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Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe: UK Delegation

Volume 604: debated on Thursday 14 January 2016

public administration and constitutional affairs committee

Select Committee statement

We now come to the Select Committee statement. Mr Bernard Jenkin, the Chair of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, will speak for no more than 10 minutes, during which time, I remind colleagues, no interventions may be taken. At the conclusion of the statement, I will call Members to put questions on the subject of the statement and call Mr Jenkin to respond to these in turn. Members can expect to be called only once. Interventions should be questions, and should be brief. Front Benchers may take part in questioning. I call the Chair of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee of the House, Mr Bernard Jenkin.

I am grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for the opportunity to make this statement on PACAC’s report on our brief inquiry into the appointment of the UK delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, which is published today.

When the membership of the new delegation was announced in November, there was some disquiet among some right hon. and hon. Members, including myself and other members of the Select Committee, about the way the delegation was chosen and appointed. Concerns were raised by colleagues and the media that the way some Conservatives voted to defeat the Government on an amendment to the European Union Referendum Bill might have influenced those decisions.

It has been established practice, until this Parliament, for the existing members of the delegation to choose to retire from it, and for potential new members to express an interest in joining. This was not the case in November, when certain right hon. and hon. Members were simply removed from the delegation by fiat. Some of those so removed had wanted to continue, including my hon. Friends the Members for Christchurch (Mr Chope) and for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh), and my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs Gillan). The House should note that my right hon. Friend is a member of PACAC, but she therefore recused herself from the Committee’s proceedings on this matter.

Following a debate in this House to elect a new delegation for the present year, which saw a Back-Bench motion defeated by the payroll vote, PACAC received a letter from my right hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr Paterson) and the Committee resolved to invite the Leader of the House to give oral evidence on the matter. We also received written evidence from my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale), who is the newly appointed leader of the UK delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. We also received written evidence from my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch, although it was very late in the process. I apologise to him for the fact that we had completed and resolved to make our report before his evidence reached me or the members of the Committee. I do regret this and apologise to him for it. Nevertheless, his evidence is published on our website. It would not have altered the substance of our recommendations, but it speaks for itself.

The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe does not much restrict how its delegates should be appointed. It Rules Committee states that delegates are

“elected . . . or appointed from among the members”

of each Parliament

“in such manner as it shall decide”.

My Committee heard that the Conservative party used a system based on patronage of the leader or the so-called usual channels, meaning the Whips Office. As such, PACAC concludes that the Government have not broken any rules of the Assembly. However, the Rules Committee of the Assembly said that the UK Parliament should

“review with the utmost diligence”

the way in which the delegation is appointed to

“bring it fully into line with . . . democratic principles”.

Parliament is not bound to take any action on that advice. Nevertheless, we recommend that the House should revise the way in which delegates are chosen in the future, on the basis that this is how a great Parliament makes decisions, and we should represent the highest standards of democracy and accountability to our fellow European parliamentarians. We therefore recommend that, in future, the delegation should be elected, not appointed by the Prime Minister as now, and moreover elected by the membership of the House of Commons along similar lines to those on which the House now elects members of Select Committees, but also providing for the gender balance required in this case.

This means that the House can object to the inclusion of delegation members who may be considered unsuitable, as is the case with motions on the appointment of Select Committees. This has not been the case before. Following the success of the Wright Committee’s recommendations to reform elections to Select Committees, it seems only right that the same principles should be extended to parliamentary delegations. The key recommendation of this report is that future delegations are chosen by free, fair and open elections. Subject to the approval of this recommendation by the House, the Procedure Committee would consider how the reform might be implemented, also so as to reflect the gender balance requirement.

We recommended that this system of election could be extended to other delegations, such as NATO, the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, and the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly.

I very much hope that the House will welcome this proposal for democratic reform in the way that the UK appoints its most significant parliamentary delegations, and that the House will vote to approve it soon.

Yet again, we appear to be intruding on the private grief of the Conservative party. Although I take no joy in that, I welcome the statement and the report to which it refers. It echoes the collective view from the Opposition Benches that the UK delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe should be chosen on a democratic basis. We wholeheartedly agree with the proposals in the report.

Will the hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin) please confirm that this is the first and only such examination of how this House chooses its parliamentary delegation and that, if the report is agreed, under the rules of the Council of Europe it will be incumbent on the Conservative party to comply with the report’s recommendations?

I believe it is the first time that any review of the procedure has been undertaken. That complies with the request made to us by the Rules Committee of the Parliamentary Assembly, but it is a matter for the House as a whole how it takes this matter forward. The Committee cannot bind the House on how it should proceed. Perhaps the official Opposition will provide time to ensure that the House has an opportunity to debate our recommendations.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin) and the members of his Committee for this very thorough report. What does he intend to do to try and ensure that his recommendations are carried forward, even in the face of implacable opposition from the Government? How can this House of Commons take control of the matter and ensure that its own choices are appointed to the Parliamentary Assembly?

I would recommend either that Back-Bench business time be provided so that my hon. Friend can bring forward a motion, or that that is done by Her Majesty’s official Opposition, who clearly feel strongly about the matter. I imagine that every member of my Committee would support that.

