Monday 7 January 2019
[Mr Virendra Sharma in the Chair]
Televised Election Debates
I beg to move,
That this House has considered e-petition 228572 relating to an independent commission on televised election debates.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma. I start by thanking the petitioner, Jonathan Levy from Sky News, who began this petition as part of the Sky News “Make Debates Happen” campaign, and also the more than 130,000 members of the public who have signed the petition since September 2018, which has led to this debate today. The e-petition states:
“Genuine leaders’ debates took place in 2010, but in the next two elections didn’t happen.”
It calls for the electoral laws to be amended to make it mandatory for party leaders to take part in televised debates, and also proposes establishing an independent debates commission to set the rules and format of such debates, which the petition states
“would take decision making out of the politicians and broadcasters’ hands and ensure TV debates become a regular fixture of UK elections.”
It is worth noting that the Sky News “Make Debates Happen” campaign has received a fair amount of cross-party support from some prominent Members of the House, and I want to acknowledge the work that my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) has been carrying out on his private Member’s Bill, which will be shortly coming before the House, to make general election leaders’ debates take place. I am sure we all look forward to hearing his contribution to this debate in due course.
I whole-heartedly commend Sky News and others for their initiative for an independent commission on televised election debates. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there should be an independent commission rather than this being left to the Prime Minister of the day’s political whims as to what is in their best interest, and that maybe we should also have deputy leaders’ debates within that framework?
The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point, which I will develop later. If we are to have regular leaders’ debates and formalise that process, it is absolutely right that that be managed by an independent commission—as he rightly says—to take it out of the hands of politicians and ensure that it is carried out in an orderly and fair manner. On extending this to deputy leaders, I am not sure I would go that far, but I believe that the deputy leader of the hon. Gentleman’s party is indeed keen for such a debate to take place.
We are here today to debate having debates, and I believe that this petition is very timely in its coming to the House, because there is no doubt that the nature of politics in this country has changed considerably in recent times. The growth of the 24-hour news cycle and the development of social media mean that what the public have come to expect of their political leaders has changed. We now generally expect our leaders to be much more visible and accessible than they were in previous generations. I believe that it is in this context that the matter of holding leaders’ debates must find its place.
Only last month we saw what can happen, when a debate was proposed between the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition on the EU withdrawal vote. After various to-ings and fro-ings, it proved very difficult to find agreement on that debate and it ended up not happening. I am not sure that what we saw take place last month reflected very well on our democratic process.
It is also interesting and worth noting that the petition had at that time reached around 60,000 signatures, and the number of signatures it was attracting had really slowed up. After that debate was proposed and then failed to take place, there was a sudden surge of signatures that pushed the petition well over the 100,000 mark very quickly. That shows the interest among the public in televised leaders’ debates, but also perhaps demonstrates the frustration that many people felt—the to-ing and fro-ing and horse-trading that went on at that time did not materialise into a debate taking place. There is clear evidence of an appetite among a large part of the public to see our political leaders debate on TV.
I apologise for missing the start of the hon. Gentleman’s speech. I agree that what happened last month did not reflect particularly well on politics in the British state, but one of the big problems with that episode was that it was seen as a debate between just the Labour party and the Conservative party. Does he agree that if we are to have these formalised television debates—they are vital for democracy—every single party contesting those elections should have a part to play?
I am not at all surprised at the point the hon. Gentleman makes, for obvious reasons, and that is one of the big challenges and questions that would need to be addressed. It is right that it be addressed by an independent commission, because clearly there is a tension and a balance that has to be struck on leaders’ debates when it comes to who is included, how many debates there are and so forth.
We need to ensure that we strike the right balance between all political parties in that process, and also meet the expectation of a large part of the public—they want to see a debate between people who have a realistic chance of being the future Prime Minister. That is one of the big tensions that leaders’ debates create, and it would need to be addressed by the independent commission, but I absolutely take on board the hon. Gentleman’s point.
The fact is that fewer and fewer of our constituents vote for us, our political parties or indeed our leaders based simply on what they read in the leaflets we put through their doors or in newspapers. There have been significant changes to the way we interact with one another and to how we gain the information we need through the media, as well as through social media, to inform ourselves before we decide how to vote. There is a clear expectation among the public that politicians, and particularly leaders of political parties, be much more visible and accessible than they were previously.
I believe the public want greater opportunities to see the political leaders in action and interacting with each other to build up a more complete picture of who they are and what they stand for. Party leaders have been at the forefront of some of the changes that have taken place and the election campaigns of all main parties now focus much more on the leader than was previously the case. Often, their style of leadership is scrutinised carefully. Televised debates are a great opportunity for our political leaders to present their case and communicate directly with voters through the TV screen, into their living rooms and on their smartphones. They are also a way for leaders to showcase the rigorous debates on important national matters that we see week after week here in Parliament while putting them into a format that is much more accessible for the public.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned TV channels. Is not the problem which TV channel would get the debate? They are all looking for that prize.
The hon. Gentleman raises an important point that the independent commission would need to decide on. I believe it is important that we have a commission that is independent of politicians and broadcasters to manage the process and decide who would be involved in the debates and who would broadcast them. I think the debates should be accessible and shared across as many broadcasters as possible, but the independent commission would have to manage that.
It is probably inevitable that debates will become a regular feature of our elections in the future. Although not everyone will welcome that, that is clearly the direction of travel. Debates took place in 2010 and were generally well received by the public. I believe that the public now expect debates to happen regularly, so it would be better to embrace that expectation and put a proper process in place for debates, rather than go through the dance we have seen at every recent election.
Can my hon. Friend point to any evidence that supports that comment? That is quite a sweeping statement and it would be interesting if he backed it up with some evidence or proof.
If I remember the figures correctly, I think that about 10 million watched the leaders’ debates in 2010. I base that comment on what I perceived from the voting public—I was out campaigning in that election for someone else, and I saw on the doorstep that the debates sparked a great deal of interest—and on the fact that many people were disappointed that debates did not happen recently. I take my hon. Friend’s point that views on debates are mixed—they are not universal—but I believe that the public have a growing appetite for them.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on introducing the debate on behalf of the Petitions Committee. To back up what he is saying, this is what the Hansard Society found in its 2018 “Audit of Political Engagement”:
“Among different sources of news and information respondents used to inform their decision-making at the 2017 general election, party leaders’ debates and political interviews were the most important”.
Although the process was imperfect in 2017, voters nevertheless said that debates were among the most important sources informing their decision making.
I agree. There is a growing appetite and many more voters today use leaders’ appearances on television, whether in head-to-head debates or in other formats, to get the information they need to make an informed decision.
I feel that the current situation, with horse-trading between the parties and a sense that no one really knows whether debates will happen or not—people set out their criteria, and we cannot be sure how serious anyone is about wanting the debates to take place—is not helpful and does not reflect well on our democratic process. I therefore believe that it is time to embrace debates and formalise the process so everyone is clear about the expectations. They should be taken out of the political sphere and put into the hands of an independent body that can hopefully manage the process much better.
Sky News laid out some proposals for the independent commission that is proposed to manage this process. It said that the commission should be established by parliamentary statute and funded solely by agreed contributions by UK broadcasters—I am sure we would all agree that the taxpayer should not fund the commission or the debates; they must be paid for by the broadcasters. It said that the commission should be made up of former judges, civil servants, broadcasters and other public figures who have experience in the media and politics, and overseen by a Cross-Bench peer with relevant experience, and that it should ensure that the general public have the opportunity to see the leaders of the political parties that could form a Government debate each other by including at least one televised debate between electorally realistic candidates for Prime Minister before every general election. I believe that those sensible proposals would put in place a framework that would ensure that the process is managed well and happens in an orderly and fair manner.
I am not being awkward for the sake of it. A televised debate is just one means that a party or leader has of communicating with voters in the run-up to an election. What is so special about that form of media? Why should the independent commission not have any say over any of the other methods through which we communicate with our potential voters? It seems strange to isolate television as the preferred means by which to impose this new regime and to disregard social media, for example, which probably reaches as many people—I do not know the exact figures—just as effectively. Why would we stick with just one?
Leaders’ debates on television are unique because the leaders of political parties go head to head with each other. On social media, political parties primarily promote their own leader or policies. Head-to-head debates, which clearly need to be managed and adjudicated fairly and transparently, are quite different from parties’ campaigning on other media platforms. Party political broadcasts on TV are already regulated, and this proposal is an extension of that. The head-to-head nature of TV debates means that they are a slightly different animal from regular campaigning.
I think we should embrace debates. As has been mentioned, we must balance any decision to formalise regular leaders’ debates with people’s legitimate concerns. We have to acknowledge that not everyone believes that this is a positive step or the right way forward. In the run-up to this debate, the House of Commons social media team carried out a very quick, unscientific survey on its Facebook page. It asked:
“Should party leaders have to take part in a TV debate before a general election?”
The response was mixed. More commenters were opposed to televised leaders’ debates than were in favour. Many felt that TV debates are largely about performance and that they facilitate judgments based on personality, appearance and media-savviness, rather than on a leader’s capacity to be Prime Minister. Some referred to the Americanisation of British politics and suggested that debates could result in a more presidential style of politics, which runs contrary to our parliamentary institutions and tradition. Others pointed to the perceived gap between politicians and voters, and said that canvassing constituents and other forms of direct engagement would be far more useful. It is right to acknowledge that not everyone is entirely enthusiastic about this proposal and we must balance those views. It is important that we weigh up the genuine concerns and reflect on them before any decision to press ahead is made. I have personally considered the pros and cons of regular debates. Although I believe that we will inevitably reach that point and that it is probably better to embrace and shape the idea rather than resist it, a number of important points need to be considered.
It is important that we do not allow leaders’ debates to dominate political campaigning in general elections. Debates should not replace other forms of campaigning and should complement the election campaign, rather than replace or dominate it, so there must be careful consideration of how many debates are scheduled. We had in three in 2010, which was probably too many. I think it would more naturally sit at one or two.
It is also important that we think carefully about the timing of debates. During the 2010 campaign and the debates that took place then, I was very much aware of the role of postal votes. Today, increasing numbers of voters choose to vote by post, and we need to recognise that for many millions of people across the country, polling day is not election day. It happens several days before election day, when their postal votes land on their doorsteps. We need to take that into account. It was wrong that in 2010 some of the debates happened after the postal votes had landed, and some people had already voted before all the debates took place. Certainly, if I had any role in this, I would strongly recommend that all leaders’ debates took place on television before postal votes were dispatched, to ensure that every voter had a chance to see the televised debates before they had the opportunity to vote.
