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National Democracy Week

Volume 636: debated on Tuesday 27 February 2018

[Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]

We now come to an important debate about National Democracy Week, for which there is probably no one more qualified to move the motion than Mr Chris Skidmore.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered National Democracy Week.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I am extremely grateful for the opportunity to highlight the importance of the week beginning 2 July 2018, which the Government announced last year as the inaugural National Democracy Week. I should declare my interest: I was the Cabinet Office Minister who made that announcement on 15 September 2017, committing the Government to establishing the week. I hope the Minister does not feel that I am appearing as a ministerial Banquo’s ghost; it is not my intention to haunt my old Department, but to highlight the week’s potential, not only for the Minister and the Cabinet Office—the Department responsible for democratic engagement—but for promoting democratic engagement and the concept of democratic inclusion, as defined in the Government’s recent democratic engagement plan.

We chose the week beginning 2 July as National Democracy Week because it will mark the 90th anniversary of the Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act 1928, which gave women a truly equal right to vote. As the Minister will be aware, although we recently celebrated the 100th anniversary of the right for women to vote being won by the suffrage movement, that right applied only to women over the age of 30; it was another 10 years before Stanley Baldwin’s Conservative Government passed the legislation that placed men and women on an equal footing in the eyes of our democracy.

As part of this year’s suffrage centenary celebrations, National Democracy Week has the opportunity not only to highlight the importance of the 1928 Act and its place in history but to look ahead. That is vital, because it will allow us to ask ourselves whether we believe the franchise is truly equal or whether there is more we can do to ensure that every voice matters in our democracy and that we are content that our democracy is truly working for everyone in society.

I am delighted that 100 years and a day after the Representation of the People Act 1918, the Minister introduced legislation to ensure that the process of anonymous registration would be made much easier for survivors of domestic violence. It demonstrates that, as a matter of social justice, we elected representatives must always listen closely to voices who state that they are still struggling to exercise their democratic right to vote. One campaigner, Mehala Osborne, a survivor of domestic violence, found that she was unable to vote in the mayoral elections in Bristol, so with Women’s Aid on board, she began a campaign for a more democratic society. She demonstrated that despite the fact that we are celebrating the 100th anniversary of women getting the right to vote, there are still women in society who are unable to vote because they may be put at risk if they join the electoral register publicly. I am delighted that the Minister has taken action to change that situation so that survivors of domestic violence can much more easily register anonymously to vote in this year’s local elections.

It is clear that in this year of celebration of suffrage and democracy, there are still people in this country who, through no fault of their own, cannot vote—not citizens who refuse to engage in the democratic process, tragic as that is, but active citizens whose voice continues to go unheard because they are unable to participate in elections. Although legislation can give the appearance of equal rights and participation, the reality is that modern Governments always have to look again at the barriers that prevent certain groups in society from exercising their democratic right to vote.

For people who have learning disabilities or physical disabilities, I know that the Government are committed to working to ensure that every stage of the democratic process is as smooth and clear as possible, with their review of the accessibility of elections. For people whose voice may be silenced by electoral fraud, I know that the Government’s plans to increase electoral integrity will be of real value, preventing impersonation at polling stations, tightening the application process for postal votes and reducing the threat of intimidation—not only for voters at polling stations, but for candidates standing for election.

Those are important reforms for today that will help to strengthen our democratic process and give people the right to vote, but we should also think of tomorrow. We may not know what tomorrow will bring, but I believe that this year and in future years, National Democracy Week should help to provide a vital forum to discuss what more we need to do collectively to strengthen our democracy and meet future challenges. Some of those challenges we know about and some are still unknowable, but we will have a week to consider them.

Civil society organisations have already organised events such as National Voter Registration Week. Such events have been highly successful in years of electoral activity, but less so in what I call the years of peacetime. I hope that the establishment of National Democracy Week will allow all civil society groups and political parties, regardless of colour, to rally around the first week of every July so that it becomes a permanent fixture in the political and democratic calendar of the United Kingdom. The July date will also allow it to mark the beginning of the annual canvass. I recognise that the canvass is well overdue for reform, which will undoubtedly happen, but I hope that local authorities across the country will recognise the value of the week and take the opportunity to highlight their own electoral registration processes to ensure that every eligible member can join that year’s electoral register.

My ambition when establishing National Democracy Week was not only for at least one event to take place in every local authority across the country, starting at a low level and building up in future years, but for as many Members of Parliament and elected local councillors as possible to get involved and speak in schools—perhaps on the Friday, when hon. Members are back in their constituencies. That will allow us to demonstrate on social media and elsewhere the value of the week as a mass participation and engagement exercise similar to Small Business Saturday.

Much work is going on behind the scenes in preparation for this year’s National Democracy Week: chapter 13 of the Government’s democratic engagement plan sets out the next steps for the week, and the National Democracy Week council comprises key civil society groups involved in our democratic society. I would value an update from the Minister on the progress of preparations, but also on when she thinks the Cabinet Office will go public with the launch of a communications strategy for the week, possibly including a Twitter handle, a website, packs for parliamentarians and other materials for organisations that will lead engagement locally.

