HC Deb 13 February 1985 vol 73 cc351-67 4.12 pm
Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness and Sutherland)

On a point of order, Mr. Walker.

I wish to ask you a question about amendment No. 88, which is not included in the provisional selection of amendments. As you will recall, Mr. Walker, when we discussed clause 1, the Committee greatly extended the franchise and, by so doing, extended the postal vote, with the result that the provisions of the Parliamentary and Municipal Elections (Ballot) Act 1872 are somewhat less effective in ensuring that tampering with ballot papers cannot take place. Amendment No. 88 was tabled to deal with that. There is no other provision in the Bill for that, and therefore no opportunity to discuss the matter, save in the most general way during the debate on clause stand part. Perhaps it would have been better to table a new clause instead of an amendment. If clause 7 is added to the Bill as it stands, without substantial amendment, it might be impossible to raise the issue during a debate on a new clause.

To ensure that there is some debate on the avoidance of tampering with postal votes, would you reconsider the provisional selection of amendments before we reach clause 7?

The Chairman of Ways and Means

I must tell the hon. Gentleman that I considered carefully the amendments which I did and did not select. Amendment No. 88 is clearly outside the scope of the clause. I did not select the amendment, and I cannot contemplate a debate on clause stand part. The hon. Gentleman will have to consider whether it is more appropriate to table a new clause, and I shall consider that in the event of it being tabled. But I repeat that, having considered the amendment carefully, I decided that it was outside the scope of the clause.

Mr. John Hannam (Exeter)

I beg to move amendment No. 32, in page 8, line 11, at end insert— '(5A) If he is entitled as an elector to an absent vote at the election because he cannot reasonably be expected to go in person to the polling station allotted to him under the appropriate rules by reason of blindness or other physical incapacity, he may vote in person at any polling station in the constituency or, as the case may be, electoral area.'.

The Chairman

With this it will be convenient to take the following: New clause 13 — Access for disabled to polling stations'After paragraph (d) of section 18(2) of the principal Act the following words shall be inserted as paragraph (e) (e) at each polling station, in the means of access both to and within the premises and in the parking facilities to be available (if any), provision shall be made, in so far as it is in the circumstances both reasonable and practicable, for the needs of electors who are disabled. and the same words shall be inserted as paragraph (e) of section 18(3) and as section 31(5) of the said Act.'.

New clause 33— Proxy vote for disabled'Where a person becomes unable to attend the polling station in person because of physical disability arising after the date prescribed for him to apply to the registration officer to vote by post or proxy under the provisions of section 7, a ballot paper shall be issued to his proxy by the presiding officer at the polling station to which he would have attended but for the physical disability on presentation of a prescribed certificate issued by a medical practitioner attending the person provided:

  1. (a) that the certificate is signed by the medical practitioner and certifies that the person concerned will be unable to attend in person because of a physical disability arising since the last day for the receipt of applications for a postal or proxy vote under section 7,
  2. (b) that the person concerned completed the certificate by appointing as proxy a person qualified by section 8 and
  3. (c) that the proxy appointed completes the certificate by saying that he is qualified to be the proxy under section 8.'.

Mr. Hannam

The amendment and the new clauses seek to improve voting opportunities for the disabled. I warmly welcome the extension of postal or proxy votes to all local government elections in Great Britain, including elections to parish and community councils in England and Wales.

The lack of availability of postal or proxy votes until now has meant that many disabled people have been disfranchised at local elections, and we must all be pleased that the Bill amends that position. However, when we consider the number of disabled people who apply for postal or proxy votes, we must ask why they have to apply for such votes. It is not necessarily on grounds of ill health or inability to get out of their houses and go to the polling stations, but often because the polling station is inaccessible to them. It is ironic that a disabled person applying for an absent vote must produce a doctor's certificate confirming that he or she is disabled, when the real reason for applying for an absent vote is not that he or she is too disabled but that the polling station is inaccessible. That applies not only to people in wheelchairs, but to the many people who have severe walking difficulties, including the elderly, and those who find it difficult to walk up steep steps or any steps at all. I am sure the Committee will agree that everyone, from the most severely disabled to the most athletic, should have the same right of access to polling stations in order to cast their votes in an election.

The use of the postal or proxy vote must be seen as a second-rate alternative to a vote in person, and we should do all that we can to ensure that polling stations are accessible to all. Amendment No. 32 seeks to build on a precedent already established in the Bill—that a person working in connection with the election, but in another part of the electoral area, may vote at any polling station within that electoral area. The amendment proposes that a disabled person should also be able to vote at a polling station other than that normally allocated to him—not because he especially wants to, but because many polling stations are inaccessible.

This is an interim measure pending the time when all polling stations will be fully accessible to disabled and blind people. I understand from questions and answers in Hansard that 50 per cent. grants are available from central funds to provide ramps to polling stations. I had not heard of that scheme before, and it would be most helpful if my hon. Friend the Minister would give further details of it. However, I do not believe that it is working effectively enough to act as a substitute for my amendment. Portable ramps have a limited use, in that they cannot accommodate the great range of access requirements. Many portable ramps can accommodate only one or two steps and cannot solve the problem of a flight of steps. I believe that the take-up of this scheme is extremely low, and I do not know of any local authority that has taken advantage of it. Perhaps my hon. Friend could give me some idea of the number of polling stations whose accessibility has been improved under the scheme.

