Council of Europe — [Dame Maria Miller in the Chair]

– in Westminster Hall at 9:30 am on 15th June 2022.

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Photo of Maria Miller Maria Miller Conservative, Basingstoke 9:30 am, 15th June 2022

Given that it is a hot day, if anyone wants to remove their jacket they should feel free to do so.

Photo of John Howell John Howell Conservative, Henley

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered the work of the Council of Europe.

I am the leader of the British delegation to the Council of Europe, which I declare as an interest, and it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Maria.

It pains me to start on a slightly sour note, but we are having the debate here in Westminster Hall because successive Leaders of the House have said no to us being allowed Government time for a debate in the main Chamber. I believe that the number of Members who have put in to speak, and the many more who have shown interest in the debate, is an expression of the greatest interest in the subject. It is a shame that we will be unable to hear the full richness of contributions from members of the delegation and others due to time constraints. That is no criticism of Westminster Hall as a setting for the debate, but it is a request to the Minister to provide us with assistance in trying to raise the visibility and importance of the Council of Europe.

More people now understand what the Council of Europe is and what it does. As a delegation, we work hard to make our contribution in the plenary sessions of the Parliamentary Assembly, the committee meetings that take place between plenary sessions and more generally. After each plenary session, we publish, for example, a summary of what we have discussed and the character of the meeting. I brief lobby journalists before we go to the Council. We issue press releases on key subjects, such as the position of Russia and the fate of the British individuals sentenced to death. We have held seminars—well attended—with, for example, Vladimir Kara-Murza, a Russian dissident now imprisoned, and with Ahmet Yildiz on Turkey. Finally, after each meeting, I raise questions on the subjects of the debate we have had. This has dramatically increased the profile of the Council of Europe among parliamentarians, and perhaps more generally among members of the public. However, I appreciate that there is still a lot more to do to ensure that people do not confuse us with the European Union, an organisation with about half the number of member countries as the Council of Europe.

Photo of Geraint Davies Geraint Davies Labour, Swansea West

Given that the Council of Europe represents 47 countries and that its mission is to empower and promote our fundamental values of democracy, human rights and the rule of law, and given that we are seeing those values breached both by Vladimir Putin with his invasion of Ukraine and in China and elsewhere, does the hon. Gentleman agree that this place should put paramount importance on those fundamental values and the Council of Europe, and on debate such as this?

Photo of John Howell John Howell Conservative, Henley

The Council of Europe is not responsible for China. It is responsible for what happens in Europe, and the three pillars of the Council of Europe—human rights, the rule of law and democracy—are crucial to its future. That is what we need to hold countries to.

The reason for making the remarks I made before taking an intervention is that the role of the Council of Europe has never been more important. For me, one of the proudest moments was when we expelled Russia from the Council. I am told that I was the first politician to ask for that to happen, in a letter to the Secretary-General, and I was pleased to see the support from the delegation for that action.

Thank heavens that the covid crisis has diminished substantially. The sort of diplomacy required simply cannot be carried out by Zoom or remotely. It is great for our effectiveness to be back in person, and I am pleased that newer members of the delegation can now see that what I said all along about understanding what the Council stood for being best achieved by their personal attendance was absolutely true. I am sure that other Members will want to comment on Russia during further consideration.

Photo of Theo Clarke Theo Clarke Chair, International Development Sub-Committee on the Work of the Independent Commission for Aid Impact, Chair, International Development Sub-Committee on the Work of the Independent Commission for Aid Impact

I am proud to be part of the UK delegation to the Council of Europe and to sit on committees and give speeches to raise important topical issues such as the war in Ukraine. I thank my hon. Friend for recently arranging for us to meet the Ukrainian delegation in Strasbourg to demonstrate the UK’s support. Does he agree with me on how essential it is that the UK continues to work in the Council of Europe? It is a vital part of our global Britain agenda and we must continue to lead on important international matters.

Photo of John Howell John Howell Conservative, Henley

I completely agree with that intervention. I will come on to say something about that at the end of my speech; it is crucial to what we are about.

The Russian expulsion has, however, left the Council with a deficit, which this time we are keen to see professionally filled. I appreciate the need for reform of the Council, and we look forward to participating in that. It is bizarre that meetings have taken place at a ministerial level in which there has been little contact with the delegation, which has tremendous experience of the Council and its work, but I am grateful that the UK Government have agreed to provide an additional £2.8 million this year to help the Council out of the hole left by Russia’s expulsion. That gives us an opportunity to take advantage of the current situation to push the UK position forward in the full knowledge that we are participating fully in the future of the Council.

It is important to understand how the Council works. It works on the basis of putting forward conventions—international treaties—for countries to agree. Those set standards across a wider Europe in key areas. I will give the example of the Istanbul convention, which goes a long way to answering the question: what does the Council do for us? The Government have set 31 July as the date by which they expect to ratify the Istanbul convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence. Many of us regard it as a flagship convention of the Council of Europe and as the gold standard for the protection of women and girls in Europe. Dame Maria, you and I spoke at a debate on this subject that I organised in the covid period.

The Government signed the convention in 2012 and have been working since that date to strengthen UK laws to better protect women and girls—we like to change the law in this country before we finally ratify a treaty. The necessary Command Paper was laid in both Houses on 17 May. I hope that there will be no objections in the following 21 sitting days and that the convention will be ratified.

There are two reservations in the convention that the UK is allowed to make. The first concerns crimes in UK law that are not crimes in other territories, and the second relates to migrant victims. Members are free to ask Ministers questions about those caveats. That illustrates only too well how the Council works: a treaty that it is not compulsory to sign, where the arguments for or against are set out and fully debated, and where the successful signing of the treaty involves us as members of the delegation in pursuing the diplomacy involved through, for example, Westminster Hall debates; by encouraging meetings between Ministers and the President of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe; and by our membership of the parliamentary network “Women Free from Violence”.

The Council is also active in the field of human rights, and never has there been a greater need to be on top of this issue internationally. I have already held a debate in the main Chamber on the future of the European Court of Human Rights because it does need reform. Non-governmental organisations have too much influence. Some of the judges could be more suitably qualified. Not only were Russia’s judges sent back for examination; the same has also happened with Iceland. But one of the biggest tests for the court is occurring in Turkey, where the Committee of Ministers—the second chamber of the Council—has begun infringement proceedings. The key question here is: are we to allow Turkey to infringe the court, or are we to take action? And what should that action consist of? Does it mean the expulsion of Turkey from the Council, or are there other routes to follow since we cannot do nothing? As one of the rapporteurs for the Council on Turkey, let me explain the situation in relation to Osman Kavala.

Kavala is a leading businessman and campaigner who has been sentenced to aggravated life imprisonment after a period of pre-trial detention. The Turkish authorities argue that the original court case has been complied with in relation to the European Court of Human Rights in that Kavala was released to be rearrested the following day. The court argues that its judgment applies to the whole of the evidence base for all charges brought against Kavala, which are lacking in any evidence. That is the source of the current impasse with the Turkish Government. Turkey faces many attempts at terrorism, for which I have great sympathy, but the question must be asked whether these anti-terrorism laws are too restrictive and contravene human rights. There are, of course, other examples besides the Kavala case.

That example illustrates the important work of the Council in monitoring countries to ensure they are complying with the three pillars of the Council: human rights, the rule of law and democracy. That work and election monitoring are important functions. While I can see there is room for joint monitoring exercises with the Committee of Ministers, this is an important element of what the Council does. I would not like to see it given away to another organisation, and the Council not to have a role.

