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Baroness Blatch: Can the Minister name some of the organisations to which he is referring when he talks about the network of organisations concerned with disability in local communities? My experience is that organisations such as Scope and MENCAP rely almost entirely on voluntary fundraising, whether it be local
Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: In contrast to the position in relation to racial equality issues at the start, we are fortunately blessed with many effective local groups for disabled people. Therefore, an important role for the new commission will be to work with those networks. Such networks were not in place in relation to racial equality issues.
Baroness Blatch: The Minister is missing my point. We are now placing on the commission statutory obligations. If the commission determines to use those organisations which rely at the moment on voluntary contributions, it will, just as the racial equality organisations do, expect to receive statutory funding to meet those statutory obligations.
Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: Many of those local organisations are, in one way or another, in receipt of grants. If the disability rights commission is to be effective, it will need to have in place an effective network in order to communicate with these local groups. What I dispute with the noble Baroness is the case that, necessarily, one needs regional offices to assist that process. That decision is much better taken by the commission when it has had time to establish itself.
Lord Rix: Before the Minister sits down, perhaps I may correct the impression that the majority of MENCAP's local societies, of which there are more than 400 in this country, certainly receive government funding. They may do indirectly--occasionally for projects and there is some European funding--but as a weekly, monthly or annual income, that is certainly not so.
Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: I certainly did not mean to convey the impression that the noble Lord picked up. I was simply making the point that grants and resources from statutory organisations are available to many groups. I would certainly wish to acknowledge the work that many groups do without statutory support. The substantive issue is the role of the commission in ensuring an effective network with these groups and with disabled people locally. The question of whether regional offices can help that process is best left to the commission. It has that power to establish those offices. I think it best if we leave it to the commission to make those decisions.
Lord Rix: Before the Minister sits down, perhaps I may make one final point. I think I speak on behalf of MENCAP even though I am now president and not chairman, when I say that if the Government felt so minded as to fund our MENCAP family adviser service in the regions--it will also cover Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland--so that we were able to act as, as it
Lord Ashley of Stoke: It has been an excellent debate. However, I now find that we are beginning to hurl recommendations of the task force at each other. The score now is two to the Government and one to us. I was able to quote the task force against my noble friend on one occasion. But now it is two to one against us so I think we will call it a draw and not use the task force to support our argument, as we may lose it anyhow.
My noble friend managed to convey some criticism of regional organisations. I accept that there can be things wrong with regions but it is not simply a matter of regional organisations. In these amendments, I was thinking of local organisations as well. The argument that regions cannot be brilliant is not necessarily a good one.
I wish to turn to the argument about networks. My noble friend seems to think that the commission will be able to work with what he calls a network of voluntary organisations--I am sure it can--but the functions are entirely different. What the commission will be doing is very different from what MENCAP and the RNIB are doing. But if he wants them to work together, surely a network can work better with a network. Regional and local organisations will be better able to work with the network of voluntary organisations to which he referred.
Baroness Darcy de Knayth: Perhaps I may take this opportunity to focus briefly on the question of access to polling stations, which was mentioned briefly at Second Reading on 17th December, when regrettably I could not be present. I have no wish to delay the progress of the Committee or take away from the general thrust of the amendments. I therefore raise the matter at this point in order to clarify the position.
During the Second Reading debate, the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, envisaged (at col. 1468) that commissioners might have to decide whether right of access to polling booths should be enforced. He later said that,
The noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, knew that I should raise this matter. He knows that we disagree about it. He also knows how much I appreciate all that he has accomplished for himself and for disabled people in general, and that he has had a good many more years' experience of living with a disability than I have. What we do agree on is that the commissioners should not have to spend time sorting this matter out. I hope that that will be because we shall move swiftly towards ensuring that polling stations can easily accommodate people with physical, sensory and learning difficulties. The proposal would also accommodate people with arthritis, or those with pushchairs etc. It would apply to the general public.
Many disabled people feel very strongly that they should have the opportunity to vote in person, along with the rest of the community. Scope and RADAR have long campaigned for access to polling stations, and successive governments have been supportive.
I wish to make two main points, the first on polling stations and the second on the postal vote. The vast majority of polling stations are in public buildings--schools, libraries and community centres--which should be accessible to everyone all the year round, not merely on election day. Scope's latest survey, taken in 1997, of over 1,200 polling stations indicated that 92 per cent. were in public buildings.
Postal voters must send off the envelope some days before the election date to be certain of its arrival. Yet politicians campaign right up to the last moment. I do not need to tell your Lordships, who unlike me have parties, that people sometimes take voting decisions extremely late in the day. Noble Lords are aware of how elections have been lost and won during the final days of a campaign. The postal vote may suit those who are very sure in their choice, but it should not be the only method of voting instead of allowing people the choice of taking part with everyone else on the day.
Lord Campbell of Croy: The noble Baroness, Lady Darcy de Knayth, kindly gave me notice that she intended to raise this issue as she was unable to be present at Second Reading. I gave this as an example of what might be claimed as a right, but said that I hoped it could be settled locally without it being a matter that the commission had to look into in great depth. There are alternative arrangements. I have always voted by post. At various times over the past 54 years I have been in a wheelchair or on crutches and have decided, even when I was an MP voting in my own constituency where my home is, that the sensible thing was for me to apply well beforehand and be registered as a postal voter.
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