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Council Of Europe

Volume 591: debated on Tuesday 30 June 1998

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7.34 p.m.

rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what plans they have to promote the work of the Council of Europe.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, it gives me great pleasure to open this debate about the future of the Council of Europe. In my short time as a delegate to the parliamentary assembly, my understanding and respect for the work of the institution have increased exponentially. I took the trouble to look up the last time this House debated the work of the Council of Europe; it was in December 1994. The debate concentrated on the proposed admission of Russia to the Council of Europe. My noble friend Lord Kirkhill will remember the debate as he took part in it. On reading the debate, I was struck by how much the institution has grown and developed since 1994. I was also struck by how the issues surrounding human rights have remained much the same.

When I first went on the delegation, I was taken aside by an old and somewhat grizzled journalist and told what he saw to be three home truths about the Council of Europe. They were, first, that the parliamentary assembly was a talk shop where many people talked and few listened; secondly, that it was a waiting room for countries that wished to join the European Union; and thirdly, that the British Parliament was not interested in the work of the Council of Europe. I now believe those views are unduly negative, but I wish to address the issues they raise because next year we will have the 50th anniversary of the Council of Europe. That will give us a tremendous opportunity both to promote a greater understanding of its work and also for the Government to consider how they wish the institution to develop in the future.

The first home truth I was told was that the Council of Europe is a talk shop. Of course that is true, but it is a talk shop with real moral authority. One has to look no further than last week's business in Strasbourg to see the respect which the Council of Europe commands. Last week we were addressed by the King of the Belgians, the managing director of the IMF, the president of the EBRD, the chairman-in-office of the Committee of Ministers, the chairman-in-office of the OSCE, Mr. Paul Murphy, Minister of State for Northern Ireland, and Liz O'Donnell, foreign minister of the Irish Republic.

On top of that, a number of reports were debated by the assembly, perhaps the most controversial of which addressed the situation of the Kurdish refugees in south-east Turkey and north Iraq. The debate stirred real passion and I believe it was a testament to the parliamentary assembly itself that it is the only forum where parliamentarians can directly tell their Turkish colleagues the strength of international feeling about the human rights abuses in Turkey.

The Council of Europe is an outreach organisation. It has knowingly and deliberately taken in members who do not meet all the criteria for membership. Last week some 50 national delegations were present, made up of 40 member states plus other visiting delegations. Yet this was not some international jamboree, it was an ongoing working session of parliamentarians addressing real issues in a way that countries' ministers sometimes feel inhibited in doing. I believe that the assembly, together with the European Court on Human Rights, works to ratchet up standards in practical ways which will affect people's day-to-day lives.

The second home truth my old and grizzled journalistic friend told me was that the Council of Europe is a waiting room for those who wish to join the European Union. I believe that point is untrue, but it raises profound questions about the future of the institution. If countries do come to see the Council of Europe as only a waiting room rather than as an institution which confirms a country's democratic vocation and commitment to human rights, then frustration and disillusionment will set in.

I believe that it is likely that the negotiations for European Union expansion will become ever more intractable and difficult and that the majority of members of the Council of Europe will not become members of the European Union in my political lifetime. It follows that both the European Union and the member

states of the Union have to give a greater status and authority to the work of the Council of Europe if such frustrations are to be avoided.

I am sure that my noble friend will point me to the second heads of state summit in October last year which set out an action plan for a united Europe. It is a laudable document. But I say to my noble friend that the fact that there has been no increase in the budget as a result of the summit reflects on the reality of achieving those aims. If governments are to will the end, they have to will the means. I also remind my noble friend that, with little exaggeration, our own Parliament has not got a clue what the 36 delegates it sends to the Council of Europe actually get up to.

And that brings me to the third home truth of my old, grizzled and somewhat tired friend; namely, that Parliament is not interested in the work of the Council of Europe. I would like to think that the only reason that this debate is not better attended is that it is now only 21 minutes until England kick-off in St. Etienne, but, sadly, I do not think that is the case. The truth of the matter is that Members are not interested in the Council of Europe because they are not told about its work.

And that brings me to the question of parliamentary scrutiny. There are many examples of conventions which this House could have scrutinized during the drafting stage. Parliament simply does not know the content of those conventions or, indeed, whether the Government signed them. I shall give two examples: first, the convention on human rights and biomedicine and, secondly, the convention on the prohibition of cloning human beings. I know that this House has a lot to say about bioethics and it is a loss to all parties concerned that it did not have a role in scrutinising that type of work. While I am on the subject it would be interesting to hear why the Government have not ratified either of those conventions. I suggest that scrutiny could take place within the existing committee structure which is currently used for scrutinizing European Union legislation. I hope that the Chairman of the Select Committee on European Communities, the noble Lord, Lord Tordoff, will treat that suggestion sympathetically as I believe that it will not only better inform Parliament, but will raise the status of the Council of Europe itself.

