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General Election (Leaders’ Debate) Bill

Volume 656: debated on Friday 15 March 2019

Second Reading

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

If I had said “yesterday”, I wonder whether the Bill would have passed. I am not quite sure whether that is how it works.

I am always grateful for your wise guidance, Madam Deputy Speaker.

I first presented this Bill on 5 September 2017. Since then, we have had an in-depth three-hour debate in Westminster Hall on 7 January this year about televising leaders’ debates. I should like to thank my hon. Friends the Members for Crawley (Henry Smith), for Christchurch (Sir Christopher Chope), for Shipley (Philip Davies) and for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double), and my right hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Ms McVey), who have co-sponsored my Bill. I also want to thank those who participated in the 7 January debate, and Sky News for its e-petition.

I should also like to welcome the excellent Minister, the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Oliver Dowden), to the Dispatch Box. His skill, integrity and help are appreciated across the House. I always find that it is best to say these things at this stage, because then I might get some help, but in this case, it happens to be true. I also welcome the excellent shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Leigh (Jo Platt) I should also like to thank those who work in my office: Harriet Butcher, who helped to prepare this speech; Helen Harrison, who drafted the Bill; and Jordan Ayres, who did the research. I also want to thank the Clerks for all their help.

It might be of help if I say at this early stage that I will not be pressing my Bill to a Division. There is clearly not enough parliamentary time in this Session for it to become law. I am also aware that there are many other Bills that Members wish to debate today. What I hope to achieve today is that the Government will accept the principle of my Bill and introduce a similar one in the next Queen’s Speech.

The Westminster Hall debate came about due to e-petition 228572, entitled “Make TV election debates happen: establish an independent debates mission”, which was started by Mr Jonathan Levy. Mr Levy is the director of news gathering and operations at Sky News, and his petition has collected more than 140,000 signatures in only six months. This shows that although the idea might not be—how can I put it?—particularly sexy at a time when we are discussing Brexit and other matters, it is still well supported by members of the public.

I also thank Adam Boulton, editor-at-large at Sky News, for promoting the Sky News petition, keeping it in the public eye and maintaining pressure, via his excellent “All Out Politics” programme. His work has undoubtedly boosted support and raised public awareness. All the broadcasters have shown support for televised leaders’ debates, but they have left it to Sky News to be proactive and lead the campaign. However, there can be no doubt that all broadcasters believe that televised leaders’ debates should form an important part of a general election.

In addition to the support from television companies for leaders’ debates during general elections, there has been massive support from the general public. Something that brought home to me just how important such debates are to the public was when they failed to get one during the previous general election campaign and felt short-changed due to being unable to listen to the leaders of the main political parties expressing why they wanted the electorate’s support. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that if the public cannot hear from the leaders, it makes it difficult for them to make a serious judgment about which party to vote for?

I entirely agree, and I will touch on the fiasco at the previous general election later in my speech.

I just want to put on the record my total opposition to leaders’ debates. They are trivialising and superficial, and we have a parliamentary system, not a presidential system. Each debate that has happened so far has actually reduced the amount of serious debate during an election campaign. I am totally opposed to leaders’ debates, and I hope that we never have them ever again.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention, and I will consider carefully whether I agree—no, that is a complete load of rubbish. I respect his view, but it is very much an establishment view.

I would not suggest for one minute that it was not also my hon. Friend’s view, but I would suggest that he and the establishment are closely linked.

As the Bill will affect future general elections, I hope that it will be of interest not only to Members of this House, but to members of the public and broadcasters. The Bill’s aim is for the leaders of political parties to debate their concepts, policies and visions on national television. I must say here that my hon. Friend actually made a good point in that television debates can be superficial, but I want proper TV debates—not prepared statements or questions and answers, but proper debates.

The debates proposed by the Bill would happen between the date of the dissolution of Parliament and the date of the general election. It anticipates a minimum of three debates, one involving the leaders of all the parties represented in the House of Commons on the last day of the Parliament before the general election and two debates between the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition. The Bill would make it compulsory for all leaders of parties represented in Parliament to take part in the all-leader debate and, obviously, for the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition to participate in the other two.

