Skip to main content

General Election Television Debates

Volume 594: debated on Wednesday 11 March 2015

I beg to move,

That this House recognises the potential value of broadcast general election debates between party leaders; notes however that neither the broadcasters nor politicians can escape the charge of self-interest in their organisation, and that they should best be left to an independent body to arrange; further notes that the broadcast debate formats proposed for 2015 have been inconsistently and incompetently formulated so far; further notes that there exists a substantial danger as a result that these debates will now not happen; and believes that the point of any debates which do happen must be to benefit those who watch them, not those who appear in them or broadcast them.

Mr Speaker, you are the first among us to mention when the public think we are doing a good job of debating and whether we get it right or wrong. You, sir, do a much better job of ensuring that debates happen than the broadcasters do and, if I may say so, of ensuring that all the relevant people turn up, including Ministers. In this Parliament, Ministers have certainly been made much more accountable than they have been in previous Parliaments, and I am sure that the whole House is grateful for that.

With just eight weeks to go to polling day, there are as many questions as ever about the proposed television broadcast debates. Who will be debating with whom? Who is invited? Who will actually turn up? When are the debates happening? On not one point has agreement been established, and we heard again today at Prime Minister’s questions that the controversy continues to rage. The situation is completely unsatisfactory and deeply disappointing.

Before the broadcasters report critically about us, they must first ask what they have got wrong in this process. Did they engage constructively and sensibly with all the parties? Can they honestly say that they have had at the front of their minds the interests of the voters, their viewers? Has not the self-interest of the broadcasters been rather too evident in much of the many mistakes they have made so far?

When we put ourselves before the voters, we hope for a fair hearing. Does anyone think that the broadcasters have had that, rather than ratings and spectacle, in mind? If they did, how does one explain their oscillation from one format for debates to another?

Did the right hon. Gentleman welcome, as I did, the intervention by Lord Grade, the former chairman of the BBC and chairman of ITV? He knows what he is talking about when he says that the arrangements for these debates are deeply flawed.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that point. The intervention in a letter to The Times this morning from the noble Lord was interesting and pertinent. It is interesting to note that someone who might have a party political affiliation but who is so experienced in broadcasting for ITV and in the world of the BBC is speaking so forthrightly about how broadcasters have handled the situation. It has to be said that that is particularly the case with the BBC, which has a responsibility as a public broadcaster to be fair and impartial to everyone. One issue that concerns television licence fee payers in Northern Ireland is the deliberate exclusion of Northern Ireland parties when other parties from Scotland and Wales that stand only in their respective countries are included. That prompts serious questions about the impartiality and fairness of the BBC, in particular.

I very much agree with the right hon. Gentleman’s last point. It is no good the broadcasters saying that the Welsh nationalists and Scottish nationalists can take part in the debates if the parties from Northern Ireland cannot. He should pursue his case vigorously.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his support. I am also grateful for the support that has been evident from Members on both sides of the House. Indeed, I have with me letters from the leaders of other parties throughout the United Kingdom defending and supporting our inclusion in the national debates.

Let me make the position of the Democratic Unionist party very clear. We want the national debates to happen and we do not want to intrude or ask to be involved in a national debate involving the national parties. For instance, we are quite happy that there should be a head-to-head debate between the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition or a debate among those parties that are deemed to be national and have sufficient standing to stand in all parts of the United Kingdom. We did not raise any objections to that or ask to be included in that debate. When the broadcasters decided that they would invite the Scottish National party from Scotland and Plaid Cymru from Wales to be involved in the national debate, however, that prompted the question of why they would include a party that stands only in Scotland and a party that stands only in Wales but not the Democratic Unionist party, which has more MPs and more votes than Plaid Cymru and more MPs than the Greens, Plaid and the SNP put together. The whole thing is ludicrous.

We met the BBC at our request after it had proposed its second formulation. As I understand it, the BBC never asked to speak to any of the parties in Northern Ireland. Not only did the BBC not speak to the political parties in Northern Ireland but, as I understand it, the BBC mandarins and fonctionnaires did not even speak to their own journalists in Northern Ireland. I am not sure what happened in other countries or regions of the UK, but they took the decision without consulting the people directly involved in Northern Ireland. I hear them talk about consulting all the parties, but it is clear that they have not fulfilled their obligation, because they have not consulted us, despite our size and contribution and the potential for a hung Parliament on 8 May. These are serious questions, particularly for the BBC, that need to be answered. I reiterate our position: we are concerned with the national debates only because parties from other countries are to be involved but Northern Ireland is to be excluded, and there will be parties in those national debates putting forward candidates in Northern Ireland, and therefore it is prejudicial to Northern Ireland parties, particularly the DUP.

It is sometimes said by the BBC and other broadcasters, “Well, there will be local debates in Northern Ireland among the main parties. That is the opportunity for Northern Ireland politicians and parties to debate in front of the Northern Ireland electorate and set out their policies.” That is all fine and well—we have no objection to debating in that format—but I understand that such debates will also take place in Scotland and Wales. Yes, let us have those debates, but when it comes to the national debates, we cannot have one rule for parties chosen arbitrarily at the whim of unaccountable broadcasters deciding what is best for everyone else and having a different rule for Northern Ireland. That is totally unacceptable.

Lord Grade is reported as having accused channel bosses of breaking their legal duty of impartiality in threatening to stage the debates without the Prime Minister, but does that duty not also extend to the DUP, which is well represented in this House, given the inclusion of Plaid Cymru and the SNP?

My hon. Friend raises the important point, which the noble Lord referred to in his article, about the duty of impartiality that is placed on the BBC and to which I think other broadcasters should show due high regard. It remains to be seen what happens. Significantly, in this debate about debates, people have been forthright in saying, “This will happen”, but the reality keeps turning out to be very different. In the first formulation, the broadcasters assured us that there would be three debates with invitations to four parties—the Conservative party, the Labour party, the Lib Dems and UKIP—and that if anyone did not turn up, they would be “empty chaired”, but then of course they changed their minds.

The right hon. Gentleman is making a powerful case, but is it not paradoxical to have party political broadcasts that virtually nobody watches but not to have debates that 23 million people watched the last time they took place? Are the broadcasters not trying simply to step into the vacuum that the House has left, and should we not legislate to ensure fair debates across the UK and in the nations and regions of the UK?

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point to which I shall return. Indeed, our motion states that the matter has been so badly handled by the broadcasters—undoubtedly political self-interest has raised its head as well—that steps should be taken, as a result of this debacle, to ensure a fair and equitable basis on which to agree proper and fair debates. This experience makes that point very strongly—although whether it should be done through legislation is another matter.

The right hon. Gentleman is making a powerful case, and he makes his point about regional differences very well. Of course, the BBC and commercial stations can put on regional programmes involving regional politicians—regional parties are emerging in England, such as the North East party now standing in my seat, and Cornwall has a tradition of regional parties—but does he agree that the broadcasters need a model that fits all future purposes, whether for regional or national broadcasts, and that can determine which parties participate? They need to express a model that makes sense.

Until now, the broadcasters have made it up as they have gone along, responding to pressure here, there and everywhere. They have responded to the latest opinion polls—the exclusion and then inclusion of the Greens was done on the basis of opinion polls—but polls go up and down, so a decision on whether someone should be included will depend on when one takes note of the polls. The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. A model needs to be designed in good time, well before a general election—especially because with fixed-term Parliaments everybody knows when the election will be—and with maximum agreement, setting out fairly and squarely the rules that will apply come what may. It needs to be fair to all parties and all regions and countries of the UK. We cannot have one country excluded and one major party in the House disadvantaged compared with other smaller parties. It cannot go on like this—he is right about that.

The broadcasters came up with their first formulation—three debates, four parties—but then they changed their minds and told us that seven parties would be invited. Not only did they completely change the proposed format and bin the nonsense about dissidents being “empty chaired”; they came up with proposals that, among other fascinating things, told us that the Liberal Democrats and Plaid amounted to pretty much the same thing—I mean no disrespect to either party when I point out to the broadcasters that there is quite a big difference between them in terms of size and appeal across the UK.

Until last week, no one had agreed even to that second unsustainable debate format—Labour had not agreed; UKIP had not agreed; the Liberals were vigorously denouncing the prospect of being relegated to football conference status; and the DUP had not agreed either. We have been absolutely consistent. As I said in response to earlier interventions, we can entirely see the case for the parties that Ofcom deems “the big four” debating with one another. One can debate whether Ofcom is right, but that is what it has said, so we can see the case for the broadcasters organising the debates on that basis. At a stretch, we can see the case for including the Greens—it is arguable, although it would make for much better television, from the broadcasters’ point of view—but we do not accept that the BBC and other broadcasters can pick and choose which parties from the countries and regions of the UK they deem fit to attend.

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the problem arose when the broadcasters broke their rationale simply to include UKIP, rather than sticking with the previous elections as the basis on which to decide who should participate? That is where the rot stems from.

The hon. Lady raises the point I referred to about Ofcom’s definition for deciding which the main parties are. It is for Ofcom to make its own decisions and explain its rationale, and she certainly has a point, but we are where we are with that decision. It goes back to the point made earlier by the hon. Member for Redcar (Ian Swales). We cannot go on making it up as we go along. We need a set of rules, well in advance of the elections, that are clear, rational, fair and understandable.

