Moved by Lord Holmes of Richmond
20: After Clause 17, insert the following new Clause—“The role of the Electoral Commission: accessibility of the vote(1) Within 3 months of the passing of this Act the Electoral Commission must publish a plan to ensure the accessibility and inclusivity of every vote, including—(a) how such accessibility and inclusivity will be audited and assured, (b) examples of good practice on the part of returning officers from previous votes in terms of accessibility and inclusivity, and(c) what action will be taken if such accessibility and inclusivity is found not to have been delivered.(2) The Electoral Commission may revise the plan from time to time and publish any such revisions.(3) The Electoral Commission must have regard to the most recently published plan under this section in the exercise of its functions.”
My Lords, it is a pleasure to begin day two of the Elections Bill, and to move Amendment 20 and speak to Amendments 120 and 122 in this first group. I give more than a nod to Amendment 119, but I shall not trespass on it—I shall leave it to the noble Baroness when she rises to speak.
I am grateful to my noble friend Lord True, the Minister, for the time he spent pre-Committee discussing some of the elements around accessibility. He has shown kindness and courtesy and given his time in all the meetings we have had to date. I am also grateful for all the briefing and support we have had, not least from the RNIB.
My three amendments address one simple issue: the accessibility, inclusivity, independence and secrecy of every vote cast. That is simple and straightforward and, I hope, achievable. I shall not give a Second Reading speech, but I shall just give two very brief examples of why I believe we need these amendments. The examples come from the testimony of blind people who, helpfully, got in contact with the RNIB. One person said that when they were voting, the booth was close to the queue and they had to say out loud to the person with them the candidate they wanted to vote for—and they heard from someone in the queue a loud sigh at their choice. Similarly, a second person said that they knew that the person helping them was of a different political persuasion. With the best will in the world, how could they know that that person had voted in the way they had asked them to? That is the purpose of the amendments. As we come to celebrate 150 years of the Ballot Act, the ability of all the electorate, not least blind and visually impaired people, to vote independently and in secret would seem to be something that all noble Lords would want to get behind.
Amendment 20 concerns the role the Electoral Commission could play. It suggests that within three months of the passage of this legislation, the commission should produce a report on how it will seek to ensure the accessibility and inclusivity of the vote, how that would be audited and assured and, crucially, how examples of good practice could be measured right across the country. In saying that, I pay tribute to the many returning officers who do such good work and really try to do their best, not least in terms of accessibility and inclusion. The amendment also provides for what action the commission would take if such accessibility and inclusivity were not found to be in place.
Turning to Amendment 120, this is where we get to the meat of the change. Current legislation on accessibility is based on the Representation of the People Act 1983. There are three simple statements on the provision of a large-print ballot paper and of a device as prescribed in secondary legislation called a tactile voting device, or TVD. It is simply a plastic grid that covers the ballot paper and allows the blind or partially sighted person to feel where the boxes are and to put their cross in the relevant box. Why do we need to change this system? First, although well intentioned, it has not worked. As noble Lords can imagine, the TVD going over the ballot paper still does not tell me what names are on it. I cannot vote secretly or independently with that system. Indeed, the High Court ruling in 2019 described it as a parody, as it has indeed been.
The relevant clause in the Bill deletes the word “device” and inserts
“such equipment as it is reasonable to provide”.
It also deletes the phrase “without assistance”. In essence, although this is well intentioned, it doubly weakens the current provision. I am making no great claims for the current provision: we have to look at how we can drive change and, potentially, innovation in this space in order to make the vote inclusive and accessible. However, we must not move from the TVD system to one that could provide even less accessibility. As noble Lords can see, the inclusion of the word “reasonable” could make people subject to a postcode lottery, or to a returning officer lottery in respect of what that officer might consider reasonable.
My Amendment 120 uses the wording of the Representation of the People Act 1983, but simply replaces the phrase “a device” with “equipment”. It is a simple amendment but one that will enable innovation and change, so that we are not trapped with the TVD and unable to use modern technology to assist with the vote. Just changing those words enables innovation, without watering down the current accessibility and inclusivity provisions.
Amendment 122 is aligned with Amendment 120, in that it seeks to push innovation and emphasises what technology can do to assist, support, enable and—yes—empower the elector when they cast their vote. At no stage would I suggest that innovation is the complete solution, or indeed the—or even a—silver bullet, but we should at least consider how it can contribute to that solution through enabling greater accessibility and inclusivity.