The hon. Gentleman is making an excellent point. Does he agree—this relates to the earlier intervention from the hon. Member for Harborough (Neil O’Brien)—that the weekly show of Prime Minister’s questions could be described by some as trivial and hardly worthy of being broadcast on television, yet it is? I would not use those words myself, but others have. If we are to criticise televised debates for being “presidential”, that is somewhat undermined by the fact that we broadcast PMQs. I applaud PMQs, but I would like greater debate during general elections when voters are actually making up their minds. Does the hon. Gentleman agree?

I do agree. I thought of including that in my speech, but I chose not to do so because of length. Prime Minister’s questions are very important, not least because I came up on the ballot again this week.

The Bill would allow a commission to invite the leaders of parties not represented in Parliament if it deemed them to have popular support in the country. Those leaders would not be obliged to take part. There could have been a case in the past, for instance, for letting the UK Independence party take part, and who knows what new parties will be about at the next general election?

How does my hon. Friend propose to establish the support in the country for such non-parliamentary parties? Would we look at opinion polls, or would we simply put our finger in the air? It seems entirely arbitrary.

I am incredibly grateful to my hon. Friend for being so generous with his time. He seems to be proposing sweeping Henry VIII-style powers for the commission, which is entirely inappropriate.

If I ever get to the end of my speech, my hon. Friend will hear why that is not the case.

For the debates to take place, my Bill proposes the creation a wholly independent commission to oversee them. The majority of Members who took part in the Westminster Hall debate on the subject—including Labour, Conservative, SNP and Plaid Cymru Members—agreed that we should have a new independent body created for the sole purpose of running these debates, which shows that there is considerable cross-party support.

The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith), an able Minister with responsibility for the constitution, argued that there is no need for an independent commission and that it is up to the parties to decide whether they go along. In fact, the Government’s response to the petition said:

“Participating in a televised election debate is down to the discretion of the political party invited to debate.”

We have seen the chaos when political parties take responsibility for debates. In December, we were promised by both the Government and the Opposition that we would have televised debates on the EU withdrawal agreement, which did not happen. There were endless reasons, including because it would clash with “Strictly Come Dancing” or with the final of “I’m a Celebrity...Get Me Out of Here!” The parties clearly thought that what their leaders were watching on television was more important than informing the public on the withdrawal vote.

Even when the parties have said that they would like a debate on perhaps the most important issue in our lifetime, Brexit, they have failed to make good on their promises. It is obvious that the parties did not want their leaders to debate, which may have been because the leader of the Conservative party was promoting Brexit but did not believe in it and the Leader of the Opposition believed in Brexit but was opposing it. Such things would be taken out of the hands of the parties; it would be done directly by the commission. This cannot keep happening. We cannot keep listening to promises, and my Bill means that the leaders would have to debate on television—it would be the law.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that such debates might engage young people more? I sometimes talk to young people after they have watched Prime Minister’s questions from the Public Gallery, and they say to me that it is a very controlled, robotic environment. Televised debates might be an opportunity to raise those awkward questions, the ones that people might not want to answer.

The hon. Lady gets to the crux of the issue. These have to be proper television debates that engage people and are worth listening to. I remember the Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Nick Clegg debates. I went to the gym after I had finished campaigning, I put my headphones on and, while I was pedalling away on the cross trainer, I listened to the debate, and I thought it was useful and informative. We all remember the phrase, “I agree with Nick”. It would be an important part of the process—though it would rightly never take the place of knocking on doors and talking to people—and help to reach out to younger people.

I commend my hon. Friend for his speech—he is making some excellent points—but would he agree that he himself could never be accused of not putting the awkward questions in Prime Minister’s questions?

I thank my hon. Friend for that point, but if I remember correctly the campaign for the last general election, the snap election, lasted seven weeks, in which time there were no Prime Minister’s questions.

