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Dr. Rudi Vis (Finchley and Golders Green) (Lab): I have always found that the absence of the death penalty in all the nations of the Council of Europe is one vital principle. I am sure that my hon. Friend agrees.

Tony Lloyd: If we want to consider one of the great unifying standards, it is remarkable. However, I must say to my hon. Friend that I do not believe that if referendums were to be held in every Council of Europe country on the death penalty, they would all have what we would regard as a successful outcome. In Russia, a debate is taking place almost as we speak about the role of the death penalty. Russia has not yet properly abolished the death penalty. Nevertheless, it has had a moratorium on the use of the death penalty for a considerable number of years, which is a significant achievement in its own right, at least for those of us who believe that the death penalty is a totally misguided form of punishment. That is a real achievement for the Council of Europe.

I want to refer to one of our former colleagues on the delegation, the right hon. Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce), who is not from my party, so this is not a case of party polemics. He wrote a report about political prisoners in Azerbaijan, a country that is a long way away from here and that matters little to people in the Red Lion in my constituency, but the truth is that the issue of political prisoners should concern us, particularly, and ironically, in a country with which we have strong ties because of oil. We have a real interest in the stability of that country, for economic reasons, even if we do not wish to maintain, as we should, a proper and loftier standard of judgment.

Almost certainly, the right hon. Gentleman’s report on political prisoners led to the release of a significant number of people from the prisons of that country, so that shows what can be achieved through the action of one parliamentarian through the institution that we are discussing. I think that I am probably right in saying that he did not know where Azerbaijan was before he was involved with the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, but of course we are all educated by the process and we all become part of that educational process, through which, we hope, we change and improve not only levels of debate, but standards of action.

The other member of our delegation to whom I wanted to refer was Lord Judd, who, as it happens, is a close personal friend of mine. Although I do not think that I could claim that Lord Judd’s achievements in highlighting the situation in Chechnya had the impact that we would have wanted in order to improve the situation on the ground there, they certainly engaged the Russians in an international dialogue in a way that simply would not have happened without the intervention of the Council of Europe. Probably little of that was reported in the media in this country, but in the Russian media Lord Judd was a name that people knew and, frankly, often criticised because of his trenchant criticisms of what took place in Chechnya. Again, it is important that parliamentarians from a country such as ours were able to have an impact that would be seen to be disproportionate by the standards that, I am afraid, our own media use. Lord Judd played an important role.

Mr. Meale: Perhaps my hon. Friend will also recall the contribution of the ex-Member of Parliament for Hull, North, Kevin McNamara, who, single-handedly
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really, ensured that there was a wide selection of judges for the European Court of Human Rights, played such a part in getting fairness into that choice programme and improved dramatically the standard of judges who went into the Court.

Tony Lloyd: Again, in this political love-in, my hon. Friend is absolutely right to make that point. The role of the different institutions of the Council of Europe in achieving that balance and insisting on acceptable standards for those who are the judges in that Court is very important. We should emphasise that, because the selection of either a bad judge or a good judge from any one of the other member states of the Council of Europe could have a material impact on our own citizens, in that our citizens may access the Court and come before judges whose competence and standards then become relevant to justice not only in those individual cases but, as they make law, as indeed they do, for the British judicial system. We therefore have an absolute and fundamental interest in the correct operation of the system and the proper and unbiased selection of judges.

One of the debates that has taken place recently concerns the role of gender balance in such courts and the insistence by a significant part of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe that there must be proper acceptance of gender balance in the selection of those who come before the Parliamentary Assembly for appointment as judges.

Dr. Vis: In that particular case, what does my hon. Friend think is the solution to Malta’s representation in respect of the judges?

Tony Lloyd: My hon. Friend might be surprised to learn that I supported the idea that there should be proper balance. The rules of the Assembly are such that at the moment there is an insistence that any panel of candidates must be balanced for gender, so where normally there is a panel of three, no more than two should be men or women, so that there is a proper choice before the Parliamentary Assembly making the choice of who should be appointed as judge. There was a debate about whether there should be an exception for smaller countries such as Malta, but the general feeling was that that was not the right way for us to proceed. I think that in the end that is the way the Council of Europe will go and I think that most people would welcome that.

