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Domestic Abuse Victims: Voting

Volume 623: debated on Wednesday 22 March 2017

I published a policy statement on 3 March proposing reforms to anonymous registration and seeking feedback from interested parties by 26 May. I want to reflect the experiences of domestic abuse survivors so that they can more easily exercise their right to vote. This will help to ensure that we have a democracy that works for everyone.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer and welcome any moves towards making it easier for both men and women who have suffered domestic abuse to register to vote. Will he outline further what changes he is making, and confirm that the names and addresses of those men and women who are registering anonymously will not be on the electoral register?

I can confirm to my hon. Friend that names and addresses do not appear on the electoral register as a result of the application to register anonymously. The Government are proposing to make it easier for an applicant to demonstrate that their safety is at risk by expanding the type of documentary evidence required and the people who can attest to this, and as part of the consultation process we are looking at every point of contact that the survivors of domestic abuse come across to make sure that they exercise their right to vote.

I warmly welcome the Minister’s efforts to make it easier for victims of domestic abuse to register to vote, and to have the all-important right to have their say and be heard, which has been raised in my surgeries by Wealden constituents who have survived domestic abuse. One part of the Government’s plan is to increase the number of attestors by lowering the seniority required of them in the police and social services, and possibly by expanding the number of professions they come from. Will training or guidelines be provided to help the new attestors when they are called on to adjudicate in a specific case?

The Cabinet Office will be working with the Electoral Commission and representative bodies to provide the relevant guidance that will be required.

I commend the Government on the work they have done with Women’s Aid and other organisations. Will my hon. Friend assure me that this work will continue to ensure that the victims of all types of domestic abuse are heard at the ballot box?

I have worked closely on this issue with domestic abuse charities over the past six months, including Women’s Aid, to explore what can be done to improve the anonymous registration process. I look forward to continuing this work with Women’s Aid and other domestic abuse charities.

For 26 years before I was a Member of Parliament, I worked in the field of domestic abuse. Will the Minister make sure that he considers the extent to which domestic abuse perpetrators will make efforts to track down their victims, often for many months and years after the relationship has ended?

I thank the hon. Lady for her contribution to the field of domestic violence work. She is absolutely right that someone is a survivor of domestic abuse not just for two or five years, but for the rest of their life. When we give people the right to vote, we must ensure that they and their names and addresses are protected. We will carry forward that work as part of the consultation process, and given her expertise, I welcome any contribution that she would like to make.

It is great that the Government are showing bureaucratic flexibility to help domestic abuse victims to vote, but such flexibility should be put into all the Government’s voter registration efforts. Will they build “register to vote” links into all their online service application pages?

During the past couple of years, we have introduced the ability to register to vote online. It has been highly successful, with 24 million people taking the opportunity to register to vote online. As part of our democratic engagement strategy, which I will publish in the summer, I am keen to look at digital democracy and where it can work, and to see what we can do with other Departments to ensure that we have such points of contact and that we base democratic registration around individual users. I will be taking forward exactly what the hon. Gentleman mentioned.

Will the Minister ensure that the utmost application of secrecy will be adhered to for victims of domestic abuse who are severely traumatised and have found it difficult to apply for either postal or proxy votes.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. We need to ensure that we learn from the experience of domestic abuse survivors. We must look at that particular journey and ensure that the registration process, when we have it, works for women who need extra protection. We must also look at refuge managers to ensure that we provide the support that they will need.

It is obviously welcome that the Government are seeking to protect the voting rights of domestic violence survivors by making anonymity easier—by the way, the announcement of a one-off cash injection for specialist refuges is also welcome, although much more is needed. However, people cannot easily vote if they have no fixed abode. The truth is that Women’s Aid estimates that one in six of all specialist refuges have closed since 2010, and, tragically, over 150 women plus 100 children per day are unable to find a specialist refuge. Will the Minister ensure that the inter-ministerial group now addresses the twin central questions: providing sustainable funding for refuges and ensuring comprehensive refuge provision in every part of the country?

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that we have increased funding for women’s refuges. The Prime Minister has set out very clearly that she wishes to make domestic violence one of her personal priorities, and a review is ongoing. When it comes to registration, let me be clear: this issue was raised with me, through Women’s Aid, by a lady called Mehala Osborne. She is a survivor of domestic abuse, and she has fought bravely by putting her name out in the public domain to campaign for other women. There are potentially 12,000 women who, by virtue of their circumstances, cannot take the step of registering to vote, and we are determined to give them their voice so that they are heard.