Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Baroness Blatch: I thank the Minister for that involved reply. We shall need to read what he has said. The Minister has given detailed reasons why combined polls are a good thing as opposed to what we are saying—that is, that they should not be allowed—but how does that dovetail in with Clause 10, which allows no recourse to the courts if there is any irregularity? There could be on the same day a poll where one could have recourse to the courts and another poll where one could not. That could be an added confusion for the electorate.

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting: The noble Baroness asks a very fair question. Perhaps I may deal with it when we come to Clause 10.

Baroness Hanham: In common with my noble friend Lady Blatch I thank the Minister for an extremely detailed reply. I am not sure that he totally addressed the problem. We perceive a difficulty that goes beyond administration—that is, the practicalities of electioneering. We are, after all, political parties and political parties will be involved. While I know that voters are very sophisticated—even if they do not turn out to vote—considerable confusion could be caused where you are running elections with different voting systems.

I should like to read in detail what the Minister has said. We may come back to this issue at a later stage. In the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 58 and 59 not moved.]

Clause 6 agreed to.

[Amendments Nos. 59A and 59B not moved.]

24 Mar 2003 : Column 525

Clause 7 [Encouraging voting]:

7 p.m.

Baroness Hamwee moved Amendment No. 60:

    Page 4, line 4, after "encouraging" insert "and facilitating"

The noble Baroness said: In moving Amendment No. 60, I shall speak also to Amendment Nos. 68 and 118.

We turn now to the issue of what I have described in Amendment No. 60 as "facilitating" voting. This is a catchall term that might usefully be included in Clause 7, which provides for the Electoral Commission to do what it considers to be necessary or expedient to encourage voting. I have suggested the term "facilitating" to ensure not only that political considerations are brought to the attention of voters—which is "encouraging" voting—but that voting is made as easy and practical as possible for those who may have some kind of physical or mental difficulty in carrying out the act of voting. This was an issue that hardly needed to be brought to my attention and that of the noble Lord by the Royal National Institute for the Blind and Mencap before they suggested some detailed amendments to the Bill which we have built in to our later amendments. I thought that this might cover the point.

In more detail, Amendment No. 68 provides for the insertion in Clause 8(5) of the stipulation that the information which the commission must ensure comes to everyone's notice is,

    "provided by means appropriate to voters with particular needs".

Subsection (5) is limited to information rather than to the act of voting. I am particularly concerned about the words in parenthesis; namely, that information should come to those entitled to vote,

    "in the most cost effective way".

I am sure that other noble Lords would be concerned were that to have any implication as regards the needs of those who may have a visual or other impairment which makes it more difficult for them to vote or to understand the issues.

Amendment No. 118, which I appreciate is a wide amendment, seeks to insert a new clause setting out a duty to meet the needs of disabled people. It applies to each part of the Bill in turn. In Part 1, Clause 7 deals with encouraging voting. There is a need to raise awareness among those who are hard to reach—and who are also often hard to hear—through traditional publicity methods. I refer to people who are print-disabled or have learning difficulties. Information needs to be provided in large print; it needs to be in short sentences and to use ordinary words; it must contain single messages. We have already addressed the complexity of the preamble. I think that we would all benefit from assurances on that kind of issue.

On the referendum process itself, what provision will the Secretary of State make to ensure, in the orders regulating the conduct of referendums, that visually impaired people will be able to vote independently and in secret? In particular, can we have assurances that the Secretary of State will consult widely with the

24 Mar 2003 : Column 526

appropriate people over this particular provision? I am told that the RNIB worked very productively with the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister on guidance for mayoral ballots and on the e-voting pilots. I hope that that work can be replicated.

Part 2 deals with the local government review. Clause 13(8)(e) requires the Boundary Committee to,

    "have regard to guidance issued by the Secretary of State".

I hope that the Minister will assure us that clear guidance will be issued about the consultation process being made accessible for visually impaired people and for those with learning difficulties.

Part 3 covers the preparation and submission of advice by the Electoral Commission. Will it be required to produce information in the formats to which I have referred?

Finally, Part 4 deals with the funding of regional chambers. Would that we had reached this part of the Bill. They will have the obligation to scrutinise the work of the RDAs. I understand that RNIB research has shown that about three-quarters of visually impaired people of working age are not in employment. That raises issues about the activities of the RDAs. Secondly, the regional chambers will be responsible for producing new regional spatial strategies. The environment, in terms of accessibility for disabled people, is important in that regard. Any assurances that the Minister is able to give at this point that grants will be made available and will include money to ensure that the regional chambers have effective mechanisms for involving disabled people and their representatives and to adopt best practice would be most welcome. I beg to move.

Baroness Blatch: I support the noble Baroness in pleading the cause of those who have difficulty in making it to the polling station to vote. Much of what the noble Baroness has said applies to most people: plainer English, simple instructions and easily understood information are just as much in the interest of all people as they are in the interest of those with disabilities. Obviously, special arrangements have to be made for people with sight impairment.

The noble Baroness made a further point that I want to support. She asked for a guarantee of secrecy. It is all too easy to give a helping hand to someone at a polling station, but it is crucial that secrecy should be honoured, just as it is for other people. Whether or not the amendments are right in every technical aspect, some guarantee on the face of the Bill seems to me essential. We want to support that.

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting: I begin by thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, for what she is seeking to achieve in this amendment. I also thank the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, for her helpful intervention.

