27 Oct 2011 : Column 528
All Members who have spoken so far have touched on Britain’s strong historic links with the Council of Europe and the drafting of the original European convention on human rights. In view of those historic links, I think that Britain must now play a central role in reforming the COE to ensure that the sovereignty of nation states is respected and the British interest is put first. I say that partly in the context of this week’s debates on European affairs. On Monday we saw exactly what happens when power-hungry supranational institutions simply go too far: the public become somewhat disenfranchised, and the democratic deficit created becomes slightly harder to remedy. The public have a view on that. I think there is a genuine danger that if action is not taken during our chairmanship, the country could find itself sleepwalking down a path towards the stripping away of more of our powers and more important decisions will eventually be taken out of our hands.
No doubt there is unity throughout the House on the need to safeguard rights to a fair trial, respect for family life, protection from slavery, freedom of thought and other great values of which this country and British democracy have been staunch defenders over the years. However, the European system of human rights that is reinforced by the Council of Europe, the European Court of Human Rights and their related institutions lacks accountability and democratic legitimacy.
I believe that central to that problem is the way in which the European Court of Human Rights operates. Over the years, it has effectively become a final court of appeal for those who feel that there are human rights-related grounds that their national courts have wrongly dismissed. I think we all appreciate the importance of that. Recent statistics from the court reveal that in 83% of cases it finds that violation has taken place, contrary to decisions made nationally. The hon. Member for North Dorset mentioned the backlog of cases, and I think there is consensus on the fact that the numbers are alarming. I welcome my hon. Friend’s highly practical suggestion that people should be brought in to read through the paperwork and sort out the situation. While the figures for Britain are better than average, with the Court finding that a violation has taken place in 61% of cases, it is astonishing that in so many cases the Court and its judges rule against judgments made by very able, experienced and qualified judges in the British courts. Moreover, given that section 2 of the Human Rights Act 1998 explicitly binds our courts into the European human rights system so they already give effect to the convention in European case law, it is even more unreasonable for Europe to dismiss so many of the decisions made by our courts.
Politicians will always have their differences with the judiciary and the decisions made by judges, but many of the decisions made in Strasbourg are fundamentally contrary to British values and the British interest. That leads me to question the accountability and legitimacy of the Court.
This situation is made even more challenging to our democracy because no real mechanisms are in place for Parliament to reverse these European Court judgments. Such mechanisms are in place for decisions by domestic courts, however. Earlier this year when the English courts highlighted an anomaly in laws relating to police bail arrangements, Parliament was able to initiate and pass emergency legislation: the Police (Detention and
27 Oct 2011 : Column 529
Bail) Act 2011. Just as courts act independently to hold the legislature and the Executive to account, in this case Parliament and the Government were able to hold the judiciary to account. That does not seem to be possible for decisions made in the European Court, however. As has been mentioned, last February the House passed a motion sending a clear message to Europe that it did not believe it was right of the European Court of Human Rights to demand that we scrap our laws and give convicted prisoners the right to vote, yet Europe is still insisting that the judgments of the European Court takes precedence over the laws passed and motions agreed by this Parliament, and is still saying that we must grant prisoners the right to vote.
Michael Connarty: I have been listening to the hon. Lady expand on her point. I think she has got the matter wrong. When the European Court of Human Rights makes a judgment, it passes it back to the country of origin, which must then make proposals to try to fit in with that judgment. I understand that there is no intention on the part of the Government—supported by the Opposition, I hope—to give up their right in this matter entirely. They are being asked to define in which circumstances it is appropriate for someone to be not only incarcerated but deprived of their right to vote.
In February we debated the sovereignty and decision making of this House in relation to a particular judgment. By refusing to accept the sovereignty of our Parliament and the democratic decision making of this House, Europe is demonstrating a lack of legitimacy and democratic accountability, which I find astonishing given that the Council of Europe was established precisely to promote democracy. Therefore, in my view, attacking our Parliament and seeking to undermine our democracy is simply counter-productive.
The prisoner votes issue is just one well-known example of the problem—and it is still ongoing. There are other similar Strasbourg decisions, however, such as in the Sufi and Elmi case, where Britain was prevented on human rights grounds from deporting two individuals back to Somalia, despite their being responsible for a very serious spate of crimes, including threats to kill, robbery and dealing in class A drugs. We should bear in mind that such decisions can end up setting a legal precedent, so they can impact on subsequent deportation cases. In the Sufi and Elmi case, human rights were used as an excuse to allow people to remain in Britain.
David T. C. Davies (Monmouth) (Con): My hon. Friend is making a number of excellent points. Does she agree that the human rights of violent criminals and terrorists are too often being put ahead of the human rights of law-abiding British subjects? She is right to draw attention to that.
Priti Patel: I thank my hon. Friend for making that point so clearly and succinctly. Our chairmanship of the Council of Europe is coming up and this is a big opportunity for us to address, if nothing else, the perception issues and the fact that we need to remain vigilant on these matters to ensure that powers and decision making stay in this country.
27 Oct 2011 : Column 530
In pulling my remarks together, I wish to emphasise to the Minister and the Government that there are issues to be addressed. Britain is signed up to a range of international agreements on human rights-related matters, which are all welcome and important. However, decisions on human rights laws must be brought back home, because having British courts interpreting British laws is a better and more democratic position than having European judges and their officials ignoring our national interest. It is unhelpful and counter-productive for them to be foisting their particular laws on us.
It is time to draw a line in the sand on many of these matters, and to free up our courts, our public bodies and, in particular, Parliament from some of the excessive intrusion and integration on human rights matters that we have seen. I hope that, through the chairmanship of the Council of Europe, the Government will take this opportunity to address these matters, in addition to the areas of priority that the Minister outlined.
Sir Alan Meale (Mansfield) (Lab): I said that I was not going to be able to speak in the debate, but I managed to get somebody else to chair a meeting in this building in time to come back to the Chamber.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Witham (Priti Patel) on her persistence and endeavour in securing this debate, although I suspect our agreement on and understanding of each other’s politics ceases there. She has not grasped at all what the Council of Europe is about, which is human rights, the rule of law and democracy. They are all intertwined; they are not simple little solutions set aside from each other and never the twain shall meet. They are interlinked so that we can get policies that cross national boundaries.
The hon. Lady cites one or two examples that everybody in this Chamber, including the Minister and Labour Members, agree on, but they are minor cases where things have to be cleared up. That is all part of the agenda for change, which the Council of Ministers and the Council of Europe are undertaking. Let us deal with the big issues, one of which is capital punishment. Countries are not allowed to become members of the Council of Europe if they carry out capital punishment. We must remember that there are 800 million people in these 47 countries in greater Europe, and we cannot singly deal with one or two issues such as the ones she raised.
Mr Binley: Does the hon. Gentleman not appreciate that many of the decisions by the European Court of Human Rights that gain the headlines in our newspapers actually diminish the role of justice and therefore are very important?
Sir Alan Meale:
The hon. Gentleman is right. I apologise if I have led him up the path of thinking that these minor matters in relation to the very big issues that the Council of Europe and the European Court of Human Rights deal with are in some way not important. They are all very important, and they are very important to the people involved. As the Minister rightly pointed out, Members on both sides of the House are seriously of a mind for change and reform as far as the Court is concerned, because of the huge catalogue of outstanding cases, many of which could and should be dealt with in
27 Oct 2011 : Column 531
the courts of the individual countries. We should accept responsibility for our failure to act to make the courts deal with them. As the hon. Member for Portsmouth South (Mr Hancock) said, the problem of the courts and the outstanding cases in the European Court is caused by failures in individual nations and their court systems.
I said in an intervention that we have a very democratic system, which could be reformed in some way, for choosing judges. The three candidates that are submitted by all member countries have to be fully experienced in such matters before their names are even put forward and there has to be a gender balance. Those people are then examined by a committee in full before recommendations are made to the Assembly, which then decides. I have been there on a number of occasions over the years, as have other hon. Members who are present today, when time and again we have sent back the names of candidates and said, “They are not qualified,” “They do not come up to the standard,” or, in a number of cases, “No gender choice whatever has been given.” A few years ago, some countries refused to submit the name of a female candidate. The system is well-tested and I do not think that talking about “sleepwalking” away from accountability is the best way forward.
The Minister gave us the best way forward, which has been accepted by all parties. We need reform. We have to wake up the courts and the Governments of member countries and say, “You have to take responsibility for and deal with these issues; the European Court is for bigger things.” The example I gave of where such instances might apply involved a failure by two members of the Council of Europe area and, indeed, Britain—so three countries in all—in respect of seized assets in the northern area of Cyprus. An individual citizen went through all the courses for legal redress in their own country, Cyprus, and then went to the guarantor powers of Greece and the United Kingdom, but the case failed and there was no other domestic court for that case to go to. Members might ask, “What does a person’s ownership of their home have to do with the European Court of Human Rights?” Well, it has a lot to do with it if someone’s country has been invaded, they have been marshalled out of their home and local area into another country, and the return of the assets in the house, and the house itself, has been refused.
The Loizidou case went to the Court, which took a number of years to deal with it. As my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Michael Connarty) rightly pointed out, it was then sent back to Turkey and the regime in the northern area of Cyprus, which were told, “You must deal with this matter. What you have done is illegal—you have illegally invaded, you have illegally occupied and you have illegally kept rightful owners away from their homes.” The judgment that came down in the end was that reparation to the tune of nearly £1 million in costs and compensation should be paid to the family not for the home they had lost but for the loss of use of their home over that 30-odd year period. That case could not have been dealt with in any other court.
Mr David Burrowes (Enfield, Southgate) (Con):
The hon. Gentleman makes an important case regarding the human rights of the people of Cyprus. Is it not the case that this issue of human rights goes further and affects
27 Oct 2011 : Column 532
not just loss of property but loss of people? There is also an issue of missing relatives and people who still do not know where their loved ones have gone since the conflicts. They have called on Turkey to release basic information giving them a right to know where their relatives are. Does he agree that there has been a breach of those fundamental rights which must be answered and that we could take the opportunity, as chair of the Council of Europe, to make that case?
Madam Deputy Speaker (Dawn Primarolo): Order. We are not discussing the issue of Turkey per se and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will bring the debate back to the question of the chairmanship of the Council of Europe and its priorities.
Sir Alan Meale: Thank you for that guidance, Madam Deputy Speaker. To give a very short reply to the question, let me just point out to the hon. Member for Witham that there has been involvement in that particular case and many other cases of breaches of human rights by the British Government as a guarantor power. Those issues will be taken up yet again in the course of the six-month chairmanship. Indeed, quite recently the European Minister met the Commissioner for Human Rights, who is an employee elected by the Council of Europe members in its Assembly. As my colleague the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) alluded to, 1,619 Greek Cypriots and 684 Turkish Cypriots remain missing from those periods. I know there will be contact on that subject during our chairmanship.
The Minister outlined the primary policies that we shall take up during our chairmanship. One key area is local and regional government. Next week or the week after, the Minister will be present at talks in Kiev. I hope he will give a guarantee in his summing-up that he will fall behind all the magnificent work on local government reform by Kivinemi, the Minister from Finland, which was picked up and improved upon by Chavez, the Spanish Minister. That is very important.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Witham on her persistence in obtaining the debate, but I ask her to think about some of the Council of Europe’s other roles that will be debated during our chairmanship. We send people on peace missions or monitoring missions. Two or three Members who are currently in the Chamber take part in those missions and put themselves at risk. At this minute there are people on monitoring missions in some outlying areas of greater Europe, where they have to receive military protection in order to fulfil their role. In the forthcoming weeks and months, Members from both sides of the Chamber will be undertaking such missions, and they risk their lives in doing so. In the Georgian conflict, the Chechnyan conflict, the Bosnian conflict and the Kosovan-Serbia conflict, Members of the House, as members of the Council of Europe, went in as peace monitors and election monitors, trying to achieve a democratic purpose. The Council is not just a small organisation in that respect.
