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David Rutley (Macclesfield) (Con): Following the deal on the eurozone, I understand that Italian media and Italian businesses are calling on Mr Berlusconi to copy this Government’s approach to deficit reduction. Does my right hon. Friend agree that Italy and other eurozone countries would have been far better off if they had followed that course of action long before now?

Mr Osborne: I think they would have been in a better position if they had got ahead of the pressure from the markets rather than being pursued by them. That is precisely what this Government did in Britain. The markets are, for many people, an abstract idea, but as we have discussed, we are talking ultimately about the decisions of many millions of investors and people with pensions, life insurance policies and the like about where they put their money. If they do not have confidence in a country’s ability to pay its way in the world, that money disappears almost overnight.

Gordon Banks (Ochil and South Perthshire) (Lab): Has the Chancellor had an opportunity to carry out the work that will determine if, when and by how much last night’s decision will impact on UK growth? If he has not had that opportunity, will he undertake to come back to us so we can have further debate on that very matter?

Mr Osborne: The honest answer to the hon. Gentleman’s perfectly good question is that, on the morning after the night before, we do not know because important details remain to be resolved. We need to see the detail of how this 50% write-down of Greek debt is going to happen and we need to see how the new firewall will work in practice. We have to see the details: until they are in place, this will remain unresolved and the instability might return. The answer to the hon. Gentleman’s question is that when the detail is in place, we should be able to make an assessment of whether it has calmed the markets and improved the UK growth position.

Mr Julian Brazier (Canterbury) (Con): While strongly supporting my right hon. Friend’s robust defence of the national interest, may I ask him what the statement means where it says “to provide, from the bail-out fund”, presumably the existing bail-out fund, “insurance on new debt issued by eurozone countries”, presumably including Italy?

Mr Osborne: The concept here is that first-loss insurance on newly issued debt from countries such as Italy, as my hon. Friend mentions, would be provided out of the special purpose vehicle. That would obviously make it easier for investors to buy bad debt.

Neil Carmichael (Stroud) (Con): I welcome the Chancellor’s statement that some progress has been made to protect the eurozone. In parallel with repatriating powers, will the British Government make it absolutely certain that the single market becomes a place where competition can thrive and productivity can improve, as it is in our interest as well as that of the whole of Europe to make sure that it works well?

Mr Osborne: I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. The European single market has helped the UK economy over the last couple of decades. We want to see it completed further and we want to see the services

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directive properly implemented. Competition has brought great benefits not just to the economy, but to European consumers, including those in this country. To my mind, that is what the European Union exists to do. It should make its contribution to growth across the continent.

Penny Mordaunt (Portsmouth North) (Con): Will my right hon. Friend assure my constituents that the euro preparations unit has been abolished and that under this Government it will never be re-established?

Mr Osborne: That is an easy assurance for me to give to my hon. Friend’s constituents. There was a euro preparations unit in the Treasury when I arrived. It was shut down and it will not be reopened.

Henry Smith (Crawley) (Con): Can my right hon. Friend confirm that when the previous Government signed this country up to the Nice treaty 10 years ago, they also signed away our veto on financial assistance to European nations?

Mr Osborne: I can confirm that we have lost our veto on financial assistance. That was one of the issues with the so-called EFSM—the European financial stabilisation mechanism—which was the EU27 bail-out fund, which we joined a couple of days before this Government were created. Getting us out of it—[ Interruption.] The former Chancellor’s memoirs are very clear about this.

Chris Leslie (Nottingham East) (Lab/Co-op): Who wrote them?

Mr Osborne: The former Chancellor wrote them! What I would say to my hon. Friend is that we did not have the power to veto disbursements from the EFSM, so we had to negotiate our way out of it. That is precisely what the British Prime Minister has done.

Christopher Pincher (Tamworth) (Con): We hear Labour Members suggesting that Britain is somehow isolated from other members at the EU table, but does the Chancellor agree that what they forget is that by refusing to rule out joining the euro and by insisting that more powers be ceded to Brussels, they are isolating themselves from the broad mass of the British people?

Mr Osborne: I completely agree with my hon. Friend. It is a remarkable position for the Labour leader to take when he says:

“I don’t think Brussels has too much power.”

What sort of negotiation would it be if he were in charge?

Nigel Mills (Amber Valley) (Con): I, too, welcome the Chancellor’s efforts to protect British taxpayers from further bail-outs. I also welcome his statement that the International Monetary Fund exists to support countries that cannot support themselves, but I reiterate my concern that the IMF does not end up supporting a currency if a country chooses not to take the right action.

Mr Osborne: My hon. Friend has made a good point. The IMF exists to support countries, and supports 53 at present. It does not exist to support currencies.

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Andrew Selous (South West Bedfordshire) (Con): Can the Chancellor tell us how on earth it can be the case that, although it has a larger deficit than Greece, the United Kingdom enjoys German levels of interest rates?

Mr Osborne: That is because this Government, in the teeth of opposition from the Labour party—which created this mess—have established fiscal credibility, brought our interest rates down, and ensured that while we may talk about the bail-out of some European countries, we are not talking about the bail-out of Britain.

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Business of the House

12.40 pm

The Leader of the House of Commons (Sir George Young): The business for the week beginning 31 October will be as follows:

Monday 31 October—Instruction relating to the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill, followed by remaining stages of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill (Day 1).

Tuesday 1 November—Continuation of remaining stages of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill (Day 2).

Wednesday 2 November—Conclusion of remaining stages of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill (Day 3).

Thursday 3 November—General debate on the Silk commission.

The provisional business for the week commencing 7 November will include the following:

Monday 7 November—Money resolution relating to the Localism Bill, followed by consideration of Lords Amendments to the Localism Bill.

Tuesday 8 November—If necessary, consideration of Lords amendments, followed by motion to approve a European document relating to European budgets, followed by motion to approve a reasoned opinion relating to credit institutions, followed by business nominated by the Backbench Business Committee.

Wednesday 9 November—Opposition day [unallotted day]. There will be a debate on an Opposition motion, subject to be announced.

Thursday 10 November—General debate on armed forces personnel.

I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for 3 and 10 November 2011 will be as follows:

Thursday 3 November—Debate on shale gas, followed by debate on electricity market reform.

Thursday 10 November—Debate on funding of social care.

Ms Angela Eagle (Wallasey) (Lab): Last Monday was the 50th anniversary of the first session of Prime Minister’s questions. I am surprised that the Leader of the House did not mention that. I know how much you enjoy those occasions, Mr Speaker.

When I looked it up, I found that the first such occasion featured an old Etonian Tory Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, fielding questions about his negotiations to get us into the “common market.” Fifty years on, the latest Old Etonian Tory Prime Minister spent the day frantically pleading with his own side not to vote for a referendum to get us out of it. Macmillan was famous for his “little local difficulties”. I think that the current Prime Minister now has 81 “little local difficulties” of his own making, and more in the Cabinet. Can the Leader of the House tell us whether the PM will follow Supermac’s example, and resort to a “night of the long knives” to deal with them?

This Government’s flawed choice to cut too far and too fast before the recovery was secure stalled growth in the economy long before the eurozone crisis. Despite

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the most ferocious squeeze in living standards for generations, their only plan is to abolish employment rights for millions of people in the workplace. May we have a debate on this week’s leaked report from millionaire financier Adrian Beecroft, which calls for the scrapping of protections against unfair dismissal, and says that creating that insecurity for millions of people at work is “a price worth paying”? Can the Leader of the House tell us why owning four Aston Martins and making lavish donations to the Tory party qualify Mr Beecroft to have a worthwhile opinion on anything?

Last week the Leader of the House told us that rushing forward the debate on EU reform from Thursday to Monday would allow the Foreign Secretary to enrich it with his presence. Can he tell the House how large the Tory rebellion would have been if the Foreign Secretary had not enriched the debate with his presence? And, given that this was the biggest rebellion on Europe in any political party since the dawn of time, can he tell us who is taking the blame? Tory blogger Tim Montgomerie blamed the Prime Minister, accusing him of having a work ethic which is the “opposite of Margaret Thatcher’s”. Apparently our Prime Minister is more interested in the latest box sets than in his red boxes. This week he has obviously been watching too much of “The Sopranos” and not enough “Friends”. [ Laughter.]

Gavin Barwell (Croydon Central) (Con): Ah! It was a joke!

Ms Eagle: Shall I say it again, then?

The Parliamentary Secretary, Office of the Leader of the House of Commons (Mr David Heath): It is a repeat.

Ms Eagle: Indeed. Perhaps I should repeat it.

Is it not clear that the Prime Minister’s plans backfired spectacularly, with half his own Back Benchers defying him? Today we learnt that the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions has threatened to leave the Cabinet if he is ever forced to vote against his Eurosceptic instincts again, and now we learn that the Justice Secretary has been suddenly pulled out of today’s debate on the Council of Europe, just in case he says something nice about the EU and further alienates the Tory rebels. What has it come to in today’s Tory party when Eurosceptics are bullied and pro-Europeans are gagged?

Given that last night’s welcome agreement in Brussels brings the prospect of a treaty change much closer, can the Leader of the House tell us what the Government’s policy on Europe is now, and may we have a debate about it? While he was getting the Whips to bully them, the Prime Minister was trying to appease his mutinous Back Benchers by promising them reform tomorrow. The next day, his deputy vetoed it. The Prime Minister wants to repatriate powers, whereas the Deputy Prime Minister says that that “won’t work” and is “condemned to failure”. Which is it?

Speaking of the Deputy Prime Minister, his reward for rubbing salt in Eurosceptic wounds this week is being allowed to blow an extra half a million pounds a year on seven new Liberal Democrat special advisers. That is apparently intended to “bolster” Liberal Democrat influence in Whitehall. Perhaps, in the light of all this confusion and contradiction between the Prime Minister and his deputy, we should have a debate about what

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plans the Government have to repatriate powers from the Liberal Democrats. Is it not the case that the past few days have exposed a weak Prime Minister leading a divided Government, too busy fighting internal battles to fight for Britain’s interests?

Sir George Young: The hon. Lady is right: this is the 50th anniversary of the first session of Prime Minister’s questions. I think that the Prime Minister enjoys the event more than the Leader of the Opposition.

I remind the hon. Lady that Supermac never lost an election. As for rebellions, she seems to think that they have happened only under the coalition Government, but the last Government endured much bigger rebellions. In March 2007, 94 Labour MPs voted to delay Trident, and even the hon. Lady has a history of dabbling in rebellions on issues such as foundation trusts.

Let me deal briefly with some of the other issues that the hon. Lady raised. We are committed to reforming employment law, supporting business and encouraging growth, while—crucially—ensuring that we do not weaken the employment rights of workers up and down the country; and we do not comment on leaked reports such as the one to which the hon. Lady referred.

We have just heard a statement on Europe, in which the Chancellor addressed the issue of treaty change. My party is united behind the Prime Minister’s vision for reform in the European Union, and indeed that is an aspiration shared by many across the continent. I agree with Lord Ashdown, who said in an interview yesterday:

“I don’t think Europe needs to be as intrusive as it is and so does Nick Clegg.”

As for the treaty, the hon. Lady will know what the coalition agreement says:

“We will examine the balance of the EU’s existing competences”.

That remains the position. The coalition parties are in total harmony on the issue.

Mr Greg Knight (East Yorkshire) (Con): May we have a debate on happiness? [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] Is the Leader of the House aware that from this weekend onwards, for several months, many millions of people will be less happy than they could be as Britain is plunged into darkness by early afternoon after we have put our clocks back? If we cannot have a debate, may we have action in future to end this unnecessary and depressing ritual?

