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9 May 2007 : Column 108WH—continued

The Council of Europe deals with democracy as well as human rights. The hon. Member for Finchley and Golders Green (Dr. Vis) mentioned the death penalty and its abolition in all our member states—in Russia, it is not being carried out at least—and that is important. I remember that in a debate not so long ago it was mentioned that the United States was an observer nation, despite my never having seen its delegation turn up. A motion was tabled to try to chuck the United States out even as observer, simply because people believe in the death penalty there. When it came to our group meeting, I said that I did not mind speaking on this, but that if I could be certain that someone was a terrorist involved in the innocent deaths in London, I
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would have no problem in saying that they should be executed. The Russian chairman of our group replied, “Mr. Evans, it is very interesting what you have just said, and you can be the spokesman of our group—as long as you say everything different from what you have just said.” It opens things up quite widely when a Russian says that such issues are important to the Council’s core beliefs.

The exiled Iranian Opposition leader came to speak to some of us about executions in Iran, and I have also been able to talk to Iranian politicians about how the death penalty is used. It brings the whole thing into stark contrast when one learns that youngsters—people under the age of 18—are executed for being gay in countries such as Iran. At least we as politicians have a voice in the Council and can speak up together on issues that we feel deeply about.

Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham) (Lab): I agree with everything that the hon. Gentleman says, and this enthusiasm for matters European is very refreshing, particularly given that the Council of Europe devised the famous European flag with the 12 yellow stars and the blue background—it was nothing to do with the European Union and was brought into being after Winston Churchill’s famous speech in Zurich. That aside, we will shortly all have a problem because Serbia will be the Council’s new chair in governmental terms. The new Speaker of the Serbian Parliament, who has just been elected, is from the Radical party—what we could call a fascist, ultranationalist, Milosevic-supporting party. That happened thanks to the disgraceful switching of votes by one of the other party leaders, Mr. Kostunica, who broke with the democratic, pro-European group in Serbia. I therefore invite the hon. Gentleman and hon. Friends to raise their voices back at the Council of Europe and to voice our protests at Serbia’s turn from the European democratic path and at its engagement with very ugly, unpleasant politics that are contrary to the Council’s values.

Mr. Evans: I am more than happy to do that. In fact, before I came here today, I saw the press release issued by René van der Linden, the Council’s President, in which he talks about his

He says:

When one talks with Serbian politicians, one can see that they are enthusiastic to become a democratic country and to be accepted. My goodness, they want to be admitted to the European Union.

Mr. MacShane: Hear, hear.

Mr. Evans: Indeed. They want to be admitted to the Council of Europe and to live up to the code by which we all hope to operate. Events such as those in Serbia fill us with deep consternation and must be condemned. If we believe in human rights and democracy, we cannot sit idly by and take such news on the chin.

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Tony Lloyd: It is, of course, necessary to condemn the Serbian Parliament for its decision; indeed, I know Mr. Nikolic, the new Speaker, and I am well aware of Mr. Seselj, the leader of his party, who is in The Hague awaiting trial for war crimes. Does the hon. Gentleman agree, however, that it is also important that we are seen to hold out the hand of friendship to the good democrats in Serbia and that we embolden them by making it clear that we can distinguish between the bad Serbs and those who want to take the democratic path?

Mr. Evans: That is absolutely right. I agree wholeheartedly. There are Serbian politicians in each of the political groupings in the Council, and we get to know them fairly well. I am sure that many of them will express the same concerns at our next part session. It would be completely erroneous to turn our backs on an entire country because of the activities of a few. We must extend the hand of friendship and see what we can do to assist people in their plight.

I know that other hon. Members want to get in, so I shall briefly mention just a couple of other issues. The hon. Member for Manchester, Central has already mentioned the co-operation between the European Union and the Council. There were fears that the Fundamental Rights Agency was encroaching on the work of the Council and the European Court of Human Rights. It is right to say that the Court is strapped for cash, but this new organisation seems to be rolling in it. It would surely have been far more appropriate to give some of that money to the Court so that it could do its job better. Let us at least admit that the 27 countries of the European Union are all members of the Council and that it would have been better to give the Court more money.

