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House of Commons

Friday 18 March 1994

The House met at half-past Nine o'clock


[ Madam Speaker-- -- in the Chair ]


Insolvency (No. 2)

Mr. Secretary Heseltine, supported by Mr. Chancellor of the Exchequer, Mr. Secretary Howard, Mr. Secretary Hunt, Mr. Secretary Lang, Secretary Sir Patrick Mayhew and Mr. Neil Hamilton, presented a Bill to amend the Insolvency Act 1986 in relation to contracts of employment adopted by administrators, administrative receivers and certain other receivers ; and to make corresponding provision for Northern Ireland : And the same was read the First time ; and ordered to be read a Second time tomorrow, and to be printed. [Bill 76.]

Transport Police (Jurisdiction)

Mr. Secretary MacGregor, supported by Mr. Secretary Howard and Mr. Roger Freeman, presented a Bill to make further provision with respect to the jurisdiction of transport police : And the same was read the First time ; and ordered to be read a Second time tomorrow, and to be printed. [Bill 77.]

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Council of Europe and Western European Union

9.34 am

Mr. Richard Alexander (Newark) : I beg to move,

That this House supports the important roles of the Council of Europe and Western European Union ; takes note of the work of the Parliamentary Assemblies of both bodies and, in particular, of the work and efforts of the United Kingdom's delegation ; notes the role of the Council of Europe in bringing the parliamentary process to the Parliaments and people of Eastern and Central European countries which have joined it in recent years ; recognises the special role of the Council of Europe as an institution specialising in the protection of minorities and human rights in those countries ; and welcomes the fact that under the Maastricht Treaty the Western European Union is to be the future European Defence entity and the European pillar of the new-role NATO.

May I apologise on behalf of many hon. Members on both sides of the House for their inability to be with us today ? As the House knows, the subject of a Friday debate is not chosen until one or, at the most, two weeks before the day and hon. Members have constituency duties on Fridays which, understandably, are not easy to break. I welcome the opportunity to initiate a debate on the Council of Europe and the Western European Union and I welcome the participation of my hon. Friends the Members for Dorset, West (Sir J. Spicer) and for Taunton (Mr. Nicholson), who have an interest in wider aspects of the subject and who--I hope--will speak later in the debate. I welcome the debate not only because I initiated it, but because it has been such a long time since the House has had the opportunity to debate the Council of Europe and the Western European Union. Events are fast moving in Europe.

In the past year, on 9 October in Vienna, the Heads of State and Governments of the member states of the Council of Europe met for the first time in the organisation's history. Its ringing declaration on that day summarised for me the reason why this debate is important and timely. The declaration stated :

"The end of the division of Europe offers an historic opportunity to consolidate peace and stability on the continent. All our countries are committed to pluralist and parliamentary democracy, the indivisibility and universality of human rights, the rule of law and a common cultural heritage enriched by its diversity. Europe can thus become a vast area of democratic security.

This Europe is a source of immense hope which must in no event be destroyed by territorial ambitions, the resurgence of aggressive nationalism, the perpetuation of spheres of influence, intolerance or totalitarian ideologies."

The Council of Europe was formed more than 45 years ago largely under the inspiration of the then Mr. Winston Churchill. It predates the treaty of Rome and the EC, or, as we now know it, the European Union. It is separate from the European Union, which is not always widely understood outside the House. Indeed the European Union is the tenant of the Council of Europe's parliamentary building in Strasbourg. Since it is separate, the membership of the Council of Europe has evolved over the years more steadily and more widely. Possibly, that may also have occurred because it is a council of members of the Parliaments of the countries which belong to it and it is not in any way a legislative body.

The effectiveness of a body that has no powers over countries of membership must therefore be limited to influence, to persuasion, and to leadership. Having no powers may account for its not having been debated in the

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House for many years. Today, I want to highlight the contribution of Britain and British parliamentarians to the Council of Europe and to draw the work that we do to the attention of Parliament and the people of Britain.