I draw the Minister’s attention to the strong interest shown by the United Nations in the Government’s proposals, and indeed in our democratic engagement strategy. I believe that as one of the oldest democracies in the world, the UK has a duty to encourage and inspire developing democracies to look at participation in and access to their own elections. National Democracy Week provides a real opportunity for international engagement as well as local involvement. 

I know that the Minister, who was previously chair of the all-party group on democratic participation, shares my commitment that participation in our democracy, electoral registration and electoral access is more than just a technical or legal matter. It sends out a message that behind every vote is a voice that deserves to be heard, and I hope that National Democracy Week will focus on what we can do and need to do for our democratic future, just as we commemorate our democratic past.

I hope that this year’s National Democracy Week will be the first of many, but its success depends on getting as many people involved in as many regions and local authorities as possible. My message to anyone who cares about democratic participation is to get involved, get involved now and contact the Cabinet Office. This is too important an issue for party politics and I hope that in 10 years’ time, when we will celebrate in 2028 the 100th anniversary of that true equal franchise, National Democracy Week will still be going from strength to strength as a cornerstone of our democratic calendar.

May I say, Mr Hollobone, what a pleasure it is to have you join us today and chair this debate?

I thank my hon. Friend for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore) not only for securing the debate, but for everything he has said and done on this issue during his time in this place. He shows us that these things are not just technical or legal matters that need to run and tick in the background of our democracy, but the very heart of our democracy—everybody has their place within it. I put on the record my thanks to him for his efforts in leading us so far on National Democracy Week. It is a pleasure to take up from him in fulfilling the plans for this week. I will go on to explain those plans in detail.

It is important that we cover, in our short time for debate, how organisations and individuals can be part of making National Democracy Week a success. As my hon. Friend said, it is a week of unified action. It is not only for the Government to organise, but for civil society and a range of partners. It is certainly not just for London and Westminster, but for the whole United Kingdom, to come together and participate.

I am passionate about ensuring that everybody who is entitled to vote can do so and registers to do so. Registration itself, albeit a technical and legal matter, is absolutely the prerequisite, the foundation and the bedrock for ensuring that we have a democracy that works and flourishes. As my hon. Friend rightly recognises— he published the Government’s plan for democratic engagement in December last year—that means understanding the barriers that exist for particular groups and how best to tackle them.

I will come on to all of those matters in my remarks today, but I will start by reflecting on the purpose of National Democracy Week, what it aims to achieve and why it is so important. As in many things, my hon. Friend has got there ahead of me and explained why it is important that National Democracy Week should start in this particular year. This year is the double centenary of suffrage. The Government are leading and co-ordinating activities in 2018 to mark that milestone in our democracy. National Democracy Week is one of those events and is part of our approach to engage those who are perhaps less likely to participate in democracy, which certainly includes those who face physical or other barriers in trying to register to vote.

Much progress has been made towards broadening our democracy. That includes the launch of individual electoral registration, since which we have seen the enthusiasm of electors to ensure that they have their say in the democratic process. I am very proud that the register for last year’s general election was, at 46.9 million, the largest ever. Indeed, more than 30 million people have applied to register to vote using the digital registration service since its launch in 2014.

The Minister is making some good points, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore) on securing this debate. On digital registration, however, there is a problem with people registering to vote for general elections in multiple locations, as opposed to asserting their right to vote at a local election in a number of locations. What steps are the Minister and her Department considering taking to tackle that?

My hon. Friend makes a helpful point in reminding us that, even as we celebrate the flourishing nature of our democracy, we must also ensure that it has integrity and security. He highlights an issue that I know has been in the minds of many people, not only since last year’s general election but as a general point about the process of making it easier to register to vote. Some people ask, “Well, is it easier not only to register to vote but to use one’s vote in an unlawful way?”, which is what he is driving at. It is not unlawful to register to vote in local elections in multiple places, but it is unlawful to vote twice in the same election. As the Minister with responsibility for electoral registration, I am looking for evidence of any such unlawfulness—my door is always open to any hon. Member who believes they have such evidence. If I received such, I would discuss it with the Electoral Commission and the relevant parts of our police authorities.

It is extremely important that we are vigilant about electoral fraud wherever we find it. In fact, to pick up on a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood, electoral fraud is not a victimless crime—it is a crime against a person whose right to speak has been robbed from them. That is very important to note in this context and this year, when we are looking to celebrate our democracy. In the context of the record highs that we are seeing in our democracy at the moment, it is important to be reassured. There are very high levels of completeness and accuracy in the electoral registers, which should give us confidence that we continue to live in a very secure democracy. We all want to keep it that way.

I am working this year with a range of organisations to build on the momentum of getting more people registered to vote. The first example of that work was noted by my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood: improving how people register anonymously. Working with Women’s Aid, the Electoral Commission and electoral administrators, we have developed reforms to improve access to that scheme for survivors of domestic abuse. Today marks the next phase in the parliamentary passage of the regulations dealing with that work. They will be debated first in the House of Lords and, alongside other registration changes including anti-fraud measures, taken through Parliament, but implementing them is our core aim.