As I said in my opening comments, we have an opportunity to promote a greater understanding of the work of the Council of Europe through next year's 50th anniversary celebrations and I would hope that we take full advantage of that opportunity.

My Lords, I do not want to intervene for more than a few moments in this timed debate. However, as the noble Lord is aware, I am extremely sympathetic to finding ways in which these subjects may be brought on to the Floor of the House. The possibility of organising an extra sub-committee to deal with the affairs of the Council of Europe is, frankly, remote. To include it in the work of Sub-Committee A is also difficult.

As a starting point, one suggestion is that Members of your Lordships' House who are members of the Council of Europe might submit a report—perhaps to the Library—and then table a Motion to debate that report in the House. We may then he able to proceed to a position where we can debate these matters in this Chamber. I agree with the noble Lord that it is scandalous that we do not take more notice of the Council of Europe.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Tordoff, for that response. I shall discuss his suggestion with other delegates and see whether we can react to his proposals.

I referred to my old and grizzled friend who is tired, but still hopeful. He came up with one final home truth; that is, that the Government do not listen to the views of the parliamentary assembly. I leave it to my noble friend the Minister to answer that point.

7.43 p.m.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede, for raising this matter tonight. I had the honour of being in the British delegation to the Council of Europe in the 1970s, first, as an alternate to Alan Beith and then to David Steel—now my noble friend Lord Steel of Aikwood. Finally, I was leader of the Liberal delegation and vice-president of the Liberal Group.

I made many friends when I was there, not least because I had the dispensation of the delegation car. But I also made some good, genuine friends like the noble Lord, Lord Hardy of Wath. I am delighted to see that he too is speaking in the debate this evening.

Belonging as I did to the pro-Europe party, I thought it a second best to the EEC which, as the saying went, "Had teeth". I should have known better. My mother's Quaker background should have taught me that it is better to move slowly by consensus than fast by applying force, even if the force is merely the force majeure of adversarial politics.

I have grown to dislike and distrust the European Union, its dominance of culture by economics and the growth of bureaucratic laws produced in aid of an even playing field which inevitably favour the strong and handicap the weak. We are now dominated by economics. It is much better that we should encourage this House as far as we can—I agree with the suggestions made by the noble Lord and the encouragement of the noble Lord, Lord Tordoff—to take on discussion and examination of a Europe which is proceeding culturally and humanely; which deals with civil rights; and which at times can act strongly.

The Council of Europe may not have teeth as such, but noble Lords may remember when it expelled Greece because of the Greek colonels and the wonderful moment—I was there—when we were able to welcome Greece back after the colonels had been expelled from government.

The Council of Europe has a great deal going for it. It fills a vision of Europe which some of us had at the beginning of the adventure with the EEC, but have been in the way of losing it. Anything that we can do to strengthen bodies like the Council of Europe—I do not know whether there are any—which are not dominated by TNCs and economics, would be for the better. I congratulate the noble Lord on bringing forward this debate today and look forward to hearing what everybody has to say. I hope it will end up in action in your Lordships' House in making certain that we debate it much more often.

7.47 p.m.

My Lords, I start by commending my noble friend Lord Ponsonby for his initiative in tabling this time-limited debate for your Lordships this evening.

All of us may know that it was in 1949 that the Council of Europe was formed. It was formed by like-minded nations which rejoiced in the name of "democratic nations". There is nothing in the articles of the statute of the Council of Europe which mentions "democracy".

In 1989 the Council of Europe, from 23 nations, suddenly became a body of 40 nations and most of those nations which joined post-1989 had, at best, a limited democratic past, if they had one at all. That meant that the Council of Europe—both at Council of Ministers' level and at parliamentary assembly level—had to institute a monitoring procedure of considerable care and position.

The consequence of that movement within the Council of Europe was that before those new nations joined they were much condemned; after they joined they were considerably supported. That is probably right. But it was the support of the consensus of a cosy political club. The first question that I pose to the Minister, therefore, if we are now talking in terms of the debate of my noble friend Lord Ponsonby, is this. Are the Government proposing at any stage from now on to burst that cosy consensus and attempt to implement the decisions of the monitoring committee and the Council of Ministers? The instruments for implementation seem to be somewhat limited.