I shall refer briefly to the work of the eight committees of the Council of Europe. Britain’s membership of the Assembly, from both sides of this Chamber, is a worthwhile and leading part of the work of the Council of Europe. We have a number of vice-chairmen. We have the chairmen of the monitoring committee, the health committee and
27 Oct 2011 : Column 533
the environment committee; the list goes on and on. I mentioned the committee that examines and gives initial interviews to those who wish to become judges of the European Court of Human Rights. We hold the chairmanship and leading positions on that committee. I pay tribute to a previous Conservative Member of this place: John Greenway was the chair of the Council’s committee on rules of procedure, and did a magnificent job in the years that he held that position.
I also pay tribute to the British ambassador in Strasbourg. I have seen many ambassadors in different countries who treat it as a fine profession and a life indeed, but this woman works night and day. If committees meet early in the morning, she is there; she is there throughout the day and into the late evenings, attending meetings and so on. I pay tribute to her and her staff, as I do to Secretary-General Jagland. He is comparatively new to his role, but I am pleased that I and others on both sides of this Chamber voted for him, because he has done a magnificent job and brought a stature to the Council of Europe and its work, with his background as Speaker and Prime Minister of his own country’s Government. His sense of purpose in the reform process has been very good indeed.
Last but not least, I pay tribute to the staff of this place. We have a small number of staff who run the Overseas Office. They fix up all the travel arrangements and arrange the accommodation, which I acknowledge is not salubrious—I wish it was—but for which they get the best value they can. They have to make those arrangements for 30-odd Members of Parliament, including arrangements to enable them to participate in all the committees that emanate from the work of the Council of Europe.
Mr Roger Gale (North Thanet) (Con): I wish to touch briefly on three issues. The first relates to the European convention on human rights, which is the first priority listed on the briefing paper issued by the Government on the UK’s chairmanship of the Council of Europe. Article 5 of the convention sets out the right to freedom. Article 6 sets out the right to a fair trial. A constituent of mine has been held in prison in Malta for more than two years. Another constituent has just faced a highly questionable trial in Lille in France, and he was held for two years before the trial without any right to freedom. Malta and France are both signatories to the convention on human rights.
When I started to look into the background, I wrote to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to request a breakdown of the number of UK citizens who have been held for more than 10 months without trial in countries that are signatories to the convention on human rights and members of the Council of Europe. Initially, those at the FCO said that they did not have a breakdown for all 47 countries and that it would be unreasonable to expect them to do all that work because it would be very expensive. However, not wishing to be unhelpful, they asked me to name the countries I was interested in. I named four: Greece, Spain, France and Malta—the latter two for obvious reasons. It was a freedom of information request and they complied with it.
27 Oct 2011 : Column 534
Malta is holding five UK citizens who have been in prison for more than 10 months without trial, and Malta is a signatory to the convention on human rights. France is holding 12 UK citizens who have been in prison for more than 10 months without trial, and France is a signatory to the convention on human rights. Indeed, my constituent was held in France for more than two years. Spain is holding 43 UK citizens who have been in prison for more than 10 months without trial, and Spain is a signatory to the convention on human rights. Article 5, which sets out the right to freedom, is being breached by these countries. The FCO said that it could not specify the number of UK citizens being held in Greece because that number was so small that doing so could identify the person concerned. I did not quite understand that, but the fact of the matter is that Greece is also clearly in breach of article 5.
In the case of the constituent who was tried in Lille last week, I maintain that article 6 has been breached because I do not believe that he has had a fair trial. In fact, I am afraid that his situation was probably worsened by the intervention of a British Member of Parliament seeking to bring about the trial. The man has been sentenced to five years in prison, fined €10,000 and asked to repay something akin to the debt of Greece—€5 million. He does not have that because he has lost his home and his family; he has lost the lot.
During the UK’s chairmanship of the Council of Europe, I want the Government to hold to the fire the feet of each and every country that is a member of the Council and is holding UK citizens, or any other citizens for that matter, for long periods of time without trial. It is a clear breach of the convention. Many of those countries, France in particular, are preaching to the United Kingdom and trying to tell us that we must give prisoners voting rights. We had that debate in this Chamber and reached a sovereign decision as a sovereign Parliament. I explained that in person to the Human Rights Commissioner, Thomas Hammarberg, the last time we were in Strasbourg. I said, “Tom, you must understand that this is a sovereign Parliament. This is not a Government decision, but a decision taken in the House of Commons by elected Members. We have decided that we do not believe that we have a duty to give convicted prisoners voting rights.” While that is an issue, we are told that other countries can hold citizens without trial for very long periods in breach of the convention.
I would like my right hon. Friend to take to the chairmanship and to Ministers this clear issue and say that we will not budge one inch until every country holding any citizen for an indeterminate period without trial has complied properly with the convention.
Michael Connarty: I just want to get the hon. Member to clarify and put on the record the fact that all of these countries have not only signed, but ratified and implemented the convention, because there are many countries who sign conventions, never ratify them and never, therefore, implement them.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who is absolutely right. The implication is that because we have signed the convention, we are implementing it. My understanding is that Malta, Spain and France have implemented it, but I am open to challenge on Greece—
27 Oct 2011 : Column 535
I ought to know but do not. France certainly makes a big issue of the situation and is very communautaire, just as long as it wants to be, but on this issue it is in clear breach and needs to be told that it is.
Mr Stewart Jackson (Peterborough) (Con): Does my hon. Friend regret as I do the fact that, notwithstanding the Forfeiture Act 1870, which established the will of this House in respect of prisoner votes, and the emphatic vote in February, which made clear to Ministers and to the Court itself the settled view of the House, there has been only a suspension of the Court’s judgment on the UK situation with respect to Greens and M.T., as a result of an Italian case, and that the Court has not accepted the will of this House to decide that we are correct and will not give the franchise to convicted felons?
Mr Gale: I have already made my view abundantly plain: I regret the situation very much indeed. If there is any case to be made, it can only be this: a person on remand might be considered to have the right to vote, because they have not been convicted. I cannot have my cake and eat it, because, if I want people to have a fair trial and to be tried in a timely fashion, I have to concede that if people have not been convicted, they should arguably have the right to vote—but that is all.
Internet governance and freedom of expression on the internet, is one of the Government’s priorities during our chairmanship, but I urge caution upon my right hon. Friend the Minister. The culture committee, on which I sit as an alternate, and the sub-committee that has been dealing with the issue, on which I sit as a full member, have recently been considering a report prepared by another delegate to the Council of Europe. Fortunately, members of the United Kingdom delegation stood shoulder to shoulder and had the report withdrawn.
The report has now been rewritten and will be brought back before the committee in Paris on 6 December, when I suspect a reasonable compromise will be reached and it will then be debated. When it is debated and passed, it will be passed to Ministers for consideration, but in that report there is a great deal of motherhood and apple pie. The Government’s position paper says that they stand by the right to freedom of expression on the internet, and that is all nice and fine, but we are talking about what is known as public control, which basically means state control—and means something slightly different in French.
I do not want to see state control of the internet, and we all know what we mean when we say freedom of expression on the internet, but we have to consider the fact that, although social networking and all those things were held up as the great saviour, the prop that held up the Arab spring and made things happen, which was wonderful, precisely the same social networking was used in London in August to orchestrate criminal riots.
So, just before we go too far down that road, I urge my right hon. Friend the Minister to ask his colleagues on the Committee of Ministers to take a long, hard, proper look at the issue, and to ensure that we understand exactly what we are saying when we plead freedom of expression on the internet. One man’s freedom of expression may be the ball and chain around another man’s leg.
27 Oct 2011 : Column 536
Finally, I shall touch again on the issue that I raised earlier, transfrontier broadcasting, because it is serious. Twenty-five years ago the Council of Europe passed a transfrontier broadcasting convention. I know, because I am a re-tread, and 25 years ago—God help me—I was on the Council of Europe and I participated in the debate at the time. The reason we worked so hard on the issue was that we wanted to make sure that Europe did not do something very silly by insisting that every television station throughout Europe had a half-hour quota of clog-dancing in Lederhosen or whatever, but instead had something sensible. We knew what we wanted. We wanted reasonable control of matters such as broadcast pornography, taste, decency and so on. We created something that was worth while.
Tim Renton, who was then a Home Office Minister with responsibility for broadcasting—it used to be a Home Office responsibility—turned that convention into the European Union directive, so it was a worthwhile exercise. We have now reached the point where the convention is out of date, and because of the advance of technology it needs to be streamlined. The Council of Europe is getting to grips with it, and rightly doing what it was trying to do before—to get it right. Suddenly, along comes a European Union Commissioner who says that it is a European Union competence and that the Council may not discuss it.
As things stand, the Council of Europe has stopped its work on the project. That is outrageous because, as has been said, the European Union represents only a proportion of the countries that are member states of the Council of Europe. I believe that the greater should embrace the lesser, not the other way round, and that the matter is a Council of Europe responsibility. I urge my right hon. Friend to take that message on board very clearly indeed. It is an important issue.
Michael Connarty (Linlithgow and East Falkirk) (Lab): It is a privilege to follow the hon. Member for North Thanet (Mr Gale). Having been in the Council of Europe, and in this House for so long, and having watched his endeavours in the Council of Europe at the moment, it is amazing that he is still enthusiastic about searching out the right wording and practice in the things he is involved in. I am sure that he was the same 25 years ago. My hon. Friend the Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Sandra Osborne) referred to me as enthusiastic, but I have been here for a mere 19 years. I hope that when I have been here for as long as the hon. Gentleman I am still as enthusiastic for the fight.
The fight is for the correct implementation of the principles behind the Council of Europe. I may not always take the example of the hon. Member for North Thanet on how he approaches things, and hopefully we will be at the meeting seeking the compromise that I suggested might be found between him and the author of the original report, which was deeply flawed in the way it was expressed. I hope that we will work together across the party divide on these matters.
It is a pity the hon. Member for Witham (Priti Patel) has gone. I am not sure whether she is a member of the delegation, but certainly some members on the Government side do not take up their place, and she might be able to learn quite a lot by volunteering to take one of the
27 Oct 2011 : Column 537
places that are not being actively filled at the moment. I am sure she would find it enlightening and educational, as we all do. The delegation, although we may come from different angles, is genuinely still the bedrock of debates in the Council of Europe. Delegates are often there at the beginning; they are there at the end of the day, which might be 8 o’clock at night; and they are often there on Friday when most people have decided to go home. We want to take part in debates and make our views known.
Oliver Heald: The hon. Gentleman will recall that he and I were both there on the Friday of the last part-session, disagreeing with each other. I thought he would like to know that I am here, and that I do not entirely agree with him today.
It is absolutely incredible that a court as important as the Court of Human Rights is clogged up by a type of bureaucracy that could not be imagined in the most disorganised country in the world. The simplest cases that will clearly never be correctly allocated to the Court have to be judged by a full bench of judges before they can say, “No, we can’t deal with this.” There is no sifting process and no filter process. No Committee in this House would run if every Member had to gather every day, look at every paper proposed, and come before the Committee to decide whether it could even discuss it. That is what the Court is about at the moment. Anything we can do under our chairmanship to bring in a filtering system whereby one judge or some other method is used to say, “This is still correct to stay on the list and others must be sent back to the courts of the national jurisdictions or rejected”, is long overdue.
I will talk later about the Human Rights Act 1998 in the context of individual countries. It is a myth that the Court can make a country implement its judgment just by lifting the judgment made in the Court and transposing it into the Acts of Parliament of this country. It is not the European Union, after all. I see that the Minister for Europe is here, and he recognises that that can happen with European Union regulations and all the other things that come in, and we have to just get on with it because we have signed away some of those rights—but not at Council of Europe level. It has to come back and be looked at by this sovereign Parliament, which then makes a judgment on what amendments to make that would implement it. I hope that we never move away from that.
There is lots of talk saying that our Human Rights Act is somehow a transcription of the convention on human rights and the judgments of the courts. I hope that it is, in fact, an attempt by this sovereign Parliament to implement the human rights that we all hold so dear for our country and for every other country. If it is not correct and needs to be amended in some way, that is our right as a sovereign Parliament, but we must not get into the situation where we can overturn the human rights that are available to people in Council of Europe countries just because we believe that it will satisfy the feelings of our constituents.