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West) (Con): Before the hon. Gentleman moves on from the judges, regardless of the gender of particular members of the judiciary in the Court, I am sure that he would want to join me in saying that one of the most impressive things is the courage that is frequently shown by members of the Court, who are often prepared to make controversial judgments relating to their own countries, sometimes in the face of quite considerable pressure.

Tony Lloyd: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to make that point. The situation can be quite invidious sometimes. We hear from time to time of the pressures that people seek to apply, but almost nobody argues
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that the decisions of the Court have been subverted by those pressures, which is a tribute to the Court and to the individuals who make up the Court. It is interesting that although the judicial systems of many of the countries that provide judges to the Strasbourg Court are neither perfect nor beyond corruption or influence, we have been able to create a culture in the European Court that transcends those national problems, so that we can genuinely claim to have an internationally high standard. That is the case with the Court, the Parliamentary Assembly and the Committee of Ministers, and it sends a clear message that although individual units may be venal, the collective can rise above that standard and aspire to the proper standards that we want at European level. That is an important example of how we can use these institutions for the betterment of the whole of Europe.

Mr. David Marshall (Glasgow, East) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that the Court faces large problems, the biggest of which is probably its huge backlog of cases, which is largely due to budgetary restraints? Does he agree that extra funding for the Court must be found to tackle that problem?

Tony Lloyd: My hon. Friend is right, and I shall come to that issue, but first let me establish the importance of the Court. There is probably no justice or foreign ministry in Europe that does not say kind things about the Court’s role, but it is less true to say that they all put in the effort to ensure that it works. As a former lawyer, my right hon. Friend the Minister knows better than I the concept that justice delayed is justice denied, but the Court’s backlog has a material impact because we are trying to drive a common standard through the European Court.

In countries such as Azerbaijan, many of the decisions being handed down in the national courts are extremely dubious, if I am being kind. The European Court could be part of an important and exciting process whereby every judge in Azerbaijan is aware that their decisions in Baku may eventually be judged against the standards of the Strasbourg Court, and will therefore know that their activities might be examined by a superior court. Such a process would be important in setting standards, but only if those judges knew that the Court’s judgments were likely to be proximate and to have an impact on them.

Mr. Mike Hancock (Portsmouth, South) (LD): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is essential, even though there are obvious budgetary problems, that the link between the Council of Europe and the Court should be maintained, and that we should not go down the route that some countries prefer of separating the two? Does he agree that the Court’s stability and the way in which it is universally accepted is partly due to its strength in being linked to the Council of Europe?

Tony Lloyd: I agree absolutely. The concept that I have tried to get across today is that the Council of Europe is about changing cultures. It is fundamental that the Court, the Parliamentary Assembly, the Committee of Ministers and institutions such as the Venice Commission are all sewn together as part of one corporate body, because it does matter, in the end, that there is a common structure through which decisions are made and resources are channelled.

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It is sensible for me to pick up the point about money. Indeed, the Minister would be surprised if I did not mention the Council of Europe’s budget, because it is one of the outstanding and most difficult problems that we face. The Court’s demands have grown and will continue to grow, and not only because of pressure from the relatively new entrants to the Council of Europe family; we use that system and still send a considerable number of cases to the Strasbourg Court. It is in all our interests that the Court operates effectively, and its effectiveness is at least partly determined by the timing of judgments, which should not be delayed for years and years, as some are at the moment. If we agree with those principles, we must agree to give the Court the necessary resources to deal with its present case load and to make significant inroads into its backlog.

Recently, there has been a temptation to divert resources from other parts of the Council of Europe family into the Court. It is hard to argue with that idea, because we are always paying lip service to the Court, but we must recognise that other parts of the Council of Europe family have important roles to play. I have tried to describe the culturisation role that comes with parliamentarians from the relatively new Parliaments mixing with parliamentarians from our Parliament and other more mature democratic societies. If that process has the effect that I believe it has of changing and cementing strong cultural underpinnings, we should not undervalue the roles of the Committee of Ministers and the Parliamentary Assembly.