Another benefit is that that would free up the last couple of weeks of the campaign. Those final two weeks of the campaign would not be dominated by televised leaders’ debates but by the other, more traditional forms of campaigning. I think that would be the right thing to do. I am sure that many of us remember David Cameron’s comments when reflecting on the 2010 debates. He said that
“they took all the life out of the…campaign”
in those final weeks because they sucked in so much energy and attention. Avoiding that would be very welcome.
Sound and informed debates are one of the fundamental pillars of our parliamentary democracy, and it makes sense that the voting public can see our political leaders in debate during general election campaigns. We need to accept that our politics continue to change, and to adapt to changes in how people communicate and inform themselves. We should embrace that change in our election campaigning. Leaders’ debates are a good format for making politicians more accessible to voters and, should we decide to formalise regular leaders’ debates, it is absolutely right that responsibility for managing the process is taken out of the hands of politicians and broadcasters and put into the hands of an independent commission. It should be completely funded by broadcasters, and the bill should not in any way come to rest on the taxpayer.
I trust that the debate will prove a useful opportunity to consider the matter. Once again, I thank Sky News for initiating the petition, as well as the 130,000 people who signed it. I look forward to the contributions of other hon. Members and to hearing the Minister’s response.
I am delighted to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma. I congratulate the hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) on introducing the petition in a particularly objective way, even though he supports it. He covered many of the issues. I had not originally intended to engage in the debate and wanted to make only one point, but now that I have been given the opportunity to speak I will wrap that point into a wider speech.
From my perspective, the 2010 debate let the genie out of the bottle and, quite simply, it cannot be put back in. In both 2015 and 2017, when there was at least a precedent, it was bizarre that the Prime Minister of the day decided that debates were not appropriate for those particular elections—that is dangerous. I think that we give Prime Ministers far too much power and that there is a need for an independent voice on this issue. Responsibility should not rest with the Government of the day, let alone the Prime Minister.
My main point, which is the one I had intended to make, is that the broadcasting of politics is in serious need of investigation. I do not know if I am right—the Minister will no doubt put me in my place if I am wrong—but since my return to Parliament, I have been alarmed at the lack of regional coverage, certainly by ITV, which I do not think is meeting its obligations. The required amount of coverage is in statute.
That issue may differ somewhat from the question of whether we should have prime ministerial debates, but it is interesting that the petition was initiated by Sky, which is not subject to the same rigours as both the BBC and ITV, and it is disappointing that our mainstream media do not want to get as much as they should from the political scene. I do not believe that broadcasters should show debates at the peak time of 7 o’clock—there are reasons why that would go down badly with the wider electorate—but to my mind, the rules and regulations on how much politics should be shown at both national and regional levels are not being adhered to, which is why this debate is particularly apposite.
We should be able to remove the matter from party politics, implement an independent scrutiny arrangement and make sure that politics is properly covered in the media—certainly in the broadcast media, which have more control than print media. I hope that the matter does not end with the next prime ministerial debate and that we consider more wholeheartedly the way in which broadcasting is currently handled and ensure that sufficient time is given to politics. I do not expect the Minister to count every minute with a stopwatch—although perhaps she has time for that—but I think we are being short-changed, and we ought to pay attention to that.
The hon. Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) may be on to something. He may come at the issue from a different angle from me, and he probably does not share my view—I am not sure he is convinced that this is how we should conduct our politics—but he certainly made the point that debates should be subject to some form of wider scrutiny, and I share that view. I think it is important to put that on record.
The debates have to be held in the fairest and most impartial way possible, which is why responsibility needs to be taken away from the Prime Minister. It cannot in any way be fair or impartial for one person to decide whether to go on television to defend their party’s policies—during debates, it is a party standing for election, not the Government—so that decision should be taken away from them.
Whether we like it or not, we all watch the US presidential debates, which always seem to be the centrepiece of the whole presidential campaign. I do not know whether votes are won or lost by those debates; Richard Nixon certainly lost some, but whether they are won is another matter. The fact is that that approach is built into the American constitution, because Americans have a President. I must make it very clear, however, that our Prime Minister is not a President, and we should constrain the role of the Prime Minister. Nevertheless, television debates are a way in which the public can find at least some comfort that the person who will lead the Government is able to answer questions in a format that they can access, so that they may make up their own minds.
The debate should be held earlier, as the hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay has said, recognising that so many people vote by post nowadays. Given that we have the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 and we know when the next election should take place, I do not understand why we do not yet know how many days that election campaign will be held over. It would be good to regulate that as well, so that we know when during the campaign the debate will take place. That should all be laid down so that candidates can prepare for the debate and the public can be made aware of the timing. The question whether we should have two, three or only one television debate needs to be investigated properly and to be the subject of debate in the House. That is why we are in this Chamber today.
My last point reinforces what the hon. Gentleman said: the debate on a so-called debate on the meaningful vote degenerated into a farce—including whether it would be on the BBC or ITV, what format it would take, who would be interviewing, and whether members of the public would form part of the panel—and that did not help us in this place. It looked like our self-interest always comes to the fore. If we genuinely want to reach out to people, we have to accept impartial rules for how a debate is conducted.
I hope, therefore, that any commission would have a wider range of responsibilities than those relating to a prime ministerial debate. Any crucial issue should be subject to rules regarding who will be interviewed, how they will be interviewed, and at what time. All that should be laid down in advance, rather than be subject to a Dutch auction between the Leader of the Opposition and the Prime Minister that makes it looks like it is about which one of them blinks first. That does none of us any good in the long run.
This has been a useful debate. I think that most of us would support revisiting the issue and it being dealt with properly by Parliament and the Government of the day. Anything that adds to people’s interest in politics has to be a good thing. Of course, it has to be managed properly and we have to strike a balance with regard to the participating parties. That will be difficult, given that so many parties are represented in this House, not to mention those outside it. There must, therefore, be a de minimis level, based on the previous general election, to decide who is entitled to take part; otherwise, people would invent themselves as party leaders just to get a free hit on the television.
All those things need to be looked at, and the only way in which we can do so is to have an independent commission with the powers and duty to ensure that it is done properly and in a way that enhances, rather than belittles, our democracy.
It is great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma. It is also a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Stroud (Dr Drew)—I agree with virtually everything he said—and my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double), who introduced the motion in a very reasoned way. I also thank the Petitions Committee for the debate—one of the advantages to come out of the expenses scandal is that the public can have things they are interested in debated in this House.
I am delighted that we have such an excellent Minister present to respond to the debate and to agree with everything I say. I am very interested to hear what she has to say, as I will be to hear the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan), and the spokesperson for the Scottish National party, the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard)—two excellent parliamentarians.
I am particularly interested in what the shadow Minister will say, because at some time in the future his party might be in government. I hope that what he says today will apply when Labour is in government. It is a problem that people are quite keen on TV debates when in opposition, but not when in power.
I will come to that specific point, because it is a very good example.
I am very grateful to Sky News, because it has done something really useful: it has got the wider public thinking about these debates. We cannot arrange them two or three months before a general election; we have to have an independent commission, because the problem is that the party with the advantage does not want to have a TV debate. The only time we get a debate is, for example, if the Prime Minister thinks that the Government are behind and the Leader of the Opposition wants publicity. That is exactly what happened with Gordon Brown. I would suggest that he thought it right to have a debate because he was behind.
I thought that the debate between Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Nick Clegg was very good. When we go out campaigning during a general election, we have a campaign session in the morning and in the afternoon, and between 5 pm and 7 pm in the evening. I remember getting back one evening after campaigning, going to the gym, putting on a headset and listening to the debates. The only thing that I remember really is the phrase, “I agree with Nick”, but the debates were very useful in helping electors to make up their minds on how to vote.
My hon. Friend mentioned Nick Clegg’s participation in that debate, but that was part of the problem raised by both the hon. Member for Stroud (Dr Drew) and my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double). Should not the debate be for those with a credible possibility of becoming Prime Minister? What we ended up with then was Cleggmania and a disastrous coalition Government.
My hon. Friend might say that, but I couldn’t possibly do so. However, I certainly agree with the first bit. When I promote my private Member’s Bill, I will explain why the debate should be between only the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition: in a leaders’ debate, we look at who is going to be Prime Minister.
Those of us in this Chamber get some spin-off advantages from leaders’ debates. For us constituency candidates, there is nothing worse than to be told that we are to get a visit from the leader of our party, because we know that we will lose days of campaigning as a result. First, we will be asked to find a suitable venue that ties into everything the leader wants to promote. Desperately, we find somewhere, talk to people and they agree, but then the party officials say, “No, we don’t want that”, and ask for something else. Eventually, they decide on somewhere else and they send down an advance team of young people who boss us around and tell us how to run things in our own constituency—that is another day lost. In time, the leader turns up and we get a PR event—they used to be called “Cameron Direct”—where people ask difficult questions of the Prime Minister or the Leader of the Opposition.
But that was not the case: all those questions were planted. There was no real debate at all and we lost three or four days of campaigning. If we had leaders’ debates, that would at least give us a few days on which they would not be able to visit us in our constituencies.
Where I disagree slightly is with the idea that leaders’ debates dominate the decision making of the British public. I do not think that that is the case, nor that there is a national swing any more. Voters are much more savvy now, voting on what is in their interests. The last general election had all sorts of strange results, but if votes had been determined purely by the party leaders and what they said, the results would have been much more uniform. The debates do not make that sort of difference, but they are an important part of the democratic process.
Those who argue against televised debates say they are all about performance, not substance. Is that not what people used say before the Houses of Parliament were televised? There were exactly the same arguments, and we now know that they were completely wrong.
I really wanted to talk about my private Member’s Bill on the televised leaders’ debates commission, which was given its First Reading in 2017 and is scheduled to be debated on 15 March. It is the second Bill on that day, the first being the Prime Minister (Accountability to House of Commons) Bill, which also stands in my name. I assure the House that if that Bill is not moved, the first Bill will be on the leaders’ debate. We have an opportunity in March to move the whole process forward. The Government have little legislative time because of Brexit, but this is a private Member’s Bill. On 15 March, if nobody objects, we can move forward and make the Bill an Act of Parliament. I hope that the Opposition and the Government will allow the House to make its own decision on this matter and not try to block the Bill with some parliamentary procedure.
