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.