A further drawback of the scheme is that it does not accommodate the wide range of disabilities. For example, for many elderly people who have walking difficulties, it is most important to have a good handrail. Such needs are not accounted for under the scheme. That is probably the major access need.

For those reasons, the 50 per cent. grant scheme cannot be relied upon to provide the accessibility to polling stations that is needed. Therefore, I hope that the amendment will be accepted. If it is, I should have thought that the principle underlying the current scheme could be extended to cover permanent adaptations that are made to polling stations in order to improve accessibility. Such expenditure would benefit people not only once every few years when an election is held. As I have said in many previous debates upon different legislative measures, the great majority of polling stations are to be found in public buildings. Therefore, improved accessibility would benefit all local residents throughout all the days and months of the year.

New clause 13 deals directly with accessibility to polling stations and inserts into the 1983 Act an additional requirement that, when district councils and London boroughs review polling stations and places, they will ensure that, as far as is reasonable and practicable, parking and access are provided for disabled people. In Scotland, that duty lies with the returning officer. In both instances, that duty will relate to both parliamentary and local elections.

The wording of the new clause is taken from the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act 1970. If the spirit of that Act had been implemented by local authorities, many of the buildings that are used as polling stations would already be accessible to disabled people. Sadly, not nearly enough local authorities have made their public buildings accessible to local people. The picture across the whole country is extremely patchy. Unless such a clause as the one that I have moved is inserted in the Bill, this situation will unfortunately continue. The new clause will not place an onerous burden upon anybody. The result will be that disabled people who are not ill but who otherwise would have to obtain medical certificates will not need to do so.

I have made my final point again and again when putting forward proposals to improve the facilities for the handicapped. Every improvement in the facilities for the handicapped also helps other sections of the community —the elderly, mothers with prams and those who are carrying shopping. A clear illustration of this is the Newcastle metro. A survey shows that the specially wide barriers that have been erected enable 56 people in wheelchairs, 27 blind and handicapped people and 100 people with prams and pushchairs to use that metro service each day. They would be unable to do so if those wider entrances had not been provided.

I hope that these worthwhile proposals will receive favourable consideration from my hon. Friend the Minister.

Mr. Lewis Carter-Jones (Eccles)

I have great pleasure in following the hon. Member for Exeter (Mr. Hannam). I am reminded of a campaign conducted in my constituency that was directed at preventing the elderly from having to walk long distances. The returning officer established a caravan on a small site which made it easier for people to get to the polling station. However, the concern I felt can be imagined when I say that numerous telephone calls followed me around the constituency on polling day asking me to go to this particular polling station, where I found that people in wheelchairs were in tears. The travelling problem had been overcome, but the access problem had been aggravated. The steps of the caravan were far too steep for some of the frail elderly who had difficulty, because of arthritis, in climbing the steps. Amendment No. 32 seeks to provide an alternative method. It is not unique. It would enable those people who feel that their polling station is inaccessible but who do not want a postal vote to vote in person. Some people, God bless them, still want to exercise their right to cast their vote at the polling station. They want to be like other people on polling day. That is very important.

The Minister could look kindly upon this amendment by providing that facilities for the disabled should be made available at accessible polling stations, which may be situated outside the wards in which they live. Returning officers already carry their voting rights elsewhere, so this is possible. The amendment would meet the needs of the disabled, most of whom would like to continue to go to polling stations for as long as they possibly can. It is not for this House to put barriers in their way.

There is a section in the Education Act 1981 that deals with the education of handicapped children. It provides that schools must be made accessible to all children. The improved accessibility which has resulted from the 1981 Act may be of value to the disabled who want to cast their vote personally. Substantial numbers of polling stations are based at schools.

As the hon. Member for Exeter said, when we took the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act 1970 through the House perhaps we should have been more positive and said that access to new public buildings should be made mandatory. The assumption is that access should be made available only for people in wheelchairs, but, as the hon. Member for Exeter said, everybody at some time or another has been pushed around in a pram. A mother is entitled to enter a polling station without the hassle of having to leave her baby behind.

All these factors have to be taken into account. Until we can provide relatively simple access to all polling stations which are not too far from the homes of the disabled, the ideas underlying amendment No. 32 ought to commend themselves to the Minister. If he cannot accept them as they stand, I ask him to do everything within his power to ensure that practical support is given to local authorities with difficulties to enable those who want to do so to exercise their right to vote, even though they are disabled, at a polling station.

Mr. Peter Bruinvels (Leicester, East)

I am one of the signatories to new clause 13. I fully support what my hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr. Hannam) and the hon. Member for Eccles (Mr. Carter-Jones) have said about the provision of easier access to polling stations. During the 1983 general election, two people in my constituency of Leicester, East found it impossible physically to go and vote. I asked my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department only a few days ago to define a polling station. One has to remember that schools where the traditional polling station is to be found do not normally teach disabled children in wheelchairs. Another difficulty is that some polling stations are situated in outhouses at the back of the school. The polling station could be at the top of a massive flight of steps.

