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House of Lords

Monday, 4th November 1996.

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

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Exeter.

Foreign and Commonwealth Office: Overseas Posts

Viscount Waverley asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether any budgetary or other measures will be introduced during this Session of Parliament that would necessitate the Foreign and Commonwealth Office closing any overseas posts.

Lord Chesham: My Lords, we cannot anticipate the result of the Budget. The pattern of overseas diplomatic representation is kept under close review, the purpose being to sustain the global foreign policy to which this Government are committed.

Viscount Waverley: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that reply. Is he aware that UK domestic competition is set to increase as a result of European Union membership and that France maintains double the number of staff in its overseas missions around the world, while Germany has a third more? Will he please recognise that for the sake of our exporters and our export-driven economy it is essential that the United Kingdom maintains a strong presence overseas?

Lord Chesham: My Lords, I reiterate that we are committed to maintaining the global foreign policy needed to support British interests and to provide essential services to business and the public. I cannot pre-empt the Budget.

Lord Bruce of Donington: My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that his ambiguous Answer is thoroughly unsatisfactory? Is he further aware that the European Commission has already established 126 overseas posts, which it calls embassies, which are in direct competition with the embassies of the various member states? Will he make quite sure that British interests are not in any way brought into disrepute or lack credibility as a result of those wholly unauthorised establishments--made without the consent of the Council--in various parts of the world?

Lord Chesham: My Lords, I reject being called ambiguous on this matter. I have not been at all ambiguous with that statement. I cannot pre-empt the Budget. Even the noble Lord opposite would not expect me to pre-empt the Budget. For further conversation on this matter we shall have to wait until the Budget.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire: My Lords, will the noble Lord confirm that the British Government have been

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economising by using facilities provided by other governments in a number of capitals, in particular, by the German Government in Alma-Ata and elsewhere? Does he feel that that gives the right image of the kind of independent British foreign policy of which the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Donington, and others would approve?

Lord Chesham: My Lords, we have to look at this matter sensibly. Obviously, to over-duplicate services does not make any sense whatever. The noble Lord might like to look at the number of locally engaged staff within the British foreign service, of whom we have far more than any other country.

The Earl of Halsbury: My Lords, does the Minister agree that it could be argued to the contrary: that if the French have twice as many officials on the job as we have, they must be twice as badly managed?

Lord Chesham: My Lords, that is a very tempting inference.

Baroness Park of Monmouth: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that, as this Government stand for value for money, the value for money given by our minute foreign service is quite remarkable? Does he further agree that it is quite irrelevant, if I may politely say so, to talk about local staff? Excellent as they are, they do not represent our country; nor can they interpret it to the countries where we are represented. The issue is the size of the foreign service itself. I recognise that commitments cannot be given ahead, but may I hope that much more recognition will be given to the fact that this is absolutely outstanding value for money?

Lord Chesham: My Lords, I totally agree. Of course we look for value for money. What we get from our staff overseas is absolutely superb and I should hate to think that any other interpretation should be put on it, certainly by ourselves.

Lord Gillmore of Thamesfield: My Lords, in the light of the services rendered by posts overseas to British exporters and investors as well as to the Government and the British traveller, services which the noble Lord commended, does he agree that post closures are likely to prove a false economy?

Lord Chesham: My Lords, I do not believe that we have been talking about any post closures. At this stage changes are neither ruled in nor ruled out in advance of the Budget. There has been no statement that there will be post closures.

Lord Whaddon: My Lords, will the noble Lord bear in mind the great difficulties encountered by people doing business with the further parts of the former Soviet Union? Many business people in those areas have to travel 1,000 miles or more to Moscow or Leningrad in order to apply for a visa as it cannot be done purely by post? Will he bear in mind the enormous business that we lose because of those difficulties? I must declare

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an interest as I have pointed out before the difficulties that I have encountered in doing business with those areas.

Lord Chesham: My Lords, I appreciate what the noble Lord said. It may be worth noting that since 1990 we have opened or reopened 29 new posts, mainly in central and eastern Europe and the Far East. We have closed eight posts in the same period.

Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, bearing in mind that the Government are determined to cut public services, whether or not desirable, in order to make way for tax cuts to try to secure an electoral victory, can the Minister say what thought has been given to the possibility of more joint representation with our European Union partners? Can he also comment on whether or not the joint representations that presently exist have been successful and what savings may have emerged from them?

Lord Chesham: My Lords, I come back to the fact that we cannot pre-empt the Budget. We have been asked to do so in questions involving expenditure cuts in that area. We do not know whether expenditure will be cut and therefore I cannot answer that part of the noble Baroness's question. In relation to the second part of her question, if it is appropriate, makes sense financially and is efficacious, we shall look at joint efforts. Any continued or expanded joint effort will have to wait for the Budget.

Viscount Waverley: My Lords, is the Minister aware of the low morale that exists in the Foreign Office after years of cuts in that sector by the Conservative Government?

Lord Chesham: No, my Lords. Where I have been recently there was no indication whatever of low morale. The foreign service does a terrific job and needs all the support we can give it.

Lord Richard: My Lords, the Minister did not answer my noble friend's question. Are the Government satisfied with those joint representations which already exist and are the Government considering the possibility of having more? It is a simple question.

Lord Chesham: My Lords, I gave a simple answer. Where it is efficacious, money saving and they have worked, we are satisfied. As to further joint efforts, we shall have to wait for the Budget to see what funding is available.

Lord Richard: My Lords, I am sorry to be difficult on a Monday afternoon, but can the Minister answer the question? Are the Government satisfied with the joint representations that have already taken place?

Lord Chesham: My Lords, of course. If not, we would not have them.

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Legal Aid

2.45 p.m.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What was the cost to public funds of legal aid in the last year, and what is the estimated cost in the current year.

The Lord Chancellor (Lord Mackay of Clashfern): My Lords, net expenditure on legal aid in 1995-96 was £1.391 billion. The provision for the current financial year is £1.477 billion, though on present trends it would appear as though actual expenditure will be slightly higher than that.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter: My Lords, is my noble and learned friend happy with that further increase in expenditure in this area? Is he aware that many of us feel that public expenditure of this kind ought not to be increased and ought to be controlled?

The Lord Chancellor: My Lords, I have intimated proposals for providing machinery for controlling the total size of the legal aid budget. The details are set out in the White Paper. In the meantime, quite a lot is being done under the present system to try to control what is being paid out. For example, I am hoping to introduce a system of graduated fees for advocacy in the Crown Court at the beginning of 1997 which will cover cases lasting up to and including 10 days. It is also proposed to introduce a system of standard fees for civil legal aid work, including matrimonial cases. That will provide greater control over expenditure and incorporate early and certain payment for quick and efficient work.

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