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Committee of Ministers and Council of Europe

Volume 460: debated on Wednesday 9 May 2007

I would like to thank colleagues from all political parties who are here this afternoon. One of the key features of the UK delegation to the Council of Europe is that, although inevitably we have political differences—it is right and proper that those should be reflected in the delegation—there is a common sense of purpose. The Council of Europe makes sense and does valuable work. I am grateful, therefore, to those who have found the time to be here today.

Let us consider the role of the Council of Europe. In this country, although considered important, it is little known. Last year, it was of momentary interest to the media during the debate on forced rendition. At that point, it got some attention in the press. More recently, it was probably of slight media interest when Britain signed up to the convention on action against trafficking in human beings. However, beyond that, I expect that most members of the public are largely unaware of the activities of the Council of Europe as a whole, the Committee of Ministers, the European Court of Human Rights, or indeed the Assembly.

That is in almost absolute contrast to the way in which the Council of Europe is seen in other parts of Europe, where its role and importance are considered significant to developing political cultures, and where it can bring pressure to bear and push for improvements in acceptable standards of democracy, human rights and the rule of law. That is very important. One of the central points that I want to make is this: I believe honestly that the Council of Europe is very cheap, but very good for diplomacy. It is beneficial to the UK’s national interests. There is much to say on the matter and some of my colleagues will want to make different points.

I accept that there are matters of concern. For example, the relationship between the Council of Europe and the European Union has not yet been resolved properly. It has yet to be put to bed. As I think that the Minister knows, inevitably there is always a debate about whether the budget of the Council of Europe is adequate. However, I know of almost no one who would criticise its generic role. It is almost a commonplace for people to say that the Strasbourg Court is the jewel in the Council of Europe family. With the Court safely established, the rule of the judicial system at least operates from Vladivostok to Galway, and from the Arctic circle to the southern-most parts of the Mediterranean. That represents an important step.

I appreciate that this does not apply to the remit of the Court, but would the hon. Gentleman like to remind the House that the Council has a number of observer members, such as Canada, one of whose senators I met at the last part-session? The Council reaches not only as far as Vladivostok—its footprint nearly joins up across the Bering strait as well.

That is an important point, and one that I shall develop in a few minutes when I talk specifically about that matter. However, the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right.

The whole ethos and existence of the Council of Europe is aimed at generating a common culture and set of standards. I shall be quite frank: we are nowhere near that point. Some of our colleagues will be in Armenia this weekend for the elections. I do not mean to single out Armenia for insult, but we know that there are likely to be problems with large-scale electoral fraud. We have concerns about corruption and problems with the rule of law in that society.

The important point is that the Council of Europe and its institutions now provide a benchmark against which to judge countries—be they Armenia, Ireland or, indeed, our own country. It allows for reference to a common standard and an insistence on common respect for things that we take for granted, such as the rule of law and democratic standards.

May I add to my hon. Friend’s remarks about our association with countries not in the great European area? He will be aware of the work being done by the Council of Europe on environmental issues and of the sterling work done by our friends across the Atlantic, particularly in Mexico and Canada, who heeded the Council’s call to sign the Kyoto protocol and to put pressure on the United States of America. That was very helpful. Would he care to comment on that valuable work?

My hon. Friend draws me on to a matter that I shall touch on in a few moments. On his central point about the role of environmental politics and the changes that have taken place, we know that by definition the EU cannot cover the whole of Europe. Certainly, it can be influential. The Council, however, is the whole of Europe, with the exception of Belarus. It has a mandate and sway over certain issues such as the environment—environmental destruction does not recognise national boundaries. As such, the Council is in a very strong position to exert influence in Europe as well as elsewhere on a broader basis.

Does my hon. Friend recall that over the two or three years when people sought to get Russia to sign the Kyoto protocol, it was the Council of Europe that bridged the gap—so much so that when Russia eventually signed, its Government sent their Environment Minister to attend the debate in Strasbourg?

Again, that is an important point and central to what I want to establish today. We in this country will underestimate seriously the value of that institution if we do not recognise that for other countries, even those that still see themselves as relatively powerful global players, such as Russia, the Council is an organisation through which to pursue national interests by working in common with others. That is important. A central foreign policy concern of any British Government is how to deal with Russia and all its complexities. We should value institutions such as the Council of Europe. It can bring Russia together with people from our country and those in the rest of Europe. That makes a material difference to the way in which the Russians operate.

I was going to talk about the contribution made by our colleagues on matters that might not seem that important from the UK’s perspective. It is always worth reflecting on the fact that in my constituency in the centre of Manchester—this applies to many similar constituencies—there are permanently-based Kosovans who fled Kosovo at the time of the military action against Serbia. As everyone in the Room knows, the Serbs were attacking the civilian population of Kosovo. People fled their homes because of the level of instability. In this very small world of ours, we must recognise that instability anywhere, particularly in Europe, will have a material impact on our own country.

We have not just a passing intellectual interest, but a dramatic and real interest in ensuring that we do not take stability in western Europe for granted. We ought to encourage it at every level. Britain has a direct interest in encouraging and maintaining it throughout the whole of the European framework. For many countries, membership of the Council of Europe was seen as part of a process leading sometimes to NATO or EU membership. For other countries, membership of the Council of Europe was important in its own right, but at every level the very fact of those countries seeking some respectability and some measure of the progress that they claimed to have made from the totalitarian days of the communist era, for example, is symbolically important and important practically, because it begins the process of changing the culture. I would not claim that the Council of Europe is the only instrument, the only organisation, that is part of that culturisation process, because, frankly, that would be ridiculous, but it is important that the Council of Europe is one of the instruments through which we have managed to achieve that respect for the standards that we want to export and that help Britain by providing the stability that I have talked about.

We saw that first-hand only at the last part-session, when Montenegro applied to join in its own right, as it is now a new country. It is the 47th country to accede to the Council of Europe and it was not a case of it just walking in because it had been there before as part of another country. It had to be subject to proper observation and had to sign up to the principles of the Council of Europe before we would even consider it joining.

That is absolutely right. We know that Montenegro does not come fully formed and fully committed to all the standards that the Council of Europe maintains, but the situation means that we have benchmarks against which we can measure the position in Montenegro. There will now be a process for some years of monitoring Montenegro, which will allow us to check the degree of progress. Sometimes it is a case of regress as well, because there are certainly countries in the Council of Europe family that have not moved continuously in an acceptable direction. We know that, but it is important that Montenegro chose to make the effort to join because, in doing that, it had to sign up to the basic standards of free and fair elections, the rule of law and respect for human rights. Those are important underpinnings for the population of Montenegro, as they are for every other part of this European family.

I shall refer to a couple of former members of the UK delegation, partly to draw attention to the fact that the work of individual parliamentarians has a material impact on behaviour, or in any case on the level of dialogue that takes place between parliamentarians in this country and those from elsewhere.