27 Oct 2011 : Column 538
I held a very excellent debate about human rights and family rights. On family rights, yes, there is no doubt that people are angry because that is used as a plea for someone not to be sent back to some other country. But when we come down to the fundamentals and someone is asked, “Do you think that family rights are due to all of us?”, most people would say yes. We then have to decide why it is not applicable to someone who may come from another country. Sometimes, if we throw out that basic judgment that family rights are available to all of us, and must therefore be available to anyone under our jurisdiction, we destroy something very important in what we have fought for, for political gain and for a feeling of anger rather than for a judgment of what is correct.
Michael Connarty: That is a very important question. If the Government should bring back a proposal on, for example, whether prisoners in custody should have voting rights, and we decided that we did not wish to accept it, we could reject it. They would have to come back again to try to put another proposal, and I presume negotiations would go on between the Committee of Ministers, particularly with our chairmanship in the next six months, to find something that would be suitable, and that would be correct. However, I believe—this is my own judgment—that if we got to the point where we said, “No, we refuse to implement this”, then there must be some question about whether we want to remain in the Council of Europe at all.
Mr Binley: The hon. Gentleman is a very dedicated member of the Parliamentary Assembly, and it is a pleasure to work with him. Does he recognise that at the end of the day the judgment goes to the Committee of Ministers, and that equally at the end of the day it has no powers of enforcement? I relate that to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Mr Gale): nothing can be done, and therein lies one of the problems.
Michael Connarty: I think that is correct in what I have seen of the Council of Europe. It can make judgments, it can put down statements, people can support those statements, and they can be transmitted through the Committee of Ministers to the representatives of all the countries who send a representative to that Committee. One of the reasons I am quite a strong supporter of the European Union is that it can bring in directives, and has done so, as I shall mention later, in areas which are close to my heart and to the logic of why I am here as a representative of the people of my constituency. It has an enforceable power, mainly tied up with the economic power that lies in the EU rather than just the Court of Justice. But yes, I think that there is a need for a much more diligent pursuit of the matters raised by the hon. Member for North Thanet.
The third part of what I say will be on the way in which the Council of Europe operates. The debate on the scope and effect of proposals, papers or conventions has to be had vigorously in the committees. That was done by the hon. Member for North Thanet, and I will
27 Oct 2011 : Column 539
give examples of where, even in the year that I have been there, I have taken that route and had changes made. Hopefully I will bring about other changes, because that is what we are there to do: we are not there just to go to the plenaries and get our card ticked for being present; we are, I hope, there to go to the committees, participate in the debates and form and reform the papers, the proposals and the conventions that eventually come out of the Council of Europe. If we do that, it is our duty to come here and argue for them to be implemented in our country in the fullest way declared in those conventions. If we cannot do that, I question whether we are fully participating in the process.
I thank the hon. Member for Mansfield (Sir Alan Meale), because he organises the Labour side of the delegation. He was the person who suggested that, having been Chair of the European Scrutiny Committee and been a member for the past 13 years, I might see going to the Council of Europe as a natural progression, because I could see more of the debates at the fundamental level, which I did not see in the minutiae of the implementation of European directives. I thank him for inviting me to attend.
It was suggested that I should go into the committee on culture, science and education. I will speak a little about the processes that I found there, because it is important to put on the record, for those who do not know what this is all about and who read the debates, what happens there. When I went along, one of the large papers that was debated was on “the religious dimension of intercultural dialogue.” When I read it, I realised, as a humanist, that the Council of Europe’s fundamental principle of the right to belief as well as faith, was missing from the paper. When the committee invited people from all the main religions to discuss the paper, it also invited the secretary of the European Federation of Humanists to present a paper and to be heard in Paris. We then tabled amendments, which were debated and added to the paper. The paper was eventually discussed again in the committee, of which the hon. Member for North Thanet is also a member, and went to the full plenary, where it was passed by a 95% vote of the Parliamentary Assembly.
There are some things in that paper that I believe are priorities for our sixth-month presidency and that will be very helpful in a world where we know there is still anti-Semitism, sectarianism and in many countries an anti-Christian movement that threatens people’s rights, but also persecution and a denial of the rights of people who are not affiliated to religious organisations. I found those issues fundamental to why I am here, what I believe in and what I believe are the rights of the people whom I represent, and there they were being discussed in that committee. Hopefully, my participation in that debate changed the document.
There was opposition from one or two fundamentalist born again Christians who tried to take all the references to humanism out of the paper. I am glad to say that it was defended by people of all faiths in the committee and in the Assembly, because it is not about being against something, but about including people and diversity in the real sense, not just in a small way. That was an important lesson for me that when I was placed on a committee, if I took it seriously, I could do something; I would not necessarily have carried the day, but I could at least express those views.
27 Oct 2011 : Column 540
The other committee that I sit on is the social, health and family affairs committee. The discussions of that committee chimed very much with the interests that I have always thought that we are there to pursue, such as the discussions about human trafficking. Some hon. Members may know that I am now vice-chair of the all-party human trafficking group in this House. I have pressed—even harried—the Government to sign up to the European directives on human trafficking and the new, extended European directive against the sexual exploitation and abuse of children. I found that there was very much a campaign running on that in the Council of Europe—the “One in Five” campaign. Again, I am grateful to the leader of the delegation, who nominated me to be the UK representative on that organisation. It is in fact a network of contact parliamentarians to stop sexual violence against children.
When we talk about these things, particularly at a European level about cross-border action, some people think it is not to do with them, but I have to say that in my own constituency, in the town of Grangemouth, an industrial town, there have been two unbelievably horrendous cases—many cases, but two horrendous cases of sexual abuse of female children aged 13 and 14 months by two different people, put on the internet and spread around the massive paedophile rings throughout the world. It is in every street and every town. In fact the deputy commissioner for children in England is going to have a two-year investigation running into sexual abuse of children. On one day, she took a snapshot throughout England of local authorities and care organisations; in one day, on the same day in England, 1,000 cases of sexual abuse of children were reported in England—in one day at that snapshot. That is how frightening this is.
When we had our first meeting we were addressed by Mr John Carr, who is from the UK and is the expert adviser to the International Telecommunications Union on online protection of children. The figures he gave were horrendous: there are 1 million images on paedophile internet sites at any time in the world; there are 15 million transactions a year in the country. The one thing that is a problem is that a site can be shut down or blocked in this country within 24 hours, but there are sites running in Russia and in the USA that were reported and identified over a year ago but are still running, in Russia because of gangsterism and it is hidden and hard to get at, and in the USA because it is protected by state laws and local laws. The providers of these things can still keep running a year after they are found to be trading. It is a massive, criminal, monetary-driven enterprise—paedophile activity and the abuse of children. That was a salutary lesson for me that there was something going on there that wanted to join all 47 countries—and wider than that, but all 47 countries as a start—in a campaign against one of the most heinous crimes and most heinous possible abuses of human rights and the rights of the child.
As an adjunct, we debated in the social, health and family affairs committee—I was asked to speak, and I think the hon. Member for North East Hertfordshire (Oliver Heald) spoke in the same debate—the rights of undocumented migrant children. I think the most succinct statement of what the Council of Europe is about is the amendment from that committee that was spoken to by Madam Strik from the Netherlands. It said that a child
27 Oct 2011 : Column 541
is first and always a child, and then after may be a migrant. If that is what the Council of Europe is about, that is so powerful for the people we represent, because they want that to be a right for everyone in all their towns and all their communities, and the Council of Europe allows us to do that.
We have also been addressed by the UN special rapporteur on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography, Najat Maalla M’jid, a woman who does this work throughout the world. It was in fact connecting the Council of Europe countries to what is happening in a much wider portfolio.
In this process of holding the presidency or the chairmanship of the Council of Ministers, I have an extra priority. It is embarrassing, and it relates to the question that I asked the hon. Member for North Thanet about having ratified a convention. The United Kingdom signed up to the convention on the protection of children against sexual exploitation and sexual abuse, which was laid on 25 October 2007—almost exactly four years ago—on 5 May 2008. We have yet to ratify it, and if we do not ratify it, it is not brought into force. Let us look at the countries that have. Spain, which was referred to earlier, signed it in 2009 and ratified it in December 2010, and has put it into force. It is no use signing something that is not put into force. I have been trying to get in to ask the Prime Minister for a number of weeks now—but have not been called—when we are going to ratify it. In our chairmanship six months, that is the time we should do this. We should ratify that convention.
It is amazing how many people have actually been involved, and I pay compliment to a lady who I am told is called Martine McCutcheon, who starred in “Love Actually”—I think she played the Prime Minister’s girlfriend, if I recall correctly. She presented, with people from the UK, a petition, gathered with the help of the Body Shop, of 735,889 signatures, exactly at the time it was presented, calling for the UK to ratify that convention. That was 12 May 2011. The message does not seem to have got through to our Prime Minister and Government yet, but the people of this country want us to do that.
I pay a compliment to them and to the hon. Member, who is a Member of the Government party, who is the chair of the UK Parliament’s all-party human trafficking group, and to Anthony Steen, a former Member of this House who set up an institute, the Human Trafficking Foundation. He is being supported to get campaigning organisations in all of the EU countries, but we still have a long way to go, and I hope it will be led by our chairmanship.
I have one other small point, but it is an important point. The committee on culture, science and education had a proposal before it for a recommendation towards a European framework convention on youth rights. Disappointingly, the response of the permanent member representing the UK, who will become the chair of the Committee of Ministers, was that they did not really think we needed youth rights. Unfortunately, it is a fact that now, in most of the countries of Europe, there is a long period between being a child and being put out to work. Sometimes people study; sometimes they try to make a life for themselves; and sometimes they go into work. In that period, a lot of young people fall between the two stools. They are not treated as children and they
27 Oct 2011 : Column 542
are not adults. They are not people who are making the rules; they are the people who are having to suffer the badly made rules.
Why I want to raise this is that it gives us an example of what we can do in the Council of Europe. I was on that committee and was involved in the draft. I took the draft away with me and I took it to people in the West Lothian youth forum, which is a forum set up by the local authority. I gave them copies and asked them to go away and use the youth forum to discuss this matter. What did they think of it? What did they think should be done with it? What ideas were missing from it? The forum came back with three very simple amendments. One was on housing rights and the right to housing. The forum members pointed out that you can get housing—you can get housing in the worst dumps and slums of the cities—if you are a young person, because you are basically an insecure tenant and you have difficulties. They wanted rights to housing that is actually of a standard that is acceptable at a European level.
The second one was on employment. They wanted in employment the right to training with in-work accreditation, because they knew so many young people who had got jobs and were used, basically. They were told they were getting an apprenticeship, spent two years as a grease monkey, and then when they asked to go to college to get certification, they were sacked and some other young person got taken on to go through the same process again and again.
Those are two very important matters. The third one I think is very important as well, particularly since we allow the UK Youth Parliament to meet here in this House, in this Chamber. People in the forum said they want these matters, if we ever have a convention, to be monitored by the Youth Parliament or their equivalent in Europe, so that they can have a say on whether the Governments who sign up to these things are doing anything about it.
Mr Binley: I am again most grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who is being very generous with his time. Does he think there ought to be a balancing factor to rights? I am not denying the importance of rights, but I wonder whether we ought to give equal importance to the responsibilities of the individual. Perhaps he has an opportunity to make that point and to ask the Minister whether he might consider it as well.
I think that we have quite a developed idea among those who take it seriously that with rights come responsibilities. I explain to everyone who comes around Parliament that it is a nice building, fine, but buildings are buildings; Parliament is about what goes on in here—the concept of democracy, the demos, the people who had the right in Athens and the responsibility to run the country. They had the power but also the responsibility. That, basically, is how society should be run. We get rights, but we have responsibilities at the same time. I think that our Government in the past tried to echo that again and again. I think that there are questions about whether people think that they have only rights. In Scotland at the moment, everyone thinks that everything is free: they do not pay council tax increases, they do not pay for their education, they do not pay for their prescriptions—it is all free. I am afraid that that is not a world in which people can live for very
27 Oct 2011 : Column 543
long, because they soon become bankrupted financially but also bankrupted in terms of principle. I think that the hon. Gentleman is right: there needs to be a balance.
