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Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: Perhaps I may advise the noble Baroness that, whatever I say, I think that we shall have discussions outwith the Committee, so I shall give in gracefully on that. Of course, we can continue to talk and I shall continue to talk to my right honourable and honourable friends who are more

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involved than myself in some of these matters at departmental level. The noble Baroness may not thank me for that—

Baroness Darcy (De Knayth): I do thank the Minister for that, and beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 70 not moved.]

Clause 12 agreed to.

10.30 p.m.

Lord Monkswell moved Amendment No. 71:

After Clause 12, insert the following new clause:

("Access to polling station

.—(1) In exercise of his functions under paragraph 25 of Schedule 1 to the principal Act, the returning officer shall have particular regard to the accessibility of polling stations to disabled persons.
(2) The returning officer shall carry out an annual accessibility audit of each polling station, and shall consult thereon such organisations as appear to him to be representative of disabled persons in his area.
(3) Following the audit pursuant to subsection (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.
(4) 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.
(5) 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 this Act; and
(b) all polling stations shall be so designated within five years of the passing of this Act.
(6) Details of the designated status (or otherwise) of a polling station shall be provided by the returning officer on all official poll cards.
(7) The Secretary of State shall by regulations require each returning officer annually to report to him the results of the review of polling districts and the suitability of access for disabled persons to polling stations made pursuant to subsection (2) above, and shall lay before Parliament a summary report of all such reviews.
(8) The Secretary of State shall by regulations provide for returning officers to provide equipment to facilitate access by disabled persons to designated polling stations, but no equipment shall be provided under this subsection which requires any permanent modification to the structure or fittings of the polling station without the consent of the owner or any lessee of the building.
(9) Any costs incurred under subsection (1) above shall constitute expenses incurred by a returning officer for the purposes of section 29 of the principal Act.
(10) A registered disabled person may apply to the returning officer to vote at a designated polling station not less than one week before the election and, on receipt of such an application, the returning officer shall allot that person to the nearest designated polling station in that constituency to the address at which that person is registered.
(11) In this section—
"registration officer" and "returning officer" have the same meanings as in the principal Act;

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"accessibility audit" means an assessment of the practicability and convenience of access and use, with particular emphasis on access and use by those who have physical or mental disabilities;
"the principal Act" means the Representation of the People Act 1983.").

The noble Lord said: I apologise to the Committee and to the Minister for not being in my place when Amendment No. 63A was scheduled to take place. One of the glories of the Chamber is that we cannot predetermine the time when matters come up. That inevitably leads to some minor disasters on all sides.

This is very much a probing amendment to try to ascertain the Government's views on the subject. The amendment would ensure that polling stations were made accessible to disabled people. It would require access audits to be carried out and the designation of those polling stations which are fully accessible, and to publicise the fact. It would also ensure that a phase-in for full accessibility was planned: half to be accessible within two years and all to be accessible within five years.

The right to vote is a fundamental expression of citizenship within a democracy. The act of voting is among the most potent expressions of the right to self-determination and freedom to choose that an individual has. However, in a country that prides itself on its democratic system, many disabled people are excluded from the democratic process, primarily because of the inaccessibility of polling stations.

Physical and other access problems are widespread. That has been highlighted by the findings of Polls Apart, which was a survey of access to polling stations conducted during the l992 general election by the Spastics Society. The Spastics Society is now called Scope. Most polling stations are situated in public buildings such as schools, community centres and public halls. Yet the overwhelming majority proved to be inaccessible to people with mobility difficulties.

Disabled people have the right to vote, but the Bill does not help to make that right a practical reality. Polling stations are supposed to be sited, where practicable, in accessible venues; yet only 12 per cent. of polling stations were fully accessible at the last general election. Furthermore, the provisions in Part III to ensure access would not necessarily apply, because Clause 15(2) provides that adjustments have to be made or service providers can:

    "provide a reasonable alternative method of making the service in question available to disabled persons".

The Government will argue that there is an alternative to voting in person which overcomes the problems of lack of access, and that is the postal or proxy vote. However, disabled people do not view postal or proxy votes as a reasonable alternative. Disabled people feel that it is important to vote in person, and that elections are an opportunity to participate in an important public activity. They want to cast their votes at the polling station and experience the excitement and sense of commitment that that involves.

Disabled people do not like the impersonal aspect of postal or proxy votes and, most important, believe that it represents yet another way in which disabled people are excluded from the mainstream of political life.

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The Government provide grants towards the cost of temporary ramps to be used at parliamentary and European parliamentary elections, but not local elections. Grants are not available towards the cost of permanent ramps. It seems shortsighted to encourage the provision of temporary ramps when permanent ramps work out cheaper in the long run. There would, for example, be no storage problems between elections, and it would further our goal of providing an environment which is accessible to disabled people.

In the White Paper the Government stressed that the elimination of discrimination against disabled people cannot be realised overnight. Disabled people recognise that they must move forward with a realistic timetable and practical measures to tackle discrimination. The amendment accepts that approach. I recognise that not all polling stations can be made accessible overnight, and for that reason there is a phase-in of designated polling stations. That should be viewed as a temporary measure. The aim is to ensure full accessibility where disabled people can vote at the local polling station alongside everyone else.

The first step is to establish the number of polling stations which are accessible. That audit should be done in conjunction with disability organisations, which will be able to give practical advice about the problems which disabled people face. On the basis of that audit, the returning officer will be better placed to remedy the access problems.

Disabled access to polling stations would also prevent discrimination against disabled candidates for election. Having been a candidate, as have a number of Members of the Committee, I know that it is important to be able to go into the polling station, talk to the polling clerks, find out whether they have any problems and try to ensure that they are solved. It also reassures one's supporters that the election is being conducted fairly and everything is open and above board. Both disabled candidates and disabled electors would be helped by the measure.

Perhaps I may give an example of how the physical situation of the polling station can have a significant effect. I was a candidate in a local council ward in Manchester. After my election I noticed that at one of the polling stations the turnout was significantly less than expected. Although the polling station was situated in the middle of the area, it was on the fringe of the residential area. On the other side of that area was a Tesco's superstore and no one was living there. For some people living on the estate, voting entailed a significant walk down a difficult, dark track. Obviously that put people off going to the polling station to vote.

Following my intervention at the town hall, a polling station was sited in the middle of the estate rather than on the edge. The result was that in the subsequent election the turnout increased dramatically. I am not sure what effect that had on the result but I know that it enabled more people to contribute and be part of the electoral process. We should welcome the idea that more people can take part in the process and, on that basis, I beg to move.

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