I do not know whether the right hon. Gentleman is coming on to the issue later in his speech, but the question of thresholds is relevant. Will such arrangements or models contain some sort of threshold, based perhaps on current representation in this House or some other method? Such a system would have various features, which could be explained in advance, and then used on every occasion.

The hon. Gentleman is right. That is certainly part of the debate that should happen, but it should happen well in advance—not in the heat of a general election and not in the run-up to the election when so many vested interests are at stake. As we have discovered, people who were previously enthusiastic have become less enthusiastic, depending on their particular vested interest. Likewise, others who were not so keen have suddenly become very keen indeed.

The right hon. Gentleman is making a compelling argument. Does he agree that the wider body politic and all our constituents right across the community would like to see us debating the substance of the issues that impact on them on a day-to-day basis, on which the general election will be decided?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right, which is why it is important to have a debate about ensuring that that happens. As things stand, it looks likely that the public, who watched the debates in considerable numbers last time, will be denied the opportunity to hear the contributions from the various party leaders who could form the Government. The public would be very interested to hear about the priorities for the smaller parties that could play a significant role one way or the other—what is their general outlook and how would they see things shaping up? I agree entirely with the hon. Lady.

As I have said, at this time no one has any idea what debates, if any, are going to occur. The broadcasters can say what they like about being determined to proceed and can make threats of empty-chairing, but there is no consensus at all about whether these debates are going to occur.

I want to make it very clear to the House and people beyond it that Northern Ireland Members will certainly not tamely accept any attempt to pick and choose the parties to the detriment of Northern Ireland. We are part of the United Kingdom; we play a very significant role in the House. The Democratic Unionist party has eight MPs, but there are other Northern Ireland Members from other parties, and indeed no party, who play a role here, too. They deserve to have their voice heard on behalf of the people they represent. They should not be excluded, especially in a context where the Democratic Unionist party could play a much more significant role on 8 May than some of the parties that are going to be included in the debates. People across the United Kingdom need to know where we stand on the national issues.

I agree with virtually everything the right hon. Gentleman has said in this debate so far. Let me ask him about timing, which is a huge concern to me as a candidate. By having the TV debates within the last three or four weeks of the campaign, we convert it into a sort of “X Factor” whereby people will decide how to vote on the basis of looking at the television screen. The role of the hundreds and hundreds of candidates out there campaigning will be completely sidelined by this process if it takes place in the last few weeks of the campaign. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman intends to cover this, but I think the timing of these debates in a short campaign, which devalues the role of candidates, is an important one.

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, which I think should be discussed in the wider context of setting out a model for how these debates should be run in the future. The timing is extremely important. I have a lot of sympathy with what the hon. Gentleman said about the effect of these big debates and the attention they receive. The Prime Minister’s argument about sucking the life out of the campaign is relevant, particularly to local campaigns.

Having said that, however, I also have a lot of sympathy with the view that the public are interested in having these sort of debates between people who might become the Prime Minister and form the Government. It is a question of balance, and looking at when these debates should happen is relevant, but I am not going to be prescriptive about it. It should be discussed and debated, and we need an independent model to take it all into account. It is wrong to say merely that we should go along with what the broadcasters have outlined because they believe that it is the right approach, and that anyone who disagrees with that does not have the interest of the wider public at heart. I do not believe that that is the right approach; it is a question of balance.

My right hon. Friend has alluded to the fact that after 8 May Democratic Unionist Members could have a say on who walks into Downing street as Prime Minister. That being the case, is it not right and proper that the national audience should know where smaller parties such as ours stand on the issues of national defence and the Union, on grammar school education, health care, taxation, the cost of living, defence spending and so forth? The public are entitled to know that; it will help them to decide which parties should help to create and form the next Government.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right; that is in the interests of people throughout the United Kingdom. If we are to hear the views of the Scottish National party and Plaid Cymru, it is absolutely right for people to hear the views of the Democratic Unionist party and others on the national issues, because this could have a major impact on the next Parliament.

When the leader of my party, Peter Robinson, and I met the BBC in Belfast, we heard this argument: “We have included the SNP and Plaid in addition to UKIP, the Greens and the three major national parties, but it would be difficult now to include the DUP. We recognise the strength of your numbers; we recognise the role you could play in the next Parliament; we recognise that you have more votes than Plaid; we recognise that you have more seats than Plaid; we recognise that, unlike some parties, you are genuinely going to weigh up the options after the election on the basis of proposals that come forward. You are not in the pocket of any party; you have not already sold your vote. You have not already said that you are going to oppose the Tories, come what may, or that you will never go into coalition with the Labour party. All that is perfectly valid, but it will be very difficult to broadcast a debate because we would have to invite all the Northern Ireland parties, which would make it very unwieldy.”

So it comes down to a problem the broadcasters have created by the inclusion of the SNP and Plaid Cymru, leading them to say, “It is too difficult to cover Northern Ireland because we would then have to include more parties than the DUP”. It is a problem of their own creation. It is hardly fair to blame the DUP or Northern Ireland when this is a problem that the broadcasters have created themselves. When they came forward with this formulation and created this problem, they must have done so with their eyes wide open. They must have known that the effect would be to exclude Northern Ireland completely and that they would have to resort to a weak argument along the lines of: “It would be very unwieldy in broadcasting terms and it would not be a great television show.” I have no reason to doubt that functionaries at the top of the BBC and elsewhere are reasonably intelligent people, so they must have known the implications, but they were prepared to proceed nevertheless. In my view, that is a gross dereliction of their duty of fairness and reasonableness.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that this is blatant arrogance coming from the BBC. This is an organisation funded by the general public who pay the licence fee. The public want to hear what the parties have to offer. This is just blatant arrogance.

That is absolutely right, and I think the BBC will live to regret that arrogance. The way it is treating the political parties of Northern Ireland displays a great level of contempt for the people of Northern Ireland.

I shall start my conclusion as I know other Members want to speak. Where are we at the moment? We are, preposterously, supposed to believe the threat from the broadcasters that they can legally contrive debates during the short general election campaign at which the Prime Minister is not present while many of his political opponents are. Reference has been made to what Lord Grade has said today. Some people may believe that that is possible. Some people in the BBC, including broadcasters, may believe that it is possible, although I should add, in fairness to the BBC’s employees, that I have yet to meet a BBC journalist who believes that it is. It would do the BBC Trust, and indeed Rona Fairhead, some good to listen sometimes to what members of their front-line infantry are saying.

Even now, it is not too late to do what should have been done long ago. A matter of such importance—putting the electoral choices of the British people directly in front of them—should be raised above the level of partisan squabbling or media meddling. Even at this late hour, a Speaker’s conference would start to take us where we need to go, towards the establishment of an independent commission to superintend broadcast election debates. Of course the public want to hear from us, but they must hear from us fairly, without bias and without the blatant incompetence that we have seen here before getting in the way.

Throughout the world, broadcasters work with independent commissions arranging political debates of this kind, and the end result is that in other countries, those debates happen. Here, it seems that the broadcasters know best. They know how to organise the debates, and they go ahead and try to do so on their terms. What has been the end result here? Chaos and confusion—and, eight weeks before the general election, no one has any idea what is happening about any of these debates.

Lord Grade, whom I mentioned earlier, writes that the BBC and the broadcasters

“are not the guardians of democracy.”

He also writes that they are “unequivocally playing politics.” Surely those are not characteristics of an independent BBC, and surely that means that an independent body to arrange the debates is required.

Again, my hon. Friend has made an important point. We must remember that we are sent to this House, having been elected by the people, to speak for the people: that is our role. We must take some responsibility, and learn the lessons of this debacle. We need to ensure that the debates happen in future, but on the basis of a model that sets their organisation and formulation aside from broadcasters and politicians.

I want the debates to happen. I sense that many Members on both sides of the House want them to happen, and that many members of the public do as well. The public want to see their politicians in front of them, debating the issues, at the appropriate juncture. The tragedy is that, at present, it is the broadcasters who are getting in the way,

During Northern Ireland questions, my right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley (Mr Donaldson) referred to the late Lord Molyneaux of Killead. Let me, as leader of the DUP group at Westminster, add my own tribute. I know that Jim Molyneaux, who was a distinguished and valiant Member of the House for many years, would have relished the excitable mess—as he would have put it—that people have got themselves into. He would have been getting them together and counselling them to sit down and find a way through it, calmly and rationally. He conveyed such a sense of authority that I think he was almost born an elder statesman, rather than growing into the role. He wanted people to engage in politics in sentences and paragraphs rather than in soundbites, and that is what these debates should be about. We should be seeking to place serious, coherent, cogent arguments before the public. That is one of the reasons I believe in a debate. I believe that, sadly, Prime Minister’s Question Time has become largely an exchange of soundbites, all sound and fury and very little elucidation.

Lord Molyneaux was adept in another respect. At the time of the last hung Parliament when Unionists held the balance of power, he showed that Ulstermen, and indeed women, are very good at doing politics when the occasion arises.

My right hon. Friend has made a very pertinent point, but I think it is a debate for another day.