I have a second question for the Minister. We are now to have a full-time court, something which I thoroughly support. That court will reach, in a way that the part-time court and commission never did in the past, legal judgments with huge political implications. In the past, judgments have been written and very little as between the states has occurred. Will the Government in the future attempt to make certain that the judgments of the court, many of which will have significant legal implications, are overseen?

My third question to the Minister is this. There is at the moment a committee of wise persons deciding whither the Council of Europe. Admittedly, it is an interim report which has been submitted, but it has three pillars: in essence, the parliamentary pillar, the judicial pillar and the executive pillar. Will the Government stand by that type of recommendation? It would be interesting to know. It would be even more interesting to know whether the Government are interested in a budget that could he constructed on the basis of results.

However, it would be more interesting to know whether the Government will join the social development fund. Standing outside the social development fund, they are seriously criticised in Europe. The 50th anniversary will take place next year. The theme is that the Council of Europe is the democratic conscience of Europe. Can the Government stand by that when they stand outwith the social development fund?

7.51 p.m.

My Lords, we are all grateful to my noble friend Lord Ponsonby for introducing this debate. He has made a powerful case for strong support of the council by all member governments, including, of course, our own. Like my noble friend, I declare an interest as a fellow member of the British delegation to the council's parliamentary assembly.

The timeliness of my noble friend's Question lies not just in the Council of Europe's imminent 50th anniversary. It lies as much in the fact that the council is in any case at a crossroads, with which the advent of its anniversary has little to do. The end of the Cold War, and the council's subsequent enlargement, has confronted the council with formidable new challenges and opportunities, and so, as my noble friends Lord Ponsonby and Lord Kirkhill have pointed out, it is currently engaged in a major reassessment of its structures and working methods to determine how best it can be equipped to handle its new tasks.

In this time-limited debate, I shall do no more than offer a few personal thoughts on what kind of a Council of Europe we should be promoting. First, we should recognise its unique nature and place within the post-Cold War architecture of Europe. It is a political body working in a pan-European context. It is the job of its parliamentary assembly, drawing on its own insights and expertise and on those of the council's intergovernmental staff, to consider, develop and defend the interests of the millions of citizens in its member countries in the areas of human rights, social cohesion and, what is sometimes forgotten, cultural diversity. These are the three pillars which should define the range of its roles.

It is not just an instrument for providing technical assistance in these three areas. If that was all it did, it would be a specialised agency, not a political forum. Nor is it just the ante-chamber to which my noble friend Lord Ponsonby referred, through which countries seeking European Union membership are expected to pass to have their democratic credentials verified. The council is much more than that. It is the single pan-European body with the democratic legitimacy and the perspective to set the standards to which European governments must be held if the construction and development of post-Cold War Europe is to proceed on democratic, humanitarian and stable lines under the rule of law.

The Spanish socialist deputy and former president of the parliamentary assembly has described the council as "by definition troublesome". He said:
"It is there to tell governments when they are behaving badly, not to sing their praises".
That is not so comforting for governments, but those with the legitimacy to set standards must monitor their meeting.

As the committee of wise persons' assessments are studied, I hope we all pay particular attention to the following. First, there are already indications that the tasks laid upon the council by the second summit cannot be financed at the present level of budgetary resources. If governments accept and appreciate the value of the council in its unique role, they must finance it adequately and give it a proper measure of budgetary and administrative autonomy.

Secondly, the council's relationship with the European Union must be properly defined. For example, the council cannot prevent the European Parliament from discussing human rights issues—nor should it. But the council's supremacy in this field should be recognised, and the European Union should draw more on its expertise in this and other fields of council competence. Similarly, the relationship with the OSCE needs clarifying so that this body does not encroach on the council's field of competence.

Thirdly, the council itself should stick to the three pillars properly defining its role, the three fields in which it clearly has superior competence: human rights, social cohesion and cultural diversity.

Fourthly, the political impetus generated in the assembly in Strasbourg must be better channelled into national capitals, which means that the assembly must strengthen its relations with national parliaments. It cannot be left solely to a dialogue with the Committee of Ministers, and through that body, to the parliaments. Parliamentarians must speak to parliamentarians if there is to be any impact.

Finally, the council must never lose sight of the fact that it represents 800 million European citizens living in 40 countries, not 40 governments ruling 800 million citizens. The assembly's parliamentarians, in their political forum, speak for the people to the governments; and governments, my Lords, would do well to listen and then to act.

7.56 p.m.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede, for introducing this important Unstarred Question on the Council of Europe. Fifty years ago the role of the Council of Europe was to strengthen democracy, human rights and the rule of law. I am three months older than the Council of Europe. I believe that my generation owes the Council of Europe a great debt for its espousal and promotion of those three aims and for making them a reality. That has ensured a peaceful and democratic way of life for my generation.

