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Council of Europe: Local and Regional Democracy

Volume 743: debated on Wednesday 6 February 2013

Question for Short Debate

Tabled By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, following the United Kingdom’s recent chairmanship of the Council of Europe, what plans they have to assist local and regional democracy in Europe.

My Lords, in my remarks today I would like briefly to connect together three themes. The first is the huge importance of local democracy—its obvious and immediate relevance; its scope for enhancing national and international democracy; and conversely regarding the latter, its ability to reduce or remove what to some extent has lately become alienation or even mistrust. Secondly, there is the role of the Council of Europe in promoting local and regional democracy. Thirdly, there is the opportunity which our Parliament and Government now have to assist, to guide, to lead initiatives of good practice and to nurture and encourage progress.

The European Court of Human Rights was able to sharpen our focus upon local democracy. For its recognition of the right to individual petition puts state and citizen on an equal footing. However, it took the devastation of two world wars for that notion to be adopted. Previously, it had been assumed that the state would always come first even if that precedent infringed the rights of the individual. Then after European Union expansion in 2004, there was the Warsaw Summit declaration in 2005. This calls for the reinvigoration of democracy, both nationally and internationally, through its strengthening at local and grass-roots levels. Not least, therefore, have those two interventions helped to revise political theory and how we view the Council of Europe’s affiliation of 47 states. For now we evaluate the worth of political delivery much more in terms of the well-being of families, communities and people in their daily lives. To those priorities we believe governments and institutions should play second fiddle; yet at the same time we know perfectly well that thereby the role and sovereignty of nation states need not be in the least undermined or diminished.

National democracy is never short-changed by local democracy. In fact, the reverse is the case. For more often than not its quality and validity reflect a combination of local results in the first place. It follows from this that the advance of local democracy or active citizenship is no longer speculative or part of some new political advocacy. Instead, it has become a consensual matter for all of us to see how best to put it into practice within Europe’s present stage of development.

This leads to the role of the Council of Europe. Already that institution has made a wonderful and unprecedented contribution to stability, human rights and the rule of law. Its membership now includes most of central and eastern Europe. We are enormously grateful. However, its current dealings with local democracy should be changed in certain respects. Within the Council of Europe itself there should be a common agenda. This is lacking. Such a common agenda ought to seek to implement the Chavez report—agreeing priorities annually, undertaking activity competently and transparently and adopting administrative structures which correspond to the new approach.

Here I pay tribute to my noble friend Lady Hanham. During the United Kingdom’s six-month chairmanship of the Council of Europe last year, she was the Minister responsible for local democracy. A very good start was made in drawing attention to these prescriptions. As a result the Committee of Ministers has recently agreed to the case for much better internal co-ordination and has referred matters arising from the Chavez report to an expert group. For the reforms he encouraged I also pay tribute to Keith Whitmore, who retired last year as President of the Council of Europe’s Congress of Local and Regional Authorities.

Yet the Council of Europe’s two main branches, the congress and the parliamentary assembly, still do not work enough together. They should do so, and there ought to be an annual procedure for that. Will the Committee of Ministers call for this? What predictions this year does my noble friend make for the progress of the Chavez report itself? In what ways will she and her department be able to help that process?

Then, started in 2006, there is the Council of Europe’s Centre of Expertise for Local Government Reform. Already to states within central and eastern Europe it has provided much useful guidance on the nuts and bolts of local government systems and methods. This year it starts a new venture and facilitates a working programme between parts of the United Kingdom and parts of Croatia, a country about to become the 28th member of the European Union this July. Within the programme certain regions and cities directly work together. The agenda includes mutual trade, education and cultural exchanges and those on good practice for sustaining stable communities. It is a great pleasure for me to assist this programme as Scottish consul for Croatia, as well as in my capacity as chairman of this Parliament’s all-party group for that country. Thereafter, and between different cities and regions elsewhere in Europe, the centre aims to encourage further working synergies. Clearly, those expedients serve to strengthen local and regional democracy. What plans therefore have the Government to support them?

Germane to the quality of local democracy in Europe, there are also inquiries and policies currently embarked upon by the Government for the benefit of the United Kingdom. Two such include the well-being of communities and the promotion of active citizenship. Both considerations lie at the centre of effective local democracy. What intentions on these subjects have the Government to use, once information is available, our own United Kingdom analyses and recommendations to assist Europe? During an economic crisis some might possibly object that it is wrong to spend time and effort on local democracy at all. However, the complete opposite is surely the case. For improved local democracy reduces costs and facilitates growth, initiative and creativity. At the same time it is also what is needed to protect values and rights. The United Kingdom has much experience in this field. Last year, our Council of Europe chairmanship pointed the way. That direction we must now follow with confidence and vigour.

