Category: Europe

Council of Europe: Local and Regional Democracy

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.

 

Council of Europe

My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Howell for his initial remarks, which were very relevant.

Sir 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 Council of Europe promotes and supports human rights, the rule of law and democracy. I have spoken in your Lordships’ House on humanitarian issues and I appreciate the work done by the Council. It is, however, important to make sure that the expenditure of the Council is controlled and that the organisation is cost-effective.

Turkey currently holds both the chairmanship of the Committee of Ministers and the presidency of the Assembly in the Council of Europe. The Turkish Government have recently ratified the Council of Europe Convention on Cybercrime. It is the first international treaty of its kind relating to crimes committed using the internet and other computer networks. The treaty is comprehensive in the sense that it deals with a number of offences, including infringement of copyright and online fraud. It aims to ensure that countries that sign up to the convention implement common criminal policies in relation to cybercrime. In our debate last week on the strategic defence and security review, I made reference to the growing dangers of cybercrime.

It is encouraging that with this development Turkey has become the 43rd country to sign up to the convention. The Turkish Government have also signed into domestic law the convention’s additional protocol on the transfer of sentenced persons. Turkey’s ratification of this convention is an important step towards the country’s ambitions of accession to the European Union, which I continue to support.

I recently attended an event to celebrate the achievements of the Turkish community in Britain where I made a speech and presented an award. This year, I visited Turkey and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, where I met government Ministers and leaders in commerce. I continue to support a peaceful solution to the tensions in Cyprus. I am pleased that leaders of the Greek and Turkish communities are today meeting the Secretary-General of the United Nations in New York to progress negotiations for a settlement.

The Turkish economy is the fastest-growing in Europe and provides a wealth of opportunities for increased trade. I should be grateful if the Minister could inform your Lordships’ House of the steps that Her Majesty’s Government are taking to strengthen our relationship with Turkey. Due to the economic downturn and increased migration, there have been electoral successes across Europe for political parties with extremist views. The current state of affairs is particularly worrying as support for far-right parties has increased markedly in Sweden and the Netherlands-two European countries famous for their reputation as tolerant societies. The anti-immigration Sweden Democrats party now has seats in the Swedish Parliament. A greater concern is that the Dutch coalition Government are reliant on the support of the extremist politician Geert Wilders, who is facing trial on charges of inciting racial hatred.

It is with regret that I refer to the recent desecration of 37 Muslim graves at a cemetery in Strasbourg. Unfortunately, this was not an isolated incident. A number of other Jewish and Muslim cemeteries have been vandalised in the region this year. In response to these developments, the Council of Europe has set up a group of eminent persons which has been tasked with preparing a report on how to combat the rise of extremism and promote tolerance in Europe. The group, which is chaired by the former Foreign Minister of Germany, Joschka Fischer, will submit its report to the Council of Europe’s Foreign Ministers in May.

I fully support the Council of Europe in its goal to combat trafficking in human beings. The European Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings, and the Group of Experts on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings, highlight the importance of a multiagency approach in the Council to ensuring the safety of victims and the prosecution of the perpetrators. I have raised the issue of human trafficking on a number of occasions in your Lordships’ House: it is a subject that I feel passionately about. This abhorrent practice is equivalent to modern-day slavery. It is encouraging to see that the Council of Europe is taking action to address this important issue.

I strongly welcome the Council of Europe’s campaign against domestic violence. Research suggests that between 12 and 15 per cent of European women are subjected to domestic violence every day. The topic is something on which I feel strongly, and about which I have also previously spoken in your Lordships’ House. The nature of the crime suggests that the number of female victims could be higher than this statistic, as incidents of abuse are not always reported. The Council’s campaign is directed at all levels of government, as it recognises the important work carried out by local and regional authorities across member states in preventing domestic violence and in offering support to victims. A British councillor has recently been elected as president of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities in the Council of Europe. The congress represents local authorities across all 47 member states, and this is the first time the presidency has been held by a Briton.

The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe played a vital part in contributing to peace and stability on the continent after the Second World War. The assembly was instrumental in preparing the European Convention on Human Rights, which established the European Court of Human Rights. The court has concluded that the general, automatic and indiscriminate restriction on voting by all prisoners was in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights. I find this decision hard to reconcile, and share the frustration of many law-abiding citizens. This ruling has several implications for our country and requires thoughtful consideration. I sincerely hope that it does not have an adverse impact on our judicial system. Perhaps it would be appropriate to look at revising the powers and activities of the court.

The Council of Europe has undoubtedly enriched the lives of many European citizens. Membership of the Council has been extended to almost every country in Europe. It serves as a constant reminder of the progress that this continent has made since the Second World War. We should continue to play a leading role in the Council in order to further our national interests. Most importantly, we should seek to create and strengthen existing relationships within the group. Europe is facing both social and economic challenges. I conclude by saying that the challenges now are less onerous than those we conquered in the past. However, we must continue to uphold our democratic and social values in all undertakings.