There is plenty of opportunity for the Council to work with other organisations, such as the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe. I have already had discussions with the head of the UK delegation to the OSCE, and we are looking at ways to work together more closely, but it would wrong to see the OSCE having more experience of election monitoring or in monitoring more generally.

A key question remains about the future role of the Council of Europe. I welcome the UK Government’s support for Kosovo to join the Council, which the delegation also supports. Many discussions on this have already started, in which we can, should and do participate. The recent Turin ministerial meeting is one such example. I am grateful for the attendance of my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary at that meeting. Another is the debate that took place at the standing committee in Dublin on the future discussions that will take place.

There is so much more that the Council could do in the area of the rule of law and in promoting democracy more widely across Europe. There are gaps in both those areas in many countries, and knowledge is needed to help them get the right answer. We stand ready to work in promoting that area. The delegation would value the chance to have more extensive discussions with the Foreign Office, and with other Ministers. We do have the experience of putting together programmes in this area.

Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn Independent, Islington North

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one of the problems with the Council of Europe is that its work, importance and role are not fully understood, even by Members of this House, never mind the general public? I know he has worked hard on that. We need to have a much more active public relations initiative, explaining the value of the Council of Europe, its powers and the changes it can, and does, bring about among members states.

Photo of John Howell John Howell Conservative, Henley

I agree fully with right hon. Gentleman. I try my hardest to push that as leader of the delegation. It is essential to get across what the Council is about, how it can help, and the role it now plays in—I have to use this expression—a post-Brexit Britain. It plays a vital role in ensuring that we have good relations with parliamentarians in other parts of Europe.

I will conclude by saying that putting down written questions after each debate at the Council of Europe brings home how wide those debates are, and how they affect policy across Government. Debates that relate to the Foreign Office account for about 30%. The rest cover a range of Ministries, from the Department for Work and Pensions to the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. I ask those questions I put to them to show the range of debates that we conduct, partly to ensure there is a written answer on record for the issues that have been discussed, and so that we understand what Government are doing. That is welcome, at least by members of the delegation, but we would welcome the Minister’s help in ensuring that the Government’s position can be put across when rapporteurs visit the country on behalf of the Council and need to see a Minister. I know that that is a pain, but without it the result does not look good and can leave us in an embarrassing position.

I am extremely grateful not just for the work of all members of the delegation—we try to operate on a genuinely cross-party basis wherever possible, and the number of Members here for the debate illustrates that—but for our utterly brilliant secretariat led by Nick Wright, to whom we would all like to pay our thanks.

Photo of John Howell John Howell Conservative, Henley

I will come to the other people. Finally, on behalf of the delegation, I would like to pay thanks to three people in Strasbourg: Alan Mitchell, the president of the committee for the prevention of torture; Tim Eicke, our judge at the Court, to whom we are grateful for getting to know us and for sharing with us his expertise and experience; and our permanent representative Sandy Moss, whose assistance and co-operation is second to none and has been particularly helpful for the delegation.

The Council of Europe is crucial for our relationship with wider Europe, particularly after Brexit. It sets out a method of co-operation that can alienate no one. It is a major part of our international diplomacy, and Russia’s departure offers us an opportunity to make real change. I look forward to what the Minister has to say.

Several hon. Members:

rose—

Photo of Maria Miller Maria Miller Conservative, Basingstoke

Before I call the next speaker, may I suggest an informal time limit of four minutes? The wind-ups will start at 10.28 am.

Photo of Tony Lloyd Tony Lloyd Labour, Rochdale 9:47 am, 15th June 2022

I congratulate John Howell on obtaining the debate, and welcome on the consensual tone that he has established today and which he tries to create for the UK’s delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. Of course, some issues will divide us, and we cannot shy away from them, because they are important. However, anyone taking a long-term perspective on the development of the European family of nations will see how dramatic a role the Council of Europe has played in enhancing the values of democracy and the rule of law.

There has been dramatic change in those countries that left fascist backgrounds such as Spain and Portugal—that was a long time ago—and, more recently, when the Warsaw pact broke up. Perhaps the failure of Russia to be brought into the family is regrettable, but that must be measured against the success seen in so many other countries. Russia’s expulsion was necessary as it was such a flagrant offender against the basic values of the Council of Europe. We have a problem in knowing how to deal with those who are not prepared to accept the Council’s rules and regime. The case of Osman Kavala and how we deal with Turkey—a persistent offender against judgments of the European Court of Human Rights; and the Council of Europe is all about human rights—is central to that.

Many aspects of the Council of Europe are tremendously important, including the Venice commission, which provides a legal framework in which nations can seek advice about their own rule of law, and the Group of States against Corruption. Corruption is a major issue in many countries. I was in Bosnia last week, and nobody who visits that country will be amazed to know that corruption is one of the central issues that affects it and how young people in Bosnia view their country. It therefore matters enormously that the Council of Europe has a role in fighting corruption.

The committee for the prevention of torture is fundamental, and the capacity to have challenge and inspections here, as well as in those countries that we feel will be offenders, matters enormously, because we are all bound by the same rule of law. That is why I want to touch briefly on the Court, which this morning is controversial here in the United Kingdom.

I would say to Members of all parties that we cannot say to others, “Please abide by the rule of law and listen to the institutions to which we are subject,” unless we are prepared to make that same judgment ourselves. That really does matter, because it is fundamental to how we as a nation behave and it is fundamental in our capacity to say to other nations, “These are the values that this country of ours wants to uphold.” We were fundamental in establishing the European convention on human rights, and it is important that we recognise that.

As I understand it, the Rwanda judgment is an interim one. It simply says that there needs to be a delay before removal takes place. I welcome that, because I think it is an outrageous policy, but that is not the point. The point is this: do we respect the convention or not?

Photo of Richard Bacon Richard Bacon Conservative, South Norfolk

I am interested in the hon. Gentleman’s remarks on the Court, and he makes a good point about needing to obey the rules. My hon. Friend John Howell referred to the fact that the Court needs reform. Does Tony Lloyd accept that there are occasions when the Court sometimes strays into areas that perhaps it should not? An example is the question of whether prisoners should have a vote, which many people think is a political question that admits of two answers. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Court needs some reform?

Photo of Tony Lloyd Tony Lloyd Labour, Rochdale

I will certainly concede that the Court needs reform. Frankly, the most outrageous thing about it is that it takes an unacceptably long time for people to obtain justice. We have to look at what that means. I am not sure that I agree with the hon. Member on the example he gave, because there are mixed feelings about that issue. In many countries, prisoners do vote. I have gone into prisons on election monitoring and observation to watch that process taking place. It is not such a preposterous view. If such an issue is arguable, we have to look at the Committee of Ministers and whether the European convention on human rights needs amending, rather at than the role of the Court. The Court’s role is to implement the convention, and it is the politicians who created the convention.

I am afraid I have exceeded my time, but I will finish my remarks by saying that we cannot have half a Council of Europe. If we believe in the role of the European convention on human rights and believe in the institutions, let us assent even when it pains us a little, because it pains other people an awful lot more and it is in our interest.

Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Conservative, Gainsborough 9:52 am, 15th June 2022

The Council of Europe was founded in 1949 by the treaty of London. It was founded to combat fascism, Nazism and communism, and played an extraordinarily positive role in doing precisely that. Perhaps its greatest hours of glory were during the break-up of the Soviet Union and the welcoming of new democratic states in eastern Europe. Whereas the EU is centralising, the Council of Europe is welcoming. With 46 member states, it has real power—for instance, on the European convention of human rights, about which I will say a few words in a moment.

