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12.23 p.m.

Baroness Hooper: My Lords, it is now five years since the Iron Curtain was pulled down. Many of us have looked with amazement and admiration at those countries of central and eastern Europe which have succeeded in bringing about a stable, pluralistic democracy and in transforming their economies from a centralised communist system to a decentralised, more capitalist system. However, in that consideration, there has always been a question mark over the Russian republic, in part because of its size, in part because of its significant history, particularly during the cold war period, and in part because of the underlying wealth of that country in terms of both human resources and other vital commodities. It is also because the Russian republic started its reforming process rather later than some other countries.

In that context we do well to remember the words of Bismarck much earlier this century when he said:

I therefore consider this an opportune moment for my noble friend Lord Finsberg to pose the question to the Government. Like him and the noble Lord, Lord

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Kirkhill, I should declare an interest as a member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe which will be required to vote on the matter early next year.

It is a remarkable privilege to be a member of that Parliamentary Assembly because we are able to meet and mix not only with representatives of the parliaments of those countries which are already members of the Council of Europe, but also, as my noble friend mentioned, with the parliamentary representatives of those countries which have applicant status.

In expressing my view that we would do well to make haste slowly in the case of Russia, I nevertheless recognise the importance of continuing to develop close contact both at national and international level. I recognise also the need to encourage and support both the government and the people of the Russian republic in achieving the necessary preliminary requirements for membership of the Council of Europe.

My reasons for urging caution include the difficulties so well outlined by my noble friend Lord Finsberg and the noble Lord, Lord Kirkhill. They are human rights, freedom of speech and the need for transparency in its institutions and workings. Currently, we are all only too well aware of the agitation, to put it at its mildest, which is taking place over the situation in Chechnya. We have to look closely at the action being taken there because we must ensure that the standards of admission to membership of the Council of Europe are strictly observed. There are a number of consequences of membership. There is the inevitable pressure for Russia to apply for membership of the Western European Union and all that that implies once it becomes a member of the Council of Europe. There is also the inevitable pressure for Russia to join the European Union.

We all recognise that membership of the Council of Europe is widely regarded as a stepping stone to the deeper membership of the European Union. It is on the grounds of a pluralistic democracy and a human rights situation accepted by the Council of Europe that some of the new applicant countries for membership of the European Union base their readiness. I note with interest that recently there has been a joint delegation from the Russian Duma and the federal council to meet members of the European Parliament and various commissioners in Brussels.

The other reason I emphasise caution is that whatever we do in the case of Russia must create a precedent. If we go too quickly, what then do we do about other, smaller countries which may wish to have the benefits of membership of the Council of Europe? In the waiting room are Latvia, Albania, Ukraine, Croatia, Belarus and Moldova. We are not simply talking about the Russian republic in this situation. I hope very much that my noble friend the Minister can reassure us that Her Majesty's Government will be their usual pragmatic self and will exercise a restraining influence on those who wish to go too far too fast.

12.30 p.m.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Finsberg, for providing the opportunity for this House to discuss this important

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matter. I speak from my experience since 1981 as a UK representative of local and regional authorities within the Council of Europe, on the former standing committee, and now as a member of the congress.

I speak in particular to support the noble Lord, Lord Finsberg, on the point he made about the need for resources to ensure that legislation is implemented with the maximum available support in terms of experience, knowledge and training from countries that have longer experience in dealing with legislation which meets both democratic and human rights standards within Council of Europe member states.

There is a concern that, were the programme to be extended to the Russian Federation, work that is being done in countries such as those that were referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Hooper, would be withdrawn and reduced, and it is work that is desperately needed. It is extremely important that the value that is attached to the principles that are enshrined within the Council of Europe--namely, democratic freedom and human rights--are not diluted, and that countries should not be admitted with undue haste without resources being made available to ensure that the legislation that is acceptable is being enacted in reality and is affecting the democracy and human rights of every individual citizen within those countries.

It is certainly the case--the noble Baroness, Lady Hooper, was right when she referred to the fact--that there are other countries waiting and watching. I speak from the point of view of a particularly close relationship with one of those countries, Albania, where similar legislation is being enacted but where help and assistance are still needed to be able to implement that legislation fully; where the culture and traditions are so in conflict, and the experience of those who seek to enact the legislation is so far removed from the intention of that legislation that help is needed. I seek from the noble Baroness, Lady Trumpington, an assurance that Her Majesty's Government will extend the human resources, the expertise and training facilities.

My colleagues who have spoken have visited many of these countries. They have spoken of the desperate need to provide an extension to the extremely valuable LODE programme working for local democracy and the other projects dealing with human rights. It is vitally important that we do not allow an increase in membership to dilute the principles for which the Council of Europe was formed and must continue to stand.

12.34 p.m.

Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, I believe I am right in saying that the noble Baroness who speaks for the Government and I are at something of a disadvantage in this debate since we are the only speakers who do not have a direct involvement in the work of the Council of Europe. All the other speakers are either British representatives or members of its committees.

I listened with great interest to what was said about the problem, and in particular to the remarks of my noble friend Lord Kirkhill, who speaks with the special authority of chairman of the Legal Committee in the Council of Europe.

