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9 May 2007 : Column 115WH—continued

The issue of the Serbian Speaker is a concern, but if we believe in democratic processes we cannot suddenly say that we do not like the results of elections, whether inside a Parliament or outside. We can criticise it, but we cannot draw a line in the sand and say that a country can no longer attend or should not take up a post when it is their turn under the system. I am sure that many of us have serious concerns about a number of Governments that are ruling member states, but as
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democrats we must accept that the people in those states have, albeit sometimes in not-too-free elections, arrived at a decision that we do not like. If we are genuinely trying to instil democratic processes, we must work with them and not ostracise them or kick them out.

That is why I opposed the removal of our Russian colleagues when everyone was up for removing their credentials. The position of the 36 Russians who represent the Duma and the Commonwealth of Independent States in the Council of Europe would have been seriously eroded, and I doubt whether they would have attempted to come back if we had gone through with that. We have had to learn the hard way some of the lessons about building democracies, and that must continue.

We must find a way, as hon. Members have said, to bring the Council of Europe into our Parliament here. A negative issue is that, as all hon. Members who have spoken have said, so few people in the UK know what the Council does. We should be able to find a mechanism to have a regular debate in parliamentary time on the Floor of the House about the issues of the Council. Former Members of the House—John Wilkinson and David Atkinson—tried in different ways to bring debates to the House, but were not successful in bringing the whole House behind them so that there was a common purpose to ensure that we had regular debates on the institution, which so many of our colleagues in Europe treat as the biggest and most serious player, and which is changing the way they govern themselves. We should be conscious of that and make more of it.

Mr. Winnick: On the point about justifying Serbia’s involvement, would it be appropriate for someone from Mugabe’s regime to chair the appropriate human rights committee of the United Nations because it was its turn?

Mr. Hancock: We allowed the Libyans to do that. We must bear in mind the conditions of the club that people have joined. I am not trying to justify Serbia or the appointment of its Speaker, but if countries are in an organisation that allows democracy to flourish, albeit sometimes slower than we would want, we must live with that until we can influence them enough for them not to want such people.

Not so long ago, the emergence of a right-wing group in the Austrian Parliament was going to have a detrimental effect on the Council of Europe. There was great concern about whether Haider’s representative would be a serious player in the Council and a similar situation arose in Holland when the Fortuyn group took such a strong position. We were rightly concerned about it, but we did not say that it was wrong for the Dutch people to have voted in that way. They had a choice and they exercised it. We may criticise them, but we should not say that they can no longer come. We must be realistic about what we are trying to achieve as an organisation.

I remind hon. Members that recent debates have been on issues as far ranging as the trafficking of children and the rising scourge of counterfeit narcotics and drugs being sold throughout Europe on the internet. The ongoing problems of the health of
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Europe are addressed regularly in committees, and many of us who serve on them have joined in the debate, as the hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) said, learning and sharing experiences.

It is important that such issues are raised and aired in Strasbourg, or wherever the committee meets, and delegations’ home Parliaments. Too often, the issues are issues for Strasbourg but no further. I want us to bring back issues regularly to Parliament, engage in them here and involve more of our colleagues in them. Some of our debates have been about key issues of concern to every family. People’s preparedness to end their own lives is an issue that we have avoided in Parliament.

Mr. Boswell: Does the hon. Gentleman not agree that some thought could be given to a short report to parliamentarians? It could be published with the Official Report or e-mailed to people, so that if they have no prior knowledge, they would receive a briefing about what we were up to.

Mr. Hancock: That is an excellent point, and perhaps we in the delegation could decide how we dealt with the idea. It would be worthwhile. I am conscious of the time, and all Members are dying to hear what the Minister has to say about the budget.

The Council of Europe is alive and well, contrary to what people say, and it is as effective and much needed today as it was 55 years ago. I am delighted both that Parliament is so consistent in ensuring that UK delegations to the Council are made up to the correct number, and that so many delegations are determined to make the Council work and to make worthwhile contributions. The Council would be the first to admit that over the past 20 or 30 years, if not over its lifetime, the UK delegation has played a significant role in determining the future of the Council, manifestly to the benefit of the people of Europe.

3.42 pm

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West) (Con): However much Members are dying to hear the Minister, they will have to wait a few minutes longer.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Manchester, Central (Tony Lloyd) on securing the debate. It goes some small way to fulfil the call that several Members have made to provide more information and make more reports to Parliament about the excellent work that goes on in the Council of Europe, particularly in the Assembly on which colleagues sit.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the present Minister as being Council of Europe-friendly. Unfortunately, I fear that we may lose him before too long, which he may regard as justice denied or at least justice delayed. I can reassure the hon. Member for Manchester, Central that the Opposition and I are also Council of Europe-friendly, and I am very pleased to pay tribute to the organisation and its excellent work.