I know what it is like to be a minority in this debate. All the speakers so far have been members and delegates to the Council of Europe. I have not had that good fortune. I hope that when the House is reformed—I welcome that reform—Members of the House who have no constituents but have time to see the Council of Europe and take part in its work can come back and explain to the House what it has done. I hope the Government will take that suggestion on board and bear it in mind in any reform of the House of Lords.

I first heard in detail of the work of the Council of Europe from the noble Lord, Lord Hardy of Wath, who is to speak after me. I have been on three parliamentary delegations. Every time, be it on an autobahn in Germany or on a winding road in Gibraltar, I have heard the noble Lord, Lord Hardy of Wath, explaining to younger Members of Parliament what the work of the Council of Europe is about. It is incumbent on those who go over to the Council of Europe to explain to us and to those in another place what they have done. We can then take it on board and promote the work of the Council of Europe.

I live in one of the Baltic states when the House is not sitting. I know exactly who in this House is respected there. The person who is most respected in Estonia is the Minister who is to reply. They may not bother too much about the questions I ask but the answers the Minister, the noble Baroness, Lady Symons of Vernham Dean, gives are scrutinised. I believe that the central and eastern countries of Europe are gaining immeasurably through membership of the Council of Europe. That is one of the great values. It should be recalled that these nations have had no experience of democratic organisation; how to manipulate and get the best out of parliament. That is what the delegations from central and eastern Europe are getting from the Council of Europe.

Another thing that the Council of Europe has done is to assist minorities in central and eastern Europe, particularly those Russian-speaking Estonians and Latvians who cannot even speak the language of the majority. I very much hope that it will put more effort into that work.

Time is short, but perhaps I may end on this point. When one reaches the age of 50 one has a party. I believe that all the richer western members of the Council of Europe should give a party for delegations from the poorer countries so that we in our parliaments can meet those members, explain our work and have a cross-fertilisation of ideas. I hope that that will be one way of promoting and increasing the awareness of the Council of Europe.

8 p.m.

My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Ponsonby both on his initiative in securing this debate and on his analysis of the main matters to which we should be giving attention. I have long argued that there has been, and still is, gross inadequacy in the provision of resources for public relations and education. I believe that between £3,000 and £4,000 is the maximum allowed for the whole budget for education and information in the United Kingdom on the work of that important body. That is ridiculous. It was absurd at the time of the 30th anniversary, and I was there then. It was also absurd at the 40th anniversary when we saw the expansion in the number of new member states who joined at the same time. I hope that the 50th anniversary will see a little more common sense.

My noble friend Lord Kirkhill was on the delegation at the time. I do not know whether he can recall that some badly disposed person spread a story that a Member of Parliament had gone missing. The press were tipped off that he was hiding in Strasbourg. A planeload of tabloid journalists and photographers scoured Strasbourg calling at hotels, knocking on hotel room doors and going into restaurants. The man who was supposed to be missing was making speeches and presenting a report in the Council of Europe, and not one of the tabloid journalists went there. It is a ridiculous situation.

The Council of Europe has fulfilled an extremely important function. If it had not existed before 1987 it would have had to be created. I was present at one of the most important moments of modern European history when Gorbachev made his speech calling for the establishment of the common house of Europe. From that speech on things moved. In the little more than a decade since then Europe has been politically transformed. The Council of Europe has virtually doubled in size. Democracy has been extended to areas where it would not have been dreamed of a little more than 10 years ago.

I pay tribute to my noble friend Lord Kirkhill. Not many Members of this House know that were it not for his Legal Affairs Committee, which had to be immersed in the minutiae of consideration and examination of the new constitutions and the rules for the establishment of the new parliaments in all the central European states which are now democratic, heaven knows what would have happened. There would certainly have been a degree of political chaos and a lack of cohesion, which would have been sad. Europe has become democratic.

There are problems in the Balkans. But if governments had taken notice of the initiatives by the Council of Europe before the shooting started, perhaps it would not have begun. We took some initiatives and, for example, for the first time we brought representatives of the Israeli Parliament and the PNC together in conference at Strasbourg. I believe that the Likud representatives were dragged there kicking and screaming because we advised them that if they did not come we would question their observer status. Unfortunately, Europe then decided that it was an American preserve and that we should not trespass.

The Council of Europe operates without directives or an enormous army of bureaucrats. It operates by agreement and the exercise of moral authority and conventions such as that which followed a report that I presented a long time ago. That was the Berne convention on wildlife and habitat. That proved an extremely useful exercise, even if from time to time we have angered the governments of the back-sliding states.

