I beg to move,
That this House
has considered the matter of the UK’s Chairmanship of the Council of Europe.
Mr Speaker, you will already have seen that debates on European matters are a bit like buses: you wait for ages and then two of these delightful treats come along in the same week. I am particularly grateful for the fortunate coincidence of timing that this debate on the Council of Europe arrives the week after the final collapse of the Gaddafi regime in Libya, because that provides a point of reflection and of comparison between what happens in so much of the world and what has happened in our own continent. The long rule by Gaddafi based on state-sponsored violence and terror throws into sharp relief, in particular, those liberties on which the British people have relied for centuries.
Whatever view Members in any part of the House take on particular laws or on how human rights should be given effect here, I think we would all stand united on the continuing need for and relevance of fundamental human rights such as protection from torture, and the right to free speech, assembly and worship. That tradition in this country of respect for human rights is one reason why we are very proud to be taking on the chairmanship of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe.
I acknowledge that there are in the House today members of the United Kingdom’s delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, from the Conservative, Liberal Democrat and Labour parties, and I pay tribute to the work that they do on behalf of the House and the country, and welcome the fact that they will be able to contribute the fruits of their experience during this afternoon’s proceedings.
As I hope Members will recall, the Council is the international organisation that helps promote human rights, democracy and the rule of law across the European continent. The United Kingdom was one of the founders of the organisation. Since its founding treaty was signed in this building in London in 1949, its membership has grown from 10 countries to 47, encompassing virtually the entire European continent. I think we in the United Kingdom can take pride in the fact that so many other European countries profess a belief in the importance of these fundamental principles, and also recognise the fact that membership of the Council of Europe and subscription to the European convention on human rights have proved a valuable framework within which the emerging democracies of central and eastern Europe have been able to measure their own political development over the past 20 years.
I want this afternoon to advance the case for the central priority of the United Kingdom’s chairmanship: reform of the European Court of Human Rights. I want to say straight away that we have had, and I am sure will have, lively domestic discussions on human rights, and Members will not always agree, but we share the historic respect for the achievement of the convention. The Government’s priority is to ensure that the European Court of Human Rights works more effectively and focuses on cases that actually need to be dealt with at the European level. That needs to happen not to weaken rights, but to strengthen them, and by so doing, to advance the rule of law, democracy and freedom.
The United Kingdom was one of the principal architects of the European convention on human rights, which is the Council of Europe’s best known instrument. The convention embodies many of the basic rights and freedoms that have been fundamental to English, and then British, law for centuries: fair trial, freedom from torture and freedom of speech. Those are rights that we have enjoyed for hundreds of years.
While my right hon. Friend is talking about the European Court of Human Rights, will he acknowledge that the Court currently has a backlog of approximately 166,000 cases? Is it not high time the Court underwent a thorough review of its working practices and competencies, and is not our chairmanship of the Council a good time to do that?
I completely agree with my hon. Friend. If the Court is to continue to be treated with respect, it is important for it to find a way of getting on top of that grotesque backlog of cases, which is in nobody’s interests. I will say more about that later.
There have obviously been concerns about some of the ways in which the convention’s basic rights have been interpreted by the European Court of Human Rights. Will the Government consider during their chairmanship proposing that certain resolutions of the Parliamentary Assembly should assist the Court in interpreting the basic texts?
I am sure that my hon. Friend’s suggestions, and indeed proposals from the Parliamentary Assembly as a body, will be considered seriously in the course of the debates and conversations that we will have during the six months of our chairmanship and beyond.
Has not the whole process become ludicrously abused? Has my right hon. Friend had a chance to read the diaries of Phil Woolas, the former Immigration Minister, which reveal that his job was made absolutely impossible. For instance, he had to release to Osama bin Laden’s son the file on him, even though he was not living here. The whole process has become abused. What plans has my right hon. Friend to repatriate powers on human rights to this country so that we can have a proper and sound immigration policy?
I have to tell my hon. Friend, who is a distinguished member of the United Kingdom delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly and plays an active part in its proceedings, that reading Mr. Woolas’ diaries is a delight that is still in store for me. I fear that he is trying to tempt me on to the question of how the human rights incorporated in the convention are implemented in the United Kingdom. As the House knows, the Government have established an independent commission on human rights, chaired by Leigh Lewis, which is deliberating on these matters and considering the different ideas that have been proposed. It will report by the end of 2012.
Will the Minister confirm a bit of information? As he touched on earlier, there are about 800 million people, comprising 47 nations, in the greater European area. I hope that he will confirm for Members on both sides of the House that, on all the judgments that the Court has made so far, this country has never refused to endorse the Court’s findings.
Yes, the hon. Gentleman is right.
The convention played an important role after the second world war in re-establishing democracy and the rule of law across western Europe. It played a vital role after the cold war in leading the former states of the Soviet Union and its satellites to start adopting the principles of democratic liberalism. The convention remains crucial in tackling the murder of journalists in Russia, for example, or questions of religious freedom in Turkey. There are also telling recent examples of its relevance here at home—for example, in preventing the misuse of stop-and-search powers.
The problem is not with the fundamental principles of human rights expressed through the convention, but there are real issues that rightly cause concern in this House and more widely—issues that, as my hon. Friend Geoffrey Clifton-Brown pointed out, matter to all countries that are party to the convention and members of the Council of Europe. Those relate to the operation of the Court in Strasbourg. The United Kingdom is a strong supporter of the Court and recognises its important role, but it is not working as it should, for at least two reasons.
First, as my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds rightly said, it is struggling under a huge workload, and drowning under a backlog of more than 150,000 cases, which is growing by roughly 20,000 additional cases each year. The eightfold increase in case loads since 2001 shows that a sensible refocusing on what really matters is not a subject that can simply be deferred for another day; it is an urgent priority.
That urgency is illustrated further by the fact that more than 90% of cases before the Court, when they finally get to the top of the queue and are properly considered, or found to be inadmissible, simply do not come within the scope of the convention, or the procedural rules are found not to have been observed. For cases involving the United Kingdom that figure is higher. Roughly 97% of cases brought against the United Kingdom are found to be inadmissible—and that is before we get on to whether in the other cases—the minority—the finding is for or against the country alleged to have broken the terms of the convention. The backlog is the first reason why there is an urgent need to reform the court.
My right hon. Friend announced yesterday that the Government will host a conference at Wilton Park on the theme of the 2020 vision for the European Court of Human
Rights. Will he confirm that members of the UK delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly will be invited to participate in the conference?
I have taken careful note of my hon. Friend’s interest in participating and will ensure that the participation of members of the UK delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly is properly considered. I will make sure that I consider it myself.
The real problem with the backlog is that reforms to the Court cannot restructure the backlog or effectively fillet out any of the cases that might prove to be inadmissible. One of the prime objectives of our chairmanship must be to find a unified view that would facilitate that filleting process, and thus allow the backlog to be handled properly.
I do not disagree with my hon. Friend.
The second reason also explains why the backlog has been allowed to develop. The Court has at times been too ready to substitute its own judgment for that of national courts and Parliaments. The European Court of Human Rights was never intended by its founders to be an additional tier of appeal for routine domestic judgments. No court could ever hope to offer redress on all matters to 800 million people. National courts are best placed to understand national problems and traditions of human rights. Enforcing rights in situations where the drafters of the convention never intended them to be is the wrong direction of travel for the Court, and that situation is getting worse and is undermining the Court’s authority and efficiency.
I ask the hon. Lady simply to look at the sheer volume of cases before the Court. We argue that there needs to be a system under which the principle of subsidiarity, which the Court is already supposed to observe, is given greater weight. That will require not just a United Kingdom view from the chair, but consensus among member states. We are talking to colleagues throughout the Council of Europe about the right way forward, because what we are seeking to do certainly does not come from any hostility to the Court as an institution. In fact, concerns about the backlog, the case load and the damage being done to its reputation are widely shared not only among state parties, but by the secretary-general and the authorities in the Council itself.
I thank the Minister. I am trying to be helpful, because I totally agree with and follow his logic on the backlog, but when he states that the Court was never meant to be a court of appeal against a national court’s ruling, surely that logic is wrong, because there cannot be an allowance, for example, for the Ukrainian court that put the country’s former President in jail for carrying out policies that its Parliament had decided. There must be somewhere for people to appeal on human rights grounds, and that is the Court. I presume the Minister meant that the Court could not provide redress in all cases—but in specific cases of such high contestability there must be a court that is above national, political courts.
I do not differ from the hon. Gentleman in principle, but we need effective criteria that everyone—from the judges of the Court to the states parties—will accept as enabling the Court to differentiate properly between cases that should be considered at that European level and those that ought to have been dealt with according to the legal systems of states parties that have demonstrated good traditions of respecting human rights.
All this means that there is a clear and pressing case for reform, and all 47 members of the Council of Europe have already signed up to a reform process. The goal of our chairmanship is to drive forward the changes that began in Council meetings at Interlaken and Izmir, and to agree a final package that makes a real impact on the operation of the Court.
I announced, in a written statement to Parliament yesterday, our full set of chairmanship priorities, following my discussion on Tuesday with our friend and ally the Council of Europe secretary-general Thorbjørn Jagland. My statement set out more detail on the reform for which we are pressing. It included proposals that would make the Court more efficient to enable it to deal with its backlog of applications, would reinforce the idea that the Court’s role was a subsidiary one, with states having the primary responsibility to protect convention rights, and would ensure that the best possible processes were in place for nominating judges to the Court, and that the Court’s case law was clear and consistent.
How we will do that? Reform requires the agreement of all 47 member states, and there is no getting round that fact, so we will accord the highest political priority to securing consensus on the necessary reforms by means of a political declaration at the end of our chairmanship. That declaration would record political agreement to a package of reforms and set the scene for later implementation under subsequent chairmanships. The declaration, we hope, will include, where necessary, amendments to the procedural sections of the convention, and provide the basis for a decision of the Committee of Ministers, to be adopted at its annual meeting on
No one should be in any doubt that delivering those goals will take time and a lot of intensive and complicated negotiations, but I do believe that the winds of change are in our favour, and if we achieve the reform that we seek, we stand to gain a stronger Council of Europe and a more effective Court, focused better on real substantive breaches of human rights.
On declarations, there is no more fundamental right than that of a person to live freely and independently in their own country without fear of intimidation. The Minister will be aware that Cyprus follows the UK as chair of the Council, so will he assure Cypriots listening to this debate that we will do all we can and work tirelessly to ensure that the Cyprus problem, as it is now called, is satisfactorily concluded?
With respect, I may correct the hon. Gentleman, because the chairmanship proceeds in alphabetical sequence, so the Albanians will take over from us. I can certainly assure him, however, that the Foreign Secretary and I remain completely committed to doing all that lies within our power to work for an outcome in Cyprus that brings about the creation of a bi-zonal and bi-communal federation, with equal rights for all communities, and in compliance with the relevant United Nations Security Council resolutions. It is not for the United Kingdom to determine what happens in Cyprus, because the process has to be Cypriot led if it is to work and if there is to be an enduring accord, but we give what support we can to the communities in Cyprus and to the work of the UN Secretary-General and his special envoy, Alexander Downer.
If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I will not give way, because he has had one bite of the cherry and I want to make progress. I do not want to be sidetracked into a further debate about Cyprus, which I am sure the House will have an opportunity to discuss in the future.
We have a unique opportunity to secure improvements to the Court, to enhance its credibility, the rule of law and the protection of human rights and to ensure that the legitimate decisions and traditions of national courts and legal systems are properly respected.
Hon. Members will be only too aware of the domestic backdrop to the programme, about which there is great interest abroad. The House will know, too, that the Government have established an independent commission with a remit to investigate the creation of a UK Bill of Rights, which would incorporate and build on all our obligations under the convention. I hope that the commission’s work will assist in bringing clarity to an area of contentious debate, and indeed it has already advised the Government very usefully on Court reform, but to avoid any doubt let me reaffirm that in the Government’s mind there is no question of the UK leaving the European convention on human rights. The coalition’s programme for government makes very clear our commitment to the convention and to the values it embodies.
“The United Kingdom signed the Convention on the first day it was open for signature...The United Kingdom was the first country to ratify the Convention the following year. The United Kingdom will not be the first country to leave the Convention.”
I have spoken at length about Court reform, but our goals for our chairmanship touch on other significant matters, and I would like to close by turning briefly to them.
I thank the Minister for setting out the policy so clearly, and I have had an opportunity to look at the priorities and objectives of the chairmanship. He mentions the Bill of Rights commission’s interim advice, and it contains some good recommendations on Court reform, particularly those based on the model of the International Criminal Court, whereby Strasbourg ought to look at only the most serious violations or fundamental freedoms. Is that the mandate which the Government will look to achieve with their European partners?
We take all the independent commission’s advice very seriously, and we look forward to the fruits of its later discussions, but, certainly, strengthening the principle of subsidiarity in the Court’s work is central to the programme of action that we envisage during our chairmanship.
In addition to the issues that I have already covered, we will continue actively to support Secretary-General Jagland’s programme of reform of the Council of Europe as an organisation. He has made good progress, including a reduced and more focused set of programmes, and I spoke to him this week about priorities for the final stages of the reform programme.
In particular, I am pleased to say that the UK has succeeded in persuading the 46 other member states to keep the Council of Europe budget under strict control, with zero real growth for the next two years, subject to strict conditions on wider efficiency reforms and any inflation increase remaining below 2%. We will work with our partners in the Council of Europe to promote an open internet, not only on access and content, but on freedom of expression. That is also a key policy priority, and one of the issues to be addressed at the London conference on cyber-space, which my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary will host on
If I am fortunate enough to catch your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker, I will return to the internet problem later, because it is serious.
I referred to the Council of Europe’s budget in the Hemicycle, and suggested that it might be cut, but that word is not in the lexicon. Europe does not understand the possibility of cutting a budget. It only ever talks about an increase. Why are we considering an increase?
Ambitions must sometimes be tempered by the need to obtain the necessary consensus. In the context of getting 46 other countries to agree, the freeze that I talked about is a pretty good outcome. Further encouragement is that the combination of the freeze in the Council of Europe’s budget and the recalculation of the relative contributions of member states to that budget means that the United Kingdom will pay a smaller proportion in 2012 than we did in 2011. That is a good outcome of our negotiations.
Discussions on the budget take place in Strasbourg, and 27 of the 47 member states are members of the European Union. Those 27 member states are sitting idly by while the Fundamental Rights Agency, which was established in
Vienna and has some spurious objectives, increases its budget for allegedly doing a human rights job on behalf of the 27 states.
My hon. Friend, who is the leader of the United Kingdom delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, makes his point cogently. He tempts me on to a much bigger debate about European Union expenditure, but I will confine myself to the matter before us.
The Government take the need for budgetary control over European Union agencies very seriously indeed. The growth of such expenditure and the proliferation of agencies within the European Union have been overlooked for too long. We have been making strong representations to the Commission about that, and have sought to build alliances with other EU member states to secure the sort of reform and budgetary discipline that my hon. Friend rightly wants.
I must make some progress, because other hon. Members want to contribute to the debate.
During our chairmanship, we will work to combat discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity across Europe. The Government are committed to using their relationship with other countries to advocate strongly for changes to discriminatory practices and laws that criminalise homosexuality in other countries.
We will work towards a more effective and efficient role for the Council of Europe in supporting local and regional democracy. The Council has a significant programme of activities in this area, including monitoring and sharing expertise. The UK supports that, but wants it to be streamlined and more carefully targeted.
Finally, we will support strengthening the rule of law in member states. We will work towards practical recommendations in this area, in co-operation with our partners in the Committee of Ministers, the secretariat and the Council of Europe’s advisory body on constitutional matters, the European Commission for Democracy through Law, which is usually referred to as the Venice Commission.
The Council of Europe is an important institution, whose values we share, and in whose proud record of achievement there is much to applaud. I hope that all hon. Members will support the UK’s efforts during our chairmanship to deliver improvements in the areas I have set out. Efforts to spread democracy, human rights and the rule of law are profoundly in our national interest and that of nations throughout Europe. If achieved, our objectives will not only benefit our citizens, but will have the potential to make a real difference for the good in the lives of people across our continent and beyond.
This is an important and timely debate, and it is absolutely right that we have an opportunity to discuss in the House the UK’s forthcoming chairmanship of the Council of Europe. However, it is a shame that the most pro-European member of the Cabinet is not here to open the debate as was planned until late this morning.
There are now 47 members of the Council, and the period of chairmanship is six months, so this opportunity does not come around often. According to my rudimentary mathematics, the next time the UK will be in the chair will around 2035. The last time the UK was in the chair was in the early 1990s when the Conservative party was falling out about another European institution—the European Union. I sense a bit of déjà vu, and I trust that this afternoon’s debate will be less heated and divided than the debate earlier this week.
Our membership of the Council of Europe has been supported by successive Governments of different political colours and persuasions for the last six decades. It is worth reflecting on the history of the institution, which was shaped by the aftermath of the second world war and the defeat of fascism, and later by the collapse of communism. When Winston Churchill made his speech at the 1949 gathering in Strasbourg, he talked of an
“ancient city still scarred by the wounds of war”.
The horror of that global conflict, and the destruction and loss of life throughout Europe, led to the growing realisation that avoiding future wars had to be a priority.
That realisation brought together some of the leading statesmen of post-war Europe, with much of the earliest thinking coming from Winston Churchill. Other Conservative politicians played a role, particularly former Home Secretary David Maxwell Fyfe, who was instrumental in drawing up the European convention on human rights, which Clement Attlee’s Labour Government ratified in 1950. A cross-party consensus held then and over the following decades, and I hope that it will do so today.
We all accept that, but the fact is that the process has gone way beyond what was envisaged by people such as Winston Churchill.
The hon. Lady presumably wants to protect vulnerable women. Going back again to the diaries of former immigration Minister, he wrote that his proposal to increase the marriage age from 18 to 21 for a family visa would be overturned by judicial review because of the judges constantly referring to the convention on human rights. It is anti-human rights now, and we must reform it fundamentally.
I agree that the court needs to be reformed, and I will come to that, but I do not agree with everything that the hon. Gentleman said. Like the Minister for Europe, I have not had a chance to read my former colleague’s memoirs.
The Council today is very different from when it was first established, and Europe has changed beyond recognition. The rush of countries to join the Council of Europe in the years following the fall of communism extended its membership and reach significantly. Today, the Council of Europe has 47 member countries, covering 800 million people, and a vast land mass stretching from Reykjavik to Vladivostok—that is a tongue twister. It has led the way in protecting and promoting the rule of law, human rights and democracy in Europe. Many hon. Members, past and present, have taken part in the Council of Europe’s election monitoring to ensure that democracy is upheld in every member state, and I commend them for that. I want to join the Europe Minister in commending the work of the UK delegation to the Council of Europe.
The hon. Lady mentioned some distinguished contributions to the Council of Europe by Conservatives in past years. Does she agree that the leader of our delegation, my hon. Friend Mr Walter, has played a very distinguished part in the current process to change the rules of the Parliamentary Assembly to make the way in which it operates more streamlined and effective?
I join the hon. Gentleman in that view. I recognise that Members across this House have played very important roles in the Council of Europe at different times.