My Lords, I am sure that the whole House is grateful to the noble Earl for introducing this debate tonight. He has great experience and tremendous commitment to the Council of Europe, and it is good to hear him speak on the subject. There will be other speakers in this debate and in the gap who will bring a great deal of intimate knowledge and commitment to our proceedings.

Looking back on my own time, some years ago in the Council of Europe, I am convinced that it has a potentially huge contribution to make in strengthening democracy across Europe, not least in some of the former Soviet bloc countries. At the end of the Second World War, the founders of the Council of Europe—indeed, those behind the whole European initiative, including the whole European Union—not only saw democracy as key to the future stability of the continent but also saw that if democracy was to work it was not simply parliamentary institutions and elections but all the other infrastructure that was so necessary, including the rule of law and, of course, human rights. They had a searing experience of a denial of human rights that led to, and was involved in, the Second World War and saw that as absolutely basic to stability and an effective democracy. So the European Court of Human Rights, to which the noble Earl made reference, was an essential part of this.

I want to concentrate my short intervention on one very significant member of the Council of Europe—Russia. The extent of its pervasive corruption, the weakness of the courts and legal procedures at national, regional and local level, with a penal system that is appalling and enshrines some of the most barbaric treatment of prisoners possible, and the carefully neutered political role of the Duma itself, have significance for the quality of democracy and, of course, for the countries on Russia’s borders. Here I turn to the north Caucasus. I was very much involved there as rapporteur on the conflict in Chechnya to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. Some people say now that things are better because there is order. We have to understand that, in so far as there is an appearance of order, it is the order of tyranny, oppression and fear.

It is essential to recognise that extrajudicial killing still takes place on the say-so of those who hold power. Still intimidation of witnesses happens, and of the relatives of those who are being pursued. There is harassment across the whole nature of society for those who would wish to generate independent thinking.

In the midst of all this, there are, of course, very brave and courageous people who are trying to put things right. There are lawyers, academics and professional people who make their stand. There are, of course, voluntary and non-governmental organisations—and I think particularly of Memorial, one of the most courageous organisations that I have ever encountered, with a tremendous degree of professional competence and excellence that it has built up over the years. These organisations make civil society and are absolutely essential to a functioning democracy, but they are being deliberately curbed within Russia and places such as the north Caucasus.

With the quality of democracy at local, national or regional level, it is terribly important to be able to bring cases before the European Court of Human Rights. Memorial and others have done this. There are an impressive number of judgments by the court that uphold the complaints that have been brought. Those complaints go to the Committee of Ministers to see to the follow-through and the implementation by Russia of the findings of the court. For year after year the performance of the Committee of Ministers has been lamentably weak; it goes through the formalities of reprimanding or criticising Russia, but it has really not put the muscle or force of argument as it is essential that it should have done. I ask the Minister for a specific assurance that, if we are to make democracy work in these areas, we must recognise the importance of the European Court of Human Rights, which needs to be properly resourced for its work, but also make sure that the Committee of Ministers follows through and does not let Russia off the hook in its failure to implement what is recommended by the judges.

My Lords, I feel a little bit out of place, in that I am not expert at all in the matters of the Council of Europe and local and regional government in Europe, or indeed the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities, although I have spent a lifetime reading about their activities of interest. I was very grateful for the extensive briefing from the House of Lords Library, which alerted me to all kinds of things.

I shall speak very briefly about these matters, to echo the generous commendation of the noble Earl, Lord Dundee, of my Liberal Democrat colleague, Keith Whitmore, for the enormous amount of work that he has done on these areas over many years, and in particular for his work as chair of the congress last year. I have a note here from the secretary-general of the congress, which says:

“First of all the tremendous work of Keith Whitmore should be mentioned … he does not seem to be appreciated enough in his home country”.

That may be so. I remember Keith when he was a bright leading light of the Young Liberals in Manchester, and a very important person in the resurrection and regeneration of liberalism in that historically very great Liberal city.

I shall say no more about that, because I am taking part in this debate as an excuse to say a few words about the north of England as a very important region in this country and in Europe. In general, the larger countries of Europe have regional governments. The systems vary a lot. In Germany, with the very strong länder, there is a fully fledged federal system entrenched in the constitution of the country. Spain is constitutionally a unitary state, but it has extensive though asymmetric devolution to autonomous democratic regions. The strongest of these, particularly Catalonia and the Basque country, approach something akin to the status of regions within a federal system.

