Wednesday 29 June 2016
[Sir Roger Gale in the Chair]
Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. I apologise for the fact that the screen behind me is not working. We will have to manage with the two that are working, so do not rely on the other one. I am also sorry that, apparently, we cannot raise the blinds. It is one of those mornings.
Looking around the Chamber, although relatively few people have submitted an application to speak, it is clear that there is a lot of interest in all parts of the House. I will therefore give an indication now, which is unusual, but I think people need time to adjust, that I will impose a five-minute time limit on speeches.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered dog fighting.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger, and it is a privilege to bring this debate to the Chamber to highlight the extreme plight of those dogs around the UK that are subject to the cruel and callous animal abuse of dog fighting. They have no voice of their own, and we must give them a voice; I am heartened that so many hon. Members are present to contribute to the debate and to do just that—to give them their voice. I am proud that so many of my constituents and those of other Members have been in contact to emphasise the importance of the debate and the impact on animal welfare and our legislative process.
I am delighted that the hon. Lady chose this topic for debate. Is she aware that she has widespread support throughout the House and that some of us have tabled early-day motion 64, which calls for a national dog-fighting strategy to stamp out this awful crime?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I am delighted that I have so much support in all areas of the House, from all parties. I have signed the early-day motion and fully support it.
To pick up on the point made in the previous intervention and the comments of the many constituents who have contacted me, the frequency of the occurrences of dog fighting in the country is the real problem and shows the urgent need for action, along the lines suggested.
I very much agree with the hon. Gentleman and his valuable contribution. There is a need for urgency. I am hopeful that we can make progress on that urgency today.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate. Is it worth putting on the record from the start the excellent work of charities and rescue centres? We are a nation of dog lovers. The vast majority of dog owners, including those like myself who have rescue dogs, think that dog fighting is an extreme element that we must deal with.
The hon. Gentleman makes his point extremely well. I will come on to echo his words.
Events in recent weeks might have divided some communities and, indeed, the direction of the different countries in the United Kingdom, but what brings us together is our deep convictions about animal welfare. We are dog lovers and want to see the eradication of cruelties such as dog fighting.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this important debate. Does she agree that we need to consider the wider context of sentencing for animal cruelty in this country? In the UK, we have a lax regime, because it is based on the fact that we think of animals, frankly, as chattels or property. That attitude has to change. Does she agree?
I do, and I echo the hon. Gentleman’s sentiments. Dogs are man’s best friend, not property. I will be calling for tougher sentencing throughout the UK.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate. No doubt she will comment on the fact that within the UK there is variability in the sentencing regimes. In fact, Northern Ireland has increased the sentence capacity to between two and five years, compared with six months in our own nation.
I thank the right hon. Lady for her intervention. That is something of which Northern Ireland should be extremely proud. I hope to see similar progress in the rest of the UK.
I pay tribute to the many organisations involved in the field, including the League Against Cruel Sports, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the Scottish Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, the Dogs Trust, Middlesex University, the Battersea Dogs and Cats Home, and Marc the vet, to name but a few. Without their vital work, we would have little awareness of the existence of the hidden, heinous crime of dog fighting. They also work tirelessly for the protection and rehabilitation of dogs. I thank them for their work and for the recent reports bringing dog fighting to the mind of the public, including, crucially, our first national report on the state of dog fighting in the UK, from Project Bloodline, which was launched last year by the League Against Cruel Sports.
I also thank two of my constituents, Lisa Glasham and Paul Meecham, who are present today. They know the importance of the issue and of the debate. Lisa is never seen without her dog, although I understand she could not bring him in today.
Peter Egan, a vice-president of the League Against Cruel Sports, said:
“Dog fighting is a crime committed against our best friends, by humanity’s worst enemies, the criminals making money from indescribable cruelty. Where are we as a society if we allow our dogs to be abused in this way?”
I have had hundreds of emails from concerned constituents, and I am sure the hon. Lady has support in Wales. It is the absolute brutality that gets to me: cats are used as bait; dogs are trained to be absolute fighters; and it is so graphic. I have a little Staffie who is absolutely gorgeous, and timid and everything. The thought of him having his teeth ground down to become an object for brutality breaks my heart. The hon. Lady has my wholehearted support.
I thank the hon. Lady. Putting together my speech for the debate has been a traumatic process, and I am sure that constituency emails and her own experience have heralded the same feelings of disbelief and complete concern for the animals that are abused in such a manner.
Bill Oddie has said:
“Dogs are perhaps the most beloved and valued animal on earth. Humans look after them, and they look after humans. They represent companionship, affection and loyalty. I can think of few evils so perverted—and cruel—as dog fighting. This is humanity at its worst.”
Yesterday, I had the privilege to meet a United States military veteran with his assistance dog. Does my hon. Friend agree that it defies belief that, when dogs can be so positive and do so much good, people treat them in this cruel way?
I very much agree with my hon. Friend’s comments. We have to remember that we have hearing dogs, dogs that work for the blind, dogs that help us in the police force and the fire brigade and dogs that help us in all aspects of our lives. That is why it is quite so unbelievable that some people treat dogs in such a way.
May I point out that we have dogs that have saved the lives of our soldiers on many occasions, such as in Northern Ireland, Iraq or Afghanistan, and will continue to do so? God bless them.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. Yes, it is extremely important that we recognise the value of dogs in every aspect of our society and in our armed forces.
This week marks the 100th anniversary of the battle of the Somme, so given the role of military dogs then and now, today it is apt and appropriate to do everything we can to defend them.
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention and for paying tribute to those dogs who have worked for this country in such an admirable way.
What are the facts as we know them? Research, including that from the influential Project Bloodline, indicates that a dog fight occurs somewhere in the UK every day. Dogs involved in fighting are pitted against each other, with the aim of inflicting as much pain and damage as possible. For dogs that fall into the hands of dog fighters, life is full of pain, suffering and violence. Dogs are left with horrific injuries, and rather than taking them to a vet and risk being caught, dog fighters perform crude surgeries without anaesthetic, adding to suffering. Most dogs used for fighting ultimately are killed in the fight, dying as a result of their injuries or just killed and discarded.
The hon. Lady is being generous with her time. She mentioned Project Bloodline, which is an excellent initiative by the League Against Cruel Sports. I see signs in my constituency on trees, where dogs have been hung from trees to strengthen their jaws, but dog fighting is done very much under cover and it is difficult to track down. Will she join me in congratulating the league’s initiative under Project Bloodline to offer a £1,000 reward to people in Luton under a pilot where people can come forward with any information they have about illegal dog fighting in their area?
That sounds like an excellent pilot, and I would like to see it expanded throughout the country if it is successful.
During training, dogs are usually kept penned or chained. They are raised in isolation, yet we know they are man’s best friend. They are starved and taunted to trigger extreme survival instincts and to encourage aggression. They may be forced to tread water in pools, to run on a treadmill, while another terrified animal is dangled in front of them as bait, or to hang, as described, from their jaws, while dangling from a chain or tree baited with meat. They are slammed against walls to toughen them up. Many may be injected with steroids. Some dog fighters sharpen their dogs’ teeth, cut off their ears to prevent latching during fights or even add roach poison to their food, so that their fur tastes bad to other dogs.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this important debate. What she has just outlined shows a massive scale of premeditation, planning, thought and—I hesitate to use this word—investment. Does she not agree that the people who put in that effort to cause such suffering to animals must have sentences that properly reflect the activities they have engaged in, not just in fighting dogs but in the planning for that?
I wholeheartedly agree. We know from research on psychology that individuals who engage in animal cruelty show traits of psychopathy and are then very much more likely to engage in cruelty against humans.
Dog fighting results in torn flesh, blood loss, disembowelment and death. Many dogs are found dead, dumped in the countryside. Dogs that win are forced to fight again. They are sold on to breed puppies for profit. Female dogs are strapped down on rape stands, while males impregnate them. There is new evidence of casual dog fighting, with offenders fighting their dogs in public places and then capturing that on mobile telephones.
Many of the dogs that do not fight, or lose fights, are used, as described, as bait animals. Undercover reporters from animal welfare charities have met dog breeders who offer pit bull puppies and dogs of the bully kutta breed for protection and fighting. The story of Cupcake, brought to our awareness by the League Against Cruel Sports, highlights the issue of bait animals. Cupcake’s life was basically torture: her teeth were ground down to prevent her from protecting herself and she was used as bait for other dogs. Kay, who is now looking after Cupcake, has said:
“Man up—if you have a lust for fighting go out and fight yourself… To victimise and torture a vulnerable creature…to create a status or an image…is…despicable”.
Battersea Dogs and Cats Home regularly takes in dogs bearing the physical or mental scars of dog fighting: traumatised animals with tell-tale bite marks and filed down teeth. Many have had their jaws wired shut. They are cast out, although, as we have described, many are never found or they are killed and discarded. We need to establish a simple message: people involved in dog fighting are cruel and callous, and they must be convicted. We ask ourselves: why does dog fighting happen? Who on earth would want to engage in this violent pursuit for pleasure or profit?
The RSPCA has identified a typology of dog fighting that helps to categorise those involved. There is traditional organised dog fighting, which involves working-class males and is an underground activity, where a large amount of money is gambled on dogs. Pit bull terriers are almost exclusively used for that type of fight. Individuals involved do not just happen upon it—they may well be involved in other forms of organised crime. They have a life of violence and torturing, and killing animals is an adjunct to criminal lives.
There is a cultural typology whereby individuals from differing cultures that do not prohibit dog fighting bring those activities to the UK despite their being banned. Those individuals require education. Chain street is described as a new trend for dog fighting, which is seen in inner cities, where young men in gangs or on the fringes fight dogs to settle scores or to try to assert their standing in their communities.
The League Against Cruel Sports identifies different levels of dog fighting. Level 1 is impromptu street fights, part of street culture. Level 2 is hobbyist—I cannot imagine dog fighting as a hobby—operating on a localised fighting circuit. Level 3 is professional sophisticated dog rings, with trained dogs from particular bloodlines, taking place in a pit, with high-stakes gambling, which is highly secretive and invitation-only.
Research by Middlesex University in November 2015 indicated that dog fighting has historically thrived on its ability to convince our society that it does not exist. There is a severe lack of information and data on dog fighting. Further research is therefore required. There are varied measures of recording such offences, which limits data analysis. The largest element of known and recorded dog-fighting activity relates to the possession or custody of fighting dogs, but data do not distinguish between possession and involvement in dog fighting.
There is also inconsistency in procedures between agencies when it comes to tackling the issue. Dog fighting may not even be identified if it is easier to address the issue under animal welfare legislation, so there is under-reporting and under-recording. There is a lack of recording between dog fighting and other offences. Such recording is very much needed now that we know it is recognised as a gateway crime.
Inadequacy in reporting, recording and prosecution is important, because it impacts negatively on the resources provided for dog-fighting enforcement. It also impacts negatively in appropriate convictions and the severity of sentences.
The hon. Lady is making an excellent speech, and I congratulate her on securing the debate. The point she makes about dog fighting being a gateway crime is vital. Is it not the case that in the United States dog fighting is recognised as a grade A felony, and the FBI prioritises tackling it because of the impact that it has on detecting and preventing other offences?
I cannot emphasise that point enough: it is a gateway crime carried out by organised people who are involved in crime. They are callous towards animals, which research indicates leads them to a propensity to be callous towards humans. That must be tackled as a serious issue.
I think we are all astounded that we hear these points being made in 2016. This underground behaviour is being allowed and sustained through a combination of organised work and dog breeding, and people are making money off pets that should be looked after. That is abhorrent behaviour.
I pay tribute to Blue Cross, which rehomes animals in West End in my constituency, and I thank the hon. Lady for bringing this issue to the table. I have constituents who have been able to give dogs from the area a better life. We must not let dogs have the awful life that those dogs used to have.
I, too, pay tribute to Blue Cross. It is extremely important that we rehabilitate as many such dogs as possible, although, given their traumatic early lives, that is often not possible and they meet a sad end.
Dog fighting has been an offence since the 1800s. The current provision can be found in the Animal Welfare Act 2006 and the Animal Health and Welfare (Scotland) Act 2006. There are penalties of up to 51 weeks’ imprisonment and a fine in England and Wales, and up to 12 months’ imprisonment and a fine of up to £20,000 in Scotland. The Control of Dogs (Scotland) Act 2010 was designed to highlight the responsibilities of dog owners by putting in place a regime to identify out-of-control dogs at an early juncture, and by providing measures to change the behaviour of dogs—and their owners—before they become dangerous. We need specific legislation on the issue, because we must focus on everything we can do across the UK and consider whether we are doing enough.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate. She outlined the different penalties. Does she agree that it would send out a strong signal, at a time when there are political divisions across the United Kingdom, if we could show the wider community that there is unity of purpose by increasing penalties in every nation of the United Kingdom for such heinous and unacceptable criminal activity?
I thank the hon. Gentleman, and I would like collaboration and agreement across the UK on the issue. I also want to highlight the fact that the Northern Ireland Assembly has recently increased maximum prison sentences from two to five years, and maximum fines from £5,000 to £20,000. That means that it will have the most stringent legislation in the UK on animal cruelty offences.
My hon. Friend is being extremely generous with her time; I apologise that I cannot stay to the very end of the debate. The League Against Cruel Sports has called for consistency in sentencing across Europe as well as in the UK. Does my hon. Friend agree that irrespective of the referendum result, dog fighting is an issue on which Governments should co-operate to ensure consistency across borders?
Yes, I agree with my hon. Friend. Also, given that dog fighting is a gateway to serious organised crime, collaboration across the EU is required.
Further to that point, my Assembly colleagues in Northern Ireland are trying to secure the implementation of a register of those who are found guilty of this heinous crime. They should be forced to sign it—not that that would be a massive deterrent, but it would add to what has already been agreed.
I thank the hon. Gentleman; that is one thing that I am calling for. I congratulate the Northern Ireland Assembly on taking the matter forward.
Analysis of court reports by Middlesex University suggests that there were fewer than 40 convictions for dog fighting between 2008 and 2014. Given that we know that a dog fight happens every day, there is clearly something not quite right about our ability to detect and prosecute. Mike Flynn, of the SSPCA, has told me that the last conviction in Scotland was three years ago. Once again we need to ensure that we can tackle the issue appropriately and take things forward consensually with best-practice evidence from the many organisations that contribute.
Project Bloodline asserts that it must be accepted that dog fighting remains a major criminal issue in the UK, both in itself and as a gateway crime. Vital work undertaken in the area must be resourced and collaborative. It is recommended that a taskforce be set up to ensure that there will be action to tackle dog fighting through a national dog-fighting plan. That plan would be pinned on three key areas: prevention, understanding and prosecution.
Community working groups can assist with the education of people and communities that are vulnerable to dog fighting. The public require increased awareness and education about the signs to look for, to aid in prevention and detection. There is a need for increased awareness about reporting through, for example, the League Against Cruel Sports’ animal crimewatch line, which should be further publicised.
Details of individuals who have been banned from keeping dogs should be held by statutory agencies on a national register. Those people should not be allowed to keep animals, and their activities should be monitored. Local environmental auditing of hotspots should be undertaken by a multi-agency taskforce, to identify and remove environmental factors that enable people to engage in dog fighting. We must ensure that, where possible, dogs used for fighting, whose lives have been utterly miserable and full of pain and suffering, and bait animals such as Cupcake, survive and are rehabilitated. Dog licensing should be considered. Reports on dog fighting as a gateway crime indicate that it must be treated seriously and that there should be intelligence crossover between agencies and across countries.
The League Against Cruel Sports and the RSPCA have called for changes to how dog fighting is tackled, including increases in penalties, which we have discussed. The RSPCA welcomed a statement made in 2015 by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs that the Government recognise the seriousness of fighting offences and are looking at legislative opportunities to increase maximum penalties. We need a review of the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991, and I request an inquiry by the Government. I will also write to the Scottish Government on that matter.
The League Against Cruel Sports recommends that dog fighting should be recorded as a specific offence. We need to improve data quality and assess the scale of the problem and the resources that we require. It does not consider that the existing offence of animal fighting should be changed entirely, but it does believe that some modification should be considered. The penalties should be brought in line with those in other EU countries, to achieve consistency—if there is now something on which we can achieve consistency across the EU. Penalties are two years in France and three years in Germany and the Czech Republic. The recommendation is two years, which would be consistent with Law Commission reports on other animal offences.
Politicians need to continue to raise awareness of dog fighting, assert our view that it is unacceptable in the UK, and promote the steps that are required to address such a heinous crime.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on bringing forward this important matter for debate. There are Members present who have spoken in the House on the matter many times, and some who have introduced Bills.
We all advocate increasing sentences, but another aspect of the matter is education, not only of those who engage in the practice in question, but of people who serve in courts administering and levying fines or dealing with imprisonment. The question is what levels of sentencing will stop people. We all know from research—our own or that of the League Against Cruel Sports, the RSPCA or other bodies—that such practices happen predominantly in certain areas throughout Britain. They go on time and again, and we all know where they are. The police try hard but are under-resourced, as are the animal welfare organisations in those areas. We need to get the Government to understand that more investment is needed in the police, local authorities and animal welfare organisations in those areas to eradicate something so pernicious.
I thank the hon. Gentleman, and I agree that we do not need a one-pronged approach. We need to address the issues that have been raised, and we should recognise that if those involved are also involved in organised crime and are making large amounts of money from dog fighting, a small fine and a slap on the wrist will not be a deterrent. We need a deterrent in this case.
Dog fighting awareness day is on 8 April, which also happens to be my birthday. I had not been aware of that coincidence before I researched the debate. The day was established by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. As I mentioned, it has been traumatic for me, as an animal lover, to research and speak about the issue. I am sure that dog lovers and ordinary people across the country who have listened to the debate will have been sickened. Dog fighting is a cruel, barbaric, abhorrent and violent crime with no place in the UK. It is one of the most extreme forms of animal cruelty. I am pleased and heartened by the number of Members who have come to the debate, and I urge that we work together to eradicate dog fighting once and for all.
On a point of order, Sir Roger. You are in the Chair and are therefore properly impartial, but is it not appropriate that we place on record the work you have done and continue to do on animal welfare matters? We know that if you were not up there, you would be down here.
My right hon. Friend is most generous: I could not possibly comment. The hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) has been very generous in giving way. I hope that hon. Members will not seek to rise to make speeches unless they have indicated already to the Chair that they will do so, because I am afraid there is no opportunity for me to facilitate that. Because of the time available, I will now have to reduce the speaking time to four minutes. If hon. Members can limit themselves to less than that, we might get everybody in, but it is a big might. I always do my best, but I cannot guarantee it.
Thank you, Sir Roger. I reiterate the comments of my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Sir Greg Knight). I know what a great animal lover and dog lover you are. I thank and praise the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) for securing this debate.