Obviously my party will always stand up for Northern Ireland, and in raising this matter today, we are standing against an illogical and unreasonable attempt by some broadcasters to exclude us from the debates. However, the issue is wider than just us. Who are these debates for? Are they for the people who take part in them? Are they for the people who so desperately want to produce them? No, they are not. They are for the people who watch them, and who then decide whether we are to come back to this place. If the broadcasters cannot be trusted to put the interests of the voters first, in all parts of the United Kingdom, we must remember our historic role. We speak for the people because we are elected by the people, and others should never dare to presume to get in the way of the people when they are trying to hear their elected representatives speak and debate with one another. I commend the motion to the House.

I thank the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) for giving us an opportunity to debate this matter, and for making such a powerful speech. I also thank him for evoking the spirit of Lord Molyneaux, whose presence, given the respect that he enjoyed in this place, would no doubt have been very welcome during these rather turbulent discussions.

This may be a debate about debates, but it still matters. Millions of people watched the televised debates at the time of the last general election, and I think that it was a positive step for our democracy that the electorate were able to reflect on the choices that were put before them. However, as we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies), television debates are not the only feature of a general election campaign, and the intensity and concentration of their sequencing tends to generate a close interest which, as the Prime Minister put it, sucks some of the life and vitality out of the campaign itself. That was certainly the case last time. Three years ago, the Prime Minister proposed that we should agree on a set of debates that would, ideally, take place before rather than during the short campaign, so that campaigning in the constituencies would not be overshadowed by the very important aspects of the debate.

Does the Minister believe that such debates should take place before the publication of party manifestos?

As was made plain today during Prime Minister’s Question Time, there is plenty to talk about. I think that the choices between the parties are pretty clear, and I see absolutely no reason why we should not have a debate. The Prime Minister proposed that we should have one during the week beginning 23 March, and I hope that his proposal will be taken up.

The right hon. Member for Belfast North was ingenious in drafting the motion. This is not, of course, a matter in which the Government have any direct legislative say. I think it important for the press—and broadcasters specifically, as part of the press—to be recognised as being robustly independent, and I would not want to breach that in any way

The Government have no direct role in the conduct of the leaders debates, which, in my view, is entirely proper. Government policy extends only to the framework by which broadcasters are regulated in the United Kingdom. Under the Communications Act 2003, Ofcom, the United Kingdom’s independent communications regulator and competition authority, is required to set the standards for programmes on television and radio, which are embodied in the broadcasting code. The code applies to all broadcasters who are licensed by Ofcom. Crucially, it contains specific rules that apply during election periods and require licensed broadcasters to ensure that their coverage is duly impartial. That includes the requirement for due weight to be given to the parties.

In parallel the BBC, whose output is overseen by the BBC Trust, has editorial guidelines and election guidelines that set out the requirements for impartiality and accuracy generally, and specifically within an election period. The role of the press has been debated extensively during this Parliament and I know that all Members will support me in recognising the principle that independence and the requirements for accuracy and impartiality should be at the heart of broadcasting in this country.

Let me say a little about the particular contention in this debate. The aspect that the right hon. Member for Belfast North raised is who gets the power, in effect, to decide who gets a platform and who does not, and the way in which that has been conducted. He made a powerful case on behalf of his party and all parties in Northern Ireland. He expressed forcefully their concern about their exclusion from the arrangements proposed by the broadcasters. He referred to the fact that at the last election the Democratic Unionist party won more votes than one of the parties that is included in the seven-way debate, and more seats than four of them.

To try to cut through the logjam, the Prime Minister made an offer to participate in a seven-way debate before the start of the campaign. The leader of the Labour party said that he would debate the Prime Minister “any time, any place, anywhere”, as I understand it. The Prime Minister has proposed a time: he proposed that there should be a debate the week after next. The offer has been made; it is now up to the Leader of the Opposition to accept it.

As for the specific line-up of the parties, the Prime Minister has said, as the right hon. Member for Belfast North will be aware, that the leader of the DUP should be permitted to make his case for why he should be included, but that case should be made to the broadcasters rather than to the Government.

May I take the Minister back to the point about the timing of these debates? Of course the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition can find plenty to talk about. No doubt they could fill an hour arguing every day of the week, but the point is that in elections the electorate has the opportunity to vote for a manifesto. Is it not absurd for the Prime Minister to propose a debate before the manifesto is published? That is a con on the electorate.

I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman. There is plenty to debate, as he is kind enough to acknowledge, week after week. There will be no shortage of points that can be made in the debate and it would be a good thing to get on with it. I hope the Leader of the Opposition will change his mind and agree to participate in the debate.

In every part of the United Kingdom, we are living through a time of rapid political change. Between one election and the next, we have seen major shifts in voter support, so it is vital that we do not see the result of previous elections fossilised in the format of the TV debates. It is for this reason that the Prime Minister objected to the exclusion of the Green party from the broadcasters’ original proposal. To people who ask, “Why should he care?”, let me give an answer that should appeal to all of us in the House. The more we are seen as turning our back on the legitimate expectation that people whose parties enjoy some support in the country should be able to make their case, the more we risk increasing the sense of alienation between this place and the country we represent. I also think it is a good thing to put the smaller parties on the spot. We know they can protest, and they often do so vociferously, but the question is whether they can propose workable solutions to the problems that they draw attention to. That is a different matter.

Speaking of workable solutions, it is clear, as the right hon. Gentleman affirmed in his remarks, that the broadcasters have failed to produce one in regard to the debates. Today’s debate demonstrates that the proposals made thus far have not achieved the breakthrough or the consensus that three years ago the Prime Minister said should have been engaged in ahead of the general election. Lord Grade’s letter, which many hon. Members have spoken about today, comes from a very distinguished and experienced broadcaster and regulator, who should obviously be listened to with respect. My party entered into negotiations with the broadcasters in good faith and repeatedly made the case for a more representative debate structure. Initially this was unilaterally disregarded, as the exclusion of the Green party made clear. The follow-up proposal was made without any consultation.

The motion before the House today proposes a new way forward—the creation of an independent body with responsibility for arranging the debates. The right hon. Gentleman would acknowledge that it is rather late in the Parliament to debate the proposal, but he proposes it to reflect his dismay at the arrangements that have been suggested. It gives us the opportunity to raise the key questions—most fundamentally, who would the independent body be independent of? How would it be established and how would it be funded? Which debates would it produce? Who would it invite and how would this stand up to challenge? How would it succeed in convening the parties at all? Would they be compelled to participate? How would it secure the distribution of the debates by the broadcasters?

The Minister mentions the possibility of parties being compelled to participate. As a great student of politics, he will know that rule 101 for incumbency is, “Don’t give your opponent a platform.” Does he accept that those in power will try not to have such debates, as we are seeing right now?

I can only speak for my party, but a platform for the Leader of the Opposition is something devoutly to be wished for by those of us on the Government Benches. I do not know whether that breaks rule 101, but I very much hope that the Leader of the Opposition will accept the invitation.

On that point, the Leader of the Opposition has agreed to the broadcasters’ proposal for a head-to-head debate with the Prime Minister. Why is the Prime Minister refusing to have that debate?

The Prime Minister has made an offer. The Leader of the Opposition said that he would debate “any time, any place, anywhere”. The Prime Minister said that he would appear in the debate the week after next, and I look forward to the Leader of the Opposition appearing there.

The proposal for an independent body is not a new one. The House will be aware that the Select Committee on Communications in the House of Lords examined these questions and published its findings on 13 May 2014, in good time before the general election. Though recommendations were explicitly not made to the Government, reflecting the point that I made earlier, the Committee’s key conclusion questioned whether an independent body was required. It said that it had considered carefully the potential case for a body to be established independently of the broadcasters to oversee and produce broadcast election debates, but it has not been persuaded. It found no good arguments for the introduction of such a body.

Given the events of the past year, others, no doubt including the right hon. Member for Belfast North, will insist that the status quo is not working, and would perhaps invite that Committee to reflect on its proposals. In the immediate term, this is the purpose of the Prime Minister’s offer of a televised debate before the campaign proper, but time is running out. If the Leader of the Opposition does not make up his mind soon, it will be too late. Inevitably, he wants to distract us by insisting that the debate be restricted to the Prime Minister and himself alone. He does not want the scrutiny of the other party leaders—

The hon. Gentleman will have his chance.

The Leader of the Opposition does not want the scrutiny of other party leaders, including the leaders of other parties who are entitled to their say—the point that the right hon. Member for Belfast North made.

The Leader of the Opposition has already had his chance. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister was debating with him again today. I have calculated that they have spent nearly 40 hours facing each other across this very Dispatch Box over the past four and a bit years. The latest instalment of this long-running televised head-to-head debate took place just a few minutes ago, and it will continue up to the moment that Parliament is dissolved. I can understand that the Leader of the Opposition might like one more chance to get it right—he tends not to come off the better in these head-to-head debates—but if it has not happened yet, I suspect it never will.

