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I beg to move amendment 32, page 7, line 29, at end add—
‘(7) An order under this section may require registration officers to record at the point of registration—
(a) a voter’s access needs in relation to any document which is required or authorised to be given to voters or displayed in any place for either registration or election, and
(b) a voter’s access requirements to the polling station.’.
This amendment would allow for pilots which could assist disabled people both to register to vote and to cast their vote. It would achieve this by allowing electoral registration officers to establish the level of demand for (a) documents in alternative formats and (b) additional accessibility mea s ures at polling stations. It is estimated that there are approximately 15,000 disabled potential voters per Parliamentary constituency.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Scott.
The issue of disability concerns many hon. Members and, as demonstrated by the Government in bringing forward the legislation, the issue of effectual electoral registration also concerns the majority of hon. Members. Therefore, the amendment seeks to address two concerns for Members. First, it seeks to introduce a better system of individual electoral registration, which identifies every person eligible to vote, and it seeks to identify the needs of disabled voters participating in the electoral process. The Bill introduces an opportunity to achieve that by seeking information at the time of registration.
Recording disabled voters’ access needs at the point of registration can be used to improve the accessibility under the current system during the transition to IER and over the longer term. To put the issue in some context, it is worth establishing how many people it could affect. There are more than 10 million disabled people in the UK, with each parliamentary constituency containing approximately 15,000 disabled voters. That is almost a fifth of the total electoral roll. Polls Apart research has found that despite existing legislation aimed at improving the accessibility of election material, the experience of many disabled people has been that insufficient provision is made to provide information, forms and notices relating to the electoral process in alternative formats. Where this information is not available or is not sufficiently signposted, the election process can be considerably more difficult for these people to access.
The Electoral Commission has responsibility for monitoring the extent to which the electoral registration officers comply with a series of performance standards. One such standard is focused on accessibility, more specifically on the extent to which EROs have taken into account the different needs of voters in their local community. The commission’s first analysis of EROs’ performance against the standards in 2009 highlighted a lack of consideration of the need to provide documents in alternative formats and raised concerns that attention by EROs had been focused primarily on the provision of documents in various languages. I am concerned at the evidence that the provision of accessible formats to voters has not had the same focus, as the lack of it excludes disabled people who require information in a format other than the standard print from the electoral process. The Electoral Commission’s subsequent assessment against the standard has revealed a worrying trend that EROs’ performance on accessibility has remained poorer than for any other standard.
It can be said that we are currently placing the linguistic needs of people whose first language is not English above those for whom English is their first language but who, as a result of an accident or complication at birth, are being disfranchised from the electoral process. Consequently, individual registration has a potential to transform disabled people’s experiences of the electoral process if their access needs are recorded at the point of registration. The amendment seeks to achieve that by introducing a pilot project that can be rolled out on a national basis. The Government would need to ensure that such a pilot would be properly evaluated before any roll-out of the proposal goes nationwide. I am pleased to be able to inform the Minister that the Electoral Commission is prepared to carry out such an evaluation if the amendment is agreed.
The introduction of individual registration allows blind and disabled electors to specify at registration the format in which they wish to receive the information, including Braille, tape, large print, easy read, and so on. That would mean that a blind elector could specify when registering to vote that they would need to receive a polling card in a Braille or other format, or that they would require an audio postal vote application form. Allowing individuals to specify what format they need enables EROs to plan more effectively and meet the needs of a variety of disabled people who all encounter different barriers. Gathering data on voters’ preferred formats would enable EROs to send forms and information in that appropriate format and avoid having to make assumptions about voters’ needs. For instance, while Braille is used by some blind people, other formats may be just as important for blind and partially sighted people, including large print.
The registration form could also capture requirements to enable physical access to the polling station or for the support that voters may need in casting a vote. Provided that such information is shared with a returning officer, it could be used to ensure that those needs are met in the run-up to polling day and on polling day itself. It should be obvious, for instance, which voters may need a large print ballot paper and how many copies need to be provided at one or other polling station.
Recording information on access needs could not only be used to inform planning by electoral administrators, but is consistent with the Government’s goals in introducing individual registration to encourage individuals to take responsibility for registering themselves to vote. It should also be up to an individual to specify what alternative format they prefer. It is well known that the transition to IER is taking place in a climate of significant pressures on electoral budgets. Providing alternative formats involves some cost, but it is important to recognise that such a provision would not place any additional duties on EROs other than those they already have. Rather than increasing costs, such a measure would allow existing resources to be used more effectively.