In France and Italy there are democratic regional authorities that are more akin to very large local authorities in their constitutional status and some of their functions. Nevertheless, they are important bodies within their spheres. Here we have a real constitutional mess. We have devolved elected bodies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. In Scotland in particular, regardless of what happens in the forthcoming referendum, the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Government are approaching the status and powers that they would have in a fully federal system.

In the rest of England, apart from Greater London, we have nothing at all. In Greater London, we have a sort of city region with the Greater London Authority, the mayor and the London Assembly, but in the rest of England there is zilch, so our system is a bit like that of Spain except that throughout England we have nothing at all. I would argue that the north of England is a distinctive region. Anybody who visits it knows that it is a distinctive region within both this country and Europe. Socially, culturally, environmentally and economically it is regionally distinctive and forms a regional unit.

In the three subregions of the north of England—the north-east, the north-west and Yorkshire, although they may have slightly wonky boundaries at the moment, but never mind—regional bodies have developed on an ad hoc basis over the past few decades, which resulted in the regional development agencies, which had considerable influence and finance but were not democratically accountable. Regional assemblies were set up in these regions which, if they were democratic at all, were not directly democratic. They were indirectly democratic and they included representatives of business, trade unions and so on. Nevertheless, they met and they represented the regions, although it is fair to say that they did so in secrecy—not of their own volition—because nobody noticed them. I should say that I was a member of the North West Regional Assembly for a while.

In November 2004, there was a referendum in the north-east to set up a formally elected north-east regional assembly. The proposal was thoroughly trounced by some 696,000 votes to 197,000 on an almost 50% turnout. That really killed off the idea of elected democratic regional assemblies or government in the north of England for quite some time. The Conservative spokesman for the regions at that time was Bernard Jenkin—at least they had a spokesman for the regions at that time, so they must have recognised that regions existed. He said that,

“the whole idea of regional government has been blown out of the water”,

and that what was being proposed was a “toothless talking shop”. Both those statements were effectively true. The scheme that was put forward was flawed, the proposals were feeble and the Government at the time failed to put it in the context of what they wanted for the country, or at least for the north of England.

I argue that it is time to start talking about regionalism again in the north of England. I remember that back in the 1960s a group of Liberal candidates in the north-west, of whom a leading light was my noble friend Lord Tordoff, produced a report on regional government in the north-west. That started the ball rolling as far as our party was concerned and had considerable influence.

A body which has been founded fairly recently—it is not a Liberal body—is the Hannah Mitchell Foundation, which is based in and around Huddersfield, the general-secretary of which is Professor Paul Salveson, who is not a political colleague of mine but is a friend. The body has as its first aim,

“influencing the political agenda to support elected regional government for the North”.

Its second aim is that of developing,

“a distinct ‘Northern’ politics based on Labour, Co-operative, Radical Liberal and other progressive traditions”.

I can associate with at least three of those descriptions. Although Professor Salveson is a socialist, and says that he is, I think that a lot of his views, and the views of his foundation and of his campaigning, are ones with which radical Liberals will go along.

A serious debate has to begin again in the north of England. In particular, we need to think about the future and whether, if Scotland is to be an autonomous unit—I do not use the word “independent”—in whatever form, and if it is to have considerable financial powers and influence, effectively the people of Scotland will be running their own affairs to a very large extent. Whatever happens in the referendum, in the coming years it seems that the north of England will have to look at itself and ask, “Are we actually three subregions comprising the north-west, the north-east and Yorkshire, or should we get together as the north of England and say that we are twice as big as Scotland in population, and that if Scotland can do this, why cannot we in the north of England do it?”.

Perhaps that is the future. That is the thought I want to put in the minds of your Lordships this evening. Then we can join in with all the Europeans who talk about regional government and talk to each other from regions in Europe. We can be one of them. At the moment, we have more and more direct rule from London and it is not satisfactory.

My Lords, I am delighted to speak tonight, albeit briefly, in support of my noble friend Lord Dundee and his championing of local democracy, the role of the Council of Europe in promoting such local democracy and the opportunity which our Parliament and Government now have to assist local democracy in Europe and to guide and lead institutions and good practice initiatives and to encourage progress.

I am a very new delegate to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. For the past few years—certainly for the past two years when I was the Minister for Business and Intellectual Property in this House—I seemed to be in the European Community every week. I thought that it was the biggest show in town. We worked very hard to achieve a single patent and eventually got it after we had been at it for 41 years.