As my hon. Friend John Howell has said, we now have a new and very important role in the Council of Europe, given the appalling behaviour of the Russian Federation. I personally feel betrayed by what Russia has done. As a former chair of the all-party parliamentary group on Russia who has sought to understand, but not condone, Russian politics, I think there is absolutely no excuse for what Russia has done in invading Ukraine. Ukrainians have a right to self-determination, and I do not believe for a moment that Mr Putin believes that there is any threat to Russia by NATO; I think he is trying to establish the Russian empire. No doubt it is very sad for some Russians that the Russian empire is over, but it was presumably sad for some Turks when the Turkish empire was over, sad for some Brits when the British empire was over, sad for some French people when the French empire was over, and likewise for any other empire. We all have a right to self-determination.

The Council of Europe, under the guidance of people such as my hon. Friend the Member for Henley, has acted with great vigour in this latest crisis, but that was not the case last time. After Russia took over Crimea, it was expelled for a time from the Parliamentary Assembly. Then, because people at the Council of Europe needed the money, it was allowed to dribble back in. That must never happen again. We must proclaim what is right, and not be deterred from doing what is right because we need its money. I am grateful to the Minister for ensuring that, with other western powers, we are filling the financial gap made by the Russian expulsion.

My point is that the Council of Europe has to concentrate on its core role, which is dealing with egregious human rights abuses in places such as Russia. Other countries such as Azerbaijan and Turkey also have some difficulties. The Council should not start nit-picking with demonstrably democratic western powers. We saw that in the row over prisoners’ voting rights and we are seeing it even today—this is a hot topic—in the very late intervention of the European Court of Human Rights that resulted in the flight to Rwanda not being able to take off with any people. The European Court of Human Rights said that one Iraqi man faced

“a real risk of irreversible harm.”

What is the real risk of irreversible harm? The real risk—the immoral thing—is to allow people to go on crossing the channel and possibly drowning. The European Court of Human Rights, the Church of England and all the critics of the Government’s policy on Rwanda have to ask themselves: what is their solution?

This may be a temporary intervention by the European Court of Human Rights. I hope that it is. However, it rather makes the point that the Council of Europe has a core role in dealing with egregious human rights abuses, and that putting somebody on a safe flight, going to a safe hotel in a safe place, is not an egregious abuse of human rights.

Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn Independent, Islington North 9:57 am, 15th June 2022

I am pleased that we are having this debate, and to be an alternate member of the Council of Europe. I have found the experience very interesting. As I said to the leader of the UK delegation, John Howell, in an intervention, the lack of information, understanding and publicity about the Council must be addressed.

The Council of Europe is a big body and it spends a great deal of money on staff, resources and all that—I am not complaining about that, but there has to be a much better understanding of what it does. Its foundation in 1949 was historic and dramatic, because it gave a European focus on human rights, and it supported the principle of the European convention on human rights and the European Court of Human Rights.

Some people, no doubt, will not be very pleased with the decision made last night, but personally I think it was absolutely the right decision. If any member state, including this one, goes outside the European convention on human rights and behaves in the way that the British Government wanted to, there are consequences. The Court has intervened to bring that about.

Personally, I support the decision, but others might not. However, we cannot complain about other countries not complying, such as Turkey or in the past Russia, if we do not stand up for exactly the same principle ourselves. The European Court of Human Rights is something that the whole of Europe apparently subscribes to and ought to continue to subscribe to.

The discussions in the Council of Europe on human rights issues are important, but more important in some ways is the engagement with, and delegations to, different member states to try to improve their human rights records, their prison conditions and prisoner rehabilitation regimes.

Russia was expelled from the Council of Europe. That has now happened. It is a huge step to expel a member state. Although I, like everyone in this Chamber, totally condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the war that is going on there, we have to ask ourselves a question: what message does it send to human rights campaigners and victims of human rights abuses in different parts of Russia if they no longer have access to the European Court of Human Rights? I know the issue of Turkey is writ large. Turkey is an abuser of human rights through its prison conditions, its treatment of Kurdish and Armenian minorities, and in a number of other ways. I am not in favour of the expulsion of Turkey from the Council of Europe. I want to see engagement—for us to work with and support the many brave journalists and human rights campaigners in Turkey, and try to bring about improvements in their society and their country.

The role of election observation is an important one. I was recently an election observer—not on behalf of the Council of Europe, but a different body—at the elections in Colombia. Having observed other elections in other places, I know the great importance, not necessarily of finding all the faults, but of simply being an unexpected presence at the polling stations with a right to investigate and inspect what is going on. Therefore, to me, the Council of Europe is a very important body.

To conclude, we must ensure that there is a serious information campaign about the role of the Council of Europe and all its policy areas—environment, human rights, and many other social policy areas—so that people understand what it does. Obviously there was a funding issue with Russia’s removal, but that ought to spur us on to have a better information campaign and better reporting back. The least we could expect is to have a debate in the main Chamber of our Parliament, rather than here in Westminster Hall; I am not criticising Westminster Hall, but this ought to be a main Chamber debate.

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Conservative, North Thanet 10:01 am, 15th June 2022

I congratulate my hon. Friend John Howell on securing this debate, and on his leadership of the UK delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe.

I follow on directly from Jeremy Corbyn, who made the point in an intervention and has reiterated in his speech that people in this building do not understand the Council of Europe; he is absolutely right. Some months ago, I was in the Tea Room, explaining to colleagues that the Council of Europe covers lands stretching from Azerbaijan to the Atlantic, and from the Mediterranean to the Arctic circle. Even then, some people could not grasp the fact that it was not the European Union, but something much bigger and, I would argue, much more important. One of my colleagues present on that occasion—I will not name her, because I hate to embarrass the Home Secretary—said, “Why do we pay it so little attention?” I looked her straight in the eyes and said, “Because it’s got the word ‘Europe’ in it.” I am afraid that is a sad fact of life.

The Council of Europe has done, and continues to do, an enormous amount of work, particularly in relation to the Russian Federation and Ukraine. Following the Russian invasion of Crimea in 2014, we suspended the voting rights of the Russian delegation, who then walked out. The British delegation, which punches far and away above its weight in the Parliamentary Assembly, took a stand and resisted Russia’s readmission—with one dishonourable exception, who, I am ashamed to say, was a Member from the Government Benches. Every other Member of Parliament from every political party voted against Russia’s readmission in support of our colleagues in the Baltic states, Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia. However, others thought they knew better and let the Russians back in.

As such, a couple of years later, we found ourselves in a situation where the Russians had taken the wrong signal, believing that Europe would do nothing about Ukraine. It took the robust attack from my right hon. Friend the Member for Henley—sorry, my honourable Friend; he ought to be right honourable—to undo that damage and make sure that Russia was properly suspended again. Those are the powers that the British delegation to the Council of Europe can have and exercise.

There is some unfinished business. We rightly talk a lot about the Donbas at the moment, and we talk quite a lot about Crimea, but we have forgotten Cyprus. There is a member state of the Council of Europe—Turkey—that, in 1974, invaded and occupied part of the territory of Cyprus, another member state. It is nearly 50 years since that happened, and the matter remains unresolved. There are still Turkish troops occupying soil of another sovereign state of the Council of Europe. That, in its own way, is just as wrong as what is happening in Ukraine.

