HC Deb 22 March 1974 vol 870 cc1550-4

2.15 p.m.

Mr. Geoffrey Finsberg (Hampstead)

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise a matter that concerns the Home Office, and I am grateful to the Under-Secretary for having made herself available at very short notice to answer the debate.

The recent General Election has shown up certain problems of an unusual and, I trust, non-controversial kind. In my judgment, a considerable number of polling stations are unsuitable for use by disabled persons.

The Minister may argue—although in view of her normally sympathetic demeanour, I do not think that she is likely to do so—that disabled people can have postal votes and therefore should not need to go to polling stations. But disabled people wish to lead as full a life as they can, and do not want to have to opt out of the normal procedures available to us all. They wish to lead lives that are as full as possible. Therefore, I hope that the availability of a postal vote will not be used as the major argument against the suggestions I want to make.

I came across a most unsuitable polling station in my constituency—St. Luke's Church Hall, in Kidderpore Avenue, Hampstead. It is off a fairly narrow road, with one or two steps down to a long courtyard. To get into the polling booth it is necessary to go up a narrow and steep flight of about 12–15 stairs. Whilst I happened to be there on polling day I saw an elderly lady arrive. She was helped out of the car that brought her, and walked with the aid of two sticks. With people holding her, she went down the three steps and then saw the long approach and the stairs, and winced visibly.

Someone asked the presiding officer whether he would be prepared to go down to her with a ballot paper, having identified her on the register, and allow her to cast her vote in that way. That was said not to be possible. I do not know the detailed instructions to presiding officers under Home Office regulations. But when designing a new building for almost any purpose many local authorities will say that suitable access must be provided for disabled persons. When I was leading the opposition on the London Borough of Camden, we persuaded the council to pass a resolution stating that all new buildings should, wherever possible, have suitable access for disabled people. It was not a controversial matter. The resolution was passed some while before the general public conscience was awakened to the needs of the disabled.

Why should not that requirement of suitability for the disabled be applied to polling stations? I have heard of stations where there has been no problem about a staircase but where the door of the building has not been wide enough to allow a wheelchair to go through. Such a building should not be regarded as suitable for a polling station used by disabled people.

The Home Office should instruct returning officers to review all the polling stations used in last month's General Election and report within, say, six months on their suitability for future use by disabled persons. In the light of that information it may be that the hon. Lady or her right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will say that very few polling stations are unsuitable, and that they believe that returning officers should find other places to overcome the difficulties. But if the review provides a more general picture of unsuitability the hon. Lady may need to look more carefully at an alternative.

Why, for example, should not a polling station be defined not merely as the room in which the polling booth is situated but as the entire premises, so that as soon as one enters the courtyard from the public highway one is in the polling station? Then, in circumstances of the kind I have described, the presiding officer would be authorised to say to the disabled person, "You are Mrs. So and So?" and, after she had identified herself on the register, to give her the ballot paper and allow her to vote. There would be no further inconvenience to her. That alternative may be considered if there is found to be a general unsuitability of polling stations throughout the United Kingdom.

I said earlier that I hoped that the hon. Lady would not fall back upon the excuse that postal votes are in any case available for disabled persons, but if she is forced back on to that excuse, will she consider whether the present operation of the system is fair to disabled people? A person who moves his home fills in a form and posts it off to the local electoral registration officer, and if the next election comes before a new register is in use his ballot paper, the Post Office willing, will arrive at his new address. Nobody needs to certify that he has moved; his word is sufficient.

Yet the word of a cripple in a wheelchair is not sufficient. He has to have the document countersigned by a registered medical practitioner. Will the hon. Lady look into that question and see whether it would be possible merely to rely on the word of the disabled person that he is disabled and not require him to find a medical practitioner to sign the document? Between the announcement of an election and election day there is a desperate scramble to register as many postal votes as possible, and it is not always easy for people to find doctors who are ready to sign the document at short notice.