Despite the fact that a Conservative Government were the driving force behind the European convention on human rights, a Labour Government put those rights into UK law in 1999, and we are proud of that. The Human Rights Act 1998 gives British citizens the right to bring cases before British courts rather than having to petition European judges directly. Although we remain committed to the European convention and the European Court, we also recognise that the Court needs reform. The Government have said today that its reform should be a priority for our forthcoming chairmanship, and I support that.
As has been mentioned, the Government set up an independent commission that has presented interim recommendations concerning that reform. The commission highlighted three areas that need to be addressed: the need substantially to reduce the number of cases brought before the Court; the need to consider the remedies that the Court may grant; and the need to improve the process of selecting high-quality judges.
At the moment, the judges are elected in the Assembly by all Members of the Assembly, but the Interlaken process proposes to diminish that democratic selection mechanism. The current process involves not just the election of the judges but the interviewing of the candidates, in which two criteria must be fulfilled: first, they have to be fully qualified to stand for election; and secondly, there must be at least one woman among the three candidates. I hope that my hon. Friend is not suggesting that we should move away from those principles.
For those of us who have had the privilege of being in the Council of Europe for any length of time, it is clear that it is not the process of selection by the Council of Europe that affects the calibre of judges but the pathetic selection process that goes on in member states after people have put their names forward. On most occasions, that leaves the Council of Europe having to pick the least worst of a bad bunch.
I am sure that the Europe Minister has noted the hon. Gentleman’s concerns.
Any reform of the Court must begin by addressing the crippling backlog of cases before it; I understand that there are 150,000 cases and that number is increasing at a rate of 20,000 a year. I hope that at the end of the six months in which our Government have the chairmanship, the Opposition will be in a position to give them credit for pushing forward with these reforms. Indeed, the test of success for the Government is not only what they do in the six months when they are in charge, but whether they are able to inspire successive chairmanships of the Court and the Council to take on and continue their reforms.
Until now, I have been fairly consensual, but I am about to embark on a section of my speech that is perhaps not so consensual.
I wrote it, thank you very much. That is very patronising of the hon. Gentleman. I might be a young blonde woman, but I am able to write my own speeches.
There is another area where the Government need to take action. It is incumbent on this Government to tackle the misconceptions about the European convention on human rights. I am sure that the Minister is only too aware of how some members of his own Government have peddled myths about human rights legislation to further certain political arguments, and of how there is a confusion—sometimes, it seems, a conflation—of the rulings and activities of the European Court of Human Rights, the Council of Europe, the European Union and the European Court of Justice. In some cases, there seems to be a deliberate lumping together of any institution with the word “Europe” in its title, with the assumption that Europe has a malign influence on this country.
Will the Minister reassure us that the Government will take a lead on challenging such misconceptions, not only in his party but in the country, and champion the positive role that our membership of the Council of Europe has played in furthering human rights and democracy in the UK and in other countries across the continent? After all, taking on the mantle of chairmanship brings with it certain responsibilities, one of which, surely, is demonstrating accuracy in debates on human rights. Let us hope to hear no more misleading myths about cats or other bogus stories.
Labour Members remain firmly committed to the Council of Europe and the European convention on human rights, but we recognise that this does not necessarily mean sticking to the status quo, but reforming the Court. We want the Government to use their six-month chairmanship to push forward with reforms to ensure that the Council continues to meet the aims and objectives in a way that is beneficial for all member countries, including the UK. Upholding a universal notion of human rights is a sign of a civilised nation and something that we should be proud of, not something that should be rubbished, heckled or blamed at every opportunity.
As I underlined in my introduction, successive Governments of different political persuasions have supported our membership of the Council of Europe and obligations that come with it. There is a long history and tradition in our country of which we should be proud.
I agree that we should not automatically, in a knee-jerk way, blame Strasbourg for everything. However, has the hon. Lady seen the comments by the Lord Chief Justice, which read:
“I would like to say that maybe Strasbourg shouldn’t win and doesn’t need to win”?
Does she accept, as the Lord Chief Justice does, that there is a legitimate debate about the expansion of human rights through judicial legislation?
I do accept that, and I think it is a debate that we will have today.
Although modernisation and reform of the Council of Europe are needed, the values that underpinned its formation and membership are just as valid today as they were in 1950, and we should all be proud of those values.
As the Minister for Europe said in his opening remarks, this is an interesting week in the House of Commons when we have two debates on Europe. If I may say so, it is good that we are debating Europe, and not necessarily the European Union, today, although I will touch on the relationship between the Council of Europe and the European Union.
As we have already heard, the Council of Europe dates back to 1949 and is very much dedicated to democracy, human rights and the rule of law. We can be proud to have been one of its founding fathers. It now runs to 47 member states across the continent of Europe. The only states that are not members are Belarus, Kosovo and Vatican City—which I understand is not yet a democracy.
As Emma Reynolds pointed out, the fact that there are 47 member states means that it will be 23 years before we get the chairmanship of the Committee of Ministers again. It is therefore very important that we make good use of our six months in the chairmanship that starts in a week or so.
This House, as has been pointed out, is represented in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. Eighteen Members from both Houses of Parliament serve as full members of the Parliamentary Assembly and a further 18 stand ready as substitutes.
Notwithstanding the hon. Gentleman’s enthusiasm for Europe, does he accept that his party’s delegation is not made up of the most enthusiastic people on European matters? Hopefully, after the British chairmanship, we will have a more enlightened delegation of Government Members to the Council of Europe.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, but I think he will find that more members of the delegation are present on my side of the House than on his, where there are only four. The delegates from my party play an active role in the proceedings of the Parliamentary Assembly, not least my hon. Friend Mr Chope, who chairs the committee on migration, refugees and population.
One of the powers of the Parliamentary Assembly is to elect judges to the European Court of Human Rights. I have often heard statements in the British press, and occasionally from colleagues, that we should not be subject to the judgments of unelected and unaccountable judges. Well, we do not have any elected judges in this country, but we do have an elected British judge who serves on the European Court of Human Rights.
Perhaps I may correct one other myth. Often we are told that Europe has acquired a flag and an anthem. Those are not the flag and the anthem of the European Union. They were adopted as far back as 1955 by the Council of Europe. Just like Liverpool football club, which also has a flag and an anthem, the Council of Europe has not yet become a nation state.
I want to deal with the United Kingdom agenda and one important aspect of it in particular. During our chairmanship of the Committee of Ministers, an important ongoing issue that may make some progress is the accession of the European Union to the European convention on human rights. The question of European Union accession engenders mixed responses. Among the non-EU members of the Council of Europe, it is considered to be a good thing. They wonder why the institutions of the European Union should not be covered by the European convention on human rights and why the European Court of Human Rights should not have jurisdiction over its institutions. In that spirit, I believe that we should take this matter forward. My concern is about the manner of the participation of the European Union.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the conscientious and diligent way in which he has led the British delegation to the Council of Europe. I agree with the remarks with which he has prefaced his comments on the accession of the European Union. Does he agree, none the less, that we would all be the losers, in particular the non-EU member states in the Council of Europe, if the accession of the EU resulted in it appearing that there were two classes of members in the Council of Europe: EU member states and non-EU member states?
I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. I will come on to say why I believe that there could be dangerous developments on this issue, particularly in relation to the Committee of Ministers, of which the United Kingdom is about to take the chair, and its voting procedures when European Union matters are under consideration. At the Dispatch Box earlier today, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer said, in relation to the eurozone countries, that it was against his basic view that there should be any form of caucusing within the Council of Ministers. I think that that is absolutely right.
I remind my right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe that when he issued his statement yesterday on the UK agenda for the Council of Europe, he also issued a written ministerial statement on voting by European Union member states in multilateral organisations. The EU, of course, is not a member of the Council of Europe at the moment, but it aspires to be one. I therefore raise a concern that has been raised not only by EU member states, but more particularly by non-EU member states. If there was a judgment in the European Court of Human Rights against an EU member state, would the EU member states in the Committee of Ministers, when it came to enforcing that judgment, vote as a bloc or would they do what they do today, which is to decide individually how the judgment is to be implemented?
I, too, pay tribute to the fantastic job that the hon. Gentleman does as the leader of the delegation. Does he agree that unless the EU is subject to the same rules as the countries, some non-EU member states may use that as an excuse not to carry out their obligations?
I think that the hon. Lady is right. She is making the point for me that we must be seen to be fair and even-handed in the way we enforce judgments. That might become even more of a problem.
This issue is already taken account of in the draft of the accession of the EU. I am afraid that the Lisbon treaty is quoted in aid on this matter. If there was a judgment against an institution of the European Union, such as the Commission, the European Court of Justice or the European Central Bank, the 27 EU member states—or 28 as there will be by the time this is implemented, with the accession of Croatia—would be obliged under the Lisbon treaty to vote as a bloc. That brings into question the whole history of fairness and even-handedness in the Committee of Ministers.
The reason given for that is that if there was a judgment against the EU, it would be up to the 27 EU member states to implement that judgment. They therefore have to act as one and as a party. That is fine, but it sounds rather like they will be judge, jury and executioner. We have to question seriously how we will take that matter forward. I would be interested to hear the Minister’s response to that in his summing up.
The next point may sound rather technical, but it goes back to my right hon. Friend the Chancellor’s comment earlier that we are developing a situation in which there will be European Union mechanisms and institutions that all 27 member states are not involved in, but only the 17 eurozone members, such as the European financial stability facility and the European Central Bank. If there was a judgment against one of those entities in the European Court of Human Rights, would we vote as 27 member states or would the 17 vote together? Would the 10 non-eurozone members be let off the obligation in the Lisbon treaty to vote as one? I would again be interested to hear the Minister’s response on that.
It gets a bit worse than that. There is a thing called the transfrontier broadcasting directive, which is a European Union instrument. There is also a thing called the transfrontier broadcasting convention, which is a Council of Europe convention that preceded the directive. The convention needs updating and the Council of Europe was in the process of doing so intelligently and in line with technical developments. The European Commissioner responsible for broadcasting has told the Council of Europe and its 47 members, many of which are not members of the European Union, as my hon. Friend has pointed out, that we cannot discuss the matter. What right does the European Union have to say to the Council of Europe—the greater body—that it can or cannot discuss something?
My hon. Friend makes a very significant point about the sovereignty of member states, whether they be members of the European Union or of the Council of Europe. I believe that the sovereignty of the 47 member states of the Council of Europe should be absolute in the case of a Council of Europe convention.
Like the hon. Gentleman’s colleagues, I pay tribute to him for his work at the Council of Europe over many years. Members of all parties will agree that he does a fine job. I apologise, but I will have to leave the debate shortly to chair the meeting in Westminster Hall.
On the hon. Gentleman’s point about the sovereignty of nations, what about Turkey? Its has refused to accept the outcome of the Louzides case on the confiscation of property—it has paid up, but it has never accepted it. What about its current threat that if Cyprus is given the presidency of the Council of Ministers, it will leave the Council of Europe and not pursue any path towards entry into the European Union?
I think the hon. Gentleman knows that I am an avowed supporter of Turkish membership of the European Union, but that does not mean that I will in any way make excuses for the Turkish Government’s non-compliance with their international obligations. I also regret the Turkish Prime Minister’s statement that Turkey would not participate in any discussions with the EU should Cyprus take on the presidency of the Council of Ministers. That is a wrong decision, as I have said to many Turkish colleagues.
To return to the question of EU accession, I wish to refer for a moment to the role of the European Parliament. It has been conceded that when it comes to the question of the election of judges, the European Parliament will have the same rights as the largest member states. We are one of those five largest member states. However, the draft arrangements go on to give the European Parliament special treatment, which I think is unjustified. It will have an ex officio place on the sub-committee that interviews the candidates for the post of judge in the European Court of Human Rights. As the leader of one of the other large delegations, I ask why I cannot appoint an ex officio member to that sub-committee on the basis that I should have the same voting rights as the European Parliament.
Under its internal mechanisms, the European Parliament will have the power to veto the three candidates who are on the shortlist. No other Parliament has that power. It will also have the power to be on the sub-committee that interviews the candidates. I contend that that will create an uneven playing field, and I hope we will resist it when we come to debate EU accession.
Does my hon. Friend agree that one thing that is quite hard to understand for people who are not on the Council, or regularly attending it, is that some of the largest member countries are not in the EU? They are proud countries, and sadly often ones that are on the receiving end of judgments of the Court. If the arrangements that are made do not seem to be fair and equal right across the Council of Europe area, it affects how they look at the Council and its judgments. It also affects whether those judgments are enforceable and will stick.
I thank my hon. Friend for that point, because it sums up the fact that what I have described will bring into question the legitimacy of the decisions of the Committee of Ministers when it comes to enforcing judgments that have been handed down by the Court.
I want to move on to one aspect of the United Kingdom’s agenda for our chairmanship, with which the Minister also dealt at length. It is the reform of the European Court of Human Rights, which not only we in this country but many member states across Europe welcome.
There seems to be some dispute about what the backlog of cases in the Court is at the moment. The last figure that I heard, which was at the beginning of this month from the secretary-general of the Council of Europe, was 162,000 cases, and growing at the rate of 2,000 a month. I therefore welcome the approach that we are taking as the new chair of the Committee of Ministers.
I thank my hon. Friend for making that point, which brings me neatly to the next one that I wanted to make.
I welcome the work of the commission on a Bill of Rights under the chairmanship of Sir Leigh Lewis. It was set up to advise on a British Bill of Rights, but at the request of the Prime Minister the first document that it published was advice to the Government on the reform of the European Court of Human Rights. It has expressed a view on that question, and I shall come to that in a moment. I also welcome the interest taken by the Joint Committee on Human Rights, which I know has been to Strasbourg and met the Court and is considering that very important issue.
I wish to deal with four issues related to the reform of the Court. The first, to which a number of Members have alluded, is the quality of the judges. Under the existing procedure, each member state puts forward three nominees when there is a vacancy for a judge of that nationality. Under the new procedures, those candidates are to be interviewed by the Committee of Ministers and by a sub-committee of the Parliamentary Assembly set up specifically for the purpose of making recommendations on which of the three judges is probably the best candidate. It then comes down to the Parliamentary Assembly to vote on those judges.
There has been phenomenal criticism in the Parliamentary Assembly that the judges nominated are not up to the quality that one expects in such an important court, which deals with human rights across the continent. Some of the judges are academics, and some are only what I would call administrative lawyers, but I believe that judges should have experience of sitting as court judges, preferably in the supreme court of their member state. They should not be people who have applied because they have been teaching a nice academic course specialising in human rights at a university for the past few years and thought, “Why not go to Strasbourg for a few years?” That is not the right way to select candidates.
The Parliamentary Assembly is considering another matter of some concern. If one of those judges drops out and is unable to perform his or her duties, the member state in question can nominate ad hoc judges to sit in their place in the Court. In the past four years, 77 ad hoc judges appointed to sit in for judges who were unable to be in Strasbourg were involved in 516 judgments. I am not sure, and there is some doubt, whether those ad hoc judges are of the same quality, because they do not go through the same selection procedure. They are not nominated, they are not interviewed either by the committee of Ministers or by the sub-committee of the Parliamentary Assembly, and they are certainly not voted for by the Parliamentary Assembly. I am not sure that the spirit of the convention is being implemented if we allow those 77 ad hoc judges to sit in judgment.
The second and most important point raised by my right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe was on subsidiarity and the filtering of cases, causing the backlog. Is the ECHR the final court of appeal for the 800 million people who live on the continent of Europe? I contend that it is not. I believe that it exists to act in partnership with our national supreme courts and that it should not be used as the final court of appeal. A number of members of the delegation met the secretary-general of the Council of Europe on Tuesday to discuss that. He said that—this is even worse—the majority of the cases before the Court are involve people using it not as their final court of appeal, but their court of first instance. In the majority of cases, people are disgruntled by something that has happened in their locality—a remote part of Russia or wherever—and they do not use the Russian legal system first and foremost, but go straight to Strasbourg. We must stop that from happening.
People who appeal to the Supreme Court in this country, or even to the Court of Appeal on their way up to the Supreme Court, must seek leave to do so. We must create a situation like that. Requiring people to seek leave to appeal would mean that a judge in this country or another member state would determine whether such a case is admissible, or whether it should be heard by a national supreme court and whether that should be the end of the road.
The European Court often gets blamed unfairly for judicial activism, but the real judicial activism is happening in our own courts, because the convention is incorporated in our law. That was the big mistake, and I am constantly referring to it, which is why I intervened earlier. In a sense, the focus of the debate is wrong. We cannot focus only on the Court in Strasbourg; we must also focus on our own courts.
By way of a rider to my hon. Friend’s point on seeking leave to appeal on a point of law, which I basically agree with, occasionally, a court in a country refuses leave in circumstances that do not hold water legally. Should there not at that point be a possibility of applying for leave to appeal directly to the Court in Strasbourg?
My hon. Friend is right to raise that point. We must strike the right balance—strike out spurious claims but not genuine ones. In some cases, those making genuine claims could be refused leave to appeal for, if I may say, political reasons, when their case should go to the Strasbourg Court. In this country, I have every confidence that the Supreme Court or any other lower court would act in the interests of the law and equity, but I might question the courts in a number of other member states—I will not name them in the Chamber.
My third point concerns the competence of the Court and its relationship with national Parliaments and sovereign member states. That the House debated and voted overwhelmingly against prisoner voting rights showed that we in this country feel that somebody committed to jail for an indictable offence should have their voting rights taken away while in prison. That is at variance with the judgment of the Court. I am not a lawyer, but in my view it is absolutely right that a court can sentence somebody to prison and so deny their liberty in several areas. In sentencing them to prison, we are not infringing most of their convention rights—for example, we are not infringing their right to life or imposing on them inhuman and degrading treatment. Instead, we are deciding to deny them certain liberties—for example, by not allowing them to go home to their family every night, we are denying them the right to a family life.
Do the people sent to prison not have the choice about whether they go to prison, and should that not be a major consideration? Furthermore, is this not a constitutional right, rather than a human right? I know that that takes us on to aspects of law, but these are the things that make people very angry.
Of course, my hon. Friend is absolutely right. This is the point that we are making. We could have a wider debate about why people commit crimes and why they go to prison, but my specific point is about the denial of liberty and what convention rights that denial of liberty impinges on. It is accepted that some rights in the convention can legitimately be denied. I am interested that Mr Hirst, when he went to Strasbourg, did not say that he was being denied the right to a family life by being in prison and ask why he could not have his wife and children there. He picked on one emotive issue—his voting and democratic rights—but I think that it is absolutely right that this Parliament decide the voting rights of prisoners, and if it decides that prisoners should not have a vote, so be it. That is part of our national sovereignty. It is a matter for national legislatures, not the Court.
My fourth point concerns the backlog. As I mentioned, the figure that I have is 162,000 cases, growing by 2,000 a month. I commend the commission on a Bill of Rights and its advice on this matter: it expressed concern that, whatever reforms we came up with for the Court, they would not deal with the cases currently in the system, and it recommended that we find a way to clear the backlog. One of the commission’s proposals, which is worth taking forward, is that across Europe are retired judges experienced in human rights law who might be brought out of retirement on, say, a one-year contract, subject to their being vetted, interviewed and so on, and that they be given responsibility solely for going through the list of 162,000 cases, deciding which are admissible and, if necessary, immediately sending them to the Court for judgment.
