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Mrs. Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest) (Con):
The debate has been constructive and the Bill contains some good provisions. Nevertheless, I urge my hon. Friends to support the reasoned amendment, which my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire
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(Mr. Heald) moved so eloquently. As he said, much remains to be done, for example, on individual registration. The Government have not given a good reason for not doing what has been tried and tested in Northern Ireland, as the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) accurately showed.
The Minister did not give a good reason for lowering the threshold for the loss of a deposit. In my constituency, the BNP took 3.9 per cent. of the votes in the general election. Rewarding it with a return of a depositthe Bill would do that on those figureswould give it a status that it does not deserve. In making such a generalisation, I do not suggest that the Scottish National party does not have a status. It has a high status, which it deserves. The fact that it gets only a small share of the vote is another matter.
We have heard much about the problems and pitfalls of postal voting. Again, no good reason has been given to justify the Government's position. Modernisation is justifiable only if it replaces the status quo with something better, not simply with something different. Of course, we all want more people to participate in elections. However, in the final reckoning, there must be an element of personal motivation that makes someone exercise his or her democratic right.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) said, it is Parliament's duty to ensure that every citizen has the opportunity to vote and, as the hon. Members for Aberdeen, South (Miss Begg) and for Cardiff, North (Julie Morgan) said, no one should be denied access to the polls, physically or otherwise, because of a disability or an inability. The Bill deals with that fairly adequately. However, it is absurd to develop a system that bends over backwards to try to make people vote and consequently destroys the checks and balances that make the system fair. That serves only to undermine the democracy that we intend to enhance.
I am sure that the whole House will want to join me in congratulating the hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Devine) on his maiden speech. It was a pleasure to hear his tribute to his predecessor and friend, whose charm, wit and wisdom we all miss, whether we agreed with his policies or not. The hon. Gentleman's description of the way in which he had administered a "jag" to a man who was "off his heid"I understood what he meantcertainly marks him out for a great career in the Government Whips Office.
I understand why my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack) supports the Bill. We all commend the Government for adopting his proposals to remedy situations similar to the unique state of affairs that arose when his Liberal Democrat opponent so tragically died a few days before the general election. My hon. Friend eloquently explained how such a situation could precipitate a constitutional crisis. I venture to suggest that the absence of my hon. Friend's constitutional wisdom from the House was itself a mini-crisis, and we were pleased to have him restored to us after only seven weeks.
My hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie) was right in what he said about the disgraceful treatment of members of the armed forces, large numbers of whom were deprived of the right to vote, even when they were fighting for their country and losing their lives in Iraq. The Minister of State,
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Department for Constitutional Affairs, the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) appeared to agree that that state of affairs was unacceptable. However, there is nothing in the Bill to remedy the situation. We look forward to hearing what the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, the hon. Member for Inverclyde (David Cairns) has to say in a few minutes' time, when he will have the opportunity to explain further what the Government intend to do to remedy the injustice currently meted out to serving soldiers, airmen and others.
My hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Peter Viggers), as a member of the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, brought wisdom and experience to the debate. He and my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles) both made the fundamental point that, as the whole electoral system is vulnerable to fraud, and that a small amount of fraud has a large effect on undermining confidence in the system, it is very important that we ensure that our precious democracy is not undermined in that way. Let us not exaggerate. We all know that, fundamentally, we have a great system. It is probably the best and most secure electoral system anywhere in the world, and it is one on which many other democracies have based their systems. So let us not now, for the sake of modernisation or political correctness, go blindly down a road that would be likely to diminish the security of that system and to undermine it.
Mr. Heath: The hon. Lady is explaining why she is going to recommend to her colleagues that they decline to give a Second Reading to a Bill that is the only vehicle that we have for introducing the reforms that we all agree need to be put in place. She needs to explain what kind of opposition that is.
It is the only vehicle that we have before us now. That does not mean that it cannot be improved and become a much better vehicle once we go through the next stages[Interruption.] If our reasoned amendment wins this evening and the Bill does not go into Committee, it would be perfectly fine for the Government to go away, think again and bring back a better Bill, along the lines that we have suggested[Interruption.] Mr. Speaker, what is this place if not the forum for debate? What are we here for if we cannot refine the Government's proposals and make them better? That is our job. We support many of the
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measures in the Billwe want a better systembut I truly believe that a constructive debate such as we have had this evening is an essential element in the democratic process. It is not our duty to stand here agreeing with the Government
Mrs. Laing: Or, as my hon. Friend says, with the Liberal Democrats, who do not put up any opposition to the Government. It is our duty to hold the Government to account, which is what we are doing this evening.
Our reasoned amendment would lead to a better Bill. [Interruption.] It would lead to a better Bill. Labour Members simply cannot disagree. If, perchance, the Bill receives a Second Reading and is considered in Committee, the matters that we have set out so carefully in our reasoned amendment will be the subject of further debate. If not, we will expect a better Bill to be brought back to the House.
Democracy is a fragile entity, which is why we have to defend it. It depends on the confidence of the people. The very fact that we are having this debate and giving the House the opportunity to divide are steps in the right direction to strengthening our democracy.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (David Cairns): There is more to democracy than casting a vote, but there is no higher democratic duty for those of us who are charged with office than to ensure that voting is safe and simple for everyone who is entitled to participate. That is what the Bill sets out to achieve. It takes forward the Government's aims of making registration more accessible for voters, enhancing the security of our electoral system and improving the vital, though often technical, process of electoral administration.
As the Minister of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), made clear in her opening remarks, the vast majority of the proposals in the Bill have emerged from the recommendations of the independent Electoral Commission, following extensive nationwide consultation. The measures that are outlined are based on three interlocking principles: access to voting for all who are entitled, participation by all who wish to participate and fairness for all through zero tolerance of fraud and intimidation. None of those principles is optional.
Through the Bill, we will improve the registration process, in particular by enabling people to register after an election has been called and establishing a new duty for registration officers to take all necessary steps to ensure that comprehensive registers are in place. To tighten security, especially for postal voters, two new electoral fraud offences are to be created, and we are piloting the collection of personal identifiers at registration.
To improve the accuracy and integrity of electoral registers and to support national access, we will introduce a framework for COREthe co-ordinated
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online record of electors. We will introduce new measures to simplify administration, particularly for postal votes, and give new powers and new finance to electoral administrators. To help to open up elections to everyone, we will improve information available to voters in polling stations, providing guidance in languages other than English and Welsh, and in a variety of formats.
To that end, it was encouraging to see a great deal of support for most of those measures in all parts of the House. Extraordinary expertise on the issue has been displayed over the past few hours, as has the accumulated experience of thousands of elections fought over what amounts to many hundreds of years. We have seen evidence of detailed thinking and engagement with the issues and the proposals that we have set out.
At the start of my summing up, I want to reiterate the point made by my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State in her opening remarks: the Government are genuinely open to considering amendments tabled in Committee that are based on evidence, where they are non-controversial and we can seek consensus in all parts of the House. That is how we have approached the Bill and how we have put these measures before the House today.
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