HC Deb 13 February 1987 vol 110 cc632-8

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Peter Lloyd.]

2.38 pm
Mr. Laurie Pavitt (Brent, South)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Paul Dean)

Order. The Question has been put, and I must remind the hon. Member that he is taking time out of the half-hour Adjournment debate. I hope that he will not do that.

Mr. Christopher Murphy (Welwyn Hatfield)

I am well aware that an element of luck is required in ensuring success in gaining an Adjournment debate. To achieve that on Friday the 13th is also to demonstrate a touching faith in good fortune. Before the House adjourns, I wish to consider Government policy towards the Council of Europe and the Western European Union. In doing so my purpose is to emphasise the need for publicity to be given to the support for these organisations displayed by the Government, as well as to the achievements of both Assemblies in terms of the benefits to European citizens, not least those in our own country.

Throughout this Parliament I have had the privilege of being a United Kingdom delegate to the Council of Europe and the Western European Union. Since that appointment by my right hon. Friend, the Prime Minister, I have gained an insight into their work, and I hope that I have, at least in some small measure, contributed to their progress.

On a previous occasion I have alluded to George Bernard Shaw, who lived in Mid-Hertfordshire. He once declared: He knows nothing, and he thinks he knows everything. That points clearly to a political career.

As Shaw pre-dates my representation of the area, that cannot be said to have been directed at me, unless prophecy was intended. However, I now know something about the Council of Europe and the Western European Union — as indeed I know something about this honourable House and my constituency—although I realise that I cannot know quite everything. Perhaps I should leave unspoken what that means about a political career.

I made clear in my maiden speech and on subsequent occasions my commitment to freedom and democracy. Thus, to be a member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe has given me an opportunity to broaden that commitment, as has being a member of the Assembly of Western European Union. The Council of Europe's statute declares that each state must accept the principle of the rule of law, and guarantee its citizens the enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedoms. I believe that I echo the attitudes of the vast majority of my constituents when I subscribe to that in debates in the Parliamentary Assembly.

The Western European Union, with its basis in the Brussels treaty, aims to preserve the principles of democracy, personal freedom and political liberty. Once again, I believe that I portray the overwhelming view of Welwyn Hatfield when I subscribe to that in debates in the Assembly.

The impact of the Council of Europe has been considerable, ranging from conventions on human rights to the fight against terrorism, from the protection of the architectural heritage to the creation of a social charter, and in many other ways.

Although the Western European Union has a more limited mandate, being concerned with defence and security issues, it, too, has provided substantial benefits in terms of helping to ensure peace and co-operation.

I have been particularly fortunate in that, having had involvement with Artistic Heritage through the Council of Europe, a report that I prepared on private sponsorship of the arts was accepted by the Parliamentary Assembly and, later, largely endorsed by the Council of Ministers.

At present, with a number of colleagues representing the 21 member countries, I am exercised by the fight against drugs, believing that, for the sake of today's youth, we must never be soft on soft drugs and never be other than hard on the use of hard ones.

But, whatever the results of the deliberations of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe or the Assembly of the Western European Union, however relevant the reports may be to the lives of ordinary people, whatever the decisions made by the two Councils of Ministers, the fact remains that little in the way of reference is made to them and consequently little in the way of knowledge is gained by the public.

One suggestion, at least to enable hon. Members to be better informed, was that my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs should arrange for a Government statement on the work of the Western European Union and of the Council of Europe to be presented to Parliament annually.

In consequence of questions that I tabled a year ago my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, who I am pleased to see on the Treasury Bench, was kind enough to agree to provide this with respect to the Western European Union but, regrettably, not for the Council of Europe. While expressing my gratitude for the former, may I urge him to reconsider the latter. It seems somewhat illogical to give that prominence to the one and not to the other.

During a period of reactivation of the Western European Union, which it is intended will ensure that it becomes the European pillar of the NATO Alliance, the need for the Government to initiate opportunities to draw attention to the activities of the Western European Union is manifestly apparent. At the same time, the value of the Council of Europe, which brings together a wider grouping of nations than can be achieved by the EEC, and which the Government recognise via activities such as the Pompidou Group on drug abuse and illicit trafficking, requires a similar approach.

In putting forward my case relating to Government policy towards the Council of Europe and the Western European Union, I have endeavoured to be brief so that I might hold to an old proverb, "Nature gives us two ears and one tongue, so that we ought to listen twice as much as we talk". However, given the number of times that I have addressed this honourable House and the two European Assemblies, perhaps the only true redress now is silence.

2.45 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Tim Eggar)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Mr. Murphy) for raising this important topic. It is sad that too little attention is paid by the public to the valuable work that is done in the Council of Europe and the WEU by many hon. Members on both sides of the House.