Those young people were amazing. They took it seriously. A Member of Parliament said, “Here is a convention or a document that will affect your lives if it is ever passed. What do you think?” They went off and treated it seriously. I know that one of the people who helped to draft it, a young David Begg, sits in the Scottish Youth Parliament, and some of them come down here and participate in the UK Youth Parliament. That is giving them rights and responsibilities in the right way, and I hope that we will take that seriously and perhaps change our position and encourage the development of something that will speak to the youth and that has to contain responsibilities. However, the debate in the culture, science and education committee was the opposite: people said, “We don’t want to talk about responsibilities because we want to talk about young people having rights without saying they have to pay for them.” I do not necessarily agree with the balance, but that was how it was drafted.
I will finish with one last reference to a document, Madam Deputy Speaker, because a lot of the debate going on is as though the Council of Europe is out there, the Court of Human Rights is out there, and they come and fly in and drop things on top of us that we have to implement. There is a paper from 6 June Parliamentary Assembly that I hope that every Member of the House will read. Perhaps members of the public would like to read it. It is called “National parliaments: guarantors of human rights in Europe”. It states:
“The report examines ways to better exploit parliaments’ potential in this respect and proposes basic principles to be respected by the parliaments of the Council of Europe member states.”
It then lists a lot of very, very sensible suggestions for how Parliaments might do this. I think that is what it is about. It is not about saying, “Europe will make the decision for you. The Council of Europe will make the decision for you. You just have to implement it.” It is about thinking about how we, as parliamentarians in our Parliaments, can take those guarantees correctly.
In my first year as a member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, I realised that it was the one place where I could find the things that brought me into Parliament, the things that brought me into public life as a community activist, from where I went on to be a councillor and to give up so much of my life and time to this process of democratic representation. It is about human rights. The Council of Europe sets a benchmark against which it says to all the countries in the Council of Europe area, “You will be judged by the Council of Europe.” Enforceability is very important, and I would like to see more of it, but it says, “You will be judged by it. You will be held up to scrutiny by it. The more important thing is that you will have to ask yourselves, in your Parliament, how do you measure up to these human rights that should be available to everyone?” When I hear debates in here with people throwing out phrases that clearly say, “I want this human right, but that person from that country should not have it because we do not want them to have it. Send them back to their country, but they might be tortured. Send them back to their country, but they might face capital punishment,” I am ashamed, because that should not be talked about in this mother of Parliaments. Human rights are
27 Oct 2011 : Column 544
fundamental and the Council of Europe is their guardian. I am very pleased to be there, and I am sure that our time as the chair, with the leadership of the Minister and the Labour Benches, will be a good six months.
Madam Deputy Speaker (Dawn Primarolo): Order. Before I call the next speaker, I would like to draw it to Members’ attention that this debate is due to finish at 6 o’clock. We will need to leave some time at the end—not too much—to hear back from the Minister, who has been given a long list of questions already. There are 10 more Members wishing to contribute. I ask them to keep their eye on the clock when making their contributions. If it looks as if everybody will not get in, I shall consider setting a time limit on speeches to try and help Members. However, I am sure that you will all want to help each other to make your points in this consensual debate.
Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD): This has been quite a consensual debate. It has not been as noisy and pacey as the debate about Europe that we had on Monday, but there has been a great deal of quality and quite a lot of unity, not only on the importance of the Council of Europe, but on the need to reform some of its institutions, such as the European Court. I welcome the Minister’s remarks and those of the Labour representative, the hon. Member for Wolverhampton North East (Emma Reynolds), although I think she might have made a slight slip of the tongue when she suggested that the landmass covered by the Council of Europe stretched from Vladivostok to Reykjavik. The term “landmass” might come as something of a surprise to the Icelanders.
I pay tribute to all the members of the British delegation. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth South (Mr Hancock) will be sorry that he is unable to contribute to today’s debate as he is feeling rather unwell. He is a committed member of the delegation, and I am sure that hon. Members will regret not hearing one of his robust contributions. I also pay tribute to the hon. Member for North Dorset (Mr Walter). He burnished his European credentials earlier this week, but he has received so many accolades today as the leader of the British delegation that that fact is worth mentioning too.
It is an enormous honour for Britain to take on the chairmanship of the Council of Europe. As the Minister highlighted, Britain was involved right at the beginning in establishing the institution, which was forged from the embers of wartime Europe and has promoted human rights, freedom and democracy, the rule of law and cultural co-operation ever since. It is sad that we are now so complacent that in some circles the phrase “human rights” has become something of a dirty word. Indeed, on occasion even the rule of law and the right of judges to interpret human rights have been questioned.
The Council of Europe shows that this is an important area that needs to be defended. Obviously the Council of Europe has a much lighter touch than the European Union and its institutions, but that gives it a much wider and more comprehensive remit. It has not just touched on human rights: we also have conventions on
27 Oct 2011 : Column 545
cybercrime, pharmaceuticals, the prevention of terrorism and the prevention of torture, and—as the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Michael Connarty) pointed out—on trafficking human beings and on racism and intolerance, including intolerance based on religious belief or non-belief.
The complacent and sometimes rather lazy criticism of human rights and institutions at the European level can easily drift into a reversal of the progress that we have seen in all these enormously important areas. The hon. Member for North Thanet (Mr Gale), who is no longer in his place, pointed out how important it is not just to accept that the conventions exist and that a piece of paper has been signed, but to ensure that cases are considered in detail and measures are enforced in member states. However, that does not mean that there is no need for reform. The Liberal Democrats welcome the Government’s initiative to look into reforming Council of Europe institutions. The European convention on human rights is something that we should stoutly defend. We were the first state to ratify it, and we should certainly welcome the European Union’s accession to it and the application of those disciplines to its institutions.
Martin Horwood: I do not think that there is any suggestion that we will repeal the Human Rights Act, which actually allows this country to exercise its sovereignty by bringing the European convention on human rights into British law and giving British judges the right to enforce it. That is a re-enforcement of British sovereignty, so I would be surprised if any such suggestion were made.
However, the European Court of Human Rights clearly has a lot of problems. Mention has been made of the 155,000-case backlog. Obviously it is right that the British chairmanship should work to ensure that the Court’s judgments are implemented across the rest of Europe as well as they are in the UK, that its membership is of sufficiently high quality and, most importantly, that it does not act as a substitute for domestic courts.
One good initiative by the coalition has been the establishment of the commission on a Bill of Rights, which has already made interim recommendations on reforming the Court. The commission said in July:
“It is essential for the Court to be able to address cases involving serious questions affecting the interpretation or application of the Convention, and serious issues of general importance, where the Court’s intervention is justified. The Court should be a court of last resort, and not a first port of call for all human rights issues. It should be adjudicating hundreds of cases a year, not thousands, and certainly not tens of thousands, and ensuring that the principle of subsidiarity is observed by national institutions with the primary responsibility for the protection of human rights”.
The British chairmanship should build on that report, and seize the opportunity to take forward reform of the Court. I also hope, however, that the UK chairmanship will not be entirely distracted by the mechanics of human rights, and that it will champion those rights where they need to be championed.
27 Oct 2011 : Column 546
In that respect, the UK chairmanship can build on the excellent work of the Foreign Secretary in his extensive report on human rights and democracy produced last year. It contains a list of countries causing concern to the British Government because of their human rights record. That list includes several European countries and one member state of the Council of Europe. Outside the Council of Europe it highlights Belarus, which is currently barred from membership because of its human rights record. The Foreign Secretary’s report describes “successive waves of repression” in that country. The Deputy Prime Minister has referred to it as “Europe’s shameful secret”. The Liberal Democrats’ own youth organisation has highlighted the struggle of its Belarusian sister organisation, Civil Forum, stating that its members
“continue to protest against the regime despite the potential violence they often face. Their struggle for human rights and political freedom is an inspiration to the global Liberal Youth movement.”
Sadly, I am sure that similar things could well be happening in such organisations in other political traditions as well. If the UK chairmanship can advance the cause of human rights in Belarus, that would be extremely welcome.
“restrictions on freedom of assembly, harassment and obstruction of NGOs and journalists”.
“Human rights defenders in Russia remained at high risk in 2010.”
It highlights the cases of Oleg Orlov, of the human rights organisation Memorial, and of Sapiyat Magomedova, a human rights lawyer. It also mentions the trials of Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev, and talks about the circumstances surrounding the murder of Anna Politkovskaya, about which many questions remain unanswered. This is all very sad, because Russia has for centuries been a pillar of European culture and civilisation, and it needs to understand that showing respect for freedom, democracy and the rule of law is absolutely essential if it is to become a full member of the European family of nations.
As well as mentioning Belarus and Russia, the report also refers to examples even closer to the heart of Europe. Hungary’s new constitution gives cause for concern, and Amnesty International has highlighted issues in it relating to the rights of women, as well as to
“the provision allowing for life imprisonment without the possibility of parole…and the exclusion of sexual orientation from the protected grounds of discrimination”.
Hungary was in many ways at the starting point of Europe’s democratic revolution in 1989. It is a free democracy, and a full member of the Council of Europe and of the European Union, and it would be a great shame if it were to acquire a poor reputation in the area of human rights. I hope that under the UK chairmanship of the Council of Europe we shall see proactive debate and promotion of human rights, democracy and the rule of law.
I welcome the Minister’s remarks on the forthcoming London conference on cyberspace. It is important for it to tackle the threats from cybercrime and even co-ordinated cyber-attack. I also hope, however, that, in line with our role in the Council of Europe, it will emphasise the
27 Oct 2011 : Column 547
values of freedom on the internet and in cyberspace. Throughout the whole episode of the Arab spring so far, we have seen how important that freedom can be to championing democracy and human rights.
On the question of the budget, the Council of Europe is a relatively small institution in the great continental scheme of things, but it has had a staggeringly large impact for its size, and I believe that it provides very good value for money. The United Kingdom should pursue an active and successful chairmanship of the Council, as that would be in our national interest, as well as in the interest of our citizens and citizens across the whole continent of Europe.
John Mann (Bassetlaw) (Lab): Having heard about the worthy deeds of the Council of Europe, I shall start on the question of value for money. I was struck by that as I thought about the worthy deeds of the police and the fire service in my area, as both the police station and the fire station are being closed down. Of course there are arguments about the Government’s economic policy, but all Members recognise that there has to be a level of cuts. That means—whoever is in government—that we have to prioritise what needs to be cut in the light of what we regard as valuable. There is a consensus on that.
It therefore seems strange to me that the Government do not appear to be proposing any cuts at all in respect of any of the international institutions or our contributions to them. I personally believe that a 30% cut for the European Union would amount to a pro-European case, and that it should be cut to the same degree as our police service and our fire service are being cut over the next four years—and not just in my area. That would seem to me appropriate.
I am, of course, arguing that cutting the police and fire services is the wrong priority, but in developing that argument I would not claim that the Government are either intellectually or ideologically anti-police or anti-fire service. I think that the cuts are being made in the wrong place, and I find it odd, in the light of those cuts, that the Government have not yet specified—they have the ability to do so with their six-month chairmanship of the Council of Europe—how appropriate cuts will be made to the budget of such organisations. I am not entering into a dialogue over whether that body should exist—
Oliver Heald: I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman has researched the Council of Europe at all, but its budget is being cut in real terms. What is more, it is on a pretty slim budget anyway. It is not like the European Union—nowhere near.
I thank the hon. Gentleman, but I would say, “Count the pennies and we’ll have the pounds.” I would like the Government to explore the notion of whether there needs to be any base in Strasbourg at all, or at least whether some functions could be combined. [Interruption.] There is certainly an overlap of functions between the European Union, the Council of Europe, the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe and the NATO Parliamentary Assembly. [Interruption.] I hear from sedentary comments that some Members do not agree; they are entitled not to agree. My point is that at a time of major cuts in many nation states,
27 Oct 2011 : Column 548
including this country, the Government should be looking to ensure that there is a commensurate cut in such bodies and in our contribution to them—and that with the chairmanship, they have the opportunity to drive that through. I look forward to seeing how it will be done.
“promote an open internet, not only in terms of access and content but also freedom of expression.”