I read in the papers that the latest wheeze from the official Opposition is a law to make the TV debates mandatory. It is hard to know where to begin, or where the legal action from excluded parties would end. If participation in the debates is to be made compulsory, then, goodness me, are we to make watching them compulsory too, as part of the edification of voters? Indeed, it sometimes seems that the Opposition’s way of thinking is: why achieve anything through voluntary action when we can use the power of the state to enforce our will? It is very revealing of the instincts of the Labour party that, faced with a difficulty, it reaches for legislation and compulsion rather than agreeing a consensual way forward. In making this ludicrous proposal, the Labour leader has done more to reveal the likely chaos that would ensue from the election of a Labour Government than any number of debates could achieve.

On voluntary or compulsory participation, does the Minister agree that the ideal solution would be some form of independent commission for the next election five years hence, which every party is obligated to agree to, and with fairness as the essence of the decision about how the debate would be constructed? In that way, no one would have any excuse for running away from the debate.

I listened with respect to the proposal from the right hon. Member for Belfast North and his party. I understand the frustration they feel and why they are proposing this, but it is rather late in the day. I put on record my concern that compelling voluntary organisations to participate is not in the spirit of the way we have conducted these things. I accept the spirit in which the proposal has been made, however, and I do not think the intention is to put this on the statute book, but rather to explore the issues.

To assist in this matter, could a Speaker’s conference be brought into existence immediately after the election to ensure we have a way forward for the following election?

This will be a matter for the next Parliament, and the Government have not taken a view to that extent—and, speaking for the Government, I think it is right for me to record that. No doubt, however, having raised the debate this side of the election, if the Members of the hon. Gentleman’s party are returned after the election, they may well come back to it. The right hon. Member for Belfast North said in his speech that if anyone should compel the party leaders to give an account of themselves, it should be in this House by Mr Speaker, not by an unelected quango. This is, thank goodness, a parliamentary democracy. We do not have a presidential system, although if it was the presidential system of the United States of America, it could be that the Leader of the Opposition will be spending more time in the USA with his brother before long. Before that, however, let us give him one last chance through his spokesman here: an opportunity to appear before the nation with the other party leaders to explain why he should be Prime Minister. Our offer of this televised debate before the campaign starts still stands. Is he up for the challenge, or is he frit?

I thank the Minister for giving way; I thought he had sat down and had not allowed me in. Will he answer this question clearly for the record, because he has not done so yet: has the Prime Minister ruled out a head to head, potential Prime Minister with potential Prime Minister? Has he ruled that out, and am I correct in thinking that the debate he is offering is just one with other leaders?

I am always happy to extend my remarks to include the hon. Lady. What we have seen—I think this has been attested to in the speeches so far—is complete chaos and confusion on the part of the broadcasters. The Prime Minister has made an offer—an offer he first made three years ago—to have a debate before the election campaign starts. The offer is there on the table; I very much hope the Leader of the Opposition takes it up.

I join the Minister in congratulating the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) on securing this timely debate on this important subject. As has been said, the general election is just eight weeks away. In the 21st century, it is surely right that the public have an opportunity, in the weeks before polling day, to see the party leaders and potential Prime Ministers debate the issues.

Voter turnout has fallen significantly in recent years. Trust in politics and politicians is at a low ebb. We must do more to confront these challenges, and television debates are an opportunity for the party leaders to reach out, to inspire, to answer concerns and to attempt to engage with people. In 2010, nearly 10 million people watched the first TV debate between the leaders, eclipsing even “Coronation street” and “EastEnders”. It is an extraordinary opportunity to reach out to people, many of whom have not remotely started thinking about the election yet, and to give them the opportunity to hear from the leaders of the political parties. To reject that opportunity would be to show a disregard for the British public, who have made it clear that they want these debates to happen.

On this side of the House, we want these debates to happen. We have said that the broadcasters should make proposals, and we have accepted their proposals for three debates during the campaign. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton West (Julie Hilling) just reminded us, the Leader of the Opposition wants to debate the issues head to head with the Prime Minister. Realistically, there are only two leaders who could be Prime Minister after this general election, and the country should have the opportunity to see them debate head to head, and the broadcasters are proposing that there should be such a debate, alongside two others. That is why the Leader of the Opposition has said, to use his much quoted term, he will debate with the Prime Minister any time, any place anywhere. Of course, regardless of who is in power, we might expect the Leader of the Opposition to be bullish.

If that is the proposal that comes forward and is supported by other parties, but not as the only debate. What the right hon. Gentleman and the Prime Minister are proposing is an election debate before the campaign has even started. As the hon. Member for Redcar (Ian Swales) and my hon. Friend the Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer) have said in this debate, party manifestos will not even have been published in that week. If the citizens of the country are going to have an opportunity to question, and listen to, party leaders, that should happen after manifestos have been published.

As the hon. Gentleman said, part of the Leader of the Opposition’s phrase was “any time”, but the hon. Gentleman is now saying that there is a certain time before the election that is not acceptable. How does he reconcile that with the commitment to debate any time, any place, anywhere? Why not the week commencing 23 March?

Because we do not believe these are decisions to be cooked up between the party leaders. They should not be being made by the party politicians. They should be taken away from them. The broadcasters have proposed three debates, two with seven parties and one a head-to-head debate, and we have accepted those proposals. Why can the Conservative party and the Prime Minister not accept those proposals? Does the Minister want me to give way to him so he can tell us why they are so reluctant to accept a head-to-head debate?

The hon. Gentleman is making a strong case as to why we need to have debates, and I share his characterisation of the Prime Minister as a bit too scared to want to be properly involved, but why was neither his leader nor the Prime Minister prepared to take part in debates before the European elections? They both turned down invitations to debate with the leader of my party and the leader of the UK Independence party. If the Prime Minister continues to refuse to show up, is the Leader of the Opposition prepared to debate with the Deputy Prime Minister, leader of my party, or is he too scared to have that head-to-head debate?

The reality is that the two people who may become Prime Minister after this election are the leader of my party and the current Prime Minister. I very much doubt that the Deputy Prime Minister, even in his most wildly optimistic moments, is expecting to form a Liberal Democrat-led coalition or majority Government after this election.

We want a debate between Labour and the Conservatives. Two of the debates proposed by the broadcasters would include the Liberal Democrat leader and other party leaders. The broadcasters have proposed a head-to-head debate as the third of three debates and we think that that makes sense. We accept that proposal.

I absolutely understand why the hon. Gentleman would like to return to two-party politics, with the two parties that get a larger share of MPs than their share of the vote. I understand why that is in his interests, but is he saying that his leader is not prepared to debate with the leader of my party head to head?

I am not saying that at all. I am saying that we are prepared to have a debate with not only the leader of the hon. Gentleman’s party but the leaders of a number of other parties. We accept the proposals of the broadcasters. We want a head-to-head debate with the leader of the Conservative party because there are two main parties in this country that poll consistently higher than the other parties, and nobody is seriously arguing that there is a prospect of anyone other than the current Prime Minister or the leader of the Labour party being Prime Minister after 7 May. If the hon. Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert) wants to intervene on me to say that there is a serious prospect of the Deputy Prime Minister moving into No. 10 on 8 May, I will give way to him one more time.

The hon. Gentleman is being very generous in giving way. It is very hard to tell what will happen. I understand that he would be concerned, given the performance by my leader in the three-way debates last time, but it is a great shame that his leader seems to be too scared to take part in such a head-to-head debate. Maybe we should have three head-to-head debates: one between the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition; one between the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister; and one between the Deputy Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition. That could be a fascinating series of debates for the public.

Bearing in mind the shambolic nature of the proposals from the BBC, does the hon. Gentleman acknowledge that there are Members in this House who have no confidence whatever in the BBC or in the other broadcasters that are arranging the debates?

I listened carefully to the right hon. Member for Belfast North when he opened the debate today, and I entirely understand the concerns that he raised. We certainly do not see the case for treating Northern Ireland any differently from Scotland or Wales. However, we strongly believe that it is for the broadcasters, not the politicians, to determine the nature of the debates. Even at this late stage, we hope that agreement can be reached.

Before I took those interventions, I was quoting my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition. It could of course be said that parties in opposition will be bullish about these matters. Five years ago, when the current Prime Minister was Leader of the Opposition, he said:

“I absolutely believe in these debates and think they are great”.

He agreed with us, saying:

“I think it is great we are having these debates and I hope they go some way to restoring the faith and trust into our politics because we badly need that once again in this country”.

I agree. In 2010, the then Leader of the Opposition was exasperated by any suggestion that the debates would not happen, saying:

“I’ve always wanted these debates to happen. I mean, they happen in every country. They even happen in Mongolia, for heaven’s sake, and it’s part of the modern age that we should be in.”

Even as recently as last year, when he was no longer Leader of the Opposition but Prime Minister, he said:

“I’ve just always believed that these need to happen. It’s good for democracy. It’s good to see”;

and only five weeks ago, he said:

“I want to go and debate”.

But when push comes to shove, the Prime Minister is running scared.

We heard from the Minister today that the Conservatives want an election debate before the election campaign and before there are any party manifestos for the party leaders to be interrogated on. The Minister also talked about Prime Minister’s questions being the forum for debate. The current Prime Minister used to argue that Prime Minister’s Question Time was not a substitute for proper television debates, but he is now attempting to use it as his way out. We know what happens at Prime Minister’s questions: the Leader of the Opposition and other MPs ask a lot of questions and the Prime Minister does not answer them. The idea that that is a debate that could be a substitute for a forum in which party manifestos could be held to account is unacceptable.

