Election `97: Shop doorway addresses big issue for voters

Homeless duo exercise their right to join council's electoral register
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Indy Politics
"The Doorway, Marks & Spencer, Rampant Horse Street, Norwich". Paul Ashwell's city-address is not one of the most prestigious in the country. But it has been recorded as his official residence in the electoral register so that he can vote in the general election.

Two of the city's homeless have registered with the council in time to vote on 1 May, with the second giving her permanent address as The Caravan, Belvoir Street Car Park, Norwich.

"It's a fundamental matter of principle," said John Turner, Norwich's assistant director of law and administration. "Is our job to enfranchise or disenfranchise? I think I take the former view."

The city council has had to adapt its registration process, Mr Turner explains. "We have printed blank forms, and made them freely available through a variety of outlets, including homeless charities in the city."

Once a homeless person has picked up a form, "the procedure is exactly the same for you and I. So long as they put an address where they say they reside, it will be processed in exactly the same way as any other form," he said.

In spite of the rise in homelessness in the past 20 years, only recently has the electoral system begun to acknowledge homeless people as a feature of the electoral landscape.

A Home Office working party reported in 1995 that the "absence of bricks and mortar" should not disqualify an address from being registered.

In 1996, a further precedent was set when a homeless man in Cornwall took Penwith District Council to court after it refused to accept a local day centre as his address, effectively denying him a place on the electoral register. Judge Anthony Thompson QC reversed the council's decision, saying: "It cannot be right that simply because a person is homeless he is deprived of the right to vote."

Manchester City Council established a scheme to encourage rough sleepers to register in 1995, but few signed up. Many said that gaining a vote was low on their priority list. Others feared the consequences of registering their name and location together with their homeless status.

But in Norwich, the council hopes that its "no-homes-for- votes" scheme will benefit from the publicity attracted by the general election. "I guess that for next year's council elections, we might have considerably more people registering," said Mr Turner. "It's a question of small beginnings."