Did the commission not also recommend that the judges be able to dismiss cases, in order to reduce their number, saying, “We cannot deal with this anymore.” The figure of 162,000 is ginormous. We would never get through them.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Of course, we cannot get through them. We know that about 97% of those cases are inadmissible and could be got rid of straightaway, but we need somebody to sit down, go through the paperwork and say that they are inadmissible. If that were done, we might be able immediately to bring before the Court the few thousand cases that lie in the balance, or use this coterie of retired judges to sit in judgment if there are points of law involved that the Court has already been determined in previous cases and so no new judgments to be made.
It is not all as simple as that, though, because there are other constitutional issues. Many of the cases in Strasbourg get there because, as I understand it, there is no supreme court in the Russian Federation to adjudicate on them. They come straight to Strasbourg from the provincial courts, so we might have to persuade the Russian Federation to have a look at its court procedures—after it has got through its elections, of course.
I welcome the United Kingdom chairmanship. I know from colleagues in the Chamber that we are willing and ready to help the Minister and the Government to take forward our agenda, particularly on reform of the Court. The Interlaken process set in train some years ago was followed by a high-level conference under the Turkish presidency in Izmir, in which my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor participated on behalf of this country. I hope that we come up with concrete proposals in our six months to ensure that reform of the Court is not only an agenda item, but a reality.
I wish my right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe well. I commend him and his deputy in Strasbourg, our excellent ambassador, Mrs Eleanor Fuller, who has done tremendous work. Thorbjørn Jagland, the former Norwegian Prime Minister, is an excellent secretary-general—one of the best the Council of Europe has had for a number of years—and is also very much in tune with the United Kingdom agenda.
I rise to follow Mr Walter with some trepidation. He has an encyclopaedic knowledge of such matters, whereas I am merely a new member of the delegation. However, I will attempt to do my best. I welcome this debate, which is an ideal opportunity to reflect on the history and ideals of the
Council of Europe, as well as its relevance in the modern world. Today is obviously an opportunity to debate the Government’s priorities for the UK chairmanship, but we also need strongly to reaffirm our commitment to human rights, democracy and the rule of law at international level, as well as the level of the nation state.
As we have heard, the UK was a founder member in 1949 and, two years later, was the first country to ratify the European convention on human rights, which is at the heart of the Council of Europe agenda. In the post-war era there was a common desire to build up international co-operation so that communal solutions could be found to global problems. Never again would the world erupt into terrible bloody wars. There would also be basic individual rights and freedoms, and the development of democratic Governments. As with the United Nations, that was the context that gave birth to the Council of Europe. We need only consider the wars that have, unfortunately continued despite all the efforts to avoid them, the ongoing threat of terrorism and the continuing struggle for human rights and democracy—as witnessed most recently in the Arab spring—to realise that there remains a fundamental need for a body such as the Council of Europe to ensure that individual countries not only sign up to promoting human rights for all their citizens, but live up to their responsibilities in implementing them.
As I have said, I am a new member of the UK delegation to the Council of Europe, having previously served on the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe in the last Parliament. I want to take this opportunity to thank my colleagues on the delegation and our civil servants, both at Westminster and in Strasbourg, for the support that I have been given in finding my way around the practices and procedures of the Parliamentary Assembly. It is a very different place from this one, and it is taking me some time to adjust. I hope that I am making some progress in that regard. I have already paid tribute to the leader of the UK delegation, and I would also like to pay tribute to the leader of the Labour delegation, my noble Friend Lord Prescott, and to Mr Chope, who chairs the Migration Committee, of which I have become a member. He has been very helpful, and has encouraged me to take part and to take on some early responsibilities. I welcome the opportunity to do that.
It is clear to me that the Committee of Ministers provides a necessary mechanism at governmental level to agree and implement policies, although, as other hon. Members have said, reform is much needed. I am therefore pleased that that is one of the Government’s priorities. I admit, however, that I initially wondered whether the Parliamentary Assembly was any more than just a talking shop. In these straitened times, is it worth using vital resources to fund such bodies? There are some who would question such expenditure, but my experience so far has shown me that they would be wrong. When I look at the work programme of the Parliamentary Assembly, I am amazed at the breadth and extent of the vital matters under discussion, and at the impressive reports that are produced, which I believe are akin to our own Select Committee reports.
The capacity exists to make challenging recommendations to the Council of Ministers and to hold the Council of Europe to account, which is an achievement, given the number of member states involved. We should therefore be careful that any savings that can and should be made do not undermine the whole principle of the Council of Europe or the Parliamentary Assembly, or render them incapable of doing their job.
For those who have the good fortune to live in a country such as the UK, it can be easy to take for granted the rights that we have. It has become increasingly obvious to me, through my previous membership of the OSCE delegation and now of the Council of Europe, that it is vital, at a profound yet simple level, to keep talking, even though that can be time consuming, expensive and, in the case of some of the eastern European countries, repetitive.
I am following my hon. Friend’s speech carefully, and I welcome all the work that she does in the Council of Europe. Does she not think that there is a case for doing more in this country to publicise its work? We have the chairmanship coming up soon, yet very few members of the public will know about it. Is there not an obligation to ensure that the work is related to the people of this country in some way?
I totally agree with my right hon. Friend, and I will come on to that subject later in my speech. If the truth be told, I confess that I was pretty ignorant myself before I became a member of the delegation. That is probably an indictment of me, but also of the level of discussion that we have on the subject in this Parliament. We should take the opportunity to hold more discussions such as the one we are having today.
All the evidence suggests that mankind—I use that word advisedly—learns very little from experience, and very slowly, concerning the exercise of power and the protection of the weak, but at least there is hope when dialogue leads to international treaties. So, if we believe that human rights are at the centre of our foreign policy— sometimes I wonder, although I welcome the Minister’s statement to that effect—we should be prepared to support the European convention on human rights without equivocation.
The hon. Member for North Dorset referred to the meeting earlier this week between the UK delegation and Mr Thorbjørn Jagland, the secretary-general of the Council of Europe. The secretary-general commented that the UK was well placed to use the chairmanship to take forward reform of the European Court of Human Rights, because we started it and we have the diplomatic capacity to gather support. In the six months available, I hope that that proves to be the case. I am aware that a great deal of groundwork has already taken place—although, as the Minister has said, securing consensus among 47 states is a tall order. It is right that that should be the UK’s main priority, however. Everyone agrees that reform is needed, not least because of the huge backlog in applications.
As has already been said, there is also a tension in some people’s minds between the judgments of the Court and national sovereignty. That was illustrated in the UK with the judgment on prisoner voting rights. I was disappointed by the level of debate in the UK on that issue, as it undermined the purpose of the convention, which is to promote human rights. Whatever people’s views on whether prisoners should have the right to vote, the debate was characterised by inaccurate, populist and, in some cases, xenophobic nonsense. If there is a genuine problem—and I think we all agree that there is—with the Court intervening inappropriately in national affairs, let us deal with it in a measured way that promotes subsidiarity where appropriate, instead of bursting out in moral panic.
It is not unknown for the UK to lecture other countries about human rights, and quite rightly so—in fact, I hope the Government will take the chance to raise human rights issues with President Santos of Colombia when he visits the UK later this month—but we should practise what we preach if we want to be seen as an example to other countries. I hope we do, and I hope we are.
Although the reform of the European Court of Human Rights is the main priority, I would like to comment briefly on some of the other priorities that the UK Government have set for our chairmanship. Combating discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation or gender identity across Europe is a very welcome objective, and I believe the work we have done in the UK stands us in good stead—particularly the measures in the Equality Act 2010 and the right to civil partnership, which were passed in the last Parliament. I am pleased to say that the Scottish Government—believe me, I do not often compliment them—are currently consulting on taking this a step further with the introduction of gay marriage. I am pleased that we can give a lead to other member states on this, and I am glad the Government have made it a priority—not gay marriage, but tackling discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation.
It has always struck me that in some other countries—this is certainly true where my son lives—people who are heterosexual can register not a civic partnership but the fact that they are de facto partners. That means that when one dies, the pension will transfer automatically to the other member of that de facto partnership. In this country, however, for a heterosexual couple who do not go through a formal legal marriage, either in a church or elsewhere, the pension dies with the partner. If we are talking about human rights, surely when people put themselves into a de facto partnership of that kind, they should have all the rights of those who go through a formal marriage.
I do not disagree with my hon. Friend, but I would say that heterosexual people have the option to marry, which gay people have not had in the past. It is right that it should be afforded to them.
He is just very enthusiastic, Madam Deputy Speaker.
The internet, as we have found, knows no national barriers, and that has positive and negative consequences. Freedom of expression is vital in the context of human rights, and I am pleased that the UK Government are taking that on board by looking at people’s human rights in respect of their use of the internet. I hope that any European internet governance strategy will take into account the protection of vulnerable people, especially children.
On local and regional democracy, I am not particularly familiar with the Council of Europe’s programme, but as a former local councillor I have strong views about the role of local government in promoting democracy. I believe that we have many good examples here and a wealth of experience. However, local government has been somewhat undermined in recent years—by all parties—and should be held in higher regard in this country. The fact is that, by definition, local government is closest to the people—something that is extremely important throughout the length and breadth of Europe. That is relevant to what my right hon. Friend Keith Vaz said about the importance of publicising the Council of Europe and its work. Word could be spread among communities through local government, explaining what the COE is all about.
As I said earlier, I am a member of the Committee on Migration, Refugees and Population in the Parliamentary Assembly. I would have liked to see some migration issues on the list of priorities, especially economic, human rights and integration issues. I had understood that the protection of minorities was intended to be one of the United Kingdom’s priorities.
I would be grateful if the Minister responded to those two points. Can he also tell me whether he, or any other Ministers, will be present at the Parliamentary Assembly to report to it during the UK chairmanship? I shall be interested to see how the chairmanship works out, and I wish Government and civil servants the very best in their endeavours.
I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to the debate, primarily because I have been calling for a debate on this subject for a good few weeks. I suspect that the Minister may have become sick of hearing from me. I thank right hon. and hon. Members who supported me last week in my pitch to the Backbench Business Committee. They clearly recognised the importance of holding such a topical debate at the time of our chairmanship. I also pay tribute to Mr Walter for his leadership and his insightful comments. As a new Member of Parliament, I know that he has a great deal of experience of these matters, and I think that all new Members have a lot to learn from him.
I thank the Minister for his opening remarks, and for the written statement that he published yesterday. There is, of course, much to discuss when it comes to our chairmanship and its priorities, and this afternoon is the right time for that discussion.
All Members who have spoken so far have touched on Britain’s strong historic links with the Council of Europe and the drafting of the original European convention on human rights. In view of those historic links, I think that Britain must now play a central role in reforming the COE to ensure that the sovereignty of nation states is respected and the British interest is put first. I say that partly in the context of this week’s debates on European affairs. On Monday we saw exactly what happens when power-hungry supranational institutions simply go too far: the public become somewhat disenfranchised, and the democratic deficit created becomes slightly harder to remedy. The public have a view on that. I think there is a genuine danger that if action is not taken during our chairmanship, the country could find itself sleepwalking down a path towards the stripping away of more of our powers and more important decisions will eventually be taken out of our hands.
No doubt there is unity throughout the House on the need to safeguard rights to a fair trial, respect for family life, protection from slavery, freedom of thought and other great values of which this country and British democracy have been staunch defenders over the years. However, the European system of human rights that is reinforced by the Council of Europe, the European Court of Human Rights and their related institutions lacks accountability and democratic legitimacy.
I believe that central to that problem is the way in which the European Court of Human Rights operates. Over the years, it has effectively become a final court of appeal for those who feel that there are human rights-related grounds that their national courts have wrongly dismissed. I think we all appreciate the importance of that. Recent statistics from the court reveal that in 83% of cases it finds that violation has taken place, contrary to decisions made nationally. The hon. Member for North Dorset mentioned the backlog of cases, and I think there is consensus on the fact that the numbers are alarming. I welcome my hon. Friend’s highly practical suggestion that people should be brought in to read through the paperwork and sort out the situation. While the figures for Britain are better than average, with the Court finding that a violation has taken place in 61% of cases, it is astonishing that in so many cases the Court and its judges rule against judgments made by very able, experienced and qualified judges in the British courts. Moreover, given that section 2 of the Human Rights Act 1998 explicitly binds our courts into the European human rights system so they already give effect to the convention in European case law, it is even more unreasonable for Europe to dismiss so many of the decisions made by our courts.
Politicians will always have their differences with the judiciary and the decisions made by judges, but many of the decisions made in Strasbourg are fundamentally contrary to British values and the British interest. That leads me to question the accountability and legitimacy of the Court.
This situation is made even more challenging to our democracy because no real mechanisms are in place for Parliament to reverse these European Court judgments. Such mechanisms are in place for decisions by domestic courts, however. Earlier this year when the English courts highlighted an anomaly in laws relating to police bail arrangements, Parliament was able to initiate and pass emergency legislation: the Police (Detention and
Bail) Act 2011. Just as courts act independently to hold the legislature and the Executive to account, in this case Parliament and the Government were able to hold the judiciary to account. That does not seem to be possible for decisions made in the European Court, however. As has been mentioned, last February the House passed a motion sending a clear message to Europe that it did not believe it was right of the European Court of Human Rights to demand that we scrap our laws and give convicted prisoners the right to vote, yet Europe is still insisting that the judgments of the European Court takes precedence over the laws passed and motions agreed by this Parliament, and is still saying that we must grant prisoners the right to vote.
I have been listening to the hon. Lady expand on her point. I think she has got the matter wrong. When the European Court of Human Rights makes a judgment, it passes it back to the country of origin, which must then make proposals to try to fit in with that judgment. I understand that there is no intention on the part of the Government—supported by the Opposition, I hope—to give up their right in this matter entirely. They are being asked to define in which circumstances it is appropriate for someone to be not only incarcerated but deprived of their right to vote.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his remarks.
In February we debated the sovereignty and decision making of this House in relation to a particular judgment. By refusing to accept the sovereignty of our Parliament and the democratic decision making of this House, Europe is demonstrating a lack of legitimacy and democratic accountability, which I find astonishing given that the Council of Europe was established precisely to promote democracy. Therefore, in my view, attacking our Parliament and seeking to undermine our democracy is simply counter-productive.
The prisoner votes issue is just one well-known example of the problem—and it is still ongoing. There are other similar Strasbourg decisions, however, such as in the Sufi and Elmi case, where Britain was prevented on human rights grounds from deporting two individuals back to Somalia, despite their being responsible for a very serious spate of crimes, including threats to kill, robbery and dealing in class A drugs. We should bear in mind that such decisions can end up setting a legal precedent, so they can impact on subsequent deportation cases. In the Sufi and Elmi case, human rights were used as an excuse to allow people to remain in Britain.
My hon. Friend is making a number of excellent points. Does she agree that the human rights of violent criminals and terrorists are too often being put ahead of the human rights of law-abiding British subjects? She is right to draw attention to that.
I thank my hon. Friend for making that point so clearly and succinctly. Our chairmanship of the Council of Europe is coming up and this is a big opportunity for us to address, if nothing else, the perception issues and the fact that we need to remain vigilant on these matters to ensure that powers and decision making stay in this country.
In pulling my remarks together, I wish to emphasise to the Minister and the Government that there are issues to be addressed. Britain is signed up to a range of international agreements on human rights-related matters, which are all welcome and important. However, decisions on human rights laws must be brought back home, because having British courts interpreting British laws is a better and more democratic position than having European judges and their officials ignoring our national interest. It is unhelpful and counter-productive for them to be foisting their particular laws on us.
It is time to draw a line in the sand on many of these matters, and to free up our courts, our public bodies and, in particular, Parliament from some of the excessive intrusion and integration on human rights matters that we have seen. I hope that, through the chairmanship of the Council of Europe, the Government will take this opportunity to address these matters, in addition to the areas of priority that the Minister outlined.
I said that I was not going to be able to speak in the debate, but I managed to get somebody else to chair a meeting in this building in time to come back to the Chamber.
I congratulate Priti Patel on her persistence and endeavour in securing this debate, although I suspect our agreement on and understanding of each other’s politics ceases there. She has not grasped at all what the Council of Europe is about, which is human rights, the rule of law and democracy. They are all intertwined; they are not simple little solutions set aside from each other and never the twain shall meet. They are interlinked so that we can get policies that cross national boundaries.
The hon. Lady cites one or two examples that everybody in this Chamber, including the Minister and Labour Members, agree on, but they are minor cases where things have to be cleared up. That is all part of the agenda for change, which the Council of Ministers and the Council of Europe are undertaking. Let us deal with the big issues, one of which is capital punishment. Countries are not allowed to become members of the Council of Europe if they carry out capital punishment. We must remember that there are 800 million people in these 47 countries in greater Europe, and we cannot singly deal with one or two issues such as the ones she raised.
The hon. Gentleman is right. I apologise if I have led him up the path of thinking that these minor matters in relation to the very big issues that the Council of Europe and the European Court of Human Rights deal with are in some way not important. They are all very important, and they are very important to the people involved. As the Minister rightly pointed out, Members on both sides of the House are seriously of a mind for change and reform as far as the Court is concerned, because of the huge catalogue of outstanding cases, many of which could and should be dealt with in the courts of the individual countries. We should accept responsibility for our failure to act to make the courts deal with them. As Mr Hancock said, the problem of the courts and the outstanding cases in the European Court is caused by failures in individual nations and their court systems.
I said in an intervention that we have a very democratic system, which could be reformed in some way, for choosing judges. The three candidates that are submitted by all member countries have to be fully experienced in such matters before their names are even put forward and there has to be a gender balance. Those people are then examined by a committee in full before recommendations are made to the Assembly, which then decides. I have been there on a number of occasions over the years, as have other hon. Members who are present today, when time and again we have sent back the names of candidates and said, “They are not qualified,” “They do not come up to the standard,” or, in a number of cases, “No gender choice whatever has been given.” A few years ago, some countries refused to submit the name of a female candidate. The system is well-tested and I do not think that talking about “sleepwalking” away from accountability is the best way forward.
The Minister gave us the best way forward, which has been accepted by all parties. We need reform. We have to wake up the courts and the Governments of member countries and say, “You have to take responsibility for and deal with these issues; the European Court is for bigger things.” The example I gave of where such instances might apply involved a failure by two members of the Council of Europe area and, indeed, Britain—so three countries in all—in respect of seized assets in the northern area of Cyprus. An individual citizen went through all the courses for legal redress in their own country, Cyprus, and then went to the guarantor powers of Greece and the United Kingdom, but the case failed and there was no other domestic court for that case to go to. Members might ask, “What does a person’s ownership of their home have to do with the European Court of Human Rights?” Well, it has a lot to do with it if someone’s country has been invaded, they have been marshalled out of their home and local area into another country, and the return of the assets in the house, and the house itself, has been refused.
The Loizidou case went to the Court, which took a number of years to deal with it. As my hon. Friend Michael Connarty rightly pointed out, it was then sent back to Turkey and the regime in the northern area of Cyprus, which were told, “You must deal with this matter. What you have done is illegal—you have illegally invaded, you have illegally occupied and you have illegally kept rightful owners away from their homes.” The judgment that came down in the end was that reparation to the tune of nearly £1 million in costs and compensation should be paid to the family not for the home they had lost but for the loss of use of their home over that 30-odd year period. That case could not have been dealt with in any other court.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important case regarding the human rights of the people of Cyprus. Is it not the case that this issue of human rights goes further and affects not just loss of property but loss of people? There is also an issue of missing relatives and people who still do not know where their loved ones have gone since the conflicts. They have called on Turkey to release basic information giving them a right to know where their relatives are. Does he agree that there has been a breach of those fundamental rights which must be answered and that we could take the opportunity, as chair of the Council of Europe, to make that case?
