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I beg to move,
That this House
has considered the work of the Council of Europe.
It is a great pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Mr Hosie, for this important debate. I thank the Minister, who I know is very interested in this work, as is my hon. Friend Mr Mahmood. I also thank all the members of the UK delegation to the Council of Europe, some of whom have worked there for decades—I have worked for just months, so I defer to their knowledge and expertise in this area. I pay special tribute to Sir Roger Gale, who has been an excellent leader of the delegation and has been very helpful to us all, as has my hon. Friend Angela Smith, who leads the Labour delegation. Much of that work goes unrecognised.
All the parties in this House are represented in the Council of Europe, and the way we try to work together is a great tribute to us all. We do that because we know the importance of the Council of Europe. I was interested in introducing this morning’s debate because I have been in this House for 20 years and, to be frank, before that my understanding of the work of the Council of Europe was limited. The British public’s understanding of it is probably even more limited, which is no criticism of them. We all need to think about how we can raise the profile, not only in this country but across Europe, of the important work that the Council of Europe does. That is the purpose of today’s debate.
The Council of Europe calls itself the democratic conscience of greater Europe, which I think is true. I am not a cynical person—cynicism is the great enemy of politics today. That statement is a fundamental aim of the Council of Europe. Let us be clear: this is not about the UK saying that we have everything right, and that we will tell the rest of Europe and the world what to do. We have our own challenges, as we can see from some of today’s newspaper headlines regarding anti-Semitism and the Windrush generation.
Let us reflect on Winston Churchill, Clement Attlee and the great leaders of the past who set up the Council of Europe in the aftermath of the destruction and terror of world war two. Make no mistake: I am not comparing the situation today to world war two. However, I strongly believe that if Winston Churchill or Clement Attlee were alive today and could see what is happening across Europe, they would think, “Goodness me, there is still a long way to go, even some decades after we proposed the establishment of a council of Europe that would work towards the establishment of democracy, the rule of law, freedom of expression and tolerance across our continent, as well as the rest of the world.” That is why it is so important.
Sometimes such rhetoric—stating and restating the principles in which we believe—is seen as remote, and not dealing with the practical realities of the modern world. I say that we should never take for granted the way in which the Council of Europe stands up for and speaks out on the principles on which democratic societies must be based, which it does exceedingly well.
Yesterday I wrote to the Foreign Secretary about the proposed Polish holocaust law, which revises history and is clearly anti-Semitic. Does my hon. Friend agree that it needs to be raised in the Council of Europe with the Polish Government, as do the issues with the Hungarian Government regarding anti-Semitic tropes in the recent election?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. He is absolutely right about those issues in Poland and Hungary, but there are numerous other areas in which the Council of Europe continues to stand up and speak out. We should not shy away from that, which is why the statement that the Council of Europe acts as the democratic conscience of Europe is important. When the Council of Europe was established by Churchill and others with great words, they believed that within 20 or 30 years some of those problems could be defeated. Yet my hon. Friend reminds us of something that all of us who participate in such debates, both here and abroad, know: battles that we thought would be won are having to be refought. Things that we thought would be taken for granted are having to be fought for again.
Some of this is difficult, and there is so much to discuss. The Minister gave us an exposition of his efforts with Turkey. We in the Council of Europe would think that much of what happens in Turkey is not right, but what did the Minister do? He did not shy away from it. He went there, talked to them, and tried to say, “You are a democracy and part of NATO, and you were talking about becoming a member of the EU. We know that there are difficulties, but you cannot fight what you regard as terrorism or prejudice by resorting to measures that we regard as authoritarian and anti-democratic.” Such measures, however, do not mean that we turn our back on those countries. The Minister was absolutely right to remind us about how he went to speak in Istanbul—he will correct me if I am wrong—straight after the attempted coup, not to support the Turkish Government but to say to them, “Look, you may deal with these things, but you need to deal with them in a democratic way that adheres to the principles we all share.” That is exceedingly important.
As a body, we are looking at and dealing with many issues of real difficulty. I cannot believe that in 2018 I am speaking in this Chamber about how it is still important for the Council of Europe, which may become particularly important post-Brexit as an inter-parliamentary assembly where we can come together, to stand up for democracy and freedom under the law. From research by Amnesty International, we can see how in individual countries across Europe political sanctions are being introduced, people are being imprisoned for what they say, and people are being denied freedom of expression, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights, and gender equality. I am not saying that we all ought to live a life of gloom and pessimism, but part of the role of the Council of Europe is to talk to those countries and stand up for the principles that we hold dear.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate and agree with everything he has said. Does he agree that one good way to raise the profile of the 36 Members of this House and the other place who go to the Council of Europe would be, at the very minimum, an annual debate on the Floor of the House and in Government time to showcase what we are doing as a nation, among the very large number of nations that make up the Council of Europe and its observers?
I could not agree more. The right hon. Lady makes an excellent suggestion. I hope that the Minister can take the idea back and talk to his Whips Office—I am sure that ours will also be agreeable to that. We should all continue to think what more we can do in this country and across Europe to reflect the importance of the work being done. For example, the Minister might like to make a statement to the House after the annual meeting of the Committee of Ministers. I am sure that he would enjoy that.
The truth is that this is important work. To give an example, one of the challenges of our time is the migrant and refugee crisis. Whatever our view on its causes, who is to blame and so on, the Council of Europe reminds us that in the end we are talking about people, in particular children, and that whatever the rights and wrongs of individual foreign policy decisions, it cannot be right that tens of thousands of unaccompanied children are struggling across Europe, often with no prospect of being resettled or relocated.
I went to Jordan recently as part of the Council of Europe delegation. What a phenomenal example Jordan is to the rest of the world in the way it tries to deal with refugee and migrant problems. It is a country of 10 million people. It is not one of the poorest countries in the world, but it is not one of the richest either. Two million of those people are migrants or refugees. I went to the Zaatari refugee camp on the Jordanian-Syrian border, where there are 80,000 people. Hundreds of thousands have been through that camp, which was established in 2012. It is now a small town, as the Minister will know, as I think he has been there as well. The Jordanian people are an example to the rest of us in the way that they have supported the needs of the people in that camp and the rest of the country, and helped them to integrate into their society. They are a reminder and a wake-up call to us all to see children as children, with rights, who need others to speak up for them. It is not their fault that they are fleeing war, that they are unaccompanied or that they do not know where they are going to go. Surely, as the Council of Europe has reminded us time and again, we have a responsibility to stand up, work with them and do what we can.
