Column 1262and asked where the Germans were. The other countries said that the war had just finished. Churchill said that peace had just begun and that we could not have a Council of Europe without the Germans. Now, we cannot have a Council of Europe without those countries that were formerly communist.
Mr. Luff : I associate myself entirely with the wise remarks of my hon. Friend. He rightly draws attention to the constantly far-sighted attitude of the former distinguished leader of our party, Mr. Churchill, in making those remarks at that time.
Having expressed some optimism about the effects of the collapse of the Soviet Union on places such as the middle east, I know that it is acknowledged generally that that same collapse has made local conflicts in Europe and elsewhere more likely. Civil wars may increase in number, but global conflict, at least, seems less likely. For Britain, the United States and the rest of Europe, the collapse of communism is producing a whole set of problems which we did not foresee when the Berlin wall came tumbling down.
As my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary said to the Royal College of Defence Studies in London on 8 December :
"Across history, the defeat of empires has led to elation--often followed by confusion among the victors. Victories which change the old truths are disquieting. It is tempting to portray our old enemies as the source of all our insecurity. But life is not so simple. The collapse of the Soviet Empire, unlike the collapse of most previous Empires, did not need a decisive battle. It was an implosion rather an explosion. But the disappearance of one of the most implacable enemies the countries of Europe have ever faced has presented us with a new set of challenges."
Those challenges are real and are more wide ranging than is often realised.
In a funny way, the Soviet Union gave western Europe its own identity. It gave us an identity by defining the opposite of liberal western democracy. There is now consensus that the end of communism in mainland Europe has had one important consequence. The way in which the Germans chose to re-unify has thrown the rest of the European economy into turmoil. I am glad to say that that is a turmoil from which Britain seems to be emerging ; indeed, already has emerged. However, that factor was damaging.
Much more fundamental--where the institutions of the Council of Europe and the WEU have an important role to play--is the loss of the moral comparison for western liberal democratic capitalism. In the west, we have always been able to judge our success and our freedom relative to our communist neighbours. Communism was the common enemy by which we measured the health of our society. Its demise has robbed us of that powerful weapon. We are now forced to argue the details of how we run our affairs in Britain and in the rest of Europe without that overwhelming argument, based on the evils of the old, totalitarian alternative. The major failures of western liberal democracies, such as high unemployment, will be much harder for us to explain away when we cannot remind people of the unpalatable consequences of the only real alternative.
The implications of that change are huge. I believe that the Council of Europe and the WEU have a major role to play in addressing them. I am not for a minute regretting the end of communism in Europe. I have always been a firm believer that Marks and Spencer is better than Marx
Column 1263and Engels. However, there is a difficult consequence for political debate in western Europe as a direct result of the collapse of the Berlin wall. That factor lies in large part behind the collapse of confidence among the electors of many European and other countries in the way in which we run our political society. They have lost sight of the alternative.
As Winston Churchill remarked in the House in November 1947 : "No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time ;"--[ Official Report , 11 November 1947 ; Vol. 444, c. 206.]
He was right. That cautionary advice now lacks so much power, because the alternative to democracy has disappeared.
We are very fortunate that the institutions of Europe have developed in a happy and fortuitous way in which to help us to address that problem. It is an accidental tripod of institutions. The Council of Europe, the WEU and the European Union--or the European Community as I still prefer to call it- -exist to address the problems facing Europe.
Post-communist Europe has four basic organisational needs. First, the European Community, serves the needs of free trade, co-operation in other areas of strong mutual advantage, the underpinning of democracy in countries which only recently were far from democratic--Spain, Greece, Portugal--and most importantly, the reduction in the likelihood of war between those countries, especially between France and Germany.
Another need has emerged more recently since the end of the cold war : to provide an effective defence structure to maintain the security of our continent and to provide the European pillar for the Atlantic alliance.
Thirdly, a point of which the hon. Member for Newham, North-West made a great deal, with which I agree, there is the need for a forum for debate and involvement of the wider Europe, not only eastern Europe, but some of the countries such as Turkey on the fringe of Europe whose aspiration is to be part of the EU in due course. Those countries may involve themselves in that democratic debate and in that democratic training ground of which the hon. Gentleman spoke so accurately.
There is a fourth need. It is a mechanism for Europe--the cradle of western civilisation--to ensure that the values of civilisation, especially with regard to human rights, are respected across the whole continent of Europe. That is an important function. My hon. Friend the Member for Esher (Mr. Taylor) outlined many of the agreements, organisations and structures that exist, particularly in the defence field. However, the basic structure that has emerged is a simple one : the European Union, the Western European Union and--to couple the third and fourth needs : a democratic training ground and the protection of human rights--the Council of Europe, together with its related activity in the European Commission of Human Rights and the European Court of Human Rights. That three-legged structure--we are always told that three-legged structures are the most stable--has happened almost by accident. One of those legs, the Western European Union, could so easily have been knocked away, yet it was not.
