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26 Feb 2003 : Column 372—continued

Malcolm Bruce: Will the Minister also acknowledge, as it has certainly struck me, that we have something to learn from the new democracies, which sometimes find new and better ways of doing things than the old democracies? It is a two-way process.

Mr. MacShane: One of the great pleasures that I have found since joining the Government is that we always have something to learn. I believe that our country has as much to learn from Europe, as we have to contribute occasionally to the process of European construction.

The hon. Member for Bournemouth, East mentioned some examples, but let us also note that the European Union and the Council of Europe can co-operate, for instance, in joint financing of key programmes for countries such as Russia, Albania, and Ukraine. We now face the discussion in the Convention on the Future of Europe, which will touch on aspects of the role and work of the Council of Europe. The Convention is important. It will allow us to come to some agreement on how to make the European Union better able to cope with its new members.

The Convention is a unique creature. Its membership allows for broader discussion and consultation than has ever been possible in the European Union before. Its task is difficult: to pave the way for the EU of the future.

Mr. Richard Bacon (South Norfolk): Unlike other hon. Members present, I am not an expert on the Council of Europe. I am more interested in the Convention, which is exceptionally important. The Minister mentioned the huge amount of discussions, but according to the Government, those discussions have been ignored by the praesidium in the drafting of articles. When will there be an opportunity to debate this issue more fully on the Floor of the House?

Mr. MacShane: There will be a lengthy Westminster Hall debate on the issue next Wednesday, and I invite the hon. Member to take part. We have had a debate on the Convention on the Future of Europe in the past couple of weeks, and I am open for any private meetings that hon. Members want. We should note that 1,000 amendments have now been tabled to the draft that the praesidium presented, so there is plenty of work to be done. If the EU is a casino of compromise and consensus, my goodness, I do not envy the Convention's work. It will be the biggest compositing meeting of any political institution in history.

We have to get things right. Europe cannot continue with uncertainty over how to bring in 10 new members. None of us wants a European Union in which—to pick countries out of the air—Malta, Estonia or Luxembourg can exercise a veto on future development. We need to get the relationships right in dealing with human rights and other issues dealt with by the European Court of Human Rights.

Mr. Kevin McNamara (Hull, North): Is the real problem the prospect of having two sets of laws—one for the rich countries and another for the poorer countries? Once the poorer countries are in that situation, all the problems of abuses of human rights will appear again because they do not have the bolster of what is already present and accepted in the major countries.

Mr. MacShane: The hon. Gentleman is right. The European Court of Human Rights is a beacon. All countries in Europe—those in the EU, those coming into the EU and those who will be outside the EU for some time—will have to consider their legal systems in order to bring them up to the common standards that we all want to see in democracies.

I shall take no more interventions in the brief time remaining—although it has been a pleasure in an Adjournment debate to have a real debate and to answer questions, especially those posed by hon. Members who spoke earlier.

The Government support the values and principles set out in the charter, as a political declaration. However, as we have said for some time, we would have serious legal and practical problems if the declaration were incorporated into a constitutional treaty without appropriate clarifications and safeguards. Such points have been well made by British delegates to the Convention. Other countries will have similar problems in working out whether their constitutional rules in a number of areas will be subordinate to any charter of fundamental rights that was incorporated into a constitutional treaty. I do not want to pre-empt that process; the discussion will continue. It could, indeed, continue at the third Council of Europe summit, to which the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East referred. The idea will be discussed at the Council of Europe ministerial meeting in May, and I am not against it.

Since I have been a Minister, the principal request that I have from countries all over the world and from other institutions is for my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to attend this or that event. At times, I feel that I have to defend him, so that he can spend a little time in the House of Commons and occasionally get on with the domestic business of running the United Kingdom. Therefore, I am not entirely sure that I am able from the Dispatch Box to commit my right hon. Friend to attending a Heads of Government summit. However, the request will be considered.

There is also the issue of whether the European Union should accede to the European convention on human rights. There is a good case for that but, as I explained at the Parliamentary Assembly in January when I quoted directly from the French Government, both the British and French Governments and other European Governments are concerned about the impact that such accession would have on the competencies of the Union and on the position of individual member states in relation to protocols, reservations and the ability to derogate. Those of us who are aware of the issue of asylum seekers know that it is a live one—not just in the press and public life, but in our constituency advice bureaux and surgeries. It is another issue that we need to examine.

We also need to consider how we can accelerate and make more effective the huge logjam of cases before the European Court of Human Rights. Justice delayed is justice denied. I have had very good talks with the president and the British judge on the court in Strasbourg. However, we must get the matter right, and do not need the simple and intellectually and politically attractive demand of EU accession to the European convention on human rights to result in a nightmare of legal confusion. These difficult and complex questions will have to be worked out in the EU Convention. I assure hon. Members of my continued interest and involvement in them.

The Council of Europe plays an important role. I respected it before and I have respected the work of the hon. Members and colleagues who serve on it. I am happy to support its future work as long as I hold this—

The motion having been made after Seven o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. Deputy Speaker adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

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