There are so many dog lovers out there, and this debate is bound to touch people’s hearts. I was not going to make a speech today, because I have to go and speak on climate change in a few minutes, but I felt I had to because I am co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group for animal welfare. As a television reporter and environment correspondent for a long time, I reported on awful dog-fighting incidents and badger baiting before that, where dogs were also used. This subject is therefore close to my heart.
I applaud all the excellent charities that do such great work to look after rescue dogs. That is partly what prompted me to speak today. I recently visited Battersea dogs home and was deeply moved by the awful stories of dogs that have either been dumped outside it or picked up on the streets. They have been thrown out and are deeply scarred emotionally, because they were either fighting dogs that have had their teeth ground down, as the hon. Lady referred to, or poor bitches that have been used for constant breeding.
I thank the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) for securing this debate. Does the hon. Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow) agree that all these things—third-party puppy sales, puppy farming and illegal imports—are interlinked, and that something properly has to be done by Government? We need not warm words, but actions.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. He makes a very good point—all these things link up, and I will refer to a few of those issues in a minute.
It is horrific that something like dog fighting still exists in our society. It is almost impossible to believe that that is true. I will make a few brief points that I hope might be constructive. One is about sentencing. Magistrates in this country can give a penalty of up to about six months for someone caught dog fighting, but they rarely even do that. There are so few cases where someone is actually caught and penalised, whereas in Europe the sentences are about two to three years. I reiterate the call to review the sentencing guidelines; that is crucial. Much more stringent fines would also perhaps be a disincentive.
I agree that people have an all-encompassing view of these dogs. They are regarded as status dogs and weapon dogs. I have seen such dogs when I have been out canvassing and been quite nervous about some of them. Some get wrongly labelled, but others are used as symbols. Somehow, we have to try to change the public perception that these dogs are a good, macho thing to have. That is all about education. We need to go into our schools and educate our children, teach people about respect for animals and how to care for them and love them—and not to have animals unless they can do those things. I personally do not have a dog—my children have never forgiven me for it—even though I love dogs, because I feel I would not be there enough to look after it, and that it would have psychological problems as a result.
Education is really important, and we must educate people at a very young age to be responsible dog owners. I commend the Llys Nini centre in my constituency and the work that the Dogs Trust has done by going into young offenders units and prisons to teach offenders to be responsible and to develop better personalities, so that they can be caring individuals.
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. That is a really good point. Evidence shows that those who abuse dogs often go on to abuse humans, including children and the elderly. There is a direct link, so we have to try, as a society, to stop such things happening.
Finally, I want to talk about breeding and call for a reduction in the threshold required for dog licences from five litters to two. These animals are truly being used as breeding machines. Often, the breeding starts far too young, so that the dogs are worn out and on the scrap heap very quickly. I saw some of those dogs at Battersea, and they are in a desperate and terrible state. Battersea dogs home has to not only nurture these dogs physically but also get over the awful psychological problems that those poor creatures have from the way they have been abused. That needs to be looked at.
I think everyone agrees that this is a disgusting and appalling habit that we have allowed to carry on in our society. We have to crack down on it. I know much can be done. Lots of ideas have been mentioned today, and I press that we continue to look at them. I hope the Minister is listening and will give us some answers. I also hope that some of the points raised will be referred to in the current Government’s response to the animal licensing consultation that is under way at the moment, which we are waiting to hear back from. I support the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow on this issue, and would like to be one of the people speaking up for our lovely dogs.
I will now give some slightly conflicting advice. Members will be aware that every intervention adds a minute to the speaking time of the person who has the floor, and they must bear that in mind. The last two people on the speakers list are Patricia Gibson and Margaret Ferrier. We will do our best to accommodate you, but you might feel it more appropriate to intervene. I will try to accommodate everybody and ensure everybody has a say. We are down to three minutes, I am afraid.
I congratulate the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) on her important and forthright contribution. Northern Ireland was unfortunately, until very recently, found wanting when it came to animal cruelty. Cases in Northern Ireland have been extreme, with 4,000 animal welfare cases investigated every year and 114 convictions for animal cruelty between 2012 and 2014, only 15 of which resulted in custodial sentences.
The Northern Ireland Executive brought in bans against the breeding of certain dogs, yet the practice continued. The problem lies in the fact that no dog is born bad or born dangerous. Some dogs may have more attributes that make them susceptible to having dangerous tendencies, but it is ultimately who owns the dog and how the dog is treated that decides the dog’s outcome. The fact that a simple blanket ban on certain dogs did not work shows that we need a combination of legislation and information, and Northern Ireland has led the way on that. The public need to be informed of the problem so that they can assist to eradicate it, and awareness and education is needed so that this behaviour is regarded as totally unacceptable.
A raft of legislation has been brought in by the Northern Ireland Assembly, first to ensure that people cannot do this. There have also been prominent awareness campaigns highlighting the issue and making the public aware that they should not tolerate it, let alone take part in it. Just this month, the Director of Public Prosecutions was given stronger powers to fight animal cruelty by the Northern Ireland Justice Minister. The Justice Act (Northern Ireland) 2016, which will come into force this summer, will introduce fines of up to £20,000 and maximum prison terms of between two and five years.
However, the action does not stop there. My hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson) referred to an official register of people convicted of animal cruelty offences. Northern Ireland is going to the next stage to protect animals from being victims of those people’s sick behaviour. It all started a few years ago with a case in east Belfast, as Northern Ireland MPs will be well aware. The people involved in the case were ignorant of animal welfare and of the law; they filmed the abuse, posted it on social media and gloated about it afterwards, and then got off with a suspended prison sentence. I and many other MPs wrote at that time asking for that to be changed to a custodial sentence. Unfortunately, that was not possible under the legislation.
Let us make it clear: we need registers and to ensure that those who look after animal sanctuaries are able to know who have done things wrong. The prospect of a register should be looked at, as it could start to address the problem at its root cause. The current strategy is not having all the desired effects, but Northern Ireland is leading the way, as it often does, and doing something different to protect dogs from being hurt or killed.
Championing policy against animal cruelty, whether it be dog fighting or similar sickening behaviour, is what we all need to do. We need to be sure that we always consider the voiceless—man’s best friend—and give them the voice that they need and deserve.
I am grateful to be able to speak in this debate, Sir Roger, and I know how important this debate is to you personally. I recently toured Birmingham dogs home—a newly created facility in my constituency—which had 90 dogs brought in on the day I went round. I was in pursuit of finding a new companion, having taken advice from the police, following the tragic events that befell one of our colleagues, that a dog might actually keep me safer, but I was appalled to see just how many of those animals are victims of this terrible crime of dog fighting and being used, essentially, as weapons. It is clear to me, as a former Secretary of State, that the measures that have been on the statute book for 175 years are not addressing the cultural change that we need to achieve in our society.
Successive Governments have done a number of things; the Animal Welfare Act 2006 was reformed in 2008, and when I was Secretary of State we reviewed it again in 2010. However, an undertaking was given in autumn last year that the Government would try to find a legislative opportunity to toughen the sentences for these kinds of offences, and we would very much like to hear from the Minister that such an opportunity will present in this parliamentary year, however eventful it may ultimately turn out to be.
I am also very conscious of another aspect of this and I commend it to colleagues: as part of the cultural change, there was a significant programme of re-educating offenders. As Secretary of State, I somehow found new money to give to police constabularies and to Battersea dogs home to try and change the minds of people who perpetrate this hideous crime. I say to colleagues that one visit to the RSPCA hospital in Harmsworth to see the appalling injuries that those fighting dogs suffer—those that survive the fights—would be education enough to turn any human being off the idea that man’s best friend should be used as a weapon in a fight.
Sir Roger, may I shock assembled company, and possibly some of my constituents, by saying that I am not generally a dog lover? In fact, I have spent much of my political career dodging dogs, and my cats, Arthur and Wilson, wish me to put that on the record, but I an admirer of dogs’ qualities—their loyalty, their bravery and so on. I come from an area of Merseyside where there is an unsavoury subculture—a very small, but very troubling one—of dog fighting.
Dog fighting is only one of the aspects here. We have talked about trophy dogs, which are clearly a more obvious thing for most people. They are selected, bred and trained to be vicious and are subject to deliberate neglect. Quite how horrible that is has been well described by the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron), who so movingly started the debate. Such dogs are often discarded. I was told that the average life span of the average Staffordshire bull terrier is something like three years, as nobody wants from the RSPCA a dog that has been badly trained.
Dogs are becoming part of a testosterone-fuelled culture. It was put to me by experts, including a policeman who trained dogs for many years, that just as some people with a criminal or violent background should not have access to guns, they should also not have access to certain breeds of dogs. I think there is a case for licensing both dogs and ownership.
Dog control has at times been seen as a slightly marginal and difficult issue for Government. Legislation in this area has not been wholly successful—attempts to outlaw breeds, for example—but it seems to me that the Government have to take this issue very seriously. Issues such as dog fighting, out-of-control dogs, packs of dogs marauding through neighbourhoods and poor welfare of dogs generally are proxy for a wider range of issues, such as violent and socially disturbed neighbourhoods, drug and alcohol abuse and, importantly, serious family issues. I had a long conversation with the RSPCA at its last event here and I spoke to some of the inspectors who went into homes. They said that often when they went into homes apropos a dog and got access where social workers could not, they saw troubling instances of families and children in neglect as well.
We have made a lot in this Parliament of the issue of troubled families. It has been a high priority for the Prime Minister and everybody right through Government, but troubled families usually have troubled pets as well. Antisocial dog behaviour is often the most evident signal to the outside world of antisocial behaviour in general, and poor and disturbed families. I want to make a very simple point: although this issue may seem marginal and almost on the fringes of political debate, it is actually central to social policy.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. I congratulate the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) on securing a debate on such a vital issue, and I agree with what the hon. Member for Southport (John Pugh) has just said. In the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs we are conducting an inquiry into animal welfare, and there seems to be a direct correlation between dog fighting, the abuse of animals and the culture in neighbourhoods that frightens off people but is also destructive to animals.
It should hardly need to be said that dog fighting has no place in any civilised society. The fear and pain that fighting dogs suffer on a daily basis are difficult to contemplate. It constitutes an appalling breach of the trust that dogs have in their masters and the responsibility that we all have as human beings. That criminal violence, which is what dog fighting is, goes on to hurt communities, promoting lawlessness and frightening people on their own streets, particularly in impoverished areas. Given the callous mentality it requires, it is no surprise that where we see dog fighting, we often see links to other kinds of criminality and abusive behaviour. That is something that all Members of this House—and indeed, the vast majority of the public—can agree on, but the League Against Cruel Sports estimates that dog fighting takes place in Britain and Northern Ireland at least once every day. That is completely unacceptable.
I pay tribute to the League Against Cruel Sports for the academic work it has done to establish clear evidence of the extent of dog fighting. Given the difficulty in extrapolating specific dog-fighting statistics from the general animal fighting statistics, without the League’s work this debate may not have been possible.
Will the hon. Lady give way?
I will not, as I am anxious about the time because other Members want to speak, but I understand that the hon. Gentleman’s basic concerns will not be unlike mine and those of other Members from Northern Ireland. Even though we have certain, more restrictive legislation, it is only as effective as the enforcement that takes place.
It is important that the elements of the Wooler report are implemented quickly and effectively, and I look forward to the Select Committee report on animal welfare, which will concentrate on dogs, cats and horses.
When I came to the debate this morning I had not intended to make a speech, Sir Roger—only to make some interventions—but I feel so passionately about this issue that I had to try and catch your eye.
I congratulate the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) on securing this debate. I had a debate on the Floor of the House some months back about a not-unrelated issue, because while we say we are nation of dog lovers, where is the evidence? Illegal importation is not properly stopped at the border because the border agencies, understandably, have other pressures on them. There is the issue of third-party selling. To my mind, we do not need a licensing scheme because there should be no third-party selling. Breeders should sell dogs. If they want to buy and sell things as a commodity, they should be a commodity trader in coffee or whatever. They should not buy and sell dogs.
Puppy farming is wrong, whether it is obscene, massive, industrial-scale puppy farming or just somebody breeding in the back of their house because all they are interested in is making a few quid. On an international scale, an appalling atrocity—the Chinese so-called dogmeat festival—is happening in Yulin. All those things are interrelated and lead to a culture that thinks dog fighting is acceptable, that turns a blind eye or that does not have the resources to put into tackling it. We simply have to stand up and say, “No more.”
Dog fighting is linked to other things such as child abuse and domestic violence. If somebody thinks it is acceptable for one animal to tear another apart, they will think other things are acceptable as well. We say we are a nation of dog lovers. Let us start to see some evidence of that. There are other examples, such as greyhound racing, and what happens to the greyhounds afterwards. I could go on and on but, unfortunately, the 55 seconds I have remaining do not allow me to elucidate.
I know what a decent man the Minister is from before he became a Minister but, quite frankly, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has to step up. Warm words and platitudes are no good. We need action on importation, third-party selling, puppy farms, and all the related issues. We need firm action—not words—and we need it now. We have debated these things too many times. I do not want to be standing in this Chamber again in a year, two years or three years having the same debates. Let us have some action.
I am pleased to speak in this important debate. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) for securing the debate, which has attracted so much interest across the Chamber.
Animal rights in Scotland are devolved to the Scottish Government, who keep a watchful eye on such matters because the public are concerned about the issues. We should all be concerned about the recent findings that one dog fight takes place every day somewhere in the UK. Dog fighting is a much bigger issue than an animal welfare issue, as important as animal welfare is. The crime does not operate in isolation; it is linked to serious and organised crime, particularly drug use and violence. Worse is the evidence that suggests that dog fighting is on the rise. Such barbarism must not go unanswered. The cruelty suffered by dogs in dog fighting is sickening, and we have heard some examples today. Dogs are often treated by so-called street surgeons with only superglue and staples. It beggars belief.
Much more can be done across the UK and all of Europe to promote animal welfare and to protect dogs and, indeed, the public from such exploitative owners. Perhaps one way forward would be to have a comprehensive register of those found engaging in the horrific practice, so that they are banned from ever having dogs again. That register could be shared across the UK and Europe. I urgently suggest that legislation is reviewed, revised and closely monitored. We must be unequivocal in our condemnation of dog fighting, which is a specific crime that carries punitive custodial sentences for offenders. The message must go out, loudly and clearly, that dog fighting cannot go unchecked in any society that considers itself to be civilised.
The vast majority of people in the UK have a great affection for dogs and we must help our citizens by educating them to identify the symptoms and signs of dog fighting to help us tackle the awful practice. The more that we and the public understand about it, the better placed we are to tackle and eradicate it. Dogs cannot speak for themselves so it is our job to speak up for them. Our compassion and civilised values mean that we must take dog fighting seriously, and it is heartening to see the support from our constituents and across the Chamber.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) on securing the debate.
For the second time in a little over three weeks, I find myself in this room yet again providing a voice for the voiceless. Many of my constituents and staff have a keen interest in the treatment of man’s best friend. Unfortunately, the subject of the debate is troubling. As I am sure all hon. Members agree, the images and testimonies that are readily accessible online can only be described as harrowing.
The debate comes in the same week that, unfortunately and absurdly, 6,000 miles away in China, the annual Yulin dogmeat festival is taking place. The event was only launched in 2010 but has, unsurprisingly, garnered worldwide condemnation. We must be thankful that the international community has wholly rejected that so-called festival. However, we cannot be complacent about animal welfare on our own shores.
The problem of dog fighting is rife in the west of Scotland, and has been for years. The League Against Cruel Sports’ “Project Bloodline” report indicates that this abhorrent practice has had a major resurgence over the past few months. The report says that we need to educate the public about the scope and signs of dog fighting. According to the document:
“Greater understanding of the problem will lead to increased intelligence and more opportunities to prevent fights happening.”
We must ensure that dog fighting is portrayed not only as a rural problem but as one that is also found in urban areas. Will the Minister tell us explicitly how he plans to further tackle the issue rurally and in urban areas? No one here will disagree that dog fighting is a barbaric and cruel practice that is on a par with torturing animals. We must ensure that all relevant legislation is correctly implemented and possibly extended.
I am sure the Minister agrees that dog fighting is brutal and is no form of entertainment. From the stories that I have read and the evidence produced by the League Against Cruel Sports, it seems that one of the main methods used to facilitate the dog-fighting business is the selling of dogs online. What will the Minister do in conjunction with the police to tackle that growing online problem? Does he agree that dogs should be rehomed using renowned dog charities? I would much rather debate positive stories about dogs, but this is the world we live in.
I end with a quote from one of the earliest proponents of the animal rights movement, Jeremy Bentham, who said that
“the question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?”
Of course animals suffer, and when they do, we, in turn, suffer. We must continue to fight for them until their voice is heard.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. As you directed, I will be brief. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) for securing the debate and other hon. Members for taking part with comprehensiveness, detail and enthusiasm. I thank all who have contributed.
Sentencing has been well covered in the debate, and most hon. Members agree with the call of Battersea Dogs and Cats Home to bring sentencing in line with the rest of Europe, which hon. Members from Northern Ireland have touched on. Dog fighting, at the most determined and organised end of the spectrum, is held nationally and internationally.
The League Against Cruel Sports is calling for an urgent review of the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991. Battersea is opposed to all forms of breed-specific legislation. Last year, more than 70% of pitbull types that ended up being cared for by Battersea for various reasons would have been rehomeable if it had not been for the Dangerous Dogs Act. Dogs are not dangerous until they are specifically trained and maltreated to be. Dogs are abused and set against bait dogs, and that disgusting maltreatment must end.
The hon. Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster), who is no longer in his place, mentioned that in the United States, dog fighting is recognised as a grade A felony by the FBI, which understands the urgency of tackling this gateway crime. As my hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow mentioned, dog baiting and fighting is a gateway crime due to its link with other serious crimes such as drug and gun dealing and domestic, child and elder abuse. I was utterly horrified to hear, only last week, that one of my constituents had lost their family pet to a dog that had escaped briefly from a life of being trained for hours on a treadmill to build up endurance for fighting. The dog had been treated so badly that it knew of no other reaction but to attack another dog on sight.
Although animal welfare is devolved to the Scottish Parliament, it is clear from the 2015 report commissioned by the League Against Cruel Sports and produced by Dr Harding and Dr Nurse, “Analysis of UK Dog Fighting,” that much more has to be done to address this growing and utterly abhorrent crime. We must consider the issues raised in that research, particularly the recommendations for addressing the crime nationally, and we must be cohesive in our approach. We may not see the crime, but the evidence is there. Along with sufficient police funding, community engagement is vital to gaining intelligence, teaching young people responsible ownership and reducing opportunities for irresponsible breeders to sell to just anyone.
