We come now to the motion on membership of the UK delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. I have selected the manuscript amendment (b) tabled by the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale West (Mr Brady), who is in his place. To move the motion, I call Mr Owen Paterson.
I beg to move,
That this House adopts with immediate effect the same system for nomination of its membership of the UK Delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe as it has for nomination, following party elections, of membership of departmental select committees, and accordingly directs the Speaker not to send the names of its membership of the UK delegation to the President of the Parliamentary Assembly until the nomination of that membership has taken place according to that system.
After the horrors of the weekend and the statement, there will be many looking at this Chamber today and wondering why we are discussing this arcane issue. It is highly appropriate that we do so because the Council of Europe concerns itself with the conduct of 47 different countries and covers human rights, democracy and the rule of law. At the heart of this debate is the perennial tussle between the Executive and the legislature—it is about who really calls the shots.
May I begin by thanking the Backbench Business Committee for enabling this debate to take place at very short notice? We are six months out from the election, and I am sad to report that the UK membership of the delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe lapsed on 7 November because we did not provide a delegation within six months of our general election. The next chance occurs when the Assembly’s Standing Committee meets in Sofia on 27 November, so there is real urgency in having this debate and in ensuring that we come up with a delegation that is selected by appropriate methods.
If, as I hope, this motion is accepted by the House today, it will enable the necessary elections to take place so that that timetable can be kept. I say “necessary” because most parties in this House with representation in the Assembly already choose their members democratically on a basis similar to that for choosing members of departmental Select Committees.
This motion has attracted widespread support across the House. Those who have signed it include five Chairmen of Select Committees and the Chairman of the 1922 committee of Conservative Backbenchers, as well as a former Conservative Deputy Chief Whip.
On that very point, I understand that my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale West (Mr Brady) has removed his name from the first motion and instead tabled in his name and the names of other hon. Members amendment (b), which has been selected. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the amendment reflects a good old-fashioned British compromise that should be widely welcomed on both sides of the Chamber?
I thank my hon. Friend for his comment, and I am happy to stand corrected. I got off a plane from France only a couple of hours ago and learned about that amendment, which has interesting merits. I shall wait until my hon. Friend moves his amendment to hear how it will work in practice.
Do I take it from my right hon. Friend’s earlier remarks that, although previously serving members have been told they will not be put back on this committee, no substitute names have yet been put forward? If that is true, it would suggest that it is more about removing certain people than there not being room for them to serve again.
My right hon. Friend makes a pertinent point. There is room, because a larger number stood down than were taken off. If I could just make progress, I might explain that point a little later.
The motion should also be helpful to the Government because it will establish beyond doubt that all new members of the new UK delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe will have been chosen by Parliament and not by the Government. The Government are already represented at the Council of Europe in the Committee of Ministers, which is the intergovernmental decision-making body of the 47 member countries. The role of the Parliamentary Assembly by contrast is like that of a departmental Select Committee of this House: it holds the 47 Governments to account for their decisions in relation to human rights, democracy and the rule of law. As I said at the start of my speech, those are the three core competences of the Council of Europe.
The House has only relatively recently begun to elect members of Select Committees. The need to do so evolved over time; and in my view, one of the main catalysts of the current system of election were the attempts by Governments of both persuasions to use the previous system of appointment to exclude those who had criticised their own party. That happened to the late Gwyneth Dunwoody at the hands of a Labour Government, and there was an earlier occasion involving Sir Nicholas Winterton at the hands of a Conservative Government. All Government involvement in appointing members of departmental Select Committees has now ended, and the same should apply to membership of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe.
It is fair to say that hitherto the Labour party has elected its members while the Conservative party has operated on an informal basis whereby those who wish to be on the Assembly are accommodated, and, without exception, those who are already on the Assembly and wish to be reappointed are so reappointed.
Is that not the unfortunate aspect of this whole affair? Those hon. Members who have been replaced testify that they have been told that they are being replaced because they voted against the Government when it came to such matters as purdah. That must be wrong, and that is the central issue that we must address. That is what they themselves have been told by Front Benchers.
I respect my right hon. Friend terribly and have read the motion with a great deal of interest, but after the events of the weekend does he not think that people outside this place will see this debate as somewhat self-indulgent?
That is an interesting point, which I touched on in my opening remarks. We had a lengthy statement lasting 90 minutes or so and I have just come back from France myself. People will wonder what we are doing discussing this arcane issue, but the Home Secretary was absolutely spot-on. The mood I experienced in France at the weekend was one of complete determination to carry on with normal business and not to be knocked off course. The Home Secretary was quite right to say that the football international should go ahead, and I think that we are quite right to go ahead with this debate on a Back-Bench motion, discussed by the Backbench Business Committee only last Thursday, arcane though it might be. We have had a good crack at discussing the horrors of the weekend and now we are discussing something fundamental that the people who launched the attacks do not even believe in. Who calls the shots? Is it the legislature or the Executive? There is a constant battle between the two and this tiny vignette continues that tussle.