I have tabled the amendment to support the recommendation made by the Electoral Commission for a scheme to be piloted that would involve EROs asking for individual access needs of electors at the point of registration. Piloting that would provide valuable guidance to EROs on the most suitable system for maintaining registration forms and their associated access needs records, as well as allow the Government to assess the merits for such a provision to be rolled out.
I hope that the Minister decides to accept the amendment, because I remain unaware of the validity of any claim that under the current legislation the Government already have sufficient powers to introduce the pilot—a view supported by the Electoral Commission and disability groups such as Scope, which have already impressed it on the Government. However, if it is asserted that that power already exists in other legislation, I can tell the Minister that the amendment would specifically ensure that the registration process itself is used to identify and meet access needs. No other legislation provides for the registration process to be used for that purpose. Given that, I believe the registration process to be the most effective mechanism for achieving both improvements for disabled people and benefits for electoral staff.
I commend my hon. Friend for tabling the amendment and wish that I had had time to sign it, because I am with him entirely—in spirit if not on the Order Paper. Is not the function of this probing amendment, as he says, to identify the need to husband our existing resources far more effectively, rather than taking a more scatter-gun approach that will not address the fundamental needs of disabled people?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention. He is entirely right. This will be an opportunity to define what people need so that we can ensure that EROs’ resources are used most effectively and that the electoral registration process is suitable for blind and partially sighted people.
It may be asserted that such a provision already exists in the Bill, under the power to make regulations in clause 2. That will give the Secretary of State the power to prescribe the type of evidence that a person must provide to establish eligibility to register to vote. The Government could argue that that includes a power to ensure that access needs are recorded at registration, but I believe that the clause is limited to prescribing evidence that is needed to establish eligibility and, therefore, cannot be used to achieve the same purpose as my amendment.
I believe that the Minister is a considerate man. If he chooses not to accept the amendment, will he please explain where he believes the power currently lies for the Government to carry out a pilot scheme in order to provide assurances about how information, forms and notices relating to the electoral process in alternative forms will be provided to blind and disabled people at future elections, and will he indicate when that will be achieved?
May I welcome you to the Chair, Mr Scott, and say what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship for the first time? I congratulate Dr Offord on tabling the amendment. It has two aspects: first, it is clearly about people’s right to vote, and secondly, it rightly raises the issue of registration in the first place. It is often assumed that people who are disabled, partially sighted or who have no sight will fill out the registration forms when they receive them or have someone else do it for them, so what he proposes is very important.
The key point, to return to the previous debate, relates to the annual canvass, because the only way of finding some of these individuals is to knock on doors and assess their needs. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the format of ballot papers and the information people receive on how to register. He said that there are potentially around 15,000 disabled people in each parliamentary
constituency, so we are not talking about a small number of individuals. It has long been one of my gripes that in certain areas where I have acted either as an agent or a candidate, many returning officers have only recently taken note of accessibility to polling stations, let alone of the suggestion for making registration information and ballot papers more accessible.
The reason for having a pilot is that it would show some new methods for achieving that and indicate whether they could be rolled out nationally. We also need to think a little out of the box on this. I know the Electoral Commission has done that before, but it has always shied away from postal voting and e-voting, for example, which for many partially sighted people would be better than going to a polling station. My mother is partially signed but does not read Braille, so the suggestion that she could vote by computer, for example, would be a good one for her.
Such pilots would be worth doing. We had a pilot in Durham several years ago and, overall, texting, a full postal ballot and e-voting were very successful. The Electoral Commission’s report was very positive, but unfortunately, as I said in the previous debate, it got cold feet because of some of the headlines about electoral fraud. I think that allowing the possibility of electronic voting for disabled people would be a step forward and that what the hon. Gentleman proposes would be a way of trialling it in certain areas.
It would be important to involve not only the major national charities so that they can talk about this, but the many local voluntary groups that support disabled individuals in the home. Care workers and local authorities could certainly play a role in this, and housing associations and others could identify where there might be large concentrations of people with physical or visual impairments, which would be very valuable. I wonder whether part of the pilot could put an onus on electoral registration officers to work with care homes, sheltered accommodation and local charities and support groups to be able to identify these people, first to ensure that they are registered in the first place—I am sure that many should be but are not—and secondly to explain the process to them.