The United Kingdom's delegation consists of 18 delegates and 18 alternates taken from both Houses, appointed proportionately from the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat parties. The appointments are made by the Prime Minister of the day. The United Kingdom delegation is led by Lord Finsberg. I pay a tribute to him for his dedication to the task and the firm leadership that he gives to our deliberations. He is rightly one of the most respected delegation leaders and his wise counsel is appreciated and nearly always adopted.

The British delegation has a fine reputation for attendance and participation in the debates of the assembly and the work of its committees. We chair many of the committees and hold

vice-chairmanships of many more. Despite the party-political differences in this House, when we are in the Council of Europe there is little, if any, of the party-political divisions and squabbling which too often pervade our debates here.

Having said that, I shall make only one party-political point in my speech. The futile and unnecessary decision of the Labour leadership in the House and the Labour Whips to refuse co-operation between the parties is causing grave damage to our reputation for attendance and participation. Other countries do not suffer in the same way. They have political disagreements, but they regard the work of the Council of Europe as sufficiently important to override internal bickering. They simply do not understand it. Our influence is undercut, British interests can be bypassed and the respect for our work and our enthusiasm, which has been built up by distinguished parliamentarians over many years, ebbs away. If Members from the two major parties cannot attend meetings of which they are the chairman or speak to reports of which they are the rapporteur, it will be a long time before we regain our reputation for hard work and reliability. I make no criticism at all of Labour's representation on the Council of Europe in those remarks-- the Labour party is well represented by the hon. Member for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy). However, I urge him and his colleagues to bring some common sense to their party leaders in the matter. The lack of co-operation has gone on for one third of the year and shows no sign of abating. I hope that Labour Members will exercise some common sense, because they cannot leave Britain's representation to the Liberal Democrats and the upper House. Both groups perform admirably in their way, but I do not think that anyone would say that they are entirely representative of British parliamentarians.

As with all parliaments, the main work of the Council of Europe is done in committee. Although the Council has no executive powers, it has considerable influence in the countries concerned on social affairs, legal affairs, migration and refugees, economic affairs, political affairs, European development, science and technology, agriculture and human rights. It is healthy that 32 countries in Europe come together from time to time to debate such subjects. Indeed, the composition of the Council of Europe is more European than the European Union itself. When people think about Europe generally, they do not think

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about only the 12 states ; the 32 countries in the Council are much more representative in people's perception of what Europe is. Especially since the iron curtain came down, the Council's work has expanded enormously, so it is doing a steady but often not too well recognised job. The emergence of the former eastern European countries has made them essential partners in a new and expanded Europe. They have shown great keenness in joining western Europe. Paramount among the work of the Council, with which those countries are concerned, is the European Court of Human Rights and the European Commission of Human Rights, which are now internationally recognised.

I was disturbed to read in the press this morning that the British Government are understood to have decided yesterday to abandon the mandatory right of individual petition for British citizens to the European Court of Human Rights. I hope that wiser counsels may prevail before such a decision is brought to the House. It would damage the public's perception of our Government's view of human rights in our country. At a time when we are rightly standing firm on Britain's interests in other respects in Europe, to take that unnecessarily harsh line would damage our reputation in the rest of Europe. I understand that only Turkey has taken that line so far. Without wishing to insult that otherwise excellent country, Turkey's record on human rights is not one which would commend itself to all hon. Members in the House.

As a result of the increase in membership, the work of the Council of Europe has expanded considerably--that must go without saying. Governments, including the British Government, must therefore recognise that there is an urgency to provide additional appropriate resources for the Council's work. I appreciate that it comes ill from a Conservative who is committed to a reduction in public expenditure, but some public expenditure is necessary ; some increase is necessary from time to time in various fields. If additional resources are not provided to account for the increase in membership in the Council of Europe, there will be a growing burden on existing officials and important work may have to be delayed or omitted.

