The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Oliver Dowden)
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.