Suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst famously said “deeds, not words”. And as the Minister responsible for democratic participation, I am keeping that in the front of my mind as we approach 100 years since women won the right to vote and 90 years since women won equal voting rights to men.
A key part of my work has been to seek to identify the needs of under registered groups, and those who feel excluded from our democracy. I visited every region in the UK to help understand why some groups are affected by under registration and democratic exclusion.
Work is already underway to tackle some of the issues we’ve identified. From our meetings with survivors of domestic violence and abuse and the organisations who assist them, those living in domestic violence refuges will now be able to register to vote more easily with their anonymity protected.
We’ve reformed the use of the Certificate of Visual Impairment so that data can be shared with local authorities to help those with sight loss register to vote.
We encouraged people with disabilities to tell us about their experiences with participating in democracy through a Call for Evidence to ensure our elections in 2022 are the most accessible ever.
And the Higher Education Act now includes a commitment to encourage greater cooperation between Higher Education providers and Electoral Registration Offices, helping to facilitate more accurate student registration.
But we’re not complacent and today, we have launched the first ever Democratic Engagement Plan which sets out how we can increase participation from under-registered groups.
We have committed to instigating further research into understanding the reasons for low participation to build our evidence and understanding even further. amongst from young people and attainers, those without a fixed address, those with mental health conditions, armed forces personnel, those in care or residential homes, those with physical or learning disabilities, in addition to certain those who are homeless, BAME groups and care homes, and frequent movers and renters.
If our democracy is to work for everyone, improving levels of participation must begin with a longer-term strategy for tackling the causes of under-registration in certain groups in society. We want to understand who faces democratic exclusion and why this is taking place. We will use data about who these groups are and where they live which is why the government is also launching for the first time an online Atlas of Democratic Variation which will help highlight where democratic participation rates remain stubbornly low.
We look forward to marking the Suffrage Centenary next year as it is an achievement we must never forget. For myself, the legacy of the past, of the achievements of those women who fought tirelessly for the vote and to have their say, must also be reflected in our commitment to the future.
On Tuesday I held the first meeting of the National Democracy Week Council which will help to shape activities in the inaugural week next year from 2-6 July 2018. In its first year National Democracy Week will complement the Suffrage Centenary Programme, expanding on the themes of inclusion and representation that underpinned women’s struggle for their right to vote.
My ambition is for National Democracy Week to increase the number of people who understand and take part in our democratic process. With the support of the Democracy Council and our partners across the United Kingdom, we aim to make next summer’s event a focal point for debate, discussion and celebration of a democracy in which every voice matters.