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Mr. William Ross: The existing time scale has been written in to prevent fraud by ensuring that applications are genuine. My electoral officers tell me that it is already extremely tight. It is difficult to understand how the hon. Member for Battersea (Mr. Linton) could, a few minutes ago, have calmly accepted clause 12, which provides that the existing arrangements shall persist in Northern Ireland--something with which I am in full agreement. His intention may be good--although it is all motherhood and apple pie in my view--but it is inconceivable that the measure would work in practice. I hope that the Committee will reject the amendment.

Mr. George Howarth: My hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Mr. Linton) makes a strong argument. The principle and sentiment behind his amendment are good. The difficulty for my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department and I is that all our present advice suggests that the practical problems of implementation foreseen by the electoral administrators would make it hard--if not impossible--to comply with such a deadline.

However, my hon. Friend has undertaken to speak to the electoral administrators--if possible, he will do so next week--to impress upon them the feelings of the Committee, to see whether we can find a way of dealing with the practicalities. I caution the Committee to take seriously the strictures of the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Ross). When we make such changes, we must be absolutely certain that we do not open the door to fraud. With those remarks, and our positive attitude, I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea will feel able to withdraw the amendment.

Mr. Linton: With that assurance from my hon. Friend, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Schedule 4 agreed to.

Clause 13

Assistance with voting for persons with disabilities.

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.

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(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--

(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.".

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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.".

6.45 pm

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

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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.

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