Will the hon. Lady consider that possibility if she falls back upon the excuse that a postal vote is necessary? When I say "excuse", I use the word in a technical sense, as I am sure that she does not wish to rely on excuses.

The problem is one that many of us have overlooked. It is perhaps with a General Election that it comes more strongly to mind, although local elections present exactly the same difficulties. Perhaps all hon. Members should have been more vigilant and should have seen the problems which were growing as public and parliamentary awareness of the difficulties of disabled people grew.

I again apologise to the hon. Lady for the short notice of this debate. I realise that because of that short notice she may not be able to give as full an answer as would normally be given, or as full an answer as she would wish to give, with her background. I shall he happy if the matter is studied by her Department. Then, if she feels that she has not been able to say enough today, she can write to me in a few weeks and we can see whether the matter can be taken further.

2.25 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Dr. Shirley Summerskill)

I thank the hon. Member for Hampstead (Mr. Finsberg), my own Member of Parliament, for the short notice he gave me of the debate, although I was not able to have long notice, and for advising me beforehand about the points he wished to raise.

I begin on the subject of the postal vote, not as an excuse but because the hon. Gentleman asked for certain information. It is a technical point that a postal vote is available on the ground of physical incapacity. "Physical incapacity" is a broad phrase with a broad meaning, and can be so interpreted.

I draw to the hon. Gentleman's attention the regulations I introduced into the House earlier today, the Representation of the People Regulations 1974, which will apply from 1st April. He will see on page 15 that: physical incapacity shall be allowed by the registration officer if…the applicant is unable, or likely to be unable, by reason … of … any …physical incapacity to go in person to the polling station or, if able to go, to vote unaided. The registration officer can then treat the person as an absent voter.

On the question of how the person with the physical incapacity can obtain the postal vote, I refer the hon. Gentleman to page 51, which lays out the form of the card to be filled in. The notes on the next page say: Where the application is made on the ground of physical incapacity, it will be allowed by the electoral registration officer if the medical certificate is given by a registered medical practitioner or if the declaration is made by a Christian Science practitioner. Then comes the important point: It may be allowed if the declaration is made by anyone else.

Mr. Finsberg

Unless I am wrong, I do not think there is anything new in what the Minister said. She has not answered my question why the declaration needs to be signed by anyone else when that is not necessary for a person who moves his home.

Dr. Summerskill

I am advised that the declaration does not have to be signed by anyone else. The legal interpretation of the regulations is that it is advisable, if possible, for the declaration to be signed by a doctor or, failing that, a Christian Science practitioner, or, failing that, a social worker, a district nurse or a warden of an old people's home. If the person concerned fails to get such a signature and, in an extreme case, fails to get a relative, a friend or even a stranger to sign the declaration, it is up to the electoral registration officer to assess the position. In that extreme case there must be a valid reason why the applicant has been unable to get anyone to sign the declaration.

I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman that, wherever possible, disabled and physically incapacitated people want, like everyone else, to register their vote at the polling station. They may even arrive at the polling station intending to register their vote but literally find that they are unable to do so because the wheelchair will not go through the door.

I visited many polling stations in my constituency during the last election. Almost all polling stations are old schools, church halls or village halls. The buildings are not purpose-built but are adapted for the occasion. To adapt them to accommodate the disabled would be a major undertaking. Of the polling stations I visited, few did not have steps. Had I specially looked, I imagine I should have found doors that would not take a wheelchair.

A few minutes ago, before the hon. Gentleman spoke, I had a discussion with the new Minister for the Disabled. I told him of the debate, and I know that he will read carefully everything that the hon. Gentleman said. I shall have further urgent discussions with my hon. Friend following the debate to consider what we can do about this problem. I cannot give an instant undertaking to do exactly what the hon. Gentleman asks, but I am extremely sympathetic to his request. I have noted carefully his requests and proposals and I shall write to him as soon as possible.