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My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that brief reply, and welcome the news about the success of online registration that he has already referred to. I wonder if more thought can be given to this important issue. The biggest single thing that has not been covered in debates on electoral issues is the cost of days lost for millions of schoolchildren—and often, no doubt, their working parents—on election days. Does the Minister agree that this adds an extra dimension to the argument that should be considered in the interests of our education system?
My Lords, the previous Government conducted a consultation exercise in 2008 on whether or not to move the day of voting to the weekend. The majority of responses to that consultation were against such a move. Of course, there are additional costs of transferring voting to a Sunday. If one were to have voting on two days over the weekend, it is likely that those costs would be in the order of £100 million-plus. I know that the Department for Education has suggested that schools that have to close for voting should use that day for staff training as a means of minimising the loss of teaching time.
My Lords, is not the fact that elections take place on a Thursday and children are not in school a good way of ensuring that they know that something is happening? Would it not be a very good thing if teachers had to ensure that the day before an election they explained about elections? At least then we would have one day when democracy was discussed.
My Lords, my first ever awareness of politics was during an election in the early 1950s when we had a fight in my primary school playground about which side one should be on in the election. I have no memory of why we fought and which side we were on, but we did know that something important was going on.
My Lords, that is a very fair question. We will clearly have to investigate which public schools we can use for polling stations in the future.
Will my noble friend accept that, although I have the greatest of devotion to my noble friend who asked this Question and am a firm supporter of the European Union, this is one continental habit that we do not need to take on board? It is important for schools to take seriously their part in the community, and children learn considerably if the teachers are sensible enough, as the noble Baroness suggested, to use this time to explain to children what happens. I do not believe that they would do that were it on a Sunday.
My Lords, is my noble friend aware that one of the original objections to voting on a Sunday was that there might be rather too much advice or direction from the pulpit as to how people should vote? Does he recall that our party suggested that there should be two-day voting at weekends—Saturday and Sunday—but with reduced hours so that there would not be any conflict with religious observance? However, he has not answered the specific Question with which this discussion started: what is the actual impact on business, on the economy and on families from the disruption on Thursdays? We need to know and there seem to be no hard facts.
My Lords, elections cause a certain amount of disruption on whatever day of the week one holds them. That is unavoidable. The question of where the disruption falls depends on what day is chosen. On the question of the role of churches, I am reminded of the occasion when I took a young Liberal called Elizabeth Barker, now the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, whose father had been the Minister at Saltaire Methodist church, to Saltaire Methodist church one day when I was about to stand as parliamentary candidate in Shipley, and the sermon was wonderful.
It did not quite go so far as to say that people should vote for the candidate who was there but it got very close. I would like to hope that the church will do things like that in the future.
My Lords, I think that the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Rolfe, has a point. Does the noble Lord agree that it is time for a root-and-branch review of polling day and that using schools should be a last resort for the community? We should look at other options and dismiss them from the whole process of voting.
My Lords, it is only six years since the previous Government looked at this. I am not aware of any strong pressure for change and there are disadvantages with all other days of the week. If we were to move to weekend voting there would be a strong argument for having two-day voting and that would be a much more complicated exercise in other ways.
My Lords, we are getting the conception that all schools close on voting days. In my locality we vote in the village hall. In the next ward to us they vote in the village hall. Are there not enough community centres and village halls for people to be able to vote in them and for schools to remain open?
A whole range of places, including church halls, are indeed used for polling stations. It often happens, however, that the primary school is the most convenient place in a village or town district for people to get to and for disabled people in particular to be able to go into.
I merely reiterate that not all schools that are used as polling stations have to close entirely for the day of polling. There is some disruption, so it is a problem, but it is not a universal problem.
My Lords, if one is looking for a two-day voting system, perhaps all sports venues could open on a Sunday. It would increase attendances; the venues could offer free tickets to youngsters; and people would discover the joy of voting and the joy of sport—at the risk, of course, of offending my right reverend friends on my left.
My Lords, all sorts of suggestions have been made about where people might vote, including at supermarkets. One objection to choosing a particular chain of supermarkets in which people might vote is that, as we all know, there are certain gradations of supermarket. Depending on which supermarket one chose, one might possibly bias voting in one direction or another.