We are dealing with rogue employers, just as we are dealing with rogue landlords and driving by illegal

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immigrants. Many people have been taking advantage of the present system, but they will no longer be allowed to do so, and will face criminal sanctions. It will be possible, for instance, to close business premises for up to 48 hours when an employer has already incurred a civil penalty, or has been prosecuted for employing illegal workers. We are attacking the infrastructure that currently surrounds illegal immigrants: we are attacking every aspect of their lives that is illegal. More important, we are attacking those who actually perpetrate the illegality. For example, the Bill makes illegal working a criminal offence in its own right, because we think that that is sensible.

Mr Nuttall: Will the Minister now answer the question that I asked earlier? In January 2014, he said that these provisions were not necessary because they were in the Immigration Act. If someone who is in the country illegally can already be dealt with under the Act, what is the point of creating a specific offence?

Richard Harrington: I did answer my hon. Friend’s earlier question, and I will answer this question in the same way. We are talking about the combination of an existing Act and a Bill that is going through Parliament. As I have just said, the Immigration Bill will make illegal working a criminal offence in its own right, and that will cover self-employed as well as employed people. Moreover, it will be possible for wages paid to illegal workers to be seized as the proceeds of crime, through the activation of powers conferred by the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002.

There seems to be an argument that we need this Bill because the Government are doing nothing, and because there is complete anarchy relating to illegal immigration. The European Union referendum came up quite a lot in the earlier part of the debate, and I accept that that discussion would have been stopped if we had been under your supervision, Mr Deputy Speaker. Your predecessor in the Chair—Mr Speaker himself—was perhaps more tolerant on this issue. [Hon. Members: “Ooh!”] I did not mean the issue of whether we should remain in the European Union; I meant the issue of whether this debate should be expanded to cover that subject.

I always listen very carefully to my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough. He centred a lot of his speech on Europe and on the consequences of leaving the EU that French Ministers have been mentioning recently. I do not think that that is relevant to this debate. I think it was my hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat) who said that if we were not in the EU, we would have to have different relations with France anyway and everything would need to be renegotiated. So I am slightly confused about this. What does my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough think an illegal immigrant is? No one could possibly say that all the people from Europe who are here at the moment, including the Polish people who have been mentioned, are illegal immigrants. Would they become illegal immigrants? It has been made very clear that they are all coming here to work.

Sir Edward Leigh: The Minister must not try to put words in our mouths, because this is a really important subject. Nobody in the leave campaign is suggesting

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that people from Europe who are already legally resident here should in any way become illegal immigrants. There is no suggestion of that at all.

Richard Harrington: I can assure my hon. Friend, out of personal respect for him, that I would not suggest that. He has accepted, however, that all these Polish people come here to work. If they came here to work in the future, would they suddenly become illegal immigrants? I am not sure, and I do not think it does the Bill any good to confuse the issues.

Mr Chope: As the Minister rightly says, this is a Bill about illegal migrants. Can he tell us how many illegal migrants there are in the United Kingdom at the moment?

Richard Harrington: Strangely enough, I cannot say exactly—[Laughter.] This is the serious answer to a question my hon. Friend tabled asking the Home Office to produce more recent estimates of the numbers of illegal immigrants. I believe that he quoted a report from 2005. I was going to answer that question by not answering the question exactly, but by explaining that there are no official estimates of the number of illegal immigrants in the UK because, by definition, the clandestine nature of their presence makes that very hard to estimate.

So what are we doing about this? We have taken action in the Immigration Act 2014 to collect exit data, which my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (Mr Nuttall) mentioned earlier. Such data have not been collected in the past. Collecting data on those leaving the country will give us a clearer picture of the number of those who enter legally but overstay their visa. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch will accept that partial answer to his question, even though it is not the full answer that he wanted. In fact, he already knew the answer to his question. Like all good barristers, he knows that you should never ask a question to which you do not know the answer. He was still right to ask it, but he knew the answer in advance.

I am slightly confused by the points that were made about the Calais situation. It is perfectly legitimate to discuss that situation in the context of illegal immigrants, but I do not accept that the clauses in the Bill would prevent migrants from gathering in Calais in an attempt to reach the UK. I do not accept that basic premise. I accept the fact that people have a perception of this country as El Dorado, but they would not say to themselves, “I can come in illegally and do everything that I want but, oh, I might get a £5,000 fine and six months in prison so I won’t do it.” I do not accept that.

We are working closely with the French authorities to strengthen security at the French ports, and we are taking firm action to try to reduce the pull factors that make the UK attractive to these illegal immigrants. I cannot accept the premise that putting more and more people in prison would suddenly make people stop coming here. We would need some pretty big prisons. However, I agree that getting rid of the incentives and the factors that make people think they can come here illegally and have a sort of permanent life outside the system is a pretty big intention.

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I am conscious of the fact that time is moving on. I have gone through many of the points in the Bill, including the extra powers that an immigration officer will have. The hon. Member for Gainsborough asked about the carriers’ liability and whether it applies to the channel tunnel. As he knew already, it does not currently apply to train operators in the channel tunnel.

Sir Edward Leigh: Why not?

Richard Harrington: Well, we are keeping the policy under active review. [Interruption.] Members may mock, but in a democracy, one reviews and assesses a problem before taking action. Perhaps, before these people even get on a train or are deported, we could consider a six-month prison sentence, or a £5,000 fine; I do not know. The Government are reviewing the matter to see what action is appropriate. They will take action where the threats of illegal immigration justify it. Having seen what happens every night in Calais, I do not think—forgetting the merits of the situation—that putting these people into prison, fining them and saying that they will be deported will prevent them from what they are doing. None the less, our arrangements with France are beginning to work, and the French authorities have been extremely co-operative.

In addition to the changes in the laws, we are ramping up the whole of Government’s approach to controlling immigration. We are trying to deal with the fact that Government activities have been compartmentalised. My own appointment in relation to Syrian refugees covers three Departments. If I ever was a tiny footnote in history—one may very well argue that I will not be—it could be that I am the first Minister in history to cover three Departments. I am sure that we would all support greater co-ordination across agencies in Government to ensure that, where we identify illegal working, we extend our enforcement reach and apply the full range of sanctions available against illegal migrants and rogue employers.

We have shown that we will create additional criminal offences when we perceive there to be a need. However, I believe that adequate criminal sanctions and removal and deportation powers to deal with illegal migrants are already in place in the existing immigration legislation and the legislation that is going through Parliament. We are talking about serious criminal offences, and they will be dealt with through the criminal system. I could go through them at length, but my hon. Friends know them, as they took part in proceedings on the Immigration Bill and other such measures.

There are many different criminal offences, which, in the past, were treated as civil matters, the sanctions for which were so light that they did not have any effect at all. That is where there is a fundamental difference now.

The Bill proposes a power of deportation. The deportation would be mandatory, whatever the circumstances, unless the Secretary of State, who, I can assure Members, is pretty busy, intervened to say that deportation was not in the public interest. I must explain that deportation is a power that is reserved for those who have been convicted of a crime in this country and for those, such as those involved in terrorist cases, whose presence in the country is not considered to be conducive to the public good.

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The Immigration Act 1971 sets out the power for the Secretary of State to deport an individual where it is deemed to be conducive to the public good, or where there is a court recommendation for deportation. The UK Borders Act 2007 further sets out that subject to exceptions, when a person is sentenced to at least 12 months’ imprisonment the Secretary of State must make a deportation order against the criminal. That means that neither people entering the UK illegally nor those remaining in the country without leave are persons who are liable to deportation. The Bill would seek to remedy that, but it does not take into account the fact that immigration legislation provides for adequate removal powers for illegal entrants and overstayers without requiring a costly prosecution first, for what are minor offences in the overall scheme of immigration offences. We have always preferred migrants to depart voluntarily as it is better for the migrant, allowing them to leave on their own terms, and much more cost-effective for the Home Office. We will pursue enforcement action against those who are not prepared to leave voluntarily, but we do have human rights obligations.

Bob Stewart: From the public’s point of view, someone that comes into this country illegally has committed an offence and should be deported forthwith. The Government do not seem to have the drive to do it, judging from the Minister’s reply.

Richard Harrington: The Government certainly, to use my hon. Friend’s words, do not “have the drive” to have a unilateral and automatic policy and power of deportation in criminal action whatever the circumstances; that is true.

I do not believe, therefore, that the measures proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch are necessary for the prevention and punishment of illegal migration, and for the reasons I have outlined the Government cannot support the Bill.

Mrs Sheryll Murray: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Richard Harrington: I have finished.

12.31 pm

Mr Chope: I am grateful to everyone who has participated in the debate, particularly my hon. Friends the Members for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) and for Bury North (Mr Nuttall), who are sponsors of the Bill. I much enjoyed the speech by the hon. Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown) from the Labour Front Bench. I listened with interest to the Minister’s response, but at the heart of what he was saying, particularly at the end of his speech, was the view that a person who enters this country illegally should be enabled to profit from their illegality by being allowed to stay in this country and not being deported once they have been detected.

Bob Stewart: Unless they do something illegal.

Mr Chope: Unless they do something illegal, as my hon. Friend says. The Bill would make it clear that the very act of entering this country without authority, often by subterfuge and often after having paid people smugglers large sums of money, would in itself be a criminal act that would merit a deportation, except in the most exceptional circumstances when the Home Secretary determined that it would not be in the public interest.

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There is at the heart of this debate a fundamental difference between the approach that I and my hon. Friends would like the Government to take and the one that the Government are taking. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and the Conservative party, in its manifestos both in 2010 and 2015, promised that we would reduce net migration to the tens of thousands. In the light of today’s debate, I think that promise needs to be rephrased—we should promise that we will, in the future, reduce illegal migration to the tens of thousands. We already have illegal migration in excess of the tens of thousands—more than 100,000 illegally here. The Minister does not dispute that, so why do we not concentrate on trying to get rid of those people, because we are a million miles away from ever being able to implement the pledge to reduce all migration, both legal and illegal, to the tens of thousands? It has come through very strongly in this debate that the Government are not controlling the things that they could control.

The EU aspect has been brought out in the debate, but the charge of indifference brought against the Government—I know the hon. Member for West Ham also brought it—to some of the key issues has been well made.

The hon. Lady said that my proposals were very bureaucratic, but the people who are here illegally are being exploited and they are vulnerable. Although they are not being prosecuted, under the existing legislation they could be. The fact that they could be prosecuted if they are shopped by the people who control them makes them not want to put their heads above the parapet.

The current levels of illegal immigration are enabling the people traffickers, the exploiters and the pimps to carry on their business, and that is creating a whole underworld of crime. I would have thought that the Home Office would be more interested in trying to address that. The Bill would enable all the people currently in that underworld to come forward before 1 July and admit that they are here, and under this legislation they would then not be guilty of a criminal offence. That would send out a clear message to people trying to get into this country that they need to do so before the Bill becomes law, but after that there would be a strong deterrent effect. The Bill would indeed be a fresh start.

