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MPs bid to force party leaders to take part in televised election debates

MPs bid to force party leaders to take part in televised election debates

Published at 10:58pm 14th March 2019. (Updated at 6:58am 15th March 2019)

A new law proposing forcing party leaders to take part in TV debates during election campaigns, following a Sky News petition, is due to be debated by MPs.

Conservative MP Peter Bone aims to win support for a private member's Bill proposing three debates, including two between the leaders of Labour and the Conservatives.

Mr Bone's General Election (Leaders' Debate) Bill includes plans for an independent commission to oversee the debates, a proposal also made by Sky News.

A petition to parliament launched by Sky News last September has now attracted more than 142,000 signatures and was debated by MPs at Westminster in January.

The co-sponsors of Mr Bone's Bill are the former TV presenter Esther McVey, a Tory cabinet minister until she quit over Brexit in November, and the veteran Conservative MP Sir Christopher Chope.

Mr Bone's Bill proposes:

  • A minimum of three televised debates, at least one between the leaders of all parties in the Commons and at least two between the two biggest parties;
  • A commission of seven members, three nominated by the Commons Speaker, two by broadcasters, one by the government and one by the Opposition.

Explaining the purpose of his Bill, Mr Bone told Sky News: "Very simply, we must have televised debates between the party leaders during a general election. They can't opt out, they can't send substitutes, they have to turn up and debate.

"So we're going to set up a commission and rather like other countries do there will be broadcasters on it, there will be representatives of the party on it and there will be independent people.

"They will decide the actual format, but it does require three debates to happen during a regulated period."

Outlining why he believes TV debates between the leaders of the two major parties in election campaigns are necessary, Mr Bone said: "Clearly we've had very successful debates in the past.

"But of course after that some parties decided they didn't want them to take place. The truth of the matter is that most prime ministers don't want televised debates because they think it gives a boost to the Opposition leader.

"Well, I'm afraid that's not good enough. The British people have a right to hear our party leaders, people who are going to be prime minister - one or the other - and they have to debate.

"I don't want something where you ask a question. I want a proper debate, to and fro, between the party leaders. And I think that's the great advantage of television debates.

"I always think we should have the most scrutiny of our politicians as possible. I think this is a way to do it. I think we've seen from the American television debates how important they are.

"I also thought the ones we had with Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Nick Clegg were great. The famous phrase, 'I agree with Nick', came out of that. I thought they were useful, I think they're helpful."

Rejecting claims by Mr Cameron after the 2010 election that TV debates were a distraction, Mr Bone said: "I don't think they are a massive inconvenience to the election. I think that's excuses by party leaders who don't want to do them.

"I think it's the right thing to do. And, by the way, if you're a party leader and have to go away for three weeks to work out what you're going to say you're not a very good party leader."

On a day set aside for debates on private member's bills in the Commons, Mr Bone is hoping his bill - fourth on the list after remaining stages of three bills already debated - will be reached.

"We should have a debate on Friday," he said. "Fridays are always a little strange. You never know quite what's going to happen, but we should have a debate on Friday and if possible and if I have time I will push it to a vote, so the Commons can give its view on if whether we should have televised leaders debates."

Responding to the Sky News petition in a Westminster Hall debate in January, the cabinet office minister Chloe Smith was non-committal, despite strong backing from MPs of all parties who spoke during the debate.

She said it would be wrong to legislate and make politicians "criminals" for refusing to take part, that participating in debates should be a matter for the political parties and that how they were organised should be up to the broadcasters.

She claimed the current arrangements already worked and the broadcasting regulator Ofcom had already demonstrated it could deliver fair and impartial debates, she added.

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