Amendment 122 asks the department to put out an innovation competition, to get all the fabulous UK SMEs in the technology sector involved and come up with potential solutions to be trialled and set out and which could be proof of concept. This would drive inclusion and accessibility and throw a specific focus on the current difficulty and lack of inclusion and accessibility around the vote. More broadly, doing it in this innovative way would, I hope, raise a wider point across society around the whole question of how we can make not just the public sector and public services but the whole social, economic and human experience more accessible and inclusive.
There are three amendments and one clear purpose: inclusion, accessibility, independence and secrecy. In a 21st-century United Kingdom of liberal, democratic politics, surely it must be possible for everyone to have the opportunity and be empowered to cast their vote accessibly, inclusively, independently and in secret. This must be possible. I beg to move.
My Lords, I support these amendments, so ably introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Holmes. I will speak to Amendments 119 and 120 in particular, but I must first apologise for not having contributed at Second Reading because of a pre-existing engagement.
I am at a genuine loss as to why the Government appear to have dug their heels in against an amendment along the lines of Amendments 119 and 120, with such an amendment being rejected in the Commons. They claim to have been listening to civil society when developing the Bill’s provisions, yet it is clear that civil society organisations of and for disabled people, while welcoming the new broader provision in the Bill, are very concerned about the dropping of the specific provision for the effective voting rights of blind and visually impaired people. Examples include the oral evidence to the Public Bill Committee given by the head of policy at Disability Rights UK, evidence to the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, and a series of briefings from the RNIB.
No one is disputing the value of having a broader protection to cover disabled people more generally, but why does it have to be either/or rather than both/and—that is, both the more general protection and the specific protection that it has long been recognised blind and visually impaired voters need, albeit updated to be more effective than the existing provision that, as we have already heard, leaves all too many blind and visually impaired voters humiliated when they try to vote independently?
The only argument the Government seem to have is that the kind of specific provision that would be provided in these amendments is, in the words of the Commons Minister in the Public Bill Committee, “needlessly prescriptive” and an “unnecessary obstacle to inclusion”. But the RNIB is clear that this is not so. Amendments 119 and 120 both refer to equipment without specifying what that equipment should be. How is that prescriptive? Can the Minister please explain? Prescription is left to secondary legislation, which can easily be amended.
I understand that the RNIB has been working with the Cabinet Office on how to improve voting accessibility and that officials have met with it to discuss concerns about the Bill. The Minister in the Commons confirmed that they had seen the evidence presented by the RNIB but said:
“We do not expect the outcomes that the RNIB has outlined to necessarily be the case.”—[Official Report, Commons, Elections Bill Committee, 19/10/21; col. 235.]
Why do the Government believe they know better than those with day-to-day experience of the issues involved? That is not a rhetorical question; I would appreciate an explanation from the Minister. If they do not believe the predicted negative outcomes to “necessarily be the case”, the implication is that they accept they might be the case. Surely on the precautionary principle used to justify the introduction of voting identification—which will create its own problems for disabled people, as I am sure we will discuss on Thursday—the Government should listen to the warnings of the RNIB and other disability groups.
In the interests of inclusive citizenship, I hope very much that the Government will think again, accept the spirit of these amendments and bring forward their own amendment on Report.
My Lords, I would like to lend my support for the amendments in this group. Interestingly, the Bill says that its purpose is
“to strengthen the integrity of the electoral process” but not its inclusivity. That is a gap that pervades the whole Bill, and we will return to it in subsequent debates.
In this specific instance, there is a significant gap indeed—you have only to read the RNIB briefing to see the extent of it. It identifies the scale of the challenge, with 250 people starting to lose their sight every day, and its serious concerns that the Elections Bill weakens protections for blind and partially sighted voters at polling stations. It seems to me surprising, if not unconscionable, that we will be approving legislation that the RNIB believes weakens protections.
It is doubly concerning given that, as the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, has said, there are plenty of opportunities to improve access through technology. There are pilots that have proven to be successful.
I find it difficult to understand why the Government would resist these amendments, which seek to keep the innovation within the system but maintain the protections. That ought, after all, to be what we seek to do here. If the outcome of this legislation is that those who are blind or partially sighted feel that their opportunities to vote independently and in secret are diminished, and that their protections are diminished, something has gone very badly wrong in our consideration of legislation.