The hon. Gentleman spoke about the Council’s relatively low profile in the United Kingdom, which is regrettable but interesting when contrasted with the way in which the Council is perceived in other member states. On my recent visit, I was struck by how very seriously the Russian representatives took the Council.
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That is an important situation, and we ought to work with it and take full advantage of it.

The hon. Gentleman spoke about the Council’s role in promoting human rights, justice and democracy, and he welcomed the fact that those standards are applied throughout all 47 member states. We, too, should welcome that fact, even when it is slightly embarrassing for ourselves, given the current investigation into postal voting. It is a timely reminder that we are not in a position always to lecture others, and that we must pay heed to maintaining high standards in our own democracy and in our own observation of the rule of law.

I mentioned earlier the role of the European Court of Human Rights, which is one of the most important parts of the Council, and the courage that a number of justices show, sometimes in the face of pressure, when dealing with cases that are highly controversial in their own countries. If people knew more about such work, they would regard it highly and they would be keen to know that it is being maintained and carried forward.

I pay tribute to the British members of the Assembly of the Council of Europe. When I visited, I had many conversations with members from other countries, staff and people involved in all aspects of Council work. It was clear that the contribution, activities and the amount of work put in by United Kingdom members are very highly regarded. That point applies to all parties, and all Members should be grateful and show their appreciation to those colleagues who serve with such distinction. They are a credit to our country and the House.

We have heard from a number of colleagues who sit on the Assembly. Some cannot be present: my hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) wished to be present, but he is elsewhere in the House attending to parliamentary business with a strong constituency focus on airports; and my hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) travelled to Athens this morning where he is chairing a meeting on migration.

However, we have had excellent contributions from my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans), who nodded as I said “excellent contributions” and modestly stopped when I referred to him. He noted the importance of the work on migration and he described the way in which the Council works so effectively without the political integration that in some ways intrudes on the operation of the European Union.

My hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) spoke about the strong commitment to free and fair elections, the Council’s election monitoring work and the importance of its equal opportunities work. The hon. Member for Manchester, Central will agree that equal opportunities is not a matter of political correctness. Representing Manchester constituencies, we know about the Pankhursts’ excellent record in the city, that one of them stood as a Conservative candidate there, and that equal opportunities has always been important to all parts of the House.

I do not want to keep the Minister from colleagues for very much longer, but I reiterate the call that my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry made for more
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information, and for an update from the Minister on when the Government anticipate ratifying the convention against trafficking in human beings. The Government’s signing of the convention was welcome, but we would like them to ratify it in the near future. I hope that the Minister will enlighten us—perhaps while he is still in his current position.

The hon. Member for Manchester, Central also drew attention to the role of British parliamentarians from both Houses and all parties, and their important role in Azerbaijan, Chechnya and elsewhere in the past. Several colleagues referred to concerns that arise from time to time about the future role of the Council of Europe, and in particular the potential conflict with the role of the European Union. It has become a problem recently because of the development of the fundamental rights agency, the danger of duplication of effort, and indeed, the diversion of resources, which could be better spent on the Council of Europe.

The Council’s great strength is its extra geographical spread over countries such as Russia, which does not wish to be a part of the European Union, and Turkey, Ukraine and the Balkans, which do. That spread is of enormous importance to the United Kingdom and all our European colleagues. It provides us with extra reach and with further persuasive abilities to try to achieve improvements throughout the continent and throughout the Council’s 47 member states.

In conclusion, this debate has given us all an opportunity to focus a little more on the important work of the Council of Europe and the European Court of Human Rights. We must also recognise the difference between the Council of Europe and the European Union, and the Council’s vital ongoing role in spreading democracy, the rule of law and human rights.

3.50 pm

The Minister for Europe (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): I welcome this opportunity to discuss the work of the Council of Europe and the important part played by the Parliamentary Assembly. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Central (Tony Lloyd) on securing what has been a good debate, as well as all hon. Members who have contributed to it.

I was particularly pleased to hear Conservative Members of Parliament congratulating a European institution on its contribution to multilateral co-operation. It just shows what happens when they get out more, meet people from other countries and see the benefits of international multilateral co-operation. The only thing that I would warn Conservative Members about is the damage to their political careers that that is likely to cause under the current Conservative leadership. Nevertheless, I look forward to their extolling the benefits of co-operating in other European institutions. After all, the slippery slope that they are on might lead them to see the benefits of European co-operation in general, rather than just in the particularly important context of the Council of Europe.