My hon. Friend is making a characteristically powerful speech. He and I are both members of the Council of Europe’s Committee on Migration, Refugees and Displaced Persons, and there is no better example of why the Council of Europe is about not just the history of our relationship with Europe, but its future. It behoves every nation to address these challenges. Only by being able to talk to our colleagues in other countries will we ever be able to find solutions. What the Council of Europe and that Committee allows us to do is start that process.
I absolutely agree. My hon. Friend has been one of the Members of this House at the forefront of championing the rights of children. That is one example of what the Council of Europe seeks to do. Helped by the hon. Member of North Thanet, I have put down my own resolution on trafficking and slavery, which we hope will help us to make progress.
Is it not also great that we have a body in Europe that has many of the former countries of the Soviet Union as members? We talk to and discuss with them and they are part of a democratic process. There are still issues in some of those countries—I know Members will have been to some, observed elections and seen some of the problems—but we are trying to help and support them and build their democracy. It is just not possible to expect a country that has no democratic traditions or history of inclusion and tolerance, and that still has ethnic clashes, suddenly to pass a constitution and the next day become a beacon of democracy for the world. That is not the real world. The important point is that those countries need help, support and challenge and the Council of Europe can provide that.
Talking of countries of the former Soviet Union that have problems with democracy, one must not forget Russia. Does the hon. Gentleman share my view that jaw-jaw is better than war-war, and that one of the advantages of bringing Russia back into the Council of Europe, however much we disagree with its present Government, is that we could at least engage them in some way and perhaps encourage them into better behaviour?
I think that it is really important that the Council of Europe has standards and says that it will not compromise on its principles. I also believe that it is extremely important to continue to talk and discuss with people. I agree absolutely with that, but not with saying, “We will not worry about that, on the basis that we want to keep talking to you.” We have to be tough and say, “This is what we believe,” but that does not mean it is impossible for us to continue to have dialogue with people even if we do not agree with them. That is what I think about Russia.
It is astonishing that even in Europe—this continent that holds itself up as an example to the rest of the world—there are still examples where we have to defend the principle of freedom of expression. It is astonishing that in some countries in Europe journalists have been imprisoned simply for criticising the Government of the day. It is hard to believe. When the Council of Europe was set up in 1949, would those who went to its first meeting believe that we would be here in 2018 and that there would still be people locked up for what they say or write? I do not believe that they would have. The Council of Europe says to the Governments of its member states that they cannot lock people up simply because they criticise a Government, however much they disagree with what has been written or said. It is a fundamental principle that people can organise, write and demonstrate peacefully for something they believe in. Here again, the Council of Europe is standing up and demanding that.
I do not want to speak for too long, because I know that others want to contribute, but I have a couple of further remarks to make. The challenges that the Council of Europe has faced and is facing should not hide its achievements. Sometimes it is criticised for being a talking shop. There is a lot to be said for talking shops. Where else would we bring that collection of countries together and force them to listen to opinions that they might not agree with?
I apologise for my late arrival to the debate—I was detained by a constituency issue. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate and making such a powerful speech. I am a very new member of the Council of Europe, so it is fantastic to hear. Does he agree that, given the current geopolitical situation and what we are facing in Syria, talking is one of the most important tools in our armoury?
I thank the hon. Lady for her apology—of course that is fine. I agree that it is about talking, but the Council of Europe also tries to help us understand. Ignorance is not bliss, and in order to solve the problems facing Europe and the world we have to try to understand what is going on. That does not mean that we abandon our principles; it means that we have to try to understand why people are doing what they are doing. I agree with her that that is really important.
The Council of Europe has helped to establish democracy and certain other principles. We should celebrate the fact that it is now a “death penalty-free zone”, as it puts it, which is of huge significance. One of the Council of Europe’s great achievements is the European convention on human rights and the establishment of the European Court of Human Rights. It is important for the country to recognise that, although we are leaving the EU, the European Court of Human Rights is not part of the EU. When we look at some of the cases that have been heard at the European Court of Human Rights, even those relating to our country, we see a body standing up for the universality of a principle and holding even Governments to account. That is not necessarily the most popular thing to say, but I fundamentally believe it. I make that argument in my constituency and tell people that we should celebrate the fact that we have human rights and bodies that stand up for them; we should not abhor them or use populist rhetoric.
As I discussed with the previous Lord Chancellor, we have a magnificent success record at the European Court of Human Rights. Well over 90% of our cases are dropped or turned away. We should celebrate that to ensure that the ECHR is not seen as an attack vehicle by organisations such as the Daily Mail.
I agree. The hon. Gentleman will remember that it was the European Court of Human Rights that ensured that thalidomide victims got the justice they deserved.
Whether it is ending the death penalty, fighting for freedom of expression, strengthening human rights, tackling discrimination, standing up for refugees and migrants, campaigning for and championing gender equality, introducing new laws and conventions, or acting as a forum for debating difficult and controversial issues, we can all be proud of the Council of Europe. I have talked about the challenges that we face in Europe today, but let us remember the challenges that those who established the Council of Europe faced in 1949. We do not face the same challenges, but let us not be cynical. Let us be hopeful and optimistic. Let us believe that by talking to and challenging other countries in the environment that the Council of Europe offers us, we can make progress. In the end, ordinary people’s common decency and desire to achieve what they can for themselves, their families and their countries will move them to believe it is possible to overcome the racism, intolerance and discrimination that still scar our continent today. It is possible to do better. The Council of Europe gives us a real opportunity to make that more of a reality than it is.
Ten Back Benchers wish to speak and we have 35 minutes. If they take three and a half minutes each, they will all get in; if they do not, some will not.
I will do my best, Mr Hosie, but I may take a little longer than three and a half minutes.
I congratulate my friend, Vernon Coaker, on securing this debate, on his robust presentation and on his kind personal remarks. He said that we work together, and indeed we do. In that context, I thank Angela Smith, the leader of the Labour group, and Hannah Bardell, the leader of the Scottish National party group, for their unqualified support for the work we all try to do. We are collegiate, we work together and we bat for Britain: this is team UK. It is our collective and proud boast that we do not allow our domestic party political differences to interfere with the work we try to do on behalf of the country within the Council of Europe.
