The House will know that the United Kingdom assumed the chairmanship of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe following the ministerial meeting on 5 November in Strasbourg. During the six months of our chairmanship, we intend to give priority to the programmes for assistance to the new democracies of eastern Europe, and to the reform of the human rights machinery. We shall also encourage an objective look at the operation of the Council, in terms of its internal structures, its relationships with other organisations and its management procedures.
I hope that my right hon. Friend and his colleagues will find that new role less onerous than the presidency of the European Community has proved to be. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is nonsense to establish a new pan-European institution with a parliamentary assembly as part of the process of the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe, when the Council of Europe already has proven experience and is an almost identical body? Will he use his period as chairman in office to seek to convince his non-European counterparts the United States and Canada—of the common sense of the Council of Europe being the parliamentary assembly of the CSCE?
I appreciate the point that my hon. Friend has made. It certainly is the case that the Council of Europe is already helping the CSCE on the human dimension and with its own technical expertise. However, the remit of the Council of Europe goes much wider than that of the CSCE and my hon. Friend will be aware that the memberships of the two are not wholly compatible. Although I have great sympathy with my hon. Friend's point about the proliferation of international organisations, I am not sure that his suggestion is ripe for taking forward at this stage.
Will the Minister give particular encouragement and assistance to the new member states and guest member states during the next six months to see whether we can secure implementation of some of the more important Council of Europe conventions? During that time will he also seek to ensure that those states give proper respect and support to the Vance-Owen initiatives, including those member states through which arms are still flowing today?
My right hon. Friend referred to the problems faced by the countries of eastern Europe. Does he agree that unless we indulge in much more liberal trading practices with the former dictatorships of eastern Europe, then, following the elections in Lithuania and Romania, there is a real risk that they will return to communism?
I agree with my hon. Friend, but he will be aware that we deal with that matter through the association agreements of the European Community. In a sense those agreements were invented by Britain, and through those agreements we press strongly for the most liberal treatment possible in trade with the new eastern European democracies.
Given the importance that the Minister rightly attributes to the Council of Europe and the fact that its plenary sessions are known one year in advance—as indeed are those of the Western European Union assembly—does he agree that it is insulting to our partners and inconvenient for hon. Members to arrange European debates in the House during those plenary sessions?