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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 4:54 pm on 7th January 2019.

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Photo of David Drew David Drew Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 4:54 pm, 7th January 2019

I am delighted to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma. I congratulate 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 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.

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.