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26 Feb 2003 : Column 372—continued

7.42 pm

Mr. Terry Davis (Birmingham, Hodge Hill): I congratulate the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Atkinson) on taking the initiative to arrange this debate. I also want to thank him for his work as leader of the Conservative group in the Council of Europe Assembly. On behalf of the Socialist group in the Assembly—Labour members from this country and the nearly 200 socialist representatives from the 44 member countries in the Council of Europe—I should like to emphasise to my hon. Friend the Minister the fact that socialist group members would agree completely with everything that the hon. Gentleman said in his opening remarks.

It would be a tragedy if the development of the EU were allowed to damage what has been achieved in Europe by the Council of Europe and the Assembly over the past 50 years. I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for attending the January part-session, when he attended a meeting of the socialist group. He understands the robust discussion going on in that group, but all our members agree that it would be a great mistake to allow the Council of Europe to be damaged. I therefore urge my hon. Friend to take on board the very serious point that the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East made about avoiding rivalry, competition and conflict to emerge between two courts.

It would be terrible if establishing a legally binding charter of fundamental human rights in the EU were to lead to any conflict in the decisions reached by the European Court of Justice and the European Court of Human Rights. We all look to the Government to ensure that that does not happen.

7.43 pm

Malcolm Bruce (Gordon): I add my congratulations to the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Atkinson) for bringing this matter to the House. Those hon. Members who are members of the parliamentary delegation to the Council of Europe have already debated the issues, but it is important to put on record in the House of Commons the importance of getting the development right. We support EU enlargement, and its consequences, including the development of a European constitution, are desirable and welcome.

I am a spokesman for a party that is strongly pro-Europe. It may appear surprising, therefore, that I welcome the fact that constitutions both define and limit powers. It is appropriate that the process of defining the EU's powers should also limit them. There will be more than 20 countries—once one or two more have acceded to the Council of Europe—that will not join the EU, so it is extremely important that the positive work done by the Council continues.

The Minister has heard me say before that the ECHR—of which members of the Council of Europe have every reason to be inordinately proud, given what it has done for more than 50 years and continues to achieve—is the basis of human rights law in Europe. A competitive court would undermine and devalue that, and it is not necessary.

The specific point that I make to the Minister is that the suggestion that the EU should accede to the ECHR, which has been resisted in some quarters, has a lot to commend it for the very simple reason that it would put EU institutions on exactly the same basis as national institutions in relation to human rights.

It is odd that, as things stand now, citizens in the Council of Europe states—indeed, in the United Kingdom—may take Government or public institutions to court for human rights abuses under the ECHR, but they have no such redress if those abuses are carried out by EU agencies. That anomaly cannot be tolerated, and adopting the charter of fundamental rights into the constitution does not solve that.

Indeed, as has been said already, that anomaly creates an unnecessary and undesirable complication, so I urge the Minister to take that point seriously; he has heard it made in many quarters, and I honestly believe that that would be the way to ensure that EU enlargement and the work of the Council of Europe continue together in a constructive, rather than conflicting, mode.

7.46 pm

Mr. Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central): I, too, thank the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Atkinson), who is our hon. Friend in this context because, in the spirit of the relationship between the members of the British delegation, he has invited all three parties represented in the Chamber tonight to take part in this short debate.

Of course the issues raised are fundamentally important. The point has been made already, but it is well worth reiterating, that Europe beyond any boundary that the EU is likely to have for the foreseeable future still contains a considerable landmass and population. Those people are represented in the Council of Europe, so it has a primacy not only in its longevity, but in its extent. It is important to remember that, because the Council of Europe plays the role of guarantor of democratic standards and human rights.

That role may be taken for granted in a country such as ours, but it has been fundamentally important in the reconstruction of constitutional Governments in parts of Europe that, until relatively recently, did not have that opportunity. So I certainly pay tribute to the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East and, indeed, to my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Mr. Davis) for their role in precisely that integration process.

We have a friend and supporter in the Minister. Perhaps to my shame, he did something that I did not do when I was a Minister: he took the trouble to visit the Parliamentary Assembly recently. His visit was very well received, not only by the British delegation, but by members throughout the Assembly. However, we look to him to take on board those reasonable requests. Hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber would want to support all the points that the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East made.

Again, I emphasise that there need be no conflict between the Strasbourg and Luxembourg courts, but it is vital that institutional furniture is rearranged to ensure that no such conflict is built in, because the argument used against the incorporation of the EU into convention territory was that it would automatically force a conflict between the Luxembourg and Strasbourg courts. We need the convention to sort that out and to make sure that that possibility does not arise.

Again, I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East for his efforts tonight.

7.49 pm

The Minister for Europe (Mr. Denis MacShane): What a pleasure to have four contributions in a short Adjournment debate, as well as some time for me to reply. I, too, pay tribute to the sterling quality—indeed, the euro quality—of the members of the British parliamentary delegation to the Council of Europe.

We have heard the speech of the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Atkinson), and a short and pointed contribution from my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Mr. Davis), whom I saw presiding over the most heterogeneous group of parliamentarians debating Iraqi issues. I assure you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that even the finest training in your Chair might not prepare you for the majesty with which he brought all of those different points of view together.

The hon. Member for Bournemouth, East referred to the EU as a casino of consensus and compromise. I am not a great expert on casinos, and I did not know that they were the location of consensus and compromise, but it is not the worst thing in Europe that we find ways of coming together, as the hon. Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce) and my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Central (Mr. Lloyd) pointed out. There is a British esprit de corps in the delegation, and it was a pleasure to attend and speak to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe and to read out part of the speech of my opposite number, the Minister for European affairs of the Republic of France. In these interesting times, it is not the worst thing in the world that I can speak for France—reading her speech word for word—and it does not seem to cause great upset or outrage.

Hon. Members have rightly made the point that the Council of Europe is our oldest European parliamentary association or assembly. I keep insisting, as I have done all my life, as a strong supporter of the European Union, that there is much more to Europe than the EU. Perhaps because two of my children were born in Switzerland, I am conscious that Europe's oldest confederal state may have a part to play. The Council of Europe, with its 44 members, representing 850 million European citizens, remains an important part of the architecture of European institutions. It is not well known enough and its work does not get the publicity that it deserves. If I may, I commend to all hon. Members Lord Judd's excellent article in The House magazine on Chechnya. His involvement stems from his membership of the Council of Europe—I am not commenting on the Chechnyan issue, but his article is well worth reading and reflecting on.

That is exactly the role of the Council of Europe: it allows parliamentarians from all its 44 member countries to winnow their way into the most difficult and complex situations in a fashion that the European Union, which is a consensual and compromise-based institution, and national Governments, which must have distinct bilateral relationships with different countries, cannot do. I therefore regard its work as having the highest importance. As long as I am the Minister responsible for it, it is assured of my strongest ministerial backing. It is certainly no penance, as Minister for Europe, to make the occasional foray into that great European capital of Strasbourg.

The two organisations, the EU and the Council of Europe, have distinct roles, but they are mutually reinforcing on human rights and other issues. Undoubtedly, the Council of Europe's institution-building programmes have assisted former communist countries to prepare for EU membership. We should note the remarkable achievement, in barely more than a decade, whereby countries in which democracy, freedom of expression and respect for minorities were hardly known under their dictatorship systems are now being welcomed into membership of the European Parliament.

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