I have always found that the absence of the death penalty in all the nations of the Council of Europe is one vital principle. I am sure that my hon. Friend agrees.

If we want to consider one of the great unifying standards, it is remarkable. However, I must say to my hon. Friend that I do not believe that if referendums were to be held in every Council of Europe country on the death penalty, they would all have what we would regard as a successful outcome. In Russia, a debate is taking place almost as we speak about the role of the death penalty. Russia has not yet properly abolished the death penalty. Nevertheless, it has had a moratorium on the use of the death penalty for a considerable number of years, which is a significant achievement in its own right, at least for those of us who believe that the death penalty is a totally misguided form of punishment. That is a real achievement for the Council of Europe.

I want to refer to one of our former colleagues on the delegation, the right hon. Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce), who is not from my party, so this is not a case of party polemics. He wrote a report about political prisoners in Azerbaijan, a country that is a long way away from here and that matters little to people in the Red Lion in my constituency, but the truth is that the issue of political prisoners should concern us, particularly, and ironically, in a country with which we have strong ties because of oil. We have a real interest in the stability of that country, for economic reasons, even if we do not wish to maintain, as we should, a proper and loftier standard of judgment.

Almost certainly, the right hon. Gentleman’s report on political prisoners led to the release of a significant number of people from the prisons of that country, so that shows what can be achieved through the action of one parliamentarian through the institution that we are discussing. I think that I am probably right in saying that he did not know where Azerbaijan was before he was involved with the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, but of course we are all educated by the process and we all become part of that educational process, through which, we hope, we change and improve not only levels of debate, but standards of action.

The other member of our delegation to whom I wanted to refer was Lord Judd, who, as it happens, is a close personal friend of mine. Although I do not think that I could claim that Lord Judd’s achievements in highlighting the situation in Chechnya had the impact that we would have wanted in order to improve the situation on the ground there, they certainly engaged the Russians in an international dialogue in a way that simply would not have happened without the intervention of the Council of Europe. Probably little of that was reported in the media in this country, but in the Russian media Lord Judd was a name that people knew and, frankly, often criticised because of his trenchant criticisms of what took place in Chechnya. Again, it is important that parliamentarians from a country such as ours were able to have an impact that would be seen to be disproportionate by the standards that, I am afraid, our own media use. Lord Judd played an important role.

Perhaps my hon. Friend will also recall the contribution of the ex-Member of Parliament for Hull, North, Kevin McNamara, who, single-handedly really, ensured that there was a wide selection of judges for the European Court of Human Rights, played such a part in getting fairness into that choice programme and improved dramatically the standard of judges who went into the Court.

Again, in this political love-in, my hon. Friend is absolutely right to make that point. The role of the different institutions of the Council of Europe in achieving that balance and insisting on acceptable standards for those who are the judges in that Court is very important. We should emphasise that, because the selection of either a bad judge or a good judge from any one of the other member states of the Council of Europe could have a material impact on our own citizens, in that our citizens may access the Court and come before judges whose competence and standards then become relevant to justice not only in those individual cases but, as they make law, as indeed they do, for the British judicial system. We therefore have an absolute and fundamental interest in the correct operation of the system and the proper and unbiased selection of judges.

One of the debates that has taken place recently concerns the role of gender balance in such courts and the insistence by a significant part of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe that there must be proper acceptance of gender balance in the selection of those who come before the Parliamentary Assembly for appointment as judges.

In that particular case, what does my hon. Friend think is the solution to Malta’s representation in respect of the judges?

My hon. Friend might be surprised to learn that I supported the idea that there should be proper balance. The rules of the Assembly are such that at the moment there is an insistence that any panel of candidates must be balanced for gender, so where normally there is a panel of three, no more than two should be men or women, so that there is a proper choice before the Parliamentary Assembly making the choice of who should be appointed as judge. There was a debate about whether there should be an exception for smaller countries such as Malta, but the general feeling was that that was not the right way for us to proceed. I think that in the end that is the way the Council of Europe will go and I think that most people would welcome that.

Before the hon. Gentleman moves on from the judges, regardless of the gender of particular members of the judiciary in the Court, I am sure that he would want to join me in saying that one of the most impressive things is the courage that is frequently shown by members of the Court, who are often prepared to make controversial judgments relating to their own countries, sometimes in the face of quite considerable pressure.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to make that point. The situation can be quite invidious sometimes. We hear from time to time of the pressures that people seek to apply, but almost nobody argues that the decisions of the Court have been subverted by those pressures, which is a tribute to the Court and to the individuals who make up the Court. It is interesting that although the judicial systems of many of the countries that provide judges to the Strasbourg Court are neither perfect nor beyond corruption or influence, we have been able to create a culture in the European Court that transcends those national problems, so that we can genuinely claim to have an internationally high standard. That is the case with the Court, the Parliamentary Assembly and the Committee of Ministers, and it sends a clear message that although individual units may be venal, the collective can rise above that standard and aspire to the proper standards that we want at European level. That is an important example of how we can use these institutions for the betterment of the whole of Europe.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the Court faces large problems, the biggest of which is probably its huge backlog of cases, which is largely due to budgetary restraints? Does he agree that extra funding for the Court must be found to tackle that problem?

My hon. Friend is right, and I shall come to that issue, but first let me establish the importance of the Court. There is probably no justice or foreign ministry in Europe that does not say kind things about the Court’s role, but it is less true to say that they all put in the effort to ensure that it works. As a former lawyer, my right hon. Friend the Minister knows better than I the concept that justice delayed is justice denied, but the Court’s backlog has a material impact because we are trying to drive a common standard through the European Court.

In countries such as Azerbaijan, many of the decisions being handed down in the national courts are extremely dubious, if I am being kind. The European Court could be part of an important and exciting process whereby every judge in Azerbaijan is aware that their decisions in Baku may eventually be judged against the standards of the Strasbourg Court, and will therefore know that their activities might be examined by a superior court. Such a process would be important in setting standards, but only if those judges knew that the Court’s judgments were likely to be proximate and to have an impact on them.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is essential, even though there are obvious budgetary problems, that the link between the Council of Europe and the Court should be maintained, and that we should not go down the route that some countries prefer of separating the two? Does he agree that the Court’s stability and the way in which it is universally accepted is partly due to its strength in being linked to the Council of Europe?

I agree absolutely. The concept that I have tried to get across today is that the Council of Europe is about changing cultures. It is fundamental that the Court, the Parliamentary Assembly, the Committee of Ministers and institutions such as the Venice Commission are all sewn together as part of one corporate body, because it does matter, in the end, that there is a common structure through which decisions are made and resources are channelled.

