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"Legal incapacity to vote
ABOLITION OF COMMON LAW INCAPACITY: MENTAL STATE
(1) Any rule of the common law which provides that a person is subject to a legal incapacity to vote by reason of his mental state is abolished.
(2) Accordingly, in section 202(1) of the 1983 Act (general provisions as to interpretation), in the definition of "legal incapacity" after "addition" insert ", where applicable,".
(3) And in section 10(1) of the Elected Authorities (Northern Ireland) Act 1989 (c. 3) (interpretation), in the definition of "legal incapacity" omit the words "or of any subsisting provision of the common law"."
The noble Lord said: My Lords, in moving Amendment No. 118, I shall also speak to Amendments Nos. 132, 139, 148, 151, 152, 154 and 156, which are consequent upon it. I am supported in these amendments by my colleague in the disability field, the noble Lord, Lord Carter. I am delighted to see him in his place this evening.
The amendments all relate to what some might call an anomaly and others an outrage in electoral law, which I highlighted at Second Reading. The existing common law relating to elections denies the right to vote to those it refers to as "idiots" and "lunatics". I hope the whole House will agree that such language, when used to refer to people with a learning disability or mental illness, has no place in a modern democracy. I am delighted that the Minister agrees, and am grateful to her for indicating her support for these amendments and for the assistance that she and her department have given me in drafting them.
The changes I propose are of great symbolic and practical importance to people with a learning disability and to other disabled people, who are still subjected to abuse and discriminationwhich should be challenged by the law, not enshrined within it. I should declare an interest in this issue as the president
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of the Royal Mencap Society, an organisation which has campaigned for these changes and which will welcome them wholeheartedly.
Amendment No. 188 would abolish any common law rule which links a person's incapacity to vote to his mental state. That is what currently ties the language of "idiots" and "lunatics" to electoral law, and has led to disabled people being denied the right to vote as the result of unjustified assumptions about their mental capacity being made by election officials and members of the public. Abolishing the common law rule would make disabled people subject to exactly the same eligibility criteria as everyone else.
The other amendments clarify the language used about disabled people in election law by replacing "incapacity" with "disability". Incapacity is an important concept in the law around disabled people's decision makingas the Minister who last year so ably steered the Mental Capacity Act through the House well knows. Yet it has a different meaning in electoral law, for it means legal disqualification from voting, rather than a physical or mental condition which makes voting difficult. For the purposes of this Bill, it seems best to avoid suggestions that disabled people have any kind of incapacity.
Disabled people have the right to vote and the right not to be insulted. By accepting these amendments, this House can show its commitment to upholding the equality of disabled people and protecting them from discrimination and abuse. I beg to move.
Lord Carter: My Lords, I am pleased to support the noble Lord, Lord Rix, by adding my name to this group of amendments. With his speech at Second Reading, and in moving the lead Amendment No. 118, the noble Lord has, as always, clearly explained the meaning and the intention of these amendments. There is no need for me to go into any further detail.
We can all agree that words such as "lunatic" and "idiot" have no place in legislation. Yet these amendments can deal only with the common law concept of incapacity, as it applies to electoral law. The Minister will remember the many debates we had involving capacity and incapacity on the Mental Capacity Act. As I said, these amendments deal with the common law concept of incapacity as it applies to electoral law.
Unfortunately these amendments are not able to deal with offensive wording which appears in statute on the face of Acts of Parliament. For example, I am not sure whether noble Lords are aware but Section 118 of the Taxes Management Act 1970 under "Interpretation" has the following definition:
That might be called the casual offensiveness of the draftsman's lexicon of that time. I have not been able to find those words in other Acts of Parliament, but I have tried very hard to see if the scope of this Bill would enable an amendment to be tabled to amend the Taxes Management Act. So far I have not been
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successful, but I should warn my noble friend that there is still Third Readingas I have raised the subject on Report, an amendment would be admissible at Third Reading.
A final serious pointthe amendment to this Bill and the offensiveness of the words in the 1970 Act, which I have just quoted, show just how far we have come since 1970. Those of us, and there are many outside this place and in the other place, who have campaigned for years for the rights of disabled people to be seen as a full part of civil rights and human rights can get some satisfaction that the words so casually used in common law and in statute are now inconceivable.
I congratulate and thank the Government on helping to draft the amendments and the noble Lord, Lord Rix, for moving them so ably. As I understand it, the Government intend to accept these amendmentsthey had better because they drafted them. This will be three successive amendments accepted by the Government, which shows that we are a listening Government.
Baroness Hanham: My Lords, it is probably superfluous to say that we support these amendments. They make common sense in the way we now refer to and look at people with disability, and it is proper that legislation should reflect that. Therefore, I support them with pleasure.
Lord Goodhart: My Lords, I would just like to add my congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord Rix, on once again achieving a step forward in the battles which he has so bravely fought for many years in your Lordships' House. We of course support the amendments.
Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, at the risk of the warm glow extending to the tax Bill or whatever it was that my noble friend referred togood luck, if you can get it into this BillI am happy to make the changes. It is always a privilege to work with two of my great heroes in the shape of the noble Lord, Lord Rix, and my noble friend Lord Carter. I know that all noble Lords will have willed them on to find a way in which we could do this. It was a privilege to help, and of course we accept the amendments.
Lord Rix: My Lords, all I can say is how grateful I am to you all. This is a historic moment for people with a learning disability and people with a mental illness. They will feel a lot better on reading tomorrow's Hansard. I thank you all very much.
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