§ Mr. Barnes
I beg to move amendment No. 28, in clause 13, page 14, line 34, at end insert—(1A) After Rule 25 there shall be inserted—25A— (1) In the exercise of his functions under Rule 25 above, the returning officer shall have particular regard to the accessibility of polling stations to disabled persons.514(2) The returning officer shall carry out an annual accessibility audit of each polling station, which shall in particular have regard to the matters set out in paragraph (3) below, and shall consult thereon such organisations as appear to him to be representative of disabled persons in his area.(3) The following points shall (without prejudice to the generality of the assessment) be taken into account in deciding whether a polling station is suitable for use by disabled persons—
- (a) the condition of any pathway;
- (b) the distance to be covered between the curtilage of the premises in which the polling station is situated and the polling station itself;
- (c) the distance from the polling station of car parking for disabled persons;
- (d) the height of any kerb, and the option of any temporary ramp;
- (e) the height and number of steps, and the option of any permanent or temporary ramp;
- (f) the signposting of alternative accessible entrances at the main entrance and all possible approaches;
- (g) the space inside the polling station to allow manoeuvring space for wheelchairs;
- (h) the levels of lighting;
- (i) the floor surface, and if highly polished or slippery, the availability of flat and even floor coverings;
- (j) whether doormats and mat-wells are level to the floor;
- (k) the width of doorways, height of door-handles, heaviness of door, and its direction of opening;
- (l) the availability of hand-rails next to steps;
- (m) the right to take a guide-dog into a polling station;
- (n) the provision of large and clear print signs; and
- (o) the use of colour contrast and markings on step edges.25B—(1) Following the audit pursuant to Rule 25A(2) above, the returning officer shall designate such polling stations as appear to him suitable for use by disabled persons and shall publish, in at least two newspapers circulating widely in the constituency, a local radio station and otherwise as he considers fit, a list of his designations.(2) A polling station shall not be so designated unless the returning officer intends to provide at least one wheelchair-accessible polling booth, with a ballot box being placed at a height that a person in a wheelchair can reach unaided; and it shall be the duty of the returning officer to make such provision at each designated polling station.(3) The returning officer shall take such steps as are necessary to ensure that—
- (a) at least half of the polling stations for which he is responsible shall be so designated within two years of the passing of the Representation of the People Act 2000; and
- (b) all polling stations shall be so designated within five years of the passing of the Representation of the People Act 2000.(4) Details of the designated status (or otherwise) of a polling station shall be provided by the returning officer on all official poll cards.".".
§ The Chairman of Ways and Means
With this, it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 117, page 14, line 45, at end insert—and(c) temporary ramps, matting for uneven or slippery surfaces and any other such equipment which may be deemed necessary to allow wheelchair access to polling stations.".515 No. 118, page 14, line 45, at end insert—(2) If the Presiding Officer is not satisfied that a polling station is fully accessible to disabled voters, arrangements shall be made to allow such voters to attend at an alternative polling station.".
§ Mr. Barnes
Amendment No. 28 is the longest amendment, but this will not be the longest speech. It has been said on occasion that, in my amendments, I have stood alone, like Daniel in the lion's den. On this occasion, I have cross-party support from the hon. Members for Worthing, West (Mr. Bottomley) and for St. Ives (Mr. George)
Under the Bill, equipment is to be provided at polling stations to enable blind and partially sighted people to vote unaided. Those with disabilities, including an inability to read, will be able to vote with the assistance of a companion. While such proposals are welcome, there is nothing further in the Bill to enable disabled people to gain access to polling stations. This could come with promised future legislation to set up an electoral commission, or whenever we get full civil rights for disabled people.
Full access to polling stations could be added to this Bill as provided for in my unsuccessful Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill in 1994, from which these amendments are taken. The road that I am going down is explained in written evidence that I gave to the Select Committee on Home Affairs. I pointed out that Scope—the former Spastics Society—produced two reports about access to polling stations at the 1992 and 1997 elections. The latter survey—of 1,272 polling stations in 303 constituencies in Britain—discovered that 94 per cent. of polling stations had one or more access problems; 82 per cent. had no ramp; and 46 per cent. had no ballot box placed at accessible levels.
Some 6.5 million people in the UK suffer from some form of disability, and access to polling stations is a serious problem. Disabled people should have the same right to exercise their vote as that enjoyed by able-bodied people, and they should not have to resort to the use of proxy or postal votes unless it is their choice.
The key features of the amendments were contained in my Bill in 1994. First, there should be an annual accessibility audit to be carried out at polling stations by electoral registration officers, with the help of disability organisations in the area. Secondly, stations should be designated as accessible as they meet set standards. Thirdly, disabled people should have the right to vote at designated stations. Fourthly, all stations should be designated within five years.