My Lords, Article 29 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities mandates all countries to
“guarantee to persons with disabilities political rights and the opportunity to enjoy them on an equal basis with others … ensuring that voting procedures, facilities and materials are appropriate, accessible and easy to understand”.
It further emphasises
“the right of persons with disabilities to vote by secret ballot in elections and public referendums without intimidation … facilitating the use of assistive and new technologies where appropriate.”
In November 2018, the European Blind Union published its Report on the Accessibility of Elections for Blind and Partially Sighted Voters in Europe, in which it reviewed the provisions of facilities. It looked at the methods of voting in 45 countries in Europe and emphasised the core values of equality, independence and secrecy of the vote, which speakers have already referred to. The report found that
“paper-based voting in itself is not accessible to most BPS voters. A blind voter is not able to identify different elements on the ballot and independently mark the preferred option or options on the ballot.”
As for partially sighted voters,
“adequate font sizes and contrast values on the ballot as well as magnifying glasses in the voting booth and good lighting conditions” can help.
Last year, with my limited vision, I could not read anything printed. I could just about read backlit text on a laptop or iPad, but only in reverse-contrast and with the aid of a magnifying glass. In any event, I could not read election literature—not that I really needed or even wanted to do so. I could have voted, I suppose, with the aid of my wife, the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, but could I trust her to put my cross against the Liberal Democrat candidate?
Thank God. The EBU report is an exhaustive study of the methods used in European countries. In Russia, you can have an assistant to vote in a polling booth; they cannot be a candidate or a member of a political party, surprisingly enough—perhaps the man with the Kalashnikov on the door will suffice. The local election commissions in Russia submit information on the number of BPS voters in the territory and, depending on need, stencils—TVDs—are produced and distributed to some polling stations. It is not difficult, though, if there is only one hole into which you can place your cross.
In the United Kingdom, the problem with stencils—TVDs—is that each hole in the plastic screen is marked with a number in Braille, but there is no information as to which candidate the numbered hole refers to, so you have to ask, and there you lose independence and secrecy. In Malta, the constitution demands that an audio device be present, which will play a list of the candidates to the blind or partially sighted voter. In Ireland, there is a free hotline that BPS voters can call on the day of the election for a detailed description of the ballot and of the stencil. The phone number of the election is also the day of the election, so that it is easy to remember.
Seven different solutions are referred to in the EBU report, but I do not intend to discuss them in detail. That is why I believe that the need for a plan, referred to in Amendment 20, and the competition mentioned in Amendment 122, are such good ideas. As the RNIB points out, it has been working with the Cabinet Office, and trials of an audio player used to read out names on the ballot paper, in conjunction with a TVD, were very successful. I think it was tried out somewhere in Norfolk; perhaps the Minister can give us an update on that pilot.
I myself am attracted by the Australian experience, where there have been several federal and regional elections with telephone voting as a specific option for BPS voters. Interested voters call a dedicated phone number to register and receive a unique ID. Then, on voting day, they use the ID to call a call centre anonymously. The call centre operator reads out the ballot and manually records the vote, with a second person supervising the vote. The ballot is then treated as a normal vote.
Finally, I think it should be mandatory for every polling clerk in charge of a voting station to be trained to look after disabled voters—and, in the case of BPS voters particularly, in the use of whatever equipment is provided. As the noble Lord, Lord Holmes, said, what should be provided is not whatever the returning officer or polling clerk thinks is “reasonable”—the word used in the Bill—but whatever is necessary for the BPS voter to be independent in the choice of candidate, and to cast a vote truly on the basis of equality with any other voter and in secret.
My Lords, I rise very briefly in support of this group of amendments. I will speak briefly as I was not able to participate in the Second Reading debate.
Looking at the Bill in its entirety, it is pretty clear why most of the various elements are contained within it. I hope that the Minister will not find it pejorative if I suggest that this is because they convey an advantage in one particular direction rather than another. I look at the provisions in the Bill for blind and partially sighted people and I wonder, “What is it that blind and partially sighted people have ever done to the Conservative Party?” Because, in its existing form, the Bill reduces and diminishes the rights that blind and partially sighted people have in terms of casting their vote independently and in secret.
