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Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe

Volume 601: debated on Tuesday 3 November 2015

(Urgent Question): To ask the Leader of the House of Commons if he will make a statement about the rationale that was applied in determining which members of the UK delegation should be reappointed to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his work in the Council of Europe over the past 10 years. He will know that decisions about appointments to the delegation are a matter for different political parties, and places are allocated in proportion to representation in Parliament. Normally, decisions are taken through the usual channels and approved by the leaders of the parties represented on the delegation. I appreciate my hon. Friend’s disappointment at the changes to the delegation for this Parliament, but I am sure that he will take advantage of the extra time that he has to spend in the Chamber by making more of his customarily pithy and perceptive contributions to debates.

It is most reassuring to have confirmation from my hon. Friend that the issue of reappointment was not based on merit.

May I ask my hon. Friend what consultation has been carried out with political parties, as specified on page 174 of “Erskine May”? Why will she not confirm that the real reason why three independently minded former Ministers are being purged is because we voted in favour of a free and fair EU referendum with a strict 28-day purdah period, as recommended by the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission and our Electoral Commission? Does she accept that that decision is being interpreted in Strasbourg as direct interference by Government in the work of the Parliamentary Assembly?

The Leader of the House said on Thursday that he was aware of the House’s desire to express its opinion on the membership of the new delegation, and he said that

“no doubt the House will give the matter careful consideration”.—[Official Report, 29 October 2015; Vol. 601, c. 511.]

How is that to be facilitated? Will the Deputy Leader of the House ensure that the House can express its opinion before you, Mr Speaker, transmit the list to the Parliamentary Assembly? As the Assembly cannot consider the list until 27 November, does she agree that there is plenty of time to do that?

Does the Deputy Leader of the House recall the speech made by our Prime Minister on 26 May 2009 entitled “Fixing Broken Politics”? In it he said that

“MPs should be more independent”

and that Select Committee members

“should be elected by backbenchers, not appointed by Whips”.

He called for Parliament to be a

“real engine of accountability…not just the creature of the Executive”.

Why do those fine words not apply to Conservative members of the Parliamentary Assembly?

Six months into this role, I am afraid that I have not digested all of “Erskine May”. I do not know what page 174 refers to, but since my hon. Friend has pointed it out to me, I will make it my urgent duty to consult it straight after this urgent question.

I recognise that my hon. Friend is disappointed. He was appointed by the leader of the Conservative party on the last two occasions, and new people have now been added to the delegation. The written ministerial statement was laid at 11.33 am today, and hon. Members can see the list. If it is of interest to the House, I could read it out, but I am sure that our time would be better served by moving on to important legislation, and that piece of paper is available in the Vote Office.

Far be it from me to intrude on private grief in the Conservative party, but we in the Labour party have elections for these posts. I recommend democracy to the Conservatives.

This smacks of a vindictive attitude by the Government towards some of their Back Benchers. I have never agreed with the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) on a single thing in the history of his or my time in the House, and I am not entirely sure that I agree that he is always pithy—nor am I. He is, however, an extremely assiduous parliamentarian, as are the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) and the right hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs Gillan), who have also been removed. To be honest, the only rationale that I can detect at work in the appointments is that anyone who has ever disagreed with the Prime Minister is for the chop.

It seems that the Deputy Leader of the House does not understand the rules that govern the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. The whole point of the Assembly is that its members are not Government representatives but parliamentary representatives. Indeed, the statute of the Council of Europe is very clear. Article 25a states:

“The Consultative Assembly shall consist of Representatives of each Member, elected by its Parliament from among the members thereof, or appointed from among the members of that Parliament, in such a manner as it shall decide”.

The key point is that delegates to the Assembly are either elected, which has not happened in this case, or appointed in such manner as the Parliament decides, not in such manner as the Prime Minister decides.

Does the Deputy Leader of the House realise that the way in which the Government have proceeded could mean that the Assembly ends up questioning the British delegation for the first time ever? Does she accept that the Government have taken so long since the general election that the six-month grace period will have elapsed, and that the UK Parliament will have no delegation from this Saturday until it is agreed by the Assembly? That is happening at a time when the Assembly has important business to deal with, not least human rights issues in Turkey and Russia’s ongoing suspension and boycott, all because the Prime Minister has stamped his little foot.

The hon. Gentleman says that he rarely agrees with my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope). This is a rare occasion when I disagree with my hon. Friend.

I am sure the shadow Leader of the House recognises that this is the same process that has happened in the past five years. He will be aware that decisions are taken through the usual channels and approved by party leaders. I am not aware that his party leader has objected to the way in which the delegation was proposed.

I have a letter from the Ukrainian delegation to the Council of Europe to the Prime Minister on behalf of Georgia, Moldova, Poland and the Baltic states. It states:

“In international politics, it all too often comes down to personal trust and leadership shown in difficult circumstances. Mr Christopher Chope is such a man who has earned our trust and whose leadership deserves our highest esteem.”

The most important bit is this:

“It would be utterly regrettable if because of his absence during the coming crucial months the Russian Delegation would manage to have its credentials restored”.

I do not understand why the Leader of the House has not come to the Chamber. I suggest that the Deputy Leader of the House reconsiders the position and delays the submission of the names. The current situation is utterly undemocratic and utterly wrong. I am afraid to say that the Prime Minister should be ashamed of himself.

My hon. Friend is right to pay tribute to our hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) for his work on the Council of Europe, but I put to him again the fact that, as happened five years ago, there are new people on the Council of Europe. As a consequence, I do not believe that changes in the new delegation are unreasonable.