Much of what Sky News says is already proposed in my Bill: to set up an independent commission responsible for holding a number of leaders’ debates during the regulated period. My Bill calls for three debates: one with the leaders of all the parties represented in the House of Commons at the time of the general election, and the second and third between the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition. As my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Adam Holloway) mentioned, we want a debate between people who are likely to be Prime Minister, although I do not want to leave out the smaller parties.
There is a problem that I accept: by having a debate between the leaders of the parties in the House of Commons, not every party will be included. But would we really want a communist party or the British National party in the debate? I think not. There was a serious problem with the UK Independence party, when at the height of its power it had no MPs but clearly had very large support. I would leave it to the commission to decide whether to bring any other party leaders into the debate, but the leader of any party represented in the House would have to attend. By the way, attendance would not be optional; the Prime Minister or the Leader of the Opposition could not offload it to someone. No; they would have to attend.
People say the debates would take up lots of the party leaders’ time, but if they had to prep for weeks on end they could not be much good as a leader. They should know what they think, and be able to go out and debate. Under my Bill, there would be proper debates. The moderator would ask a question, but the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition could debate with each other, back and forth. There would be an actual debate, not rehearsed lines delivered before they moved on.
We can argue that we do not have a presidential system, but we have moved a very long way towards a presidential system since Tony Blair. I remember in the last election, Conservative MPs were all there, standing with Theresa. That was the message—it went down well—because the leader is so associated with local politics.
The notion that we are moving to a presidential system worries me greatly, and perhaps is one of the concerns about formalising a TV debate schedule. I have served in three Parliaments, two of which were hung Parliaments—one with a small minority Government. Does that not mean there should be a requirement for every single political party that could form a part of the Government to have a full role in the TV debates?
Under my Bill, there would have to be a minimum of three debates—two head to head between the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition and one with all party leaders. That is the minimum, but if the commission thought it was right to have more debates, it could have them. I want a minimum number of compulsory, not optional, debates—the leaders would have to turn up.
The make-up of the commission is where I move slightly away from Sky News’s suggestion. One commission member should be nominated by the Prime Minister and one by the Leader of the Opposition, two by broadcasters and three by the Speaker of the House of Commons, one of whom would be the chairman. The commission would serve for the whole Parliament, and a new commission would be set up depending on the election results. That is slightly different, but it would be funded entirely by the broadcasters. The object would be to have as much coverage as possible, and it would help to inform the debate.
We have a very good Minister and I know she will take our remarks on board. This is an opportunity for the Government to do something now that will benefit democracy when the general election comes around. The Prime Minister has said that she will not lead the Conservative party into the next general election. It is a great opportunity, as part of her legacy, to do this. I hope it will not be dismissed out of hand.
One of the great advantages of this debate is that on Second Reading in March, even if we have only limited time, I can point to this debate and say, “This is what Members said.” One reason I have not published the Bill yet is because I wanted to hear what Members said today, so that that could be incorporated into the Bill. I entirely take on the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay about the two polling dates—the postal vote deadline and polling day. It is absolutely right that the leaders’ debate between all party leaders should be before the postal vote date, and at least one of the head-to-heads should be before the postal voting date. I will incorporate that into my draft Bill.
I hope Members here will find the time to serve on the Bill Committee when we move forward, so that all the details can be worked out. I hope this Minister will be on the Bill Committee, so we can get an Act of Parliament. Some people say I am being hopeful, but in this Parliament I have already managed to make one of my private Member’s Bills an Act of Parliament. As it happens, I have another on drone regulation, which seems to have some relevance. Through private Members’ Bills we can get what the electorate want.
I agree that the proposal is entirely sensible and inevitable, but surely the fear is that the Government may kick the petition and the campaign into the long grass. Electoral laws are widely accepted as outdated, and in February 2016 the Law Commission published an interim report calling for current laws governing elections to be rationalised into a single consistent legislative framework governing all elections. Three years later, the Government have yet to respond, so what chance does the hon. Gentleman’s Bill have of seeing the light of day?
I will park other electoral reform, but the public want this particular reform; the broadcasters want it, I argue most MPs want it and it is an opportunity for the Government to do the right thing. We need a bit of good will at the moment, so it would be a nice thing to do.
I thank Members who will come to support my Bill and those who will oppose it.
I was supposed to say that earlier. I mentioned Sky News, but it is John Ryley and he has done really well. I also thank Adam Boulton for what he has been doing at Sky News. He is always fair and balanced when it comes to Brexit.
Thank you for listening to me, Mr Sharma. I am interested to hear what other Members have to say; hopefully, I can incorporate some of their comments into the Bill.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Dr Drew), I originally turned up to listen to the debate and possibly to make an intervention, but I will follow the excellent speech by the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone). I start with two disappointments. One is that there are not more right hon. and hon. Members present. This is an important issue; I can guarantee that every Member of Parliament has a view about how debates on television and in the media should be conducted during a general election. It is a disappointment that more people have not turned up. It is disrespectful to the 130,000 people who petitioned for the debate and it does not do justice to the importance of the issue.
My second disappointment is that the three hon. Members who spoke before me all came to the conclusion that we need a quango to regulate debates. Reluctantly, I agree with them. As we do not have a written constitution, it has the merit of being flexible; when the world changes, the processes within this place and electorally change. If people were acting with democratic spirit and good will, and as television and the media have developed, one would have expected politicians and political parties to have responded to that by enabling people to benefit from having the debate broadcast on television in their front rooms. That has not happened for the reasons stated explicitly by the hon. Member for Wellingborough. When Leaders of the Opposition are massively ahead in the opinion polls, they do not want a debate. Why would they risk hitting a banana skin? When Prime Ministers are in No. 10 and ahead in the opinion polls, they want to avoid exactly the same banana skin. Therefore, I think we need a regulatory body.
My heart sank when the hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) went through the list of the great and the good who would have to serve on a quango to regulate television debates—judges and other people. Sadly, we have developed a population of quangocrats who serve on many quangos, scratch each other’s backs and move from one quango to another. That means that sometimes we do not get the breadth and the quality in those organisations that we should. I make a partisan point here, from the position I have taken on the Brexit debate. It is extraordinary that the total membership of the Electoral Commission are remainers. The difficult problem in setting up any quango is not going to the pool of people who have made themselves available to serve—often public spiritedly; I do not want to be too mean—as it is a closed group. Reluctantly, I think we have to have a body that will consider the complicated issues involved, but I hope it is not the list that was given by the able motivator of the motion, the hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay.
It is important that we have televised debates or discussions set up, in whatever form, because sometimes we do not state the blindingly obvious: that debate is at the core of democracy and our society. We need to have that debate in as many forums as we can. When the BBC was the monopoly broadcaster in the 1950s, it might have been sensible to just have the debate on the BBC, but now we have a range of social media and different television broadcasters, including access to television stations from around the world, as well as traditional print media. We need to ensure that there is regulation on television, which is where most people look for discussion during a general election. The viewing figures for the debates in 2010 were immense. However much Cleggmania we had in that election—and I got worried looking at the figures because it seemed that the Lib Dems were going to get a huge number of votes in my constituency, but I went out every day and I suppose I must have knocked on a Lib Dem door, but nobody admitted to it through the whole campaign—those debates were important, as the people and leaders challenged each other, but I do not think they changed very much.
That has been the case in many elections. I remember the opinion polls ticking over on the bottom of the Sky television screen in the 1997 election, barely shifting half a point during the whole election. We live in a time where the world is changing and politics are more fluid than they have ever been. We need a response to that. It would be the difficult job of a regulatory body to balance up the major parties and who would be invited. It is said, rather glibly, that only the leaders of the parties that are likely to provide the Prime Minister should be there. If we looked at the experience in Canada, the people who were going to be Prime Minister before the election eight or nine years ago were not elected. One of the major parties got 2%. There have been major changes in European Union countries. Parties that were permanently in the ascendency, such as the Social Democrats in Sweden, are now minor parties. Sometimes these changes happen very quickly. There has never been a more intense time for debate.
It is going to be a difficult job for any regulatory body that is set up, but I think it is vital. It is not just that there are a lot of different outlets for information nowadays. We have coined the phrase “fake news” for a lot of the information that has been used in elections and referendums, because of the internet. One of the great things about a debate is the ability to challenge lies. In the old cliché, if you keep on telling lies I will keep on telling the truth. That is the purpose of debate.
People have complained about the referendum—about whether certain facts were facts—but it is the purpose of debate to expose such things. What better place than on television, with a huge audience, to get those issues out? I do not think that the 2010 election was affected by the television debates, but I believe that the 2017 election was massively affected by the debates, quite simply because the Prime Minister did not have the courage to debate. She would not put the case for the Conservative party, which went from having a large lead in the opinion polls to not being able to form a majority Government. If anyone doubts the power of the debate, I think the television companies were right to empty-seat the Prime Minister and go ahead without her. It was a bit strange, and it looked a bit strange, but it exposed the fact that the leader of one of our major parties was unprepared to get up and defend its position.
I have another example of the positive side of television debate and discussion, although not in a formal leaders’ debate. It certainly affected me when I saw how important it was. Hon. Members will remember the rise of the British National party. It did not rise to a significant extent, but it looked as if it was making progress when it was led by the bottom-feeder Nick Griffin. On the evening when he went on “Question Time” I was in someone’s front room talking about pavements and street lighting. At the end of the meeting they said to me, “Are you going to go and buy a bottle of wine?” I thought, “What do these people know about my drinking habits? That’s a bit strange,” but every single one of those people, living in terraced houses in north Manchester, was going back to watch Nick Griffin and Jack Straw, and the other party people on “Question Time”. Griffin was destroyed and the BNP fell apart. That is the power of debate, and however complicated it is to deal with parties that have significant support with no representation, and those such as the Scottish National party and Plaid Cymru whose primary objective is to get out of this place, and who do not want their leader to be Prime Minister but who clearly have a significant democratic impact in the whole United Kingdom, we should do what we can to facilitate those positions.