Before that, when I chaired the National Consumer Council, I worked with DG11 in the European Community on consumer empowerment and rights. During that time, things happened in Russia—the noble Lord, Lord Judd, referred to them. I went there several times in connection with the European Community programme for the democratisation of Russia. Therefore, I felt that I would be perfectly okay when I got to the Council of Europe. However, I have been there only once and have already realised that I do not know a thing. It is enormous. Forty-seven countries are involved in it, from the Russian Federation to Iceland, Georgia, Turkey and Azerbaijan. The range, size and shape of the countries involved, which represent 800 million people, is extraordinary.

As we have heard, the work of the Council of Europe concerns human rights, the rule of law and democracy. I took great pleasure in reading Winston Churchill’s speeches and learning how this all started and how we got to where we are today. It is a great honour and delight for me to speak on this matter tonight. I have a lot to learn.

Following the UK’s recent chairmanship of the Council of Europe, the priorities of the current chair, Andorra, are very much the same: that is, improving local democracy and building people’s capacity to participate in grass-roots democracy, which chimes with our Prime Minister’s vision of a big society. Andorra wishes to ensure that democratic principles are established at the lowest level as a solid foundation for national-level democracy and the rule of law. Improved local democracy reduces costs and facilitates growth. It protects values and rights. We in the United Kingdom have much experience in this field and we can certainly lead the way in this work. What plans do the Government have for all this to happen within the area of which we are speaking?

The reason I wanted to speak tonight was not only to support my noble friend and colleague because I believe that what he is saying is absolutely right, but because I believe deeply that we need stable markets and stable economies with which to trade. We need to trade our way out of recession and this is a wonderful way for us to do it. We have the talent, the background and the knowledge to help them bring forward local and regional democracies. If we are able to do it, we will prosper. Our small and medium-sized businesses will feel safe to trade in some of the 47 countries where, at the moment, they would be terrified to trade. This is really important. The Local Government Association’s idea of a team-UK approach to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe is a very good one. We have a wonderful opportunity which we should not miss.

My Lords, I rise with considerable pleasure to thank the noble Earl, Lord Dundee, for introducing this debate. We do not talk about the Council of Europe often enough in this Chamber. Indeed, we do not talk about external organisations often enough. The debate gives us an opportunity to say something about this important body. I emphasise at the outset that the Council of Europe does not, as such, have a statutory authority, but it is the guardian of the Convention on Human Rights and there is, of course, the court in Strasbourg.

A glance at the recent history of the Council of Europe gives an indication of its place in the scheme of things today. In 1989, which is going back a bit, President Gorbachev made his first major European speech. He made the speech in Strasbourg and his theme was that the Council of Europe could become Europe’s common home. What prompted him to develop that theme? Simply put, Europe’s new democracies were a considerable distance from membership of the European Union which was, without doubt, their ultimate aim. It still is, although most have now been able to join. It therefore fell to the Council of Europe to monitor their political and legal aspirations, to keep in touch with the new development and to attempt to assess the legal difficulties some of these new democracies faced, to which end the Committee on Legal Affairs traversed most of Europe much of the time, perhaps for too many months in my own case.

I am getting past making relevant contributions in your Lordships’ House and I forgot to say that the noble Earl, Lord Dundee, has played a significant role in attempting to develop within the European framework a prison system that is tolerable and humane. He has pushed very hard for change in certain areas. It is correct publicly to state that and to commend the noble Earl for those endeavours.

The recent UK chairmanship of the Council gives an opportunity to decide on future regional and local initiatives. Does the Council envisage an association with the Maghreb states? Do the Government envisage the geographic delineation of the Council to move further eastwards than it presently extends? Does the Council feel that its local government—that is to say bringing together the difficulties envisaged by some local authorities and placing the question to others for amelioration—has always been rather cumbersome and not likely to achieve any positive result? These matters should be discussed.

The Council of Europe now finds itself in a position where most of the aspirant states that were young democracies have now been able to join the European Union, which was always their principal aim. They are now much more interested in supporting initiatives of the European Union than they are of the Council of Europe. This diminishes the current role of the Council and its European responsibilities, other than maintaining and underpinning the court in Strasbourg. It is important to understand that the Council of Europe today is more criticised, rather than supported, than was ever the case in the past. These are defining days for the Council of Europe and I await with interest the Minister’s response to these few remarks.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Dundee for securing this debate. Winston Churchill was the first to speak about the benefits of creating a Council of Europe, so it is fitting that the Council was established by the treaty of London. The Council of Europe was founded upon the principles of upholding democracy and civil liberties. Since its creation, the Council has continued to adapt and expand as a means of tackling the common challenges facing the continent. The streamlining of the Council of Europe’s activities in support of local and regional democracy was one of the priorities of our Government’s recent chairmanship. This included efforts to reach a consensus on the establishment of a single programme of the Council of Europe’s activity on local and regional democracy, to be overseen by the Committee of Ministers. The Congress of Local and Regional Authorities has an important role to play in achieving this aim. It represents a distinct and unique form of grass-roots democracy. It also represents local authorities across all 47 member states.