The Council of Europe has an important future because, as the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, said, it will be many years before the EU embraces the whole of Europe. There has to be another voice sometimes to challenge the EU. I can give a significant illustration. Brussels instructed Austria and Switzerland, before Austria became a member state of the EU, that they had to build new roads through the valleys of their respective countries. The people were suffering a great deal because of the enormous pressure of road traffic. Brussels decided to give them instructions, although it had no right to do so. I was chairman of the relevant committee at the time. If it had not been for the Council of Europe pointing out that the edict of Brussels did not run in those mountain valleys, there would have been even greater problems.

The Council of Europe has an essential function and it has had one since it started. It is certainly time that governments recognised that it would be useful for a few more pounds, marks and francs to be made available to ensure that Europe is properly aware of and educated about the essential function of the organisation.

8.5 p.m.

My Lords, I too, would like to congratulate and thank my good and noble friend Lord Ponsonby for introducing the debate this evening. He has done so with characteristic modesty. He has not told us about the dedicated and committed contribution he is already making to the activities of the Council, not least as a key member of the Budget Committee, and also as the person who has taken on the responsibility for seeing through the preparations for the celebration of the 50th anniversary in so far as they will be represented here in the United Kingdom.

He was right to emphasise the relevance and importance of the Council by taking the agenda last week. That is the real substance of what goes on. I could not agree with him more in what he said about the debate on Turkey and the Kurds. If one had seen the feverish activity of the Turkish delegation, not only at the assembly itself but in the preceding months in the relevant committees, trying to influence the outcome of the debate, it would have been apparent immediately how significant the debate was to the internal political life of Turkey.

In that context we have an unrivalled opportunity to build meaningful links with those politicians within Turkey who want to make their country a reasonable, decent, multicultural society in which human rights are taken seriously. It is no good just lecturing them on it or talking about it theoretically. It is a question of working with them to see how it can be done. The Council of Europe provides a forum in which politicians can get together on an agenda of that sort.

It was not just the case of Turkey. We also had debates on Kosovo. In that regard what was refreshing was to hear representatives from the region. They were people who were deeply affected and who felt themselves at risk in terms of what was happening in Kosovo. They had been through experiences which were highly relevant to the current situation there. It was not just ourselves here in Westminster regurgitating our anxieties and experience at a safe distance, but people in the immediate situation talking about what is at stake. Here again I believe that there is a very special opportunity in the Council for serious political debate.

I have referred to the work of the committees as regards the debate on Turkey. There is a whole range of committees working in a dedicated fashion, building up expertise among parliamentarians. That expertise could be put to very good use in our deliberations in both Houses here at Westminster. In that context I must pay special tribute to my noble friend Lord Kirkhill for the very distinguished contribution that he has made in the Legal Committee over many years.

I have the special joy of being in the Council of Europe for a second innings. I was there at the end of the 1960s and the beginning of the 1970s. It is an infinitely more interesting place now than it was in those days of the Cold War at the end of the 1960s and the beginning of the 1970s. It is a place in which the new democracies are brought together with the nations which have longer experience of democracy. There they can learn the art of constructive, open debate. They can make friendships which are very important and feel reassured in all that they are trying to do in their own countries.

At a time when in this House and in the other place we are debating the challenges which the expansion of NATO brings in terms of keeping alive the importance, the priority and the imperative of taking seriously our relationships with the wider Europe, the Council of Europe is a place in which that can be done. If we are serious about that, we should take the Council seriously.

Perhaps I may reinforce what my noble friend Lord Kirkhill said about the social development fund. We are becoming rather conspicuous by our preciousness in standing aside. That fund may not be operated as well as it should be, but we could help to operate it more effectively by paying the membership fee and becoming members. We could thus ensure that its work with refugees and displaced people is improved.

Finally—I hope that my noble friend the Minister will take this point seriously—we are fortunate in the services provided by the UK mission in Strasbourg. I hope that my noble friend will take this opportunity to convey to the mission that those words are not merely something that we say politely when we are there; it is something that we remember when we return to Westminster. We should like the people there to know that their work is deeply appreciated.

As I go round the buildings of the Council of Europe, I see the photographs of the years in which the Council was formed—photographs from 1949 onwards. I see those great statesmen and I remember their vision, imagination and commitment to democracy and human rights. I wish that throughout our political system here in the United Kingdom and more widely we had the same degree of commitment as was shown by those courageous founders. I believe that we now have an opportunity to follow that through.

8.11 p.m.

