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

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?