Sir George Young: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, who has campaigned long and hard on this important issue. He will know that a private Member’s Bill has been tabled on the specific subject that he has raised. It has received a Second Reading, and the Government are considering their position and consulting the devolved Assemblies which have an interest in the issue. We want to reach a consensus and make progress.

Jim Sheridan (Paisley and Renfrewshire North) (Lab): May we have an informed debate about the right of public service workers to be appropriately represented at their workplace? Unfortunately, the sponsor of last night’s Adjournment debate was ill-informed and perpetuated the myth that trade unions are “the enemy within.” He represents the same party that heaps praise

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on our emergency service workers, but seeks to deny them proper representation at their workplace, which is utter hypocrisy.

Sir George Young: As the hon. Gentleman said, we had an Adjournment debate on this subject last night. I am sure that the Minister replying to that debate made an informed contribution and dealt seriously with the issues raised. I cannot promise another such debate in Government time in the near future.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr Speaker: Order. May I remind the House that Members who have not been present from the start should not expect to be called?

Mr Stewart Jackson (Peterborough) (Con): May we have a debate on freedom of speech? Mr Peter Tatchell—a gentleman for whom I have some admiration—has today attacked the Trafford Housing Trust for its despicable decision to downgrade the position and cut the salary of Mr Adrian Smith, a Christian, for posting private comments on his own private Facebook account on the subject of gay marriage. Should we be putting public money into an organisation that is, effectively, propagating state-sponsored intolerance?

Sir George Young: I am a firm believer in freedom of speech and freedom of worship. Of course people should obey the law of the country. I will draw this incident to the attention of the Minister for Housing and Local Government, to see whether there is any action to be taken either by him or the Housing Corporation.

Natascha Engel (North East Derbyshire) (Lab): The Backbench Business Committee has experienced a large increase in demand for debate time as a direct result of the introduction of e-petitions. As it is in the Leader of the House’s gift to give debate time to the Backbench Business Committee, will he recognise that his introduction of e-petitions and assigning the Backbench Business Committee to deal with them has led to this enormous increase in demand on time, and therefore allocate extra time, ring-fenced specifically for e-petitions?

Sir George Young: May I begin by commending the work of the Backbench Business Committee and the hon. Lady in chairing it? Three petitions have passed the threshold. Her Committee has found time for one in Westminster Hall and one in the Chamber, and the third is before her at the moment. I commend the way in which the Committee has handled those petitions. There will be an opportunity to review both the e-petition regime and the work of the Backbench Business Committee, and the Procedure Committee will conduct a broader review of the calendar, which is the context in which we should address the hon. Lady’s concern about how we might find more headroom for the Committee to respond to the many demands on its time.

Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): On the question of happiness, the Leader of the House may be interested to know that 50 years ago this very week Helen Shapiro was top of the hit parade with “Walking Back to Happiness”.

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I welcome the upcoming armed forces debate, but will the Leader of the House ensure that Ministers are well briefed on the future of the Ministry of Defence police and on housing for the families of military personnel?

Sir George Young: I am delighted to see that my hon. Friend is happy, as he usually intervenes on matters relating to the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, when he is far from happy. I thank him for his welcome for the armed forces debate. As he knows, there used to be regular armed forces debates in Government time, but responsibility for finding time then passed to the Backbench Business Committee. It has not so far been able to find time for such a debate—we understand why as we have just heard from the hon. Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel) about the time pressures facing the Committee—so the Government have provided a debate in the run-up to Armistice day. We think that that is an appropriate time for the House to remember those who serve in the armed forces, especially as it will now also be held against the backdrop of the ending of action in Libya. We think it is appropriate that the House should have a debate on this subject, which it has not discussed for a year.

Mike Gapes (Ilford South) (Lab/Co-op): I understand that the Secretary of State for Health is due to make a statement of some kind at 1 o’clock today on the Government’s response to the Independent Reconfiguration Panel findings on the future of health services in north-east London, including King George hospital in my constituency. This morning, the Care Quality Commission published a damning report on the Barking, Havering and Redbridge University Hospitals NHS Trust, criticising poor management and some poor staff attitudes, and saying that the attempt to cut the deficit had led to reductions in the quality of care and that the transfer of services from King George hospital to the Queen’s hospital had not led to efficiency savings. May we have an early debate on these matters? I understand from the Secretary of State’s private office that he is due to make a statement in six minutes’ time, but neither I nor any of the other eight MPs representing the area—all of whom have been campaigning hard to save services at the hospital—have yet been informed of what is in that statement.

Sir George Young: I understand the hon. Gentleman’s concern about health service provision in his constituency. My understanding is that the Secretary of State for Health will shortly make a decision on this issue, which arises from the work of the panel on reconfiguration of services. When the Secretary of State has made his decisions, the Members concerned will be informed in the usual way, and I am sure he will take into account all relevant information, including any from the CQC.

Martin Vickers (Cleethorpes) (Con): When I served as a church warden, I was advised that it was an offence to prevent any worshippers from attending divine service, and that as a church warden I had the power of arrest within the churchyard. I never had to test that, but given the confusion at St Paul’s cathedral, may we have a statement on the legal position?

Sir George Young: I commend my hon. Friend on his work as a church warden for the Church of England. As I understand it, there has been a resignation at

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St Paul’s. So far as I know, the protestors have not closed a bank or caused a single banker to resign, but they have closed St Paul’s and caused the resignation of a cleric who was committed to their cause. The legal situation is complex, as there is a variety of land ownership surrounding St Paul’s. My understanding is that the City of London Corporation is in touch with the Church authorities to see if they can reach agreement on the way forward. In the meantime, I hope that the protestors will heed the advice from a number of sources, not least the Bishop of London, that they should stop their protest and allow free access to St Paul’s.

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab): Domestic violence costs the economy more than £6 billion, and research shows that it is three times more likely to occur when couples are under financial strain. On Monday, the Prime Minister was unable to tell me three ways in which his Government have helped women’s contribution to the economy. In view of that and the fact that the Bill we will start discussing next Monday will reduce access to legal aid for women victims of domestic violence, may we have a statement from the Government on what they have done to protect women from domestic violence?

Sir George Young: Only a few days ago, we had a debate in which we assisted women by changing the pension age arrangements, and there will be opportunities to discuss domestic violence in the three days next week that we debate the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill. The hon. Lady will also know that on Tuesday of this week the Home Secretary started a consultation on Clare’s law, which will bring real help to those suffering from domestic violence by giving people the right to know, or a right to ask, whether they are with a partner who has a history of violence. We have, therefore, taken a number of steps to protect women liable to domestic violence, and next week there will be an opportunity to pursue the agenda further.

Kwasi Kwarteng (Spelthorne) (Con): My constituency in Middlesex is driven by small business. May we have a debate on tax and tax reforms, and their effect on small business?

Sir George Young: My hon. Friend is right that small and medium-sized enterprises are the drivers of economic growth, and he may have an opportunity to raise the topic when my right hon. Friend the Chancellor makes his autumn statement in November. In the meantime, my hon. Friend will know that we have extended the small business rate relief holiday for a year, we are working to abolish 43 tax reliefs in the system to come up with a better regime, and we are cutting corporation tax to the lowest rate in the G7. I hope that will help small businesses in Spelthorne.

Pete Wishart (Perth and North Perthshire) (SNP): Does the Leader of the House think it is ever right or appropriate for a Chair of a Select Committee to threaten a female member of that Committee with getting “a doing”?

Sir George Young: My understanding is that, whatever happened in the Scottish Affairs Committee, the Chairman has apologised and I think that is the right action for him to take.

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Angie Bray (Ealing Central and Acton) (Con): Ealing recently held its first public scrutiny meeting on the aftermath of the riots. One of the main concerns was the slowness with which insurance companies have been responding to claims from riot victims. If that is the case, it is totally unacceptable. Will my right hon. Friend raise the matter with the Business Secretary and perhaps ask for a statement to be made to the House?

Sir George Young: It would be quite wrong of insurance companies to penalise the victims of the riots by withholding the compensation to which they are entitled. I say in passing that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government has extended the period during which businesses can claim for compensation. I will certainly raise the matter with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, who may want to raise it with the Association of British Insurers. I am sure that individual Members of Parliament will take up any case where an injustice has been done to their constituents, and pursue it directly and vigorously with the insurance company concerned.

Huw Irranca-Davies (Ogmore) (Lab): Recently, a female constituent of mine came to a surgery very concerned that she could not get access to a life-saving cancer drug, Femara. This is not to do with the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence, as the drug is available and regularly prescribed. What she could not do is access it in her chemist, and this is now happening throughout the United Kingdom. Will the Leader of the House find time for a debate in Government time on access to prescribed drugs and on the merits or otherwise of a public service obligation, as every other European country has, to make sure that not only do wholesalers provide these vital life-saving drugs and they are distributed, but every chemist holds stocks of them?

Sir George Young: I understand the force of the hon. Gentleman’s argument. We debated health provision yesterday, although I am not sure whether he had the opportunity to raise the matter then. I will raise it with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health and ask him to write to the hon. Gentleman, reacting to the strong case that he has just made.

Richard Fuller (Bedford) (Con): May we have a debate on Government transparency? Hard-working taxpayers are learning today that the previous Government spent hundreds of pounds in an Australian casino. We do not know whether they put all the money on red, we do not know whether they blew it all and we do not know what they did with any winnings, but that is just one example of the misuse of Government procurement cards. Can the Leader of the House also tell us what the Government are doing to crack down on such excesses?

Sir George Young: The Government strongly believe in transparency. My hon. Friend will know that our right hon. Friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General is today publishing details of all credit card expenditure of more than £500 made in recent months. We have borne down on the use of credit cards within the public sector, but we believe that transparency has a key role to play. I commend my right

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hon. Friend for publishing details of spending on Whitehall procurement cards which, as my hon. Friend indicated, has a number of interesting avenues that I am sure the media will want to explore.

Nic Dakin (Scunthorpe) (Lab): This has been a good week for the Backbench Business Committee. A few months ago, we had a debate in this Chamber about the use of wild animals in circuses, in which the view of the House was very clear. May we have a statement to the House on the progress the Government are making in addressing what they perceive are the legal obstacles to carrying out the will of the House in that respect?

Sir George Young: The Backbench Business Committee exists because the coalition Government set it up; the previous Administration failed to do that. I will certainly make inquiries about any legal obstacles that impede the will of the House, as expressed in that debate, being carried forward, and I will ask the Minister concerned to write to the hon. Gentleman.

Guto Bebb (Aberconwy) (Con): I welcome the announcement of the decision to hold a debate on the Silk commission in Government time, and I warmly welcome the opportunity to debate that important issue of highlighting the fiscal responsibility of the Welsh Assembly. What assurances can the Leader of the House give me regarding the time that will be allocated for that debate, to ensure that the subject is fully discussed in this House?

Sir George Young: My hon. Friend will know that traditionally there has been a St David’s day debate on Welsh affairs and that in this Parliament we have not had a debate on Wales. Given the pressure on the Backbench Business Committee, we felt that it was right to debate the Silk commission, which addresses issues of the governance of Wales. The Secretary of State for Wales and, indeed, the commission will want to know the views of the House, and we have provisionally allocated a whole day’s debate for that important matter.

Graham Jones (Hyndburn) (Lab): Hundreds of my recently unemployed constituents have heard about job vacancies in the Palace. These are jobs working with charities, offering first-class travel and 40 lavish overseas trips. If the job application forms were made available in Accrington jobcentre, I am sure that we would get a high calibre of applicant. May we have a statement on why those job application details are not available in Hyndburn and Haslingden?