The hon. Member for West Ham said that there are 207,000 overstayers—the people who came here legally but are no longer entitled to be here and should have gone back to where they came from. What is being done about them? The Minister puts his arms up, metaphorically, and says, “Well, where are we going to deport them to?” What is absolutely clear is that they do not have the right to be in this country. The hon. Lady referred to some interesting constituency cases, and if someone has overstayed by mistake, we should in most case be able to rectify that pretty quickly. At the moment, the authorities tend to pick on those people for an oversight in order to demonstrate to the wider world that the Government are taking the issue seriously. The Government are picking on the hapless people who have made a small error. I had a constituency case the other day of a person who accidentally submitted five months of wage slips as evidence, rather than six months. They have now been told that they have to go back to wherever it is and make a fresh application, with all the associated expense.

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The Government are incredibly petty in dealing with the good people who have made a slip, and they are incredibly poor at dealing with the real villains.

That would all be put right if the Bill received its Second Reading today. However, I fear that it is too late in the Session for the Bill to have a realistic prospect of getting on to the statute book. I therefore seek the leave of the House to withdraw the motion. In so doing, I want to say that I will bring the issue back again, because this is an issue about which the people feel very strongly, and so do we.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.

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European Parliament Elections Bill

Second Reading

12.38 pm

Mr Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

I hope that this Bill will shortly be made redundant, because if we leave the European Union we will have no more European Parliament elections. We will then be able to centre our democracy on this Parliament, rather than having to defer to the Parliament of a supranational body. I will go no further than that, the Minister will be pleased to hear, in the debate about the European Union. In any event, those who are elected to the European Parliament should be properly accountable to their electors, but the existing system gives too much power to political parties and lists, and not enough to the people.

Mrs Sheryll Murray (South East Cornwall) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that the allegiance of those elected to the European Parliament is to their party or group in that Parliament, not their national Governments?

Mr Chope: I am not sure that I do; if that is the situation, it is very unsatisfactory. Members of the European Parliament should be elected to represent their constituents, just as we are, but as soon as people become European Commissioners, they have to give up their allegiance to their home country and do everything in the name of the Commission.

There are some good examples of Members of the European Parliament who are acting in their constituents’ interests. I hope that many more will do so. The Bill would help facilitate that, as its purpose is to ensure that there is a system of open rather than closed lists. Anyone whose candidature was put before the electors at an election could have a cross put beside their name and that the elector would not just be ticking a list for a particular party membership.

At the moment, someone who wants to vote Conservative in the European elections in the south-west of England, where my constituency is, will have no say over the order of preferences for Conservative candidates. If the person thinks that the fourth or fifth candidate on the Conservative party list is the best, they have no opportunity of voting for them because the list has been sorted out by the party in private sessions and a Conservative vote is deemed to be for the first candidate—and, if there are sufficient votes, the second candidate and so on. That is completely different from what most would see as a fair election: one in which they can choose the candidate for themselves.

The present system gives a lot of undue power to political parties and makes it more difficult for strong and independent voices to get elected to the European Parliament. It also creates all sorts of perversities—for example, if someone elected on one party list to the European Parliament then chooses to change party, as often seems to happen, they retain their position in the European Parliament, but for the different party, without any opportunity for the electors in their region to select somebody else.

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Bob Stewart (Beckenham) (Con): That system also seems to work here, which I think is wrong.

Mr Chope: It can work here, although my hon. Friend should remember the courageous move made by the hon. Member for Clacton (Mr Carswell). He said he did not wish to carry on as a Conservative Member and wanted to change his party allegiance. Before doing that, however, he sought the endorsement of the electorate in a by-election. That was a worthy way to approach the situation. I hope that the mood is changing and that people will not feel that they can basically ignore the mandate given to them by their constituents and switch parties without reverting back to their electors.

The Bill seems quite complicated in the sense that, although it has only three clauses, one clause has nine subsections, but I have been advised that that is the only way in which we can alter the existing system to introduce the open list system for elections to the European Parliament.

I look forward to hearing what my hon. Friend the Minister says. I expect him to preface his remarks by saying that he hopes we do not have any more European elections, but that if we do, he can assure us that they are going to be more democratic than those we have had in the past.

12.45 pm

Wayne David (Caerphilly) (Lab): As has been correctly said, the system of proportional representation that we now have for the European Parliament elections was first introduced in 1999, and one of its key hallmarks is the fact that it is a closed regional list system. It is also worth noting that there is a very complicated—some Members would say so—system of allocation of seats to the candidates under the d’Hondt system, which is in place in many European countries and in the European Parliament itself. It is named after a famous Belgian gentleman, I understand.

One of the key concerns, which is the subject of this Bill, is that we have a closed regional list system. It is worth pointing out that a such a system is not unique to the United Kingdom. Such systems exist in a number of European countries. In France, there is a closed national list, which is criticised by many people. Indeed, there are strong arguments against having a closed system. One of the key arguments is that it creates a very impersonal kind of election whereby people vote for political parties rather than individuals, and therefore the focus is very much on the message of the central political party rather than on that of the individual candidate, because there are no individual candidates, as such.

It is true that voters cannot pick and choose between candidates of one particular party. Their vote is for the party of their choice, and the party machine decides who is on the list and who therefore stands the best chance of being elected. As has been made clear, the system does not allow for an individual who is elected on one party’s regional list but changes political affiliation once elected to have to stand for re-election. However, that is exactly the same as our electoral system.

There are indeed strong arguments against the current system, and it is worth our having a serious debate about what preferred system of proportional representation may replace it. I say that because in 1999 the United Kingdom, as a matter of this Parliament’s choice, decided

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to adopt a proportional representation system, but now it is obliged under European law to have a proportional representation system, so if we are going to change it, we cannot simply turn back the clock and go back to first past the post; we have to have a different form of proportional representation.

There are arguments in favour of our current system, one of which is that it helps to create a system of representation for the United Kingdom that is more reflective of the population as a whole than would otherwise be the case. It is now possible to have a degree of gender balance among Britain’s representatives. The onus is on the political parties to ensure that they have that gender balance on their regional lists by region, if they wish to do so. Nevertheless, a responsibility is placed on the parties—my party, especially—to have that gender balance. The same applies to ethnic minorities: there are now more ethnic minority representatives than would otherwise be the case.

Given our participation in the European Parliament, it is unfortunate that many people do not easily relate to it. Even when it had a first-past-the-post system—I was a Member of the European Parliament for 10 years and was elected under that system—it was not easy to build a personal relationship with the electors, and that continues to be the case under the regional list system. Perhaps we should not kid ourselves that a personal relationship will ever be that important in European elections. Perhaps it is more important to recognise that people vote for political parties, including domestic parties and others that may be affiliated to pan-European parties.

There is a debate to be had. This debate on the Bill promoted by the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) is a continuation of that on a similar Bill promoted in the last Session. The issue needs to be resolved and I welcome the debate. I look forward to hearing the Government’s response to the very good points made by the hon. Gentleman.

12.51 pm

The Minister for Civil Society (Mr Rob Wilson): I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) for once again bringing to the House the issue of the voting system for European parliamentary elections. A similar Bill was debated in the final Session of the previous Parliament, so this is a good opportunity to explore the arguments and update the House on the Government’s position.

My hon. Friend clearly feels strongly about the issue and he has made his argument with persuasive force. The way in which we elect our representatives is a topic of great importance and it has a significant impact on the relationship between electors and their representatives. I thank hon. Members for their contributions and I assure those present of the seriousness with which the Government take such matters.

The Bill would make provision for an open list for elections to the European Parliament to be used in all electoral regions other than Northern Ireland. That would represent a change from the current closed-list system, whereby electors vote for individual candidates rather than political parties.

The voting system to be used for European parliamentary elections has been debated at length in both Houses of Parliament, and it is clear that there are range of views

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on the merits of the closed list voting system. As my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey (Mr Gyimah), the then Minister for the Constitution, said at the Dispatch Box in the previous Parliament,

“the closed list system is simple for electors, and it ensures that across a region seats are allocated in proportion to the votes cast.”—[Official Report, 9 January 2015; Vol. 590, c. 547.]

I know from that debate and the views expressed today, however, that there is some dissatisfaction with the closed list system. The fact that parties solely determine the order in which candidates are awarded seats achieved by the party has come under fire, as it is said that it puts too much power in the hands of the parties and results in MEPs who are remote from their electorate.

Bob Stewart: My concern is that the real electorate of MEPs are the members of their party. People spend their time canvassing at party meetings, trying to garner support so that their party will put them one or two places up the list or at the top of it. That is a clear lack of democracy for the people of this country.

Mr Wilson: That is clearly one of the criticisms made of the system. In any debate we would need to think about that carefully and take it into account as part of any changes. There is of course some substance in what my hon. Friend says. I will address some of those issues in further detail as I develop my comments.

At the end of the last Parliament, my hon. Friend the then Minister for the Constitution suggested that this issue might be one for consideration in the next set of party manifestos. As hon. Members will be aware, no party’s election manifesto addressed the issue directly.

We remain sympathetic to the arguments for moving to an open list system for our elections to the European Parliament, and we understand the rationale behind them. For example, we recognise that introducing an open list system might help to address some of the issues about MEPs being seen as distant from their electors. That said, it is important to remember that every electoral system has its pros and cons, and that the choice is wider than one simply between an open or a closed list system, because other systems, such as the single transferable vote, are also options for consideration.

As hon. Members will be only too well aware, the Government have a busy programme of constitutional reform, so this issue is not currently a priority. During this Parliament, we have already introduced rules for English votes for English laws and completed the transition to individual electoral registration. In addition, we are currently working to devolve further powers to Scotland and Wales, remove the 15-year time limit on the voting rights of overseas electors, update parliamentary boundaries and explore further ways to improve the process of electoral registration.

It is worth noting that there have not been widespread calls for change. The country recently voted against changing the voting system for Westminster parliamentary elections. In the 2011 referendum on the alternative vote system, electors overwhelmingly voted to retain first past the post for elections to this place. We remain sympathetic to the arguments for moving to an open list, but for those reasons we have no plans to consider such a change at present.

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Wayne David: In all honesty and generosity, I say to the Minister that if the Government wish to alter their timetable for constitutional and political change—for example, to ditch the proposition about new parliamentary boundaries for the next election—we would be more than amenable to supporting this change to the electoral system for the European Parliament.

Mr Wilson: I note the hon. Gentleman’s comment, but I do not think we will be taking him up on his offer in the near future. The Government made a number of manifesto pledges in this area, and we are going to deliver on our pledges, including on all those involving electoral reform and boundary changes. I thank him, however, for his kind offer.

Mr Chope: My hon. Friend said that in the 2011 referendum the people of the United Kingdom overwhelmingly endorsed the first past the post system. Does he share my regret that the European Union is now preventing us from being able to reintroduce first past the post for European Parliament elections? What business is it of theirs? Why can we not decide that for ourselves?

Mr Wilson: As my hon. Friend will know, this country agreed to change the electoral system at European level from first past the post, and having done so, it would be fairly disingenuous for the Government to go back on it at this stage. Although we may move to another system, we could not now go back to first past the post. I will make a few more comments about that in a moment.