I also thank, because they are not present, the Members of the other House, who make a significant contribution to the work of the Parliamentary Assembly as part of our team. I would be failing in my duty if I did not put on the record our collective appreciation for the tireless work of our ambassador, Christopher Yvon, and his team from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in Strasbourg. Their wisdom and support is absolutely invaluable.
Finally on the list of thank yous, and on a purely personal note, during my brief time as the President of the Parliamentary Assembly, under rather bizarre circumstances, I was fortunate enough to have the service of Mark Neville, the chef de cabinet in the President’s office, and his team. Again, the support they offered was superb.
The difference between the UK delegation and some others is that we are not mandated. In the Parliamentary Assembly, we see people rushing out and telephoning ambassadors, Foreign Secretaries and others to take instructions about how to vote. That is not true of this delegation. We make up our own minds and try to work together. We do not always agree—you will find out in a moment, Mr Hosie, that my hon. Friend Sir Edward Leigh and I have a slightly different opinion about Russia—but part of the principle of British parliamentary democracy is that we have the right to disagree with each other and still respect our friends, and we do. For that we should all be grateful.
When I joined the Parliamentary Assembly for the first time in 1987, there were some 20 members. When Winston Churchill and Jean Monnet founded it in 1947, there were only 12 members. There are now 47 member states. The Council of Europe territory stretches from Azerbaijan to Spain, and from the northern shores of the Mediterranean to Iceland. It has as observers Canada, Japan, the United States, the Holy See and the Palestinian Legislative Council, and Algeria, Kazakhstan, Morocco, Tunisia and the People’s Republic of China are partners for democracy—a status introduced in 2009.
The Council covers a population of some 820 million people. It is consistently confused and conflated with the European Union, which in some quarters does us no favours whatever. The European flag was created by the Council of Europe in 1955 and borrowed by the European Union subsequently—as was the “Ode to Joy”, the European anthem. For all that, as my hon. Friend for Gedling said, and I say that advisedly, there is no other organisation in the world that deals in the way the Council of Europe and the Parliamentary Assembly do—the Council is made up of the Committee of Ministers and the Parliamentary Assembly—with torture, racism and the trafficking of human beings. He mentioned, absolutely correctly, the need to give children a voice and protect them from sexual abuse. The Council of Europe tries to do that. It deals with violence against women, the rights of minorities within countries, and the freedom of the press, which at the moment is very significant indeed in the context of countries such as Turkey, where I fear a significant number of journalists languish in prison as political prisoners.
Of course, we should not forget that the Council also deals with election observation. It provides election observation missions to very many countries, to seek to underpin democracy and to ensure that proper democratic processes are followed and that elections are free and fair.
The hon. Member for Gedling said that sometimes we are referred to as a talking shop. That is true; unfortunately, the popular press also describes us as a dining club. In fact, a great deal of work is done by all colleagues present. In my opening remarks, I omitted to thank the leader of the European Conservatives group, my hon. Friend Mr Liddell-Grainger. I would hate for him to go away and sulk, and think that his work was not appreciated, because it is.
The Council of Europe embraces the European Court of Human Rights, which was mentioned. That is a very significant part of our work. I would like to be able to say that everything in the garden is rosy, but it is not. We face a very difficult situation, particularly with the Russian Federation following the invasion and annexation of Crimea and the Federation’s interference in the business of the Donbass, in eastern Ukraine. The Parliamentary Assembly invoked sanctions against the Russian Federation and took away its voting rights. Some will say that it has been suspended from the Council of Europe—that is incorrect. The Russian Federation walked out and has chosen not to present its credentials for the last two years.
Worse than that, we are now being subjected to economic blackmail: the Federation has failed to pay some €20 million that are due to the Parliamentary Assembly. That is designed to impact upon our work. The Federation’s line is, “You give us back our voting rights and we’ll come back and pay.” The Council of Europe is not for sale. The Parliamentary Assembly is not for sale to anybody at any price. That message needs to go out very clearly to the Russian Federation. Yes, if it recognises the transgressions in Crimea, in the Donbass and in the support for the use of chemical warfare both in this country and in Syria, it will be welcomed back. Of course, we need to keep talking—those talks go on behind the scenes.
The world has to understand that there is no place for any country, around the table in the Hemicycle of the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly, that is not prepared to abide by the terms and conditions laid down. We are a rules-based international organisation and we abide by those rules. That message has to go out very clearly indeed. We shall emerge from this process stronger, better organised, leaner and possibly hungrier, but able to play our part in the developing world.
The point has been made but I will make it again: post-Brexit, the Parliamentary Assembly and the Ministerial Committee will be the voice of Britain in wider Europe. It is an important platform now; it will become a much more important platform in future.
It is a real pleasure to speak in this very important debate. I, too, want to start by paying tribute to the fact that we all work together so very well. It is a real privilege to be part of a UK delegation that has agreed jointly to sponsor an exhibition at next week’s Assembly to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday agreement. I pay particular tribute to Sir Roger Gale for his amazing work and how he has worked with me and all of us to make sure that the exhibition goes ahead. I am very proud of that piece of work.
There was a practical example of how we all work together at the Assembly in January, when a monitoring report on Bosnia and Herzegovina was very critical of Serbian activity in Bosnia. There was an attempt by Serbian representatives from Bosnia at the Assembly to weaken the report. It was the strength of the UK delegation voting as one that helped to defeat those amendments. That avoided the sending of a very negative message back to Bosnia that it is acceptable to indulge in intimidation and aggression towards other ethnic groups. That totally underlines the importance of the Council of Europe—the fact that we can work together and send out those very powerful messages to member states. The Council of Europe is not just a talking shop—if it is a talking shop, it is a very important one that is capable of sending out the most profound and fundamental of messages across the continent.
I want to echo all the thanks that have been given so far, but I also want to draw attention to the staff who work in the Council of Europe office here in Parliament. They do a fantastic job. Jonathan Finlay in particular has dedicated a great deal of time to putting together the exhibition that we will all enjoy, I hope, next week in Strasbourg. I echo entirely the comments made by my hon. Friend Vernon Coaker—or is it right honourable?
