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Lord Bach: I am grateful to the noble Lord. A lot of work has been going on and there have been debates in this House. We are still actively attempting to make sure that our soldiers and personnel from other services who are serving in Afghanistan have the chance to vote by post. Each of them can vote by proxy if they want to, but it is thought that many would rather vote by post. There is a scheme which will work within the existing electoral timetable and legislative framework, subject of course to operational priorities, because of
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Lord Campbell of Alloway: My Lords-
To ask Her Majesty's Government what is their response to the comments by the Electoral Commission about the risk of possible incidents of electoral malpractice at the forthcoming general election.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Justice (Lord Bach): My Lords, we welcome the recent report by the Electoral Commission and the Association of Chief Police Officers which confirms that the recent downward trend in the scale and volume of allegations of electoral malpractice continued at the June 2009 elections. However, the Government strongly agree with the commission that all those involved in the conduct of elections must remain vigilant at the forthcoming general election.
Lord Greaves: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. I declare a couple of interests. I have been asked to be an agent for a parliamentary candidate in the forthcoming general election and I have accepted. Also, on page 52 of the report there is a table of outstanding cases, including one with the Crown Prosecution Service which I instigated.
Page 41 of the report points out that this coming year will be a particular challenge because there are local elections in the main cities and in London, which are the places,
There will also be a general election and the report refers to,
It is highly likely that these elections will be on the same day. Does the Minister understand that it is vital that there are not significant allegations of malpractice in marginal constituencies in some of these cities which could put the result of a close general election at risk?
Lord Bach: I cannot possibly comment on whether the elections might be on the same day, as the noble Lord will know. I have already said that we and all those involved with the elections this year need to be vigilant. However, it is important that the report brought out by the Electoral Commission and ACPO last week made it clear that we in Great Britain are free from major allegations of electoral fraud and it saw a recent downward trend in the scale and volume of allegations of fraud. The noble Lord knows that many measures have been taken during the past few years to try to make sure that fraud is lessened.
Lord Henley: My Lords, in an earlier answer, the noble Lord told us that personation was a major problem in electoral fraud. Is he really saying that it is a worse problem than the fraud that we have in postal voting?
Lord Bach: The number of cases where fraud is alleged in elections is incredibly small, and was even smaller in 2009 than in previous years. Of that very small number of complaints made, a considerable proportion was about personation.
Lord Baker of Dorking: My Lords-
Lord Campbell of Alloway: I was going to make the same point during the previous Question, having spoken on it on many occasions in your Lordships' House. As we approach a general election, is there any hope of reasoned consideration, and should not the altering of electoral arrangements be left until another Government -or the same Government-are in charge of the country? It is a very important question which is not to be trivialised.
Lord Bach: I think that I agree with the noble Lord. I argue strongly that this would be the wrong time to start mucking around with our electoral arrangements and timetable. I would argue that it is common sense; I am delighted that the noble Lord agrees.
Lord Tyler: My Lords, the Minister will be aware that Nick Brown, the government Chief Whip in the other House, has apparently expressed a view that he is against next-day counts at the general election on the grounds that he does not trust the local returning officer, his staff and the police to provide sufficient security to prevent tampering at the ballot box. Is that government policy?
Lord Bach: My Lords, I think that it has been said on many occasions that it is much more exciting and much more in our traditions to have counts on the Thursday night of a general election if that can possibly be arranged.
Lord Maxton: My Lords, I have listened to the exchanges so far and am aware that change cannot happen before the general election this year. However, does my noble friend not agree that it really is time that we investigated secure electronic voting in this country before the following general election takes place?
Lord Bach: Significant work has been done on e-voting, and the change to electoral arrangements that that would entail would be considerable. It would obviously require very careful consideration as well as primary legislation. We certainly cannot consider it for now, but it is obvious that we shall have to consider it for the election after next and the one after that.
Lord Baker of Dorking: My Lords, is the Minister not being complacent about the recent report from the Electoral Commission and the Association of Chief Police Officers, which showed many cases of electoral
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Lord Bach: I do not think I was being complacent. As I understand it, the number of cases and allegations of electoral malpractice recorded by police forces in Great Britain for last year's elections were 48 cases involving 107 allegations. This compares with the scale of participation in those elections with 22 million votes cast across the United Kingdom. The noble Lord asked a very interesting question about the checking of return postal votes. We support the principle that 100 per cent of return postal votes should be checked and funding has been provided to allow this to take place in practice. We will look to mandate 100 per cent checking when it is appropriate and safe to do so, in particular when all local authorities and parliamentary constituencies are able to fully comply with that requirement.