It may help hon. Members if I set out some information about the history of the voting system used in UK elections for the European Parliament. As they will know, direct elections for the European Parliament first took place in 1979. From 1979 until 1994, such elections in Great Britain were held under first past the post. I am very keen to support that system, and I certainly supported it at the referendum in 2011. Great Britain was divided up into a number of single Member constituencies. At each election voters would have one vote, and the candidate in each constituency who received the most votes was returned as the MEP for that constituency.

Since the first elections in 1979, the single transferable vote has been used in European elections in Northern Ireland. That reflects the long-standing practice of using proportional representation and specifically STV in Northern Ireland for elections other than to the House of Commons. My hon. Friend’s Bill proposes no change to the type of voting system used in Northern Ireland at European elections.

The Labour party manifesto for the UK general election in 1997, as the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David) said, gave a commitment to introduce proportional representation for European parliamentary elections. Upon taking office, the new Labour Government announced that they intended to introduce a regional list system for the European parliamentary elections. The European Parliamentary Elections Bill was introduced in Parliament by the then Government in October 1997.

That Bill proposed a system where a voter in each region would have one vote which could be cast for either a party or an independent candidate. Hon. Members may be aware that debate in Parliament centred on the type of list system to be used, with a number of attempts

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made to introduce a form of open list system, where voters would be able to vote for individual party candidates. The then Government’s preference was for a closed list system. Their concern about the open list system, as suggested by the then Opposition, was that there might be individual candidates who were not elected, while others from another party with fewer individual votes were elected because their party was more successful overall. In other words, voters’ preferences for individual candidates may not necessarily be translated into electoral success. This might call into question the legitimacy of some elected representatives.

Stephen Pound (Ealing North) (Lab): I feel convinced that in years to come the Minister’s speech today will be studied as part of constitutional history and will be the reference point. It is a magnificent piece of work. May I tell him that in Northern Ireland the reason why we use the alternative vote, why we use the d’Hondt system and why we even use the rather exotic Droop quotient on occasions is that there was a disconnect under the brute simplicity of first past the post? Although first past the post has its attractions, it cannot claim to proportionally represent the electorate. That is the problem. Does the hon. Gentleman not realise that there is a genuine difficulty with first past the post in very, very large constituencies when it comes to representing the whole of the electorate?

Mr Wilson: That is the first time I have heard of the Droop quotient. Obviously, it is something the hon. Gentleman is very familiar with. We are not proposing to restore first past the post at European elections. This is a debate about a closed and an open system for candidates, so we will not be proposing that we go back to the first past the post system.

Helpful research, which the hon. Gentleman might be interested in, was produced by the House of Commons Library, explaining that at Lords Third Reading a Conservative amendment based on an open list system modelled on the Finnish system was successful. Members of the other place pressed this amendment and eventually the Government used the Parliament Act to take the Bill through in the following Session. The result was the European Parliamentary Elections Act 1999, which introduced a closed list system. This was used for the first time in the June 1999 European parliamentary elections. The European Parliamentary Elections Act 2002 superseded the 1999 Act and made provision for the closed list system to be used for elections to the European Parliament in Great Britain.

I should also explain that, following the Matthews case, the European Parliament (Representation) Act 2003 extended the franchise for UK elections to the European Parliament to Gibraltar. The Act provided for Gibraltar to be combined with an existing region and, following a recommendation from the Electoral Commission, Gibraltar has been combined with the South West region for the purposes of European parliamentary elections.

It is important to note that under European law Council decision 2002/772/EC, which amends the 1976 Act of the European Parliament concerning the election of Members of the European Parliament by direct universal suffrage, members are now required to adopt a proportional voting system for elections to the European Parliament.

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The decision was made with the agreement of all member states, including the then UK Government. As I have indicated, the current system for European parliamentary elections in the UK was put in place by the European Parliamentary Elections Act 1999 before the requirement in European legislation for a proportional system was introduced.

It might be helpful if I set out briefly the key features of the closed list system that has been used for European parliamentary elections in Great Britain since 1999. Elections to the European Parliament are currently held every five years. For the purposes of European parliamentary elections in the United Kingdom, Great Britain is divided into 11 electoral regions. Each region must have a minimum of three MEP seats. There are nine regions in England: East Midlands has five seats, Eastern has seven, London eight, North East three, North West eight, South East 10, South West, which includes Gibraltar, six, West Midlands seven and Yorkshire and the Humber six. Scotland, which has six MEP seats, and Wales, which has four, each form an electoral region for the purposes of the European parliamentary elections.

In Great Britain, under the closed list system, electors have one vote, which they may cast for a party or an independent candidate. The seats in each region are allocated to parties in proportion to the number of votes they receive, using the d’Hondt formula.

Stephen Pound: Will the Minister give way?

Mr Wilson: I will in one minute.

There is no threshold of votes that a party or candidate must achieve to win a seat in a region. The seats are assigned to party candidates according to the order in which the candidates are displayed on the ballot paper. That order is predetermined by the party before the election. I give way to the hon. Gentleman.

Stephen Pound: I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman’s flow, but he mentioned Scotland, England and Wales. Did I miss his mention of Northern Ireland?

Mr Wilson: The hon. Gentleman must have done, because I mentioned Northern Ireland earlier in respect of the single transferable vote.

Stephen Pound: Yes, I heard that. I meant in respect of the number of seats.

Mr Wilson: I will come to that if the hon. Gentleman will be a little bit patient.

Stephen Pound: Phew!

Mr Wilson: It might be helpful if I outline briefly the d’Hondt method that is used to allocate the seats in electoral regions for European parliamentary elections in Great Britain. Under the d’Hondt formula, seats are allocated singly, one after another. The basic idea is that, at each stage, a party’s vote total is divided by a certain figure, which increases as it wins more seats. The divisor in the first round is one and, in subsequent rounds, the total number of votes for a party is divided by the number of seats it has already been allocated, plus one. I can see that everyone is clear about the d’Hondt formula as a result of that explanation.

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The number of seats for Northern Ireland is three, just to answer the hon. Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound).

Wayne David: I wonder whether the Minister would care to comment on whether the d’Hondt system helps or hinders smaller parties.

Mr Wilson: Obviously, the d’Hondt system is named after the Belgian lawyer who devised it as far back as the 1870s. It is what can only be described as a complicated system. It is certainly somewhat complicated for a simple layman like me. However, I would be very happy to arrange a seminar with officials for any hon. Member who seeks to understand the system in more detail than my remarks in the Chamber today have allowed. I hope that that satisfies the House.

Mr Chope: Will the Minister explain how the d’Hondt system relates to open lists?

Mr Wilson: I knew that if I mentioned the d’Hondt system I would get questions, but I am sure that my hon. Friend will be delighted to come to the seminar that I am arranging, and questions of that nature will be answered in great detail. We could arrange a two-day seminar if that would help.

Mrs Sheryll Murray: Given the number of different parties represented on a ballot paper for the European Parliament, would not open lists that included names make those ballot papers lengthy and difficult to count?

Mr Wilson: Yes, and that is one criticism made of the system. If I have time, I hope to come on to that point.

I know that the hon. Member for Ealing North is keen to hear about Northern Ireland, and Northern Ireland uses the single transferable vote for European elections. The Bill will make no changes to the voting system used there, although I will say a few words about the STV system so that hon. Members can compare it with the list voting systems that we are debating today.

STV has been used for European parliamentary elections in Northern Ireland since 1979. There is a long record of STV being used for elections in Northern Ireland, and it is used for Assembly and local government elections. That is for historical reasons, and it helps to ensure cross-community representation. Under STV, electors rank the candidates on the ballot paper in order of preference, marking one next to their first-choice candidate, two next to their second choice, and so on. Electors can rank as few or as many candidates as they wish.

First preference votes are counted first, and any candidate who reaches a set quota is elected. Any votes received over the quota are not needed by the elected candidate and are transferred to the second preference on each ballot paper. The value of the transferred votes is based on a formula. If not enough candidates have reached the quota, those with the lowest number of votes are eliminated, and all their votes are passed to the next preference on the ballot papers until the quota is met and the seat is filled. The process is repeated until all seats have been filled.

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It may be helpful if I set out some details about how European parliamentary elections are administered, focusing on arrangements in Great Britain, given that the Bill would change the voting system for elections in Great Britain, although not in Northern Ireland. Each of the 11 electoral regions in Great Britain has a regional returning officer, and Ministers are responsible for designating an RRO for each electoral region. In England and Wales the RRO must be an acting returning officer for UK parliamentary elections, and in Scotland they must be a UK parliamentary election returning officer. Broadly, RROs are responsible for the overall conduct of the election of MEPs in their electoral region, and for liaising with and co-ordinating the work of local returning officers.

The RRO’s specific duties in each region include giving notice of the European parliamentary election, the nomination of procedures for parties and candidates wishing to contest the election, the calculation of votes given for each political party or candidate, and the allocation of seats in the region. The Bill would impact on the counting of votes at European elections—I shall say more about that later—and on the declaration of results. The RRO has power to give general or specific directions to local returning officers relating to the discharge of their functions at the election.

David Morris (Morecambe and Lunesdale) (Con): If the d’Hondt system is applied to our electoral system, and if we have independent candidates as the Bill would suggest, would that not distort the system and come up with a result that is null and void?

Mr Wilson: No. Independent candidates are self-standing. They are treated in the same way as a political party, so there should be no reason why it would distort the system. The system has elected independent candidates in places across Europe, so I do not think that that would be the case.

On local returning officers and the part they play in administering European parliamentary elections and the closed list voting system, essentially, European parliamentary elections are administered on the ground at a local authority level by local returning officers. At European elections, each electoral region is divided up into counting areas. A counting area will represent a local government area, for example the London Borough of Southwark forms a counting area for European elections. Electoral law provides for an LRO to be appointed for each counting area within the electoral region. The LRO will be the person who is the returning officer for local government elections in the local government area. That comprises the counting area. The LRO will therefore act for a particular counting within the electoral region. To summarise: the RRO has overall responsibility for the conduct of the election in their electoral region; the LRO is personally responsible for the administration of the election in their counting area. In administering the election in their counting area and discharging the functions for which they are specifically responsible, LROs will have regard to any guidance issued by the RRO and must comply with any directions they have given to them.

Wayne David: Would the Minister care to explain what the variation is with regard to the region of the south-west and Gibraltar?

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Mr Wilson: I will certainly try to do that. If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I will finish the section on returning officers first and then return to that point later.

The functions for which LROs are responsible include the printing of the ballot papers, unless the RRO directs otherwise. The Bill will impact on the design of the ballot paper at European elections. They also include: the appointment of presiding officers and poll clerks; the management of the postal voting system; and the verification and counting of votes. The Bill will have an impact on the counting process at European elections. LROs may appoint one or more deputies to assist them in carrying out their functions, although they cannot delegate their personal responsibility for delivering the election in their counting area. I will clarify that the chief electoral officer for Northern Ireland is automatically the regional returning officer for Northern Ireland and is responsible for running the poll there. I know the hon. Member for Ealing North is very keen to hear about Northern Ireland.