In June 1983, my two constituents experienced great difficulty in climbing very steep steps. One was in a wheelchair; the other had two sticks. I applaud the polling agent, who helped the person in the wheelchair to go into the polling station and vote. The person with the sticks could not get up the steps. I have no idea how she would have voted had she been able to get up those very steep steps. It might have increased my majority.

Severe problems are involved in getting disabled people to polling stations to cast their votes. We give disabled people lifts to and from the polling station, but they have difficulty in getting into and out of the car. It is important for the disabled to be able physically to come and vote rather than having to vote by post.

Leicester has a large disabled community and from speaking to them I know that the one thing that they want is to be treated the same as everyone else. It is up to all of us to co-operate with the Home Office in ensuring that they have the facilities to enable them to vote.

Once disabled people have got into the polling station there is the additional difficulty of voting secretly. Some cannot reach the ballot paper, some cannot fold it and some cannot reach to put it into the ballot box. Voting for the disabled must be completely reviewed as soon as possible.

4.30 pm

I support amendment No. 32 which will allow disabled people to go to any polling station in the electoral area. I do not know whether I would like to see one polling station for disabled people. I can see that it would have its attractions in a general election when the voter is voting within his constituency, but I can see a problem arising at a ward or district election when a person goes to a polling station other than that at which he is registered. However, that proposal would go some way to enabling disabled people to vote.

It is a great democratic right in Britain to be able to vote. I sincerely hope that disabled people will be allowed to vote whenever they wish to. I hope that all access points to newly designated polling stations will be wide enough and will have ramps. Disabled people should be able to vote proudly, without assistance. They should be able to go to vote freely, in secret and with pride. It is for that reason that I support amendment No. 32 and, in particular, new clause 13.

Dr. John Marek (Wrexham)

I congratulate those hon. Members who have tabled amendment No. 32. I fully support the principle that it seeks to establish, although its wording means that it cannot be implemented.

It is not my understanding of the amendment that if a disabled elector goes to a polling station his vote must necessarily be totted up with the other votes there. I am sure that his vote could be transferred and counted in the ward where that elector resides.

Every hon. Member will have experience of electors who are greatly disadvantaged because of the way in which ward boundaries are drawn. I used to live in Aberystwyth. One village in that ward, Capel Seion, consisted of a long road in a rural area with perhaps only 200 electors. The ward boundary went down the middle of the road for about two or three miles. Electors on one side of the road lived in Llanbadarn-y-Creuddyn Upper and were able to vote in the village, while the electors on the other side of the road were in Llanbadarn-y-Creuddyn Lower and had to travel three or four miles to vote in a different valley with a greater centre of population. There were complaints in sparsely populated areas, where winter sometimes creates difficult conditions, yet the returning officer could not recommend that in that case an extra polling station should be installed. Therefore, there is a case for special facilities being made available for disabled people.

Amendment No. 32 would apply only to an elector who has an absent vote. I know of difficulties where certain electors are physically handicapped yet have found it difficult to get an absent vote. In some areas, a doctor's signature is required and the electoral registration officer has to be satisfied with that signature. In other areas the conditions are not so strict. If I could be satisfied that physically handicapped voters would usually get an absent vote indefinitely, easily and simply, without having to write letters or having to go to town halls or guild halls for forms which then have to be taken to the doctor, that would go a long way to meeting the amendment.

Hon. Members have said that handicapped voters want to do the same as ordinary people and that that can never be completely achieved by the amendment. If the Government cannot accept the amendment now, I hope that they will consider whether some administrative procedure could be instituted and introduce an amendment to that effect on Report. If a handicapped voter wanted to go to the polls and if there were an accessible polling station, surely the administrative procedures could be made available so that that vote could be transferred and counted in the appropriate district. Therefore, I support the amendment.

Mr. Gerald Bermingham (St. Helens, South)

Perhaps I may pick up from where my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Dr. Marek) left off. It is a well known fact that polling districts change their boundaries periodically. Polling stations move and, with the development of movement of population, people find themselves in different polling districts, wards and, periodically, constituencies, without physically having moved.

A good friend of mine, who is severely disabled, has always been a keen student of politics. For a long time he voted at a polling station close to where he lived which was readily accessible. For him, the exercise of voting in person was important. When his local authority moved the ward boundary, he was suddenly in a different polling district, the polling station was some considerable distance away and he was no longer physically able to go there. That is a disgrace. He had not moved house and the polling station where he had gone was still some 50 to 70 yd away, but the boundary line now went between him and that polling station.

Bearing in mind that everyone is issued with a polling card with a name and polling number on it and every polling station to which I have ever been always seems to have a complete electoral register for the constituency or ward as a whole, it is ludicrous that my friend should not be able to take his polling card to the nearby polling station and exercise his democratic right.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Exeter (Mr. Hannam) on amendment No. 32. I agree entirely with what he has said. If the Government will not accept it, I hope that he will press it to a Division because it has considerable merit. In a modern electronic age, there is no reasonable excuse for not allowing that small number of persons the right to go to their nearest polling station.