He is getting there. I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate, which we are all very pleased to participate in. I will not repeat his comments about the history that led to the foundation of the Council of Europe in 1949, but I do want to say that the Council has certainly played a vital role in defending democracy, human rights and the rule of law since that time. I absolutely echo his comments that it is important at this stage, when we are at a crossroads and face potentially fundamental changes in Europe, that we do not take for granted the values that underpin the Council of Europe. I am concerned about that. It is all too easy to take those values as given, but we must continue to defend them.
We have heard a lot today about the rights of minorities and the need to tackle the problem of political prisoners, LGBT rights, women’s rights, refugees and children. We also need to remember the rights of lawyers—I mention that because I am sitting next to one—to defend their clients effectively, because they are really important, especially when it comes to freedom of expression and dealing with the problems relating to the states that imprison people for speaking out.
I want to talk briefly about some of the problems with member states. Hungary and Poland have elected Governments that are troubling in their attitudes towards minorities. We need to make sure that we keep a very careful eye on what is happening in Hungary and Poland. I also want to mention Armenia, which, under pressure from the Council, signed up to around 70 Council of Europe conventions and reformed its electoral code to ensure that seats in elections were allocated to national minorities. But I read today in The Times about the unrest emerging in Armenia. The President has retired from office and has taken on a prime ministerial role. It looks as though, in effect, he we will transfer the powers that he had as President to his new role as Prime Minister.
Clearly, Armenia is one of those states that the Council of Europe will have to continue to monitor very carefully. What is happening in the country gives me reason to believe absolutely that the Council of Europe has a crucial role in ensuring that it does not waver from the path that leads it to democracy, human rights and the rule of law.
I echo entirely the comments of the hon. Member for North Thanet—I nearly called him “my hon. Friend”, as I think in this context he is—about Russia. We have to be firm in the Russian situation. We cannot be blackmailed by a state that has, in effect, decided that it does not want to abide by the rules relating to international law. It is threatening to undermine financially the work of the Council of Europe. We must stick firmly to our values and send Russia a clear message, but I echo my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling’s comment that the door must always be open to dialogue with states such as Russia and Turkey.
Let me mention the Council’s electoral observation work. I was in Azerbaijan last week for the presidential election, which was an eye-opening experience, to say the least. Ilgar Mammadov, the leader of the main Opposition party in Azerbaijan, is a political prisoner, and many of the main Opposition parties boycotted the election on that ground. Eight candidates were allowed on the final list, and a number of them actually endorsed Aliyev. This was not a free or fair election. There was widespread intimidation, there were widespread crackdowns on free expression, and on election day I observed the stuffing of ballot papers. Some 20% of observations at polling stations reported irregularities, and irregularities were reported at 50% of the counts observed. On those grounds, the Council of Europe, at its meeting the following morning, determined that the election was not free or fair.
That is only the second election observation mission I have participated in—I went to Armenia last year—but election observation is one of the most important aspects of the work of the Council of Europe. As the hon. Member for North Thanet said, it is one of the key means by which we underpin our values and our belief in democracy and free and fair elections. Although, when we observe elections, we cannot stop corruption or the failure of member states that are monitored to observe free and fair play, it is nevertheless important to continue that observation work and to continue to report abuses of electoral processes. For me, that is one of the key means by which we make progress.
I will finish by endorsing the suggestion made by Dame Cheryl Gillan that we should have an annual debate on the work of the Council of Europe. I also like the idea of an annual statement on the work of the Committee of Ministers. That is a really good idea and would be a key means for Members of this Parliament to be made more aware of the important work of the Council of Europe.
I congratulate Vernon Coaker. Colleagues have called him their hon. Friend and, given the spirit in which we have talked about the Council of Europe, I completely agree. I find the Council a most relaxing and agreeable place to speak: one can be assured of speaking for three or four minutes without interruption. [Interruption.] I see that the Minister is about to leap to his feet, but I will not take any interventions.
The hon. Member for Gedling is absolutely right that we need to do more to promote the Council of Europe. We already promote Select Committees with debates in the main Chamber, and I fully endorse the comment from my right hon. Friend Dame Cheryl Gillan that we should have a debate about the Council on the Floor of the House. However, the hon. Gentleman missed an important point: the Council of Europe itself needs to sell what it does more robustly. Importantly, it has a number of so-called partners for democracy, who sit around the outside of the Chamber and can speak during debates, among whom are the Palestinians and Israel. I cannot think of another organisation where both are present and both speak regularly in debates. It is important to bear that in mind.
I repeat the comments I made about the European Court of Human Rights. During the Brexit campaign, I think many people thought we were arguing about the European Court of Human Rights when we were actually arguing about the European Court of Justice. There is a tremendous amount to be done to ensure that those Courts are seen to be separate. We should make a point of communicating strongly our success rate with the European Court of Human Rights.
I agree that not everything is lovely at the Council. It has two major problems, both of which we can deal with internally. The first is corruption, which we saw with the previous President of the Parliamentary Assembly. New rules have been introduced that will apply to the Council, and there are more to come: I understand that a 200-page document on corruption in the Council has been prepared. The second problem stems from the Russians’ withdrawal of funds: we need to look at the Council’s finances as a whole. It is no use continuing with the same means of funding. We need to concentrate on what the Council does best and ensure that it is adequately funded to do that. On those notes, I shall leave the floor to others.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie. I congratulate my hon. Friend Vernon Coaker on securing this timely debate.
I will focus on the Council of Europe convention on the protection of children against sexual exploitation and sexual abuse, which is also known as the Lanzarote convention. The convention requires states to: implement legislative measures to prevent and combat the sexual exploitation and sexual abuse of children; protect the rights of child victims without discrimination; promote national and international co-operation; collect and store data on convicted offenders; co-operate with relevant bodies across international borders; protect children; and support victims. There is no doubt that ratifying and implementing the Lanzarote convention would reinforce the UK’s efforts to prevent British sex offenders from sexually exploiting and abusing vulnerable children at home and abroad.