So why was that? There are various reasons. It could be that, in an excess of zeal to extend the rights of disabled people more generally, somehow this was a mistake, and they did not intend to take away the rights of blind and partially sighted people but simply wanted to put in an additional, rather than a replacement, provision for disabled people. If so, that is clearly a mistake, and no doubt when the Minister rises, he will say, “Yes, it was a mistake and we’re going to correct it”.
The other concern may be that, as I understand it, the Government have lost two court cases on precisely this principle: whether they are meeting their existing obligations. So maybe this is about cost. In which case, I hope that the Minister will recognise that to deprive certain categories of people of their vote because it will cost too much to make the necessary provision is inappropriate.
So I hope that the Minister when he responds will recognise that the amendments put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Holmes, are entirely sensible—they remedy what I hope was an accidental change introduced by the Government that would diminish the rights of blind and partially sighted people—and that he will accept them, or one of the other amendments before us today.
My Lords, I have here a speech in support of the case which has been deployed already with great eloquence by a number of speakers— I think that we are up to three or four already—so I think that the best service I can perform for the Committee is not to read it out. The argument for amending the Bill to underwrite the case for inclusion and accessibility in the voting process, particularly for blind and partially sighted people and people with disabilities, has been very strongly articulated. That being so, it is incumbent on the Government to take particular note of what has been said and respond to the call for reinforcing the accessibility and inclusiveness of the electoral process, in particular for people with disabilities and people who are blind or partially sighted.
My Lords, if an amendment has been tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, and my noble friend Lord Holmes of Richmond, moved briefly but eloquently by my noble friend, and now endorsed by the noble Lord, Lord Low of Dalston, we do not really need to say any more, do we?
We talk about the expertise of this House. Here we have three of our most respected Members, who themselves have overcome so many of the difficulties of being blind. They can speak with a measure of experience that none of us can begin to emulate. I hope that my noble friend will give a very brief summing up and say, “Yes, we accept what has been said by those who truly know what they’re talking about”—and then we will move on.
We do not really need to say much more, but I think I might try. I want to add a little layer of shame if I possibly can. I would like to know from the Minister why the Government are denying democracy to a section of society. That is exactly what is happening here. If blind and partially sighted people cannot see to vote properly or cannot vote in privacy, that is denying them democracy. My question, first, is: why? Secondly, why did the Government not put something like this in the Bill anyway? We have an ageing population—this section of society is going to get much bigger—so it is absolutely necessary.
The last thing I will say is that, if the Government insist on bringing forward these awful Bills, we will insist on trying to amend them. It is down to the Government. If they do not want to listen to us, they should bring us better Bills.
My Lords, it is slightly disappointing that the Committee is having to debate this issue in this way. Will the Government listen? This is not a party-political issue; it is an central issue that is vital for all, so that all are afforded a secret, independent vote that is accessible and inclusive. It is interesting that a number of noble Lords, such as the noble Lords, Lord Holmes and Lord Low, and my noble friend Lord Thomas have spoken about their experiences. That is more important to listen to than issues to do with what a returning officer might or might not see as reasonable.
We on these Benches support the amendments, particularly Amendments 20 and 119, because they are about providing a prescribed piece of equipment across the country. It does not matter whether you are in Southend, Sheffield or Sunderland: there should be prescribed equipment, as now, that leads to independent, accessible and inclusive voting.
The impact assessment that the Government have provided points out that the Electoral Commission will provide a list, but it goes on to say that returning officers do not have to buy from that list. We could be left with a situation where some returning officers—I hope not many—see it as reasonable not to provide equipment, and there would be a legal argument that it was not reasonable to provide any extra equipment.
It is really important that there is something about prescription in the Bill. As other noble Lords have said, that could be written into secondary legislation. Amendment 122 from the noble Lord, Lord Holmes, is really innovative because different equipment will be needed as technology moves on, but the fact that it is prescribed means that it can be changed quite easily in secondary legislation and then prescribed for every polling station across the country.
I ask the Minister, first: what would prevent it being seen as reasonable for no equipment to be required in a polling station? Would that be deemed illegal in the way the Bill is written? Secondly, if you are partially sighted or blind, what would the difference be, whether you vote in Southend, Sheffield or Sunderland, in having different equipment? It should be prescribed, it should be the best and it should be on the recommendations of civil society, in consultation with the independent Electoral Commission, to determine what is required.
