I beg to move,
That this House
has considered the work of the Council of Europe.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Madam Deputy Speaker, since you are yourself a former member of the UK delegation to the Council of Europe.
When I look back at my time as leader of the UK delegation to the Council of Europe, my hope is that the future will judge us on the basis of more than that the approach we have adopted was just a pleasant idea, and then we can all slip back into anonymity.
At the Reykjavík summit of the Council of Europe, the final declaration said:
“We will work together to protect and promote the three fundamental, interdependent, and inalienable principles of democracy, rule of law and human rights, as enshrined in the Statute of the Council of Europe and in the European Convention on Human Rights.”
It spoke of how fundamental the values and aims of the Council of Europe are to us as a country, and how they influence every level of government. The UK willingly signed up to that declaration. It is partly to make that very point that after every plenary session of the Council in Strasbourg I submit a list of written questions on each of the debates we have had, to make sure that they are discussed and known to Government Departments, and that those Departments have the chance to respond. As the Prime Minister said in his speech at the Reykjavik summit,
“the UK may have left the EU, but we have not left Europe. We remain a proud European nation and we must work together to defend the values we all hold so dear. The Council of Europe, with its huge reach, has such a vital role to play.”
I am hugely encouraged to hear the hon. Gentleman’s rhetoric and about the work he has done. The only country to have left the Council of Europe is Russia. There is talk on the Government Benches about leaving the Council of Europe and indeed the European convention on human rights. Does he agree that Russia is not company that the UK should look to keep?
I agree with the hon. Lady, and if she waits a little, she will hear some other excellent news from that summit.
Talking of the spirit of freedom in Europe, the PM went on to say:
“The Council of Europe has nurtured that spirit for three quarters of a century.”
We are proud to offer it our support, and we are proud that the UK has signed that declaration. I thank all who have served and all who do serve as members of the UK delegation to the Council of Europe. As one Cabinet member put it, we do a lot of the work without fanfare and with no praise, to the extent that in this country few have heard of the Council of Europe, and those who have mostly think it is part of the EU. How sad that for much of the UK, Europe has come to mean nothing more than the EU, and not the wider Europe of 46 countries.
Does my hon. Friend agree that although we have left the confines of the EU, we did not leave Europe? We remain a European country, and the Council of Europe gives the United Kingdom the opportunity to maintain our relationship with not only EU member states, but the whole of Europe, and to lead discussions and decision making on common issues regarding democracy, human rights and the rule of law.
I thoroughly agree with that, and as my hon. Friend knows I support that in everything I do in the Council of Europe. I try to interest the Lobby journalists here in the Council of Europe, but I probably fail for the very reason that they see “Europe” in the title. I make a plea to any listening now: the Council of Europe is not part of the EU. It looks after human rights, the rule of law and democracy across the wider Europe, and it should be paid attention to.
I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman giving me his last intervention. Does he agree that the process of Brexit, the run-up to that and the narrow-minded and negative narrative that has pervaded the UK press have had a profound impact on our societies in how we talk about and view Europe? I agree with much of what he is saying, but I am sure he will recognise that some of that has come from those on his Benches. We need to work together to promote the work of the Council of Europe and to make sure that everyone, from the schoolchildren in our constituencies to civic leaders across the UK, understands the power and importance of its work.
I agree with that, and I will come on to say a little more on that in a moment.
Many of the current delegation have not been members for long, but while we are there, we will play our full part in working with the Council of Europe to take forward its aims and values and to make sure they are part of the system we all work in. We need to be wary in particular of the activities of the far right, is out to infiltrate our political groups.
The Council of Europe has just completed a summit, only the fourth it has held in its history. Some members of my political party were sceptical about it; I was not. For an organisation that does not put its head above the parapet often enough, it was a great success and it has shown what the Council of Europe is about. It was attended by our Prime Minister, and the declaration was signed by the UK. The declaration commits the UK to upholding the activities of the European Court of Human Rights and the European convention on human rights. It states:
“We reaffirm our deep and abiding commitment to the European Convention on Human Rights and the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) as the ultimate guarantors of human rights across our continent, alongside our domestic democratic and judicial systems. We reaffirm our primary obligation under the Convention to secure to everyone within our jurisdiction the rights and freedoms defined in the Convention in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity, as well as our unconditional obligation to abide by the final judgments of the European Court of Human Rights in any case to which we are Parties.”
It goes on to state:
“Our European democracies are not established once and for all. We need to strive to uphold them each and every day, continuously, in all parts of our continent. The Council of Europe remains the guiding light that assists us in fostering greater unity among us for the purpose of safeguarding and realising these ideals and principles which are our common heritage. We reaffirm our commitment to developing mutual understanding among the peoples of Europe and reciprocal appreciation of our cultural diversity and heritage.”
As Lord Kirkhope said in the other place, let us ensure that international agreements such as this are honoured.
When the UK last held the presidency of the Council of Europe back in David Cameron’s time as Prime Minister, we initiated what has come to be called the Brighton declaration, which was a reform of the system of how the Court operated. The Brighton declaration wrote the principal of subsidiarity and the importance of domestic courts into the convention. If only people had read that before the recent fuss, it would have made life easier and simpler.
Of the things that the Council of Europe does that I most value, the two most prominent are election observation and monitoring. The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe does election observation, but that does not make what the Council of Europe does any less important. I pay tribute to colleagues who put themselves into difficult situations to ensure that elections are free and fair. It is a two-stage approach. The first question is, “Is the environment in which the election takes place free and fair?” In the case of Turkey, I would argue that it was not. The fact that many of the President’s rivals had been arrested suggests that. The second element is, “Is the process used for people to vote free and fair?” In one case, in Bosnia and Herzegovina, we found that those elected to open the polling booth turned up with a hold-all full of pre-filled polling cards in favour of the pro-Iranian candidate. They were promptly arrested.
I praise the role of rapporteurs, whose presence in pre-election missions is critical. A good rapporteur who knows the territory well and can get into the detail is a necessary requisite for that. That is not always the case with all rapporteurs. Many have a thin and superficial knowledge of the country they are reporting on.
One of the most potentially useful things I have done as a rapporteur for Turkey is to visit the human rights prisoner, Osman Kavala. He was—I should say is—a prominent businessman and philanthropist. He also has a link to this country, where he was on the faculty of the University of Manchester. When I visited him in a Turkish high-security prison, where he has been imprisoned for more than five years in pre-trial detention, I saw a man who showed no resentment for how he had been treated. I hope that now the elections are over, President Erdoğan will pardon Kavala and release him. He is of course not the only human rights prisoner in Turkey, but he is the epitome of all the others.
I thank my very good friend for allowing me to intervene. In the case of Turkey, a country that he and I care about, what influence and power do we have when he sees something that is palpably wrong, apart from publicising it? Do we have any more power in the Council of Europe than that?
We have a tremendous amount more power, and that power lies in the personality of the rapporteur and what they want to do. They can do that by talking diplomatically to people there, rather than banging the table and demanding that something be done.
There was an idea at the summit to appoint a new commissioner for democracy. I confess that I was interested in the position for myself, but unfortunately the idea was placed on the back burner and not taken forward, which I think is a shame. Right across Europe, we see a backsliding on democracy that is very worrying. The appointment of a commissioner for democracy would have helped to prevent that.
What impact does the Council have on our domestic legislative agenda? Let me give two short examples—the Istanbul convention and the Lanzarote convention. The Istanbul convention sets out the protections that are required for women in cases of violence and domestic abuse. It is a landmark convention, and I am pleased that, after lobbying by me, we have signed it—in part, but being able to sign it in part is important. This so distinguishes the way the Council of Europe works from the way that the EU works. It is characteristic of the convention system used by the Council that conventions are put together right across the nations of Europe, and it is the choice of every country to determine which bits should apply in their own country.
The Lanzarote convention is a comprehensive treaty that does a great deal to put in place the international co-operation required to protect children’s rights. I would add a third example, which is the Venice Commission’s work to establish the principles under which ombudsmen work and are appointed. The all-party parliamentary group on alternative dispute resolution looked at that yesterday, with a representative from the United Nations also saying that it has adopted the Venice Commission’s principles.