Further to his reply to the hon. Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison), does the right hon. Gentleman not concede that a Parliament that can stand up to Front Benchers and in which Back Benchers can exercise their rights is a Parliament that will answer some of the important questions that have arisen from the events of the weekend far better than one composed of yes-men and women?
That was well put and I will not attempt to improve on it.
Of the 12 Conservative members of the PACE from the House of Commons in the last Parliament, four retired at the general election and two others said that they did not wish to continue as members. The remaining six said that they wished to be reappointed, and, in accordance with the precedent, had no reason to believe that that would not happen. As we now have 13 members, that would still have left room for seven additions. At the end of October, however, the Government said that they would not reappoint three of the six who wished to be reappointed because they had voted in September in support of retaining purdah for the EU referendum. That was confirmed in a report in The Daily Telegraph on 4 November that quoted “Downing Street sources” saying that
“the trio had paid the price for rebelling against the Government”.
Such direct interference by the Government in the process of reappointment is at odds with the previous convention in the UK and is also against the statute of the Council of Europe. Article 25a of the statute of the Council of Europe emphasises that appointments or elections should be by Parliament and not by Government. As the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) rightly and accurately said during the urgent question on 3 November, correctly quoting article 25a:
“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”.—[Official Report, 3 November 2015; Vol. 601, c. 888.]
The Prime Minister’s role in announcing to Parliament the members of the UK delegation is purely formal, and before so doing he should consult the parties. This time, there was full consultation with the official Opposition and with other parties but none with the Conservative parliamentary party outside the Government. Why, for example, was there no consultation with the chairman of the 1922 committee of Back Benchers?
The three Members who are being punished for supporting the retention of referendum purdah were backed by the opinion of the independent Electoral Commission, the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, and a majority of this House in a vote on 7 September. By penalising the three, the Government seem to be showing that, far from respecting the decision of the House, they resent it. It is peculiarly inappropriate to choose this issue to do so, as the Council of Europe set up the Venice Commission, otherwise known by its full name of the European Commission for Democracy through Law. It is the Council of Europe’s advisory body on constitutional matters. It has ruled on the conduct of referendums in guidelines and elsewhere. An analysis of its considerable output indicates that the Government’s stance on purdah in the EU referendum is clearly in breach of the European Commission’s guidelines. Specifically, the Venice Commission’s “Guidelines for Constitutional Referendums at National Level”, published in 2001 at its 47th plenary meeting, clearly states:
“However, the national, regional and local authorities must not influence the outcome of the vote by excessive, one-sided campaigning. The use of public funds by the authorities for campaigning purposes during the referendum campaign proper (ie in the month preceding the vote) must be prohibited.”
As recently as 2005, the Venice Commission built on those guidelines in “Referendums in Europe—an Analysis of the Legal Rules in European States”, which notes that Ireland makes provision for electoral neutrality; that in Portugal, all authorities are required to ensure the strictest impartiality; that Latvia must provide citizens with neutral information; and that the Russian Federation—that well known democracy—has neutrality rules. The UK Government were very much out of line in trying to abandon the purdah rules.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that given that the Council of Europe stands for democracy, human rights and the rule of law, it is a bit strange that the Government should punish people for exercising their right to freedom of expression? They are saying, “As you say what you think, and vote as you do, you can no longer go to an institution that champions those principles.”
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. It is even more perverse than that, as for a couple of decades the Venice Commission has promoted the issue of Government neutrality in referendums.
Judges in the European Court of Human Rights are appointed for a seven-year term, which is non-renewable to protect their independence. How can members of PACE from the UK’s governing party express independent opinions in Strasbourg if there is a covert threat that their appointment will not be renewed if they step out of line with the Government’s wishes? Right at the heart of this issue is the question of the separation of powers; that is at the root of the whole debate. What could the Government possibly have to fear in trusting Conservative Back Benchers to elect Conservative representatives to the Parliamentary Assembly, as they do for departmental Select Committees?
I was tempted to raise this as a point of order. My right hon. Friend does not have to go to Europe to get the guidelines on this; he can look at “Erskine May”. On page 265, under the heading “Improper influence”, it says:
“Conduct not amounting to a direct attempt improperly to influence Members in the discharge of their duties but having a tendency to impair their independence in the future performance of their duty may be treated as a contempt.”
In other words, what the Government have done to Members of the House would be treated as contempt of Parliament if it had been done by anybody else in the country.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his assiduous research. That is a most pertinent point. It is also particularly relevant when one considers the three characters in question, all of whom are established, respected, assiduous Members of this House.
My hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope), if I may embarrass him first, has been on PACE for 10 years. He is the leader of the European Conservatives Group—a group with members from 17 countries. He sits on the Presidential Committee, which is made up of the President and the five group leaders. When my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs Gillan) was Secretary of State for Wales, she guided a referendum so skilfully that none of us even noticed it. She is also Vice-Chairman of the Committee on Political Affairs and Democracy. My hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh), who sits on the Council’s Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights, has done splendid work highlighting the horrific persecution of centuries-old Christian communities in the middle east.
No, indeed. They seem to be completely incorruptible and their behaviour impeccable, and they have represented this House well on that parliamentary body, whose job is to hold the 47 Governments to account.