Has the Prime Minister lost his nerve, or has Lynton Crosby lost the Prime Minister’s nerve for him? This is perhaps typical of this Prime Minister. He used to hug a husky and clamour for the green vote. That has gone. He used to talk about compassionate conservatism, but that has gone. He used to talk about a new way of doing politics, including the importance of TV debates, but now he is even turning his back on that, too.

We cannot allow future Prime Ministers, of whatever party, to play games with these TV debates, and I welcome what the right hon. Member for Belfast North said about creating a set of rules. We have said that a Labour Government would put the requirement to stage a fair and impartial leaders debate on a statutory footing. The Minister has done his best to make that proposal sound incredibly Orwellian and statist, but it would simply introduce a system that would work along similar lines to the current party political broadcasts, with the Broadcasters’ Liaison Group having the power to come up with proposals for the debates.

In keeping with what the right hon. Gentleman said earlier, we believe that we shall have an opportunity in the next Parliament to get this right and to learn from what has happened during this Parliament in the lead-up to the election campaign. We suggest a deadline of 2017, midway through the next Parliament, for the proposed changes to be put in place. That would give everyone plenty of time to plan for the debates before the subsequent general election. This would be an important constitutional change, introducing a mechanism for the increased accountability of the Prime Minister and other party leaders. In our system, such reforms would be welcome.

I am fascinated by the hon. Gentleman’s proposal. Will he tell me whether it would appear in the first Queen’s Speech of a Labour Government? Would it be such a priority for the running of the country that it would appear in a Labour Government’s first legislative programme?

As the Minister well knows, neither he nor I can indicate what would be in either of our party’s Queen’s Speeches at any stage. We have fixed-term five-year Parliaments, so I am not going to comment on the timing. However, we welcome the opportunity to debate that important reform, and I hope that he will engage in a serious debate on it.

The Prime Minister’s politics tutor at university, Vernon Bogdanor, has welcomed our proposal, saying that

“the public are entitled to see how party leaders perform in debate, and also how the Prime Minister and alternative Prime Minister perform.”

A Prime Minister, of whatever party, should not be able to duck debates and thereby potentially cancel them for everyone. If a party representative refused to appear on BBC “Question Time” on a Thursday night, the show would go on. These debates are important for the credibility of this election. How can the Prime Minister, as leader of his party, look the British public in the eye, having been so overt in his support of debates, when he is now running away from them? Why should he have a veto on the opportunity for the public to hear from other party leaders?

Does my hon. Friend not think that it is actually slightly worse than that? The Prime Minister is saying he will debate, but he is not saying he will debate head to head. He is trying to bamboozle people by saying he will take part in that debate. He is just saying things that are not really true.

My hon. Friend makes an important point. Our right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition has been quoted as saying that he will meet the Prime Minister “any time, any place, anywhere”, and we have accepted the broadcasters’ proposals for three separate debates—

As the Minister confirms from a sedentary position, the Prime Minister will debate only with the other leaders, and only in a week before the election campaign, before the manifestos have been published. This Prime Minister is not prepared to debate head to head with the Leader of the Opposition after the manifestos have been published. That says a great deal about this Prime Minister and about the Conservative party’s approach to this election.

We on this side of the House are keen to make this happen, and we believe that there is still time for the Prime Minister to join us in accepting the proposal from the broadcasters. For the sake of democratic engagement, I really hope that he and his advisers will reconsider their opposition to these debates. Before the last election, the leader of the Conservative party—now the Prime Minister—said:

“I think people have the right to look at the people putting themselves forward as the next Prime Minister”

in TV debates. That could not be clearer. We agree. The public agree. Let’s get on with it.

To paraphrase the words of the famous comedy duo Laurel and Hardy, this is another fine mess they’ve gotten us into. I refer of course to the broadcasters.

We have heard a series of proposals, and a series of responses to those proposals, and it seems to me—and, apparently, to virtually the entire population of the United Kingdom—that we have a thoroughly unsatisfactory, unfair outcome as things stand at the moment. And who knows what tomorrow may bring? Initially, the broadcasters seemed to be looking favourably at what would have been a fair debate: the potential Prime Minister coming from the largest party in the opinion polls going head to head with the other potential Prime Minister from the second largest party. For a national debate, most people would have said, “Let the debate continue.”

The broadcasters moved from that position to include a range of smaller parties, but the threshold appeared arbitrary in that they included some parties but not others. That was particularly the case when they included the Scottish National party and Plaid Cymru. The defence I read after they had reached that conclusion was that Plaid Cymru and the SNP were facing the other parties in their respective jurisdictions, whereas, for example, the Democratic Unionist party in Northern Ireland was not. What the broadcasters did not deal with was the fact that in the national debate that they are currently proposing, the UK Independence party, the Greens and the Conservative party will all be facing us in Northern Ireland, yet we will not have the opportunity to respond to issues that our competition will be putting forward in that debate. The current position is therefore totally untenable.

We are seeking a resolution for the upcoming and immediate election. It needs to be reached within the next day or two, so that the parties can debate adequately and, more importantly, so that the general public can understand what the issues are, make their minds up about those putting forward the positions and determine whether how they intend to vote is affected. In the longer term—this is why we have worded the motion in the way we have—there must be no repeat of this Horlicks. That is what it is: a complete Horlicks. I have heard no reporter from any broadcaster seek to defend it, because it is indefensible.

Beyond this election we must get some independent mechanism that will use a fair rationale for arriving at a debate. It could be a series of debates, one featuring the two potential Prime Ministers and then another debate among a series of parties, either including regional parties or excluding them. You cannot have it both ways. You cannot say, “We want a head to head. Then we are going to open up a regional debate, but we are only going to include some regions. We are going to include Scotland and Wales, but not Northern Ireland.” This is indefensible and unjustifiable and it cannot be promoted, explained or rationalised by any sensible individual.

Given that my throat is about to give up, I shall call it a day.

I rise to support the motion, but I do so with some reservation, because although I come from a part of the UK where we are well accustomed to talks about talks, I suspect that with debates about debates there is a similar relationship between public interest in the debate and the amount of time we spend debating the debate—an inversely proportional one. The timing of this debate is particularly unfortunate, as it feels slightly self-indulgent for us to be debating who is able to debate the issues instead of using parliamentary time actually to debate some issues that matter to our constituents and which would make a difference. As Northern Ireland MPs, we get a relatively limited amount of time on the Floor of the House to be able to engage in those issues where Westminster has a direct impact on our constituencies. So it is unfortunate that we end up today in something that could be viewed by the public as slightly self-indulgent: a discussion about how parties will engage with each other in the run-up to elections.

I want to move on, because I have said my piece on that.

How do the public view this? They will be weary of the debate around it. However, I did rise to support the motion; although I am not sure this is the right time or place, on this occasion I am not disagreeing with the proposal made. I believe there is an inherent unfairness in the way this whole situation has been handled. I agree with the motion because it is not about individual political parties or the amount of air time they get in the run-up to the election; it is about allowing members of the public to engage with the issues and to hear what those people who may beyond this general election have an influence on the formation of a Government—that could be any of us who stand for election to this place—would do in terms of the kind of Government who would be subsequently formed. So it is important that every party is treated fairly and equally.

Previously, two rationales were given to us as to why Northern Ireland was not included in those debates. The first was about the threshold at which parties “validly” could argue their position for being in those debates. The Liberal Democrats made a strong case on the last occasion, managing to find a way to be part of the debate, even though their prospects of providing a Prime Minister were very limited. That was the first point at which the normal rationale, about the parties that would provide a Prime Minister, started to break down.

We then moved beyond that to a basis of opinion polls and of elections of a different kind, whereby UKIP should also be included because of its performance. Previously, however, elections of a similar kind had been used as the basis for making those judgments. So the comparison between a European election, where UKIP’s policies perhaps have a particular resonance, and a general election, where wider policy may play a greater role in people making their decisions, would not have been taken into account in the same way. The inclusion of UKIP in the debate suddenly gave us another crack in the façade of the rationale as to why people were or were not included in the debate.

We moved on from that to discussing the political challenge around the debates, then demanding that the Green party ought to be included because it also ran in a national way across all of Great Britain. Of course that relates to the second logical reason for the exclusion of the Northern Ireland parties, and indeed the Scottish and Welsh parties: they did not run candidates in every part of the UK.

It may have been a slip, but I am sure the hon. Lady did not mean to say that when we talk on a national basis, we talk about Great Britain—the nation is the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

I think my views on that are well known. I did make the point that the Greens ran in all parts of the UK, so when I refer to the UK, that is what I am referring to.

The logical reason being given was that our Northern Ireland parties did not run candidates throughout the UK—that was the second rationale for our being excluded. However, when we remove that second rationale, no argument can be made for why a party that has one Member elected to this House in this Parliament—the Green party—ought to be in those debates, yet other parties that have eight Members, three Members and one Member are excluded. There is no logic to that. There is no rationale, and that is because this is all being done on an ad-hoc basis.