The commission should be set up as soon as practicable. It would be fully independent and we would need some time to appoint the right people, so I would expect it to be set up within six months of the Bill becoming an Act of Parliament.

Would the commission consider what sanctions would be applied if leaders did not take part in these compulsory debates? I know my hon. Friend has had an up-and-down relationship with our current Prime Minister, but he is surely not suggesting she would need to go to prison if she said no.

I was expecting that question. Of course, the right and proper answer is that it would be a matter for the independent commission to decide. I am not really suggesting that leaders be taken off to the Tower of London—although I think this Prime Minister and the previous Prime Minister might sometimes have thought it a good idea to take me off to the Tower of London.

My Bill proposes that the commission members be chosen by several different groups to ensure that it is a balanced and informed body. I will first state the groups and then the reasons for each. Three would be appointed by the Speaker of the House of Commons; two by the broadcasters; one by the Prime Minister; and one by the Leader of the Opposition.

The three chosen by the Speaker would be so chosen because the Speaker is an impartial person within the House of Commons and therefore his chosen representatives would be expected to be impartial individuals as well, free of any party political bias, just like the Speaker. The two chosen by the broadcasters would be so chosen because the broadcasters would be required to have some input into the debates—it would ultimately be their channels transmitting them—and the two chosen by the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition would be so chosen to ensure that the two largest parties were represented on the commission. Of those seven, one of the Speaker’s choices would be chairman, as the Speaker’s representatives would be the least self-interested.

Members might ask how the commission would be funded, and this is another reason for the broadcasters to be represented on the independent commission: they would pay for it. They have immense self-interest in the leaders’ debate. The first televised general election leaders’ debate, in 2010, had 9.4 million viewers, which was more than the average viewing figures for that time slot. My Bill proposes that the independent commission’s operating expenses be funded by the television broadcasters, by agreement, but it would also enable the Secretary of State, should broadcasters fail to reach an agreement with the Secretary of State, to make provisions for a levy to be paid by television broadcasters. I am pleased to state, however, that the broadcasters have indicated they are happy to fund the commission.

I will touch briefly on the history of televised debates. It was in 1960 that the United States had their first televised presidential debate, with Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy debating why they should be elected the 35th President of the United States, but it was not until the 2010 general election that the United Kingdom had its first televised leaders’ debates.

I believe that before that first televised debate, Richard Nixon was well ahead of John F. Kennedy, and it was seeing the performance of the candidates that led the American people to vote for John F. Kennedy. Does the hon. Gentleman share my profound relief that the American people voted for John F. Kennedy, not Richard Nixon?

Yes, as my hon. Friend has just said, it was President Nixon who got America out of Vietnam after the Democrats had taken it in, but that is a side issue. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that that debate did have an effect. Actually, people believe that Nixon won on the radio, but Kennedy won on television, so it had an influence. Nevertheless, I think that that result was more about the issues involved and what an interesting campaign it was. It may well have been a mistake of Nixon’s to travel to every state in the US, as he promised, rather than to concentrate, as we would do today, on what people would call the marginal states. The hon. Gentleman will also remember that there was some debate about whether Kennedy actually had won, or whether Nixon had won. Nixon had the good grace not to challenge the result.

Let me move on. Would it not have been wonderful to see Thatcher versus Callaghan in a debate? Or Major versus Kinnock? Or Blair versus Hague—would not Blair versus Hague have been a wonderful experience? It might not have changed the result of the general election, but people would have been much better informed by it. I think people would have paid to see that debate.

Does my hon. Friend feel that, on the occasions when there is an opportunity to ask difficult questions of the Prime Minister, she is generally more discomfited by questions from the Leader of the Opposition or from himself?

That is a very good intervention, but time does not allow me to respond to it. [Laughter.]

On 1 January 2018, there were 27.02 million TV households in the United Kingdom. That is a staggering number. Given that we can now access television through our computers, tablets and phones—this goes back to the point made by the hon. Member for Lincoln (Karen Lee) about younger people—TV debates enable leaders of all parties to reach a massive audience and inform the public. I can see few reasons why parties would not want their leaders to reach so many households. If a party does not want its leader to do a debate, it must not have any confidence in that leader.

