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Baroness Gould of Potternewton: I thank the Minister for those comments. I support the principle underlying the amendment, although not the wording. If the Home Office and others are looking for suggestions, they might turn to page 42 of the 1993 report of the Labour Party's working party on electoral systems which gives a number of suggestions as to how this issue could be resolved.

The Earl of Onslow: First, I congratulate the Minister on the first really good answer I have heard him give during his time in this Chamber. If that sounds somewhat patronising it is not intended to be.

The noble Lord mentioned that police inquiries are continuing. Because police inquires are going on, why does that mean that one cannot change the system? The logic of that would mean that police inquiries could continue until the third millennium. Something may be wrong but one cannot change it because police inquiries are going on. I cannot follow the logic. I may just be being stupid; it is well within the bounds of possibility.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: I am prepared to accept the noble Earl's congratulations. I am sure that he would not dare to patronise me in any sense, shape or form.

The importance of the police conducting their inquiries is that something can be learnt from those inquiries. I agree with the noble Earl. We do not want to hold up improvements to the system. For that very good reason, I said from the Dispatch Box today that we are happy to consider ways in which we can make some progress. The letter writing scheme may well be one way to achieve it. But we need to speak, through our officials, to the electoral administrators to see what we can come up with which will satisfy the precise point.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: I am grateful to the Minister for his understanding on the issue. Perhaps I have a lesson to learn: that the shorter my introductory speech the more chance there is that my ideas will be listened to sympathetically! I may try it again shortly.

The noble Lord underlined the problems I sought to address. I did not go into the detail; I did not think that necessary. I am grateful to the Minister for his comments. I think that we should address the issue. It is interesting that the working party did not wish to see proxy voting extended because of the problem of abuse. Perhaps the Bill will give us an opportunity to tighten up the provision. For some people proxy voting is still an important way to exercise their vote. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Schedule 4, as amended, agreed to.

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Clause 13 [Assistance with voting for persons with disabilities]:

[Amendment No. 124 had been withdrawn from the Marshalled List.]

Lord McNally moved Amendment No. 125:

    Page 14, line 34, at end insert--

("( ) In rule 25 (provision of polling stations) after sub-paragraph (1) there shall be inserted--
("(1A) The returning officer shall not provide as a polling station any place which is not accessible to people in wheelchairs or otherwise with restricted mobility and cannot reasonably be made accessible to them by temporary ramps or other equipment."").

The noble Lord said: In moving the amendment, I speak also to Amendment No. 127. In an age in which we are legislating for access to taxis, buses and all public places, the amendments are self-evident. I wish to ensure that during the experiments provisions for the disabled are not omitted, perhaps resulting in inaccessible polling stations. I beg to move.

Baroness Gould of Potternewton: Perhaps I may make one addition to the amendment. Problems with access do not relate only to getting into the polling station from outside. In some polling stations the ballot box is placed so high that someone in a wheelchair cannot reach it; and sometimes cannot reach even the tellers' tables. We should consider extending the provision to include access inside as well as outside the polling station.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: I appreciate the motives underlying the amendments. The noble Lord is to be congratulated on moving them.

The first of the amendments, on the face of it admirable, may not assist. In certain circumstances the amendments could result in lower overall turn-out in certain area--exactly the opposite of what the Bill intends to achieve.

Amendment No. 125 would require returning officers to ensure that all designated polling places have all-disabled access. Returning officers are already required, as far as reasonably practical, to designate as polling stations only places which are accessible for voters who are disabled. I cite the Representation of the People Act 1983 as amended in 1985. That is to assist them in identifying and assessing such places. There is Home Office guidance on minimum standards.

In practice, most polling places are in public buildings which already have good disabled access. Most other buildings can be temporarily adapted, and I shall say more about that in a moment. There remain, however, a few places which cannot reasonably and practically be made accessible and where there is no alternative building in the area. That is the problem. In these cases the returning officer has a rather difficult choice. He can either designate that polling place for use in the knowledge that, should a disabled voter turn up, he or she may not be able to gain access; or he does not designate it. The amendment would mean that the building could not be used. In turn that could mean

15 Feb 2000 : Column 1125

inconvenient and perhaps lengthier journeys to other polling places for all electors in that area with the consequent effects on the overall turn-out.

Therefore, although desirable, and a splendid and admirable amendment, it could have a self-defeating element: it could discourage other voters who might have to travel much further. Returning officers have a duty to do all they can reasonably and practically to provide access for voters who are disabled. But they also have a duty to the wider electorate. The amendment would restrict their flexibility and may result in greater disadvantage for a wider population.

We want to do everything we can to assist disabled voters in gaining access to the electoral process. But this amendment could cause greater harm than good.

I turn now to Amendment No. 127, where polling places are not accessible but can be made so. Here returning officers are obliged to take all reasonable and practical steps to do that, for example by providing temporary ramps. I take the point my noble friend Lady Gould made about addressing not only external but also internal access; and that is a matter which is carefully thought through.

In the current situation the procedures are such that assistance can be sought both in terms of Home Office guidance and in the form of direct grants. Local authorities have been very enthusiastic in taking up the 50 per cent grants that we make available to cover the cost of adaptations. I shall read some figures. The Home Office has since 1992 given grants for temporary ramps totalling £315,000, £120,000 of which has been given in the last two years. That amounts to a total spending on temporary ramps of more than £650,000 over the last few years. One can probably buy a lot of ramps for £650,000, so those adaptations have made a very big difference indeed. We want to encourage more local authorities to come forward and claim their percentage from the Home Office.

There is therefore some indication that, where necessary, these facilities are being provided because of a combination of existing legislation which already requires them and government assistance of which returning officers take full advantage. In view of my comments and the assurances that I have given, I hope that the noble Lord will accept that Amendment No. 127 is not necessary and will not press it.

The Earl of Onslow: I again seek information. The noble Lord has perfectly reasonably said that there are some polling stations which it is extremely difficult to make wheelchair friendly. How many?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: That probably is a question from hell! I am ever ready to try to match the questions that are pitched at us over the Dispatch Box. However, I could not even promise to undertake to have a survey completed to satisfy that one.

15 Feb 2000 : Column 1126

The Earl of Onslow: I accept that it is a question from hell. The point is that the noble Lord has been briefed by his officials, perfectly reasonably, that this is a problem. Therefore, they must have evidence of the problem. Has he sifted it? Is it genuine? If it involves one polling station in Caithness, I suppose we can just about live with it. If it spreads wider than that, we perhaps should not. I am asking what the breadth of the problem is. If it is broad, it should be dealt with through the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord McNally. If, on the other hand, it is so small as to be immaterial, the noble Lord's amendment can almost be accepted anyway.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: There is a problem. Local authorities are charged with the responsibility, through their registration service, of assessing the extent of the problem. Both governments have in recent years made generous grants available, and we wish to encourage as much adaptation as is reasonably practicable in the circumstances. There will be circumstances in which it is not practical, and the effect of the amendment which the noble Lord has moved could be self-defeating. I do not know how many of those instances there may be. It would be difficult to estimate. In my opinion, we have to proceed on the basis of goodwill. There is a great deal of encouragement from central government, there is an enormous amount of guidance and help given by the Home Office, and there is a tremendous amount of goodwill in the local authorities to tackle these issues. We have the fundamentals in place to make it easier.

We discussed earlier the practicalities of having mobile polling stations so that people who may be disabled or perhaps less mobile because of their age are able to get to a polling station. I believe that we can tackle these issues in the practical and hard-headed way that we have outlined by way of example today.

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