HL Deb 02 February 1998 vol 585 cc430-1

2.59 pm.

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?

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.

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