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Mr. Mike O'Brien: The working party on electoral procedures was very concerned to improve access to the electoral process for blind and partially sighted voters. It made a number of recommendations in this area to which the Bill gives effect. One of them was that a large-print version of the ballot paper should be displayed in the polling station. That will enable partially sighted voters to ascertain who the candidates are, and to decide whom they favour.

Amendment No. 106 would require such a large-print version of the ballot paper to be displayed in every voting compartment. Is that really necessary? So long as a large-print version is displayed prominently in the polling station, partially sighted voters will be able to study the list of candidates to decide whom they like before retiring to the privacy of the voting booth to cast their vote. I shall describe in a moment how they might do that.

In the recent European parliamentary elections, the ballot paper in the London region was 77.5 cm long. That is 31 in for those hon. Members who have not yet converted to metric. That was the normal size. I cannot begin to imagine how large a large-print version would be, but I imagine that it would be too long to fit neatly into a standard voting booth. For those reasons, I do not think that it would be wise to pass amendment No. 106.

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Once having made up their mind how they want to vote, blind and partially sighted voters will be able to vote, thanks to another working party recommendation, by using a voting template. That might take the form of a piece of cardboard into which the ballot paper can be slotted. An ordinary ballot paper could be slotted into the piece of card. It would have holes cut out over the boxes in which crosses are placed so the voter, having decided by using the large sign which candidate he wants to vote for--that is, if he is partially sighted--can use his fingers to count down on the ballot paper to vote for whichever candidate he or she wishes.

We are also considering what form the voting template should take, and would welcome suggestions. One issue that we must consider is whether it would be sensible and cost-effective--it may well be--to use the voting template for Braille, so that some element of the Braille list could appear on the template. The ordinary ballot paper could still be used, so that people could put their ballot paper into the box in the ordinary way, and no one would know, when the votes were counted, whether it was that of a blind person or a person who was partially sighted.

The working party has already started to address some of the issues. Having shown that the Bill contains some useful suggestions for ways in which we would assist the blind and partially sighted, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will feel able to withdraw his amendment.

Mr. Ross: Although I am satisfied with the answer to amendment No. 106, I am not satisfied with the answer given to amendment No. 107. If there were 36 names on the ballot paper, what size would the large-print version be in the polling station? It would cover a wall of the school. In Northern Ireland, we are familiar with quite long lists under the proportional representation system.

I hope that the Minister will reconsider the suggestion. It depends on the amount of sight that the individual has, which can range from pretty well non-existent to reasonably good. However, having heard what the Minister said, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Ross: I beg to move amendment No. 108, in page 15, leave out lines 19 to 21.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 109, in page 15, line 30, leave out from "election" to end of line 32.

Mr. Ross: These amendments are in the same general spirit as the previous two. As the Bill is drafted, it seems that a companion can assist only two people, both of whom are close relations, or that the companion must be eligible to vote in that election. Those are two entirely different classes of people who can go into a polling booth with a disabled person to help him or her vote. We must think more carefully about the provision.

The relatives are specified in the words that I seek to remove through amendment No. 109. They are the

and have

    "attained the age of 18 years."

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    Those individuals do not need to be able to vote in the election--in other words, they may live in a different ward or constituency.

However, any person

    "who is entitled to vote as an elector"

--not a relation at all--can go along and act as a companion, to help the disabled person to vote. Why, then, is it necessary to list all the close relations? There must be sensible explanation, or have officials simply got into a twist when they tried to define who could act as a companion?

The relations need not be able to vote in the elections. They may live 100 miles away and come to help the disabled voter. Some people have few relations or none living locally, and there might be three disabled people living in one house, who might all need help and who might have only one relative living close by.

A Conservative elector living in a mining village may not be willing to ask another resident of that village for help. I can think of similar situations, for different reasons, in Northern Ireland. The difficulties are not fully addressed in the Government's proposals.

I am curious as to why the companion should be aged 18 or more. How is that to be established? If the companion is an immediate relation or is entitled to vote in the election, he or she may be on the list of electors and therefore obviously over 18, but if the companion is from some distance away, or is simply missing from the register for whatever reason, there is no way that the presiding officer, who apparently has to make the decision in such cases, can know whether the person is over 18 or not. He or she could be 16 or 17. There is therefore a potential difficulty.

I do not understand why one elector can assist two people. In Northern Ireland, one can act as a witness for only one individual--even a member of one's family--who applies for a postal or proxy vote. As the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland knows, that has caused all sorts of problems. It would be preferable if the person--a family member or party worker, who is often known to the electoral officers--could assist, or witness papers for any number of people. That would facilitate checking whether the papers and applications were genuine. I do not understand why the restriction is necessary.