The amendment lists the matters to be taken into account in accessibility audits, and was drawn up from information supplied at the time of the 1994 Bill by a wide range of organisations representing disabled people. The amendment lists 15 points that came out of the consultations, and all the matters discussed previously have been incorporated into my amendments.
Given the massive support that I received from the Labour party for my Representation of the People (Amendment) Bill in 1993, which pressed for rolling registers and access to polling stations for disabled 516 people—including the strong support of the present Prime Minister—and the massive Labour support that I received for the 1994 Bill, I assume that the case that I have just put is favoured by the Home Office.
The only questions that can remain open are of detail: whether particular difficulties need to be overcome in some areas and the method of implementation. Those problems could be ironed out and we should accept the amendment.
§ Mr. Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West)
I support the amendment. What is the difference between a London taxi cab and a polling station? Every single London taxi cab is accessible to disabled people; four fifths of polling stations are not.
The time scale according to which two thirds of polling stations would be accessible in two years and all would be accessible in five years is reasonable. It is important that people are registered to vote, and we shall discuss that if we reach new clause 2. It is also important that people should be able to vote. As the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes), who has a great reputation on this matter, has persistently said, disabled people should be able to vote as easily as able-bodied people. I support the amendment.
§ Mr. Simon Hughes
I apologise to the Committee for the fact that my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives (Mr. George) had to leave. He was in the Chamber until a short while ago, but he had to catch his train to Cornwall. He would have spoken, but he wants me to make a few points on his behalf.
It is important that such provisions are in the Bill. In spite of the much good work done by those involved in electoral administration and a lot of progress, we all know from reports such as the Scope and the Polls Apart reports that disabled people often come across poor provision in electoral services and at electoral venues.
In the interests of equality, it is not acceptable to tell people with a disability that they can have a postal or a proxy vote. Such votes have been open to abuse, and my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives had experience of that in the 1992 election. It was found that people took proxy votes from people who lived in a home and filled them in on their behalf. It was an unacceptable and appalling case.
People with disabilities want to be like the rest of us. They want to be able to change their minds as the election draws nearer. The fact that they are forced to take a view a week or 10 days before the election does not give them the same civil liberty that the rest of us enjoy.
Many polling stations are in public buildings. Therefore, they should be accessible, and schools should be accessible for everyday use. Schools are often used for polling, but the distance between the entrance to the school premises and the ballot box is often hugely greater than the distance from the edge of the kerb to the entrance to the school. People are sent on a wild goose chase around an obstacle course of playgrounds and corridors before they can vote. Many practical measures should be considered.
As the hon. Member for Worthing, West (Mr. Bottomley) suggested, the present provision is not adequate and many people resent it hugely. It is like saying to someone with a disability that he can have a pizza with us; the only difference 517 is that we can go to the restaurant and that person has to have a dial-a-pizza at home. That is often the practical, crude difference.
The Minister and the Government realise that we hold strong views on this. I hope that this all-party amendment will find favour with the Committee and the Government so that many things that should have been taken for granted a long time ago appear in the Bill.
§ Mr. Mike O'Brien
The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) said that his hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives (Mr. George) had gone to catch a train. Many hon. Members will sympathise with his predicament.
My hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) has tabled amendments that have received broad support. The Government very much sympathise with the principle behind them, but cannot accept them in their current form. We do not accept that there should be a mandatory obligation.
The working party on electoral procedures recommended national standards on access to polling stations and drew on direct inputs from disability organisations such as Scope and the Royal National Institute for the Blind. However, their guidance was pre-empted by the Government issuing to every returning officer, in connection with the European parliamentary elections, national access standards. Those standards provide checklists for returning officers to use to assess the accessibility of polling stations and to help disabled people to enter them. A number of the standards are similar to the provisions proposed in the amendments. The working party considered whether such standards should always be mandatory for every polling station and they decided that that would not be practical.
As the working party recognised, district and borough councils are already under a statutory duty to designate as polling places locations that are accessible to the disabled, where that is practical. Returning officers' choice of locations for polling stations is often extremely limited as a direct consequence of those requirements, and it is simply not possible always to identify an accessible site. It is not reasonable to require returning officers to carry out the type of extensive adaptations proposed in the amendment to polling locations that may not be publicly owned.
The working party recommended that the Home Office should issue new and consolidated guidance to electoral administrators on all aspects of access to electoral services to support the kinds of standard that are described in the amendment.
