HL Deb 05 February 2004 vol 656 cc793-5

Lord Russell-Johnston asked Her Majesty's Government:

On how many occasions since 1997 they have been represented by (a);a junior Minister, and (b) the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, at the bi-annual meetings of the Committee of Ministers, which oversees the Council of Europe.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean)

My Lords, the United Kingdom has twice been represented at the Council of Europe's bi-annual Committee of Ministers' meetings by junior Ministers since 1997. My late noble and learned friend Lord Williams of Mostyn, then Minister of State at the Home Office, attended the 104th session in Budapest in May 1999 and my noble and learned friend the Attorney-General attended the 112th session in Strasbourg in May 2003. The United Kingdom has not been represented by the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs during this period, but, of course, the Prime Minister attended the Council of Europe's second summit in Autumn 1997.

Lord Russell-Johnston

My Lords, had I asked the same Question of the Minister about EU meetings, I bet that she would have declared a full slate. Given that the Government, I hope, recognise the huge contribution that the Council of Europe, not least its Parliamentary Assembly, continues to make to the consolidation of democratic and social values in central Europe—in Ukraine, Russia and the Caucasus—why does Britain, along with France and Germany, take the lead in holding back necessary budgetary increases? Is it the political effect of the grandpayeur system? Perhaps that should be scrubbed and a common system introduced. Lastly, if Russia leaves the grand payeur system, can the Minister at least assure me that the shortfall will not be made up by a budgetary increase and that Britain will argue against such a course of action?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, there were several questions there. The fact is that we and most of our EU partners do not send Ministers as a matter of routine to those meetings. We are usually represented by our extremely able Permanent Representative, Stephen Howarth. We do send Ministers when there are matters of particular interest that we wish to discuss. As the noble Lord knows, it is a very different organisation from the European Union.

Regarding budgets, we contribute 13 per cent of the ordinary budget. Given that there are 45 countries around the table, I do not believe 13 per cent is bad on our part. I know that there are issues arising from the budget, but it is our policy to try to keep zero real growth in our budgetary contributions to most of the international organisations to which we are affiliated. In that respect the Council of Europe does not do badly. We are currently paying about 19 million—the 13 per cent to which I referred-compared with 20 million for the OSCE, 10 million for the OECD, 45 million for the United Nations and 18 million for NATO. The figure for the Council of Europe stands up well with those other comparisons.

Lord Judd

My Lords, I declare an interest as a member of the Parliamentary Delegation to the Council of Europe and pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Russell-Johnston, for the effective contribution he made as president of the Parliamentary Assembly. Does my noble friend not agree that, with enlargement of the European Union and the reality that many of the issues facing Europe are wider than the EU alone, the Council of Europe becomes more important, not less, in bridging the relationship between those countries still outside the Union and those within? Is there not a case for saying that strong ministerial representation, whenever appropriate, would be sensible in such a context?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, there is indeed a case for saying that and the Government meet that case, because UK Ministers regularly attend the meetings that are relevant. Both my right honourable friend the Deputy Prime Minister and my noble and learned friend the Attorney-General have visited Strasbourg in the past year. The Question was specifically about ministerial meetings, but as I have indicated, the Deputy Prime Minister has also been participating. Of course we attach enormous value to the role played by the Council of Europe and in particular by the European Court of Human Rights. That is an area where we spend a great deal of time. We demonstrated our commitment to the protection of rights established by the European Convention, by introducing the Human Rights Act in 1999. I, too, pay tribute to the role of the noble Lord, Lord Russell-Johnston.

Lord Howell of Guildford

My Lords, I have no great problem with the ministerial representation. The excellent organisation that we helped to found—I strongly agree with the noble Lord, Lord Judd, about its importance in the reformed and enlarged Europe that lies ahead—may be even greater than it has been in the past. I also acknowledge the valuable role that the noble Lord, Lord Russell-Johnston, has played in it. If there are to be tight budgetary restraints and budget cuts, please could they be directed at the over-blown and over-centralised European Union institutions rather than at the Council of Europe?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, that was an easy hit for the noble Lord to try to make. I am sure that I have already indicated to your Lordships that our policy is to ensure that we control budgets tightly for all the multilateral organisations to which this country is affiliated.

Lord Maclennan of Rogart

My Lords, I recognise that the relative contribution of the United Kingdom to the funding of the European Court of Human Rights is not out of line, but can the Minister assure us that Ministers collectively recognise that budgetary constraints are leading to serious backlogs and limitations on the effectiveness of the work of the European Court? That requires attention before the situation becomes such a crisis that countries do not adequately participate.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I am extremely glad that the noble Lord raised that issue, because I can tell him that the Government have played an active role in the negotiations to ensure the continuing effectiveness of the Court. Indeed, regarding the budget, we made an extra financial contribution to assist the Court to reduce those sizeable backlogs of cases to which the noble Lord referred. So I hope he is pleased with that answer.

Lord Russell-Johnston

My Lords, the Minister did not respond to my question about the grand payeur system. Does she approve of it or would she like to see it changed? After all, that is why we pay 13 per cent.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I did not respond to that point because it was the third that the noble Lord raised and I answered his two previous points. As it is, I do not have any briefing on that matter, so I shall write to the noble Lord and place a copy of my letter in the Library of the House.

Back to