The urgent question asked by the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) highlights the rationale that is applied in determining the make-up of such delegations and, further, of Committees and other groups. I advise the House that the Scottish National party is, characteristically, at one in relation to our members of the delegation. Such delegations and groupings should reflect the current make-up of the Parliament. To that end, I take this opportunity to express once more the disappointment of SNP Members that we are excluded from participating in the Joint Committee on Human Rights.

In respect of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, and any other such assemblies, Committees or groups, will the Deputy Leader of the House give assurances and take due cognisance of the hugely important role that Opposition parties, regardless of size, play in the House? We are all democratically elected Members of Parliament and have a part to play, which should be recognised, and appropriately and fairly reflected, in all that we do.

The hon. Lady has been put forward as a new member of the Parliamentary Assembly, as has another SNP Member. All I will say on the matter of the Joint Committee on Human Rights is that there was a unanimous recommendation from the Committee of Selection, at which the SNP was represented. The House eventually voted on that recommendation.

Mr Speaker, I would have thought that, after the ridiculous and mean-spirited attempt to get rid of you at the end of the last Parliament, the Government would have learned a lesson about taking punishment attitudes to appointments.

The PACE is not simply a representation for the Government in Europe; it is a representation for the House. The Assembly will become progressively more important as Europe becomes more unstable, and as matters such as the European convention on human rights become important to this Parliament. Will the Deputy Leader of the House therefore return to the House at a future date with a procedure for ratifying the proposal, so that the whole House can decide who represents it?

The convention has been that representation is split up by political party as represented in the House. Different political parties take different approaches on how they put forward their nominations. The Conservative party puts the decision in the hands of the leader of the party.

I should add for my right hon. Friend that there was no attempt by the Government on the last day of the last Parliament to remove you, Mr Speaker. It matters that that is very firmly put on the record.

I am not a member of the delegation to the Council of Europe, but I am a member of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly. I am pleased to say that I have the confidence of my colleagues and was re-elected to serve on that delegation.

Is it not time that the Conservative party recognised that we are in the 21st century? It should put confidence and trust in its Back-Bench MPs so that individual Members of Parliament decide who represents the party in international bodies, rather than have a top-down, Leninist leadership-led structure.

I do not want to lecture Labour Members on their element of democracy, but the Conservative party has led the way in bringing democracy into the open. We were the first party to have a primary back in 2003, but the Labour party regularly runs away from primaries.

Are there not two fundamental problems? The first is the way in which the Conservative party chooses its members of the delegation, and the second is that the Prime Minister decides on the delegation, not the House. Cannot the problem be solved by allowing the House to vote in a whole-House election on who should represent us on the Assembly? You, Mr Speaker, not the Prime Minister, should submit the list to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe in your name only. I remind the Deputy Leader of the House that, although she is a member of the Government, she is also, as part of her duties, here to represent Members of the House to the Government—she is not always here to represent the Government to the House.

I take those duties very seriously. I am sure that the wise words that have been expressed today will be listened to. Nevertheless, the convention on appointments that has been followed on multiple occasions has been followed in this case. There is nothing to suggest that there is anything disorderly about it. My understanding is that you, Mr Speaker, will present the names on behalf of Parliament to the Parliamentary Assembly.

I thank the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) for bringing this matter to the House and allowing us all to make a contribution.

I agree that the groups should not only be made up of parliamentary representatives but be picked by the House. I share the concern expressed by the hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Ms Ahmed-Sheikh) about the Scottish National party’s exclusion from the Joint Committee on Human Rights. I would like my party to be involved in that Committee, too. Will the Deputy Leader of the House tell us what steps are being taken to ensure that the House itself will decide who the representatives will be, and that Members will make that decision rather than just one person?

I cannot give the hon. Gentleman any assurances about changes in procedure, because there have been no such changes in the past five years. He should be aware, however, that the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr Donaldson) has been appointed as a member of the Parliamentary Assembly. There are 27 Members of Parliament on the list, 10 of whom come from the 2015 intake. This is just about changing with the new set of MPs coming into the House.

I should like to pay considerable tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope). I represent the party in a sister organisation in Europe, the Alliance of European Conservatives and Reformists. My hon. Friend and I were involved in a lot of consultation during the last Parliament over the suspension of the Russians, and he did a terrific job in the Council of Europe. Many people regard it as a jolly, but if they study the work that he has done on that delegation, they will realise what a serious organisation it is. It needs people with knowledge, wisdom and determination, and those are the people this House should be appointing to the delegation.

I agree with my hon. Friend that the Council of Europe is a very serious organisation and that the work undertaken there is of the utmost importance. Yet again, I reaffirm my appreciation of the work of my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch over the past 10 years. It is simply that a decision has been made to bring new people into the delegation.

I congratulate the Deputy Leader of the House on her first statement. Would she welcome other urgent questions that facilitate the washing of dirty Conservative linen in public? If so, I am sure that we on the Liberal Democrat Benches would be willing to help her.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his question. He was my predecessor in this role, so he will be aware of standing at this Dispatch Box. I do not think that this is a case of washing dirty linen. An orderly question has been asked, and although the answer might not be the one he wanted to hear, I believe that it has explained why the delegation is as it is.

I recognise the huge contribution that my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) has made to the Council of Europe, particularly on the important issue of migration. I encourage him not to be downhearted, however, because there are still independent-minded Conservative Members of Parliament on the list of delegates. There are, for example, Members who campaigned and voted for a European Union referendum. The shadow Leader of the House, the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), was wrong to suggest that the list is full of Conservative sycophants.

My hon. Friend has also joined the parliamentary delegation, representing the Conservative party. I am sure that he will be a robust voice in Strasbourg and that he will raise important issues on which all members of the Conservative party are united.