Council of Europe — Question
3:06 pm

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The Earl of Dundee (Conservative)

To ask Her Majesty's Government what plans they have to promote active citizenship in Europe during their current chairmanship of the Council of Europe.

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Lord Howell of Guildford (Conservative)

My Lords, our chairmanship priorities were outlined in my Written Statement of 26 October 2011. They include, among other things, reform of the council's work on local and regional democracy, which should assist in strengthening the citizenship role in member states.

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The Earl of Dundee (Conservative)

I thank my noble friend for that reply. Can he affirm that our chairmanship will seek measures to improve the co-ordination of local democracy, including among the Council of Europe's separate branches for local government, non-government organisations and the Parliamentary Assembly itself? Can he also assure us that our chairmanship will recognise and encourage experience of good practice such as city diplomacy, where different cities and centres already improve their local results by working together on similar issues and problems?

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Lord Howell of Guildford (Conservative)

The answer to my noble friend is yes on both points. The Council of Europe can have a major role in facilitating exchanges of the sort he described, and one priority of our chairmanship is to streamline and make more efficient the Council of Europe's work in the field of democratic local governance. Also, there can be real gains for local communities where those responsible for local services and the governance of towns and cities can exchange good practice and share knowledge and experience with their counterparts in other states, and that, too, we intend to encourage in our chairmanship.

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Lord Anderson of Swansea (Labour)

My Lords, the European Union's Europe for Citizens programme concentrates mainly on town twinning, so we should avoid duplication in the Council of Europe, but the European Union programme also deals with communicating with citizens on the work being done by the European Union. Is not there a case during our presidency for informing the citizens of the wider Europe of the valuable work being done in many fields by the Council of Europe?

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Lord Howell of Guildford (Conservative)

Yes, I am sure there is. The noble Lord is quite right: the Council of Europe covers about 800 million people, which is wider than the European Union. Of course there can be a constructive interchange and the work of each body can be promoted by the other to their mutual benefit.

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Lord Phillips of Sudbury (Liberal Democrat)

My Lords, does my noble friend accept that the so-called democratic deficit is developing in this country and in wider Europe, perhaps to be greatly exacerbated by the eurozone crisis? Is he aware that 2013 is to be the EU year of citizens in action? In that regard, will he assure the House that citizenship education will remain part of the core curriculum, as it has been since 2002, given that there are now questions as to whether it might be taken out of the compulsory core curriculum?

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Lord Howell of Guildford (Conservative)

I very much hope-it is a hope rather than an assurance-that all those involved in these great institutions will work in that way. This switches the commentary from the Council of Europe to the European Union, which of course is different, but we all look back to the Laeken declaration, which urged the European Union to bring itself closer to the citizenry, and the Council of Europe is of course on the same sort of track. This is an age of the empowerment of citizens and, as some people say, of empowerment of the street, sometimes with good results and sometimes with less good results. In all cases, empowerment of the citizen, responsibility of the citizen, education and bringing home the potential role of active citizenry remain absolutely vital.

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Lord Tomlinson (Labour)

Does the Minister agree that at a time when we need some good news to be given by the United Kingdom to Europe, it would be appropriate during our chairmanship to ratify the European convention on combating violence against women? I know that the consultation process finishes at the end of March, but if they really get their skates on that will be something for Dominic Grieve to announce when he comes to the Council of Europe in April.

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Lord Howell of Guildford (Conservative)

I agree that this would be a good aim. A number of areas need further consideration before a final decision can be made on whether to sign the Council of Europe convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence. As part of this further consideration, which is on very real and important issues, I am advised that the Home Office launched a consultation in December, about two months ago, on whether to create a new offence of forced marriage. The consultation period will end on 30 March and we will then be able to make a definitive decision in line with the hopes of the noble Lord.

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Lord Hamilton of Epsom (Conservative)

Following my noble friend's question about the crisis in the eurozone, what is the Government's policy towards unelected Governments of so-called experts in Greece and Italy?

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Lord Howell of Guildford (Conservative)

I think that my noble friend will be the first to recognise that we have to leave the member states of Europe, and indeed the nations and democracies of the world, to decide how best to govern themselves. From time to time they call upon experts and technocrats to make up for the deficiencies of quarrelling democrats.

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Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton (Labour)

My Lords, I declare an interest as an honorary vice-president of the Standing Conference of Local and Regional Authorities of Europe. Will the Minister please give an assurance that during their presidency our Government will do everything to ensure that citizenship education includes the rights of Roma, Gypsy and Traveller populations within the countries of Europe? There is terrible discrimination in Council of Europe countries against these groups.

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Lord Howell of Guildford (Conservative)

The noble Baroness is absolutely right that discrimination against Roma and concerns for the position of Roma are very important issues. As she knows, the secretary-general of the Council of Europe convened a high-level meeting way back in October of not last year but the year before. That was after the really chilling example of the French deportations of Roma and it produced the Strasbourg declaration on the treatment of the Roma. However, I fully agree with the noble Baroness that this issue should remain at the top of the agenda, and it is one that we should examine and promote very carefully and assiduously during our chairmanship.

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Lord Richard (Labour)

My Lords, if there really is a campaign called Citizens in Action, would the noble Lord urge whoever is responsible for it to look again at the title, which, to put it mildly, has a certain ambiguity about it?

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Lord Howell of Guildford (Conservative)

I am sure that the noble Lord, with his learning and skill, could contribute to better titles and labelling for some of these programmes.