I believe that the logical reason was always there; there was a clear and concise reason and rationale for how the debates were structured, one that was clearly understood by the public, and clearly understood and respected by the political parties. However, when that was abandoned in favour of a kind of populism and things were thrown open, we opened a Pandora’s box. Wherever the line is now drawn it will feel unfair and arbitrary to some party in Parliament. Plaid Cymru could be included in the debate but the Social Democratic and Labour party excluded. Why would that be the case? It makes no logical sense whatsoever.

The problem is that, having opened Pandora’s box, no one seems clear about how to close it again. Let me make it clear that I am not standing here to make a pitch to be included in the national debate, or for the SDLP, the DUP, Plaid Cymru, or the SNP to be included in the debate. I say that not because I want to see any of our parties excluded, but because if the purpose of these debates is to engage the public and to make them interested in what the next Government and the leadership—particularly the Prime Minister—might look like, we will end up with a panel that is so large and unwieldy that any real debate, exchange of ideas, or engagement will be absolutely stifled.

What we need to do is return to a situation in which the panel size is reasonable and in which the rationale is clear, legal and justifiable. Given the mess, the time scale, and the challenges that could hold serious sway if they were taken up by a number of parties, my fear is that we will end up risking the situation. I say that not because of the debate we are having about the debate, but because of the unwieldiness of any subsequent panel. The number of people on the panel could outstrip the number of people who actually want to watch the debate. The biggest crime of all would be to disengage the public further. We need to stop debating the debate and to get a clear rationale, which must be fair and apply to all parts of the UK and not disadvantage those whom we represent.

I am delighted to follow the hon. Member for Belfast East (Naomi Long), not least because, on this occasion, I agreed with everything she said. When I say that it is important that we do not spend too much time here today debating this issue, I am not criticising the DUP for its choice of debate. Someone from the media said to me, “Is it not a bit much that Parliament is spending time debating this?” I made the point that the media are spending more time debating the matter, in between covering Jeremy Clarkson and other matters. It is a bit rich for them to criticise us for taking a bit of time in Parliament to debate the issue.

As other Members have said, the broadcasters have made a hames of the whole situation. They thought that they had to scramble together an offer, that a proposal on high from them would have to be accepted and that everyone would have to comply. Then they found themselves being played into different corners by the Prime Minister. It is the Prime Minister who has created this situation with the broadcasters.

Last week, headlines said that Downing street had issued its final offer to the broadcasters, which did not look good. We are talking here about the office of the Prime Minister. It would have been one thing for Conservative party headquarters to say it, but it was Downing street, and the letter came from the director of communications, who is on the civil service payroll. The broadcasters should not have allowed themselves to be drawn into such a situation.

This is an unseemly mess. The way in which this debacle is playing out does no one any credit—the parties, the political process and the broadcast journalists. As the hon. Lady said, I do not think that any of us would have huffed or grumbled if a clear decision had been made that the main focus of the debate should be between the parties and the party leaders who are hoping to lead or to form a Government. That would have been clear. Even the broadcasters seem to accept that one of the debates should have that sort of bespoke focus, so no one contends with that principle. Once they started drawing in others, they took inclusion to the point of ridicule. By assembling such a large number, they will create the effect of a game show. The only problem is that the viewers will not have the joy of seeing people eliminated or have the opportunity to vote people off as the exercise progresses. Instead, people will switch off.

It is nonsense to have a studio-centred Tower of Babel presented as some sort of rational political debate. But we must remember that that idea came not just from the broadcasters, but from the Prime Minister. I never saw him as someone who was particularly concerned about the inclusion of all parties, even the small regional parties. We are seeing a whole new side to the Prime Minister. Certainly, he seems to be keener to hear people in debates than he is to hear people in this Chamber. This is a whole new dimension to him.

Why does the Prime Minister insist that we need this wide-level debate? I know that TV screens are getting bigger and wider, but they are not wide enough to take a pan shot of the debate that the broadcasters and the Prime Minister seem to want. It is all about the clear electoral strategy of the Conservative party. The Prime Minister wants to create this idea that the only alternative to a single-party Tory Government is the Leader of the Opposition and an absolute ragbag coalition of a rabble of other parties. He wants that image around the debate precisely because it suits the Conservative election message. Some Members have said that Lord Grade’s intervention was a neutral one, coming as it did from someone who has experience in so many different media outlets. However, his intervention is informed entirely by the fact that he is on side with the Prime Minister’s agenda to use these debates to create a picture that reinforces a basic Tory message in this election campaign. The intervention was entirely biased. The broadcasters have allowed themselves to be played into this situation.

I agree with the salient point in the DUP motion that, rather than having these confused and stylised arguments and rumours between the broadcasters and the politicians, all of whom will be accused of vying for their own interests and advantage, there should be some credible and neutral authority, whether it is set up specifically for the purpose or a hybrid between the Electoral Commission and Ofcom, to make judgments about how the debate should be framed. There will be other opportunities for wide diversity in debates. Many of us—even those who were not in Scotland—were absolutely transfixed and excited by the referendum debates in Scotland. Those debates took many forms, the most powerful of which were not necessarily those that included the party leaders. Some had strong inputs from studio audiences, which included young people. Just as there was a diversity in the type and range of debate in Scotland, so too should there be here. The broadcasters and the Prime Minister should not pretend that the only way of including the small parties is in the big head-to-head debates. That is why our party is not joining the queue to say, “Oh, no, it has to be us, too. If you are going to have Plaid Cymru, you must include us.”

On the point about which other parties to include, perhaps the broadcasters should have come up with some rationale around the number of candidates who were standing. Perhaps they would have been able to draw the line in that way. If parties are putting up candidates right across the UK and backing them up with a campaign effort, perhaps some regard should be given to that, as well as to factors such as opinion polls and seats in Parliament, when considering who is eligible to take part in the debate. We were told at the time of the recent by-elections that the results could change who would have to be in a TV debate. I found it hard to believe that a single by-election result could have that effect, but apparently that was what was understood in media circles. Other rationales could credibly be used to frame a debate sensibly, and a range of wider broadcast opportunities could be used to allow fair access for parties of all scales.

There are parties in Northern Ireland saying that, because of their size and standing in Northern Ireland, they should be included in just the same way as parties standing in Wales and Scotland, but some of them will not even be standing in all constituencies in Northern Ireland, because there will probably be electoral pacts and other factors. It is a bit much for parties that might not even stand in all Northern Ireland constituencies to insist on equal rights in a TV debate with parties that are hoping to form the next Government.

The fact that we have all been sucked into these arguments goes back to the false calls that were initially made by the broadcasters. The right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) was right to criticise the broadcasters for scrambling their original proposals, and for doing so without sounding out parties or journalists, even those available to them within their own organisations. That is what created the problem. We have to find a more sensible way of doing this. Let us be clear that politics also lies behind the debacle we now have, because that debacle suits one party and one party leader, and we should not pretend otherwise.

I was amused by the comment made by the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) about the need for wide-screen TVs if all parties take part in the debates. The hon. Member for Belfast East (Naomi Long) said from a sedentary position that it would be a bit like the game show “Take Me Out”. I am not sure that I would want to take part if Sinn Fein was involved, because “take me out” might have slightly different connotations. Perhaps “Blankety Blank” would be a more appropriate name, given that Sinn Fein Members do not take their seats in this House. That is a serious point that it is worth making in this debate.

In Northern Ireland we have traditionally had debates with the local political parties that participate in elections, and that has worked reasonably well. I do not think that the DUP would have raised this matter today had it not been for the proposal, particularly from the BBC, to include parties that contest seats only in certain regions of the United Kingdom—the Scottish National party and Plaid Cymru. An important principle was breached: that the main debate was about the national scene. I think that there is a lot to be said for the idea that the debate should be between the two leaders who are most likely to be Prime Minister and to lead the next Government of the United Kingdom.

If that debate is extended, especially to include parties that contest seats only in certain regions, then there is no valid reason to exclude Northern Ireland. If that occurs, the question, as others have asked, is this: why, then, would only one party from Northern Ireland be included? If we look at the political parties represented in this House, we see that the Democratic Unionist party is the fourth party in Parliament, and four of the parties that it is now proposed should take part in the national debate have fewer seats in this House than the Democratic Unionist party. That puts us in a unique position with regard to the national issue.

My second point is that everyone out there who is commenting on the likely outcome of the general election—including, most recently, Lord Mandelson—is saying that a hung Parliament is inevitable. Therefore, with regard to the complexities of the next Parliament and the question of who will form the next Government, there is a strong possibility that the Democratic Unionist party will be a factor in determining who forms the next Government. There is no prospect of Sinn Fein being a factor, since its Members do not take their seats. Therefore, their participation in debates at the national level is, frankly, irrelevant. I mean no disrespect whatsoever to the SDLP, but I do not think that it will play a major role in determining who forms the next Government, since it is already aligned to one of the parties that could form the next Government.

Therefore, with regard to the national debate and the public interest, it could reasonably be argued that the Democratic Unionist party is the only party from Northern Ireland whose policies would be of interest to voters from other parts of the United Kingdom, since they might have a bearing on who forms the next Government.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for raising that point about Sinn Fein, because one of the broadcasters’ arguments for including the SNP and Plaid Cymru was that they will compete against parties that could form the next Government and so could play a role in the formation of the next Government. However, they also say that if they go to Northern Ireland, they will have to include all the parties, especially Sinn Fein, because they get votes and have seats. The reality is that there is absolutely no point in listeners hearing from Sinn Fein Members because they do not come to Parliament, they will not be voting in Parliament and they have no role to play in Parliament, and that is of their own volition. It is clearly a nonsense argument that the broadcasters are using.