What good does the Council of Europe do? Critics say that it is nothing but a talking shop. Well, perhaps, but I would strongly argue that it does much more than that through the work of the Assembly, the Committee of Ministers, the Court, the anti-corruption activities of the Group of States against Corruption, the anti-human trafficking work undertaken by the group of experts on action against trafficking in human beings, and the work of the Venice Commission in strengthening democratic institutions. All of these deliver tangible results across member states.
I thank the hon. Member for his leadership of the delegation, and for the huge amount of work he puts into the Council of Europe. He leads a commission that has ended up with the Council agreeing to the principal of ecocide being recorded in international and national law. Would he care to reflect on how we can encourage national Parliaments to take more seriously agreed declarations that come from that source, which will help us all to have a stronger environmental protection law?
I agree with the right hon. Member. I am trying very hard to persuade this Government to accept that there is such a thing as ecocide, and that it should be included in descriptions of how the world operates. I am having difficulty with that, but I shall continue to try. I think it is a very good point.
I am a convinced multilateralist, and although multilateralism is under attack everywhere at the moment, I simply do not believe that any country can make a go of everything by itself. That means having somewhere where ideas can be talked about and discussion can take place, and that is what the Council of Europe does.
What has this delegation achieved? It is down to this delegation that we expelled Russia from among the Council’s members—the first international organisation to do so. It is down to this delegation that we lobbied the Turkish delegation to persuade President Erdoğan to admit Sweden and Finland to NATO, a move that I must admit has worked better in the case of Finland than that of Sweden. It is down to this delegation that the UK Government and the Opposition are supporting the membership of Kosovo. These may all be examples of soft diplomatic power, but there is nothing wrong with that.
I would like to take this opportunity to thank all members of the delegation for the work they do. I would also like to thank Sandy Moss, our excellent permanent representative in Strasbourg, whose work on the summit was masterly. I would like to thank our equally masterful secretary, Nick Wright, and his team, without whom we would be in deep trouble and with whom I very much enjoy working.
If there is one message from this it is: let us all follow the vision set out for the Council at the summit, and let us make that summit a reality.
It is a real pleasure to take part in this debate. As I said in my intervention, I commend the work of the delegation. I would like to endorse everything John Howell has said about the work of the support team—Nick Wright and his staff—who are fantastic in ensuring that things happen, and that the delegation gets there and takes part in the debates.
Being relatively newly appointed to the Council of Europe—I only came on to the delegation since the last general election—I have to say that most people have no idea what the Council of Europe does. Whenever I mention to people locally that I am going to an event at the Council of Europe, they say, “I thought we’d left all that behind”, and I have to explain that it is actually something different from the EU. It is often just simply not understood. The stuff that comes out of it is often not very much debated here either, so it is good that we have a main Chamber debate on this today. The examples the hon. Member gave about the Venice Commission, the Istanbul convention and other conventions are very important, and I think we need a system in which the Government respond, in the way they are required to respond very publicly to Select Committee reports, to give the same emphasis to issues that come from the Council of Europe, which I think would make it more important.
I want to make a few quick points, Madam Deputy Speaker, but could I first crave your indulgence for one moment? Tomorrow is
The declaration that came out of the Reykjavik summit is obviously extremely important, and it is very much dominated by the situation in Ukraine. Russia leaving the Council of Europe was a huge event, for obvious reasons. I think it was the first time any state has left the Council of Europe. I fully understand why—I fully understand what happened, and I absolutely and totally join everyone else in condemning the invasion of Ukraine by Russia—but we should also be aware that Russia leaving the Council has denied all Russians any access to the European convention on human rights and the relative protections they could try to obtain from it. I also fully acknowledge that there have been huge difficulties in Russians getting justice following decisions made at the European Court of Human Rights or through the convention, but we just have to be aware that it is a Europe-wide convention on human rights, and we want everybody to abide by it and to abide by the decisions of the Court.
All the Council of Europe sessions over the past two years have been very much dominated by Ukraine, and that is absolutely understandable. As I have said—and I repeat it—I totally condemn the Russian invasion and occupation of part of Ukraine. I would hope that at some point in the future the Council of Europe can become an agent that helps to bring that war to an end, because at some point there will have to be negotiations. At some point, there will have to be a peace process and at some point—I hope very soon—those who have been wrongly taken to Russia will be returned and there will be a process of dealing with the victims of war, wherever they are from and whatever they have suffered as a result of it. I believe that the Council of Europe has a role in that and a role in bringing people together, and I hope we can achieve that.
One issue the hon. Member for Henley brought up, and I would like to raise it as well, is the European convention on human rights and the role of the European Court of Human Rights. Page 4 of the declaration states:
“We reaffirm our deep and abiding commitment to the European Convention on Human Rights and the European Court of Human Rights…as the ultimate guarantors of human rights across our continent, alongside our domestic democratic and judicial systems.”
It was obviously extremely difficult back in the 1940s to draft the European convention on human rights and to establish the Court, because we were dealing with fundamentally different legal systems across all the member states, with very different perceptions of the separation of political and judicial powers. So it is a wonderful achievement that the European Court of Human Rights exists at all.
From its inception, the Court was part of our domestic law, and from the Human Rights Act 1998 its caselaw was absolutely part of our law. Therefore, when an injunction was granted to prevent an individual being removed to Rwanda by the UK Government, I was surprised that so many Members of this House and the Government reacted with horror and anger at the alleged interference of the European Court of Human Rights in domestic law. It is not interference; it is absolutely part of our domestic law. We need to think a bit more deeply about the passage through this House of the migration Bill, which itself does not meet the human rights declaration required of all legislation anyway. If we are in breach of a convention that this country was a party to in 1949 and has been a member of all that time, and we appoint judges to the European Court of Human Rights, we should have more respect for it and understand what it is saying and trying to do.
The right hon. Gentleman is making a powerful and important point. Does he agree that it is cynical and desperate of this Government to use their appalling Rwanda policy and a very reasonable judgment by the Court, to which we send judges and have signed up, in order to undermine the authority of that very Court?
I could not agree more. Britain was an early signatory and, indeed, provided many of the people who wrote the declaration and established the Court in the first place.
I also accept that there are problems in the administration of the Court and difficulties in getting cases to it. There are thousands of people across Europe who have different issues that they believe should be dealt with by the Court. I remember doing an advice bureau one Friday evening some years ago, and I counted the number of people in my constituency alone who felt that their injustice deserved the attention of the European Court of Human Rights. I thought, “Well, if we multiply that by 650 in Britain and then multiply that by 23, we get an awful lot of people.” Obviously, it is not that simple. People cannot just go there; they must first go through all their national legal processes. But there is still a substantial backlog and we have had useful meetings with the administration and the chief of the Court to try to understand the process they adopt, the analysis they make of all cases and how they are dealt with.
The Court’s judges are, after all, elected by the members of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe and we vote on them. The only criticism I would make is that the appointments committee spends a lot of time interviewing the applicants and forms a view on them and issues a declaration, while the rest of us get often substantial biographical details of the individual but it is very hard to understand from that what their legal approach and attitudes actually are, so it can be difficult to decide who is an appropriate candidate. We could be slightly more open about that and perhaps spend a bit more time on the appointments, because it is pretty fundamental appointing a judge for nine years to the European Court of Human Rights, which can have an effect on the lives and liberties of citizens all across Europe. Criticisms of the Court and of any legal decision are normal—we make them all the time—but we must accept that we and our legal system are very much part of that process.
I say that because there are voices, mainly in the Conservative party, that would like us to leave the European convention on human rights entirely and keep calling it interference with domestic law. I want to put it on the record that I strongly think we should remain in the European convention on human rights and understand and respect the law that goes with it.
The fact that the injunction granted was on an immigration issue also demonstrates the importance of immigration issues to the Council of Europe. I am a member of the migration Committee, and we have raised a lot of issues about pushbacks against refugees trying to enter particular countries—pushbacks by Greece, by Turkey and, indeed, by this country in the English channel. It is an uncomfortable truth that there are 70 million people around the world who are refugees seeking a place of safety. Some of them are coming into Europe and some of them are in Europe, and the media and cultural approach towards refugees is appalling in many cases—it is quite shocking.
