As well as having my seat in the House of Commons, I am one of twenty MPs who have been appointed to the Assembly of the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. This group meets for four weeks of the year to debate issues impacting human rights, democracy, economic development and foreign affairs across its 47 member countries, which stretch from Iceland to the Ukraine, accounting for 820 million inhabitants. I have been sitting in Strasbourg this last week.
Whilst the Council of Europe is nothing to do with the European Union, this week we were paid a visit by the President of the European Commission which gave us the opportunity to ask him about the future of the EU (although whether this will involve the UK will be decided on 23 June). The President did admit that the EU is too bloated, but he did not take it well when one of my colleagues asked him if he would be making efficiencies in his budget like the UK Government has.
In addition, we were visited by the Turkish Prime Minister and a delegation of politicians from Jordan. If we think we have difficulties in the UK with immigration then try comparing the situation in Jordan. Over 600,000 refugees have come over its border and the annual bill to host them is almost £3bl (8% of Jordan’s GDP). Whilst the UK has given £1bl to countries who are hosting Syrian refugees, the Jordanians receive only 5% of the costs from the international community. As a result, refugees are taking their chances to flee for Europe and this causes a direct challenge to our own infrastructure. The Jordanian are good friends to the UK so I hope we can encourage our fellow countries to give as generously as the UK does to help stem the flow.
The other role of the Council of Europe is to oversee the European Convention of Human Rights and the European Court of Human Rights (based across the road in Strasbourg). The Convention gets a bad name because the judges in the Strasbourg court have been stretching their powers. A good example of this is the decision by the Strasbourg court that prisoners in the UK should have the right to vote. There is nothing in the Convention about voting rights but the court has declared that our laws banning prisoners from voting are not compliant. I find this quite outrageous. To remedy this, the Government has pledged to amend our own Human Rights legislation to ensure that UK courts do not slavishly follow the decisions in Strasbourg but act in accordance with the laws in Parliament. This will also help us to deport criminals or hate-preachers who are currently using the ‘right to a family life’ (Article 8) to avoid deportation.
Whilst focussing on local matters is my priority, we know from the immigration and border security concerns that what goes on abroad directly impacts us here. I am proud to represent my country in the Council of Europe and I hope that I am better informed for my constituents on the world around us as a result.