My hon. Friend spoke eloquently of his concerns about the Council of Europe and the WEU. We recognise fully the significant role that he has played in both those organisations over the past three or four years. It is important that we bring to public attention the work done by both those organisations, and, in particular, the importance of their roles in the process of European integration. By a quirk of the modified Brussels treaty of 1954, which founded the WEU, the same national representatives are members of both Parliamentary Assemblies, but the issues debated in the Assembly and other institutions of each organisation are different, as is their internal structure and recent history. I shall therefore seek to deal with both separately.

Membership of the Council of Europe is an important element of our policy towards western Europe as a whole. We were founder members of the organisation. Our commitment to its ideals remains as strong now as then. We see the Council of Europe as a focus for the unity of democratic Europe and as a forum in which like-minded European democracies can work for improvements in the condition of life, the development of human values and the maintenance of human rights. The Council provides a valuable framework for intergovernmental activities in areas where the widest possible co-operation between western European Governments is desirable. Its Parliamentary Assembly offers a unique meeting place where elected representatives of the 21 member states can discuss matters of mutual concern and make recommendations for action by Governments. It is satisfying that the British delegation to that Assembly, including my hon. Friend, plays a prominent part in debates in the Assembly, on its Committees and in its political groups.

My hon. Friend referred to reports or statements on the work of the Council of Europe. He has pressed me on that matter over some months. The full reports of the debates in the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly and the reports to the Parliamentary Assembly by the Chairman of the Committee of Ministers, which are available in the Library of the House, give a full account of the work of the Council of Europe. In view of the availability of those reports and, of course, the pressure on parliamentary time, we do not believe that an annual report or statement in Parliament on the work of the Council of Europe is necessary.

The activities of the Council of Europe are wide ranging. They cover culture, education, sport, health, social questions, crime and drug prevention, legal affairs, local and regional authorities, youth affairs and the improvement of the environment. I pay tribute to the work that my hon. Friend has done in the arts. The United Kingdom participates actively in all of them.

We believe that the conventions, of which there are more than 120, are of particular value. These conventions have been negotiated by the member states of the Council. Perhaps foremost among these conventions is the European convention on the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms, which was opened for signature in 1950. The United Kingdom was the first country to ratify that convention. The human rights convention is a touchstone for the democratic freedoms that we enjoy in western Europe. More than a list of fundamental rights, the convention provides arrangements whereby individuals and states can seek redress against alleged violations of those rights through reference to the European Commission and the European Court of Human Rights set up under the convention. The United Kingdom's decision last year to renew the right of individual petition to the Commission and our recognition of the compulsory jurisdiction of the court are evidence of our support for the system of protection guaranteed by the convention on human rights.

An important contribution to the promotion of discussion and co-operation among the countries of western Europe is made by the periodic specialist conferences of Ministers held under Council of Europe auspices. There were seven such conferences last year, covering labour, equality betwen men and women, justice, sport, local government, mass media and terrorism. The conference on terrorism, which took place in November, was timely and offered a valuable opportunity for discussion on this important matter by the Council's 21 member Governments. As a result, Ministers agreed to improve co-operation in counter-terrorism.

An important feature of the Council of Europe, which has assumed special significance with the enlargement of the European Community, is the opportunity that the Council offers for consultation between the 12 and the non-Community Members of the Council. We attach particular importance to such dialogue. At a meeting of the Council of Europe Committee of Ministers held in November last year, my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary presented a report on developments within the Community during the period of the British presidency. He was also able to exchange views informally on important international questions with his Council of Europe colleagues, and to attend a colloquy between Council of Europe Ministers and representatives of the Council's Parliamentary Assembly.

It is important that the work of the Council of Europe and that of the Community are effectively co-ordinated so that the Council can concentrate on those areas to which its membership is most suited, and duplication of effort is avoided. The relationship between the Council and the European Community was the subject of a report produced last year by a commission of eminent European personalities chaired by Signor Colombo. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Hexham (Mr. Rippon) represented the United Kingdom. The report's proposals are currently being considered by the Committee of Ministers. We shall examine its conclusions.

I should like to say a word about the financing of the Council of Europe. The United Kingdom is one of the four major contributors to the Council of Europe's budget. In the financial year 1985–86 the Foreign and Commonwealth Office contribution was £5,580,000. We have adopted in relation to the budgets of all international organisations a policy of zero real growth. We have no wish to curtail the valuable activities of the Council—quite the contrary. However, we believe that it is important to encourage international organisations to be selective in determining their work programmes, according the highest priority to those activities which are likely to produce the greatest benefits, and hope that the Council will approach its programme in this way, looking critically at each proposed activity with a view to ensuring that the resources available are allocated in the most cost-effective way.

