Moved by Lord Holmes of Richmond
26: Clause 9, page 12, line 21, after “vote” insert “independently”Member’s explanatory statementThis amendment and the amendment in Lord Holmes’ name at page 12, line 22 reference the need for equipment provided for a polling station under rule 29(3A) of Schedule 1 to the Representation of the People Act 1983 to enable or facilitate independent and secret voting by voters who are blind or partially sighted or have another disability.
My Lords, I will also speak to Amendments 27 to 30 and 34 to 37, which are all in my name. I thank my noble friend the Minister for the courtesy he showed in meeting me on a number of occasions, and his officials for the helpful discussions we have had since Committee. In particular, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, for co-signing my amendments and for his wisdom and support, which are well known and appreciated across the House.
In Committee, I set out three pillars that blind and partially sighted people—indeed, all people—should be able to expect when voting: to be able to vote inclusively, independently and in secret. I carry these three pillars through to Report; they are the key pillars anyone should be able to rely on when exercising the most essential and fundamental right in our democracy.
The suite of nine amendments that I set forward would transform Clause 9 and achieve these three pillars, not least for blind and partially sighted voters. The clause will be simply changed by the insertion of “independently” after “to vote”, and the insertion of
“(including in relation to voting secretly)” after the words “rule 37”. If agreed, this would set out in statute a high standard that any equipment provided would have to meet for voting independently and in secret.
I have not changed some of the Government’s drafting, which refers to “such equipment” that “is reasonable”. “Reasonable” would apply were it in the Bill or not, by operation of equalities legislation in this country, so it is all the better for being up front in this clause. I have also not changed the wording
“enabling, or making it easier”.
My interpretation of this wording is that it is a two-limb test for the equipment to be provided. I ask my noble friend the Minister to confirm whether this is the Government’s view. I believe that is how “enabling” comes into play for people such as myself, who would not be able to vote at all without such equipment. For those people who potentially can vote, but for whom it is unreasonably difficult for a whole host of reasons, “making it easier” comes into play. I see these as two separate and important elements of the clause, which are not set out as a choice to either enable or make it easier. I would welcome my noble friend’s view on that element of the clause.
I also talked in Committee about the real need to avoid a postcode lottery, which is absolutely critical. Whether you vote in Kidderminster or Kew, Cambridge or Sheffield, a blind or visually impaired person—or indeed any disabled or non-disabled person—should be assured that there is provision that meets that standard. Prescription could be either of equipment or, as set out in my amendment to new paragraph (3B), around a standard, which I believe is far more than the minimum standard.
Alongside this, moving forward from my Amendment 20 in Committee, I have set out a number of provisions for the Electoral Commission on these needs: to issue statutory guidance; to consult relevant organisations that will have expertise to bring to bear for the guidance; for a duty to report on what has happened at elections on accessibility and provision; and, for the first time, a duty to put in place performance measures around accessibility for returning officers. Added to this is the need for a “have regard” duty on returning officers for this guidance. Again, I believe that “have regard” is a high statutory duty to achieve.
Amendments 34 to 37 are equally important. They would do exactly what I have just set out in the context of Northern Ireland local elections.
Taken as a whole, these nine amendments would transform Clause 9 and Schedule 6 in terms of inclusive, independent and in secret provision for blind and partially sighted voters. Crucially, if adopted, they would not only make voting inclusive, independent and in secret but mean that people would no longer find voting difficult, upsetting, humiliating or demeaning. Even more so, they should mean that people who perhaps have never voted, for reasons of lack of inclusion, or inability to vote independently or in secret, will be encouraged to come to the poll and exercise their democratic right. I believe these amendments will achieve that. I hope my noble friend the Minister will support them in full. I very much look forward to the debate and I beg to move.
My Lords, I express my full support and that of the Liberal Democrats for the noble Lord, Lord Holmes of Richmond, for producing this amendment. I congratulate him in particular on the success of his negotiations with the noble Lord, Lord True. I also congratulate the noble Lord, Lord True. This is a very sensible way to deal with a problem that I had not appreciated until last year, when I was partly sighted. The amendment stresses that a person suffering from blindness or partial sight, or another disability, can vote independently and in secret, and will not have to face the humiliation to which the noble Lord, Lord Holmes, referred of having either to announce his vote publicly in a polling booth or to have someone else vote for him.
It was very wise for he and the Minister to agree that the Electoral Commission should give guidance to returning officers and that it would have to consult the bodies concerned—the RNIB and others—before specifying the sort of mechanisms which would enable this to happen. One of the good things about this is that it is not prescriptive and so it allows the mechanisms to improve over time, as new inventions come forward. In Committee, I talked about the pilot scheme going on in, I think, Norfolk, where not only was a frame put over the ballot paper but information was given to the voter by a recording as to what was on the ballot paper. That was an interesting pilot scheme, but maybe more things will develop in the future and the wisdom of these provisions will be recognised. Having agreed the report that must be returned by returning officers, that of course ensures that these provisions are carried out. I very much support this amendment.
