Council of Europe: 75th Anniversary - Question

– in the House of Lords am 3:47 pm ar 16 Ebrill 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Baroness Chakrabarti Baroness Chakrabarti Llafur 3:47, 16 Ebrill 2024

To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs what plans he has to mark the 75th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of London establishing the Council of Europe on 5 May.

Photo of Baroness Chakrabarti Baroness Chakrabarti Llafur

My Lords, I apologise to the noble Lord, Lord Markham, in particular, who is not currently in his place, for becoming impatient and intemperate during yesterday’s Oral Questions. I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper.

Photo of Lord Cameron of Chipping Norton Lord Cameron of Chipping Norton Foreign Secretary, Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office

I am worried already.

We value the role of the Council of Europe and we are a major contributor to the organisation. The Council of Europe’s commitment to peace, freedom and democracy is best evidenced by its swift decision to expel Russia following the brutal invasion of Ukraine and the launch of the register of damage, which will allow individuals to file claims for loss, injury and damage caused by Russia’s invasion. The 75th anniversary will be celebrated at the ministerial meeting in May.

Photo of Baroness Chakrabarti Baroness Chakrabarti Llafur

My Lords, I am sincerely grateful to the Foreign Secretary for an equivocal Answer to my Question. We all know that he has an awesome responsibility at the moment to practise statecraft globally and to seek to explain it at home. With that in mind, when he is considering institutions such as the UN, NATO, the Council of Europe and, dare I say it, the European Court of Human Rights, would he categorise them as international and worthy of our continued commitment and support, or foreign and worthy of repudiation and occasional contempt?

Photo of Lord Cameron of Chipping Norton Lord Cameron of Chipping Norton Foreign Secretary, Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office

I say to the noble Baroness that the Council of Europe is so much more than the European Court of Human Rights; it has over 200 conventions that make practical contributions, such as the Saint-Denis convention on safety in sport, which underpinned the UK and Ireland’s successful bid to host the 2028 European Football Championship, and the Council of Europe convention on preventing violence against women, or Istanbul convention, which helps the UK promote its gender equality priorities. We should always keep the European Court of Human Rights in proper context: since 1975, there have been 21,784 cases and only, I think, 329 judgments against the UK, so we have relatively little incoming.

But—and it is a big but—there are occasions, in my view, when the court overreaches itself. We saw one last week with respect to climate change, where it took a judgment against Switzerland. I think it is dangerous when these courts overreach themselves because, ultimately, we are going to solve climate change through political will, through legislation in this House and the other place, by the actions we take as politicians and by the arguments that we put to the electorate, so I think there is a danger of overreach. But the Council of Europe overall is a good thing.

Photo of Lord Bellingham Lord Bellingham Ceidwadwyr

My Lords, the Foreign Secretary mentioned the recent European Court of Human Rights judgment on climate change. Did he have a chance to look at Tim Eicke KC’s dissenting judgment, where he said it was extraneous and went beyond its judicial remit? Further to the Foreign Secretary’s reply to the Question, what sort of reform did he have in mind, and what changes can be made to improve the court?

Photo of Lord Cameron of Chipping Norton Lord Cameron of Chipping Norton Foreign Secretary, Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office

I did look at the dissenting judgment, and I thought it was pretty frank and clear. We have made reforms to the European Court of Human Rights. The noble Lord, Lord Clarke, battled very hard in the coalition Government to achieve the Brighton Declaration, which was an improvement, and we have made some changes recently on Article 39, so there are changes you can make. But I think it will depend partly on the court’s attitude to how far it takes its mission beyond the actual convention rights. I am not an expert on the convention, but I do not think that it mentions climate change and, as I said, climate change or the rights that we have in terms of our health service or education are things that we should be legislating for in Parliament, by politicians accountable to their electorates, rather than depending on a court. So reform is necessary and reform is going through, but I think there also needs to be a balance about leaving to nation states those things that they should be deciding themselves.

Photo of Lord Purvis of Tweed Lord Purvis of Tweed Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (International Trade), Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (International Development), Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

My Lords, one of the significant committees in the Council of Europe is the Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. The Foreign Secretary will be aware that the committee raised concerns last year about UK immigration policy regarding the detention of vulnerable people who are seeking asylum, no matter how they get to the UK. The Foreign Secretary’s signature is on the Rwanda treaty, which, enabled by the Rwanda Bill, will mean that a trafficked woman who ends up in the UK against her knowledge and against her will through an irregular route will now be detained and sent to Rwanda under his policy. As the committee said, that is a reversal of the commitments given by the Prime Minister in 2016

“to introduce a clear presumption against detention of vulnerable people”.

Does the Foreign Secretary agree with me that, on the 75th anniversary of the Council of Europe, we should be strengthening our support for vulnerable trafficked people coming to the UK rather than reneging on the commitments given?