Column 1264I shall look first at the Council of Europe. The Council, about which I shall not add much to what many hon. Members have already said, seems to have secured for itself a firm future. Its large membership of 32 full members, nine countries with the rather charming status of special guests of the Council of Europe and one observer, Israel, has a proven track record. There is now general consensus that its role is invaluable.
The aspect of its work that is noted in the motion moved by my hon. Friend the Member for Newark--to protect minorities and human rights--has possibly attracted the most interest. It is in that respect that the Council of Europe often gets itself into hot water in this country. Sometimes, the United Kingdom and our voters feel that we have a poor record at the European Court of Human Rights. It is true that many of the applications to the Court have come from the United Kingdom, but the vast majority of those applications have been judged to be inadmissible. One reason why a large number of United Kingdom cases go to the Court is that the convention has not been incorporated in United Kingdom domestic law. I heard what the hon. Member for Newham, North-West said on the subject of Bills of rights. That is as it may be--I am no great enthusiast for written constitutions.
Many complaints are taken to the European Court of Human Rights simply because there are no domestic remedies. Since 1981, only 20 cases that have come before the European Court of Human Rights relating to the United Kingdom Government have been judged to be violations of human rights. That is against the background in the United Kingdom over the past three years of an average of 939 cases a year being referred to the European Commission of Human Rights. It is interesting that France has a higher average figure of 1,464. The European Court of Human Rights has a valuable and important role to play in the structure of Europe. Sometimes, when Tory Members complain about the interfering nature of the Court, as I have heard them do, they do not understand that simply because a case is referred to the Court does not mean that the Court will have any sympathy for it. Britain's record is much better than that. In the most recent year for which I have figures a total of 48 judgments were made by the Court ; in 27 cases the Court reached the conclusion that there had been at least one violation of human rights. The United Kingdom had three judgments made by the Court, and in only one was there found a violation. Therefore, we should have some confidence that the European Court is not the monster that it sometimes seems to be ; indeed, it is a valuable protection of human rights throughout the whole of the European house.
Having had some reservations about other aspects of the work of the Council of Europe, I must admit that perhaps I was guilty to some extent of the sin referred to by several hon. Members as regarding the Council as a "boondoggle"--I think that was the word used by the hon. Member for Newham, North-West. Much of what I have heard today has at least partly reassured me. My hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mrs. Roe) talked about the European Pharmacopoeia. That seems to be a valuable and practical example of the work that such an institution can perform.
It is also worth noting that the Council of Europe is not a particularly expensive institution. The United Kingdom's contribution to the work of the Council of Europe came to
Column 1265some £15 million in the most recent year for which figures are available. That does not mean to say that we can be entirely relaxed about the way in which the Council handles those funds. Hon. Members will be intrigued by a report in the Financial Times of 11 December 1993. I quote :
"European fund for refugees criticised in report. A fund owned by 21 European governments to help refugees evolved into a substantial investor in international money markets and provided lavish rewards for its staff . . . The report by accountants Castel Jacquet Ernst and Young into the activities of the Council of Europe's Social Fund says it exercised insufficient care in monitoring how its loans, which totalled Ecu6.7bn (£5.1bn) at the end of 1992, were used. A loan from the fund had, for example, been used to finance the building of a Sheraton hotel in Milan, according to Mrs. Paule Dufour, president of the fund's governing body, who has been trying to reform the institutions.
The Ernst report also discloses that cheap mortgages for employees were used for property speculation and executives were allowed to make large withdrawals from a pension fund while retaining their jobs."
That shows how important it is for the British delegation to get back to the Council of Europe and do their job of scrutinising the work of the Council. I hope that that will be possible soon. I turn to the work of the Western European Union. Against the background of the collapse of communism, the question that we must ask ourselves is to what extent Russia is a threat to European security. It is a fact that the Russian federation is the only state which has the military potential to commit an act of aggression on any massive scale against our country and is not firmly aligned with the United Kingdom. Similarly, it is the only state which has the potential to commit massive aggression against any NATO member. The Russian federation is unique in Europe in that it possesses both nuclear weapons and the ability to arm and equip peacetime armed forces which, even when current reductions have worked through, are likely to number more than 1 million men.