My Lords, all speakers appear to have kept to the time limit well, so I think that we shall manage to complete the debate in time. I begin by congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede, on initiating this debate. The Labour Party has not done too badly tonight in terms of the representation on its Benches; the Liberal Democrats have done even better, considering our size, but members of the Tory Party seem to have no interest in this whatsoever. Their chap is on the Front Bench, and I dare say that he will do well.

I served at the Council of Europe for 11 years. I greatly enjoyed it and it did me a great deal of good. I met many people there. I met foreigners. I had, for example, quite a close friendship with Mr. Karl Ahrens, a distinguished lawyer, who was the president of the Socialist Group. We compared notes on our wartime service and found that he had been in Benghazi when I had been bombing it. I apologised for missing him—and he accepted my apology! That is a good example of the sort of communion that one finds at the Council of Europe.

I was enormously impressed by the great desire of the countries of eastern Europe, newly released from bondage, to join the Council of Europe. That may have been in part a stepping stone, but those nations were very aware of the importance of the forum. There is also no doubt of the importance to the people of those countries of the question of the qualifications for joining. No one would say that Russia fulfilled all the qualifications for joining, but the Council as a whole took the view—I certainly did—that membership was a great help to the people who sought to promote democracy inside Russia. The committee is still monitoring what they are doing.

I turn now to the practical work of the Council. I served on the committee for migration and refugees. When we looked at how refugees were treated at different airports, we found something extraordinary: the Charles de Gaulle area of landing was not treated as part of France by the French in their endeavour not to have to meet their obligations. Other things were uncovered before the situation greatly improved.

I also served on the agriculture committee. I believe that we were of great help when the countries of eastern Europe, such as Poland and Hungary, were struggling to move from one system to another. Albania was striving to restore a crating system. There was some political stability because people had land and although large areas were destroyed, something was nevertheless achieved for the people.

At one point, I was the rapporteur of the wine committee of the agriculture committee. Seldom can a man have had a better job. We did much to promote the value of red wine, even discovering that half a bottle a day was very good for you, and that a bottle a day was not bad for you! That was a major achievement of the Council of Europe.

Perhaps I may finish on a serious note. There is not a shadow of doubt that the Council of Europe is the only real forum at which people can meet and discuss matters without having to take decisions. Although some may say that that is awful, it is not. It is extremely valuable. Her Majesty's Government, this new enlightened Government, will no doubt support the Council of Europe properly. I am sure that they will not throw money at the Council, but I hope that they will at least make it available in reasonable quantities.

8.16 p.m.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Mackie of Benshie, for anticipating my remarks this evening. I have to admit that as a former Minister for Sport, I have had certain divided loyalties but, as always, I have been kept well informed. I was delighted that when we equalised I received a note to the effect that it was a very fine penalty, taken by Shearer, after a most heinous foul against the blessed Michael Owen.

I begin by saying how much I appreciate the opportunity which the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede, has given us by securing what has already been a most interesting and informative debate. From these Benches we have always fully supported the work of the Council of Europe, a view which is clearly shared among your Lordships here. As we have heard, there is much praise from all sides of this House for the aims of the Council; namely, to protect and strengthen pluralist democracy and human rights; to seek solutions to problems facing society, with particular emphasis on minorities, xenophobia, exploitation, racism and intolerance, terrorism, environmental protection, bio-ethics, AIDS and drugs; to develop a political partnership with Europe's new democracies and, as the noble Lord, Lord Grenfell, rightly stated, to assist central and eastern European countries with their political, legislative and constitutional reforms.

The Council's enhanced and increased role was marked by its first summit, the Vienna Summit, in October 1993, which recognised how important it was for security and stability in Europe that all its countries should accept the principles of democracy, human rights and the rule of law. Under that general concern for democratic stability, the summit laid down a series of common principles, including the protection of national minorities, as well as actively supporting the democratic transition process in central and eastern Europe and strengthening the Council's machinery for monitoring its new members' respect for their undertakings.

Similarly, the Strasbourg Summit last October was intended to give new impetus to the activities of the Council in an effort to respond to changes in society on the threshold of a new century. It fixed new priorities for co-operative efforts which will now benefit some 800 million Europeans in what is a truly pan-European organisation. The summit adopted a final declaration and, most importantly, an action plan, which focuses on democracy and human rights; social cohesion; security of citizens; democratic values and cultural diversity; and structures and working methods. I should like to ask the Minister about the progress on the implementation of that action plan. What timescale is envisaged for its implementation? What progress has been made to date? What is the role of the proposed commissioner for human rights in promoting respect for human rights in member states? The Strasbourg Summit instructed the Committee of Ministers to study arrangements for the implementation of an office of commissioner for human rights. Can the Minister give the House further details about the proposed new office? What arrangements for the implementation of such an office have been considered to date?