Sir George Young: I am not sure that I have correctly understood the hon. Gentleman’s question. Is he referring to job vacancies in the Palace of Westminster? Is that the thrust of his question?

Graham Jones: Within the Palace.

Sir George Young: Jobs within the Palace come from a variety of sources: some are from individual Members and some are from the House of Commons Commission. The House of Commons Commission, as an equal opportunities employer, advertises jobs in the normal way, and I am sure that we would welcome applications from the hon. Gentleman’s constituents.

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Robert Halfon (Harlow) (Con): May we have an urgent debate about the incompetence and inefficiencies of the Child Support Agency? Three constituents of mine, David Kidd, Rodney Zuna and Mark Lavery, have been very poorly treated by that organisation. In the case of Mr David Kidd, the CSA is refusing to pay money that is rightfully owed to him after he was found not to be the father of a child, and the situation is causing him immense hardship. Will the Leader of the House raise this issue with Ministers?

Sir George Young: I will certainly contact Ministers at the Department for Work and Pensions and ask them to pursue the individual case raised by my hon. Friend. We all know from our own casework that the CSA generates a fantastic amount of work. The Government are in the process of reforming the child maintenance system by putting the child first, encouraging parents to come to an agreement about financial support and then providing statutory back-up where that is impossible. We believe that that will be a better system than the one we have at the moment.

Diana Johnson (Kingston upon Hull North) (Lab): In the light of this week’s comments by Jamie Oliver about school food, may we please have a debate about school dinners and whether the Government have any commitment to them at all?

Sir George Young: The Government are committed to the provision of free school meals with appropriate nutritional content. I would personally welcome such a debate. I cannot provide Government time for one but I am sure that the Backbench Business Committee or you, Mr Speaker, might respond to an application for a debate on the Adjournment.

Gavin Barwell (Croydon Central) (Con): At the Quest academy in my constituency 41% of pupils got five good GCSEs, including English and maths, this year. That was an increase from the 23% figure that the previous school, Selsdon high, got just a year ago, making the Quest academy one of the most improved schools in the country. Other neighbouring schools—Edenham high school, Shirley high school and the Oasis academy—also saw big improvements. May we have a debate on how the Government’s education reforms are transforming the life chances of deprived children in my constituency?

Sir George Young: We would welcome such a debate, and I hope that the Opposition, who have an Opposition day or two in the weeks ahead, might choose education as a subject for debate. We heard yesterday their somewhat confused position whereby they are in favour of free schools individually, but oppose the policy that generates them.

Mr Dave Watts (St Helens North) (Lab): Given the fact that the Prime Minister on three separate occasions refused to list the powers that he wants to bring back from Brussels, may we have an urgent statement on the matter so that he can spell out clearly to the British people which powers he wants to bring back from Brussels? Is he afraid to do so?

Sir George Young: The Prime Minister answered questions on this matter for an hour on Monday and he answered questions yesterday. If the hon. Gentleman

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looks at the coalition agreement, he will find a specific example of where we want to get powers back—it concerns the working time directive.

Mr Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth East) (Con): When I was born, the global population was 3 billion. It is about to breach 7 billion, and although I can say that I have modestly added to that, it is not all my fault. Such increase is unsustainable, as it will put undue pressures on water, food and even jobs. May I invite the Leader of the House to enable us to debate that very difficult subject, which we need to embrace in the future?

Sir George Young: We are all in this together. The figures that I saw, which I believe were published yesterday, showed that two thirds of the increase in the UK’s population was due to immigration, with the rest being due to increased longevity. On immigration, my hon. Friend will know the steps being taken by the Home Secretary to reduce net migration down to tens of thousands rather than hundreds of thousands. The steps we have taken regarding students, spouses and workers will all have a downward impact on the future UK population, which I hope he will welcome.

Michael Connarty (Linlithgow and East Falkirk) (Lab): I wonder if the Leader of the House will encourage the Government to have an investigation and make a statement or create a debate on the operation of the 2002 commercial debts Act? I have found, through the wonderful scheme of being a business buddy for the federation of private business, that small businesses find that many bigger companies still write into their contracts a 90-day payment period, even though the Act states 30 days, and even SELECT, the electrical engineering group, says the same. The big businesses are bullying small businesses out of their rights under the Act, and I want to know what the Government are going to do to enforce that Act.

Sir George Young: We have just had Department for Business, Innovation and Skills questions; I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman had an opportunity to raise this issue then. I shall draw the matter to the attention of the Business Secretary to see whether there is abuse of that piece of legislation and, if so, what action we can take to stop it.

Mr Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): Monday’s historic debate was a great success for Parliament. The mother of Parliaments was watched by our nation and we had 90-odd Members participating in the debate. They spoke from their hearts and when the Division came Members from all three major parties voted differently. One point that has not been established, though, is that that debate could not have taken place had the Leader of the House not personally driven through the e-petitions process, and I do not think the Prime Minister has given him the credit for Monday’s debate that he deserves. Could we have a statement from the Leader of the House next week on ensuring that we have more such debates?

Sir George Young: May I take this opportunity to congratulate my hon. Friend on his first-class winding-up speech to that debate, which I am sure had an important impact on the subsequent Division? My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is a firm believer in empowering

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the House of Commons: he signed up to the e-petition process and the Backbench Business Committee. We are committed to a minimum of 35 days a year for the Backbench Business Committee, and although it is sometimes inconvenient for the Government, we firmly believe that it is right that the House of Commons should have some control of its agenda, at times choosing subjects that the Government perhaps would not have chosen.

Mr Roger Gale (North Thanet) (Con): Speaking in Australia this week, President Kikwete of Tanzania urged investors in his country to reinvest the profits from their companies in his country. Unfortunately, as the Foreign and Commonwealth Office well knows, he is the same President Kikwete who is in thrall to the media baron Reginald Mengi and who has done nothing to give satisfaction to my constituents Sarah and Stewart Hermitage, whose farm in Tanzania was stolen from them by Mr Mengi’s brother. Could we have a debate in Government time to discuss not only the joys but the dangers of investing in Tanzania?

Sir George Young: I am sorry to hear about that loss of property on the part of my hon. Friend’s constituents. I shall certainly raise the issue with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office—the FCO Minister for Europe, my right hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr Lidington), is in his place at the moment—and see whether there are any representations it can make to get justice for the people whose property was confiscated.

Mark Lancaster (Milton Keynes North) (Con): I am sorry that the shadow Leader of the House feels that there is something wrong with owning four Aston Martins. After all, if one can own two Jags, why not four Aston Martins? Certainly, my constituents who work at the Heritage Aston Martin works in Newport Pagnell will be hoping that Mr Beecroft will own a few more. May we have a debate on the future of the British motor manufacturing industry?

Sir George Young: As the owner of a very small bicycle, I look at these fast and expensive cars with some envy. My hon. Friend makes a valid point—conspicuous consumption generates jobs in constituencies such as his. I think it was Lord Mandelson, was it not, who said that nothing inconvenienced him about millionaires? I hope that the Labour party will, perhaps, change its view about Aston Martins and Rolls-Royces, many of which are manufactured in constituencies represented by Labour Members of Parliament.

Mrs Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest) (Con): Will my right hon. Friend find time next week for a debate on the law on succession to the throne, particularly the current inequality of male primogeniture? I ask that we have this debate soon, in the hope that the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting that is currently taking place might make some progress on this matter.

Sir George Young: My hon. Friend will know that the Prime Minister has made it clear that he finds the present law unsatisfactory. It discriminates against women and against people who marry Roman Catholics. He has made it clear that he has written to the Heads of the Commonwealth to try to get agreement. I can only

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suggest to my hon. Friend that she awaits the outcome of the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Australia and sees what my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has to say on this matter at its conclusion.

Dr Sarah Wollaston (Totnes) (Con): May we have a debate on the role and responsibilities of Parliamentary Private Secretaries? Is it appropriate in a modern democracy that Members of Parliament who are neither Ministers nor in the Cabinet should be forced to resign if they vote against the Government? Does not that restrict their ability to represent their constituents and disproportionately reduce the power of the House?

Sir George Young: I am grateful to my hon. Friend and I am sorry that two Parliamentary Private Secretaries left the Government earlier this week. She will know that when somebody is invited to become a Parliamentary Private Secretary, there is an assumed commitment that they will support the Government in the Division Lobby. If anybody feels unhappy about that, they should not become a Parliamentary Private Secretary. If, having become a PPS, someone feels they cannot support the Government in the Division Lobby, they have to stand down. I think that is set out in the ministerial code and it is a convention that is widely understood on both sides of the House.

Mr David Nuttall (Bury North) (Con): May we have a debate on how the one-in, one-out policy of controlling regulations is progressing, so that we can determine the extent to which regulations made in this House are being replaced by ones made in Brussels?

Sir George Young: We touched on that earlier this week. We are committed to a red tape challenge of scrapping and simplifying regulations that are ineffective and obsolete. We have the one-in, one-out approach and I am sure that BIS Ministers will be happy to respond to detailed questions. We also have Lord Young’s report, which was produced a year ago and made a number of suggestions for relieving the burden on businesses, with the agenda of fostering employment and growth. I would welcome such a debate.

Andrew Stephenson (Pendle) (Con): I wonder whether the Leader of the House has had time to see the set of Rolls-Royce Trent engine fan blades on the green in New Palace Yard, which were produced by the Rolls-Royce factory in Barnoldswick in my constituency. That display is part of a series of events to highlight the potential of high-value manufacturing and apprenticeships. May we have a debate at the earliest opportunity on what progress the Government have made on supporting apprenticeships?

Sir George Young: Yes, I bicycled past the turbine and contrasted the horsepower that it represented with the horsepower on the bicycle. My hon. Friend might just have been in the House for BIS questions in which we had a very good exchange on apprenticeships. I pay tribute to what my hon. Friend the Minister for Further

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Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning has done. We promised 50,000 extra apprenticeships in 2010-11, but we have actually delivered more than 100,000.

Charlie Elphicke (Dover) (Con): May we have a debate on what the Government are doing to be more family-friendly? Child care, child tax credits, Sure Start and the role of health visitors all matter greatly to people in Dover and Deal.

Sir George Young: I welcome my hon. Friend’s question, which contained within it the answer, as he outlined a number of measures—child tax credit for struggling families, early years support for vulnerable two-year-olds, more support for child care within universal credit and increasing the number of health visitors. The Government would welcome such a debate; perhaps he would like to initiate one in Westminster Hall.

Jason McCartney (Colne Valley) (Con): With reference to the shadow Leader of the House’s box-set collection of TV programmes, I suspect that the shadow Cabinet is currently watching “Lost”. May we please have a debate on empty homes? There is a real paradox in my local council area in that while the council is pushing through its top-down housing targets for tens of thousands of new homes, there are 11,000 empty homes. Local people find that very hard to explain when the countryside is being dug up for new homes.

Sir George Young: As a former Housing Minister, I share my hon. Friend’s concern. There are about 350,000 empty houses in this country, which is an affront to those who are waiting for good housing. I commend the work of the Empty Homes Agency. In addition, the new homes bonus will apply also to local authorities that bring back into use homes that are currently empty, and other money is available within the local government budget to encourage local authorities to bring homes back into use. I commend my hon. Friend’s work on this issue, and I hope that all local authorities will do all they can to bring empty homes back into use.