The question for British policy planners is whether there is a residual threat from the Russian federation--the old threat from the Russian bear which has haunted British foreign policy down the decades. That gives rise to dilemmas in Britain. Should NATO's mutual security commitments be extended to any state in eastern Europe, including the Baltic republics ?
I am optimistic about the Russian federation. The fact that the buffer states of the old Warsaw pact are no longer there--or, at least, are now in a different guise--reduces substantially the threat that we face from the Russian federation. Russia is substantially smaller, but it remains a great power.
Kenneth Waltz, in an article on the emerging structure of international politics in the International Security Review last year wrote :
"The ability of Russia to play a military role beyond its borders is low, yet nuclear weapons ensure that no state can challenge it. Short of disintegration, Russia will remain a great power--indeed a great defensive power, as the Russian and Soviet states were through most of their history."
Inevitably, the ghost of Vladimir Zhirinovsky haunts the debate. However, I agree with Neil Malcolm, who wrote in World Today earlier this year :
"The possibility cannot be excluded that sections of disenfranchised industrialists will seek to form an alliance with extremist politicians such as Zhirinovsky and their numerous supporters in the military. However, this is a concern for the future, and it is important not to allow alarm at the aggressive non-imperialist rhetoric of the extreme right to colour our interpretation of the increased assertiveness which has been
Column 1266evident for at least the last 12 months. What we have seen so far is most likely not the "evil empire" getting ready to strike back, but rather Russia feeling its way towards the role of a "normal" regional power."
It seems that Neil Malcolm endorses the view of the hon. Member for Newham, North-West that electing lunatics is a sign of good health in a democracy.
It is inevitable that eastern Europe will feel insecure. Most of the countries there have experienced more than 40 years of Soviet military occupation or domination. It is more likely that the challenges that those countries face will be more like those faced by the old Yugoslavia. There will be regional and local conflicts, and not the kind of threat that used to be posed from the existence of a strong Warsaw pact.
The WEU has a crucial role to play in this area. It is a fascinating thought that the WEU itself was nearly thrown away. It was founded in 1948 by the United Kingdom, France and the three Benelux countries, who committed themselves to collective security. Indeed, I am informed that the commitments to collective security in the treaty are stronger than the commitments contained in the North Atlantic treaty.
The WEU was a demonstration of the willingness of those five countries to co-operate in European security, and it played an important part in drawing the United States into the defence of Europe and in the formation of NATO itself in 1949. The WEU could have been wound up, but it was not, and that was to become a welcome oversight.
I should like to take credit for this metaphor myself, but it properly lies with the author of the House of Commons Library background paper No.278, which was published in 1991 and said : "the WEU has appeared as the jack-in -the-box of post-war european security, constantly appearing on the diplomatic agenda in a new guise."
First, in 1954, it helped draw Germany and Italy into NATO. In the late 1970s and 1980s, it became apparent that the WEU could be used to strengthen the European contribution to NATO, leading to the formal reactivation of the WEU in 1984. Subsequently, it has helped to permit the involvement of France in military activity in relation to both the Iran- Iraq and Gulf wars. The WEU now provides the perfect vehicle for a European defence identity outside the European Union, and for a European pillar of the North Atlantic treaty. I welcome that whole-heartedly. I would have had severe reservations about giving the European Commission and the European Union a significant defence role. The jack-in-the-box popped up to serve its useful purpose again. The WEU's importance cannot be underestimated. One question in my mind is whether we have the right jack for the box. I do not mean to undermine the important role played by the WEU's current Secretary-General, Willem van Eekelen, but if that post is to fall vacant in the near future, there is a good British candidate to fill it. I hope that Lord Owen's role as a peace mediator in the former Yugoslavia is drawing to a satisfactory conclusion. What a fine candidate he would make for that office, which would emphasise its importance to the collective security of not only Europe but of NATO.
The Council of Europe, Western European Union and European Union have a diversity of purpose, overlapping membership and complementary roles. I welcome that happy tripod of accidents--that threefold structure--that separates the different roles of Governments. Their two primary roles are the defence of the people and the raising
Column 1267of taxes. Provided that the defence of our people is kept separate from economic policy in the European Union and by national Governments, we can rest more easily in our beds at night, knowing that there is no prospect of the development of a true European Government. I welcome that.
Mr. Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton) : The speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr. Luff) proves, if anything does, that those who had behind-the-scenes experience in Government before entering the House bring to it a great fund of wisdom. His work and his comments today are born of the experience that he brought to the House after being elected two years ago.
The hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) has proved an entertaining and lively advertisement for the Council of Europe, and that is true of any cause that he chooses to embrace. Many appreciate his hard work in the Council of Europe.