As a member of PACAC, I am delighted to support the report and to applaud our Chair on what he has said. Do the Government accept that there has been a cultural change over the past 15 years and that we now decide most things like this by election? The power of the Whips to stuff Committees with their favourites has more or less disappeared, certainly for Select Committees, and that is a very welcome change.

I very much agree that there are now different expectations about how these matters should be decided. I have in my hand a written ministerial statement issued only yesterday, entitled, “UK Delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe”. Admittedly, it only removes one peer and appoints another, but it was issued by the Prime Minister. He, of course, is a parliamentarian and the leader of a political party, but I think that the expectation now is that these matters should be handled by the two Houses and clearly ought not to be decided by the Executive. We all know what “the usual channels” means; it means decisions being made in secret, reasons not being given, and there being very little accountability. I think that people expect us to improve on that in today’s age.

I very much welcome what my hon. Friend has said about Members being elected to the delegation, rather than appointed. We await the Government’s formal response to the report, but has he had any indication that they might be sympathetic to its conclusions, and can he confirm that it was agreed unanimously by the Committee?

I can confirm that the report was agreed unanimously. The only evidence we have taken from the Government is the oral evidence from the Leader of the House. As we are learning, what a Minister’s private thoughts might be on certain matters might not reflect what they say as a Minister. I hope that the Government will reflect on the Wright Committee and the success of Select Committee elections and recognise that times are changing. The days when they could hand out delegation places to Members of Parliament on the basis of grace and favour are over. That does not win us respect in the Council of Europe or among other parliamentarians across Europe, to whom this House should be setting an example.

As the longest-serving member of the UK delegation to the Council of Europe, I congratulate the Committee, and particularly its Chair, on the impartial way that this matter has been dealt with. Never in all the years that I have served in the Council of Europe did I envisage a day when one of its committees would tell the UK, which has been the gold standard for democratic integrity for the past 70 years, that we should bring our standards of democratic accountability up to those of Azerbaijan and Bulgaria. This has been a shameful period for the United Kingdom. It is not just the delegates who are not elected; neither is its leader. Neither Conservative delegates, nor those from other parties, have any role whatsoever in that. We will be going back on the spirit of the Wright reforms unless that is changed quickly.

I pay tribute to the longest-serving member of PACAC, or whatever name it had in previous Parliaments. The hon. Gentleman has been an enormous fund of institutional memory on that Committee, and that is extremely useful. During our inquiry, he pointed out that his party already has a form of elections for its delegates that provides for the complexity of providing gender balance. Some of the objections that have been raised to say that we cannot do this are therefore clearly confounded by the experience of his party.

I think it would be a mistake to say that this episode has brought shame on our country. The hon. Gentleman is right to make comparisons with other countries that do things better. However, the Rules Committee made it clear that people might have misunderstood the confusion of roles that we have in this House whereby the Prime Minister is also leader of the governing party and sits as a parliamentarian. The more classical separation of powers that is expected does not exist in our constitution. That is not a matter of shame for us, but we are now a little behind the times. We should be demonstrating how, in our procedures, we expect the best, and the most open and democratic, practices to be adopted—not from the age of deference but the age of popular democracy.

I, too, commend the Chairman and the Committee for this report. I confess to finding it strange that the Prime Minister should have sought, in a fit of pique, to exclude troublemakers from the delegation to the Council of Europe, because in my time as a Whip we thought that was one of its purposes. Why does the Chairman think that the Prime Minister did not heed the unfortunate experience of Tony Blair and Robin Cook when they disastrously tried to intervene to change the chairmanships of the Transport and Foreign Affairs Committees? Can he explain this case of prime ministerial hubris without any regard to the inevitable arrival of nemesis?

Without straying too much into Greek terminology, I think that what Prime Ministers have they tend to want to keep and not give up. There was perhaps a failure of imagination about the effect of what people wanted to do, but that has provided this House with an opportunity to review, to debate, and, I hope, in due course to decide on how to make sure that we bring our procedures into the democratic age.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his statement and the way he made it, and thank him and his Committee for producing this report in a most timely fashion since the controversy arose. He has lifted the stone from the rather murky, grubby world of the use and abuse of Government patronage. I congratulate him on doing that and support his recommendations.

With the Select Committee example, we have a perfect opportunity to elect all our delegations to international bodies on a full, free and fair basis. As a member of the Backbench Business Committee, may I invite him to present to us his case for his recommendations to form part of a motion that could be voted on by this House? Now that the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn) has said that we have the support of Opposition Front Benchers, and given the importance that the Council of Europe attaches to motions of this House, but not necessarily to the views of Her Majesty’s Government, it would be a wonderful opportunity to demonstrate that this House is fully behind his recommendations.

I am very grateful for, and flattered by, my hon. Friend’s invitation. It is important to say that were I to undertake to do this, I would want some assurances from those who say they support these proposals that they will make strenuous efforts to make sure that people turn up and vote for them, because we often have debates in this House where very few turn up, and then the Government decide to take no notice. The Member for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn) is nodding and saying that that may well be the case, so it will be a very worthwhile thing for me to do. I will consider it and hope to bring forward a motion proposed by every member of my Committee.