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Clearly, there are still a number of justifiable concerns about the human rights position in the Russian Federation. We heard from the noble Lord, Lord Finsberg, and others about Russian prison conditions. Just to add another anecdote to what has already been said, I read recently stories of inmates being forced to work as long as 16 hours a day, doing work of an extremely disagreeable kind: they are forced to take a crouching position for many, many hours, and have to work with coarse thread, which leads to the deterioration of their eyesight; they have continually swollen feet and their hands are ripped up by that thread. We have also heard disturbing stories about police methods in Russia, particularly in the conduct of arrests and the obtaining of confessions. There are still restrictions on freedom of movement: for example, it is still necessary to have a permit to live in some of the great cities of Russia, including Moscow and St. Petersburg. All this and more indicate that old habits die hard.

However, while noting that nothing in the UK can be anything like as bad as prison conditions in Russia, Britain, too, still has a long way to go in terms of some of its own prison regimes. There are people who are still locked up for 23 out of 24 hours a day. Slopping out is still common in many of our gaols. Indeed, there are still things here that need doing in respect of some of the methods that are used by the police in obtaining convictions.

Moreover, there are a number of the existing members of the Council of Europe with far from perfect human rights records. I am sure that other Members of this House will agree. Turkey, of course, comes to mind.

A second, and perhaps even more important, concern was raised by my noble friend Lord Kirkhill about potential Russian membership of the Council of Europe; namely, respect for the rule of law. Concern centres on the question as to whether Russia is a state that is now properly based on the rule of law. The new constitution guarantees all kinds of rights, but it is a matter of implementation. As my noble friend asked, is the concept, for example, that the judiciary should be there to protect the individual now a reality in Russia? We have to ask questions about whether that is the case. It is apparent that the Russian Government need to take these matters very seriously and to try to speed up the implementation of reform in both these areas if they wish to gain the membership that they seek.

The noble Lord, Lord Finsberg, put the dilemma very clearly. I am indeed very grateful to him for posing this dilemma. There are very difficult political decisions involved. It would be very helpful to hear the Government's present thinking about the dilemma.

I note, however, that the new Secretary-General of the Council of Europe has indicated quite recently that he expects Russia to be admitted by next summer, and possibly as early as May. Clearly, allowing Russia to join other European democratic nations has many advantages. Again, that was clearly put by the noble Lord who introduced this debate. The more Russia and other European countries of the former Soviet Union can be drawn into the fold along with the stable Western democracies of Europe, the better. But I wonder whether

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the Minister could tell the House clearly whether the Government are now in favour of Russian membership, assuming that the Russian Government accept that progress must be made in the area of both human rights and the implementation of the rule of law. Could she also say whether the Government share the views of the Secretary-General of the Council of Europe about the timetable for Russian entry?

As the noble Baroness, Lady Hooper, mentioned, there are a number of other countries seeking membership. I have a slightly longer list even than the one which she gave. Could the Minister also give some indication of the Government's views about the impact of Russian admission to the Council of Europe on those other countries and on their applications for membership, particularly those countries which were formerly part of the Soviet Union--Belarus, Moldova and Ukraine--all of which wish to join the Council of Europe?

My noble friend Lady Farrington mentioned the wish of Albania to become a member of the Council of Europe and the need for resources to help such countries move toward proper democracy--I do not just mean aspirations in a written constitution, but their implementation. I should like very much to support her argument for greater resources.

There are a range of views on Russian membership among existing member countries of the Council of Europe and their representatives at Strasbourg. Some favour early accession, some favour accession at a later date and others are opposed to accession. Presumably, the British Government are a little more pragmatic than those who oppose accession per se. I certainly think that the noble Lord, Lord Finsberg, is more open-minded and pragmatic than to take that view.

My noble friend Lord Kirkhill raised the question of the impact of Russian membership on the balance of power and influence in the Council of Europe. The Minister, speaking for the Government, may also like to comment on that. Could she also indicate whether discussions have taken place with other members of the European Union on this matter?

It is clear from the recent CSCE conference in Budapest that the Russian Government are concerned about the possible expansion of NATO eastwards to include east European countries. President Yeltsin attacked those plans as a threat to Russian security and argued that they were divisive with respect to the common objective to create greater European unity, especially between East and West. Could the Minister say whether the Government believe that Russian anxieties about being excluded from NATO should be taken into account in the decision about Russia's access to the Council of Europe? Could she perhaps say whether the Government believe that Russia's admission to membership of the Council of Europe will help allay any of the suspicions that Russia might have about being excluded from a more integrated Europe, particularly with regard to security arrangements? The noble Baroness, Lady Hooper, raised similar questions about whether membership of the Council of Europe would lead to greater pressure from Russia for membership of other western European bodies.

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We must all hope that the huge steps that Russia has taken since 1989 towards democracy and becoming a successful democracy, where individual freedoms are both protected and respected, will continue. I myself visited Russia earlier this year and was impressed by the many changes that have taken place since I was last there, ranging from freedom of expression and independent newspapers to freedom of worship. But there are still worrying signs of the old authoritarianism, which is a matter for concern.

However, from this side of the House I hope that the setback to Russian accession to the Council of Europe, which was received when the eminent jurists and human rights experts published their report a few months ago, will be a temporary one. I also hope that with further progress in the next months--of course with proper monitoring both before and after membership--the Council of Europe Assembly and the Committee of Ministers will be able, in the not too distant future, to agree to Russia's accession and that Russia will play a full and positive role in the work of the Council of Europe.

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