Mr. Eric Forth (Mid-Worcestershire)

Can the hon. Gentleman help me? I am trying to envisage a polling station in which on a ward-by-ward basis a list of all electors is kept. If an elector from another area asked to exercise his right to vote at that polling station, would there not be difficulty for the officers administering the poll in verifying that person's identity to allow him to vote?

Mr. Bermingham

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. If we take as an example the smallest number of electors involved in an election for a district or parish council, the number of wards involved may be as small as five, 10 or 15. Surely it is not beyond the wit of man for a number of voting slips for adjacent wards at the district level to be left at each polling station. Alternatively, why not allow the polling officer the right to make a ballot paper which would have to be kept separate and secure? We can all think of little difficulties, but let us consider the overall principle.

How many such cases are we considering? It is a remarkably small number. Is it beyond the wit of a returning officer in a constituency in a general election or in a district council election to allow disabled persons in the constituency or district to vote in the polling stations nearest to them?

A medical certificate grants to a disabled person the right to vote at a polling station other than his own. It would not be beyond the wit of man to include in the application form the address of the nearest polling station. That would allow the returning office for the constituency or district to know the number of applications and the polling stations to which those applications were going to be made. The officers at those polling stations would then have the appropriate ballot papers available. Such ballot papers, instead of being put into the box, could be sealed, placed in a separate box and delivered to the appropriate counting point.

Mr. Peter Bruinvels

I envisage even greater problems than I did earlier. Assuming that the disabled person lives in the constituency neighbouring the one in which he works, I foresee great problems in trying to rush his ballot paper back to the appropriate constituency. Secondly, and more important, if the polling station is in the same constituency, I am certain that this system will still work because it will not affect the general election result. However, I would have considerable worries about the polling officer having loose ballot papers in the polling station. I seek the view of the hon. Gentleman on the situation in which the elector votes in one ward and lives in another, bearing in mind that wards sometimes have election results with majorities of only one or two.

Mr. Bermingham

As I failed to make myself clear the last time I went through the process, perhaps the hon. Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Bruinvels) will allow me to recite the simple fundamental point involved. At the time that the disabled person makes his application for the right to vote at a polling station other than his own, he should nominate the convenient polling station. If I may return to the example I cited earlier of my friend who is severely disabled and whose nearest appropriate polling station is 70 yd from his home, he would nominate that polling station in his application as the one at which he intended to vote. With regard to the hon. Gentleman's example of an elector working in a neighbouring constituency, that elector would nominate the polling station at which he intended to exercise his right to vote, and the nominated polling station would hold the appropriate polling slip or ballot form.

4.45 pm
Mr. Hannam

I think that the hon. Gentleman has it right. The amendment seeks to apply the same rules to disabled persons as are now applied to those who perforce are working in an area away from the appropriate polling station, such as polling officers and policemen on duty. They are obliged to carry out the procedure that the hon. Gentleman has outlined. We are asking that the procedure applied in the registration of an absent vote be applied to the disabled.

Mr. Bermingham

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, because I think that he agrees with me. A simple procedure can be devised to enable disabled people to vote at the most convenient polling station. As I understand it, that is precisely what the amendment seeks. It is unnecessary to draft a complicated series of provisions in order to permit the disabled to vote.

Dr. Marek

The problem has been raised of a disabled voter who lives in one ward but votes in a different electoral area. Does my hon. Friend agree that that clouds the issue? It may well be that we would have to rule out that type of change for the time being. However, it should be possible to devise some administrative system within a constituency for a disabled voter to vote at a different polling station from the one that collects the votes of other voters in the ward. That would go a long way to solving the problem.

Mr. Bermingham

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention, but I think that on this occasion he may have clouded the issue slightly. I am endeavouring to keep matters simple. If, in the city of Sheffield, a police officer is stationed on duty in the Hallam constituency and he is entitled to vote in the Attercliffe constituency, he is treated as an absent voter, the necessary arrangements and nominations are made and no problem arises. Elections are neither won nor lost on that one vote, because the vote is transferred.

Mr. Peter Bruinvels

They are.

Mr. Bermingham

The hon. Member for Leicester, East must not become obsessed with his own tiny majority, which seems to worry him.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

And rightly so.

Mr. Bermingham

If the procedures which work well for persons engaged in the electoral process are applied to the disabled, the numbers involved will be small. The same care that is taken with the votes of police officers and others will be taken with the votes of disabled persons.

It does not seem too high a price to pay in a democracy for a disabled person to have the right to cast his vote where it is most convenient and for that vote to be counted in the ward, district or constituency in which he is normally resident and entitled to vote. The transfer of such votes in the counting period should not give rise to any great difficulty. I therefore strongly urge the Conunittee and the Government to accept the amendment.

Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarfon)

I apologise to the hon. Member for Exeter (Mr. Hannam) for having missed his opening remarks.

I welcome the opportunity to debate a subject that must have affected every Member of Parliament at some time. All of us at the time of elections know of incidents in which disabled people have experienced difficulty with polling booths. My experience may be a little different from that of hon. Members who represent city areas.

