Schedule 1 — Further provisions about the referendum
Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill
Mark Harper (Parliamentary Secretary (Political and Constitutional Reform), Cabinet Office; Forest of Dean, Conservative)
If the right hon. Gentleman will allow me, I shall first set out what the Electoral Commission has said, some of which the hon. Lady has quoted, about how it intends to proceed. The chief counting officer can give directions to counting officers. Both the right hon. Gentleman and the hon. Lady have made the point that in previous elections the Electoral Commission has not done an adequate job. Interestingly, Scope's Polls Apart report, which I had the opportunity of speaking to at the launch event earlier this year, said that the guidance that the Electoral Commission and the Association of Electoral Administrators produced on facilitating voting by disabled people was good but was not well implemented. The Electoral Commission does not have the power in elections to mandate the way in which returning officers behave but the chief counting officer will be able to issue directions to regional counting officers and counting officers. It is therefore worth considering the approach that the Electoral Commission plans to take.
The Commission believes it is important that the voting process is accessible to all electors. It says that it takes seriously its duty as a public body under equality legislation-including under the Disability Discrimination Acts and the Equality Act 2010, relevant parts of which will come into force next year-to ensure, among other things, that the information it provides is accessible and available in alternative formats. It has made it clear that the information it plans to send to every household will include information about voting systems, what will happen in the event of a yes or no outcome and how to take part in the referendum, including how to register and how to vote. That booklet will be available in a range of formats, including Braille, audio and large print.
The chief counting officer has said that she will issue guidance and directions to regional counting officers and counting officers regarding their duties in respect of accessibility and disabled voters under relevant equality and electoral legislation. She has also said that the Commission will continue to work with the excellent organisations that the right hon. Gentleman and hon. Lady mentioned, such as Mencap, the RNIB, Scope and other representative and advocacy organisations, to ensure that the referendum is managed and delivered in an appropriate way so that all electors have the chance to participate. That is a great reassurance because, unlike in elections, the chief counting officer for the referendum will be able to direct regional counting officers and counting officers on how to carry all that out.
My officials have discussed aspects of the Bill with Scope and they are very happy to do so with other organisations. In my previous life as the shadow Minister with responsibility for disabled people, I worked very closely with many organisations representing disabled people so I know what an excellent job they do. I also know from my experience as a constituency MP how much disabled people want to participate in elections not just by postal vote but, as the hon. Lady correctly said, by taking part in person. People with physical disabilities and people with learning disabilities are keen to express their views and we want to make sure that they can do so.
Having welcomed the amendments in principle, I am not convinced that they are the best way of achieving the aims behind them. The commission already has powers to do what the amendments propose in many cases and I do not think that turning those powers into obligations-this comes back to the point on which the right hon. Gentleman was pressing me about converting "may" into "must"-would add much to the Commission's options. Indeed, it might be damaging to take away its discretion to decide when it is necessary to issue directions or guidance. I do not think that would be helpful. By setting out what the commission has said on this, I have shown that it takes these issues very seriously. There are already important legal obligations on the commission, as a public body, under disability discrimination legislation and the Equality Act and I am not sure that the extra obligations that the amendments would place on the commission would add clarity. If anything, they would be in danger of making the legal position more complex.
Let me address another issue that the right hon. Gentleman and the hon. Lady have both touched on about this poll in particular and elections in general. There may be changes that we can make to electoral law in general-the Government keep that under review-but I do not think that legislating specifically for one poll, even if there were things on which I agreed with the right hon. Gentleman, would be a sensible way of going about it.
On electoral registration, the right hon. Gentleman was right to point out that there is an issue to do with the number of people who are eligible to vote and are not on the electoral register. As he knows, during our September sittings, I made a statement in the House about bringing forward individual registration, to deal not just with people who are on the register but should not be, but with the completeness of the electoral register. The Government think that completeness is as important as accuracy, and I have written to every local authority to urge their participation in data-matching pilots to try to identify voters who are not registered to vote and to look at how local authorities can best target their resources to get them on the electoral register.
The right hon. Gentleman made a tiny partisan point, when he said that he and his hon. Friends had been calling for change for many years. That may be the case and I have no doubt that the previous Government meant well, but in terms of outcomes they did not make a huge amount of progress in getting people on the electoral register. I hope he will support this Government in our efforts to do better.
To improve disabled people's access to the democratic process, it is important that the Government continue to work with the organisations that the right hon. Gentleman, the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree and others have mentioned. We shall keep the matter under review, but I do not think the amendments are the best way to improve access for the disabled to this poll, so I urge both Members to withdraw their amendments.