That takes me on to the next point of the Bill: I propose that it be compulsory for party leaders to participate in debates, and that they cannot nominate someone else to participate in their place. One reason for that is that they, not their deputy, will run the Government if their party wins the election. Let me take the House back to the 2017 general election, when there was supposed to be a televised leaders’ debate between the seven largest parties in the House of Commons. The leader of the Conservative party failed to take part and, in her place, my right hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Amber Rudd) was the substitute. She clearly could not represent the views of the whole Conservative party; in fact, I might argue that she represents the views of a minority in the Conservative party. Either way, she certainly was not going to be the next Prime Minister. I felt that was an insult to the fellow leaders, who had put in the time and effort to attend the debate. Debates under my Bill would not allow leaders to shirk their responsibilities.

One crucial part of my Bill is that the television debates would be exactly that: they would be debates, designed by the commission to ensure that they did not just involve the reading out of prepared statements and questions from a moderator. They would involve the party leaders questioning one another, debating directly with one another and challenging one another—a proper debate. As Oliver Cromwell might have said, we want to see our party leaders, warts and all.

I associate myself with the comments of other Members on the terrible atrocities that took place in New Zealand. I place on record my support for and solidarity with all those affected in Christchurch, and the Muslim community throughout the world.

Although it sometimes feels as though Westminster never changes, something extraordinary has been happening across the country in recent years: democracy is returning to politics. In every election since 2001, turnout has jumped. It now stands at 68.7%. It was even higher in the EU referendum. Throughout our digital age, more and more people are increasingly getting organised and coming together to campaign for better communities and a better country.

Increasingly, people want a meaningful say in how our country is run. I see it in my constituency of Leigh, and it was this same spirit that powered Labour’s 2017 general election campaign and the surge in our vote share. Of course, this has not been without problems. As all of us in this House know, the past few years, and especially the past few weeks, have been a trying time for politics in the UK, but we must not ignore the appetite among the people for a revitalised politics in which debates about ideas, policies and the future of this country are put out in the open.

That brings me to the issue before us today—whether or not to have a leaders’ debate in general elections. Surely there is little debate to be had here about whether this is the right thing to do, so let me explain. The UK is unusual in developed democracies for not regularly holding televised debates between party leaders during general election campaigns—although in 2010 and 2015 leaders from the main parties did participate in one. As my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Sandy Martin) rightly pointed out, we would have had one in 2017 had the current Prime Minister not bottled it and refused to attend and debate, sending the Home Secretary in her place.

As it stands, there is nothing in electoral law that requires televised election debates between party leaders. If they take place, they are a matter for the broadcasters and political parties. However, as many Members here no doubt remember, during discussions that led to the 2015 debates, Labour suggested that an independent commission should be set up to put the debates on a statutory footing. The Government’s response then was that it was appropriate for broadcasters and parties to make arrangements for any such debates but that this was not a matter for the Government. Now is the time for this to change. Now is the time for the Government to take responsibility.

Democracy is about accountability and openness. Democracy is about putting ourselves directly before the public and answering their questions. All of us do this every week in our constituency surgeries. This is what motivated me and many of us to get involved in politics in the first place. It was to represent but also to be accountable. It surely sends the wrong signal to voters that the most senior people in politics—those who lead our parties and even the country—are not required to come before the public and test out their policies and priorities. It cannot be right that they are not required to debate with each other or answer questions from the public at the very time when the public have to decide whom to cast their vote for.

