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

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.