Perhaps without causing embarrassment, it may be appropriate at this point to mention the excellent work done by the clerks at the assemblies ; often by our own House of Commons Clerks. I know that their professionalism and expertise are much valued by the Council of Europe and the Western European Union. Once again, I underline the fact that Britain is playing a full part in the work of the assemblies in so many ways.

Not least in the catalogue of people who contribute to that work, I mention the successive permanent representatives to the Council of Europe at Strasbourg with the rank of ambassador. In my time, Mr. Noel Marshall and Mr. Roger Beetham have played an important part in ensuring that Britain's position in the matters that come before the Council is well represented. The British delegation especially welcomes and appreciates the kindness and hospitality that are accorded to them at all times by the ambassadors in Strasbourg. Earlier, I said that many newly emerging countries have joined the Council of Europe in the past three or four years. It must be remembered that they are emerging from centuries of repression, dictatorship and often barbarism. When they join the Council, they are left in no doubt whatever that human rights--or, as the French perhaps

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more accurately describe them, "the rights of man"--are fundamental to continuing civilised society. They are also fundamental to their continuing good relations with the rest of the members as they work together.

That has made for difficult decisions in some cases, and assurances have been given by new members about their human rights records and about their treatment of minorities. In the case of Estonia, for example, there were grave questions about its electoral law which apparently denied half of the population the right to vote. The difficulty in some of those countries is that, because of the history of the past 50 years or so, they have significant minorities of Russian people. They are there no longer as part of an occupying power, but because their families have been there for many years, and they perhaps were born there and have grown and taken root there. In Lithuania, there was concern regarding the treatment of that country's Polish minority. Examples abound in other countries that are now in membership. The problems raised by the possibility of a country's application being rejected are even greater when we consider the possibility of one country or another being suspended or expelled afterwards.

That was a real prospect in the case of Estonia last year. That country's Parliament passed a law on aliens in June of last year which effectively declared that all those of Russian extraction were not to be citizens, and were therefore disenfranchised. Estonia's expulsion was averted at the last moment by the country's president refusing to sign the appropriate Bill, and asking for expert advice from the Council of Europe.

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West) : As the member of the parliamentary assembly which produced the report on Lithuania's application to join, I know what the hon. Gentleman is talking about when he mentions the Polish minority. Does not he think that it is absolutely essential for the parliamentary assembly to take careful note of the promises that are made by various applicant countries for membership to make sure that the promises made when their credentials are being examined are fulfilled subsequently ?

Mr. Alexander : The hon. Gentleman is quite right. It has been a concern of some of us--there is no need to mention names--that those promises would be difficult to fulfil in some cases, and the task of the Council of Europe is to monitor what is going on.

Sir Donald Thompson (Calder Valley) : Does my hon. Friend recall that Yugoslavia applied to join the Council of Europe and received observer status, and that that status was withdrawn when Yugoslavia found itself in the terrible state which still exists ?

Mr. Alexander : My hon. Friend gives another excellent example. In fact, both he and the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) have helped me to reach my next point.

Such examples have convinced the assembly that there is a need for a formal requirement for the continuing scrutiny of the progress of new member states after their accession to ensure that there is no back-sliding, and that commitments entered into are honoured in the years to come.

The emphasis that I have placed on human rights and the rights of minorities illustrates one of the most

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important long-term aspects of the work of the Council of Europe. No other body can give such practical help with such powerful influence, and that is a strong argument for the continued support of the Council of Europe's work and, as I mentioned before, for financial support for what it does.

We must give some thought to whether the Council of Europe should be enlarged by the addition of other countries. Some countries, such as Russia, have guest or observer status so they can participate in debates but they do not have the right to vote. Others within Europe--I think particularly of Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan--have no such ability.

There are strongly held arguments on each side about whether those countries should come in. One side of the argument is that there are too many countries in the Council already and that other countries would make it unwieldy. There would be a need for more staff and it would be more expensive. Some argue that, in any event, those countries are really in Asia ; that may be a moot point.