My constituency is a rural area, with about 90 polling stations and only 60 or 70 electors in some areas. Only some of those stations are schools. Many are village halls or the vestries of chapels and churches and some are singularly unsuitable. At the last general election, one polling station was in the front room of a council house.

In such constituencies, problems arise and they must be taken into account in our consideration of the amendments. I support the objective of the amendments, though new clause 13 appeals to me more than does amendment No. 32, because it lays down a general objective that meets the wishes of most disabled people. They want to be able to vote in a normal, unselfconscious way. They do not want to be herded into different polling booths.

I have seen problems at first hand. In the town of Caernarfon, one polling station is in a reasonably accessible building, but it is on the second floor. People with heart complaints are upset because they cannot climb the stairs. That is a particularly prevalent problem in areas where a number of people suffer from pneumoconiosis. Such people have difficulty walking up hills and stairs.

We need to put pressure on the authorities that organise elections. It is not enough for them to show goodwill towards disabled people. There must be a requirement on them to take all "reasonable and practicable" steps. Those words appear in new clause 13 and, in another context, in the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act 1970. They should be included in the Bill.

There should be legislative pressure on the organisers of elections to use the polling stations that are most advantageous for disabled people and, if there are problems at some of those stations, to take "reasonable and practicable" steps to put them right; obviously, they cannot spend thousands of pounds adapting a building that will be used only once every three years.

Polling stations must be made as accessible as possible to disabled people. I refer not only to disabled people in wheelchairs, but to those who have difficulty walking up hills and those with sight difficulties who may have problems if they have to walk down steep slopes. We need to ensure that hand rails are provided and that access is through the most convenient door in a building and not, as is sometimes the case, through the least convenient door.

We want the Government to recognise the problem and to put responsibility on local authorities and ensure that they cannot wriggle out of it. At the same time, we must not impose such stringent conditions that it becomes impossible for those authorities to comply with that responsibility.

Mr. Forth

I hope that the Minister will tell us how he thinks that the administrative procedures recommended in the amendments would work in practice.

I agree that we must make every effort to ensure that people with disabilities of any kind can cast their vote in as near normal a way as possible — I favour easier access to normal polling stations as the best solution—but I get a little worried when we start complicating the administrative measures at individual polling stations to try to accommodate many possible methods of voting.

One of the great strengths of our present voting system and its procedures is their elegant simplicity. However good our motives, if we start to try to build in ever more procedures to cater for any number of possibilities, dangers of inaccuracies, the miscasting of votes, counting difficulties and so on will emerge. We should not cast aside such problems too lightly, because several hon. Members have majorities of fewer than 100 and some have majorities in single figures. It is possible for the miscasting of votes or the misplacing of ballot papers to cause serious electoral problems.

I hope that the Minister who is to reply will tell us how the administrative procedures would work, whether they would be viable and whether they would give rise to difficulties. Perhaps we would do better to provide easy access to polling stations rather than to over-complicate the important administrative and security procedures that are necessary at each polling station.

Mr. Alfred Dubs (Battersea)

At every election in which I have been involved, I have been impressed by the disabled people I have met while canvassing or on polling day and by their tremendous determination to vote, no matter what the difficulties. I am sure that my experience has been shared by other hon. Members, and it is a tribute to elderly people and those who find it difficult to move easily that they prefer to cast their vote in person than to exercise their right to a postal vote. It is a sign that they regard voting as a civic duty and is a lesson to all of us. I feel humble when I see the enormous dedication and determination of those people.

It is right that we should debate ways in which we can make it easier for some disabled people to vote—not that many such people want matters made easier for them. I should welcome the opportunity at the appropriate stage formally to move new clause 33, which is intended to cater for people who become disabled after the last date on which they were able to apply for a postal or proxy vote. If they are unable to go to a polling station in person, they should be able to vote by proxy, even if their disability occurs only just before polling day. That is a sensible provision which will ensure that no one is denied the right to vote through no fault of his own. New clause 13 also deserves support. If it is accepted, no disabled person who can get anywhere near a polling station will have any difficulty in casting his vote.

I think that all the polling stations in my constituency are at ground level and, apart from the two or three steps from a school playground into the building, which cause difficulty for disabled people, they do not present many problems.

However, even if most polling stations already conform to the requirements set out in the amendments, there will be a few that do not. Almost without exception, polling stations are situated in public buildings. If adequate access has to be provided at election time, it will almost certainly need to be provided for the other uses to which the building is put — for parents visiting schools, for example. Adapting buildings to improve access would not be a one-off operation for election time. It would be helpful for the rest of the time as well.

I am sympathetic to the intention behind amendment No. 32, but I have some reservations about it. There will be enormous difficulties for returning officers in dealing with people who are not on the voting list. Indeed, the person in charge at the polling station to which the disabled person would normally have gone may not know that his vote has been cast elsewhere. There is a danger that, for the most worthy of motives, we are making the position rather more difficult than is necessary. If we concentrated more on access, amendment No. 32 might be considered unnecessary even by those who have tabled it.