One interesting aspect of any debate on the Council of Europe and the WEU is that most people who study the body politic are largely unaware of the advantages that those institutions bring to relationships between Governments internationally. People may be familiar with the European Commission and perhaps with the European Court of Human Rights, and certainly with the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament--but the value of the Council of Europe and the WEU is largely lost on them. We are doing a great service by debating their value today.
Perhaps that proves one adage of government--that the usefulness of an organisation is often in direct inverse proportion to the noise that it makes. Those institutions are quiet and hard working, but they are of great value. Many right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House have great experience of them. My near neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Mr. Alexander), who raised the issue today, and my hon. Friends the Members for Calder Valley (Mr. Thompson) and for Esher (Mr. Taylor) have much greater experience than I, and one big advantage of the structure of the Council of Europe and the WEU is that that experience can continue to be brought to the House. In other parts of Europe, there is an unfortunate separation and that experience is lost to the national Parliaments. That experience is something which we should value and preserve. One of the Council of Europe's great merits is the width of its membership and the links that it forges between a number of diverse countries in a cauldron of international change. Its list of members includes all the EC countries and many others besides. Albania, Belarus, Bosnia, Croatia, Latvia, the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia, Moldova, Russia and Ukraine enjoy special guest status, and Israel enjoys observer status. I cannot think of a more purposeful grouping of countries, which brings those countries together in such a productive way, than the Council of Europe. They embrace the fringe described by my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester and the co-operation engendered by that grouping is of enormous value in a changing world from which new risks emerge daily.
I wish to refer particularly to the way in which the European Court of Human Rights works. The nub of the
Column 1268issue currently being debated is whether the right of direct petition to the court for citizens in the United Kingdom should be abolished. My hon. Friend the Member for Newark said that it should not be abolished, but I disagree.
A very large number of petitions have been made to the European Court of Human Rights. For example, 70,154 applications have been received by the Court since 1955 ; 22,651 have been registered and 1, 392 were finally declared admissible. Last autumn, the Commission's backlog stood at 2,780 registered applications, of which 1,624 were waiting for more detailed scrutiny. I contend that that is an enormous number and that it is almost impossible for the Court to discern properly which applications have the highest priority if the applications have not been through an initial weeding-out process. In that regard, we should draw a parallel with the redress that many of our constituents seek by wishing to have cases referred to the ombudsman. That must be done through the Member of Parliament, who probably has experience of the case concerned and of the kind of case that may or may not contain an important legal point that merits further recognition ; from personal experience, the Member has the qualities to weed out the frivolous cases and those that would risk over- burdening the Court in the way that it has become over-burdened.
Mr. David Nicholson (Taunton) : As a member of the Select Committee that oversees the work of the parliamentary ombudsman, who also acts as the health service ombudsman, I welcome what my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan) is saying. He is probably aware that, in a sense, the parliamentary ombudsman is an under-used asset in this country. In any particular year, quite a few hon. Members do not refer any cases to him and many others probably do not refer enough potential cases to him. Will my hon. Friend develop that line ? In particular, will he develop the point that making appeals to the European Court of Human Rights can set aside deliberate policy decisions taken by this House or by our Government whom we support here, but who have then been overruled by the Court abroad ?
Mr. Duncan : I am grateful to my hon. Friend. He has helped me to develop my argument in a most valuable way. It would be detrimental to the interests of the European Court of Human Rights and its fundamental purpose if cases admitted to it were reduced to the level of a lobbying stunt. If a citizen is free to apply directly to the Court in that way, there is a risk that the purpose of the Court may be devalued by the manner in which citizens use it for ulterior purposes.
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton (Mr. Nicholson) about the ombudsman. The ombudsman has kept his value and reputation in the minds of citizens and Members of Parliament because applications have to undergo a selection process through Members of Parliament. If my hon. Friend can lend his agile mind to devising a parallel system for the European Court of Human Rights, he would do us a great service and would enhance the reputation of that important institution.
The Council of Europe is helping other countries to set up institutions that will bring them from tyrannical communist centralisation towards free- trading democracy. For instance, the Council of Europe can advise on legal co-operation in matters such as extradition, data protection and computer crime, as well as on social affairs, culture,
Column 1269education, sport and environmental matters. The environmental backwardness of the former communist countries is very damaging, but those countries can be brought forward if they are allowed to benefit rapidly from the expertise that we have gleaned in the west. The Council can also advise on communications matters, health, youth, local government and all areas of public administration, so it is absolutely invaluable.