My Lords, this has certainly been an important debate. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Holmes, for his extremely comprehensive introduction to his amendments. It is really important to this debate for those of us who are not blind or partially sighted to hear exactly what the situation is for some noble Lords. We on these Benches are very happy to support his amendments. I also thank the RNIB for its time in meeting me to discuss the situation and for its very helpful briefings. The noble Lord also mentioned the RNIB’s work on this.
I tabled my amendment because the Bill provides an opportunity to make some much-needed improvements so that voting is more accessible for everyone. Although that is the stated intention in the Bill, the RNIB and blind and partially sighted Members of this House have raised concerns, as we have heard, that the wording in the proposed legislation is inadvertently—we hope it is inadvertent—reducing the legal protections for blind and partially sighted people.
In support of my amendment, I draw the Committee’s attention to much of the evidence provided by the RNIB. It is very important that the Government listen and get this right, so I will spend a little time on this, if noble Lords will indulge me. Currently, the Representation of the People Act 1983 says:
“The returning officer shall also provide each polling station with—
(a) at least one large version of the ballot paper which shall be displayed inside the polling station for the assistance of voters who are partially-sighted; and
(b) a device of such description as may be prescribed for enabling voters who are blind or partially-sighted to vote without any need for assistance from the presiding officer or any companion”.
The Bill replaces paragraph (b) with:
“such equipment as it is reasonable to provide for the purposes of enabling, or making it easier for, relevant persons to vote”.
The word “reasonable” has been challenged by a number of noble Lords, so I ask the Minister to take note of that and take it back with him.
This clearly weakens the guarantees for blind and partially sighted people. The noble Lord, Lord Kerslake, referred to the importance of integrity and the fact that he believes that there is a gap in the Bill, particularly in this area. As he said, why would we approve legislation that the RNIB believes will weaken the current system? The RNIB says that it will weaken it in three specific ways.
Individual returning officers, instead of the Government, will now make the decision as to what to provide, creating a postcode lottery of provision. This will introduce uncertainty and anxiety among blind and partially sighted voters, as they will not know what to expect at polling stations or what they are entitled to. The introduction of the word “reasonable” means that a returning officer could decide that they do not think that the provision of a tactile voting device, or other such equipment to enable an independent vote, is reasonable. In addition, the loss of the words
“without any need for assistance” means that there is less clarity that the right to an independent and therefore secret vote is afforded to blind and partially sighted people, as it should be to any voter under the principles established by the Ballot Act of 150 years ago. The noble Lord, Lord Holmes, referred to that important Act.
Looking at the Explanatory Notes and additional evidence from the Government, it seems that this change has been proposed to achieve a number of things: to address a concern that as the tactile voting template is prescribed in law it is difficult to change and likely to become outdated; to address a concern that the tactile voting device does not always work; to ensure that voters with other disabilities also receive the adaptations they require; and to allow for innovation to support disabled voters—the noble Lord, Lord Holmes, has come up with a cracking idea on how we can encourage innovation. But the tactile voting device is not prescribed in statute; the legislation instead makes reference to
“a device of such description as may be prescribed”.
It is prescribed in regulations and as such should be relatively simple to update in the light of technological developments, so I ask the Minister: does he believe that removing this protection is proportionate, based on the impact that it would have on blind and partially sighted voters?
I appreciate that the tactile voting device alone does not always work as a method to ensure an independent vote, and noble Lords who have had experience of using it have explained the concerns, but I also understand that, as has been mentioned, the RNIB has been collaborating with the Cabinet Office on alternative solutions.
A method whereby blind and partially sighted voters were given an audio player alongside the tactile voting device to read out the names on the ballot paper, meaning that there was no need for an assistant or presiding officer to help by reading out the names of the candidates, was trialled at polling stations in Norfolk in the May 2021 elections. Satisfaction rates among those who used it—a small sample because of the scope of the trial—were 91%, compared with 39% among blind and partially sighted voters across the rest of the country who had access to the tactile voting device alone.
Can the Minister explain why plans to introduce this new system more widely have been shelved? My noble friend Lord Harris of Haringey talked about how the proposals reduce and diminish the rights of blind and partially sighted people to vote independently and secretly. He asked whether this was a mistake which would be corrected, but considering that the new system had plans which were shelved, can I come back to his other question: is this about cost? I am interested to hear what the Minister has to say. It would be good if he could give assurances that the new system, which seemed to work so well in Norfolk, was not shelved because of cost.