I should also say a few words about the roles of the Government and the Electoral Commission in running the elections. The Government are responsible for the legislative framework within which elections are run. For important reasons, the Government have no role in the administration of elections on the ground. Rightly, that is the responsibility of independent returning officers and the electoral administrators in their charge. The Government also have a role in the funding of elections, which I will come on to later. The proposals in the Bill would have an impact on the funding of European elections. The Electoral Commission’s duties include: providing guidance to electoral administrators to help them to carry out their functions in relation to the administration of elections; the setting of performance standards for these elections; and to report on elections once they have taken place.

Turning to the most recent European elections in 2014, the House of Commons Library research paper on the 2014 European elections in the UK, published in June 2014, provides the following summary of results on those elections as follows:

“The UK elections were held concurrently with council elections in England and Northern Ireland on 22 May. The UK now has 73 MEPs, up from 72 at the last election, distributed between 12 regions. UKIP won 24 seats, Labour 20, the Conservatives 19, and the Green Party three. The Liberal Democrats won only one seat, down from 11 at the 2009 European election. The BNP lost both of the two seats they had won for the first time at the previous election. Across Great Britain, UKIP were first with 27.5% of the vote. Labour came second with 25.4%, ahead of the Conservatives with 23.9%.”

It is good to see Labour coming second again—I could not resist that, I am sorry. It continued:

“Labour won the popular vote in Wales, while the SNP came first in Scotland. UKIP came first in six of the nine English regions, with their strongest performances in the East, the East Midlands, the South East and the South West. Sinn Féin won the most first preference votes in Northern Ireland. UKIP’s share of the vote increased by 11.0% points, while Labour’s increased by 9.7% points. The Conservative and Liberal Democrat shares fell by 3.8% points and 6.9% points respectively. UK turnout was 35.4%, slightly higher than 34.5% in 2009, but lower than 38.4% in 2004, when four regions held all-postal ballots.”

Let me comment on the features of the open list voting system, which is central to today’s debate. Under open list systems of proportional representation, electors

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still elect MEPs to multi-member electoral areas or regions, and will have one vote. However, the key difference between open list and closed list voting systems is that under an open list voting system, electors may cast their vote for an individual party candidate as opposed to a particular party, as happens under the closed list, or indeed an independent candidate.

The seats in each region are still allocated to parties or independent candidates in proportion to the total number of votes they receive—namely, for a party. The total sum of votes given to all the candidates standing for the party in the region will determine the total number of seats allocated. Under an open list system, seats are assigned to party candidates in the order of those receiving the highest number of votes. In some open list systems, voters may choose whether to vote for a political party or a particular candidate within that party’s list. The Bill, however, does not provide for that.

At this point, it may be helpful to inform our consideration of the Bill by saying a few words about the earlier review of the balance of competences, which addressed the voting system used for UK European parliamentary elections. Under the coalition Government in July 2012, the then Foreign Secretary launched the review of the balance of competences. It comprised an audit of what the EU does and how it affects the UK, and it was based on evidence from a range of stakeholders. The voting, consular and statistics report of the review was published in December 2014, and the call for evidence was open for three months from March 2014, while submissions of evidence were received from a range of stakeholders, including electoral administrators, academics, relevant non-governmental organisations and other organisation, and the devolved Administrations.

Mr Chope: Can the Minister spare us the pain of taking us through this very expensive and bureaucratic process? Would he accept that it was a complete waste of time?

Mr Wilson: Well, that is of course my hon. Friend’s opinion, but if we are to debate the issues in depth, I think it important to get everything out in the open and on the table, so that if the Bill goes any further later in this Parliament or in the next Parliament, we will have solid grounds on which to discuss these issues. I would therefore like to put these matters on the record.

On the voting system for the UK European parliamentary elections, the majority of respondents felt that introducing open list systems for those elections would be “a positive step”, although in view of what my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch said earlier, he might not want me to say that. Some respondents also felt that a move to an open list system might be of benefit in better engaging electors. For example, this view was expressed by the Electoral Reform Society in its submission of evidence to the review.

Let me read out an extract from chapter 2 of the voting section of the report, which covers the voting system used for UK European parliamentary elections. [Interruption.] I can see the excitement coming from the hon. Member for Ealing North. He has sat up in his seat, bolt upright and to attention, desperate to hear what chapter 2 says. So, here goes:

“At the time of the introduction of the European Parliamentary Elections Act 1999, there was considerable debate in the UK Parliament on the issue of moving from the previous, constituency-

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based, first past the post system, to the closed list system in use for UK European Parliamentary elections today. The majority of this debate focused on the planned move to a closed rather than open list system of proportional representation.

Respondents expressed mixed views regarding the EU requirement for MEPs to be elected in accordance with the principle of proportional representation. One reason given for this was the potentially weaker electoral connection between MEPs and the electorate. Some attendees at a stakeholder event held in Brussels to discuss the issues in this report felt that the move from first past the post to proportional representation had weakened this link because voters did not select an individual to represent them directly. It was also noted that, given these arrangements and although MEPs do receive a significant amount of casework, electors were more likely to contact MPs in the first instance.

In contrast, the Electoral Reform Society stated that ‘it is correct that the EU only allows countries to use a proportional system…additionally, it is correct that an institution such as the European Parliament, which runs on consensus and scrutiny, should reflect the broad swathe of the British public’. The Scottish Government was also of the view that the requirement that all Member States adopted a system of proportional representation was reasonable. They felt that whilst it was sometimes suggested that first past the post systems created a closer link between candidates and the electorate, equally there was strong support for a proportional system which ensured that voters were more likely to see a candidate from their selected party elected.

The majority of respondents did, however, criticise the closed list system used in England, Scotland and Wales. A few attendees at the stakeholder event in Brussels saw the closed system as an advantage because ‘it gives voters some certainty as to the candidates most likely to represent them on behalf of a party, if that party was elected’. However, the general opinion across respondents was that the closed list system failed to ‘engage voters to the same extent as an open list system’. As the Electoral Reform Society highlighted, ‘polls suggest only around 7-10% of the public can name their MEP’. For this reason, some attendees at a stakeholder event held in London expressed a preference for the Single Transferable Vote (STV) system used in Northern Ireland, or for further research to be undertaken in this area. The Chief Electoral Officer for Northern Ireland noted in his evidence that ‘there are no real concerns about the lack of constituency links with regard to…MEPs’ in Northern Ireland.

The majority of respondents considered that to introduce open list systems (used elsewhere in Europe) for UK European Parliamentary elections would be a positive development; for example, the Electoral Reform Society felt that such a move to an open list system would be a ‘vast improvement’ This argument is reinforced in an article published in 2009 by academics Professor Simon Hix and Dr Sara Hagemann, which found that in those countries using open list systems electors were 20% more likely to be contacted by candidates or parties than in those states which used closed list systems. Electors were also 15% more likely to say that they felt informed about elections and 10% more likely to turnout. However in the main it was felt that a change to the current balance of competences was not necessarily the most effective way to achieve stronger links between individual candidates and electors.

A number of respondents to the call for evidence expressed concerns about the current closed list voting system used at European parliamentary elections in Great Britain. However, as I said earlier, there have been no widespread calls for a change in the open list voting system; certainly, my postbag is not full of such requests. Also, this country recently voted against a change to the voting system used for Westminster parliamentary elections in the 2011 referendum on the alternative vote system. There does not appear to be a great appetite for change on the part of the public across the country, and we have to take that into account when we consider this issue.

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As hon. Members are aware, EU legislation stipulates that all member states must adopt a proportional voting system for the European parliamentary elections using either a list system or single transferable vote. I understand that a small number of member states use the single transferable vote for European elections. The Republic of Ireland and Malta are examples of this. However, most member states use a form of list system, with both closed and open list voting systems being used to elect MEPs across the member states.

Seats in the European Parliament are allocated to member states on the basis of degressive proportionality. This is the principle that the distribution of seats to member states should, as far as possible, reflect the range of populations. Larger member states have a higher number of MEPs than smaller member states, but in turn, those MEPs represent a larger number of citizens. There is a minimum allocation of six MEPs for a member state and a maximum of 96. Germany is the member state with the largest number, with 96, while Estonia, Cyprus, Luxembourg and Malta each have six.

For the record, the current number of MEPs for each member state is as follows: Germany 96; France 74; United Kingdom 73; Italy 73; Spain 54; Poland 51; Romania 32; the Netherlands 26; the Czech Republic 21; Belgium 21; Greece 21; Hungary 21; Portugal 21; Sweden 20; Austria 18; Bulgaria 17; Denmark 13; Finland 13; Slovakia 13; Ireland 11; Croatia 11; Lithuania 11; Latvia 8; Slovenia 8; Cyprus 6; Estonia 6; Luxembourg 6; and Malta 6.

Stephen Pound: United Kingdom: nul points.

Mr Wilson: No, it’s not the Eurovision song contest.

Prior to the 2014 European parliamentary elections, the Lisbon treaty provided that at those elections the total number of MEPs should be reduced from 766 to the current total of 751, including the President of the European Parliament. However, the UK’s allocation was increased by one, so it’s not nul points for the United Kingdom.

Stephen Pound: Pardonnez-moi!

Mr Wilson: The UK’s allocation was increased from 72 to 73 seats under the Lisbon treaty, slightly increasing our proportion of seats in the European Parliament.

An area that I think is relevant to today’s debate is voter turnout at European elections. One argument that can be put forward in support of an open list system is that it gives the elector a greater choice and more say over which candidates are elected. This could lead to electors feeling more engaged in the electoral process. It is not clear whether a change to an open list system would impact on turnout for European parliamentary elections in Great Britain, however, as turnout at any election is affected by a range of factors in addition to the voting system.

Since the first European parliamentary elections in 1979, turnout at UK European parliamentary elections has consistently been lower than the average turnout across other member states. The average turnout at European parliamentary elections across all member states has steadily decreased since the first direct elections to the European Parliament in 1979. With the exception of the 1999 UK European parliamentary elections,

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which were not combined with local elections as is usually the case, turnout in the UK under the current closed list system has been broadly comparable with the levels of turnout seen at the UK European parliamentary elections held under the first-past-the-post system between 1979 and 1994.

The figures that I have on turnout for past European parliamentary elections, rounded to the nearest whole number, are as follows: 32% in 1979; 33% in 1984; 36% in 1989; 36% in 1994; 24% in 1999 when, as I said, the were no local elections at the same time; 39% in 2004; and 35% in 2009. At the 2014 European elections, according to the House of Commons research paper, turnout across the UK as a whole was 35.4%, compared with 34.5% at the previous election in 2009, so the figures were roughly the same.

Turnout in 2014 across the European Union was 43%. The paper notes that turnout in some of the newer member states was relatively low. For example, in Slovenia it was 23%, Croatia 25%, Czech Republic 18%, Poland 23% and Slovakia 12.7%. I should explain that the open list system is not currently used in any statutory elections in the UK. Introducing an open list system at European parliamentary elections in Great Britain would require both primary and secondary legislation, and that requirement should be factored in when considering a possible change to the voting system for European parliamentary elections.