When canvassing, it never ceases to amaze me how many people I come across who clearly need a postal or proxy vote because of a physical disability but who do not have them, either because they do not understand how the process works or because they think that they would somehow have to struggle to the polling station and know that physically they could not get there. Therefore, the pilot could be not only for testing the different methods for providing information in the largest type and Braille or for e-voting and other things, as the hon. Gentleman said, but—the Minister should take this on board—for explaining to many disabled people the different ways in which they can vote, because from my experience I do not think that many understand postal voting or recognise that they can apply for it.
I remember that under the old system someone had to tick a box and get a doctor or state-registered nurse to sign it, which was a bit of a palaver, but this would be a way of extending access to a group of people who, as the hon. Member for Hendon rightly identified, are perhaps not at the top of people’s priorities in the electoral process. They are—I think he would agree with this—a constituency that has a lot of issues that local councils, MPs and others need to take into account. The one way they can hold their elected officials, whether councillors or MPs, to account is through the ballot box, but if they cannot cast their vote or do not know how to do that, or if it is physically impossible for them to access that process, that constituency is hindered.
I support the amendment. It would be a valuable thing to pilot the hon. Gentleman’s suggestions in areas so that lessons could be learned. It would be a useful process to have ongoing pilots because they would provide a body of evidence for electoral returning officers, not only showing new ways of doing things but, in some cases. making them mandatory to ensure that, as he said, people are asked about disability, because if they are not how will a returning officer or anyone else know what the individual’s needs are?
The amendment would provide a very valuable lesson, and I hope that the Government do not push it aside, but look at it as part of the pilot process so that we obtain evidence that can then be rolled out, and so that some of those new methods, either for e-voting or for getting information to people on registration, become a normal part of electoral registration and, at elections, voting.
The measures are supported by Age UK, Mencap, the Royal National Institute of Blind People, Scope and Sense, and by the Electoral Commission, which importantly reminds us, however, that the Government would need to ensure that the pilots were properly evaluated before any wider roll-out of the proposal. The commission has also made it clear that it would be prepared to carry out such an evaluation.
The Bill provides an opportunity to go as far as we possibly can in securing opportunities to improve significantly participation in the democratic process by disabled and older voters, and the amendment would do so in two parts. It outlines proposals for pilots on the format used in the initial registration process, and, on the need for a variety of formats when it comes to registering to vote, the obvious example is that of partially sighted and blind citizens.
There are those beyond the partially sighted and the blind, however, who will not be able to sign registration forms or documents for one reason or another—perhaps because they have a physical disability that makes it hard for them to write or to use a pen. We have to remember also that, beyond the more severe and profound disabilities that unfortunately many citizens have to cope with, there are those who suffer from the more minor disabilities, such as dyslexia or dyscalculia, which mean that in many instances the completion of a form would be a major obstacle to claiming the right to register to vote.
Many people suffering from, for instance, dyslexia find the use of IT incredibly helpful in overcoming their disability. It is surprising, but I saw it when I was the local authority cabinet member for education in Sheffield, where I was lucky enough to witness the introduction of interactive whiteboards in classrooms and the use of IT tablets for participation in classroom learning. It was incredible to see how helpful IT could be in overcoming something that to many of us seems a minor disability, but which to those who suffer from it can be a major obstacle to participation in the right to vote.
Over and above that, I have also seen how individuals on the autistic spectrum benefit significantly from access to IT, and we in this House need to acknowledge that a wide range of formats could undoubtedly be adapted and used in the registration process.
Polls Apart research has found that many disabled voters experience difficulty in receiving information, forms and notices relating to the electoral process in a format that they can access, so the evidence is not just anecdotal but on the record. The Electoral Commission has recognised its existence and would like Parliament to act on it.
On polling stations, every Member will be more than aware of the problems experienced by a range of people with disabilities when claiming the right physically to register their vote on polling day, and I am sure that we, as politicians involved in election campaigns, have all taken voters to polling stations in our cars to exercise their right to vote. We know what it is like to see voters coping with crutches, wheelchairs and sometimes, because of infirmity due to age or disability, just the sheer effort of walking from the car to the polling station.
The partially sighted and the blind, equally, are presented with problems when physically presenting themselves at the polling station in order to claim the right to vote.
Does my hon. Friend agree that a surprising number of elderly people, in particular, who become housebound through age or disability do not know about their right to a postal vote? As part of the assessment proposed by Dr Offord, should they not have that explained to them and be given help to apply for a postal vote?