My right hon. Friend makes a valid point. It is interesting, is it not, that Sinn Fein declares itself to be the strong supporter of Irish freedom and independence yet wants to take part in a national debate that is relevant to the United Kingdom. The very same party is acting in a way that suggests it wants to hand back all the powers we have in our devolved Assembly and Executive to the national Parliament of the United Kingdom, and it really raises a question about their credentials as Irish republicans that they are in favour of returning to direct rule, rather than honouring the agreements that have been reached and are moving forward—but I digress.

The hon. Member for Belfast East said that we should not really be debating this issue because there are more important matters to debate. I simply point out that on every opportunity that the Democratic Unionist party has had, as the fourth party in this Parliament, to discuss matters—this is relevant to the wider issue—we have sought to focus not on issues that are relevant only to Northern Ireland, but on issues that are relevant on the national stage, and they are issues that are important to the people we represent. This afternoon we will debate another motion that is of national significance as well as of importance to our constituents in Northern Ireland.

We are all concerned about declining participation in the democratic process in the United Kingdom, with voter turnouts and membership of political parties going down, so this is an important issue. In fact, I would argue that few issues are more important than encouraging people to respect and participate in the democratic process, because that is about democracy itself. Indeed, one of the two gentlemen who may well be the next Prime Minister seemed to think the question of TV debates important enough to devote the entire exchange in Prime Minister’s questions to it.

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that all this could create a certain ennui or weariness among those in the wider body politic, who are interested in what we, Parliament and Government could do for them in delivering on the issues that matter for them rather than wider issues about debates and who should take part in them? That is what people are saying to me.

I must say that most of my constituents do not mention the TV debates to me. Nevertheless, I repeat the important point that someone mentioned earlier: the TV debates had a massive audience the last time round. We should all welcome that, and it is why it is important that we get this right.

The formula that we should be looking at, at the national level, is a debate involving the two leaders who are most likely to be the Head of the next Government of the United Kingdom. We in Northern Ireland are happy to participate in debates among the political parties at the regional level, but we are not happy with being excluded on the basis that Northern Ireland is the only region not to be represented in the proposals.

Does my right hon. Friend accept that it would be wrong for elected representatives in this House to fail to speak up for Northern Ireland, bearing in mind that they ought to be heard across the United Kingdom if the Democratic Unionist party were indeed able to assist any Government in governing the United Kingdom in future?

I agree. I have great respect for the hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie), but I have to say that my father, who is one of her constituents, would be very upset if he lost out on the opportunity to see these debates in the general election, because he is an avid watcher of political affairs.

I hope that these matters can be resolved. Our motion is an attempt to push the issue forward and to get some common sense applied. I hope that common sense will be the outcome. The outcome that must not occur is one that excludes Northern Ireland but includes other regions where political parties are represented that do not participate or put up candidates in other parts of the United Kingdom. It would be deeply unfair if Northern Ireland were the only region that was excluded on that basis.

I emphasise at the outset points that other hon. Members have made. We brought this debate forward not because we have some selfish party political interest, but because we believe that if there are to be debates about the shape of future government, and the input that parties will have, or potentially have, into future government, including in Northern Ireland, then the public should have the widest possible information about who will be involved and the ideas that will be put forward.

We recognise that even in a hung Parliament our role may be quite marginal, so we would have been quite happy for the parties that are most likely to form the Government of the United Kingdom to have their leaders debating the issues before the general public. We are not as arrogant as the BBC or some of the other broadcasters. We do not believe that we have some God-given right to be included just because we happen to have Members in the House of Commons or are putting people forward to be Members. However, once the rules were manipulated, changed, twisted and warped to include some smaller parties, but not all, we had a right to make the demands that we have made to the BBC and the other broadcasters that are included in this motion.

I do not believe that the debate about the debates has done politics any good at all. Despite what has been said, I do not see this as a problem that was made by politicians, although some people would happily point the finger at the Prime Minister or the Leader of the Opposition. The problem was primarily caused by the broadcasters. We probably all have our own interpretations of what their motives were. Was it simply that they believed that they could imperiously wave their fingers at the politicians of this country and tell them, “We will give you broadcasting time. Here are the conditions on which you will have it, and if you do not obey the rules that we have set down, we will punish you”? Another interpretation is that they simply wanted to sex up the broadcasts, and saw that perhaps a good head-to-head row between the Prime Minister and the leader of UKIP would do the job. Alternatively, given the left-wing bias of the BBC—I have sympathy with the views of some Government Members on this—perhaps it mainly wanted someone present who would take on the Prime Minister. I have a great belief in the left-wing bias of the BBC. Indeed, Mr Deputy Speaker, were you to give me time—I know that you will not, because I would be diverging from the motion—I could wax eloquent on that matter for a long time, but I will not do so.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the left-leaning bias of the BBC with regard to these broadcasts again opens up the debate that should properly take place about whether we should be paying licence fees for such an organisation to exist?

I will desist from getting into a discussion about licence fees, the payment of licence fees, the non-payment of licence fees, the compulsory payment of licence fees, or whatever. That is another favourite topic of mine, but it is not quite relevant to the motion before us.

Whatever the reason for it, we now have an unbecoming shambles that is not doing politics any good. Despite what is said about how rubbishy people think politicians are, I think there is a general desire among the public to hear debates on the issues. However, those debates have to be in a fair and properly structured format. The unbecoming shambles that we now have brings politics in this country further into disrepute.

We have put forward an unassailable case. We would prefer a much tighter arrangement for the debate, but if it is to be opened up—I add the qualifications put forward by Members from the Alliance party and the SDLP, and ourselves—there are absolutely no grounds for saying that the fourth largest party in this House, which stands only in a regional capacity but is no different in that regard from Plaid Cymru or the SNP, and has more members than many of the smaller parties that will be included, and could have the same influence as all those parties, should be excluded. That is especially the case because, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) said, it is not as though we operate in some kind of bubble in Northern Ireland and will not be competing against some of the parties that are represented on these Benches and that will be participating in the debates.

I will have a UKIP opponent and perhaps even have a Conservative opponent and, by proxy, I will have opposition from Labour in the form of the SDLP and from the Liberal Democrats in the form of the Alliance party. When I say “opposition” from competitors I mean it in the loosest possible sense of the word, because such opponents will be somewhere down at the bottom of the pile when it comes to counting the votes. I will also have an opponent from the Greens, but given the fact that the Greens in Northern Ireland want to prevent the good constituents of East Antrim from eating bacon butties on a Monday in order to save the planet or from seeing adverts for flying to the Mediterranean because they will put too much CO2 into the air—

Order. I think we will both agree that this is not about debates between the party leaders, and I am sure the hon. Gentleman wants to get back to that.

I am trying to explain my point, Mr Deputy Speaker. My point is that the inclusion or non-inclusion of the Greens in the debates will not make any difference because their policies are so outlandish that nobody will vote for them anyway. However, they have been included, and given that they are a small party and much smaller than our party, our argument is that we ought to be included as well.

The problem, which has of course been created by the broadcasters, is that if we end up with seven parties, as we now have, or eight or nine parties, we will not have a debate—or even a beauty contest given some of the people involved. We will have a shambles or, as the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) said, a Tower of Babel—utter confusion—with points not being properly debated.

The problem created by the broadcasters is one reason why we believe that there should be some attempt, even at this late stage, to resolve the issue either by accepting the inclusion of all parties with a sizeable representation and candidates standing nationally and regionally, or by finding some way to narrow the number down. We cannot have the worst of all worlds, which is including some and excluding the others.

Another part of the motion that has generated a fair range of comment is about how we proceed. The proposal for an independent body to make an adjudication may well come too late for this election, but that is not to say that it should not be considered for future elections; otherwise this shambles might be repeated. On the one hand, there are the politicians who have their agendas, but on the other hand, the broadcasters have their own agendas, as we now know. The broadcasters are no less guilty in all this than those that some of the public may see as self-seeking politicians. We therefore believe in the creation of an independent body.

The Minister of State, Cabinet Office, the right hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark), asked how independent the body should be and how it could be made independent. Such an idea has already been rejected in the House of Lords, but only because greater faith was placed in the broadcasters than should ever have been placed in them. Now we have seen that they are incapable of the degree of independence and objectivity required to ensure fair, reasonable and rational debate on the issues, we must look again at having an independent body. It should be no more difficult to create an independent body to oversee broadcasts during elections than to have an independent body for any other job for which such a body is required. The Minister’s point about how we ensure the body’s independence should not cause us a great deal of concern.

Another issue that hon. Members have raised is whether whatever is decided should be mandatory, as the Labour party wants, or voluntary. Our view is that the job of the independent body should be to set the rules. If the rules are set fairly, there will be no need for coercion. People will be able to sign up to the conditions attached to the rules, so there should not be any unseemly rows. At the end of the day, I must say that I am not attracted to making participation mandatory. Even once the rules have been set and the parties have agreed to them, there should still be a right and an opportunity for the parties—they will have to explain the circumstances to the electorate—to decide whether to participate.