It is sensible for me to pick up the point about money. Indeed, the Minister would be surprised if I did not mention the Council of Europe’s budget, because it is one of the outstanding and most difficult problems that we face. The Court’s demands have grown and will continue to grow, and not only because of pressure from the relatively new entrants to the Council of Europe family; we use that system and still send a considerable number of cases to the Strasbourg Court. It is in all our interests that the Court operates effectively, and its effectiveness is at least partly determined by the timing of judgments, which should not be delayed for years and years, as some are at the moment. If we agree with those principles, we must agree to give the Court the necessary resources to deal with its present case load and to make significant inroads into its backlog.

Recently, there has been a temptation to divert resources from other parts of the Council of Europe family into the Court. It is hard to argue with that idea, because we are always paying lip service to the Court, but we must recognise that other parts of the Council of Europe family have important roles to play. I have tried to describe the culturisation role that comes with parliamentarians from the relatively new Parliaments mixing with parliamentarians from our Parliament and other more mature democratic societies. If that process has the effect that I believe it has of changing and cementing strong cultural underpinnings, we should not undervalue the roles of the Committee of Ministers and the Parliamentary Assembly.

We probably have one of the more Council of Europe-friendly Ministers with us today. I do not wish to be critical because I once would have been the relevant Minister for these matters, and the Minister is probably much more Council of Europe-friendly than I was then. That is a reasonable admission for me to make, and it allows me to trade on the Minister’s good will. We need to consider the strategic importance of institutions such as the Council of Europe, which bring people together, and we should try to determine the value of those institutions to this form of relatively low-cost diplomacy. I know that the Foreign Office’s budget is under pressure and that it is difficult to tell an ambassador somewhere that we are going to downscale their operation because our parliamentary colleagues have insisted that more should be done for the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly, but we need to have that debate.

There must be a proper examination of what the Council of Europe can do. If anyone were to argue that we could do without some of the things that it does, I would agree, but that will almost always be the case with an institution of that longevity and complexity when there is a degree of compromise on what activities it takes on. However, there is a central recognition that its overall role, through its Parliamentary Assembly, is very positive. That positive role is not measured only by the paper output or the words that have poured out. Indeed, I have sat through some speeches that I could have done without and I have managed to avoid papers at no obvious cost.

The Council of Europe’s role has changed in some areas. In environmental policy, for example, its role was relatively insignificant and peripheral 15 years ago, whereas it now has a central role to play as a result of the changes in our views on the politics of the global environment. We should accept that the boundaries and what we expect from that institution have changed. I make a plea not for much greater funding, but for us to try to make sense of what the Council does well and what it can do well to influence materially the way in which we in this common European family relate and the way in which we gain advantages at a national level from our membership and use of that body.

I have spoken at reasonable length and I am conscious that others want to speak in the debate, but I note that there are several areas of activity in which the Council of Europe has been involved recently that I could have discussed in greater detail. One such subject is the situation in the Balkans, which is always of lively interest because of its recent past. Others include places such as Moldova and Georgia; the frozen conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia that still disfigures this common Europe of ours; and the situation in Belarus, which has not even made enough progress to enter the Council of Europe. Those are all important areas of activity and inevitably the Council of Europe is at its most sharply focused when dealing with current problems and such issues. The importance of these debates is measured not simply by the fact that they take place, but by the fact that they begin the process of changing people’s minds about how they relate.

I believe that my colleagues would agree that there has been a change in the attitude of the Serbian delegation. Not everyone changes their attitude and mind, but as members of the Serbian Parliament come into contact with those from other Parliaments they must begin to reflect on how Serbia is seen in the wider world. It helps the process of bringing Serbia into the mainstream of how we view democracy in our continent and makes a material difference to the way in which politics is done in that one country and in all the others.

Would my hon. Friend care to put on the record the appreciation of all the members of the British delegation for the work of the staff from this Parliament and, last but not least, for the work of the ambassador and his staff in Strasbourg? I believe that the ambassador is shortly to retire.

I hope that this comment is of value to the Minister in particular. What annoys me is the fact that many of us are absent when a considerable number of votes are taken, and when the lists of the votes and how many times one has voted are published, we do not come out well. My hon. Friend may wish to comment on that, but should he not wish to do so, perhaps the Minister will.

That is always a sore point with members of the delegation, who are bound to make that point. If we work elsewhere, we cannot perforce of circumstances be working here. It seems harsh that the media, on occasions, judges people by their seeming absence, when in fact they may be much more productively engaged in a direct national interest on Council of Europe work. I echo that heartfelt plea from my hon. Friend.

I want to raise one other issue with the Minister: the roles of, and the relationship between, the Council of Europe and the European Union. That has not yet been properly bottomed out or put on a firm footing. I do not ask him to give us specific answers today, because I am aware that the complex process of negotiations through the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers and the European Union’s Council of Ministers is protracted, but we need to begin to establish a relationship between those two institutions that will lead us into the future.

I am not one of those who argues that the Council of Europe is the superior body—that it is older and such like—and thus has greater rights, because to do so would be nonsense in the modern world. We know that the European Union, with its enormous resource base and political clout, will dominate in many areas of activity, but it would be a mistake on its part to want to smother the legitimate activities of the Council of Europe, which even now, by definition, contains twice as many countries, more or less, as the European Union family. It is not a question of one against the other; it is a question of trying to put the balance between the two institutions on a more rational basis, where their activities can complement one another.

I shall draw my remarks to a conclusion by echoing the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield (Mr. Meale). I should like to place on record the thanks of the whole of the British delegation to those who support us: our parliamentary colleagues who work in the overseas office, whose work to ensure that we are able to do the work that we do is quiet but important; people in the Foreign Office; our permanent representative in Strasbourg, Stephen Howarth, and his colleagues, who are particularly effective; and those here in London who help to ensure that our delegation is properly resourced. They are all part of a process that gives a cost-effective form of diplomacy through the Council of Europe family. I hope that, if nothing else, this debate will begin to make people think about how we place that into the context not simply of an immediate demand for more cash in hand, but of how we work together to use this set of institutions to enhance and to advance what we regard as our legitimate interest: the pursuit of democratic standards, the rule of law and human rights.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Manchester, Central (Tony Lloyd) on securing this important debate. It is the first such debate that I have participated in since becoming a member of the Council of Europe. If we were to ask almost anybody outside this place, excluding those who have been on the Council of Europe, what the Council of Europe is, the vast majority would say, “Oh, that is the European Union.” They would immediately confuse the two institutions. That is what I find when I talk to people about what we do in the Council of Europe. People are totally ignorant of it until one mentions the work that it does, particularly its work on the European Court of Human Rights. They clearly understand the important role that the Council of Europe and its Assembly plays in that regard. Indeed, although I knew that the Assembly existed before I became a member, I did not realise that there is also a local government arm for councillors; they attend their own Council of Europe part two.