I thank Chris Yvon, who was the permanent representative during my time as leader of the delegation. He provided massive support during our discussions about the Russian Federation, and contributed in an exemplary way to the work between an ambassador and Members of Parliament, advising and supporting us, and ensuring that we had the information we needed to do the job. I hope that the Foreign Office will recognise that. Finally, I would like to put on record my appreciation of the work done by the superb secretariat.

Photo of Geraint Davies Geraint Davies Labour, Swansea West 10:06 am, 15th June 2022

I very much welcome this debate. I have been a member of the Council of Europe for many years, with a brief interlude. The bottom line is that the Council of Europe stands up for our fundamental values of democracy, human rights and the rule of law, which we have seen under attack around the world and beyond the sphere of the Council of Europe; and obviously those values are under attack in Ukraine. I am proud to be the trade rapporteur of the Council of Europe, which involves instilling in trade agreements the values of democracy, human rights and the rule of law, plus sustainable development in compliance with the Paris agreement and subsequent COP agreements.

It is important that Britain shines the light of our values around the Council of Europe and beyond. We also need to look at and question what we are doing here in terms of the rule of law. An obvious example is the breach of the Northern Ireland protocol that breaches international law, and will undermine the Good Friday agreement and the Northern Ireland economy. We need to think about the right to peaceful protest and whether the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022 is compliant with the conventions. Quite frankly, I find the prospect of police officers judging some annoyance, disturbance or discontinuity of business sufficient to stop a peaceful protest in a democratic country abhorrent, and it is the sort of thing that will play into the hands of Vladimir Putin.

We need to think about the issues around Rwanda. Israel refuses to send its refugees to Rwanda because they might face torture, death or rape. We need to think about the evidence, not, “Oh no, it is a court interfering”, as has been suggested. We also need to think about the independence of our own judiciary: how that should stand strong and not be attacked by the Government. In recent years the Supreme Court has been attacked by Ministers, who have been amplified in the press, on key decisions such as giving Parliament the right to vote on the EU deal and bringing democracy back after the prolonged Prorogation.

A recent report by the all-party parliamentary group on democracy and the constitution, which I chair, flags that issue and the fact that the Supreme Court has now reversed seven of the Government’s decisions in the last two years. We criticise the intimidation and chilling effect of an independent Court, but we should look at whether we are satisfying fundamental values.

I am very much a supporter of those fundamental values. I rejoice in the fact that we were founding members. After the war, Winston Churchill was instrumental in bringing about this bastion of democracy, human rights and the rule of law. Around the world, whether in China—I appreciate that it is not in the Council of Europe—or elsewhere, those values are being broken down and alternative totalitarian or authoritarian systems are being championed. It is incumbent on us all to fight the fight, be a bastion for those values and not let them be undermined at home. I very much welcome the debate secured by the hon. Member for Henley; we must stand firm together for our fundamental values.

Photo of Duncan Baker Duncan Baker Conservative, North Norfolk 10:10 am, 15th June 2022

I thank our wonderful representative, my hon. Friend John Howell, who has been a real champion for us newbies in the 2019 intake who have been lucky enough to serve on the Council of Europe. He has been a great help to me and everybody else speaking this morning.

The Council of Europe, of which I am honoured to be a member, has greatly contributed to the stability and progress of our continent for decades. I credit its longevity to its founding ideals, about which we have heard this morning, and to those who have been determined to build on them and keep them alive. All member states stand together under a common banner to protect democracy, human rights and the rule of law, and we should be proud of that.

In the 1940s, Winston Churchill was one of the main protagonists in a new regional organisation that became the Council of Europe. He recognised the need for co-operation in Europe, and well understood mankind’s proclivity for violence and discrimination. It has been said that an institution is the lengthening shadow of a man or woman. Churchill understood that, and rightly recognised institutions as the hallmarks of democracy. He knew that, if we were to learn from and avoid repeating the mistakes and conflicts of the 20th century—how apt that is today—institutions such as the Council of Europe would be, and would continue to be, essential. I am sure that I speak for all hon. Members when I say how proud I am that this country has been there right from the very beginning. The UK was one of the founding signatories of the 1949 Council of Europe statute, and I sincerely hope that our commitment to this world-leading human rights organisation will continue to be as strong as it was over 70 years ago.

I am particularly proud that next Monday I will have my first ever meeting in the beautiful city of Strasbourg and that, although my French is rather appalling, I will be the first rapporteur from the 2019 intake. I have been working on the ethical, cultural and educational challenges of track and trace applications and technologies, and I am very proud of that. I have not been coerced into the position at all—I have taken it on board, and very much enjoyed it.

Given the challenges of that particular rapporteurship, the commitment and dedication to the Council’s founding ideals that I have seen, and the principles of all those who have helped me, have been nothing but inspiring. The people from the Council of Europe who have helped me have been absolutely wonderful. Although my own work will pale into insignificance compared with the immense achievements of many people at the Council, and certainly with those of some in the room, it has been a genuine pleasure to get to know the fantastic people on the Council of Europe.

In its lifetime the Council has had some quite outstanding achievements, which we ought to recognise. It abolished the death penalty in all of its member countries—not a single execution has taken place in any member state since 1997. Moreover, it proposed the first instrument criminalising the sexual abuse of children. It strengthened the prevention of torture, and to this day regularly makes unannounced visits to places of detention in member states to evaluate the treatment of detainees. The list goes on and on, and as I am running out of time, I shall sum up: the Council has been a constant in our nation’s character throughout my lifetime, and I sincerely hope that it continues to be.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health) 10:14 am, 15th June 2022

I thank John Howell, who is a good and dear friend. It is a real pleasure to be here to support him, and I thank him for his dedication to and enthusiasm for his role as leader of the UK delegation to the Council of Europe. This House should be grateful and thankful to him for his clear commitment, which we all appreciate.

I am pleased to be here to discuss how we can work together for the betterment of the UK as well as how the Council of Europe can benefit the likes of Northern Ireland. I know that the hon. Member has tried to do that. We should be representing the smaller states within the Council of Europe as well. There is no doubt that there is some fragility after Brexit.

The co-responsibility of the Council of Europe is to promote democracy and human rights. I am a great believer in human rights, which I have spoken about on many occasions, and in the rule of law on the continent of Europe. All too recently, we have seen the immediate expulsion of the Russian Federation and the suspension of relations with Belarus. Those were the right decisions. The hon. Gentleman led that, and we thank him for it. Ministers took the hard decision to expedite matters for the sake of protection, and there is no doubt that that has paid off in terms of unity. I am also a great believer in teamwork. There is no I in team—it is about how we all work together, and the Minister espouses that in abundance.

The UK is rewarded with many benefits for being a part of the Council of Europe. For example, we are able to push through world-class policies and legislation. The Council of Europe has also been instrumental in preventing and combatting domestic violence and violence against women. I am a great supporter of that legislation and that change in attitude. Those standards are groundbreaking—that is not my word, but that of others who have witnessed them. Domestic violence has been impacted globally. We must be proud of that, but we must still do more to widen goals and aspirations.

I understand that the Council of Europe has its questions about the Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill. I know that that is not what this debate is about, but I mention it as an example. I must admit that I have questions about it, too. That is a debate for another day, but it is great to see that the Council of Europe has an interest in Northern Ireland affairs. I hope that all views are taken into account, not simply those of one side. I know that the hon. Member for Henley, who is an honourable man, will take part in those views as well.