On the other side, one must say that there would be long-term political implications for them and for us if we deny those countries the positive influence of full membership in due course.

Mr. Ian Taylor (Esher) : In considering whether membership should be extended to countries such as Georgia, will my hon. Friend take account of the rather disturbing things that are happening in the former Soviet Union ? Russia is re-forming some of the ties that were broken on the collapse of the Soviet Union with military pacts and political arrangements and some of us are concerned about the full implications, particularly in Georgia where the Russian army now has three new bases.

Mr. Alexander : My hon. Friend is absolutely right and that brings me quite neatly to my next point. Those countries are small states and they do not belong naturally to any regional or other group. Many people think that, provided they go down the route of western democracy and the acceptance of our standards of human and minority rights, we should not reject those countries.

We can help those countries to resolve their ethnic tensions better if they are in than if they are out. If we leave them out, they could be tempted-- in a world of much larger players--to find less suitable alliances. One or other of the larger regional powers might even chance its arm and decide to intervene, which would create just one more area of tension in an already disturbed part of the world. Many hours have been spent in the Council of Europe and in the Western European Union in recent months and years on the subject of the former Yugoslavia. We have spent some time on Macedonia and there have been arguments with Greece about recognition and over its name. On Bosnia-Herzegovina, the assemblies were in the forefront of asking for tougher sanctions, for a no-fly zone and for positive action to halt the Serb attacks. Recently, of course, NATO and the UN have agreed under certain conditions to bomb the Serbian artillery. Members of the Council advocated that more than two years ago and also advocated shooting down Serbian planes and bombing Serbian tank positions. Maybe the parliamentarians had more foresight, but certainly if their advice had been

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heeded thousands of lives could have been saved at that time. I accept that I speak with the benefit of hindsight and that there were other considerations at the time.

I should like to move on to the consideration of the work of the WEU, which forms a part of my motion. Britain is one of the countries whose members of the Council of Europe double as members of the WEU. First, may I record my pleasure--and that of colleagues from all parties, I am sure--at the election last year of my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Sir D. Smith) as president of the WEU. He is the first Briton to hold that office for more than 10 years.

The WEU began as an armaments inspection agency and had a minor role during the long years of the cold war. With the ending of the Soviet empire, NATO- -and the WEU, which had always been allied to it--began urgently to seek a new role. At the beginning of my speech, I referred to the fact that the debate was timely in view of the fast movement of events within Europe.

At the NATO summit in January, the Western European Union was confirmed, with the blessing of the United States of America, as NATO's defence pillar, so it is vital to our defence interests. Under the Maastricht treaty, the WEU had already been designated as the European Union's defence agency--at least until the treaty obligations expire in 1996. In view of the way that it is tackling its responsibilities, I urge my hon. Friend the Minister that the WEU should retain that role after 1996. I hope that that view has his support.

Britain's current ambassador to NATO is jointly ambassador to the WEU, which is involved in the rapid reaction force and has established a satellite observation centre near Madrid--which I had the pleasure of visiting last year, together with my hon. Friend the Member for Calder Valley (Sir D. Thompson). Those are important movements towards European defence.

The WEU is well known in Europe for its excellent, detailed and technical reports on all defence matters and they are valued by experts. Its recommendations are often taken into account and implemented by the Council of Ministers, which forms the WEU executive. The WEU's aim as an assembly is to bring about a new defence strategy for the whole of Europe and to produce an effective, respected defence capability capable of protecting the integrity of the whole of Europe.

Just as the Council of Europe had its problems over the extent to which it should be enlarged, those problems are even greater when the states of eastern Europe are considered. In 1992, the WEU established a forum for security consultation, to bring together its members and the states of eastern Europe. Just to mention some of them indicates the difficulties that may be involved in any defence alliance--the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Bulgaria and Romania. The forum discusses aspects of European security and disarmament questions.