Whether the trialled solution of an audio player used with a tactile voting device is eventually adopted, or another solution is brought in, it is essential, as the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, said, that a minimum standard of equipment uniformly available in every polling station must be supplied to ensure that blind and partially sighted people can exercise their right to vote in secret. However, as we have heard, in the revised wording proposed, an individual returning officer could decide that this is not reasonable. This is not the way forward. Any solution must be at a national level. I have heard from the RNIB that voters are frequently told that a tactile voting device is not available. Moving the decision regarding what adaptations to provide to returning officer level results in a patchwork of provision. It will damage the ability of blind and partially sighted people to vote independently.
The noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, made the important point that we have an ageing population. This is more likely to be needed as we go forward in time, and this Bill gives the opportunity to do something about it. The RNIB believes that concerns about the rigidity of wording and improving accessibility of voting for other disabled people could also be addressed with a very small change. The amendments tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Holmes, did not reference only blind and partially sighted people. We were looking more broadly across support for all disabled people. As we have heard, equipment must be supplied. No matter a person’s disability, they need the equipment to ensure that they can vote independently and secretly, and in a way that is properly accessible.
We also think that the changes that have been suggested by the RNIB allow for innovation for all disabled voters. Even under the current legislation, with a prescribed solution that sets out a minimum standard on provision, the Cabinet Office was able to provide additional advice to returning officers ahead of the elections in December 2019, clarifying that they may wish to permit blind or partially sighted voters to use magnifiers or mobile phone apps to assist in voting, as a reasonable adjustment under the Equality Act. As such, there is no restriction in law on local innovation by returning officers beyond the minimum standard to support disabled voters. Indeed, the Equality Act already obliges them to make reasonable adjustments for all disabled people. The noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, talked about the United Nations conventions protections and the difficulties of his own experience, and brought in comparisons with international alternatives. There are plenty of tried and tested ways to look at this.
The Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee also expressed concerns about the impact of some of the proposals in the Elections Bill on people with complex disabilities. The committee rightly draws attention to people with complex disabilities who already face barriers while exercising their democratic right to vote. The lack of accessible information about elections and candidates, the inaccessibility of the voting process, and often the buildings used, as well as public attitudes and understanding, all present barriers.
My noble friend Lady Lister looked at the evidence from the committee and rightly asked why on earth the Government are digging their heels in on this. The Elections Bill presents an opportunity to make it easier for disabled people to vote and the committee agrees. We have heard today of some of the barriers that have been in place. We also know that a survey carried out for the committee’s report found that 5% of disabled people said it was hard for them to actually get into the polling station; in contrast, no non-disabled respondents said it was hard for them, so there is clearly a huge issue here.
The Electoral Commission has also been calling on the Government to make voting more accessible for all. The evidence provided on sight loss in its 2018 report reflected that sight loss creates an issue for electors in both polling stations and their home environment. The main response relating to people with sight loss came jointly from the RNIB and the Thomas Pocklington Trust. Their evidence began with statistics which reflected responses to a survey at the 2015 general election, where 45% of respondents disagreed with the proposition that the current system allowed them to vote without assistance and in person, with a further 29% saying that was only partially the case. Only 4% felt that no change was needed, and 54% said that telephone, electronic and online voting should be considered.
In conclusion, this Bill is a huge opportunity to make these positive changes. I am sure the Minister would wish to make voting a straightforward and positive experience for all citizens. As the noble Lord, Lord Holmes, said, why not look at a competition on innovation? That is a fantastic idea. As the noble Lord, Lord Low of Dalston, said, the case has been strongly articulated so it is incumbent on the Government to take note of what noble Lords have been saying. Finally, as the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, said, we have heard from respected Members in this House today who are partially sighted or blind, so the Minister needs to take note of what they have said.
My Lords, I thank all those who have spoken in what has been a very welcome debate. I am sorry to disappoint those who wish to characterise the Government as hard-faced on this matter. I hope I will be able to convince your Lordships of quite the reverse; we are interested in further conversations.
These amendments, which I agree were very ably introduced by my noble friend Lord Holmes and spoken to by others including the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, relate to the accessibility of elections for people with disabilities and the measures in the Bill aimed at improving this. We accept the principles put forward I thought so cogently by my noble friend Lord Holmes—inclusion, accessibility, independence and secrecy. Those are things that all of us would wish to strive for. As the noble Baroness and others recognised, not all of those are currently catered for.