Order. We are not discussing the issue of Turkey per se and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will bring the debate back to the question of the chairmanship of the Council of Europe and its priorities.
Thank you for that guidance, Madam Deputy Speaker. To give a very short reply to the question, let me just point out to Priti Patel that there has been involvement in that particular case and many other cases of breaches of human rights by the British Government as a guarantor power. Those issues will be taken up yet again in the course of the six-month chairmanship. Indeed, quite recently the European Minister met the Commissioner for Human Rights, who is an employee elected by the Council of Europe members in its Assembly. As my colleague Mr Burrowes alluded to, 1,619 Greek Cypriots and 684 Turkish Cypriots remain missing from those periods. I know there will be contact on that subject during our chairmanship.
The Minister outlined the primary policies that we shall take up during our chairmanship. One key area is local and regional government. Next week or the week after, the Minister will be present at talks in Kiev. I hope he will give a guarantee in his summing-up that he will fall behind all the magnificent work on local government reform by Kivinemi, the Minister from Finland, which was picked up and improved upon by Chavez, the Spanish Minister. That is very important.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Witham on her persistence in obtaining the debate, but I ask her to think about some of the Council of Europe’s other roles that will be debated during our chairmanship. We send people on peace missions or monitoring missions. Two or three Members who are currently in the Chamber take part in those missions and put themselves at risk. At this minute there are people on monitoring missions in some outlying areas of greater Europe, where they have to receive military protection in order to fulfil their role. In the forthcoming weeks and months, Members from both sides of the Chamber will be undertaking such missions, and they risk their lives in doing so. In the Georgian conflict, the Chechnyan conflict, the Bosnian conflict and the Kosovan-Serbia conflict, Members of the House, as members of the Council of Europe, went in as peace monitors and election monitors, trying to achieve a democratic purpose. The Council is not just a small organisation in that respect.
I shall refer briefly to the work of the eight committees of the Council of Europe. Britain’s membership of the Assembly, from both sides of this Chamber, is a worthwhile and leading part of the work of the Council of Europe. We have a number of vice-chairmen. We have the chairmen of the monitoring committee, the health committee and the environment committee; the list goes on and on. I mentioned the committee that examines and gives initial interviews to those who wish to become judges of the European Court of Human Rights. We hold the chairmanship and leading positions on that committee. I pay tribute to a previous Conservative Member of this place: John Greenway was the chair of the Council’s committee on rules of procedure, and did a magnificent job in the years that he held that position.
I also pay tribute to the British ambassador in Strasbourg. I have seen many ambassadors in different countries who treat it as a fine profession and a life indeed, but this woman works night and day. If committees meet early in the morning, she is there; she is there throughout the day and into the late evenings, attending meetings and so on. I pay tribute to her and her staff, as I do to Secretary-General Jagland. He is comparatively new to his role, but I am pleased that I and others on both sides of this Chamber voted for him, because he has done a magnificent job and brought a stature to the Council of Europe and its work, with his background as Speaker and Prime Minister of his own country’s Government. His sense of purpose in the reform process has been very good indeed.
Last but not least, I pay tribute to the staff of this place. We have a small number of staff who run the Overseas Office. They fix up all the travel arrangements and arrange the accommodation, which I acknowledge is not salubrious—I wish it was—but for which they get the best value they can. They have to make those arrangements for 30-odd Members of Parliament, including arrangements to enable them to participate in all the committees that emanate from the work of the Council of Europe.
I wish to touch briefly on three issues. The first relates to the European convention on human rights, which is the first priority listed on the briefing paper issued by the Government on the UK’s chairmanship of the Council of Europe. Article 5 of the convention sets out the right to freedom. Article 6 sets out the right to a fair trial. A constituent of mine has been held in prison in Malta for more than two years. Another constituent has just faced a highly questionable trial in Lille in France, and he was held for two years before the trial without any right to freedom. Malta and France are both signatories to the convention on human rights.
When I started to look into the background on this, I wrote to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to request a breakdown of the number of UK citizens who have been held for more than 10 months without trial in countries that are signatories to the convention on human rights and members of the Council of Europe. Initially, those at the FCO said that they did not have a breakdown for all 47 countries and that it would be unreasonable to expect them to do all that work because it would be very expensive. However, not wishing to be unhelpful, they asked me to name the countries I was interested in. I named four: Greece, Spain, France and Malta—the latter two for obvious reasons. It was a freedom of information request and they complied with it.
Malta is holding five UK citizens who have been in prison for more than 10 months without trial, and Malta is a signatory to the convention on human rights. France is holding 12 UK citizens who have been in prison for more than 10 months without trial, and France is a signatory to the convention on human rights. Indeed, my constituent was held in France for more than two years. Spain is holding 43 UK citizens who have been in prison for more than 10 months without trial, and Spain is a signatory to the convention on human rights. Article 5, which sets out the right to freedom, is being breached by these countries. The FCO said that it could not specify the number of UK citizens being held in Greece because that number was so small that doing so could identify the person concerned. I did not quite understand that, but the fact of the matter is that Greece is also clearly in breach of article 5.
In the case of the constituent who was tried in Lille last week, I maintain that article 6 has been breached because I do not believe that he has had a fair trial. In fact, I am afraid that his situation was probably worsened by the intervention of a British Member of Parliament seeking to bring about the trial. The man has been sentenced to five years in prison, fined €10,000 and asked to repay something akin to the debt of Greece—€5 million. He does not have that because he has lost his home and his family; he has lost the lot.
During the UK’s chairmanship of the Council of Europe, I want the Government to hold to the fire the feet of each and every country that is a member of the Council and is holding UK citizens, or any other citizens for that matter, for long periods of time without trial. It is a clear breach of the convention. Many of those countries, France in particular, are preaching to the United Kingdom and trying to tell us that we must give prisoners voting rights. We had that debate in this Chamber and reached a sovereign decision as a sovereign Parliament. I explained that in person to the Human Rights Commissioner, Thomas Hammarberg, the last time we were in Strasbourg. I said, “Tom, you must understand that this is a sovereign Parliament. This is not a Government decision, but a decision taken in the House of Commons by elected Members. We have decided that we do not believe that we have a duty to give convicted prisoners voting rights.” While that is an issue, we are told that other countries can hold citizens without trial for very long periods in breach of the convention.
I would like my right hon. Friend to take to the chairmanship and to Ministers this clear issue and say that we will not budge one inch until every country holding any citizen for an indeterminate period without trial has complied properly with the convention.
I just want to get the hon. Member to clarify and put on the record the fact that all of these countries have not only signed, but ratified and implemented the convention, because there are many countries who sign conventions, never ratify them and never, therefore, implement them.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who is absolutely right. The implication is that because we have signed the convention, we are implementing it. My understanding is that Malta, Spain and France have implemented it, but I am open to challenge on Greece—
I ought to know but do not. France certainly makes a big issue of the situation and is very communautaire, just as long as it wants to be, but on this issue it is in clear breach and needs to be told that it is.
Does my hon. Friend regret as I do the fact that, notwithstanding the Forfeiture Act 1870, which established the will of this House in respect of prisoner votes, and the emphatic vote in February, which made clear to Ministers and to the Court itself the settled view of the House, there has been only a suspension of the Court’s judgment on the UK situation with respect to Greens and M.T., as a result of an Italian case, and that the Court has not accepted the will of this House to decide that we are correct and will not give the franchise to convicted felons?
I have already made my view abundantly plain: I regret the situation very much indeed. If there is any case to be made, it can only be this: a person on remand might be considered to have the right to vote, because they have not been convicted. I cannot have my cake and eat it, because, if I want people to have a fair trial and to be tried in a timely fashion, I have to concede that if people have not been convicted, they should arguably have the right to vote—but that is all.
Internet governance and freedom of expression on the internet, is one of the Government’s priorities during our chairmanship, but I urge caution upon my right hon. Friend the Minister. The culture committee, on which I sit as an alternate, and the sub-committee that has been dealing with the issue, on which I sit as a full member, have recently been considering a report prepared by another delegate to the Council of Europe. Fortunately, members of the United Kingdom delegation stood shoulder to shoulder and had the report withdrawn.
The report has now been rewritten and will be brought back before the committee in Paris on
I do not want to see state control of the internet, and we all know what we mean when we say freedom of expression on the internet, but we have to consider the fact that, although social networking and all those things were held up as the great saviour, the prop that held up the Arab spring and made things happen, which was wonderful, precisely the same social networking was used in London in August to orchestrate criminal riots.
So, just before we go too far down that road, I urge my right hon. Friend to ask his colleagues on the Committee of Ministers to take a long, hard, proper look at the issue, and to ensure that we understand exactly what we are saying when we plead freedom of expression on the internet. One man’s freedom of expression may be the ball and chain around another man’s leg.
Finally, I shall touch again on the issue that I raised earlier, transfrontier broadcasting, because it is serious. Twenty-five years ago the Council of Europe passed a transfrontier broadcasting convention. I know, because I am a re-tread, and 25 years ago—God help me—I was on the Council of Europe and I participated in the debate at the time. The reason we worked so hard on the issue was that we wanted to make sure that Europe did not do something very silly by insisting that every television station throughout Europe had a half-hour quota of clog-dancing in Lederhosen or whatever, but instead had something sensible. We knew what we wanted. We wanted reasonable control of matters such as broadcast pornography, taste, decency and so on. We created something that was worth while.
Tim Renton, who was then a Home Office Minister with responsibility for broadcasting—it used to be a Home Office responsibility—turned that convention into the European Union directive, so it was a worthwhile exercise. We have now reached the point where the convention is out of date, and because of the advance of technology it needs to be streamlined. The Council of Europe is getting to grips with it, and rightly doing what it was trying to do before—to get it right. Suddenly, along comes a European Union commissioner who says that it is a European Union competence and that the Council may not discuss it.
As things stand, the Council of Europe has stopped its work on the project. That is outrageous because, as has been said, the European Union represents only a proportion of the countries that are member states of the Council of Europe. I believe that the greater should embrace the lesser, not the other way round, and that the matter is a Council of Europe responsibility. I urge my right hon. Friend to take that message on board very clearly indeed. It is an important issue.
It is a privilege to follow Mr Gale. Having been in the Council of Europe, and in this House for so long, and having watched his endeavours in the Council of Europe at the moment, it is amazing that he is still enthusiastic about searching out the right wording and practice in the things he is involved in. I am sure that he was the same 25 years ago. My hon. Friend Sandra Osborne referred to me as enthusiastic, but I have been here for a mere 19 years. I hope that when I have been here for as long as the hon. Gentleman I am still as enthusiastic for the fight.
The fight is for the correct implementation of the principles behind the Council of Europe. I may not always take the example of the hon. Member for North Thanet on how he approaches things, and hopefully we will be at the meeting seeking the compromise that I suggested might be found between him and the author of the original report, which was deeply flawed in the way it was expressed. I hope that we will work together across the party divide on these matters.
It is a pity Priti Patel has gone. I am not sure whether she is a member of the delegation, but certainly some members on the Government side do not take up their place, and she might be able to learn quite a lot by volunteering to take one of the places that are not being actively filled at the moment. I am sure she would find it enlightening and educational, as we all do. The delegation, although we may come from different angles, is genuinely still the bedrock of debates in the Council of Europe. Delegates are often there at the beginning; they are there at the end of the day, which might be 8 o’clock at night; and they are often there on Friday when most people have decided to go home. We want to take part in debates and make our views known.
The hon. Gentleman will recall that he and I were both there on the Friday of the last part-session, disagreeing with each other. I thought he would like to know that I am here, and that I do not entirely agree with him today.
We came in together, and hopefully they will carry us out together. I recall that we also came to the House in the same year.
It is absolutely incredible that a court as important as the Court of Human Rights is clogged up by a type of bureaucracy that could not be imagined in the most disorganised country in the world. The simplest cases that will clearly never be correctly allocated to the Court have to be judged by a full bench of judges before they can say, “No, we can’t deal with this.” There is no sifting process and no filter process. No Committee in this House would run if every Member had to gather every day, look at every paper proposed, and come before the Committee to decide whether it could even discuss it. That is what the Court is about at the moment. Anything we can do under our chairmanship to bring in a filtering system whereby one judge or some other method is used to say, “This is still correct to stay on the list and others must be sent back to the courts of the national jurisdictions or rejected”, is long overdue.
I will talk later about the Human Rights Act 1998 in the context of individual countries. It is a myth that the Court can make a country implement its judgment just by lifting the judgment made in the Court and transposing it into the Acts of Parliament of this country. It is not the European Union, after all. I see that the Minister for Europe is here, and he recognises that that can happen with European Union regulations and all the other things that come in, and we have to just get on with it because we have signed away some of those rights—but not at Council of Europe level. It has to come back and be looked at by this sovereign Parliament, which then makes a judgment on what amendments to make that would implement it. I hope that we never move away from that.
There is lots of talk saying that our Human Rights Act is somehow a transcription of the convention on human rights and the judgments of the courts. I hope that it is, in fact, an attempt by this sovereign Parliament to implement the human rights that we all hold so dear for our country and for every other country. If it is not correct and needs to be amended in some way, that is our right as a sovereign Parliament, but we must not get into the situation where we can overturn the human rights that are available to people in Council of Europe countries just because we believe that it will satisfy the feelings of our constituents.
I held a very excellent debate about human rights and family rights. On family rights, yes, there is no doubt that people are angry because that is used as a plea for someone not to be sent back to some other country. But when we come down to the fundamentals and someone is asked, “Do you think that family rights are due to all of us?”, most people would say yes. We then have to decide why it is not applicable to someone who may come from another country. Sometimes, if we throw out that basic judgment that family rights are available to all of us, and must therefore be available to anyone under our jurisdiction, we destroy something very important in what we have fought for, for political gain and for a feeling of anger rather than for a judgment of what is correct.
I have a question because I am slightly ignorant on the procedures. If a judgment came back to this House and this House decided that it would not accept it, where do we stand then?
That is a very important question. If the Government should bring back a proposal on, for example, whether prisoners in custody should have voting rights, and we decided that we did not wish to accept it, we could reject it. They would have to come back again to try to put another proposal, and I presume negotiations would go on between the Committee of Ministers, particularly with our chairmanship in the next six months, to find something that would be suitable, and that would be correct. However, I believe—this is my own judgment—that if we got to the point where we said, “No, we refuse to implement this”, then there must be some question about whether we want to remain in the Council of Europe at all.
The hon. Gentleman is a very dedicated member of the Parliamentary Assembly, and it is a pleasure to work with him. Does he recognise that at the end of the day the judgment goes to the Council of Ministers, and that equally at the end of the day they have no powers of enforcement? I relate that to the point made by my hon. Friend Mr Gale: nothing can be done, and therein lies one of the problems.
I think that is correct in what I have seen of the Council of Europe. It can make judgments, it can put down statements, people can support those statements, and they can be transmitted through the Committee of Ministers to the representatives of all the countries who send a representative to that Committee. One of the reasons I am quite a strong supporter of the European Union is that it can bring in directives, and has done so, as I shall mention later, in areas which are close to my heart and to the logic of why I am here as a representative of the people of my constituency. It has an enforceable power, mainly tied up with the economic power that lies in the EU rather than just the Court of Justice. But yes, I think that there is a need for a much more diligent pursuit of the matters raised by the hon. Member for North Thanet.
The third part of what I say will be on the way in which the Council of Europe operates. The debate on the scope and effect of proposals, papers or conventions has to be had vigorously in the committees. That was done by the hon. Member for North Thanet, and I will give examples of where, even in the year that I have been there, I have taken that route and had changes made. Hopefully I will bring about other changes, because that is what we are there to do: we are not there just to go to the plenaries and get our card ticked for being present; we are, I hope, there to go to the committees, participate in the debates and form and reform the papers, the proposals and the conventions that eventually come out of the Council of Europe. If we do that, it is our duty to come here and argue for them to be implemented in our country in the fullest way declared in those conventions. If we cannot do that, I question whether we are fully participating in the process.
I thank Sir Alan Meale, because he organises the Labour side of the delegation. He was the person who suggested that, having been Chair of the European Scrutiny Committee and been a member for the past 13 years, I might see going to the Council of Europe as a natural progression, because I could see more of the debates at the fundamental level, which I did not see in the minutiae of the implementation of European directives. I thank him for inviting me to attend.
It was suggested that I should go into the committee on culture, science and education. I will speak a little about the processes that I found there, because it is important to put on the record, for those who do not know what this is all about and who read the debates, what happens there. When I went along, one of the large papers that was debated was on “the religious dimension of intercultural dialogue.” When I read it, I realised, as a humanist, that the Council of Europe’s fundamental principle of the right to belief as well as faith, was missing from the paper. When the committee invited people from all the main religions to discuss the paper, it also invited the secretary of the European Federation of Humanists to present a paper and to be heard in Paris. We then tabled amendments, which were debated and added to the paper. The paper was eventually discussed again in the committee, of which the hon. Member for North Thanet is also a member, and went to the full plenary, where it was passed by a 95% vote of the Parliamentary Assembly.
There are some things in that paper that I believe are priorities for our sixth-month presidency and that will be very helpful in a world where we know there is still anti-Semitism, sectarianism and in many countries an anti-Christian movement that threatens people’s rights, but also persecution and a denial of the rights of people who are not affiliated to religious organisations. I found those issues fundamental to why I am here, what I believe in and what I believe are the rights of the people whom I represent, and there they were being discussed in that committee. Hopefully, my participation in that debate changed the document.
There was opposition from one or two fundamentalist born again Christians who tried to take all the references to humanism out of the paper. I am glad to say that it was defended by people of all faiths in the committee and in the Assembly, because it is not about being against something, but about including people and diversity in the real sense, not just in a small way. That was an important lesson for me that when I was placed on a committee, if I took it seriously, I could do something; I would not necessarily have carried the day, but I could at least express those views.
The other committee that I sit on is the social, health and family affairs committee. The discussions of that committee chimed very much with the interests that I have always thought that we are there to pursue, such as the discussions about human trafficking. Some hon. Members may know that I am now vice-chair of the all-party human trafficking group in this House. I have pressed—even harried—the Government to sign up to the European directives on human trafficking and the new, extended European directive against the sexual exploitation and abuse of children. I found that there was very much a campaign running on that in the Council of Europe—the “One in Five” campaign. Again, I am grateful to the leader of the delegation, who nominated me to be the UK representative on that organisation. It is in fact a network of contact parliamentarians to stop sexual violence against children.
When we talk about these things, particularly at a European level about cross-border action, some people think it is not to do with them, but I have to say that in my own constituency, in the town of Grangemouth, an industrial town, there have been two unbelievably horrendous cases—many cases, but two horrendous cases of sexual abuse of female children aged 13 and 14 months by two different people, put on the internet and spread around the massive paedophile rings throughout the world. It is in every street and every town. In fact the deputy commissioner for children in England is going to have a two-year investigation running into sexual abuse of children. On one day, she took a snapshot throughout England of local authorities and care organisations; in one day, on the same day in England, 1,000 cases of sexual abuse of children were reported in England—in one day at that snapshot. That is how frightening this is.