I have been to Calais and talked to people there. They are desperate and poor and confused, and they are victims: victims of war, of human rights abuses and of environmental disaster. They are seeking a place of safety. One day they will be our neighbours, our doctors and our teachers, and we need a better and different approach to adopting and treating refugees in our society. If it is an uncomfortable wake-up call from the Council of Europe, then so be it; I think that is a good thing.
I am very happy to serve as part of the UK delegation on the Council of Europe, and all Parliaments have politically diverse delegations in order to bring up the many issues that need to be raised there. I am pleased that we are having a debate on this today, but one message that could come out of it is that we want the Government to be more responsive to issues that come of out of the Council of Europe, and that the House should automatically have a main Chamber debate at least once a year to go through the main issues arising from the Council of Europe, as we are doing today. If we want to live in a continent of peace, with protection of the environment and of human rights, this is an opportunity and a place where all those countries can come together at parliamentary level to try to achieve those kinds of changes.
I congratulate our delegation group leader, my hon. Friend John Howell, on securing today’s debate on the work of the Council of Europe. I am delighted to be a very active member of the UK delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, and I have been to Strasbourg and Paris multiple times, including just after Easter, to support our work.
It is important to consider the origins of the Council of Europe. The context of today reminds me how incredibly important they were. It was founded after world war two, in 1949, to ensure that such a tragedy would never happen again. Today, as we have war right on the border of Europe, there has never been such an important time for us to have a place for speech and dialogue with our neighbours. The United Kingdom has always been at the heart of the conception of the Council of Europe, right from Sir Winston Churchill’s initiation to the signing of the treaty here in London.
So I strongly believe that although the UK is no longer part of the European Union, we remain an important part of the work of the Council of Europe and, of course, Europe as a geographical region. Member states in the Council of Europe have committed to upholding our three core pillars of democracy, human rights and the rule of law. It is very clear that Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine violated these values, and I welcome the fact that Russia was excluded from it in March last year. It had seriously violated article 3 of the Council of Europe statute that all member states must accept the principles of the rule of law and the enjoyment of all persons within their jurisdiction of human rights and fundamental freedoms.
This is why the work of the Council of Europe is so important. If there was ever a time for us to be protecting and upholding democracy, human rights and the rule of law, it is now. That is why I was so delighted that our Prime Minister decided to join the Council of Europe summit in Iceland last month. It was the fourth summit with Heads of State in the Council of Europe’s history, and it comes as no surprise that the focus of the summit this year was the Council of Europe mission in the light of new threats to democracy and human rights, and of course to support Ukraine. I note that our Prime Minister signed the Reykjavik declaration, which restated that we will stand with Ukraine for as long as it takes. It states:
“Without accountability, there can be no lasting peace and we support the principles for a just and lasting peace as outlined in President Zelenskyy’s Peace Formula.”
When our Prime Minister attended the Council of Europe summit in Iceland recently, he raised the massive issue of illegal migration, which is affecting the whole of Europe, not just the UK. Does my hon. Friend agree that the UK has a vital role to play in discussing illegal migration and encouraging European leaders to ensure that our Governments and institutions work together to stop illegal migration and the humanitarian disaster that it is causing?
One tangible outcome of the summit was agreement on the register of damages caused by the Russian Federation’s aggression against Ukraine. For me, that was a really important outcome. The objective is to document the damage, loss and injury being caused by the Russian war of aggression. I would like to see that register of damage used as an impactful tool to hold Russia to account. I reiterate that the declaration condemned the aggression in the strongest possible terms and called on the Russian Federation to cease the aggression immediately and to withdraw its forces completely and unconditionally from the internationally recognised territory of Ukraine.
We have recently seen the devastating social and environmental consequences of these attacks. I am sure that in the last few days we have all seen in the papers the attack on the dam in Ukraine, although Russia has not accepted responsibility for the attack. The social and environmental damage now spans to three villages, which are completely submerged underwater with flooding up to their roofs. It has resulted in the evacuation of thousands of people. Just today, the death of at least three people has sadly been reported as a result of the flooding and the spill-over. For me, this is an example of where the humanitarian disaster could be growing. It is therefore even more important that we as an international community come together to support these humanitarian responses.
When we consider examples such as the collapse of the dam in Ukraine, one issue that comes to mind is that the Council of Europe has proposed the register of damages, but what happens if Russia does not claim to be the perpetrator or claim responsibility? What happens if there is insufficient evidence to prove that an attack came from Russia? To what extent can we use the register of damages to ensure compensation for those victims? I hope that the Council of Europe will further define that and work on this issue.
I have long been a passionate supporter of Ukraine. Just last year at No. 10, I met with colleagues and a number of Ukrainian MPs to hear from them at first hand about the devastation in their country. I am proud that on our migration Committee we sit with Oleksiy Goncharenko, a Ukrainian MP, and hear from him directly about the values of democracy.
I turn to the impacts on my constituency. We are all aware that Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine has resulted in nearly 8 million refugees being recorded across Europe. First of all, I wish to thank so many British families across the UK for welcoming such a huge number of Ukrainian refugees to their homes. I am delighted that in my constituency of Stafford we have had the highest number of refugees come to settle in our town. I note that Staffordshire-based companies—even JCB—have generously offered homes to 70 Ukrainian refugees across the county. I hope that other companies will follow suit and show their philanthropic support in that way.
The UK has provided tremendous support for Ukraine. The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office recently granted £2 million in aid to the HALO Trust, and I have seen for myself the fantastic work that that charity does to ensure that, by being demined and decontaminated, Ukraine can be rebuilt.
On my most recent visit to Strasbourg, as part of the UK delegation for the April part-session, I was delighted to attend a debate looking at political strategies to prevent, prepare for and face the consequences of natural disasters. The debate was focused on the recent earthquake in Turkey and Syria. It was shocking to hear that more than 53,000 lives have been lost.
Even though that disaster was nearly 2,000 miles from London, I was so pleased to see that that was not an obstacle to support from our Government. The FCDO was quick to step up and respond by providing £3.6 million to UN partners in Turkey and £3.8 million to the White Helmets in Syria. One of my observations from that visit to Strasbourg was that, when the Council of Europe comes together and member states agree, there is so much that we can achieve. I was so pleased to hear that all member states are committed to helping Turkey and Syria in a time of need.
My hon. Friend Sally-Ann Hart mentioned the Council of Europe’s Committee on Migration, Refugees And Displaced Persons. I have been on that committee for the last three years—since my election—and we are always discussing the incredibly distressing stories that we hear of forcibly displaced people around the world. There are about 100 million currently in that situation. A number of those refugees are now in Europe and, of course, trying desperately to come to the UK. One of the things that we raised was the UK Government’s vulnerable persons resettlement scheme, which, together with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, has committed to rehoming 20,000 Syrian refugees fleeing conflict, violence and persecution. I am proud that in my constituency Stafford Borough Council and our county council have been working together to support Syrian refugees through teaching English, organising social activities and building friendships.
The committee has also touched on Afghanistan, the Taliban’s takeover of Kabul and the huge number of internally displaced people, such as women and children. I am pleased that the UK Government have schemes such as the Afghan relocations and assistance policy and the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme. I am very proud that the UK is a compassionate and generous country. I have always been a huge supporter of our overseas aid budget. It is important that we are stepping up in times of need to support each other.
Lastly, I thank the Council of Europe because I am a recent mum—I have just returned from maternity leave—and the Council of Europe bent over backwards to accommodate me to bring my baby to the Council of Europe. I acknowledge its work and encourage other politicians who are new mums. We do not have to choose between a career as a politician and being a new mum—we can do both.
I congratulate John Howell on securing this important debate. I am a proud member of the delegation to the Council of Europe—it is a real honour—and thank him for all the work that he does. The delegation is cross-party and comes from both Houses, so we are working collaboratively—work that people outside the House do not see. When we work together, we achieve better goals and better outcomes for all of us.
The Council of Europe was established following the end of world war two to promote democracy and protect human rights and adherence to the rule of law in Europe. The UK was one of the 10 founding signatories to the Council of Europe statute, and the UK continues to play an active role in all parts of the organisation. The role of promoting democracy, human rights and the rule of law is so important because that is what we are here to do.