We probably have one of the more Council of Europe-friendly Ministers with us today. I do not wish to be critical because I once would have been the relevant Minister for these matters, and the Minister is probably much more Council of Europe-friendly than I was then. That is a reasonable admission for me to make, and it allows me to trade on the Minister’s good will. We need to consider the strategic importance of institutions such as the Council of Europe, which bring people together, and we should try to determine the value of those institutions to this form of relatively low-cost diplomacy. I know that the Foreign Office’s budget is under pressure and that it is difficult to tell an ambassador somewhere that we are going to downscale their operation because our parliamentary colleagues have insisted that more should be done for the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly, but we need to have that debate.

There must be a proper examination of what the Council of Europe can do. If anyone were to argue that we could do without some of the things that it does, I would agree, but that will almost always be the case with an institution of that longevity and complexity when there is a degree of compromise on what activities it takes on. However, there is a central recognition that its overall role, through its Parliamentary Assembly, is very positive. That positive role is not measured only by the paper output or the words that have poured out. Indeed, I have sat through some speeches that I could have done without and I have managed to avoid papers at no obvious cost.

The Council of Europe’s role has changed in some areas. In environmental policy, for example, its role was relatively insignificant and peripheral 15 years ago, whereas it now has a central role to play as a result of
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the changes in our views on the politics of the global environment. We should accept that the boundaries and what we expect from that institution have changed. I make a plea not for much greater funding, but for us to try to make sense of what the Council does well and what it can do well to influence materially the way in which we in this common European family relate and the way in which we gain advantages at a national level from our membership and use of that body.

I have spoken at reasonable length and I am conscious that others want to speak in the debate, but I note that there are several areas of activity in which the Council of Europe has been involved recently that I could have discussed in greater detail. One such subject is the situation in the Balkans, which is always of lively interest because of its recent past. Others include places such as Moldova and Georgia; the frozen conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia that still disfigures this common Europe of ours; and the situation in Belarus, which has not even made enough progress to enter the Council of Europe. Those are all important areas of activity and inevitably the Council of Europe is at its most sharply focused when dealing with current problems and such issues. The importance of these debates is measured not simply by the fact that they take place, but by the fact that they begin the process of changing people’s minds about how they relate.

I believe that my colleagues would agree that there has been a change in the attitude of the Serbian delegation. Not everyone changes their attitude and mind, but as members of the Serbian Parliament come into contact with those from other Parliaments they must begin to reflect on how Serbia is seen in the wider world. It helps the process of bringing Serbia into the mainstream of how we view democracy in our continent and makes a material difference to the way in which politics is done in that one country and in all the others.

Mr. Meale: Would my hon. Friend care to put on the record the appreciation of all the members of the British delegation for the work of the staff from this Parliament and, last but not least, for the work of the ambassador and his staff in Strasbourg? I believe that the ambassador is shortly to retire.

Tony Lloyd: My hon. Friend makes a good point, and I shall return to that theme in a few moments.

Dr. Vis: I hope that this comment is of value to the Minister in particular. What annoys me is the fact that many of us are absent when a considerable number of votes are taken, and when the lists of the votes and how many times one has voted are published, we do not come out well. My hon. Friend may wish to comment on that, but should he not wish to do so, perhaps the Minister will.

Tony Lloyd: That is always a sore point with members of the delegation, who are bound to make that point. If we work elsewhere, we cannot perforce of circumstances be working here. It seems harsh that the media, on occasions, judges people by their seeming absence, when in fact they may be much more productively engaged in a direct national interest on Council of Europe work. I echo that heartfelt plea from my hon. Friend.

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I want to raise one other issue with the Minister: the roles of, and the relationship between, the Council of Europe and the European Union. That has not yet been properly bottomed out or put on a firm footing. I do not ask him to give us specific answers today, because I am aware that the complex process of negotiations through the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers and the European Union’s Council of Ministers is protracted, but we need to begin to establish a relationship between those two institutions that will lead us into the future.