It would also be far better if we had better coverage of what goes on in the Council. The only time I can remember reading anything in our papers about what goes on there was when Dick Marty did his special investigation into extraordinary rendition. The BBC turfed up and we had good coverage in all the media. The Council discusses important issues all the time, and I hope that we can at least get better coverage. I suspect that the coverage in some of the 47 countries is much better than it is in the UK. Those countries are taking things far more seriously, and I hope that our country’s journalists will do the same.

Apart from the Assembly, there are also a number of committees and sub-committees, which deal with a number of issues. The Council is not inward looking. A sub-committee of the Political Committee looks at the middle east. Using its observer status, the Committee on the Environment, Agriculture and Local and Regional Affairs carried out an extensive investigation into the clubbing of seals. Even though the Canadians were allowed to speak, they did not get everything their own way. We were able to speak up on behalf of our constituents and to voice their concerns about seal clubbing in Canada.

The Migration Committee, which I am not on, is important to all of us. It looks at enormous movements of people through not only Europe, but the world. Such movements have a massive impact on us, and we cannot just abdicate responsibility for what takes place on the other side of the world and think that it will have no impact on us if we just ignore it. The Council is not ignoring such issues, and one of its committees is
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looking in minute detail at why movements of peoples take place and what we can do back in our own Parliaments to influence our Governments to assist such peoples.

Two years ago, I would have shrugged my shoulders at anybody who mentioned the Council of Europe, but I am now a total convert. As I am sure that the Minister will know, I am not a great believer in the European Union and the way in which it operates, but I have seen what can happen when 47 countries co-operate. The European Union has a lot to learn from the Council of Europe—it is not just the other way round.

3.17 pm

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry) (Con): I am pleased to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) because although nobody in the Chamber would ever regard me as a Eurosceptic, I certainly was a Council of Europe sceptic until I was approached some six months ago and went to see how it worked. I am now something of an enthusiast, for many of the reasons given by my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Manchester, Central (Tony Lloyd), whom I congratulate on introducing the debate.

The only names that we might add to the list of personae whom the hon. Gentleman rightly praised, including our overseas office staff and diplomatic staff, are the members of the House staff who go over to staff the Council’s sessions. It is perhaps somewhat reassuring and even a little humbling for us to remember, given the Council’s origins in the wreckage of Europe after world war two, that the British Parliament and our French colleagues had a large input. Indeed, we are still responsible for a great deal of the day-to-day work, and familiar faces appear in the Table Office.

The Council appeals to me for three reasons. First, the exclusive subject matter with which it deals is dear to my heart. The commitment to the conduct of democracy, the holding of free and fair elections, the rule of law, free speech and the ongoing concern with human rights all form part of our distinctive business.

We are all familiar in this country with the work of the European Court of Human Rights. Since the repatriation of the convention into United Kingdom legislation, by means of the Human Rights Act 1998, there have been some interesting changes in the dynamic, and possibly, in certain cases, in the way in which it is viewed. I worry that too many Brits regard human rights as a matter for eccentric persons and often for objectionable persons such as terrorists. I am sure that some of our tabloid newspapers think that that is what they are about. Others think that they are about trivia—such as the constituent who recently wrote to me about the intrusion into her privacy, after a window was put into a house adjacent to her property. She thought that that was a breach of her human rights, and I politely responded to her. We should remember, if we ever become cynical about the Council of Europe, that many of the countries that have acceded to the Council in recent years have real human rights issues to deal with. It is a matter of life and death. We need only mention Srebrenica to be
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reminded of all the things that happened in our continent a very few years ago. To some extent we can modestly claim that the Council has played a part in reversing that trend and, as the hon. Gentleman said, that culture.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) (Lab): I have nothing against the Council of Europe; I have never been involved in it, but I certainly believe that it is a very good institution. However, I am worried—I hope that the hon. Gentleman shares my concern—about something that was raised earlier: the fact of the presidency of the committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe going to a Serbian with connections to a more extreme element. In view of Serbia’s refusal to do more to bring to justice the two major war criminals who were undoubtedly responsible for the atrocities that the hon. Gentleman has mentioned, is it any wonder that there is now much controversy arising from the situation I have just described?