One of the important things is to bring politicians from the various 47 countries together so that we can talk about what is happening in all of our countries. I do not think that anyone can hold a superior hand by saying, “Because we are an older democracy, we ought to be listened to and we have nothing to learn from anybody else.” We have a lot to learn from some of the other countries.

As the hon. Gentleman mentioned, one of the other roles that we fulfil in the Council of Europe is election monitoring and observing. I remember going to Ukraine to watch its elections. It was amazing to watch the enthusiasm for democracy. So many people were involved up and down the country. I was in Dnieperpetrovsk, which is a Russian-looking part of Ukraine, and I saw the enthusiasm and the number of candidates; I cannot remember how many elections were held there on that day, but the number was quite a few and the ballot paper was 4 ft long. I must say to the Minister that I do not think that there were as many errors there, despite the number of elections in Ukraine on that day, as there were in Scotland last Thursday. I do not know who has what to learn from that, but the fact is that although the situation was rather complicated for this fledgling democracy, the people all wanted to be involved.

The Council of Europe acts as a forum. The Ukrainian Prime Minister came to speak to us at the previous part-session. That gave us an opportunity to ask him questions directly about what was happening in Ukraine—we had heard that the President had called an early election. We had a good debate on the Ukrainian situation shortly after the Prime Minister left. I do not know whether it had any direct impact on the Ukrainians, but I am sure that they were well aware of the debate that we had that day and the questioning of their Prime Minister. I was delighted to learn that the Prime Minister and the President have come together on an agreement about a future election. It will not be in May, but it will be shortly after and at least all of the sides have been brought together. I am unsure that another forum would have been able to do what the Council of Europe did in the previous part-session; we made real advances. Clearly, other Prime Ministers and Presidents come to speak at our sessions and open themselves up widely to questioning. I suspect that that happens more so in the Council of Europe chamber than in their own Parliaments back home. At least we were given that opportunity.

The Council of Europe deals with democracy as well as human rights. The hon. Member for Finchley and Golders Green (Dr. Vis) mentioned the death penalty and its abolition in all our member states—in Russia, it is not being carried out at least—and that is important. I remember that in a debate not so long ago it was mentioned that the United States was an observer nation, despite my never having seen its delegation turn up. A motion was tabled to try to chuck the United States out even as observer, simply because people believe in the death penalty there. When it came to our group meeting, I said that I did not mind speaking on this, but that if I could be certain that someone was a terrorist involved in the innocent deaths in London, I would have no problem in saying that they should be executed. The Russian chairman of our group replied, “Mr. Evans, it is very interesting what you have just said, and you can be the spokesman of our group—as long as you say everything different from what you have just said.” It opens things up quite widely when a Russian says that such issues are important to the Council’s core beliefs.

The exiled Iranian Opposition leader came to speak to some of us about executions in Iran, and I have also been able to talk to Iranian politicians about how the death penalty is used. It brings the whole thing into stark contrast when one learns that youngsters—people under the age of 18—are executed for being gay in countries such as Iran. At least we as politicians have a voice in the Council and can speak up together on issues that we feel deeply about.

I agree with everything that the hon. Gentleman says, and this enthusiasm for matters European is very refreshing, particularly given that the Council of Europe devised the famous European flag with the 12 yellow stars and the blue background—it was nothing to do with the European Union and was brought into being after Winston Churchill’s famous speech in Zurich. That aside, we will shortly all have a problem because Serbia will be the Council’s new chair in governmental terms. The new Speaker of the Serbian Parliament, who has just been elected, is from the Radical party—what we could call a fascist, ultranationalist, Milosevic-supporting party. That happened thanks to the disgraceful switching of votes by one of the other party leaders, Mr. Kostunica, who broke with the democratic, pro-European group in Serbia. I therefore invite the hon. Gentleman and hon. Friends to raise their voices back at the Council of Europe and to voice our protests at Serbia’s turn from the European democratic path and at its engagement with very ugly, unpleasant politics that are contrary to the Council’s values.

I am more than happy to do that. In fact, before I came here today, I saw the press release issued by René van der Linden, the Council’s President, in which he talks about his

“deep concern over the newly elected speaker of Serbia’s Parliament, Tomislav Nikolic”.

He says:

“I have learned with consternation of the election of Tomislav Nikolic, member of a political party run by an indicted war criminal, to the post of Speaker of the Serbian Parliament. ”

When one talks with Serbian politicians, one can see that they are enthusiastic to become a democratic country and to be accepted. My goodness, they want to be admitted to the European Union.

Indeed. They want to be admitted to the Council of Europe and to live up to the code by which we all hope to operate. Events such as those in Serbia fill us with deep consternation and must be condemned. If we believe in human rights and democracy, we cannot sit idly by and take such news on the chin.

It is, of course, necessary to condemn the Serbian Parliament for its decision; indeed, I know Mr. Nikolic, the new Speaker, and I am well aware of Mr. Seselj, the leader of his party, who is in The Hague awaiting trial for war crimes. Does the hon. Gentleman agree, however, that it is also important that we are seen to hold out the hand of friendship to the good democrats in Serbia and that we embolden them by making it clear that we can distinguish between the bad Serbs and those who want to take the democratic path?

That is absolutely right. I agree wholeheartedly. There are Serbian politicians in each of the political groupings in the Council, and we get to know them fairly well. I am sure that many of them will express the same concerns at our next part session. It would be completely erroneous to turn our backs on an entire country because of the activities of a few. We must extend the hand of friendship and see what we can do to assist people in their plight.

I know that other hon. Members want to get in, so I shall briefly mention just a couple of other issues. The hon. Member for Manchester, Central has already mentioned the co-operation between the European Union and the Council. There were fears that the Fundamental Rights Agency was encroaching on the work of the Council and the European Court of Human Rights. It is right to say that the Court is strapped for cash, but this new organisation seems to be rolling in it. It would surely have been far more appropriate to give some of that money to the Court so that it could do its job better. Let us at least admit that the 27 countries of the European Union are all members of the Council and that it would have been better to give the Court more money.

It would also be far better if we had better coverage of what goes on in the Council. The only time I can remember reading anything in our papers about what goes on there was when Dick Marty did his special investigation into extraordinary rendition. The BBC turfed up and we had good coverage in all the media. The Council discusses important issues all the time, and I hope that we can at least get better coverage. I suspect that the coverage in some of the 47 countries is much better than it is in the UK. Those countries are taking things far more seriously, and I hope that our country’s journalists will do the same.

Apart from the Assembly, there are also a number of committees and sub-committees, which deal with a number of issues. The Council is not inward looking. A sub-committee of the Political Committee looks at the middle east. Using its observer status, the Committee on the Environment, Agriculture and Local and Regional Affairs carried out an extensive investigation into the clubbing of seals. Even though the Canadians were allowed to speak, they did not get everything their own way. We were able to speak up on behalf of our constituents and to voice their concerns about seal clubbing in Canada.

