Council of Europe

Part of Backbench Business – in the House of Commons at 5:50 pm on 16th November 2015.

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Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Conservative, North Thanet 5:50 pm, 16th November 2015

I might do that at the end of my speech, but give me five minutes!

I should also say, just in case anybody thinks otherwise, that, as far as I can see, I will have no gain and a lot of grief if I take the job. If I am asked to do something, I have a tendency to say that I will do it to the best of my ability, and that is what I will do. I have some experience, including nearly 20 years as a member of the Panel of Chairs and a couple of days in the big Chair. With the help of friends, I am sure we can create a satisfactory delegation, if we are allowed to do so.

I do not want to dwell on the background to this debate. My personal view, for what it is worth, is that neither side, if I can put it that way, has covered itself in glory. I certainly think that the Whips Office made a pig’s ear of it, and I think my hon. Friend Mr Chope, who is a genuine friend of mine, ignored Denis Healey’s first rule of holesmanship, which is that if you are in one, stop digging. That made it harder for those of us who were trying to broker an agreement between an immovable object and an irresistible force. However, we are where we are.

It is in sorrow rather than in anger that I say to my right hon. Friend Mr Paterson, who moved the motion, that if it goes through as it stands, it will be a complete dog’s breakfast that will leave our relationship with the Council of Europe in the mire. It quite clearly was not thought through by my right hon. Friend or those who signed it. When I telephoned the chairman of the 1922 Committee, my hon. Friend Mr Brady, on Thursday and asked him, “Do you actually know what this is going to do?”, he was very candid and said, “No.” We had a constructive conversation, the product of which—I am deeply grateful to him for it—is amendment (b). I hope, at the very least, that the House will accept it, even though it would not do what I want to do.

Let me go back to the effect the motion will have if it is carried as it stands. The list approved by Mr Speaker has to be in Strasbourg by no later than this Friday, 20 November. That does not mean downstream or by the end of the month—it means by the end of this week. If it is not in by then, we will not have a delegation—at least not until January, but I will come to that in a moment. There is, therefore, a sense of urgency.

My right hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire was right to say that there was a delay, but to be fair to the Government—although I have no reason to be fair to them—we waited, understandably and reasonably, for the Labour party to have its leadership election and for it to apportion high office positions so that others could then be elected to the Council of Europe. That led to a huge delay and in my view there has been an inordinate delay since then, too.

If we do not submit our nomination in time for the Bureau, which will be held in Sofia on 26 November, and the Presidential Committee, which will approve committees on 27 November, none of the work that should take place during December and January will be able to take place. That includes work in Paris, and we really need to be in Paris after what happened over the weekend. Those of us who have served on the Council of Europe have good friends there, and we want to see them and reassure them. We want them to know that we are not running away and that we will be there alongside them and supporting them.

The committee on culture, science, education and media, which is vital, will meet on 3 and 4 December. It is a pity that the Press Gallery is empty, because those who have criticised the Council of Europe need to recognise that we, including the sub-committee that I chair, do a huge amount of work in defence of the freedom of the rights of journalists internationally. We fight for those in prison.

On 7 December, the political affairs committee will meet in Brussels, and that is important. On 8 December, the legal affairs committee will meet in Paris. The monitoring committee, which is one of the key committees of the Council of Europe, will meet in Paris on 9 December. On 10 December, the procedure committee will meet in Paris. On 13 and 14 December—Members should bear it in mind that if the motion goes through, we will have no delegation—the Presidential Committee and the Bureau will meet here in London. The meeting will take place in this building—we are hosting it. We are going to look pretty stupid as a nation if we do not have a delegation to host it. Mr Speaker is probably aware of this by now, but he will host a reception in Speaker’s House at the end of that meeting. On 15 December, the migration committee will meet in Paris. That is important, particularly given what is happening at the moment. On 14 January, which is before the plenary part-session, the committee on the election of judges to the European Court of Human Rights will meet, and that is very important indeed.

I say as gently as possible to my right hon. Friend that a raft of work needs to be done between now and the next plenary session. I have already been prevented from completing a report for the monitoring committee on the future of Bosnia and Herzegovina, because we had no delegation and therefore no members, so I could not go. Other colleagues have found themselves in the same boat.

I am not opposing the principle of election; it applies to Select Committees and that is fine by me. However, if we are going to do that—this is why I tabled my amendment, which has not been selected—I want to give the process a little time so that we can do the job properly. I served on the Procedure Committee and we considered how members of every single Select Committee and the Deputy Speakers and Speaker should be elected.