Mr. Boswell: It is a fine diplomatic judgment, but my view is that states that accede to the Council of Europe should meet its standards, and its parliamentary representatives should meet those standards as well. We need to consider the situation firmly, robustly and briskly. We do not have to accept it just because a particular nomination has been made. On the other hand, of course, we do not start with the presumption that people are delinquent, without having the opportunity to discuss the matter with them. However, the hon. Gentleman is of course right to raise that point. I shall come to some practical aspects of intolerance shortly.

The second main virtue of the Council is its huge geographic spread. I mentioned in an intervention on the hon. Gentleman the fact that observer status takes us almost around the globe, but even membership itself enables us to project what we might loosely, and perhaps rather arrogantly, call western values as far, at least, as the Caucasus and beyond. That is a huge strength. Wherever the final boundary of the European Union is set, it is likely to be much nearer to us than that, and membership of the Council enables us to widen our influence to the east.

The third point to be made about the Council, which has not yet been made explicitly, is that while it is understandable that as politicians we concern ourselves with peace and war, politics, diplomacy and immediate security threats—those are proper and right concerns, as is the threat to individuals’ or groups’ life and limb—there are, particularly in the committee work, a great many opportunities for wider discussion. It was put to me by one of the ambassador’s officials that in their experience the Council of Europe operates as a high-grade think-tank in which issues that cannot be discussed in the House, where we are usually too busy with party politics, can be developed and thought about, experiences can be shared and a view can be distilled.

To give one example of what I mean about committee work, I am on the equal opportunities committee. I realise that there are people in this country for whom those words come with the automatic assumption that everything is deeply dripping with political correctness, and that no good can come from it. I had a slight feeling of that kind, if
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I am honest, when I first considered a report, with an Azerbaijani female rapporteur, on the feminisation of poverty. However, on reading the report I came across extremely interesting perspectives, on, for example, women’s position in relation to pensions, which is a matter that concerns many people here. I was able to pass that report on to colleagues here to think about.

Some hon. Members present today may be aware of the work that is being done in this Parliament on anti-Semitism. Coincident with that there is also a Council of Europe initiative on anti-Semitism, and I have taken some steps to see that the two initiatives are joined up, and that our work will feed into the concerns of the Council; the right hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane), who attended the debate briefly, is also concerned about that.

The final point that I should like to emphasise is the personal aspect of the matter. We come here to talk to one another and share experiences, and to communicate feelings across the party divide. We are all familiar with that process, which is a good one. We extend that, in the Council of Europe, to a much wider constituency. We meet people whom we might not otherwise meet, and establish contacts that we might not otherwise be able to keep open. I have mentioned the presence in my own party grouping of the Party of the Regions, from Ukraine, and United Russia, from Russia itself. Those are valuable links that we should use, and they are in a sense also available for wider diplomatic purposes, if that is appropriate.

Where should we take matters next? We need to emphasise that the Council of Europe is distinct; it has a distinct role and needs to stick to that, without wandering into other territory, and to defend its competence in the areas that we have mentioned of democracy, human rights and the rule of law, and the functioning of the Court. We are aware of the unfinished business on the European Convention and the interest of the European Union in the fundamental rights agency. We need to be a little firmer than we have been so far on that matter. We need also to remember that there are other important aspects of the work of the Council that are not coincident with the work of the EU, and which provide it with a distinctive character. I should put it this way, on behalf of the Council: “We are not the European Union and we are not a waiting room for the European Union either. There may be states that want to join us because they now sign up to the values, and will subsequently wish to join the European Union, but we have a distinctive role.” Coincident with that, we need to sharpen our own relevance to the issues that are proper for the Council to deal with, and be ready to put more, not less, pressure on non-compliant member states to monitor what they are doing, and put some holly under them.

Neither should we forget what I might call the cultural hinterland. Defining the role of the Council as democracy, human rights and the rule of law is fine, but we also meet as Europeans, or as near Europeans, in some cases. We should be able to extend our role and, as we do with the European museum of culture, adopt slightly wider interests. However, those are not the general political concerns that are normal in exchanges between states, and which make some dealings with the European Union frankly rather
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predictable and cynical, in my experience. We do, actually, perhaps rather better than that.