I could go on speaking about this issue, which is an important one, on which we should be giving support. Having heard what the hon. Member for Wellingborough said, I wish him well with his Bill. It may need some tweaks. However, the whole of the House of Commons and House of Lords should get together, because when we are away from elections we all believe in debate. It is only vested interest, when we think we can grab an election without debating, that stops it happening. I did not intend to speak, but the debate is a good one, and it is a shame more people are not here. Sky is to be congratulated, as are the people who signed the petition, on stimulating the discussion.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma. I commend the organisers of the petition, the Petitions Committee for allowing time for the debate and my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double), who introduced the motion so effectively.
I agree with the former Deputy Prime Minister Lord Whitelaw, who said in the House of Lords in 1990 that Sky News had “a very high reputation”, adding:
“I admire it as do many other people.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 9 October 1990; Vol. 522, c. 195.]
Those comments are relevant today. Sky News is an award-winning broadcaster, picking up awards from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts and the Royal Television Society; it has won the RTS news channel of the year award. It therefore has a strong reputation for news coverage. That strength comes from the quality of its journalists, including Beth Rigby, Ed Conway, Mark Stone and Mark White. It undoubtedly has a team of top-notch journalists and is one of the main sources of news in my household. I cannot understand why the channel has threatened an enviable reputation by devoting so much coverage and air time to its own campaign and petition for the leaders’ debates commission.
I am now going to shatter what has so far been the consensus in the debate. In this day and age, when we are all concerned about fake news and the reliability of what we read, watch and interact with, I question the editorial decision by Sky News to report constantly on its own campaign, as if it were actual news rather than simply an attempt to gather more signatures.
The campaign and petition on the Parliament website started in early September 2018, ahead of the party conference season. Since then, Sky News has been reporting on its progress almost every half hour and certainly every hour. Latterly, there has been a running total of the number of signatures in the top left-hand corner of the Sky News screen together with its campaign hashtag. During critical moments of the Brexit debate in this place, and at moments of crisis, either for the Government here or elsewhere in the world when wildfires were sweeping California or conflict was raging in Yemen, Sky News still found time to insert and promote its campaign for election debates.
If the petition was gathering huge support it might be argued that that should be reported by Sky News. However, if one looks at the other petitions on the Parliament petitions website that argument falls flat. A petition calling for a ban on the sale of fireworks has 297,000 signatures, which is twice the support that the Sky News petition has. A petition asking for the UK to leave the EU without a deal has the support of almost 300,000 people. Another petition, set up by a young cancer sufferer and calling for the lowering of the age for smear tests from 25 to 18, so as to prevent cancer, has 93,000 signatures.
My point is that but for the fact that Sky News was the promoter of the debate campaign, it would not have been gathering the air time and signatures it has. I have struggled to find any coverage of any of the other petitions, which have either attracted more support or are arguably more worthy, on any Sky News outlet. One hundred and sixty-five of my 74,000 constituents signed the petition and, despite the best efforts of Sky News, only one asked me to attend today’s debate. I felt so strongly about the misuse of Sky News’s position in the broadcast media to promote its own campaign and petition that I had to come and speak.
As to my views on leaders’ debates and the idea of setting up a commission, general elections in the United Kingdom are not about electing a president. Voters elect 650 individual MPs, and from them a Government is formed. My experience of previous elections—to this place and to the Scottish Parliament—is that leaders’ debates suck the oxygen away from local campaigns. The focus on the doorsteps, instead of being on the merits of each candidate and on local issues, is on what will happen or has just happened in the debates. The media reporting is all about how well each leader performed. Who looked good? Who answered the questions best? How did the broadcasters or newsreaders appear? It is not about the substantive issues of the election campaign.
For a period, journalists are not reporting on the critical issues of the election. They become more like commentators at a boxing match. In 2010, as several hon. Members have mentioned, it was perceived that Nick Clegg had performed well in the debate. That resulted in hours of coverage of the so-called Liberal Democrat bounce. However, the actual result showed little or no change in Liberal Democrat support, so how much influence do the debates have? In my view, the drive for leaders’ debates is simply about the media machine and journalists trying to insert themselves into an election campaign rather than doing their job of reporting on the key election issues of the day. They provide little new information to voters.
In the United Kingdom, we have the added complication of four nations with differing political perspectives. If a leaders’ debate is about assessing how potential Prime Ministers perform, how does that model accommodate smaller parties, such as the Scottish National party, the Democratic Unionist party and Plaid Cymru? Other Members have already commented on that issue.
Those parties might have significant support in their own parts of the country, but there is no prospect of their leaders occupying Downing Street. The Sky News proposal does not accommodate what is essentially a way to scrutinise presidential candidates. I note that my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) proposed an alternative, but I do not think that accurately reflects the huge regional variations in how we vote as between the different parts of the United Kingdom. Why, for example, should voters in Cornwall have to listen to the leader of the Scottish National party, when none of the voters in Cornwall has any prospect of voting for the leader of the Scottish National party, whether or not they have any desire to do so?
In the letter that we all received from John Ryley, the head of Sky News, before this debate, we were told that an
“independent commission would remove the ability of political leaders to block debates because of narrow political interest.”
My question is this: if it is the politicians who are blocking this, where are the BBC and ITV in all this? They have been pretty quiet ahead of this debate, which I think is telling. I have had private discussions with the BBC and ITV, and I think a number of hon. Members will have done likewise.
I am grateful for that comment, but from my constituents’ perspective there has not been much interest. My point was more about the management within ITV, the BBC and BBC Scotland, who are not as supportive as the editorial team behind Sky News appears to have been in pushing this campaign; certainly they do not have equivalent petitions running and have not added their support to the petition being run by Sky News.
I look forward to hearing the rest of the debate and the Minister’s response. I could have said more, only I thought that more colleagues would have wanted to contribute to this debate, given that it is headline news—but it would seem that it is headline news for Sky News and very few other people.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma. I join other hon. Members across the Chamber in congratulating my fellow south-west MP, my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double), on the way he introduced this debate and the Petitions Committee on bringing it forward. I also join other colleagues in congratulating Sky News on initiating the petition; it is to be congratulated, certainly, on achieving 130,000 signatures—as my hon. Friend the Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (John Lamont) said, not for want of trying, given the fairly widespread coverage that Sky News was able to give it.
I suppose I should start with an informal declaration of interest: before I reached this place, I was a broadcast journalist for 20 years. For much of the time I worked, not for Sky News at all, but for the BBC—this is starting to sound less like a declaration of an interest and more like an admission of guilt, is it not?
I suspect people will be unsurprised to hear that, because of that background, I take a close interest in the interaction between the broadcast media and democracy. I have seen it from both sides—poacher turned gamekeeper, if you like—and while I cannot claim ever to have reached the exalted heights of editorial management at the BBC in which I would have been responsible for anything so important as a televised national election debate, I was involved on a regional level in organising debates between candidates in individual constituencies, and many of the arguments run across the piece.
I will admit to having been slightly torn when I heard about this petition, because fundamentally, now as a democratically elected politician and before that as a broadcaster, I want us to do everything possible to engage more people in the democratic process. That is vital. My problem lies in the fact that I remain to be convinced that televised leaders’ election debates are the way to achieve it. I will go on to give a few reasons why I do not believe that to be the case.
I was also torn about the precise merits of this petition as it is written, until I looked at it in detail. The coverage that Sky News has been giving it, as my hon. Friend the Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk made clear, has made one think that it is simply about who should be organising a debate—an independent electoral commission, in other words—but when one actually looks at the wording, one sees that it seeks to go far further, which is where I have the problem.
The petition says:
“Amend election law to make party leaders take part in a televised debate.”
That, I am afraid, is where the petition lost me, for a number of reasons. First, it is not a matter for legislation to make party leaders take part in an election debate. The second problem I have is this: without wishing to be facetious, supposing that in a parallel universe a Parliament were to pass this law and make it mandatory for party leaders to take part in an election debate, how would they be forced so to do? As I say, I do not wish to be facetious, but if a party leader, the Prime Minister or the Leader of the Opposition declined to take part in such a debate, what would happen on the night of the debate? Would an independent commission send beefeaters with spears to force them into a carriage and take them to Television Centre to take part? It just does not seem plausible to me that such legislation could possibly work.
I do not see that that would be enforceable, although I take my hon. Friend’s point that it would probably be outrageous not to take part so far as electoral ambition was concerned. The point was made eloquently earlier that there is some sign that not taking part in a debate probably does not do a leader any good, but I still stick to the point that I am not clear how one would force a party leader to take part in such an event. I am not convinced that the petition is calling for something that could be delivered in reality.
Generally speaking, although I have said clearly that I welcome any moves to make the democratic process more accessible to our constituents, I am not convinced that TV debates are the way to do that. They have not historically been part of our democratic process. Other hon. Members have said this, so I will not develop the point at length unnecessarily, but only in 2010 did the first leaders’ election debates occur.
We spoke earlier about the figures and, using the wonders of new technology, I have the figures for the 2010 debates here. They are substantial viewing figures, it is true. For the first debate, hosted by ITV, 9.9 million viewers watched. The second debate, hosted by Sky News, had 4.2 million viewers and the third, hosted by my former employer the BBC, had 8.6 million. Those numbers are not insubstantial, but nor are they massive. For comparison’s sake, about two weeks ago on Christmas day, “Call the Midwife” was watched by 8.7 million people.
The broadcasters shot themselves in the foot somewhat after 2010 by trying to make the point that if we added up those three figures, a total of 22.7 million people watched the debates. That is a bit like saying that, because I am speaking in this debate in this Chamber and I also hope to speak later in a debate in the main Chamber, somehow, miraculously, there are two of me. That is not what those viewing figures show at all, and the organisation Full Fact, whose website I have just accessed, makes that point as well. It is debatable how popular the debates are and how much they are relied on by members of the public to make their decisions.
We do not have a presidential system, as has been described. People may think we have moved towards one whether we like it or not, but constitutionally the voting public do not vote for a Prime Minister.
National elections, certainly for the parties that fight seats across the United Kingdom, are fought on the basis of manifestos. Would the hon. Gentleman like to compare the number of people who read our manifestos with the number of people who watched the television debates? He is absolutely right that these are not presidential debates, but the leaders put forward their manifestos.
It is true that manifestos, in my experience, will never make it to the top of the bestseller lists. However, although the hon. Gentleman makes a perfectly reasonable point, there are other ways than a televised leaders’ debate in which parties and party leaders can get their messages across and sell their manifestos, which I will come on to.