5 pm

It is unusual if the polling station to which an elector would normally go is not the one that is easiest for him to attend. Sometimes there are geographical quirks but those occasions are few and far between. Although I subscribe to the motives underlying amendment No. 32, I wonder whether it would be easy administratively to overcome the difficulties inherent in it. I express that reservation but I hope that new clause 13 will be passed, which would make amendment No. 32 unnecessary.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. David Mellor)

I am glad to have the opportunity to respond to a most useful debate. One cannot think of a more appropriate way of beginning our second day of deliberations on this important Bill than that we should consider the rights of the disabled in relation to voting and that there should be recognition, as there was from my hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr. Hannam), of the considerable improvements that the Bill already proposes. I am anxious to respond positively to the calls for further improvements.

My hon. Friend needs no commendation from me because his work for the disabled is well known. They have an eloquent spokesman in him and his contribution is appreciated by us all. We know too that this is a bipartisan matter. The hon. Member for Eccles (Mr. Carter-Jones), who has to be elsewhere at the moment, also does sterling work for the disabled, as does the right hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Ashley).

My hon. Friend the Member for Exeter pointed out that considerable improvements are proposed in the Bill for those disabled who want to exercise an absent vote. At the moment, a disabled voter has a right to a permanent absent vote where he or she has been certified as being unable to vote in person. That right is to a postal vote. If the Bill is passed in its present form, there would also be a right to vote by proxy, so that increases the choice for the disabled. Anyone who wished to apply in future for a postal vote on the ground of disability would be able to apply in the normal way for one election, without going through the special procedure, and would merely be required to fill in the form, including the reason why it would not be practicable to vote in person on the day, and obtain the appropriate counter signature. Of course, most disabled people would want a permanent postal vote. That requires certification, mainly but not exclusively, by a doctor. Those matters have properly been of concern to the all-party group.

My right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary is most interested in these matters and he has been with me on the Front Bench throughout these debates. Later I shall turn to his contribution four years ago when he was Minister of State at the Home Office. It has been pointed out in the debate that the help given by central Government to local authorities to improve facilities at polling stations has not been fully understood.

My right hon. and learned Friend has been in correspondence with the right hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South on the subject of certification. I welcome the opportunity to re-emphasise in Committee, as my right hon. and learned Friend did in his letter to the right hon. Gentleman, that when obtaining a certificate the disabled person is not required to pay a fee. General medical practitioners are not entitled to charge a fee for certifying an absent voting application on grounds of physical incapacity. They are prevented from doing so by paragraph 31 of the terms of service for doctors in schedule 1 to the National Health Service (General Medical and Pharmaceutical Services) Regulations 1974. That is an important point to put on the record, because there have been proper inquiries about it in the past.

We have tried to ensure that any disabled person who wishes to have an absent vote may get one with the minimum of fuss and difficulty. The point has been made tellingly from all sides of the Committee that some disabled persons welcome the opportunity to be able to vote in person and regard that ability as one of the many challenges in life that they wish to surmount. It is a challenge that keeps up the morale and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Bruinvels) said, the self-respect of the disabled.

I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Mr. Wigley) for his work for the disabled; his courage in facing up to disablement in his own family has won the admiration and respect of all of us. He referred to difficulties at polling stations. I think we have all had personal experience of this. In Putney, my constituency, our work for the disabled is perhaps the thing for which we are best known. In the constituency we have the headquarters of the limb manufacturing and fitting industry and also the Royal Hospital and Home for Incurables, one of the foremost institutions for the severely handicapped, where marvellous work is done and where modern technology has given a new dimension to life to those amongst the most severely disabled.

At the last general election, because of one of those unfortunate errors which sometimes happen and which reveal the importance of people being able to vote in person, a large number of postal vote applications for residents in the Royal Hospital went astray. So that they would not be deprived of their votes, a substantial operation was mounted to get them to the polling station. I know from my personal experience of that and from other encounters with disabled people that the ability to exercise their right to vote is of fundamental importance to them: I endorse what was said by the hon. Member for Battersea (Mr. Dubs). That was a major operation, carried out successfully because of the happy chance that the polling station at which those people voted is a modern community centre which had been built with the disabled in mind. Although there were considerable difficulties in getting the severely handicapped people to the polling station, once they were there they were able to vote with relative ease. There are other polling stations in my constituency and in other constituencies where that would not have been possible. We have rightly been addressing our minds to the consideration of how we can make the position easier.

Sir John Farr (Harborough)

My hon. Friend has talked about the desirable accuracy of the electoral register. He mentioned the regrettable incident which occurred in his constituency at the last election. Similar incidents occurred in other constituencies. On page 7 the White Paper recommends a form of computerisation: All authorities should be encouraged and if necessary assisted to install and to use modern technology to ensure the accuracy of their ERs. I am sure that would meet with the approval of my hon. Friend. Therefore, would not he think it a good idea that a new clause to that effect should be debated later?

Mr. Mellor

That is a different point. The point I was making was not that they were not on the register but that their applications for postal votes had gone astray. It is part of our policy — most of this should be done administratively — to try to ensure that modern administrative equipment is used in one of the most difficult jobs that people in town halls have to do—ensuring that the register is properly compiled and accurately maintained. A great deal of work has been done, including seminars with electoral registration officers on, for instance, enabling more members of minority communities to be registered. We have been making a determined effort, following the report on the extent of inaccuracies in the register, to improve it. I hope we shall be seen to be successful.