Matters cannot stay as they are. In the fluid situation of today's Europe, discussions are continuing with a view to creating affiliate WEU status for those countries. That would be consistent with NATO's partnership for peace and European Union plans for closer links with the states concerned. To do that too soon might pre-empt NATO proposals to strengthen relations, but it is important

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conscientiously to consider maintaining and increasing links with the countries in question. Otherwise, as with the Council of Europe, there will be a danger that those states will form less desirable alliances. Associate membership must be an early aim, to give those countries fairly full integration.

I have dealt with the various work of both assemblies. I was anxious to highlight the importance of that work and if, in initiating this debate, I have managed to do that, I hope that I have done justice to the assemblies themselves. The subject is vast and no speech can do justice to the huge range of activities involved. The longer that I remain one of Britain's representatives, the more certain I become that the Council of Europe and the WEU have and will continue to have an essential place in the architecture of the new Europe. I am honoured to have initiated this debate and to have been appointed to play a small role in helping to build that new Europe. 10.4 am

Sir Russell Johnston (Inverness, Nairn and Lochaber) : I congratulate the hon. Member for Newark (Mr. Alexander) on introducing this subject, which has not been debated for some years. I will concentrate on the work of the parliamentary assemblies of the Council of Europe and WEU with one exception, to which the hon. Gentleman referred.

I will begin with that exception, because it is of great importance. If the Council of Europe is about anything, it is about human rights. The hon. Gentleman's motion, on which I also congratulate him, specifically seeks to recognise

"the special role of the Council of Europe as an institution specialising in the protection of minorities and human rights". The motion refers to eastern and central Europe, but those issues should be considered not only in that context.

There has been considerable discussion about the workings of the European Court of Human Rights. Next week, on 21 March, Council of Europe Ministers will meet in Strasbourg to consider protocol 11 to the European convention on human rights, which was approved following a ministerial meeting in Vienna last October. The protocol's purpose is to streamline the European Court's procedures to ensure that enlargement of the number of convention countries, including countries in eastern and central Europe, will not protract hearings to between six and 10 years, consequently rendering the system ineffective and denying individual citizens international human rights protection. That problem has existed for some time. Many people are highly concerned about the length of time that it takes for the European Court to deal with issues.

Today's newspapers refer--clearly there have been some leaks--to a Cabinet split, between the Foreign Secretary and Home Secretary, over the proposal that following the adoption of protocol 11, individual citizens will have an automatic right to petition the European Court of Human Rights. The Home Secretary's view that they should not has, I understand, prevailed, and Governments would still have to notify their acceptance of the right of individuals to petition over five years, as the United Kingdom does now.

I further understand that the Foreign Secretary's view is that all citizens should enjoy that right from the adoption of the protocol. That is also my view and that of my hon. Friends. As we rightly demanded that eastern and central

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European countries should offer a political guarantee to their citizens that they would have an individual right to petition, it would be hypocritical to deny that same right to our own citizens. Even if the Minister does not say much about that issue when he responds--after all, we are dealing with rumour--I hope that he will convey to his colleagues the fact that many hon. Members on both sides of the House would be distressed if those rumours proved true. We would feel that Britain was not giving the sort of lead that the hon. Member for Newark believes is the role of this old democracy in the Council of Europe.

One problem with the Council of Europe is that of size. How big is the Council of Europe to be ? For example, will it contain the whole of Russia ? Will Russia become a member if Belarus or Ukraine become members ? Should we extend the Council of Europe to the waters that lap around Japan ? That is a difficult question. Some people believe that it has already been demonstrated to be a good thing that Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and the relatively small countries of central and eastern Europe have joined, because, as the hon. Member for Newark said, they have accepted a basic framework of human rights. Membership also helps to stabilise their internal political circumstances and that must be a good thing.