The Assembly of the Council of Europe can be proud of its history. It was the first such European
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assembly and has played a unique role in shaping the modern continent of Europe, embracing and assisting the new democracies of central and eastern Europe. Today, the Council’s 315 delegates represent 46 member states, covering 800 million European citizens. As has been observed, that will increase further with the accession of the Republic of Montenegro to the Council of Europe on 11 May.

As one of the Council of Europe’s two statutory bodies, the Parliamentary Assembly is a crucial watchdog for the fundamental rights, freedoms and values of such a vast constituency, providing scrutiny, advice and guidance to the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers and its member states. The Parliamentary Assembly has many notable achievements, not least its contribution to the European convention on human rights and securing the abolition of the death penalty. I commend the work of my hon. Friend and all members of the UK delegation. I congratulate them on the active contribution that they make to the debates and the work of the Council of Europe, particularly in its committees, including my hon. Friend’s role as co-rapporteur on Azerbaijan.

However, the Parliamentary Assembly does not act alone. It is integral to the wider framework of the Council of Europe, an organisation to which the Government are as firmly committed now as when Britain helped found the Council in 1949. For us, the Council represents a key multilateral forum for promoting and protecting democracy, human rights and the rule of law, where we can raise concerns and encourage action. Furthermore, the Council is a practical forum, which backs up discussions with advice and expertise, particularly to central and eastern Europe, in carrying out and consolidating political, legislative and constitutional reform.

The Council is a forum based on a framework of pan-European agreements and standards on issues as diverse as minority rights, local democracy, education, sustainable development and health, all of which contribute to the improvement of member states’ legal and social practices and the development of common values. The European Court of Human Rights is the cornerstone of human rights protection within Europe. The Court guarantees the fundamental rights and freedoms of both states and peoples, and as such is a key legal instrument in promoting and enforcing an effective international system.

All those strengths make the Council of Europe central to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s work on European security. Nevertheless, we cannot afford to be complacent. Europeans need an efficient and modern Council of Europe that can deliver its core mission in the long term. We need to see greater prioritisation and reform, and closer co-operation with other multilateral institutions. Under the leadership of Terry Davis, the British secretary-general of the Council of Europe, the 2005 Warsaw summit set us on the right path. The summit firmly placed human rights, democracy and the rule of law as the fulcrum of the Council of Europe’s work. The Council’s core mission must, in turn, determine the programme of work. We must all concentrate our efforts to prioritise the strengths of the Council of Europe, rather than dilute its efforts.

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Moreover, it is imperative that the Council of Europe should provide value for money. The working methods and financial planning of the Council need to be modernised, to ensure rigour in prioritisation and performance. The secretary-general has made an excellent start, outlining plans to restructure the secretariat and revealing his proposals for zero real growth in the 2008 budget.

Mr. Winnick: Before my right hon. Friend the Minister touched on finance, he spoke about the important subjects of democracy, the rule of law, and the rest of it. Are the Government going to make any comment at all about what has happened with the presidency going to a Serbian—and moreover, one associated with a party of the extreme right in that country—or about the refusal of Serbia as a whole to take the necessary steps to bring to justice two major war criminals who are undoubtedly responsible for terrible atrocities?

Mr. Hoon: The EU presidency has today issued a statement, which I support, about the election of Mr. Nikolic, acting leader of the ultranationalist Serb Radical party as Speaker of the Serbian Parliament. The statement notes the appointment with concern and calls on all reform-oriented parties in Belgrade to form a democratic majority-based Government who reaffirm the pro-European orientation of Serbian policy. It is important that we encourage the democratic parties in Serbia to form a Government and take the opportunity to lead their country in a European direction.

Tony Lloyd: On that theme, does my right hon. Friend the Minister agree that the value of the Parliamentary Assembly is that when the Serbian Foreign Minister appears in office before the Assembly, it will be possible for democratically elected politicians from Britain, France or wherever else to ask that Foreign Minister when Serbia intends to deliver Mr. Mladic and Mr. Karadzic to the tribunal in the Hague? That is the importance of the institution.

Mr. Hoon: In my experience, one of the great values of the Council of Europe and the Parliamentary Assembly is that it is possible to have those kinds of conversations. With regard to what is happening in Serbia, I visited the country not long ago. It is vital that all democrats give support to the democratic parties in Serbia, encourage the formation of a Government and—I repeat—encourage the opportunity that the people of Serbia now have to move in a European direction. That is something that we should all be encouraging.

Mr. Winnick: My right hon. Friend the Minister has spoken about the unfortunate happenings in Serbia, and I am encouraged by what my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Central just said about when the Serbian presidency of the Council of Europe comes round. However, I would hope that the Government will make it clear that they do not consider it appropriate for the presidency to go to someone who, as I have already mentioned, is associated with the Serbian right.

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