Neil Carmichael (Stroud) (Con): In my Gloucestershire constituency is a huge number of firms that trade with Brazil, but I am very apprehensive about the way in which we are developing trade links with Brazil, Russia, India and China—the so-called BRIC economies—because I sense that other countries are doing better than us. Can we put a spotlight on what the Government are doing to give comfort and support to businesses that wish to develop business in the BRIC economies?

Sir George Young: I know that a number of my hon. Friends in BIS and other Departments make export trips abroad with business men to win export orders on behalf of this country, and they have undertaken a number of visits to the markets to which my hon. Friend refers. UK Trade & Investment and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, supported by all the Government, lead on this work. We want to use our network of staff across the globe to showcase UK strengths in sectors where we have world-beating capability and we hope to win more export orders and to provide jobs in my hon. Friend’s constituency.

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Points of Order

1.19 pm

Jack Dromey (Birmingham, Erdington) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I bow to no one in my admiration for the BBC “Today” programme, but it is not the forum in which Ministers should make important announcements. Today the Minister for Housing and Local Government, asserting that the big problem for 8 million social tenants is a lack of mobility, has launched HomeSwap Direct, a website—it is not so much “on your bike” now, but “on your website.” Had the Minister come to the House, we could have debated collapsing house building, soaring rents, a mortgage market where no one can get mortgages, and the big problem of rapidly rising unemployment where there are no jobs to move to. Has the Housing Minister indicated his intention to do the House the courtesy of coming to the House to make the announcement?

Mr Speaker: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point of order. The short answer is that I received no notification of any intention by a Minister to make a statement on this subject. Off the top of my head, and without undertaking inquiries, I know the hon. Gentleman and the House will appreciate that it is difficult for me authoritatively to adjudicate on this matter. The reason why I say that is that I do not know at this stage whether what has happened is merely the launch of a statement, or the fulfilment of a policy commitment made on a previous occasion, or whether this is a new initiative of which the House should first have been informed, but as the hon. Gentleman would expect me to do, I shall assume the role of a detective and look into the matter, better to inform myself, and perhaps the hon. Member when I have done so.

Michael Connarty (Linlithgow and East Falkirk) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I would not wish to have visited this on your head, but unfortunately the Scottish National party Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) repeated a calumny in the House recently, accusing a Member of threatening another Member, I believe without telling the Members that they were going to be named. I believe the Committee has met since then, and unfortunately the Leader of the House was not informed of the outcome of the formal meeting of the Select Committee, which clarified and, quite frankly, exonerated the Chair of that Committee of any threatening behaviour. Since it has been repeated in the House, can I ask you to look into this matter and call the SNP Member back to apologise on the Floor of the House? It is not politics; it is abuse of the House we are talking about here.

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Mr Speaker: The hon. Gentleman was doing nicely until he approached the conclusion of his remarks. There are two real points here. First, a Member who is planning to denounce the conduct or impugn the integrity of another Member should notify that Member in advance. Secondly, the issue to which the hon. Gentleman refers is properly the property of the Select Committee, which, I understand, has indeed deliberated upon it. The hon. Gentleman has used his point of order to offer his own admonishment of the hon. Member who he thinks has misbehaved. I do not think that further action by me at this time is required, but the hon. Gentleman has correctly put on record the fact that the Select Committee has had a discussion about the matter. If the hon. Gentleman will understand, I think it is perfectly reasonable now that we leave it there.

Huw Irranca-Davies (Ogmore) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr Speaker. You will know that very often a generic issue arises out of the very specific, and I wish to raise a generic issue and seek your guidance. The guidance I seek is on the necessity for accuracy in facts that are used in debates. Very often the interpretation of facts will differ, but facts are very important. Yesterday, in the course of a debate, a number of Labour local authorities were derided for, in the words of the hon. Member—I said the point is generic, so I will not name the individual—their “appalling and terrible” record on recycling. My own local authority was mentioned in the list, with a 33% rate of recycling. That was inaccurate; the actual rate is 51%. I request guidance from you, Mr Speaker, and possibly from “Erskine May”, on the need for accuracy, or alternatively, the need for Members to return to the House to correct the record, because I suspect that the other Labour local authorities named also have admirable recycling records and would want Hansard to reflect that accurately.

Mr Speaker: There are two simple points in response to the hon. Gentleman’s point of order. First, all Members take responsibility for, and are responsible for, the content of the statements that they make in the House. Secondly, it is of course desirable that facts adduced are indeed facts, but I know that the hon. Gentleman, who is a very experienced Member, will understand when I say that if there were to be complete agreement as to the particular facts on any issue, let alone all issues, I have a feeling we would be witnessing the end of the House of Commons—and that isn’t going to happen.

If the appetite of Members for raising points of order—actual or contrived—has now been exhausted, we can proceed to the main business.

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Council of Europe (UK Chairmanship)

1.25 pm

The Minister for Europe (Mr David Lidington): I beg to move,

That this House has considered the matter of the UK’s Chairmanship of the Council of Europe.

Mr Speaker, you will already have seen that debates on European matters are a bit like buses: you wait for ages and then two of these delightful treats come along in the same week. I am particularly grateful for the fortunate coincidence of timing in that this debate on the Council of Europe arrives the week after the final collapse of the Gaddafi regime in Libya, because that provides a point of reflection and of comparison between what happens in so much of the world and what has happened in our own continent. The long rule by Gaddafi based on state-sponsored violence and terror throws into sharp relief, in particular, those liberties on which the British people have relied for centuries.

Whatever view Members in any part of the House take on particular laws or on how human rights should be given effect here, I think we would all stand united on the continuing need for and relevance of fundamental human rights such as protection from torture, and the right to free speech, assembly and worship. That tradition in this country of respect for human rights is one reason why we are very proud to be taking on the chairmanship of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe.

I acknowledge that there are in the House today members of the United Kingdom’s delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, from the Conservative, Liberal Democrat and Labour parties, and I pay tribute to the work that they do on behalf of the House and the country, and welcome the fact that they will be able to contribute the fruits of their experience during this afternoon’s proceedings.

As I hope Members will recall, the Council is the international organisation that helps promote human rights, democracy and the rule of law across the European continent. The United Kingdom was one of the founders of the organisation. Since its founding treaty was signed in this building in London in 1949, its membership has grown from 10 countries to 47, encompassing virtually the entire European continent. I think we in the United Kingdom can take pride in the fact that so many other European countries profess a belief in the importance of these fundamental principles, and also recognise the fact that membership of the Council of Europe and subscription to the European convention on human rights have proved a valuable framework within which the emerging democracies of central and eastern Europe have been able to measure their own political development over the past 20 years.

I want this afternoon to advance the case for the central priority of the United Kingdom’s chairmanship: reform of the European Court of Human Rights. I want to say straight away that we have had, and I am sure will have, lively domestic discussions on human rights, and Members will not always agree, but we share the historic respect for the achievement of the convention. The Government’s priority is to ensure that the European Court of Human Rights works more effectively and focuses on cases that actually need to be dealt with at

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the European level. That needs to happen not to weaken rights, but to strengthen them, and by so doing, to advance the rule of law, democracy and freedom.

The United Kingdom was one of the principal architects of the European convention on human rights, which is the Council of Europe’s best known instrument. The convention embodies many of the basic rights and freedoms that have been fundamental to English, and then British, law for centuries: fair trial, freedom from torture and freedom of speech. Those are rights that we have enjoyed for hundreds of years.

Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (The Cotswolds) (Con): While my right hon. Friend is talking about the European Court of Human Rights, will he acknowledge that the Court currently has a backlog of approximately 166,000 cases? Is it not high time the Court underwent a thorough review of its working practices and competences, and is not our chairmanship of the Council a good time to do that?

Mr Lidington: I completely agree with my hon. Friend. If the Court is to continue to be treated with respect, it is important for it to find a way of getting on top of that grotesque backlog of cases, which is in nobody’s interests. I will say more about that later.

John Hemming (Birmingham, Yardley) (LD): There have obviously been concerns about some of the ways in which the convention’s basic rights have been interpreted by the European Court of Human Rights. Will the Government consider during their chairmanship proposing that certain resolutions of the Parliamentary Assembly should assist the Court in interpreting the basic texts?

Mr Lidington: I am sure that my hon. Friend’s suggestions, and indeed proposals from the Parliamentary Assembly as a body, will be considered seriously in the course of the debates and conversations that we will have during the six months of our chairmanship and beyond.

Mr Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con): Has not the whole process become ludicrously abused? Has my right hon. Friend had a chance to read the diaries of Phil Woolas, the former Immigration Minister, which reveal that his job was made absolutely impossible? For instance, he had to release to Osama bin Laden’s son the file on him, even though he was not living here. The whole process has become abused. What plans has my right hon. Friend to repatriate powers on human rights to this country so that we can have a proper and sound immigration policy?

Mr Lidington: I have to tell my hon. Friend, who is a distinguished member of the United Kingdom delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly and plays an active part in its proceedings, that reading Mr. Woolas’s diaries is a delight that is still in store for me. I fear that he is trying to tempt me on to the question of how the human rights incorporated in the convention are implemented in the United Kingdom. As the House knows, the Government have established an independent commission on human rights, chaired by Leigh Lewis, which is deliberating on these matters and considering the different ideas that have been proposed. It will report by the end of 2012.

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Sir Alan Meale (Mansfield) (Lab): Will the Minister give way?

Mr Lidington: I will give way one last time, and then I must make progress.

Sir Alan Meale: Will the Minister confirm a bit of information? As he touched on earlier, there are about 800 million people, comprising 47 nations, in the greater European area. I hope that he will confirm for Members on both sides of the House that, on all the judgments that the Court has made so far, this country has never refused to endorse the Court’s findings.

Mr Lidington: Yes, the hon. Gentleman is right.

The convention played an important role after the second world war in re-establishing democracy and the rule of law across western Europe. It played a vital role after the cold war in leading the former states of the Soviet Union and its satellites to start adopting the principles of democratic liberalism. The convention remains crucial in tackling the murder of journalists in Russia, for example, or questions of religious freedom in Turkey. There are also telling recent examples of its relevance here at home—for example, in preventing the misuse of stop-and-search powers.

The problem is not with the fundamental principles of human rights expressed through the convention, but there are real issues that rightly cause concern in this House and more widely—issues that, as my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) pointed out, matter to all countries that are party to the convention and members of the Council of Europe. Those relate to the operation of the Court in Strasbourg. The United Kingdom is a strong supporter of the Court and recognises its important role, but it is not working as it should, for at least two reasons.

First, as my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds rightly said, it is struggling under a huge workload, and drowning under a backlog of more than 150,000 cases, which is growing by roughly 20,000 additional cases each year. The eightfold increase in case loads since 2001 shows that a sensible refocusing on what really matters is not a subject that can simply be deferred for another day; it is an urgent priority.

That urgency is illustrated further by the fact that more than 90% of cases before the Court, when they finally get to the top of the queue and are properly considered, or found to be inadmissible, simply do not come within the scope of the convention, or the procedural rules are found not to have been observed. For cases involving the United Kingdom that figure is higher. Roughly 97% of cases brought against the United Kingdom are found to be inadmissible—and that is before we get on to whether in the other cases—the minority—the finding is for or against the country alleged to have broken the terms of the convention. The backlog is the first reason why there is an urgent need to reform the court.

Mr Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con): My right hon. Friend announced yesterday that the Government will host a conference at Wilton Park on the theme of the 2020 vision for the European Court of Human

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Rights. Will he confirm that members of the UK delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly will be invited to participate in the conference?

Mr Lidington: I have taken careful note of my hon. Friend’s interest in participating and will ensure that the participation of members of the UK delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly is properly considered. I will make sure that I consider it myself.