In 2010, a British councillor was elected as president of the congress. It is the first time that this position has been held by a Briton. This branch of the Council of Europe, in conjunction with increased co-operation with the parliamentary assembly and with Governments, can improve the lives of citizens in member states. The priorities for each year concerning local and regional democracy should be agreed upon in an open and transparent way.

The 2011 Chaves report correctly stated that due to the challenges in an ever-changing world, the level of interrelation between local, regional, national and international institutions must be strengthened. This suggests that multi-level governance is vital for Europe to meet the global challenges facing the continent.

The Reflection Group, chaired by Felipe Gonzalez, previously stated that,

“in a multilevel governance system, each level of authority—European, national, regional and local—exercises its powers according to its own legal responsibility”.

Each decision-making body should act within its powers. The promotion of local and regional democracy should be considered as an essential priority, thereby enhancing its key role in the consolidation of democratic processes in Europe and bringing good practices to other regions of the world. I should be grateful if the Minister could inform your Lordships’ House of any recent dialogue Her Majesty’s Government have had concerning this issue with the current Andorran chairmanship of the Council of Europe.

The Chaves report also stated that the elevation of local and regional democracy in Europe is a fundamental part of the democracy pillar and highlights the synergies required between the Committee of Ministers, the Conference of Ministers responsible for local and regional authorities, and the congress. It is for these reasons that the Chaves report should be fully implemented.

The reforms instigated and continued under the British chairmanship of the Council of Europe with regard to local and regional democracy aim at avoiding duplication, suppressing red tape and maximizing the utility of resources. The Kiviniemi report recommended budget austerity as a result of the current economic crisis. The report also called for greater visibility of the Council of Europe’s work on local and regional democracy. Greater transparency will lead to citizens having increased confidence in the workings of the Council of Europe.

It is important that an annual report be published recording the allocation of funds and the priorities for the coming year. This will lead to greater value for the taxpayer and more efficient spending. I am pleased that the Department for Communities and Local Government regularly publishes transparency reports on its website, showing how and where any sum of more than £250 is spent.

In order to strengthen local democracy and give value for money to European taxpayers, efforts to reform the Council of Europe’s work on local and regional democracy must continue. Achieving strong local governance is vital to the Council of Europe’s democracy agenda. The Council’s support for improving local democracy is in accordance with the European Charter of Local Self-Government and the “Twelve Principles of Good Governance at Local Level”. It follows that reinforcing local democracy will lead to the reinforcement of the local economies of Europe. It is therefore vital to continue the process of streamlining the Council of Europe’s activities in support of local and regional democracy. I look forward to learning more on the progress of the single programme as proposed by Her Majesty’s Government.

Finally, I support the comments of my noble friend Lady Wilcox regarding more trade with European countries.

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Earl on securing this debate on the Council of Europe, in which we have had some activities in the past. He referred to his concern about democracy in its national context, and I, as he knows, have been actively involved in the national democracy in one particular country, Armenia. He will recall that the elections were held for the President of that country. I was the leader of the Labour delegation and appointed to be the rapporteur for Armenia for one of the committees of the House. I went to that country during those elections to observe. I have to tell the noble Earl that the result created a riot; 10 people were killed and 130 were thrown in jail, under the threat that they were usurping the powers of the state. I was sent by the Council of Europe to see what had happened and what we could do about it.

My main influence related to the fact that Armenia had entered into an obligation under the human rights convention to observe the democratic process. I could see, on a very quick visit there, that most of those rights had not been observed. It was an eastern European country coming out of being a communist state and wanted a kind of social democratic European stature. It was therefore concerned to make the changes. I also found that I had to convince the President and the rest of Armenia’s Parliament to rewrite the laws on public protest. I got the 130 people out of jail. The election law was rewritten, as were the laws regarding the press and freedom. Even the judiciary was changed in that process. I congratulate the Parliament in that country for seeking to do those things very quickly.

What was the power and influence that enabled that to happen? It happened largely because the country had signed up to an agreement, and I was able to say, “You have an obligation under your membership of the Council of Europe, and you must observe them, or I will have to report back to the Council that you are not observing them. The Council of Ministers would have to take some kind of action”. When European rights were being used to bring about a more democratic framework, there was a stupid argument going on in the other House about whether prisoners should have the vote and whether, therefore, we should withdraw from the convention on human rights.

