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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Bridget Prentice): I rise with some trepidation to speak in the debate, because I have not made a speech in the House for two years, unless hon. Members count saying, "I beg to move that this House do now adjourn" as amounting to a speech.
This has been a very interesting debate on a subject that is close to the hearts of all hon. Members. My right hon. and learned Friend expressed in her opening remarks a wish to use the expertise of all hon. Members to increase voter participation and engagement in the electoral process, and I want to echo that this evening. Clearly, there has been cross-party consensus on some of the fundamental issues. Few Members have argued against a system whereby it is easy and straightforward for people to register and vote or against one that is safe and secure.
I agree with the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) that we need a robust system, and I hope that he would agree with us that part of the fundamental problem with bias is the under-representation in some areas of the country, and that we must work hard to ensure that the register is improved. That is the essence of our democratic society.
We have heard a number of useful contributions from hon. Members. My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook and Small Heath (Mr. Godsiff) made a number of important points and, indeed, has already responded to the consultation exercise. He made a particularly good point about the practical work that is already being undertaken in his constituency under the present system. That is something on which we want to build. He also made a powerful case about extending the rights of arrest outside polling stations, and I can assure him that we are genuinely consulting on that.
The hon. Member for Worthing, West (Peter Bottomley) made a very considered speech, with a number of positive points, and I want to tell him, too, that we are consulting on whether to allow observers into polling stations and that we completely take his point about service personnel. The idea that those people from our country who are doing the ultimate duty as citizens, as members of our forces, should in some way be denied the fundamental right of citizenship is not one that any hon. Member could support. We will consider very carefully building on the issues that we included in the Representation of the People Act 2000, to increase the opportunities for service personnel, and we will work with our colleagues in the Ministry of Defence on that issue.
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Again, we agree very much with my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts) in deploring the few cases of fraud. It is a pity that the Opposition Front-Bench spokesmen spent so much time on that issue, rather than on discussing under-representation and the lack of representation in some areas of the country.
Mr. Simon: My city of Birmingham has been repeatedly traduced by Opposition Members borrowing cheap soundbites from a headline-hungry judge
Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. I remind the hon. Gentleman that temperance and moderation in parliamentary language are important.
Peter Bottomley: On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Is there any way in which the remarks of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Simon) can be struck from the record? They are in themselves publicity seeking.
Madam Deputy Speaker: I remind the hon. Gentleman that all Members take responsibility for anything that they say in the House.
Mr. Heald: Further to that point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Is it not out of order to make an insulting remark about a judge?
Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. I shall respond to the hon. Gentleman's point of order. Criticism of a judge during a debate is out of order; it would have to be done by means of a substantive motion.
Bridget Prentice: Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I say to my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Simon) that much has been said about what happened in Birmingham and he is right to point out that those claims were exaggerated. We need to look at the facts.
I remind the House that the recent general election, like the last one, the one before that and many before that, was run successfully, safely and securely. That is a fact.
Bridget Prentice: I am sorry, I do not have time to give way. I really must press on.
Of course, we need to boost public confidence in the system. Everyone in the House condemns any attempt to undermine it. In the House, there are people with experience of between 1,500 and 2,000 elections, whether local or generalwho better equipped to comment on the electoral process?
The hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly) seemed to be saying that the whole electoral system was riddled with fraud. Is he saying that that is happening everywhere in the country except Huntingdon? We should not exaggerate.
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My hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead) made several useful points about making the franchise accessible, easy to use and secure. He outlined the disparities in registration and drew parallels with the census. He made an important point about the balance between security and accessibility and said that if we push the balance too far in one direction, we may undermine the system.
Points were made about postal voting, which has received cross-party support. Every party believes that the use of the postal vote is an improvement to the system. Indeed, the public like postal voting; it offers them a choice, and all the evidence shows that people who request a postal vote are more likely to exercise it. None of us could disagree with that.
As my right hon. and learned Friend said at the start of the debate, we had hoped to find cross-party consensus on many of the issues under discussion today. However, after listening to what both Opposition Front-Bench spokesmen said about proportional representation, I fear that we will find it difficult to bridge that particular gap.
We have responded to the Electoral Commission's reports by accepting many of its recommendations on improving access and participation. We have said that we will legislate when parliamentary time allows. That is why my right hon. and learned Friend has undertaken an important consultation to form part of our thinking before we bring a Bill before the House. She has already met many hon. Members, both old and new, from across the House and several have already commented on the policy paper.
The debate had all the promise of an opportunity for the people probably most expert in the conduct of elections to come together to discuss in a serious and considered manner how best to engage more people in the election process. It was an opportunity to have an informed discussion about how we engage citizens in our democracy. I was sorry that the Opposition Front Bench did not engage in that discussion
Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire) (Con) rose in his place and claimed to move, That the Question be now put.
Question, That the Question be now put, put and agreed to.
Question put accordingly, That the original words stand part of the Question:
The House divided: Ayes 175, Noes 361.
Question, That the proposed words be there added, put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 31 (Questions on amendments):
The House divided: Ayes 300, Noes 226.
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