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.