Finally, I urge everyone to read the Battersea Dogs and Cats Home briefing on dog fighting, which addresses the need for sentencing and education to end back-street breeding. That is the key driver in ending this disgusting practice. I am thoroughly encouraged by the all-party support for this debate, and I trust that the Minister will do the right thing.
If the Front-Bench speeches come in at slightly under 10 minutes each, Dr Cameron might get a couple of minutes to respond.
I am grateful for this opportunity to consider the utterly barbaric practice of dog fighting. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) on securing the debate, which has been intelligent and considered and had cross-party support. I also thank Marc Abraham, Blue Cross, the Dogs Trust, the League Against Cruel Sports, the RSPCA and the SSPCA for their briefing ahead of today’s debate.
Although dog fighting was made illegal by the Cruelty to Animals Act 1835—the humane Act—evidence suggests it is resurging across the UK. Indeed, it is now a highly codified and organised practice developed for the entertainment of spectators. It is also an extraordinarily brutal, cruel and unsympathetic practice, as my hon. Friend noted.
The welfare of animals is covered by the Animal Welfare Act 2006 in England and Wales, and by the Animal Health and Welfare (Scotland) Act 2006. Offences relating to animal fights were created by section 8 of the former and by section 23 of the latter. Despite being illegal, fights frequently take place.
There appears to be a lot of legislation, but the general consensus is that there is a problem with the enforcement of that legislation and with sentencing.
I agree, and I will shortly make several suggestions as to how that might be addressed.
Several hundred, and possibly several thousand, organised fights take place each year, with hundreds of thousands of pounds changing hands in associated betting at some fights. Fights are organised in pits, on the streets and in parks, housing estates and fields—in fact, anywhere and everywhere. Three levels of fights are recognised. Level 1 fights are impromptu street fights, or “rolls.” Level 2 or “hobbyist” fights revolve around localised fighting circuits. Level 3 professional fights are highly organised, often internationally. Injuries sustained by dogs at fights often lead to their death through stress and shock. Fights take place to the death simply for people’s amusement. I understand from the SSPCA that the longest recorded dog fight lasted four hours and 12 minutes.
After such abuse the animals are ferocious. The injuries they inflict on other dogs are scarcely believable, and the notion that anyone would wish to participate in the breeding, training, fighting and/or sponsoring of such practices beggars belief—more so given that injured animals rarely receive veterinary attention. The crude analogy applied to such trained dogs is that of high-value pedigree racehorses, but in dog fighting, of course, the animals are expendable, and they are abused and abandoned if no longer match-fit. Grand champion fighting dogs are worth hundreds of thousands of pounds to their owners, with stud fees of £5,000 to £6,000 being common. The picture could not be clearer: dog fighting is big business and utterly horrific in every respect. We should consider dog fighting a serious organised crime.
The Scottish National party has been at the forefront of animal rights, both in this Parliament and in Scotland. Dog fighting should be seen as a gateway crime. Involvement in clandestine dog fighting leads to other crimes such as illegal gambling, the importation and exportation of animals, abuse of the pet travel scheme, animal theft and drug and gun crime. Strategies to address dog fighting should therefore follow the counter-terrorism strategy—engage and prevent.
The Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 bans the ownership of a number of dog breeds, some of which are considered fighting breeds. The Act applies to England, Wales and Scotland, but it has been amended separately in Scotland and in England and Wales. The Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, of which I am a member, has considered the Act’s application in the context of England and will report in the near future. Suffice it to say that the Act appears to be ineffective and must be revised, because it focuses on breed, not deed.
Prohibited breeds are difficult to identify and categorise, and dogs are cross-bred to develop strains more suitable for fighting. We know that there is significant underground market activity in the trade in fighting dogs, with puppies being sold for thousands of pounds. Breed-specific legislation is fundamentally flawed. It is a startling statistic that, of the 623 dogs seized as being of a prohibited type over a two-year period, almost a quarter were later found not to be of a prohibited type and were returned to their owners, bringing into further question the concept of what constitutes a dangerous dog. The Act must be reviewed as a matter of urgency.
Although dog fighting is illegal across the UK, specific dog-fighting laws do not exist. Offences are recorded within broader animal welfare and cruelty Acts, which make it illegal to co-ordinate and promote a fight; to keep, possess or train a dog for fighting; or to attend a dog fight as a spectator. Direct animal fighting offences are set in section 8 of the Animal Welfare Act. The law defines an animal fight as
“an occasion on which a protected animal is placed with an animal, or with a human”.
However, it can be argued that street fighting is spontaneous and, as such, an animal is not placed, meaning that such fights are not covered by the legislation. Legislation has had no apparent effect on either dog fighting or the recorded occurrence of injuries from dog bites.
Three important steps can be taken to address the problem: increased sentences and penalties as a deterrent, education as a preventive measure and policy changes to encourage engagement. Currently, the maximum sentence for animal fighting in the UK is a term of up to 51 weeks’ imprisonment. In reality, however, sentences are unacceptably low. The example set by Northern Ireland should be followed.
In the US, as we heard earlier, dog fighting is considered a felony in all 50 states, as well as a federal felony. In 2016, the FBI declared that it would track animal abuse in the same way that it tracks class A felonies for accounting, reporting and tracking purposes, and that felony-level penalties for repeat offenders would be enacted. We must recognise that the evidence shows links between animal abuse and other forms of abuse, such as battery, child abuse, domestic violence, grievous bodily harm, serious violent offences, the use of firearms and so on. As such, dog fighting should also be considered a signal crime.
We call on the UK Government to review sentences under the Animal Welfare Act and introduce penalties that reflect the seriousness of such offences and the horrific abuse of animals, to ensure that punishments fit the crime. Dog fighting should be recorded as a specific offence, separate from animal fighting, to enable the scale of the problem to be more accurately assessed. Dog licensing should also be considered. There should be a presumption that court disposals use sentences at the upper end of sentencing scales—the maximum allowed by law, not the minimum.
The Control of Dogs (Scotland) Act 2010 is designed to highlight the responsibility of dog owners by introducing a regime that identifies out-of-control dogs at an early juncture. Many animal welfare charities invest considerable resources in excellent work to teach young people and others about responsible dog ownership. Programmes specifically target young people, those in prison and others who own a status dog or live in a community where status dog ownership is a problem. Such programmes are aimed at increasing awareness of the issues involved and stimulating debate and discussion on responsible dog ownership, antisocial behaviour and the law.
Third-party policing involves persuading organisations, groups or individuals—including community centres, veterinarians, schools, local government and business owners—to take some responsibility for preventing or reducing crime and encouraging people to report animal crime. In that way, crime control guardians are created. Crime control guardians can also be described as a multi-agency taskforce. That approach has proved effective in a number of communities in the US on animal cruelty in general and dog fighting specifically. We are calling for education programmes like those to be commended, encouraged and enabled.
As a matter of policy, sentencing for dog fighting should reflect the object of deterrence relative to the spectrum of offending. The detection of animal fighting offences should become a performance indicator for police forces, adding an incentive to deal with the crime. Details of individuals banned from keeping dogs and other animals should be held on a UK-wide register by statutory agencies. That would help prevent those convicted of animal cruelty offences from being able to commit further offences, as well as increasing opportunities for enforcement action. Rehabilitation programmes should be offered as part of the sentencing disposal to encourage a strategy of education.
Nevertheless, human behaviour is ultimately responsible for dog bites. Breed-specific legislation to ban the ownership of certain types of dogs merely addresses a symptom of an otherwise unaddressed underlying problem. It is likely that dog attacks are rooted in deeper and more diverse socioeconomic causes, such as deprivation and a lack of education concerning the handling of dogs. All those factors contribute to the growth of dog fighting at levels 1 and 2. Clearly, repeated presentations for medical attention could indicate involvement in lower-level dog fighting and associated handling. We are calling for the disclosure to police of those seeking medical assistance for dog attack injuries, to allow investigation and tracking. It is also clear that mandatory reporting by veterinary professionals of dog-fighting injuries could help identify welfare issues and criminal activity and reduce crime.
Ultimately, we are calling for a senior law enforcement officer to be appointed to ensure that there is sufficient collaboration and action to tackle dog fighting across the four nations of the UK and internationally—including, dare I say it, across the EU. The individual should be responsible for integrating the three strands of increased sentences and penalties as a deterrent; education as a preventive measure; and policy changes to encourage further engagement on dog fighting and organised crime.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. I am also pleased to respond to today’s debate, which I thank the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) for bringing forward. This is my first debate as shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. The many excellent speeches and interventions we have heard today highlight the awful state we are in and the cruelty to animals experienced in our country. Today must move that debate forward.
Many of us are very proactive in campaigning for animal welfare. We all have a responsibility for good stewardship and wellbeing, but with our responsibilities, we in this place must also proactively address the real issues. For many years, I have represented RSPCA inspectors, so I know the real pressures they have come under. They have legal responsibilities, and in a time when resources are tight, they need our support to be able to fulfil their inspections. As my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Robert Flello) and others have said, those inspections identify not only issues related to animal welfare but wider domestic abuses and wider criminality.
While today’s debate will be responded to by the Minister, there are many pertinent issues for the Home Office and justice teams.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
No, I am rather tight on time, so I will continue for now. Following a surge in dog fighting, we have seen the legislation change. There was the Cruelty to Animals Act 1835, and Labour introduced the Animal Welfare Act 2006, which has been referenced today. The 2006 Act sought to bring harsher penalties on violators of the law and included the option for short custodial sentences. As we have heard, evidence shows that that option is insufficient to deter people from engaging in this illegal pursuit, whether for so-called entertainment or for gambling.
The League Against Cruel Sports, which I thank for its campaigning, has looked at the wide range of environments in which dog fighting occurs. There is street fighting, which relates to street culture. There are unplanned, impromptu fights that people sometimes gamble on, although not always, and are often associated with status. There is also more informal gambling around local circuits or highly organised fights where stakes of hundreds of thousands of pounds can change hands. There is still a real issue here and overseas with the dog-fighting culture. We have to get on top of that and address it with the application of tighter rules.
A number of questions arise from the number of prosecutions. The most stark is the difference between the number of complaints received by the authorities and the number of prosecutions incurred. Less than 5% of complaints translate into convictions. In 2014, 766 complaints were received, but only 31 convictions resulted, with just three people receiving a custodial sentence. In all, the rise in the number of complaints and the leniency of the criminal justice system demonstrates that needs are not being sufficiently addressed.
Campaign groups believe that tougher penalties, including longer custodial sentences—we have heard evidence about that today—would provide stronger deterrence. What are the Government doing to look into the effectiveness of longer sentencing, and not just here in Britain? We have heard from the hon. Members for South Down (Ms Ritchie) and for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and others about the experience in Northern Ireland of extending imprisonment. France applies a sentence of up to two years, and Germany and the Czech Republic apply a sentence of up to three years. We need to know the impact of that and whether the evidence is there that we should increase sentences, as so many Members have indicated.
We need to start looking at issues such as puppy farms, as the hon. Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow) said, and breeding programmes. Tighter regulations would protect the interests and welfare of dogs. That is an issue for the domestic market, but we also need to control what is happening with dog fighting. In particular, we need to look at the breeds outlawed under the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 that are still being bred, such as pit bull terriers. They are still in circulation and thousands of pounds is changing hands in breeding programmes. There are a number of things that we need to look at, and we have heard horrific stories of what happens in fights. We need to get on top of those abuses. We know that many of these things lead into wider issues.
My next question to the Government is on how they are supporting the inspectorate regime. From talking to RSPCA inspectors on the ground, I know that their ability is restricted by falling donations to their organisation. What steps are the Government taking to ensure that RSPCA inspectors are resourced sufficiently to carry out their statutory inspections and, likewise, that the police are resourced sufficiently in supporting those operations?
Next, I want to ask about breaking the culture. We have heard evidence about that. What steps have the Government taken to deter illegal dog breeding and fighting and what is their analysis of the effectiveness of those steps? What have the Government done to raise awareness of the whole issue of dog fighting, particularly among those most likely to participate in the activity? There may be good learning to pool from Scotland and Northern Ireland. The League Against Cruel Sports is calling for a national dog fighting action plan. Labour would support that plan, which would evolve around prevention, understanding and prosecution. What are the Government doing to address that, and are they willing to set up a national taskforce to address dog fighting? Will they keep a national register of those who have been found to be involved in dog fighting?
One issue that has not been raised today is cybercrime associated with dog fighting, whether the selling of dogs, which has been mentioned, online participation in dog fighting or the videoing or recording of fights. What steps are the Government taking on cyber to track participants in this activity and to break into those heavily coded sites?
As I have said, dog fighting has far wider implications. It is a crime that is linked to other forms of criminality; many speakers have alluded to that. We particularly recognise the work in the US on that agenda. Dog fighting can be linked to domestic crime, drug dealing, firearms sales, physical and emotional harm, robbery and other illegal practices. How are the Government working across agencies, especially with the police, to ensure a co-ordinated strategy to address dog fighting and its links to wider criminality?
There is also an impact on public safety, as has been mentioned. Some dogs have gone on to bite people in their communities. How comprehensively have dog fights been followed up to assess the source of potentially dangerous animals? In the past 10 years, the number of dog bites has increased by 76%. The source of those surely needs closer analysis.
Finally, the Labour party condemns dog fighting, as do other parties. We are grateful for the ongoing work of organisations, particularly the RSPCA, the League Against Cruel Sports, Battersea Dogs and Cats Home and many others, in their development of evidence against this. The House has a moral duty to ensure that it does all it can to uphold the welfare of animals. The onus now sits with the Minister to set out further steps that must be taken to ensure that this form of animal cruelty and criminality is more comprehensively addressed.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. I congratulate the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) on securing this debate on what is obviously an important issue that the House cares deeply about, which is why we have had so many Members here. Dog fighting is an absolutely repugnant activity. As the hon. Lady made clear in her opening remarks, it has been banned in this country since 1835. It is certainly depressing to think that it persists to this day. The cruelty is not limited to the dogs directly involved in the fighting; the animals are sometimes used as bait, as various hon. Members have pointed out. One hears distressing anecdotes sometimes about older dogs that end up being used as bait after being advertised for rehoming by elderly owners. That is utterly appalling.
I pay tribute to the League Against Cruel Sports for its work in highlighting the issue and for its work in helping with enforcement to bring prosecutions against the evil people who engage in dog fighting.
Around five years ago, when I served on the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, I read a detailed academic study into the phenomenon of dog fighting, and other more recent reports suggest that the practice of dog fighting takes place at different levels, as various hon. Members have pointed out. They can range from one-off, one-on-one dog fights in urban parks and housing estates—sometimes called “street rolling” or “chain rolling”—to more organised events behind closed doors, often involving illegal gambling. As other hon. Members have pointed out, that is often linked to other crime. There is also the continued desire for certain individuals to acquire so-called status dogs, which has a link to this problem. They have no concern for the dog’s welfare or the safety of other people, including their own family members.
I want to touch briefly, however, on some good-news stories on dogs. In general, the trend for stray dogs is decreasing, and the latest figures published in September last year showed 102,500 stray dogs in 2015, down from 110,000 the year before and 126,000 five years ago, so we have made some progress. The successful roll-out of compulsory dog microchipping in April will help to reduce that further. We have now got 91% of dogs microchipped as of the end of April. Also, the number of stray dogs being euthanised is down to 5%, which is the lowest figure ever, down from a high of 16% around 20 years ago.
In addition, we have achieved a lot of success in our work with the Pet Advertising Advisory Group. Six of the main pet advertising websites have signed up to the PAAG minimum standards for adverts, which has led to a huge number being removed and no longer appearing, including adverts involving prohibited breeds. Gumtree reported to me that the number of pets being advertised on its website following its signing up to the code has gone down by more than 70%. PAAG members put filters on their websites to identify potentially problematic adverts, which are then tracked and removed. Information is also supplied to authorities such as the police and local authorities to assist them with enforcement action. Key words can range from obvious terms such as “pit bull” to less obvious references to “gameness”, “red-nosed dogs” and “Staffie cross”, which is often code for “pit bull”. Those are all now terms that flag alarms with the websites, and that is an important step forward.
In addition to this work, the Animal Welfare Act 2006 was strengthened to make it far easier to bring prosecutions for dog fighting. There is now a long list of things that make it an offence to cause an animal fight, receive money for admission to an animal fight, publicise an animal fight, provide information about an animal fight, make or accept a bet on an animal fight, take part in an animal fight, possess anything designed or adapted to be used in an animal fight, keep or train an animal for use in an animal fight, keep any premises used in an animal fight and be present at an animal fight. So a wide range of criteria make it easier to bring prosecutions. The maximum penalty for any of those offences is six months’ imprisonment or an unlimited fine, or both.
Before the Animal Welfare Act came into force in 2007, the maximum penalty for causing or assisting in an animal fight was reserved for the people arranging the fights and the fine for other related offences was capped at £2,500. A year ago, we removed the upper cap and there can now be an unlimited fine for animal cruelty. We changed that just a year ago.
I am told there are around 20 prosecutions a year and several custodial sentences, but I understand the calls for the maximum penalty for dog fighting to be increased. Several hon. Members, including my right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs Spelman), made that point. I can say that in the closing stages of the previous Parliament we looked at this issue and considered the case for increasing the maximum sentence for animal fights, but we did not have a legislative vehicle to do so at that point. The view now—this is a Ministry of Justice lead—is that we should look at all animal cruelty because there may be a case for changing the sentences for other types of animal cruelty as well. The Government keep the issue under review, and my colleagues in the MOJ—
Will the Minister give way?
I will not give way; we are tight on time.
A second issue is equally important. As the hon. Member for Mansfield (Sir Alan Meale) pointed out, we need not only to have the maximum sentences set at the right level, but to give the right guidance to magistrates when sentencing, because we still only have a handful of custodial sentences. Such decisions are set by the independent Sentencing Council, and the guidelines on animal welfare offences, including those on dog fighting, are available on its website. I can tell hon. Members today that a review is ongoing. A consultation on sentencing guidelines for animal cruelty offences is now open and will close on 11 August.
I want to say a brief word on enforcement, which is carried out by the police, working with the RSPCA. The RSPCA has been tackling animal cruelty, particularly dog fighting, for years. It has a great track record. The threshold on puppies, raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow), is an issue we are looking at in an animal establishment consultation that has closed. We will respond to that shortly. On the register of people convicted of animal offences and banned from owning animals, the police are looking into that to see whether it will be possible, without publishing information, to give certain agencies greater access to it.
In conclusion, we have had a good debate and many important points have been raised. I am sure my colleagues in the MOJ and in the Sentencing Council will take on board some of the points raised today.
Dr Cameron, you have 60 seconds to wind up.