In addition, there are a number of practical and logistical implications that would need to be considered when changing the voting system for the European elections. Political parties, candidates, electoral administrators and electors would all need to receive guidance and instructions on the workings of the new voting system, which would be novel and potentially complex for electors. In particular, a public awareness campaign of some sort would be necessary to ensure that voters understood the requirements of the new voting system and that their votes were correctly cast at elections.

The design of the ballot paper would change quite significantly under an open list system. On the ballot paper, under the current closed list system, there is a box against the name of each party and each independent candidate, and the voter puts a cross in the box next to their choice. The names of the party candidates are shown on the ballot paper underneath the party for which they are standing, but they are printed in a smaller font size than the name of the party, and there is no box against the name of each party candidate, because the voter will cast a vote for a party under the closed-list system.

Mrs Sheryll Murray: Will my hon. Friend expand on what he has just described? In the south-west, there was a ballot paper for a European election on which there were about 32 different candidates or parties. If we added to the ballot paper the names of the party representatives, we could end up with a ballot paper that was about a metre long.

Mr Wilson: A ballot paper that is a metre long—obviously, that would be extraordinarily complicated and very difficult to understand. I certainly do not want to see any ballot papers that long, and neither, I am sure, does my hon. Friend.

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However, under an open list system, the ballot paper would need to be redesigned to allow voters to cast a vote for individual party candidates, which is why it would need to be so long. As a result, the ballot paper would be expected to be longer and more complex than that used under the current closed list system, in particular in those electoral regions with a greater number of MEPs.

In the south-east region—not just the south-west region— there are 10 MEPs and each political party would therefore have the option to list up to 10 candidates on the ballot paper. As I have indicated, the ballot paper would need to be redesigned so that a box appears against the name of each candidate on the ballot paper to enable the voter to indicate their choice of candidate.

The counting of votes under an open list system would also be expected to take longer and be more costly, as the votes cast for each party candidate would first need to be added up to establish the total votes cast for the party and the number of seats that they are entitled to be allocated. That compares with the closed list system where votes are cast for parties only, and establishing the total numbers of votes for each party would be expected to take less time than under an open list voting system.

Moving to an open list system would also raise cost issues and, given the Government’s central role in funding European elections, we would wish to look at that very carefully before we did so. Although the issues might not be insurmountable, they would need to be carefully considered and assessed before any decision is made to move to a new voting system for European parliamentary elections.

I should like to finally conclude by recognising that this issue has generated some lively debate and discussion in this House and elsewhere.

James Morris (Halesowen and Rowley Regis) (Con): The Minister has spoken a lot about the importance of raising turnout in European elections, which is at the heart—partly—of what he has been describing. Does he think that it would be useful for electors to be more aware of where MEPs do actually make a difference in local areas—I know this is a rather unfashionable view—and make an impact for local people?

Mr Wilson: The provision of more information about the role of MEPs, particularly closer to European elections, might have a role in stimulating greater turnout. We are seeing with the European referendum at the moment that there is a huge desire—

Madam Deputy Speaker (Mrs Eleanor Laing): Order. I hesitate to take up any of the time left to the Minister because I appreciate that he has a lot to tell the House on this complicated subject, but it would help if he would not mind facing the Chair as he does so, because the Chair is also fascinated by what he has to say.

Mr Wilson: I apologise, Madam Deputy Speaker. I was just saying that one of the things that the public are yearning for now as part of this referendum is more information. More facts and more information on European matters would be highly desirable.

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Vicky Foxcroft (Lewisham, Deptford) (Lab): One of the other things that people are yearning for is for 16 and 17-year-olds to be given the vote. Does the Minister regret his party not supporting votes for 16 and 17-year-olds in the EU referendum?

Mr Wilson: That is not a matter for this Bill, as the hon. Lady knows. If she wants to have a discussion with me elsewhere, I will be happy to do that. [Interruption.] She could come to the d’Hondt seminar, indeed; maybe we could discuss it as part of that.

Vicky Foxcroft: There is actually a private Member’s Bill on that subject on the agenda today. Unfortunately, I do not think it will end up being debated, but perhaps the Minister could see whether there is a way of moving it up the agenda so that it can be debated.

Mr Wilson: I am sure the hon. Lady’s comments are on the record and will be noted by her party’s and other managers in the House. I hope she will be able to debate that private Member’s Bill on another occasion.

Wayne David: I was just going to politely remind the Minister that he has not responded to the question I asked—but please, please, if he responds, would he do so very briefly?

Mr Wilson: There is no variation. Gibraltar has its own local returning officer. I do apologise; I was going to come to that before I moved to my closing remarks, but time is moving on and I have taken up rather a lot of the House’s time. I know that one or two Labour Members are desperate for me to continue, but I feel I must now bring my remarks to a close.

The closed list system was first introduced for the 1999 European elections and has been used at successive European elections since then. It is simple for voters to understand, and ensures that across a region seats are allocated in proportion to the votes cast. We should therefore think very carefully before making any changes to the current voting arrangements. That said, from the debate and other debates, and from the views expressed here and elsewhere, I know that there is some dissatisfaction with the closed list system. It can be seen to give parties too much power in determining which candidates are elected and does not create a strong link between MEPs and the electorate.

However, as hon. Members will be aware, the Government have a number of priorities in the area of constitutional reform, such as, as I mentioned, English votes for English laws, individual electoral registration, more powers to Scotland and Wales, implementing the commitment to removing the 15-year time limit on the voting rights of overseas electors, updating parliamentary boundaries, and so on. That is quite a constitutional package to put through this House.

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In addition, it is worth noting that outside of this House there does not appear to be a great appetite for this change. For those reasons, we remain sympathetic to the arguments for moving to an open list but we have no plans to look at this at the present time.

1.44 pm

Mr Chope: It has been a pleasure to listen for so long to my hon. Friend on the Front Bench. I think that he will be worthy nominee to the European Commission, because he has today shown his capacity to make a bureaucratic mountain out of a veritable molehill. He has also, in the course of his speech, set out a number of very good reasons why we would indeed be better off leaving the European Union, for which I am grateful. He pointed out that even when all the United Kingdom’s MEPs vote in the same lobby, they have fewer than one in 10 votes, which means we will always be in a minority. We will always find that our national interest cannot be protected in the European Parliament because of the system we have. I hope that the Government will be saved the burden of having to examine the issue any further when the people decide to leave the European Union on 23 June. In anticipation of that result, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.

Bill withdrawn.

Stephen Pound: On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Your distinguished predecessor, the right hon. Baroness Boothroyd, once ruled me out of order one a Friday morning, during a debate on offshore oil platforms, because I had listed the full names and Latin names of every single species of marine life to be found in the vicinity. She said at the time that the House will not accept tedious and needless repetition of irrelevant facts. Do you agree that listing the voter turnout in 28 European nations and the number of MEPs comes within the aegis of the Boothroyd ruling?

Madam Deputy Speaker (Mrs Eleanor Laing): The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point, as ever, and I am very glad that he has drawn the matter to the House’s attention. I am well aware of the ruling made by Baroness Boothroyd when she occupied this Chair. She was absolutely right—I would never disagree with her—and indeed I feel strongly about upholding her ruling. Were a Minister or Back Bencher to make a speech that included tedious or repetitive information, I would certainly call them to order. This afternoon the Minister read out a fascinating list of results of a very important election. Had I considered it to be tedious and repetitious, I would certainly have taken the action that the right hon. Baroness Boothroyd once took in respect of the hon. Gentleman. However, that was not the case today. Therefore, grateful as I am for his point of order, I will take no further action thereupon.

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Football Governance (Supporters’ Participation) Bill

Second Reading

1.48 pm

Clive Efford (Eltham) (Lab): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

I am grateful for this opportunity to speak, albeit a little later than I had hoped, following the Minister’s tour de force in dragging out the previous Bill. [Interruption.] Well, it certainly was a tour, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound) says from a sedentary position. It is a shame that more Members are not here. Had we been more certain of the time of the debate, I think that it would have been well attended. I understand that the Government do not support what I am trying to achieve, but many Members on both sides of the House are interested, as are the football teams in their constituencies, and could have contributed to quite a significant debate. Sadly, the vagaries of how the House operates on Fridays did not allow that. None the less, that does not detract from the importance of the issue.

I thank the Football Supporters Federation and Supporters Direct, which helped me consult supporters trusts and fans groups up and down the country. Nearly 100 groups responded to the consultation. I had telephone conferences with them and held meetings in Manchester, London and other places to discuss the issues. We surveyed their attitudes towards fans’ involvement in the governance of football and their football clubs.

Some 97% of respondents said that they were not given enough representation. Nearly 86% said that they supported the concept of the right to buy shares and nearly 84% wanted representation on their club boards. When we look around football today, it is clear that football fans are under-represented and not listened to. No matter what level of the game we look at, we see examples of where things could be improved if football fans had greater representation. The Football Association has a 123-man council; it is almost entirely male. There are a handful of women, but I am not sure how many, and there is just one fan representative on that council. That cannot be right. We need to improve representation and the voice of football fans at every level.

A lot is going on. Only a week ago, a new president of FIFA was elected. Just prior to his election, FIFA agreed a whole load of reforms. Anyone who follows football knows that FIFA needs fundamental reform. In fact, my view is that FIFA cannot be reformed; it needs to be put into some form of administration. A new body needs to be created and put in its place.

I congratulate Gianni Infantino on his election as president. I have been critical of FIFA and the system that elected him, which I still think is corrupt, although that is not to suggest that Mr Infantino is corrupt. The system is corrupting, and I will be a critical friend of Mr Infantino’s to ensure, along with many others, that the reforms are adhered to and delivered in full.

Many people have said that the election of Infantino is a breath of fresh air, but he is part of the previous establishment and football has a difficulty in breaking away from that. He was the best candidate among those who were available. It is disappointing, however, that in

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what was almost his first press conference he said that the 2018 and 2022 World cup bids would not be rerun. Investigations are going on that could determine whether the decisions awarding those tournaments were sound, and it is far too previous to conclude that the bids will not be rerun.

With the FIFA reforms, we are supposed to be drawing a line over what has gone on in football, yet the two World cups coming up in 2018 and 2022 are mired in the history of what has gone on at FIFA; it is difficult to see the changes as a result of a new broom and to think that the organisation is completely clean of what has gone on in the past. I wish Mr Infantino all the best with his changes and I am sure that we will return to the FIFA issue. As Mr Infantino said at his press conference, it is the fans and the game itself that are most important.

Even the highest debating and decision-making chambers of football such as FIFA have to remember the fans who make the game so special. The way in which football is part of the communities where the football clubs are based is so important to the beating heart of football. Everyone who is involved in making decisions in the game must remember that.