Mr Mike Hancock (Portsmouth South) (LD): The real problem with the backlog is that reforms to the Court cannot restructure the backlog or effectively fillet out any of the cases that might prove to be inadmissible. One of the prime objectives of our chairmanship must be to find a unified view that would facilitate that filleting process, and thus allow the backlog to be handled properly.

Mr Lidington: I do not disagree with my hon. Friend.

The second reason also explains why the backlog has been allowed to develop. The Court has at times been too ready to substitute its own judgment for that of national courts and Parliaments. The European Court of Human Rights was never intended by its founders to be an additional tier of appeal for routine domestic judgments. No court could ever hope to offer redress on all matters to 800 million people. National courts are best placed to understand national problems and traditions of human rights. Enforcing rights in situations where the drafters of the convention never intended them to be is the wrong direction of travel for the Court, and that situation is getting worse and is undermining the Court’s authority and efficiency.

Sandra Osborne (Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock) (Lab): Can the Minister give a few examples in a UK context, of where the Court has been guilty of depriving us of national sovereignty?

Mr Lidington: I ask the hon. Lady simply to look at the sheer volume of cases before the Court. We argue that there needs to be a system under which the principle of subsidiarity, which the Court is already supposed to observe, is given greater weight. That will require not just a United Kingdom view from the chair, but consensus among member states. We are talking to colleagues throughout the Council of Europe about the right way forward, because what we are seeking to do certainly does not come from any hostility to the Court as an institution. In fact, concerns about the backlog, the case load and the damage being done to its reputation are widely shared not only among state parties, but by the secretary-general and the authorities in the Council itself.

Michael Connarty (Linlithgow and East Falkirk) (Lab): Will the Minister give way on that point?

Mr Lidington: I will give way once more, then I really am going to make some progress.

Michael Connarty: I thank the Minister. I am trying to be helpful, because I totally agree with and follow his logic on the backlog, but when he states that the Court was never meant to be a court of appeal against a national court’s ruling, surely that logic is wrong, because

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there cannot be an allowance, for example, for the Ukrainian court that put the country’s former President in jail for carrying out policies that its Parliament had decided. There must be somewhere for people to appeal on human rights grounds, and that is the Court. I presume the Minister meant that the Court could not provide redress in all cases—but in specific cases of such high contestability there must be a court that is above national, political courts.

Mr Lidington: I do not differ from the hon. Gentleman in principle, but we need effective criteria that everyone—from the judges of the Court to the states parties—will accept as enabling the Court to differentiate properly between cases that should be considered at that European level and those that ought to have been dealt with according to the legal systems of states parties that have demonstrated good traditions of respecting human rights.

All this means that there is a clear and pressing case for reform, and all 47 members of the Council of Europe have already signed up to a reform process. The goal of our chairmanship is to drive forward the changes that began in Council meetings at Interlaken and Izmir, and to agree a final package that makes a real impact on the operation of the Court.

I announced, in a written statement to Parliament yesterday, our full set of chairmanship priorities, following my discussion on Tuesday with our friend and ally the Council of Europe secretary-general Thorbjørn Jagland. My statement set out more detail on the reform for which we are pressing. It included proposals that would make the Court more efficient to enable it to deal with its backlog of applications, would reinforce the idea that the Court’s role was a subsidiary one, with states having the primary responsibility to protect convention rights, and would ensure that the best possible processes were in place for nominating judges to the Court, and that the Court’s case law was clear and consistent.

How we will do that? Reform requires the agreement of all 47 member states, and there is no getting round that fact, so we will accord the highest political priority to securing consensus on the necessary reforms by means of a political declaration at the end of our chairmanship. That declaration would record political agreement to a package of reforms and set the scene for later implementation under subsequent chairmanships. The declaration, we hope, will include, where necessary, amendments to the procedural sections of the convention, and provide the basis for a decision of the Committee of Ministers, to be adopted at its annual meeting on 14 May 2012.

No one should be in any doubt that delivering those goals will take time and a lot of intensive and complicated negotiations, but I do believe that the winds of change are in our favour, and if we achieve the reform that we seek, we stand to gain a stronger Council of Europe and a more effective Court, focused better on real substantive breaches of human rights.

Jim Sheridan (Paisley and Renfrewshire North) (Lab): On declarations, there is no more fundamental right than that of a person to live freely and independently in their own country without fear of intimidation. The Minister will be aware that Cyprus follows the UK as

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chair of the Council, so will he assure Cypriots listening to this debate that we will do all we can and work tirelessly to ensure that the Cyprus problem, as it is now called, is satisfactorily concluded?

Mr Lidington: With respect, I may correct the hon. Gentleman, because the chairmanship proceeds in alphabetical sequence, so the Albanians will take over from us. I can certainly assure him, however, that the Foreign Secretary and I remain completely committed to doing all that lies within our power to work for an outcome in Cyprus that brings about the creation of a bi-zonal and bi-communal federation, with equal rights for all communities, and in compliance with the relevant United Nations Security Council resolutions. It is not for the United Kingdom to determine what happens in Cyprus, because the process has to be Cypriot led if it is to work and if there is to be an enduring accord, but we give what support we can to the communities in Cyprus and to the work of the UN Secretary-General and his special envoy, Alexander Downer.

Sir Alan Meale rose—

Mr Lidington: If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I will not give way, because he has had one bite of the cherry and I want to make progress. I do not want to be sidetracked into a further debate about Cyprus, which I am sure the House will have an opportunity to discuss in the future.

We have a unique opportunity to secure improvements to the Court, to enhance its credibility, the rule of law and the protection of human rights and to ensure that the legitimate decisions and traditions of national courts and legal systems are properly respected.

Hon. Members will be only too aware of the domestic backdrop to the programme, about which there is great interest abroad. The House will know, too, that the Government have established an independent commission with a remit to investigate the creation of a UK Bill of Rights, which would incorporate and build on all our obligations under the convention. I hope that the commission’s work will assist in bringing clarity to an area of contentious debate, and indeed it has already advised the Government very usefully on Court reform, but to avoid any doubt let me reaffirm that in the Government’s mind there is no question of the UK leaving the European convention on human rights. The coalition’s programme for government makes very clear our commitment to the convention and to the values it embodies.

The Attorney-General, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve), commented on this subject very eloquently on Monday just gone, saying:

“The United Kingdom signed the Convention on the first day it was open for signature...The United Kingdom was the first country to ratify the Convention the following year. The United Kingdom will not be the first country to leave the Convention.”

I have spoken at length about Court reform, but our goals for our chairmanship touch on other significant matters, and I would like to close by turning briefly to them.

Mr Dominic Raab (Esher and Walton) (Con): I thank the Minister for setting out the policy so clearly, and I have had an opportunity to look at the priorities and

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objectives of the chairmanship. He mentions the Bill of Rights commission’s interim advice, and it contains some good recommendations on Court reform, particularly those based on the model of the International Criminal Court, whereby Strasbourg ought to look at only the most serious violations or fundamental freedoms. Is that the mandate which the Government will look to achieve with their European partners?

Mr Lidington: We take all the independent commission’s advice very seriously, and we look forward to the fruits of its later discussions, but, certainly, strengthening the principle of subsidiarity in the Court’s work is central to the programme of action that we envisage during our chairmanship.

In addition to the issues that I have already covered, we will continue actively to support Secretary-General Jagland’s programme of reform of the Council of Europe as an organisation. He has made good progress, including a reduced and more focused set of programmes, and I spoke to him this week about priorities for the final stages of the reform programme.

In particular, I am pleased to say that the UK has succeeded in persuading the 46 other member states to keep the Council of Europe budget under strict control, with zero real growth for the next two years, subject to strict conditions on wider efficiency reforms and any inflation increase remaining below 2%. We will work with our partners in the Council of Europe to promote an open internet, not only on access and content, but on freedom of expression. That is also a key policy priority, and one of the issues to be addressed at the London conference on cyber-space, which my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary will host on 1 November. Our chairmanship is an ideal opportunity to advance our objectives through international co-operation, and to this end we will seek to ensure that the Council of Europe’s internet governance strategy is adopted.

Mr Roger Gale (North Thanet) (Con): If I am fortunate enough to catch your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker, I will return to the internet problem later, because it is serious.

I referred to the Council of Europe’s budget in the Hemicycle, and suggested that it might be cut, but that word is not in the lexicon. Europe does not understand the possibility of cutting a budget. It only ever talks about an increase. Why are we considering an increase?

Mr Lidington: Ambitions must sometimes be tempered by the need to obtain the necessary consensus. In the context of getting 46 other countries to agree, the freeze that I talked about is a pretty good outcome. Further encouragement is that the combination of the freeze in the Council of Europe’s budget and the recalculation of the relative contributions of member states to that budget means that the United Kingdom will pay a smaller proportion in 2012 than we did in 2011. That is a good outcome of our negotiations.

Mr Robert Walter (North Dorset) (Con): Discussions on the budget take place in Strasbourg, and 27 of the 47 member states are members of the European Union. Those 27 member states are sitting idly by while the Fundamental Rights Agency, which was established in

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Vienna and has some spurious objectives, increases its budget for allegedly doing a human rights job on behalf of the 27 states.

Mr Lidington: My hon. Friend, who is the leader of the United Kingdom delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, makes his point cogently. He tempts me on to a much bigger debate about European Union expenditure, but I will confine myself to the matter before us.

The Government take the need for budgetary control over European Union agencies very seriously indeed. The growth of such expenditure and the proliferation of agencies within the European Union have been overlooked for too long. We have been making strong representations to the Commission about that, and have sought to build alliances with other EU member states to secure the sort of reform and budgetary discipline that my hon. Friend rightly wants.

Simon Hughes (Bermondsey and Old Southwark) (LD) rose—

Mr Lidington: I must make some progress, because other hon. Members want to contribute to the debate.

During our chairmanship, we will work to combat discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity across Europe. The Government are committed to using their relationship with other countries to advocate strongly for changes to discriminatory practices and laws that criminalise homosexuality in other countries.

We will work towards a more effective and efficient role for the Council of Europe in supporting local and regional democracy. The Council has a significant programme of activities in this area, including monitoring and sharing expertise. The UK supports that, but wants it to be streamlined and more carefully targeted.

Finally, we will support strengthening the rule of law in member states. We will work towards practical recommendations in this area, in co-operation with our partners in the Committee of Ministers, the secretariat and the Council of Europe’s advisory body on constitutional matters, the European Commission for Democracy through Law, which is usually referred to as the Venice Commission.

The Council of Europe is an important institution, whose values we share, and in whose proud record of achievement there is much to applaud. I hope that all hon. Members will support the UK’s efforts during our chairmanship to deliver improvements in the areas I have set out. Efforts to spread democracy, human rights and the rule of law are profoundly in our national interest and that of nations throughout Europe. If achieved, our objectives will not only benefit our citizens, but will have the potential to make a real difference for the good in the lives of people across our continent and beyond.

1.55 pm

Emma Reynolds (Wolverhampton North East) (Lab): This is an important and timely debate, and it is absolutely right that we have an opportunity to discuss in the House the UK’s forthcoming chairmanship of the Council of Europe. However, it is a shame that the most pro-European member of the Cabinet is not here to open the debate as was planned until late this morning.

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There are now 47 members of the Council, and the period of chairmanship is six months, so this opportunity does not come around often. According to my rudimentary mathematics, the next time the UK will be in the chair will around 2035. The last time the UK was in the chair was in the early 1990s when the Conservative party was falling out about another European institution—the European Union. I sense a bit of déjà vu, and I trust that this afternoon’s debate will be less heated and divided than the debate earlier this week.