Photo of Lord Cameron of Chipping Norton Lord Cameron of Chipping Norton Foreign Secretary, Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office

What we should be doing is dealing with the problem of very visible illegal migration, which is a problem not just in this country but all over the world. To do that, every country has to come up with an answer on what it is going to do. As I have explained at this Dispatch Box before, it is not possible to do immediate returns to France—that is not something that is currently negotiable —and that is why we have the Rwanda judgment. I have been looking at this issue for well over a decade, and I remember the Chahal case back in the 1990s, where the court determined that you could not balance +the risk to Britain of a dangerous terrorist staying and the risk to that dangerous terrorist if they were deported; there was no balance, as the right was absolute. You can argue that that is a good thing or a bad thing, but my argument would be that that is the sort of thing that we need to debate and decide in Parliament rather than simply rely on a court.

Photo of Lord Grocott Lord Grocott Llafur

On the issue of international organisations, has the Foreign Secretary had time to reflect on the comments of Liz Truss, who said that she would like to see the United Nations abolished because she claimed that she does not see a purpose for the organisation. Has he any message for those of us who cannot see a purpose for Liz Truss?

Photo of Lord Cameron of Chipping Norton Lord Cameron of Chipping Norton Foreign Secretary, Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office

I take the view that the United Nations has many problems and issues. The frustrations of dealing with the Security Council at the moment, when there is a Russian veto and a Chinese veto, are very great. None the less, it is important that we have an international body where issues can be discussed and countries can come together. Good work is done through the United Nations in spite of the frustration, so I can see the point of the United Nations.

Photo of Baroness Deech Baroness Deech Crossbench

My Lords, the Council of Europe has at its heart the enforcement of human rights, yet to some of us the human rights situation in Europe is sliding backwards, whether it is in Poland, Hungary, Greece, Germany, Spain or Portugal, which are all lurching to the right. One of the worst is Poland. The Council of Europe is a place where Britain and Poland share a forum. Poland is in breach, and has been for decades, of its moral and legal duty to make restitution of property stolen from victims of the Second World War, not to mention its clampdown on the judiciary, the freedom of the press and women’s rights. Will the Foreign Secretary use the Council of Europe to take Poland to task?

Photo of Lord Cameron of Chipping Norton Lord Cameron of Chipping Norton Foreign Secretary, Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office

My interpretation of recent political movements in Poland is that it has rather moved back to the centre, having elected Donald Tusk and my counterpart, Radek Sikorski. I will look specifically at the point about restitution, because I am not aware of that, but I make the broader point that one of the reasons why some of these more fringe parties are doing well in Europe—look at the Portuguese elections, for instance—is because mainstream politicians have not done enough to demonstrate that immigration is under control, that illegal immigration is cracked down on, and that migration policies are designed in and by parliaments for the specific benefits of the countries. Where you see that happen in Australia or Canada, which have higher rates of migration than we do but it is so clear that the policies are designed by those countries and for those countries, they seem to have less of a problem with extremist parties than many countries in Europe.

Photo of Lord Clarke of Nottingham Lord Clarke of Nottingham Ceidwadwyr

My Lords, I think I am right in saying that the only country on the entire continent that has always rejected membership of the Council of Europe and refused to accept the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights is Belarus, which is a cruel dictatorship with no regard for human rights at all. Russia has been expelled. My noble friend was a little evasive on the present position of the court. Reform is undoubtedly one thing, which can be collectively agreed on by all the members of the Council of Europe, but can he not just give a simple, categorical assurance on the part of the present Government that they will not at any stage contemplate rejecting membership of the Council of Europe or the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights, which is a most important international institution, particularly for the reasons given by the previous questioner?

Photo of Lord Cameron of Chipping Norton Lord Cameron of Chipping Norton Foreign Secretary, Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office

Let me be clear: the Government see no inconsistency between their policies and our membership of the Council of Europe. We do not have any plans to act in the way that my noble friend says. The point I am making— I am being very frank and open with your Lordships’ House—is that there are moments of extreme frustration. My noble friend will remember serving in government with me when the European Court of Human Rights ruled repeatedly that we had to give prisoners the vote. There is nothing in the European convention that says anything about giving prisoners the vote. To me, that is a decision for democratic parliaments. You can decide that everybody has the vote irrespective of what crime they have committed, but that is not my position. I think that if you commit a crime, you go to prison and lose your right to vote. That is a perfectly reasonable, democratic and, dare I say, almost liberal position that you should be entitled to hold, so when the court told us that we could not hold that opinion we disagreed with vigour. The point I am making is that these organisations are important and do good work, but if they overreach they plant the seeds of their own destruction.