Portugal has made fantastic contributions in relation to trafficked victims among refugees. These real issues are faced by most Governments, and we have the platform to deal with and prevent them together. I do not see why the impacts of Brexit should be in any way detrimental to global prosperity. The UK played an instrumental part in establishing the Council of Europe in 1949, and the UK’s influence within the Council makes it better able to protect the UK’s goals in Europe. The hon. Member has protected those goals admirably. Despite global tensions, states sharing and working towards potential goals should be an inclusive process. We have the capacity to hold member states to account when necessary, as has happened with recent events, and to support those in need. The fundamental values of the Council are often forgotten, and it is important that we have a platform to work together.

I make a plea for the rights and democracy of young people. More than 5,000 youth leaders are trained each year in youth centres in Budapest and Strasbourg, and I encourage the Minister to consider creating something similar for the United Kingdom. We were a crucial part of the COE process. We should be facilitating and encouraging our young people to learn about democracy and human rights. I commend the hon. Gentleman for his work in Turkey, which is guilty of some of the worst human rights abuses and persecution of religious groups across the world.

We have real potential to deliver goals and aspirations if we are willing to work together and do what is right. Teamwork is important, as I mentioned. There are so many issues going on across the globe, and we are stronger when we tackle them together. I praise all the work done thus far, and I once again thank the hon. Member for Henley for ensuring the strength and unity of the UK of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and its place in the Council of Europe.

Photo of Paul Howell Paul Howell Conservative, Sedgefield 10:18 am, 15th June 2022

I congratulate my hon. Friend John Howell on securing the debate, and commend him for his dedicated efforts in supporting the UK team.

It is important to outline what the Council of Europe is before discussing its work. As Members have already said, it is not particularly obvious to the broader public. Understandably, it is often confused with the European Council. I will give my opinions, as a new member, on what it does.

The Council of Europe was founded in the aftermath of world war two and is, first and foremost, a human rights organisation. The UK has been a member since its inception, and we have played an essential role in drafting its best-known document: the European convention on human rights. Since 1949, the Council has expanded from 10 to 46 members, and it now stretches from Iceland to Turkey, taking in states of all sizes. Its purpose is to promote and maintain liberal democratic values in member states. Human rights, democracy and the rule of law are the priorities of the Council of Europe, which is why it seeks to hold members to account on those issues. Some of its recent reports have focused on human trafficking in Norway, corruption in Malta and prison overcrowding in Switzerland. Among the Council’s achievements is the abolition of the death penalty in member states—as has already been stated—with the last execution having taken place over 25 years ago. That supports why the UK delegation has strongly denounced the recent death sentences handed down to Aiden Aslin, Shaun Pinner and Brahim Saadoun by Russian forces in Ukraine.

What I most admire about the Parliamentary Assembly of Council of Europe, and the Council of Europe as a whole, is that it provides a forum for European countries to work together to uphold our shared values while respecting the sovereignty of member states. Our membership of it is one of the best examples of the UK leaving the EU but not Europe. Although I have been to only one PACE session so far, it was one of the most consequential meetings, as it was when Russia was excluded from the Council of Europe.

In consultation with PACE, the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers suspended Russia the day after the invasion of Ukraine began. At the extraordinary session I attended on 15 March, PACE voted in favour of expelling Russia, as did the Council of Ministers the following day. In that session, I was privileged to hear in person from the female delegates of Ukraine, and to hear virtually from their male colleagues who had remained behind to fight the Russian invasion. To meet delegates who had brought their children from a war zone to the hemicycle—and who were going to return to that war zone the following day—was a strange and powerful experience.

Expelling Russia was undoubtedly the right action to take, as there is no aspect of the Russian Government’s actions in Ukraine that supports the principles of human rights, democracy or rule of law. At the same time, it is worth noting that the expulsion means that Russian citizens can no longer take their Government to the European Court of Human Rights, a means previously used by dissidents such as Alexei Navalny to raise the profile of cases that would not be heard fairly in Russian domestic courts. Theoretically, it also allows Russia to restore the death penalty, so the decision does potentially have grave consequences for Russian citizens and those living in areas under Russian control. However, given Russia’s ongoing aggression against Ukraine, it seems highly unlikely that the change will in reality make any difference to the actions of the Russian Government, as they appear to demonstrate contempt for other laws.

Since expelling Russia, PACE members have unanimously supported a resolution calling for an ad hoc international criminal tribunal to investigate and prosecute suspected Russian war crimes in Ukraine. I expect that the Council of Europe will continue to call attention to the human rights violations that are occurring in Ukraine. In that respect, its work is more important than ever.

The opportunity to be in a forum that is both cross-party and cross-Europe creates a powerful understanding of views, not least in the many side discussions that take place outside the main Chamber. The value of the Council is in that very opportunity. I also commend all of the UK support team for their help in facilitating that effort.

Several hon. Members:

rose—

Photo of Maria Miller Maria Miller Conservative, Basingstoke

Order. I remind Members that we move to wind ups at 10.28 am.

Photo of Gagan Mohindra Gagan Mohindra Conservative, South West Hertfordshire 10:22 am, 15th June 2022

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Dame Maria. I start by thanking my hon. Friend John Howell for securing this important debate. It is a reflection of its importance that when we look around the Chamber, we see that there is cross-party attendance by Members from both Houses, with Lords keeping an eye on proceedings from the Public Gallery.

As a new member of the delegation, similar to my hon. Friends the Members for Sedgefield (Paul Howell) and for North Norfolk (Duncan Baker), it has been a real eye-opener being part of the UK delegation and visiting Strasbourg. It is a crowning glory for global Britain that our voice in that arena is so important and well regarded. Part of today’s debate needs to be to educate colleagues who are not sighted on the excellent work done in Strasbourg and Paris—and virtually. Reference has been made to various members of the delegation being rapporteurs, and it is important that those countries and topics are covered.

We have spoken about Russia being expelled from the Council of Europe. I think that was the right and proper decision. As a Conservative—and a low-tax Conservative at that—I want to focus on the money side of things. I had the opportunity to pose a question on behalf of my particular group to the secretary-general of the Council of Europe. The Russian delegation contributed about €33 million per year, so there is now a big shortfall. I thank the Minister and our Government for contributing to address that shortfall. It is right that we do our bit where appropriate, but all partners need to do so, too.

The Council of Europe remains important, as shown by Kosovo joining. It is one of the few international forums in which people can have quiet conversations about important issues by the water cooler, which reflects the value of physical meetings. As someone who tried to do virtual meetings initially—with all the difficulty that they entail for a new delegate—I think the physical side is important.

I will not speak about the ECHR—particularly because I am a parliamentary private secretary in the Home Office—but I am sure that we will discuss it in due course, given that we proposed our own human rights Bill in the Queen’s Speech. Other Members have spoken about a lot of the policies, as well as the necessary difficulties of the Council of Europe. There does need to be an evolution at the Council of Europe, and part of the process will be to discuss not only the good things, but how we hope to see it change in future.

Photo of Alyn Smith Alyn Smith Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) 10:26 am, 15th June 2022

It is a pleasure to wind up for the SNP. It has been interesting to hear the various worldviews expressed across the Chamber. From the SNP perspective, I am glad to hear the cross-party support for the Council of Europe, and I very much associate myself with it.