Facilitating the exercise of the franchise in person by the disabled has considerably concerned my right hon. and learned Friend. When he was Minister of State at the Home Office for the first two years of the last Parliament, he had responsibility for the job that I now do—special responsibility for electoral law. As a result of his initiative, a circular was issued in 1981 advising returning officers that the Treasury would meet half the cost of portable ramps to help electors in wheelchairs enter polling stations. The other half of the cost would be paid by the local authority. That circular has not, perhaps, been as widely noted as it could have been, and I am glad to emphasise its existence today. That was a significant step in the right direction, although not all disabled people require wheelchairs. That initiative recognised the financial implications; we would like more local authorities to take up that provision, and perhaps hon. Members could remind their returning officers of it.

Without widening the debate unreasonably, I want to say that the Government have a general policy, which they have sought to follow with thoroughness, to improve access to buildings for the disabled. The Department of Health and Social Security has set up committees to investigate in detail access to public buildings. In a trailblazing clause, the Secretary of State for the Environment inserted in a piece of legislation in 1970 a requirement that new buildings should be constructed with access for the disabled. That represented a material step forward.

The difficulty faced by returning officers is that they must have a polling station within each polling district. They must use the facilities available, many of which are schools built in an era before the interests of the disabled were paramount. To some extent, those buildings can be adapted for access by the use of ramps. Certainly returning officers should not gratuitously seek to make the plight of the disabled more difficult by, for example, placing a polling station on the second floor of a building when it would be just as simple to place it on the ground floor. If there is a choice of building, the building chosen should be the one that provides easiest access for the disabled, people with heart conditions and those who have difficulty in climbing stairs. We hope that exhortation alone will achieve that aim. Certainly the Government have been playing their part in that.

My right hon. and learned Friend and I feel that a case has been made today for a provision similar to that in new clause 13, which would require returning officers to have regard to the needs of disabled electors before designating a polling station. It is no criticism of my hon. Friend the Member for Exeter to say that I cannot accept his new clause lock, stock and barrel, because it has been prepared without the advice of parliamentary counsel. However, if I say that I am minded to bring forward an amendment on Report, I hope that he will feel that he has done a useful and worthwhile job in raising the issue today. In the face of such widespread agreement, it would be curmudgeonly of the Government not to do so, especially in view of the commitment to the issue that we have demonstrated over a number of years.

Mr. Peter Bruinvels

Is my hon. Friend aware that polling often takes place at schools where the remainder of the school functions as normal? In one part of my constituency, a polling station was designated at the back of the school in an outbuilding. What would be my hon. Friend's guidance in such a case, as the school obviously continues to function throughout polling day? Can guidance be given to returning officers to place the polling station in a classroom at the front of the school so that the disabled do not have to try to reach the rear of the building to vote?

5.15 pm
Mr. Mellor

The proposition embraced in new clause 13 would place returning officers under an obligation to make the best possible arrangements for disabled voters. It is then a matter for those concerned locally with the matter to make representations if they think that that rule is not being followed.

Mr. James Molyneaux (Lagan Valley)

Any instructions given to returning officers must filter down to the presiding officers, who often choose the sites in the buildings for booths and ballot boxes. The Minister, with his usual courtesy and sympathy, will no doubt accept that point. We must ensure that the polling station is placed in the most accessible part of the building.

Mr. Mellor

I agree with the right hon. Gentleman. Any duty placed on returning officers will also be a duty on their staff, and that would include presiding officers. The returning officers must ensure that the presiding officers do not take decisions contrary to the duties laid upon them. These are very local matters, which is why I stress again that, although we can lay a framework placing an obligation on returning officers, it is the people in the locality who must act on any suggestion that that obligation is being breached by insensitive placing of polling stations.

I share some of the reservations expressed by the hon. Member for Battersea about amendment No. 32. I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his place on the Opposition Front Bench. I have teased him a little that his services on the Select Committee have caused him to be put into purdah on this Bill. The invisible export of his hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North (Mr. Kilroy-Silk) to Sri Lanka has brought the hon. Gentleman to the Front Bench. However, I gather that his hon. Friend is due to return.

We must ensure that the polling station is made as accessible as possible for the disabled and I believe that considerable strides forward can be made in that direction. The difficulty with making arrangements for the disabled to vote at polling stations other than their own is that it cuts across what was eloquently described by the hon. Member for Caernarfon, when he said that the disabled want to exercise their franchise rights in as normal a way as possible. Obviously, to go to someone else's polling station is abnormal. To accept that would be almost an admission that we cannot make the overwhelming majority of polling stations accessible for the disabled.

Since 1887, those working at the polling stations on election day have had the right to vote in polling stations other than their home station. It is an informal arrangement because it does not rely on there being a printed list of the people available at the polling station at which they cast their vote. They are placed on trust—if they cast their vote in one polling station they will not then go to their home polling station and cast again. I am not suggesting that disabled people would take the opportunity offered by amendment No. 32 to cast their vote twice. But as there is no structure within which to take wider than the limited application — applying to police officers, presiding officers, staff and so on—the right to vote at another polling station, it would be difficult to make an extension without building in some kind of administrative infrastructure which might be more trouble that it would be worth.

