HC Deb 20 March 1997 vol 292 cc1057-8
1. Mr. Gerrard

To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department what action he is taking to improve the accessibility of polling stations to people with disabilities. [19782]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Tom Sackville)

We issue advice and guidance to acting returning officers, who are most directly responsible for selecting polling places and polling stations, and provide grant aid towards the costs of purchasing temporary ramps and polling booths specially adapted to the needs of voters who are wheelchair users.

Mr. Gerrard

Does the Minister recall that a survey conducted at the time of the last general election revealed that 88 per cent. of polling stations had access problems? Does he accept that the vast majority of disabled people want to vote in person? Does he accept also that many of them will not be able to do so at this general election because simple improvements, such as ramps, better lighting or allowing people to vote at a more accessible location, have not been carried out because the Government failed to do what they could, and should, have done in the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 to ensure that accessibility is not an option, but a legal requirement?

Mr. Sackville

I am certainly aware of the Spastics Society report to which the hon. Gentleman refers. We want to minimise the number of people who have to vote by proxy or by post because of disablement. However, I remind the hon. Gentleman that, since the last general election, we have paid out £175,000 in grants to local authorities to try to help improve access to polling stations. Many of the buildings concerned are primary schools and libraries at which access arrangements are improving all the time.

Mr. Butler

Can my hon. Friend confirm that this is another case where the generosity of the Treasury is unlimited, and that the grants available are uncapped? Is he aware that, in common with many colleagues on this side of the House, I wrote to my returning officer some weeks ago asking him to ensure that arrangements for the disabled were in place before the general election?

Mr. Sackville

My hon. Friend is taking a risk in revealing the fact that the budget is uncapped. It is true that any requests for grants for those purposes are met, so long as they are eligible, and that any local authority may seek grant aid to improve access to polling stations.

Rev. Martin Smyth

We welcome that information. Do electoral returning officers act upon the guidance that they are given? We are all aware that polling day is a social occasion, and it is tragic if the disabled are prevented from voting when alternative accommodation may be available.

Mr. Sackville

I assure the House that we have repeatedly reminded electoral returning officers that people have a right to vote, and that the number of those who are unable to vote in person must be kept to an absolute minimum. I assure the hon. Gentleman that improvements are proceeding apace.