The 10th anniversary of the Labour Government signing the Lanzarote convention is
Article 25 of the convention makes specific provision for preventing travelling sex offenders from sexually exploiting and abusing children abroad. The charity ECPAT UK has documented more than 300 cases of British nationals abusing children abroad. UK offenders continue to pose an acute threat to vulnerable children overseas, and we need to strengthen our laws to prevent that. Ratifying the Lanzarote convention would help to promote greater international co-operation, information sharing and use of extraterritorial legislation. I urge the Minister to do all he can to ensure that ratification happens.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie. I congratulate Vernon Coaker on calling this debate.
I begin by paying tribute to my colleagues, particularly my hon. Friend Sir Roger Gale, who, in his three days as President of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, did more for the United Kingdom’s international relations than Her Majesty’s Government often do in 12 months. That is no reflection on the Minister.
When we thank people, we always miss somebody out. Before I get into terrible trouble, I should say that it would be remiss of me not to thank, through my right hon. Friend, our secretariat here: Nick Wright and his team, in particular Jonathan Finlay, who, as she said, has done so much to promote our cause. We are indebted to them all the time.
In making a list, there is a danger that we will miss someone out, but I had that on my list. As I will mention later, the redoubtable Nick Wright and his team really look after us.
My hon. Friend Mr Liddell-Grainger, who leads the European Conservatives, has worked tirelessly to make the European Conservatives—surprisingly enough—now the third largest political group in the Council of Europe. I also pay tribute to all other Members from the other parties, because we truly are UK plc. We are a really good team, not managed by mission control—although we are well served by Christopher Yvon and his team, who provide us with advice.
I do not think that people fully realise what the achievements of the Council of Europe are, so it is worth repeating them briefly. It was responsible for ending the death penalty in Europe by making it an accession condition, which is one of its proudest and best achievements. We are a death penalty-free zone thanks to the Assembly’s efforts. After 1989, it also helped the ex-communist countries move to democracy. When we really think about what has happened over the European territory in that time, what this fantastic institution has contributed is remarkable.
We have already mentioned the hijacking of “Ode to Joy” and the flag, which is a great shame. The organisation has also inspired a host of national laws, pressing for new conventions. It provides a forum to debate timely, really hot and controversial social, political and international topics. It has sought to hold debates on major social issues that have divided Europeans, including advancing the rights of minorities such as the Roma and the LGBT community, and dealt with painful issues such as the relationships between Russia and Georgia and some of the crimes of communism. It is certainly leading the way in terms of gender balance as far as the committees and its operation are concerned.
I do not want to repeat everything that has already been said, but I do want to mention the system of rapporteurs. We have nine committees, and I am pleased to be the vice-president of the Political Affairs and Democracy Committee. In fact, for my sins I am currently the rapporteur on the commitment to introduce rules to ensure fair referendums in Council of Europe member states. I have to say, I achieved the rapporteurship with help from Lord Foulkes, a member of the Labour delegation. I sometimes think it may be a poisoned chalice, but I am honoured to be working with the Venice Commission and with an expert, Dr Alan Renwick, from the Constitution Unit.
I congratulate the right hon. Lady on securing that role. I and those in my party very much look forward to working and engaging with her on that issue.
Every cloud has a silver lining. The issue is important, particularly because of the referendums we have had in this country, and the Catalonian referendum and others. The rules need updating.
The rapporteurs’ work is broad and far-reaching. For example, we are evaluating the status of the Kyrgyz Republic and Morocco and Jordan as partners for democracy, and we are looking at strengthening our co-operation with the UN, the political transition in Egypt and the dialogue with Algeria—I could go on. There is a really impressive list, and I hope the Government will take that on board and read the reports as they come through, because they contain valuable information.
In addition to calling for an annual debate on the work of the Council of Europe on the Floor of the House in Government time, I will sow another seed. The last time I was at a plenary session, I asked the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority if I could take one of my researchers with me, because it is quite difficult to explain how the Council of Europe operates. It is completely different from here, exceedingly complex and full of layers—and controversies, as it happens, at the moment. Of course, as Members of Parliament, we now have limitless travel in Europe, which is a great improvement, for which we thank IPSA, and our researchers can travel for us, if necessary, on parliamentary business anywhere in the UK.
I ended up supporting my researcher to come for four days to the Council of Europe. I think—I hope—she found it really interesting and rewarding. It was good to work with Nick and the team here and to meet the ambassadorial team and all the Members, and it gave her a greater understanding to support my work as a parliamentarian. I hope the powers that be will look at that, because it is not unreasonable for full-time members of the Council of Europe to be allowed at least one trip for a member of their research team to come with them—to enable us to do a much better job, Minister, on behalf of UK plc.
That said, the UK delegation punches above its weight, because it really is the epitome of a national team from our four constituent nations and both Houses of Parliament working together in harmony in the interests of UK plc —and, more importantly, in the interests of the 47 member states of the Council of Europe. I am proud to be a member of the delegation.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Vernon Coaker on securing the debate. I will not take up much time—I have cut my speech back so that we can get other people in—but I want to make a couple of points.
The Russian Federation joined the Council back in 1996, but it does not send a delegation at the moment because of the imposition of sanctions on it over the invasion of Ukraine, another member state. Russia has stopped its payments to the Council and threatened to leave the institution completely, denying its 140 million citizens access to the European Court of Human Rights. Russia accounts for more than a third of the Court’s case load. That is another example of Russia’s systematic attempt to bully and undermine multilateral institutions, and it is testing the boundaries of what is acceptable in international relations.
We know about Russia’s hybrid activity, which is trying to sow division in other countries, but I want to quote from a journalist from Ukraine—whose name I will pronounce wrongly—Roman Skaskiw, who wrote of the nine lessons of Russian propaganda. I will not quote them all, but we can understand four of them. The first is:
“Rely on dissenting political groups to deliver your message abroad;
far right is as good as far left”.
“Destroy and ridicule the idea of truth…Pollute the information space” and
“Accuse the enemy of doing what you are doing to confuse the conversation.”
That is exactly what is happening at the moment, and we should consider that.
I have been on the delegation to the Council for a couple of years and have observed that the countries that seem to have more interest in it are the eastern European, former Warsaw pact countries. Whenever a session in the hemicycle finishes, it is their media there; we do not see the BBC or ITN. They seem to have a thirst for the debate. I also understand that the sessions are shown live on the equivalent of BBC Parliament in about a dozen countries around Europe. The idea of a debate on the Floor of the House and a statement on the Council of Ministers is exactly right.
