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Lord Bassam of Brighton: The noble Baroness has explained very well the current situation as she sees it. The amendment seeks to extend the access to information provisions and regulation-making powers that currently apply to principal local authorities operating executive arrangements, to apply also to the London mayor. These regulation-making provisions are to be found in Section 22 of the Local Government Act 2000, which enables the Secretary of State to make provision as to when meetings of local authority executives should be held in public and as to what records of such meetings should be kept and made available.

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There are already arrangements—in Sections 45, 52 and 58 of the Greater London Authority Act 1999—for making public the significant decisions made by the London mayor. The mayor, as we discussed earlier, has to make 10 reports per year to the assembly setting out the significant decisions he has taken since his last report and the reasons for those decisions. Those mayoral reports are discussed at meetings of the whole Assembly. As we have also discussed, the mayor has to attend those meetings and answer assembly members' questions. The assembly meetings that the mayor attends, the mayor's reports, the text of questions and answers and the minutes of the meetings all have to be made available to the public.

Those GLA arrangements are slightly different from those for principal local authorities, to reflect the role of the London Assembly in scrutinising mayoral decisions. However, they achieve the same objective of making information about key decisions available to the public. The amendment is therefore unnecessary. There is no need to extend the power to make regulations about public access to local authority meetings and documents to cover the London mayor, because the Greater London Assembly-specific arrangements on public access are already in place. Having heard the noble Baroness's description of how the arrangements work, I think that they are probably one of the most transparent instruments of democracy in this country. It seems to me that there is some very good practice there, not least because of the added layer of the important scrutiny role exercised by the assembly itself.

I fully recognise that it is terribly important to have access to the maximum amount of information. That is why we set out the powers in the way in which we did. Neither I nor my officials are aware that the current arrangements have created any particular difficulties. For those reasons, as well as those I set out earlier, I hope the noble Baroness will feel able to withdraw her amendment.

Baroness Hamwee: I am sorry that my noble friend Lord Russell has not been able to come up with a bit of verse to reflect the noise of, "Let us find a way of explaining what we did four or five years ago even if it was not actually the reason for it". As I said, the mayor is not actually obliged to attend meetings; I think that he has to attend six per year. Consequently, the mayor can avoid coming before the assembly. There are certainly powers for the assembly to require the mayor, the staff and certain office holders from the functional bodies and so on to appear before it, but that is all sledgehammer stuff. That is all the formal stuff that requires two weeks' notice and all the rest of it. I do not see a significant difference between the GLA and a local authority in that regard, in that in each there is an executive arm and a scrutiny arm.

Clearly I cannot pursue the issue today. I suspect that it will be more difficult to resolve than the previous one. However, if we are into horse trading, the Minister will understand where my horse is. It is an important issue and I shall read carefully what the Minister had to say. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

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Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 221CC not moved.]

Clause 117 [Local polls]:

Baroness Hamwee moved Amendment No. 221D:

    Page 70, line 47, at end insert—

"( ) The local authority shall have regard to guidance which shall be issued by the appropriate person about making local polls accessible to disabled people."

The noble Baroness said: This amendment deals with a very different matter. Although I have been asked to raise the issue by the RNIB, I am sure that the institute also speaks for other organisations dealing with disabled people. The amendment requires local authorities to have regard to guidance about making local polls accessible to disabled people. I should perhaps share with the Committee the fact that I disagreed with the RNIB's original version of the amendment, which made it a condition of local polls that the guidance should "have regard to". I felt that that was going a bit far. As the issue of access is hugely important—as, elsewhere in the Bill, is the freedom for local authorities to conduct their own business—I removed the conditionality in the provision.

As I said, it is hugely important that everyone is facilitated in exercising their democratic voice. The point still applies even though Clause 117 deals with local polls rather than elections. We are talking, for example, about accessible formats for voting papers, how to meet the needs of visually impaired people when new voting methods are used, and whether Braille templates are made available for postal voting. As noble Lords will appreciate, visually impaired people may have particular concerns about confidentiality with regard to Internet voting and other new forms of voting.

Noble Lords recently debated the issue of access, in an amendment which I again tabled at the request of the RNIB, during the passage of the Regional Assemblies (Preparations) Bill. I was assured by the Minister, who at that time was the noble Lord, Lord Evans of Temple Guiting, that the Electoral Commission,

    "intends to ensure that information provision is available to blind, partially sighted and disabled voters"—[Official Report, 24/3/03; col. 528]—

for the purposes of regional referendums. I hope that the Minister can give me a similar assurance today about understanding the importance of the issue and how progress might be made. I beg to move.

Baroness Gould of Potternewton: I intervene only briefly although I feel very strongly about the issue. I am very sorry that the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, decided not to accept the original version of the amendment. I think that making access available should be an obligation on local authorities, just as it is when new buildings are built. The same should apply to polling stations. "Have regard to" means that one can ignore the provision if one so wishes and I feel that that is not strong enough. Nevertheless, this provision is better than nothing.

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I appreciate that the noble Baroness dealt mainly with visually impaired people. In discussing such issues, however, I think that we have to take into account every form of disability, including those who are in wheelchairs, the physically lame and so on. One has to think about issues such as steps. However, there are also more hidden disabilities in terms of communication problems. I hope that the information will be simply put so that those who have communication problems and might have difficulty in understanding do not have to go to someone else to find out what they are meant to do. They should feel sufficiently competent to be able to vote privately and on their own, whether it be by postal vote or in a polling station.

I therefore support the amendment. However, I regret that the noble Baroness did not accept the initial wording.

4.15 p.m.

Earl Russell: I think that the conflict between my noble friend Lady Hamwee and the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, is a conflict between right and right. The noble Baroness is quite right about the limited significance of the words "have regard to". I recall that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, once remarked in the Chamber that they meant almost exactly nothing. On the other hand, we do have to start from where we are. Our ancestors, I regret to say, showed a very limited respect for the rights of disabled people in a great many remote places and some not remote, including some very close to me. The only suitable polling place is a church. Church stairs are not designed for the passage of a wheelchair. In fact, our ancestors often took a remarkably painfully unsympathetic attitude to disability. I have seen letters written to mothers of disabled children referring to it as God's punishment upon them for their sins. It was a painful doctrine. However, one cannot undo the past now.

What the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, says is entirely valid as applied to new buildings. But I think that the programme of setting out to rebuild every church in the country, here, now and at once—

Baroness Gould of Potternewton: I am sorry to interrupt the noble Earl. However, it is possible not to use churches. It is possible to use buildings that are accessible. I do not believe that it is beyond the wit of a local authority to find buildings that are accessible.

Earl Russell: In a great many places that is true. In a great many more places than it is practised that is true. However, I have lived in places where there was no other public building for 10 miles around. In those places it is, I think, a little more difficult. So I think that one has to have some let-out in the wording of the amendment. However, in return for that let-out, I think that we need a concessionary spirit from the Minister—slightly more than we have been hearing in other amendments hitherto.

I recall being on polling station duty for my honourable friend Mr Hughes in Southwark and Bermondsey and, over and over again, having to lift

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people out of their wheelchairs and carry them into the polling station. It should not happen and, in Southwark and Bermondsey, I believe that it need not happen. So in return for the mildly worded amendment, I hope that the Minister will help us make some progress. If he does not, he might get the next amendment worded as the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, suggests.

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