Since the Council of Europe’s creation, it has adopted more than 200 treaties and conventions, with the best known being the European convention on human rights. The ECHR is an international treaty between states of the Council of Europe. The United Kingdom was one of the states that drafted it and was one of the first states to ratify it in 1951. That is really important. Some MPs have raised concerns about the ECHR’s impact since the rights set out in the convention were incorporated into British law by the Human Rights Act 1998. Some interpretations of that by British courts and the European Court of Human Rights have led some MPs to call for the UK to leave the ECHR altogether. That would be completely the wrong thing to do. The most notable and recent of those cases was when the European Court of Human Rights blocked a deportation flight to Rwanda in 2022.
I am a proud Welsh Italian. I have had the opportunity to travel across Europe and across the world, and I am a languages graduate. The opportunity to be a part of the UK Parliament delegation and to speak Italian and French with our counterparts is a great honour. The work we do is reflected in committees, as it is in this House. I sit on the Committee on Culture, Science, Education and Media. Only last week, we held a session here in the UK Parliament on protecting human rights in sport, moderated by Lord George Foulkes of Cumnock, who is a great person and politician to have on that committee. It was heartbreaking to listen to Olivia Jasriel, the founder of the Olivia Jasriel Foundation for athletes, and Patrice Evra, the former Manchester United captain and French international, who, like Olivia, is an abuse survivor. They both campaign against abuse in sport and beyond.
These are domestic and worldwide issues around sport that impact directly on our lives, and the lives of our constituents, in particular young people. How governing bodies are held to account is very important to me. I have spoken in this House about misogyny and sexual abuse in sport. In the wake of what has happened in UK gymnastics, Yorkshire cricket and—I have spoken on this before—Welsh rugby union, the work of such committees is relevant to everybody and needs to be spoken about.
I take this opportunity to thank the hon. Member for Henley for his work on the Istanbul convention, which is very important to all of us across the House. The UK delegation has done some great work on that and I thank him for it, because tackling violence against women and girls is at the heart of everything I do. I am also pleased that the UK delegation supports Kosovo’s application for membership of the Council of Europe, so I thank him for his work on that, too.
I also thank some really key players: Lord Foulkes of Cumnock, who I have already mentioned; my hon. Friend Tony Lloyd, who leads the Labour delegation; and Lord Griffiths of Burry Port. I think the hon. Member for Henley would agree that they are the glue that holds the delegation together, with their expertise and knowledge. I thank Nick Wright and his staff who support us; they are absolutely wonderful.
The whole delegation, including those here today speaking in this debate, are very proud to be part of the Council of Europe. I am very proud to be a part of it and we should talk about it more in this House. We may have left Europe, but the UK Parliament delegation is still extremely relevant and a big player in the Council of Europe.
I thank my hon. Friend John Howell for securing the debate on this matter, on which I know he holds passionate views. I pay tribute to the outstanding work he does on behalf of our delegation and on behalf of the Council of Europe to promote human rights, as well as the election work he does in other parts of Europe. I pay huge tribute to his brilliant ability.
The Council of Europe is the European continent’s leading human rights organisation. Set up in 1949, it upholds human rights, democracy and the rule of law across continental Europe. I am proud that the United Kingdom was a founding member and was at the centre of proceedings at the treaty of London, which led to the formation of the Council of Europe. In fact, former Conservative Prime Minister Winston Churchill first suggested the idea of a Council of Europe in a radio broadcast in 1943, while war was still raging in Europe.
Our membership of the Council of Europe is vital. As the Prime Minister stated recently at the Reykjavik Council of Europe summit:
“the UK may have left the EU, but we have not left Europe.”
It is vital to remember that. Our membership of the Council of Europe is more vital than ever. It increases the effectiveness of the Council of Europe, I believe. Our influence as a cross-party delegation—from both Houses, as Tonia Antoniazzi said—allows us to protect the UK’s goals in Europe on improving human rights, democracy and respect for the rule of law.
The Council of Europe truly brings European states together. It is obviously much wider than the 27 states of the European Union. The Council of Europe is made up of 46 members, including Georgia, Turkey and, of course, Ukraine, to name but a few. I was pleased to see that Russia was very quickly and decisively expelled following its illegal invasion of Ukraine last year.
Earlier this year, I was proud to be selected to be a member of the UK’s delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. In January, I went on my first trip and attended a part-session of the Assembly. In that sitting, the issue of gender-based violence was at the heart of many of the debates. Unfortunately, those rights are still under threat in parts of Europe. The key principles of human rights, democracy and the rule of law have been tossed aside by Putin because of his illegal invasion of Ukraine.
I must say that I was struck by the courage and bravery of the Ukrainian parliamentarians I met in Strasbourg. So many had risked their lives to get to Strasbourg, and the testimony they gave to us privately, as well publicly in the Assembly, was heartbreaking. It goes to show how important institutions such as the Council of Europe are when the Ukrainians, who are in the grip of a vicious war, still see the importance of attending the Council, and its ability to unite Europe against oppression and violations of international law.
It was not lost on me that, in the light of Russia’s brutality, my first speech in the Palace of Europe, where the Parliamentary Assembly sits, was on preventing sexual violence in conflict. These are vile and cowardly crimes that are often overlooked, so I was glad we had a debate on those particular war crimes, which highlighted sickening records of widespread sexual abuse by Russian troops, with victims ranging in age from four to 82, according to investigators at the Office of the Prosecutor General of Ukraine. Ukraine’s Prosecutor General has also chronicled more than 88,000 alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity to date, including atrocities such as the 440 civilian bodies found in a mass grave in a liberated city. Unfortunately, those numbers are likely to increase substantially as more areas are liberated by Ukraine and inspectors gain access to the scenes of those crimes. The Council of Europe will play a massive part in ensuring those crimes are recognised and the perpetrators brought to justice.
During my speech at the Council of Europe, I outlined the UK’s strategy on sexual violence in conflict, which has been meticulously developed by experts, academics and non-governmental organisations to tackle all forms of conflict-related sexual violence. I was pleased to share the strategy with the rest of the Parliamentary Assembly. The current situation in Ukraine, as well as events in too many other countries, including Afghanistan and Ethiopia, make clear that this issue is very much alive.
In the debate, I called on all members to join me in standing up for the rights of women and girls around the world. Indeed, the Council of Europe has a history of working to prevent gender-based violence, with campaigns against gender-based violence going back to the 1990s. The Council of Europe’s flagship gender-based violence treaty is the Istanbul convention, also known as the Council of Europe convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence. The convention is the first legally binding instrument that creates a comprehensive legal framework and approach to combating violence against women. It is focused on preventing domestic abuse, protecting victims and prosecuting accused offenders.
The hon. Member is quite right to refer to gender-based violence and violence against women. In that interesting debate, a lot was said about education, particularly of women in schools. The point I made, and I am sure she would endorse, is that it is also about educating young boys about their attitudes towards women, so that we do not bring up another generation of young men who feel it is okay to be abusive towards women.
The right hon. Member will hear me say exactly that later in my speech: if we are ever to resolve violence against women and girls, it is about education of girls and boys. We cannot do one without the other.
The convention does so much for ensuring that we put preventing violence against women and girls at the heart of everything we do, and ensures that such violence is seen as a human rights issue and as discrimination. States that ratify the convention—I am proud that we as a nation are one of those signatories—must criminalise several offences, including psychological violence, stalking, physical violence, sexual violence including rape, forced marriage, female genital mutilation, forced abortion and forced sterilisation. The scope of that must not be understated. The convention states that sexual harassment must be subject to
“criminal or other legal sanction”.
It also includes an article targeting crimes committed in the name of so-called honour. I see no honour in any crime committed against a woman or girl.
During my trip to Strasbourg I spoke on the important role that men play in preventing violence against women and girls. I was interested to hear from delegates from all over Europe how they recognised the importance of education and changing attitudes on gender-based violence for boys and girls, as Jeremy Corbyn just highlighted. I found that incredibly refreshing; it gave me renewed hope that organisations such as the Council of Europe can make a difference to improving the conditions for all women and girls across Europe, and will serve as an example to the rest of the world.