I thank everyone who took part in the debate, and I thank the agencies here today. I also thank the Minister for his comments. However, I think action is needed. If it is so easy to bring prosecutions, why are they not happening? We do not want the issue to be lost within other issues. There must be a timeline and a clear deterrent. Like many other Members in this House, I will not rest until dogs are protected.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered dog fighting.
UK Security and Entry Clearance Procedures
I beg to move,
That this House has considered UK security and entry clearance procedures.
With extremism on the rise and threats to our national security increasing, tightening up UK entry clearance procedures should be our top priority, but sadly we have increasingly taken it for granted that our borders are policed and secure from non-UK threats. I sought to bring this issue before Parliament following the brutal murder of Glasgow shopkeeper Mr Asad Shah in March this year. Mr Shah was murdered by an Islamic extremist who violently hated his peaceful Ahmadi Muslim views. His killer, Tanveer Ahmed, declared that he killed Mr Shah to
“protect the honour of Islam”.
Mr Shah’s brutal murder, the first of its kind on UK soil, has terrible implications for this country. The radical extremist Islamist views that inspired the killing have been fanned by extremist preachers from outside the UK being allowed to come into this country and spread their hate. Our entry clearance regulations have failed to prevent their entry.
Anti-Ahmadi hate preachers are being let into the UK as we speak, and are calling for Ahmadi Muslims to be killed on account of their faith. For instance, just a month after Mr Shah’s murder, a prominent anti-Ahmadi preacher from Pakistan was touring UK mosques with his message of hate. After I found out, I requested an urgent meeting with the Home Secretary and senior representatives from the Ahmadiyya Muslim community. I was grateful to have met the Home Secretary, but I was extremely disappointed by the fact that reforming entry clearance policies did not seem to be a priority. The Home Secretary did not seem to be aware of this particular radical extremist preacher having been allowed into the UK. It is no exaggeration to say that I left the meeting with a genuine fear for UK security and a grim feeling of surprise that we have not seen even more anti-Ahmadi terrorism on UK soil.
I have no reservations in saying that inadequate Home Office entry clearance procedures are allowing the entry into this country of individuals who pose a direct threat to our democracy and our social cohesion. I shall highlight in my speech why it is so urgent that the Home Office tackles this urgent problem now. As a side point, it is extremely ironic that although individuals who spread hate are allowed into the UK, every MP will be aware that a large number of completely law-abiding Pakistani citizens are refused entry clearance to attend weddings, funerals and other important family events. That, too, is the result of problems with Home Office entry clearance.
I turn to a case study that highlights the gravity of the situation. Mufti Muhammad Hanif Qureshi is a radical Islamist cleric from Pakistan who has repeatedly been allowed into the UK to spread the sort of anti-Ahmadi hate that led to the murder of the peaceful Mr Asad Shah. To be clear, the Ahmadiyya Muslim community, to which Mr Shah belonged, is a persecuted religious group in Pakistan. The Ahmadis live by their message of “love for all, hatred for none”, and they categorically reject terrorism in any form. But despite how well-established and peaceful the community is, Ahmadi Muslims are victims of terrible injustice. As they do not believe that Mohammed was the final prophet sent to guide mankind, they face accusations of heresy among orthodox Muslims. At worst, they face extreme violence in Pakistan—and now, sadly, in the UK, too. Anti-blasphemy and anti-terror laws are wrongly used against them in Pakistan, and they are murdered on the grounds of their faith. To this day, they are branded worse than apostates by hard-liners and forbidden by the state to call themselves Muslims.
The intolerance and hatefulness has made its way to the UK. The Muslim Council of Britain has long been criticised for not acting to counter anti-Ahmadi hatred, partly because it, too, does not recognise the Ahmadis as Muslims. Mr Asad Shah in Glasgow was the first Ahmadi Muslim to be murdered on UK soil on the grounds of his faith. Mufti Hanif Qureshi is an individual who is greatly responsible for spreading messages of hate. He is the founder of Shabab e Islami, and is well known in Pakistan for his virulent anti-Ahmadi preaching, of the sort that inspired the murder of Mr Shah. For instance, in a recording of a sermon Qureshi delivered in 2014, which is freely available on YouTube, he said with regard to Ahmadi Muslims:
“Let them know those who consider Sunnis as cowards that Allah has honoured us with the courage and power to strangulate those involved in blasphemy, to cut out their tongues, and to riddle their bodies with bullets. For this, nobody can arrest us under any law”.
Such highly inflammatory and hateful sermons have indeed incited others to commit violence and murder. In 2011, Pakistani politician Salmaan Taseer, who opposed Pakistan’s anti-Ahmadi laws, was shot dead by his bodyguard, Mumtaz Qadri. After his arrest, Qadri said he had been inspired to act by a 2010 sermon delivered by Qureshi in Rawalpindi, in which the cleric branded the likes of Taseer as “deserving to be killed” under Islamic law. Qureshi was arrested after Taseer’s murder, but later released, and continued to defend the murder in public sermons before Qadri was executed in January this year.
The same hateful preacher who inspired the murder of a prominent Pakistani politician just a few years ago was last month allowed to enter this country without any problem, despite the murder of Mr Asad Shah in Glasgow just months before. Could the Home Office not make the connection between the incitement of anti-Ahmadi hatred and the committing of murder? Just last month, on 4 May, Qureshi spoke at a Luton mosque where, according to the mosque’s spokesperson, he made a “very impressive” speech to an audience of hundreds. The event doubled up as the 36th annual Khatm-e-Nubuwwat meeting at the Luton mosque. The Khatm-e-Nubuwwat—translated as the “finality of the Prophet”—movement has been implicated in the violent persecution of members of the Ahmadi religious sect in the UK and Pakistan. Despite that, it is a registered charity in the UK and is listed on the Charity Commission website.
Members may well be aware that Khatm-e-Nubuwwat is well known for its anti-Ahmadi views and regularly invites preachers from Pakistan to visit the UK on speaking tours to spread the message of hate. Qureshi is just one example. His words have incited violence in Pakistan and they will incite violence in this country, too. He should be banned from ever travelling to Britain. Given the context of anti-Ahmadi sentiment in the UK and growing religious violence throughout Europe, his message of hate has no place here. How on earth could he have been granted entry clearance? A quick Google search brings up hundreds of English-language news stories about his preaching, yet such a basic level of research was apparently beyond the Home Office.
At my meeting with the Home Secretary, I was stunned to be informed that the high commission in Pakistan had only recently hired a specialist Urdu section for its intelligence office. It seems that until recently there was no one at the high commission in Islamabad who could actually understand some of the watch lists unless they were translated into English. How can our anti-extremism measures be so weak that such terrible oversights occur? Despite the fact that the UK authorities seem to lack the basic linguistic resources needed to identify extremist threats, we know that extremist rhetoric can be changed to moderate for the English-speaking media, and then revert to extremist for Urdu speakers. It is much easier for radicals like Qureshi to switch between the two.
The case study of Qureshi is important because we tend to take it for granted that our borders are policed and protected from individuals who might cause harm to our country. We all lead our lives in the hopeful confidence that the Home Office and immigration officials are able to refuse entry clearance to any person deemed undesirable. We put our faith in Government Departments and agencies to protect our democracy and peace. As far as I know, there is no exhaustive list of reasons why someone’s visa application can be rejected by UK authorities, but there is a list of unacceptable behaviours that would lead to a person being refused entry to, or excluded from, the UK. Qureshi seems to me to fulfil all the criteria, including
“using any means…to express views which”
“justify or glorify terrorist violence”
or incite or
“provoke others to terrorist acts…or foster hatred which might lead to inter-community violence in the UK”.
Exclusion is not targeted against any specific group. Those excluded can include, and have included, far-right extremists, homophobic extremists and Christian, Jewish and Islamic extremists. In November 2014, the Home Secretary said that she had excluded “hundreds of people” from the UK—suggesting that those powers are sometimes enforced—including 61 people on national security grounds, 72 who
“would not have been conducive to the public good”
and 84 hate preachers. So why was Qureshi able to enter this country just a month after his brand of anti-Ahmadi hatred had inspired the murder of a peaceful Glasgow shopkeeper?
I am very grateful to the hon. Lady for securing this debate. The murder of Mr Shah in Glasgow absolutely shocked all of us in the city. Does she agree that while hate preachers such as those she has described can come into the country, the Ahmadiyya community in Glasgow and the rest of the UK cannot really have confidence that the UK is keeping them safe?
I completely agree with the hon. Lady’s comments. The expressions of hatred across the country, particularly since the referendum result was announced last week, show us the importance of preventing extremism by all means. Simply, it threatens the fabric of our democracy and our social cohesion. Mr Shah’s murder demonstrates how high the stakes are.
Back in 2005, in the wake of the London bombings, the then Home Secretary, Charles Clarke, said that Departments and intelligence agencies were working together to
“establish a full database of individuals around the world”.—[Official Report, 20 July 2005; Vol. 436, c. 1255.]
He said that such information about dangerous people would be available to visa and immigration staff and added to the UK’s warning index. We cannot know the details of Home Office and intelligence workings, but given the admission of Qureshi to the UK just last month, we can assume that they may not be working.
History teaches us what the consequences are when the Home Office does not do its job properly. For example, the Pakistani cleric Masood Azhar delivered extreme messages across the UK in more than 40 mosques in the early 1990s. At the time of his tour, he was chief organiser of the prominent Pakistani jihadist group Harkat-ul- Mujahideen. We now know that Azhar, who was close to Osama bin Laden, planted the seeds of extremism on his 1993 UK tour that later inspired at least two Britons to go on to plan the 2005 London bombings and the beheading of US journalist Daniel Pearl. One would hope that the UK authorities had learned their lesson, but the admission of Qureshi suggests that not much has changed.
The Henry Jackson Society published a short report earlier this year as part of its “Student Rights: Tackling extremism on campuses” project, which detailed the range of individuals expressing extremist and hateful views who were given a platform at UK universities, mainly in London, in the last year. It includes South African politician Mr Julius Malema, who was convicted of a hate crime just a few years ago, Mr Asim Khan, who has compared
“homosexuality to incest and ‘burglary, theft and sexual abuse’”
and Mr Suliman Ghani, who
“has expressed sectarian attitudes towards Ahmadiyya, claiming they are not Muslims”.
The UK Ahmadi community and the very fabric of our democracy is under threat, now more than ever. In April, leaflets calling for members of the Ahmadi Muslim community to be killed were allegedly distributed in universities, mosques and shopping centres in London. One leaflet distributed widely in Stockwell, for example, entitled “Qadianis”—a pejorative name for Ahmadis—describes Ahmadis as “dualist infidels” and “worse than apostate”. It prescribed the same punishment doled out for apostates—those who have renounced their own religion—giving Ahmadis three days to denounce their faith or else “be awarded capital punishment”.
Scottish mosques are becoming increasingly radicalised in the wake of Mr Shah’s murder, and anti-Ahmadi conferences took place in Slough just a few months ago. The threat posed to our society is real and imminent, and now inept Home Office entry clearance procedures have allowed hate preachers such as Qureshi, who has called for death penalties for Ahmadi Muslims, into our UK Muslim communities. These are dangerous times for our democracy and the precedent for racial and religious hatred is huge. The British Government’s double standards are terrifying. At one end, they seek to crush all extremism—we know from the recent terrible atrocities that that goal is more important than ever—and yet they still give visas to people such as Qureshi, who incite intolerance and even violence in our society.
There should have been an absolute storm of anger following Mr Shah’s death. Just hours before he was murdered, he posted a message of peace and love on Facebook to his Christian friends, on the occasion of Good Friday. Hours later, he was brutally murdered outside his shop by a religious extremist. Why have we not called out Mr Shah’s murder for what it is—a religious hate crime? Is it because we cannot be bothered to understand that victims of Islamist extremism include other Muslims, as well as non-Muslims? I shudder at the thought that we do not take Mr Shah’s death seriously.
Developing stronger Home Office entry clearance structures to screen out individuals such as Qureshi from being able to come to this country are just part of the problem—internet and social media communication means that pan-national extremist and terrorist threats can spread beyond borders in seconds—but allowing such hatred to cross our borders is almost legitimising or endorsing their hate. Qureshi, and all those who express his hateful views, have no place in our country. Today more than ever, we have to ensure that such individuals are not able to come here and spread their hateful messages under the banner of free speech.
I ask the Minister the following questions. To what extent can the Home Office check if a person has promoted hate and extremism when a visa application is made? How do the Government monitor hate speech in Pakistan and elsewhere to help inform their visa decisions? Do the UK Government give equal weight to hate speech whether committed online, on TV or in any media, including social media? How can individuals or organisations in Pakistan or the UK provide information on such matters that would be of use? What procedures will the Government put in place to make that easier?
I sincerely hope that the Home Office takes seriously the deep flaws that are jeopardising security and social cohesion as we speak. Only then can we claim to have a society that promotes love for all and hatred for none—the Ahmadi ideal that we should all seek to live by.
It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. I congratulate the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) on securing the debate and highlighting this extremely important issue.
Hatred and extremism in our society must be challenged in all their different forms. The hon. Lady highlighted the appalling murder of Mr Asad Shah for the faith that he professed. The Government utterly condemn that act. We take with the greatest of seriousness our responsibility to combat those who sow hatred in our country and our communities, which might inspire others to take action against our own citizens for their faith.
I have had extensive contact with the Ahmadi community over a number of years. I have visited the mosque in Morden, and I have had the privilege of sitting down with His Holiness to talk through a number of issues, including how we combat extremism and terrorism. I am clear that the Ahmadi community makes an enormous contribution to our society and culture in the UK. I, for one, stand up and defend the right of members of that community to profess and practise their faith without fear of intimidation or violence. I assure the hon. Lady of my personal commitment on that issue, of the steps I have taken over a number of years to work with the Ahmadi community, and of the respect that I have for that community and the work that it does.
The hon. Lady made a number of points about confronting extremism and about how our visa processes operate. I want to reassure her about the importance that we attach to the issue and the steps that we have taken to prevent preachers of hate from coming into this country. I am unable to comment on individual cases, some of which are subject to orders, but I would like to take her through some of the processes and procedures that we adopt. I also underline that the current Home Secretary has banned more hate speakers than any preceding Home Secretary and is committed to this issue.
The debate gives me the opportunity to clarify that we have robust policies and procedures in place to ensure that foreign nationals who seek to undermine the national security and values of the UK through violence and hatred can be prevented from coming here to do so. Visas—entry clearances—are important tools to reduce illegal immigration, tackle organised crime and protect national security. They allow us to intervene before someone arrives in the UK. The information provided in the application process enables us to identify links that we would otherwise not have known about and, where appropriate, prevent someone from coming to the UK by refusing a visa. It is of paramount importance that immigration processes ensure that individuals who have come to notice as a threat to the UK’s security and society, or who may present such a threat, are prevented from coming here to spread their messages and incite violence.
Visas are an important part of our immigration system, which is fair to legitimate migrants and tough on those who flout the rules. We have strong processes in place at all stages—visa application, leave to enter and extension of stay—to provide assurance that appropriate checks are made before any leave is granted. UK Visas and Immigration staff play a critical role in distinguishing between those who are entitled to come to the UK and stay here and those who are not. That requires appropriate application of the immigration rules and a series of checks on individuals, so that accurate decisions can be made to help keep the UK safe and secure.
The operating mandates of the Border Force and UKVI require specific checks to be made, with referral to experts where necessary. Entry clearance officers receive a range of training to support them in identifying individuals who may pose a threat to the UK. For those who need a visa to come to the UK, the application process requires the applicant to declare any criminality or immigration offence and to provide their facial image and fingerprints as biometrics.
Entry clearance officers are required to check a range of databases, including biometric, Home Office and police databases, for any traces of the applicant’s history. The biometrics fix the identity of the applicant so that entry clearance officers can identify the same individual in the future, and so that important information about the applicant’s immigration history, including any travel ban or exclusion order, is available even if, for instance, they change their name or seek to conceal their identity. In addition, applicants must qualify for entry under the immigration rules and will normally be refused a visa or leave to enter or remain if they do not.
The authority to carry scheme, operated by the national border targeting centre, means that carriers, including airlines, require authority to carry individuals to the UK. That authority may be refused for any individual who has been excluded from the UK, whom the Home Secretary is in the process of making the subject of an exclusion order or who is the subject of United Nations or EU travel restrictions. If authority to carry a specific individual is refused and that individual is carried to the UK, the carrier is liable to a financial penalty of up to £50,000. Our processes on arrival at the border also include full checks against Home Office databases, providing further assurance.
This is a dialogue of the deaf. I have explained to the Minister a case in which an individual who has been cited as the cause of a murder in Pakistan and a murder in the UK was granted entry clearance. Can we address that issue?
As I have already stated, I am unable to comment on those who are or are not subject to exclusion orders or on individual cases, for sound legal reasons. I am trying to explain the steps that are taken, and I will come on to the process for exclusion orders, which is at the heart of what the hon. Lady is talking about. Our special unit within the Home Office analyses information and is a core part of the activities that the Home Office undertakes.
We are clear that the threat the UK currently faces from extremism is unprecedented. The Government are taking a stronger stance to ensure that extremist ideas do not gain a foothold here and challenge this country’s values of tolerance, respect and democracy. We have acted to protect our communities by publishing our counter-extremism strategy, which is based on four pillars: countering extremist ideology; building a partnership with all who are opposed to extremism; disrupting extremists; and building more cohesive communities. The strategy will challenge all forms of extremism. The Government, however, can only do that in partnership with all those who want to defeat extremism and build a stronger Britain.
As Her Majesty the Queen recently announced to Parliament, the Government intend to introduce a counter-extremism and safeguarding Bill to provide stronger powers for the Government and law enforcement agencies to protect the public from extremists. The Government will consult on new powers for disrupting extremists before they are introduced.
On the specific issue of exclusion, the Home Secretary has the power to exclude from the UK foreign nationals whose presence she considers would not be conducive to the public good, or whose exclusion is justified on grounds of public policy or public security. A person may be excluded for a range of reasons, including national security, criminality and unacceptable behaviour. There is no time limit on exclusion, and a person who is excluded remains so until the Home Secretary lifts the exclusion. Anyone excluded by the Home Secretary who applies for entry clearance or leave to enter must be refused so long as the exclusion remains in force. That power is very serious, and no decision is taken lightly or as a means of stopping open debate. All decisions must be based on sound evidence and must be proportionate, reasonable and consistent.
Although I cannot comment on particular cases, the current Home Secretary has excluded more than 100 hate preachers from the UK since May 2010, which is more than any previous Home Secretary. Our special cases unit works with language and other experts to look at social media and other media to identify those who may pose a threat and therefore may need to be considered for such action. The Home Office has a sense of purpose and seriousness in addressing those who could pose a threat.
How many Urdu speakers are there in the specialist unit?