Finally, I should like to touch upon the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Kirkhill. Can the Minister outline the Government's policy on the Council of Europe's social development fund? Can she confirm that although the fund has become more open and accountable, thanks to the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly, should the UK join it the high initial investment and subsequent annual contributions will entail a considerable diversion of resources from bilateral and other multilateral programmes in our aid budget which will require detailed analysis? Will there be a commensurate and real increase in our aid budget?

As the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, stated, the Council will celebrate its 50th birthday on 5th May 1999. By then almost every European country will share in its democratic vision. It is a vision that has an impact on the lives of all its citizens—a vision of a free, more tolerant and just society based on the common values of freedom of expression and information, cultural diversity and the equal dignity of all human beings. At the dawn of the third millennium there will be an opportunity to do three things: to celebrate the Council's contribution to cohesion, stability and security in Europe; to confirm that its mandate still holds good; and to give further impetus to its activities in the next century.

8.21 p.m.

My Lords, I too am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, for this opportunity to discuss the Council of Europe and the part that the United Kingdom plays in promoting its work. I commend the noble Lord for his efforts as a member of the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly in this regard. I thank all noble Lords who have participated in the debate this evening against what for some is a more enticing, if not more weighty, encounter in France. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, in his lonely vigil with the noble Lord, Lord Burnham, for keeping us up to date but not quite as up to date as the noble Lord, Lord Tordoff, who has just been able to inform the House that England has gone into the lead by two goals to one.

I return to the real issue. We have been discussing a weighty and important matter. I have listened very carefully to the points made today. We strongly agree that the United Kingdom should continue to play a central role in promoting the Council's key aims: to promote human rights, democracy and the rule of law. The United Kingdom has always supported the Council of Europe's work. Almost 50 years ago its statute was signed at St. James's Palace in London with the United Kingdom as one of the organisation's founder member states. But with the end of the Cold War we have also played a leading role in spreading the Council's values to the newly democratic states of central and eastern Europe. The Council had 23 members in 1989; now it has 40 and represents some 765 million people across the Continent. Through its enlargement the Council has set standards for the former communist countries to develop as modern, pluralistic, free and open societies. As the noble Lord, Lord Mackie of Benshie, said, this has been achieved through dialogue and discussion.

I turn to the question of human rights upon which the noble Earl, Lord Carlisle, concentrated. Successive British governments have regarded the work of the Council on human rights as its most important activity. The European Convention on Human Rights, its protocols and above all its machinery of enforcement have set the pattern and standard for international protection and promotion of human rights worldwide. The Government support the Court and Commission and take a full and active part in the organs dealing with human rights on which governments are represented: the Committee of Ministers, the Steering Committee and the daughter committees. In a very real sense the Government have shown their support for the convention most notably through the introduction of the Human Rights Bill which we hope is nearing the end of its parliamentary procedures. I point out to the noble Lords, Lord Tordoff and Lord Beaumont of Whitley, that the Government have listened to noble Lords on these issues. The parliamentary progress of the Bill demonstrates that Her Majesty's Government believe in the Council's human rights standards and that they wish those rights to progress through the Commission and the Court in Strasbourg and to be available in domestic courts up and down the United Kingdom.

At the same time the Government have conducted a thorough review of the protocols to which we are not yet a party. Following the recent vote in another place, we shall take steps to become a party to Protocol VI on the death penalty and in due course to Protocol VII. These moves have been widely welcomed by the institutions and other member states of the Council of Europe.

In addition to supporting the Council's legal mechanisms, the Government have played a leading role in developing new political procedures to ensure compliance by member states with the commitments that they accept on joining the Council. This involves member states meeting together in Strasbourg and reviewing the progress that they have made in particular areas—for example, freedom of the media or independence of the judiciary. In this way shortcomings can be highlighted and, as importantly, constructive solutions put forward, as suggested by my noble friend Lord Hardy of Wath. The Government strongly support the work of the Council in providing expertise within member states to assist them in achieving these necessary standards which, as my noble friend Lord Judd reminded us, are so important.

The Council of Europe parliamentary assembly also has an important role to play through its own monitoring procedures. The Government support increasing complementarity between their work and the work of the Committee of Ministers in Strasbourg. I thank my noble friend Lord Judd for his kind words about the work of officials in Strasbourg.

Several noble Lords, notably the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, and my noble friends Lord Grenfell and Lord Hardy of Wath, referred to UK financial support. The Government support the work of the Council of Europe through their financial contribution to the organisation. The United Kingdom remains one of the five grands payeurs to the Council's budget together with France, Germany, Italy and Russia. Between them the grands payeurs contribute over 60 per cent. of the Council's budget with the United Kingdom individually paying some 12.84 per cent. per annum. This is likely to amount to more than £14.3 million in the 1998–99 financial year.

