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‘Genie out of the bottle’ on televised election debates

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The “genie is out of the bottle” and televised debates should become a regular fixture of election campaigns, MPs have heard.

Supporters and opponents of the idea gave their views in a debate at Westminster, sparked by a Sky News petition that has gained more than 130,000 signatures.

The Make Debates Happen campaign is calling for an independent commission to oversee television debates between party leaders at elections.

Opening the Westminster Hall debate on Monday, petitions committee member Steve Double said the “nature of politics has changed”.

He said: “The growth of the 24-hour news cycle and the development of social media mean that what the public have come to expect of their political leaders has changed.

“We now generally expect our leaders to be much more visible and accessible than they were in previous generations.

“I believe that it is in this context that the matter of holding leaders’ debates must find its place.”

But responding for the government, elections minister Chloe Smith said an independent commission was not necessary.

She told MPs the current system, which sees debates arranged by political parties and broadcasters, works adequately and delivers “fair and impartial” debates.

“I think we have heard a number of very good arguments on this topic, although I think they mainly focused to my ear, on the way that TV debates are good and helpful in themselves, rather than necessarily legislating for them to be the way forward,” Ms Smith said.

Television debates are commonplace in most democracies – but in the UK they have only happened once, in 2010.

Before and since, negotiations over the topic have broken down between party leaders and broadcasters.

The idea of the commission is to take politics out of the discussions, as happens with the Commission on Presidential Debates in the US, where a TV debate has taken place in every election since 1976.

The debate in Westminster Hall represents an important staging post of the campaign.

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