Below is an email I wrote to the BBC’s Newswatch programme on the proposed party leaders’ debates at the forthcoming election:
I am writing to comment on the proposed televised party leaders’ debates at the general election. Currently, the plans are that there will be three ‘national’ (i.e. UK-wide) debates on Sky, ITV and the BBC, and separate debates in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. What about a separate debate for England?
In fact, the ‘UK’ debates will be largely about matters exclusively affecting England, or England and Wales in some instances. This is of course because of devolution, meaning the UK government’s responsibilities in education, health, communities and local government, housing, planning, much of transport, much of environmental policy, etc. relate to England only; and UK-government policies on justice and policing relate to England and Wales only. For these reasons, any national / UK debates should be limited to genuinely reserved UK-government areas of responsibility, such as defence, immigration, security, benefits and pensions, and foreign policy. It would be wholly misleading to air national-UK debates in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland dealing with devolved matters, which are irrelevant to the election in those countries. For the same reason, it would be tantamount to misleading the public if the separate debates in those countries dealt with devolved matters, as the MPs from those countries will not have responsibility for those matters as they affect their constituents: they are dealt with by the devolved parliaments / assemblies.
So by all means have separate debates in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – but restrict them to what MPs from those countries can actually do for their constituents: reserved UK matters. And by all means have national-UK debates – but restrict them to genuinely national-UK matters: reserved matters. Which means that the debates relating to devolved matters in England – currently dealt with by the UK parliament – should be billed as English, not UK, debates, and should be broadcast in England only. Otherwise, the public in Scotland, Wales and N. Ireland could be misled into thinking the discussions on education, health, local government, policing, etc. relate to them – which they usually won’t. And the public in England could be misled into thinking the discussions on the same policy areas relate to the whole of the UK – which they don’t.
So we need: national-UK debates on genuinely national-UK matters; and separate debates in each of the UK countries on the matters that the UK parliament deals with on behalf of voters in those countries. So no discussion on devolved matters in Scotland, Wales and N. Ireland.
This comment relates to a complaint I have made on several occasions to the BBC about English matters being misleadingly presented as if they were UK-wide; and to an email reply received from Paul Hunter of BBC Complaints on 25 October 2009.