Fans are becoming increasingly important because big business is moving into our football clubs in a way that it never has before. We are now hearing talk, yet again, of a breakaway league of all the top clubs across Europe. If clubs were foolish enough to move into such a super-league, I would be inclined to say to the FA, “Tell those sides ‘Good riddance.’ Close the doors to the FA cup to them and let them go, and let’s continue to run our football league and have the confidence in it to create new super-clubs.” There is something special about the English football league. People around the world enjoy watching it. They enjoy the atmosphere created by the fans, which is reflected in the football played on the pitches that makes it a product that people around the world so much want to watch. There is something special when one of our top clubs such as Arsenal or Manchester United is drawn against one of the big European football clubs such as Real Madrid, Barcelona or Borussia Dortmund. If that were to happen regularly within a football league, the special nature of those international clashes and the excitement of those tournaments would be lost. Those clubs would be making a serious mistake if they moved away into a super-league.

Football is no longer looked on as a way of wealthy business people having an interest aside from their business by running a football club. It has often been said in the past, “If you want to make £1 million out of football, buy a football club for £4 million”, because it has not been a way of making money; owners of football clubs have invested in them and seldom taken money out. That has completely changed. Looking back at the finances of the premier league, and to some degree, the championship only a few years ago, there was enormous debt. There is still debt in the championship, but the TV deals that have been done for the premier league have almost completely wiped out the debt there, and football clubs are looked on much more as money-making businesses. Those clubs’ links to the communities in which they are based are therefore even more important than they have been in the past. These people sweeping in on their private jets wanting to buy football clubs are not looking at the communities that have sustained those clubs through generations over many years, through

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the good times and the bad times, and the very strong links that they have with the communities in which they are based.

It is the fans who anchor the clubs in that tradition. It is the fans from those communities who have sustained those clubs over many years. It is the fans who are passionate about their clubs who fill the stadiums week in, week out and create the atmosphere that makes the package—for the premier league, in particular—so attractive to sell around the world. Owners who turn their backs on that tradition will do so to the detriment of their football clubs. That is why it is so important that today we are recognising the importance of the role of fans in sustaining football clubs, maintaining these traditional links, and making sure that they are not lost as clubs begin to become more profit-making and more attractive to people who are not steeped in the traditions and the history of the clubs that they are attempting to buy, or do buy.

Fans are increasingly looked on as customers and as no different from someone who shops at a supermarket. If customers get a better deal down the road, they simply change supermarkets. No passion or allegiance is involved; they do not wrap a supermarket scarf around their neck when they shop. The link between a fan and a football club, however, lasts a lifetime. Some are lucky enough to support clubs that frequently play in the top flight, while some of us have heavier crosses to bear. I am a Millwall season ticket holder and, believe me, it is a heavy cross to bear at times.

Vicky Foxcroft (Lewisham, Deptford) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on promoting the Bill. I am also a Millwall season ticket holder—

Stephen Barclay (North East Cambridgeshire) (Con): Good heavens!

Vicky Foxcroft: It is in my constituency. I will be going this weekend to celebrate Jimmy’s Day, and I hope that my hon. Friend will also be there.

Clive Efford: I certainly will. Jimmy Mizen was, sadly, murdered in a street attack. His mother and father, Barry and Margaret, have set up the Jimmy Mizen Foundation, which aims to create community safe havens in which young people can seek refuge if necessary. Millwall football club and Charlton Athletic both support the charity, and there will be an event at Millwall tomorrow. I will be there in my usual seat in the stands, supporting Jimmy Mizen Day and cheering on Millwall football club, which is not doing too badly this season.

As I have said, some of us have heavier crosses to bear with the sides we support, but we are no less passionate about them. I could not change my football club. Charlton Athletic’s training ground is in my constituency. Millwall’s training ground used to be there, too, but it has moved to Lewisham now. The team’s fortunes dipped when it moved there, but they seem to have picked up now. People were surprised that I remained open about the fact that I was still a Millwall fan and they asked me, “Won’t you switch to Charlton because it’s the local club?” Fans cannot switch like that, and even if they attempted to do so, they would lose the

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respect of other football fans. It is imprinted on people from a young age. Fans are not like any other customer. They are passionate about their clubs, and their relationship with them lasts a lifetime. That needs to be stressed to football club owners and to the Premier League.

Stadium occupancy rates are often mentioned, and those for weekend premier league matches are very high. Last season’s annual report states that the occupancy rate was nearly 96%, so the grounds are full. The Premier League is a huge commercial success. It pays £2.4 billion to the Exchequer, and its gross value added is £3.4 billion. It has become an enormous success and one of our greatest exports. In the next three-year deal for its domestic rights, it expects to receive in the region of £6 billion. The international rights will take that figure up to more than £8 billion over three years. That money will go to the Premier League and British football, so it is an enormous success, but, with those sums of money floating around, it is essential that we do not lose sight of what exactly created those football clubs in the first place and why they exist today: the communities in which they are based and their fans.


There are many examples of such communities coming together to protect their football clubs. At the moment, Blackpool’s is fighting hard to get recognition from the owners to protect their football club. One of the greatest examples is that of Portsmouth. The club was in the FA cup final only a few years before it went into receivership and had to be saved by the local community and local fans. People came together to save a great football club, which has some of the most passionate football fans to be found anywhere in any country.

Stephen Pound (Ealing North) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend not agree that for every AFC Wimbledon, FC United of Manchester or group of fans who have refused to let their club die, great and noble clubs such as Clydebank exist no longer? It would have been far better if clubs such as Clydebank had had fan representation on its board, because this would not then be down to people going through the agonising process of defending their clubs. The process would be much more automatic, and we would be able to keep the full gloriously rich panoply of names in English and Scottish football.

Clive Efford: I agree with my hon. Friend. I will come on to some of the recommendations of the expert working group, which may address his point.

When football clubs are in distress, we can see how the communities have rallied round to save them. Sadly, Hereford United went out of existence for a short period, but it has been recreated because the fans, refusing to let the name die, were determined to save their club. Let us look at the success of Swansea City, 20% of which is still owned by the fans. Where would it be if the fans had not stepped in to save it? Wimbledon—what a tragic story—was let down badly by the football authorities. The community’s club was stolen away from them, but the way in which they have recreated a club, AFC Wimbledon, to thumb their noses at football’s ivory towers is fantastic.

My Bill is not about giving the fans a veto over what goes on at their clubs. I am not suggesting for a moment that the involvement of football fans is somehow a panacea for all the problems in football. There have been times when football clubs have gone into receivership

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even though the fans had all along cheered every decision that put the club into financial jeopardy until the receivers turned up and locked the doors. Fans cannot provide the solution to every problem, but they care passionately about their club and they can be an early warning system to alert authorities to existing problems in our clubs, particularly such as those at Hereford.

More recently, clubs have come into conflict with their fans in ways that might have been avoided if there been better communication or if the fans had had a voice on the board when decisions were made. Liverpool comes to mind, as does the Football Supporters Federation’s “Twenty’s Plenty for Away Tickets” campaign. Because of the pricing of tickets at Liverpool, 10,000 fans walked out in the 77th minute to say to the club, “We’re not putting up with this”. That brought about a change, but the conflict might have been avoided if the fans had been at the table when the board discussed ticket prices and the board had put its views to the fans. A more ridiculous example happened at Leeds, where a “pie tax” has been added to the tickets. When people pay for a ticket, they get a voucher for what is probably a very unhealthy pie, and that has been ridiculed. I wonder whether the board would have come up with such a marketing ploy if it had talked to the fans. Similar things have happened at Hull City, Cardiff and elsewhere that I could go into, but I will cut through that because we are short of time.

I want to talk about the expert working group. I welcome its recommendations as far as they go. They will require football clubs to meet fans at least twice a year so that the fans can air their views, but that is not enough. There needs to be a regular dialogue and exchange of information. This does work in clubs already, so there is nothing to fear from fan representation on the boards. The Government should look at what the expert working group says about social investment tax relief to make it easier for bona fide fans groups to take over their football clubs. I wonder why we are saying that we will help fans to take over their clubs only when they are in financial difficulties. If the fans are good enough to have a stake in their clubs in the bad times, they must be good enough to be able to buy shares in the good times, if they wish to do so.

We need to ensure that fans are represented. The expert working group says that the FA must address the lack of representation of fans at the higher levels of the game. I want to hear from the Minister what the Government intend to do about that.

My Bill, as I said, is not a panacea that would solve every problem in football. One of the things that is fundamentally wrong in football now is that fans are not being spoken to and they are not being listened to. Where they are, and where clubs encourage it—Millwall has a fan on the board, who is elected by the fans and is party to all the discussions that go on around the table—that does not create a problem for the club. Where representation exists, the relationship between the fans and the club is improved, as is the exchange of information between them.

My Bill would do three things. It would require the fans to set themselves up as a single bona fide body. I have suggested that that should be an industrial provident society, but that can be discussed. That body would be responsible for electing two members to the club board—two members so that they are accountable to one another—

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and they would report back to the fans about the board’s discussions. They would need to be trained and taught the responsibilities of being a board member—for example, when they may or may not divulge confidential information when they report back. Where the board is larger, there should be a minimum of two fans or up to 25% of the board, whichever is the greater number.

That bona fide fans body would be empowered to buy shares when there was a change of ownership. I have been advised that in the City that is recognised as occurring when 30% of shares or more are on offer, so when 30% of the shares were exchanged or sold, the fans would have 240 days in which to buy up to 10% of those shares. If 30% of the shares were on sale, the fans would have 240 days to buy 10% of those shares, which is 3%.

Those are the three elements of my Bill—it would put fans around the table when the issues that affect them are being debated, and allow them, where they have the will to do so, to take a stake in their club. Clubs have nothing to fear from that. At a time when football is increasingly seen as a global business, it is important to recognise the people who identify with that club and who give it its distinctive character, which comes from the community and has sustained that club for generation after generation. Those people are the fans, and it is time we gave them the recognition they deserve.

2.13 pm

Stephen Pound (Ealing North) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Clive Efford) on bringing a first-class piece of legislation to the House. It is truly bizarre that here we are, in the most exciting ever premiership season, when the reputation of football and football clubs has never been lower, and there is a profound disconnect between what is happening on the pitch and what is happening in the boardroom. Much of this is to do with the ownership of clubs.

The ownership of football clubs may not be as it was once perceived in the glorious sepia days of jumpers for goalposts, when northern clubs would be owned by some Alderman Foodbotham out of Peter Simple, with his iron watch chain, who was a sort of philanthropic local industrialist. Fulham, without doubt the finest football club in west London, was owned by Deans Blindmakers of Putney, and Chappie d’Amato was the chairman. There was a wonderful tradition with those people. Nowadays, people from the middle east and America, consortia, strange groups miles away, distant people own football clubs. I do not see that as ownership. They may have the shares, the keys to the boardroom and an executive car park, but that is not owning a football club. The ownership of a football club is in the hearts of the community and the fans. That is why my hon. Friend’s Bill is so incredibly important.

Football is not a fad. A football club is not something that can be picked up and put down. A football club is not something that just happens to be a feature of a local area. It is a part of the community. It is the living, breathing reality of a local community. When one sees clubs such as Brentford and Charlton putting up candidates in local elections and the degree of local concern when a club is under threat, one realises that this is more than just sport. This is about our culture and our community. Madam Deputy Speaker, I know that many people in

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your constituency are West Ham fans. I am sure that you are a regular on the terraces of Upton Park. You are probably one of the better behaved ones, I hasten to add.