I wish to highlight that the measures introduced by the Bill actually respond to findings from our 2017 call for evidence Access to Elections which raised concerns that the prescription of assistive devices in law can be an obstacle to innovation and wider inclusion. The Government are clear, as I think was also widely agreed in the debate, that a one-size-fits-all approach cannot ensure that appropriate support is delivered by returning officers to all disabled voters, whether they are blind and partially sighted or have a different disability. It is for this reason that we consider it absolutely necessary that we make provision to extend support to wider groups of disabled voters. I am pleased that the spirit of the amendments broadly agrees with this principle and the ultimate goal of making elections more accessible for all people with disabilities. Contrary to the assertion made by the noble Lord, Lord Harris, that is our objective.
Two of these amendments, those from my noble friend Lord Holmes and the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, would require the Government to prescribe in law equipment or a set of equipment for blind and partially sighted voters, in addition to widening support to other disabilities. I listened carefully to what they have to say and will continue to do so. The Government have engaged positively with the RNIB. I assure the House that my colleagues in DLUHC continue to engage with it regularly, and it remains a crucial part of the Accessibility of Elections Working Group. It expressed concern that the approach taken in the Bill might result in a loss of protection for blind and partially sighted voters, but I emphasise that this should not and will not be the case under the approach we propose. This protection will remain, but the form in which it is provided will be improved and allow for more and better solutions to be developed.
As I noted, and as other noble Lords alluded to, our experience of providing specific assistive equipment in law over the past two decades is that it can become an obstacle to innovation and wider inclusion. Turning to a question asked by several Members—including the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, who for a second time has spoken eloquently and cogently on this issue from his personal experience—the testing of TVD was carried out in Norfolk last year. Participation was limited, as the noble Baroness pointed out, but it was positive overall in the limited sample. It did, however, show that audio is the right solution for some people but not all. Under the new measures, the right support should be that audio or something else should be provided, based on people’s needs. That is our hope.
Turning to the issue of cost, the question was asked, “Are you doing this because you don’t want to pay?” No: as is usual for programmes of this kind, the Government will meet the cost of the new burdens that flow from the implementation of the Bill’s policy measures, in line with long-standing government policy. Rollout of any funding will be timed to ensure that local authorities can meet the costs incurred.
I do not want to interrupt the Minister while he is in full flow, but his description of the way money flows to local authorities applies to a new provision. This is removing an existing provision: that is the distinction. Why are the Government removing a provision? Is it because they lost two court cases and were told they should be doing more?
No, my Lords; the reality is that the current position is confined and the Government are seeking to move to a future where a range of assistance is available. Again, in my submission, the noble Lord does not characterise the position correctly. As for his allusion to court cases, everybody who has some knowledge of these proceedings knows very well that there was a court case in 2019, which is a matter that the Government must address and are addressing.
I must press the Minister here. Following on from what the noble Lord, Lord Harris, said, the impact assessment is very clear. Under this policy, there are no direct costs because returning officers
“will be able to buy the equipment they think best” suits
“those with disabilities … by removing the requirement to buy a specific device.”
That is what the impact assessment says. There is no extra money: money will be moved from the prescribed equipment to what the returning officer sees fit.
My Lords, we are seeking to move to a better, more flexible and more complete approach for blind and partially sighted people, and others. I repeat what I said to the House: if new burdens flow from these proposals, long-standing government policy will apply. We have heard, not from the Government at this Dispatch Box but from others who have spoken, that the specific equipment available today does not suit every circumstance. It is reasonable, therefore, to engage in the kind of open discussion we are having, and which I welcome. If I am allowed to make progress, I will say a little more about what the Government hope to do.
My question was really about the cost of the system trialled in Norfolk and whether the problem was that it was prohibitive. My understanding was that it would be spread out nationally, and I wanted to know why that did not happen and whether cost was an element.
I do not believe that was the case but I am not briefed on the specific point. I will of course give the noble Baroness an answer on that.
There are many things in the Bill on which we disagree, and I am conscious that there will be hard and difficult debates with the Government, and I will be very much in the dock on a number of things. I understand the suspicions and concerns that have been raised, but I beg to persuade the House, not only today in Committee but in further conversations I hope to have with noble Lords, that the Government’s earnest here is not to confine but to extend what is available to disabled people and to blind and partially sighted people.
