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Lord Campbell of Croy: I understand that this is a probing amendment and that its purpose and results would be helpful on the days of parliamentary and local elections, which occur about once every two years. But I must say at the outset that I disagree with the noble Lord.

As a disabled person who was a Member of Parliament, I consider that postal voting is the answer for disabled people. My experience is that it has been extremely satisfactory. It also caters—I hope that there is not going to be laughter about a very serious subject.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: I hope that the noble Lord will forgive me. The joke, or the line, which immediately crossed our minds was the way in which the votes had been cast for the noble Lord and the governments who have followed. It was in no sense a reflection on the noble Lord.

Lord Campbell of Croy: I do not follow what the noble Baroness says, but I shall expand on the matter. Of course, it was more than 21 years ago that I was in the other place but my experience goes back 50 years. I was just saying that postal voting caters for the very severely disabled—those who cannot even use wheelchairs or be carried into a polling station. I am particularly concerned about those who are paralysed or completely incapacitated.

Postal voting brings the polling booth into your home. You really cannot do better than that. I can speak from personal experience because, as I said, I have been disabled for the past 50 years. That has been to different degrees. For the early part I was in a wheelchair; later, I graduated to crutches and then sticks. I had to go back to a wheelchair at times. Therefore, I have experienced the different forms of locomotion. I have always used postal voting.

I am glad to say that during the four years when I was Secretary of State for Scotland I was encouraging all the disabled people north of the Border to use postal voting as their way of voting in elections. Certainly, my constituents were glad of the advice I gave them because they knew perfectly well that I was disabled.

The important factor is whether the system of postal voting is working efficiently. In its early years—I am talking about the late 1940s and the 1950s—it did not work well but it should now be a very good system. I recommend it to disabled people.

The principle of goods and services is that if it is difficult or impossible for a disabled person to go to the normal place where they are provided they should be delivered to his dwelling. That happens now in the United States under the American legislation. That is what happens with postal voting. The voting procedure can be followed in the disabled person's own home.

In general, I urge other disabled person to concentrate on the real and implacable ways in which they are disadvantaged. I advise them not to give much time to areas where there is an adequate alternative. In this regard, there is an adequate alternative.

While I speak for myself, I believe that I speak also for other disabled people when I say that we have to plan in advance our daily lives. I have to do that every single day. For example, we must think about what we

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are expected to do; what we can do; and whether there will be help to put on our appliances and shoes and socks when dressing, or whether we shall need to bring with us the special devices we have for doing those things. The programme for the whole day or week must be examined. Because I am especially concerned about severely disabled people, I hope that we shall concentrate on areas where adequate alternatives do not already exist. There are a great many other fields in which we should be trying to help disabled people because there are not alternatives. But, certainly in my experience, the voting system provides an adequate alternative which, despite laughter from the Opposition Front Bench, has proved extremely satisfactory.

I accept that this is a probing amendment and that the noble Lord moved it in order to obtain a response. I have made my response absolutely clear; there will be no doubt about that. But the amendment might send—fortunately, I do not believe that it will do so at this late hour of night—the wrong message to disabled people and give them the impression that postal voting is not a satisfactory alternative. I would absolutely deplore that because in recent years it has been the basis of enabling people to vote who are extremely disabled; for example, those who could not get through the door of a polling station even if there were a ramp. It also helps others because I have not found a single disabled person who has been refused a postal vote. The system covers a whole range of disabilities. Therefore, I sincerely hope that the subject will not be pursued because there are many other matters of far more importance to disabled people.

10.45 p.m.

Baroness O'Cathain: I support everything said by my noble friend. However, the point should also be made that voting has been made even easier for disabled people by virtue of the introduction of the continual or running proxy postal vote. It means that, at every election, you do not have to go back and request a postal vote thus going through the palaver of getting forms. Such forms automatically come to you through the post.

If my noble friend the Minister has any influence, will he please try to make that service more well known? For six years I have had to organise postal votes for my husband who is very seriously disabled. It was only during the last council election that someone tipped me off that there was such a running vote, provided that you get signed confirmation from your doctor. It is joy indeed; from now on I shall not have to do any more of that. I shall just have to make sure that the vote is sent off in the post. It is not something that is well known, but I believe that it should be.