The important thing about my hon. Friend’s Bill is that we need to reconnect the people, the fans and the communities with the clubs. Sadly, that will not happen organically. It will not fall as a gentle rain from heaven. We need some legislation. That is why the right to buy shares—I never thought that I, an honest socialist, would ever plead for the right to buy, but I do in this specific case only—and the mandatory placement of fans on boards are things that we have to go ahead with. Alistair Mackintosh at Fulham meets Danny Crawford and the Fulham Supporters Trust on a regular basis. That practice is good where it is good, but it is not mandatory or statutory and it needs to be.

I could speak for so long on this subject, but I will not because others wish to speak. I simply implore the House, I plead with the House, to support my hon. Friend’s Bill. It could be the saviour of football—the game that we invented in this country and gave to the world. It is now seen in a pretty poor light because of the great disconnect. We have an opportunity to regain that supremacy, that primacy and, above all, that link, and to make a reality once more of the working man’s ballet, representing our local communities.

2.16 pm

James Morris (Halesowen and Rowley Regis) (Con): It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound).

I have a lot of sympathy with the Bill. The hon. Member for Eltham (Clive Efford) speaks passionately about the way in which football has changed and the importance of making sure that fans are engaged in the game. In the light of the two Select Committee inquiries into the governance of football in the last Parliament and the work of the expert working group, which he referred to, the Bill does raise serious issues in respect of football governance that it is well worth airing in this Chamber. However, I cannot support it because the mechanism that he proposes is not an appropriate one.

I know from my frequent visits to Halesowen Town football club the importance of fans and the community being engaged, even in a non-league club. The club has a long history, but has had recent difficulties. The efforts of the local volunteers who have maintained the stadium in Halesowen and contributed to the revival of the club reveal that across the whole football spectrum, from the premier league or all the way through to the Evo-Stik non-league leagues, fans and local communities have a vital role to play as the custodians of their clubs.

I recognise what the hon. Member for Ealing North said about the changing nature of the ownership of football clubs in Britain. The concerns that he has about the foreign ownership of English football clubs are shared quite broadly. I understand the nature of those concerns—that the traditions of clubs that are taken over by foreign owners will not be appreciated, that new owners may be unfamiliar with the complexities of the English game or that foreign owners might not think about the long-term prospects of the game.

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Alternative models along the lines proposed in the Bill must focus on the long-term financial stability of the football clubs to which it might apply. We might all have some kind of romantic or sentimental view about a lost golden age of English football. I remember standing on the terraces at the Trent end of the City Ground when Nottingham Forest was in its heyday in the late 1970s.

Conor McGinn (St Helens North) (Lab): As a Tottenham supporter I hope that we will be entering a golden age of football in the next few months. The hon. Gentleman is making an eloquent case in support of the Bill. When I go to watch other sports, such as rugby league in St Helens or Gaelic football in Ruislip in west London, I pay a small amount for a ticket. People who go to those games are just as passionate as football fans who pay an inordinate amount. He says that there are no alternatives, but we must find one because it is imperative and important to sustain our national game.

James Morris: I do not argue that there are no alternatives, and one of my concerns about the Bill is that—like so many other Bills—it imbues the Secretary of State with regulation-making powers to intervene in football clubs, which are private concerns. I am concerned about the blunt nature of the proposed mechanism. However, that does not mean that there are no viable alternatives for encouraging greater fan participation in clubs, such as different forms of company structure or community interest companies, as mentioned in the report by the Culture, Media and Sport Committee on football governance. For example, there might be other mechanisms in the Localism Act 2011 regarding assets of community value—there is no reason why a football club should not be considered such an asset.

I was speaking about the idea of a romantic golden age of English football. Seeing Leicester City at the top of the premier league reflects the fact that it is possible for clubs that are not traditionally considered to be the most financially solvent or in the top bracket of the premier league to do very well—that is why I referred to Nottingham Forest in the 1970s. It is understandable that the hon. Member for Eltham feels that we need to shake up the ownership of football clubs, but as I said, I am not sure that his Bill adequately addresses some of the complexities of encouraging supporter ownership and participation.

As the hon. Gentleman said, the expert working group on football supporter ownership and engagement, which was commissioned by the DCMS and its Committee, raised important issues about football governance. For example, one recommendation in the Committee’s report was to give the Football Association greater power over licensing football clubs, which speaks to some of his concerns about the threat of foreign ownership of football clubs, and the issues that arise from that. We must have a much tighter regime of football club licensing, and the FA has a role to play in that. How do we define a football supporters association? Can we be sure that the best fans are being selected, and by what process? Who has the final say on the appointment to that supporters organisation? Does every supporter get a vote?

The Bill raises very important issues and the hon. Gentleman is right to bring them to the attention of the House. Greater supporter participation in football is

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critical, but I am not convinced that the mechanism he outlines in the Bill is the most appropriate way of dealing with the problem he identifies.

2.25 pm

Wayne David (Caerphilly) (Lab): Many of us would agree that football clubs are unlike any other businesses. The backbone of any football club is its supporters—or fans, if you like—many of whom have an emotional attachment that lasts a lifetime. Too often, however, this attachment is exploited by clubs. Ticket prices are pushed up and owners attempt to change fundamental parts of clubs for marketing reasons, with no respect for the history or heritage of the club and its association with the local community.

Despite new owners coming in with large sums of money, it is the fans who have sustained clubs generation after generation through thick and thin. It is the fans who will be there for a long time after the owners have gone. Sadly, it is too often the case that fans are ignored on fundamental issues that directly affect them and their club. A whole host of problems are faced by clubs on a regular basis. As has been mentioned, Blackpool supporters have recently expressed serious concerns about the running of their club and have attempted to take it over. Liverpool supporters have walked out over their club upping ticket prices. Soon, the Football Supporters Federation will hold a demonstration to call on clubs to share the TV wealth by lowering ticket prices and providing funds for lower leagues and the grassroots. At Cardiff City, the club I support, the owner changed the club’s strip from blue to red against the clearly expressed will of the supporters—for generations the club has been known as the Bluebirds. I do not believe we can go on like this. It is totally unacceptable. Clubs are becoming more and more disconnected from the communities in which they are based.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Mrs Eleanor Laing): Order. I hesitate to interrupt the hon. Gentleman because he has been speaking for only a very small amount of time, but if he and the rest of the House would like to hear what the Minister has to say on the Bill, he will have to leave some time for that.

Wayne David: Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I will take your advice.

The Prime Minister has added his support to calls for change. I believe other moves are afoot—discussions have taken place and must be taken forward—but that is not a reason why the Bill should not be supported. The Bill’s proposals are modest. They have been consulted on and are very coherent. I believe a clear message needs to go out from this House. I very much hope the Government will support the proposals, so that football supporters can have a real sense of participation and involvement, which is absolutely central for the future of British football.

2.28 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Mr David Evennett): I congratulate my near neighbour, the hon. Member for Eltham (Clive Efford), on winning a place on the ballot to present his private Member’s Bill. His speech was informative and interesting. His passion and advocacy for football is to be commended, as is his support for Millwall.

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I would first like to put on record that my family are supporters of Crystal Palace. My son Tom and my grandson George are season ticket holders. We, too, support strongly the new president of FIFA and the commitment he has made to reform the world governing body of football. Those reforms are critical to restoring the trust and credibility of the game. I commend the speeches from the hon. Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound), who is always entertaining and informative, and my hon. Friend the Member for Halesowen and Rowley Regis (James Morris). I thank him for his contribution.

Unfortunately, the Government are not able to support the Bill and are opposing it. We do not believe that legislation is the right way to achieve our aim. The FA is embarking on a review of its governance, and we hope genuine progress will be made, including on giving supporters greater representation on its decision-making boards. In my future discussions with the FA, I shall seek confirmation that this matter is being considered properly, seriously and sensibly. I recommend going forward on that basis.

2.30 pm

The debate stood adjourned (Standing order No. 11(2)).

Ordered, That the debate be resumed on Friday 11 March.

Business without Debate

English National Anthem Bill

Motion made, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Hon. Members: Object.

Bill to be read a Second time onFriday 11 March.

Transport of Nuclear Weapons Bill

Motion made, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Hon. Members: Object.

Bill to be read a Second time on Friday 11 March.

Compulsory Emergency first aid education (State-Funded secondary schools) Bill

Resumption of adjourned debate on Question (20 November 2015), That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Hon. Members: Object.

Debate to be resumed on Friday 11 March.

REpresentation of the People (Young Persons’ Enfranchisement and Education) Bill

Resumption of adjourned debate on Question (11 September 2015), That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Hon. Members: Object.

Debate to be resumed on Friday 11 March.

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Food Waste (Reduction) Bill

Motion made, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Hon. Members: Object.

Bill to be read a Second time on Friday 11 March.

On-Demand Audiovisual services (Accessiblity for people with disabilities affecting hearing or sight or both) Bill

Motion made, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Hon. Members: Object.

Bill to be read a Second time on Friday 11 March.

Marriage and Civil Partnership registration (Mothers’ Names) Bill

Motion made, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Hon. Members: Object.

Bill to be read a Second time on Friday 11 March.

Wild Animals in Circuses (Prohibition) Bill

Motion made, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Hon. Members: Object.

Bill to be read a Second time on Friday 11 March.

Mesothelioma (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill

Motion made, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Hon. Members: Object.

Bill to be read a Second time on Friday 11 March.

Off-shore wind farm subsidies (restriction) Bill

Motion made, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Hon. Members: Object.

Bill to be read a Second time on Friday 11 March.

Defence Expenditure (NATO Target) Bill

Motion made, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

4 Mar 2016 : Column 1296

Hon. Members: Object.

Bill to be read a Second time on Friday 11 March.

Convicted Prisoners Voting Bill

Motion made, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Hon. Members: Object.

Bill to be read a Second time on Friday 11 March.

UK Borders Control Bill

Motion made, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Hon. Members: Object.

Bill to be read a Second time on Friday 11 March.

House of Lords (Maximum Membership) Bill

Motion made, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Hon. Members: Object.

Bill to be read a Second time on Friday 11 March.

Crown Tenancies Bill

Motion made, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Hon. Members: Object.

Bill to be read a Second time on Friday 11 March.

Working Time Directive (Limitation) Bill

Motion made, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Hon. Members: Object.

Bill to be read a Second time on Friday 11 March.

Regulation of POlitical Opinion Polling Bill [Lords]

Motion made, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Hon. Members: Object.

Bill to be read a Second time on Friday 11 March.

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Citizens Convention on Democracy

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Stephen Barclay.)

2.34 pm

Mr Graham Allen (Nottingham North) (Lab): Our democracy is in a bad way, but, as I shall explain, we can all help to put it right.

People are the bedrock of our democracy, and if they lose faith and confidence in democracy as a system, we are all in peril, as was pointed out by the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee in a report entitled “Do we need a citizens’ convention for the UK?” and published in 2013. You were a distinguished member of the Committee, Madam Deputy Speaker, and I believe that you signed that unanimously agreed report.

