The government’s response to a consultation on how to make voting more accessible to disabled people has sparked anger among disabled campaigners, after it failed to offer a single new measure to improve access.
One disabled campaigner branded the government’s report “pathetic” while another said the failure to act had made him “really angry”.
The new report includes a summary of about 250 responses to a call for evidence issued by the Cabinet Office 12 months ago, which asked for disabled people’s views on voting and registering to vote.
But of the 17 “actions” suggested by the Cabinet Office in its report, 13 state only that the government will “consider”, “reconsider” or “discuss” taking certain actions, including asking advisers to consider what outreach services could be provided to support disabled people in care homes to vote.
Another action is “to continue to consider the needs of disabled people when implementing changes to election or electoral registration processes”.
Of the four that are not just considering further action, two call for the promotion of existing guidance or the use of existing equipment, one is to ensure effective training of polling station staff, and the other is a call for a review of existing guidance.
Graham Kirwan, who was forced to take legal action against his local council over its failure to make the process of registering to vote and voting accessible to him as a visually-impaired person, said the government’s failure to act made him “really angry”.
Among the barriers he faces are that his local authority refuses to send him his voting information via email, rather than in the post, and fails to provide CCTV magnification equipment at his polling station that would allow him to read information about the candidates (the large print information available is not large enough for him to read).
Even if magnification equipment was available, the tactile voting device used in polling stations is not fit for purpose, he says – the government report says others, including the charity RNIB, have made the same point – and so he still would not be able to vote independently and privately.
He is strongly in favour of allowing electronic voting, which he said would make the process far more accessible for him and other blind and visually-impaired people.
But the report appears to rule this out, saying that there were “significant concerns about the security of online voting and increased risk of electoral fraud and providing unproven systems to people who are already vulnerable in terms of engagement and participation would not be helpful”.
Kirwan said this was “unsurprising”.
He is convinced that the government is opposed to electronic voting because it would increase the number of young people voting in elections, and younger people are more likely to vote Labour.
Kirwan said: “The perception is that I should make every single effort I can to go to vote and should give up my right to a private vote if I want to vote that much.
“One of the fundamental pillars of our society is you have that right. It’s not just a vote. It’s a confidential vote.”
Deborah King, co-founder of Disability Politics UK, said the report was “pathetic”.
She said: “The government response shows the huge political inertia which exists in relation to disability and political rights. Kicking the can down the road seems to be the policy.
“The government could develop an online training course on disability and voting rights.
“All staff working in polling stations and electoral services could be required to take the training. The training course could be developed before Christmas.
“The proposal that the Care Quality Commission (CQC) should include [awareness of] voting rights in a CQC assessment can also be implemented promptly. GPs, care homes, hospitals and mental health units should all be assessed on this.”
There was further anger after the minister for the constitution, Chloe Smith, said in promoting the report: “Every voice matters and this government is going to take action to ensure that disabled people have their voices heard.”
This came only days after Disability News Service revealed how Sarah Newton, the minister for disabled people, had refused to meet a coalition of disabled people’s organisations (DPOs) to discuss the UK’s progress in implementing the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
Mark Harrison, from the Reclaiming Our Futures Alliance, which is part of the coalition, said he was “astonished and angry” at Smith’s “misleading” comments.
He said: “Her government has ignored the UN, both the inquiry and the concluding observations, and the minister for disabled people has refused to meet UK DPOs.
“Her cynicism and the government’s cynicism know no bounds.”
The Cabinet Office refused to answer a series of questions this week, including whether Newton’s actions meant Smith was wrong to say the government was taking action to ensure disabled people’s voices were heard, and why so little had been done since the Conservative party’s 2017 general election manifesto promised to make the electoral registration process “as accessible as possible so that every voice counts”.
A Cabinet Office spokeswoman also refused to say why the government was apparently ignoring the call by the UN committee on the rights of persons with disabilities last September for the UK to take action to improve access to voting “in close consultation” with DPOs.
There are no DPOs on the government’s accessibility of elections working group, which instead includes several disability charities including Mencap, RNIB, Scope, Rethink and United Response.
The Cabinet Office spokeswoman also failed to say if the government was ruling out electronic voting.
But she said in a statement: “There are already a range of statutory measures in place to support disabled people to vote at elections.
“The evidence received from the call for evidence on access to elections has been analysed in partnership with the government’s expert access to elections working group.
“They have identified a number of actions to be taken forward to improve the voting experience of disabled people.”
The Cabinet Office also said that it had improved the accessibility of the Register to Vote website and was about to introduce an easy read guide on its homepage.
Last year it announced changes to the Certificate of Vision Impairment process, which meant that local authorities could contact someone newly certified with a sight impairment to ask if they needed help or support with registering to vote or voting.
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