By supporting the motion this evening, the House will be able to tell the Government that the way forward is not for the Government to seek to exercise ever more control through patronage, but to win political arguments through persuasion. We have a great ally in this. The House will be endorsing the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr Cameron) who, as Leader of the Opposition in 2009, gave a speech called “Fixing Broken Politics”, in which he correctly said:
“If we’re serious about redistributing power from the powerful to the powerless, it’s time to strengthen Parliament so it can properly hold the government to account on behalf of voters.”
He specifically said:
“MPs should be more independent - so Select Committee Chairmen and members should be elected by backbenchers, not appointed by Whips.”
Very pertinent to today’s debate, he called for
“Parliament to be a real engine of accountability . . . not just the creature of the executive.”
If it is good enough for the Prime Minister, it is good enough for the rest of us.
When my right hon. Friend introduced the motion, he mentioned all the eminent people who had signed it. He forgot to mention a former Secretary of State who is proposing the motion. Will he confirm that the Conservative party manifesto that we all stood on said that we would increase parliamentary reform in this Session?
Indeed. We all stood on that platform, so we are at one with the Prime Minister in his 2009 speech.
This is unfinished business. It is right that the Executive do not appoint members or Chairmen of Select Committees. It is right that we vote today that this House should appoint its representatives to the body that represents 47 Parliaments, holding 47 Governments to account.
It is straining the ecumenical character of this Chamber to the limit that I am today supporting the right hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr Paterson). In the 20 years that he has been here and the 28 years that I have been here, I think this is the first occasion on which we have been in agreement. He is right. What is at stake here is the continuing reform of Parliament and the movement of power from the Executive to Parliament itself.
I am the longest-serving member of the Council of Europe UK delegation. I became a member in 1997. I am not seeking re-appointment this time for various reasons, but I know well the work of the three Members involved. I was present when they were first nominated and watched with admiration their diligent and effective work on the Council of Europe. The only crime they have committed is that they have been caught in possession of independent ideas, which, as far as the Executive is concerned, is a very serious offence and deserves expulsion from that body.
We should support the motion. We will hear later what the manuscript amendment would be. The Government’s proposed course of action is an outrage and a step backwards for us as a Parliament, because there has been progress—uncertain, faltering progress—in order to reform Parliament. It is the most serious task we have. After the screaming nightmare of the expenses scandal, we have a decade-long task of trying to win back public respect for us as an institution and for us as Members of Parliament. When we appoint people to serve on an international body of such importance, it is absolutely right that we do so in the most democratic way possible. That has not happened with the Conservative delegation.
There is another reason I think we should look at the way in which we can or cannot question the delegation. I believe that we are slipping backwards in our determination to take a firm line on those who offended in an egregious manner when the expenses scandal broke. I have seen somebody ennobled in the House of Lords who put in one of the most unlikely claims. I will not mention what it was.
One of the people who is likely to be recommended for appointment in the place of our three hon. Friends was considered by the Committee for Privileges and Conduct in the House of Lords to have offended against the rules. There were two cases—one in 2012 and one in 2014. In 2014, the person involved had forgotten that he had signed an agreement with the Cayman Islands to lobby for it—
I accept your judgment, of course, Madam Deputy Speaker. It is just that this appointment is of such importance. Our role at the Council of Europe has been an honourable one over its long history, the reputation of the British Members has always been high and we have often set a fine example to other countries.
The Council of Europe has been very influential. When the former communist countries wanted to become part of Europe, their first step was to become members of the Council of Europe. Standards were insisted on by the Council of Europe to ensure that those countries were brought up to the standards that existed throughout the free Europe of the time. That was a great achievement. The Council of Europe is suffering at the moment because its most important issue is human rights, but a rival institution in the European Union is performing the same task, but with much greater finances.
We must refuse to accept the decision that has been handed down to us by the Government in the name of the Prime Minister. We all know that the Prime Minister is probably not intimately involved in such matters. In practice, it is the Whips who are doing this. They should be defied by this House in the name of reform and in the name of increasing the power of Parliament over the Executive.
I beg to move manuscript amendment (b), leave out from “adopts” to end and add
“henceforth a system for nomination of its membership of the UK Delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe following a General Election reflecting that for nomination of membership of departmental select committees, namely that the House of Commons names be communicated to the Speaker following party elections involving a secret ballot (with each party to seek to reflect in its nominations the same gender representation as in its parliamentary membership, in order to comply with the rules of the Assembly), and for such names to be sent as now by the Speaker to the President of the Assembly; requires that the revised system be implemented in time for the delegation thus nominated to be able to attend the January 2016 part session of the Parliamentary Assembly; and in the interim authorises the Speaker to send now the names of the delegation as set out in the Written Statement of 3 November to the President of the Assembly in order to permit UK participation in the Assembly until then.”.
I am pleased to be able to move amendment (b), which stands in my name and that of the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen). In 2009, he and I were elected by our respective parties to sit on what became known as the Wright Committee, the Committee on Reform of the House of Commons. That Committee recommended, among other things, the creation of the Backbench Business Committee—the body that enabled this debate to be tabled—and the election of the Chairs and members of Select Committees.