The Migration Committee, which I am not on, is important to all of us. It looks at enormous movements of people through not only Europe, but the world. Such movements have a massive impact on us, and we cannot just abdicate responsibility for what takes place on the other side of the world and think that it will have no impact on us if we just ignore it. The Council is not ignoring such issues, and one of its committees is looking in minute detail at why movements of peoples take place and what we can do back in our own Parliaments to influence our Governments to assist such peoples.

Two years ago, I would have shrugged my shoulders at anybody who mentioned the Council of Europe, but I am now a total convert. As I am sure that the Minister will know, I am not a great believer in the European Union and the way in which it operates, but I have seen what can happen when 47 countries co-operate. The European Union has a lot to learn from the Council of Europe—it is not just the other way round.

I am pleased to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) because although nobody in the Chamber would ever regard me as a Eurosceptic, I certainly was a Council of Europe sceptic until I was approached some six months ago and went to see how it worked. I am now something of an enthusiast, for many of the reasons given by my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Manchester, Central (Tony Lloyd), whom I congratulate on introducing the debate.

The only names that we might add to the list of personae whom the hon. Gentleman rightly praised, including our overseas office staff and diplomatic staff, are the members of the House staff who go over to staff the Council’s sessions. It is perhaps somewhat reassuring and even a little humbling for us to remember, given the Council’s origins in the wreckage of Europe after world war two, that the British Parliament and our French colleagues had a large input. Indeed, we are still responsible for a great deal of the day-to-day work, and familiar faces appear in the Table Office.

The Council appeals to me for three reasons. First, the exclusive subject matter with which it deals is dear to my heart. The commitment to the conduct of democracy, the holding of free and fair elections, the rule of law, free speech and the ongoing concern with human rights all form part of our distinctive business.

We are all familiar in this country with the work of the European Court of Human Rights. Since the repatriation of the convention into United Kingdom legislation, by means of the Human Rights Act 1998, there have been some interesting changes in the dynamic, and possibly, in certain cases, in the way in which it is viewed. I worry that too many Brits regard human rights as a matter for eccentric persons and often for objectionable persons such as terrorists. I am sure that some of our tabloid newspapers think that that is what they are about. Others think that they are about trivia—such as the constituent who recently wrote to me about the intrusion into her privacy, after a window was put into a house adjacent to her property. She thought that that was a breach of her human rights, and I politely responded to her. We should remember, if we ever become cynical about the Council of Europe, that many of the countries that have acceded to the Council in recent years have real human rights issues to deal with. It is a matter of life and death. We need only mention Srebrenica to be reminded of all the things that happened in our continent a very few years ago. To some extent we can modestly claim that the Council has played a part in reversing that trend and, as the hon. Gentleman said, that culture.

I have nothing against the Council of Europe; I have never been involved in it, but I certainly believe that it is a very good institution. However, I am worried—I hope that the hon. Gentleman shares my concern—about something that was raised earlier: the fact of the presidency of the committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe going to a Serbian with connections to a more extreme element. In view of Serbia’s refusal to do more to bring to justice the two major war criminals who were undoubtedly responsible for the atrocities that the hon. Gentleman has mentioned, is it any wonder that there is now much controversy arising from the situation I have just described?

It is a fine diplomatic judgment, but my view is that states that accede to the Council of Europe should meet its standards, and its parliamentary representatives should meet those standards as well. We need to consider the situation firmly, robustly and briskly. We do not have to accept it just because a particular nomination has been made. On the other hand, of course, we do not start with the presumption that people are delinquent, without having the opportunity to discuss the matter with them. However, the hon. Gentleman is of course right to raise that point. I shall come to some practical aspects of intolerance shortly.

The second main virtue of the Council is its huge geographic spread. I mentioned in an intervention on the hon. Gentleman the fact that observer status takes us almost around the globe, but even membership itself enables us to project what we might loosely, and perhaps rather arrogantly, call western values as far, at least, as the Caucasus and beyond. That is a huge strength. Wherever the final boundary of the European Union is set, it is likely to be much nearer to us than that, and membership of the Council enables us to widen our influence to the east.

The third point to be made about the Council, which has not yet been made explicitly, is that while it is understandable that as politicians we concern ourselves with peace and war, politics, diplomacy and immediate security threats—those are proper and right concerns, as is the threat to individuals’ or groups’ life and limb—there are, particularly in the committee work, a great many opportunities for wider discussion. It was put to me by one of the ambassador’s officials that in their experience the Council of Europe operates as a high-grade think-tank in which issues that cannot be discussed in the House, where we are usually too busy with party politics, can be developed and thought about, experiences can be shared and a view can be distilled.

To give one example of what I mean about committee work, I am on the equal opportunities committee. I realise that there are people in this country for whom those words come with the automatic assumption that everything is deeply dripping with political correctness, and that no good can come from it. I had a slight feeling of that kind, if I am honest, when I first considered a report, with an Azerbaijani female rapporteur, on the feminisation of poverty. However, on reading the report I came across extremely interesting perspectives, on, for example, women’s position in relation to pensions, which is a matter that concerns many people here. I was able to pass that report on to colleagues here to think about.

Some hon. Members present today may be aware of the work that is being done in this Parliament on anti-Semitism. Coincident with that there is also a Council of Europe initiative on anti-Semitism, and I have taken some steps to see that the two initiatives are joined up, and that our work will feed into the concerns of the Council; the right hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane), who attended the debate briefly, is also concerned about that.

The final point that I should like to emphasise is the personal aspect of the matter. We come here to talk to one another and share experiences, and to communicate feelings across the party divide. We are all familiar with that process, which is a good one. We extend that, in the Council of Europe, to a much wider constituency. We meet people whom we might not otherwise meet, and establish contacts that we might not otherwise be able to keep open. I have mentioned the presence in my own party grouping of the Party of the Regions, from Ukraine, and United Russia, from Russia itself. Those are valuable links that we should use, and they are in a sense also available for wider diplomatic purposes, if that is appropriate.

Where should we take matters next? We need to emphasise that the Council of Europe is distinct; it has a distinct role and needs to stick to that, without wandering into other territory, and to defend its competence in the areas that we have mentioned of democracy, human rights and the rule of law, and the functioning of the Court. We are aware of the unfinished business on the European Convention and the interest of the European Union in the fundamental rights agency. We need to be a little firmer than we have been so far on that matter. We need also to remember that there are other important aspects of the work of the Council that are not coincident with the work of the EU, and which provide it with a distinctive character. I should put it this way, on behalf of the Council: “We are not the European Union and we are not a waiting room for the European Union either. There may be states that want to join us because they now sign up to the values, and will subsequently wish to join the European Union, but we have a distinctive role.” Coincident with that, we need to sharpen our own relevance to the issues that are proper for the Council to deal with, and be ready to put more, not less, pressure on non-compliant member states to monitor what they are doing, and put some holly under them.