Our membership of the Council of Europe has been supported by successive Governments of different political colours and persuasions for the last six decades. It is worth reflecting on the history of the institution, which was shaped by the aftermath of the second world war and the defeat of fascism, and later by the collapse of communism. When Winston Churchill made his speech at the 1949 gathering in Strasbourg, he talked of an

“ancient city still scarred by the wounds of war”.

The horror of that global conflict, and the destruction and loss of life throughout Europe, led to the growing realisation that avoiding future wars had to be a priority.

That realisation brought together some of the leading statesmen of post-war Europe, with much of the earliest thinking coming from Winston Churchill. Other Conservative politicians played a role, particularly former Home Secretary David Maxwell Fyfe, who was instrumental in drawing up the European convention on human rights, which Clement Attlee’s Labour Government ratified in 1950. A cross-party consensus held then and over the following decades, and I hope that it will do so today.

Mr Leigh: We all accept that, but the fact is that the process has gone way beyond what was envisaged by people such as Winston Churchill.

The hon. Lady presumably wants to protect vulnerable women. Going back again to the diaries of theformer immigration Minister, he wrote that his proposal to increase the marriage age from 18 to 21 for a family visa would be overturned by judicial review because of the judges constantly referring to the convention on human rights. It is anti-human rights now, and we must reform it fundamentally.

Emma Reynolds: I agree that the Court needs to be reformed, and I will come to that, but I do not agree with everything that the hon. Gentleman said. Like the Minister for Europe, I have not had a chance to read my former colleague’s memoirs.

The Council today is very different from when it was first established, and Europe has changed beyond recognition. The rush of countries to join the Council of Europe in the years following the fall of communism extended its membership and reach significantly. Today, the Council of Europe has 47 member countries, covering 800 million people, and a vast land mass stretching from Reykjavik to Vladivostok—that is a tongue twister. It has led the way in protecting and promoting the rule of law, human rights and democracy in Europe. Many hon. Members, past and present, have taken part in the Council of Europe’s election monitoring to ensure that democracy is upheld in every member state, and I

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commend them for that. I want to join the Europe Minister in commending the work of the UK delegation to the Council of Europe.

Oliver Heald (North East Hertfordshire) (Con): The hon. Lady mentioned some distinguished contributions to the Council of Europe by Conservatives in past years. Does she agree that the leader of our delegation, my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset (Mr Walter), has played a very distinguished part in the current process to change the rules of the Parliamentary Assembly to make the way in which it operates more streamlined and effective?

Emma Reynolds: I join the hon. Gentleman in that view. I recognise that Members across this House have played very important roles in the Council of Europe at different times.

Despite the fact that a Conservative Government were the driving force behind the European convention on human rights, a Labour Government put those rights into UK law in 1999, and we are proud of that. The Human Rights Act 1998 gives British citizens the right to bring cases before British courts rather than having to petition European judges directly. Although we remain committed to the European convention and the European Court, we also recognise that the Court needs reform. The Government have said today that its reform should be a priority for our forthcoming chairmanship, and I support that.

As has been mentioned, the Government set up an independent commission that has presented interim recommendations concerning that reform. The commission highlighted three areas that need to be addressed: the need substantially to reduce the number of cases brought before the Court; the need to consider the remedies that the Court may grant; and the need to improve the process of selecting high-quality judges.

Sir Alan Meale: At the moment, the judges are elected in the Assembly by all Members of the Assembly, but the Interlaken process proposes to diminish that democratic selection mechanism. The current process involves not just the election of the judges but the interviewing of the candidates, in which two criteria must be fulfilled: first, they have to be fully qualified to stand for election; and secondly, there must be at least one woman among the three candidates. I hope that my hon. Friend is not suggesting that we should move away from those principles.

Emma Reynolds: I am a great supporter of gender equality, but the selection process needs to be improved.

Mr Mike Hancock: For those of us who have had the privilege of being in the Council of Europe for any length of time, it is clear that it is not the process of selection by the Council of Europe that affects the calibre of judges but the pathetic selection process that goes on in member states after people have put their names forward. On most occasions, that leaves the Council of Europe having to pick the least worst of a bad bunch.

Emma Reynolds: I am sure that the Europe Minister has noted the hon. Gentleman’s concerns.

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Any reform of the Court must begin by addressing the crippling backlog of cases before it; I understand that there are 150,000 cases and that number is increasing at a rate of 20,000 a year. I hope that at the end of the six months in which our Government have the chairmanship, the Opposition will be in a position to give them credit for pushing forward with these reforms. Indeed, the test of success for the Government is not only what they do in the six months when they are in charge, but whether they are able to inspire successive chairmanships of the Court and the Council to take on and continue their reforms.

Until now, I have been fairly consensual, but I am about to embark on a section of my speech that is perhaps not so consensual.

Mr Graham Stuart (Beverley and Holderness) (Con): Who wrote it?

Emma Reynolds: I wrote it, thank you very much. That is very patronising of the hon. Gentleman. I might be a young blonde woman, but I am able to write my own speeches.

There is another area where the Government need to take action. It is incumbent on this Government to tackle the misconceptions about the European convention on human rights. I am sure that the Minister is only too aware of how some members of his own Government have peddled myths about human rights legislation to further certain political arguments, and of how there is a confusion—sometimes, it seems, a conflation—of the rulings and activities of the European Court of Human Rights, the Council of Europe, the European Union and the European Court of Justice. In some cases, there seems to be a deliberate lumping together of any institution with the word “Europe” in its title, with the assumption that Europe has a malign influence on this country.

Will the Minister reassure us that the Government will take a lead on challenging such misconceptions, not only in his party but in the country, and champion the positive role that our membership of the Council of Europe has played in furthering human rights and democracy in the UK and in other countries across the continent? After all, taking on the mantle of chairmanship brings with it certain responsibilities, one of which, surely, is demonstrating accuracy in debates on human rights. Let us hope to hear no more misleading myths about cats or other bogus stories.

Labour Members remain firmly committed to the Council of Europe and the European convention on human rights, but we recognise that this does not necessarily mean sticking to the status quo, and reforming the Court. We want the Government to use their six-month chairmanship to push forward with reforms to ensure that the Council continues to meet the aims and objectives in a way that is beneficial for all member countries, including the UK. Upholding a universal notion of human rights is a sign of a civilised nation and something that we should be proud of, not something that should be rubbished, heckled or blamed at every opportunity.

As I underlined in my introduction, successive Governments of different political persuasions have supported our membership of the Council of Europe and obligations that come with it. There is a long history and tradition in our country of which we should be proud.

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Mr Raab: I agree that we should not automatically, in a knee-jerk way, blame Strasbourg for everything. However, has the hon. Lady seen the comments by the Lord Chief Justice, which read:

“I would like to say that maybe Strasbourg shouldn’t win and doesn’t need to win”?

Does she accept, as the Lord Chief Justice does, that there is a legitimate debate about the expansion of human rights through judicial legislation?

Emma Reynolds: I do accept that, and I think it is a debate that we will have today.

Although modernisation and reform of the Council of Europe are needed, the values that underpinned its formation and membership are just as valid today as they were in 1950, and we should all be proud of those values.

2.7 pm

Mr Robert Walter (North Dorset) (Con): As the Minister for Europe said in his opening remarks, this is an interesting week in the House of Commons when we have two debates on Europe. If I may say so, it is good that we are debating Europe, and not necessarily the European Union, today, although I will touch on the relationship between the Council of Europe and the European Union.

As we have already heard, the Council of Europe dates back to 1949 and is very much dedicated to democracy, human rights and the rule of law. We can be proud to have been one of its founding fathers. It now runs to 47 member states across the continent of Europe. The only states that are not members are Belarus, Kosovo and Vatican City—which I understand is not yet a democracy.

Mr Leigh: Nor should it ever be. [ Laughter. ]

Mr Walter: As the hon. Member for Wolverhampton North East (Emma Reynolds) pointed out, the fact that there are 47 member states means that it will be 23 years before we get the chairmanship of the Committee of Ministers again. It is therefore very important that we make good use of our six months in the chairmanship that starts in a week or so.

This House, as has been pointed out, is represented in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. Eighteen Members from both Houses of Parliament serve as full members of the Parliamentary Assembly and a further 18 stand ready as substitutes.

Jim Sheridan: Notwithstanding the hon. Gentleman’s enthusiasm for Europe, does he accept that his party’s delegation is not made up of the most enthusiastic people on European matters? Hopefully, after the British chairmanship, we will have a more enlightened delegation of Government Members to the Council of Europe.

Mr Walter: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, but I think he will find that more members of the delegation are present on my side of the House than on his, where there are only four. The delegates from my party play an active role in the proceedings of the Parliamentary Assembly, not least my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope), who chairs the committee on migration, refugees and population.

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One of the powers of the Parliamentary Assembly is to elect judges to the European Court of Human Rights. I have often heard statements in the British press, and occasionally from colleagues, that we should not be subject to the judgments of unelected and unaccountable judges. Well, we do not have any elected judges in this country, but we do have an elected British judge who serves on the European Court of Human Rights.

Perhaps I may correct one other myth. Often we are told that Europe has acquired a flag and an anthem. Those are not the flag and the anthem of the European Union. They were adopted as far back as 1955 by the Council of Europe. Just like Liverpool football club, which also has a flag and an anthem, the Council of Europe has not yet become a nation state.

I want to deal with the United Kingdom agenda and one important aspect of it in particular. During our chairmanship of the Committee of Ministers, an important ongoing issue that may make some progress is the accession of the European Union to the European convention on human rights. The question of European Union accession engenders mixed responses. Among the non-EU members of the Council of Europe, it is considered to be a good thing. They wonder why the institutions of the European Union should not be covered by the European convention on human rights and why the European Court of Human Rights should not have jurisdiction over its institutions. In that spirit, I believe that we should take this matter forward. My concern is about the manner of the participation of the European Union.

Mr James Clappison (Hertsmere) (Con): I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the conscientious and diligent way in which he has led the British delegation to the Council of Europe. I agree with the remarks with which he has prefaced his comments on the accession of the European Union. Does he agree, none the less, that we would all be the losers, in particular the non-EU member states in the Council of Europe, if the accession of the EU resulted in it appearing that there were two classes of members in the Council of Europe: EU member states and non-EU member states?

Mr Walter: I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. I will come on to say why I believe that there could be dangerous developments on this issue, particularly in relation to the Committee of Ministers, of which the United Kingdom is about to take the chair, and its voting procedures when European Union matters are under consideration. At the Dispatch Box earlier today, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer said, in relation to the eurozone countries, that it was against his basic view that there should be any form of caucusing within the Council of Ministers. I think that that is absolutely right.

I remind my right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe that when he issued his statement yesterday on the UK agenda for the Council of Europe, he also issued a written ministerial statement on voting by European Union member states in multilateral organisations. The EU, of course, is not a member of the Council of Europe at the moment, but it aspires to be one. I therefore raise a concern that has been raised not only

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by EU member states, but more particularly by non-EU member states. If there was a judgment in the European Court of Human Rights against an EU member state, would the EU member states in the Committee of Ministers, when it came to enforcing that judgment, vote as a bloc or would they do what they do today, which is to decide individually how the judgment is to be implemented?

Sandra Osborne: I, too, pay tribute to the fantastic job that the hon. Gentleman does as the leader of the delegation. Does he agree that unless the EU is subject to the same rules as the countries, some non-EU member states may use that as an excuse not to carry out their obligations?

