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Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, the alliance has not made any decision about whether to issue further invitations at the Washington summit to which the noble Earl referred. We believe that NATO's priority should be the successful integration into NATO of Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, both politically and militarily. There are no special cases. However, the noble Earl will recall that the Prime Minister also said to the House of Commons on 9th July 1997 at col. 937 after the Madrid summit that applications from Romania and Slovenia were being,

Lord Hardy of Wath: My Lords, does my noble friend consider that the WEU Partnership for Peace arrangements can serve as a satisfactory staging post for those member states in Europe which feel disappointment but which cannot sensibly be assimilated with the urgency that they want?

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Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, the Partnership for Peace arrangements provide what my noble friend described as a sensible "staging post". As well as the WEU, a number of bilateral activities particularly engage the United Kingdom. I refer, for example, to our bilateral defence relationships with Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania which are excellent, as the noble Earl, Lord Carlisle, has reminded us on a number of occasions. The WEU is acting as an essential part of the development of those nations which have made applications and which are waiting to see what happens in relation to the open door policy not only next year but on a longer-term basis.

Baroness Williams of Crosby: My Lords, does the Minister agree that the recent steps to recognise the position of the Russian speaking minority in Latvia and in other Baltic states are extremely helpful in bringing about a peaceful integration of the Baltics into the Western structures with the support and agreement of Russia? Does the Minister accept that it is vitally important to maintain close relations with the Russians through Partnership for Peace in order to make that possible?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, I agree wholeheartedly with what the noble Baroness has said. We are particularly pleased to see the recent changes in Latvia in relation to Russian minorities. As I described a moment or two ago, the United Kingdom has undertaken a number of bilateral activities in relation to Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. We are enormously encouraged by the activities of all three of those Baltic states in trying to ensure the integration of their Russian minorities. That obviously helps not only in relation to NATO applications but also in relation to their EU membership which is going forward.

Lord Kennet: My Lords, will the Government keep the phrase "open door" under continuous review because it suggests that anyone at any time would be welcome? For instance, we could start with the Congo and go on with Myanmar if the door were really open.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, there is a difference between having an open door and inviting someone to step through it. We have made it perfectly clear who is invited to step through it at the moment. The criteria upon which such invitations are put forward is that enlargement for NATO's political and military cohesion should continue and should enhance European security and stability. Those are the basic criteria which will be considered in relation to the open door policy.

Baroness Rawlings: My Lords, as regards NATO and European Union future membership, does the Minister support the policy that the nations supposedly in the second wave such as Bulgaria may still come in as soon as they meet the desired criteria, democratic and economic conditions, regardless of their position on the list?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, I hope I have made it clear that in relation to NATO we

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also wish to ensure that there should be proper integration of the first wave of applicants. That is what is important. It is not just a question of the numbers; it is the cohesion of NATO itself which will be of great importance. The first objective must be the integration of the three applicants who have already been invited. Thereafter, decisions will be taken in the light not only of what the noble Baroness says but also in the light of the effect of inviting further applicants in terms of European security and stability over all.

Prison: Sentencing Alternatives

3.3 p.m.

The Earl of Longford asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they accept the conclusions of the 3rd Report (Session 1997-98) of the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee, Alternatives to Prison Sentences (HC 486-I).

The Minister of State, Home Office (Lord Williams of Mostyn): My Lords, the Government welcome the report of the Home Affairs Committee's inquiry into alternatives to prison sentences. We believe that the courts should have available to them an effective range of sentencing options. The committee's report is a valuable contribution towards realising that. The Home Secretary and I are considering all the recommendations carefully. When we have done so we shall publish our response before the end of this year. Many of the recommendations endorse action which the Government are already taking.

The Earl of Longford: My Lords, as I shall raise these issues in a wider context tomorrow night I shall not bother the Minister for much longer today. However, on the face of it, his reply could be encouraging or it could mean nothing at all. I look forward to the debate tomorrow.

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, it is definitely not nothing at all. It is encouraging.

Lord Dholakia: My Lords, does the Minister agree that the prison population, which was 40,000 in 1993, has now increased to over 65,000? In the same period the offending rate, or the rate at which offenders have been sentenced to imprisonment, has risen from about 44 per cent. to 60 per cent. in the Crown Court and from about 5 per cent. to 10 per cent. in magistrates' courts. Does the Minister consider that a non-custodial alternative should play an important part and that the courts should re-examine their sentencing guidelines?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, is quite right. There has been an unprecedented rise in the prison population over the past five years. However, I am happy to tell your Lordships that for the first time since I have been answering these Questions the rate of increase has recently slowed down. It peaked at 66,517 at the end of July. However, last

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Friday it was 65,980. I endorse entirely what the noble Lord says. We have to be extremely scrupulous in looking at alternatives to imprisonment. I believe that that is an important theme which underlies the Crime and Disorder Act.

Lord Mackenzie of Framwellgate: My Lords, does the Minister agree with me that in many cases prison is a perfectly proper sentence, certainly for serious crimes, and that it plays an important part as a deterrent in any crime prevention strategy? Does he also agree that this House should not give the impression that we care more for the welfare of the criminal than for that of the victim?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I absolutely agree. I believe that the protection of the public is at the heart of any government's duty. The important question is to ensure that we have effective public protection. The noble Lord's point about victims is another important theme in the Crime and Disorder Act where reparation orders are available. We should bear in mind also that the ultimate protection for the public is a reduction in crime. That depends on public confidence in the range of sentencing alternatives available and those which are used.

Lord Tebbit: My Lords, can the Minister say whether the rate of crime has gone down or up during the period that the prison population has gone up?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, the rate of crime as such varies. Some crimes have increased and some have decreased. It is difficult to find a causal connection between imprisonment and the rate at which a particular crime is committed. Different factors affect different crimes. I can see the semaphore from my noble friend Lord Tebbit--

Noble Lords: Oh!

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I refer to my noble friend Lord Tebbit. I repeat that some crimes have increased and some have decreased.

Lord Allen of Abbeydale: My Lords, will the Government pay particular attention to the committee's recommendation that Ministers should give more publicity to the work of the Probation Service and the other activities touched on in this admirable report?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, it is indeed an admirable report, as I sought to say earlier. I believe the noble Lord refers to Recommendation 29 which states that we ought to inform the public fully what alternative remedies are available. I have started to do that by attending probation officers' conferences and by talking to probation officers. I have endeavoured to persuade the media to tell the full story of what is available for public protection and the reduction of crime.

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