When we had our first meeting we were addressed by Mr John Carr, who is from the UK and is the expert adviser to the International Telecommunications Union on online protection of children. The figures he gave were horrendous: there are 1 million images on paedophile internet sites at any time in the world; there are 15 million transactions a year in the country. The one thing that is a problem is that a site can be shut down or blocked in this country within 24 hours, but there are sites running in Russia and in the USA that were reported and identified over a year ago but are still running, in Russia because of gangsterism and it is hidden and hard to get at, and in the USA because it is protected by state laws and local laws. The providers of these things can still keep running a year after they are found to be trading. It is a massive, criminal, monetary-driven enterprise—paedophile activity and the abuse of children. That was a salutary lesson for me that there was something going on there that wanted to join all 47 countries—and wider than that, but all 47 countries as a start—in a campaign against one of the most heinous crimes and most heinous possible abuses of human rights and the rights of the child.
As an adjunct, we debated in the social, health and family affairs committee—I was asked to speak, and I think Oliver Heald spoke in the same debate—the rights of undocumented migrant children. I think the most succinct statement of what the Council of Europe is about is the amendment from that committee that was spoken to by Madam Strik from the Netherlands. It said that a child is first and always a child, and then after may be a migrant. If that is what the Council of Europe is about, that is so powerful for the people we represent, because they want that to be a right for everyone in all their towns and all their communities, and the Council of Europe allows us to do that.
We have also been addressed by the UN special rapporteur on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography, Najat Maalla M’jid, a woman who does this work throughout the world. It was in fact connecting the Council of Europe countries to what is happening in a much wider portfolio.
In this process of holding the presidency or the chairmanship of the Council of Ministers, I have an extra priority. It is embarrassing, and it relates to the question that I asked the hon. Member for North Thanet about having ratified a convention. The United Kingdom signed up to the convention on the protection of children against sexual exploitation and sexual abuse, which was laid on
It is amazing how many people have actually been involved, and I pay compliment to a lady who I am told is called Martine McCutcheon, who starred in “Love Actually”—I think she played the Prime Minister’s girlfriend, if I recall correctly. She presented, with people from the UK, a petition, gathered with the help of the Body Shop, of 735,889 signatures, exactly at the time it was presented, calling for the UK to ratify that convention. That was
I pay a compliment to them and to the hon. Member, who is a Member of the Government party, who is the chair of the UK Parliament’s all-party human trafficking group, and to Anthony Steen, a former Member of this House who set up an institute, the Human Trafficking Foundation. He is being supported to get campaigning organisations in all of the EU countries, but we still have a long way to go, and I hope it will be led by our chairmanship.
I have one other small point, but it is an important point. The committee on culture, science and education had a proposal before it for a recommendation towards a European framework convention on youth rights. Disappointingly, the response of the permanent member representing the UK, who will become the chair of the committee of Ministers, was that they did not really think we needed youth rights. Unfortunately, it is a fact that now, in most of the countries of Europe, there is a long period between the time when you are a child and the time you are put out to work. Sometimes people study; sometimes they try to make a life for themselves; and sometimes they go into work. In that period, a lot of young people fall between the two stools. They are not treated as children and they are not adults. They are not people who are making the rules; they are the people who are having to suffer the badly made rules.
Why I want to raise this is that it gives us an example of what we can do in the Council of Europe. I was on that committee and was involved in the draft. I took the draft away with me and I took it to the West Lothian youth forum, which is a forum set up by the local authority. I gave them copies and asked them to go away and use the youth forum to discuss this matter. What did they think of it? What did they think should be done with it? |What ideas were missing from it? The forum came back with three very simple amendments. One was on housing rights and the right to housing. The forum members pointed out that you can get housing—you can get housing in the worst dumps and slums of the cities—if you are a young person, because you are basically an insecure tenant and you have difficulties. They wanted rights to housing that is actually of a standard that is acceptable at a European level.
The second one was on employment. They wanted in employment the right to training with in-work accreditation, because they knew so many young people who had got jobs and were used, basically. They were told they were getting an apprenticeship, spent two years as a grease monkey, and then when they asked to go to college to get certification, they were sacked and some other young person got taken on to go through the same process again and again.
Those are two very important matters. The third one I think is very important as well, particularly since we allow the UK Youth Parliament to meet here in this House, in this Chamber. They said they want these matters, if we ever have a convention, to be monitored by the Youth Parliament or their equivalent in Europe, so that they can have a say on whether the Governments who sign up to these things are doing anything about it.
I am again most grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who is being very generous with his time. Does he think there ought to be a balancing factor to rights? I am not denying the importance of rights, but I wonder whether we ought to give equal importance to the responsibilities of the individual. Perhaps he has an opportunity to make that point and to ask the Minister whether he might consider it as well.
I think that we have quite a developed idea among those who take it seriously that with rights come responsibilities. I explain to everyone who comes around Parliament that it is a nice building, fine, but buildings are buildings; Parliament is about what goes on in here—the concept of democracy, the demos, the people who had the right in Athens and the responsibility to run the country. They had the power but also the responsibility. That, basically, is how society should be run. We get rights, but we have responsibilities at the same time. I think that our Government in the past tried to echo that again and again. I think that there are questions about whether people think that they have only rights. In Scotland at the moment, everyone thinks that everything is free: they do not pay council tax increases, they do not pay for their education, they do not pay for their prescriptions—it is all free. I am afraid that that is not a world in which people can live for very long, because they soon become bankrupted financially but also bankrupted in terms of principle. I think that the hon. Gentleman is right: there needs to be a balance.
Those young people were amazing. They took it seriously. A Member of Parliament said, “Here is a convention or a document that will affect your lives if it is ever passed. What do you think?” They went off and treated it seriously. I know that one of the people who helped to draft it, a young David Begg, sits in the Scottish Youth Parliament, and some of them come down here and participate in the UK Youth Parliament. That is giving them rights and responsibilities in the right way, and I hope that we will take that seriously and perhaps change our position and encourage the development of something that will speak to the youth and that has to contain responsibilities. However, the debate in the culture, science and education committee was the opposite: people said, “We don’t want to talk about responsibilities because we want to talk about young people having rights without saying they have to pay for them.” I do not necessarily agree with the balance, but that was how it was drafted.
I will finish with one last reference to a document, Madam Deputy Speaker, because a lot of the debate going on is as though the Council of Europe is out there, the Court of Human Rights is out there, and they come and fly in and drop things on top of us that we have to implement. There is a paper from
“The report examines ways to better exploit parliaments’ potential in this respect and proposes basic principles to be respected by the parliaments of the Council of Europe member states.”
It then lists a lot of very, very sensible suggestions for how Parliaments might do this. I think that is what it is about. It is not about saying, “Europe will make the decision for you. The Council of Europe will make the decision for you. You just have to implement it.” It is about thinking about how we, as parliamentarians in our Parliaments, can take those guarantees correctly.
In my first year as a member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, I realised that it was the one place where I could find the things that brought me into Parliament, the things that brought me into public life as a community activist, from where I went on to be a councillor and to give up so much of my life and time to this process of democratic representation. It is about human rights. The Council of Europe sets a benchmark against which it says to all the countries in the Council of Europe area, “You will be judged by the Council of Europe.” Enforceability is very important, and I would like to see more of it, but it says, “You will be judged by it. You will be held up to scrutiny by it. The more important thing is that you will have to ask yourselves, in your Parliament, how do you measure up to these human rights that should be available to everyone?” When I hear debates in here with people throwing out phrases that clearly say, “I want this human right, but that person from that country should not have it because we do not want them to have it. Send them back to their country, but they might be tortured. Send them back to their country, but they might face capital punishment,” I am ashamed, because that should not be talked about in this mother of Parliaments. Human rights are fundamental and the Council of Europe is their guardian. I am very pleased to be there, and I am sure that our time as the chair, with the leadership of the Minister and the Labour Benches, will be a good six months.
Order. Before I call the next speaker, I would like to draw it to Members’ attention that this debate is due to finish at 6 o’clock. We will need to leave some time at the end—not too much—to hear back from the Minister, who has been given a long list of questions already. There are 10 more Members wishing to contribute. I ask them to keep their eye on the clock when making their contributions. If it looks as if everybody will not get in, I shall consider setting a time limit on speeches to try and help Members. However, I am sure that you will all want to help each other to make your points in this consensual debate.
This has been quite a consensual debate. It has not been as noisy and pacey as the debate about Europe that we had on Monday, but there has been a great deal of quality and quite a lot of unity, not only on the importance of the Council of Europe, but on the need to reform some of its institutions, such as the European Court. I welcome the Minister’s remarks and those of the Labour representative, Emma Reynolds, although I think she might have made a slight slip of the tongue when she suggested that the landmass covered by the Council of Europe stretched from Vladivostok to Reykjavik. The term “landmass” might come as something of a surprise to the Icelanders.
I pay tribute to all the members of the British delegation. I am sure that my hon. Friend Mr Hancock will be sorry that he is unable to contribute to today’s debate as he is feeling rather unwell. He is a committed member of the delegation, and I am sure that hon. Members will regret not hearing one of his robust contributions. I also pay tribute to Mr Walter. He burnished his European credentials earlier this week, but he has received so many accolades today as the leader of the British delegation that that fact is worth mentioning too.
It is an enormous honour for Britain to take on the chairmanship of the Council of Europe. As the Minister highlighted, Britain was involved right at the beginning in establishing the institution, which was forged from the embers of wartime Europe and has promoted human rights, freedom and democracy, the rule of law and cultural co-operation ever since. It is sad that we are now so complacent that in some circles the phrase “human rights” has become something of a dirty word. Indeed, on occasion even the rule of law and the right of judges to interpret human rights have been questioned.
The Council of Europe shows that this is an important area that needs to be defended. Obviously the Council of Europe has a much lighter touch than the European Union and its institutions, but that gives it a much wider and more comprehensive remit. It has not just touched on human rights: we also have conventions on cyber-crime, pharmaceuticals, the prevention of terrorism and the prevention of torture, and—as Michael Connarty pointed out—on trafficking human beings and on racism and intolerance, including intolerance based on religious belief or non-belief.
The complacent and sometimes rather lazy criticism of human rights and institutions at the European level can easily drift into a reversal of the progress that we have seen in all these enormously important areas. Mr Gale, who is no longer in his place, pointed out how important it is not just to accept that the conventions exist and that a piece of paper has been signed, but to ensure that cases are considered in detail and measures are enforced in member states. However, that does not mean that there is no need for reform. The Liberal Democrats welcome the Government’s initiative to look into reforming Council of Europe institutions. The European convention on human rights is something that we should stoutly defend. We were the first state to ratify it, and we should certainly welcome the European Union’s accession to it and the application of those disciplines to its institutions.
I do not think that there is any suggestion that we will repeal the Human Rights Act, which actually allows this country to exercise its sovereignty by bringing the European convention on human rights into British law and giving British judges the right to enforce it. That is a re-enforcement of British sovereignty, so I would be surprised if any such suggestion were made.
However, the European Court of Human Rights clearly has a lot of problems. Mention has been made of the 155,000-case backlog. Obviously it is right that the British chairmanship should work to ensure that the Court’s judgments are implemented across the rest of Europe as well as they are in the UK, that its membership is of sufficiently high quality and, most importantly, that it does not act as a substitute for domestic courts.
One good initiative by the coalition has been the establishment of the commission on a Bill of Rights, which has already made interim recommendations on reforming the Court. The commission said in July:
“It is essential for the Court to be able to address cases involving serious questions affecting the interpretation or application of the Convention, and serious issues of general importance, where the Court’s intervention is justified. The Court should be a court of last resort, and not a first port of call for all human rights issues. It should be adjudicating hundreds of cases a year, not thousands, and certainly not tens of thousands, and ensuring that the principle of subsidiarity is observed by national institutions with the primary responsibility for the protection of human rights”.
The British chairmanship should build on that report, and seize the opportunity to take forward reform of the Court. I also hope, however, that the UK chairmanship will not be entirely distracted by the mechanics of human rights, and that it will champion those rights where they need to be championed.
In that respect, the UK chairmanship can build on the excellent work of the Foreign Secretary in his extensive report on human rights and democracy produced last year. It contains a list of countries causing concern to the British Government because of their human rights record. That list includes several European countries and one member state of the Council of Europe. Outside the Council of Europe it highlights Belarus, which is currently barred from membership because of its human rights record. The Foreign Secretary’s report describes “successive waves of repression” in that country. The Deputy Prime Minister has referred to it as “Europe’s shameful secret”. The Liberal Democrats’ own youth organisation has highlighted the struggle of its Belarusian sister organisation, Civil Forum, stating that its members
“continue to protest against the regime despite the potential violence they often face. Their struggle for human rights and political freedom is an inspiration to the global Liberal Youth movement.”
Sadly, I am sure that similar things could well be happening in such organisations in other political traditions as well. If the UK chairmanship can advance the cause of human rights in Belarus, that would be extremely welcome.
Russia also gets an unfavourable mention in the Foreign Secretary’s list. The report talks about
“restrictions on freedom of assembly, harassment and obstruction of NGOs and journalists”.
It also states:
“Human rights defenders in Russia remained at high risk in 2010.”
It highlights the cases of Oleg Orlov, of the human rights organisation Memorial, and of Sapiyat Magomedova, a human rights lawyer. It also mentions the trials of Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev, and talks about the circumstances surrounding the murder of Anna Politkovskaya, about which many questions remain unanswered. This is all very sad, because Russia has for centuries been a pillar of European culture and civilisation, and it needs to understand that showing respect for freedom, democracy and the rule of law is absolutely essential if it is to become a full member of the European family of nations.
As well as mentioning Belarus and Russia, the report also refers to examples even closer to the heart of Europe. Hungary’s new constitution gives cause for concern, and Amnesty International has highlighted issues in it relating to the rights of women, as well as to
“the provision allowing for life imprisonment without the possibility of parole…and the exclusion of sexual orientation from the protected grounds of discrimination”.
Hungary was in many ways at the starting point of Europe’s democratic revolution in 1989. It is a free democracy, and a full member of the Council of Europe and of the European Union, and it would be a great shame if it were to acquire a poor reputation in the area of human rights. I hope that under the UK chairmanship of the Council of Europe we shall see proactive debate and promotion of human rights, democracy and the rule of law.
I welcome the Minister’s remarks on the forthcoming London conference on cyberspace. It is important for it to tackle the threats from cyber-crime and even co-ordinated cyber-attack. I also hope, however, that, in line with our role in the Council of Europe, it will emphasise the values of freedom on the internet and in cyberspace. Throughout the whole episode of the Arab spring so far, we have seen how important that freedom can be to championing democracy and human rights.
On the question of the budget, the Council of Europe is a relatively small institution in the great continental scheme of things, but it has had a staggeringly large impact for its size, and I believe that it provides very good value for money. The United Kingdom should pursue an active and successful chairmanship of the Council, as that would be in our national interest, as well as in the interest of our citizens and citizens across the whole continent of Europe.
Having heard about the worthy deeds of the Council of Europe, I shall start on the question of value for money. I was struck by that as I thought about the worthy deeds of the police and the fire service in my area, as both the police station and the fire station are being closed down. Of course there are arguments about the Government’s economic policy, but all Members recognise that there has to be a level of cuts. That means—whoever is in government—that we have to prioritise what needs to be cut in the light of what we regard as valuable. There is a consensus on that.
It therefore seems strange to me that the Government do not appear to be proposing any cuts at all in respect of any of the international institutions or our contributions to them. I personally believe that a 30% cut for the European Union would amount to a pro-European case, and that it should be cut to the same degree as our police service and our fire service are being cut over the next four years—and not just in my area. That would seem to me appropriate.
I am, of course, arguing that cutting the police and fire services is the wrong priority, but in developing that argument I would not claim that the Government are either intellectually or ideologically anti-police or anti-fire service. I think that the cuts are being made in the wrong place, and I find it odd, in the light of those cuts, that the Government have not yet specified—they have the ability to do so with their six-month chairmanship of the Council of Europe—how appropriate cuts will be made to the budget of such organisations. I am not entering into a dialogue over whether that body should exist—
I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman has researched the Council of Europe at all, but its budget is being cut in real terms. What is more, it is on a pretty slim budget anyway. It is not like the European Union—nowhere near.
I thank the hon. Gentleman, but I would say, “Count the pennies and we’ll have the pounds.” I would like the Government to explore the notion of whether there needs to be any base in Strasbourg at all, or at least whether some functions could be combined. [Interruption.] There is certainly an overlap of functions between the European Union, the Council of Europe, the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe and the NATO Parliamentary Assembly. [Interruption.] I hear from sedentary comments that some Members do not agree; they are entitled not to agree. My point is that at a time of major cuts in many nation states, including this country, the Government should be looking to ensure that there is a commensurate cut in such bodies and in our contribution to them—and that with the chairmanship, they have the opportunity to drive that through. I look forward to seeing how it will be done.
In announcing their priorities in a written ministerial statement yesterday, the Government said that they would
“promote an open internet, not only in terms of access and content but also freedom of expression.”
The statement continued:
“We will support the adoption of the draft Council of Europe strategy on internet governance, and the implementation of the principles it has adopted to uphold freedom of expression on the internet”.—[Hansard, 26 October 2011; Vol. 534, c. 10WS.]
I want to put some questions to the Minister and to make some points about that priority. Like every other Member, I am aware of the importance of freedom of expression on the internet. There are countries both in Europe and beyond where a lack of freedom of expression on the internet is a severe curtailment of the workings of democracy or, in some countries, of the real options for democracy. The two go together. It would be worthy and appropriate for the Government to take that work forward. There is, however, always a counter-side and a balance in these issues. Freedom of expression on the internet is not always a good thing. The Americans have a clear view on the matter, which their Supreme Court has expressed many times, including recently. For example, when a church in the United States decided to picket the funerals of gay service men who had died on active duty in Afghanistan, the Supreme Court ruled that that constituted freedom of expression.
There are differing views on how far freedom of expression should extend, but it is a fact that in this country, under the present Government as under the last, there have been successful prosecutions of people who have used the internet for the purpose of hate crimes, and I applaud that. Successive Attorneys-General have worked hard to ensure successful prosecutions of those who abuse their ability to express themselves freely on the internet and, in so doing, stir up hatred and restrict the freedom of expression of others, including the victims whom they target.
I chair the all-party group against anti-Semitism. Under the last Government, when my right hon. Friend Margaret Hodge was the Minister, and, this year, under the present Government—I cannot remember the constituency of the culture Minister, the Prime Minister’s mate who is responsible for these matters—
Yes, Mr Vaizey. He rightly convened a conference of experts, and I note that the Government are convening another on
The all-party group has received widespread support from Members on both sides of the House for many years. Members, including some who are in the Chamber today, have participated actively. Members of the Conservative party have participated above and beyond the normal call of duty, as indeed have members of other parties, including Liberal Democrats and, of course, Labour Members. It would be rather contradictory if the Government managed to slip into a conference on the internet on
The internet is now the place where anti-Semitic filth is spread, be it the old hatreds, the blood libels, the resurrecting of the protocols of the Elders of Zion, or the new hatreds caused by a failure to differentiate between legitimate criticism of the state of Israel and attacks on Jewish people. A wide array of offences are being committed on the internet, across Europe and across this country today, and there have been new developments in recent times. Social media sites such as YouTube carry videos, and social networking sites such as Facebook publish messages promoting anti-Semitic themes. In blogs, not least those in online newspapers, a particular theme will give rise to a string of anti-Semitic or other offensive hate messages aimed at a specific group. That is one of the problems and dilemmas surrounding the internet.