I was a Member of the European Parliament for 16 years. I spent 192 weeks in Strasbourg over those years, so the Council of Europe is close to my heart, and I suffered a terrible thing in losing such a wonderful environment and great colleagues at the Council. I was always struck by the genius of the twin-track mechanism whereby the Council of Europe focuses on the citizens and empowering their legal rights against their own Governments and states, and the EU is a more overtly political and trade union.

It will surprise nobody that it grieves me deeply that the UK has withdrawn from that co-operation in the European Union. I am not in the business of fighting old battles, but Scotland wants to be back in that co-operation; the SNP is an internationalist party, and we want co-operation and multilateralism in all its forms and in all forums. Scotland’s best future is, from my party’s perspective, as an independent state in the European Union. I will come back to that point.

That withdrawal, or retreat, from the international multilateral co-operation of the EU—which the UK has taken Scotland out of—is precisely what makes the co-operation with the framework of the Council of Europe all the more vital. I applaud the work of the delegation. It has had enthusiastic SNP support. My hon. Friends the Members for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard) and for Livingston (Hannah Bardell) are enthusiastic members of the delegation. As long as the SNP is part of this House, that co-operation will continue. It suits our worldview to co-operate internationally and to be part of a multilateral enforcement of decency and human rights.

I have been glad to hear the support from across the House for the work of the Council. We need to bear in mind that it needs to be intellectually consistent, so that we work with and support the Council when it is difficult to do so, as well as when it suits us. I have been uneasy about some of the comment and debate, especially in today’s papers. It is not just about the European Union; I see the same ingredients in the public discourse about the European Court of Justice, the European convention on human rights and the European Council.

I say to Conservative Members present—although I exclude most of them from this criticism—that some of their colleagues are quite specifically trying to undermine the work of the Council. Perhaps they are doing so from a position of ignorance, as we have heard, but it is also possible that they are doing so quite deliberately.

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Conservative, North Thanet

We are in the presence of a PPS from the Home Office and a Minister from the Foreign Office. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that a knee-jerk, dog-whistle reaction to the Rwanda decision, and any attempt to attack the European convention on human rights and the European Court of Justice, would be a grave mistake?

Photo of Alyn Smith Alyn Smith Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Office)

I genuinely thank the right hon. Member for his intervention, and I could not agree with him more. One of the things that has struck me since I got to this House is that we are not all goodies and baddies, and there are a number of shades of grey within. I acknowledge the governing party on this issue. I very much agree with his point. Happily, it is on my page of notes, so we can all look forward to that.

That criticism of the framework is ahistoric. As we have heard, the Council of Europe came from a speech that Winston Churchill made in Zurich in 1946. It was formed by the London Statute, signed in this city in 1949. I am a proud member of the Scottish National party; I have a different worldview from many on the Government Benches and many of the Members of this House, but I celebrate the work of the English and Scottish lawyers in drawing up this international framework of decency historically. To withdraw from that would be deeply ahistoric and an act of nihilism and vandalism, which I would deeply regret. The part that the UK has played in the growth and development of the Council of Europe is an example of global Britain that we can actually be proud of, because it has effected real change in the real world, on our European continent. To walk away from it would be an act of great harm, not only to the wider continent but to us at home.

I pay tribute to that proud history, but I also have to list a few of the things, as mentioned by some Members, that we see currently. When we talk about grievous international acts of criminality in Ukraine, the Donbas, or Cyprus or elsewhere, we need to be consistent at home. So loose chatter—in the Queen’s Speech, no less—about a British Bill of rights, as if somehow the European convention on human rights does not work for us uniquely, is an absurdity. In fact, I would say that it is a deeply, deeply regrettable policy trend.

Loose talk of breaking international law—a solemn international commitment, only recently signed—over the Northern Ireland protocol, when there are dispute resolution mechanisms within the protocol itself, is setting the worst possible international example to those who would seek to do bad things internationally. How can we possibly look Mr Putin in the eye with any credibility when we are ourselves talking about breaching international law, as if it is a mere bagatelle? The odious reaction that we have seen to the European Court of Human Rights quite rightly stopping the odious policy of offshoring refugees to Rwanda is deeply dangerous. We are also seeing the limiting of rights to protest and indeed to vote at home; we can look forward to the Court’s judgments on those issues, too.

There is also talk in some quarters—not by everyone, but in some quarters—about “unelected foreign judges”, as if our own judges were elected and as if “foreign” has anything negative to it. The whole framework of extraterritorial judicial scrutiny is the point—it was designed in this city. The point is to ensure the enforcement of decency and proper legal standards. The rule of law is an important thing to observe at home as well as abroad.

Photo of Geraint Davies Geraint Davies Labour, Swansea West

Does the hon. Gentleman share my concern that, on the one hand, there are those who criticise the credentials of judges in the European Court of Human Rights, and yet we have had Lord Chancellors—such as the current Foreign Secretary, actually—who have not really got much legal expertise? What we really need is a Lord Chancellor here for a sustained period of time to protect the independent judiciary, rather than taking pot shots at it.

Photo of Alyn Smith Alyn Smith Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Office)

I am similarly grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I am really concerned about the public discourse in these islands. If we believe in the rule of law, that means that we also believe in it when it is difficult or inconvenient for the Government of the day. The Scottish Government have been before the European Court of Human Rights as well on the issue of prisoners slopping out. It has been difficult for us, too, but if we sign up to a set of rules and to extrajudicial scrutiny, we need to allow that to run its course. Undermining the independence of the judiciary is a really, really dangerous place for us to go, so I urge everyone, from all points of the compass, to stop it.

Photo of John Howell John Howell Conservative, Henley

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that we are arranging a tour around the European Court of Human Rights for members of the delegation, hopefully in the next session, so that they can see for themselves how it works and talk to some of the judges there?

Photo of Alyn Smith Alyn Smith Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Office)

That is a very interesting and helpful point. I hope that the hon. Gentleman is inviting the Home Secretary along as well. Perhaps we can arrange that, because my concern is that most ignorance is wilful. We saw an awful lot of wilful ignorance in the European Union debate, and we are seeing some in the Council of Europe debate as well.

I believe, with every fibre of my being, that we are an internationalist nation in Scotland, but the UK is as well, and signing up to these international structures allows decency to be promoted on a wider canvas—the European continent. We have heard how wide a range of organisations is covered within the Council of Europe. We can and should be an enthusiastic part of that, not an example of how to undermine it.

This has been a good debate, and I have been glad to take part in it. However, the SNP will always be an internationalist, outward-looking party, and I would happily work with anybody across this House to those ends.

Photo of Stephen Doughty Stephen Doughty Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and International Development) 10:35 am, 15th June 2022

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairpersonship, Dame Maria. I thank John Howell for securing this debate at a critical time for democracy and the rule of law across our continent. I agree that it is a shame that this debated in the main Chamber; I hope that can happen in due course.

It is perhaps arguable that the work of the Council of Europe has never been as critical as it is today, whether that is on human rights, the rule of law and democracy, or, of course, in its crucial election-monitoring role or through the many other activities it undertakes. Not only do we face the pressing threat of Russia’s illegal war against the people of Ukraine, but we see attempts to sow disharmony, undermine democracy and foment tensions elsewhere, whether in the western Balkans, Moldova, or the Caucasus—all, of course, within the geographic remit of the Council of Europe.

We have had some excellent speeches today. I echo the hon. Member for Henley in thanking our officials, the permanent representative, our judge, and all those who play a part in delegations, many of whom are represented today, including many of my hon. and right hon. colleagues on this side of the House.