What may be different in this country is certainly different there. Funnily enough, in Armenia they do not give prisoners the vote, but on the prisoner issue a number of routes can be pursued. It is the people who want to make the issue to leave Europe. Most of them thought they were in the European Union. It had to be pointed out to them in the debate that this was not the European Union but the Council of Europe, and it was different. Those circumstances are a very important part of maintaining democratic accountability.

What is the position now? We have gone through all sorts of manoeuvres and changes and the Court still accepts that we have got it wrong and wants to hear an alternative from us. What is the alternative? What are the Government doing? Are they going to observe the convention on human rights? If not, they can leave the Council of Europe, because the obligation is on Britain to observe human rights. I do not know where the Government stand on this at the moment. Perhaps the noble Baroness can tell us.

Next week I return to Armenia with a delegation to observe the new presidential elections. I certainly hope that it will go much better. I certainly have more confidence that these changes will make the election more democratic than it was on the last occasion. I am encouraged by the independent group of observers at last year’s election, who reported a 62% turnout—a pity we could not get that here, but let us leave that aside—and a quiet and peaceful, vibrant election. Fabulous. I hope that will happen when I observe the presidential election. Unfortunately, one of the presidential candidates was shot in the shoulder last week, but he has insisted that the election takes place. I am waiting to see, since it will be a cold part of the year. I hope it will be a very colourful and peaceful election.

The Council of Europe can play an important part in the democratic process. Sometimes we forget that, but they have obligations, particularly in eastern Europe, to measure up to the democratic accountability that they promised. Any of us who have had influence and been to these eastern European countries—I will leave Russia out of it for the moment—know that accountability is definitely needed. The Council of Europe can fulfil that role; it is a centre of democratic accountability. It can be used effectively, as it was in Armenia. There is still a lot of work to do, but it is not going to phase itself out and is desperately needed if we want democracy to continue in all parts of Europe.

My Lords, this has been a very interesting debate. It is always an education as well as a pleasure to listen to the noble Earl, Lord Dundee. This was true on this occasion as it has been on other occasions when I have heard him speak in this House. I join my colleague, my noble friend Lord Kirkhill, in commending him for his work in the Council of Europe.

The Council of Europe is one of the great achievements of the post-war settlement. It was the first immediate product of Churchill’s great call for Europe to unite. We have had many references to Churchill in the discussion tonight. “Europe unite” is still a very relevant call, not on the basis of conquest, as people such as Hitler and Napoleon had tried, but on the basis of democracy and human rights. In that cause, the Council of Europe has played a vital role. I wish the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, well in her new role at the Council. Strasbourg is a lovely place to go to, but this is also a very important role, as I think several speakers tonight have demonstrated.

The Council of Europe has gone through several cycles in its life. It was very important right at the start, in the post-war era, then lost importance with the process of European integration through the coal and steel community and then the European Community. At that time a lot of cynics talked about it as a talking shop for superannuated politicians, and like all international organisations there are always problems of efficiency in the way they are run.

The Council never lost its relevance, particularly because of the convention and the European Court of Human Rights. It is good that all we have heard in this debate is praise for this role. So often in our national life, all we get are brickbats thrown at us. It is important that while there is always a case for looking at how we can do things better and reform them, the essential principles are vital for the future.

As my noble friend Lord Kirkhill reminded us, in the period when communism was beginning to collapse and Gorbachev made his great speech about the Council of Europe being Europe’s common home—incidentally, I do not think my noble friend’s speech was the speech of a man who does not have a lot more speeches to make in this House; it was a wonderful speech to listen to—that was a turning point in the Council’s life. It had a very important role post the fall of communism. I saw it when I was an adviser at No. 10 and went to the Baltic states and saw the vital role that the Council of Europe was playing in helping the Russian minorities in Latvia and Estonia to establish their human rights. Without the Council’s intervention, that would have been much more difficult.

With the enlargement of the European Union, there are questions about what the Council’s role now is. Of course, even with an enlarged EU, there is still a lot of Europe beyond the Council, and therefore it has an important and crucial role for the future. My noble friend Lord Judd reminded us—this is relevant to the post-communist world in that part of the globe—that democracy is not just about holding elections but about human rights and the rule of law. As part of that, the promotion of local government and local democracy is crucial.

In many of these countries, local government is seen not as a democratic organ but as an instrument of the central state—an instrument of central administration to keep control, to sustain a political machine with jobs and favours, and to make sure that, when the elections come round, they go the right way. I saw that at first hand in some of the countries that I visited a decade or so ago.