I am considering measures to improve student electoral registration. That will be done not only by listening to parliamentarians and engaging again with the Electoral Commission and the Association of Electoral Administrators, but by requiring for the first time that higher education providers co-operate with electoral registration officers to facilitate electoral registration among their student population.

As a final example of that work, we can improve access for those with disabilities. A call for evidence has been launched by the Government, which I am delighted to say has returned many very helpful points. I want to understand and act on them.

I apologise for my late arrival for this debate—I was participating in the business in the main Chamber.

The Minister makes a very valuable point about vulnerable people, especially those who will be addressed in National Democracy Week and those who can now vote anonymously if they are survivors of domestic abuse. I led a debate in Westminster Hall on the Disability Confident scheme to engage more disabled people in the workforce. I hope she can continue that work in relation to democratic participation, and ensure that disabled people are as active in our democratic process as they are in our workforce.

I am absolutely delighted to find a fellow passionate advocate in my hon. Friend, and I thank him for reminding us that there is a place for everybody in our democracy, just as there is in our economy and society. That is what we are engaged in. There is more to do on exactly that. The Government’s democratic engagement plan made the commitment to launch the first ever National Democracy Week to encourage greater understanding and recognition of the UK’s electoral system and of how it gives all our citizens the voice they deserve.

The week will be held between 2 and 8 July this year, coinciding with both the year-long suffrage centenary celebrations and, on 2 July, the 90th anniversary of the Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act 1928, which gave equal voting rights to men and women. National Democracy Week will be a moment for engaging people from under-registered groups by uniting stakeholders in a shared ambition and in the message that, regardless of who we are or where we have come from, we must together ensure that every person in our society who is entitled to do so has a voice and an equal chance to participate in our democracy. Organisations with an interest in democratic participation will be brought together for a week of unified national action.

The week is supported by a National Democracy Week Council, which has been established as a way for organisations to support and develop the week’s activities. Its members will be incredibly helpful in delivering the activities and in encouraging others to take part, and I put on record my thanks to them. The council is composed of senior figures from across the electoral community and the civil society sector, and will help us to put potential electors at the heart of the democratic process and ensure that we reach as far and wide as possible. The council’s role involves advising on the events and activities, taking an active role in communicating them across the United Kingdom and in mobilising organisations, and measuring success and reporting back on the week.

The work in hand that my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood asked me to report on includes developing the creative elements of the campaign, such as the brand identity and the communications materials, which I will bring to the House as soon as I can. There will be a campaign website, and an awards ceremony to recognise outstanding achievement and innovation in democratic engagement, for which nominations will open in March 2018. There will be a great amount to do to include parliamentarians in the work and myriad ways to ensure that we reach out to under-registered groups, including young people, ethnic minorities and people with disabilities. I stress that we are strongly encouraging all parts of the United Kingdom to run events so that people everywhere have a chance to take part. I am delighted to see in this very Chamber representation from across the United Kingdom, which is very important. A programme of events will be published on a public calendar on the National Democracy Week website from later in March when the website is launched, and nominations for the awards will open in parallel.

I want to put a few points on the record about the link with the suffrage centenary. The Chancellor of the Exchequer has announced a £5 million fund for projects to commemorate the 2018 milestone and the significance of the suffrage movement. The centenary is momentous in its own right—hon. Members know that there will be a range of activities across Parliament. Although the centenary is distinct from National Democracy Week, the two come together in a shared objective and remind us that the rights were often hard-fought-for and therefore should be celebrated all the more.

The resources for National Democracy Week will help us to ensure that we engage everyone in the task. Civil society organisations, central and local government, schools, colleges, universities, young people and Members all have their part to play. A series of resources will be tailored for specific audiences. For example, there will be a free National Democracy Week pack to help plan and publicise activities and the website will provide further support. Hon. Members will be able to download materials as part of the celebrations. There will be a parliamentarian pack to help MPs to connect with, and inspire, young people, and a schools resource pack with a specific focus on the suffrage movement at secondary school level. There will be a programme of democracy ambassadors—young advocates recruited to inspire their peers to champion democratic participation—and a youth digital campaign to support the promotion and recruitment of democracy ambassadors among young people aged between 13 and 16.

I once again thank my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood for calling this debate on a very important issue.

I thank the Minister for her comprehensive update on the content of National Democracy Week. I am sure that democratic society and civil society groups will welcome the news she has announced. I welcome the fact that we have had Members here from Cornwall, Perthshire, Suffolk, Merseyside and Liverpool—all corners of the United Kingdom—providing representation and demonstrating that there is a truly national interest in National Democracy Week.

I again echo that point about the breadth of the work across our whole Union. There is an opportunity for all parts of our United Kingdom to celebrate our democracy and its preciousness, and the opportunities for more people to take their role and have a voice in it.

I welcome further ideas for National Democracy Week from any hon. Member or any Member of the other place. After all, we have the privilege of standing here as part of our democracy—we are proud to do so—but by extension it falls to us to help others to do the same. I welcome thoughts from hon. Members on anything I have said, so that together we can go further and encourage more people to take their place in this country’s democracy.

Question put and agreed to.