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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

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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

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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 insert

(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 a

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.

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Committee report progress.

Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 15 (Exempted business),

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.

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