Baroness Darcy (de Knayth): I entirely understand what the noble Lord, Lord Campbell, is saying; namely, that for those people who cannot get out of their homes, or for whom transport is so difficult that they have to rely on other people, the postal vote is very valuable. However, I prefer voting in person. Last year I went to a nearby primary school. It was inaccessible because it had railings and there was a step into the school. There was a form in that respect and we filled it in. In fact,

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they were delighted. I am ashamed to admit that I did not get back to vote this time, so I have not checked on the situation. But I shall do so.

Very often, voting does take place in schools; indeed, it is quite a good idea to install a permanent ramp in such buildings. Again, it is reasonable accommodation. Some places may just need a wooden, temporary ramp which can be removed but which will serve its purpose at times—and not just for voting—when people seek to use those facilities. I support the amendment.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: As we have just dealt with an education amendment I thought for a moment or two that, if we had still been at school, I might have given the noble Lord, Lord Monkswell, 100 lines for being late when the amendment was called in its proper position. I would have told him that he could not have the "sweeties" of my words of wisdom having come late to the sport. Of course, I am well aware of why he was late—

Lord Carter: I should just like to point out that the amendment has been called in its proper position.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: I believe that it was grouped with a previous amendment, which, for some mysterious reason—which I shall probably be up all night trying to work out—was withdrawn. So we are back to dealing with it.

The noble Lord's proposal is for things like an annual accessibility audit, reports to the Secretary of State, newspapers and radio adverts; and, indeed, the provision of wheelchair-accessible polling booths in every polling station, no matter how remote a possibility it might be that a wheelchair user would want the use of such facilities. The noble Lord is really asking us to take steps which are both unreasonable and unnecessary. His requirements overlook the fact that local authorities are already under a statutory duty under the Representation of the People Act 1983 to keep polling places under regular review. One of the factors that they must consider is the question of accessibility for disabled people.

I believe that the noble Baroness, Lady Darcy (de Knayth) mentioned schools. Of course, polling stations are not the buildings themselves; indeed, they can be an area within the building where voting takes place. For example, a school may be designated as a polling place but the polling station may be a classroom within the school. The Spastic Society's report entitled, Polls Apart, provided an extremely valuable and critical survey of the problems faced by many disabled voters at the 1992 election. Following that report, the Home Office held a number of meetings with the Spastic Society (now Scope) and provided revised guidance to returning officers on the particular needs of disabled electors and on how to reduce the problems that they face when voting. The success of that revised guidance is apparent in the increased take-up of grants towards the purchase of temporary ramps.

The requirements of the new clause apparently ignore the statutory responsibility already placed on councils to keep under review the designation of polling places and the advice given to returning officers as to accessibility factors to be taken into account. Those factors are

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detailed and were drawn up in association with Scope. It is surely right that the review is carried out at local authority level and reported to the local council. It is at local level that people are best placed to consider how provisions for disabled people can most effectively be made and how discussions with interested groups can best inform that process. I can only reiterate what my noble friend Lady Blatch said in a recent debate on electoral registration initiated by the noble Lord, Lord Monkswell, when she said that the Government take very seriously their responsibility towards disabled voters. We will continue to support councils and local administrators with the necessary funds, advice and guidance to meet the needs of disabled voters.

I do not believe that the new clause is in the least necessary. I want to underline the point made by my noble friend Lord Campbell of Croy about the importance of postal votes. Disabled people, of course, have the right to vote and that right to vote is now accommodated via the postal vote which is an extremely useful means of getting people the vote. The idea that people are deprived of the vote because they cannot get to the polling station is, frankly, cloud cuckoo land. I certainly hope that that is not the message that goes out from this Chamber. We want to encourage people who are unable to attend a polling station on the day of a vote for any reason to vote by post and to apply for that.

I have a postal vote for those elections I am allowed to vote in because I am here and not in Glasgow. I never feel I have been deprived of my vote just because I vote for the candidate of my choice a day or two before polling day. I also have never found any difficulty in deciding who I should vote for a day or two before polling day. Having been given the opportunity to make this commercial, I am happy to say that I was among perhaps a small band of Conservative voters at the previous local government election who voted for a candidate who won a seat on the new Glasgow unitary authority.


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