Given the time available, I will write to the hon. Lady with details on the work, including those who are involved and the steps being taken. She and I have had previous exchanges on these issues, and obviously I am happy to provide further detail and information and, equally, to reflect on some of her questions to which I have not responded specifically.
I underline the unprecedented threat that the UK faces from extremism, with extremists using the internet to spread their ideologies quickly and on a scale that we have not previously seen. That is why we have introduced new approaches for combating and confronting extremism. We recognise the challenge we face in our communities where extremism takes root. The hon. Lady is right to highlight the appalling murder of Mr Shah and its impact on the community in Glasgow, and I recognise that in the firm and clear way in which I am underlining our utter condemnation of any acts of violence. Equally, the Government have resolved to confront all forms of extremism, including by identifying those who may wish to travel to the UK to peddle their hate and ideology. To safeguard our communities and confront extremism in all its forms, we will continue to take action to prevent such people from travelling to the UK.
Question put and agreed to.
[Andrew Rosindell in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered football hooliganism.
It is a pleasure, as normal, Mr Rosindell, to serve under chairmanship. I bring this debate to Westminster Hall not claiming in any way to be a football expert—a lot of people in England might be claiming that right now, but I do in particular. In many respects, I am not a huge football fan, but I am proud to be English, and over the past few weeks I have been sickened, frankly, at the all-too-familiar sight of English football hooliganism on the television. It is not something new, unfortunately; it is something we have had to endure over a long time.
I wanted to secure this debate simply because I am sick and tired of watching scenes of disorder and violence following the English football team around, in particular during the recent Euro football finals. The scenes were depressingly familiar and, frankly, embarrassing for anyone English. Time and again, England has witnessed its name dragged through the mud by a group of people who want to use football as a vehicle for their love of violence. We do not tolerate drunken behaviour on the high street or anywhere around the rest of the country, so we should not tolerate it when it follows football either.
The strange thing about football hooliganism is that a mob mentality often seems to take over. The crowd encourages intolerance of, and turns on, anyone not in their group, whether a member of another fan club, a local resident or someone in some way different from them. Such disorder simply puts decent people off attending games.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the converse is the impeccable behaviour we witnessed at the Euro 2016 championships of, for example, the Welsh and Northern Ireland fans? Their behaviour was exemplary and outstanding. I assume he will go on to say that we need to encourage the vast majority of fans throughout the United Kingdom who are decent and well behaved to ensure that such behaviour is the standard by which everyone else is judged. Those who fall short of that standard ought to be penalised very heavily indeed.
I am happy to congratulate the fans from Ulster and Wales on their behaviour, generally speaking. Some incidents were reported that involved those groups of fans, but it is right to say that, generally, they were a credit to Northern Ireland and to Wales. The majority of English fans were also well behaved— I do not think anyone disputes that—but there were those actions by a tiny, selfish group of people.
Northern Ireland can be very proud of reaching those finals. It is a shame in many ways that England did not face Northern Ireland, because it would have ensured one further UK team—[Interruption.] I am not claiming that England would have won the game; if we could not beat a team from a country with 300,000 people, we might have struggled to beat Northern Ireland. Nevertheless, that might have enabled another UK team to go further forward.
Northern Ireland can hold its head high and be proud of the fans who followed its team and who, without doubt, helped the team. Another aspect of the problem is that the hooliganism cannot help the England team to play well. Wayne Rooney being forced to condemn the behaviour of some of his own fans on television must have an effect on the team’s morale and performance. I am not for one minute claiming that football hooliganism caused England to play as badly as they did, but it cannot have helped the overall atmosphere in the England camp if they had to deal with hooliganism issues.
People see the incidents that we all witness on the television and simply will not risk getting involved in the inevitable problems. There is no way that I would take my wife and children to follow England in a football tournament, because I would not want to run the risk of my family getting caught up in those problems. It is incredibly sad that a proud English person who takes an interest in football might not be willing to take the family abroad to follow the England team. Some families, of course, do so without any problem, but I would not run the risk with my family, and that is sad.
Many of the hardened football hooligans have been kept away from international tournaments by banning orders. A drunken yobbishness, however, has taken over from that hard-core hooliganism, with some people still being generally aggressive and unpleasant, leading, inevitably, to antisocial behaviour. We saw many such instances in France in the recent tournament. It is right to say that other fans also behaved badly in Marseille, with problems emanating from various different countries, and the irresponsible comments by Vladimir Putin certainly did not help the situation in France.
I am conscious that I am interrupting a detailed and passionate speech, but we must not imply that the whole of Russia supported the violence we saw by so-called Russian fans, particularly in Marseille. Incidentally, following that situation, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport spoke to the Russian Sports Minister, who then made statements that we would respect. I will speak later about how some of the England fans were not England fans; they had stolen England paraphernalia and merchandise on them, but were Russian. Also, not all Russians agreed with President Putin.
That is welcome news. I concur that most Russian people would be as appalled as most English people at the behaviour of some of the so-called fans who had followed their team to France.
Notwithstanding the fact that there are problems from other countries, it is probably fair to say that England has a worse reputation than any other country. The problem is self-perpetuating: we get the bad reputation, and hooligans from other countries, such as Russia, want to take on the England fans, and some England fans get caught up in that. We saw some entirely innocent England football fans in the stadium in France getting involved in problems that they were simply not there to get involved with. It is fair to say that some England fans were easily provoked, but, without doubt, completely innocent England football fans were caught up in some of the behaviour. However, it is not necessary for England fans to become easily provoked or to deal with a situation by responding with disorder as well or by ending up throwing bottles at the police or making racist chants at local residents.
We now have an opportunity to do something. It is essential that we act to prevent violent scenes at the World Cup in Russia, should England qualify for that tournament. Football banning orders can be an effective tool to prevent hooligans from travelling abroad to England games, only to take part in violent activities that drag this country’s name through the mud.
There is a lot of video evidence of the fans who took part in disorder and of the violence in Marseilles and Lille, and that should be used widely to identify those responsible, so that banning orders can be imposed on them. Banning orders should be imposed on anyone who took part in or encouraged disorderly behaviour, whether or not they were apprehended or arrested in France.
The UK football policing unit published pictures initially of 20 fans it wanted to identify and then of 73 additional fans. That has happened since I secured this debate, and it is a very welcome step. We need that kind of proactive response from that policing unit to ensure that the problem is tackled, but I would like to see it go far further and act on a far wider scale. Hundreds of people took part in that disorderly behaviour, and we should therefore be aiming to identify hundreds of people who should be given banning orders.
Although those numbers are correct, the police often will not release video evidence while investigations are ongoing, because that sometimes alerts the culprits. In many cases, we have passed on video evidence to the French authorities to assist them in their prosecutions, which we are still awaiting in some cases.
That is good news. I pay tribute to that unit, which is working its socks off at the moment to try to tackle this problem. Many of its officers were out in France assisting their French colleagues in dealing with the problem, and they worked hard for months, but this is frankly a problem that the police cannot solve on their own.
In many ways, we should not be surprised that there were problems in Marseille. A depressing amount of football hooliganism has taken place in the domestic English football leagues this season. Arrests are down, but I think it is fair to say that significant problems endure. A culture seems to have grown up that allows antisocial behaviour to occur at football matches. We saw last month the pictures of the Manchester United coach being attacked by some West Ham fans. It is correct to say that only a few dozen people took part in smashing the windows of that coach, yet there were hundreds of people present who supported and did not condemn that action. Many people there actually encouraged it. That culture enables problems to build and build.
Football hooliganism will never be stopped until football fans themselves universally condemn and turn their backs on it. The police can do only so much to prevent such activities from taking place. Banning orders in themselves cannot change the culture among football hooligans, but football fans can. Those who take part in violent behaviour or encourage others to take part should expect to be banned from following England abroad. It is entirely proportionate to restrict someone’s movements abroad if they have behaved in a violent or disorderly manner when following the England football team. Millions of people in this country love sport, which enriches society and helps to bring us all together, but we should do more to stop those who seek to undermine that and spoil it for everyone else.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this important debate and to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. I congratulate the hon. Member for Dartford (Gareth Johnson) on securing the debate.
It is appropriate that we are having this debate now given the recent incidents of football hooliganism, which raise fears that an ugly stain on our game that was definitely on the down is now on the rise. We must make sure that that is not the case. The police, legislators and society at large must work together to stand up to this scourge. If we are realistically to challenge unacceptable behaviour, we must take a dispassionate view and look at what will make a positive difference.
The hon. Gentleman is talking about football in general having to take a stand. Does he agree that that is all the more important looking ahead to the World cup in two years’ time, given that there will be more countries and that, as the Minister has pointed out, a minority of Russian and English fans have already indicated that they are involved in violence? We must prepare for that tournament in Russia to ensure that a very serious situation does not occur.
That is an important point. The world of football must take a collective view that such behaviour is not acceptable, and it must work together. It is undoubtedly true that the recent headlines have been predominantly about Russian and English fans, but those are not the only incidents. Incredibly, flares have been set off during many games at the current tournament, and that is just not acceptable. Some of the things we have seen during the tournament in the media and on social media, particularly from fans of England and Russia but from others too, are violent and unacceptable, and we must stand together and oppose them.
Closer to home, we have recently seen hooliganism in my country, Scotland. There were unsavoury and unacceptable scenes at the Scottish cup final at Hampden Park. I do not stand here to say that we do not have any problems in Scotland, because we do. We share this problem, and we must stamp it out.
My wish to take part in the debate was based on my experience of following Scotland abroad since the 1990s. I have been to the majority of European countries and capitals. The team has not always been successful on the pitch, I must admit, but the supporters’ behaviour off the pitch has been impeccable. One point that I want to make, based on my observations across Europe and as far afield as Japan, is about effective policing and organisation—or the lack of it. That is a huge determinant of whether events are peaceful and successful. If the policing and organisation are found wanting when it comes to dealing with well-behaved supporters on the international scene, such as the Scottish, that flags up the possibility that real problems may arise with supporters among whom there is trouble and a more unacceptable side.
Well planned matches, where fans are told clearly where they should go and there is ample room for ticket checks and searches of bags—or sporrans—are the successful ones that go without a hitch. It beggars belief that so many fans have managed to get fireworks into the grounds during the tournament that is going on in France. That can only represent a serious failure on the part of the organisers and the police, and we should say so.
Colleagues are being generous in giving way. I would like to raise two points. First, everyone seems to think that flares are fun, but they are enormously dangerous. They burn at some 2,000° C, and as a former firefighter I have seen the damage that flares can cause to human flesh. That is why they are banned across Europe, and particularly in our stadiums. We saw some flares at Glastonbury, and I hope that they will soon be banned at music festivals as well.
Secondly, I refer the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) to the fact that although arrests have been predominantly of English fans, of the 65 UK supporters who have been arrested, 11 are from Northern Ireland. Two have been arrested for criminal damage, two for public order offences, one for drunkenness, four for assault, one for ticket touting and one for pitch invasion. That is probably nowhere near representative of what actually went on, but I thought that it should be put on the record that although some English fans were really bad, there was sadly Northern Irish involvement as well.
On fireworks, I am sure that we all remember the Croatia game, when a flare came on to the pitch and nearly exploded in the face of a steward—it could have blinded that gentleman. That is unacceptable. Flares are not fun, they are not toys, and we must clamp down on them. The Minister’s second point goes back to my overriding point that this is not a problem that one country has and another does not; it is a problem that football has, and we must work together to be rid of it.
I have had good and bad experiences of organisation at Scotland games. I remember trying to get into a game at Kaunas in Lithuania and being shouted at by a policeman with a machine gun for being in the wrong place when I was actually in the place that another policeman with a machine gun had sent me to. That demonstrates a lack of organisation—it is simple stuff that we take for granted, but it can cause real problems, as it nearly did that night. Doing the right thing and attempting to get into a ground with a ticket can be problematic, and it goes back to the issue of searches and how fireworks get into grounds.
In certain stadiums, including in my last experience in France, people cannot even get into the stadium with a bottle of water, which is as it should be. That means the job is being done properly, so I cannot understand how fireworks are getting in. The last time I was in Macedonia, the police seemed overwhelmed by a few thousand Scottish fans coming to the stadium with 20 minutes to go to get in. There was one turnstile and no plan whatever. I actually had to balance my way along a ledge and under a railing to get into that game, which I had a ticket for. It was just not well organised, which can cause real problems.
I move on to the more serious and insidious problem that we are talking about today: those who follow a football team in order to wilfully engage in hooliganism and violence. In the modern age, the internet and social media make that much easier to organise than ever before, including when hooliganism was at its height a few decades ago. We face a different challenge now, because hooliganism can be organised differently and much more effectively. We have to take that seriously. My understanding is that banning orders are currently used for those convicted of football-related offences, as the hon. Member for Dartford said. That happens under legislation in Scotland, England and elsewhere. I certainly support that as far as it goes, but I wonder whether it is adequate to deal with what we have seen in recent weeks.
Many incidents take place abroad, which, as has been said, poses different challenges. It is perhaps unfortunate that we are talking about the issue after last week’s referendum result, but surely we should work on a pan-European basis to deal with it by sharing police expertise, information and intelligence and by making sure that what we know about the thugs is shared so that action can be taken.
We should think about the problem in a similar way to how we consider gang culture, because it is not all that different. After all, we are talking about violence and disorder that is clearly well organised, territorial and tribal, so maybe we should deal with it in a similar way. I also want careful consideration to be given to how, as has been mentioned, evidence from social media can be used to identify and prosecute thugs for offences committed abroad and to ensure that lifetime bans can be implemented.
It seems to me there is a widespread feeling that loutish and criminal offensive behaviour committed abroad somehow does not count—that it is okay for someone to do it abroad, because it does not come back to bite them. That may explain why so many of these imbeciles seem happy to be filmed on mobile phones and have their appalling and offensive behaviour put up on social media for the world to see. For our measures to be effective in stamping out that type of behaviour across Europe, we need the co-operation of our colleagues across Europe and other in football-loving nations of the world, backed up by effective sanctions for anyone who engages in hooligan behaviour associated with football. Otherwise, I fear that we will see regular repeats of the wanton thuggery that has been in the news and all over social media. That would be to the serious detriment of the beautiful game and to the real supporters, who want to see games, enjoy them and see the best team win.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell, and to speak in this interesting and timely debate on football hooliganism. I congratulate the hon. Member for Dartford (Gareth Johnson) on securing it. Had the debate been at another time and had there not been a lot of other things going on within parties and so on, I think we would have had a better attendance.
Before I discuss the topic at hand, as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on Scottish sport, I add my congratulations to the home nations that managed to qualify for this year’s European championship. It was a sore point to see Scotland left out of another major championship again, but, thankfully, there are Wales, England, Northern Ireland and Iceland—sorry, that was a Freudian slip; of course I meant Ireland—to support at this year’s tournament.
Some 18 years ago, I sat in a pub in Paisley four months after turning 18—I know that is hard to believe—where I watched Scotland open the World cup against Brazil in Paris, and my friend and I made a pact that we would go to the next tournament that Scotland qualified for, regardless of where it was. Little did I know that I would be creeping up on middle age without Scotland having qualified for a tournament since. That is something I am sure Gordon Strachan can turn around in the upcoming World cup qualifying campaign, in which we have a slightly easier qualifying group than we have had in recent years, as the top seed is England. I digress.
When we debate hooliganism we must be careful that we do not speak in sweeping generalisations that, in effect, tar every football supporter of whatever club or country with the same brush. The vast majority of football fans support and follow their team week in, week out, without contemplating violence of any sort. Most football fans, whether supporting their club or national team, just want to go along and support their team in a peaceful manner. Many fans, like myself, treat going to the football as a family day out, though I am not entirely sure that my daughters agree that being dragged to a St Johnstone game constitutes a family day out. Many fans enjoy relaxing at the football after a long week at work and other fans will go to the football to catch up with friends and fellow supporters.
Before I develop my arguments further, it is only fair to reiterate what others have said thus far. The hon. Member for Dartford admitted to not being a big football fan when opening the debate. He spoke of his embarrassment for his country and said that its good name had been dragged through the mud. He mentioned some England fans being intolerant of anyone else and the possible effect that that behaviour may have had on the performance of his team, or on any team that suffers from such behaviour. He also spoke of the powerful role of sport in bringing people together being undermined by those violent thugs. I could not agree more with those sentiments.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Steven Paterson) said that everyone must stand together to address this scourge. He spoke of the large incidence of flares at the tournament and that poor or intimidating policing can cause or exacerbate situations. He also spoke of using evidence from social media to secure prosecutions of the “imbeciles”—I think that was the word he used—involved. Crucially, he spoke of his own experience as a regular tartan army conscript at away matches.
I had forgotten this memory, but back in 1986, I went to a Scotland-England game at Hampden Park with my father. I think that it was the Rous cup and I believe that England won 2-0 that day; we will gloss over that. On my way to the game, we were walking up a fairly famous hill with burger vans on either side. We were halfway up the hill when we heard a commotion from the bottom. It was a group of England fans who were chanting and all of a sudden they charged up the hill towards us. I was six years old, so I only vaguely remember it, though I remember being frightened. My dad was extremely worried, given that his six-year-old son was with him, and a policeman had to usher us behind a burger van and keep guard over us as the England fans went past, so I have had a small brush with this myself, albeit 30 or so years ago.
The violent and thuggish scenes we have witnessed on our TV screens have brought the Euro 2016 tournament, and football itself, into disrepute. Those thugs—they are thugs, not football supporters—have attempted to shame their team and their nation by engaging in reckless and violent acts. We must ask ourselves why those people would be willing to spend significant sums of money to travel to the European championships to engage in hooliganism, rather than to watch and support their team. Let us be clear: those hooligans do not represent their fellow supporters; they shame football and they disgrace their nation.
Thankfully, that violence seems to have largely dissolved, but it is only right to mention the trouble before and after the Russia-England match in Marseille, which has already been mentioned. The scenes were sickening and the most disturbing element of all was that innocent people were being attacked purely because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. There were a significant number of arrests following the match between England and Russia, and it is only right that the UK Government and Parliament support the respective authorities in taking action against those who were arrested. The Scottish National party strongly supports efforts by the French and UK authorities to hold those responsible to account and welcomes the efforts of the police and the French authorities.
During an urgent question following that violence, I was troubled by the language used by some English Members—only some—in describing the Russian fans as “thugs” and the English fans as “supporters”. We have to be honest with ourselves; we have been honest in the debate so far. Yes, the charge by Russian thugs after the game was horrific and many genuine English fans were caught up in that incident. However, some English thugs had disgraced their country before the Russians had turned up, so let us not hide behind the Russians and fail to address the issues that elements of the travelling England national team supporters have had for a long time, just as we have to be honest and learn the lessons and take action after trouble following the Scottish cup final, which has already been mentioned.
