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UK Politics: News In Brief

Monday, March 22, 1999 Published at 19:03 GMT

250 judges admit being masons

One judge in 20 is a freemason, according to ministers.

Lord Chancellor's Department Minister Geoff Hoon released the figures in a Commons written reply.

Responses to a voluntary government questionnaire also showed that a similar proportion of magistrates said they belonged to the masons.

The government sent forms to 5,290 judges, of whom 263 said they were masons. Nearly 25,000 magistrates were also asked if they were members and 1,208 said yes.

Third of early release prisoners are killers

Nearly a third of terrorist prisoners released early under the Good Friday Agreement are convicted murderers.

In a reply to a written question Junior Northern Ireland minister Lord Dubs said that 78 of the 248 paramilitary prisoners freed had been convicted of murder.

Lord Dubs added a further 200 prisoners remain in custody who "could be or have been" deemed by the independent Sentences Review Commissioners to be eligible for early release.

Of these, 70 had been convicted of murder, he said.

Government loses on Lords timetable

Peers have thrown out government plans for a shake-up of the House of Lords' timetable.

Peers voted by 225 votes to 87, a majority 138, to reject a proposal by the government Chief Whip Lord Carter to move the day set aside for debates from Wednesday to Thursday.

Opponents feared the move would have effectively put the Upper House on a three-day week.

60,000 bill for Northern Ireland flights

Northern Ireland ministers and officials spent almost 60,000 on first class air travel during 1998, Northern Ireland Secretary Mo Mowlam disclosed in a Commons written answer.

Ministers were accompanied by a total of nine civil servants on seven international trips, all but one to the US.

The lowest fare was 4,324 for Minister Adam Ingram to fly to New York and Washington for speaking engagements and receptions in November, while the highest was 6,570 for Ms Mowlam's trip to Chicago and Seattle on her 11-city tour of the US in October.

Public Service Minister Peter Kilfoyle later disclosed that senior civil servants in the Cabinet Office made 106 flights between May and October 1998 at a cost of 87,409.

English council tax to rise by 6.8%

Council tax bills in England are to go up by an average 6.8% from April.

On average, Labour councils are raising their council taxes by 6.1% compared with Tory councils' higher than average 7.6%.

The average "council tax per dwelling" will be 616 in Labour areas, 613 in Tory areas, and 708 in Liberal Democrat areas.

When the government set spending levels for the coming year it advised that if authorities kept to their Standard Spending Assessments - what ministers thought they should spend - council tax bills would rise by an average 4.5%.

Government pledge to boost women diplomats

Ministers are aiming to double the UK's number of top women diplomats by 2003.

Junior Foreign Office Minister Baroness Symons told peers: "We aim to double, at least, the number of women in the senior management structure by 2003."

Lady Symons also said action is being taken to raise the number of diplomats from ethnic minorities.

But Tory peer Lord Beloff criticised the plans, saying: "The quota system whether ethnic, or gender is wholly alien to the best traditions of the British diplomatic service."

Church of England worth 3.5bn

The Church of England is recovering from its disastrous property losses incurred in the 1980s and now holds assets worth 3.5bn, MPs have been told.

Speaking for the Church Commissioners, Labour MP Stuart Bell told the House: "The balance sheet now reads 3.5bn assets and there will be a press conference shortly to announce our results for next year, which will be encouraging."

Mr Bell added that the Church of England's investment managers took ethical considerations into account when investing the church's funds.

"The portfolio would reflect those concerns and at the moment they mean that about 10% of the UK stock market is excluded from it," he said.

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