesday, 7th April 1998.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Norwich.

Estonia: 80th Anniversary of Independence

The Earl of Carlisle asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What steps they are taking to join the Republic of Estonia in celebrating its 80th anniversary of independence.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean) My Lords, we were glad to welcome President Meri of Estonia to the United Kingdom in February. In addition the United Kingdom is taking part in a wide range of commemorative events in Estonia this year. These include a programme of ships visits and a British Week in Tallinn in October. Other events will be announced as they are confirmed. These events underscore the significant role played by Britain, and in particular by the Royal Navy, in Estonia's struggle for independence in 1918.

The Earl of Carlisle: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for her delightful reply. Will she join with me in wishing HMS "Westminster", its captain, Commander Peter Walpole, and its crew bon voyage on their visit to Estonia in June? Is she aware that the last time the Royal Navy visited that part of the Baltic it went in force and destroyed with shellfire the one bridge over the River Narva? During their presidency of the European Union will Her Majesty's Government set in motion steps to rebuild a bridge over the River Narva so that trade with the Russian Federation can be improved and communications between Europe and Russia can also be enhanced?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, I certainly join the noble Earl in his good wishes. I believe that his knowledge of Estonia is second to no other in your Lordships' House. His historical analysis of our relationship is of great interest. However, I am not in a position to make any spending commitments on behalf of Her Majesty's Government. The United Kingdom Government are doing what they can to further the application of Estonia to join the EU and using the know-how fund in the pre-accession arrangements that have been put in place.

Baroness Rawlings: My Lords, given that the Foreign Secretary has said that the main concern of the British presidency is to get the negotiations on European enlargement off to a flying start, what lead are the Government taking to ensure that other EU member

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states are equally committed to the enlargement process by providing the financial assistance necessary to help countries such as Estonia and second wave countries like Bulgaria which may leapfrog the process?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, we have started the accession negotiations with the applicant countries. Those which are in the best position are starting first. Subsequent accessions will be dealt with as quickly as possible. Her Majesty's Government hope that enlargement will be a success, and we have a record for encouraging the enlargement process. To that end, we are using the United Kingdom's know-how fund to help countries which wish to join the EU to adapt their legislation and administration to meet the demands of EU membership. To that end, the know-how fund spent £86.5 million in the year 1995-96. I believe that we are encouraging our partner countries to do the same by setting a very good example.

The Earl of Lauderdale: My Lords, since the Minister referred to Bulgaria, can she inform the House whether that country's admission will be subject to her abandonment of any claim to Romania in the future?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, the Foreign Office has equipped me with information on 50 possible supplementary questions. I regret to say that all of them deal with Estonia and not Bulgaria, but I shall write to the noble Earl on the point that he has raised.

Prisons Ombudsman

2.41 p.m.

Lord Hurd of Westwell asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they propose to give statutory basis to the work of the Prisons Ombudsman.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Williams of Mostyn): My Lords, the Government are sympathetic to the idea of covering the Prisons Ombudsman's role in primary legislation and will consider this further after a forthcoming review of the ombudsman's office.

Lord Hurd of Westwell: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for his reply. Does he agree that Sir Peter Woodhead does an admirable and necessary job but that he has to wrestle with a number of obstacles, one of which is that his office does not have a basis in law? Does he further agree that that weakens his standing and makes him subject to attempts by the Home Office to whittle away his terms of reference? As the noble Lord will be aware if he has researched the matter, this is not an idle point. If the Minister agrees with that--I believe that he does--will he now accept the recommendation of the Select Committee on the ombudsman in 1996 which criticised the present non-statutory framework? Will he go a little further than his reply so far and

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undertake that the Home Secretary will insert this provision in the next relevant Bill that he brings before Parliament?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, certainly Sir Peter Woodhead does an extremely good job. He was appointed in 1994 and has a final extension until May 1999. The review to which I referred is likely to report not later than August of this year, so the timescale is quite short. I recognise that under previous governments, not this one, there was a deal of whittling away, attempts being made to draw bogus distinctions between what was administrative and what was policy. As I believe my noble friend Lord Merlyn-Rees observed on an earlier occasion, "administrative" was when things went wrong and "policy" was when things went right.

Lord Allen of Abbeydale: My Lords, I understand that few appeals by young prisoners reach the ombudsman, largely because it is not within their culture to be able to put matters down in writing, so much so that, although there is no lack of grievances, few young prisoners ever make a start under the formal complaints procedure. Is that a problem which the Minister recognises? If so, does he have any thoughts on a possible solution?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, the ombudsman's regime does not begin until internal complaints procedures have been exhausted. At the moment, most complaints are on adjudications, lost property, transfers and recategorisations. Bearing in mind the terms of the noble Lord's question, I shall certainly research it to see whether further steps should be taken with regard to drawing the attention of particular groups to the opportunity of complaint to the ombudsman.

Agriculture and the Countryside

2.44 p.m.

Lord Geraint asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they will set up a Royal Commission on issues concerning the countryside and the agricultural industry.

The Parliamentary Secretary, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Lord Donoughue): My Lords, the Government do not intend to set up a Royal Commission on issues concerning the countryside and the agricultural industry.

Lord Geraint: My Lords, many farmers will be disappointed by the Minister's reply to my request. Is he aware that many young farmers in this country do not realise that the Government have a policy to help them in any way, and what advice can he give those who are contemplating leaving the industry within the next few years?

Lord Donoughue: My Lords, we have policies to assist the farmers of Wales and the whole of the UK.

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We do not believe that the setting up of a Royal Commission, which would inevitably take a long time, is necessarily the best way to help them. We have a whole range of policies to assist farming. I draw the noble Lord's attention and their attention to the two most recent packages of assistance: the package of £85 million of aid announced before Christmas, primarily to the livestock industry and hill farmers, of which the Welsh share was about £12 million; and the subsequent package to assist with various charges, particularly the setting up of the new cattle traceability system which totals nearly £40 million. We are of course currently reviewing all of our agriculture and countryside policies. We are aware of the problems facing the farming industry, particularly certain disadvantaged parts of it. That includes the hill farmers, the beef farmers and the sheep farmers, not just of Wales, although many of the problems are concentrated in Wales. That is why we are also considering reconstructing the industry and looking at ways to assist with retirement.

The Earl of Clanwilliam: My Lords, does the Minister accept that the organic farming industry would be delighted to have a Royal Commission? Does he agree that it might take three years for anything to happen to help it, and that is taking a rather long-term view? The industry would rather see something happen immediately. In the list of farming communities being helped that the Minister mentioned, he omitted to include the organic farming industry. Does he have any views on further assistance for it?

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