I completely agree. Back in 2004, south Yorkshire was selected as the pilot area for elections in which every vote was cast by post; we had an all-out postal ballot, as we called it. Not only did participation increase, but the process was particularly beneficial to those voters who, however accessible the polling station was, were never going to be physically able to get to it in the first place.
It is an indictment of our democracy that so many disabled voters should have to rely on lifts from political parties to exercise their democratic right to vote. That is not healthy, and my hon. Friend is absolutely right when he makes the point that we should do whatever is necessary to encourage the disabled to access postal votes and proxy voting so that they secure their right to a say in who their elected representatives are.
One disappointing feature of the Bill and an important part of the debate is that, when it comes to the carry-over provisions for the general election in 2015, postal votes will not be carried over to the register. That is worrying for democratic participation in the next general election, and more concerning is that its impact will probably be felt more deeply and profoundly by the disabled, the partially sighted and all the people whom we have been talking about. Labour Members have constantly made representations in this Committee about the removal of the entitlement to a postal vote for those citizens who are carried over to the register for the 2015 election.
One of the major problems in our democracy is that many polling stations are not accessible to the physically disabled. The obvious thing to do is to use new-build public buildings, such as schools, as they would be totally accessible. However, schools are increasingly resistant to being used as polling stations, partly because it disrupts the school day. There are also concerns about security, given that strangers are allowed to wander on and off the school premises to exercise their right to vote.
There is a major issue about accessibility to polling stations. I do not pretend that the amendment would deal with the whole problem, but it would at least place the onus on the Government. We are not talking about party politics, but something profoundly important—the onus on the Government to ensure that they do their utmost to deal with problems of physical access to polling stations.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the number of polling stations is important as well? On accessibility, we should not go down the road taken by Newcastle city council when the Liberal Democrats were in charge—to save money, it reduced the number of polling stations. When I went back to my old ward to canvass during elections, I was amazed at how few polling stations there were and at the distances that certain people had to travel to cast their votes.
Again, my hon. Friend makes a valuable point. I represent the city of Sheffield and the borough of Barnsley in Parliament. As anybody who knows south Yorkshire will be aware, it is probably one of the hilliest areas in the country; Sheffield is probably the hilliest city in Great Britain. As my hon. Friend is well aware, it is built on seven hills; there are constant arguments about who lives in the hilliest part.
The key point is that the arguments about access to polling stations in the city are often entirely about how far away people are from their nearest polling station. The issue is not physical distance, but about whether people have to climb up a hill to exercise their right to vote. That is a major issue in my area. Indeed, in this year’s elections, the problem was so acute in one of the polling districts that the local authority agreed to have a new polling station in a funeral parlour, which raised a few eyebrows locally. The local authority was desperate to increase levels of participation and given the difficulties due to the hilliness of the district, it was felt that the funeral parlour was the best solution to enable people to participate in the democratic process.
On the main point, there is a major issue of accessibility to polling stations in terms of distance and terrain. My hon. Friend is right: we need to maximise the number of polling stations in the first place, but we also need to think more carefully about how accessible those polling stations are.
Finally, I want to make a few comments about e-voting. The House has an ambition to move eventually towards a system of e-registering for the right to vote. Online registration has to be the way forward in the long term.
I take the point made about broadband and rural areas, but many broadband problems are not to do with rural areas but with where BT has made infrastructure investments. Some of the urban areas in my constituency do not have superfast broadband, whereas some of the rural areas do.
Nevertheless, in the long term, e-registering is the way forward as we move towards the comprehensive electronic age. Equally, if we accept that e-registration is a legitimate way of encouraging the completeness of the electoral register, e-voting also has to be the way forward. My hon. Friend outlined some of the many ways in which we could introduce e-voting on a comprehensive scale. Whichever system people choose to use—voting online via the PC at work or voting by mobile phone or iPad—it must be right for us to begin properly to pilot access to e-voting. E-voting immediately improves accessibility to voting, particularly for disabled people. People with dyslexia and dyscalculia would also benefit from e-voting procedures.
Pilot work has been done on e-voting. There are concerns about security, but I am sure that they can be overcome. We live in an age when people can transfer money from one bank account to another through a mobile phone—well, they can with certain banks. Pingit is an innovation. If the banking system feels that e-banking is secure, it is about time that we as a country recognised that e-voting offers a credible, secure way forward for improving accessibility for disabled people to the democratic process. We support the amendment and, like the hon. Member for Hendon, we hope that the Government accept it in the spirit intended.