Neither should we forget what I might call the cultural hinterland. Defining the role of the Council as democracy, human rights and the rule of law is fine, but we also meet as Europeans, or as near Europeans, in some cases. We should be able to extend our role and, as we do with the European museum of culture, adopt slightly wider interests. However, those are not the general political concerns that are normal in exchanges between states, and which make some dealings with the European Union frankly rather predictable and cynical, in my experience. We do, actually, perhaps rather better than that.

I feel quite strongly that we need to bring the work of the Council of Europe here, as the hon. Gentleman has done in initiating the debate, and ensure that hon. Members are aware of relevant debates. I was very glad when my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady) came to see for himself what was happening at the Council. We should encourage our parliamentary colleagues to do that. An aspect of our position—hon. Members have been frank in the debate about the fact that we are not faultless or above scrutiny—is that we should expect more inward interest in United Kingdom activity. The Council of Europe is already examining aspects of our postal voting system. If we want someone entirely objective about the current political argument on the difficulties of the Scottish election—someone who is outside that argument—it would be an admirable possibility to invite the Council in, and say, “You look at it, and see how it went. You understand elections, so look at the difficulties and compare and contrast.”

There is, of course, a constant dialogue about pressures in the European Court of Human Rights. In my role in Public Bill Committees I enjoy teasing Ministers. If, as happened the other day, a Minister tells me that something does not come under article 3, I say, “But we may get you under article 2, if you are prepared to be that cynical.”

My next point is our non-ratification of treaties, and I am delighted that the Minister for Europe will respond to this debate because we have had a genteel correspondence about it. We all know that there are different practices and different attitudes to the importance of ratification. Some people will sign anything with the intention of doing nothing, but on the whole Britain has been more open and honest in saying that we will sign when we are ready and have looked at the difficulties, and that we will ratify when we have our dots in a row and not with our fingers crossed. That will apply, quite properly, to the convention on trafficking, and I am delighted that Her Majesty’s Government have now signed that and that we have acceded to it. We now need to move, as the Prime Minister said, to early ratification, but we cannot do that overnight.

In the course of my inquiries, I discovered that we have signed, but not ratified, more than 19 other such conventions. Some may have become inappropriate, impossible or out of date, and we should not ratify them. I have suggested to the Minister that he might like to produce an annual report, but I see his reluctance. However, I would like him to take away the need to manage the process and see if we can get our strike rate up and the number of bits of unfinished business down. That would be an important courtesy to the Council and an example to others.

I conclude simply by saying that if colleagues are ever tempted to be cynical about the Council, I would invite them to come and look at our European democratic group. On the first occasion I was there, I saw an Armenian sitting between two Turks, and I suddenly realised the significance of that. That says a great deal about the Council, its virtues and why it has a distinctive role.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Manchester, Central (Tony Lloyd) on securing this debate. I want to say at the start that I agree entirely with what he said, particularly his closing comments and thanks to the staff who work for the delegation here in the House. It is an amazing tribute to their patience and forbearance that they tolerate us as they do.

I also echo the support for and good wishes to the retiring ambassador and the staff in Strasbourg, as well as previous ambassadors and, as hon. Members have rightly said, the staff of the House who do so much to facilitate the Assembly’s work. The Clerk alongside you today, Mr. Weir, is a formidable person to come across in Strasbourg when one is trying to get something past the Table Office. It is always a welcome sign to see the staff here.

The importance of this debate is to plead the case for the non-separation of the European Court of Human Rights and the Council of Europe. They are fundamentally linked, and I know from talking to colleagues from other delegations that they are under pressure to see that separation take place. Funding of the ECHR is essential. If no more cases were submitted to it, there would be a 10-year backlog, so it has a formidable task.

The role of the Council of Europe over the 50-odd years of its existence has not diminished. There are new countries and fledgling democracies that we hope to see manifest themselves as proper democracies, not simply managed democracies, but democracies that are prepared to challenge each other from within, to allow a change of Government without major disputes or conflict arising, and to deal with human rights, the rule of law, and the role of democratic processes at all levels. The Council’s task is still as relevant today as it was 50-odd years ago. It is essential that we look sympathetically, understandingly and realistically at the Council’s role.

The funding issue is a great burden, and we are lucky that our Secretary-General, Terry Davis—a former colleague—who has the unenviable task of trying to keep all the Council’s balls in the air and to keep everyone happy, has done a very good job, but he is up against the zero budgeting situation year on year. The pressure on the Assembly and the Council’s Executive to cut back, cut back and cut back is an ongoing struggle and will not serve any good purpose to anyone in Europe. We need from the Council of Ministers and the 47 states in the Council a more realistic approach to the way in which it is funded. How easy it would have been for the EU to have diverted much of the money that it put aside in creating, to all intents and purposes, a rival to the Council if it had voted those resources to supporting the ECHR more fully.

The issue of the Serbian Speaker is a concern, but if we believe in democratic processes we cannot suddenly say that we do not like the results of elections, whether inside a Parliament or outside. We can criticise it, but we cannot draw a line in the sand and say that a country can no longer attend or should not take up a post when it is their turn under the system. I am sure that many of us have serious concerns about a number of Governments that are ruling member states, but as democrats we must accept that the people in those states have, albeit sometimes in not-too-free elections, arrived at a decision that we do not like. If we are genuinely trying to instil democratic processes, we must work with them and not ostracise them or kick them out.

That is why I opposed the removal of our Russian colleagues when everyone was up for removing their credentials. The position of the 36 Russians who represent the Duma and the Commonwealth of Independent States in the Council of Europe would have been seriously eroded, and I doubt whether they would have attempted to come back if we had gone through with that. We have had to learn the hard way some of the lessons about building democracies, and that must continue.

We must find a way, as hon. Members have said, to bring the Council of Europe into our Parliament here. A negative issue is that, as all hon. Members who have spoken have said, so few people in the UK know what the Council does. We should be able to find a mechanism to have a regular debate in parliamentary time on the Floor of the House about the issues of the Council. Former Members of the House—John Wilkinson and David Atkinson—tried in different ways to bring debates to the House, but were not successful in bringing the whole House behind them so that there was a common purpose to ensure that we had regular debates on the institution, which so many of our colleagues in Europe treat as the biggest and most serious player, and which is changing the way they govern themselves. We should be conscious of that and make more of it.

On the point about justifying Serbia’s involvement, would it be appropriate for someone from Mugabe’s regime to chair the appropriate human rights committee of the United Nations because it was its turn?

We allowed the Libyans to do that. We must bear in mind the conditions of the club that people have joined. I am not trying to justify Serbia or the appointment of its Speaker, but if countries are in an organisation that allows democracy to flourish, albeit sometimes slower than we would want, we must live with that until we can influence them enough for them not to want such people.