The hon. Member for Newham, North-West suggested that all those countries should have a written constitution and, indeed, that we should. He may have a point when he argues that when, from the ravages of unsatisfactory government, those countries are effectively having to start again, they will need some written guidelines from which to take the first steps towards forming their own traditions and conventions. However, I warn against putting them in the straitjacket of a written constitution to which they must always adhere in every letter.
Considering a constitution is, to me, like looking at all the qualities of a favoured friend. If one understands that friend's subtleties of behaviour and quality, of rage or whatever, and if one then tries to write all that down, one can never translate into script as great an understanding of that person as the simple fact of knowing that person as a friend. It is exactly the same with a constitution. As soon as it is written down, it is devalued and trivialised and merely provides an opportunity for bickering. We should limit the advice that we give in terms of emerging countries having to write everything down in a written constitution. My hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mrs. Roe) hit on the most important point when she said that the Council of Europe could help those countries to emerge from communist oppression. We have encouraged them to do so and it would be absolutely unforgivable if, in their hour of need and in these nascent years, we were suddenly to desert them. The Council of Europe is helping us to feed to them the wisdom that we have accumulated in our own democracy to help them build theirs.
My hon. Friends the Members for Esher and for Worcester and other hon. Friends have raised the question of Mr. Zhirinovsky in Russia. I am rather more optimistic than they have been. They have suggested that there is a severe threat to the future of Russia from the fact that most of the army recently voted for him. However, that is to misinterpret what happened. It was not actually a military phenomenon. The army was really a welfare system in uniform. The army system has largely collapsed. Thousands of soldiers now live in tents and are selling their uniforms for ready cash. They are thoroughly dependent and economically deprived. What we saw in the vote for Zhirinovsky was an economic phenomenon, whereby those facing severe poverty felt that there was an appeal in Zhirinovsky's rather brazen nationalism. It is through the endeavours of the Council of Europe that we can help such matters to be better understood and ensure that the system of democracy is not considered in such simplistic terms in the likes of Russia.
The Western European Union has had a valuable influence on the peace and security of the western world. In the post-war settlement on the mainland of Europe, NATO, was critical for post-war peace. It was so critical largely because it linked the United States with Europe. There was, and still is, complete and utter confidence in NATO's internal commitment to the belief that an attack on one NATO member would be considered as an attack on
Column 1270all. NATO, however, is not a perfect being. For instance, France is not a fully fledged member of NATO, yet it is one of the most important countries on the European mainland.
Europe is in a state of change, where old enemies are becoming friends. In considering that argument, we should remember the important point that regimes, and not the people, were always the enemy. Communism has been defeated, but we should not regard it--and nor should they--as a defeat of the Russian people or of any other people in the erstwhile Soviet Union. Our disagreement was with the regime, of which we disapproved and of which ultimately the Soviet people vehemently disapproved. Given the uncertainty that still colours everything about Europe and beyond, because the European order has changed fundamentally, it would not be appropriate for Russia to join NATO. That is where WEU is invaluable.
The discussion on enlargement of WEU is the most productive means of deciding how to embrace the emerging democracies in security matters. Democracy and free trade are the greatest guarantees of peace anywhere at any time. We should use the various pillars of the European Community, including WEU and the Council of Europe, to share democracy and free trade with those emerging nations and other nations in Europe, where events will otherwise provoke concern about the peace and security of the continent.
The other important argument that I should like to advance is that both the Council of Europe and WEU demonstrate the virtue of allowing such institutions to evolve as opposed to imposing them according to a theoretical framework. The value of sending Members of this House to such institutions is that they benefit from their experience there.
The pattern of the various institutions in Europe is like a patchwork--it is confusing as they overlap and interlock. Ironically, the Council of Europe and WEU are less obvious in the framework of overlapping institutions, but their work is more purposeful and more respected. The value of the Council of Europe and WEU is that they teach us to be wary of institutions that are shaped by theories and ideals and to appreciate those that have emerged because of their proven practical value. I commend those two institutions' work and their value and importance.
Mr. Peter Hardy (Wentworth) : The hon. Member for Newark (Mr. Alexander) is blessed, first, by the fact that he was fortunate enough to secure the debate, secondly, by the commendation of hon. Members, who have congratulated him on the choice of his subject, and, thirdly, by the approbation for the grace of his speech, which was both wise and informative. He was kind enough to explain to the House why some hon. Members on both sides of the House would have liked to be here--some perhaps should have been here--but could not be. It is a bad time of the year, and they have to attend annual meetings of their parties and constituency events.