I genuinely welcome what Dr Offord had to say about the amendment, for two reasons. First, he makes an extraordinarily important point about our electoral law and arrangements —that they should be inclusive. Secondly, on a personal note, he probably does not know, although some do, that in a former life I was an optician who had a lot to do with the visually impaired. I set up the all-party group on eye health and visual impairment because I thought the issue needed a higher profile. So the issue of accessibility is dear to my heart—certainly as far as the visually impaired are concerned, although of course it goes wider than that and other disabled groups are involved.
Providing accessibility to the registration process is important, and Angela Smith made points about the voting process as well—whether at a polling station or by other means. It is nice that everybody in the House wants progress on the issue. What we have put in train by virtue of the Bill will allow and provide for yet more work to be done to make sure that the register is as complete as possible, and that includes the needs of people with disabilities.
Mr Jones mentioned the importance of the canvass but added that other means must be available. I entirely agree. The suggestions on data matching in the Bill provide electoral registration officers with a wider palette of opportunities to consult the register of blind and partially sighted people
—they can consult it now, although they do not necessarily do so. The evidence that local authorities have of people with disability or impairment will enable them to do a more complete job of ensuring inclusion.
Precisely. As the hon. Gentleman will know, in the Bill there is a duty on electoral registration officers to use a variety of means with the sole duty of ensuring that the register is as complete and accurate as possible.
I shall slightly disappoint the hon. Member for Hendon by saying, as he anticipated, that I do not believe that the amendment is necessary, because the Bill already provides for what he wants. Clause 9 allows for the new registration system to be piloted in advance of commencement, and there is no reason why it should not include the information that is collected from application forms. The clause enables electoral registration officers to propose pilot schemes in their areas to test how the new system will work in practice. We expect that to test the robustness of the individual electoral registration digital service in advance of nationwide implementation. There is no obstacle to a proposal’s using the power in the Bill in order to include the collection of a voter’s accessibility needs. That would be a very good use of that power.
I accept that these powers are in the Bill, but I think that what Dr Offord is trying to get at is that this should not necessarily be left to local EROs. Yes, they might take it into account, but in order to get the body of evidence, it would be helpful if the Government said to particular areas, “Could you pilot this proposal on disabled people?”, so that lessons could be learned from the pilots. If it is just left to EROs, some of the better ones might do it, but we might not get the data or learn the lessons that are needed.
This involves two things. First, we need to have pilots to see how we can most effectively secure the information; the Electoral Commission might want to take a view on that. Secondly, we need to ensure that that is reflected in the secondary legislation—the regulations that specify what needs to be collected. There is already quite a long list of things that are specified; indeed, Mr David has complained that it is too long. Despite his reservations, I think that accessibility issues would be a useful addition. Provisions elsewhere in the Bill provide specific powers to add other requirements. For example, new paragraph 3ZA(1)(a) to the Representation of the People Act 1983 provides the power that the hon. Member for Hendon is concerned about. It seems that his view is shared by the Electoral Commission, which slightly worries me, but I will come back to that.
We want to make sure that every authority has the funding it needs to do the job properly. As the hon. Gentleman knows, there is a duty on local authorities to make available to electoral registration officers the funding that is necessary for them to do their job. He also knows that some authorities do that very well but some, frankly, do not, and in those cases the ERO ought to be saying, “You, Mr Chief Executive”—or Mr County Treasurer, or whatever—“are not providing the resources necessary to do the job effectively.” We will support every time EROs who lack the resources to do the job properly.
If such a pilot is of national significance because it could influence national policy, and it is above and beyond what an ERO or a local authority is already doing, surely it is incumbent on the Government, in a time of cuts, to recognise that and make additional funding available to it.
I repeat that every electoral registration officer has a duty—a very important duty—to make sure that the register in their area is as complete and as accurate as possible. That is their duty, irrespective of this Bill.
I am gratified by some of the Minister’s comments, if not all. I hope that I made it clear that I do not believe that the amendment would be an additional financial burden on EROs. I said that although providing alternative formats would introduce some costs, it is important to recognise that no additional duties would be placed on EROs. It would be more cost-effective in terms of the money that they spend in relation to registration rather than costing local authorities more. I would very much hope that local authorities would be willing to take out a pilot scheme.
I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s intervention. We have previously provided additional resources for pilot schemes where that is justified. However, as he says, his suggestion would simply encourage EROs to do their job more effectively using the information that they ought to have available, and that is why it commends itself to me.
