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Democratic Engagement

Volume 626: debated on Wednesday 5 July 2017

4. What discussions the Government have had with electoral administrators on promoting democratic engagement. (900235)

We have worked closely with electoral administrators across the country to make use of their experience and expertise when consulting on promoting democratic engagement. With your permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to take this opportunity, on behalf of the whole House, to thank our returning officers and registration officers for their hard work in ensuring that the recent general election ran so smoothly. They are the unsung heroes of our democracy.

British citizens living abroad want to engage in our democratic process here in the UK, but currently they lose that right after 15 years. What is my hon. Friend doing to deliver on our manifesto promise to give such people votes for life?

The Government’s principle is clear: participation in our democracy is a fundamental part of being British, however far people have travelled. We are committed to scrapping the 15-year rule in time for the next scheduled general election in 2022. Although the manifesto commitment to legislate for votes for life was not in the 2017 Queen’s Speech—the manifesto was a programme for the Parliament, not just for this first Session—we are determined to ensure that British voters, wherever they are, have the right to have their say.

In terms of democratic engagement, we had unprecedented problems in Newcastle-under-Lyme during the general election with late and missing postal votes, and with people being turned away from polling stations over registration issues. I have written to the First Secretary of State and Minister for the Cabinet Office about that, an investigation is under way, and I will apply for an Adjournment debate. In the meantime, will the Minister urgently remind council chief executives and returning officers of their responsibility to resource electoral services sufficiently to carry out their legal responsibilities?

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will report that specific point on Newcastle-under-Lyme to the Electoral Commission, which will produce a review of the general election that the Government will look at closely. The Cabinet Office has provided funding for local authorities and registration officers over a five-year period. We are looking at those claims, but he is absolutely right that our elections are a centrepiece of local democracy, and local authorities should take this seriously.

Democratic engagement must be safe. Will my hon. Friend provide more information on the work being done to support sufferers of domestic violence in registering to vote?

Indeed. Next year will be the 100th anniversary of women getting the right to vote, and the 90th anniversary of women getting the equal right to vote, but there are still some women and groups in society who, by virtue of their circumstances, are unable to vote. Survivors of domestic violence are unable to register because they do not want to put their safety at risk. We are determined to take forward legislation to ensure that we expand the range of attesters and documentation to give those women the chance to vote in our democratic elections.

A Lancaster University study found that 24% of people with learning disabilities had registered to vote, but that only 9% of them used their vote. The survey also found that some voters were turned away from polling stations by clerks who perceived their learning disability to be the reason why they were not allowed to vote. What are the Government doing to ensure that all voters, regardless of their disability, have their right to vote in elections?

The hon. Lady makes a very important point. The Cabinet Office has established an “accessibility to elections” working group; its members include Mencap and the Royal National Institute of Blind People. I am concerned to ensure that in the 21st century, disability and sight loss are not barriers to voting. We will look at bringing forward proposals to ensure that we make our elections as accessible as possible.