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    22nd Session of the Congress, Plenary Sitting

    20 March 2012

    Speech by Eric Pickles, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government

Mr President,

Distinguished members of the Congress,

Ladies and gentlemen,

I’m delighted to have this opportunity to address this twenty second Session of Congress whilst the UK is chairing the Committee of Ministers.

It’s great to be back at the hemicycle. I spent a very happy year here in Strasbourg as a member of the Parliamentary Assembly.

Strasbourg is an important, symbolic city for Europe. For centuries it was the anvil of conflict, but since 1948 it has been the cradle of human rights. The Council has moved from a position of “never again” for State to State conflicts to offering protection to the individual European citizen from the State.

There are some that say in this period of austerity it is time to pull back the Council’s activities, that its glory days are behind it. I’m not one of those. I believe that the Council of Europe is as relevant now as it was 60 years ago. Now, we are more accountable to the people of Europe.

They look to the Council as their last bastion for human rights. But in difficult economic times they firmly expect value for money.

The unthinking reaction to these stringent economic times would be to cut every programme. My view is that we should prioritise our activities. We should do this because we believe that acting together as the Council of Europe, Governments, the Parliamentary Assembly, and you in Congress, as the voice of cities and regions in Europe, can deliver real benefits to Europe’s citizens.

Together we can stand up for human rights, for local democracy, and for the rule of law.

At the same time we should give value for money for the European taxpayers who pay for it all. And it is to these taxpayers that all of the activities of the Council of Europe must be relevant, transparent and accountable.

UK’s chairmanship

Our Chairmanship’s priorities have a common purpose. To ensure that sixty years after that Treaty was signed in London that the Council of Europe continues to remain relevant, giving benefit to Europe’s citizens, protecting their human rights, strengthening democracy, and giving value for money to Europe’s taxpayers.

Every member here will be acutely aware of the economic challenges every European nation, region and city faces. So I am sure that every member recognises that institutions like the Council of Europe cannot be preserved for their own sake, or indeed for some nostalgic commitment to the past.

But if they can make a positive difference to people’s lives then it is right to keep them. I believe that the Council of Europe does make a difference but can do more.

To do this it needs to be more open. It needs to show it delivers value for money, that it stands up for its people, that it protects them and makes the cities and regions they live in better places. Our Chairmanship’s priorities reflect this. They are forward looking.

Our overarching priority remains that of the original Treaty: to promote and protect human rights across Europe. Where it encounters violations of human rights, the Council of Europe should tackle them on behalf of the peoples of Europe. That is why we are seeking to reform the Court.

We want to strengthen the rule of law, and to combat discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity. This includes specifics like never sacrificing freedom of expression and improving the governance of the internet.

These priorities reflect our belief in the real benefit and value that working together as the Council of Europe can bring to citizens. Of particular interest to you in the Congress is our priority to streamline the Council of Europe’s activities in support of local and regional democracy.

Our aim is simple. As my Prime Minister, David Cameron himself said, we want to “reinforce local democracy”. And we want that to reinforce the local economies of Europe.

You, as Congress, have an important role to play. You represent a distinct and unique form of grass roots democracy. It is in this forum that you can reflect the vitality and uniqueness that makes us Europeans together, respecting and celebrating our regional and national identities.

It is in this arena that increased co-operation with the Parliamentary Assembly and with Governments can improve the lives of citizens. But bureaucracy is holding us back.

A lack of focus on what is essential is holding things back. There is a lack of coordination and collaboration. There is not enough value for money.

I served in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe myself many years ago and what I found most frustrating were the pointless reports produced at great cost, that just ended up gathering dust on a shelf somewhere without bringing any benefit or value to the citizens we represented. We heard and discussed those criticisms then and today, we are still hearing and discussing them now.

The time for talking has surely come to an end. I don’t want to come back in another decade and find these issues are still being discussed. These realities were recognised by many of you at Lancaster House in London in the meeting chaired by my ministerial colleague, Baroness Hanham. There you acknowledged that changes needed to be made.

I recognise that some in the Congress had their concerns with what we proposed at Lancaster House. There needs to be debate and discussion and as Chairman we will continue to listen. Baroness Hanham will be attending your Statutory Forum later where that debate can continue.

But it is now time to take action, time to start delivering that change. Time to show citizens this institution remains relevant. If we don’t, it will face a disapproving court of public opinion.

To succeed and give value for money to European taxpayers, we need to reform the Council of Europe’s work on local and regional democracy.

Five actions

Today I want to put forward five basic steps that can start that change to strengthen the Council.

The decision of course is yours. We want to listen to what Congress has to say. But these five steps build on Chaves. First. Implement now and in full the Chaves Report and the recommendations agreed by Ministers and the Congress at Kiev.

This will open the way for Governments and Congress to work together on issues, where this is the right thing to do, in an agenda in common. Chaves gave us purpose renewed, but it must only be a starting point, not a stopping point.

Second. The priorities for each year on local and regional democracy should be agreed in an open and transparent way. It should be clear what Governments are to do, what Congress is to do, what the Parliamentary Assembly is to do, and what is to be done jointly in an agenda in common.

Poor value for money can never be justified. When many member States are facing retrenchment, big public budget reductions, and scaled back services; when there’s a real squeeze on family budgets; any lack of value of money is indefensible.

The actions of the Council of Europe should be concentrated on what really matters…

….to delivering genuine benefits for the people of Europe.

So let’s work together on those things that cannot be done individually in our own states. This will reduce wasteful duplication and increase your value for money.

However attractive an activity, no matter how important it is, country monitoring, or meetings to learn from one another – if they are unlikely to make a difference to the lives of our citizens, then it is wrong that we ask our citizens to pay for them.

We have a saying in my country ‘Buggins's turn’, where someone is assigned a task not because it’s a good idea, but because they are next in line.

But that’s not the way things should be done.

Work should only happen where it will make a real difference, where support is needed, and where it is relevant. We need to focus our resources where they're needed most, where they can make the greatest difference to peoples' lives.

Third. Those agreed activities must be carried out promptly and efficiently and be undertaken in a transparent way through effective management arrangements that ensure accountability.

We have done this in England, both local authorities and my own Government department. We all now publish regular transparency reports on our websites showing how and where any money over £500 is spent.

It has brought openness to our actions and rigour to our decisions.

Fourth. To ensure proper accountability each year we must offer a detailed public report, building on the excellent report you already produce, explaining the value for money of what has actually been done and how this stacks up against the priorities set for the year.

Fifth. Budgets, administrative arrangements, and structures need to be shaped to support this open, transparent, and accountable way of working, to incentivise value for money, and to clear away the outdated bureaucracy that shackles our ability to serve our citizens.

Conclusion

So, should you choose to take up these modest tasks then together we can strengthen the Council of Europe.

We are confident this will be taken forward by Albania, the next Chairman.

If you accept this challenge and act on it there can be a renaissance within the Council of Europe.

A renaissance that enables this institution to serve Europe's citizens, a renaissance that brings benefits to our peoples’ everyday lives. We are uniquely placed to make a difference to every village, town, city or region. The citizens of Europe are watching. Let us not disappoint them.



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