The problem we have at the moment, and the lesson for me in all this, is that the members of the generation who fought the second world war are becoming fewer in number. As a new generation who did not live through the cold war matures—perhaps as a consequence they may experience a new one—perhaps we should remind ourselves of these words: the price of liberty is eternal vigilance.
I am proud to be a member of the Council of Europe, especially as I have been reincarnated. I wear it as a badge of honour that I was sacked by David Cameron for voting for a fair referendum and purdah. Let me say to Vernon Coaker that I want to nail the lie that the Council of Europe is used by the leadership of various parties to dump people who disagree with them. That is an outrageous slur.
The Council of Europe is a noble concept. As we know, it was founded by Winston Churchill, who was clear that although he wanted continental countries to join some sort of justiciable entity, he did not think that appropriate for Great Britain. We are proud of the work that we have done right through the ’50s, and particularly in the 1990s with bringing eastern Europe back into democracy. However, I think that the Council of Europe and the Court of Human Rights have lost their way, and the Court in particular has become too intrusive. It was founded to counter fascism and extremism, but as we have seen, particularly with the row over prisoners’ voting rights, it is becoming too intrusive in the internal workings of democracies. In a sense, the Council of Europe has also lost its way, and we have heard about the corruption scandals and money problems.
Where do we go now? I am not in favour of just letting Russia in after all its depredations in Crimea, Ukraine and Syria. Of course the Council of Europe is not for sale, but it is not just a question of money. Other countries in eastern Europe, and particularly Turkey, have also been playing games with money. It is not just Russia; a lot of people should be criticised for this issue. The trouble with expelling a country such as Russia is that eventually it has to be let back in. The Council of Europe is not like the European Union; it is primarily a parliamentary assembly that enables countries that come from different directions, with different forms of democracy and different problems, to talk to each other. Many countries in the Council of Europe, especially Armenia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan are not shining lights of democracy. Indeed, Azerbaijan and Armenia in particular have really been engaging almost in a state of war.
Where do we go from here? I do not have any obvious solutions, but the Minister is present, and the Council of Europe and the Committee of Ministers is attended—the Russians do turn up. It is not quite true that we have expelled the Russians from the Council of Europe. They do turn up, and I know from speaking to our ambassador that he engages with them. It is a conduit of discussion. I do not know what the solution is, but I understand from my hon. Friend Mr Liddell-Grainger that the Russians are sending a representative to the Parliamentary Assembly next week. There are wheels within wheels, and ways—without forgetting our principles—to try to bring them back into some kind of democratic assembly. I shall leave it there, because that is what the Council of Europe is surely about: whatever our disagreements, it is better to talk than to make war.
Thank you, Mr Hosie, and I apologise again for my lateness. It is somewhat unfortunate to be presided over by a member of my party and to be late, but constituency matters held me back.
Like others, I pay tribute to Nick Wright, Jonathan Finlay, and the staff who serve us so well. As a new member of the Council of Europe, I lead the SNP group together with my colleague, my hon. Friend Tommy Sheppard. We were well served by our predecessors, Alex Salmond and Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh, and I pay tribute to their work. Unfortunately, the press were not very kind to them at times, but those who served with them at the Council of Europe know the incredible power of work that they did, and how hard they worked on behalf of the SNP and Scotland. It is important to put that on the record.
I pay tribute to Vernon Coaker for securing this debate, and for his passion and verve. His speech was fantastic, and I hope that people will watch this debate and understand the work of the Council of Europe. When I was asked to take on this role by our group leader, I took it very seriously. I admit that I was not prepared for the volume of work and the complexity of the issues raised, or for the amount of time it would take up. The suggestion from Dame Cheryl Gillan about staff is sensible. We are accountable to our constituents for the use of public money, but we can only promote and do our best in the Council of Europe—and, indeed, with all our work—if the right resources are available to us. The promotion of such work is extremely important.
I wish to reflect a little on what others have said, and on my recent experiences at the Assembly’s first sitting this year. At the Irish ambassador’s reception, he made a powerful speech about the work of the Council of Europe and its importance post-Brexit, particularly for trade and international relations, as well as the continuation of campaigns for human rights and democracy. Many people do not realise that the Council of Europe brought an end to the death penalty in Europe, or that the Council of Europe and the European Court of Human Rights have allowed people to take forward many cases. A number of those cases have been very high profile, particularly on the rights of service personnel who have suffered injury or death, and the rights of LGBT people.
As we leave the EU, we must reflect on what our role in Europe will be. The SNP has a clear position of maintaining membership of the single market and customs union, but as many have said we put politics aside when we come to the Council of Europe and we work together. Towards the end of our time at the Council of Europe, Sir Edward Leigh and I had a very interesting discussion about deaths abroad—that is an issue on which I have been working on behalf of my constituent, Kirsty Maxwell, and a matter that I hope to raise at the Council of Europe. The hon. Gentleman and I could not be at more opposite ends of the political spectrum, but we had a shared interest on a shared issue, and the Council of Europe gave us the opportunity to have a discussion about that. He gave me his personal support, for which I was grateful, and I take this opportunity to pay tribute to him and reflect that the Assembly gave us space to have that discussion.
Does the hon. Lady agree that one important point that has not yet been mentioned is that each member of the Council of Europe is a parliamentarian who has been elected in their own country? That cornerstone of democracy is so important to the Council of Europe.
I absolutely agree, and our being able to return to our constituencies and report on the work done by us and the Council of Europe is important. We must look for as many opportunities as we can to do that within this place, and in the media, and there is an opportunity to engage more positively.
I remember returning home on the tube one evening and reading a declaration in the London Evening Standard that it had a new Brussels correspondent. I thought, “Well, isn’t that ironic? Where have they been for the last 10 years?” There was a recent report about the reportage not just of the EU and its institutions, but of Europe in general, and the UK came very near the bottom for quality of reportage and coverage. I do not wish to diverge or digress too much, but the sad truth about Brexit is that people are learning about the EU, what it brings to them and its benefits, only as we leave. We will continue to be a member of the Council of Europe and, for the many reasons that people have highlighted, its work will be extremely important.