Mr Walter: I think that the hon. Lady is right. She is making the point for me that we must be seen to be fair and even-handed in the way we enforce judgments. That might become even more of a problem.

This issue is already taken account of in the draft of the accession of the EU. I am afraid that the Lisbon treaty is quoted in aid on this matter. If there was a judgment against an institution of the European Union, such as the Commission, the European Court of Justice or the European Central Bank, the 27 EU member states—or 28 as there will be by the time this is implemented, with the accession of Croatia—would be obliged under the Lisbon treaty to vote as a bloc. That brings into question the whole history of fairness and even-handedness in the Committee of Ministers.

The reason given for that is that if there was a judgment against the EU, it would be up to the 27 EU member states to implement that judgment. They therefore have to act as one and as a party. That is fine, but it sounds rather like they will be judge, jury and executioner. We have to question seriously how we will take that matter forward. I would be interested to hear the Minister’s response to that in his summing up.

The next point may sound rather technical, but it goes back to my right hon. Friend the Chancellor’s comment earlier that we are developing a situation in which there will be European Union mechanisms and institutions such as the European financial stability facility and the European Central Bank that involves not all 27 member states but only the 17 eurozone members, If there was a judgment against one of those entities in the European Court of Human Rights, would we vote as 27 member states or would the 17 vote together? Would the 10 non-eurozone members be let off the obligation in the Lisbon treaty to vote as one? I would again be interested to hear the Minister’s response on that.

Mr Gale: It gets a bit worse than that. There is a thing called the transfrontier broadcasting directive, which is a European Union instrument. There is also a thing called the transfrontier broadcasting convention, which is a Council of Europe convention that preceded the directive. The convention needs updating and the Council of Europe was in the process of doing so intelligently and in line with technical developments. The European Commissioner responsible for broadcasting has told the Council of Europe and its 47 members, many of which are not members of the European Union, as my hon. Friend has pointed out, that we cannot discuss the

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matter. What right does the European Union have to say to the Council of Europe—the greater body—that it can or cannot discuss something?

Mr Walter: My hon. Friend makes a very significant point about the sovereignty of member states, whether they be members of the European Union or of the Council of Europe. I believe that the sovereignty of the 47 member states of the Council of Europe should be absolute in the case of a Council of Europe convention.

Sir Alan Meale: Like the hon. Gentleman’s colleagues, I pay tribute to him for his work at the Council of Europe over many years. Members of all parties will agree that he does a fine job. I apologise, but I will have to leave the debate shortly to chair the sitting in Westminster Hall.

On the hon. Gentleman’s point about the sovereignty of nations, what about Turkey? It has refused to accept the outcome of the Louzides case on the confiscation of property—it has paid up, but it has never accepted it. What about its current threat that if Cyprus is given the presidency of the Council of Ministers, it will leave the Council of Europe and not pursue any path towards entry into the European Union?

Mr Walter: I think the hon. Gentleman knows that I am an avowed supporter of Turkish membership of the European Union, but that does not mean that I will in any way make excuses for the Turkish Government’s non-compliance with their international obligations. I also regret the Turkish Prime Minister’s statement that Turkey would not participate in any discussions with the EU should Cyprus take on the presidency of the Council of Ministers. That is a wrong decision, as I have said to many Turkish colleagues.

To return to the question of EU accession, I wish to refer for a moment to the role of the European Parliament. It has been conceded that when it comes to the question of the election of judges, the European Parliament will have the same rights as the largest member states. We are one of those five largest member states. However, the draft arrangements go on to give the European Parliament special treatment, which I think is unjustified. It will have an ex officio place on the sub-committee that interviews the candidates for the post of judge in the European Court of Human Rights. As the leader of one of the other large delegations, I ask why I cannot appoint an ex officio member to that sub-committee on the basis that I should have the same voting rights as the European Parliament.

Under its internal mechanisms, the European Parliament will have the power to veto the three candidates who are on the shortlist. No other Parliament has that power. It will also have the power to be on the sub-committee that interviews the candidates. I contend that that will create an uneven playing field, and I hope we will resist it when we come to debate EU accession.

Oliver Heald: Does my hon. Friend agree that one thing that is quite hard to understand for people who are not on the Council, or regularly attending it, is that some of the largest member countries are not in the EU? They are proud countries, and sadly often ones that are on the receiving end of judgments of the Court. If the arrangements that are made do not seem to be

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fair and equal right across the Council of Europe area, it affects how they look at the Council and its judgments. It also affects whether those judgments are enforceable and will stick.

Mr Walter: I thank my hon. Friend for that point, because it sums up the fact that what I have described will bring into question the legitimacy of the decisions of the Committee of Ministers when it comes to enforcing judgments that have been handed down by the Court.

I want to move on to one aspect of the United Kingdom’s agenda for our chairmanship, with which the Minister also dealt at length. It is the reform of the European Court of Human Rights, which not only we in this country but many member states across Europe welcome.

There seems to be some dispute about what the backlog of cases in the Court is at the moment. The last figure that I heard, which was at the beginning of this month from the secretary-general of the Council of Europe, was 162,000 cases, and growing at the rate of 2,000 a month. I therefore welcome the approach that we are taking as the new chair of the Committee of Ministers.

Mr Brian Binley (Northampton South) (Con): Is my hon. Friend concerned that most of us sitting in the Chamber today might not be here when the end of that list is reached? Does that bother him?

Mr Walter: I thank my hon. Friend for making that point, which brings me neatly to the next one that I wanted to make.

I welcome the work of the commission on a Bill of Rights under the chairmanship of Sir Leigh Lewis. It was set up to advise on a British Bill of Rights, but at the request of the Prime Minister the first document that it published was advice to the Government on the reform of the European Court of Human Rights. It has expressed a view on that question, and I shall come to that in a moment. I also welcome the interest taken by the Joint Committee on Human Rights, which I know has been to Strasbourg and met the Court and is considering that very important issue.

I wish to deal with four issues related to the reform of the Court. The first, to which a number of Members have alluded, is the quality of the judges. Under the existing procedure, each member state puts forward three nominees when there is a vacancy for a judge of that nationality. Under the new procedures, those candidates are to be interviewed by the Committee of Ministers and by a sub-committee of the Parliamentary Assembly set up specifically for the purpose of making recommendations on which of the three judges is probably the best candidate. It then comes down to the Parliamentary Assembly to vote on those judges.

There has been phenomenal criticism in the Parliamentary Assembly that the judges nominated are not up to the quality that one expects in such an important court, which deals with human rights across the continent. Some of the judges are academics, and some are only what I would call administrative lawyers, but I believe that judges should have experience of sitting as court judges, preferably in the supreme court of their member state. They should not be people who

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have applied because they have been teaching a nice academic course specialising in human rights at a university for the past few years and thought, “Why not go to Strasbourg for a few years?” That is not the right way to select candidates.

The Parliamentary Assembly is considering another matter of some concern. If one of those judges drops out and is unable to perform his or her duties, the member state in question can nominate ad hoc judges to sit in their place in the Court. In the past four years, 77 ad hoc judges appointed to sit in for judges who were unable to be in Strasbourg were involved in 516 judgments. I am not sure, and there is some doubt, whether those ad hoc judges are of the same quality, because they do not go through the same selection procedure. They are not nominated, they are not interviewed either by the committee of Ministers or by the sub-committee of the Parliamentary Assembly, and they are certainly not voted for by the Parliamentary Assembly. I am not sure that the spirit of the convention is being implemented if we allow those 77 ad hoc judges to sit in judgment.

The second and most important point raised by my right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe was on subsidiarity and the filtering of cases, causing the backlog. Is the ECHR the final court of appeal for the 800 million people who live on the continent of Europe? I contend that it is not. I believe that it exists to act in partnership with our national supreme courts and that it should not be used as the final court of appeal. A number of members of the delegation met the secretary-general of the Council of Europe on Tuesday to discuss that. He said that—this is even worse—the majority of the cases before the Court involve people using it not as their final court of appeal, but their court of first instance. In the majority of cases, people are disgruntled by something that has happened in their locality—a remote part of Russia or wherever—and they do not use the Russian legal system first and foremost, but go straight to Strasbourg. We must stop that from happening.

People who appeal to the Supreme Court in this country, or even to the Court of Appeal on their way up to the Supreme Court, must seek leave to do so. We must create a situation like that. Requiring people to seek leave to appeal would mean that a judge in this country or another member state would determine whether such a case is admissible, or whether it should be heard by a national supreme court and whether that should be the end of the road.

Mr Leigh: The European Court often gets blamed unfairly for judicial activism, but the real judicial activism is happening in our own courts, because the convention is incorporated in our law. That was the big mistake, and I am constantly referring to it, which is why I intervened earlier. In a sense, the focus of the debate is wrong. We cannot focus only on the Court in Strasbourg; we must also focus on our own courts.

Mr Walter: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That is why the Government were right to set up the commission on a Bill of Rights, which will consider whether the Human Rights Act 1998 should be replaced by a British Bill of Rights that better reflects the sentiments he expresses.

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Oliver Heald: By way of a rider to my hon. Friend’s point on seeking leave to appeal on a point of law, which I basically agree with, occasionally, a court in a country refuses leave in circumstances that do not hold water legally. Should there not at that point be a possibility of applying for leave to appeal directly to the Court in Strasbourg?

Mr Walter: My hon. Friend is right to raise that point. We must strike the right balance—strike out spurious claims but not genuine ones. In some cases, those making genuine claims could be refused leave to appeal for, if I may say, political reasons, when their case should go to the Strasbourg Court. In this country, I have every confidence that the Supreme Court or any other lower court would act in the interests of the law and equity, but I might question the courts in a number of other member states—I will not name them in the Chamber.

My third point concerns the competence of the Court and its relationship with national Parliaments and sovereign member states. That the House debated and voted overwhelmingly against prisoner voting rights showed that we in this country feel that somebody committed to jail for an indictable offence should have their voting rights taken away while in prison. That is at variance with the judgment of the Court. I am not a lawyer, but in my view it is absolutely right that a court can sentence somebody to prison and so deny their liberty in several areas. In sentencing them to prison, we are not infringing most of their convention rights—for example, we are not infringing their right to life or imposing on them inhuman and degrading treatment. Instead, we are deciding to deny them certain liberties—for example, by not allowing them to go home to their family every night, we are denying them the right to a family life.

Mr Binley: Do the people sent to prison not have the choice about whether they go to prison, and should that not be a major consideration? Furthermore, is this not a constitutional right, rather than a human right? I know that that takes us on to aspects of law, but these are the things that make people very angry.

Mr Walter: Of course, my hon. Friend is absolutely right. This is the point that we are making. We could have a wider debate about why people commit crimes and why they go to prison, but my specific point is about the denial of liberty and what convention rights that denial of liberty impinges on. It is accepted that some rights in the convention can legitimately be denied. I am interested that Mr Hirst, when he went to Strasbourg, did not say that he was being denied the right to a family life by being in prison and ask why he could not have his wife and children there. He picked on one emotive issue—his voting and democratic rights—but I think that it is absolutely right that this Parliament decide the voting rights of prisoners, and if it decides that prisoners should not have a vote, so be it. That is part of our national sovereignty. It is a matter for national legislatures, not the Court.

My fourth point concerns the backlog. As I mentioned, the figure that I have is 162,000 cases, growing by 2,000 a month. I commend the commission on a Bill of Rights and its advice on this matter: it expressed concern that, whatever reforms we came up with for the Court,

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they would not deal with the cases currently in the system, and it recommended that we find a way to clear the backlog. One of the commission’s proposals, which is worth taking forward, is that across Europe are retired judges experienced in human rights law who might be brought out of retirement on, say, a one-year contract, subject to their being vetted, interviewed and so on, and that they be given responsibility solely for going through the list of 162,000 cases, deciding which are admissible and, if necessary, immediately sending them to the Court for judgment.