As has been alluded to by other hon. Members, the establishment of the Wright Committee and the election of Select Committees came about when Parliament was at perhaps its lowest ebb, held in deep disdain by the public and the media, and mired in the expenses scandal. I would venture to suggest that it is the election of Select Committees, perhaps more than anything else, that has begun the process of rebuilding the reputation of this House. Select Committees, with their elected Chairs and with members elected by the party groups, have grown in stature, and I think that the House itself has benefited as a result.
I will not concentrate in my brief remarks on why we are having this debate, because I do not want to build on the magisterial introduction given by my right hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr Paterson), looking at the important work of the Council of Europe and the rules and precedents that surround it. Although I absolutely cleave to the belief that this House should regard itself as sufficiently important, capable and worthwhile to believe that it is obvious that it should choose its representatives, whether on Select Committees or important international bodies such as the Parliamentary Assembly, I tabled this amendment because I am also aware of the dilemma that colleagues might be placed in by the timetable envisaged in the motion. My amendment is an attempt to resolve that difficulty.
My amendment would preserve the principle of election — the principle that this House, rather than the Executive, should choose its representatives on the Parliamentary Assembly and that we should elect them in the same way that we elect Select Committees—but would also accommodate the needs of the timetable for appointment to the Parliamentary Assembly, as set out by my right hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire.
Were the motion to be agreed unamended, we would be left with a very short window in which to organise elections and ensure that the right choices made by Members of this House are put forward for representation in the Parliamentary Assembly. Amendment (b) would therefore preserve the principle of election while recognising that we can have an interim period, so that those Members currently proposed by the Government to be members of the Parliamentary Assembly would still go forward. They would therefore meet comfortably the deadline of 27 November for the delegation to be in place, yet we would also have an expectation that elections would take place before the beginning of the January 2016 part-session. That would give us a reasonable timeframe within which to organise and hold those elections.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (Mr Nuttall) kindly described my amendment as a fine British compromise, and I hope that my hon. Friend on the Front Bench will see it in that light. I hope that the Government will recognise that this amendment is an attempt to preserve an important principle that is held dear by many Members on both sides of this House, while ensuring that the practicalities of appointment to the Parliamentary Assembly can be accommodated.
As has been said already, election to Select Committees is a fairly new practice. There were calls for that for many years, but it began only at the beginning of the previous Parliament, in 2010. Few now would advocate returning to a patronage-based system for appointing Select Committees. Were the motion or the amendment to be agreed to, I suspect that the election of the UK delegation would quickly become the norm too.
This House is made up entirely of elected representatives. It would surely be odd if today it rejected the principle that representatives should be elected. Choosing to support the amendment would be the act of a legislature that is becoming more self-confident, more independent and better able to do its job.
I rise to speak as a member of the Council of Europe.
Many people may think it strange that we are having this discussion in the long shadow of the atrocities that we witnessed over the weekend. They might think that it looks like self-indulgent navel-gazing and that we should be talking about the clash between liberty and security, and how to have more light and love and less hatred and darkness. However, if we think of the history of the Council of Europe, which was born out of the clash of steel and fire of the second world war to champion democracy, human rights and the rule of law, and to spread its wings across a map of 47 nations, it is right that we think again about who we select, how we select, and what we are allowed to say.
Against the backcloth of what we find ourselves in, this may be regarded as a very trivial thing, but it is about whether the Government should be allowed to choose or exclude members of the Council of Europe on the basis of how they are whipped in a vote, whatever it may be. With regard to the Members who have been isolated in this way, I do not agree with what they say on a variety of issues, but I agree with their right to say it—or, should I say, their right to be wrong. Unlike some of the Members involved, I am very much a pro-European. I will be voting and campaigning for Britain to stay in Europe because I think that is in all our interests, while some Members are sceptical or anti-European, but that is not really the point. The argument about requiring the Government not to have a voice during the referendum—indeed, at a point where we may have the presidency of the European Union—may seem absurd to many, but this is about free speech and the right to be, in my view, wrong. Obviously other Members put forward their arguments with great sincerity and believe them to be true.
The issue is whether people who feel strongly about something and are willing to put that forward in what they say and vote for should be punished by the Government in order, in essence, to filter the people who are allowed to go the Council of Europe to talk about human rights, democracy and the rule of law so that they are just yes women and men for the Government of the time.
If the hon. Gentleman did something domestically that the Labour party did not like, it could not remove him from his position. Is that not the crux of the matter? We need to have elected representatives in the Council of Europe, and once elected they must do what they think is right and not be looking over their shoulders.
I felt too polite to make the obvious point that Labour is already embracing these democratic principles and trying to evolve democracy in the Conservative party. I welcome the opportunity to mention that. The hon. Gentleman is right—there is a free election within the parliamentary Labour party.