We can achieve much of what my hon. Friend wants by way of those national standards, which will give strong guidance to electoral returning officers. They already have a statutory obligation to provide accessible centres where that is practical, and there are grants available from the Home Office to assist with provision of that access.
I offer my hon. Friend the further encouragement that clause 10 provides the opportunity for local authorities to pilot a number of schemes that may well increase accessibility, and I know that some local authorities are considering ways to increase disabled access. I hope that with that encouragement and the commitment to having 518 consolidated guidelines, which will improve access much more quickly than the legislation could, my hon. Friend will feel able to withdraw the amendment.
§ Mr. Barnes
I am very disappointed by the Minister's response. Of course much will depend on the contents of the guidance that the Home Office will issue to electoral returning officers. It may well be that the guidance is very much in line with my proposals. However, if that is so, what is wrong with including such matters in the Bill? These are not points of detail that need to be put off until another day.
The Minister is not saying that the proposals will be included in future legislation developed by the Electoral Commission or a disability rights Bill. As those measures are introduced, as I hope they will be, we will have further opportunities to raise these matters.
I shall be keen to take up the Minister's point about the role that local authorities can play. I shall encourage local authorities in my area, which have a good record on disability matters and have tried to do a great deal about access for disabled people, to take on their role.
I shall live to fight another day on these matters, and on that basis I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ Mr. William Ross
I beg to move amendment No. 106, in page 14, line 40, leave out "station" and insert "booth".
§ The Chairman
With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 107, in page 14, line 45, at end insertand—(c) versions of the ballot paper in Braille, which shall be available from the presiding officer".
§ Mr. Ross
The amendments' intent is perfectly plain to everyone. The Bill says that alarge version of the ballot paper … shall be displayed inside the polling station",but the polling station is the whole building, and that seems to me the wrong way to inform the partially sighted of the content of the ballot paper. If the display of that document is to be of any use to them, it should be in the polling booth, where individuals are trying to cast their ballot. Returning officers could of course display it in the polling station as well, if they wished, and the Government may want to require the document to be displayed in the station and the booth.
That measure is of use only to those who have are partially sighted. I have a nephew who is completely blind, so I am aware of the difficulties that such people face in those circumstances. In every constituency, several people—many more than we might think—have such a condition. It is therefore my view that, whenever we are trying to help those who are partially sighted, that help will not be sufficient—
It being Seven o 'clock, The Chairman left the Chair to report progress and ask leave to sit again.
519 Committee report progress.
Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 15 (Exempted business),That, at this day's sitting, the Representation of the People Bill may be proceeded with, though opposed, until any hour.—[Mr. Mike Hall]Question agreed to.
Question again proposed, That the amendment be made.
§ Mr. Ross
As I was saying, that which is sufficient for the partially sighted is nowhere near sufficient for those who are totally blind. That being so, we must consider other options.
We cannot print large ballot papers, even for the partially sighted. The ballot paper must be the same size for everyone because, if they were not, it might be possible to destroy the secrecy of the ballot once larger papers are tipped out. We do not want that. The partially sighted might need a magnifying device within the polling booth. That is something that the Minister will have to consider. However, those who are totally blind are not helped by such devices. They need the information in Braille.
As the Minister will know, Braille is produced on thickish card. I would suspect that it is more easily damaged than some folk might wish. It seems to be the only way in which the totally blind can be helped. Therefore, a version of the ballot paper in braille should be available from the presiding officer or from others in the polling booth. That should act as an overlay with a gap in which the person could mark his X, or whatever. I tabled the amendment in an effort to try to concentrate the Government's mind, or the Minister's mind, on what is needed. The totally blind should be allowed an overlay or something similar, or we allow the companion, who is referred to in other amendments, to enter the polling booth with them.
§ Mr. Mike O'Brien
The working party on electoral procedures was very concerned to improve access to the electoral process for blind and partially sighted voters. It made a number of recommendations in this area to which the Bill gives effect. One of them was that a large-print version of the ballot paper should be displayed in the polling station. That will enable partially sighted voters to ascertain who the candidates are, and to decide whom they favour.
Amendment No. 106 would require such a large-print version of the ballot paper to be displayed in every voting compartment. Is that really necessary? So long as a large-print version is displayed prominently in the polling station, partially sighted voters will be able to study the list of candidates to decide whom they like before retiring to the privacy of the voting booth to cast their vote. I shall describe in a moment how they might do that.
In the recent European parliamentary elections, the ballot paper in the London region was 77.5 cm long. That is 31 in for those hon. Members who have not yet converted to metric. That was the normal size. I cannot begin to imagine how large a large-print version would be, but I imagine that it would be too long to fit neatly into a standard voting booth. For those reasons, I do not think that it would be wise to pass amendment No. 106.