I am not one of those who argues that the Council of Europe is the superior body—that it is older and such like—and thus has greater rights, because to do so would be nonsense in the modern world. We know that the European Union, with its enormous resource base and political clout, will dominate in many areas of activity, but it would be a mistake on its part to want to smother the legitimate activities of the Council of Europe, which even now, by definition, contains twice as many countries, more or less, as the European Union family. It is not a question of one against the other; it is a question of trying to put the balance between the two institutions on a more rational basis, where their activities can complement one another.

I shall draw my remarks to a conclusion by echoing the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield (Mr. Meale). I should like to place on record the thanks of the whole of the British delegation to those who support us: our parliamentary colleagues who work in the overseas office, whose work to ensure that we are able to do the work that we do is quiet but important; people in the Foreign Office; our permanent representative in Strasbourg, Stephen Howarth, and his colleagues, who are particularly effective; and those here in London who help to ensure that our delegation is properly resourced. They are all part of a process that gives a cost-effective form of diplomacy through the Council of Europe family. I hope that, if nothing else, this debate will begin to make people think about how we place that into the context not simply of an immediate demand for more cash in hand, but of how we work together to use this set of institutions to enhance and to advance what we regard as our legitimate interest: the pursuit of democratic standards, the rule of law and human rights.

3.4 pm

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Member for Manchester, Central (Tony Lloyd) on securing this important debate. It is the first such debate that I have participated in since becoming a member of the Council of Europe. If we were to ask almost anybody outside this place, excluding those who have been on the Council of Europe, what the Council of Europe is, the vast majority would say, “Oh, that is the European Union.” They would immediately confuse the two institutions. That is what I find when I talk to people about what we do in the Council of Europe. People are totally ignorant of it until one mentions the work that it does, particularly its work on the European Court of Human Rights. They clearly understand the important role that the Council of Europe and its Assembly plays in that regard. Indeed, although I knew that the Assembly existed before I became a member, I
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did not realise that there is also a local government arm for councillors; they attend their own Council of Europe part two.

One of the important things is to bring politicians from the various 47 countries together so that we can talk about what is happening in all of our countries. I do not think that anyone can hold a superior hand by saying, “Because we are an older democracy, we ought to be listened to and we have nothing to learn from anybody else.” We have a lot to learn from some of the other countries.

As the hon. Gentleman mentioned, one of the other roles that we fulfil in the Council of Europe is election monitoring and observing. I remember going to Ukraine to watch its elections. It was amazing to watch the enthusiasm for democracy. So many people were involved up and down the country. I was in Dnieperpetrovsk, which is a Russian-looking part of Ukraine, and I saw the enthusiasm and the number of candidates; I cannot remember how many elections were held there on that day, but the number was quite a few and the ballot paper was 4 ft long. I must say to the Minister that I do not think that there were as many errors there, despite the number of elections in Ukraine on that day, as there were in Scotland last Thursday. I do not know who has what to learn from that, but the fact is that although the situation was rather complicated for this fledgling democracy, the people all wanted to be involved.

The Council of Europe acts as a forum. The Ukrainian Prime Minister came to speak to us at the previous part-session. That gave us an opportunity to ask him questions directly about what was happening in Ukraine—we had heard that the President had called an early election. We had a good debate on the Ukrainian situation shortly after the Prime Minister left. I do not know whether it had any direct impact on the Ukrainians, but I am sure that they were well aware of the debate that we had that day and the questioning of their Prime Minister. I was delighted to learn that the Prime Minister and the President have come together on an agreement about a future election. It will not be in May, but it will be shortly after and at least all of the sides have been brought together. I am unsure that another forum would have been able to do what the Council of Europe did in the previous part-session; we made real advances. Clearly, other Prime Ministers and Presidents come to speak at our sessions and open themselves up widely to questioning. I suspect that that happens more so in the Council of Europe chamber than in their own Parliaments back home. At least we were given that opportunity.

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