I was in Strasbourg at the end of last week. A shiver ran through the institution when the Russian observer delegation list was examined and people espied the name Zhirinovsky. I suppose that does not mean that he will come. He would certainly add spice and the hon. Member for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy) would, I am sure, have an enjoyable time.

We can change things only by having a dialogue with people. It would be excellent if Mr. Zhirinovsky came

Mr. Tony Banks : Will the hon. Gentleman give way ?

Sir Russell Johnston : Yes, I am aware of the rumblings behind me.

Mr. Tony Banks : Perhaps it is a sign of democracy that Russia is capable of, or willing to, elect a total lunatic to represent it. In the case of Mr. Zhirinovsky, the Russians have clearly done that. Perhaps we should see this as a sign of emerging maturity rather than as a sign of complete stupidity on the part of the Russian people.

Sir Russell Johnston : That is an interesting theory, although I am not sure whether I go along with it.

Mr. Tony Banks : We do it.

Sir Russell Johnston : Yes, but the Monster Raving Loony party has been remarkably unsuccessful. Perhaps that condemns us as not being democratic.

Size is a problem. I hope that the Minister will have something to say about that, even in general terms. At some stage, we must decide whether we are going to say stop or whether we are going to go on into Asia. That is what it boils down to.

I will not make a long complaint about representation. I certainly have no complaint against my colleagues in the delegation. However, the Liberal Democrats have one member and one alternate. We have had exactly the same number since the foundation of the Council of Europe, whether we were doing well or badly electorally.

Strictly speaking, our place on the Council of Europe is not a Liberal Democratic place. It is a place for the

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minority parties--that is, the whole shooting match of them. Basically, that is very unsatisfactory. First, one cannot represent the minority parties in any real way. It is impossible for me to speak for the Scottish nationalists, for Plaid Cymru or the Democratic Unionists. Therefore, I speak for a Liberal Democratic position and am a member of the Liberal group and that is it. The other minorities may feel a little aggrieved. When the Labour Government were in power in the early 1970s and the nationalists in Scotland had done especially well, the nationalists were given an alternate place. That was taken from the Government allocation and it was the fair and proper thing to do. If an arrangement is to be made for the other minority parties--I believe that the Irish have a case, although it is difficult to decide who to give a place to--it would be proper to reduce the size of the Government delegation. The Government should certainly take their beady eyes off the one member and one alternate that we have.

Mr. Peter Hardy (Wentworth) : At one point during the last Labour Government, Mr. Bill Craig of the Ulster Unionists and Mr. George Reid of the Scottish National party were members of the delegation.

Sir Russell Johnston : The hon. Gentleman corrects me. I had forgotten Bill Craig. The point was recognised then, but we seem to have forgotten about it. That is unfortunate.

I associate myself with the remarks made by the hon. Member for Newark about Lord Finsberg, who contributes greatly to the work of the Council of Europe. In a way, the notion of delegations and delegation leaders is a bit of a fiction. The reality is that, when one arrives at the Council of Europe or the WEU assemblies, members work and operate within their political groups. The Conservatives associate with the group of the right ; Labour members join the socialist group and I join the Liberal group. That is the way in which we operate.

The whole business of what constitutes the national interest very seldom arises. I cannot recall its ever coming up. There is a tendency, if one expresses a view contrary to the Government, for Conservative members to shout "Shame" sporadically.

Sir Donald Thompson : There very often seems to be a French national interest. After the last election in France, the French pressed for the same number of seats on each committee and the same number of chairmanships, despite the fact that the proportions had changed and that there should have been a change in the numbers. We never seem to have achieved that happy unanimity.

Sir Russell Johnston : I suppose that the only answer to that is yes. However, I do not notice that the French are all that happy when they are united. It is more a case of marriages of convenience than a merry united voice.

Sir Jim Spicer (Dorset, West) : I wish to pursue the question of national interest in the Council of Europe. Quite clearly, people do not, by and large, look at their national interests in the same way and the reason for that is obvious. The difference between the Council of Europe and the European Community or the European Union is manifest. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that, within the European Union, whenever the national states meet as members of that union, the predominant factor around the table is national interest ?

