Previous SectionIndexHome Page

12.48 pm

Mr. Harry Barnes (North–East Derbyshire): I congratulate the hon. Member for Billericay (Mr. Baron) and my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Simon) on their maiden speeches. There is much that I would like to say arising from their contributions, but I am conscious of the time constraints.

We have just been through a general election, so it seems appropriate to talk about electoral issues. There are questions that, in logic, should precede the questions that people traditionally want to debate, such as proportional representation versus first past the post, poor turnouts and compulsory voting, and which candidates people should vote for. Those are morally important questions, but we need to discuss other matters that, although they are procedural, should be first on the agenda—they need to be got out of the road first.

First, there is the need for full electoral registration on registers that are convenient for people and enable them to exercise their franchise rights. The Representation of the People Act 2000 went some way towards achieving that objective by introducing rolling registers, but in our highly mobile society, advanced technology should enable us to do more. We have started out down the road of rolling registers, but they are still slow and halting. We need a system that quickly picks up people who have moved and ensures that no one is missed.

I have often argued for the registration of homeless people. The ideal solution would be to have no homelessness and so no need for special registration for such people. The Representation of the People Act introduced certain measures and, in terms of technical provision, we have done well in advancing the case for the registration of the homeless. It is now for those organisations that assist or comprise homeless people to ensure that such measures are used. Perhaps other techniques could also be used to search out the homeless and ensure that they are registered.

People who are part of the society in which they reside should be on the electoral register, so I am not in favour of overseas registration—the expat vote—and I certainly do not support the current periods involved. Such people have become part of the society to which they have moved.

Britain should allow registration of all foreign nationals resident here. They are part of this society and that facility should not be available only for people from the Republic of Ireland and the Commonwealth. Others who reside in Britain are equally part of our society and should be taken into account.

20 Jul 2001 : Column 573

The exclusion of prisoners from registers is no longer relevant. Such people are members of society and should have a vote. They will not dominate the electoral game and they are serving a sentence for their crime, so the franchise should not be taken away from them.

As a result of my attitudes to electoral registration, I have concluded that those aged 16 and over should be enfranchised. Britain should move to an identity card system and the time for identity cards and electoral registration is when people move out of schools into higher education or jobs. Those approaching 16 should be involved, despite a possible low turnout, as we experienced among 18 to 21-year-olds. Practical steps, such as civic education in schools, might provide a way forward.

Even if all those matters were dealt with, a problem still exists for a particular group. Even with full and proper registration, there is a gap in the arrangements. I refer to access for disabled people to polling stations. Even if disabled people have the same rights as everyone else to be on the electoral register, they have a serious problem if they cannot get into polling stations on the same basis as able-bodied people.

The Representation of the People Act extended the facilities for postal and proxy votes to everyone—able-bodied and disabled people alike—and certain returning officers may have thought that that solved the problem of disabled people. However, disabled people should have the same right as anyone else in society to turn up at a polling station and exercise their rights. If they decide to arrange a postal or proxy vote, that should be on the same basis as anyone else would decide to do so—they may be off on holiday, or there may be family reasons or other inconveniences that make it difficult for them to vote. It should not be a matter of their disability. They should still be able to get into the polling station and exercise their right. Indeed, they might turn up at a polling station to exercise the proxy of one of their friends or relatives.

For most people, voting at a polling station is still the proper exercise of their franchise rights. It gives them the chance for a last-minute change of heart and the opportunity to share in the atmosphere of what should be an important public occasion. The more we detract from that, the less people will be inclined to participate in the electoral process.

The 2000 Act made only minor but nevertheless welcome changes to assist disabled people to vote. It contained provisions for equipment at polling stations to enable the blind and partially sighted to vote unaided, and gave people who cannot read the right to have a companion to vote on their behalf. Physical access to polling stations has not yet been tackled in legislation, apart from some weak provisions in the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. No measure applying specifically to disabled people has been adopted in representation of the people legislation.

Scope recently published a third report entitled "Polls Apart". The first report revealed the extent of the problems following the general election in 1992. The second report dealt with the situation in 1997. The third report refers to the recent general election and is based on a nationwide survey of 1,965 polling stations. It revealed that, despite improvements since 1997, only a third of the polling stations covered were fully accessible.

20 Jul 2001 : Column 574

The survey covered 474 constituencies. Common problems were steps, dangerous ramps and slippery floors. In some cases, disabled voters had to vote in the street or have their ballot papers marked by others. Some were simply turned away and disfranchised. At a polling station in Streatham, a notice stated, "If you need assistance, please ask someone to fetch one of the poll clerks."

That is not adequate. It reminds me of Lady Olga Maitland, who said, in opposing civil rights legislation in this House, that a bell outside a shop was an advance in disability provision. She has now gone, and that may have been one of the reasons. I do not know how much access her constituents had to polling stations, but I would think that disabled people made considerable efforts to get into the polling stations where she was standing.

Draft legislation is available to introduce full access to polling stations. I proposed two private Member's Bills when I fell lucky in the draw and had time on a Friday to pursue them. The first was the Representation of the People Bill 1993, which had the access to polling stations provision added to it. The Bill referred mainly to the rolling register, but I thought that that was not enough.

I fell lucky again two years later, and proposed the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill 1994, which was debated in 1995. Again an improved version of the access proposals was included in the Bill. During discussions on the Representation of the People Act 2000 on 13 January 2000, I tabled an amendment based on the previous draft legislation. The measures are there for people to examine, and it is possible for the Government to propose them, based on the principles contained in my Bills.

I can claim some prime ministerial support for those of my proposals that were included in the 1993 Bill. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister was shadow Home Secretary at the time, and he sent a note to Labour Members, saying:

I will not read the rest of the letter. This does not quite amount to a Whip, which would have violated the requirements of private business. It was an encouragement. If it was a Whip, it was notoriously unsuccessful. John Smith, as leader of the Labour party, and the bulk of the Shadow Cabinet turned up. We had a great attendance from the top end of the party, but not enough Back Benchers turned up. The closure motion was carried by 78 votes to nil and, as the House knows, we need 100 people in the Lobby for a measure to proceed.

On the next occasion, the Bill containing the access to polling stations proposal was carried by about 176 votes to nil, but was sidelined in Committee by the then Government. The person who led for the Government and blocked the measure was the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague).

Any of us could at any time face disability. Potentially, we all belong to the group of disabled people. I have been through the experience. In the House of Commons on 4 June 1998, I was sitting next to my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) in the front row below the Gangway when I suffered a stroke. I was taken from the House to St. Thomas's by my hon. Friend and the present Speaker of the House. I was in a very bad

20 Jul 2001 : Column 575

state and was temporarily disabled. It can happen to any of us at any time, so we all have a personal interest in disability, as well as a general interest on our constituents' behalf.

Next Section

IndexHome Page