It would be remiss of me not to mention the European Court of Human Rights. In Strasbourg we met the UK judge on the Court, Judge Tim Eicke, in a worthwhile and fascinating meeting. Perhaps most interestingly, we discussed how few UK cases taken to the Court are upheld. In 2021, the Court dealt with only 215 applications regarding the UK. Of those, 205 were declared inadmissible. Only seven judgments were made, finding only one violation of the European convention on human rights. We should all be proud of that record. Meeting individuals such as our judge highlighted the work that the Council does to safeguard human rights for all member states.
I hope to go to Strasbourg again in a couple of weeks for the next session—slip permitting—where I hope to speak on more crucial issues such as public health and human rights. I look forward to continuing the UK’s leadership on human rights, democracy and the rule of law as a key member of the Council of Europe. I also look forward to meeting more of my European counterparts to discuss how we can continue to work together to improve people’s lives across Europe, sharing our own experiences and knowledge.
Let me conclude with a quote from one of the founding fathers of the Council of Europe, our own Winston Churchill:
“The dangers threatening us are great but great too is our strength”.
Wise words, and why we must remain a member of the Council of Europe.
Let me give huge thanks to my hon. Friend John Howell for securing this debate. He is far too modest to tell us just how much enthusiasm, drive and determination he puts into his leadership of the UK delegation. He is a great support to so many of us in the Chamber.
My appointment to the Council of Europe was my first appointment by the Government. I remember in those pandemic times working from home, and taking a call from the Chief Whip, thinking, “What I have done wrong?”, only to be told that I would be asked to join the UK delegation. Like many Members here, I did not know a great deal about what the Council of Europe did, but since then I have been totally enthralled by it, as hon. Members will hear in a minute. In those first 18 months of the pandemic, any new Member from the 2019 intake probably struggled to work out quite what was going on, as nationalities from all over Europe were beamed into Chambers. It took quite some time to understand quite what was going on.
It was at that time that my right hon. Friend Sir Roger Gale, our previous delegation leader, took me under his wing. In a matter of just a few months he decided to put me forward for a rapporteurship, which, thankfully, I did not get, because the subject matter was something that I had absolutely no idea how to contribute to. That is the beauty of the Council of Europe: it broadens our horizons, opens our eyes and enables us to learn so much more about our fundamental laws, democracy and human rights.
My right hon. Friend explained, “Don’t worry. The d’Hondt system means that you will get the next rapporteurship that comes up.” I had no idea what the d’Hondt system was but, sure enough, my Christmas present in December 2020 was that I became the first of the 2019 intake to take on a rapporteurship. I took a great deal of pride in that, because it got a lot of prominence: track and trace applications, and the ethical, cultural and educational challenges. At the time, when covid was still spreading and we were using contact tracing apps to monitor the spread of the virus, the issue of how we use that data was giving huge rise to conversations not just in our country but all over Europe.
That position took me to Paris and to Strasbourg. Perhaps one of the most memorable moments of my time in Parliament was the ability to stand up in the Hemicycle in Strasbourg and present my report, which was unanimously adopted. As many Members have said this afternoon, we simply could not do our work without the incredible help from Nick Wright and his team. For me, Silvia Arzilli was a huge help in getting an enormous amount of work over the line. The officers we have in our UK delegation are fantastic people.
Why am I saying all this? As has been repeated this afternoon, the rule of law and human rights are fundamental principles in our democracy. They are the very principles that underpin not just our rights in this country but the Council of Europe. As many people have said, when we talk to constituents about work on the Council of Europe, they look at us slightly quizzically and say, “Didn’t we leave that?” I explain that we left the political union with the European Union, but we did not leave the work that we do within the Council of Europe.
It is quite true that there is more that unites us than divides us. The ability to work cross-party on the Council of Europe is one of the most attractive things about it. It offers the ability to talk for a time outside this Chamber with people in a more relaxed environment in Strasbourg, and fundamentally we work together. Many constituents do not see that side of our democracy.
We were one of the founding members of the Council of Europe in the 1940s. Our membership continues to demonstrate just how important we still are in the Council of Europe, and our international standing. Being on the UK delegation has opened my eyes, and I have enjoyed it a great deal. Listening to debates about human rights and refugees was somewhat of the inspiration, when the Ukraine war started, for my being the first MP to open my doors to a little family from Kyiv, who have been with me for 14 months. In my previous role, before I had any political ambitions whatsoever, I would perhaps not have considered that, but being thoroughly engrossed in the work of the Council of Europe and its role with human rights has changed my views and thoughts, as anybody who sits on the Council of Europe will understand, once they have worked with it for a few years.
As I finish, I pay one last tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Henley. He is far too modest to comment on his role in the removal of Russia from the Council of Europe but, in no small way, without his enthusiasm and passion to do what was right, we would not have ended up with that situation. Although that dreadful war continues in Europe—the worst for nearly 100 years —he needs to take a large amount of credit for leading that initiative and increasing our international standing by making sure that happened.
I have the privilege of representing the constituency of Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner. Although many of my constituents will share concerns about the small boats, which were referred to briefly by my hon. Friend Sally-Ann Hart, generations of people from all over the world have found refuge in my constituency. In particular, they include a large population of Jewish people, who came to the United Kingdom before the second world war, as the state terror against them was cranked up by the Nazis in Germany. A significant number came following the partition of India. Those people recognised that Europe in general, and the UK in particular, was a beacon of human rights and the rule of law—a place where their lives, businesses and families would be respected. Although I was not a member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, that was the reason I took an interest in the Council of Europe during my time in local government, and I served as the Conversative delegation leader at the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of Europe.
I want to share some reflections on that part of the Council of Europe, which is rarely referred to in this Chamber, except in the particular context of its work carrying out election supervision. It has significant impact on the way we manage migration and asylum. It is visible through my membership and that of other Members of the parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights, which looks at the way the legislation we pass in this Chamber interacts with the European convention on human rights, of which we are a member. I will touch on some of the impacts that the different bodies of the Council of Europe have and consider some developments, such as the implications of the Brighton declaration, that show how that convention and the bodies that form part of the Council of Europe continue to be a work in progress, reflecting the changing world we face today.
I have heard in this Chamber, as reflected in much of the academic coverage of the subject, that there is a good deal of debate about the role in its foundation played by Winston Churchill, after whom buildings in Strasbourg and key Council of Europe premises are named. However, there is little doubt reflected back to me by my constituents who came to the UK in those circumstances that its founding politicians saw a desperate need for this body in the reconstruction of Europe after the second world war.
The aim was to ensure that there was a sufficient body of international jurisprudence to restrain potential abuses of state power, such as those that had been seen in a number of its member states in the run-up to the second world war. That would ensure that in the future no nation fell below that minimum standard, through a process where international law could be invoked. That took place against the background of the global work undertaken by the United Nations.
Following its foundation, the Council of Europe has developed a political sense. A number of Members have spoken from the perspective of their experience of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, but in due course the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of Europe was created and the Council of Ministers was always there as part of the supervisory activity, whereby the Council itself was directly accountable to the Governments of the member states and they had a direct role in supervising decision making.
That has been enormously important, because in many of the debates on, for example, the Illegal Migration Bill and the Nationality and Borders Act 2022, both in this Chamber and in the public discourse, we have heard reference to foreign judges and courts and a lack of accountability. The Council of Europe, almost from its inception, has recognised that politics, not just the rule of law, is important in shaping its work. To this day, it remains extremely accountable to and shaped by the view of parliamentarians and the other active parties from the member states.
The role of the judges was referred to during the course of the debates on the Illegal Migration Bill, but it was not mentioned that those judges are elected by the Parliamentary Assembly. Members of this House choose who the judges are going to be, from a shortlist put forward by the Government of the member state. In fact, there is a much higher degree of accountability around the appointment of judges to the court than there is for judges in our own domestic courts here in the United Kingdom. That political relationship is incredibly important.
Then we have to consider the role of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of Europe. The bit that we tend to make reference to, especially when we have debates about emerging situations in countries where there are concerns about whether free and fair elections are taking place, is the role of election monitoring. Our counterparts from local and regional government spend their time checking that those elections are being carried out in a free and fair manner, and also looking at issues such as how positive obligations on public bodies—for example, the duties on local authorities to house people or ensure they have access to education and healthcare—are playing out in practice.
