HL Deb 24 February 1977 vol 380 cc365-8

3.20 p.m.


My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government when they propose to publish the conclusions of the Central Policy Review Staff's review of the representation of the United Kingdom overseas.


My Lords, as I informed the House on the 3rd February, Sir Kenneth Berrill intends to let my right honourable friend the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary have the report by the end of April. Clearly my right honourable friend will wish to study the report before he takes any decision with regard to publication.


My Lords, since some of the contents of this report appear to have been widely disseminated, if not leaked, and since previous reports on the subject, such as the Duncan Report, were published, will not the Government give an undertaking now that they will publish the conclusions of the review, if not the review itself?


My Lords, my right honourable friend the late Foreign Secretary informed Parliament in another place, I think on 17th January this year, that the conclusions of the report, and as much as possible of the report itself, would be published.


My Lords, in view of the rather long time it is taking to bring out this report, which suggests a sense of coyness, and of the fact that this in turn suggests that there may be questions of large reductions of staff overseas, will the noble Lord, in looking at this matter, consider, if he does come to the conclusion that such a reduction is necessary—and it may not be—that some of the people who are not to represent us overseas shall be brought into the Foreign Office to form there the core of a forward planning or contingency planning unit, which apparently at present does not exist and which would be very useful?


My Lords, I could not of course possibly anticipate the content or the recommendations of the report. I have no doubt that Sir Kenneth Berrill will have taken into account ideas of the kind that the noble Lord has put forward today. As to the delay in presenting the report to my right honourable friend, we have to remember that this is a wide-ranging and somewhat complex inquiry into the full range of external services.


My Lords, does the security of this information which may delay publication come into the category of "secret" or only "highly embarrassing"?


My Lords, I think that the noble and learned Lord, with his experience of these things, would be far more competent than I am to draw a distinction between the two. Perhaps I may add, he is rarely secretive but often highly embarrassing. On the point of substance, of course, it is not the question of security that delays the publication; it is the complexity of the inquiry.

I think that there is a point here that I owe in reply to the noble Lord, Lord O'Hagan. When the report is made known to the public, as my right honourable friend has said, repeating what was said by his predecessor, now Prime Minister, when he announced the inquiry, there will of course be certain necessary constraints on publication. We intend to publish the conclusions, but we need to look at certain aspects, for instance, security—and this is the point of substance made by the noble and learned Lord—when we come to the question of publication of the entire content of the report.


My Lords, is the Minister aware that the honourable lady, Dr. Shirley Summerskill, recently visited the overseas posts in the Indian sub-continent with a view to examining the role and functions of entry certificate officers there, but that nevertheless the waiting list for dependants and fiancées wishing to come to the United Kingdom has steadily lengthened? Is this a matter which can be taken into consideration by Sir Kenneth Berrill? What discussions has he had with the honourable lady about speeding things up!


My Lords, Sir Kenneth Berrill and his team will have looked at consular as well as other aspects of this question.


My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord to appeal to Her Majesty's Government that in this year, which is Jubilee Year, our representation abroad should not be diminished or cut down? The eyes of all the world are turned on this country, especially on the Queen's Birthday, and the cutting down of the Queen's Birthday receptions abroad in this particular year would be very sad indeed.


My Lords, I hardly think that there will be time, if I may put it like that, to diminish or substantially alter our representation abroad before the celebrations of Her Majesty's Jubilee. As to the celebrations in posts abroad, we are telling posts to conduct these in the manner most appropriate in their opinion in the countries where they serve.


My Lords, on the point of delay, may I ask whether the noble Lord would agree that yesterday's proceedings in this House show the danger of trying to produce a report too quickly?


Yes, indeed, my Lords, and I hope that in particular the noble and learned Lord opposite will take note of what my noble friend has said.


My Lords, in considering the conclusions of this report, so far as one can judge them from what one has heard and read, will the Government bear in mind, in a year in which the United Kingdom is in a proper economic fix, and a low state of reputation abroad, that it is desirable that we should keep the maximum possible ability to play every card in our hand through our diplomatic representatives?


My Lords, it is always necessary to keep every possible card in our hands. However, I could not possibly agree with what my noble friend has said about the reputation of this country abroad. Its reputation abroad may be denigrated in this country, but when one goes abroad one has a completely different impression.


My Lords, would the noble Lord agree that there are several precedents for the inquiries conducted by the Central Policy Review Staff being published without the Government being committed to the conclusions that the Central Policy Review Staff have reached?


Certainly, my Lords; and my right honourable friend, then Foreign Secretary and now Prime Minister, when he announced this review made precisely that point. He said that he was not bound to accept any of the recommendations, but that he hoped he could agree with the report.