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European Court of Human Rights

Volume 684: debated on Thursday 13 July 2006

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What is their response to the current financial situation of the European Court of Human Rights.

My Lords, the United Kingdom is a firm supporter of the European Court of Human Rights. Guaranteeing its effectiveness is a priority for the United Kingdom. The review of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, the ratification of Protocol 14 and the report of the Wise Persons Group should all help in alleviating the problems of the court. There will be financial implications, but we will seek to meet these through savings in the overall Council of Europe budget.

My Lords, the Minister will, I am sure, know that, as of this morning, there were 85,000 outstanding cases with the European Court. That represents a crisis. I urge the Minister not to follow the course of action that he has outlined of raiding the already inadequate Council of Europe budget to provide the necessary resources for the court to do its work. Does the Minister agree that both bodies do an enormously valuable job and that one should not suffer for the other?

My Lords, in working through all the issues of European budgets in the last set of negotiations in the settlement, we were clear that there ought to be a realistic constraint on the spending of European institutions. We were at the forefront of the efforts to do that, and we are committed to zero real spending on the Council of the Europe. None the less, in 2006 it amounted to a shade under £20 million. We think that there are grounds for believing that there are credible savings in that budget.

My Lords, does the Minister recognise that the European Court of Human Rights plays a vital role in justice in the United Kingdom because it is the final arbiter on the interpretation of the European Convention on Human Rights? In those circumstances, does the Minister agree that it is essential to have improved funding and that the Government should press for a new protocol to the European convention that would make it easier to sift out the considerable number of unjustifiable cases?

My Lords, I have nothing to add to the point about the financing. I have answered the House on that, whether my Answer satisfied noble Lords or not, but our view on zero real growth in the funding of this budget head should not suggest that we do not think that the court plays a valuable role as the final arbiter or that we are not committed to seeing it deal properly and effectively with the kind of cases that are brought before it. It is the primary protector of human rights in Europe. We will certainly take our part in discussions on any measures that help it to behave efficiently and make sure that the cases that come before it are the critical ones.

My Lords, does the Minister consider that the structural changes introduced some years ago, in particular the abolition of the commission, have been an advantage or a disadvantage from a financial point of view and from the point of view of the working and efficiency of the European Court of Human Rights?

My Lords, it is hard to imagine that it has been entirely an advantage because, as has been said, the number of cases backed up is considerable. Without question, there are efficiencies to be achieved, but it is also true that some of those who have recently come within the overview of the court—for example, from Russia—have produced a vast number of cases that they could never have brought under the old regime and, arguably, through domestic courts in Russia at present. That has produced a huge increase. Perhaps the court and the whole system will need to adjust to those changes. Throwing more money at it is unlikely to be the solution.