“We will support the adoption of the draft Council of Europe strategy on internet governance, and the implementation of the principles it has adopted to uphold freedom of expression on the internet”.—[Official Report, 26 October 2011; Vol. 534, c. 10WS.]
I want to put some questions to the Minister and to make some points about that priority. Like every other Member, I am aware of the importance of freedom of expression on the internet. There are countries both in Europe and beyond where a lack of freedom of expression on the internet is a severe curtailment of the workings of democracy or, in some countries, of the real options for democracy. The two go together. It would be worthy and appropriate for the Government to take that work forward. There is, however, always a counter-side and a balance in these issues. Freedom of expression on the internet is not always a good thing. The Americans have a clear view on the matter, which their Supreme Court has expressed many times, including recently. For example, when a church in the United States decided to picket the funerals of gay service men who had died on active duty in Afghanistan, the Supreme Court ruled that that constituted freedom of expression.
There are differing views on how far freedom of expression should extend, but it is a fact that in this country, under the present Government as under the last, there have been successful prosecutions of people who have used the internet for the purpose of hate crimes, and I applaud that. Successive Attorneys-General have worked hard to ensure successful prosecutions of those who abuse their ability to express themselves freely on the internet and, in so doing, stir up hatred and restrict the freedom of expression of others, including the victims whom they target.
I chair the all-party group against anti-Semitism. Under the last Government, when my right hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Margaret Hodge) was the Minister, and, this year, under the present Government—I cannot remember the constituency of the culture Minister, the Prime Minister’s mate who is responsible for these matters—
John Mann: Yes, the hon. Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey). He rightly convened a conference of experts, and I note that the Government are convening another on 1 November. Have any of those involved in the conference that the hon. Gentleman rightly convened, on a cross-departmental basis, been invited to the forthcoming conference? Will the same level of expertise be involved in the examination of hate crime on the internet, or are the Government adopting an unbalanced approach while chairing the Council of Europe, and considering only one concept rather than both? That would not be in the traditions of the parties that make up the ruling Government in this country.
27 Oct 2011 : Column 549
The all-party group has received widespread support from Members on both sides of the House for many years. Members, including some who are in the Chamber today, have participated actively. Members of the Conservative party have participated above and beyond the normal call of duty, as indeed have members of other parties, including Liberal Democrats and, of course, Labour Members. It would be rather contradictory if the Government managed to slip into a conference on the internet on 1 November, in the context of their chairmanship of the Council of Europe, without ensuring that that conference also examines, on an expert level, including by politicians, problems relating to the use of the internet for hate crimes.
The internet is now the place where anti-Semitic filth is spread, be it the old hatreds, the blood libels, the resurrecting of the protocols of the Elders of Zion, or the new hatreds caused by a failure to differentiate between legitimate criticism of the state of Israel and attacks on Jewish people. A wide array of offences are being committed on the internet, across Europe and across this country today, and there have been new developments in recent times. Social media sites such as YouTube carry videos, and social networking sites such as Facebook publish messages promoting anti-Semitic themes. In blogs, not least those in online newspapers, a particular theme will give rise to a string of anti-Semitic or other offensive hate messages aimed at a specific group. That is one of the problems and dilemmas surrounding the internet.
In case any Member is not aware of the sort of stuff that is published, let me give some recent examples. Here is a nice little one which comes from somewhere quite close to my constituency. Someone has just posted this:
“Throw the jew down the well
So my country can be free
You must grab him by his horns
Then we have a big party”.
“The Muslims joining the demonstration called upon the Muslim armies to march forth to fight the Jews, eradicate Israel and purify the earth of Jewish filth”.
The abuse is not only anti-Semitic; other hatreds are expressed as well. Various groups of people are targeted. Gay rights groups have identified this as a problem, for example. Other issues can be involved. Sometimes people who are isolated in some way can be targeted, such as through cyber-bullying, which is a huge new problem.
Research has been done in Norway—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr Leigh) says that this is not relevant; it is absolutely relevant. Yesterday, the Government said this issue would be a top priority for the Council of Europe during their chairmanship.
27 Oct 2011 : Column 550
Oliver Heald: The point being made was how on earth can the hon. Gentleman criticise the Council of Europe about this issue, when the Council of Europe, and especially the Parliamentary Assembly, is trying to address these issues right across Europe? I serve on the committee on culture, science and education at the COE, and we are currently working on a report on this very topic.
John Mann: The hon. Gentleman is a very good parliamentarian and he used to be my MP, but he sometimes gets over-excited. I am not criticising the COE. I am proposing a cut in its budget, and in the budgets of other international institutions. That is not a criticism of the COE; rather, it is to do with the economic realities. If the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues wish to prioritise certain areas of expenditure, such as by red-circling overseas aid, they are perfectly entitled to do so. What I am saying is that the Government should use their chairmanship of the COE to implement a small cut in its budget—and that the budgets of other EU and international bodies should also be cut.
Mr Walter: I want to give the hon. Gentleman some reassurance. The delegation from this place to the COE has had its budget cut, as have the delegations to other international bodies. It was cut by 10% this year, and it will be affected by the overall House of Commons budget cut of 17% in this Parliament.
John Mann: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that information, and let me stress that I do not celebrate such cuts, but they are, perhaps, inevitable. I have only been to Strasbourg once—it was many years ago and it was not a trip to the Council of Europe—but it is certainly an opulent place. The following question should certainly be asked: do we need European parliamentary institutions in Strasbourg as well as Brussels?
Sir Alan Meale: I want to correct a possible misapprehension. As well as the 10% and 17% overall cuts already mentioned, for the last eight years the COE has had a nil increase in its budget, which is, in effect, a cut. The effects of these cuts are ongoing, and the COE is trying to work within the financial restrictions. In fact, one of the new secretary-general’s priorities is to deliver these cuts, and he has the support of all political parties in Strasbourg.
John Mann: Turning for a moment to what is happening in my constituency and that of my hon. Friend, I could mention the closure of fire stations. I hope the Government take a lead on seeing what more can be done, and I am certain the Minister is listening to this point.
On the Government’s priority to deal with the internet, the research from Norway, following the horrific murders there, on the propensity to violence of those surfing extremist websites needs further exploration. We need to analyse how the internet can have an impact on violence, including terrorist violence. This is a key area for us to do more work on.
We also need to address the question of corporate responsibility, not least with the internet providers. This chairmanship provides us with a great opportunity—with the internet as a priority—for the Government to get into that dialogue with the internet providers about
27 Oct 2011 : Column 551
precisely what their role is, how that can be improved and how best practice can be spread among them. I mentioned the overlap in the work of bodies such as the EU and the OSCE, and work on the internet causes a huge overlap. How are the Government going to use this opportunity to ensure that this work permeates those bodies and does not stand alone, because that would not be as effective as something that crosses over and permeates work ongoing in those two bodies?
How do the Government see the issue of education and the internet, including how young people are educated in schools on how they use and access the internet? We need to address the whole issue of grooming, child pornography and so on; important issues are involved. How are the Government going to use this opportunity to look at how best practice from other countries can be shared, how intelligence can be shared between law-enforcement agencies and what the law-enforcement regime should be, because it differs greatly between different member states of the Council of Europe?
All this provides a huge opportunity, albeit with a reduced budget, for the Government to make a mark, using their chairmanship of the Council of Europe and using the fact that they have prioritised the internet, starting in a few days’ time with the Foreign Secretary hosting this conference. I urge the Government to make sure that the balance is struck between freedom of speech, which is vital for democracies, and tackling the hate crimes that permeate the internet. If that balance is in their chairmanship, the Government will doubtless do a good job.
Mr Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con): The hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) is my next-door neighbour across the Trent, so I hope that there will be a sort of symmetry to our speeches; I will balance his speech for the purposes of the Gainsborough Standard. He is, of course, an ornament of Parliament, not least because he succeeds in irritating his own side as much as us, which is very good.
You, too, are an ornament of Parliament, Mr Deputy Speaker. You are also a former member of the Council of Europe. We all recall you often flying the flag for Britain on a Friday when everybody else had gone home. We are very grateful for all the work you did in the delegation. I am not sure that anyone has yet thanked you, so I wanted to put that on the record. In the Council of Europe we are restricted to three-minute contributions. I cannot promise that I will take as little as that, but I shall try to be as quick as possible because I know that others want to speak.
I am very proud to be a member of the Council of Europe. When we go there we see some marvellous history laid out in the foyer, with pictures of Winston Churchill speaking to one of the first sessions, if not the first. There is something very noble about this concept which, as we know, arose out of the second world war. The Council of Europe was a tremendously powerful mechanism in saying that we were never again going to have the horrors of Nazism and fascism. We should also be very proud of what the immediate past generation of members of the Council of Europe achieved in the whole transition to democracy in eastern Europe, of what the Council of Europe has achieved in eastern Europe and of how we are really defending human
27 Oct 2011 : Column 552
rights in eastern Europe, where there have been the most appalling and profound abuses, as there were in western Europe before 1945. To me, that is what the Council of Europe, the European convention on human rights and the Human Rights Act 1998 are all about; it is about the fundamental freedoms that, from Magna Carta onwards, we have built up in this country. We have become a beacon of those freedoms. We all know what they are: freedom of expression and of religion, the right to privacy and a family life—wonderful, basic freedoms. That is what I believe Winston Churchill was talking about, but what we have now seen is judicial creep way beyond anything ever envisaged when the convention was agreed.
There is a misunderstanding about this issue. Nobody on the Government Benches is suggesting that we should leave the convention. I am proud of the convention that we signed in 1949. All we are attacking is the incorporation of the convention into our law under the Human Rights Act 1998, which was passed by the Labour Government. That is our gripe. Nobody is denying that we should be a member of the Council of Europe or that we want to reform it, but this has become a very serious issue. If one looks on the front pages of the newspapers today one will see, just to take one issue, that the population of this country is due to rise within 20 years to 70 million people—a figure that the Labour Government said was quite unacceptable and would never be reached. Two thirds of that increase comes from immigration—that will put a severe strain not only on services but on good relations and human rights. This issue of immigration is therefore important.
If the Minister for Immigration were here and were allowed to speak openly about what is happening in his Department, I am sure that he would have to admit that he is severely constrained in what he can do to deal with this problem of immigration in order to foster good race relations because of the incorporation of the convention into our law. Although he cannot tell us, because he is a Minister, what is going on inside his Department, we have, as I mentioned earlier in a couple of interventions, now heard from a former Minister for Immigration. His diary really is worth revealing because it tells us in great detail what is going on. This is not some right-winger speaking: it is a former Labour Minister—a person who voted for the 1998 Act, was then put in a position of responsibility and was, frankly, driven mad by it.
Martin Horwood: I am tempted to discuss the issue of immigration and suggest that it is more to do with providing the skills in the right jobs, as that is what is drawing in immigration—that is something that the coalition is tackling.
The hon. Gentleman talks about getting rid of the Human Rights Act, which effectively means taking the ability to interpret the convention out of the hands of British judges and giving it back to European judges. Does he not trust British judges or does he think that by doing that we will somehow not be implementing it as fully as we would be if it were in British law?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman because this addresses precisely the point I want to make. I believe that the convention as we understood and implemented it from the late 1940s to the late 1990s
27 Oct 2011 : Column 553
was about the protection of fundamental rights. It was understood to be a matter of last resort. If somebody was really dissatisfied with the way that their human rights had been treated in British courts, for example in the immigration process, they could, if they wanted—frankly, after they had been removed—take a case to Strasbourg. What has happened since then—since we have incorporated it—is that we have had a tidal wave of cases coming to our own judges, and they have interpreted the convention in such a way that makes it very difficult for Ministers to do their job. Members of Parliament might not worry about whether it is bad to make it difficult for Ministers to do their job, but Ministers are responsible to this Parliament. This is the democratic forum of the British people. This Parliament should be supreme—not the courts.
If hon. Members do not believe me, they should listen to what Mr Woolas said. I have already mentioned the case. For years we had been working on both sides of the House against forced marriages and we had been trying to raise the age of women coming here. I mentioned in my intervention on the hon. Member for Wolverhampton North East (Emma Reynolds) how that had been overturned by judges. I ask hon. Members to listen to this quote from Phil Woolas, the former Labour Minister for Immigration, which directly mentions the European Court. He said:
“We have four people wanted for genocide in Rwanda (there are 100 but the four are the test case)”—
“The magistrates had agreed to extradite them but the High Court had disagreed on the grounds that they would not get a fair trial in Rwanda.