In case any Member is not aware of the sort of stuff that is published, let me give some recent examples. Here is a nice little one which comes from somewhere quite close to my constituency. Someone has just posted this:
“Throw the jew down the well
So my country can be free
You must grab him by his horns
Then we have a big party”.
What a charming post! The following example is from a press statement:
“The Muslims joining the demonstration called upon the Muslim armies to march forth to fight the Jews, eradicate Israel and purify the earth of Jewish filth”.
These examples come from this country, and there are vast amounts of this material.
The abuse is not only anti-Semitic; other hatreds are expressed as well. Various groups of people are targeted. Gay rights groups have identified this as a problem, for example. Other issues can be involved. Sometimes people who are isolated in some way can be targeted, such as through cyber-bullying, which is a huge new problem.
I therefore urge the Government to focus on these internet issues in their chairmanship, starting with the conference of
Research has been done in Norway—[Interruption.] Mr Leigh says that this is not relevant; it is absolutely relevant. Yesterday, the Government said this issue would be a top priority for the Council of Europe during their chairmanship.
The point being made was how on earth can the hon. Gentleman criticise the Council of Europe about this issue, when the Council of Europe, and especially the Parliamentary Assembly, is trying to address these issues right across Europe? I serve on the committee on culture, science and education at the COE, and we are currently working on a report on this very topic.
The hon. Gentleman is a very good parliamentarian and he used to be my MP, but he sometimes gets over-excited. I am not criticising the COE. I am proposing a cut in its budget, and in the budgets of other international institutions. That is not a criticism of the COE; rather, it is to do with the economic realities. If the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues wish to prioritise certain areas of expenditure, such as by red-circling overseas aid, they are perfectly entitled to do so. What I am saying is that the Government should use their chairmanship of the COE to implement a small cut in its budget—and that the budgets of other EU and international bodies should also be cut.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that information, and let me stress that I do not celebrate such cuts, but they are, perhaps, inevitable. I have only been to Strasbourg once—it was many years ago and it was not a trip to the Council of Europe—but it is certainly an opulent place. The following question should certainly be asked: do we need European parliamentary institutions in Strasbourg as well as Brussels?
I want to correct a possible misapprehension. As well as the 10% and 17% overall cuts already mentioned, for the last eight years the COE has had a nil increase in its budget, which is, in effect, a cut. The effects of these cuts are ongoing, and the COE is trying to work within the financial restrictions. In fact, one of the new secretary-general’s priorities is to deliver these cuts, and he has the support of all political parties in Strasbourg.
Turning for a moment to what is happening in my constituency and that of my hon. Friend, I could mention the closure of fire stations. I hope the Government take a lead on seeing what more can be done, and I am certain the Minister is listening to this point.
On the Government’s priority to deal with the internet, the research from Norway, following the horrific murders there, on the propensity to violence of those surfing extremist websites needs further exploration. We need to analyse how the internet can have an impact on violence, including terrorist violence. This is a key area for us to do more work on.
We also need to address the question of corporate responsibility, not least with the internet providers. This chairmanship provides us with a great opportunity—with the internet as a priority—for the Government to get into that dialogue with the internet providers about precisely what their role is, how that can be improved and how best practice can be spread among them. I mentioned the overlap in the work of bodies such as the EU and the OSCE, and work on the internet causes a huge overlap. How are the Government going to use this opportunity to ensure that this work permeates those bodies and does not stand alone, because that would not be as effective as something that crosses over and permeates work ongoing in those two bodies?
How do the Government see the issue of education and the internet, including how young people are educated in schools on how they use and access the internet? We need to address the whole issue of grooming, child pornography and so on; important issues are involved. How are the Government going to use this opportunity to look at how best practice from other countries can be shared, how intelligence can be shared between law-enforcement agencies and what the law-enforcement regime should be, because it differs greatly between different member states of the Council of Europe?
All this provides a huge opportunity, albeit with a reduced budget, for the Government to make a mark, using their chairmanship of the Council of Europe and using the fact that they have prioritised the internet, starting in a few days’ time with the Foreign Secretary hosting this conference. I urge the Government to make sure that the balance is struck between freedom of speech, which is vital for democracies, and tackling the hate crimes that permeate the internet. If that balance is in their chairmanship, the Government will doubtless do a good job.
John Mann is my next-door neighbour across the Trent, so I hope that there will be a sort of symmetry to our speeches; I will balance his speech for the purposes of the Gainsborough Standard. He is, of course, an ornament of Parliament, not least because he succeeds in irritating his own side as much as us, which is very good.
You, too, are an ornament of Parliament, Mr Deputy Speaker. You are also a former member of the Council of Europe. We all recall you often flying the flag for Britain on a Friday when everybody else had gone home. We are very grateful for all the work you did in the delegation. I am not sure that anyone has yet thanked you, so I wanted to put that on the record. In the Council of Europe we are restricted to three-minute contributions. I cannot promise that I will take as little as that, but I shall try to be as quick as possible because I know that others want to speak.
I am very proud to be a member of the Council of Europe. When we go there we see some marvellous history laid out in the foyer, with pictures of Winston Churchill speaking to one of the first sessions, if not the first. There is something very noble about this concept which, as we know, arose out of the second world war. The Council of Europe was a tremendously powerful mechanism in saying that we were never again going to have the horrors of Nazism and fascism. We should also be very proud of what the immediate past generation of members of the Council of Europe achieved in the whole transition to democracy in eastern Europe, of what the Council of Europe has achieved in eastern Europe and of how we are really defending human rights in eastern Europe, where there have been the most appalling and profound abuses, as there were in western Europe before 1945. To me, that is what the Council of Europe, the European convention on human rights and the Human Rights Act 1998 are all about; it is about the fundamental freedoms that, from Magna Carta onwards, we have built up in this country. We have become a beacon of those freedoms. We all know what they are: freedom of expression and of religion, the right to privacy and a family life—wonderful, basic freedoms. That is what I believe Winston Churchill was talking about, but what we have now seen is judicial creep way beyond anything ever envisaged when the convention was agreed.
There is a misunderstanding about this issue. Nobody on the Government Benches is suggesting that we should leave the convention. I am proud of the convention that we signed in 1949. All we are attacking is the incorporation of the convention into our law under the Human Rights Act 1998, which was passed by the Labour Government. That is our gripe. Nobody is denying that we should be a member of the Council of Europe or that we want to reform it, but this has become a very serious issue. If one looks on the front pages of the newspapers today one will see, just to take one issue, that the population of this country is due to rise within 20 years to 70 million people—a figure that the Labour Government said was quite unacceptable and would never be reached. Two thirds of that increase comes from immigration—that will put a severe strain not only on services but on good relations and human rights. This issue of immigration is therefore important.
If the Minister for Immigration were here and were allowed to speak openly about what is happening in his Department, I am sure that he would have to admit that he is severely constrained in what he can do to deal with this problem of immigration in order to foster good race relations because of the incorporation of the convention into our law. Although he cannot tell us, because he is a Minister, what is going on inside his Department, we have, as I mentioned earlier in a couple of interventions, now heard from a former Minister for Immigration. His diary really is worth revealing because it tells us in great detail what is going on. This is not some right-winger speaking: it is a former Labour Minister—a person who voted for the 1998 Act, was then put in a position of responsibility and was, frankly, driven mad by it.
I am tempted to discuss the issue of immigration and suggest that it is more to do with providing the skills in the right jobs, as that is what is drawing in immigration—that is something that the coalition is tackling.
The hon. Gentleman talks about getting rid of the Human Rights Act, which effectively means taking the ability to interpret the convention out of the hands of British judges and giving it back to European judges. Does he not trust British judges or does he think that by doing that we will somehow not be implementing it as fully as we would be if it were in British law?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman because this addresses precisely the point I want to make. I believe that the convention as we understood and implemented it from the late 1940s to the late 1990s was about the protection of fundamental rights. It was understood to be a matter of last resort. If somebody was really dissatisfied with the way that their human rights had been treated in British courts, for example in the immigration process, they could, if they wanted—frankly, after they had been removed—take a case to Strasbourg. What has happened since then—since we have incorporated it—is that we have had a tidal wave of cases coming to our own judges, and they have interpreted the convention in such a way that makes it very difficult for Ministers to do their job. Members of Parliament might not worry about whether it is bad to make it difficult for Ministers to do their job, but Ministers are responsible to this Parliament. This is the democratic forum of the British people. This Parliament should be supreme—not the courts.
If hon. Members do not believe me, they should listen to what Mr Woolas said. I have already mentioned the case. For years we had been working on both sides of the House against forced marriages and we had been trying to raise the age of women coming here. I mentioned in my intervention on Emma Reynolds how that had been overturned by judges. I ask hon. Members to listen to this quote from Phil Woolas, the former Labour Minister for Immigration, which directly mentions the European Court. He said:
“We have four people wanted for genocide in Rwanda (there are 100 but the four are the test case)”— so we have here four people who are wanted for quite serious crimes, so not very nice people. The quote continues:
“The magistrates had agreed to extradite them but the High Court had disagreed on the grounds that they would not get a fair trial in Rwanda.
I am advised” by my civil servants
“that I should grant six months leave to remain in the UK ‘in the hope that the legal system in Rwanda improves’.
I had asked why we couldn’t try them in The Hague and was told as they were not British, I couldn’t send them there!
So a person accused of committing genocide in an ‘unsafe country’ (which country that has genocide is safe!) simply has to get into an ECHR country and they will get away with it. The ECHR is providing cover for people who commit genocide. Madness.”
That is not me speaking—it is a Labour Minister.
I will refer to another case and then I will stop. There were many others, and I recommend that hon. Members read what is going on inside the Department, because it is our only insight into what is actually happening across Ministers’ desks.
“The French Navy detained some drug smugglers in the middle of the Atlantic. It took 14 days to get back to France because the ship was on patrol. But the…gangster took the French government to court for unlawful detention under the ECHR, saying he should have been dealt with sooner!...The smugglers have been released…I have now asked why we can’t change the law to stop this abuse but the MoD don’t want me to as they are using the same defence to protect six British soldiers, now back in the UK, who are being sued from Iraq after being accused of unlawfully detaining suspect insurgents in Basra…So, we cannot detain suspected gangsters at sea and the Human Rights Act applies in Basra. Unbelievable.”
That is not me speaking; it is a Labour Minister.
That is what we have come to, and it is now affecting national policy in a very profound way. The House may not agree with me about immigration, but I think it is a very serious issue for our country. We have to grapple with it if we are going to ensure good race relations in the future. I believe that a population of 70 million is unsustainable. You may not agree with that, Mr Deputy Speaker, but surely you agree that this House, and Ministers responsible to us, should have the right and the power to deal with it; you do not believe that at all times their hands should be shackled behind their back because of a European convention that has been interpreted in such a way that it goes way beyond what anyone envisaged when it was set up.
The Human Rights Act also has a direct impact on operations for our armed forces, and often constrains the way in which our commanders can operate. They spend a heck of a lot of their time working out how not to offend the Human Rights Act rather than working out how they can carry out their operations. It is a very big difficulty, which we must also overcome.
I am grateful for that; my hon. Friend speaks with personal knowledge.
I shall end in a minute. I think I have made my point and I hope I have made it in a way that the House understands. Yes, I do believe that the Council of Europe needs some reform; the Court certainly needs some reform. There are obvious things that we could do to fillet the number of cases. A backlog of 160,000 is ridiculous and unsustainable. The Court should deal with fundamental abuses of human rights, which are still going on in some countries; let us be fair about that.
We have had recent debates in the Council of Europe about massacres and persecution of Christians in the middle east. Those are things of the sort that I think the founding fathers were thinking of—the horrible events, the disgusting and vile abuses of human rights that have been taking place in Libya within the past year, or in Syria in the past few weeks, or in Iraq over the past 10 years, and if those countries were part of the convention in the Council, that may be a good thing. That is what we should be focusing on, not these absurd, trivial cases—tens of thousands of them.
I cannot believe that a filleting process cannot be developed. I cannot believe that we cannot have a process similar to that which our own ombudsman uses. We are constantly being approached with requests to go to the Parliamentary Ombudsman, and there is a very quick process which fillets out immediately all cases that are obviously not applicable to the Parliamentary Ombudsman. Then the Court really could be something powerful, noble and great, which would be a beacon to the world. It really would defend human rights, because it would focus its attention on those very real abuses, which, I am afraid, are still taking place in the rest of the world and even, I suspect, in some parts of Europe in limited circumstances.
Having done that, I believe that we should repeal the 1998 Act and replace it with our own Bill of Rights. That Bill of Rights should be based on a fundamentally British understanding of how our common law has developed since the Magna Carta. It should protect people’s individual freedoms, but not take the whole process to a ridiculous conclusion, the sort that states that I cannot say what I believe or speak my truth if it might somehow insult the sensibilities of, for example, an hon. Friend. For instance, there was an absurd case concerning an argument about Islam that took place over the breakfast table in a bed and breakfast. The owner made a disparaging comment about Islam, suggesting that it was a violent religion—not a comment I would have made—but it was said in the course of a normal conversation. He was promptly taken to court for somehow infringing the human rights of the person with whom he was arguing. We all know that this is profoundly un-British and that it is not working. It is preventing British Ministers carrying out what a British Parliament wants. I believe that we should replace the 1998 Act with a British Bill of Rights.
May I start by congratulating you, Mr Deputy Speaker, on being made an honorary member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, which is well deserved? Of course, many of us are very sad that you are not so frequently there, partly because we now have to speak on Fridays, and you were always extremely good at that.
I agree with much of what my hon. Friend Mr Leigh said. The European Court of Human Rights has a very important function. The European convention on human rights was designed by English lawyers and expresses what were seen to be the fundamental rights of English common law—the right to a fair trial and so on. It is therefore ironic that the introduction of the Human Rights Act, which incorporated the convention into English law, has somehow been seen as a new departure and used to extend the law, which I think is the mistake. It is the way in which it has been incorporated that is the problem.
I am chairman of the executive of the Society of Conservative Lawyers, which for some years has produced publications and pamphlets arguing for a British Bill of Rights. The secret of why that approach is the right one is that it would be possible to have some kind of route map explaining how the rights should be interpreted in English law, which is what is needed. I welcome the fact that the Government have established a commission to consider that. At the Conservative party conference the Home Secretary talked about the immigration rules and how they comply with the convention. She made the point that it is not the rights themselves that are the problem, but the way they are put into English law in the immigration rules. She is now going to change those rules to ensure a more sensible approach that explains the interaction between the right to a family life and the national interest, which I think is the right way forward.
John Mann should spend a little more time researching what the Council of Europe does, because although it is an unusual creation, it is an important one. It is multi-layered: it has the Parliamentary Assembly, which does one sort of work, and the organisations allied to it, such as the group of states against corruption; it also has a congress of local and regional authorities, which involves local government across the 47 countries; then there is the Court, which deals with matters that have been presented by individuals complaining about how countries are implementing the convention. He should look at the effect of all those institutions acting together, because he will find that they are doing a very useful job. The Council of Europe is not an expensive institution in the way the European Union is—I agree with his criticism of the lavish expenditure on the EU and the need to cut it considerably.
The issues that the Council of Europe as a whole addresses, such as migration, are the great issues of the day. My hon. Friend Mr Leigh has just expressed his concerns about migration. My hon. Friend Mr Chope, who is chair of the Council’s committee on migration, refugees and population, recently produced a major report on migration and how we should tackle it right across the Council of Europe area. It is easy to think that that is the same area as the EU, but it absolutely is not: the Council includes Russia and Turkey and so covers a vast area. As a result, it is able, if its reports are implemented, to have a serious effect on the problem of migration. It is an institution that can cope with that sort of big issue. Equally, the culture, science and education committee is looking into the very issue that the hon. Member for Bassetlaw is concerned about: the internet.
If all 47 countries sign up, it is possible to effect change. The hon. Gentleman should not think of the Council of Europe as an institution like the EU; it is not. The Council covers a wider area, it is multi-layered and, as Sir Alan Meale said, its Parliamentary Assembly also has peace missions. If we think back to the Russia-Georgia conflict a couple of years ago, we find that it was the Council of Europe that sent in a team to try to broker peace in that very dangerous situation. The Council also monitors elections. My hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch was in Tunisia last week doing valuable work. The Council is spreading democracy and tackling some of the big issues as only it can, and the hon. Gentleman ought to take a more serious view of it. He spends a lot of time planning mountaineering expeditions—indeed, I once met him at the top of Scafell Pike—and he ought to do that sort of preparation on this subject.
The hon. Gentleman has spent too much time on top of mountains, I think; he needs to listen a little more carefully. Election monitoring is also done by the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe and by the European Union, so there is some overlap. It is not a criticism of the work of the Council of Europe to suggest that it can take a bigger haircut along with everyone else; indeed, it is the pro case, just as it is the pro-European case to suggest a big haircut for the European Union. A credible organisation like that can get away with a haircut—because it is credible.
The hon. Gentleman made his speech, and I have disagreed with several points that he made, so we will probably have to leave it at that.
The Government are right to make Court reform a priority, however. With a backlog of 162,000 cases, there is a need for a filter to provide some way of getting through them, and we are right to try to introduce more subsidiarity. I agree with our delegation leader, my hon. Friend Mr Walter, that we should have a system in which one needs leave to take a case to the European Court of Human Rights, although personally I think that one would need also the right, if leave were refused, to apply directly to the
Court. That would not open a great floodgate of cases; it would just mean that, if a particular case were decided for political reasons, which is what can happen in some countries, there would be a further way through.
On the Human Rights Act, I have mentioned my support for a British Bill of Rights, but the other issue is the quality of the judges. I have been a member of the Council’s Parliamentary Assembly for only two-and-a-half years, or perhaps three now, but that problem has been raised in the Assembly throughout that period. Some judges just do not know the Court’s law base, and there is a concern that some countries’ candidates are just not adequate. We should find ways to improve the quality.
Will the hon. Gentleman confirm, so that the House is not left with the wrong impression, that we refuse candidates at every session? If they do not meet the language, experience and gender balance criteria, we do not appoint them. We send them back, time and time again to some countries.
Yes, and of course the answer is not to find a way of letting unsatisfactory candidates through; it is to secure an improvement in the quality of candidates. Knowledge of the Court’s key languages is vital; otherwise it is not possible for the judges to interact with it.
My impression of the European Court of Human Rights is that it takes a slightly diplomatic approach to its cases and almost sprays round the judgments a bit. There is a need to act entirely on the basis of serious human rights abuses and not to feel that every country of the 47 must have a judgment against it. More focus on serious abuses of human rights would meet the point made by my hon. Friend Priti Patel and other hon. Friends.
I support Secretary-General Jagland’s programme of reform, which will save money—the hon. Member for Bassetlaw will be pleased about that—and streamline the organisation, reducing the number of committees. It is worth giving credit to Monsieur Mignon, who is rapporteur of the committee on rules of procedure, immunities and institutional affairs, and involved with the Assembly’s bureau. He has played a major part, and his report on changing the rules is a major piece of work. My hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset played a big part in that. Those changes will improve how the Assembly works.
