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Lord Thomson of Monifieth: Is the Minister aware that his answer to the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, makes the matter even more mysterious? We have here a vast Bill which is surrounded by a million representations from different interest groups. I repeat the question put by the Minister's noble friend: which interest group sought this proposal? I hate to sound like an old fogey, but this would trample on much of the sacred history that surrounds the rather unique achievement of Britain to have its public service broadcasting centrally funded in order to ensure a total separation of advertising from ownership.

Lord Davies of Oldham: I understand fully the point made by the noble Lord. If I thought that that aspect in relation to this deregulation measure could give rise to abuses which would threaten what he regards as the historic settlement in terms of the relationship between advertising and broadcasting, then of course I would not oppose the amendment. But I sought to establish that the legislation we now have in place is sufficiently secure to guarantee that any abuses that might arise would fall within its scope and thus we would be able to control the situation without needing to continue with the restriction that obtained in the 1990 Act.

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Lord Puttnam: For the time being I shall be happy to withdraw the amendment, but first I wish to make two important points. I was not being glib when I said that I thought honestly that the Government would respond by saying "Oops, sorry, let us move on". There are real ramifications to this. I have talked to a number of people about the matter, among them Sir Martin Sorrel, all of whom have made it clear that if an advertising agency took advantage of this new opportunity—let us call it that—and decided to be prepared to leave its trade associations, how would the other agencies respond? Do they book time and space in the medium which has been bought by the new agency? Is that new agency still an agency? How do you hold together the corpus of interests represented by the industry bodies?

I put this to my noble friend on the Front Bench: please remember that, quite rightly, the advertising industry has been held up time and again during our deliberations in Committee on this Bill as being the one example of a well-regulated, well-organised and thoughtful industry sector. Why fly in the face of that and create legislation which could have the net effect of destroying an industry which until now has been a model of its kind? For the moment I shall withdraw the amendment, but I remain puzzled. I hope that, when we reach Report stage, either the Minister will have changed his mind or he will come back with a clear understanding from the entire sector that it wants this to take place. I ask that because it is the exact reverse of what I have been told. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Baroness Buscombe moved Amendment No. 287:


    Page 295, line 9, at end insert—


"( ) paragraph 2 (disqualification for religious bodies);"

The noble Baroness said: In moving Amendment No. 287 I shall speak also to Amendments Nos. 288 and 289. Together, these amendments would bring to an end the extraordinary situation which currently exists where the Government have singled out religious groups as unfit even to apply for many categories of broadcasting licence. That is ludicrous for many reasons, not least because there is a significant demand for such programmes. To deny the consumer the opportunity to tune in, and religious broadcasters the right to do their job, places a large question mark against this Bill in respect of human rights. Furthermore, even without the blanket disqualification, more than enough regulations are already in place to allay all possible fears about the nature of religious programmes. The United Kingdom has the world's strictest religious content and ownership rules; of that I am sure.

I shall deal first with the impression given to any reader of this Bill. To go to such lengths specifically to identify religious groups as unfit for broadcasting seems at best surprising and at worst highly perverse. How does such disqualification equate with the Government's efforts and copious projects working alongside religious groups—here I want to emphasise that I mean all religious groups—to build community

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values and citizenship? In that role, religious groups are rightly recognised as pillars of society, upstanding members of the community, the vast majority of whom are good, law-abiding and tax-paying citizens. Why on earth do the Government feel the need to go to such great lengths to prevent the advocacy of those values on television or radio?

On a different note, the disqualification of religious groups is damaging to both consumers and broadcasters alike. Consumers should have access to the widest possible choice. To place in legislation an outright disqualification is quite contrary to the welfare of consumers, for there is a significant demand that will remain unfulfilled, for no discernible benefit. Placing such a rigid measure on the statute book means that even in an area where the overwhelming majority of the people are in favour of having religious programmes, considerable difficulties will be faced by a would-be broadcaster by virtue of the fact that they are formally disqualified.