I am advised”
“that I should grant six months leave to remain in the UK ‘in the hope that the legal system in Rwanda improves’.
I had asked why we couldn’t try them in The Hague and was told as they were not British, I couldn’t send them there!
So a person accused of committing genocide in an ‘unsafe country’ (which country that has genocide is safe!) simply has to get into an ECHR country and they will get away with it. The ECHR is providing cover for people who commit genocide. Madness.”
I will refer to another case and then I will stop. There were many others, and I recommend that hon. Members read what is going on inside the Department, because it is our only insight into what is actually happening across Ministers’ desks.
“The French Navy detained some drug smugglers in the middle of the Atlantic. It took 14 days to get back to France because the ship was on patrol. But the…gangster took the French government to court for unlawful detention under the ECHR, saying he should have been dealt with sooner!...The smugglers have been released…I have now asked why we can’t change the law to stop this abuse but the MoD don’t want me to as they are using the same defence to protect six British soldiers, now back in the UK, who are being sued from Iraq after being accused of unlawfully detaining suspect insurgents in Basra…So, we cannot detain suspected gangsters at sea and the Human Rights Act applies in Basra. Unbelievable.”
27 Oct 2011 : Column 554
That is what we have come to, and it is now affecting national policy in a very profound way. The House may not agree with me about immigration, but I think it is a very serious issue for our country. We have to grapple with it if we are going to ensure good race relations in the future. I believe that a population of 70 million is unsustainable. You may not agree with that, Mr Deputy Speaker, but surely you agree that this House, and Ministers responsible to us, should have the right and the power to deal with it; you do not believe that at all times their hands should be shackled behind their back because of a European convention that has been interpreted in such a way that it goes way beyond what anyone envisaged when it was set up.
Bob Stewart: The Human Rights Act also has a direct impact on operations for our armed forces, and often constrains the way in which our commanders can operate. They spend a heck of a lot of their time working out how not to offend the Human Rights Act rather than working out how they can carry out their operations. It is a very big difficulty, which we must also overcome.
I shall end in a minute. I think I have made my point and I hope I have made it in a way that the House understands. Yes, I do believe that the Council of Europe needs some reform; the Court certainly needs some reform. There are obvious things that we could do to fillet the number of cases. A backlog of 160,000 is ridiculous and unsustainable. The Court should deal with fundamental abuses of human rights, which are still going on in some countries; let us be fair about that.
We have had recent debates in the Council of Europe about massacres and persecution of Christians in the middle east. Those are things of the sort that I think the founding fathers were thinking of—the horrible events, the disgusting and vile abuses of human rights that have been taking place in Libya within the past year, or in Syria in the past few weeks, or in Iraq over the past 10 years, and if those countries were part of the convention in the Council, that may be a good thing. That is what we should be focusing on, not these absurd, trivial cases—tens of thousands of them.
I cannot believe that a filleting process cannot be developed. I cannot believe that we cannot have a process similar to that which our own ombudsman uses. We are constantly being approached with requests to go to the Parliamentary Ombudsman, and there is a very quick process which fillets out immediately all cases that are obviously not applicable to the Parliamentary Ombudsman. Then the Court really could be something powerful, noble and great, which would be a beacon to the world. It really would defend human rights, because it would focus its attention on those very real abuses, which, I am afraid, are still taking place in the rest of the world and even, I suspect, in some parts of Europe in limited circumstances.
Having done that, I believe that we should repeal the 1998 Act and replace it with our own Bill of Rights. That Bill of Rights should be based on a fundamentally British understanding of how our common law has developed since the Magna Carta. It should protect people’s individual freedoms, but not take the whole process to a ridiculous conclusion, the sort that states
27 Oct 2011 : Column 555
that I cannot say what I believe or speak my truth if it might somehow insult the sensibilities of, for example, an hon. Friend. For instance, there was an absurd case concerning an argument about Islam that took place over the breakfast table in a bed and breakfast. The owner made a disparaging comment about Islam, suggesting that it was a violent religion—not a comment I would have made—but it was said in the course of a normal conversation. He was promptly taken to court for somehow infringing the human rights of the person with whom he was arguing. We all know that this is profoundly un-British and that it is not working. It is preventing British Ministers carrying out what a British Parliament wants. I believe that we should replace the 1998 Act with a British Bill of Rights.
Oliver Heald (North East Hertfordshire) (Con): May I start by congratulating you, Mr Deputy Speaker, on being made an honorary member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, which is well deserved? Of course, many of us are very sad that you are not so frequently there, partly because we now have to speak on Fridays, and you were always extremely good at that.
I agree with much of what my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr Leigh) said. The European Court of Human Rights has a very important function. The European convention on human rights was designed by English lawyers and expresses what were seen to be the fundamental rights of English common law—the right to a fair trial and so on. It is therefore ironic that the introduction of the Human Rights Act, which incorporated the convention into English law, has somehow been seen as a new departure and used to extend the law, which I think is the mistake. It is the way in which it has been incorporated that is the problem.
I am chairman of the executive of the Society of Conservative Lawyers, which for some years has produced publications and pamphlets arguing for a British Bill of Rights. The secret of why that approach is the right one is that it would be possible to have some kind of route map explaining how the rights should be interpreted in English law, which is what is needed. I welcome the fact that the Government have established a commission to consider that. At the Conservative party conference the Home Secretary talked about the immigration rules and how they comply with the convention. She made the point that it is not the rights themselves that are the problem, but the way they are put into English law in the immigration rules. She is now going to change those rules to ensure a more sensible approach that explains the interaction between the right to a family life and the national interest, which I think is the right way forward.
The hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) should spend a little more time researching what the Council of Europe does, because although it is an unusual creation, it is an important one. It is multi-layered: it has the Parliamentary Assembly, which does one sort of work, and the organisations allied to it, such as the group of states against corruption; it also has a congress of local and regional authorities, which involves local government across the 47 countries; then there is the Court, which deals with matters that have been presented by individuals complaining about how countries are implementing the convention. He should look at the effect of all those
27 Oct 2011 : Column 556
institutions acting together, because he will find that they are doing a very useful job. The Council of Europe is not an expensive institution in the way the European Union is—I agree with his criticism of the lavish expenditure on the EU and the need to cut it considerably.
The issues that the Council of Europe as a whole addresses, such as migration, are the great issues of the day. My hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr Leigh) has just expressed his concerns about migration. My hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope), who is chair of the Council’s committee on migration, refugees and population, recently produced a major report on migration and how we should tackle it right across the Council of Europe area. It is easy to think that that is the same area as the EU, but it absolutely is not: the Council includes Russia and Turkey and so covers a vast area. As a result, it is able, if its reports are implemented, to have a serious effect on the problem of migration. It is an institution that can cope with that sort of big issue. Equally, the culture, science and education committee is looking into the very issue that the hon. Member for Bassetlaw is concerned about: the internet.
If all 47 countries sign up, it is possible to effect change. The hon. Gentleman should not think of the Council of Europe as an institution like the EU; it is not. The Council covers a wider area, it is multi-layered and, as the hon. Member for Mansfield (Sir Alan Meale) said, its Parliamentary Assembly also has peace missions. If we think back to the Russia-Georgia conflict a couple of years ago, we find that it was the Council of Europe that sent in a team to try to broker peace in that very dangerous situation. The Council also monitors elections. My hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch was in Tunisia last week doing valuable work. The Council is spreading democracy and tackling some of the big issues as only it can, and the hon. Gentleman ought to take a more serious view of it. He spends a lot of time planning mountaineering expeditions—indeed, I once met him at the top of Scafell Pike—and he ought to do that sort of preparation on this subject.
John Mann: The hon. Gentleman has spent too much time on top of mountains, I think; he needs to listen a little more carefully. Election monitoring is also done by the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe and by the European Union, so there is some overlap. It is not a criticism of the work of the Council of Europe to suggest that it can take a bigger haircut along with everyone else; indeed, it is the pro case, just as it is the pro-European case to suggest a big haircut for the European Union. A credible organisation like that can get away with a haircut—because it is credible.
The Government are right to make Court reform a priority, however. With a backlog of 162,000 cases, there is a need for a filter to provide some way of getting through them, and we are right to try to introduce more subsidiarity. I agree with our delegation leader, my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset (Mr Walter), that we should have a system in which one needs leave to take a case to the European Court of Human Rights, although personally I think that one would need also the right, if leave were refused, to apply directly to the
27 Oct 2011 : Column 557
Court. That would not open a great floodgate of cases; it would just mean that, if a particular case were decided for political reasons, which is what can happen in some countries, there would be a further way through.
On the Human Rights Act, I have mentioned my support for a British Bill of Rights, but the other issue is the quality of the judges. I have been a member of the Council’s Parliamentary Assembly for only two-and-a-half years, or perhaps three now, but that problem has been raised in the Assembly throughout that period. Some judges just do not know the Court’s law base, and there is a concern that some countries’ candidates are just not adequate. We should find ways to improve the quality.
Sir Alan Meale: Will the hon. Gentleman confirm, so that the House is not left with the wrong impression, that we refuse candidates at every session? If they do not meet the language, experience and gender balance criteria, we do not appoint them. We send them back, time and time again to some countries.
Oliver Heald: Yes, and of course the answer is not to find a way of letting unsatisfactory candidates through; it is to secure an improvement in the quality of candidates. Knowledge of the Court’s key languages is vital; otherwise it is not possible for the judges to interact with it.
My impression of the European Court of Human Rights is that it takes a slightly diplomatic approach to its cases and almost sprays round the judgments a bit. There is a need to act entirely on the basis of serious human rights abuses and not to feel that every country of the 47 must have a judgment against it. More focus on serious abuses of human rights would meet the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel) and other hon. Friends.
I support Secretary-General Jagland’s programme of reform, which will save money—the hon. Member for Bassetlaw will be pleased about that—and streamline the organisation, reducing the number of committees. It is worth giving credit to Mr Mignon, who is rapporteur of the committee on rules of procedure, immunities and institutional affairs, and involved with the Assembly’s bureau. He has played a major part, and his report on changing the rules is a major piece of work. My hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset played a big part in that. Those changes will improve how the Assembly works.
The rule of law is an important priority for the Government, and I want to mention two issues. The first is migration. If we are to tackle migration, it is important to follow the approach that the committee on migration, refugees and population set out in its recent report, when my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) was the rapporteur. That involves sticking by the Dublin agreement. Asylum seekers must apply for asylum in the first country they arrive in; otherwise they may be sent back to that country. There is talk in the Council of Europe about flexibility and shared responsibility, which suggests that some people who apply for asylum could be waved through to other countries for their case to be dealt with, but that would drive a coach and horses through the regulation of migration in Europe. Many people already cross external borders illegally. It is important to stick by the Dublin
27 Oct 2011 : Column 558
agreement. We should also have better arrangements for patrolling the Mediterranean, and I know that the Government are supporting moves in that direction. I support the idea that our Government could send officials to help to deal with immigration cases in Greece and Italy, rather than going for the shared responsibility, wave-them-through approach. I hope that the Government will continue to offer that support to our southern neighbours in the hope that there will be no weakening of the Dublin agreement.
On extraordinary rendition, Dick Marty, the Swiss parliamentarian, recently produced “Abuse of State Secrecy and National Security: Obstacles to Parliamentary and Judicial Scrutiny of Human Rights Violations”. It is his last report, because he is standing down from the Council of Europe. I pay tribute to his long-standing commitment to human rights, and his campaign against extraordinary rendition. In his latest report, he pays tribute to the all-party group in the House that deals with the issue, and describes its efforts as untiring. It is right to pay tribute also to the all-party group.