The rule of law is an important priority for the Government, and I want to mention two issues. The first is migration. If we are to tackle migration, it is important to follow the approach that the committee on migration, refugees and population set out in its recent report, when my hon. Friend Mr Chope was the rapporteur. That involves sticking by the Dublin agreement. Asylum seekers must apply for asylum in the first country they arrive in; otherwise they may be sent back to that country. There is talk in the Council of Europe about flexibility and shared responsibility, which suggests that some people who apply for asylum could be waved through to other countries for their case to be dealt with, but that would drive a coach and horses through the regulation of migration in Europe. Many people already cross external borders illegally. It is important to stick by the Dublin agreement. We should also have better arrangements for patrolling the Mediterranean, and I know that the Government are supporting moves in that direction. I support the idea that our Government could send officials to help to deal with immigration cases in Greece and Italy, rather than going for the shared responsibility, wave them through approach. I hope that the Government will continue to offer that support to our southern neighbours in the hope that there will be no weakening of the Dublin agreement.
On extraordinary rendition, Dick Marty, the Swiss parliamentarian, recently produced “Abuse of State Secrecy and National Security: Obstacles to Parliamentary and Judicial Scrutiny of Human Rights Violations”. It is his last report, because he is standing down from the Council of Europe. I pay tribute to his long-standing commitment to human rights, and his campaign against extraordinary rendition. In his latest report, he pays tribute to the all-party group in the House that deals with the issue, and describes its efforts as untiring. It is right to pay tribute also to the all-party group.
The key point about Mr Marty’s report is that it builds on what we have been doing in this country. He says that legislation should not be a cloak for wrongdoing and highlights the importance of parliamentary scrutiny of the work of secret services, as we do here—although, obviously, there may room for improvement in that. He points to the need for courts to develop procedures where secret information can be used without damaging state security. He also addresses the settling of the cases that arose out of Guantanamo and the report that is being produced by the special inquiry led by Sir Peter Gibson. In doing so, he acknowledges that this Government are taking the issue seriously and approaching it in a way that could be a model for other parts of Europe.
The committee on culture, science and education is in the process of producing a report on internet governance. There has been and continues to be a good deal of argument about exactly what the report should contain. I am glad that the Government are making the issue one of their priorities. I hope that when the report comes out, assuming my hon. Friend Mr Gale gets his way on exactly what is in it, the Government will take it seriously and use it as part of their approach.
Finally, I welcome the Government’s concentration on tackling discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity. What we do in this country is very seen much as the model for the rest of Europe. Some other countries are way behind—examples have been given with which I agree. It is good that our Government are going to build on the work that has been done in this country and try to spread it across the 47 countries of the Council of Europe.
In conclusion, it is very wise of the Government to have reached agreement with Ukraine and Albania—the countries whose periods of chairmanship are on either side of ours—because that means that, over an extended period of 18 months, the chairmanship can concentrate on some issues and get a result. I wish the Government well and hope that the Interlaken process is the success that it should be. The fact that 47 countries are involved, the largeness of the geographical area covered, and the way in which the organisation is led mean that if something is done right in one country, best practice can be spread right across Europe.
I thank John Mann, who is leaving his place, for reminding me that I need a haircut this weekend.
I welcome many of the Minister’s remarks. I was especially pleased to hear his comments about a Bill of Rights and about subsidiarity. The Government seem to have a real programme to implement over the six months of our chairmanship, and most of us in this House would welcome that. However, we shall be scrutinising his work and keeping an eye on him. That is the job of this place, and I know that he will welcome it.
I am sure he will.
The European Court of Human Rights has a proud history of defending the rights of individuals, but there is no doubt that there have been several questionable judgments that raise issues about its competence across the piece. I refer to the membership of the judges’ bench. It has already been said that a number of judges have little judicial experience, and indeed that some of them were political appointees. That does no good for the whole concept of jurisprudence. We ought to be making an effort to ensure that a court of this importance is matched by the quality of the judges who sit on its benches, and the sooner we get down to that, the better it will be. One judge was reported not to understand the concept of legal precedents. When one gets that sort of ignorance in a court of this kind, one begins to wonder what sort of justice it imparts. Indeed, many people in this country have begun to believe that some of its judgments are, to say the least, beyond the pale. Those people are responsible for overturning the decisions of this House and our courts, so we have a right to expect a greater degree of competence and better qualifications. I know that the Minister will take those thoughts on board.
My next point is about languages—a subject touched on by my hon. Friend Oliver Heald. The 2005 Woolf report made 26 recommendations on the working methods of the European Court of Human Rights. One was the provision of language training, and yet that has not been implemented. We all know that interpreters can change the nuance of language dramatically when they interpret one language into another. Because the nuance changes, the meaning can be totally different. That is simply unfair to the people who put their trust and faith in the European Court of Human Rights. I urge the Minister to put language training for judges on his little list as an absolute priority.
The 2010 Interlaken conference and declaration stressed the need to preserve the high quality of the European Court of Human Rights. I have already referred to the lack of quality. This matter is consistently asked about, and it is consistently recorded that we need to do things. No wonder the people of this country get a little impatient when nothing happens. I want to send the European
Court of Human Rights the message that it must get its act together, because it is undermining the confidence of the people of this country—and, no doubt, that of the people in other countries—which is so necessary for it in doing its work.
I was going to talk about prisoner voting, but we had a big debate on that recently. Suffice it to say that I believe that prisoners are in prison by choice. They are not forced to break the law; they choose to break the law. Therefore, there is no problem with the removal of that human right. They choose to deny themselves that human right. We ought to do some plain talking when this matter comes before the Committee of Ministers.
I also question the judges’ appreciation of our values and legal procedures. This nation is lucky to have a common law based on almost 1,000 years of life experience—a common law that has served this nation well. To my mind, it covered all the necessary protections of the people of this country. Indeed, they seem to think that it covered the necessary protections themselves. The fact that there are so many different codes of law in a 47 nation-strong Europe underlines the need for greater knowledge of the various codes of law in those countries. If necessary, that might require a division of the judges’ bench. We certainly need them to understand our code of law if they are making judgments about our citizens.
In arguing for an awareness of our code of law, cultural traditions and values, is the hon. Gentleman therefore arguing in support of British judges having the right to interpret the Human Rights Act 1998, and therefore the European convention on human rights, in British courts?
I am delighted to say that most senior judges believe in the primacy of Parliament, and I have no concerns about that. A few judges have tried to argue differently. Only recently, I noticed the remarks of a senior judge in the Court of Appeal that underlined the importance of the primacy of this place.
I want other people to be able to speak, and many Members have spoken for a long time, so I will reject the hon. Gentleman’s request on this occasion.
I wish to touch briefly on the 162,000-case backlog in the European Court of Human Rights. We all know that it is farcical, and that something must be done about it. I am glad that the Minister has decided to do something. However, I must ask him something. I was once told by a fortune teller that I would live to beyond 80, which would be another 11 years. Will the measures that he puts in place during our chairmanship be completed, and will the list be eradicated, in that time? It worries me, and I want to go to meet my maker with a clear and untroubled mind.
Finally, I wish to say that I know the Minister cares about these matters and is well placed to represent us in respect of them. I look forward—for the first time in many years—to action on the European Court of Human Rights that will give the British people confidence. If the Minister comes away after the six months of the British chairmanship having achieved that objective, we will all be prepared to say, “Very well done, Minister!”
May I, too, begin by congratulating the Europe Minister on a speech that I think united not just all on the Government Benches but many members of all parties? It is obvious that he intends the chairmanship of the Council of Europe to be used in a positive way and to reform the European Court of Human Rights, which I fully support. That institution was set up in 1949, as we have heard, when we had just come out of a war against dictators and other dictators were still ruling parts of Europe—as they did until well into my lifetime, in the 1970s. It was right that a country with 1,000 years of democracy and a history of supporting human rights should be part of that process, and we should be proud of what we have done and achieved. However, there are things that have come out of the Court that rightly give everyone concern. I wish briefly to mention two with which I have had a personal involvement.
First, a lady came to speak at a meeting I organised about four years ago. I have not spoken to her this afternoon, so I will not mention her name, but she has been in the papers. She was the victim of a sexual assault by somebody who had five convictions for sexually assaulting women, but who was successfully able to use article 8 of the European convention on human rights to ensure that he was not deported back to Sierra Leone. That is a very good example of the human rights of women in this country not being put first. We are putting the rights of rapists and serial sex attackers first, and that has to be wrong.
The second issue, which has also been mentioned today, is the interference in the Government’s decision to try to raise the age for marrying a foreign spouse from 18 to 21. When I served on the Home Affairs Committee under the excellent chairmanship of Keith Vaz, who was here earlier, we took part in an inquiry into forced marriages. We heard terrible and shocking evidence that they were widespread in some communities, and that some young women had said in private to British embassy officials, “Please don’t give this man a visa. I don’t want to marry him,” but were unable to say that in public because of family pressure. As a result, judges in immigration tribunals did not take account of evidence that had been given in private, and they granted spouse visas. That is why the Government wanted to raise the age—to protect the human rights of young females in certain communities in this country. That should be a priority.
I absolutely support gay rights and think it is totally unacceptable that anyone should be discriminated against because of their sexual orientation. I sometimes think, though, that that battle has already been won. I would not have thought that many people would think that acceptable any more, certainly in this country. I therefore wonder whether we should prioritise what I think is an even bigger issue for all of us—the thousands of young girls in this country and across Europe, and young males in some instances, who become the victims of forced marriage, domestic slavery, genital mutilation and other such completely unacceptable things.
I am not a member of the Council of Europe, although I would be more than happy to support it in any way if I were asked to do so. None the less, I look forward very much to the UK’s chairmanship of that organisation, and to seeing some of the reforms that have been mentioned today.
It is a pleasure to be called, and a privilege to have the chance to play a small part in this debate. The UK chairmanship of the Council of Europe comes round not very often, so we can truly say that we will not see the like of this parliamentary occasion for decades to come.
I concur with many colleagues who have spoken, particularly on the urgent need for reform of the European Court of Human Rights and the terrible problems caused by the large backlog of cases. I am sure that all hon. Members know of constituents who simply do not know whether a case that they have submitted will ever be heard, and who do not know where they stand.
My hon. Friend Mr Gale and others commented on the importance of internet governance in Europe. That is important in terms not only of internet freedoms, which were an important part of the Arab spring, but of personal security and trade. We need the internet to work as an open common trading environment. People who seek to pass off goods or to break copyright and intellectual property protections on goods and services in the EU, and who use the internet to facilitate that, should know that the force of law will come down on them. That is a challenge for the Council of Europe, the Government and the EU.
I should like to use the time allowed not to go over some of the matters that have already been covered, but to ask the Minister to consider ethics and integrity in sport—another important matter—as part of the work of the UK chairmanship of the Council of Europe. The debate is timely, given the Council’s work on match fixing, on which it has engaged with UEFA. It is also part of the general debate on the reform of FIFA, the governing body of world football, about which members of the Council have also had things to say.
Sport and the ethics of sport have played an important role in the Council of Europe since it was started in 1949. Through the years, the Council has built up significant competence in specialised areas such as quality assurance in sport, and agreements adopted at world and European political levels. The Council of Europe has a unique and important role to play within the sporting environment. It is not a member state Government, an EU institution or an international Government or body, but a forum that brings together people who have concerns about the future of Europe, how countries work together, and the rights and freedoms that we all enjoy. It works across the political spectrum, including in the world of culture and sport.
The Council passed the enlarged partial agreement on sport, which provides a forum for a discussion of ethics in sport and for championing those issues. In 2005 the Committee of Ministers adopted a recommendation that called on the Council to consider that
“good governance in sport is a complex network of policy measures and private regulations used to promote integrity in the management of the core values of sport such as democratic, ethical, efficient and accountable sports activities; and that these measures apply equally to the public administration sector of sport and to the non-governmental sports sector”.
The Committee also called on the Council to consider setting up
“mechanisms to monitor the implementation of good governance in sport principles, and put in place mechanisms to deal with inappropriate or unethical behaviours in sport, including prosecution where necessary.”
Those are fundamental points, and I am pleased that the Council considered them in its working activities. It could bring those recommendations to bear and raise the issue of good governance with FIFA, the world football body. An active debate on that has been led by Members of this Parliament—the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport this year produced a report on FIFA reform and allegations of corruption against senior officials within the game.
FIFA is based in Europe, and as we have heard, almost every country is represented in the Council of Europe. One country that is not represented is the Vatican, which FIFA is like in some ways. It has an extremely powerful global figure—Sepp Blatter—who is beyond the protection of government. He certainly moves around the world like a latter-day pontiff or monarch, and is above the counsel of both court and Parliament.
People who love the game of football, which is played around the world, including within the jurisdiction of this Parliament, ask, “Is that right? Is there a role for international bodies such as the Council of Europe and parliamentary bodies and Parliaments to speak up?” Allegations of corruption against senior members of FIFA and members of the FIFA executive committee have been made in this Parliament. It is right that we take those allegations up with such governing bodies, and that we challenge the president of FIFA, Sepp Blatter. It is also right to ask whether FIFA is putting its house in order, and whether the concerns of the citizens of Europe, including citizens of this country, are being dealt with by governing bodies. Should we not seek to prosecute people who have done wrong, and launch independent investigations into allegations of wrongdoing?
FIFA is a particularly good—or rather, bad—example of a body challenged by allegations of corruption against its most senior people. In the past 12 months, of the leading 24 FIFA members who make up the executive committee, 11 have faced serious allegations of corruption, two have been suspended, one has been banned for life, one has resigned and four are currently under investigation. This is a body in considerable crisis. In June Sepp Blatter, the president of FIFA, committed the organisation to leading a process of internal reform. I believe that that process needs to move a lot more quickly. I believe that no real progress has been made. At the FIFA congress earlier this month, Sepp Blatter set out a taskforce.
My hon. Friend knows that I am very interested in football, and in fact played for a long time. Does he not think that Sepp Blatter is part of the problem, not part of the answer, and that the review of FIFA ought to be independent and made up of a global group of people who really understand football?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. For a review of FIFA to have any meaning, there needs to be a fully independent investigation into all the allegations made. Transparency International, which conducted a report for FIFA, said that this should be the first step towards cleaning up FIFA. It should involve people from outside the organisation and from different walks of life—perhaps judges, people in politics and people with experience of governance in other sporting institutions—who could take the lead and have the power to initiate their own investigations, produce their own reports and do so in public. FIFA has set up a taskforce to look at good governance within FIFA. I think that that needs to move faster and that it should consider commissioning people from outside the organisation to lead the investigations internally. That is absolutely key.
We know of the concerns expressed by some of the judges who have served on FIFA’s ethics committee. In January one of Germany’s most respected judges, Günter Hirsch, left the committee in disgust and said:
“The events of the past few weeks have raised and strengthened the impression that responsible persons in Fifa have no real interest in playing an active role in resolving, punishing and avoiding violations against ethic regulations of Fifa.”
These are legitimate areas of public concern, and it is legitimate for Parliament to take an interest in them too. FIFA has taken some steps forward in the past few weeks. The idea that the location of the World cup should be decided not by an elite few people in the game, but by representatives of every FIFA member, is a step in the right direction. However, widespread investigations are needed into all the allegations of corruption made so far, so that there can be a clean slate.
There has to be greater transparency in the work of FIFA and in how its money is spent, particularly in developing football countries around the world, so that it can be audited and publicly accounted for, just as the work of Parliament or the Government is. The backgrounds of people who serve on international bodies such as FIFA should be clear. If they have any conflicts of interest those should be made clear, as is the case for a member of the Government or a Member of Parliament. If they have financial interests, or their family members have financial interests, in football, it should be on the public record. Any pounds spent by FIFA anywhere in the world should be accounted for. We should know where they go. That is what is required to put football’s governing body back on an even keel and to restore faith in it. However, because of how it is constituted, that change has to be driven by FIFA and Sepp Blatter.
The pace of that change and reform must be greatly accelerated, and it must have a degree of transparency that it simply does not have now. The Council of Europe, and the UK’s chairmanship of it, could consider that matter as part of the work of the Council’s sub-committee on youth and sport. We should debate those issues within that forum, alongside its work on other areas of ethics in sport, particularly match fixing, as I mentioned earlier. It should produce its own report and view to add to the external pressure that must be placed on FIFA, if the necessary reforms are to be put in place and we are to have confidence in FIFA as a world governing body. That would be an incredibly important and popular thing for the Council of Europe to do, and a great way for the UK’s chairmanship to demonstrate its commitment to ethics and sport, as well as the other important areas of work that the Minister outlined.
It is a great pleasure to follow my hon. Friend Damian Collins. I am sure that football supporters throughout the United Kingdom would echo his remarks—as an England supporter, I certainly endorse what he said—and I am sure that everyone shares his concern about how our beloved game is being administered internationally.
I have already paid tribute to my hon. Friend Mr Walter for his sterling work in leading the British delegation to the Council of Europe, but I would also like to pay tribute to Opposition Members who have led the delegation while I have been a member of it. I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend Mr Chope, who is the chairman of the Council of Europe’s migration committee, on which I have the pleasure of serving, for all his hard work in that capacity, and in such an important field. It has been instructive and interesting for me to see how other European Union member states and their representatives view migration. For my part, I am concerned that the questions of who should be permitted to cross borders, who should be permitted to reside in countries, settle in them and become citizens, and who should be removed from them should principally be a matter for member states’ Parliaments and not determined by European law. We must be careful to ensure that the jurisprudence of the European Court of Human Rights does not obtrude unnecessarily in the field of migration.
I want to make three points about what lies ahead for the British chairmanship of the Council of Europe. The first concerns the European Union. I have already made one speech in the Chamber about the European Union this week, and Members might feel that one is enough for a week—I certainly feel it is. However, it is not me who is bringing the European Union into this debate; rather, the European Union is bringing itself in. It seeks to accede to the European convention on human rights and wants Members of the European Parliament to participate in some of the Council of Europe’s activities. I have many reservations of principle about the accession of the European Union to the Council of Europe and the European convention on human rights. I am not clear on what basis the EU seeks to accede to the convention, because every other member of the convention is a nation state and the EU says that it is not one. I am not clear as to whether the change is needed, because the member states of the European Union are already members of the Council of Europe and the European Union already has a charter of fundamental rights, to which the treaty of Lisbon gives legal effect, covering much the same ground as the European convention on human rights. As a result, the prevailing legal position on human rights in Europe could be complicated by the two sets of conventions.
I think it has been conceded that any citizen in the European Union who feels that their human rights have been breached can already take the European Union to the European Court of Human Rights through the activities of their member state. That can already be done, and it is not clear what the effect of the European Union joining the convention will be.
However, having said that, I deal with this issue in a pragmatic way. We are where we are; the European Union is going to join. The question for British representation and our chairmanship of the Council of Europe is how we make a success of things and smooth out some of the difficulties. I urge my right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe to pay careful attention to the points that my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset raised about the way in which the European Union members in the Committee of Ministers will operate. There should be no question of any caucusing or any departure from the representation that normally takes place, where every member state on the Committee of Ministers sits as an individual member state. If we depart from that principle, we are in danger of creating two classes of members in the Council of Europe: those that are members of the European Union and those that are not. That would be damaging, so I hope that it does not happen.
I feel confident that my right hon. Friend and his colleagues will work hard to ensure that that does not happen, so that we obtain whatever benefits are to be obtained—at least there is one Member in the Chamber, speaking for the Liberal Democrats, who thinks there will be some benefits; I think it will be more a question of mitigating the damage—and make the best of things. My hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset is not approaching these issues as one who is a completely hardened Eurosceptic, as we know from his speech on this matter the other evening. His voice on this should be listened to, as someone who wants this to succeed and who is taking a pragmatic point of view. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister will pay attention to that, and work hard, as I know he does in every other field of the European Union, to make this a success.
