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Lord Rix: My Lords, first, I declare an interest as president of the Royal Mencap Society. I welcome the opportunity to speak in this debate, as this Bill presents the Government with a perfect opportunity to remove from electoral law some of the most offensive language used to describe disabled people, and to make a statement that such language is unacceptable. I hope that the Government will take that opportunity. Doing so will draw attention to and affirm the equal democratic rights of disabled people, particularly people with a learning disability or a disability that impairs their ability to communicate.

The language that we use to refer to disability is constantly evolving and constantly a matter of dispute. Indeed, I have recently been engaged in one such dispute over the use of "mentally handicapped". That term has, of course, moved in recent years from being a widely used description to being widely rejected as offensive by people with a learning disability.

While the language of "mental handicap" may still be clinging to life in some quarters, there are some words which nobody today would use and which everyone would now recognise as offensive, insulting and dehumanising. However, perhaps I should say "everyone except lawyers", because existing case law governing people's legal capacity to vote specifically states that "idiots" cannot vote, while "lunatics" can vote only during their lucid moments. No doubt some archaic pieces of case law no longer matter enough to be challenged, but this one has important symbolic and practical effects. The symbolic effect is to say to people with learning disabilities and mental health problems that calling them idiots and lunatics is acceptable; if the term is in law, why should not everyone use it? The practical effect is that, even today, it is widely and mistakenly believed that people with a learning disability or mental health problems do not possess that most basic of rights in a democracy—the right to vote and have a say in who represents them and governs the country.

There is evidence—for example in Scope's report, Polls Apart—that people with visible disabilities or communication impairments who have the mental capacity to vote and the legal right to do so have been disfranchised by being turned away from polling stations. Mencap has heard from people with a learning disability who have been challenged by members of the public about their right to vote, or who
 
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have even been refused a vote. No doubt the confusion of the public, poll clerks and presiding officers could be alleviated by a clear and authoritative statement that any electoral case law referring to "idiots" and "lunatics" is not only old-fashioned and offensive, but inoperative. I understand that that statement could be made quite easily by amending the Representation of the People Act to decouple the concept of mental capacity from the concept of legal capacity, therefore making the old case law irrelevant. We have already taken great strides forward in recent years towards a clear understanding and definition of mental capacity, most notably in the Mental Capacity Act, which was steered through your Lordships' House with such aplomb by the Minister.

It ought to be straightforward enough to highlight the distinction between legal capacity to vote and mental capacity to vote. The former turns on a person's citizenship, his age, whether he is detained in prison or—as Members of this House will be well aware—is a Peer. The latter—mental capacity—is simply a matter of a person's ability to understand that there is an election taking place and to communicate his preference in that election in one way or another. Whatever his disability and whatever communication difficulties he may have, so long as a registered voter is able to answer the same statutory questions that all voters must be able to answer, he is entitled to vote. There should be no other test. I hope that the Minister will agree that the simple step of removing the link between mental capacity and legal capacity, and thus removing the words "idiots" and "lunatics" from existing electoral case law, would send two welcome messages: first, that such language has no place in the modern legal system, and secondly, that disabled people are equal citizens with an equal right to vote and must be treated as such.

4.34 pm

Baroness Gale: My Lords, I very much welcome the Bill. I hope that it will help to increase participation and make the integrity of the vote more robust.

I believe that the Minister is aware of the report prepared by the Local Government and Public Services Committee of the Welsh Assembly, which has been scrutinising the Bill. It lists a number of concerns. One is the co-ordinated online registration of electors. Other noble Lords have mentioned that. The committee states that the register of electors in Wales is available in both English and Welsh, as it is a document available to the public in Wales. The Electoral Commission's Welsh language scheme commits the commission to equal treatment of Welsh and English in Wales. The committee's view is that, as it is likely that the Electoral Commission will be the keeper of the CORE scheme, its commitment to the Welsh language should be extended to that scheme in Wales.

It would be rather strange if the commitment of equal treatment of both languages were not reflected in the Bill. It seems that the policy with the Welsh language has been overlooked, although I was very pleased to hear my noble and learned friend the
 
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Lord Chancellor mention the Welsh language in his opening remarks. I am sure that there will be an opportunity to correct this anomaly, if that is what it is, by amendments in Committee. I look forward to the Minister's response on the matter.