My Lords, I too very much support and welcome these amendments. I am very pleased that there have been discussions which have led to an agreement. However, I have been approached by the RNIB, which welcomes the amendments but has some concerns. I want to raise a couple of them now.
One concern was partially addressed by the noble Lord, Lord Holmes of Richmond, when he talked about the postcode lottery. He argued that there is a minimum standard contained in the amendments, but the RNIB’s view is that there still is not a minimum standard of provision specified in the Bill. It would like to see that being more explicit. I would be grateful if, when responding, the Minister could explain how he sees the question of a minimum standard and whether the Government might be minded to tighten it up a bit.
One of the other points the RNIB makes—we discussed this in Committee—is that it is very keen that trials of potential accessible voting solutions continue. Therefore, I would be very grateful if the Minister could commit to driving innovation through government-run trials in the future.
My Lords, I shall make three brief points. First, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Holmes, on his valiant efforts to move this forward in a constructive way. This has been exemplary, in my view. Secondly, I wholeheartedly support his amendments, which I think will move this on. In Committee, I was seriously concerned about what was being proposed by the Government; according to the RNIB, we had moved things backwards from where we are at the moment and that was a serious concern. I am sure there is further work to do, but nevertheless this set of amendments will move things forward, and that is greatly to the noble Lord’s credit. Thirdly, I entreat the Minister to give his support to what I think has been a really excellent piece of work.
My Lords, I support the nine amendments of the noble Lord, Lord Holmes of Richmond, and congratulate him on pushing this issue. His very modest yet elegant amendments fit into this Bill very well.
I have two more points to make. Why were such accommodations not in the Bill already? The Government are constantly consulting on this or that; surely this is an area that they should have thought about including. They have at least given way now—I hope after my remarks they will not withdraw the offer. Finally, the Royal National Institute of Blind People sent a briefing about this, and it is clear that it feels the Government could go a lot further. It gave two statistics that I thought were quite interesting: every day, 250 people start to lose their sight; and age-related macular degeneration is the leading cause of blindness in adults. Clearly, this is a problem that is going to increase. Therefore, the Government have to look forward and should perhaps bring something even better to update the Bill.
My Lords, I stand briefly to speak on this and to apologise to my noble friend for missing the entire Committee due to contracting Covid. I have been away at a public inquiry today, but it was great to arrive at the point to hear my noble friend Lord Holmes making these very sensible suggestions. I raised this issue at Second Reading and I am immensely grateful to my noble friend the Minister for accepting these amendments and making these changes, which will bring enormous dignity to the voting process. Again, I congratulate my noble friend, Lord Holmes.
My Lords, we very much welcome and support the amendments put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Holmes, and thank him for so clearly laying out their importance in his introduction. I also congratulate him and my noble friend Lord Blunkett on their continued work and persistence on this matter.
We welcome that these amendments will mean that, for the first time, the Electoral Commission would be tasked by law to create specific guidance to address the needs of blind and partially sighted and other disabled voters at the ballot box. This is long overdue. We strongly urge the Minister to accept these amendments and hope that he will look on them favourably.
However, as other noble Lords have mentioned, the RNIB has raised concerns with some of us, so I would be grateful if the Minister could provide clarification and reassurance on some issues that have not been raised so far. The first question it asks is this: how do the Government anticipate
“such equipment as it is reasonable to provide for the purposes of enabling, or making it easier for, relevant persons to vote” independently being interpreted? How do they see the interpretation of that phrase? The noble Lord, Lord Kerslake, mentioned that the RNIB is concerned that we must not go backwards. Its concern on this is that “making it easier” to vote is still weaker than the right to vote “without any assistance”, as in the current wording.
It would also be helpful if the Minister could look at how this would be managed going forward, including availability and the cost of the provision of equipment for returning officers and how that would be supported at local government level. It would be helpful if the Minister could confirm the body that he anticipates will fund individual items of equipment provided in polling stations. I am not sure whether the Government currently provide the funding for the tactile template—I am sure other noble Lords know. Again, it would be helpful to know if that is currently the case. Obviously, we need to have certainty in these areas, because the last thing we want to see is a legal challenge if the expected equipment is not provided.
In summary, we welcome these amendments and urge the Minister to accept them. We thank all noble Lords for an important debate and, again, thank the noble Lord, Lord Holmes, for pushing this and bringing it to this stage.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have spoken for their general welcome and support for the amendments tabled by my noble friend Lord Holmes. I can tell the House that the Government are very pleased to be able to accept these amendments. I pay tribute to my noble friend and to the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, for their hard endeavours in helping us to improve accessibility measures in the Bill. It has been quite a pleasant operation for me to return to my old office, which I used to share with my noble friend Lord Holmes, and see a couple of my pictures still hanging on the wall—I had forgotten about those. I thank those who have spoken and am grateful for the kind words said by many, including the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford. There was one slightly discordant note from the Green group, but a great effort has been put into working together to find a solution that works for all parties.