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Sir Russell Johnston : To some extent, that is mitigated according to what institution we are talking about. It is undoubtedly true of the Council of Ministers. I would not argue about that. However, my concept of the national interest is not necessarily advanced by the Government of the day. Nor do I accept that the Government of the day and the national interest always equate.

I agree with the hon. Member for Dorset, West (Sir J. Spicer) that discussions in Councils of Ministers, whether in the Council of Europe, the European Union or WEU, are conducted in that way. However, things are changing in the European Parliament, where transnational political groupings, already specifically referred to in the Maastricht treaty, are operating. That process certainly operates in the Council of Europe assembly in Strasbourg. Like most of us, the hon. Member for Dorset, West is partly right and partly wrong.

Mr. Tony Banks : The hon. Gentleman has touched on a significant point. One of the things that I find interesting about the parliamentary assembly of the Council of Europe is the degree of consensus that we are able to achieve both across and within national delegations.

It is interesting that in this place, which is very confrontational, by definition in most cases one disagrees with what is said by the other side. However, in the Council of Europe we can achieve more consensus. I wonder to what extent that is due to the atmospheres in which we carry out our business. The atmosphere is confrontational in this place while there is a desire and a need in the Council of Europe, if we are to move forward, to obtain some form of consensus.

Sir Russell Johnston : I agree with the hon. Gentleman. I wish that some of that influence would seep back across the channel into this Chamber. It could do only good.

Time is always the enemy, so I shall now discuss the assembly of the Western European Union. In a way, there is a more urgent question here-- what will happen in 1998. I am sure that the Minister knows that on 24 February this year, the European Parliament passed a motion, proposed by Karel De Gucht, by 173 votes to 41, with three abstentions. I point out that he is a Liberal, in case anyone hurls that fact at me later ; I know that already.

According to Reuters,

"The resolution envisages the absorption of the WEU into the European Union by 1998 so that eventually there is just one single administrative European structure for the implementation of foreign, security and defence policies, with more use of majority voting and subject to the democratic control of the European Parliament." I agree with that. As hon. Members know, the Liberal Democrats are rather maximalist in these matters. Nevertheless, I shall, if I am allowed, speculate about how that resolution will affect the assembly.

The European Parliament sees the change, which Reuters so succinctly sets out, as being effected in three stages. The first stage will be institutional reorganisation, the second stage will be more integration and the final stage will be, as a result of the new intergovernmental conference, everything coming together. The resolution says about the assembly :

"in the third stage, the European Parliament should replace the WEU Assembly in its entirety at plenary and committee level, the powers and voting conditions of Parliament being defined by the intergovernmental conference referred to."

If we eventually reach a far more integrated defence stage in the European Union, as I know that we shall,

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although it may take a wee while, does that mean that there is no place in the future for the WEU assembly ? All of us know that there is much restiveness among the national Parliaments vis-a- vis the European Union because the national Parliaments see themselves increasingly bypassed. Their only access to the European Union is their existing access to their Ministers who, in turn, serve on the Council of Ministers. They take little part in the general formulation of policy, but they could take greater part through WEU. It is not at all contradictory for me to say, on the one hand, that I want defence structures to be integrated in the European Union, but, on the other hand, to say that I do not see why that should necessitate lopping off the WEU assembly, which has representatives of the Parliaments of the members of WEU and therefore enables the link between national Parliaments and the institutions of the Community which many people in national Parliaments seek. Do the Government have any thoughts about how, specifically, they will view the WEU assembly when the Brussels treaty comes up for revision ? I compliment the hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington (Sir D. Smith), who is, apart from being a very popular Member of Parliament in any event, an extremely competent President of the assembly. I have never met a man in public life who is better at votes of thanks than the hon. Gentleman. If he ever leaves this place, he could set up a business and it would be highly successful. I mean all that in the best way, of course.