Let me reflect briefly on some of my observations from the Hemicycle during the initial days that I spent there. It is completely different from the Chamber of the House of Commons. There is electronic voting. Voting takes merely a few moments; I could not help reflecting on that and thinking, as I put my fingers into the black box and pressed the buttons, how much quicker and more efficient this place would be if we had a similar voting system—[Hon. Members: “No! No!] I know there will be many dissenting voices, but I will press on.
It was also incredible to see the Danish national girls’ choir sweep into the Hemicycle and sing for the Members. It would be difficult to imagine something like that happening in the Chamber of the House of Commons —although perhaps we should consider putting it to Mr Speaker—with people taking pictures of each other and engaging in a lively, democratic way.
Sir Roger Gale mentioned the breadth of coverage of the Council of Europe, and the number of people: 820 million people is incredible. He leads us ably and I have enjoyed working with him very much. He has spoken of the breadth of issues dealt with and challenged there, including torture, racism and trafficking. Sarah Champion spoke about child trafficking and her work on that. As to the fact that the UK Government have not ratified the Lanzarote convention on child sexual exploitation, it is important that we continue to press the matter.
Perhaps I can put the hon. Lady’s mind, and that of Sarah Champion, at rest by confirming that our assessment is that we are now compliant to ratify the convention. We laid the means of doing so before Parliament last week, on
That is excellent news and testament to the work of the hon. Lady, as well as the work done and pressure put on by the Council of Europe.
For my part, the work of the SNP in the Council will be very much about putting forward Scotland’s voice about its place in Europe, as well as working with colleagues on issues of common interest. I look forward to working with the right hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham in her role as rapporteur on referendums. She will know that, whatever side of the argument—if any—people took in the 2014 referendum in Scotland, it has been held up as the gold standard in terms of process. I hope that we can work together.
I am glad to hear that. It sounds as if the right hon. Lady has the right expertise and credentials. Hers is an important role, and we look forward to working with her on it. I look forward to working with colleagues across the House in our future endeavours at the Council of Europe.
It is always a pleasure to serve under your stewardship, Mr Hosie.
I thank my hon. Friend Vernon Coaker for securing this debate, whose importance is testified to by the fact that it has been attended by the leaders of the Labour and Conservative groups, and the leader of the UK delegation, as well as other hon. Members. The people that I should like to thank for supporting me during my period at the Council of Europe are Terry Davis, who was the Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill, and who became the Secretary General of the Council of Europe; Sir Alan Meale, the former Member for Mansfield, who also did great work and supported me; and two current Members, Lord Foulkes and Lord Anderson. They ably supported me while I was there, and they deserve a mention.
Since the day of the EU referendum, almost two years ago, the Government’s approach to Brexit has often been light on substance, but it has rarely been short of a good slogan or two. Hence we hear a lot from Ministers about global Britain, and they reassure us that while we are leaving the EU we are not leaving Europe. If we take the Government’s word for that—and I hope that we can—a post-Brexit renewal of our commitment to the Council of Europe would be a good place to start. Of course, as an institution it is quite different from the EU. It is a much less formal grouping of countries, based on shared values rather than a legal or political union, but it is none the worse for that.
In what I believe was her first speech on the theme of global Britain, the Prime Minister spoke of her belief in the UK as a country with the “self-confidence and freedom” to embrace our international responsibilities and play our
“full part in promoting peace and prosperity around the world”.
Surely one of the best examples of the UK playing just such an independent leadership role is our history as a founding member of the Council of Europe, and, going hand in hand with that, as a lead author of the European convention on human rights. Important as that historic legacy is, it is not enough by itself to guarantee our continued status as a respected leader and staunch upholder of the values enshrined in the European Court of Human Rights. That is especially true given how clear it is that we have not yet reached universal adherence to the Court, even among the membership of the Council. We must continue to strive for that. There may still be some distance to go, but that should not be considered as evidence of the failure of the Council of Europe or the convention itself. The very fact that the membership of the Council remains so large and diverse is testament to the enduring appeal of what we may proudly call European values.
Of course it is true that member states, including, at times, the UK, have not always embraced the implications of membership when they take the form of Court decisions with which we may not entirely agree; but the integrity of the Council and of its membership surely depends on our willingness to lead by example in honouring our obligation to respect both the convention and the Court that enforces it. Only then can we make a forceful case, as surely we must, to member states such as Russia and Turkey—and Azerbaijan and Armenia, which have been mentioned in the debate—that they too must respect the human rights enshrined in the charter.
My mention of Turkey is no coincidence, given the Turkish Government’s refusal to comply with a ruling by the European Court that was rightly cheered by many as a bold endorsement of the principles of free speech. In ordering the release of two imprisoned journalists, Mehmet Altan and Şahin Alpay, the Court made it clear that their continued detention constitutes a breach of their right to freedom of expression. Obviously the two journalists were by no means the only people for whom the ruling was significant. After all, they were just two of some 160,000 people who have lost either their jobs or their liberty in the crackdown that followed an attempted coup. The Minister has taken a huge step in confronting the Turkish Government and I hope that he will continue to do that, because it is important. Such action is what the Council of Europe is based on, and I commend the Minister for the work that he has done.
I have some questions for the Government. Can they give an unequivocal commitment that they will not attempt to undermine, unpick or water down our commitment as a country to the European Court of Human Rights or the Council of Europe? Will they instead seek a stronger, more active and more prominent role for the UK within the Council after we leave the EU? If so, can the Minister share with us any specific plans that the Government may have for us? I wonder whether he would also be prepared to consider the suggestion made by Dame Cheryl Gillan about an annual debate, and respond to us formally. This debate is on an important subject, and my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling is to be commended for securing it. Many hon. Members have made thoughtful contributions, and I am sure that the Minister will match them in that.
I am grateful to Vernon Coaker, as I think we all are, for securing the debate and launching it with such an excellent speech. I hope that I will not embarrass him too much if I say that I think it is the best speech I have ever heard in Westminster Hall. His enthusiasm is infectious.