I welcome the new methods of paying the deposit, when submitting nomination papers, by credit card, debit card or electronic transfer of funds, rather than the traditional method of cash or banker's draft. But how many local parties would possess such cards? From my own experience of local Labour parties, I cannot think of one that has such facilities available to it. But this is not to decry the attempt in the Bill to modernise our approach to the conduct of elections—and if the local parties did not possess such a card, maybe the election agent could use his own credit or debit card and live in hope that he would be reimbursed by his political party.

I welcome the proposals to bring the age to stand as a candidate down from 21 to 18, although, when I first read it, I could not imagine why an 18 year-old would want to become a Member of Parliament. Of course there would be young people aged between 18 and 21 who might want to stand for election to their local council, parish or community council. Many young people are active in their local communities and would, I hope, be prepared to serve the community in this manner—and would it not be good to see these youthful faces on our local councils?

That naturally leads me to another aspect of the Bill—those eligible to attend the count. Paragraph 75 of Schedule 1 lists the people who are eligible to attend the count. Sub-paragraph (2) (b) specifies,

As this Bill hopes to modernise our approach to elections, I was surprised to see that restriction. As it will allow people from the age of 18 to be candidates, why can we not say that the candidate can be accompanied by a person of his or her choice? Unless the candidate is married or has a civil partner, that candidate cannot have a companion with him or her. In today's society many couples choose not to marry. According to the Bill the candidate would not be able to bring his or her partner to the count, or, for example, a divorced person could not have a daughter or son with him or her. An 18 year-old who is neither married nor in a civil partnership may want a mother, father, brothers, sisters or close friends with him at the count to give moral support while awaiting the result.

Surely these days we should not regard spouses or civil partners as the only persons who can accompany a candidate, especially with the proposal to have younger candidates. This measure discriminates against single people. I am aware that returning officers have the discretion to permit others to attend, provided the efficient counting of votes is not impeded. But, on this point, that would be insufficient. The rights of single people to have the person of their choice should be in the Bill. I hope that my noble friend will have a good look at that matter and use this as an opportunity to allow candidates to choose whom they want to have with them at the count.
 
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Clause 15 deals with pilot schemes, and will allow local authorities to apply to run personal identifier pilot schemes. Subsection (3) states:

Subsection (10) gives the definition of a local authority; subsection (10) (b) states that it is:

As local government is a devolved matter, should not the devolution settlement be recognised here? Where a Welsh local authority applies to run such a scheme, should not the National Assembly for Wales, rather than the Secretary of State, be responsible for making a pilot order? I trust that the Minister can explain that anomaly, if that is what it is.

Banning candidates from standing in more than one constituency is a good measure. It is an abuse of our democracy when candidates can offer themselves to more than one constituency. To give an example, a candidate—Catherine Taylor-Dawson, who stood on the Vote for Yourself Rainbow Dream Ticket—stood in four Cardiff constituencies in 2005. In Cardiff Central, she got 37 votes. In Cardiff South and Penarth, she got 79 votes. In Cardiff West, she got 167 votes. But in Cardiff North, she got one vote, and she says that she did not vote for herself. As she is a singer, I assume that she received quite a lot of publicity. She said that she did not make speeches; she sang and played her guitar. Her main sponsor was Rainbow George, who donated £2,000 to her campaign. He stood in 13 constituencies. There is something to think about there.

I support the Bill. It contains many good and practical measures that will assist in the smooth running of our elections. Those measures include allowing returning officers the right to make minor amendments to nomination papers. I am sure that all election agents will very much welcome that. I know that when I used to take nomination papers along, however many times I checked, my heart was in my mouth hoping that there was absolutely nothing wrong with them. If there was, you were sent back—as those who used to do this work will recognise.

Increasing time limits for the payment of election expenditure; a framework for local authorities to review polling places over a four-year period; and allowing observers and children to accompany voters to the polling station are just some of the good measures in the Bill. I look forward to taking part in debate on the Bill during its journey through the House.

4.43 pm


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