The key point about Mr Marty’s report is that it builds on what we have been doing in this country. He says that legislation should not be a cloak for wrongdoing and highlights the importance of parliamentary scrutiny of the work of secret services, as we do here—although, obviously, there may room for improvement in that. He points to the need for courts to develop procedures where secret information can be used without damaging state security. He also addresses the settling of the cases that arose out of Guantanamo and the report that is being produced by the special inquiry led by Sir Peter Gibson. In doing so, he acknowledges that this Government are taking the issue seriously and approaching it in a way that could be a model for other parts of Europe.
The committee on culture, science and education is in the process of producing a report on internet governance. There has been and continues to be a good deal of argument about exactly what the report should contain. I am glad that the Government are making the issue one of their priorities. I hope that when the report comes out, assuming my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Mr Gale) gets his way on exactly what is in it, the Government will take it seriously and use it as part of their approach.
Finally, I welcome the Government’s concentration on tackling discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity. What we do in this country is very seen much as the model for the rest of Europe. Some other countries are way behind—examples have been given with which I agree. It is good that our Government are going to build on the work that has been done in this country and try to spread it across the 47 countries of the Council of Europe.
In conclusion, it is very wise of the Government to have reached agreement with Ukraine and Albania—the countries whose periods of chairmanship are on either side of ours—because that means that, over an extended period of 18 months, the chairmanship can concentrate on some issues and get a result. I wish the Government well and hope that the Interlaken process is the success that it should be. The fact that 47 countries are involved, the largeness of the geographical area covered, and the way in which the organisation is led mean that if something is done right in one country, best practice can be spread right across Europe.
27 Oct 2011 : Column 559
I welcome many of the Minister’s remarks. I was especially pleased to hear his comments about a Bill of Rights and about subsidiarity. The Government seem to have a real programme to implement over the six months of our chairmanship, and most of us in this House would welcome that. However, we shall be scrutinising his work and keeping an eye on him. That is the job of this place, and I know that he will welcome it.
The European Court of Human Rights has a proud history of defending the rights of individuals, but there is no doubt that there have been several questionable judgments that raise issues about its competence across the piece. I refer to the membership of the judges’ bench. It has already been said that a number of judges have little judicial experience, and indeed that some of them were political appointees. That does no good for the whole concept of jurisprudence. We ought to be making an effort to ensure that a court of this importance is matched by the quality of the judges who sit on its benches, and the sooner we get down to that, the better it will be. One judge was reported not to understand the concept of legal precedents. When one gets that sort of ignorance in a court of this kind, one begins to wonder what sort of justice it imparts. Indeed, many people in this country have begun to believe that some of its judgments are, to say the least, beyond the pale. Those people are responsible for overturning the decisions of this House and our courts, so we have a right to expect a greater degree of competence and better qualifications. I know that the Minister will take those thoughts on board.
My next point is about languages—a subject touched on by my hon. Friend the Member for North East Hertfordshire (Oliver Heald). The 2005 Woolf report made 26 recommendations on the working methods of the European Court of Human Rights. One was the provision of language training, and yet that has not been implemented. We all know that interpreters can change the nuance of language dramatically when they interpret one language into another. Because the nuance changes, the meaning can be totally different. That is simply unfair to the people who put their trust and faith in the European Court of Human Rights. I urge the Minister to put language training for judges on his little list as an absolute priority.
The 2010 Interlaken conference and declaration stressed the need to preserve the high quality of the European Court of Human Rights. I have already referred to the lack of quality. This matter is consistently asked about, and it is consistently recorded that we need to do things. No wonder the people of this country get a little impatient when nothing happens. I want to send the European
27 Oct 2011 : Column 560
Court of Human Rights the message that it must get its act together, because it is undermining the confidence of the people of this country—and, no doubt, that of the people in other countries—which is so necessary for it in doing its work.
I was going to talk about prisoner voting, but we had a big debate on that recently. Suffice it to say that I believe that prisoners are in prison by choice. They are not forced to break the law; they choose to break the law. Therefore, there is no problem with the removal of that human right. They choose to deny themselves that human right. We ought to do some plain talking when this matter comes before the Committee of Ministers.
I also question the judges’ appreciation of our values and legal procedures. This nation is lucky to have a common law based on almost 1,000 years of life experience—a common law that has served this nation well. To my mind, it covered all the necessary protections of the people of this country. Indeed, they seem to think that it covered the necessary protections themselves. The fact that there are so many different codes of law in a 47 nation-strong Europe underlines the need for greater knowledge of the various codes of law in those countries. If necessary, that might require a division of the judges’ bench. We certainly need them to understand our code of law if they are making judgments about our citizens.
Martin Horwood: In arguing for an awareness of our code of law, cultural traditions and values, is the hon. Gentleman therefore arguing in support of British judges having the right to interpret the Human Rights Act 1998, and therefore the European convention on human rights, in British courts?
Mr Binley: I am delighted to say that most senior judges believe in the primacy of Parliament, and I have no concerns about that. A few judges have tried to argue differently. Only recently, I noticed the remarks of a senior judge in the Court of Appeal that underlined the importance of the primacy of this place.
I wish to touch briefly on the 162,000-case backlog in the European Court of Human Rights. We all know that it is farcical, and that something must be done about it. I am glad that the Minister has decided to do something. However, I must ask him something. I was once told by a fortune teller that I would live to beyond 80, which would be another 11 years. Will the measures that he puts in place during our chairmanship be completed, and will the list be eradicated, in that time? It worries me, and I want to go to meet my maker with a clear and untroubled mind.
Finally, I wish to say that I know the Minister cares about these matters and is well placed to represent us in respect of them. I look forward—for the first time in many years—to action on the European Court of Human Rights that will give the British people confidence. If the Minister comes away after the six months of the British chairmanship having achieved that objective, we will all be prepared to say, “Very well done, Minister!”
27 Oct 2011 : Column 561
David T. C. Davies (Monmouth) (Con): May I, too, begin by congratulating the Europe Minister on a speech that I think united not just all on the Government Benches but many members of all parties? It is obvious that he intends the chairmanship of the Council of Europe to be used in a positive way and to reform the European Court of Human Rights, which I fully support. That institution was set up in 1949, as we have heard, when we had just come out of a war against dictators and other dictators were still ruling parts of Europe—as they did until well into my lifetime, in the 1970s. It was right that a country with 1,000 years of democracy and a history of supporting human rights should be part of that process, and we should be proud of what we have done and achieved. However, there are things that have come out of the Court that rightly give everyone concern. I wish briefly to mention two with which I have had a personal involvement.
First, a lady came to speak at a meeting I organised about four years ago. I have not spoken to her this afternoon, so I will not mention her name, but she has been in the papers. She was the victim of a sexual assault by somebody who had five convictions for sexually assaulting women, but who was successfully able to use article 8 of the European convention on human rights to ensure that he was not deported back to Sierra Leone. That is a very good example of the human rights of women in this country not being put first. We are putting the rights of rapists and serial sex attackers first, and that has to be wrong.
The second issue, which has also been mentioned today, is the interference in the Government’s decision to try to raise the age for marrying a foreign spouse from 18 to 21. When I served on the Home Affairs Committee under the excellent chairmanship of the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz), who was here earlier, we took part in an inquiry into forced marriages. We heard terrible and shocking evidence that they were widespread in some communities, and that some young women had said in private to British embassy officials, “Please don’t give this man a visa. I don’t want to marry him,” but were unable to say that in public because of family pressure. As a result, judges in immigration tribunals did not take account of evidence that had been given in private, and they granted spouse visas. That is why the Government wanted to raise the age—to protect the human rights of young females in certain communities in this country. That should be a priority.
I absolutely support gay rights and think it is totally unacceptable that anyone should be discriminated against because of their sexual orientation. I sometimes think, though, that that battle has already been won. I would not have thought that many people would think that acceptable any more, certainly in this country. I therefore wonder whether we should prioritise what I think is an even bigger issue for all of us—the thousands of young girls in this country and across Europe, and young males in some instances, who become the victims of forced marriage, domestic slavery, genital mutilation and other such completely unacceptable things.
27 Oct 2011 : Column 562
much to the UK’s chairmanship of that organisation, and to seeing some of the reforms that have been mentioned today.
Damian Collins (Folkestone and Hythe) (Con): It is a pleasure to be called, and a privilege to have the chance to play a small part in this debate. The UK chairmanship of the Council of Europe comes round not very often, so we can truly say that we will not see the like of this parliamentary occasion for decades to come.
I concur with many colleagues who have spoken, particularly on the urgent need for reform of the European Court of Human Rights and the terrible problems caused by the large backlog of cases. I am sure that all hon. Members know of constituents who simply do not know whether a case that they have submitted will ever be heard, and who do not know where they stand.
My hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Mr Gale) and others commented on the importance of internet governance in Europe. That is important in terms not only of internet freedoms, which were an important part of the Arab spring, but of personal security and trade. We need the internet to work as an open common trading environment. People who seek to pass off goods or to break copyright and intellectual property protections on goods and services in the EU, and who use the internet to facilitate that, should know that the force of law will come down on them. That is a challenge for the Council of Europe, the Government and the EU.
I should like to use the time allowed not to go over some of the matters that have already been covered, but to ask the Minister to consider ethics and integrity in sport—another important matter—as part of the work of the UK chairmanship of the Council of Europe. The debate is timely, given the Council’s work on match fixing, on which it has engaged with UEFA. It is also part of the general debate on the reform of FIFA, the governing body of world football, about which members of the Council have also had things to say.
Sport and the ethics of sport have played an important role in the Council of Europe since it was started in 1949. Through the years, the Council has built up significant competence in specialised areas such as quality assurance in sport, and agreements adopted at world and European political levels. The Council of Europe has a unique and important role to play within the sporting environment. It is not a member state Government, an EU institution or an international Government or body, but a forum that brings together people who have concerns about the future of Europe, how countries work together, and the rights and freedoms that we all enjoy. It works across the political spectrum, including in the world of culture and sport.
The Council passed the enlarged partial agreement on sport, which provides a forum for a discussion of ethics in sport and for championing those issues. In 2005 the Committee of Ministers adopted a recommendation that called on the Council to consider that
“good governance in sport is a complex network of policy measures and private regulations used to promote integrity in the management of the core values of sport such as democratic, ethical, efficient and accountable sports activities; and that these measures apply equally to the public administration sector of sport and to the non-governmental sports sector”.
27 Oct 2011 : Column 563
“mechanisms to monitor the implementation of good governance in sport principles, and put in place mechanisms to deal with inappropriate or unethical behaviours in sport, including prosecution where necessary.”
Those are fundamental points, and I am pleased that the Council considered them in its working activities. It could bring those recommendations to bear and raise the issue of good governance with FIFA, the world football body. An active debate on that has been led by Members of this Parliament—the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport this year produced a report on FIFA reform and allegations of corruption against senior officials within the game.
FIFA is based in Europe, and as we have heard, almost every country is represented in the Council of Europe. One country that is not represented is the Vatican, which FIFA is like in some ways. It has an extremely powerful global figure—Sepp Blatter—who is beyond the protection of government. He certainly moves around the world like a latter-day pontiff or monarch, and is above the counsel of both court and Parliament.
People who love the game of football, which is played around the world, including within the jurisdiction of this Parliament, ask, “Is that right? Is there a role for international bodies such as the Council of Europe and parliamentary bodies and Parliaments to speak up?” Allegations of corruption against senior members of FIFA and members of the FIFA executive committee have been made in this Parliament. It is right that we take those allegations up with such governing bodies, and that we challenge the president of FIFA, Sepp Blatter. It is also right to ask whether FIFA is putting its house in order, and whether the concerns of the citizens of Europe, including citizens of this country, are being dealt with by governing bodies. Should we not seek to prosecute people who have done wrong, and launch independent investigations into allegations of wrongdoing?
FIFA is a particularly good—or rather, bad—example of a body challenged by allegations of corruption against its most senior people. In the past 12 months, of the leading 24 FIFA members who make up the executive committee, 11 have faced serious allegations of corruption, two have been suspended, one has been banned for life, one has resigned and four are currently under investigation. This is a body in considerable crisis. In June Sepp Blatter, the president of FIFA, committed the organisation to leading a process of internal reform. I believe that that process needs to move a lot more quickly. I believe that no real progress has been made. At the FIFA congress earlier this month, Sepp Blatter set out a taskforce.