My second point that the British chairmanship could take forward relates to the emerging democracies on the borders and in the neighbourhood of Europe. I am thinking particularly of those that have been involved in the Arab spring. The Council of Europe has built up a good record over a long period of helping to promote democracy in newly democratic states in Europe. Indeed, that is part of its history that has perhaps not been emphasised sufficiently this afternoon. It started in the dark days of the cold war, when it had a small membership. As the cold war ended, and we began to have more democratic states in Europe, the Council of Europe did a very good job of promoting and safeguarding democratic values.
Obviously, the countries on the borders of Europe in the Arab world are in a different position, but there can be a role for the Council of Europe in promoting democracy in those countries. It has already established its partnership for democracy scheme, which is now in operation in Morocco, and it has agreed to give the same status to the Palestinian Authority. This can only be a good thing, and it is in everyone’s interests to promote human rights in countries that have had a political culture of dictatorship and have not been democracies in the recent past. I would therefore urge my right hon. Friend the Minister to take forward that good work, as it will be to the profit of the Council of Europe and of this country.
My third point is a more general one, and it echoes some of the points made already this afternoon, particularly by my hon. Friend Mr Leigh. May we have a tighter focus during our chairmanship on what are generally regarded as human rights? It would be quite an undertaking to try to define human rights in the time that I have available, but I would like us to focus on those things that members of the public, our constituents, would recognise as human rights. They include the right to life itself, the right to freedom of expression, the right to freedom of religion and the right to freedom of assembly. Those are generally accepted as human rights.
It has to be said that, today in Britain, human rights have rather a poor image compared with the one that they had 20 or 30 years ago. Today, if one raises the issue of human rights with the general public, one is more likely to elicit a groan than a cheer. That was not always the case, however. Certainly, in the 1960s, 1970s and—dare I say it—the 1980s, people regarded human rights in a positive way. They associated them with admirable organisations such as Amnesty International, with the dissidents in the former Soviet Union and with the people fighting apartheid in South Africa. Human rights had a positive image, but things are very different today.
In his excellent speech, my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough made some important points about the perception of human rights. I have to say that there is a clue as to what the turning point was. It seems to have come at about the same time as the passage of the Human Rights Act 1998. I remember this because I was in the House at the time. There were those who said that we should be careful about the effect of incorporating the convention on human rights into British law. They pointed out that our legal system was very different from other European legal systems, and that the effect of its incorporation could create considerable difficulty. They also said that it could lead to more and more judgments of a political nature masquerading as judgments on human rights. So far as the Council of Europe is concerned, if Ministers can bring the focus on human rights more tightly on to what people regard as human rights, that would be a good thing.
There is still a need for the safeguarding of human rights in Europe, and even—dare I say it—in this country. Even after the passage of the much-vaunted Human Rights Act, there have been serious violations of human rights affecting this country that were not even covered by the Act. They have, however, been the subject of very good investigations by the Council of Europe. I am thinking particularly—this took place during my time on the Council of Europe—of the very good investigation into extraordinary rendition, which was carried out by the Swiss senator, Mr Marty, and the relevant committee of the Council of Europe. At that time, the question of extraordinary rendition was not terribly fashionable. Only a few lonely voices, such as that of my hon. Friend Mr Tyrie, raised the issue here, and he was met by a wall of silence when he did so. It was denied that there were any problems for this country with extraordinary rendition. My hon. Friend tried to shed light on it, but not much light was shed.
It has turned out to be the case—not least through the work of the Council of Europe and Senator Marty—that there were indeed matters that needed to have light shed on them at that time. I believe that apologies or acknowledgements have been made that there were problems involving extraordinary rendition, which were denied from the Dispatch Box but were in fact taking place. There certainly were issues of extraordinary rendition on British territory, and there were the “black sites” and the circuit flights used for that purpose in Europe more widely. All of that was brought to light through the work of the Council of Europe. The Council of Europe has indeed played a very good role, as torture is something that I think we would all accept as being a breach of human rights. My hon. Friends who served on the relevant committees did a very good job in helping to reveal the facts.
The Council of Europe does not receive a great deal of publicity in this country, but I think it does a very good job in dialogue with other member states, including the new democracies in Europe. It does a good job also in dialogue with the states that have observer status on the Council of Europe, including the state of Israel. It has certainly worked hard with those observer countries to promote human rights through them.
The question of the cost of the Council of Europe was raised by John Mann. I think we all need to be vigilant about the costs of these international assemblies, but as has been said, the Council of Europe has not had its expenditure increased, so it has had a real-terms reduction over several years. We should all look carefully at this.
Perhaps a better place to start in the search for cost reductions in our representation in international organisations would be with the European Parliament, which has—today, as it happens—submitted a request for a 5.2% increase in the European budget, coming on top of a claim for an increase of 6% last year, which resulted in an actual increase of 2.9%. I hope that our Ministers will continue to work as hard as they have—it is very much to the credit of my right hon. and hon. Friends that they were at the forefront of the effort—to keep the European budget down. They fought hard, but of course they have to work with the other member states and the other institutions of the EU. There was certainly no lack of effort. In light of the comments from the hon. Member for Bassetlaw, I hope that my right hon. and hon. Friends’ work to control these budgets will get support from all parties. I hope we will not hear something said from either side of the Dispatch Box that is not then followed up in the activities of the MEPs of the parties in question.
I wish the Minister for Europe well in his role. I know he is very busy, with many other matters to attend to. I hope that Britain makes a success, as I am sure it will, of its chairmanship of the Council of Europe. There will be some big issues to confront. I am sure that my right hon. and hon. Friends will rise to those issues and that we will showcase our own very good record in these matters, while also giving impetus on the important challenges that lie ahead—not just in Europe, but in the countries near to Europe—in promoting and safeguarding human rights at this very sensitive time.
With the leave of the House, Mr Speaker.
First, let me thank every Member who has taken part in what has been a thoughtful and wide-ranging discussion of issues within the remit of the Council of Europe.
The speech of my hon. Friend Damian Collins, in which he dwelt on how the Council of Europe addresses questions of sport and seeks to root out corruption in sport, served to remind us of the breadth of the remit of the Council and its various committees.
My hon. Friend Martin Horwood, who referred to Russia and other countries whose human rights records have been subject to a great deal of criticism, reminded us that, although we who live in countries with long and well-established national traditions of human rights sometimes find it irksome when judgments are made against us, the principles that are incorporated in the convention, and subject to judgments by an independent court, still matter hugely to citizens of countries that do not have established, centuries-old traditions such as those that we are fortunate enough to enjoy.
My hon. Friend Mr Clappison rightly drew attention to the way in which the Council of Europe is already contributing to the development of democratic traditions and the growth of the rule of law in the fledgling democracies of north Africa. We strongly support that work, and hope that it will continue. When he pointed out that in this country, until fairly recently, human rights were regarded universally as something that should be welcomed and supported, I was reminded of the fact that the European convention on human rights was, and is, based on noble ideas. At the end of last month, I met in Warsaw members of the opposition parties from Belarus, one of the few countries in Europe that are not party to the convention. That brought home to me the importance of our not taking for granted the liberties and rights that we and our citizens enjoy. My hon. Friend’s comments about extraordinary rendition were a salutary reminder that, however strong our traditions of human rights in much of Europe, we cannot afford to be complacent about them.
As has emerged during the debate, there is a range of views about how human rights are best protected, and about the respective roles of national authorities and the European Court of Human Rights. That is, of course, one of the issues that we intend to address during our chairmanship. The principle that we will advance is that national authorities of member states—their Governments, legislatures and courts—have the primary responsibility to guarantee and protect human rights at a national level. The role of the European Court of Human Rights is subsidiary in achieving those objectives.
During our chairmanship, we will work with all the member states of the Council of Europe to see how that agreed guiding principle, which was built into the Izmir declaration earlier this year, should work and can be strengthened. However, it is important to note that the corollary of the principle is proper implementation of the convention by national authorities. Of course the United Kingdom should still be subject to judgments of the Strasbourg court, but the court should not normally need to intervene in cases that have already been properly considered by national courts applying the convention.
I am under no illusion about the fact that agreeing on the necessary reforms will not be easy. Consensus among all 47 member states is required. I am, however, struck by the degree of consensus that already exists. Virtually everyone agrees that the current situation is unsustainable and undermines the court’s authority and effectiveness. However, we have already made progress. In April this year, all 47 countries called for the court to exercise restraint when interfering in national decisions on the deportation of asylum seekers and others who have exhausted fair and effective domestic court procedures. Since then, we have talked to many member states and to key individuals in the Council of Europe. We know that there is an appetite for further reforms. We will work energetically to gain agreement on a reform package, and will give it the highest priority during our chairmanship. I shall respond to as many points raised as possible. I apologise to any colleagues whose contributions I do not have time to address, and I undertake to write to them.
My hon. Friend Mr Walter asked several questions. On the budget of the EU Fundamental Rights Agency, the UK has long-stressed the importance of the EU not duplicating the work of the COE, which we believe is, and should remain, the prime European focus for work on human rights. While the FRA of the European Union does some interesting research, the COE does far more valuable work, and does so with fewer resources.
My hon. Friend also questioned the figures I gave on the backlog of cases. I have had the latest figures checked and there are approximately 155,000 cases in the backlog. That figure has dropped slightly in recent times, from about 160,000.
My hon. Friend focused on the accession of the EU to the COE, and my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere also mentioned that. This is a complex matter, and negotiations are still ongoing. I undertake to write to my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset, giving further details on this, but for now I shall briefly explain where we are at present. As the House knows, EU accession to the COE was one element of the treaty of Lisbon, which was ratified by all 27 member states in 2009. There is considerable fear that the interaction of EU accession in its own right to the COE with the duty of sincere co-operation, which applies to all member states of the EU, could lead to the creation of an EU caucus within the structures of the COE. The British Government’s position is that while we accept what is written in the Lisbon treaty—that the EU should accede to the COE—and while we can see the advantages of placing the institutions of the EU clearly within the remit of the European Court of Human Rights, we will only agree to the detailed instrument of accession when we are completely satisfied about the detail not only of the drafting of the instrument of accession itself, but, importantly, of the drafting of the EU’s own set of rules on how its membership of the COE would be made operational and how, in particular, that would interact with the duty of sincere co-operation.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s approach to this matter. Can he confirm that in his discussions at the European level, we will have a right of veto? In other words, will this be subject to unanimity, so we can insist on the very important points he has just made?
My hon. Friend is right: there has to be unanimity within the EU before accession can take place. Further, there must also be an important role for our Parliament. Under the European Union Act 2011, once agreement is reached on the detail of EU accession, the Government would be required to place that decision before each House of Parliament, and there would have to be a debate and a vote in this place and in the House of Lords before the UK could ratify EU accession to the COE. So not only the British Government but Parliament have to agree before that can happen.
Sandra Osborne asked, first, whether British Ministers would report to the Parliamentary Assembly during the six months of our chairmanship. The answer is yes. I have agreed to attend the session in Edinburgh in November and those in Strasbourg in February and April next year to report on the progress made under our chairmanship.
The hon. Lady also asked for examples of cases in which the Court had substituted its judgment for that of national courts. An issue that came up in the Interlaken declaration on the removal of people from a country when their case had been properly considered by the national courts is key here, as all 47 countries agreed that the Court was looking in too much detail at matters that had been quite properly considered by national authorities. In recent judgments against not only us but Sweden, the Court has checked findings of fact made by national courts in cases about removing people from the country. For example, it has insisted on considering the applicant’s credibility or family situation, but those are not matters that should be considered at the European level.
My right hon. and learned Friend the Justice Secretary went to Izmir, and the declaration adopted at that conference in April called for a stricter approach to interim measures under rule 39, which, as the hon. Lady knows, is often used to halt deportations, with the Court intervening only exceptionally if cases have been considered by fair and effective national procedures. I hope that the marker put down by all 47 countries at Izmir also gives some comfort to my hon. Friends the Members for Northampton South (Mr Binley) and for Gainsborough (Mr Leigh) and others who have expressed particular concern about the impact of Court judgments on immigration policy.
My hon. Friends the Members for Northampton South and for Portsmouth South (Mr Hancock) asked about the appointment of judges and whether the Interlaken process would diminish the democratic element regarding the election of judges to the Strasbourg court. The key part of the process that requires reform is the national procedures by which each state selects the list of three candidates whom it proposes to the Parliamentary Assembly. If we get this right, concerns about the quality of judges should fall away. We have welcomed the establishment of a panel of the Council of Ministers to ensure that all states put forward three well-qualified candidates for those posts and it has already taken France to task on this very point. We are driving forward work on a recommendation that would lay down standards for national procedures in all 47 states, and I am pleased to report that according to the Parliamentary Assembly itself the United Kingdom is a beacon of good practice in this regard.
My hon. Friends the Members for Esher and Walton (Mr Raab) and for Gainsborough asked about the recommendation by the Bill of Rights commission that the Strasbourg Court should consider only the most important cases. Our position as a Government on this is that the Court should focus on areas where the convention is not being properly applied or where there is a genuine need at the European level for authoritative guidance on its interpretation. Where member states are applying the convention effectively, the Court should intervene less.
My hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough also raised a number of concerns about immigration. He will understand if I do not comment on individual cases, especially on the basis of Mr Woolas’s memoirs. My hon. Friend said that his arguments were not so much about the principles embodied in the convention—indeed, he spoke up in favour of the convention—but about the means by which it is implemented and applied in this country. I take his comments in that spirit. I remind him again of the work of the independent commission and encourage him to make representations to Sir Leigh Lewis and his colleagues. I would also recommend, if he has not done so already, that he have a look at the very thought-provoking speech made by my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General at Lincoln’s Inn on Monday, in which, among other things, he discussed the relationship of the United Kingdom Supreme Court to the European Court of Human Rights and indicated how his thinking was developing on that matter.
My hon. Friend Priti Patel made several criticisms—more, I think, of the implementation of the convention in this country than of the convention per se. I took her points seriously. When she and other hon. Friends make those criticisms, they are speaking on behalf of large numbers of constituents who have expressed concerns. But I would caution my hon. Friend and the House about one of the statistics that was deployed—the claim that the Court finds a violation in 87% of all cases and in 61% of cases against the United Kingdom. These proportions are only of the cases where there is a judgment. We must remember that 97% of cases against the UK are thrown out without even having their merits considered, because they are ruled inadmissible. If we look at the raw figures for 2010 and 2011 so far, the Court has decided 1,713 cases that were brought against the United Kingdom, but only 33 of those 1,713 were decided by a judgment; the rest were simply ruled inadmissible by the Court or struck out completely. Given that only 33 went to a judgment, it is not wholly surprising that a relatively high proportion of those 33 cases were decently arguable and led to the finding of a violation.
My hon. Friend also spoke about how one set of rights was seen to be overruled by another set. I know that comes up frequently at public events. As the House knows, and members of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe know all too well, the convention expresses a number of different human rights and it is a clear principle that where those rights conflict there is a duty on the countries that are party to the convention to balance those rights in a way that is just and proportionate in the circumstances of a particular case. There is a legitimate debate about where the right to take a final decision in any case should lie—with Strasbourg, with domestic courts, with legislatures or with the Executive in a particular country. Then there is a further argument about whether, in any individual circumstances, whichever authority it is has achieved the right balance in finding a judgment that is right, just and proportionate. We will never get away completely from that type of argument, any more than we do when we read reports of judgments in domestic civil and criminal cases.
John Mann asked whether I would support Finnish and Spanish Ministers’ work on local government reform. I can guarantee that the Government will work towards a more effective and efficient role for the Council of Europe in supporting local and regional democracy. We want to see the Council’s work in this field streamlined and more carefully targeted. We are looking forward to Mr Chavez’s report and we will ensure that its recommendations are given serious consideration.
My hon. Friend Mr Gale raised constituency cases as illustrations of a general complaint that countries party to the convention allow people to be detained for far too long without charge or trial. He fights fiercely on behalf of his constituents whom he believes have been treated unjustly. He knows from discussions that he and I have had that the individuals concerned can make an application to Strasbourg regarding an alleged violation of articles 5 and 6 by their detention without trial. The problem is that the text of the convention does not define what a reasonable period of such detention is. I am sure that my hon. Friend will continue to campaign vigorously on this matter.
My hon. Friend also asked about a convention on transfrontier broadcasting. My understanding is that the European Union has exclusive competence in this area, so there would be problems with an EU member state signing a Council of Europe convention on the matter. On that basis, the Committee of Ministers has agreed to discontinue work on that convention, pending further consultation. However, I will consider my hon. Friend’s point further, consult colleagues in other Departments that are more directly responsible for broadcasting policy and then write to him on the matter.
The hon. Member for Linlithgow and Falkirk—
I do not wish to accuse him of having further territorial ambitions.
Michael Connarty asked about two other conventions. On the European framework convention on youth rights, the Government still take the view that we do not recognise the need for such a convention as all the matters described in the draft recommendation are already covered by the UN convention on the rights of the child, which actually goes further than the proposed Council of Europe convention. On the convention on the protection of children against sexual exploitation and sexual abuse, we agree completely. That is an appalling crime and a form of child sexual abuse. Tackling it is an absolute priority for the Government. The convention sets standards to ensure that countries criminalise sexual exploitation and the abuse of children and adopt similar standards of investigation and prosecution of these crimes. Officials across a number of Departments are currently considering in detail the steps that would be required to ratify the convention. I am sure that a report will be made to the House as soon as decisions have been taken.
The hon. Member for Bassetlaw asked about next week’s cyber-space conference in London. I have been unable to check the guest list, but the conference will encompass the issue of cyber-crime and a lot more, too. It will deal with economic growth, the social benefits of using cyber-space, safe and reliable access to it, and international security.
My hon. Friend the Member for Northampton South asked about the European Court’s backlog. We certainly aim to ensure that a time scale is set for the implementation of any measures agreed during our chairmanship, including clearing inadmissible and repetitive cases from the backlog. We will also learn from the experience of previous attempts to reform the Strasbourg Court. I completely take the point that we must not be timid in the measures we take. We will ensure that the long-term context is considered when agreeing short and medium-term measures. I very much hope that he will be able to see the fruits of the work that he supported today.
My hon. Friend David T. C. Davies raised a number of issues, most of which related to the implementation of the convention in this country. Like him, I have had some cases of forced marriage in my constituency surgery, and I think that the basic principle is less about the convention or the Human Rights Act, and more about the fact that it is a principle of any British court or immigration tribunal that evidence given to a judge by one party must be shared with the other party. Like him, I have had the difficult situation in constituency cases where the person who says that she is the victim is afraid to speak out in public, but the immigration judge cannot be asked to take account of evidence in secret without the other side having the chance to respond to it and to rebut it.
The Council of Europe has been enormously successful in promoting common standards and values among its membership, not least as a result of the convention system, which the United Kingdom has had a hand in creating. It matters a great deal to the Government that human rights, democracy and the rule of law flourish in all member states of the Council of Europe. In this light, we see our chairmanship as a genuine opportunity to strengthen further a rules-based international system and to further British interests by strengthening the global rule of law and championing human rights.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the matter of the UK’s Chairmanship of the Council of Europe.