We are meant to go to the Council of Europe not as representatives of the Government—there are Ministers to do that job—but as parliamentarians. In the exchanges of Back Benchers from across the nations there is a different sort of dialogue going on whereby we can suggest, “Why don’t we do this in our Parliament and your Parliament?”, and begin a campaign. Those in positions of power may be conservative with a small “c” in terms of change or may not want to cross-fertilise culturally in terms of policy, but these sorts of forums enable us to move forward on human rights through free thinking, freedom of expression, and new ideas. For Governments here and elsewhere to constrain that so that it basically duplicates the meetings of Heads of Government would defeat the object of the Council of Europe in many respects.
My view of some of the people we are talking about, strangely enough, is that they are often the difficult, open-minded and self-opinionated people whom the Government wanted to put into exile in Strasbourg but who are now making their contribution in a wider forum, regrouping and coming back with perhaps stronger views. Personally, I do not agree with their views, but this is clearly a public punishment of Back Benchers who dare to have enlightened thoughts and support freedom of expression. Without further ado, I am happy to support amendment (b).
I might do that at the end of my speech, but give me five minutes!
I should also say, just in case anybody thinks otherwise, that, as far as I can see, I will have no gain and a lot of grief if I take the job. If I am asked to do something, I have a tendency to say that I will do it to the best of my ability, and that is what I will do. I have some experience, including nearly 20 years as a member of the Panel of Chairs and a couple of days in the big Chair. With the help of friends, I am sure we can create a satisfactory delegation, if we are allowed to do so.
I do not want to dwell on the background to this debate. My personal view, for what it is worth, is that neither side, if I can put it that way, has covered itself in glory. I certainly think that the Whips Office made a pig’s ear of it, and I think my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope), who is a genuine friend of mine, ignored Denis Healey’s first rule of holesmanship, which is that if you are in one, stop digging. That made it harder for those of us who were trying to broker an agreement between an immovable object and an irresistible force. However, we are where we are.
It is in sorrow rather than in anger that I say to my right hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr Paterson), who moved the motion, that if it goes through as it stands, it will be a complete dog’s breakfast that will leave our relationship with the Council of Europe in the mire. It quite clearly was not thought through by my right hon. Friend or those who signed it. When I telephoned the chairman of the 1922 Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale West (Mr Brady), on Thursday and asked him, “Do you actually know what this is going to do?”, he was very candid and said, “No.” We had a constructive conversation, the product of which—I am deeply grateful to him for it—is amendment (b). I hope, at the very least, that the House will accept it, even though it would not do what I want to do.
Let me go back to the effect the motion will have if it is carried as it stands. The list approved by Mr Speaker has to be in Strasbourg by no later than this Friday, 20 November. That does not mean downstream or by the end of the month—it means by the end of this week. If it is not in by then, we will not have a delegation—at least not until January, but I will come to that in a moment. There is, therefore, a sense of urgency.
My right hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire was right to say that there was a delay, but to be fair to the Government—although I have no reason to be fair to them—we waited, understandably and reasonably, for the Labour party to have its leadership election and for it to apportion high office positions so that others could then be elected to the Council of Europe. That led to a huge delay and in my view there has been an inordinate delay since then, too.
If we do not submit our nomination in time for the Bureau, which will be held in Sofia on 26 November, and the Presidential Committee, which will approve committees on 27 November, none of the work that should take place during December and January will be able to take place. That includes work in Paris, and we really need to be in Paris after what happened over the weekend. Those of us who have served on the Council of Europe have good friends there, and we want to see them and reassure them. We want them to know that we are not running away and that we will be there alongside them and supporting them.
The committee on culture, science, education and media, which is vital, will meet on 3 and 4 December. It is a pity that the Press Gallery is empty, because those who have criticised the Council of Europe need to recognise that we, including the sub-committee that I chair, do a huge amount of work in defence of the freedom of the rights of journalists internationally. We fight for those in prison.
On 7 December, the political affairs committee will meet in Brussels, and that is important. On 8 December, the legal affairs committee will meet in Paris. The monitoring committee, which is one of the key committees of the Council of Europe, will meet in Paris on 9 December. On 10 December, the procedure committee will meet in Paris. On 13 and 14 December—Members should bear it in mind that if the motion goes through, we will have no delegation—the Presidential Committee and the Bureau will meet here in London. The meeting will take place in this building—we are hosting it. We are going to look pretty stupid as a nation if we do not have a delegation to host it. Mr Speaker is probably aware of this by now, but he will host a reception in Speaker’s House at the end of that meeting. On 15 December, the migration committee will meet in Paris. That is important, particularly given what is happening at the moment. On 14 January, which is before the plenary part-session, the committee on the election of judges to the European Court of Human Rights will meet, and that is very important indeed.
I say as gently as possible to my right hon. Friend that a raft of work needs to be done between now and the next plenary session. I have already been prevented from completing a report for the monitoring committee on the future of Bosnia and Herzegovina, because we had no delegation and therefore no members, so I could not go. Other colleagues have found themselves in the same boat.
I am not opposing the principle of election; it applies to Select Committees and that is fine by me. However, if we are going to do that—this is why I tabled my amendment, which has not been selected—I want to give the process a little time so that we can do the job properly. I served on the Procedure Committee and we considered how members of every single Select Committee and the Deputy Speakers and Speaker should be elected.