I want to recognise the comments of my hon. Friend Tony Lloyd and the work he does, and his recognition of the Council of Europe’s role for many member states in the huge, historic shift from the time of fascism and communism to where they have come to today. He spoke about Turkey and others—I will come on to those—and made a powerful statement about the importance of the ECHR and its judgments, and the role that we played in creating it, while also recognising the need for reform, for example in the length of time for judgments.

Sir Roger Gale made some powerful remarks about the importance of the Council of Europe and its geographic reach. He rightly referenced the expulsion of Russia—something I think we would all agree with. He also referenced other issues, such as Cyprus. I had the pleasure of visiting Cyprus recently and agree with many of his comments about the need to resolve that conflict and return to the plan for a bizonal and bicommunal federation.

Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn Independent, Islington North

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is also important in this context to have as much contact as possible, through the Council of Europe, with Russian human rights campaigners and activists, so that they feel that there are people who are interested in the difficult situation they find themselves in?

Photo of Stephen Doughty Stephen Doughty Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and International Development)

I think that the right hon. Gentleman points out the importance of maintaining contacts with all those who are opposing Putin’s regime. Indeed, I think that Vladimir Kara-Murza was mentioned. That is a case that we are all deeply concerned about. It is important that we maintain contact through many bodies, including the Council of Europe, with those who would stand up for democracy and human rights in Russia and against the actions of the Putin regime.

I thank my hon. Friend Geraint Davies for the work he does as a rapporteur. He made some very important points. I would reference his point on the attacks on the judiciary in the UK; I think that some of the comments we have seen are very damaging. He, like many others, raised the issue of the ECHR and Rwanda, which has obviously been a crucial point.

On that, I echo the comments of the shadow Home Secretary, my right hon. Friend Yvette Cooper: there is no point in the Government blaming anyone but themselves on this issue. Ministers have been pursuing a policy that they know is not workable and that will not tackle criminal gangs. Despite that, they paid Rwanda £120 million and hired a jet that now has not taken off, all because they wanted someone else to blame in a confected row. They ignored the warnings about the policy, including on the potential treatment of torture victims—which of course is a crucial issue for the Council of Europe. It has rightly been referenced in this debate, but I think the Government need to take a hard look at themselves to understand why they are in the position they find themselves in this morning.

The Council of Europe has done excellent work in many areas since its foundation. I mentioned the Committee for the Prevention of Torture, which makes unannounced visits to places of detention. The Committee of Social Rights also verifies that rights to housing, health, education and employment are being implemented. My hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale mentioned the anti-corruption work of GRECO, and the Council of Europe also works with other bodies, including the OSCE, the EU, the United Nations and other international bodies, which use Council of Europe reports in pursuing their own excellent work in these areas.

The ECHR itself—I would say this again as a salutary warning to those who make unwarranted attacks on the ECHR—has delivered more than 16,000 judgments. Let us remember the wide range of those judgments, including on 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 respect for private and family life, freedom of religion, freedom of expression, the prohibition of discrimination, and indeed the protection of property. Of course, one of the Court’s most high-profile cases was its ruling that Russia was responsible for the murder of Alexander Litvinenko. That is the scope of the ECHR’s work and it needs to be more fully understood. As has been mentioned, the abolition of capital punishment—something I have long campaigned for—has been a precondition for accession to the Council of Europe since 1985. Indeed, the Council of Europe has played a critical role in ensuring that we do not have the death penalty in member states.

The Istanbul convention has rightly been referenced, and I have a question for the Minister on that. We need to acknowledge that violence against women is a human rights violation and a form of discrimination. The Council of Europe has carried out work on the fight against discrimination for reasons of sexual orientation or gender identity. These are critical issues, particularly when we see backsliding by some members. This is a matter that I hope the Council will pay increased attention over the months and years to come.

I reiterate Labour’s unshakeable commitment to maximising opportunities to work alongside allies and partners on issues of human rights, the rule of law and democracy through as many multilateral institutions as possible, and a critical institution is the Council of Europe. Today’s world is too precarious and, frankly, dangerous to operate unilaterally, as unfortunately we have seen the Government do on too many occasions recently. I hope the Government and the Minister will reiterate our commitment to working through the Council of Europe on these issues, because we face some deep threats across our continent and the world, and the Council of Europe will be key to tackling them.

Beyond reiterating its solidarity with Ukraine and expressing an unwavering commitment to its sovereignty, the Council adopted an action plan for Ukraine, including measures to protect displaced people, to support legal professionals, to document human rights violations—which is critical when we see some of the horrific atrocities currently taking place in Ukraine—and to protect the rights of vulnerable groups, including children and the Roma. As Jeremy Corbyn said, it is important that links with civil society in Russia and Belarus are strengthened. That grassroots work is critical in fighting back against the Putin war machine and the Kremlin’s unrelenting disinformation campaign across Europe.

Photo of Geraint Davies Geraint Davies Labour, Swansea West

Would my hon. Friend accept that it is important to accept the credibility and importance of the statutory role of the Council of Europe’s Court? If other countries fail to abide by these rules, that could collectively undermine the fundamental values of human rights, democracy and the rule of law that we are trying to push forward. The Government should think twice before putting stuff in the media about the Council of Europe and the convention when they are found in need by the Court.

Photo of Stephen Doughty Stephen Doughty Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and International Development)

I agree with the principles of what my hon. Friend is saying, and that applies to judgments of other international courts, including the International Court Of Justice, which the Government have also been taken to task over on a number of issues. I mentioned Ukraine, which is crucial in our focus, but the situation in the western Balkans is also very serious at the moment—the Minister is nodding her head. The Council of Europe has been playing a critical role there in strengthening judicial processes and promoting peace and democracy.

The case of Turkey has been mentioned. The Committee of Ministers’ decision to launch infringement proceedings against Ankara over the Osman Kavala case demonstrates its commitment to the Council’s central values without fear or favour. The hon. Member for Henley rightly referenced wider concerns about Turkey and its infringement of civil and political rights.

Photo of John Howell John Howell Conservative, Henley

Will the hon. Member join us in supporting Kosovo’s membership of the Council of Europe, which will be coming forward later in the year?

Photo of Stephen Doughty Stephen Doughty Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and International Development)

I certainly would. I plan to visit Kosovo in the near future, and I am sure that that will be an issue on the agenda during my visit there and to the western Balkans. That is something I certainly support.

I want to end by asking the Minister a few questions. Can she give us some reassurances about the Government’s wider commitments to the Council of Europe and the ECHR? The Prime Minister has refused to rule out leaving the ECHR. We have seen the many trailed proposals about a so-called Bill of rights, which could diminish the role of the ECHR and undermine its positions. There is a serious risk of undermining some crucial human rights that we all enjoy. Also, it is worth mentioning the crucial role that the ECHR played in the Good Friday agreement. I would like to see the Minister give some reassurance on that point.

Secondly, can the Minister explain the reasoning behind the Government’s reservation of article 59 of the Istanbul convention, which protects migrant and refugee women from domestic abuse and violence? Finally, given the point I made about working together with allies, and given the scale of the challenges we face across Europe and the world, will she assure us that the Government will stop the unilateral approach that they seem to have drifted towards in recent weeks and months and, instead, work together?

Photo of Amanda Milling Amanda Milling Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office) 10:45 am, 15th June 2022

It is an absolute pleasure to be serving under your chairmanship this morning, Dame Maria. My right hon. Friend James Cleverly, the Minister for Europe and North America, would have been delighted to take part in this debate, but he is currently travelling on ministerial duties. It is therefore my pleasure to respond on behalf of the Government.