The hon. Member for Newark commented on the current disputation between the parties. I also recall the comments of the hon. Member for Calder Valley (Sir D. Thompson), whose most interesting letter about that dispute was published in The Times the other day. Conservative Members who deplore the impasse did not, however, remind the House of its reason, which is that Her Majesty's Government have sought to ride roughshod over
Column 1271Parliament by forcing Bills through the House. They are also pursuing policies that some of us find particularly distasteful. I find it extremely inconvenient, as leader of the Labour party delegation in Europe, that the Opposition are unable to play our proper part in certain debates. The hon. Member for Newark will understand my anger at the privatisation of the coal industry and my detestation of the Government's disregard for mine safety, which lies at the heart of my political commitments and those of other hon. Friends. The Government cannot, by the insolence of their office and the arrogance of their policies, expect Opposition Members to sit tamely by.
Mr. Hardy : My hon. Friend may not agree with my next comment, because we must consider the contributions that must be made in Europe by the United Kingdom. I hope that the Government will make it clear to the Opposition that they will not continue to conduct themselves as they have in recent months, because that will assist my right hon. Friends to return to the path of virtue.
Sir Jim Spicer : I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman would elaborate on the point about disagreeing with Government policy, which has led the Opposition to take action. If that is the case, surely we can say goodbye to any co-operation on any subject for all time, in the life not only of this Parliament but of every other Parliament, because, inevitably, an Opposition will object to Government policies.
Mr. Hardy : The hon. Member has reminded me that politics is not a science, but an art. A Government must understand which issues are sensitive and go to the heart of people's beliefs and commitments. Perhaps the Government do not understand the mentality and values of the coalfield areas ; otherwise they would not have done what they have done in recent months.
This is not the occasion on which to debate the plight of the coalfields, but privatising the mining industry contemporaneously with the demolition of mine safety, the achievement of which was one of the main aims and purposes of the Labour movement from the 19th century, reveals that the Government are ignorant of the reality that a modern and intelligent Government would consider. I do not think that it is right to labour that now, although I know that the hon. Member for Worcester (Mr. Luff) has heard me do so on a number of occasions in recent weeks in the Standing Committee that considered the coal Bill. The fact remains that the arrogant insensitivity of the Government persuaded my right hon. Friends to adopt their policy of non-co-operation. To respond to the hon. Member for Dorset, West (Sir J. Spicer), let me say that I hope that the practice of that policy will not be unending.
It would not be fair on the hon. Member for Newark if I did not return to the subject under debate, which is important. He has done the House a considerable service, because the debate has not merely given the House the opportunity to be acquainted with the work of the Council of Europe and WEU --an evident need--but to conduct a little stocktaking and assess the work of those
Column 1272organisations. If hon. Members read the Official Report for today, they will be greatly enlightened by the comments made in the debate.
It is obvious that there is a true appreciation in the House of the fact that the Council of Europe parliamentary assembly is a consultative body. Although it does not have legislative powers, it occasionally acts with searching inquiry. It has been innovative and, since its foundation, it has launched a number of initiatives, as a result of its recommendations, for the benefit of Europe. Although the assembly does not operate by direct enactment, it has influenced and will continue to influence the quality of life in Europe through the instrument of convention. I shall refer to some later. I have been involved in Europe for a long time. I have been leader of my party's delegation for more than a decade, and over those years I have developed a number of opinions and views on the organisation, some of which are highly complimentary while others are a little critical. The assembly could be more effective. We in the House have many faults, but the assembly could invigilate and question Ministers rather more effectively if it adopted the Westminster model rather than being so consistently courteous and rather supine when Ministers inflict their opinions on the assembly.
One of the problems that need to be tackled--and it relates to a subject that I addressed in a speech to the assembly not long ago--is that members diligently seek to be rapporteurs. Every two or three years, each committee produces vast numbers of reports on which people work extremely hard. It would be helpful if committees and the assembly itself devoted as much time to following up the reports as they do on their preparation. Too often, members congratulate the rapporteur on a job well done, but no one returns to the subject to see whether the recommendations that have been so enthusiastically endorsed have been implemented.
The committees have an extremely important purpose and hon. Members from all parties have made an enormous contribution. My hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) was the principal rapporteur on the subject of the accession of Lithuania. The work carried out by members in examining the applications of new member states to ensure that they are assimilated effectively and purposefully is extremely important, but is often overlooked. I doubt whether most of my hon. Friends are aware of the work carried out by my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-West, and similar tasks have been undertaken by Conservative Members, not least by the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Atkinson), who has been chairman of the committee on non-member states, a job in which he has had to work extremely hard.