Not so long ago, the emergence of a right-wing group in the Austrian Parliament was going to have a detrimental effect on the Council of Europe. There was great concern about whether Haider’s representative would be a serious player in the Council and a similar situation arose in Holland when the Fortuyn group took such a strong position. We were rightly concerned about it, but we did not say that it was wrong for the Dutch people to have voted in that way. They had a choice and they exercised it. We may criticise them, but we should not say that they can no longer come. We must be realistic about what we are trying to achieve as an organisation.

I remind hon. Members that recent debates have been on issues as far ranging as the trafficking of children and the rising scourge of counterfeit narcotics and drugs being sold throughout Europe on the internet. The ongoing problems of the health of Europe are addressed regularly in committees, and many of us who serve on them have joined in the debate, as the hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) said, learning and sharing experiences.

It is important that such issues are raised and aired in Strasbourg, or wherever the committee meets, and delegations’ home Parliaments. Too often, the issues are issues for Strasbourg but no further. I want us to bring back issues regularly to Parliament, engage in them here and involve more of our colleagues in them. Some of our debates have been about key issues of concern to every family. People’s preparedness to end their own lives is an issue that we have avoided in Parliament.

Does the hon. Gentleman not agree that some thought could be given to a short report to parliamentarians? It could be published with the Official Report or e-mailed to people, so that if they have no prior knowledge, they would receive a briefing about what we were up to.

That is an excellent point, and perhaps we in the delegation could decide how we dealt with the idea. It would be worthwhile. I am conscious of the time, and all Members are dying to hear what the Minister has to say about the budget.

The Council of Europe is alive and well, contrary to what people say, and it is as effective and much needed today as it was 55 years ago. I am delighted both that Parliament is so consistent in ensuring that UK delegations to the Council are made up to the correct number, and that so many delegations are determined to make the Council work and to make worthwhile contributions. The Council would be the first to admit that over the past 20 or 30 years, if not over its lifetime, the UK delegation has played a significant role in determining the future of the Council, manifestly to the benefit of the people of Europe.

However much Members are dying to hear the Minister, they will have to wait a few minutes longer.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Manchester, Central (Tony Lloyd) on securing the debate. It goes some small way to fulfil the call that several Members have made to provide more information and make more reports to Parliament about the excellent work that goes on in the Council of Europe, particularly in the Assembly on which colleagues sit.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the present Minister as being Council of Europe-friendly. Unfortunately, I fear that we may lose him before too long, which he may regard as justice denied or at least justice delayed. I can reassure the hon. Member for Manchester, Central that the Opposition and I are also Council of Europe-friendly, and I am very pleased to pay tribute to the organisation and its excellent work.

The hon. Gentleman spoke about the Council’s relatively low profile in the United Kingdom, which is regrettable but interesting when contrasted with the way in which the Council is perceived in other member states. On my recent visit, I was struck by how very seriously the Russian representatives took the Council. That is an important situation, and we ought to work with it and take full advantage of it.

The hon. Gentleman spoke about the Council’s role in promoting human rights, justice and democracy, and he welcomed the fact that those standards are applied throughout all 47 member states. We, too, should welcome that fact, even when it is slightly embarrassing for ourselves, given the current investigation into postal voting. It is a timely reminder that we are not in a position always to lecture others, and that we must pay heed to maintaining high standards in our own democracy and in our own observation of the rule of law.

I mentioned earlier the role of the European Court of Human Rights, which is one of the most important parts of the Council, and the courage that a number of justices show, sometimes in the face of pressure, when dealing with cases that are highly controversial in their own countries. If people knew more about such work, they would regard it highly and they would be keen to know that it is being maintained and carried forward.

I pay tribute to the British members of the Assembly of the Council of Europe. When I visited, I had many conversations with members from other countries, staff and people involved in all aspects of Council work. It was clear that the contribution, activities and the amount of work put in by United Kingdom members are very highly regarded. That point applies to all parties, and all Members should be grateful and show their appreciation to those colleagues who serve with such distinction. They are a credit to our country and the House.

We have heard from a number of colleagues who sit on the Assembly. Some cannot be present: my hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) wished to be present, but he is elsewhere in the House attending to parliamentary business with a strong constituency focus on airports; and my hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) travelled to Athens this morning where he is chairing a meeting on migration.

However, we have had excellent contributions from my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans), who nodded as I said “excellent contributions” and modestly stopped when I referred to him. He noted the importance of the work on migration and he described the way in which the Council works so effectively without the political integration that in some ways intrudes on the operation of the European Union.

My hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) spoke about the strong commitment to free and fair elections, the Council’s election monitoring work and the importance of its equal opportunities work. The hon. Member for Manchester, Central will agree that equal opportunities is not a matter of political correctness. Representing Manchester constituencies, we know about the Pankhursts’ excellent record in the city, that one of them stood as a Conservative candidate there, and that equal opportunities has always been important to all parts of the House.

I do not want to keep the Minister from colleagues for very much longer, but I reiterate the call that my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry made for more information, and for an update from the Minister on when the Government anticipate ratifying the convention against trafficking in human beings. The Government’s signing of the convention was welcome, but we would like them to ratify it in the near future. I hope that the Minister will enlighten us—perhaps while he is still in his current position.

The hon. Member for Manchester, Central also drew attention to the role of British parliamentarians from both Houses and all parties, and their important role in Azerbaijan, Chechnya and elsewhere in the past. Several colleagues referred to concerns that arise from time to time about the future role of the Council of Europe, and in particular the potential conflict with the role of the European Union. It has become a problem recently because of the development of the fundamental rights agency, the danger of duplication of effort, and indeed, the diversion of resources, which could be better spent on the Council of Europe.

The Council’s great strength is its extra geographical spread over countries such as Russia, which does not wish to be a part of the European Union, and Turkey, Ukraine and the Balkans, which do. That spread is of enormous importance to the United Kingdom and all our European colleagues. It provides us with extra reach and with further persuasive abilities to try to achieve improvements throughout the continent and throughout the Council’s 47 member states.

In conclusion, this debate has given us all an opportunity to focus a little more on the important work of the Council of Europe and the European Court of Human Rights. We must also recognise the difference between the Council of Europe and the European Union, and the Council’s vital ongoing role in spreading democracy, the rule of law and human rights.

I welcome this opportunity to discuss the work of the Council of Europe and the important part played by the Parliamentary Assembly. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Central (Tony Lloyd) on securing what has been a good debate, as well as all hon. Members who have contributed to it.

I was particularly pleased to hear Conservative Members of Parliament congratulating a European institution on its contribution to multilateral co-operation. It just shows what happens when they get out more, meet people from other countries and see the benefits of international multilateral co-operation. The only thing that I would warn Conservative Members about is the damage to their political careers that that is likely to cause under the current Conservative leadership. Nevertheless, I look forward to their extolling the benefits of co-operating in other European institutions. After all, the slippery slope that they are on might lead them to see the benefits of European co-operation in general, rather than just in the particularly important context of the Council of Europe.