We have been clear from the outset that the Government’s intention with these changes is to improve the accessibility of elections. My noble friend Lord Holmes and the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, have understood our policy intentions and introduced welcome changes that complement and improve them. These amendments will introduce specific reference to supporting disabled voters to vote independently and secretly through the provision of assistive equipment by returning officers. While the existing drafting of the duty to support disabled voters would undoubtedly have facilitated the provision of suitable equipment for this purpose, this amendment will underline the importance of equipment to enable or make it easier for voters to vote independently and secretly, where that is practicable.
My noble friend specifically asked me—as, I gather, did the RNIB, which I took great pleasure in meeting in the course of these discussions—to clarify “enable” and “make it easier” in practice. His understanding is precisely right in terms of what the people who drafted this are seeking to achieve. The Government see it as fundamental that we recognise the variations in what people need in order to be able to vote, so that they may access the most appropriate support for each of them. The use of both the terms—“enable” and “make it easier”—reflects the fact that the duty relates to the provision of equipment for those who find it impossible to vote under rule 37 and for those who can do so but find it difficult due to their disability, as per the definition of “relevant person”, which covers both. For those who would otherwise find it impossible to vote independently, appropriate equipment might enable them to do so, but for those who are able but find it difficult to vote due to their disabilities, we also want them to be supported by provision of equipment that would mitigate the difficulties, making it easier. As such, having “make it easier” in the clause does not result in an either/or situation or a dilution. If the amendment said only “enable”, there would be no duty to assist those who find it difficult; if the amendment said only “make it easier”, there would be no duty to assist those who simply find it impossible. The amendment is designed to ensure the widest possible assistance support, greater innovation and accessibility.
As my noble friend has said—this was something on which he was understandably insistent, and I hope it has pleased all those involved—his amendments will put on a strong statutory footing the role that the Electoral Commission will play in providing guidance about meeting this duty, which returning officers will have to have regard to. While these are things that we are confident both the commission and returning officers would have done as a matter of good practice, we welcome that these will be put on a strong and permanent statutory basis. That is why the Government have acceded to these proposals.
As I said, I recently met the RNIB and heard its concerns—which were echoed by the noble Baroness, Lady Lister—including around the risk that guidance might not be as strong as statute and might represent the end of a conversation on accessibility that may not have disabled voters at its centre. I can say only that that conversation will continue; that is why the amendments will in fact require the Electoral Commission to consult with relevant organisations, such as the RNIB and other disability charities, in the production of the guidance and to report on the steps that returning officers have taken to assist disabled voters. This will promote accountability in the policy.
I will respond to the concerns that, without a minimum standard, there will be uncertainty about how individual returning officers decide what they deem to be reasonable. First, in requiring provision for what is reasonable, the clause imposes an objective standard rather than a subjective one. Secondly, the role and purpose of the Electoral Commission guidance will be to set out a clear framework, and therefore to promote consistency. Returning officers will have to have regard to this but the guidance will, of course, be more flexible than legislation—the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford—with a much more responsive capability for adding new equipment that has been developed and identified over time, without having to bring forward primary or secondary legislation each time.
The amendments make provision for a suite of duties that I hope will reassure those with concerns. I am confident that the changes represent a good move away from the limited, prescriptive approach towards more flexibility and innovation. We will look to the Electoral Commission to do its duty in consulting with organisations representing disabled voters, such as the RNIB, in producing its guidance.
I cannot specifically answer the noble Baroness’s point on funding, which, in a sense, is related to what will come out of the ongoing discussions, but I will communicate to her what I am able to on that.
I believe that this has been good work by your Lordships’ House, working in a consensual manner for a common purpose. I hope this will lead us towards a more accessible future for our elections. Again, I thank my noble friend Lord Holmes for tabling these amendments, and the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett. The Government support them and urge the House to do so as well.
My Lords, I infer from the debate that the RNIB has been spreading quite a lot of correspondence around your Lordships’ Chamber on these issues. I have not seen that specific letter myself, but we are acting in good faith here. The RNIB is a trusted and respected partner. I have told the House that there is a duty on the Electoral Commission to consult with it, and I said in my speech that we should move towards a future of more innovation. This was something that we were challenged on, quite rightly, by my noble friend Lord Holmes of Richmond in his first speech on this matter. That remains the Government’s hope and expectation. This is a conversation that is going to be carried forward, not by me at this Dispatch Box or by your Lordships but under the duties set out in the amendments, hopefully to produce a better and more accessible future for all voters. I repeat that I urge the House to accept these amendments.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who participated in this evening’s debate, and particularly my noble friend the Minister for the way in which he has responded to the nine amendments set down in my name.
I believe that legislation is important. Why would we be here if it were not? These amendments put forward a transformation for inclusion, independence and secret voting for blind and partially sighted and all disabled and non-disabled people. But as with all legislation, though it is important to pass it, this is but one step on a journey. If we pass the Bill post the Easter Recess, it will be incumbent upon the Government, the Electoral Commission, the association of EROs and civil society to come together to work to make this not only compliant or of a minimum standard but a positive experience for everybody at the polling booths.
Amendment 26 agreed.