The Government get a little uneasy about the Council of Europe and, in that context, the Minister will guess what I am about to refer to. It is that most people in Britain have not heard of the Council. One reason for that is that the budget for press and public relations, which would allow the British people to recognise the existence and value of the organisation, is pathetically small. I am not an especially competent mathematician, but I should think that it is certainly less than 1p per head per year, and it might be a small fraction of that.
I understand why the Government are a little reluctant about the Council of Europe, and it relates to the matter mentioned in the speech of the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan). It is that, from time to time, the
Column 1273Government find themselves arraigned before the Court and sometimes convicted. They do not welcome the fact that a body in Strasbourg should be able to find Her Majesty's Government guilty of human rights offences. In my view, our democracy should be sufficiently robust that if the Government are convicted of an offence they should not wish to hide behind a mean and miserly approach in order to escape public opprobrium. I think that that must be the reason that they seek to do so, because there are no other reasons of any great significance. I know that the Treasury breathes very heavily on Departments, perhaps as a consequence of the severe economic decline that Britain has experienced for the last decade and a half, but they should be able to find a few more coppers to make people aware of this very important institution.
Partly because of that fact, very little attention is paid to the Council of Europe. I was reminded of that a few years ago when some malevolent person from his constituency gave the story to the national press that a Conservative Member of Parliament had disappeared. The Member was a very active member of our delegation, which was then meeting in Strasbourg. There descended upon Strasbourg a horde of representatives of the tabloid media. They knocked on people's hotel doors and, indeed, in some cases I think they actually burst into people's hotel rooms, such was the eagerness with which they searched for that hon. Gentleman.
The media representatives were all around Strasbourg, no doubt with quite substantial expense accounts. The one place in which they did not look for him was in the assembly the Palais de l'Europe ; he was there making speeches. They did not report any of the debates that were taking place while they were engaged in their expensive search for the hon. Gentleman because, presumably, they shared the Government's view that debates did not really matter. They did not see whether there were any juicy cases before the Court of Human Rights, so busy were they in pursuit of an hon. Gentleman who was not missing at all.
I have a great deal of sympathy with the early-day motion about a recent personal tragedy tabled earlier this week by the hon. Member for Staffordshire, South (Mr. Cormack). Another tragedy was the disregard for Gorbachev's speech--perhaps the most important speech heard in Europe, before or since that time. [Interruption.] My hon. Friend said that he enjoyed hearing it, as did I.
I also enjoyed watching Conservative Members, who did not join in the standing ovation for Mr. Gorbachev as he entered the assembly before the speech was made, joining in the ovation when he had finished. It was a great pity that the British media's reporting of that seminal contribution was negligible. That may have been partly due to the fact that the Foreign Office had issued a statement offering comment on Gorbachev's statement and, since he had arrived three quarters of an hour late, I think that the statement was issued before the speech was made.
We sometimes feel a little cynical about the fact that matters of enormous importance can be considered in Strasbourg and completely ignored in Britain. Perhaps we are accustomed to the fact that if we do say something wise or make a contribution of value, inevitably in the national press it will be attributed to the European Parliament or the Commission in Brussels when those bodies may have made no contribution in that direction.
Because that is wrong, and because in the end it is foolish and of no service to the nation, it is time that Her
Column 1274Majesty's Government looked at that matter again, even to the point of standing up a little more resolutely to the demands of the Chief Secretary to the Treasury.
Another aspect of this matter goes to the day that Mr. Gorbachev addressed the assembly. Members of our delegation will recall that we had just accepted the then Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, Poland and Hungary as guest members. On the evening of the Gorbachev meeting, I, as chairman of a major committee, instructed the clerk of my committee to invite representatives from the four new member states to serve on the committee. I said that members from those four countries would and should serve on my environment committee, and we sent out the invitations fairly rapidly. Sir Geoffrey Finsberg--about whom I shall say more shortly--endorsed my request. At that time, I had invited members of my committee to visit the United Kingdom. The hon. Member for Calder Valley may well appreciate it when I say that the committee members were not going to spend their time in London. They had received invitations from Rotherham, Doncaster and York local authorities, as well as from Sheffield university. I said that they would meet in Yorkshire, but could gather in London and so proceed to Yorkshire with minimum delay.
We needed the invitation to be confirmed by the Government. The Secretary of State for the Environment grudgingly said that he would have to confirm the invitation, but the Government would provide only one meeting room for one meeting. I thought that that was somewhat mean and perhaps churlish. I said that I did not want rooms for more than one meeting and that we would gather on King's Cross station and proceed north by way of an Intercity train--trusting that the train would not be late--before embarking on our deliberations.