As well as considering why people choose to use football as an excuse to engage in violence, we must discuss what kind of punishment we can mete out that might discourage football hooliganism. The trouble caused in Marseille led to England and Russia receiving warnings from UEFA that they faced disqualification from the tournament if there was any repeat of violence inside a stadium. UEFA is right to say that it has no jurisdiction over violence in city streets, but that is where we have witnessed the majority of incidents; that must be addressed, or fewer fans will want to travel to tournaments and there will be less appetite to host the tournaments. The football governing bodies, UEFA and FIFA, must now look at disqualifying teams if their supporters engage in violence inside or outside stadiums. I can appreciate the difficulties of implementing such a policy, but we must consider all options and have zero tolerance on football violence.
Scotland fans—the tartan army—have a fantastic reputation all over the world and are welcomed with open arms by the cities and countries they visit. However, the cup final aftermath shows that we cannot be complacent in Scotland about fan behaviour. The Scottish Government will continue to work with a range of bodies, including the Scottish Football Association, to tackle violence and offensive behaviour in general.
I am aware that those who engage in football-related violence are now using technology to plan and organise the violence. An Independent article mentions the online tool Hooligan 2.0 as a means of co-ordinating violence. I mentioned working in partnership with a range of bodies to help tackle this problem; with that in mind, the Government should engage in conversation with internet service providers to ensure we can take action to prevent access to tools like Hooligan 2.0. I would like the Minister to confirm, in his summing up, whether that is something they have done or will consider in the future.
Following the match between Russia and England, I was heartened to see Roy Hodgson and Wayne Rooney appear on television urging England fans to walk the other way if they saw violence. We must underline how important football figures are in helping to shape and influence the behaviour of supporters. Footballers are role models—whether we like it or not sometimes—and we should use their influence to tackle the problem of football-related violence.
We also need action from central Government on this matter, as there is a strong chance that someone who engages in violence at football may also engage in some other form of violent and criminal behaviour when away from a football ground. As such, it is important that we do not view this as just a football problem. We need to take action against this violence in whatever form it takes and wherever it is committed.
I would like to see more action on the domestic violence that is committed after football games. In 2014, the University of Lancaster reported that cases of domestic abuse in the Lancashire area increased by 38% when the English national side exited the World cup. This is not only a problem that affects England; similar research has been conducted in Scotland that suggests cases of domestic violence almost double after old firm games.
The point that I am trying to make is that we need to take action against those who engage in violent behaviour inside and outside football stadiums. By working with a range of bodies, we need to eliminate the thought process that so many people have: that they can use football as a means of engaging in violent behaviour. In doing so, we also want to take action against those who extend their violent behaviour from the football stadium to their homes and communities. We cannot allow hooligans to use football as an excuse to lift their hands to others. Despite the chaos and disunity among Government and main Opposition Members, I trust that tackling and eliminating this behaviour will unite all parts of the House.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. I congratulate the hon. Member for Dartford (Gareth Johnson) on securing such an interesting debate. I concur that under normal circumstances this would have been a much better attended debate, but everybody’s contributions have made it very interesting and thought provoking.
It has been a mixed few months for football. We finally received justice for the 96 Liverpool fans killed in the Hillsborough tragedy. The record finally states, once and for all, what we all knew: that on that fateful day football fans were the victims of unlawful killing and were let down by a catalogue of failings by the police that undoubtedly contributed to their deaths. It was a verdict that was long overdue.
At the European football championships in France, Northern Ireland fans have, on the whole, been a credit to themselves and to the United Kingdom. The green and white army, like their neighbouring fans from the Republic of Ireland, have carried themselves with charm and dignity, making a lot of friends along the way. Unfortunately for Northern Ireland, their fire was finally extinguished on Saturday night by the mighty Welsh—of which I am one.
The Welsh fans, like the majority of English fans, have also behaved wonderfully and have brought colour and joy to a festival of football in France. England have now sadly left the tournament, which has caused heartbreak right across the nation and right across the House. I feel your pain; however, Wales are carrying the torch for the United Kingdom now. I am sure all colleagues will join me in congratulating Wales on that and in offering their full support, in the hope that Wales will carry the flag through to the final.
The other side of the story is that we have seen scenes of violence and disorder from mostly Russian, but some English, fans in Marseille and Lille. Although it appears that the vast majority of the violence was instigated by Russian ultras who travelled to France with the sole intent of causing violence, it would be remiss of us to pretend that there was not a very small minority of English fans who were complicit in that disorder.
Domestically, over recent years, there has been disorder in Tyne and Wear in 2013, and there were ugly scenes in May this year at the Scottish FA cup final involving Hibernian fans. The violence both abroad and at home evoked images that I had hoped were long gone from our screens in connection with football. Unfortunately, whether we like it or not, football hooliganism is back in the news. It is our responsibility to make sure that we do not return to the culture of football hooliganism that characterised British football throughout the ’80s and ’90s. There was a five-year ban from European club tournaments for English teams, and 584 arrests of British citizens at Euro 2000 after trouble in Brussels and Charleroi. Going to a football match became a risky endeavour.
Tackling football hooliganism has always required both an effective legislative approach—to target stopping those guilty of participating in hooliganism from attending games—and working with fans and fan groups to create a positive culture in football. I pay tribute to the work of the Football Supporters Federation; through its England football fans embassy, it has provided travel advice and an emergency contact to fans travelling to watch England games across the world. That important resource helps to create a safe environment when our national teams travel to major overseas international tournaments.
Does the hon. Lady agree that the important thing to think about when we go to watch international teams, in terms of the culture of the support, is that the competition is on the park? It should be a privilege to visit countries, get to meet the people there and celebrate our different countries, rather than having the attitude, which seems to prevail in some quarters, that people must go to other countries to show that they are better than them. The competition should remain on the pitch.
I totally agree. When we have visitors to this country we expect them to show us courtesy, and I think it is our duty to show the same courtesy when we travel abroad.
Football hooliganism at home is far less common than it was 30 years ago. Incidents such as those at Hampden Park in May, or at the Tyne-Wear derby in 2013, hit the headlines precisely because they are now uncommon, but we must not be complacent. We must not take the successes that we have had for granted. Initiatives such as Kick It Out and Show Racism the Red Card have been influential in making football and football stadiums in the UK more inclusive environments for people wishing to attend games. By going into schools and spreading a message of anti-racism and anti-homophobia, those campaigns have played a tremendous role in encouraging young people to get involved in sport. Sadly, however, as a result of Government cuts, funding for those schemes has been cut both by local authorities and by the Department for Communities and Local Government. I urge the Minister to consider restoring that funding. Educating our children is the best way to make lasting changes to football culture.
The Labour Government introduced legislation to tackle football hooliganism. Football banning orders were introduced to help ensure that those convicted of football-related violence could not attend football games. In 2010, 3,174 football banning orders were in place; currently, there are 2,181 banning orders. There is an unclear picture about why that number has reduced and about how the banning orders are being implemented across the country.
Figures on football banning orders obtained through a freedom of information request show that 43 FBOs were issued to under-18s in Tyne and Wear, while Greater Manchester and more than a dozen other forces had not issued any to under-18-year-olds. In the light of the incidents in France, I urge the Minister to commit to publishing more clear information about how banning orders are being implemented. The Football (Disorder) Act 2000 introduced the power to introduce an FBO based on a complaint made by the relevant chief officer of police. An FBO can be imposed if the court is satisfied that there are reasonable grounds to believe that making a banning order would help to prevent violence or disorder at football matches. It is important to ensure chief officers know that they have that power and that they use it to help prevent football-related violence both at home and abroad. I urge the Minister to make it clear how extensively this power has been used by chief officers, and will he tell us what funding is provided to investigate potential FBOs?
Labour’s Football (Disorder) Act allows courts to impose FBOs, placing domestic restrictions on football-related activity among those arrested for football-related violence while abroad. Will the Government update us on the current situation and on the small number of football fans who were arrested while at the Euros in France?
The bans apply only to domestic matches. I understand that is where the jurisdiction is, but I look forward to some clarification from the Minister on how we can internationalise that and stop these people going to matches abroad as well as here in the UK.
I am sure the Minister will enlighten us when he gets the opportunity.
In conclusion, we have come a long way. The vast majority of our football fans have behaved fantastically at the Euros. We have made considerable changes in the culture of football right across the country. Premier League and Football League grounds have become inclusive places where men, women and children, ethnic and religious minorities and people of different sexual orientations can all come together and enjoy world-class sport. This is profoundly different from the culture that prevailed for much of the past 40 years, so we can be very proud of what we have achieved. However, as I have said, we cannot become complacent. I urge the Government to restore funding for educational programmes in our schools and to provide clear information to make sure that football banning orders are used properly as steps towards ensuring that the rare scenes of violence that we have seen recently do not start to become a trend.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. Although we might have had more Members here this afternoon, the debate has been well mannered and factual. My hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Gareth Johnson) secured this debate because of what we have seen at the Euros and because of what has been happening in the UK and Northern Ireland.
I am an ardent Tottenham Hotspur fan who was born in Edmonton. I have no choice about the matter. I must say how disappointed I was with the five Tottenham players in the England side that played—I think they played—not particularly well against Iceland. I wish Wales well in their next game. I hope that they will go further and do better than they did against New Zealand in the rugby tour.
It is fair to put the record straight for the hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris). Perhaps she never thought she would be standing opposite me as a shadow spokesman talking about this, but she has done really well. We are good friends and I wish her well in whatever role she takes on. She stepped into the breach today and she has done really well.
On the Euros, 65 UK supporters were arrested: 45 English, and 11 from Northern Ireland and nine from Wales. The offences by England supporters were six for assault, 14 for public order, 13 for drunkenness, nine for criminal damage, two for drugs and one for ticket touting. For Northern Ireland, the figures are two for criminal damage, two for public order, one for drunkenness, four for assault, one for ticket touting and one for pitch encroachment, which used to be called an invasion. For Wales, the number is limited to the nine who let the country down: five for drunkenness, two for assault and two for possession of a flare. How on earth did they get flares through the grounds? Flares come in large and small sizes; some are actually pyrotechnics and have explosive content and some are very small.
I want to talk about what happened in the Euros and how let down I felt as the Policing Minister, but our officers did brilliantly in liaising with the French, who police events slightly differently. I will talk about the preventive measures that we took and about what is happening here in the United Kingdom, without dwelling too much on individual sad events around the country.
In the run-up to the Euros, we had extensive liaison with the excellent football police unit, which I have the honour of funding from my budget, and with the French authorities and other countries in Europe to try to prevent what we saw outside the grounds and, sadly, inside the grounds. We gave the French whatever assistance they asked for and proactively offered more, particularly with spotters. We tend to know some of the characters that were involved. In fact, we prevented an awful lot of them from travelling; 99% of the passports that were requested to be submitted under the banning orders were submitted, so those people could not travel. Subsequently, we arrested or stopped at the borders a further 35 individuals who were attempting to travel. They were known to us and should have submitted their passports. Although that was a significant success, we saw on our TV screens some serious disorder.
In Marseille, we had officers helping the French authorities. We traditionally police football matches by keeping the fans apart, but the French police did not make much of an attempt to do that. They police in a different way because they are armed and do not like getting too close up when they have their weapons with them in case things start to happen. They police very differently. We would have been much closer to the fans. We said to the French in no uncertain terms, “If you arrest and prosecute them, we will keep them out,” and to a large extent that has been done. We continued to send officers to games, including the Wales and Northern Ireland games as well.
It is enormously disappointing that the vast majority of football fans who went to support their country, no matter which part of the United Kingdom they came from, were tarnished by a small minority of people whose behaviour ended up in the most abhorrent violence we have seen for many years. There is no condoning that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford said, and we must come down on them with the full force of the law. Those who were arrested do not have to be prosecuted for a banning order to be imposed. I will write to the hon. Member for Stirling (Steven Paterson) with full details to clarify the position.
Will the Minister consider one step further than the banning orders? Will he consider prosecutions in the UK for offences connected to football hooliganism that are committed abroad? There are offences already that are tried in this country when they are committed abroad. Will he consider bringing football hooliganism offences within the scope of current legislation?
I have spoken to my hon. Friend outside the debate and I will look at that matter. It opens up a really difficult area of other types of prosecution. At the moment, we prosecute people for committing very serious offences abroad. I will look into it, but it might have consequences way beyond what we are trying to do.
I noticed that the shadow Minister—for today, but I hope she gets the job full-time, as we get on so well—alluded in her speech to young people. However, the video footage and the banning orders that are in place suggest that the people in question tend not to be young. Sadly, many of them are my age. They came up through the ranks of a violent, gang-type culture many years ago. Inside the grounds, UEFA has a policy that the police do not carry out segregation. It is a UEFA rule, and it is necessary to apply to move from that. I think that there was a request for that for the subsequent games, but certainly after the Russia-England game. Hon. Members will have noticed that there were very few police in the ground, and the French police were criticised for that, but it is a UEFA rule. It is completely different here in the UK, where we use stewarding extensively to keep people apart, as well as outside the game, and we also use traffic management orders; but in the ground, police are available to carry out segregation, and they often do so.
Let us not say that it is all doom and gloom. More than a third of a million people go to watch premiership games every weekend, and football is still a safe environment where people can go to support their clubs, whether at a Spurs-Arsenal match or a Celtic-Rangers match, which will happen this year for the first time in many years—or Hemel Hempstead Town versus St. Albans, which is where I end up most weekends. We are not in the territory of the way things were, and we are not going to get back there. We will use the full force of the law to make sure that people can go with their young children to enjoy a football game in the same way as many of us enjoy a rugby or basketball match, or a match of any other type.
To return to the point about youth, we must of course educate young people. I will not make a spending commitment, such as the shadow Minister has possibly just made on behalf of Her Majesty’s Opposition, but I understand where she is coming from. When I went, two or three months ago, to the Spurs-Arsenal game at White Hart Lane, I was with the Metropolitan police throughout the game and for nearly two hours before and well over two hours afterwards. It was obvious while we were outside, waiting for the Arsenal fans to be escorted, with a significant police escort, towards the ground, that there were people—predominantly middle-aged men, but not only men—who did not have tickets and had no intention of going to the football match. They were waiting at a corner close to the ground to antagonise the fans and create a serious situation. There was disorder; but those people were not kids. They were grown men and some women who should know better. Arrests were made. There were horses, and the mounted police did a fantastic job of keeping apart people who frankly wanted a punch-up. Although the vast majority of what goes on is perfectly okay, there are still difficult situations, as we saw in the cup final.
The point has been made that the police can do more. We will help them in doing that, and perhaps even, if we need to, give them more powers; but actually, the football fans need to say that enough is enough. There is so much money in football today; the clubs themselves have a responsibility as well. There is an issue—it comes up with the police football unit—about getting clubs to pay the police bills after matches, although the sums involved would probably be just loose change to one of the forwards or defenders who let my country down by the way they played in the Euros. It is a question of trying to get clubs to pay their bills and to take responsibility. I have had numerous meetings in the past couple of months with the premiership to say, “Come around the table and try to talk to us about this.” Initially they say, “Of course you want more money from us”—but actually it is their event that we are policing. It is sometimes enormously difficult to get the limited amount of money from them that they are responsible for paying back.
I want to talk about where things are going. There is some evidence—I have asked the unit to come back to me on this—that violence is to some extent moving down to the lower leagues, where not many police are expected to be around and there is not as much stewarding. There is always stewarding, but the question is whether there will be enough stewards and whether they are professionally trained. Violence happens because people think they can get away with it. The people responsible are not fans. They are just out to cause other people harm, and they get some kind of kick from that. As soon as the relevant information becomes available I will share it. It is important to look not just at the top—England fans abroad—but at what appears to be happening much further down.
We will do all we can to make sure that people can go abroad. We will, in particular, support other countries when they have events. The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport spoke to the Russian Sports Minister and has offered help in the context of the World cup, as we go forward with that. UEFA and FIFA need to take a careful look at how policing is carried out in their grounds; they do not have to wait for an event. Different countries police differently, but it is crucial that we come down with all the force of the law on those who create disturbances, ruin football matches for everyone else and assault people. At the same time, everyone in the football family needs to take responsibility.
I made a point in my speech about governing bodies perhaps punishing the teams for fans’ behaviour. Does the Minister agree that for the forthcoming World cup FIFA should consider disqualifying teams for fans’ behaviour inside or outside grounds, if investigations prove that they have taken part?
There is much to consider in what the hon. Gentleman says. This is not the debate or place at which to make such a commitment, although I have never sat on a fence in my life, on any issue. The principle of those in the football family taking responsibility for their club and their country is crucial, whether in Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales or England.
This has been a useful debate. We do not want to treat all football fans as bad people, but they must put their hands up and say, “Enough is enough; we want to go to football in peace.” In our case, together with my Scottish friends, we may also need to enjoy losing occasionally, although we will cheer Wales on. I wish them every success.
We would all agree that football, at its best, unites communities, people and countries. It can be thrilling and is undoubtedly entertaining, and it should not be undermined by the selfish actions of relatively few people. We have an opportunity now, and should do all that we can to prevent a repetition in Russia of the scenes that happened in France, should the home nations qualify, as we all hope they will. The Minister and I agree, as I am sure the rest of the House does, that we want the police to do their work, but that they can do only so much. Ultimately, it will be down to football fans themselves to help to change the culture to bring an end to the problems.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered football hooliganism.
Automatic Registration: UK Elections
[Mr George Howarth in the Chair]
[Relevant document: Sixth Report from the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, Session 2014-15, Voter engagement in the UK: follow up, HC 938.]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered automatic registration in UK elections.
This issue came to my attention during the run-up to the EU referendum, when an appalling situation left many voters unregistered when the Government’s registration website failed. However, that is not the only source of my frustration. The introduction of individual electoral registration saw hundreds of thousands of people in Scotland wiped off the electoral register without their knowledge. The UK Government failed to properly engage with the public to explain the transition, which led to the EU referendum voter registration deadline becoming a total shambles.
In light of that chaos and the consequences of the transition to IER, the UK Government should consider introducing automatic registration for voters. I intend to show not only that automatic registration is a worthwhile consideration with many benefits, but that it is supported by key organisations from across the country. The system is widely used in various parts of the world; some of the best examples come from our very good friends in Europe and beyond, and they are far richer for it.
Following our most recent referendum, the EU and Europe might be a useful starting point. Although this debate is not about the result as such, one point is perhaps bittersweet in its relevance. If the EU referendum has taught us anything, it is that people’s votes matter. Voting and engaging in elections and referendums can have radical consequences that alter the policies and direction of Governments both at home and abroad. There are many lessons to be learned from the recent referendum, most notably that we should be careful what we vote for.