I do not intend to go into details about policies, but my next point, which needs to be raised, is finances. That point affects the WEU and, to a greater extent, the Council of Europe assembly. As the hon. Member for Newark rightly pointed out, because it acts as the bridge between central and eastern Europe and western Europe, considerably greater responsibilities have been laid on the Council of Europe assembly. It is expensive to send delegations to Estonia or Moldova, which are not easy places to get to. Apart from the travelling costs, there are overnight and other expenses. I do not think that the member countries of the Council of Europe and WEU, not excluding our own Government, have taken that matter sufficiently on board. Representatives from member countries are quite happy to make speeches praising the institutions, which all Heads of Government do from time to time, but they are not quite as good at putting their money where their mouth is.

By the end of the debate, the Minister will be aware that there is common cause throughout the House on the question of the value of the Council of Europe and WEU assemblies. Would he take some financial note of that as well ?

10.25 am

Sir Donald Thompson (Calder Valley) : I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Mr. Alexander) on securing such an important debate this Friday morning. I may not be here for the winding-up speeches as a serious regional conflict will be taking place at Twickenham tomorrow afternoon and some of my colleagues are coming from the north, so I shall be looking after them later this morning. [Hon. Members : "Quite right."] Quite right, indeed--we must all have our priorities.

I listened with interest to the description of the Council of Europe by my hon. Friend the Member for Newark and to the description by the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn

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and Lochaber (Sir R. Johnston). They spoke of the eagerness of the new eastern European countries to join the Council of Europe. The size will be important. The Council of Europe is already large, with 32 member countries. If we go as far as the Urals, if not Vladivostok, the enlargement will be important.

I agree that attendance both with observer status and with associate membership of the Council of Europe reinforces the new pluralistic democracies and gives strength to the emerging market economies of many of those countries. I am amused to see the delegates who turn up from such countries. Some of them served in Parliaments before 1939 or before 1947 and they remember when their countries had democratic assemblies similar to ours here. Old men remember what happened a long time ago. Other delegates are new boys, often schoolmasters or solicitors, of whom we also have many here. Many of those delegates have never been outside their country before, but have waited, almost as the Resistance did during the war, for freedom, which they now appreciate very much. Those delegates come eagerly to learn what we have to offer. I am my side's Whip on the Council of Europe and I have long since given up trying to explain to delegates from other countries the whipping system as it applies to this democratic assembly. It is a glass bead game too esoteric to explain to an Estonian or a Lithuanian.

Those countries especially bring young men who were born in this country because their parents came here at the end of the war as displaced persons. They have lived in Todmorden, Bolton or Burnley, but they also speak Ukrainian, Lithuanian or Estonian and they are now back there advising their delegations, and doing so very well. Then there are the smooth bureaucrats who come to represent their countries after serving in the United Nations, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, or all sorts of world organisations. They are used to living in penthouses and wearing smart suits and they may form as much as one third of the delegation. It does not worry me that the Russians have appointed an eccentric to join them : many of the old guard are still there, moving, like the vicar of Bray, from one political system to the next, and doing it very well. Those newly emerging countries and many countries in the Western European Union see WEU as the stepping stone to democracy and to an enlarged EEC, EC and European Union. I say all three because people outside this place do not realise that they are the same thing.

Mr. Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton) : It is the Common Market.

Sir Donald Thompson : That is the phrase. I hear dissension about the definition among Conservative Members, so it does not only appear on the front pages of The Times .

The countries to which I referred view WEU as a stepping stone to fuller membership. The ante required to join the European Union, however, is too large for them even to contemplate. The amount of money that those countries need to sit down at the big table in Brussels is too great.

A new phase of development has emerged as recently as the past 12 months. The European Union is eager to hold joint committees with the Council of Europe in a way that has never happened before. Those committees will cover a

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