Beyond the democratic principle, though, there are other reasons why we should look to make it mandatory for there to be TV election debates between party leaders. The Hansard Society’s report “Audit of Political Engagement 2018” analysed sources of election-related news and information for the 2017 general election. It found that debates or interviews with party leaders or other politicians were the most important source in deciding how to vote. We also know that 87% of 18 to 24-year-olds—traditionally the demographic most likely to be associated with voter apathy—said that the debates led them to discuss the elections and relevant issues with their peers. In other words, TV debates work. They reach and inform people and they spark conversation. That should not be surprising. TV debates, though not perfect, provide a different space within a media that is often geared towards quick headlines and soundbites. They provide an opportunity for more in-depth scrutiny of the policies on offer and the differences between parties and their visions for our country. Knowing this, how can we reject TV debates and deny one of the most popular forms of political engagement in general elections, while at the same time bemoaning the fact that young people do not care about politics, when they do? Perhaps it is we who need to care more.

Labour believes that British voters have a right to see a head-to-head debate between party leaders during a general election campaign. It is good for democracy; it really is as simple as that, as I am sure many Members here today would agree. But although mandatory TV debates between party leaders during elections would be a welcome step forward, Labour believes that much more fundamental political change is needed.

I agree entirely with the hon. Lady’s speech, but she has not made it entirely clear to me—unless I missed it—whether the Labour party supports an independent commission.

As the hon. Gentleman has rightly pointed out, I have not mentioned that in my speech. We do support the principle.

Too many people have lost faith that Westminster works for them, and the gulf between politicians and the people they represent has grown in recent years. It is essential that all Members of this House realise that this is the situation and take the very possible step to change it.

May I begin by associating myself with the comments of the hon. Member for Leigh (Jo Platt) about the appalling attack in New Zealand? As my right hon. Friend the Security Minister made clear this morning, the Government show solidarity with the people of New Zealand.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the most capable Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone), who spoke most entertainingly in this important debate. I hope that I have repaid the compliment that he paid me in his opening remarks. As he rightly said, this topic has received some attention recently. There was a debate on exactly this topic in Westminster Hall in January. I take a personal interest in the matter: when the first leaders’ debates were being discussed and prepared for, I was working for David Cameron when he was Leader of the Opposition, so I have seen this process all the way through.

As the hon. Member for Ipswich (Sandy Martin) said, televised leaders’ debates are an important campaigning tool, allowing members of the public to access and reflect on the key message of political parties in the comfort of their own home, through their television sets and other devices. They also have broad appeal, reaching members of the public who have traditionally been disengaged from politics, and there is plenty of evidence that members of the public find televised debates informative and engaging.

I am clear that TV debates can be a useful part of the democratic process. The question for this House today, though, is whether they require primary legislation to regulate and mandate them. The Government do not believe, on practical and principled grounds, that there is such a case. Over the coming minutes, I will try to develop that argument a little further, starting with clause 1, which sets out duties for the establishment of a proposed commission.

The Bill provides that the commission would have a statutory duty

“to maximise…the number of viewers of the debates it oversees, and…the wider media coverage of those debates.”

It is an admirable aim to maximise such engagement. However, both these duties are better served in the hands of broadcasters, rather than in the hands of an independent commission. Broadcasters have the incentive, infrastructure and expertise to design and deliver media content that the public wish to consume. As has been acknowledged by many hon. Members, broadcasters have in the past successfully delivered televised debates without the need for legislation, mandation or an independent commission.

My gut instinct—as a Member of this House, a Minister and, indeed, a Conservative—is that one should not seek to regulate unless it is absolutely necessary. In this case, I am not convinced of such a necessity. Particularly when we are dealing with a scenario of potentially infringing the rights and freedom of the press and broadcasters, we must have a very high bar for such regulation in the first place.

Clause 2 sets out a highly prescriptive framework, with various rules for how the debates must be conducted. As my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough highlighted, it requires a precise number of debates, mandates leaders’ attendance and requires all political parties to be represented. I fear that this creates a very inflexible framework. The clause is even more prescriptive when it comes to timing, mandating that certain debates have to be held within 19 days of polling day, but it is not quite clear why.

I omitted to point that out in my speech. The reason is that there are effectively two polling days—the day when the postal votes go out, and the day of the general election—so one of the debates would be close to the general election and one would be when the postal votes go out. I am sorry if I did not make that clear.