On top of that, we have the Venice Commission, which is the body that looks at setting the international gold standard for the conducts of elections. There was much debate in this Chamber about whether it was appropriate to bring voter ID into the UK system, but it has been recommended by the Venice Commission for some time, as part of the gold standard for ensuring that elections are free and fair. It is standard practice across most member states of the Council of Europe.
I will turn briefly to some of the emerging challenges. A number of Members have made reference to the situation with Russia; I know my hon. Friend John Howell has done sterling work on that. I served on the Congress during a period when Russia was still an active member of the Council of Europe, which was a good explication of some of the challenges the Council faces. At that stage, Russia had already invaded and annexed Crimea, but was not the only member state of the Council of Europe that, arguably, had invaded and occupied territory of another member state. The challenges were very visible—politicians who were there to represent the interests of their people had to set aside some of those immediate direct international challenges.
It is clear that at the Congress, the Parliamentary Assembly and the organisation in its broadest sense, the changing world, for example the digital environment, introduces new challenges to the way in which the rule of law is enforced. It is only through the willingness of the member states that the principles that underpin the Council of Europe can be upheld. A key point for those who have concerns about the UK’s continued membership, is that, as has already been clearly stated, the number of referrals to the Court from the United Kingdom are exceptionally low, and the number of findings against the United Kingdom is lower still. It is also interesting to note that during its period of membership the largest number of representations from any member country came from Russia. It is very clear that the rule of law has some distance to travel in that country.
I commend the work that about which we have heard from a number of colleagues who serve on the Parliamentary Assembly. I also pay tribute to the work of my former colleagues on the Congress, who have done a tremendous amount to shape both the work and the priorities of the Council of Europe, especially it comes to the rights of refugees, both in the United Kingdom and following their transition from wherever they may have originated to a place of safety elsewhere. It is important that those rights are respected but also managed, and that countries such as Greece, Italy and Turkey—which accommodate millions of refugees at a time when we in the United Kingdom are worrying about tens of thousands at the most—are able to share the challenges that that poses for their communities and the implications for their politics, and also to work with us to find a more functional and effective system of managing the way in which people who are in dire need of help move around the world. As issues such as climate change begin to become a larger factor, we have an opportunity to reflect on how those rights will all play out.
I want to express the pride that I think we all feel in the role that the United Kingdom has played in developing this framework, and in its consistent maintenance and enforcement of the standards of respect for human rights, which have done so much to reduce injustice among the member states and in wider Europe over the years since the second world war. I also want to place on record my personal thanks to some of the UK ambassadors and diplomats who I know are extremely active in Strasbourg, meeting regularly and ensuring that issues that politicians debate perhaps once a session are being managed and the process is being smoothed on a daily basis. In particular, like others, I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Henley.
I also thank our counterparts—leaders such as Councillor Kevin Bentley, who leads the local government delegation —whose work behind the scenes, to which we do not often have a chance to pay tribute in the House, addresses our constituents’ need for access to justice when they are abroad. While we in the House can spend a great deal of time arguing about what may in the grand scheme of things be relatively small issues, we have colleagues who are working to ensure that our fellow citizens, in this country and abroad, continue to enjoy their right to life, their right to liberty, their right to a family life, their right to pursue a business, and their right to do all the things that free human beings should be able to do within the context of a legal framework within which it can be ensured that no one infringes those rights unjustly.
It is an honour and a privilege to speak as the leader of the SNP delegation to the Council of Europe. Let me first thank John Howell for the great work he does in leading the UK delegation. I also thank Nick Wright and the staff in the UK delegation office, who are always on hand when we need help and support. Certainly, when I joined the delegation in 2018, I had a lot to learn about the Council of Europe.
I think this is one of those unique debates in which there is much more agreement than disagreement, and I have to say that what we have heard today from, in particular, my Conservative friends in the delegation genuinely gives me a sense of hope and faith in our democracy. I think that the Council of Europe may be keeping them on the right track, and keeping them honest in some respects—I mean that in the kindest possible way. It is clear to me that all the delegates who are speaking here today, particularly the Conservatives, are absolutely committed to the principles of the human rights and democracy that the Council of Europe holds so dear and champions in everything it does.
Let me say for my own part that, while having been elected as a Member of Parliament for my home town of Livingston is a huge privilege, as a queer lassie from a working-class single-parent family growing up in Livingston, I could never have imagined in my wildest dreams that—having read modern studies and then gained a politics degree—I would walk through the doors of the Council of Europe in Strasbourg as a fully fledged member. Taking up that role was a source of significant pride and honour for me.
I hope that I have played my part in my contribution since 2018, as a member of various committees and, in particular, as a member of the Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights. I have served as the committee’s rapporteur, working on the report “Towards a human rights and public health approach to drug control policies”. The report was produced largely under covid, and preparing it online was more challenging, so I want to put on record my huge thanks to the staff who supported me—particularly Kelly, who carried out so much work and research.
During that period, once we were allowed out and about, I had the privilege of visiting a drug consumption room in Strasbourg. That was an experience that I will never forget. As the debate on drugs policy ranges across the UK, in the UK media and beyond, I must say that seeing the progress that France and other countries have made in providing such facilities was truly incredible. As other Members have said, the opportunity presented by the Council of Europe to see the workings of our European friends and neighbours really does open our eyes and broaden our horizons. I am also now relishing being the rapporteur of a report into the state of human rights, human rights defenders and journalists in Azerbaijan.
I draw attention to the comments from the hon. Member for Henley about the perceptions both in society and, perhaps, even in this place about the Council of Europe and its work. People may not know that the EU nicked the Council of Europe’s flag, and it has also adopted many of its principles. He spoke passionately about the importance of the Reykjavik summit, and I share his gratitude and delight that the UK Prime Minister attended. The work done at the summit on tackling the war in Ukraine and imposing sanctions on Russia is incredibly important. The SNP does not always feel that the UK Government are doing enough, and significantly more needs to be done—I say that as someone who sat on the Public Bill Committee for the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Act 2018, which did not go nearly far enough. We must ensure that concrete steps are put in place so that frozen Kremlin-linked assets can be seized and invested into the proposed Marshall plan, which I know the Dutch Government have taken up. I hope that that will be considered.
Other Members made fantastic contributions. Jeremy Corbyn took a moment to reflect on his 40 years since first being elected. He has been here for as long as I have been alive—I turned 40 last week. I do not mean to make him feel old in any way, but he has worked hard for his constituents, and I congratulate him on 40 years in this place. There has been much talk about immigration, and he spoke about the European Court of Human Rights ruling on the Rwanda case. David Simmonds spoke passionately about the Council of Europe and its work, and I was genuinely delighted to hear that. I hope that those on his party’s Front Bench will reflect on that ruling, on the work of the Council of Europe and on the principle, as others have highlighted, of our continuing to be members of the Council of Europe.
It would be heartbreaking and unthinkable for the UK to turn its back on the Council of Europe and walk away. As a Member who was there during the dying days of the Brexit process, I remember the outrage and horror of our European colleagues and the pain they felt following the UK’s decision in that vote. Equally, I remember a desire to work with us and to move forward. For my part, and the SNP’s part, when Scotland is an independent nation we will, I have no doubt, be a proud member of the Council of Europe and, I hope, the European Union.
Theo Clarke spoke about how she had been embraced at the Council of Europe as a new mum. That was wonderful to hear and, I hope, gives hope to other Members with children that they will be able to balance their responsibilities. I know it is a daunting task for many, so I congratulate her on that. She spoke about the history of the Council of Europe and its origins in the tragedy of world war two. There was unanimity across the House on Russia’s expulsion, and never has the importance of European nations working together against the war in Russia been more obvious.
Tonia Antoniazzi spoke passionately about her work at the Council of Europe on abuse in sport, which she continues to champion. Nickie Aiken talked about the debates she took part in on gender-based violence. The UK was a little slower than we would have liked to ratify the Istanbul convention, and it was of course my former hon. Friend the Member for Banff and Buchan, Eilidh Whiteford, who brought the ratification Bill to this place off the back of the great work of the Council of Europe. It took a few years to get it ratified, so I hope we will be a little speedier in future at getting important pieces of legislation ratified. I look forward to working with the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster on those important issues.