The essence of the WEU is the commitment in article 5 of the revised Brussels treaty whereby all seven signatories undertake to provide assistance in the event of an attack on any one of them. This commitment to common defence is stronger and more binding than the commitment in the comparable article of the NATO treaty, a fact that is often overlooked. The Brussels treaty also obliges the British Government to maintain an army and an air force on the continent of Europe in peacetime. This was a unique obligation on our part—something that we had never in our history previously contemplated. The WEU thus embodies our, and our partners', fundamental commitment to collective security. This commitment is set firmly within the framework of the Atlantic Alliance. The WEU is the means whereby the European pillar of the Alliance", to use President Kennedy's phrase, can be effectively strengthened.

In its activities, the WEU does not therefore seek to duplicate work done in NATO, but rather to reinforce it by ensuring that the European input is co-ordinated and coherent. It is the only European forum in which both Foreign and Defence Ministers can meet for joint consultations on security. Their discussions are prepared by regular exchanges at official level. The fact that discussion of security questions among all 12 members of the European community within the framework of European political co-operation is limited in scope reinforces the importance of the WEU. Its membership consists of countries which take their defence obligations seriously. It includes the two European nuclear powers and all five of the INF-basing countries—that is to say, the countries on whose territory the United States systems introduced into Europe under the terms of the 1979 dual-track decision are deployed.

The WEU Council of Foreign and Defence Ministers has met at approximately six-monthly intervals since reactivation, exchanging views on a wide range of substantive security issues. British Ministers have played a leading role in those discussions. The most recent meeting at Luxembourg last November was particularly significant in providing the opportunity to consider the implications for Europe of the outcome of the Reykjavik meeting in October. Our WEU partners later welcomed the Prime Minister's understanding with President Reagan, reached at Camp David just a day after the Luxembourg WEU meeting, as being in the interests of Europe as a whole.

The Government attach considerable importance to the role of parliamentarians in the WEU. The Council's recognition of the Assembly's work was amply demonstrated in Paris in December last year when the French Prime Minister and five other Ministers from different WEU countries, including my noble Friend the Minister for Defence Procurement, addressed the Assembly at its part-session. I know that this record turnout did not please everyone. Some regard it as a burden which interfered unduly with the Assembly's debates, and Governments must clearly take account of these concerns in planning their future representation. At the same time, however, the significance for the WEU of this ministerial interest should not be forgotten. If the organisation is to take its place in Europe, and if the Assembly is to play its part, there will inevitably be a renewed impetus to the dialogue between Governments and the Assembly. That so many Ministers wished to speak at the session last December is testimony to those developments.

My noble Friend the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, who has addressed the WEU Assembly in Paris on many occasions, has frequently made clear in her speeches the significant public role which the Government see for the WEU Assembly. It is the only European body specifically empowered by treaty to debate security and defence questions, and has unique possibilities to generate better public understanding of the issues involved. The dissemination of the Assembly's reports can be of assistance in this area and it is important that, through dialogue with the Assembly, Governments' views can become more widely known and form an essential element of the debate.

The Government attach significance to the provision to both the Assembly and other WEU bodies of adequate resources to carry out their work. It has not been easy to establish the appropriate level of financing in view of the great changes which the WEU has undergone in the past two years and in which my hon. Friend has been involved, but the organisation has experienced real budgetary growth in both 1985 and 1986 and is likely also to do so for 1987. When set against the Government's policy of restricting the budgets of international organisations to zero real growth, this indicates that the WEU has in recent years benefited beyond the norm, partly as a tribute from Governments to the WEU during its reactivation. British Ministers have supported the need to ensure adequate financing of the WEU and will continue to do so.

Ministers have agreed that the WEU institutional changes resulting from reactivation should run unhindered until the end of this year. They will then undertake a review of the performance of the new arrangements, which will help to signpost the way ahead. Our aim is to get the WEU established as the focal point of the European defence identity and to ensure that its working methods are soundly based for this purpose. Once the review is complete, we shall be able to turn our full attention to the question of the possible future enlargement of the organisation. In doing so, we shall have to reflect carefully on the serious treaty obligations to which potential new members must commit themselves and to ask whether these could be undertaken. But that is for the future—we must first be certain that the WEU is heading in the right direction and is sure of its future role. Until then, it would be premature to examine the important question of enlargement in detail.

I think that it will be clear from what I have said that we are committed to both the Council of Europe and the WEU. We recognise the important work that they do and the contribution that they make in their different fields to co-operation in western Europe.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Three o'clock.