My main concern about party leaders’ debates is that they have a tendency to suck the oxygen out of the rest of the campaign, as was ably mentioned earlier by my hon. Friend the Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk. I take a rather old-fashioned view about this, and perhaps I am aiming for some sunlit uplands that have long since dissipated—if they ever existed in the first place—but I would quite like election campaigns to be about ideas and policies and ideologies. I do not want them to be about whether the Prime Minister was wearing kitten heels, whether the Leader of the Opposition was on the right or the left podium, what colour tie the leader of a third party might have been wearing or whether the TV host of that particular event did a good job, but that is what we will get if we have a campaign that is bookended by two election debates, perhaps a fortnight apart. The first week will be looking forward to debate No. 1, the second week will be looking back at debate No. 1, the third week will be looking forward to debate No. 2 and the fourth week will be looking back at debate No. 2. Where is the time within that actually to debate policies and ideas? The difficulty is that that is what we will end up with.
I speak with a little experience, having worked in politics not only in this country but in Australia, where I worked on election campaigns. There is a longer history there of leaders’ debates on television. I have to say that they are not hugely watched, but they happen, and the public expect them to happen. However, the entire election campaign tends to be about the debate and the process of the debate, rather than the ideas that might be discussed during it. My concern is that that is what we will end up with if we rely on debates as the means to get people interested in the democratic process.
I will move on briefly to the substance of the petition—setting up an independent debates commission. I have a great deal of sympathy with this idea. If there are to be leaders’ election debates, we absolutely have to end the current chaotic system of rival broadcasters jockeying for position, putting forward opposing ideas for formats, arguing about how high the podium will be and whether people will enter from stage left or stage right—and that before individual parties start to have their say.
One side will think that a particular format put forward by one broadcaster favours their man or woman, but the other party will says it prefers another format, so we will end up with either no debate or a month of ridiculous discussions about something that only a few nerds in politics and broadcasting are interested in, and once again we will get absolutely no further forward on discussing ideas and policies. I am not convinced that an independent debates commission would change any of that.
I am also not convinced that, even if a commission was set up with a great deal of legislative power behind it, it would be immune from the sort of pressure that is currently brought to bear on the broadcasters by the different party leaders, who each jockey for a different format. I am also not convinced that it would be immune from potential legal action.
The point was well made earlier about how to define a party leader. Someone could suddenly set themselves up as a party leader. Where would that leave us? Should we then say that only potential Prime Ministers may be allowed to take part? This is a very difficult circle to square, and I am not convinced that an independent debates commission would have any success in doing so. However, my overall view is that we are barking up the wrong tree.
I absolutely want more people to be involved in the democratic process—that is vital—and I could understand if we were having this discussion 20 or 30 years ago, but I think the boat has sailed on TV election debates and on expecting people to sit down at 9 o’clock on a random Tuesday evening to watch something on linear television, even though it will be repeated and watched on iPlayer, or the Sky version thereof.
TV debates feel like they are a bit old hat in 2019. There are many more ways through which we can and should encourage people to access the democratic process, as they are already doing. There are any number of social media platforms where, in my experience from the last general election, the real policy debates seem to happen. I am not sure that, in 2019, mandating a TV election debate in prime time is really looking forward at all; it is probably looking backwards.
I was much taken by the point made by the hon. Member for Stroud (Dr Drew) about the need for our regional broadcasters to get more involved in the democratic process. That is absolutely crucial. I speak as someone who spent most of his career in regional broadcasting. In my area, BBC Spotlight and ITV News West Country do a very good job with their coverage of local politics, but maybe we ought to think about such outlets taking a greater role in ensuring that some of the issues are debated on a level more relevant to people in their constituencies.
I will not detain colleagues any longer. I understand the principle behind the petition, and I applaud Sky News for initiating it. I am not opposed to leaders’ debates per se, but I remain unconvinced that they are the way forward and I am utterly unconvinced that it is possible or desirable to make it mandatory that they happen. If there is an agreement that they should take place in the future, I absolutely see the argument in favour of a debates commission independently—that is the key word—to decide on their format and timing, taking those decisions out of the hands of the broadcasters and party leaders.
Overall, I do not believe that making debates mandatory is the way forward; I remain very uncomfortable with that. I applaud the Government’s response to the petition, which I assume the Minister is about to repeat, which is that they should not change the law in this direction.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma, even though you are about to leave.
[Philip Davies in the Chair]
On a Monday morning I usually spend time traveling down from Scotland to take part in the afternoon’s business, but today was a little different. Already being here, I had the great privilege and honour of being interviewed live on Sky News from its platform on College Green. It was a very interesting experience, because today there was a cornucopia of dissenters heckling and providing a narrative to the entire episode, including some members of the English Defence League and an evangelical gentleman who all the way through the interview encouraged me to repent my sins.
In the middle of that experience, the redoubtable Adam Boulton asked me whether I would have faith in an independent commission to organise these TV debates. I had to think about that a little, because I would not want to write anyone a blank cheque—particularly not a new quango, were one to be set up—but my response was that I would have more faith in an independent commission to organise TV debates than I have in the way that is done at present, which is a chaotic and anarchic amalgam of political fixers getting together to try to do what is best for them and the broadcasters trying to do what is best for them. I am attracted, therefore, to the idea of putting this on a statutory footing and having in writing the rights and the responsibilities to which the commission would have to adhere in organising the debates.
Three immediate benefits would arise from having an independent commission. The first is that that would take the matter out of party politics, out of the hands of the political fixers, and provide a level playing field and a set of fair rules that everyone would have to abide by. I am sure that from time to time they might prove inconvenient or troublesome to one or other of the parties, but it would none the less be a situation in which everyone had to play by the same set of rules.
The second reason why I would welcome an independent commission is that it would give us the opportunity to ensure that not just third party but fourth, fifth, sixth and other minority voices were represented in the debate. The third reason why I think that having an independent commission would be useful is that that would allow some discussion to take place, and some control, over the format of the debates. We have not spent much time this afternoon talking about format, but I would understand why a lot of people might be sceptical about the idea of television debates if they resembled the circus that we have every Wednesday afternoon at Prime Minister’s questions. That is an exercise in how the Executive are not accountable to the legislature, with prearranged and, quite often, pre-rehearsed questions and answers being traded for the benefit of the TV cameras. It is not really an exercise in scrutiny or debate. Allowing a more inquisitive format, whereby people are allowed truly to challenge each other and perhaps are also subject to third-party questioning in moderation would be, it seems to me, extremely beneficial.
Until the last two colleagues spoke, I was worried that this debate would be a bit one-sided; there was consensus among all those who spoke previously. But in the last 20 minutes or so, some arguments have been advanced against the principle of having television debates at all, never mind whether they should be run by an independent commission. I think it is important, as we consider how this argument develops, that we consider the arguments against and see whether they have validity or can themselves be countered. I want to spend a couple of minutes on some of them.
The first is the suggestion—this has been hinted at—that having televised debates would somehow trivialise serious political discourse, that it would be taking politics and important decisions and putting them on television in the name of entertainment. It seems to me that having an independent commission would be the best way to guard against the trivialisation of politics and its being presented as entertainment, because we could build into the process clear rules to prevent that from happening. I also think that when party organisers, media or broadcast officers, or whoever is responsible, express such concerns, they are being a little disingenuous, because those are the very same people who spend an awful lot of time and money looking at the very latest social media platforms and trying to ensure that they are using them as effectively as possible—often by trivialising or, certainly, condensing the political message so that it is easily understood on those very limited platforms.
The other argument against is, “Well, how would you define what a leader is?” I want to discuss at this point the role of the SNP, in particular, in such debates because the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (John Lamont) suggested that someone watching in Cornwall might not care very much about what the leader of the Scottish National party would have to say, were she to take part in a debate. Perhaps that is because he assumes that the leader of the Scottish National party would talk about matters only in relation to Scotland, which is of course the principal brief of the SNP, but it seems to me that televised debates also provide an opportunity for everyone in the place where the election is taking place, which for now would be the United Kingdom, to ask, “What type of Government do we wish to get out of this electoral process?”
As the hon. Gentleman knows, his side was successful and mine unsuccessful back in 2014, in the Scottish independence referendum, so for now, Scotland remains part of the United Kingdom, which means that its representatives in this Parliament have every bit as much right as anyone else to determine and to influence the character of the Government of the United Kingdom. I think that people in Cornwall and everywhere else in the United Kingdom would be extremely interested to know what criteria the SNP would adopt in this Parliament, were it successful in the election, in terms of determining who should form the next Government of the United Kingdom.
Just to clarify the point that I was making, it was not that the people of Cornwall would not care about what the leader of the SNP would want to say, but that neither she nor the party are on the ballot paper in Cornwall, so the people of Cornwall would not have the opportunity to vote SNP even if they wanted to. If we extend the argument, or the argument that the hon. Gentleman is making, which other parties do we include in the debate if they are also not on the ballot paper?
It is, and I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. He makes a point about having the right people in the right debate, and he is quite right. When the SNP has MPs at Westminster, it is quite right that it should take part in Westminster debates. Should it not be Westminster leaders who take part in Westminster debates and Members of the Scottish Parliament who take part in their own leadership debates? The hon. Gentleman would not want the Prime Minister to take part in a debate for our devolved Parliament, and it should be his Westminster leader, not Nicola Sturgeon, who takes part in a debate for Westminster.
Members have said in this debate that of course the British system is not a presidential system, so it is not just a matter of who will become the Prime Minister; indeed, we do not elect Prime Ministers in the election, which is constitutionally absolutely correct. For me, the purpose of TV debates is not just to say, “Who is going to be the next Prime Minister?” and to have some gladiatorial contest between the potential challengers for that position. It is a matter of saying, “What do we want the Government of the country to be? What are the serious issues they should adopt? What are their priorities? What is their general direction?” That is where TV debates can prove extremely useful, in educating the public and raising awareness of those very important issues, and having an independent commission would give us or it the opportunity to ensure that matters were conducted in a way that allowed that to happen, rather than this being seen as some sort of presidential contest.