Bob Stewart (Beckenham) (Con): Did the commission not also recommend that the judges be able to dismiss cases, in order to reduce their number, saying, “We cannot deal with this anymore”? The figure of 162,000 is ginormous. We would never get through them.

Mr Walter: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Of course, we cannot get through them. We know that about 97% of those cases are inadmissible and could be got rid of straightaway, but we need somebody to sit down, go through the paperwork and say that they are inadmissible. If that were done, we might be able immediately to bring before the Court the few thousand cases that lie in the balance, or use this coterie of retired judges to sit in judgment if there are points of law involved that the Court has already been determined in previous cases and so no new judgments to be made.

It is not all as simple as that, though, because there are other constitutional issues. Many of the cases in Strasbourg get there because, as I understand it, there is no supreme court in the Russian Federation to adjudicate on them. They come straight to Strasbourg from the provincial courts, so we might have to persuade the Russian Federation to have a look at its court procedures—after it has got through its elections, of course.

I welcome the United Kingdom chairmanship. I know from colleagues in the Chamber that we are willing and ready to help the Minister and the Government to take forward our agenda, particularly on reform of the Court. The Interlaken process set in train some years ago was followed by a high-level conference under the Turkish presidency in Izmir, in which my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor participated on behalf of this country. I hope that we come up with concrete proposals in our six months to ensure that reform of the Court is not only an agenda item, but a reality.

I wish my right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe well. I commend him and his deputy in Strasbourg, our excellent ambassador, Mrs Eleanor Fuller, who has done tremendous work. Thorbjørn Jagland, the former Norwegian Prime Minister, is an excellent secretary-general—one of the best the Council of Europe has had for a number of years—and is also very much in tune with the United Kingdom agenda.

2.42 pm

Sandra Osborne (Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock) (Lab): I rise to follow the hon. Member for North Dorset (Mr Walter) with some trepidation. He has an encyclopaedic knowledge of such matters, whereas I am merely a new member of the delegation. However, I will attempt to do my best. I welcome this debate, which is an ideal opportunity to reflect on the history and ideals of the

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Council of Europe, as well as its relevance in the modern world. Today is obviously an opportunity to debate the Government’s priorities for the UK chairmanship, but we also need strongly to reaffirm our commitment to human rights, democracy and the rule of law at international level, as well as the level of the nation state.

As we have heard, the UK was a founder member in 1949 and, two years later, was the first country to ratify the European convention on human rights, which is at the heart of the Council of Europe agenda. In the post-war era there was a common desire to build up international co-operation so that communal solutions could be found to global problems. Never again would the world erupt into terrible bloody wars. There would also be basic individual rights and freedoms, and the development of democratic Governments. As with the United Nations, that was the context that gave birth to the Council of Europe. We need only consider the wars that have, unfortunately continued despite all the efforts to avoid them, the ongoing threat of terrorism and the continuing struggle for human rights and democracy—as witnessed most recently in the Arab spring—to realise that there remains a fundamental need for a body such as the Council of Europe to ensure that individual countries not only sign up to promoting human rights for all their citizens, but live up to their responsibilities in implementing them.

As I have said, I am a new member of the UK delegation to the Council of Europe, having previously served on the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe in the last Parliament. I want to take this opportunity to thank my colleagues on the delegation and our civil servants, both at Westminster and in Strasbourg, for the support that I have been given in finding my way around the practices and procedures of the Parliamentary Assembly. It is a very different place from this one, and it is taking me some time to adjust. I hope that I am making some progress in that regard. I have already paid tribute to the leader of the UK delegation, and I would also like to pay tribute to the leader of the Labour delegation, my noble Friend Lord Prescott, and to the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope), who chairs the Migration Committee, of which I have become a member. He has been very helpful, and has encouraged me to take part and to take on some early responsibilities. I welcome the opportunity to do that.

It is clear to me that the Committee of Ministers provides a necessary mechanism at governmental level to agree and implement policies, although, as other hon. Members have said, reform is much needed. I am therefore pleased that that is one of the Government’s priorities. I admit, however, that I initially wondered whether the Parliamentary Assembly was any more than just a talking shop. In these straitened times, is it worth using vital resources to fund such bodies? There are some who would question such expenditure, but my experience so far has shown me that they would be wrong. When I look at the work programme of the Parliamentary Assembly, I am amazed at the breadth and extent of the vital matters under discussion, and at the impressive reports that are produced, which I believe are akin to our own Select Committee reports.

The capacity exists to make challenging recommendations to the Council of Ministers and to hold the Council of Europe to account, which is an achievement, given the

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number of member states involved. We should therefore be careful that any savings that can and should be made do not undermine the whole principle of the Council of Europe or the Parliamentary Assembly, or render them incapable of doing their job.

For those who have the good fortune to live in a country such as the UK, it can be easy to take for granted the rights that we have. It has become increasingly obvious to me, through my previous membership of the OSCE delegation and now of the Council of Europe, that it is vital, at a profound yet simple level, to keep talking, even though that can be time consuming, expensive and, in the case of some of the eastern European countries, repetitive.

Keith Vaz (Leicester East) (Lab): I am following my hon. Friend’s speech carefully, and I welcome all the work that she does in the Council of Europe. Does she not think that there is a case for doing more in this country to publicise its work? We have the chairmanship coming up soon, yet very few members of the public will know about it. Is there not an obligation to ensure that the work is related to the people of this country in some way?

Sandra Osborne: I totally agree with my right hon. Friend, and I will come on to that subject later in my speech. If the truth be told, I confess that I was pretty ignorant myself before I became a member of the delegation. That is probably an indictment of me, but also of the level of discussion that we have on the subject in this Parliament. We should take the opportunity to hold more discussions such as the one we are having today.

All the evidence suggests that mankind—I use that word advisedly—learns very little from experience, and very slowly, concerning the exercise of power and the protection of the weak, but at least there is hope when dialogue leads to international treaties. So, if we believe that human rights are at the centre of our foreign policy— sometimes I wonder, although I welcome the Minister’s statement to that effect—we should be prepared to support the European convention on human rights without equivocation.

The hon. Member for North Dorset referred to the meeting earlier this week between the UK delegation and Mr Thorbjørn Jagland, the secretary-general of the Council of Europe. The secretary-general commented that the UK was well placed to use the chairmanship to take forward reform of the European Court of Human Rights, because we started it and we have the diplomatic capacity to gather support. In the six months available, I hope that that proves to be the case. I am aware that a great deal of groundwork has already taken place—although, as the Minister has said, securing consensus among 47 states is a tall order. It is right that that should be the UK’s main priority, however. Everyone agrees that reform is needed, not least because of the huge backlog in applications.

As has already been said, there is also a tension in some people’s minds between the judgments of the Court and national sovereignty. That was illustrated in the UK with the judgment on prisoner voting rights. I was disappointed by the level of debate in the UK on

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that issue, as it undermined the purpose of the convention, which is to promote human rights. Whatever people’s views on whether prisoners should have the right to vote, the debate was characterised by inaccurate, populist and, in some cases, xenophobic nonsense. If there is a genuine problem—and I think we all agree that there is—with the Court intervening inappropriately in national affairs, let us deal with it in a measured way that promotes subsidiarity where appropriate, instead of bursting out in moral panic.

It is not unknown for the UK to lecture other countries about human rights, and quite rightly so—in fact, I hope the Government will take the chance to raise human rights issues with President Santos of Colombia when he visits the UK later this month—but we should practise what we preach if we want to be seen as an example to other countries. I hope we do, and I hope we are.

Although the reform of the European Court of Human Rights is the main priority, I would like to comment briefly on some of the other priorities that the UK Government have set for our chairmanship. Combating discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation or gender identity across Europe is a very welcome objective, and I believe the work we have done in the UK stands us in good stead—particularly the measures in the Equality Act 2010 and the right to civil partnership, which were passed in the last Parliament. I am pleased to say that the Scottish Government—believe me, I do not often compliment them—are currently consulting on taking this a step further with the introduction of gay marriage. I am pleased that we can give a lead to other member states on this, and I am glad the Government have made it a priority—not gay marriage, but tackling discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation.

Michael Connarty: It has always struck me that in some other countries—this is certainly true where my son lives—people who are heterosexual can register not a civic partnership but the fact that they are de facto partners. That means that when one dies, the pension will transfer automatically to the other member of that de facto partnership. In this country, however, for a heterosexual couple who do not go through a formal legal marriage, either in a church or elsewhere, the pension dies with the partner. If we are talking about human rights, surely when people put themselves into a de facto partnership of that kind, they should have all the rights of those who go through a formal marriage.

Sandra Osborne: I do not disagree with my hon. Friend, but I would say that heterosexual people have the option to marry, which gay people have not had in the past. It is right that it should be afforded to them.

Michael Connarty: But they have a civic partnership?

Sandra Osborne: There is a civic partnership that was not previously available—

Michael Connarty: But heterosexuals cannot—

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dawn Primarolo): Order. We are not conducting a conversation; this is a debate.

Sandra Osborne: I apologise—

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Madam Deputy Speaker: No, it is not the hon. Lady’s fault. The hon. Gentleman should know better. If he wants to intervene, he knows how to do so properly.

Sandra Osborne: He is just very enthusiastic, Madam Deputy Speaker.

The internet, as we have found, knows no national barriers, and that has positive and negative consequences. Freedom of expression is vital in the context of human rights, and I am pleased that the UK Government are taking that on board by looking at people’s human rights in respect of their use of the internet. I hope that any European internet governance strategy will take into account the protection of vulnerable people, especially children.

On local and regional democracy, I am not particularly familiar with the Council of Europe’s programme, but as a former local councillor I have strong views about the role of local government in promoting democracy. I believe that we have many good examples here and a wealth of experience. However, local government has been somewhat undermined in recent years—by all parties—and should be held in higher regard in this country. The fact is that, by definition, local government is closest to the people—something that is extremely important throughout the length and breadth of Europe. That is relevant to what my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) said about the importance of publicising the Council of Europe and its work. Word could be spread among communities through local government, explaining what the COE is all about.

As I said earlier, I am a member of the Committee on Migration, Refugees and Population in the Parliamentary Assembly. I would have liked to see some migration issues on the list of priorities, especially economic, human rights and integration issues. I had understood that the protection of minorities was intended to be one of the United Kingdom’s priorities.

I would be grateful if the Minister responded to those two points. Can he also tell me whether he, or any other Ministers, will be present at the Parliamentary Assembly to report to it during the UK chairmanship? I shall be interested to see how the chairmanship works out, and I wish Government and civil servants the very best in their endeavours.

2.55 pm

Priti Patel (Witham) (Con): I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to the debate, primarily because I have been calling for a debate on this subject for a good few weeks. I suspect that the Minister may have become sick of hearing from me. I thank right hon. and hon. Members who supported me last week in my pitch to the Backbench Business Committee. They clearly recognised the importance of holding such a topical debate at the time of our chairmanship. I also pay tribute to the hon. Member for North Dorset (Mr Walter) for his leadership and his insightful comments. As a new Member of Parliament, I know that he has a great deal of experience of these matters, and I think that all new Members have a lot to learn from him.

I thank the Minister for his opening remarks, and for the written statement that he published yesterday. There is, of course, much to discuss when it comes to our chairmanship and its priorities, and this afternoon is the right time for that discussion.