I feel quite strongly that we need to bring the work of the Council of Europe here, as the hon. Gentleman has done in initiating the debate, and ensure that hon. Members are aware of relevant debates. I was very glad when my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady) came to see for himself what was happening at the Council. We should encourage our parliamentary colleagues to do that. An aspect of our position—hon. Members have been frank in the debate about the fact that we are not faultless or above scrutiny—is that we should expect more inward interest in United Kingdom activity. The Council of Europe is already examining aspects of our postal voting system. If we want someone entirely objective about the current political argument on the difficulties of the Scottish election—someone who is outside that argument—it would be an admirable possibility to invite the Council in, and say, “You look at it, and see how it went. You understand elections, so look at the difficulties and compare and contrast.”

There is, of course, a constant dialogue about pressures in the European Court of Human Rights. In my role in Public Bill Committees I enjoy teasing Ministers. If, as happened the other day, a Minister tells me that something does not come under article 3, I say, “But we may get you under article 2, if you are prepared to be that cynical.”

My next point is our non-ratification of treaties, and I am delighted that the Minister for Europe will respond to this debate because we have had a genteel correspondence about it. We all know that there are different practices and different attitudes to the importance of ratification. Some people will sign anything with the intention of doing nothing, but on the whole Britain has been more open and honest in saying that we will sign when we are ready and have looked at the difficulties, and that we will ratify when we have our dots in a row and not with our fingers crossed. That will apply, quite properly, to the convention on trafficking, and I am delighted that Her Majesty’s Government have now signed that and that we have acceded to it. We now need to move, as the Prime Minister said, to early ratification, but we cannot do that overnight.

In the course of my inquiries, I discovered that we have signed, but not ratified, more than 19 other such conventions. Some may have become inappropriate, impossible or out of date, and we should not ratify them. I have suggested to the Minister that he might like to produce an annual report, but I see his reluctance. However, I would like him to take away the need to manage the process and see if we can get our strike rate up and the number of bits of unfinished business down. That would be an important courtesy to the Council and an example to others.

I conclude simply by saying that if colleagues are ever tempted to be cynical about the Council, I would invite them to come and look at our European democratic group. On the first occasion I was there, I saw an Armenian sitting between two Turks, and I suddenly realised the significance of that. That says a great deal about the Council, its virtues and why it has a distinctive role.

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3.31 pm

Mr. Mike Hancock (Portsmouth, South) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for Manchester, Central (Tony Lloyd) on securing this debate. I want to say at the start that I agree entirely with what he said, particularly his closing comments and thanks to the staff who work for the delegation here in the House. It is an amazing tribute to their patience and forbearance that they tolerate us as they do.

I also echo the support for and good wishes to the retiring ambassador and the staff in Strasbourg, as well as previous ambassadors and, as hon. Members have rightly said, the staff of the House who do so much to facilitate the Assembly’s work. The Clerk alongside you today, Mr. Weir, is a formidable person to come across in Strasbourg when one is trying to get something past the Table Office. It is always a welcome sign to see the staff here.

The importance of this debate is to plead the case for the non-separation of the European Court of Human Rights and the Council of Europe. They are fundamentally linked, and I know from talking to colleagues from other delegations that they are under pressure to see that separation take place. Funding of the ECHR is essential. If no more cases were submitted to it, there would be a 10-year backlog, so it has a formidable task.

The role of the Council of Europe over the 50-odd years of its existence has not diminished. There are new countries and fledgling democracies that we hope to see manifest themselves as proper democracies, not simply managed democracies, but democracies that are prepared to challenge each other from within, to allow a change of Government without major disputes or conflict arising, and to deal with human rights, the rule of law, and the role of democratic processes at all levels. The Council’s task is still as relevant today as it was 50-odd years ago. It is essential that we look sympathetically, understandingly and realistically at the Council’s role.

The funding issue is a great burden, and we are lucky that our Secretary-General, Terry Davis—a former colleague—who has the unenviable task of trying to keep all the Council’s balls in the air and to keep everyone happy, has done a very good job, but he is up against the zero budgeting situation year on year. The pressure on the Assembly and the Council’s Executive to cut back, cut back and cut back is an ongoing struggle and will not serve any good purpose to anyone in Europe. We need from the Council of Ministers and the 47 states in the Council a more realistic approach to the way in which it is funded. How easy it would have been for the EU to have diverted much of the money that it put aside in creating, to all intents and purposes, a rival to the Council if it had voted those resources to supporting the ECHR more fully.

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