520 Once having made up their mind how they want to vote, blind and partially sighted voters will be able to vote, thanks to another working party recommendation, by using a voting template. That might take the form of a piece of cardboard into which the ballot paper can be slotted. An ordinary ballot paper could be slotted into the piece of card. It would have holes cut out over the boxes in which crosses are placed so the voter, having decided by using the large sign which candidate he wants to vote for—that is, if he is partially sighted—can use his fingers to count down on the ballot paper to vote for whichever candidate he or she wishes.
We are also considering what form the voting template should take, and would welcome suggestions. One issue that we must consider is whether it would be sensible and cost-effective—it may well be—to use the voting template for Braille, so that some element of the Braille list could appear on the template. The ordinary ballot paper could still be used, so that people could put their ballot paper into the box in the ordinary way, and no one would know, when the votes were counted, whether it was that of a blind person or a person who was partially sighted.
The working party has already started to address some of the issues. Having shown that the Bill contains some useful suggestions for ways in which we would assist the blind and partially sighted, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will feel able to withdraw his amendment.
§ Mr. Ross
Although I am satisfied with the answer to amendment No. 106, I am not satisfied with the answer given to amendment No. 107. If there were 36 names on the ballot paper, what size would the large-print version be in the polling station? It would cover a wall of the school. In Northern Ireland, we are familiar with quite long lists under the proportional representation system.
I hope that the Minister will reconsider the suggestion. It depends on the amount of sight that the individual has, which can range from pretty well non-existent to reasonably good. However, having heard what the Minister said, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ The Chairman
With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 109, in page 15, line 30, leave out from "election" to end of line 32.
§ Mr. Ross
These amendments are in the same general spirit as the previous two. As the Bill is drafted, it seems that a companion can assist only two people, both of whom are close relations, or that the companion must be eligible to vote in that election. Those are two entirely different classes of people who can go into a polling booth with a disabled person to help him or her vote. We must think more carefully about the provision.
The relatives are specified in the words that I seek to remove through amendment No. 109. They are thefather, mother, brother, sister, husband, wife, son or daughter of the voterand haveattained the age of 18 years.521 Those individuals do not need to be able to vote in the election—in other words, they may live in a different ward or constituency.
However, any personwho is entitled to vote as an elector—not a relation at all—can go along and act as a companion, to help the disabled person to vote. Why, then, is it necessary to list all the close relations? There must be sensible explanation, or have officials simply got into a twist when they tried to define who could act as a companion?
The relations need not be able to vote in the elections. They may live 100 miles away and come to help the disabled voter. Some people have few relations or none living locally, and there might be three disabled people living in one house, who might all need help and who might have only one relative living close by.
A Conservative elector living in a mining village may not be willing to ask another resident of that village for help. I can think of similar situations, for different reasons, in Northern Ireland. The difficulties are not fully addressed in the Government's proposals.
I am curious as to why the companion should be aged 18 or more. How is that to be established? If the companion is an immediate relation or is entitled to vote in the election, he or she may be on the list of electors and therefore obviously over 18, but if the companion is from some distance away, or is simply missing from the register for whatever reason, there is no way that the presiding officer, who apparently has to make the decision in such cases, can know whether the person is over 18 or not. He or she could be 16 or 17. There is therefore a potential difficulty.
I do not understand why one elector can assist two people. In Northern Ireland, one can act as a witness for only one individual—even a member of one's family—who applies for a postal or proxy vote. As the Under-secretary of State for Northern Ireland knows, that has caused all sorts of problems. It would be preferable if the person—a family member or party worker, who is often known to the electoral officers—could assist, or witness papers for any number of people. That would facilitate checking whether the papers and applications were genuine. I do not understand why the restriction is necessary.
I tabled an amendment—No. 110, which was not called—to discover why there has to be a declaration, which is presumably signed, in the polling station when the vote is cast. At 10 am, there are not many people in the polling station. However, at 8 pm or 9 pm, an enormous number of people might be waiting to vote. They will not want any sort of delay. Having to make a declaration will create a delay. Why does the Bill provide that people have to sign a piece of paper, which the presiding officer has to accept, before they can vote?
I hope that the Minister has a reasonable answer to those points. If not, perhaps he will reconsider them, because there are problems with the provision.
§ Mr. Mike O'Brien
The hon. Gentleman made several interesting points, which deserve consideration. I should like to give them that consideration and, if the hon. Gentleman will bear with me, I shall write to him about the issues that he raised.
522 The provision attempts to assist voters who may benefit from being accompanied. I hope that we can take account of some of the hon. Gentleman's points, tackle them through correspondence and perhaps discuss them later.