We have to be insistent that local government is not administration; it is about democracy and about communities deciding their future for themselves. Sometimes, to be frank, I think we should remember that in our own country as well. Democracy is not just about majority rule. It is important that the protection of minorities is pursued. On a visit to Ukraine, I saw the way in which the Tartars are treated in the Crimea. It is very important that these minorities are protected.

I wish to make a couple of points on what noble Lords have said and I should like the Minister to expand on them. What is her view of what my noble friend Lord Judd said in his eloquent speech about the role of the Council of Europe in the North Caucasus?

The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, made a very interesting speech, with which I totally agreed. I endorse his compliments on Keith Whitmore’s role but I think that the rest of his speech is for another day.

My noble friend Lord Kirkhill made an important point about the Council of Europe and the Maghreb. This will be one of the biggest challenges facing Europe in the future. The question is: what relationship could we have with those states?

The noble Earl, Lord Dundee, posed questions about the implementation of the Chavez report, about whether the way in which the Council operates at present is internally coherent, and about promoting the work of bilateral exchanges. Those seem to be very relevant questions.

At the end of the debate, we heard from my noble friend Lord Prescott about the real value of what the Council does. I suppose that its real value can be seen in situations such as that in Armenia, with my noble friend turning up on the doorstep to make sure that things do not go too awry. I do not mean that as a joke; I mean it seriously. That is one of the Council’s values—that people of great distinction can give advice and hold people to the standards that they say they adhere to. That is absolutely crucial.

This has been an excellent debate, and we look forward to the Minister’s reply.

My Lords, I hope that I shall be able to give your Lordships a reply. I think that I am going down with a parliamentary bug. I shall do my best but if I squeak at noble Lords, I hope they will forgive me.

First, like other noble Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Dundee for tabling this debate. It has, as usual, been a really good debate, with contributions from people who know what they are talking about and who have been closely involved in this subject. My noble friend is a significant member of the Council of Europe and the parliamentary assembly. I am enormously grateful to him because he provided me with great support during our chairmanship of the Council of Europe, when I tried to streamline—as my noble friend Lord Sheikh said—Council of Europe elements.

An effectively operating local democracy is an essential feature of every modern democratic state. Good democratic governance is a foundation on which can be built prosperous and stable societies where there is respect for fundamental freedoms, human rights and the rule of law. The issue of human rights is very germane to the Council of Europe.

It is for each individual state to decide its own governance arrangements, taking into account its own circumstances, traditions and culture. Across Europe there is, rightly, a wide diversity in the form that local and regional democratic governance takes, but throughout there are common principles at heart. This is the context in which states can work together to improve, strengthen and update their own democratic governance. All speakers today have demonstrated why that is important.

As noble Lords know, and have said, the Council of Europe is potentially well placed to provide a framework and mechanisms to support this development of democracy. We referred to the Government’s chairmanship of the Council of Europe. There were two main areas in which we wanted to achieve success. Our top priority was to reform the European Court of Human Rights, the importance of which we recognise. We successfully agreed measures to improve the working of the court.

The second was to streamline the Council of Europe’s activities on local and regional democracy. As the noble Lord, Lord Sheikh, said, the great thing about the Council of Europe is that its three elements managed to work entirely separately, not coming together at all. In many cases, these elements were doing exactly the same thing without joining together. It was becoming really important, to get the best out of them, to try to bring them together. Their usefulness was seriously impaired through a lack of co-ordination and collaboration between the three elements: the Committee of Ministers, the parliamentary assembly and the congress.

As noble Lords have heard, these weaknesses were not straightforward. As has been said, there are now 47 member states in the Council of Europe. To try and get 47 member states to agree wholeheartedly to anything was not the easiest thing that we have ever done. In fact, the most we could do was to try and ensure that streamlining took place and that there was far more co-ordination and co-operation between them. The noble Lord, Lord Sheikh, made a powerful speech about what we were trying to do to ensure that everything came together.

Tribute has been paid to Keith Whitmore, who was president of the congress. He was particularly well regarded and helpful when we were trying to do what we wanted to do. Bearing in mind that he was president of the whole congress, he was not able to do anything politically, but he helped us sensibly and sensitively with what we were trying to do. We cannot underestimate what he did. Keith never lost sight of the big picture and that is very important. I also want to put on record how we were helped by the UK delegation to the parliamentary assembly, particularly my noble friend Lord Dundee, and by the contribution of the honourable Member for Mansfield in the other place.