There has also been a suggestion that somehow it is not quite right that Parliament should seek to make regulations for broadcasters and that it is up to them to cover politics in whatever way they see fit. The hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk was critical of Sky, in particular, and the editorial judgments that it makes to cover its own campaign. There is already much regulation about the conduct and coverage of elections in this country. We have a very highly regulated electoral system, and quite right too, so that people are able to make a challenge if something is seen to go wrong. Therefore, the idea of Parliament seeking to regulate the broadcast coverage of an election campaign or any other political campaign seems to me to be entirely consistent with the fair and democratic process that we have of trying to ensure that all these matters are fairly regulated.
There was also a suggestion that somehow a national TV debate would undermine local campaigning. I am sorry, but I just do not buy that. In my experience, and as colleagues have mentioned, people do tune in to the TV debate, perhaps because of how it is presented as a television programme. But the effect of doing that is to engage them with the political process more generally. Having had their appetite whetted a little—perhaps “having been hooked” is the wrong phrase—they move on to take more interest in the local campaigns and to ask questions. Perhaps they even get involved; perhaps they turn up to hustings for local candidates as well. The two things can be perfectly symbiotic: one can encourage the other. Anything that we can do to stimulate political awareness and engagement will be for the long-term benefit of our democracy.
Returning to the question of the role of minority voices, it is important to stress—I say this to the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone)—that this is no longer a two-party political system, if it ever was; there are third, fourth and fifth parties, and they have a right to be represented as well.
That is welcome and important. In the country that I represent in this Chamber, the two major political parties—Labour and Tory—are lucky if they can command half of the electorate’s support between them. Almost half of the entire electorate places its allegiance with parties other than the two main parties in the United Kingdom. That needs to be understood and built into the process.
Before Christmas, when we had the shenanigans about the debate on what to do about Brexit—it was not meant to be an election debate—we had a situation whereby the SNP, the third largest party in this House and the second largest political party in the United Kingdom in terms of its membership, was likely to be excluded from a debate between the leaders of the Conservative and Labour parties, although it did not take place in the end. The situation was all the more bizarre—the shadow Minister might want to respond to this—given that the leader of the Labour party, as I understand it, has said that if there were to be a general election in the coming months, Labour would commit in its manifesto to implementing Brexit. It might do it differently, but it would none the less commit to implementing Brexit. Therefore, we were going to have a debate between a Conservative way of doing Brexit and a Labour way of doing Brexit, ignoring other voices, which do not want Brexit to happen at all, and conveniently ignoring the fact that opinion polls consistently show that a majority of people across the United Kingdom do not want Brexit to happen at all.
I am a democrat and I believe that in a democracy people have the right to change their mind, and it is quite clear that a very large number of people who voted for Brexit three years ago have changed their mind, now that they understand what it actually means. Leaving that to one side, my point is that before Christmas we were in danger of witnessing a debate between the leaders of the two main political parties in the United Kingdom where the alternative to Brexit was not going to be represented, so it was just as well that it did not go ahead.
A number of people will be concerned about the practicalities of how this can work, and how the uniqueness and idiosyncrasies of the British system can be respected. It should not be beyond our ability and wit to make this happen. In Scotland, five parties are represented in the Scottish Parliament and regularly there are five-way debates on broadcast television and other forums, which do not seem to present any great difficulty at all. Many other countries throughout the world have multi-party and proportional electoral systems, where it is usual for Governments to be formed on the basis of coalitions between a number of different parties. They have no difficulty in representing all the party views in televised debates. If they can do it, we should be able to do so as well.
I know that the Minister keeps getting sent out to this type of debate and that she has to say that this was not in the Government’s manifesto—I am sure it was not—so they are not minded to do anything about it. However, I ask her to accept that this should be an ongoing and open debate. I ask her to consider playing a role in stimulating that debate, and not to close her mind or her ears to the voices that say that we need to consider much better regulation, which has in fact become part of our institutionalised way of doing politics in this country. We might as well accept that and make it the best that it can be.
This has been a very interesting debate so far and I would like to say at the outset that, contrary to what has been said by some colleagues, I think that Sky News has performed a valuable public service in trying to take the party politics out of the process of election debates and allow us as politicians to concentrate on how best to present our policies, which, after all, is what really matters. I think that the Government should stop digging their heels in and back election debates as an integral and important part of our democracy. There is no need to wait; let’s just agree to debate.
We have had some very good speeches. First of all, the hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) presented the debate on behalf of the Petitions Committee extremely ably. He referred to the recent to-ing and fro-ing about the possibility of a Brexit TV debate, as did other hon. Members. I will come back to that point later in my remarks. He was intervened on by the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards), who pointed out the necessity of involving other parties in the debate process. We have had further discussion of that in the course of the debate and I will come back to it in a moment. The hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard), speaking on behalf of the SNP, also raised this issue. It raises interesting and complicated questions when people participating in the debate, which is about electing this House of Commons, are not even candidates in that election to the House of Commons, and the hon. Gentleman made a very interesting argument as to why that broader perspective should be taken into account.
I will not give way to the hon. Lady, because she was not here for the debate and I am old school in that regard, I am afraid. I am happy to give way otherwise. It is not personal, but that is how I prefer to operate.
The hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr made a valid point, but I think it raises interesting issues about which parties should be involved in these debates. They certainly must have a role and somehow be incorporated into this process, whether through the means suggested by the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) or others.
The hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay also said that leaders are much more visible and accessible these days than they used to be. I am not sure that is entirely true. When Clement Attlee was campaigning to be Prime Minister in 1945 and 1950, he drove around the country with his wife, Violet, in a Hillman Minx, to engage with the electorate. It is certainly true that times have changed. Attlee also said that being Prime Minister was the job that took up the least amount of his time of any job he had ever had.
The hon. Gentleman gave an interesting response to the questions from Parliament’s social media. Some of the points being made about the potential Americanisation of politics are important. However, I think the real challenges are not about the Americanisation of politics through TV debates, but about the involvement of large and shadowy amounts of money in British politics—the activities of organisations such as Cambridge Analytica and so on. Those are more worrying issues with the Americanisation of politics, rather than our having television debates.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Dr Drew) quite rightly said that the decision about whether we should have debates should not just rest in the hands of the Prime Minister. He also quite rightly pointed out the lack of television coverage of regional politics these days. He wanted to take the issue of debates out of party politics. He referred to the Nixon-Kennedy debates, saying that the thing he knows is that Nixon lost. Interestingly, of course, a lot of the polls showed that Nixon had won, particularly for people who had followed the debates on the radio rather than on television. That makes a valid point about the role of image in people’s political perspectives. Whether or not the TV debate was responsible for John Kennedy’s narrow victory is highly debatable, not least because when his father, Joseph Kennedy, was asked why the victory had been so narrow, he said that he could not afford a landslide. Again, money was perhaps more compelling and important in American politics than the debates.
In response to the hon. Member for Wellingborough, who also mentioned the 2010 debates, I am tempted to say—unusually—“I agree with Peter,” because I did agree with much of what he said. We look forward to seeing the details of his private Member’s Bill. He is the sort of Member who would never commit to supporting a Bill without having read every clause and word, and without having carefully performed an exegesis of every part, so I will not make any commitments about his Bill until we have seen what it says, but it certainly sounds like it contains some interesting ideas. We look forward to it surfacing on the Ides of March, as he suggested, and hopefully it will have a less portentous fate than that date might otherwise suggest.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the inclusion of the minor parties in one of the debates proposed by his Bill. It is an interesting area, because it is true that some parties that have a lower share of the vote and that do not stand in all parts of the United Kingdom were represented in previous debates—for example, in 2015, when David Cameron insisted on having a diluted debate because he did not want to have a head-to-head debate with my right hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband) and preferred to have a large number of voices, possibly to defuse the impact of the event overall. Nevertheless, despite the fact that it is the “Conservative and Unionist” party, at no point was it suggested that the Democratic Unionist party should participate in the debate. Unlike Plaid Cymru and the Scottish National party, it was not invited, even though it also stands in only one of the constituent countries of the United Kingdom. Nor was the Social Democratic and Labour party, which had hon. Members elected to this House at that time; the Ulster Unionist party, which has had hon. Members elected to this House in recent times; or indeed—whether it would have turned up or not—Sinn Féin, which stands in the general election and has elected MPs, although they do not take the oath or take their seats in this place.
There is an asymmetry to the way that such debates have been organised. Northern Ireland has largely been excluded from that process, even though it is an integral part of the United Kingdom. It is interesting that we now frequently debate the issue of the British border in Ireland, as I call it, because of the backstop and Brexit, but that in those general election debates, Northern Ireland was treated as a sideshow and almost as a separate election from the United Kingdom general election in terms of inviting people to participate. We look forward to the Bill tabled by the hon. Member for Wellingborough.
My hon. Friend the Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer) reluctantly accepted that there would have to be a quango to administer election debates, but quite rightly pointed out that any such body should have a greater diversity than bodies such as the Electoral Commission. I agree that different political views should be represented, and it would also be important for any such body to have representation from the nations and regions of the United Kingdom, and from different social classes. Many of our bodies tend to be made up of the same kind of people with similar views. His suggestions on that were refreshing and interesting.
My hon. Friend also discussed the 2010 leadership debates and the so-called Cleggmania that allegedly resulted. Interestingly, of course, despite that spike in the polls, the Liberal Democrats won fewer seats in the 2010 election than they had held before, but because it was a hung Parliament, they ended up in government for the next five years.
The hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (John Lamont) was extremely critical of Sky News for having campaigned on the issue. I have thought carefully about what he said and whether it is appropriate for a broadcaster to campaign in that way. It would be wholly inappropriate for a broadcaster to campaign on a political policy issue, but I do not think it is inappropriate—it is not outwith Ofcom’s rules—for a broadcaster to campaign in such a way for such debates. It is possibly more difficult for the BBC and ITV, which are also party to Ofcom’s rules, because special considerations are involved for public service broadcasters. I do not agree, however, that it was inappropriate for Sky News to campaign on the issue and in fact, in doing so, I think it has provided a valuable public service and has helped to bring about this interesting debate.
I suggest, probably, because it is its own campaign. It is a valid point that a lot of the issues that the hon. Gentleman mentioned are worthy of more news coverage. Hopefully his remarks will have brought those campaigns to broadcasters’ attention and they will receive more coverage in future.