I start by saying how grateful I am to my hon. Friend John Howell for securing this debate. I echo the tributes paid by right hon. and hon. Members to his work on the Council of Europe as the leader of the UK delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly. My hon. Friend and the other members of the UK delegation play an important role in promoting the Council of Europe and its work throughout the UK. I note that a number of Members across the House mentioned their wish to hold this debate in the main Chamber. I think that the Council of Europe’s importance and the work done by the UK delegation is reflected in the sheer number of Members present.

While I am lavishing praise on my hon. Friend, I will also pick up on the points my hon. Friend Duncan Baker made about the support my hon. Friend the Member for Henley has provided to the newbies, a number of whom are present and have made contributions today. I note that my hon. Friend might be providing some French lessons, as well.

It has been an important debate, discussing the promotion of the work of the Council of Europe and the UK’s role in that. I am grateful for the contributions from other right hon. and hon. Members, and I will hopefully pick up on many of the points they raised.

As hon. Members have mentioned, it was Winston Churchill who first publicly suggested the creation of a Council of Europe nearly 80 years ago. As Europe dusted itself off after world war two, the UK played a critical role in founding the Council, and we have been an active defender of its values—freedom, liberty and the rule of law in Europe—ever since.

Putin has brought war back to our continent on a scale not seen since Churchill’s time, with devastating consequences for Ukraine and the wider world. Putin believes he can win through oppression, coercion and invasion, but Europe has been roused, not cowed, by his aggression, and the free world has united behind Ukraine in its fight for freedom and self-determination through sanctions, aid and military support.

The Council of Europe set the tone by suspending Russia within 36 hours of the invasion, and subsequently expelling them completely. As has been mentioned, the UK delegation was, naturally, at the forefront of calls for that expulsion. We commend the Council for that quick, decisive action, which helped to isolate Putin’s regime on the international stage and sent a clear signal that his actions are not tolerated by the global community. The Council also has a role to play in supporting Ukraine, ensuring it has the financial and technical support to rebuild in the aftermath of Putin’s war, including support from Council of Europe specialists.

As mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Henley and others, the Foreign Secretary attended the Council’s ministerial meeting in Turin, which underlined the need to consolidate standards on human rights, democracy and the rule of law for our future security. We must learn lessons from Ukraine and do more to protect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of states from those threatening to undermine them—for example, in the Balkans, in the eastern neighbourhood region, and in the Caucasus.

Let me turn to the budget because my hon. Friend Sir Edward Leigh and my hon. Friend Mr Mohindra mentioned it. The UK is committed to ensuring that the Council of Europe has the funding it needs to deliver. Russia’s expulsion leaves a €34 million shortfall in funding. All member states, including the UK, have committed to covering the shortfall for this year. We will work with the secretary-general to understand the longer-term impacts, but it is important that longer-term financing is considered alongside the Council of Europe’s future strategic direction.

Members have mentioned the wider work of the Council. Beyond Ukraine, the Council continues to champion equality in other areas, and we agree with raising the profile and the importance of the organisation in that work. We will aim to increase engagement, ensuring that, wherever possible, PACE rapporteurs are able to get appropriate levels of access, and last month in this place, we started the process of ratifying its convention to prevent violence against women, better known as the Istanbul convention. I know how hard my hon. Friend the Member for Henley has pushed for that ratification, and I commend him for his efforts.

The UK can also do more with the Council of Europe to reduce violence and discrimination against LGBT people in some member states, and I shall look with interest to see what further progress there is on that matter. We also remain committed to improving the efficiency and the effectiveness of the European Court of Human Rights. We will work with—

Photo of Tony Lloyd Tony Lloyd Labour, Rochdale

Before she leaves the matter of the Istanbul convention, will she respond to the question from my right hon. Friend Jeremy Corbyn about the decision to make a reservation with respect to migrant women? That is an important issue, and we would like some certainty about the Government’s direction of travel, which is simply not yet there.

Photo of Amanda Milling Amanda Milling Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

I am happy to follow up with more specifics, but the Home Secretary made a written ministerial statement to Parliament on 17 May, announcing the beginning of the process to ratify the convention on combating violence against women and domestic violence, which is more commonly known as the Istanbul convention. We expect the process to be completed and the UK to have ratified the convention by 31 July.

We support members in the western Balkans and the eastern neighbourhood to meet their obligations under the European convention on human rights. Several colleagues mentioned Turkey and, specifically, the case of Osman Kavala. We are concerned about the judgment against Osman Kavala on 25 April, and the failure to implement the European Court of Human Rights ruling to release him immediately, resulting in the commencement of infringement proceedings against Turkey. We continue to raise the case with the Turkish Government.

The promotion of freedom of religion or belief is another key area for the UK, and for the Council. I am sorry that Jim Shannon is not in his place—[Interruption.] Oh, he has moved; he is in his place. So many people face horrific persecution and abuse because of what they believe. As colleagues will be aware, next month, we host the International Ministerial Conference on Freedom of Religion or Belief, and we welcome the Council of Europe’s participation in helping draw attention to that pressing issue. We also recognise the opportunity for the Council to work with other organisations, including the OSCE, and continue to encourage close co-operation.

I want to pick up the point about the Kosovo application. The UK supports Kosovo’s international integration, including its membership of the Council of Europe. Application for membership of the Council is a signal of Kosovo’s commitment to democracy, the rule of law and the protection of rights of all its citizens.

I will briefly touch on the ECHR ruling last night because a number of Members have mentioned it. As the Home Secretary stated, we are disappointed that legal challenge and last-minute claims have meant that last night’s flight was unable to depart. We will not be deterred from doing the right thing in delivering our plan to control our nation’s borders. Our legal team are reviewing every decision made about the flight, and preparation for the next flight begins now.

On the Council of Europe’s future, Russia’s expulsion is the start of a new era. The UK has been vocal on the organisation’s future without Russia, asking it to pursue deeper economic, diplomatic, technological and security ties with allies around the globe. As part of that, we have highlighted the need for reform, as hon. Members mentioned, to ensure that it is as effective as possible. We stand ready to assist following the latest eminent persons review.

I end by reiterating the UK’s recognition of the valuable work of the Council of Europe, about which we have heard from hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber. The organisation has stood the test of time and is now entering a new era where its values face challenge. However, together, as a coalition of sovereign nations, we can advance the frontiers of freedom, stand up for open societies and unleash the power of our collective thirst for peace, just as Churchill imagined so long ago.

Photo of John Howell John Howell Conservative, Henley 10:56 am, 15th June 2022

It has already been stated that I try to run the delegation as a cross-party group, but it is important to bear in mind that it is also a cross-Houses group that includes Members of the House of Lords. I am grateful to Lord Foulkes for attending most of the debate. I thank everyone who has participated. It has been heartwarming to see such enthusiasm and agreement on the important things that the Council of Europe does. I hope that we can look forward to a much longer debate in the main Chamber.

Photo of Tony Lloyd Tony Lloyd Labour, Rochdale

I associate the Opposition parties with the hon. Member’s ambitions. He is assiduous in looking for ministerial responses, but the Minister did not answer my question, nor that of my hon. Friend Stephen Doughty. Will he join me in asking for responses from Ministers?

Photo of John Howell John Howell Conservative, Henley

I would ask that question on a different occasion and in a different way, and I would hope to get a better answer than the hon. Member. On that note, I will end the debate.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House
has considered the work of the Council of Europe.