Mr Binley: My hon. Friend knows that I am very interested in football, and in fact played for a long time. Does he not think that Sepp Blatter is part of the problem, not part of the answer, and that the review of FIFA ought to be independent and made up of a global group of people who really understand football?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. For a review of FIFA to have any meaning, there needs to be a fully independent investigation into all the allegations made. Transparency International, which conducted a report for FIFA, said that this should be
27 Oct 2011 : Column 564
the first step towards cleaning up FIFA. It should involve people from outside the organisation and from different walks of life—perhaps judges, people in politics and people with experience of governance in other sporting institutions—who could take the lead and have the power to initiate their own investigations, produce their own reports and do so in public. FIFA has set up a taskforce to look at good governance within FIFA. I think that that needs to move faster and that it should consider commissioning people from outside the organisation to lead the investigations internally. That is absolutely key.
We know of the concerns expressed by some of the judges who have served on FIFA’s ethics committee. In January one of Germany’s most respected judges, Günter Hirsch, left the committee in disgust and said:
“The events of the past few weeks have raised and strengthened the impression that responsible persons in Fifa have no real interest in playing an active role in resolving, punishing and avoiding violations against ethic regulations of Fifa.”
These are legitimate areas of public concern, and it is legitimate for Parliament to take an interest in them too. FIFA has taken some steps forward in the past few weeks. The idea that the location of the World cup should be decided not by an elite few people in the game, but by representatives of every FIFA member, is a step in the right direction. However, widespread investigations are needed into all the allegations of corruption made so far, so that there can be a clean slate.
There has to be greater transparency in the work of FIFA and in how its money is spent, particularly in developing football countries around the world, so that it can be audited and publicly accounted for, just as the work of Parliament or the Government is. The backgrounds of people who serve on international bodies such as FIFA should be clear. If they have any conflicts of interest those should be made clear, as is the case for a member of the Government or a Member of Parliament. If they have financial interests, or their family members have financial interests, in football, it should be on the public record. Any pounds spent by FIFA anywhere in the world should be accounted for. We should know where they go. That is what is required to put football’s governing body back on an even keel and to restore faith in it. However, because of how it is constituted, that change has to be driven by FIFA and Sepp Blatter.
The pace of that change and reform must be greatly accelerated, and it must have a degree of transparency that it simply does not have now. The Council of Europe, and the UK’s chairmanship of it, could consider that matter as part of the work of the Council’s sub-committee on youth and sport. We should debate those issues within that forum, alongside its work on other areas of ethics in sport, particularly match fixing, as I mentioned earlier. It should produce its own report and view to add to the external pressure that must be placed on FIFA, if the necessary reforms are to be put in place and we are to have confidence in FIFA as a world governing body. That would be an incredibly important and popular thing for the Council of Europe to do, and a great way for the UK’s chairmanship to demonstrate its commitment to ethics and sport, as well as the other important areas of work that the Minister outlined.
27 Oct 2011 : Column 565
Mr James Clappison (Hertsmere) (Con): It is a great pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins). I am sure that football supporters throughout the United Kingdom would echo his remarks—as an England supporter, I certainly endorse what he said—and I am sure that everyone shares his concern about how our beloved game is being administered internationally.
I have already paid tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset (Mr Walter) for his sterling work in leading the British delegation to the Council of Europe, but I would also like to pay tribute to Opposition Members who have led the delegation while I have been a member of it. I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope), who is the chairman of the Council of Europe’s migration committee, on which I have the pleasure of serving, for all his hard work in that capacity, and in such an important field. It has been instructive and interesting for me to see how other European Union member states and their representatives view migration. For my part, I am concerned that the questions of who should be permitted to cross borders, who should be permitted to reside in countries, settle in them and become citizens, and who should be removed from them should principally be a matter for member states’ Parliaments and not determined by European law. We must be careful to ensure that the jurisprudence of the European Court of Human Rights does not obtrude unnecessarily in the field of migration.
I want to make three points about what lies ahead for the British chairmanship of the Council of Europe. The first concerns the European Union. I have already made one speech in the Chamber about the European Union this week, and Members might feel that one is enough for a week—I certainly feel it is. However, it is not me who is bringing the European Union into this debate; rather, the European Union is bringing itself in. It seeks to accede to the European convention on human rights and wants Members of the European Parliament to participate in some of the Council of Europe’s activities. I have many reservations of principle about the accession of the European Union to the Council of Europe and the European convention on human rights. I am not clear on what basis the EU seeks to accede to the convention, because every other member of the convention is a nation state and the EU says that it is not one. I am not clear as to whether the change is needed, because the member states of the European Union are already members of the Council of Europe and the European Union already has a charter of fundamental rights, to which the treaty of Lisbon gives legal effect, covering much the same ground as the European convention on human rights. As a result, the prevailing legal position on human rights in Europe could be complicated by the two sets of conventions.
Martin Horwood: Surely the point is that the European Union institutions should not be beyond the reach of the convention. Is the hon. Gentleman not missing the opportunity to take the European Commission to the European Court?
27 Oct 2011 : Column 566
Mr Clappison: I think it has been conceded that any citizen in the European Union who feels that their human rights have been breached can already take the European Union to the European Court of Human Rights through the activities of their member state. That can already be done, and it is not clear what the effect of the European Union joining the convention will be.
However, having said that, I deal with this issue in a pragmatic way. We are where we are; the European Union is going to join. The question for British representation and our chairmanship of the Council of Europe is how we make a success of things and smooth out some of the difficulties. I urge my right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe to pay careful attention to the points that my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset raised about the way in which the European Union members in the Committee of Ministers will operate. There should be no question of any caucusing or any departure from the representation that normally takes place, where every member state on the Committee of Ministers sits as an individual member state. If we depart from that principle, we are in danger of creating two classes of members in the Council of Europe: those that are members of the European Union and those that are not. That would be damaging, so I hope that it does not happen.
I feel confident that my right hon. Friend and his colleagues will work hard to ensure that that does not happen, so that we obtain whatever benefits are to be obtained—at least there is one Member in the Chamber, speaking for the Liberal Democrats, who thinks there will be some benefits; I think it will be more a question of mitigating the damage—and make the best of things. My hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset is not approaching these issues as one who is a completely hardened Eurosceptic, as we know from his speech on this matter the other evening. His voice on this should be listened to, as someone who wants this to succeed and who is taking a pragmatic point of view. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister will pay attention to that, and work hard, as I know he does in every other field of the European Union, to make this a success.
My second point that the British chairmanship could take forward relates to the emerging democracies on the borders and in the neighbourhood of Europe. I am thinking particularly of those that have been involved in the Arab spring. The Council of Europe has built up a good record over a long period of helping to promote democracy in newly democratic states in Europe. Indeed, that is part of its history that has perhaps not been emphasised sufficiently this afternoon. It started in the dark days of the cold war, when it had a small membership. As the cold war ended, and we began to have more democratic states in Europe, the Council of Europe did a very good job of promoting and safeguarding democratic values.
Obviously, the countries on the borders of Europe in the Arab world are in a different position, but there can be a role for the Council of Europe in promoting democracy in those countries. It has already established its partnership for democracy scheme, which is now in operation in Morocco, and it has agreed to give the same status to the Palestinian Authority. This can only be a good thing, and it is in everyone’s interests to promote human rights in countries that have had a political culture of dictatorship and have not been
27 Oct 2011 : Column 567
democracies in the recent past. I would therefore urge my right hon. Friend the Minister to take forward that good work, as it will be to the profit of the Council of Europe and of this country.
My third point is a more general one, and it echoes some of the points made already this afternoon, particularly by my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr Leigh). May we have a tighter focus during our chairmanship on what are generally regarded as human rights? It would be quite an undertaking to try to define human rights in the time that I have available, but I would like us to focus on those things that members of the public, our constituents, would recognise as human rights. They include the right to life itself, the right to freedom of expression, the right to freedom of religion and the right to freedom of assembly. Those are generally accepted as human rights.
It has to be said that, today in Britain, human rights have rather a poor image compared with the one that they had 20 or 30 years ago. Today, if one raises the issue of human rights with the general public, one is more likely to elicit a groan than a cheer. That was not always the case, however. Certainly, in the 1960s, 1970s and—dare I say it—the 1980s, people regarded human rights in a positive way. They associated them with admirable organisations such as Amnesty International, with the dissidents in the former Soviet Union and with the people fighting apartheid in South Africa. Human rights had a positive image, but things are very different today.
In his excellent speech, my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough made some important points about the perception of human rights. I have to say that there is a clue as to what the turning point was. It seems to have come at about the same time as the passage of the Human Rights Act 1998. I remember this because I was in the House at the time. There were those who said that we should be careful about the effect of incorporating the convention on human rights into British law. They pointed out that our legal system was very different from other European legal systems, and that the effect of its incorporation could create considerable difficulty. They also said that it could lead to more and more judgments of a political nature masquerading as judgments on human rights. So far as the Council of Europe is concerned, if Ministers can bring the focus on human rights more tightly on to what people regard as human rights, that would be a good thing.
There is still a need for the safeguarding of human rights in Europe, and even—dare I say it—in this country. Even after the passage of the much-vaunted Human Rights Act, there have been serious violations of human rights affecting this country that were not even covered by the Act. They have, however, been the subject of very good investigations by the Council of Europe. I am thinking particularly—this took place during my time on the Council of Europe—of the very good investigation into extraordinary rendition, which was carried out by the Swiss senator, Mr Marty, and the relevant committee of the Council of Europe. At that time, the question of extraordinary rendition was not terribly fashionable. Only a few lonely voices, such as that of my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Mr Tyrie), raised the issue here, and he was met by a wall of silence when he did so. It was denied that there were any problems for this country with extraordinary rendition. My hon. Friend tried to shed light on it, but not much light was shed.
27 Oct 2011 : Column 568
It has turned out to be the case—not least through the work of the Council of Europe and Senator Marty—that there were indeed matters that needed to have light shed on them at that time. I believe that apologies or acknowledgements have been made that there were problems involving extraordinary rendition, which were denied from the Dispatch Box but were in fact taking place. There certainly were issues of extraordinary rendition on British territory, and there were the “black sites” and the circuit flights used for that purpose in Europe more widely. All of that was brought to light through the work of the Council of Europe. The Council of Europe has indeed played a very good role, as torture is something that I think we would all accept as a breach of human rights. My hon. Friends who served on the relevant committees did a very good job in helping to reveal the facts.
The Council of Europe does not receive a great deal of publicity in this country, but I think it does a very good job in dialogue with other member states, including the new democracies in Europe. It does a good job also in dialogue with the states that have observer status on the Council of Europe, including the state of Israel. It has certainly worked hard with those observer countries to promote human rights through them.
The question of the cost of the Council of Europe was raised by the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann). I think we all need to be vigilant about the costs of these international assemblies, but as has been said, the Council of Europe has not had its expenditure increased, so it has had a real-terms reduction over several years. We should all look carefully at this.
Perhaps a better place to start in the search for cost reductions in our representation in international organisations would be with the European Parliament, which has—today, as it happens—submitted a request for a 5.2% increase in the European budget, coming on top of a claim for an increase of 6% last year, which resulted in an actual increase of 2.9%. I hope that our Ministers will continue to work as hard as they have—it is very much to the credit of my right hon. and hon. Friends that they were at the forefront of the effort—to keep the European budget down. They fought hard, but of course they have to work with the other member states and the other institutions of the EU. There was certainly no lack of effort. In light of the comments from the hon. Member for Bassetlaw, I hope that my right hon. and hon. Friends’ work to control these budgets will get support from all parties. I hope we will not hear something said from either side of the Dispatch Box that is not then followed up in the activities of the MEPs of the parties in question.
I wish the Minister for Europe well in his role. I know he is very busy, with many other matters to attend to. I hope that Britain makes a success, as I am sure it will, of its chairmanship of the Council of Europe. There will be some big issues to confront. I am sure that my right hon. and hon. Friends will rise to those issues and that we will showcase our own very good record in these matters, while also giving impetus on the important challenges that lie ahead—not just in Europe, but in the countries near to Europe—in promoting and safeguarding human rights at this very sensitive time.