The amendments as drafted would be prescriptive and would provide for specific equipment to be legally required in over 40,000 polling stations across the United Kingdom. This might ossify the position on equipment provided and could take away the opportunity to provide equipment that people want and need, which is the aim of the more tailored approach introduced by these measures.
Additionally, it is important to be mindful that, as my noble friend Lord Holmes reminded us in opening, being able to “vote without any need for assistance” can mean different things to different people, as the act of voting could be seen to include various actions, from knowing the candidates to marking the ballot or placing the vote in the ballot box. Identifying a device or combination of devices that would enable every single blind and partially sighted person to complete every step in the voting process securely and without assistance would be hard.
The Government are absolutely clear that we do not want the changes to be a postcode lottery of support. The new requirements—this is important, and I note the amendments put forward by my noble friend—will be supported by Electoral Commission guidance. That will be developed in conjunction with expert organisations representing a wide range of disabled people and will provide a clear and consistent framework for returning officers to follow. The Electoral Commission will also include this in its performance standards for returning officers to ensure accountability in the delivery of the new policy.
Clearly, the Minister has not read the impact assessment. It makes it clear that the list will be provided but says:
“nor is there a requirement for” returning officers
“to choose from this list specifically.”
Therefore, the list is not a guarantee of a minimum standard across the country.
My Lords, I have said that the Government anticipate a very important role for the Electoral Commission. During our first day in Committee —a long day, which I welcomed—your Lordships expressed profound respect, which I share, for the Electoral Commission. I suggest that the role there should be for the commission in overseeing the development of this important aspect of policy should give your Lordships rather more faith in the future than the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, seems to have.
It is not the Electoral Commission but the Government’s own impact assessment which says that the returning officers do not have to buy from the list which will be provided by the commission. This is a government impact assessment and nothing to do with the Electoral Commission.
My Lords, the Government’s desire and wish is that all people who wish to vote and have voting accessible to them will have the best provision that fits them individually. I note, if I may continue, that the amendment tabled by my noble friend Lord Holmes relates precisely to this point of the support that the Electoral Commission will provide for the policy. As I have said, the Government are working very closely with the commission in this area and we are confident that it will be able to support the policy in a way that benefits all disabled people. That said, I am therefore sympathetic to the desire behind my noble friend’s amendment. Having heard what other noble Lords said, I would welcome further discussion, with a view to coming to a shared position on the role of the commission during the Bill’s passage.
Finally, Amendment 122 would require the Government to conduct a competition to identify technological solutions to support disabled voters. As the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, said, this is a challenging and interesting idea. I would say that this is absolutely in the spirit of the policy. We want to promote innovation and development in this area—something that has been all too lacking in recent years. Although it is not something we would instinctively want to require legislatively, a tranche of measures will support the ongoing implementation of the policy. I remain open to further discussions in this space also.
In conclusion, I have welcomed the debate and, as I have noted, we share a joint aim to improve the accessibility of elections. Therefore, I look forward to continued discussion on how best this might be done. For the reasons outlined earlier, we cannot keep the specific prescribed equipment we have now in legislation—nor would we want to do this, as it is not the best way to support all disabled voters—but we recognise the concerns raised and the sentiments behind the amendment and I remain open to conversations between now and Report. With that undertaking, I hope my noble friend will feel able to withdraw his amendment.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who participated in this afternoon’s debate. It is invidious to single out any noble Lord in particular, but in the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, we got a very helpful and detailed insight into some international comparators, which I hope my noble friend the Minister will find helpful as we go for further discussions and deliberations on this point.
There is something I should have mentioned at the start: in my excitement to get started I should have given my apologies for not having been able to speak at Second Reading due to a prior meeting. Also, at least as importantly, I should have paid my respects to the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, who kindly supported my amendment and is unable to be here in Committee due to a private engagement speaking to several groups of schoolchildren, which he is so brilliant at doing.
I say nothing on the cost point, but it seems pertinent to raise a universal principle to put on the record at this stage: if something, be it a product, a system or a process, is designed from the outset to be inclusive by design, generally there will be no additional cost incurred. Things become tricky only when we get into a situation of retrofit, trying to make good, trying to make inclusive post event. I just put that universal principle on the record. I am extremely grateful to my noble friend the Minister for his considered response, I look forward to further discussions between now and Report and certainly to returning to this issue on Report. With that, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 20 withdrawn.
Clause 18: Notional expenditure: use of property etc on behalf of candidates and others