There are many reasons for people to be disappointed, and not just by the vote to leave the EU. For election geeks like me, the demographics make for interesting reading. It was clear throughout the referendum campaign that different societal groups had different opinions, with a particularly notable variation in voting intentions between different age groups. It was in a similar vein to the Scottish independence referendum—the 16 to 24-year-old bracket, at least on average, is pro-European and pro-independence. Voters in older age groups are more likely to be pro-Brexit and pro-UK, which has led to disappointment and frustration among young people, at least for the 26% who turned up to vote in the EU referendum.
It is disappointing that young people did not turn out in the EU referendum, with many being bombarded with negative messages and others feeling disfranchised by out-of-touch politicians. For many, registering to vote was a barrier in itself. There will be many vigorous debates about engaging young people to vote, and organisations such as the National Union of Students have been pursuing the issue with a view to understanding it. The NUS is campaigning heavily to ensure that its members are informed of why they should vote.
The NUS, among many others organisations, has led a number of fantastic campaigns to encourage young people to vote. However, according to Ipsos MORI, only 43% of 18 to 24-year-olds turned out at the 2015 general election, compared with 78% of over-65s. The issue of young people and students not turning out can be attributed to their mobile lifestyles, with many moving home every year. The challenges for transient young people in particular present a strong case for voter registration to be integrated into the university and college academic enrolment process. Such a system was successfully developed by Sheffield University for the 2015 general election and has been used by a number of other institutions. The model could easily be further developed and rolled out across other institutions.
Additionally, the change to individual electoral registration has had dramatic effects on young people’s ability to vote. Groups such as Bite the Ballot raised concern about that at the time, rightly warning that there would be a decline in voter registration among young people. The change to the system led to a reduction of nearly 190,000 14 to 17-year-olds who will reach voting age during the time in which the register is used. That equates to a 40% reduction in the number of young people registered to vote. Given the implications of referendums, it is critical that everyone’s say is heard, particularly that of young people. They are the future of our countries, and we must make sure they have a voice.
It is quite a conundrum that Government policies often affect the people who are least likely to vote. Although a number of organisations are leading the charge to encourage engagement, we as parliamentarians must take the lead and be bold where we need to be.
There is a similar story to tell about other marginalised groups. Women continue to turn out to vote in lesser numbers than men. Between 1992 and 2010, there was an 18% shortfall of women voters. The inclusion of women in politics has been proven to enhance the turnout of women in general—interestingly, in constituencies where women are elected as MPs, the average turnout of women tends to be about 4% higher than the average turnout of men.
That shows the importance of encouraging women to participate in politics and become engaged with the political system, which begins with women being registered to vote. We need only look outside today to see just how much women care about politics. Political decisions can have huge implications for women and their families, and I applaud and support the actions of the Women Against State Pension Inequality Campaign outside Parliament this afternoon.
The views of people with disabilities are also not represented sufficiently. Scope, the disability rights charity, found that 67% of disabled voters who attempted to vote encountered one or more barriers when they tried to exercise their democratic right. That is simply unacceptable and demonstrates the barriers that thousands of people could experience in simply registering to vote in the first place.
Mencap, another charity dedicated to promoting the rights of people with disabilities, established a helpline for people with learning disabilities for the 2015 general election, which was a fantastic move to help those who were already registered to vote. I am most grateful to Mencap, but we need to do more.
Voting turnout among black and minority ethnic people in 2015 was just 56%, in contrast to the 68% of people identifying themselves as white who voted. Just 56% of men from socially and economically deprived social classes turned out to vote, with the figure for women from that group only slightly higher at 57%. Automatic voter registration would cut many of the bureaucratic ties that hold back the participation of all those people, whose voices are much needed in our House, which is too white, too male, too old, too non-disabled and too exclusive.
In Scotland, we do elections well. In the Scottish independence referendum, turnout and registration reached unprecedented levels; more voters than ever before registered to have their say. However, the UK Government’s implementation of the individual electoral registration system undermined the Scottish Government’s efforts to ensure that there was maximum voter registration. There was a period of transition to the new system, beginning in June 2014. It was due to end in December 2016, but instead the UK Government brought the end date forward by a year to December 2015. That move was condemned by the Electoral Commission, which said there was
“a risk to the completeness of the register and to participation”.
The Scottish Government were absolutely opposed to shortening the transition period, which left electoral registration officers trying to minimise the loss of franchise.
A similar problem ensued across the UK. Essentially, a situation was created in which voters were effectively disfranchised. Combined with widespread voter disillusionment with politics in general, that was a disaster for democratic mobilisation and political engagement. The Government failed to engage properly with the public to explain the transition. They must start to mend the damage that has been done by the mistakes that have been made, and more than ever we need to re-engage people.
It will be incredibly difficult for voters to feel enthusiastic about politics again, having endured a remain campaign characterised by “Project Fear” scaremongering and a Leave campaign that used xenophobic rhetoric, such as the UK Independence party’s despicable “Breaking Point” advert.
In Scotland, the SNP ran a measured and positive campaign on the EU and focused on encouraging turnout. I am incredibly proud of my colleagues and of my own constituency of Midlothian, which overwhelmingly voted to remain in the EU; I hope that it will indeed do so.
In short, there is much to learn from Scotland’s politics. With registration at 98% and an 85% turnout in the independence referendum, it is fair to assume that higher registration and higher turnout have at least some correlation. Our friends in Europe and beyond seem to be on the same page. Most European countries have ensured that their citizens are automatically able to vote using various forms of automatic registration. Other countries have been able to achieve far higher and more democratic levels of participation through such schemes. They remove a major hurdle in the election process and make elections as accessible as possible.
My hon. Friend makes an excellent case for improved voter registration. Does he agree that automatic registration would reduce the number of errors in the registration process, such as when multiple people are registered at a house but only one voter actually still lives there?
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. We could see many benefits, and the system could be greatly simplified if we introduced automatic voter registration.
Countries such as France, Sweden, Australia, Greece, Austria, Brazil and Uruguay, to name but a few, ensure that as many of their citizens as possible can exercise their free democratic right to vote without barriers. In the UK, many people think that they are already on the register because they pay their council tax and expect those running elections to know about them, but at the last election two thirds of polling stations turned voters away. People thought they were on the register, but they were not.
The last-minute rush for registration puts huge strain on devolved council registration offices, of which there are about 400 throughout the UK. The database is so fragmented that even the Electoral Commission does not know the extent of the problem. At nearly every election we see the same thing: a huge rush to register to vote in the day or two before the deadline. The day before the EU referendum deadline, 186,000 people applied to register to vote online, and at least 27,000 we still using the Government website when it crashed. On an ordinary day, the figure would have been about 10,000. Such an erratic and outdated approach to the right to vote is unique in the developed world.
If people have a passport, are registered for council tax and already have a national insurance number, surely there is enough information about them in the system to allow them to be automatically entered in a voter database. We do not have register to pay tax, so why should we have to register to vote? Many others agree. Earlier this year, the all-party group on democratic participation, of which I am a co-convenor, published the “Missing Millions” report, which presented tried and tested solutions that would keep the register up to date all year round.
The Political and Constitutional Reform Committee in the previous Parliament also agreed. On 14 November 2014, it published an interim report on voter engagement and invited the public to respond to several draft conclusions and recommendations. Following an extensive consultation, with more than 5,000 responses received, the Committee published a follow-up report based on the views of the public. That report recommended that the Government consider improvements to electoral registration, including by making registration automatic, prompting people to register to vote when they access other public services, and registering young people in schools, colleges and universities. The report also recommended that the Government introduce plans to target the groups that are currently least likely to be registered to vote, and that changes to electoral management be looked into and piloted, such as online voting, allowing people to register closer to or on election day, and holding elections at the weekend.
I note that the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) agrees with me. I was disappointed that her ten-minute rule Bill on automatic electoral registration did not go further. I share her frustration, having also had a ten-minute rule Bill that failed to proceed further. I know that she and others are continuing to work on this issue to find out what other steps can be taken.
Whenever automatic registration has been proposed previously, the message from the Government has consistently been that it is a person’s own responsibility to register to vote, but now that we have seen catalogues of failures of the kind we saw in the run-up to a vote that will change lives forever, it is clear that we must ensure that such failures can never happen again. We must have a robust system, and we must break down barriers to voter registration. The Government must use common sense and take heed not just of my voice but those of the many expert organisations and groups that are calling for change—I hear that we are now listening to experts again.
Automatic registration would ensure that the enrolment system was more efficient and effective, while making voting easier for people and more democratic. It would remove the barriers faced by minority groups and others who are less likely to engage in the enrolment process, and it would mean that we could reach more old, young, disabled and disadvantaged people, regardless of their gender, background or race. That would promote inclusive and forward-thinking democracy for all. This is not about taking away from politicians the responsibility to engage young people. Voting is a fundamental right, and automatic voter registration would enable many disfranchised people from across our society to participate in a system that needs their voice.
Voting is a fundamental right, and automatic voter registration would enable so many disfranchised people from across our society to participate in a system that needs their voice.
It is an unexpected pleasure to serve under your chairmanship quite so soon, Mr Howarth, but I see that the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) also has speaking notes. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian (Owen Thompson) on securing the debate. I will offer a few reflections that are similar to his, and emphasise some points he made.
The debate is taking place in a political scenario where everything has “changed, changed utterly”—words written by W.B. Yeats 100 years ago about a slightly different kind of political upheaval, but political upheaval none the less. That is what we are undergoing here. The debate comes at the end of, unfortunately, a shambles of a referendum process.
The Government had the opportunity throughout the passage of the European Union Referendum Bill to take on board constructive proposals made by the Scottish National party and others, not least to extend to the franchise to 16 and 17-year-olds and to put in place a four-nation lock so that no part of the UK would be taken out of the EU against its will. Now we face the prospect of Scotland, Northern Ireland, Gibraltar and London being taken out of the EU against their will.
The refusal to give ground when the Bill was passing through Parliament seemed to carry on throughout the dreadfully negative campaign—on both sides—south of the border, despite the best efforts of those of us in Scotland to raise the tone and raise the positive aspects. Perhaps that culminated in the website crash on 7 June, which led to this debate. There are lessons to be learnt from the referendum campaign in the round, but the difficulties that were faced by people trying to register to vote and to have their say gives us the opportunity to reflect on that particular bourach.
I will look in a little bit more detail at the problems with individual electoral registration and the case for automatic registration, and I will perhaps give some brief reflections on how that fits in with wider electoral reform to improve turnout and voter engagement.
Individual election is not necessarily a bad thing in itself. In fact, we could probably argue that a system of automatic registration is just an automated or enhanced version of that. We probably all agree that that is preferable to the household registration where everyone in a household is vouched for by one elector under the previous canvass system. The idea of individuals being registered is not necessarily at stake; it is the process by which they end up on the register.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian clearly demonstrated, the roll-out of the process has been botched massively by the Government, leading to significant confusion for many voters in the Scottish and European referendums about whether they were registered in the first place. The Minister admitted, during the emergency legislation and the statements after the website crash, that a lot of the registrations that came in at the last minute were duplicates because people were already on the electoral register but feared somehow that they were not because of the confusion and misunderstanding. That was undoubtedly compounded by the decision to bring forward the transition deadline to December 2015.
Of course, that may well have had an effect—[Interruption.] The Minister is asking me how. Well, not giving people enough time to consider and double check their registration status might have had the effect of making it more difficult for poorer and younger people to vote.
The Smith Institute reckons that up to 10 million people—perhaps 2.5 million dropping off the register and 7.5 million absent from any register at all—are not on the electoral register. That might have seemed like a good idea when the Conservative Government were worried about the mayoral and local government elections, but was perhaps less of a good idea when we look at the Brexit result, especially given that younger people, who will have to live with the decision much longer than any of us here, voted overwhelmingly to remain.
The Government really should have seen the website crash coming. As my hon. Friend mentioned, we had exactly the same situation in Scotland—it was just in a slightly more analogue form. On the day that voter registration closed before the European referendum, there were queues outside local authority registration offices until midnight. In fact, there was a wonderful party atmosphere as people wanted to ensure that they could have their say in that great exercise in democracy. Sadly, that once again stands in contrast with the way in which things were handled south of the border.
That brings us on to the case for auto-registration, which means a method that is simple and consistent. That does not conflict with the idea that people have the right not to vote—of course people have that right, and they could easily opt out if they were automatically registered—but it provides a level playing field at the one moment when we are all genuinely equal: when we cast our single ballot in the ballot box. That is a great social leveller, and a level playing field should therefore be provided for registration.
My hon. Friend looked at a whole range of different pilots and options. In preparation for the debate I read about motor voting in Oregon—when someone applies for a driving licence, they register to vote. The point is well made that the vast numbers of people who are on the council tax register think that they are therefore on the register to vote, and it stands to reason that there should be no taxation without representation. That is another possibility. Of course, in Scotland in days gone by people took themselves off the electoral register in order to avoid the unjust and punitive poll tax implemented by Thatcher and her Government—another democratic deficit that Scotland had to live with for so long.
I am sure my hon. Friend shared my experience during the independence referendum that people were afraid to go and register because they thought that that would catch up with them and tax would be found from them. That did dissuade a lot of people. We need to look at the reasons why people are declining to register as well.
That is a well-made point. Of course, the Scottish Government moved to reassure people that they would not be hounded for their poll tax because they were registering to vote in the Scottish independence referendum.
The case for auto-registration is well made. It must be placed in the context of wider and further electoral reform and the need to find a range of ways that can improve voter turnout and engagement, and younger people’s engagement in particular. Voting early leads to voting often, which has been borne out in the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish experience now that the franchise has been extended to 16 and 17-year-olds. Of course, 16-year-olds who voted in the Scottish election in May were denied a vote in the European referendum, but they will have another vote in a year’s time in the Scottish local authority elections. They might be 18 by the time of the next general election—who knows?
That also relates to the introduction of proportional representation, especially as it is clear that we have a five-party—at least—system here in the Houses of Parliament. We have the pro-Brexit and anti-Brexit Conservatives, the pro-Corbyn and anti-Corbyn Labour people and then the SNP as a voice of consistency, unity and leadership. We are possibly bigger than some of those groups, so we may or may not be the official Government or Opposition by the end of the week.
On the dates of elections, and the referendum in particular, one of the experiences of the Scottish independence referendum was that, because it took place in the autumn, we had the entire, glorious summer of 2014—admittedly rare in terms of the weather—with long days and good weather when people could really get out on to the streets and knock on the doors. That is something we ought to consider both north and south of the border. Rather than elections in May, which means that campaigns take place in damp, cold winter months, an autumn election cycle could help increase participation. Those are my reflections. I am trying to stick as closely as possible to voter auto-registration and the time available, so I will leave my remarks at that.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Midlothian (Owen Thompson) on securing this important debate. I apologise to you, Mr Howarth, and to other Members in the Chamber for having to leave early to get to a constituency event, but I wanted to make a contribution to this debate.
It is our job in this House to ensure that the citizens we represent can truly exercise their democratic rights, but British citizens in this country are being marginalised and excluded from the democratic process. The problem of electoral registration is less getting people to sign up to individual elections and more maintaining their registration. I have spoken in the House before about the 100,000 Londoners who disappeared off the electoral register just months before the mayoral election. Boroughs with the biggest falls included Redbridge, which witnessed a staggering 9% drop; Kensington and Chelsea, with an 8% drop; and Hackney, which recorded a 7% drop.
The national picture is just as stark. The parliamentary register that was used in the EU referendum has seen the loss of 1.4 million names since December 2013. To put that figure into context, just 1.3 million more voters voted for Brexit than remain. In other words, those who fell off the register in the past two and a half years could have swayed the decision on the EU referendum.
There is a stark variance in who is signed up on our register. Pensioners in the shires who own their own home have a 90% chance of being on the electoral register, but a young man from an ethnic minority background in private rented accommodation in a city has a less than 10% chance of being on the register. The fact that people from ethnic minorities are far less likely to be registered to exercise their democratic rights undermines the Government’s commitment.
When it comes to electoral registration, the picture is bleak across the country. Liverpool has seen a drop in its electoral register of 14,000. Birmingham has seen a drop of 17,000, and the drop in the London Borough of Lewisham was 6,000. Those are all areas that have had an increase in population. The situation is even worse in areas where the population is transient, such as university towns. Canterbury has seen a huge 13% drop in those registered to vote. Cambridge has seen a drop of 11%, meaning its electorate is now smaller than it was in 2011.
Let us look at the outcome of the EU referendum. We know that young people overwhelmingly voted to remain. Remain voters made up 73% of 18 to 24-year-old voters and 62% of 25 to 34-year-old voters. It is clear that in areas with a high proportion of younger residents, turnout tended to be lower. We do not have any cast-iron figures, but we know that turnout among the youngest voters was around 40%. Among the over-65s, turnout was well over 80%. That all amounts to the effective disfranchisement of that younger group of voters. If the Government are serious about combating social exclusion, they urgently need to review that dire situation.
Being on the electoral register is the closest thing to having a civic contract. If someone is not on it, they cannot participate in the democratic process. Automatic electoral registration provides the opportunity to both reduce costs and improve administration, cutting down on bureaucracy and enabling everyone to exercise their right to enfranchisement. It is simple common sense, proposing a cheaper, simpler and more effective model. It places a responsibility on the state to do everything in its power to ensure that the electoral database is full and complete. It imposes a duty on the Government and public bodies to work together.
Automatic electoral registration proposes to make the system truly convenient for the citizen by integrating both national and local data sets, meaning that an individual’s address details would be automatically updated according to trusted data sets. The trusted data sets would collate information at each point that a citizen interacts with the state, whether that is when they pay a tax, receive a benefit, use the NHS, claim a pension or apply for a driving licence. The walls between those data sets used to be sacrosanct, but they are falling away more and more as the Government emphasise security and anti-fraud measures.
These reforms would vastly improve registration and have been tested elsewhere. A very similar model operates in Australia with huge success. For instance, the state of Victoria has a population of 3.5 million and has 95% accuracy in its registration process. It does that at extremely low cost, employing just five members of staff who maintain the rolling register.
Rolling out this reform in the UK is timely for so many reasons. Greater Manchester has already submitted to the Cabinet Office its plans to pioneer the system of automatic electoral registration. It also has proposals for a pilot scheme. I sincerely hope that the Government support the plans and will introduce the primary legislation on data sharing necessary to ensure that the pilot can go ahead.
Voter registration should not be the responsibility of charities or NGOs, such as Bite the Ballot, despite their excellent work. It should be down to the state to do all it can and to ensure that everyone, especially the most marginalised, can access their democratic rights. The issue should be non-partisan. It is in all our interests to get more people signed up. Then we can all get on with our job, as representatives of political parties, to enthuse voters and to persuade them that we are worthy of their vote.