On the whole, the Bill is good news for people with disabilities, because it deals with a number of issues that some of us have argued for some time ought to be dealt with. For instance—this is not the subject of the amendment, Mr Scott, but I hope that you will forgive me for responding to a point raised by the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge—we have provided additional time within the timetable, exactly as Scope and others argued, to enable access issues to be better incorporated. The hon. Lady rightly mentioned issues to do with polling places. It would be wrong to go into detail on that in the context of this part of the Bill, because it is the subject of a clause in part 2. However, making sure that the polling places review is more closely aligned with UK parliamentary elections, thereby allowing it to examine the accessibility of proposed locations, ought to ensure that we do a better job than we do at the moment. I agree that in some areas access to polling stations is not desperately good and ought to be better. That is not confined to rural areas rather than urban areas or urban areas rather than rural areas; it is often partly about what is available and partly about the ingenuity and resolution of the ERO in doing the best job within the confines of the resources. There is a lot more that can be done.
The hon. Member for Hendon will recognise, I hope, that we are not only fully seized of the issue he raises but determined that we can and should do better for people with disabilities. We need to work closely with organisations that represent those people to make sure that the draft secondary legislation that the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend Mr Harper, has published—it is a good job he has done so—takes these issues into account as comprehensively as possible. I am prepared to give a clear commitment that the Government are more than happy to consult those organisations further—with the Electoral Commission and with anybody else, including the hon. Member for Hendon himself if he so wishes—to make sure that we have done that and that when the final regulations are approved by this House they meet the requirements that he has put forward.
It is right that we take whatever steps we reasonably can not only to ensure that our arrangements are as inclusive as possible, but to bring in innovation where possible. The hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge is right that some aspects of modern technology are hugely beneficial to people with disabilities. We will test that as part of the registration process, as she knows. I think that that is another huge advance. Those are things that we ought to do, if we can.
Finally, I say to the hon. Member for Hendon that we do not think that there is a difficulty with the powers in the Bill in giving electoral registration officers and the Electoral Commission the opportunity to do this work. If there is any difficulty, I undertake to look at the powers again to ensure that there is no gap. We are certainly prepared to introduce something else if necessary, but on my reading of the powers it is not. On that basis, I hope that he will withdraw his amendment so that we can discuss the matter again before the Bill reaches its conclusion.
I am grateful for Members’ contributions and want to make a few comments about them.
Mr Jones mentioned annual registration of the right to vote. We currently have that. As I am sure he is aware, the Polls Apart survey at the last general election showed that 67% of polling stations presented one or more access barriers to disabled people that might have prevented them from voting and that 47% of postal voters experienced at least one access problem. Even with the current system of annual registration, we are experiencing problems. Any change to that system will not increase the access of disabled and partially sighted people.
Angela Smith represents an area of the world that I know well, as I stood in Barnsley East and Mexborough many years ago and tramped up and down the hills of Sheffield, Hallam as we attempted to win that seat, unsuccessfully, in 2001. She made a good point in asking what disability is. One person’s disability is not another person’s. She mentioned dyslexia, which on face value I would not consider to be a disability. However, if I suffered from it, I would probably view it differently. I can think of at least four Members of this House who have a visible disability and each one of them has very different needs. I will not name names, but I am sure that Members can imagine that people who are partially sighted have different access needs from those who are in a wheelchair.
I met a physical disability group called Disability Action in the Borough of Barnet, which is located in the constituency of my hon. Friend Mike Freer. One of the issues it raised is the siting of polling stations. One polling station in my constituency is located in a portakabin in a pub car park. There have been occasions when disabled people have been required to vote outside the polling station because they were not able to access the ballot box directly. That is incredible in this day and age. I had hoped that my amendment would address such issues.
I was gratified by the Minister’s response, particularly on the register of visual impairment. Along with the intervention of the hon. Member for North Durham about blue badges, that reminded me that there are opportunities for electoral registration officers to identify people who may need assistance. I believe that we need political will in our local authorities to ensure that those opportunities are taken. I hope that the Bill goes some way towards achieving that.