Concerns were raised by the noble Lords, Lord Prescott and Lord Kirkhill, about where we go from here. I accept that there is still considerable room for improvement in the way in which congress and the Council of Europe work together. All the elements are now in place to make things better. The noble Earl asked about the future. The 47 states, through their ambassadors and after more than a year of discussion, agreed in November the programme of intergovernmental work on local and regional democracy. That implements much of the substance of the Chavez report, which was set in train by the Council of Europe precisely to see how it could work better. We have been co-operating with that, and there is now the prospect of Committee Ministers co-operating better in the future. With our influence still there in congress, I believe that we can continue to make progress.

There have been so many stirring speeches. The noble Lord, Lord Judd, strongly drew attention to the lack of democracy in some parts of eastern Europe. I say to the noble Lord that one of the elements of the work of the Council of Europe is to educate emerging nations in democracy. The fact that they are sucked into the Council of Europe is becoming absolutely essential, because it gives them confidence and security not to be blown off-course and sucked back into the communist system. That is really important for us all for the future.

The noble Lord, Lord Liddle, referred to the Baltic states; they all need their confidence boosted, they all want to be part of Europe, and they all want to have the same sort of democracy. One of the roles of the Council of Europe is do just that and to provide that support. Many things have happened in Europe over the last 50 years which we would all prefer had not happened, and that we can never forget about. If the Council of Europe and the European Union help with that, they are making a major contribution to our future.

We intend to continue to assist in Europe by supporting the work of the Council. We are still working with Andorra. The chairmanship passed from Ukraine to us, and from us to Andorra, and there is a sort of seamlessness about it which I hope will continue.

The new congress president, Mr van Staa, has also decided that he wants a better arrangement in the congress. One of our Belgian friends, Mr Lambertz, is committed to improving the structures, but the structures are only important because of the work that the congress and the Council of Europe does. That is going to affect all the things that people have talked about. The noble Lord, Lord Kirkhill, mentioned President Gorbachev’s role, and he asked about the widening of the geographical area of Europe. It is probably as wide as it can go and we cannot take it too much further, but it does not mean that the Council cannot be encouraging.

I was very interested in the influence of the noble Lord, Lord Prescott, in Armenia. That is not somewhere I would have connected with him, but it is good that it was there. He asked for my views on prisoner voting. It would be fair to say that we are still considering our position on that, and I am not going to be able to give him a firm answer to that question today.

We in this country have been in breach of our human rights obligations; it has been confirmed twice by the courts. Are we not doing anything about it?

We will consider it, my Lords. There we are. I will just say to the noble Lord, Lord Kirkhill, that there are no plans at present to extend the Council of Europe further east or south, but I can tell the noble Lord that the congress and the Council of Ministers and the parliamentary assembly are all considering how they can contribute to the democratic processes in those parts of the world.

I look forward to the outcomes of the better collaboration in the Council of Europe and the quality of the programmes which are going to be run. I know that congress is seeking to improve its preparation of the work that it undertakes and what it does in monitoring other states. We in this country are due to be monitored in the not-too-distant future and I understand that is to be done by Russia. So that should be interesting.

I warmly endorse what the noble Baroness says about the importance of some countries in eastern Europe and Russia being involved and the part that that can play in building democracy. However, it all will be negated if, when it comes to the point, the Committee of Ministers does not rigorously pursue the matters indicated by the court as being wrong.

My Lords, I agree. The Council of Europe has to grip the fact that it has to do things.

We are very supportive of the European Court of Human Rights. After all, it was this country and Winston Churchill who set it up. We have always supported it and believe that there is a great strength in it. Although the changes that we managed to make were only administrative, the noble Lord is right that there is no point in just talking. People have to do things, otherwise we might just as well all save the fare of going to Brussels and Strasbourg.

I am grateful to everyone who has taken part in the debate. I have tried to cover the points raised by everyone who has spoken but I am not sure that I have done so. I value the appearance of the noble Lord, Lord Liddle, and what he said. My noble friend Lady Wilcox will, I am sure, be a great contributor to the parliamentary assembly. She has a great deal of experience and is quite capable of putting it in its place, which is just as well.

My noble friend Lord Greaves has taken the opportunity to “Christmas tree” into this debate, if I can put it that way, the subject of regions. He and I will never quite agree about that but, as I said in the House the other day, whatever you call it, the northern part of England is beginning again to become dynamic; there is plenty going on. I occasionally go to see what is happening up there. It is a lovely part of the world and it deserves to be brought out of its dormancy because it has always been a very important part of this country. Whatever we call it, whatever the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, calls it, we all love it.

My noble friend Lord Dundee has done us a great service by enabling this debate today.

House adjourned at 9.02 pm.