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Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, perhaps I may respond to the Minister's intervention in reverse order of the main points that he made.

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First, with regard to primary legislation, I have little doubt that, if we decide to change the electoral system for the other place, it ought to be done only if there is general agreement principally in the other place, whose elections these are. If that is the case, primary legislation can be passed expeditiously. Frankly, if there is not general agreement in the other place, I do not believe that primary legislation should not be passed at all if it changes in any significant way elections to the other place. These matters ought to be dealt with by agreement.

The second point relates to the news that the noble Lord gave us confirming what he said in Committee; namely, that he would bring forward changes to the next Bill setting up the electoral commission which would give it a role in some of the matters that we are discussing now. I am sure that we all welcome that. I know that my noble friend Lord Jopling will welcome it. We look forward to those amendments when the Bill comes before this House.

The most important announcement made by the Minister is that the Government accept the views of the Select Committee on Delegated Powers and Deregulation. That is a very sensible position for the Government to take. I do not look on it as a victory for the Conservative Party or the Liberal Democrat Party, or for the alliance between us. It is a victory for this House and for the setting up of the Select Committee. I chided the noble Lord that, if he was not careful, he would go down in history as the first Minister who had absolutely refused to take on board what the Select Committee had said. I am pleased that he has saved himself from that fate. I welcome his assurances and have no doubt that, on that basis, the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, will withdraw his amendment.

Lord Goodhart: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, invited me to give an undertaking about our future attitude towards primary legislation introducing pilot schemes which have been tried out on local government. I cannot give any formal undertaking as to our view. However, I have no doubt that if the pilot scheme--

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, to pick up the earlier refrain, a little courage, a little courage!

Lord Goodhart: My Lords, I am happy to say that if a pilot scheme has been regarded as successful by voters who have tried it out, has been approved by the electoral commission and is not deeply controversial along party lines in the other place, I have no doubt whatever that we should support it in this House. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 18 to 23 not moved.]

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

7 p.m.

Lord Ashley of Stoke moved Amendment No. 23A:

    Page 16, line 25, after ("orally") insert ("or in writing").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, this is a very simple amendment which, I believe, is not controversial and which will not detain the House, but it will assist profoundly deaf people if the Government are able to accept it.

There have been two significant changes in the voting processes. One is the new complexity. Voters are now faced with a long list of names, and sorting them out is not always easy. The second change is that people who, because of their disability, found it difficult to vote in person are no longer prepared to accept that situation.

I am glad that the electoral rules now entitle blind people to be assisted, when they vote, by a companion from the same constituency. Fortunately, Clause 13 of the Bill extends that facility to other disabilities and that is very welcome. It provides for the voter to make an oral declaration that he or she is unable to vote without the assistance of a companion. But the clause, as drafted, takes no account of profoundly deaf people without speech. They would be unable to make such a declaration about their incapacity. They need to be able to state their desire for help in writing. That is a very important issue for profoundly deaf people.

Many of the 50,000 people who are deaf or profoundly deaf who use British Sign Language (BSL) as their first language will have no need for help in the voting booth, but some will. Those who have a limited command of English can be frustrated in their efforts to understand complex voting procedures. They cannot simply ask questions of the presiding officer. They rely on British Sign Language for communication and should be allowed to use it with a companion when seeking explanations. Although the number who will benefit from this amendment is small, anything that we can do to reduce the existing barriers to deaf people voting will be a step forward for democracy.

The Government have a very easy wicket on this matter. It is a small, modest amendment with virtually no cost implications. In fact, I say that there is no cost involved at all. However, this provision can be of enormous value to the people concerned. It is an impediment to voting if the Bill goes through as it is. If we make this minor change, thousands of people can benefit. I hope that my noble friend and the Government are able to accept this amendment. I beg to move.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I am grateful for the opportunity to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Ashley, on the eloquence with which he moved this amendment. I do not believe that Home Office Ministers very frequently get the opportunity to pay

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tribute to the noble Lord for the way in which he tirelessly campaigns for those with disabilities. I am very pleased to have that opportunity this evening.

The amendment focuses on a deficiency in the way in which people with a disability may exercise their right to vote. Although I cannot readily accept the noble Lord's amendment this evening, I should like to provide the facility and opportunity for him to meet our officials who have been giving this matter some consideration in order to see what practical steps can be used in the confidence of the voting booth, as it were, in order to help those who suffer from deafness and speech deficiency which currently prevents them making use of Clause 13 in the way in which the noble Lord has described.

It may well be that this matter is ultimately best left to the common sense of the presiding officer in each polling station. But if we can accommodate the concerns that the noble Lord has quite understandably and properly raised, I should like to see that done. I have perhaps not been as positive in my response as the noble Lord would like, but perhaps we can have discussions with those who are concerned about the disability he wants us to address. I shall be more than pleased to join him in those discussions to see whether we can find a practical outcome to a real and genuine problem for the small number of persons who suffer from this particular disability. With that, I trust that the noble Lord will feel confident enough to withdraw his amendment.

Lord McNally: My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, perhaps I may point out that I did not exercise my right to speak in support of this amendment because, quite honestly, I expected him to accept it. Does not the Minister appreciate that one of the reasons why the disabled have wanted provisions written into legislation rather than left to discretion is that too often that discretion has not been used in their favour? I wish the Minister well in his discussions with the noble Lord, Lord Ashley.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, perhaps I may respond to that. I well understand the point. In my political life I have supported the general approach that the noble Lord has set out, which is that we should be more prescriptive here. It encourages and ensures that we get good practice. That is what I am after; namely, finding a practical solution. I am a pragmatist at heart.

I should like to see what we can achieve through discussions with the Association of Electoral Registration Officers and others to see what practical steps we can put in place. For that reason, I invite the noble Lord to take part in discussions, including with those other organisations which may be interested in this particular problem.

Lord Ashley of Stoke: My Lords, I am astonished at that response from my noble friend. One could not have a simpler, more modest and reasoned amendment. It is impossible for the Minister to say that the Government cannot accept this amendment;

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but for what reasons, I do not know. If the matter is to be left to the good sense of the presiding officers, as has been suggested, there would be no problem. But they have not exercised their good sense. That is why the Royal National Institute for the Deaf and the British Deaf Association are concerned.

Deaf people have a major problem. They are anxious to vote. They want to exercise their democratic right. Yet when the matter is set out in the simple terms of this amendment the Government say that we should come along and talk about it. I am at a loss to understand that. We do not want to rely on presiding officers, but to have the right laid down in legislation, as the noble Lord, Lord McNally, very rightly said.

But the hour is late and I must not take up the time of the House. I am almost an interloper in this discussion. I have no rights as regards this Bill. I have made no other contribution to our consideration of it. I accept my noble friend's invitation to discuss the issue with his officials. We shall not get any further with them than the amendment which has been tabled. It is clear, simple, positive, constructive and helpful.

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