I believe that the Minister has more than left the door open. I will be watching the passage of the Bill and will be pleased if any concessions can be achieved elsewhere. He used the word “assurance” and I hope to hold him to account on that. I would like to be part of any process to take the proposal forward. On that basis, I say categorically that he has assured me at this stage. I will seek leave to withdraw the amendment, with the provision that he maintains his gaze on this matter. I assure him that I will. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
Clause 9 allows for flexibility and contingency in the way that individual registration is implemented and it allows for the Government to test changes to our system before rolling out individual registration nationwide. However, we have had no concrete details so far on how the changes will be phased in. As I indicated in the debate on clause 6 and the related amendments, many questions about implementation remain outstanding. That is why the Opposition want to take this opportunity to place on the record our agreement with the Electoral Commission, which has made it clear today that it is essential that the Government publish a detailed implementation plan as soon as possible to show what needs to be done to deliver the changes outlined in the Bill.
Last week, the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, Mr Harper said that he was confident that there would be no backlog in voter registration because the IT system to be used for data-matching purposes would be properly tested before widespread implementation.
We have had promises from IT companies before that everything will be all right, but the systems have failed at the first hurdle after we have spent billions of pounds on them. We have a political deadline to meet, because the Conservatives want to win the next general election on the back of the Bill. Does my hon. Friend agree that that must not stand in the way, and that the IT system must be in place properly before we move forward?
My hon. Friend makes an important point, especially given that the new register will be used for the boundary review in December 2015. It is critical that the data-matching arrangements work. He is right that the IT systems procured by Governments for public sector services often prove to be lacking, inefficient and not fit for purpose. The outcome of such problems is usually a backlog, causing frustration and anger for people up and down the country who do not get the services to which they are entitled.
That is not a problem just with central Government. When I was in local government, we introduced a new IT system to process housing benefit. It was introduced by the former chief executive of the council, who is now the top civil servant in the country and is very competent indeed. Even so, it was impossible to get an IT system that worked in the right way from day one. Sheffield city council ended up with one of the most severe backlogs that I have ever seen in processing the benefits that were due to the people of the city.
My hon. Friend Chris Ruane is right that it is crucial to the democratic process that any IT system is tested thoroughly before people use it to register their right to vote. It is crucial that the right to register is given priority over anything else. If the IT system is found wanting, the partial register that results should not be used for the boundary review in 2015.
If the House is to have confidence in the Minister’s verbal reassurances, it must have the detail on how the changes are to be introduced. We must have concrete evidence in an implementation plan that every process that is required for the new system, including the data-matching and confirmation processes, will be up and running efficiently and properly before we move on to using the new system. Given that the boundaries in the 2020 general election depend on our getting this right, the House is entitled to a proper response from the Minister and to reassurance that the details will be made available soon.
This is an area in which the official Opposition are probably world experts: IT systems that go wrong. The Government are grateful for their experience, which was garnered through many years, of the criminal justice IT system that never worked, and the NHS system that never even got off the starting blocks, despite millions of pounds being spent. We know from their example just how poor IT systems can be when they fail to function.
However, to take us into IT systems that go wrong on the basis of clause 9, which introduces the opportunity to trial and pilot to ensure that things are robust before they go live, is odd. It is important that we ensure that we pilot registration provisions; that the verification system is sufficiently robust before we roll out individual electoral registration; and that we test the IER digital service before it goes live in 2014 so that it can cope with the transition. That is exactly the reason for clause 9.
The clause enables the draft orders for the pilots to be introduced for the consideration of the House to ensure that it is satisfied, and so that we can properly evaluate the outcome once the pilots are concluded. Incidentally, the orders can be brought forward only at the proposal of the registration officer responsible for the area. We have learned many lessons from the data-matching pilots carried out last year. They were used to make improvements to the system and to simplify the proposals for the transition process before the Committee. The proposed pilots could have the same impact as the data-matching pilots.
Understanding how such things work and what can go wrong is crucial to any change of such magnitude. Clause 9 is therefore important because it provides the legislative framework that will enable pilots to take place. They will ensure that the system has the confidence not only of those who operate it, but of those who use it. They need confidence that the system is robust and that it has been pressure tested. That is the reason for the proposals.
Angela Smith made an important point on setting out an implementation plan. The Government are still consulting and working closely with the Electoral Commission and taking the advice of the political parties. When we have concluded that process, we will set out an implementation plan for all to see, but that is not the purpose of the measure. The clause will ensure that we properly test and evaluate the proposed system to ensure it works, which has not happened so often in the past. Only when it works satisfactorily and has been seen to do so can we make progress.
I hope that that answers the hon. Lady’s points to the satisfaction of the Committee.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 9 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.