Duncan Baker talked about his work on track and trace applications—that must have been an interesting piece of work to do at that particular time—and the beauty of the horizon broadening of the Council of Europe. We must all embrace that.
I am conscious that I have gone over time, Mr Deputy Speaker, but I will once again put on the record my thanks to the hon. Member for Henley for all that he does as the head of our delegation. There will be many things on which we disagree, but we do work well together as a delegation, and I look forward to continuing to work at the Council of Europe with all my colleagues.
I am sure that the whole House will want to let the people of France know that our thoughts and prayers are with them after the terrible events we have seen in Annecy today. I understand that the Foreign Secretary has indicated that a British child was involved in that terrible incident. Donc, à nos amis en France, nos pensées et nos prières sont avec vous tous en ce moment.
I thank John Howell for securing this debate at a critical time for democracy, human rights and the rule of law across our continent, and I thank Members on both sides of the House for their thoughtful and considered contributions—we have heard many excellent comments.
I echo the hon. Gentleman’s thanks, and the thanks of many Members, to all the UK delegation, particularly those from this side of the House, and to all the staff who facilitate the important work of the Council of Europe. I am glad he emphasised the importance of the ECHR, which has been referenced by many Members today, and of the work on election observation and monitoring. It was good to hear him mention ecocide, as my party has a firm commitment to taking that forward, were we to form the next Government. Like many Members, I share his views on the important work done by the Council of Europe, particularly in its expulsion of Russia and its firm stance in support of Ukraine, Kosovo’s membership and many other issues.
Although there is a plethora of geopolitical hotspots across Europe at the moment, and Putin’s illegal war of aggression against Ukraine is justifiably a key focus for all of us here today and in the work of the Council of Europe, there are many other areas on which the Council of Europe works that warrant the House’s attention. Indeed, we have seen attempts not only by Putin but by other global and regional actors to sow disharmony, to undermine democracy and the rule of low, and to foment tensions elsewhere in Europe, whether in the western Balkans, Moldova, the eastern Mediterranean, the Baltic or the Caucasus, all of which come under the remit of the Council of Europe. It is arguable that the work of the Council of Europe is now more important than ever.
I recognise the work of not only my hon. Friend Tonia Antoniazzi, who has spoken today, but of my hon. Friend Tony Lloyd, who is not with us today—I thank him for all the work he has done over so many years. I also thank Lord Foulkes, Lord Griffiths and others who have been mentioned today.
It is right that, back in May, we saw the historic fourth Council of Europe summit in Reykjavik pledge unanimous support to protecting and advocating for democracy, human rights and the rule of law while reaffirming solidarity with the people of Ukraine. As the Reykjavik statement outlined
“European democracies are not established once and for all. We need to strive to uphold them each and every day… The Council of Europe remains the guiding light that assists us in fostering greater unity…for the purpose of safeguarding and realising these ideals and principles which are our common heritage.”
That is more important than ever, as we see backsliding on democracy, human rights and the rule of law in some contexts in our own neighbourhood.
Importantly, the Council of Europe focuses on practical responses and, as a number of Members have highlighted today, one key outcome is the establishment of a register of loss and damage in relation to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which will be critical as we approach the Ukraine recovery conference here in London this month. As we have seen with the terrible events over the past 48 hours in relation to the Kakhovka dam, which will have not only an immediate impact but a long-term impact due to the spreading of mines and the damage to agricultural land, which will have a long-term impact on Ukraine’s economy. I have written to the Government today— I hope the Minister will draw the attention of the Minister for Europe, Leo Docherty, to that letter—asking practical questions about what support the UK will give in relation to that specific incident.
It is critical that we support the register, as it will be crucial in informing how we might be able to generate resources to support Ukraine in the long term. I hope the Minister will say a little about progress on seizing, not just freezing, Russian state assets and, indeed, expanding and deepening our sanctions legislation. The summit also gave a clear pan-European expression of solidarity with those affected by Russia’s war of aggression against not only Ukraine but Georgia—of course, we have also seen what has happened in Moldova. It is important that we work together with our allies on all those issues.
I mentioned the ECHR and I am glad it has come up multiple times in this debate, with strong support from across the House. I heard what the Prime Minister and others have had to say. Of course, the UK signed that final declaration that set out
“our unconditional obligation to abide by the final judgments of the European Court of Human Rights in any case to which we are Parties.”
It set out our support for the ECHR, so I wonder whether he could have a word with the Home Secretary and some other naysayers on the Government side of the House. However, it was good to hear the support here today from many colleagues. The ECHR is crucial in relation to the Good Friday agreement and so many other agreements to which we are party.
As I said in our last debate on the Council of Europe, the ECHR has delivered more than 16,000 judgments across a range of issues, not just the few that get highlighted in the media. Such issues include the right to life; the prohibition of torture; the prohibition of slavery and forced labour; the right to liberty and security; the right to a fair trial; the right to private and family life; freedom of religion; freedom of expression; the prohibition of discrimination; and the protection of property. The ECHR rightly stands up for those values that are at the core of not only the British legal system, but the European system of human rights, which we played a crucial role in establishing over many decades. So I hope the Minister will assure us that the apparent change in tone from the Government on the ECHR will continue and it will be reaffirmed in his remarks today.
The Istanbul convention has rightly been mentioned by a number of Members. I wish to highlight my concerns about the Government’s reservation on ratifying article 59, which protects migrant and refugee women from domestic abuse and violence. Labour Members have made it clear that we would set out a clear, strict timetable on completing outstanding actions to ratify the convention in full. I hope that the Minister will say something about why the Government continue to have a reservation on that matter, because it undermines our position on a crucial measure brought forward by the Council of Europe to protect the world’s most vulnerable women and girls.
We have heard a lot of discussion today about the importance of upholding democratic practice and the cultures of political pluralism across the continent. That is central to the Council of Europe’s remit. Reference has rightly been made to the fact that its Parliamentary Assembly has led more than 250 election observer missions, and many Members from all parts of the House have paid tribute to the work done in those. The Council of Europe stands ready at every phase of an election cycle to ensure the integrity of ballot boxes, through devising legal frameworks for elections; training and educating local officials; encouraging voter registration; and verifying results. Those processes are elemental to our democratic life, but they can be open to exploitation and exposed to interference. It is crucial that we continue to support that work.
It has been noted, but let me say that in the past few months PACE has monitored elections in Montenegro and observed the second round of Turkey’s presidential election. It is also currently holding an inquiry on the impact of artificial intelligence. It is crucial that we understand that and I know that in due course we will be debating in this Chamber its impact on our democratic systems. We have had some worrying developments in that regard and it is important that we are working with European partners on that. They are also doing crucial work on the challenges facing Belarusians in exile from Lukashenko’s brutal regime.
Lastly, I come to the issue of human rights and the rule of law, because the Council of Europe has played a crucial role in protecting national minorities; the rights of LGBT+ people; migrant populations; Roma and Travellers; children; women; and people with disabilities. It has also worked on the elimination of trafficking. Labour stands squarely beside the Council of Europe in its defence of the rights of people across Europe. It is Pride Month, and I had the pleasure last week of being in another Council of Europe member state, Malta, which arguably now leads Europe in its support for LGBT+ people and is doing some excellent work. Unfortunately, when we see backsliding—some of it in this country, regrettably—we need to be looking to allies across Europe and in the Council of Europe to see how we can underpin crucial rights for LGBT+ people.
The Council of Europe is rightly working on a range of other human rights issues. We know of how the ongoing blockade of the Lachin corridor in the Caucasus is having an impact on the social, political and economic rights of those living in Nagorno-Karabakh, an issue that I have raised regularly with Ministers. We know of journalists, trade unions and civil society leaders being pursued and prosecuted relentlessly for their advocacy in a range of contexts across Europe. I will not go into a long list of examples, but a number of them have been mentioned today.