Even if it is not the vast majority listening to and watching religious programmes, it is not hard to imagine the comfort and support that such programmes can bring to the vulnerable and excluded, as well as those who are unable to get to a place of worship. The Bill deprives them of a choice to which they are entitled. What is to be lost from leaving licence decisions to Ofcom's discretion and having confidence in the considerable number of regulations in place? The Government's policy is damagingly over-cautious.

Whether that aspect of the Bill violates the Human Rights Act 1998 has been queried by a number of bodies—not least the Joint Committee on Human Rights and the pre-legislative scrutiny committee. A case that the European Court of Human Rights deemed inadmissible is now going to the European Court of Justice. The issue remains highly contentious and I fail to understand why the Government are digging their heels in. They claim that the spectrum is too limited to provide space for religious broadcasters but that is absurd logic. Why should such organisations be targeted when other, clearly questionable causes are free to apply without restriction? The rationale for political parties not being able to apply is something else altogether.

Britain is the only country in the world that advances an argument in favour of religious restrictions. Surely it is better to build a little flexibility into the system by allowing Ofcom to judge the merits of each licence application as it arises. Even if only one frequency is available, if people want to listen to a religious programme they should be able to do so without having to work around disqualification.

In the absence of blanket disqualification, three or four safety nets are already in place to prevent religious fanatics broadcasting on television or radio. According to the Broadcasting Act 1990, applicants must satisfy fit and proper ownership provisions. The content of religious programmes must be responsible and not exploitative. Significant regulation is already

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in place to prevent broadcasting by extremist factions or US-style telly evangelists—even if they were granted licences.

In response to questioning in the other place on 7th April 2002 about the content rules imposed on broadcasters, The Secretary of State identified a veritable swathe of regulation covering responsible religious programme content, non-exploitation of audience susceptibilities abuse or incitement to hatred, and blasphemy and obscenity. Countless other aspects must be complied with to broadcast a religious programme. Ofcom will still have the power to refuse licences, fine licensees and/or revoke their licences in the event of a violation.

The Radio Authority's recent reluctance to confirm or deny that UK religious radio stations will be eligible for digital AM licences under the Bill raises a new and important issue. It is becoming clear that DRM—the internationally accepted standard for future AM, long, medium and shortwave broadcasting—involves a complex and comprehensive arrangement of multiplexing and multiplexes. Will the Minister deal with that as a matter of urgency? Will the Minister give the Committee and place on record an absolute and concrete assurance that religious disqualification will not apply under the Bill to individual licences or any combination of licences involving multiplexes; multiplexing; multiplex data systems; multiplex frames; simulcasting of digital services with analogue AM signals; and multiplex configurations and reconfigurations?

That question is not just academic but is asked in light of the country's religious broadcasters being denied access to DAB licence applications due to supposed omissions in legislative draftsmanship repeated in Clauses 5 and 44 of the Broadcasting Act 1996. Religious radio and religious radio companies have been locked out of DAB since 1996. The FM waveband offers limited opportunities for further licensing but DRM AM, long, medium and shortwave represent their practical options for future national and local licence applications.

UK religious radio stations such as Premier need to know for certain whether they can apply for DRM licences without being refused access on the ground of digital multiplexing—thus repeating their experience of exclusion from DAB. If otherwise, they will not play a part in long, medium and shortwave radio broadcasting over the next 10 years and will be forced, as a consequence, to consider whether or not they have a future as broadcasters and employers. I beg to move.

3.45 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of Manchester: My noble friend the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford, who has put his name to the amendments, is unable to be in his place today. As I have spoken to these issues on earlier occasions—particularly on Second Reading—I rise in my friend's stead to support the amendments, in the wake of the strongly argued and eloquent case put by the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe.