We managed to obtain a little more because Lord Finsberg, as he is now, endorsed my request and the Government ultimately paid the cost of hiring simultaneous interpretation facilities. I do not know whether the system has changed, but it should have done. The Government did not then have, outside the Welsh Office, their own facilities for simultaneous interpretation, which made it difficult when international forums came here. The Government are so eager to privatise everything in sight that they do not--or did not--own mechanisms and equipment to guarantee the provision of simultaneous interpretation services.
In the end, we made a splendid visit to Yorkshire. We were assisted by Lord Newall in his capacity as chairman of the British Greyhound Racing Board. A greyhound from my constituency managed to win the Council of Europe trophy- -[ Hon. Members :-- "Hear, hear."] I do not think that his Member of Parliament gained anything from that triumph, but it was a pleasant occasion.
It was sad that her Majesty's Government displayed churlishness, and it would be appropriate to recognise now that we have not encountered such churlishness in the past 10 years among those who represent Britain and Her Majesty's Government in Strasbourg. Reference has already been made by the hon. Member for Newark to the contribution and kindness of Noel Marshall and his successor, Mr. Beetham. We could extend that tribute to the predecessor of Noel Marshall, Mr. Colin McLean, who certainly established an excellent record.
Mr. Hardy : I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman. It would be completely inappropriate not to recognise the ambassador, whose name I should know as I worked closely with him when I was a parliamentary private secretary at the Foreign Office in the 1970s. I trust that in the banking career that he has begun to pursue-- [Interruption.] I trust that Sir Ewen Fergusson will do extremely well.
We have been greatly assisted, not only by the hospitality of the Government's representatives but by their endeavour to ensure that when major events happen in Britain we are pretty well informed. On one occasion, they were extremely helpful when a critical situation had developed.
The assembly has played an important role, in which the Labour party has been heavily involved over the years. It is only right to say that a road behind the Palais de l'Europe is named after Ernest Bevin. Immediately across from the Palais de l'Europe there is a road named Boulevard President Edwards. Those names are obvious. Bevin was Foreign Secretary at the time of the foundation of the Council of Europe. President Edwards was a Labour Member of Parliament--a west Yorkshire Member--who died as President of the Assembly after a distinguished contribution to its work, and that very important road in Strasbourg is named after him.
I do not believe that any roads are named after Conservative Members, although pictures of Winston Churchill abound in the Palais de l'Europe and in Strasbourg. It is interesting that the Labour Government, in their magnanimity at that time, afforded the opportunity to Churchill, as Leader of the Opposition, to play a starring role. That magnanimity was obviously due to the service that Winston Churchill gave in the second world war, but it illustrated that people such as Attlee and Bevin were determined to ensure that a new Europe was forged after the second world war, which would guarantee the peace and provide structures to secure human rights. Those were, and remain, the principal purposes of the organisation. Therefore, the churlishness and grudging approach to which I have referred are regrettable.
I mentioned that the Council of Europe operated by convention. I am worried that the assembly does not take a positive approach to those matters. Reference has already been made to the need to examine the new member states, to find out whether they fulfil the requirements of freedom and human rights. We should ensure that we do not act patronisingly in the way in which we adopt that approach by suggesting to states that their house must be completely in order, or they will not be allowed to join, when one or two established member states do not invariably properly maintain their own commitments. Turkey has been mentioned. There was a marked difference of view between the Labour delegation and our Conservative colleagues when, under the previous leader of the Conservative delegation, there was excessive enthusiasm to restore Turkey's membership before democracy had been restored. Indeed, relations in the delegation were not satisfactory at that time because we did not attend certain social functions that were blessed by the presence of the then leader of the Conservative delegation, who seemed to us to be excessively eager to bring the
Column 1276Turks back. I think that he would have had them back even if they had not had a parliament. Things are not as they should be in Turkey and it would be perfectly reasonable for some of the eastern European countries to ask, "Why does Turkey's membership go unquestioned when you are taking a severe view of ours ?"
Perhaps the British Government are slightly uneasy. They are over- sensitive. They may think that the presence of unelected members in the other place may come into question because the statutes provide that our delegations should be composed of elected parliamentarians. I do not want them to go along that route--I dare not, because Lord Kirkhill, a member of our delegation, has played such a distinguished role as chairman of the legal committee in the past few years that I would hate his services to be dispensed with. The hon. Members for Broxbourne (Mrs. Roe) and for Calder Valley will have in mind their colleagues from the other place who make distinguished contributions to our deliberations.
We seem to act with a slightly patronising style if we subject the new members to a critical analysis when that same analysis, if applied to existing member states, might cause eyebrows to be raised or even more serious issues to be discussed.