I have listened carefully to suggestions for further financial support for the organisation. Frankly, the Government believe that like other organisations the Council must prioritise its activities within existing resources. It must make those resources work as effectively and efficiently as possible.

My Lords, can the Minister tell the House whether the United Kingdom has been able to reduce its contribution because of the other nations that have joined the Council?

My Lords, as far as I am aware the contribution of the United Kingdom is holding steady. I am not aware of any reductions, but if what I have said is incorrect I shall write to the noble Lord to put the matter right. I believe that our contributions as a grand payeur hold steady at 12.84 per cent. per annum.

My Lords, I would not disagree with my noble friend on pursuing priorities. It would be highly desirable if the Council of Ministers were to take a firmer line in providing a higher priority for the public awareness, public relationship and education role which is now urgently needed and which would be especially appropriate as the 50th anniversary approaches.

My Lords, it is important that the Council of Europe is advertised properly within member countries. With the 50th anniversary, we shall have an opportunity to do that. That is a point to which I am now coming. My noble friends Lord Ponsonby, Lord Kirkhill and Lord Hardy of Wath reminded us that next year is the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Council's statute. It is fitting that this event should be celebrated in the United Kingdom to mark the Council's work and the United Kingdom's contribution to it. Plans are already under way. There will be a reception on 5th May at St. James's Palace, where the statute was signed. The noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor has agreed to give a speech that afternoon in London on the role and contribution of the Council of Europe. My noble friend Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede, said that there must be suitable arrangements for marking the anniversary. He was right. The Government hope that a UK national committee will soon be formed to help co-ordinate the 50th anniversary and take forward various ideas that have been suggested. I thank the noble Earl, Lord Carlisle, for his interesting suggestions. I undertake that we shall look at them.

My Lords, perhaps the Minister will forgive me for intervening once more. I had a discussion with the Government Chief Whip today and pointed out to him that the 5th May next year is a Wednesday, and that it might be appropriate for your Lordships' House to have a debate on the Council of Europe on that day. He pencilled that into his diary.

My Lords, as always, the noble Lord's suggestions will be given careful consideration. I cannot give any undertakings now. I am sure that the matter will be looked at through the usual channels, as we would expect.

I have very little time left. Specific matters were raised by noble Lords with which I shall try to deal. If I cannot refer to them all, I shall write to those concerned. My noble friend Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede and the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, mentioned the second Council of Europe Summit. The Government subscribe fully to the final declaration and the action plan adopted at the second summit of the Council of Europe in October last year.

The noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, mentioned member states' action plans. They define four main areas: democracy and human rights; social cohesion; security of citizens; and democratic values and diversity. Member states stress also the need for structural reforms to adapt the organisation to its new tasks. The Government fully support such reforms. We shall continue to assist the Council in prioritising its activities in line with the summit action plan.

My noble friends Lord Kirkhill and Lord Grenfell mentioned also the Committee of Wise Persons. The Government strongly support that committee in drawing up proposals for the structural reform of the Council of Europe. The European Union presidency representative on the council is Mrs. Audrey Glover, formerly director of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights. The committee is drawing up proposals for adapting the Council of Europe to its new tasks and helping to streamline its activities. I assure my noble friend Lord Kirkhill that the Government look forward to receiving the committee's proposals. They are expected to be finalised in November.

I regret that I am coming to the end of my time. My noble friend Lord Ponsonby referred to the ratification of the protocols on human rights, biomedicine and cloning. For specific reasons it has not been possible to ratify those protocols. I shall write to my noble friend to explain why. The clock is against me. I cannot explain in sufficient detail now. I shall put a copy of that letter in the Library of the House so that other noble Lords are kept up to speed on that.

We can all thank my noble friend Lord Ponsonby for his timely introduction of the debate. We must also thank my noble friend's grizzled, old, and somewhat tired journalistic friend. In my experience grizzled, old and somewhat tired journalistic friends can sometimes be good friends, and on this occasion I rather think that he was.

The Council of Europe remains as vital today as it was when established in 1949. I believe that the Government are at one with my noble friend Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede in his concern to promote the Council's work further. We can achieve this by continuing to play a leading role in developing its legal and political machinery for the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms and by helping the new democracies of Europe to meet the commitments they have accepted on joining the organisation. In its first 50 years the Council has met the challenges of a changing Europe. Together we should take every opportunity to ensure the effectiveness of the Council in meeting the further challenges it will face in the years to come.