Let me just finish this point. We made recommendations, only one of which—I will not say which one—was rejected. All the rest went through. The issue under discussion was never raised at that time and we have to ask ourselves why not. The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe and the NATO committee were not mentioned either. They are not on the agenda of my right hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire, in spite of the fact that one very senior member of the NATO committee has also been removed from his position. That may have escaped my right hon. Friend’s notice, but it is true.
If we are to do this properly—and we should—I would have preferred the issue first to be referred to the Procedure Committee so that it could give a proper recommendation on the Council of Europe, the OSCE and NATO. That could then have been approved by the House in time for the election of a full delegation for the next session in 2017.
I am told there is fear that the Government would block that process. I do not believe that to be the case and I hope my hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House will be able to give a clear assurance—she might not—that, were we to go down the route of the Procedure Committee and do the job properly, the Government would not stand in the way of its findings. If we did that, I think we would do a better job.
I can and will work with whatever is foisted upon me this afternoon. If it is the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale West, we will work with that as best we can. However, if it is the original motion, I fear it will fail the House.
My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister issued a written ministerial statement confirming the agreed names of the UK delegation on Tuesday 3 November. The credentials of the current delegation expired on 6 November, six months after the general election, and there is now no UK delegation. The only way to ensure that there is a serving delegation quickly is to transmit the credentials for consideration by the Standing Committee on 27 November. As we have heard, it would prefer to have the credentials a week in advance, and my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale) has already mentioned the date of 20 November.
The longer the delay continues, the more the problem is exacerbated. A failure to submit the delegation’s credentials in time for ratification at the Assembly’s next Standing Committee will mean that delegation members will be unable to participate in Assembly business until at least the next plenary part-session at the end of January.
It is probably best if I try to inform the House of the Government’s position, if the hon. Gentleman will allow me.
The absence of the UK delegation will be most keenly felt in the work of the Assembly’s committees, as well as in preventing participation in key decision making during this period. As has been said, the UK Government do not and cannot represent the Assembly delegation. Consequently, we will be without a voice. My hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet has set out some of the other meetings in more detail.
Even those with sympathy for the principles of the motion should recognise that the UK parliamentary delegation is not a Select Committee of the House. The Council of Europe has certain guidelines to provide that a delegation is a fair representation of Parliament. In meeting those guidelines, we have consistently ensured that the delegation has had appropriate political balance, has members from both Houses and MPs from every nation of the United Kingdom, and has fulfilled the criteria on gender balance.
When there was a vacancy for the leader of the Labour delegation some years ago—the leader of the majority party’s delegation is the leader of the entire delegation—a vote was held between Lord Prescott and Chris McCafferty. Will the Minister explain to the House how the hon. Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale) was chosen as the leader-designate not only of the Conservative delegation but of the entire delegation? How does that process work—is it election or appointment?
Given that the Conservatives have a majority in the House of Commons, I believe that the decision was made by the Prime Minister as leader of the Conservative party. I am not privy to all the ins and outs of how Labour Members decide who they select or appoint to various Committees or Assembly delegations. I do not know about the election to which the hon. Gentleman referred, but I am not aware that it was an election of the whole House. On his logic, it probably should have been, given that the whole House elects Committee Chairs. I am aware that the Labour delegation was uncontested within the parliamentary Labour party in 2010, but I do not know what happened this year.
I have outlined how the Council of Europe has certain guidelines and demonstrated how we have met them. As a consequence, I believe that the delegation is perfectly in order. The delegation has been chosen in this way for many years, and we believe that this is still the right way to nominate the parliamentary delegation, as it is not a Select Committee. I should remind right hon. and hon. Members that we also have parliamentary delegations to the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, NATO and the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly, which is meeting today. The UK and this Parliament are at risk of losing influence at an important time.
The Government do not support the motion. I therefore encourage my right hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr Paterson) to seek the leave of the House to withdraw the motion, or not to give voice to the motion at the end of the debate. I encourage my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale West (Mr Brady) to do the same with regard to his amendment.
I will be brief, Madam Deputy Speaker. When the Government, in a system without the separation of powers, choose to use their dominance against the legislature, one of the things they are very good at is making very important issues of principle into trivial or procedural matters. This is painted as an introverted, esoteric issue about the Council of Europe. I have no interest whatsoever in the Council of Europe, and I do not ever wish to be on the Council of Europe delegation, but God bless those who do. The question at the heart of the issue could not, however, be more significant—whether Members of the House can elect their own delegates and do so in a secret ballot, rather than letting Front Benchers decide who is to represent the House of Commons on such organisations. The use of a secret ballot in an open franchise is as fundamental an issue as one can get.
