Televised Election Debates — [Mr Virendra Sharma in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 6:36 pm on 7th January 2019.

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Photo of Chloe Smith Chloe Smith The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, Assistant Whip 6:36 pm, 7th January 2019

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 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 Dr Drew, my hon. Friend Mr Bone, and—reluctantly, I think—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.