May I start by remarking on the fact that the Government Benches appear to be particularly denuded this afternoon? I hope that is because Government Members support the proposition under discussion. I ask the Minister to reflect on the fact that, so far, no one has spoken other than to support the principle of automatic voter registration, and that not a single Member of the House is so exercised to the contrary as to turn up—that alone might make him consider that this is an idea whose time has come. I hope that we will get a positive response from him.
I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian (Owen Thompson) on bringing the debate to the Chamber today. I endorse and support pretty much everything he said in moving the motion.
I want to highlight a couple of aspects of the problem, the first of which is its scale. In 2014, the Electoral Commission estimated that as many as 7.5 million people who are entitled to vote might not be on the electoral register. To get some more up-to-date figures in preparation for the debate, I asked the House of Commons Library for a list by constituency of the estimated over-18 adult population compared with the number of people on the register. I have the figures with me, if anyone is interested, and they show that the difference between the number of over-18s in the population and the number on the register is just over 6 million. That is not a direct comparison, because many people on the register will be double-registered. The largest cohort of those will be students, but there will also be people who have moved house and so on, and some over-18s are not entitled to vote anyway.
Those figures indicate that we have a considerable problem, and we have it in all parts of the country. In my constituency, which includes the biggest part of the centre of Edinburgh, with its big transient population, I have 23,000 more over-18 adults than are on the electoral register. That is a staggering number of people. Even in the Minister’s constituency of Weston-super-Mare, the figure is more than 10,000.
That is a problem for three main reasons. First, it is a democratic outrage. We cannot sit here and be content with the situation if our fellow citizens are not even eligible to vote on that scale. As the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) pointed out, not everyone is treated equally. Those suffering deprivation or oppression of one kind or another are less likely to be on the register than people who have a reasonably comfortable life, are literate and are settled in their situation. The people who face multiple indicators of deprivation are the least likely to be on the register. We have a somewhat ironic situation: the more awful someone’s life is and the more problems they face, the less able they are to do anything about it through the democratic process. We cannot possibly let that lie for much longer.
Secondly, apart from the democratic argument, the situation is an administrative nightmare. That was epitomised by what happened in the run-up to the registration deadline for the European Union referendum. The computer crashed because it could not cope with the demand. Why do we create a situation in which there has to be a rush before a deadline, mostly comprised of people checking whether they are on the register in the first place? It does not have to be done that way. If we had a process of continual automatic registration of the electorate, the problem would not arise.
The other problem, which has been remarked upon, is that a lot of people think they are on the register when they are not. That is one of the contributing factors to a general disillusionment and alienation with our democratic system, which we cannot allow to continue. For all those reasons, I very much support the campaign for automatic voter registration, and I hope the Minister will say something positive today.
The all-party group’s report has been referred to, and it was signed off by a Member from the Minister’s own party, the hon. Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith). It made 25 recommendations, some of them incredibly sensible. Which of them does the Minister think are good ideas that could be implemented? I have a copy of the report here. The final recommendation is that, because of all that has come before, we should move to a system of automatic voter registration. I think we have to do that.
I want to try to anticipate some of the arguments against automatic voter registration. The first would be, “Perhaps there is a data collection problem, and data that have been collected for one reason cannot be used for another.” Well, the Government should bring forward the legislative changes required to enable that use. Provided that we specify at the point of collection that the information will be used to allow people the right to vote, I do not see any particular problem, and that could be done almost instantaneously given that so many transactions happen online. It could be done within weeks. We do not have to wait years for it to happen.
The second argument that people will probably make is, “The computer systems do not talk to each other. We will have to get a new computer system and that will take a lot of time and cost a lot of money.” Don’t blame the technology—the computer systems do not have to talk to each other. All that is required is that human beings involved in the process of compiling the electoral register can use the other computer systems to put together one that deals with electoral registration.
The third problem to be raised might be, “There may be a concern about people being put on the register against their will. People should have the right to not be registered.” Of course they should, so the Government could automatically register them and write to them saying that that is what has been done. At that point they would have the chance to opt out.
The final problem that is raised is, “Perhaps there is a problem with security. How do we know that the person who paid this bill should be put on the electoral register?” That is a ludicrous argument. If someone applies for and gets a British passport, which is one of the main credentials a person needs to be able to take part in democracy, surely it should automatically follow that they get put on the electoral register as well. If someone buys a new house, it is a legal obligation not only to register the property but to register ownership of the property. Surely we should be able to put that person on the electoral register automatically.
Will the Minister say which of the 25 recommendations in the all-party group’s report can be implemented now and which he would like to look at over a bit more time? Will he come forward with proposals to allow automatic voter registration to happen? Bring us solutions, rather than problems.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I add my congratulations to the hon. Member for Midlothian (Owen Thompson) on securing the debate, not least because, to my relief, his is a constituency that I can pronounce. I am grateful for the opportunity to respond to the debate and be part of moving the issue forward, as progress has been far too slow.
As has been said, this debate is incredibly timely because of the issues caused by the last-minute surge in voter registrations in the run-up to the referendum, which were discussed in the House earlier this month, and because of the general confusion about the entire registration process. Significant numbers of people simply do not know whether they are on the electoral register, whether they have to register every time or why they were not on the register for this important election. Many people just expect to be on the electoral register because they pay their council tax, because they interact with Government and because the Government know about them.
The debate is relevant today because, despite the recent surge, registration rates are still desperately low. We know the statistics from the excellent work that my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) did in bringing her ten-minute rule Bill before the House earlier this year. She mentioned the stark difference between pensioners in the shires and young men from ethnic minorities. I understand that a forthcoming study from the Electoral Commission will reveal that many millions of people are still missing from the electoral register.
I know the Minister will agree that we must do everything we can to encourage as many people as humanly possible to be on the register. That is why it was so important and so right to extend the deadline for registration in the run-up to the referendum, although perhaps some of us might regret that now. It is therefore perplexing that the Government have missed so many opportunities to improve registration rates. They were far too late to encourage the registration of students in university towns, despite having an excellent model on offer from Sheffield University. As far as I am aware, no action has been taken to deliver further pilots of online voting, as recommended by the Speaker’s Commission on Digital Democracy. We have had only a half-hearted commitment to reviewing e-balloting for trade unions, which would undoubtedly improve our industrial democracy. The Government are still proposing to use a completely out-of-date electoral register for the proposed boundary review.
I hope we can make significant progress with automatic voter registration. Significant work has already been done by organisations such as Bite the Ballot, which produced an excellent report, co-written by Oliver Sidorczuk and Dr Toby James, on the “missing millions” who have been mentioned. The Electoral Commission itself has put forward three credible options for automatic registration: automatically registering 16 and 17-year-olds, updating home movers’ details and confirmation matching. I state no preference for any of those methods today, but I urge the Government to explore them all and establish which will most significantly increase registrations while guarding against electoral fraud as far as possible.
As we know, automatic registration would bring many significant benefits. The register would be more complete, obviously: we would not see the peaks and troughs of registration that we currently have, which are a problem not only for elections but for statistical purposes and for exercises such as boundary reviews. There would be less confusion about whether people are on the register; the system would be significantly cheaper than the current one, as demonstrated by the example of Victoria, which has been mentioned; it would be more convenient for citizens; it would almost certainly be more up-to-date; and it would provide high-quality data that could be used by and shared with other agencies.
On that last point, devolution provides an opportunity to drive data sharing across the public sector and to deliver experimentation and innovation in our public services. It is right to devolve power down to local authorities so that they can take decisions as close as possible to where they are delivering services. We should seize the opportunity to finally break down some of the barriers between Departments and agencies, to ensure that whenever someone interacts with Government they are viewed as a whole person, not just dealt with in one Department’s silo. Automatic registration could play a major role in that. I completely support the comments of the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard), and I press the Government to bring forward new data-sharing protocols.
There are obviously challenges, not least electoral fraud and the need for a clear opt-out from the open register, but they can be worked through by learning from Administrations who already operate such systems successfully. The Law Commission has published a thorough interim report on electoral law and plans to publish a draft Bill for Parliament to consider next year. Will the Minister update us on progress on that, and on the Government’s response to the Law Commission’s report?
Will the Minister also update us on the progress of the Greater Manchester trial? It is absolutely right that devolved authorities have the control and power that they need to drive registration, and I very much hope the Sheffield city region will be given the option to trial such a scheme. Will the Minister confirm what conversations or offers have been made to other devolved areas? Will he consider requiring local authorities to put information about polling stations online? It is frankly ridiculous that that information is not digitally available to voters on polling day.
The Law Commission has said that current electoral law is an “unworkable mass” and that it is “complex, voluminous and fragmented”. Devolution and the fallout from the referendum present a prime opportunity to review that situation and consider options such as automatic registration. I hope the Minister will grasp that opportunity with both hands.
The vote last Thursday revealed the deep dissatisfaction in this country with the political establishment and the status quo. Despite politicians’ best attempts to be as accessible and as grounded as possible, we are seen as exactly the opposite. We are viewed variously as corrupt, immoral and sometimes merely irrelevant. Tragically, that general attitude culminated in the brutal murder of one of our finest colleagues less than a fortnight ago. We in this House have a duty to fix that, to improve the climate in which we debate ideas and to reach out to those alienated by our political debate. The people who are excluded from the process as it currently stands are exactly those we need to prioritise and reach out to. Fundamental electoral reform is now an immediate necessity, and automatic voter registration must be a part of it.
It is a pleasure to have you looking after us this afternoon and to serve under your sure guidance, Mr Howarth. I congratulate the hon. Member for Midlothian (Owen Thompson) on bringing forward this extremely important issue. It is tempting in such moments, when the entire world is running around with its hair on fire, worrying about all sorts of other admittedly incredibly urgent, big problems, to forget that there are some important critical pieces of democratic plumbing that need to be attended to, no matter what else is going on. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on not losing sight of that essential, fundamental truth. I will try to make sure I leave him with a couple of minutes at the end to respond or sum up if he wishes.
A number of important points have been made. I have always promised myself that if I ever start quoting my own speeches, I will know that it is time to leave. I promise not to do that, but hon. Members might want to have a look at a speech I made at Policy Exchange about a year ago. What I said was very much along the lines of some of the criticisms that have been levelled at the voter registration system. What we have is a system that is, to put it charitably, in transition. Some good work has been done. The system of online registration is new and, by any account, an awful lot better than what went before, even though it was so popular that it fell over rather embarrassingly just before the registration deadline. There have been changes, but we are still battling with the problem that a vast proportion of our registration process is designed for an analogue age. It is based on an old-fashioned approach that is paper-based and process-driven, rather than focused on outcomes and anything that is remotely digital. Clearly, as we have heard from right across the political spectrum, a huge amount needs to be done to update it.
I am delighted that the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard), who speaks for the Scottish National party, pointed out that there is clearly a substantial cross-party backing for progress here. He is absolutely right. As a number of people have said, for this to work well, it will be best of all if it can be done on a cross-party, non-partisan basis. Voter registration is something that we all, as democrats, ought to be in favour of and ought to try to push forward. It works better, in combating voter disillusionment, which all hon. Members mentioned, if people can see that not just one party or the other is pushing this; otherwise, they will assume that that one party has a particular axe to grind. It is far more powerful if everybody says the same thing and sings from the same hymn sheet. I am particularly pleased that we are all on the same page.
I would like to talk a little about what we are already doing. I am delighted to tell the hon. Member for Midlothian that I think we are heading in a very similar direction. There are some definitional questions and important points of detail that we need to bottom out, but we are heading to a very similar destination. Last month, I introduced a statutory instrument in this place that began the very early steps in that process. It contained a couple of very modest proposals, which are actually quite significant, to begin to digitise our process. One of them was simply to make it possible to use emails, rather than having to send a snail-mail, old-fashioned paper letter, when confirming whether someone is being registered. That might sound like a really basic change, but it required a legal change in this place. We had to pilot an SI, which contained a number of other measures, to take it through. It will make a very significant alteration to the speed, efficiency and cost-effectiveness of registration. I hope that it gives everybody here an idea of where we are starting from and how much further we have to travel.
I can also confirm to the hon. Gentleman that a further SI is due to come to this place on Monday that will take us a couple more steps down the road. I am not going to over-claim on this, but it is moving in the direction in which everybody has said they want to move. On Monday, we will talk about changes that will be piloted, to begin with, in three local authorities: Ryedale, Birmingham and South Lakeland. Following up on the idea that localism and devolution are important sources of ideas, many of these ideas have been proposed by local authority electoral registration officers, who are on the frontline and understand which bits of the process still work and which are, frankly, a waste of time and cause them to chew their arms off in frustration because they are so slow and inefficient. They are the ones coming up with many of the most creative and practical proposals. We are encouraging them to submit ideas and are trying to take those forward. We will look at the issue in more detail in Monday’s statutory instrument debate. They are talking about changing from a household inquiry form arriving on the doorstep to check who should be registered to vote to something called a household notification letter that says, “We think the following people are in this place and should be registered; please tell us if not.” That change in the process would be far more efficient, would not require the same degree of response and could be done much more electronically.
In two of the three local authority pilot areas, we will be matching data using local data sources, so that we can focus effort and not require local officers to knock on doors when they already know who lives behind those doors, which is clearly a massive waste of effort and resources. Those resources could be better targeted on places where we do not know who lives there. If we know that somebody has been living somewhere for the past 20 years, there is no point going and knocking on the door to confirm it—why not take that time and effort and go and spend it in the block of flats at the other end of the road, where there are huge gaps in the register and there is much more of a problem? That is a step in the right direction—but it is only a step. We are still only in the foothills of the transition that hon. Members have been talking about, which I completely endorse.
We do need to be careful, because the idea of automatic registration is used, understandably, quite widely and loosely. We all mean slightly different things when we talk about it. Some of those things are crashingly obvious and desirable, and we should get on and do them tomorrow. Other things are potentially quite dangerous. Most people would agree that it is sensible to use more local data, as we are doing in a couple of the local pilots, to inform what we are doing on registration. Not only does that say an awful lot more about who is behind the door, because they are paying council tax or have a car-parking permit or a library card—there are many different forms of local data—but it allows us to focus efforts elsewhere, where we do not have data or there are significant question marks over their quality or veracity and we know there is further work to do to fill in the gaps.
The hon. Member for Edinburgh East anticipated my likely objections to automatic registration, or to data-driven registration, if I can be a bit more specific about what we might collectively mean here. I am happy to say that I am not going to raise any of the issues he suggested. He ran through a sort of checklist of standard Whitehall excuses about why we cannot do things. It usually starts with, “It is too expensive.” If that is not true, people say that we are doing it already. The third is that the IT will not handle it—that is a common one. It is the equivalent, for Star Trek fans, of Scotty saying, “I cannae give you any more, Captain; the engines are going flat out already.” But those excuses will not work. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right: we can and jolly well should do more here.
Using local data is essential, but it is difficult to work out which bits are reliable. The principle is widely accepted, I think, but it is difficult to find out which specific fields in which database give a robust data set that confirms that we know this person lives here and is eligible to vote. The hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh) and the hon. Member for Edinburgh East noted that we need to be careful not to end up registering people who are certainly living in a residence, but may not be eligible to vote, either because they are foreign nationals and are not eligible to vote in the UK, or for some other reason. That would end up switching from a problem of missing millions—false negatives in the jargon—to a problem of false positives, where we are enrolling people who should not be on the roll at all. We must be confident that we are using reliable local data. There is an awful lot of crashingly detailed but absolutely essential work to do to make that happen.
When we have reached the point where we all agree that data-driven enrolment is sensible, we come to the question of the degree of data-driven automaticity that we are willing to accept. At the moment, we have an opt-in system, where people have to exercise their right to register to vote. A fundamental principle about individual electoral registration that I think all parties sign up to is that it is essential in a democracy that people say, “I want to use my right to vote,” but if they have said it once, we do not necessarily have to ask them year in, year out for the rest of their lives. They are democratically entitled to change their minds, but if they have said, “I want to exercise my right to register to vote,” it should just be a question of tracking when they move house and ensuring that we have got the address changes correct. That is easy to say and extremely difficult to do, but there should not be a permission issue thereafter. We need to address that piece as well.
There is a difference between an opt-in system, where we say, “We know you’re living there, but do you want to register?” and an opt-out system, which is one possibility, or a “we’re not even going to ask you” system, which is a bit more dangerous. Whether that is really acceptable in a free society is a bit more questionable; it is tricky in some respects from a civil liberties point of view.
Those are the sorts of questions that I would be delighted if we were sophisticated enough and had updated our system enough to start worrying about. At the moment, we can make huge progress just by doing the data. The 80:20 rule applies: we will get 80% of the benefit from getting the data stuff done as fast as we can. That will not be easy, because it is so detailed. I will be delighted when we have got to the point where we can say, “Well, how much of an opt-in or an opt-out system do we want to have?” because we will have made huge progress, and as has rightly been pointed out, there are so many groups in our society where the picture of registration is uneven—in many cases, from a social justice point of view, unjustly uneven.
Interestingly, the group that is both biggest and least well registered has not been mentioned by anyone: expatriates. Several million expat voters are currently legally eligible to vote. Their registration rate is something like 5%, and there are therefore several million expatriates who are legally enfranchised but are unregistered. That is the biggest single democratic outrage—in the words of the hon. Member for Edinburgh East—that we have, but there are many others. Some BME groups have very high registration rates, but others do not. Some disabled groups have very low registration rates, but others have better rates. Many people who live in short-term rental accommodation, including students, have problems, too.
There is a huge amount that we can do. I hope that I have both reassured the hon. Member for Midlothian and perhaps tempted him a little as I have shown a little bit of ankle about where we are trying to get to and where we would like to take this issue. I think that we have a degree of cross-party unanimity on the direction of travel and the amount of work that we can do. I hope that that is reassuring. I will not go into the parallel but separate problem of individual electoral registration, on which I disagree with almost everything that has been said—that is a different conversation and a much longer debate—but on this issue we can and should make common cause, and with any luck, with a degree of cross-party unanimity, we will be able to make progress.
I thank all hon. Members for their contributions on this important issue. It is particularly encouraging to hear agreement, at least in general terms, about the direction in which we need to travel to ensure that participation levels in elections of whatever nature across the country are as high as they possibly can be and that we do whatever we possibly can to remove the barriers that exist for so many people.
I am encouraged by the Minister’s comments that some steps are being taken. I would like to see that happen a lot faster, but I accept that if we start talking about pace, that will at least be an entirely different argument from the one about whether change should happen in the first place. I very much look forward to seeing what other actions and proposals come forward. Many of us want to get to the point of being able to debate what type of automatic registration system we have rather than whether we should have one in the first place. I welcome his comments and I hope that yet further steps forward will be taken in the weeks and months ahead and we will get to a point where we can make decisions that will benefit millions of people across the country.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered automatic registration in UK elections.