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Lord McNally: We are perhaps fortunate that the amendment is coming up at this time of night. I can imagine that if it had come up early in the day, with the Chamber full and everybody feeling fresh and bushy-tailed, we could have had a good couple of hours on party political broadcasts.
As the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, said, some of us go back a long time on this matter. I still wake up in cold sweats having been a young, junior official accompanying George Brown to the BBC's studios to be told that we had only two takes to get the broadcasts right and trying to convince George that he had to stick to the script.
The noble Lord is quite right. When we consider the time and energy we have in recent times put into legislation to try to put a cap on party political spending, we can see that to allow this backdoor blast below the waterline would be very dangerous. We have only to look at the United States to see the dangers. I
The party politicals may not be the most loved of television broadcasts, but they are infinitely preferable to bought advertising by politicians and political organisations. I hope that the Minister will be able to give us some words of comfort.
Baroness Blackstone: The Government propose to resist the amendments, not because we necessarily object to all of them, but because we intend to consult on our response to the Electoral Commission recommendations and to bring forward proposals that take account of its report. Members of the Committee will be aware of the commission's report Voting for Change, which brings together recommendations from a number of its reviews, including that on party political broadcasts. The Government will seek views on PPBs shortly so that we are in a position to introduce any necessary legislation as soon as parliamentary time allows in conjunction with other changes in electoral law.
I am aware that deliberation about the future arrangements of PPBs has already been extensive. The commission published a wide-ranging discussion paper in December 2001. A consultation paper was published in June 2002 and the commission's final report in January 2003. By then, the extensive consultation on the Communications Bill had been completed and it was already in Committee in the House of Commons. We do not believe it right to accept the principles and to seek to implement them without putting forward the Government's own proposals for comment and proper scrutiny.
The amendments would give Ofcom much discretion on the allocation of PPBs as well as establishing certain criteria for that allocation. That may or may not be the right way forward, but it is right that stakeholders and Parliament are given an opportunity to consider the issues more fully before we give Ofcom such powers.
Notably, some of the commission's recommendations refer to the need to ensure that the PPB arrangements provided for in the Communications Bill comply with the Human Rights Act and the European Convention. The Government do not share the commission's view about the supposed deficiencies of the Bill. If we did, that would have been evident from the statement that I laid before the House under Section 19 of the Human Rights Act. So those changes may be unnecessary.
On the other hand, the Government fully support the commission's intention to involve a much wider audience with the democratic process. It suggests that one way of doing that is to extend the PPB obligations to all broadcasters. That is a programme on which we will welcome views and supportive evidence, with some assessment of the costs and benefits to political parties, broadcasters and the public. It may be a proposal that we will want to take forward, but we
The Government will seek views so that we are in a position to introduce any necessary legislation as soon as parliamentary time allows, along with other changes to electoral law. In the light of that, I hope that my noble friend will feel able to withdraw his amendment.
Lord Lipsey: I thank the Minister for that reply. The consultation process for PPBs is chaotic. It would be foolish to cavil at the perfectly sensible process of carrying it forward with the full consultation that the Minister has set out. I am delighted by the tone of her response and the fact that the Government are so awake to the need to do something here. The Minister has set a very good example for the consideration of the rest of the Bill. I thank her very much and beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
The noble Lord said: The basis of the amendment is to take account of evidence that the pre-legislative scrutiny committee received that the powers to constrain broadcast content should be limited on the face of the Bill to those of national security or public safety. The amendment proposes that that restriction on government and ministerial powers to censor broadcasts should be on the face of the Bill. I beg to move.
Baroness Whitaker: As a member of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, which also came to the same conclusions, I should just like to say that, unamended, these clauses are an assault on the right to freedom of expression and it is perfectly reasonable for the Government to circumscribe their own powers in the way that the amendment does.
Amendments Nos. 269 and 270 seek to limit the grounds on which Ministers can direct broadcasters to carry an announcement or to refrain from broadcasting specified material. These powers have existed since the beginning of broadcasting. The examples that I have go back to 1927 and they have been only rarely used. However, the Joint Committee on Human Rights recommended that the grounds on which the power could be used should be specified on the face of the legislation. The committee of the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, agreed with that.
We have considered the matter very carefully in the light of all the comments made. We take our human rights responsibilities very seriously. But we remain of the view that it would not be wise to delimit the power in the way proposed.
Let me explain. What we have discovered in research is that there have been a number of occasions on which these powers have been used over the past three-quarters of a century. On some occasions the restrictions which have been imposed by the Secretary of State have been included in the BBC agreement. On some occasions they have been patently absurd in modern terms and they have been withdrawn. We have decided to write to the Joint Committee on Human Rights to set out the whole history on that point; and I hope that that will be done within the next few days.
The difficulty is that the amendments restrict the powers of the Secretary of State to matters of national security or the safety of the public whereas in fact the European Convention on Human Rights is much more widespread. It states:
It is clear that that is a much wider protection than that provided by the amendments. I can give the Committee the absolute assurance that since the passage of the Human Rights Act, Ministers, and the Secretary of State as referred to in the amendments and in this part of the Bill, are constrained by the Human Rights Act and by the European Convention on Human Rights. Therefore, the protection of human rights which is provided by the Bill and by the constraints on Ministers by the European convention are wider than those provided in the amendments. On that basis, I hope that Amendment No. 269 will not be pressed.
Lord McNally: Clearly the amendments will not be pressed this evening. What the Minister said is so significant that I should like to read it in Hansard and compare it with the amendment before looking at the issue again at Report stage. At the moment I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.