Let me make it clear that I entirely share the hon. Gentleman’s sentiments. We are suggesting not that participation in the debates should be mandatory, but that it should be mandatory for the debates to be held.

We agree that, once we have a framework for the debates, people should have the right to decide whether to participate in them.

The final issue is whether the debates should be held before or during the election campaign. I do not like the argument that if the manifestos have not been published, there could not be a debate. What do debates consist of? Very often, they are as much about looking back as about looking forward. They are about looking at the parties’ record in the past, because that is sometimes a far better way of judging what they will do in the future than what might be in their manifestos, given the cynicism of much of the electorate about manifesto commitments. We only have to look at the Liberal Democrats to think of how they made a major commitment, but moved away from it very quickly. A debate on the basis of manifestos may not be all that productive.

I can see the argument for having a debate in the period up to an election without its sucking the lifeblood out of the election campaign. As the hon. Member for Foyle pointed out, there are many formats for debating the issues. He mentioned the variety of formats used during the Scottish referendum campaign. Whether the broadcasts are straightforward head-to-heads between the two main protagonists, panel discussions, debates involving audience participation or a range of other things, they can be done in many ways, so we are not all that worried about their timing.

I must say that I can see the Prime Minister’s point that a shambolic debate, especially with seven different parties all fighting and squabbling for a bit of time in a one-and-a-half hour debate, might not be all that edifying in an election campaign and might distract from many of the other good ways in which parties and individual candidates seek to communicate with the electorate.

One issue that the independent commission must sort out—the hon. Members for Belfast East (Naomi Long) and for Foyle made this point—is the basis on which we make judgments about the parties, which is where this debate started. Should a television debate include all parties, those that reach a certain threshold of Members of the House, or those putting forward a certain number of candidates? Do those candidates have to stand nationally? Will the debates be based on the results of the last Westminster elections or the latest opinion polls? If we are to have a fair framework those issues must be considered by an independent body.

In conclusion, we cannot afford in this election to have the same shambles as we experienced in the previous one: it is not becoming to democracy or to the parties involved, and it is distracting. I suspect that the debate about the debate will be more interesting than the debate itself, especially if we end up with a seven-party squabble on TV, or a debate where the main issue is, “Why is the Prime Minister not sitting there and why is there an empty chair?”, or whatever.

Sometimes there are things that we as politicians can be blamed for, but I do not believe that the finger of blame in this instance can be primarily pointed at us. It is unfair that all the attention is directed on the Prime Minister, because he had a reasonable case for saying that the BBC was setting rules that placed him at an unfair advantage, so why should he co-operate in its game. If we are to avoid that in future, some of the proposals in this motion should be adhered to, followed through and worked on, so that even if we do not sort it out this time, we can sort it out for the next election.

We have, once again, a debate about debates, and as the Minister of State, Cabinet Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark), said at the outset, these things matter in a democracy. Debate and discussion is how we arrive at consensus in a democracy, and how we inform the electorate about our respective views as parties and what we plan to do. It is important to have this debate today, although I recognise the comments by the hon. Member for Belfast East (Naomi Long) that in some quarters members of the public will be wondering why we have been talking about this issue for so long.

This is an important debate and it is surprising that, 60 days from the general election, the main opposition party in this House is more content talking about debates than about any other issue. What about the deficit, the fantastic employment figures, the fact that unemployment is down and wages are going up? Labour is willing to talk not about those things but about a debate—[Interruption.] As the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) said from a sedentary position, Labour did not initiate this debate today, but the Leader of the Opposition chose to focus on the TV debates in Prime Minister’s Question Time. He had the opportunity to ask the Prime Minister six important questions, but he focused on that debate, which is surprising.

I understand why Labour Members want the public to see more of the Leader of the Opposition before the election. I want that too. What is surprising, however, is the usual hue and cry that we have heard from the Labour party: “Let’s have legislation, legislation, legislation.” My right hon. Friend was right to ask whether, if we make debates compulsory, we will make watching them compulsory too. I dare say that Labour is staking a lot on having the Leader of the Opposition in the television debates. The understanding is that somehow after five years in this House, and four hours of debating at Prime Minister’s Question Time, an hour in the TV studios will make the British public finally see him as a future Prime Minister, but I think Labour is staking a lot on that idea.

I have a short amount of time so I cannot take interventions.

All I am waiting for from Labour is a judge-led inquiry into the debates. The crux of Labour’s argument this afternoon—I will come on to the substance of the debates in a moment—is that we need a head-to-head debate, but the moment that idea was introduced we realised some of the problems with it. The hon. Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert) immediately asked, “Why don’t we have a head to head between the Deputy Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition?”

I will carry on with my speech. The important point, while we discuss a head to head, is to remember that we are a parliamentary democracy and do not have a presidential system. People in this country vote for a party, and the leader of the party that is able to form a Government becomes Prime Minister. For me, the emphasis on the head to head is somehow misplaced, and the discussion about how the smaller parties can be incorporated and involved in that TV debate is important and powerful.

The Democratic Unionist party has more seats than four of the parties that it is proposed to include in the seven-way debate, and more votes than one of them. That raises a question about the influence and power of broadcasters to decide who is involved in debates and who is not. The right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) made a powerful and eloquent case, forensically analysing that issue. He spoke about the BBC’s handling of the matter, and the questions that it raises about the BBC’s impartiality. His central point was that the BBC cannot pick and choose which parties matter for the election, and he rejected the idea that any broadcaster should do that. Three years ago the Prime Minister proposed that we should hold debates and that they should be as inclusive as possible, but that was disregarded. He also said that it would be helpful for the debates not to be held in the short campaigning period, because we do not want them to be the only focus during the campaign. The broadcasters rejected that out of hand, and as a result there has been a lot of discussion that could have been avoided.

The Prime Minister did respond to the Leader of the Opposition saying that he would debate with my right hon. Friend “any time, anywhere”, but it turns out that the Leader of the Opposition meant, “any time, anywhere, but not the week commencing the 23rd”.

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. Let me be absolutely clear: it is any time, any place, anywhere. Only two people can seriously be Prime Minister after the election, so we want that head-to-head debate. Why is the Prime Minister running scared of it?

A key point that the hon. Gentleman made at the beginning of his speech today was that voter turnout is low and we need to engage and involve the public. One of the biggest features of British politics in this Parliament is the support going to the smaller parties. Why should not we have a debate that includes those smaller parties? That was the Prime Minister’s focus.

A point was also made about the timing of the debate and holding it before the short campaigning period. I understand the concern that if so many parties are involved in the debate, as the hon. Member for Belfast East said, it might resemble the television programme “Take Me Out”, but at least we would be giving the public a say and hearing from smaller parties, who would be put on the spot about the policies they are advocating. I believe that is as important as focusing on the policies of the main parties.

I want to make a quick point on the BBC and impartiality, and on consultation with the DUP. There is no specific requirement for the BBC to consult, but it would be for the BBC Trust to judge whether, by not consulting, editorial impartiality guidelines had been breached. It is worth putting that clearly on the record.

The DUP made a clear call. It wants an independent body to be in charge. My right hon. Friend the Minister of State, Cabinet Office raised a number of questions that need to be answered. How would it be established and funded? Which debates would it produce? Whom would it invite, and how would it stand up to challenge? How would it succeed in convening the parties, and how would it secure the distribution of the debates among broadcasters? It is an interesting suggestion, but it is obviously not a matter for the Government. Those are some of the questions that rightly need to be answered.

The hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) talked about an unseemly mess that does not credit anyone. If the Prime Minister’s formula from three years ago had been followed, that unseemly mess could have been avoided. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that there is no clear rationale for what the broadcasters advocate in terms of which parties are included and which are not.

The right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr Donaldson) said that voter turnout makes the debates important. He made a powerful point that it is deeply unfair if Northern Ireland is excluded on that basis.

I always enjoy listening to the mellifluous tone of the oratory of the hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson). He dwelt on the inconsistency of the approach to the different parties and said that the problem was caused by the broadcasters. I was surprised by his suggestion of the Green party’s campaigning approach in East Antrim—it is stopping people eating bacon butties to save the planet. I believe that was a caricature of Green party policy rather than its actual policy.

The hon. Gentleman made an insightful comment that elections are as much about track record as about what the party promises for the future. For most voters, track record gives credibility to what a party promises for the future. For that reason, it is possible to have debates before manifestos are pledged. In fact, we know where a lot of the main parties stand on some of the big issues, such as the deficit and the economy. We have debated those issues a number of times in the House. We can have debates before the short campaign.

This is obviously not a matter of Government policy. There have been a number of debates within today’s wide-ranging discussion. Several different party views were represented. That attests to the reasons why this is not an easy problem to address, but it was a worthwhile discussion.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House recognises the potential value of broadcast general election debates between party leaders; notes however that neither the broadcasters nor politicians can escape the charge of self-interest in their organisation, and that they should best be left to an independent body to arrange; further notes that the broadcast debate formats proposed for 2015 have been inconsistently and incompetently formulated so far; further notes that there exists a substantial danger as a result that these debates will now not happen; and believes that the point of any debates which do happen must be to benefit those who watch them, not those who appear in them or broadcast them.