I welcome this opportunity to put on the record my appreciation not just of the hon. Gentleman’s contribution, but of the contributions and work of all the other members of the UK delegation, and of all the things they has achieved and will achieve. For instance, the hon. Gentleman has made a significant impact on the Committee on Migration, Refugees and Displaced Persons, and I was particularly grateful for his work in inspiring the Parliamentary Assembly’s motion in October condemning trafficking in human beings. As hon. Members are well aware, there is a great coincidence of passion and effort here, as tackling modern slavery is a major priority for the Prime Minister personally and for the Government more widely.
I am also grateful for the contributions of other hon. Members in the debate. I will set out the UK’s commitment and contribution to the Council of Europe, and share our vision of how, together, member states can overcome the challenges it faces. I will try to respond to some of the points raised, but I am pleased to have already been able to respond to my genuine friend, Sarah Champion, on the Lanzarote convention. I am sure that the House will endorse that without question and very rapidly.
The Government are committed to enabling people to realise their potential. Protecting and promoting human rights is central to that objective. More broadly, it is an essential aim of our foreign policy. That is why the Council of Europe is so important to the UK. We recognise and appreciate the valuable role it plays in advancing work on human rights, democracy and the rule of law across Europe.
As the UK prepares to leave the EU, the Council of Europe will be just as important to us. Indeed—perhaps this is the main point of the debate—it will become more important to us. Our continuing commitment to the Council of Europe is one of a number of examples to which I could point that give meaning to our message that, as we have heard this morning, although we are leaving the EU, we are not leaving Europe. We will have the same friends and the same objectives, but a different structure. Our membership provides a platform to pursue common values and aspirations, alongside our many and continuing European friends.
We were, of course, a founding member of the Council of Europe; we were there from the very start. We helped to shape and draft the statute, which originally was the treaty of London, and we were at the centre of efforts to draft the European convention on human rights. Since those early days, as we have heard, Council of Europe membership has increased from 10 to 47, encompassing almost all of Europe. Its core activities of setting standards, monitoring compliance and providing assistance help to advance human rights and democracy across all those member states. It will and it must continue to do so.
A multitude of Government experts support the work of the Council of Europe, and its numerous bodies, including the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities and the Parliamentary Assembly, play a vital role in holding member states to account. I am grateful for all the work of the UK delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly, which is a wonderful example of cross-party co-operation and shows the strength of our commitment. I hope that all those who are involved feel that there is a good working relationship between the Council and those of us who are Ministers taking an interest in the work being done.
The bedrock of the Council of Europe is of course the European convention on human rights. There have been questions, here and in Strasbourg, about our commitment to the convention. As my ministerial colleagues have made clear in recent debates in the House, the Government have absolutely no plans to withdraw from the ECHR. As I assured Secretary-General Jagland in November, we remain committed to the Council of Europe.
The European Court of Human Rights has raised human rights standards across Europe. In the UK, few of us would question its rulings in cases such as Dudgeon or Tyrer, which turned the tide on the criminalisation of homosexual acts and on corporal punishment respectively. However, to protect the long-term credibility of the Court, we must enable it to concentrate on the most serious human rights violations. The Danish Government, who currently chair the Committee of Ministers, share that vision. We worked closely with them on the recent Copenhagen declaration, which advances reform of the convention system, building on our own Brighton declaration of 2012.
There are also conventions covering areas beyond human rights and the rule of law. As part of our anti-corruption strategy, we intend soon to sign two new sports conventions on match fixing and safety at football matches and other sporting events. UK experts played a major role in shaping those conventions.
The Council of Europe, as we have heard, deploys a range of monitoring mechanisms to assess implementation of the standards that members have signed up to. It also assists member states to meet their commitments, including through the work of the Venice Commission, the Commissioner for Human Rights, expert groups and co-operation programmes. Working through multilateral organisations such as the Council of Europe addresses the sensitivities of some member states about receiving foreign assistance.
Through our Magna Carta fund for human rights and democracy, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has supported a number of Council of Europe projects. Those include projects supporting judicial reforms in Ukraine, countering violent extremism in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and strengthening the ombudsman service in Russia—perhaps a slightly more challenging task. Through our conflict, stability and security fund, we have contributed almost €600,000 to a Council of Europe project to strengthen human rights standards in the armed forces in Armenia, allowing it to meet its obligations under the ECHR and to help its army attain modern standards and values. We have also provided £150,000 to support Council of Europe work on strengthening the cyber-crime convention. The UK-supported convention moves us further away from calls for new treaties that would regulate cyber-space in a way that was unacceptable to the UK.
As we have heard, however, there are a number of challenges facing the Council of Europe. For instance, for many years the organisation has had difficulty in allocating its budget to core priorities. It has also struggled to keep up with the bulging caseload of its Strasbourg Court. Some will want to put pressure on Turkey to strengthen its judicial system, and we have heard some compelling arguments why. One of the advantages of doing so is that it will avoid a wave of new applications that might put further strain on the Strasbourg Court.
I share the secretary-general’s goal of keeping Turkey engaged. As we have heard, I have personally been working on that pretty well since the first day I became a Foreign Minister, which coincided with the attempted coup in Turkey. Indeed, I will be there next week representing the former entente powers at the 103rd annual commemoration of the Gallipoli campaign—a significant moment illustrating that, whereas a century ago we were enemies, today we can look across at each other as friends. I look forward to continuing to work with Turkey through the Council of Europe to support its judicial system, not just because that is the best way to minimise further strain on the European Court of Human Rights, but because it matters in itself.
It is not just the Court that is under pressure; so too is the Council’s budget. While it is disappointing that Turkey has rescinded its grand payeur status, it continues none the less to pay its basic contribution, as it is obliged to do. However, Russia’s withholding of its budget since July last year, in retaliation for sanctions imposed by the Parliamentary Assembly following the annexation of Crimea, looks much more intractable. That failure will be a long-standing issue that we must resolve in the context of our opposing Russia’s overall belligerence and aggression. I understand the comments of my hon. Friend Sir Edward Leigh about the importance of engaging in that context. The significant budgetary pressures faced by the Council of Europe increase the urgency on the secretariat to implement the necessary reforms and efficiencies to deliver a more efficient organisation, focused on core activities. The UK Government stand ready to support those reforms.
I can assure the House that the Government will remain fully committed to the Council of Europe. I urge all my hon. Friends on both sides of the House to continue in the very good work that they do.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House
has considered the work of the Council of Europe.