Lord Campbell-Savours: When my noble friend says "when it is appropriate to do so", does he mean that certain seats will then be targeted for that level of checking?
Lord Bach: No, I do not believe that that is what I meant. I am attempting to say that although 100 per cent of return postal votes ought to be checked, there may be constituencies and local authorities which, because of their administration, are unable to do that for this year's elections.
Lord Campbell-Savours: But why should they not be targeted if there is a higher level of risk?
Lord Bach: It seems to me that all constituencies and local authorities should be treated the same as far as this is concerned. We are looking for 100 per cent of return postal votes to be checked where possible.
Schedule 2: Services and public functions: reasonable adjustments
57B: Schedule 2, page 132, leave out lines 25 to 27 and insert-
"( ) to remove the feature, or
( ) to alter the feature, or
( ) to provide a reasonable means of avoiding the feature, or
( ) to provide a reasonable method of providing the service or exercising the function."
Baroness Warsi: My Lords, Amendment 57B makes more active the requirement to make reasonable adjustments for those with disabilities. We have tabled this amendment to probe the issue of reasonable adjustments for those people with disabilities. Amendment 57B increases the strength of the duty in Schedule 2. As the Bill stands, the duty states that where,
then reasonable steps should be taken to avoid that disadvantage. In paragraph 2(3) of Schedule 2, this is then defined as,
Our amendment would alter this provision so that reasonable adjustments such as,
would also be options that would have to be taken into account.
We have tabled these amendments to probe the area of reasonable adjustments and auxiliary aids. We are just looking for some clarity. The Bill as it stands shows that the Government are clearly concerned that some reasonable adjustments should be made, and we welcome this provision. However, can the Minister tell the Committee whether any assessment has been made of the cost of such a provision? Furthermore, can she give us an example of an adjustment that would pass the reasonable test and an adjustment that would be considered as going beyond the call of legislation? Does the Minister think that there is the possibility that these provisions could be interpreted as too passive? They ask only that there should be a way of getting around the disadvantage or an alternative method to provide the service. As they stand, therefore, reasonable adjustments here may mean that disabled persons are only accommodated rather than actively welcomed. Will there be guidance on how the schedule should be interpreted? What might the impact be on a small shopkeeper who has a shop with a narrow entrance and several stairs? How far would the duty extend? I beg to move.
The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (Baroness Royall of Blaisdon): My Lords, we considered this same amendment in Committee in the other place, and I welcome the opportunity to discuss it again. The reasonable adjustment duty is an essential cornerstone of the protection for disabled people contained in the Bill. This amendment would import into the Bill similar language to that used in the Disability Discrimination Act, where a physical feature puts a disabled person at a substantial disadvantage. We heard evidence in Committee in the other place suggesting that the absence of a reference to removing the feature as an option had been interpreted as weakening the provision, but that is certainly not the intention and is certainly not the case.
The emphasis in the Bill is on taking such steps as it is reasonable to take to "avoid the disadvantage", which is to say that we are legislating to ensure the
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We consider that exemplifying how the duty might be delivered in different circumstances is best done through an authoritative code of practice and other guidance which can be informed by good practical, real-life examples. When the noble Baroness asks me for examples, I must refer her to the forthcoming guidance.
For information, the Disability Charities Consortium has identified this in its briefing on the Bill as a key area for strengthening or clarification. However, we have already strengthened the duty by introducing the single, substantial disadvantage threshold, and we should and must acknowledge that. We will provide any necessary clarification in the codes and guidance.
The noble Baroness asked whether we were being too passive with this clause. I do not believe that we are being passive, as we are actively asking people to ensure that they achieve the best outcomes for disabled people. I respectfully ask her to withdraw the amendment.
Baroness Warsi: My Lords, I thank the Minister for her reply. There has been some clarification, but I note with concern that the authoritative code to which the noble Baroness refers and the guidance are still to be forthcoming. That appears to be a feature of this Bill, which has been a long time coming-the fact that we are debating it in this place, when it has already been debated in another place, and are still waiting for guidance.
Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: Many of the draft codes of practice are now on the internet for consultation, so I refer noble Lords there. I am not absolutely certain that the specific code to which this clause refers is on the internet, but I shall verify that and come back to the noble Baroness.