We need to consider this issue seriously, because it really does deserve our attention. The public have undoubtedly lost faith in our democracy, and if we are to restore that faith, they will need to be involved in its regeneration, and thereby feel ownership of it. There are many examples of the atrophy of our democracy: low turnouts at elections, poor levels of registration, instability in the Union, poor levels of devolution in England, dependent, begging-bowl local government, a less trusted electoral system, and the tainted funding of our politics and political parties. All that has increased public alienation from our hard-won democratic process.

Parliament and Government alone could not resolve this problem even if—and it is a large “if”—they wanted to do so. There is a growing view beyond this place, which I hope to present today, that the solution is to establish an independent convention that would view all the issues from outside the political bubble. I intend to deal with some of the nuts and bolts of that, and, for once, to leave aside the broader democratic arguments that I have, on other occasions, advanced repeatedly in the Chamber.

We are aware that such things have been tried before. Nice reports have been produced, but they have gone nowhere. It is essential that we do not repeat that exercise, but, instead, ensure that any convention reports are locked back into the political process in the House of Commons, and have a real political outcome. There is now a very obvious precedent for that. At the time of the referendum on separation in Scotland, the Union parties undertook to deliver a Scottish devolution Bill regardless of who won the general election. That was done as part of Parliament’s first business after the general election, and the Bill is about to become law.

A similar model would work for a citizens convention on UK democracy. It would require party leaders and senior parliamentarians who were representative of the majority of the electorate to undertake now, and publicly, to put the draft Bills produced by the convention into the parliamentary process after the 2020 general election, if they were elected. Some leaders may feel unable to commit themselves to that immediately, but it is important for the door to remain open to them and their parties so that they can join the conversation as it becomes irresistible, as it undoubtedly will. It is essential that the biggest ever conversation about our democracy takes place, to drive and motivate the process, and to discipline and inspire politicians to keep the pledge of parliamentary decisions on the outcome of the convention in 2020.

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Let us get the ducks in a line. First, there must be a commitment on the political endgame from senior politicians. Secondly, there must be the establishment of a convention serviced by an impartial and respected team, whose non-party credentials would enable it to proceed to the third phase: the drawing in of the initial charitable funding to get the show on the road.

Once the convention was set up, it would of course have to decide its own agenda, but my expectation would be that the subjects it would report on would include: reviewing the powers and membership of the second Chamber; examining the voting system at parliamentary, devolved and local levels to encourage greater participation in public life; reviewing the position of local government in relation to the centre; considering the question of devolution for England; examining the legal recognition of constitutional provisions including individual rights; looking at the way in which the parties and our democratic institutions are funded; and any other relevant democratic issues that might be recommended by the convention as its work progresses. These are deliberately broad and vague areas, in order to enable the convention to develop its own priorities, having listened to the biggest public consultation exercise in British political history. Nothing, from electronic voting to a federal structure for the United Kingdom, should be precluded at this point.

The composition of the convention will be an important matter. I suggest that there should be about 100 persons, a majority of whom should be members of the public, and that they should be selected scientifically, perhaps by a respected polling agency. In addition, a minority of citizens convention delegates would represent political parties, voluntary organisations and other appropriate groups. It is important that there should be no command and control by politics; rather, there should be a bridge back into politics so that any recommendations can be taken seriously and tested at that level.

The whole convention, at UK, national and regional level, should be chaired by respected and diverse individuals. A chairs’ panel similar to the one that operates in this House could include representatives of faith and non-faith, former judges, interested businesspeople and celebrities, with a good gender and diversity mix. This would also help to stimulate public interest in the debate on the future of our democracy. Obviously, the composition of such a convention is of the utmost importance, and the applicant for funding must devise a structure to enable all the nations and regions of the United Kingdom to participate fully. An agreed number of participants with institutional support of their own—relevant universities, for example—could perhaps lead the debate in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, as well as in a number of regions in England, such as the south, the midlands and the north.

The working of a citizens convention would start with meetings held in the nations and regions of the United Kingdom, interspersed with national plenary meetings of the convention itself. This is not new territory; we need not be frightened of this. Even in recent history, we can draw on the experience of Ireland, Ontario, Iceland, British Columbia and of course Scotland in the very recent past.

The convention would have to be supported by a secretariat led by an experienced and esteemed academic institution drawing on non-partisan expertise from other academic institutions throughout the land, in order to

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commission reports and proposals and, ultimately, back those up with draft Bills on each of the recommendations agreed by the convention. Again, Madam Deputy Speaker, you will be familiar with that concept because the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee did exactly that in creating the first draft written constitution with the hallmark of Parliament on it and the accompanying Bills. That would enable us to see exactly how these matters were going to progress through the parliamentary process.

The secretariat would be charged with supplying background for the debates, pulling together preliminary ideas and moving forward with the national convention towards recommendations and decisions. Given that we now have five-year Parliaments, we could take two years or so to make this process open, transparent and participative, building up a momentum and excitement across the nation, including in every school, college and university and every branch of every political party in the Union. Every single issue group could put forward their point of view in this open process. Every interested organisation, indeed every individual, could mirror the citizens convention structure to feed in their own ideas and run their own high-quality consultations outside the convention’s own organisation.

It is essential that political parties, other than offering their very strong support for the creation of this convention, for the end game in making it real, and for proper funding, do not contaminate the impartiality of the start-up or the secretariat, as they must be seen to be absolutely non-party political and non-partisan. However, once the convention is up and running, political parties and every other organisation will be free, and indeed encouraged, to let rip to involve an ever-widening circle of people.

It is often said that the US constitution was created by 40 white guys in Philadelphia. The citizens convention, which would aim to remake our democracy, should have at its heart creating an agenda written by millions of founding fathers and mothers throughout the United Kingdom. For that to happen, the convention will have to go way beyond the normal stale processes that currently pass for public consultation. An immense technological leap is needed to reach individuals and organisations by, above all, maximising communication and engagement online. We did that in the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, certainly in terms of the parliamentary process, engaging many, many more people than had ever been involved before, but that needs to be a pinprick compared with how we can involve people in deciding the sense of direction for their democracy over the next few years. This should be carefully worked up using initial funding. We have time to get this right if our target is to put proposals before a new Parliament in 2020.

Much hard organisational work would be needed to make this convention a success, but it would be driven by the mission of putting to a new Parliament in 2020 a set of Bills for consideration. Although support and participation from a majority of political parties is essential to keep the process running, that support would mean not unthinking acceptance of the Bills put to Parliament, but the normal process of amendment, scrutiny and decision-making by a new Parliament—a

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Parliament that has gone through the experience of the public moulding these proposals—with a mandate for change. The public, having been involved in moulding the proposals, would take a very close interest in the outcome, driving it to fruition and ensuring that there are no delays.

It is time for a citizens convention to be created in the United Kingdom to ensure that there is a resurgence of faith in a democracy that is built and endorsed by the British people. Let us get on with it.

2.48 pm

The Minister for Civil Society (Mr Rob Wilson): I congratulate the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen) on securing time for this debate and on giving us such an interesting and informative exposition of his views, although I do not share his feeling of impending constitutional peril. I hope that it will be helpful to him if I set out the Government’s position on the idea of holding some form of constitutional convention.

Although I have enjoyed considering all the constitutional conundrums that these sorts of debates throw up, I have to be clear with the hon. Gentleman that the Government have no plans to establish a convention on democracy. There are two broad reasons for that position. First, the pragmatic and evolving nature of the UK’s constitution means that it is completely unsuited to a convention. Secondly, the Government’s focus must be on getting on with, and delivering, a fair and balanced constitutional settlement for the people across the UK.

Mr Allen: I agree wholeheartedly with the Minister that it should not be for the Government to set up a citizens convention on our democracy; in fact it would be almost the exact opposite of what we need. Rather than the Government, just one political party or even Parliament, doing that, it should come from outside this place and involve the population at large.

Mr Wilson: I am grateful for that clarification, but I need to put on the record the wider Government’s position on this matter. To elaborate on the first reason that I gave the hon. Gentleman, I would remind him that the UK constitution is characterised by pragmatism and the ability to adapt to whatever circumstances in which it finds itself. The genius of that arrangement is its ability to deliver stable democracy by progressively adapting to changing realities. A static form of convention, deciding constitutional matters once and for all, does not fit that British tradition, which is one of evolving and adapting in line with people’s expectations and needs. Our unique constitutional arrangements make possible agility and responsiveness to the wishes of our citizens. We in government believe that those wishes are very clear—a desire to be part of a strong, successful Union that recognises and values the unique nature of each of our individual nations that form that Union.

On the second reason for not holding a convention, I would remind the hon. Gentleman that the Government are busy delivering on their commitments to provide further devolution and decentralisation to the nations and regions of the United Kingdom. It is absolutely right that we prioritise getting on with the job that we were elected to do—to work for a coherent constitutional settlement that provides fairness, opportunity and a voice for all. To that end—

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Mr Allen: I am using the fact that we have just a little bit of time to engage the Minister, and he is taking it in good spirit, as always. May I first make it very clear that I congratulate the Government on what they have done on devolution in England; I have done so several times on the Floor of the House. Great progress has been made and I believe that even more progress will be made before 2020.

To return to the question of whether we can carry on as we are, in the Scottish referendum we did come within, I think, a couple of hundred thousand votes of the Union breaking up. There is currently, obviously, a serious debate about our future inside or outside Europe. A million people went off the electoral register very recently. There are many examples of why this is quite a difficult moment, and why perhaps an outside look at the way we conduct ourselves in the House and the Government might actually be quite beneficial to all Governments, all Parliaments and all parties.

Mr Wilson: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his recognition and kind words about the reforms that we have taken forward since 2010 and are continuing to take forward in this Parliament. As I said at the start of my comments, I really do not feel that sense of impending constitutional peril that the hon. Gentleman describes. What this Government are trying to do with our constitutional reforms will strengthen the Union by creating a fair and balanced settlement. Whether or not the hon. Gentleman agrees that we are doing it in the right way or quickly enough, that is what we are trying to achieve.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned Scotland. We are delivering further devolution to Scotland and Wales, and the fresh start agreement for Northern Ireland. We are creating some of the most powerful devolved legislatures in the world and it is fair that that devolution is now balanced by measures that we have introduced. The hon. Gentleman rightly credits the Government with addressing the English question—the West Lothian question, as it is often known. We are also devolving greater powers away from Whitehall to cities and regions, driving local growth in areas that have the strong governance now and the capacity to deliver. I know that the hon. Gentleman is very keen for his own area, Nottingham, to receive some of those powers and some more of those city deals. At the same time, we are holding a referendum on our renegotiated membership of the EU, for the first time in 40 years giving the people of the UK the chance to get involved and have a say on the matter.

We do not believe that all these important changes, which are designed to hand power back to people, should be delayed by the establishment of some form of convention. As the hon. Gentleman said, the process would begin only in 2020, if we are lucky. We do not want to wait until then to get on with the job that we have been elected to do now. As my colleague the noble Lord Bridges pointed out in the other place, there is little agreement on the scope or composition of a constitutional convention, so perhaps we would need a convention on a convention before we could get started.