I tabled an amendment--No. 110, which was not called--to discover why there has to be a declaration, which is presumably signed, in the polling station when the vote is cast. At 10 am, there are not many people in the polling station. However, at 8 pm or 9 pm, an enormous number of people might be waiting to vote. They will not want any sort of delay. Having to make a declaration will create a delay. Why does the Bill provide that people have to sign a piece of paper, which the presiding officer has to accept, before they can vote?

I hope that the Minister has a reasonable answer to those points. If not, perhaps he will reconsider them, because there are problems with the provision.

Mr. Mike O'Brien: The hon. Gentleman made several interesting points, which deserve consideration. I should like to give them that consideration and, if the hon. Gentleman will bear with me, I shall write to him about the issues that he raised.

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The provision attempts to assist voters who may benefit from being accompanied. I hope that we can take account of some of the hon. Gentleman's points, tackle them through correspondence and perhaps discuss them later.

Mr. Ross: In the light of the Minister's response, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 13 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 14 and 15 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 16

Citation, construction, commencement and extent

Amendment made: No. 92, in page 17, line 16, leave out "extends" and insert
"and paragraph 1ZA of Schedule 5 extend".--[Mr. Mike O'Brien.]
Clause 16, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Schedule 5

Minor and Consequential Amendments

Amendments made: No. 93, in page 39, line 28, at end insert--

"City of London (Various Powers) Act 1957 (c. x)

1ZA.--(1) Section 8 of the City of London (Various Powers) Act 1957 (manner of voting at ward elections) is amended as follows.
(2) In subsection (1) (application of provisions of 1983 Act), after the entry relating to section 3 of the 1983 Act insert--
"section 3A (disfranchisement of offenders detained in mental hospitals);".
(3) In subsection (2), (application of provisions about absent voting) for "sections 5 to 9 and 12(3) and (4) of the Representation of the People Act 1985" substitute "Schedule 4 to the Representation of the People Act 2000".
(4) In subsections (4) and (5) (supplementary provisions), for "1985" (wherever occurring) substitute "2000".".
No. 94, in page 41, line 34, at end insert--
"Finance Act 1996 (c. 8)

14. In section 200 of the Finance Act 1996 (domicile for tax purposes of overseas electors), in subsection (3)(a), for the words from "mentioned in" to "section 1" substitute "of parliamentary electors in pursuance of such a declaration as is mentioned in section 1(1)(a)".".--[Mr. Mike O'Brien.]
Schedule 5, as amended, agreed to.

Schedule 6


Amendments made: No. 95, in page 42, line 23, column 3, at end insert--
"Section 11(b) (except the final "and").
In Schedule 2, paragraph 5 and Part II.".
No. 96, in page 42, line 27, leave out "and 18' and insert ", 18 and 78".

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No. 97, in page 42, line 27, at end insert--
"1989 c. 3.Elected Authorities (Northern Ireland) Act 1989.Section 11(8).

In section 13(7), the words ", except section 11(8),".
1989 c. 28.Representation of the People Act 1989.Sections 1 to 4.".

No. 98, in page 42, line 29, at end insert--
"1994 c. 19.Local Government (Wales) Act 1994.In Schedule 16, paragraph 74(1).".

No. 99, in page 42, line 35, at end insert--
"1999 c. 1.European Parliamentary Elections Act 1999.In Schedule 3, paragraph 3.".

No. 100, in page 43, line 6, column 3, at beginning insert "Section 11(1).".--[Mr. Mike O'Brien.]
Schedule 6, as amended, agreed to.

New Clause 2

Special arrangements for registration when election announced

".--In paragraph 28(1) of Schedule 1 to the principal Act, for the words "as soon as practicable" there shall be substituted the words "within four days of the dissolution of Parliament" and the following paragraph shall be added--
"3A.--(1) The returning officer shall forthwith notify the registration officer that he has issued the official poll cards.
(2) When the registration officer has been notified by the returning officer of the issue of official poll cards for any election, he shall, in at least two newspapers circulating widely in his area, a local radio station and otherwise as he considers fit, place advertisements--
(a) requesting persons failing to receive official poll cards to check that their names are on the register; and
(b) setting out a form on which application may be made for registration.".".--[Mr. Barnes.]
Brought up, and read the First time.

7.15 pm

Mr. Barnes: I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

My interest has always been to try to get as full a franchise as we can from those who are eligible to be placed on registers. The new clause seeks the early issue of polling cards and a great deal of publicity about their issue to alert people to the fact that polling cards are available. Those cards should tell people whether they are on the register and if they do not receive one they need to check their position. Some may be on the register, but others should still have the opportunity to get themselves registered.

My problem, because my previous amendments have been lost, is that at general elections there is only a small window of opportunity--between the dissolution of Parliament and the close of nominations--for people to get themselves on to electoral registers. That is the last point at which registers could be published. Had previous amendments been accepted, there would have been much wider opportunities for getting people on to registers.

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