On the back of that, I want to make a short and simple point. There are many new Members in the House, several of whom on my side of the House or on both sides of the House may think that having a secret ballot must surely have been the tradition of the House for 50, 100 or 200 years. No, the idea that Members are capable enough of electing their own members of Select Committees—such as you, Madam Deputy Speaker, who served with great distinction on the Select Committee that I chaired in the last Parliament—is six years old. The fact that we can do that and that Select Committee Chairs can themselves be elected in a secret ballot, within the main parties or within all parties in this Parliament, has been part of our environment only for about five years.
My anxiety is that if we do not hold the line on this issue, there could well be slippage back to the days when a particular important person, the independent-minded Chair of the Social Security and Health Committees, Sir Nicholas Winterton was eased out—in fact, rather publicly pushed out—by his side. On my side of the House, one of the most distinguished Select Committee Chairs, Gwyneth Dunwoody, had to fight, hanging on by her fingernails, to the Chair that she had made such an important part of this House. If I may say so, what had hitherto been rather a backwater, the Transport Committee, became one of the key places in which issues were fought out in the House. We could return to those days very quickly unless colleagues in all parties hang on to the principle that they can elect their own representatives.
The hon. Gentleman was part of the original constitutional Select Committee, the Wright Committee, which recommended that all Committees of this House should be elected. Does this whole incident not demonstrate that not only should such European committees be elected by the House, but House Committees should be elected as well?
That is absolutely right. We have already seen slippage. I will not go into any detail, but the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee was abolished by Government Front Benchers who decided that they did not want it to continue with some of its work. We have seen stalling for six years on the creation of a House business Committee, to which all parties said they would sign up. We are now seeing an erosion of the principle that the secret ballot should rule when we appoint colleagues in the House to representative positions outside it. This is an area of very great concern. It should concern Members of independent mind and none. Members should hold the line on this very significant issue. It has been painted as trivial, but it is actually one of the most fundamental things a Parliament can discuss.
It is a real pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen), who has expressed exactly why this debate is so important and who has consistently put Parliament first.
I have come across the Council of Europe on only two occasions. One was early on when the deputy Chief Whip said to me, “Peter, we’d rather like you to go to the Council of Europe.” Then I found out why: it was not because I would be a star on the Council of Europe, but because I would be sent away from this House and not be aggravating the Whips. May I suggest that some of the Members who have now been removed were put there for that reason?
The principle is not the fact that three Members, who would by convention have been reappointed, have now been removed. That is not the reason why I am supporting the amendment so ably moved by my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale West (Mr Brady)—not the original motion, although my name appears on it. I take the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale) that, in practical terms, if the main motion were passed it would be difficult to get our delegation in place quickly enough, and there would be a gap. That is why we should all support our amendment.
The amendment is a sensible compromise—we would get our delegation appointed tomorrow, effectively, because Mr Speaker has said that he wants to know the will of the House before submitting the names, and then we would have elections next year. That would solve the problem.
I return to the simple point that we are talking about the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. It is not the Ministers who sit on it: it is parliamentarians. It represents this House, so this House must choose. The delegation should not be appointed by the Executive. This is clearly House business and not party political. I am sure that when we vote the Government will do what they have done with so many Backbench business motions and ask the payroll vote to abstain, letting Members who are not part of the Executive express their view on what is clearly a House matter.
Given that my hon. Friend has kindly indicated that he is transferring his support from the main motion to amendment (b), does he share my concern that the Minister only advanced reasons not to support the main motion? I have yet to hear an argument, from those on the Front Bench or elsewhere, why amendment (b) would be a problem.
I am grateful for that intervention. The Minister rightly explained why the original motion would not work, but she did not want to express an opinion on the amendment because it is not something on which the Government should express an opinion. They will stay out of it and let Members, especially Conservatives, make up their own minds.
I pay tribute to the Council of Europe. When I was chairman of the all-party parliamentary group against human trafficking, it was not the European Union promoting reform: it was the Council of Europe. The original convention on the rights of people against human trafficking was a Council of Europe convention, representing 47 countries. I remember arguing from the Opposition Benches that the then Labour Government should ratify it.
This is not a minor matter: it is important. It is about parliamentary democracy, and is in line with what the Prime Minister said so eloquently in his fixing politics speech. The amendment is also in line with my party’s manifesto and, more importantly, supporting it is the right thing to do.
I am a little embarrassed to interrupt this—what can we call it—family argument or lovers tiff. I cannot concur that debates on the inner workings of the Conservative party are the best way to use valuable time in this Chamber, but I welcome Conservative Back Benchers’ newfound belief in democracy. I just think that they should go further and give the public more of a say in important issues. The irony cannot be lost on Tory MPs that they are arguing here to give themselves a vote on electing delegates to the Council of Europe while their peers in the other place are voting to deny 16 and 17-year-olds a vote on the referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union.
Of course, those Conservative Members who are arguing for democracy are correct—that almost goes without saying. I am not as polite as my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea West (Geraint Davies), who is no longer in his place. In the Labour party, we appoint our delegates through elections and we have an excellent set of representatives to show for it. We are happy to see changes made if other parties wish to adopt our system.