The hon. Gentleman said that he thought debates provide little additional information for voters, and again I disagree. As I said in an intervention on the hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay, the Hansard Society report indicates that the general public say that they find debates a valuable way—indeed, among the most important ways—of gaining information to help them to decide how to vote. He went on to talk about the SNP leader’s role in the debates and whether a voter in Cornwall would be interested in what the leader of the SNP had to say. He said that such a voter could not vote for the leader of the SNP, but, of course, nobody in Scotland could vote for the leader of the SNP, because the leader of the SNP was not a candidate in the general election. That raises interesting points as to who should participate in debates and whether those who do should be the leaders of political parties or the leaders of groups that are hoping to gain election to the House of Commons. It is a moot point, but a valid one. Even though the leader of the SNP is extremely important to Scottish voters, it is true that Scottish voters would not have an opportunity to vote for her in a general election.
The hon. Member for North Devon (Peter Heaton-Jones), who always speaks with a great deal of expertise on broadcasting matters because of his previous career with the BBC, asked how leaders could be compelled to attend if we were to pass a Bill, such as the one envisaged by the hon. Member for Wellingborough, that said that political party leaders had to participate in such debates.
As other hon. Members have pointed out, it is not unreasonable for us to expect the leaders of political parties, who have ambitions to become the Prime Minister, to comply with the law. I am not suggesting that we should have draconian penalties for anyone refusing to comply, but it would be extraordinary if the leader of a political party, a potential candidate to be the Prime Minister of this country, sought not to comply with a perfectly reasonable law to get them to participate in an essential element of the democratic process as judged by this Parliament. That is a bit of a red herring; they would turn up by virtue of the fact that it would be the law that they should participate. Nor is it unreasonable that such a law should be considered and potentially reach the statute book.
The hon. Member for North Devon made an interesting and valid point about how relevant TV debates are in this age of social media, whether they are old fashioned and whether, in a sense, we are asking a question that is no longer particularly pertinent and might have been more relevant 30 or 40 years ago. However, although I bow to his expertise about television, I think that where linear television still hits home is in the big live event type of television, whether that is “The X-Factor”, a sporting event, or the participation of political leaders at the time of a general election, when the nation’s attention turns to the question of who will govern the country for the next five years. At such times, a live television linear-type event is still highly relevant and of interest to the public, and would be supplemented massively by activity on social media; I think that is true. Obviously, social media has a huge role to play in modern elections and we need to look at the whole issue of social media, including Facebook and other types of platforms, in more detail, as it now has a major influence on our politics.
We support, in broad terms, the campaign that there should be some sort of independent means to ensure that TV debates take place between party leaders at general elections. The reason we are doing so is that the Minister, as a Minister, has the opportunity to try to make some sense of the complicated electoral law that we have. It is voluminous, it is fragmented, and it poses problems for electoral administrators, campaigners, voters and policy makers. There are 40 Acts of Parliament and more than 170 statutory instruments relating to our electoral legal framework and some of those provisions go back into the 19th century.
It is widely accepted by those involved in administering or competing in elections, such as the Electoral Commission and the Association of Electoral Administrators, that fundamental reform of electoral law is needed, but the Government have not really listened to that argument. In February 2016—nearly three years ago—the Law Commission published its interim report, calling for the laws governing elections to be rationalised into a single consistent legislative framework governing all elections, but the Government are yet to respond to that, even though, as I say, it has been nearly three years. I encourage the Government to look again at that report and respond to it.
I have mentioned this previously, but I also urge the Government to look at the 2018 audit of political engagement by the Hansard Society, which found that among the different sources of news and information that respondents used to inform their decision making at the 2017 general election, party leaders’ debates and political interviews were deemed to be the most important ways in which they were able to make up their minds. Furthermore, 74% of those who used those things in that way said the party leaders’ debates and political interviews were at least “fairly important” in their decision making. There is a need for a wider reform of electoral law and the issue of TV debates should be included within that.
My own party leader has said in response to this campaign:
“I welcome any move that will guarantee general election debates so that voters can hear directly from those putting themselves forward to lead the country.”
That was a welcome statement, but unfortunately the Prime Minister has not matched it, which is a shame. Speaking to Sky, she said:
“The next general election isn’t until 2022. There’s plenty of time to think about those issues at that time.”
In fact, that is exactly the time when there will not be plenty of time to think about these issues. Now is the time to think about them. We may not be immediately able to solve them, but now is the time to think across parties about the best way to handle the issue, because if we get to 2022 and start thinking about it, we will have the same old to-ing and fro-ing, and shenanigans, and jiggery-pokery that we have seen recently in relation to the discussions about the possibility of leaders’ debates on Brexit.
Whatever we think about the merits of such debates, and the question is different from that of whether party leaders should debate at a general election, the truth is that the way in which such arguments come about, and this has happened over the course of a number of Governments, going back some considerable time, is something like this—in fact, I know exactly how the suggestion of a Brexit debate came about. No. 10 went to Tom Newton Dunn at The Sun and said, “We need a page lead for the Prime Minister on Brexit. The Prime Minister is in trouble on Brexit. We need a page lead.” If someone needs a page lead in The Sun, they don’t get it for nothing. So The Sun said in return, “Well, what can you give us as an exclusive, or a scoop in old-fashioned terms, for giving you a front-page lead in The Sun?” Of course, the answer was, “Well, we’ll say that the Prime Minister is in favour of challenging the Leader of the Opposition to a debate on Brexit”, in the full knowledge that that would never happen unless some groundwork had been done, unless there had been some discussion between parties, and unless the other parties that have an interest in this matter—as the hon. Member for Edinburgh East, the spokesman for the Scottish National party, rightly pointed out—had an opportunity to have an input as well. A debate on Brexit was not going to happen on those terms, but that is how these things come about, which is a pretty shabby process. If we had a properly independent process, then we could get rid of all the jiggery-pokery around election debates and actually get down to concentrating on trying to present our policies effectively to the electorate.
Finally, I challenge the Minister to go a little further than the Government have so far and at least entertain the possibility of supporting the kind of measure that is being proposed by Sky News and her hon. Friend, the hon. Member for Wellingborough, which the Opposition and other parties support, whereby a consensus on a way forward can be found to ensure that such debates can happen, rather than waiting until 2022, when it will be far too late.
It is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies, and that of Mr Sharma earlier.
First, I thank the petitioners for creating this petition and my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) for bringing it here today and articulating the arguments for it for the purposes of the debate. My hon. Friend put the original arguments in a capable way and I am glad that he did so for us. I thank the Petitions Committee, which he represents, and of course those members of the public who signed this petition.
I will say at the outset that I very much agree that TV debates are that useful democratic exercise that many Members here today have said that they are and can be. They allow the electorate to reflect on the choices that they wish to make at an election. There is plenty of academic literature, as well as surveys, confirming that members of the public do indeed find TV election debates informative and engaging.
In addition—this is very important to me in my work as Minister with responsibility for elections—such debates can also serve as one of those important tools that engage people who perhaps do not normally engage in politics, so that every so often they can have a think about an election and the big choice that is represented by that election. I really value that, as I know many hon. Members who are here today in Westminster Hall do, too, so I do not think there is any dispute between us that TV debates are an important matter. However, what we are here to talk about is the best way to go about having those debates. That is what I will focus my remarks upon. I am not persuaded that mandating television election debates is the way to achieve that very important goal.
I thank all hon. and right hon. Members who have contributed today. In summary, we heard the case against TV election debates put by my hon. Friends the Members for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (John Lamont) and for North Devon (Peter Heaton-Jones), and the case for put by the hon. Member for Stroud (Dr Drew), my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone), and—reluctantly, I think—the hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer), as well as the two other Front Benchers here today: the hon. Members for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard), who spoke for the Scottish National party, and for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan), who spoke for the Labour party.
Of course, I note the private Member’s Bill tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough and look forward to—no doubt—continuing this discussion with him when the Bill comes before the House. I reassure him and other Members that I do not stand here in any way to dismiss these arguments; I stand here to engage with them. However, the question I face is whether such measures are the best way to get more people to engage with our democracy.
I will make five key points around the idea of legislating to mandate TV election debates; my points will be about not the virtue of TV elections in their own right, but legislating to mandate them, which is what the petition we are considering asks for.
I begin with the point that TV election debates have already happened—under their own steam—in the last three general elections, without having to be mandated by election law. The hon. Member for Edinburgh East made that point. He rightly said that debates happen all the time, and in five ways, in Scotland. Indeed, they have happened in many ways throughout our elections in recent history. I draw on the words of the hon. Member for Stroud, who said that the genie has been out of the bottle since 2010. Yes, it has, and without needing to be legislated for.
My first point, therefore, is this: the current arrangements between political parties and broadcasters work. They already give rise to election debates, bolstered by the regulatory framework set by the independent regulator, Ofcom. I will come on to those points in more detail.
Secondly, I want to develop the argument that attendance at TV debates is a matter for political parties rather than for the law. I will also bring into the debate how many other campaign mediums are used by parties to convey their messages, and by voters to choose how they get their information, and how we should not prioritise one over others. We need to consider some implementation matters, and I will come on to those, and I also want briefly, in closing, to refer to some of the other evidence on the matter that we have seen here in Parliament, for example from Select Committees.
I start with the point that debates are already happening. Indeed they are, and Members have capably covered how they have been happening since 2010. Under the current arrangements, they have happened by agreement between political parties and broadcasters, and broadcasters collaborate with each other on key factors. TV election debates have been successfully delivered; decisions about format, location and participation have all been settled; and, crucially, the public have benefited from, and no doubt enjoyed, the results. Experienced broadcasters—Sky, but others as well—are well placed to continue to make such decisions, and it would not be right to take that from them and put it into law. It is helpful that different broadcasters are able to choose bring their own distinctiveness to election debates. In what we are discussing, we come close to matters of editorial independence, which we should of course leave with broadcasters, as well as the ability to organise and deliver TV election debates, especially given that we are talking about the costs residing with them. One might argue that the costs and the delivery should stay in the same place.
I will move on to another argument. I said earlier that the debates are a matter of choice for political parties. I do not say that lightly; I say it in full consideration of the fact that it is then for the electorate to choose a political party that has capably communicated to them something they liked to hear. That is what elections are about; it is the fundamental nature of a choice at an election. Voters reward political parties that are aligned with their own priorities and communicate that successfully. Failing effectively to communicate priorities to a voter is unlikely to lead to electoral success—I do not think I need to break that to any colleagues here. That is the whole point of elections, so I say again that there is no need for legislative intervention when voters’ interests, and indeed those of parties, are closely aligned in a way that has already worked.