I thank my hon. Friend for that clarification. None the less, there is a lack of flexibility. For example, if there was a major incident, which we have seen in the past, and it was deemed that it would not be appropriate to hold the debate on such a day and broadcasters wished to move the date, the legislation does not currently provide any such flexibility. Such prescription would also make it harder for broadcasters to determine the precise date on which they would maximise coverage. For example, they may decide that a Sunday would provide more coverage than a Monday evening.

Similarly—this important point was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness (Matt Warman)—clause 2 is very prescriptive about the participation of political leaders, and it does not permit them to send someone in their place. My hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough made a reasonable and good argument for why one might wish to compel the leaders of political parties to attend such a debate, but there are many reasons why it may, for legitimate reasons, not be appropriate. For example, if the leader of the party in question is not represented in this House, we may well wish the leader of the grouping in this House to participate in the debate, since they would be the person who would ultimately become Prime Minister, should they be successful.

Moreover, there is still a considerable problem about the exact sanctions if the legislation is not adhered to. There have been jokes about whether a party leader should be sent to the tower if they fail to turn up, but this is an important question. If the legislation is to have any meaning, it must have a meaningful sanction behind it, and there is no clarity on that.

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way again. The point was that we do not really need to have a sanction, because if the leader of a political party wants to break the law, that usually damages the political party. That is the effective sanction.

My hon. Friend makes a good point. None the less, when we are drafting primary legislation, we should have clarity about the sanctions that flow from a breach of laws passed by this House.

There is also the question of the membership and operation of the independent commission. The Bill states that the commission’s operating expenses

“are to be funded by television broadcasters by agreement.”

Failing that, the Secretary of State may impose a levy. My hon. Friend usefully clarified that broadcasters have indicated that they would be willing to pay such a levy, but I remind Members that the exact way in which such a levy is determined and who should pay it is often terribly complicated. For example, the establishment of post-Leveson press regulation was certainly not easily determined. Licensed broadcasters already pay a licence fee to Ofcom, so this would be a further burden on them.

Moreover, televised leaders’ debates are already subject to agreement between broadcasters and political parties. Broadcasters have been known to collaborate between themselves on the format and delivery of televised leaders’ debates. They are well-placed to lead on such decisions, as they have both experience and expertise in broadcasting televised leaders’ debates. Each broadcaster also brings their individual, distinctive approach to such debates, as we have seen in previous leaders’ debates.

In addition, there is a considerable body of evidence on this point. For example, on 13 May 2014, the House of Lords Select Committee on Communications published its findings on broadcasting general election debates, and having looked at whether an independent debates commission should be set up to oversee televised election debates, it found no substantial evidence to support such a proposal. There is similar evidence from Professor Charlie Beckett, of the department of media and communications at the London School of Economics.

I would like to address the point raised in particular by the hon. Member for Lincoln (Karen Lee) about the attitude of the next generation. I think there is a lot of evidence that the next generation is increasingly moving away from conventional broadcast media to consuming news and current affairs in many different forums, such as Facebook and Twitter. For example, a report by Ofcom entitled “News Consumption in the UK: 2018” found that eight in 10, or 82%, of those aged 16 to 24 used the internet for news, compared with just six in 10 who used television. [Interruption.] It seems a little strange to seek to regulate conventional televised leaders’ debates, even if, as the hon. Lady says from a sedentary position, there is an opportunity to stream such things, because there are increasingly other forms of leaders’ debates that do not take place in a television studio—for example, there are mechanisms for having Facebook debates. This Bill seems to be looking backwards, rather than forwards to the future of broadcasting.

In conclusion, while we have heard a number of strong points on this topic, particularly from my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough, there are very obvious deficiencies in this Bill. For that reason, the Government do not support it. We continue to believe that this is best determined by broadcasters and political parties, so we will not support this piece of legislation.

The debate has concluded, but I hesitate to put the Question, as the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) has indicated that he wishes to withdraw his Bill. Does he seek leave to withdraw the motion?

I clearly have more work to do to persuade the Government, so I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Bill.

Motion and Bill, by leave, withdrawn.