Baroness Warsi: My Lords, I am not sure whether this is on the internet, so I look forward to the reply from the Minister. However, I would still raise the issue that I am raising. It concerns me that these matters are still out for consultation. Surely it would have been more appropriate if we had had responses on the guidance to these clauses, which is clearly interpreting the legislation. It is clearly not clear, which is why we have to table so many probing amendments. However, at this stage, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendments 57C and 57D not moved.
Schedule 3 : Services and public functions: exceptions
Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, I wish to speak to Amendments 58, 107, 108 and 108EA.
Currently, local authorities and schools are not under the DDA duty to consider auxiliary aids in relation to disabled school pupils, and that position is mirrored in the Equality Bill. This group of amendments will reverse that position. Amendment 58 will place a duty on local authorities in relation to their education functions, as set out in Schedule 3, to comply with the third reasonable adjustment requirement, as set out in Clause 20, to consider auxiliary aids. Amendments 107, 108 and 108EA will do the same for schools in Schedule 13. Such aids could include adaptive keyboards, voice output and communication equipment for pupils with hearing and speech difficulties, and computer technology to help pupils with visual impairments. I am sure that we would all agree that disabled pupils need all the help they can be given to ensure they get the education they deserve.
However, the disability lobbies have long argued that the position of local authorities and schools not having to consider auxiliary aids is a barrier to some disabled pupils getting their education. Our view has been that many disabled pupils also have a statement of special educational needs, and so will get any auxiliary aids provided as part of that regime. In addition, schools and local authorities are under planning duties and strategies to consider the needs of disabled pupils more widely, so auxiliary aids will be considered in a more strategic and planned way. However, we have listened carefully to the lobby arguments and views on this and other disability issues in schools, and recognise that the whole approach to disability and special educational needs in schools needs to be reviewed. That is exactly what we have been doing. Following a Select Committee report on special educational needs in 2006, we asked Ofsted to conduct a review in 2009-10. It will look at how well the existing policy and statutory arrangements are meeting the needs of disabled pupils and those with special educational needs to determine if any changes and improvements need to be made.
It would have been logical to tackle the issue of auxiliary aids following that review. However, as noble Lords may be aware, an inquiry into parental confidence in the special educational needs systems was conducted by Brian Lamb, the chair of the Special Educational Consortium, in 2008 and 2009. His recommendations were published in December. One of the recommendations was that schools should be under the duty to consider auxiliary aids. We have therefore reconsidered the matter and we are keen to ensure that no disabled child who needs an auxiliary aid misses out. It would be wrong if even a single disabled child misses out
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We have gone further than the amendment which was originally tabled by the noble Baronesses, Lady Warsi and Lady Morris, and we have tabled Amendments 107, 108 and 108EA, which will amend Schedule 13 and place the same duty on schools themselves when offering all types of education. This group of amendments will ensure that there are no gaps in provision and that all disabled pupils will get the help they need to get the education they deserve. This can only be of benefit to disabled pupils, and I therefore hope that noble Lords will accept the amendments. I beg to move.
Baroness Wilkins: My Lords, I strongly welcome these amendments, which implement a key recommendation of the Lamb review, and the Disability Rights Commission review of Part 4 of the DDA which was back in 2007. Too many disabled children face barriers to participation in learning and school life, because if they do not have a statement of special educational needs, they have no enforceable entitlement to extra support. The Equality Bill provides the perfect vehicle to remedy this injustice, and I am delighted that the Government have seized it.
The effect of the amendments will be to provide many thousands of disabled pupils, and their parents, with the confidence to get the practical support they need to take part in school life. For example, I have been contacted by a parent of a child with chronic fatigue syndrome, who says that a right to auxiliary aids and services will greatly assist her and her son negotiating arrangements with the school-things like proper rest facilities, a mentor so that he can maintain contact with school life, and provision of forward programmes of work. None of these things involves any great financial outlay, but they would make a huge practical difference to his participation.
I congratulate the Government on bringing forward these amendments, which contribute to the goal of an inclusive education system, and wish them a speedy passage onto the statute book. However, I sound a note of concern about the absence of any explicit provision in the Bill for an anticipatory duty to make reasonable adjustments in relation to schools and education for disabled pupils. Disability discrimination lawyers are clear that the Bill does not provide for this and that there is a real risk of regression here. They are clear that it is not enough to refer to an anticipatory duty in the Explanatory Notes when the Bill itself provides otherwise. Can the Minister give me an undertaking that urgent discussions will be held to iron out this issue? I am afraid it will require a substantive amendment to the Bill.
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