The Assembly of the Council of Europe can be proud of its history. It was the first such European assembly and has played a unique role in shaping the modern continent of Europe, embracing and assisting the new democracies of central and eastern Europe. Today, the Council’s 315 delegates represent 46 member states, covering 800 million European citizens. As has been observed, that will increase further with the accession of the Republic of Montenegro to the Council of Europe on 11 May.

As one of the Council of Europe’s two statutory bodies, the Parliamentary Assembly is a crucial watchdog for the fundamental rights, freedoms and values of such a vast constituency, providing scrutiny, advice and guidance to the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers and its member states. The Parliamentary Assembly has many notable achievements, not least its contribution to the European convention on human rights and securing the abolition of the death penalty. I commend the work of my hon. Friend and all members of the UK delegation. I congratulate them on the active contribution that they make to the debates and the work of the Council of Europe, particularly in its committees, including my hon. Friend’s role as co-rapporteur on Azerbaijan.

However, the Parliamentary Assembly does not act alone. It is integral to the wider framework of the Council of Europe, an organisation to which the Government are as firmly committed now as when Britain helped found the Council in 1949. For us, the Council represents a key multilateral forum for promoting and protecting democracy, human rights and the rule of law, where we can raise concerns and encourage action. Furthermore, the Council is a practical forum, which backs up discussions with advice and expertise, particularly to central and eastern Europe, in carrying out and consolidating political, legislative and constitutional reform.

The Council is a forum based on a framework of pan-European agreements and standards on issues as diverse as minority rights, local democracy, education, sustainable development and health, all of which contribute to the improvement of member states’ legal and social practices and the development of common values. The European Court of Human Rights is the cornerstone of human rights protection within Europe. The Court guarantees the fundamental rights and freedoms of both states and peoples, and as such is a key legal instrument in promoting and enforcing an effective international system.

All those strengths make the Council of Europe central to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s work on European security. Nevertheless, we cannot afford to be complacent. Europeans need an efficient and modern Council of Europe that can deliver its core mission in the long term. We need to see greater prioritisation and reform, and closer co-operation with other multilateral institutions. Under the leadership of Terry Davis, the British secretary-general of the Council of Europe, the 2005 Warsaw summit set us on the right path. The summit firmly placed human rights, democracy and the rule of law as the fulcrum of the Council of Europe’s work. The Council’s core mission must, in turn, determine the programme of work. We must all concentrate our efforts to prioritise the strengths of the Council of Europe, rather than dilute its efforts.

Moreover, it is imperative that the Council of Europe should provide value for money. The working methods and financial planning of the Council need to be modernised, to ensure rigour in prioritisation and performance. The secretary-general has made an excellent start, outlining plans to restructure the secretariat and revealing his proposals for zero real growth in the 2008 budget.

Before my right hon. Friend the Minister touched on finance, he spoke about the important subjects of democracy, the rule of law, and the rest of it. Are the Government going to make any comment at all about what has happened with the presidency going to a Serbian—and moreover, one associated with a party of the extreme right in that country—or about the refusal of Serbia as a whole to take the necessary steps to bring to justice two major war criminals who are undoubtedly responsible for terrible atrocities?

The EU presidency has today issued a statement, which I support, about the election of Mr. Nikolic, acting leader of the ultranationalist Serb Radical party as Speaker of the Serbian Parliament. The statement notes the appointment with concern and calls on all reform-oriented parties in Belgrade to form a democratic majority-based Government who reaffirm the pro-European orientation of Serbian policy. It is important that we encourage the democratic parties in Serbia to form a Government and take the opportunity to lead their country in a European direction.

On that theme, does my right hon. Friend the Minister agree that the value of the Parliamentary Assembly is that when the Serbian Foreign Minister appears in office before the Assembly, it will be possible for democratically elected politicians from Britain, France or wherever else to ask that Foreign Minister when Serbia intends to deliver Mr. Mladic and Mr. Karadzic to the tribunal in the Hague? That is the importance of the institution.

In my experience, one of the great values of the Council of Europe and the Parliamentary Assembly is that it is possible to have those kinds of conversations. With regard to what is happening in Serbia, I visited the country not long ago. It is vital that all democrats give support to the democratic parties in Serbia, encourage the formation of a Government and—I repeat—encourage the opportunity that the people of Serbia now have to move in a European direction. That is something that we should all be encouraging.

My right hon. Friend the Minister has spoken about the unfortunate happenings in Serbia, and I am encouraged by what my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Central just said about when the Serbian presidency of the Council of Europe comes round. However, I would hope that the Government will make it clear that they do not consider it appropriate for the presidency to go to someone who, as I have already mentioned, is associated with the Serbian right.

I have made my observation about the election in Serbia. I hope that that assists my hon. Friend and sets out clearly the Government’s position.

The Parliamentary Assembly has a clear responsibility in relation to budgetary matters. The secretary-general proposes to reduce the 2008 budget by 2 per cent., which must be viewed in the context of the whole of the 2008 budget. All Council of Europe directorates have accepted the need for the reduction. I hope that the Parliamentary Assembly will shoulder its responsibility, too. I hope that the UK delegation will show leadership inside the Assembly and support the secretary-general’s request.

The need for reform extends to the Court, too. We must make fundamental reforms if we are to guarantee its future. In many ways, the Court has been a victim of its own success. As new members have joined the Council of Europe, more citizens have applied to the Court, and a backlog of 90,000 applications has developed. That represents a serious threat to accessibility and effectiveness, and in practice acts as a barrier to justice.

The Court’s needs are not simply financial, however. As ever, the UK has been at the forefront of efforts to address the problem of caseload. Lord Woolf produced a report in December 2005 to identify some short-term measures. He is also a member of the wise persons group, set up to look at more fundamental reform. The starting point for reform is the ratification of protocol 14, a mechanism designed to introduce simplified and more efficient procedures. Russia is the only member state yet to ratify the protocol. The situation is now urgent, so I should like to take this opportunity to urge the Duma to find a way to ratify it.

I should also like to emphasise that a modern and efficient Council of Europe needs close co-operation with the European Union, the United Nations and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, in order to avoid duplication and ensure that each organisation plays to its comparative advantages and uses its expertise appropriately.

Just to remind the Minister, I hope that he will tell us when the Government will ratify the convention on action against trafficking in human beings.

I shall deal with that in the brief time available. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary signed the convention on action against trafficking in human beings on 23 March, which coincided with the launch of the UK action plan on human trafficking. Having signed the convention, we are now committed to implementing changes in legislation to allow for its eventual ratification. However, the hon. Gentleman will be aware that that is a parliamentary process. In order to ensure that our law conforms with the obligations that we have entered into internationally, there will necessarily be a parliamentary process, which will—