Wednesday, October 20, 1999 Published at 10:48 GMT 11:48 UK
Mentally ill could get vote
Mental patients may be able to register a hospital address
Mentally ill people detained in psychiatric hospitals could get the vote under electoral reforms being considered by Home Secretary Jack Straw.
Currently, only people who are detained on psychiatric wards for less than six months and those admitted voluntarily are allowed to vote by registering at their home address.
But a government working party on electoral reform recommends that people held under the Mental Health Act for over six months would be able to register to vote using their hospital's address.
The proposals follow pressure from mental health campaigners who say any changes would affect thousands of mentally ill people.
The case, taken out in 1997, has been accepted but is currently on hold because of government promises to reform the law.
"We agreed that the case should be deferred until after the Queen's speech when the government said it would tell the court how it proposed to change the existing legislation," said Simon Foster, Mind's legal officer.
The charity said it was "delighted" that Mr Straw had welcomed the working party's recommendations in a statement issued on Tuesday.
However, it is still waiting to see the timescale for implementation of the changes and the detail of what is being proposed.
Controversially, it also wants to see the vote extended to mentally ill people who have been through the criminal court.
"This is a far smaller number, but it is inconsistent to give some people on psychiatric wards the vote and not others. They are not being held in prison, but in hospital," said Mr Foster.
But he added that Mind recognised that there were "additional issues" raised by such cases.
The working party also proposes the modernisation of the UK voting system.
In response to the party's recommendations, Mr Straw said he would introduce new legislation to update the voting system as soon as possible.
The report calls for trials to test the popularity of replacing the traditional Thursday polling day with elections at weekends or on more than one day.
The report also calls for pilot schemes of electronic voting where people could cast their votes via the telephone or via the internet.
And it proposes allowing voters to be able to register to vote all year round and giving homeless people the right to register with a locality rather than an address.
The report says: "Pilot schemes would encourage innovation and diversity and offer a real opportunity to see exactly how different approaches can be effective in re-engaging the electorate."
Reversing poor turnout
Turnout during this summer's European and local elections was particularly poor and many people believe a new voting system could be the key to transforming the public's apparent lack of interest.
Mr Straw said the proposed changes would be "a major landmark" in UK history.
He stated: "I welcome the recommendations that the group has made. Many of them will require primary legislation but I will seek the earliest practical opportunity for a bill."
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