I suggest that, having made progress by common consent in the direction of the sentiments expressed in new clause 13, we leave amendment No. 32 for the moment in the hope that the accessibility of the individual's polling station might be so improved that we shall not need to look at the necessity to go further and adopt the alternative scheme that amendment No. 32 suggests.

Mr. Bermingham

Will the Minister agree that the number of persons involved in the suggestion embodied in amendment No. 32 would be small, so that there would not be the degree of administrative difficulty that he foresees? We are thinking of a limited number of cases, such as that of my friend whose nearest polling station is only 70 yards distant but is in a different polling district. Under the scheme proposed in the amendment, the polling station would be nominated at the time of application. Thus, few of the difficulties to which the Minister referred would arise. Perhaps the hon. Gentlemen will give the matter more thought between now and Report, and I shall write him on the subject.

Mr. Mellor

I always take the hon. Gentleman seriously and will consider anything about which he writes to me. We have made such progress in the direction of improvements in relation to what one might term the home polling station that I am not sure that I shall be likely to change my mind about amendment No. 32, and I hope that I carry hon. Members with me in uttering a word of caution about that amendment.

I hope that it has been abundantly demonstrated in our debates on the Bill generally that we are interested in trying to carry as wide a consensus as possible on the proposals that are being made about the rules by which we get to this place and by which a great many more do not get here.

I am glad that the hon. Member for Battersea focused on new clause 33 because it embraces an important concept. Because of the adminstrative difficulties of arranging absent voting, an application for an absent vote must be in on the Wednesday, two weeks and one day before polling day, on the assumption one always makes that polling day is on a Thursday.

Because of the considerable widening of the availability of absent votes under the Bill, we thought it right to say—my right hon. and learned Friend said it in the debate on the White Paper — that we intended to make arrangements by which applications for postal votes would close on the Monday, two weeks and three days before polling day.

We recognise that that two weeks and three days is a considerable time, during which, in the normal course of events, some people will fall ill or be admitted to hospital and that a number of people will lose the ability to go to the polls in person without having the entitlement to obtain absent voting facilities.

It has been represented to us by hon. Members in all parts of the Committee, and formally by the Opposition, that it would be appropriate to make arrangements by which procedures could be introduced to allow people taken ill during that period to have a chance to apply later for absent voting facilities, be it in respect of a postal vote or, as is proposed in new clause 33, by proxy.

The Government have been looking at this issue since we embarked on the process of consultation on the Bill. We consulted the political parties and local authority associations at an early stage on a proposal to give the registration officer a discretion to accept late applications in those circumstances.

The local authority associations were unenthusiastic about the extra work that it would cause them. However, I am not sure that the case for taking action is not sufficiently compelling to hon. Members for it to be appropriate to take the matter back to the local authority associations and say that it is the will of Parliament that some change be made in that direction.

There will remain a live issue as to what the cut-off point should be for that; plainly, it could not be allowed right up to polling day. There would have to be a few days before polling day when anyone then taken ill would lose the right to vote. I believe that I carry the Committee with me in saying that it would be right to try to move the deadline markedly forward for those taken ill or admitted to hospital.

We can do that without adding anything to the face of the Bill. While I appreciate that the new clause was tabled as a way of enabling the matterto be considered, the hon. Member for Battersea will appreciate that the matter could be dealt with by way of regulations. If I give an undertaking that, on having further consultations with the parties and local authority associations on when the cut-off point should be, we shall put new arrangements in regulations, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not press the new clause, having achieved the purpose which he had in mind.

Mr. Dubs

indicated assent.

Mr. J. Enoch Powell (South Down)

There is a distinction between putting the cut-off date nearer to polling day and making different arrangements for those who, between whatever is the cut-off date and polling day, still might qualify. We shall have to reflect on the Minister's statement. In the meantime, will he agree that, from the point of view of those engaged in an election, the cut-off date, though much too early at present — experience at the last election reinforced that view in many people's minds—is of considerable importance, as all sorts of procedures related to communication with the electors hang on that date? There were, therefore, two distinct propositions wrapped up in what the Minister said.

Mr. Mellor

That is why we shall take further views before making any announcement about regulations. As the right hon. Gentleman says, these are significant points, and we do not want to create difficulties elsewhere by moving towards a means of enfranchising the limited number of people—an important section of the community—who fall ill in that period. They would need to be different arrangements from those that would apply before the main cut-off point, which, for the administrative reasons that I have given, must be longer before polling day than most of us, as practising candidates, would ever have wished.

On the basis that this has been a useful debate and that the main thrust of the points has gone home or will be acted on by the Government, I hope that my hon. Friend will withdraw the amendment.

Mr. Hannam

The Committee is grateful to my hon. Friend for the manner in which he responded to the debate and for his acceptance of the principle involved, which is to try to enable disabled people to vote in person rather than by any other means. To win two out of three is a good record in any debate, and I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 5 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

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