We as a government are determined to do everything we can to help people with whatever disabilities not only to vote but to be able to use the facilities of the assembly without any hindrance. I share the noble Baroness's horror at the term "cost

24 Mar 2003 : Column 527

effective" in this context. I also feel that consultation will be of crucial importance. I give an absolute undertaking that this will happen. To pick up on the detailed point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, about secrecy, yes, we absolutely agree with her.

Having made those general points, which are an expression of total support for the amendment, not only in terms of the wording but for the intent behind it, I need to say a few words for the record.

Amendment No. 60 would extend the Electoral Commission's power in Clause 7 so that the commission would be able to do anything that it thought necessary or expedient for the purposes of "facilitating" voting at referendums as well as for the purpose of "encouraging" voting. While the meaning of "encouraging" is fairly clear, the term "facilitation" is much more ambiguous. I am concerned that the amendment would unhelpfully blur the boundaries between the roles of different organisations since it seems at least to imply that the Electoral Commission is to have a more active and direct role in the process of the referendum.

Noble Lords will appreciate, and indeed the Bill and other legislation recognises, that there are some matters in relation to referendums which are rightfully for government and Parliament to decide—for example, decisions about whether to combine a referendum with other polls or a decision about the appropriate voting arrangements for the referendum. These decisions could perhaps be characterised as facilitating voting.

Similarly, there are other matters which will be determined through a conduct order under Section 129(1) of the PPERA. The Government intend to make the order this summer and Parliament will have an opportunity to debate it under the affirmative resolution procedure. It is intended that this order will include provisions relating to voting by people with disabilities.

Other detailed issues about the running of referendums will be the responsibility of the returning officers and counting officers. While I do not believe that this amendment would override existing statutory provisions, it would certainly lead to confusion as to whether the commission could also act in such areas if it believed such action would facilitate voting. I therefore urge the noble Baroness to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment No. 68 would ensure that, if the Electoral Commission acts under Clause 8 to provide information to voters about the arguments for and against the referendum question, it must also provide this information by means appropriate to voters with particular needs. I absolutely understand the noble Baroness's concern. We all know the excellent work done by the RNIB, not least in helping people like ourselves to understand the adaptations—often simple and inexpensive—that need to be made to help blind people play their full part in civil society.

24 Mar 2003 : Column 528

Before I came to this place, I was chairman of the Library and Information Commission. I had the privilege, over a number of years, of working very closely with the RNIB and other organisations, attempting to make the book accessible to partially sighted and blind people. I need no convincing of this tremendously important point.

In relation to Amendment No. 68, I can reassure the noble Baroness that we consider that the commission will already have to take account of such needs in exercising its power under Clause 8. The commission's principal duty under Clause 8(5) is to provide any information by the means that it thinks is most likely to ensure that it comes to the attention of all—and I emphasise all—those entitled to vote. So we consider that it would already have had regard to the needs of the disabled and those whose first language is not English, otherwise the information it provides is unlikely to come to the attention of these voters.

I can also reassure the noble Baroness that the Electoral Commission has confirmed that it intends to ensure that information provision is available to blind, partially sighted and disabled voters.

Amendment No. 118 would ensure that any person or body exercising functions under this legislation should do so with regard to ensuring access for disabled people. This duty would apply to Ministers, the Electoral Commission and its Boundary Committee and to public bodies in respect of their involvement with referendums on establishing elected regional assemblies and associated local government reviews. It would also apply to the Secretary of State when making grants to regional chambers under Clause 24.

This is a laudable aim, with which we sympathise. But I hope I can reassure the noble Baroness that the amendment is not necessary. Ministers and public bodies are bound by the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 not to discriminate against disabled people either when providing goods and services to the public or as an employer. I would expect the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, or any other government department which is providing information for the public, to do so in a form which is accessible to blind or partially sighted people. That is our standard practice.

The Electoral Commission has confirmed that it intends to ensure that information it provides is accessible to blind, partially sighted and disabled voters. And, although it has not yet decided on the exact content of the publicity package, I understand that the commission intends to produce materials specifically designed to encourage partially sighted, blind and disabled voters to participate in a regional referendum.

Provision will also be made for voting for people with disabilities in any order regulating the conduct of referendums. The precise details are still under development.

We know that some regional chambers are already using their existing government grant to develop mechanisms to promote social inclusion and equality of access.

24 Mar 2003 : Column 529

In the light of these assurances, I ask the noble Baroness to withdraw the amendment. If I may go back to the commitment I made right at the beginning, in spite of what I have said for the record, it is the intention of the Government, particularly the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, to make sure that the spirit of everything the noble Baroness has referred to is met as well as the letter.

7.15 p.m.

Baroness Hamwee: I thank the Minister for that explanation. He was right to extend the point beyond my description, as I failed to address physical disability. I am sure that many of us have been distressed that some polling places have not always been accessible to people with mobility problems. It makes one feel very ashamed.

I take the Minister's point about many organisations having responsibilities for facilitating voting. As I understand it, he said with regard to Clause 8(5) that the first hurdle that the commission must address is the likelihood of securing information coming to everyone's notice. It is only after that hurdle has been overcome that the cost-effectiveness test will be met. The Minister is nodding. So there is a clear distinction between the issues.

I will obviously look at the detail of the Minister's response but I appreciate the spirit of it and the detail into which he has gone. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page