I want to bring in some points about Ofcom and the broadcasting code. In discussing the current framework, it is important to consider the framework that TV election debates would have to adhere to. Ofcom, as the independent communications regulator, already sets the standards for TV and radio programmes, and its code contains rules that apply to all those broadcasters it licenses, ensuring that news, in whatever form, is reported with due impartiality, accuracy and fair prominence of views and opinions. Crucially, it also includes specific rules on impartiality that apply during election periods, including the requirement for due weight to be given to the coverage of parties and independent candidates.
We can continue to have confidence in that regulatory framework, in that it supports the editorial independence of broadcasters and has already demonstrated an ability to deliver fair and politically neutral television election debates. An independent broadcasting system is in itself a democratic function that we enjoy, and are lucky to have, in this society, and I say again that Government intervention risks undermining that independence, of both the broadcasters and Ofcom. I note that the argument has been put that the same could be achieved through an independent debates commission, and I will come back to that point in a second.
First, however, I will deal with whether we should privilege one campaigning medium over another: should we privilege telly over other ways of communicating with each other? I am not convinced. Political parties use many mediums to convey their message to members of the public before a general election, and at every other time of year, and the public demand that. As I said earlier, this is absolutely a two-way matter between how the public choose to get their information, and ask to have it, and how parties can respond to that. It is very much a two-way process between parties and the public.
I, for one, am quite a fan of the good old-fashioned political canvassing method. I was out there in the very chilly Norwich weather on Saturday morning, knocking on doors—back to work in the new year, as I hope every Member in this room was. That is another way to get in touch with voters, and who am I to say that television is any better or worse? I do not attempt to make that judgment call, and I am sceptical of the call today suggesting that any one medium is better than another.
Does the Minister not accept that we already discriminate in legislation—possibly in favour, possibly against, depending on one’s point of view—against electronic media? We demand that they provide a platform for party political broadcasts and that they balance the different views during a general election campaign, but we do not apply that to any other form of media. There is already that separation and it would not, therefore, be changing the legislative framework very much to say that a platform for debates should be provided.
I agree, and I disagree. I respect how the hon. Gentleman has tried to bring the point to bear, but the point of detail he has chosen is about how, when any one medium is used, impartiality within it is ensured. That is admirable, and that is where I agree with him, but where I disagree is regarding further entrenching the choice of any one medium over another.
I will put this in a generational sense for the hon. Gentleman: television broadcasters are quite simply losing favour with the younger generation as their source of news. Why should we legislate at this point for a medium that will not necessarily remain favoured among those who are, and those who will become, the voters in elections to come? I am happy to substantiate that.
On how news consumption is going in the UK, a report by Ofcom stated that in 2018 alone 52% of 16 to 24-year-olds used Facebook as their news source while only 39% used BBC1. The report found that people in that age group were more likely to get their news from social media posts than directly from news organisations. In the face of that technological shift, I remain unconvinced that the case is made for privileging a form that one might almost argue had its heyday with Richard Nixon in the last century. Why should we privilege that form? I say Nixon; as has already been covered, it was thought that Kennedy won the debate, but that is the very point. It is a matter of history, and if we legislate at all we ought to look to the future rather than the past.
I will incorporate at this point the parliamentary example that I think was provided by my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay. Here we stand today having a debate in Parliament—in itself a form of political debate, a form of debate on political policy—and we do not expect it to be covered only on the TV, although it will capably be, and I am glad for that.
I certainly support the use of TV in Parliament and the accountability that we can provide by being on camera as we do our work. However, we also expect social media to carry part of that weight, and we also might well expect that some people would prefer to read about our proceedings via the written word. All of those are valid ways for people to get their information, and we should not privilege one over another.
Fourthly, I wanted to bring together some points about implementation and refer to a few that have been made in the debate. First, the proposal would require primary legislation. The point has already been made that if we anticipate a general election as far away as 2022, which of course is the case, we have time to look at the issue and get it right. However, even with that timescale, there are other pressing priorities that the public ask us to address through legislation, and I suspect that they would prioritise them over this issue.
As always. The proposal does require primary legislation, but not Government legislation. That is why I have taken the private Member’s Bill route, and all I ask the Minister is whether she would allow that debate to get a fair hearing, with no objecting, no filibustering, and no putting up people to stop it. Let us have the debate and a vote. Would she be open minded to that?
I hope that my hon. Friend’s flattery of me extends to knowing that I am a friend of Parliament, and I look forward to Parliament having the opportunity to have that debate when the time comes. I will make no further comment on what should be the passage, or otherwise, of that Bill. Today, what I am trying to do—which I hope is welcome—is go into some of the arguments that reasonably pertain to the proposal in front of us. The least courtesy we should give to any petition is to give it a proper going over, debating the arguments that we think relate to it.
I call the House’s attention to the fact that the proposal would require primary legislation, which is not two a penny. What we choose to do through primary legislation requires some prioritisation, and that is the part of the electoral law framework that would have to be looked at if we wanted to do this. The hon. Member for Cardiff West has already made the point that election law is complex. It is thought by many to be fragmented and unwieldy, and it absolutely the case that it is aged. He is right to say that parts of election law relate to the 19th century. As I have said, I am not convinced that we should add another piece that relates, arguably, to the 20th century, not to mention the 21st. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that election law is a complicated matter, but I do not yet see the argument for adding this proposal to it through primary legislation.
Another aspect of what it means to put something into law has already been referred to, particularly by my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon. I share his concern that forcing somebody to attend a debate—effectively, making somebody a criminal for not taking part in a debate—is unlikely to be a priority for law enforcement. The hon. Member for Cardiff West suggests that he does not want to add any penalties to the proposal, but he still wants to see it in law. I do not think that is a very strong position: if we do not wish to criminalise somebody for something, we do not put it into law. If a proposal stands on its own because it is reasonable and virtuous, that is fine, but in this case debates happen already and need not be made mandatory. We put something in law if we want the hon. Gentleman’s chief constable, and my chief constable, to have to spend their time thinking about it. I am not convinced that turning members of political parties into criminals for not participating in a television debate, or indeed in any other campaigning activity, is the right thing to do.
We also ought to think about the electorate. If participation in the debate is compulsory, is watching it going to be compulsory as well?
The hon. Gentleman laughs at that point, but I say in all seriousness that if we privilege one campaign medium in law, the question follows whether we think it is important that people are compelled to take part in that activity. That is what we do when we put something into law.
Moving on to the suggested use of a quango to achieve the proposed objective, my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon was not convinced that an independent debates commission would improve the current system. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton for also giving that issue some thought, although in the end he came down on the other side of the argument. I do not think that having a quango and simply calling it independent is the answer to every policy question. It raises many questions that are as yet unresolved. Who would appoint the members of such a body? How would it function? What would happen if political parties, or any figure involved with that body, disagreed with the suggested format? Those are all questions that would have to be bottomed out if we went for an independent debates commission format.
Other reports and research exist. Setting up an independent body is not a new proposal: it has been addressed in multiple reports, including a report by the House of Lords Select Committee on Communications, which in 2014 published its findings on the broadcasting of general election debates. That Committee found no substantial evidence that an independent debates commission should be set up to oversee election debates. The report instead focused on recommendations for broadcasters that oversee election debates, such as making more use of the opportunity to inform voters and encouraging members of the public to be more interested in the electoral process.
Another interesting piece of work was published in 2015 by Professor Charlie Beckett of the London School of Economics. His findings highlighted the fact that a formal regulatory or legislative framework for TV debates is largely viewed as unrealistic and undesirable. He also raised questions about such a framework, including who would have the final say and how it might be adaptable to evolution in the political landscape.
I thank hon. Members for giving me the time to go through the arguments at some length. I also thank the petitioners, first and foremost, and my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay for introducing the debate and allowing us to examine the arguments. We have heard a number of very good arguments on this topic, although to my ear they mainly focused on the way in which TV debates are good and helpful in themselves, rather than on the ins and outs of whether legislating for them is the way forward. Were we to consider a change to electoral law, those arguments would need to improve before making debates mandatory and making additions to an area of law that is already complex and precious.
Participating in TV election debates should continue to be a matter for political parties, and we should continue to view that as a two-way relationship, with the encouragement of voters. The delivery of such debates should remain in the hands of broadcasters, other publishers and, indeed, the public themselves, through social media and the other media of the future. I am a passionate promoter of people’s involvement in democracy, and I am honoured to be a steward of our electoral system. That is what leads me to conclude that we should let people decide for themselves what the formats of the future ought to be, rather than privileging one format at this point in time. In conclusion, I entirely trust the British people to be able to find the information that suits them to make their choices in elections and at election times. That is what I hope to see in elections of the future.
I thank all Members who have participated in this debate. It has been a good debate with a good number of thoughtful and well-presented contributions. I again thank Sky for its role in bringing forward the petition, which has enabled us to have this debate. It is right that we have had the debate; the issue needs careful consideration, and I hope the debate has made a useful contribution. I thank the Minister for her response laying out the Government’s position. Although many of us will be disappointed that we have not managed to persuade her to our way of thinking, I appreciate the way in which she presented the Government’s position.
The matter needs to be dealt with through consensus in Parliament. It goes wider than the Government’s decisions on general elections and our democratic process, so I very much welcome the private Member’s Bill promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone), which will give Parliament another opportunity in the relatively near future to consider the matter again. I hope that will enable Parliament to express its view. If that view is that we should formalise leaders’ debates, the Bill will give us the opportunity to do so.
In winding up, I simply make the point that it is important that we embrace all methods of engaging the public in politics, particularly at the time of elections. I was thankful that the Minister made clear that she welcomes TV debates. It is not that anyone is against TV debates; the issue is how we facilitate them. I continue to be of the view that the current system does not really work. The horse-trading and the to-ing and fro-ing reflect badly on this place and the political parties. Formalising things and taking them out of the hands of politicians would be a positive way forward. I hope today has been a useful contribution to the debate, which I am sure will continue in the coming months and years. We look forward to discussing the issue again in the very near future. I once again thank everyone for their contributions.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered e-petition 228572 relating to an independent commission on televised election debates.