The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe is meant to be made up of parliamentary representatives, not Government representatives. Delegates must either be elected or appointed in a way decided by Parliament—neither of which has happened here. Instead, it is clear to everyone that the Prime Minister is simply punishing those Members who disagree with him. That is no way to go about selecting representatives for our country. The Assembly is, after all, meant to be a representation of Europe’s Parliaments, not a group of those in the good books of Europe’s Prime Ministers and Presidents.
The situation is becoming embarrassing for the UK. The Standing Committee for the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council Europe will meet at the end of this month, as has been mentioned, and we still do not have a representative. That means that the UK could be unable to make a contribution when the rest of Europe is debating refugees and migrants, justice and human rights, tackling violence against women and other major issues facing the continent. The UK needs to have a seat at the table when the Assembly is deciding on policies that will affect our country, but once again the internal squabbles of the Conservative party are weakening the UK’s voice in Europe. The Government have had months to sort this out: instead, they have created this unnecessary mess. The Government need to sort out this disagreement with their MPs before it damages our place at the table in Europe.
How wonderful it is to observe at close quarters the development and progress of democracy. When I was only an engineer, I used to think that the development of high principle happened through careful thought and gentle means well in advance; I wonder now whether democracy is actually often advanced through the irritation of those in power when their rights are trespassed on by those in higher office.
Of course, these circumstances bear no relation to the great events of 800 years ago, in which a tyrant imposed his will on self-interested barons, out of which emerged Magna Carta. Today, we wish to uphold a principle that the House has already accepted: that we elect our own representatives in matters that are not Government business.
I accept that the original motion, which I signed, involves a little of the revolutionary fervour of 800 years ago. I have been persuaded by my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale West (Mr Brady) to dampen down that revolutionary fire and accept his compromise amendment. If my revolutionary spirit had not been dampened down sufficiently, my hon. Friend the Minister would have quenched it completely. In endorsing amendment (b), therefore, I hope that the Government will also support it wholeheartedly so that we do not have to have a Division. In the event that we do, I will certainly vote for amendment (b) and encourage colleagues to do so also.
How sad it is that we find ourselves in this position, in large part because certain Ministers decided to punish individuals who sat on the Council of Europe for voting with their consciences on key issues. It is as simple as that. We have heard from the individuals themselves that that reason for their removal has been described to them. We have had no denials from Front Benchers on that point, so we do not have to rely on reports in The Daily Telegraph and hearsay: we know why this has happened, and it is a great shame that it has.
We should remind ourselves that we are talking about the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. It should be up to Parliaments to elect, by whatever means they deem fit and sensible, their representatives to the Council of Europe. But here we have this ludicrous tussle between the Executive and the legislature. Ministers have dug a hole; they would now be best advised to stop digging and accept amendment (b), to resolve the situation.
We must come back to the fundamental principle in relation to parliamentarians and Back Benchers on issues of this sort. The Council of Europe, 47 nations coming together, expects its parliamentary assemblies to be made up of Back Benchers who are elected by each other and are able to express their views. We should remind ourselves that that is what the Council of Europe is about. That is how the vast majority of other parliamentary assemblies go about their business. We need to catch up with that fundamental principle in relation to the Executive and the legislature, particularly when Ministers decide to punish individuals for expressing views against the Government.
This matter is about the Council of Europe, but it is also about something much bigger: getting the right balance between the Executive and the legislature. We have an opportunity to take a small step forward in that direction this evening, which is why I encourage the House to support amendment (b), tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale West (Mr Brady).
I am very grateful to be called so late in the debate, Madam Deputy Speaker.
For the benefit of the House, I want to place on the record, as a member of the Backbench Business Committee, that the application for the debate came to us in a cross-party manner. It was not presented purely by Government Members; it was a cross-party application. That should be put on the record clearly from the point of view of the Backbench Business Committee.
We have had a most interesting debate. I endorse those last comments: Members from six parties, I think, signed the original motion.
My hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale) made some very interesting comments. I do not entirely accept his gloomy view that it is impossible to organise a swift election at short notice—given the competence of my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale West (Mr Brady), I think an election could be put forward very rapidly—but he made sensible and practical points about all the important work being undertaken down the road at the Council of Europe. It is not good that the UK is currently not represented.
As the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen) said, we have clearly won the point. It is appropriate for Governments to appoint Ministers to a body representing 47 Governments, but Parliaments should elect the delegates to a parliamentary body that exists to scrutinise and hold to account 47 Governments.
I learnt about amendment (b), tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale West, only as I got off an aeroplane at lunchtime. I sense it has some support across the House. We are not clear on what the Government are going to do. I will wait and see whether my hon. Friend is prepared to press his amendment to a Division. It is probably our best chance for a sensible compromise to keep the delegation doing the important work that my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet requests and to give us a proper election system down the road.
Question put, That the amendment be made.
Main question put and negatived.
Further to that point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Is it possible for the Chair to inform the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) that he would have better understood how to vote and what the discussion was about, had he attended the debate—rather than coming in two minutes before the end?
Very fortunately, the matter of Members being in the Chamber or not is also not for the Chair. On a point of information, however, I should say that the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) was here for a fair amount of the debate, so I am sure he understood as well as anyone.