Let us be clear, the human rights of Europeans have been hard fought for and hard won, but sadly they are not an inevitability; there will always be individuals and regimes that will seek to erode them. That is why the work of institutions such as the Council of Europe is so essential—whether that be rapporteurs working with Azeri officials to end police harassment of LGBT+ people, the work being done to end the violence against Roma women in Serbia, or the inquiry being conducted by the special representative for migration and refugees into the welfare of Ukrainian refugee children.
This has been a thorough and important debate. Labour remains resolute in its support for the work of the Council of Europe and will continue to work with colleagues across the House to further many of its workstreams and agendas. The Council of Europe is a manifestly diverse and dynamic organisation. We wish to make it clear that we will always seek opportunities to work alongside our allies and partners on issues of human rights, the rule of law and democracy. The Council of Europe is key to addressing all of those and upholding those very British and European values which all of us stand for in this House.
It is good to take part in this debate, Mr Deputy Speaker. I know that you were able to come in only for the tail end of it, but it was one of those occasions when it was genuinely good to see both sides of the House speak up unanimously in favour of this important institution, with heartfelt gratitude for its existence. The Minister for Europe, my hon. Friend Leo Docherty, would have been delighted to take part in this debate, but he was not available to attend. It is therefore my pleasure to respond on behalf of the Government.
I wish to congratulate—along with just about everybody in the Chamber—my hon. Friend John Howell on his incredible work. I had always thought that he had done well, but, having listened to all the tributes to him from right across the Chamber, I now know that he has done even better than I originally thought. That is quite extraordinary, so I say well done to him and thank him very much. He and other members of the UK delegation play a vital role in promoting the Council of Europe and its work. It is also right to highlight the important work of Sandy Moss and our superb team there as well.
I wish to say that our thoughts are with the people of Ukraine—especially those living in the area that has been affected by the flooding over recent days—whose lives, homes and livelihoods are threatened. This was just another terrible incident that has happened in this tragic war. I also echo the timely remarks of Stephen Doughty. Our thoughts and prayers are with the people of France— I cannot speak French, so I will go along with his words —following that terrible attack in Annecy. They are also with the family of the British child who was sadly injured in that attack.
I am grateful for all the contributions that have been made, and I will seek to respond to as many as I can in my winding-up remarks. The UK has long been at the forefront of the Council of Europe, from its creation through the Treaty of London in 1949 to the Prime Minister attending the Reykjavik summit just a few weeks ago. The Council of Europe has been, and will continue to be, important to our human rights and foreign policy agenda. That is why the work of the Parliamentary Assembly is so vital.
We are grateful to the UK delegation for its efforts to promote and protect UK interests. As the Prime Minister said at the summit in Reykjavik last month, the Council of Europe has an extraordinary legacy. The reason that it has endured for so long is its important role in upholding the fundamental rights and freedoms underpinning our security and prosperity. We continue to co-operate and collaborate with our friends across Europe to uphold and promote the values of the Council of Europe.
As I said at the start of my speech, it is good to hear such strong support for the Council of Europe. Hannah Bardell made some really important points. I could see her pride in being able to be part of the delegation, which was true for many others as well. It is very clear that, although we have differences, there is definitely more that unites us than divides us, particularly on core values around democracy and freedom. Like her, I regard it an extreme honour to be able to help engage with interlocutors and often friends around the world as we seek to promote those values. I also recognise the significant 40th anniversary of Jeremy Corbyn—[Interruption.] Ruby, indeed.
Putin’s heinous and unjustified war of aggression against Ukraine is the biggest threat to democracy, human rights and the rule of law on our continent since the Council was established, and it is rightly standing strong against those threats. Last year, the organisation took quick and decisive action to expel Russia, as has been highlighted. We should not forget that the UK parliamentary delegation and the Government were at the forefront in calling for that expulsion.
Today, the Council of Europe is playing a vital role in supporting Ukraine. Its work to establish the register of damage is an important step in securing financial accountability and supporting justice for the people of Ukraine, as was highlighted by my hon. Friends the Members for Stafford (Theo Clarke) and for Cities of London and Westminster (Nickie Aiken) in their excellent remarks. The Prime Minister signed the register at the summit as a founding participant, and we will continue to work with the Council and our friends worldwide to ensure support for it.
We also look forward to welcoming the Secretary-General of the Council of Europe and many other member states to the Ukraine recovery conference later this month, as the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth highlighted—we will follow up on the important points that he raised in his letter. That will enable us to galvanise international investment in reconstruction as we co-host the conference with Ukraine, building on the £220 million of humanitarian assistance we have already provided.
Responding to Russia’s war, democratic backsliding and growing authoritarian trends, we renewed our commitment to the Council of Europe’s democratic values and principles through the Reykjavik principles of democracy. The UK was proud to be at the forefront of that effort. We also demonstrated our commitment to the Council’s convention system as the cornerstone of its protection of human rights.
We were instrumental in ensuring that the declaration referenced the principle of subsidiarity and the doctrine of margin of appreciation. Those key concepts define the boundaries of the Strasbourg Court’s role and rightly allow it to concentrate on serious systemic issues when they arise. The UK has a strong tradition of both ensuring that rights and liberties are protected domestically and fulfilling our international human rights obligations. As the Prime Minister said in this House a few months ago:
“The UK is and will remain a member of the ECHR.”—[Official Report,
Vol. 728, c. 594.]
As many of my hon. Friends have noted, the Council of Europe is an important institution for the United Kingdom. We are actively involved in much of its diverse work, from minority languages to the environment to violence against women and girls, which has been called out in this debate. Our membership allows us to shape international norms and standards and to reform conventions such as mutual legal assistance to better reflect today’s challenges.
The breadth, scope and ambition of the Council’s work is the reason its value has endured, and the UK is determined to ensure that that continues as we face the challenges of tomorrow. Digital technologies, as my hon. Friend David Simmonds noted, have transformed the world, but we cannot ignore the complex risks to human rights that they can present, particularly when it comes to artificial intelligence. That is why the UK is committed to the Council of Europe’s pioneering work to develop the world’s first international treaty on AI in relation to human rights, democracy and rule of law.
The UK is also taking ambitious action to deliver a cleaner and greener world, and we are pleased to be engaging with the Council on how we might define the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment, which has been raised in this debate. Illegal migration is another fast-growing problem and a pressing human rights issue. If we are to stop it, we need a concerted and collective effort from all countries in Europe to shut down people-smuggling gangs and to block them at every stage of their illegal and inhumane journey. We will continue to work with the Council of Europe to ensure that it plays its part in confronting illegal migration.
I recognise the work of members of the UK delegation on migration, refugees and displaced persons, including my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford, who recently, as she said, visited Strasbourg with her baby—that is real dedication to the cause and I thank her for that work. On Kosovo, I just wanted to highlight to Tonia Antoniazzi, who is not in her place—[Interruption.] Oh, there she is—excuse me. She made an important contribution on a number of issues, but I want to reassure her that the UK Government welcome the decision by the Committee of Ministers to refer Kosovo’s application to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. That is the next step in the process.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster, we recognise the importance of the Istanbul convention in helping to protect women and girls. There is also important work to be done on issues such as educational impacts during the pandemic, as my hon. Friend Duncan Baker highlighted. We should recognise the wider work of the Council, including its ongoing work on election monitoring, which my hon. Friend the Member for Henley highlighted and on which he and my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner have done considerable work.
To end, let me reiterate what valuable work the Council of Europe does. Next year marks 75 years since the signing of the treaty of London—that is even longer than the right hon. Member for Islington North has been a Member of this House. It is an established, venerable institution. The UK has been a leading player since the Council’s inception. In the face of the challenges on our doorstep in Europe, we will strive to ensure that the Council’s value and legacy endure as they rightly should.
I began this debate by thanking Madam Deputy Speaker because she is a former member of the Council of Europe, and so are you, Mr Deputy Speaker. It is a great pleasure to have two former members chair this debate.
I thank everyone for the enormous kindness of their words and for their contributions to the debate. There can be no clearer estimate of the appreciation across the House for the Council of Europe than this debate. I am incredibly grateful for all contributions.
Thank you, John, for everything that you do on the Council of Europe. It was a great honour to be twice a member of the Council. The current Turkish Foreign Secretary—if he still is that—made me a life member of the Council of Europe, which is a great honour. Thank you very much.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House
has considered the work of the Council of Europe.