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Restrictions on the holding of licences by religious bodies began with the introduction of commercial radio in the 1970s. The present restrictions date mainly from the Broadcasting Act 1990—and were to some extent understandable in the context of the limited availability of licences. In this digital age, such restrictions do not fit—certainly not into what the Bill is heralding, with its offering of plentiful choice, expressed as diversity and plurality. I welcome the degree of derestriction that is available in the Bill, to allow ownership of a wide range of licence-holding by religious bodies.

The remaining licences subject to a ban are the analogue public service TV licences, national radio licences and—somewhat perversely, given the access offered to other kinds of digital licences—digital multiplex licences. The derestriction provided by the Bill puts independent religious broadcasters a bit nearer where they want to be—competing openly for broadcasting opportunities.

The Government have emphasised several times that the remaining restrictions are justified on the ground of spectrum scarcity but that argument does not find favour with the Christian and other faith communities, who want the ban on religious ownership completely removed. Amendment No. 287 removes religious bodies and their officers from the list of those disqualified from holding licences and Amendment No. 288 consequentially removes the list of licences that religious bodies and their officers are allowed to hold.

It is not just the remaining restrictions that cause concern. The possible unintended consequences of the regime of restrictions on religious ownership are damaging to potential applicants and existing licence holders—not least because investors are discouraged from supporting financially what may appear to them to be an industry with a very uncertain future. The strictures placed on those entering religious broadcasting and those already within it who wish to keep abreast of technological opportunities are severe. If religious bodies are to take advantage of new opportunities beyond the scope of existing licence categories when they are offered, that requires the specific exercise of the Secretary of State's discretion or even primary legislation. Until the Bill becomes law, there will continue to be no religious bodies among the 40 or 50 broadcasters on the various local or national digital multiplexes—the first of which were on air two and a half years ago.

When the Bill is enacted, all the licences with the strongest commercial and technical appeal will already have been allocated. Stigma is felt by various religious broadcasting organisations and individuals because they are considered unacceptable and are banned.

In this morning's debate on Amendments Nos. 280 to 283, the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, suggested that other conditions could be set in a way that would allow religious bodies to be freed from the shackles of disqualification. It may well be that in considering whether or not applicants are fit and proper the regulator would be able to take the point of the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, into account.

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Another, perhaps even simpler, way forward is this. At present—I am speaking now to Amendment No. 289—the Secretary of State is given discretion to modify the list of licences that religious bodies are permitted to apply for. If instead the Secretary of State's discretion were a negative one, to exclude licences from those for which religious bodies could apply, that would alleviate at least one, if not more, of the severe consequences that I have described.

I return to the vexed issue of spectrum scarcity. Although the amendments would remove the remaining restrictions on religious bodies, that would not—to follow the Government's argument—make more spectrum available. So if the restrictions are not to be lifted, or if their effects are not to be alleviated, it would be helpful to know from the Government that more categories of licence would become available to religious owners as more spectrum was made available.

I would be the first to acknowledge that the Government have already done that in offering digital national sound programme licences in the Bill. In fact, I understand from a report in The RADIO Magazine of 19 April this year that the Radiocommunications Agency has already drawn up extensive proposals outlining new ways to measure FM reception, which to date has been based on legislation passed in 1904 and tests made in 1947. It may be possible to free additional spectrum in the FM band, the magazine says,


    "if a more relaxed approach is taken to planning standards."

I also understand that one of Ofcom's first targets will be clamp down on the overspill of both BBC and ILR local radio transmitters, and that there will be scrutiny of the BBC's national FM allocations. Such changes would enable more spectrum to be made available for all broadcasters, including religious ones. In France, Reims, for example, has 28 radio services. A similar sized city in the United Kingdom—for example, Gloucester—has about 15. Such a system of revised FM standards is already in use in many European and North American countries, allowing for better use of analogue FM spectrum. Taken together, the revised FM standards and, for example, more use of local AM plus new DAB licences should remove for ever the argument of spectrum shortage. I was grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, for emphasising these issues in relation to spectrum shortage.

If the Government wished to stop religious broadcasters from operating Channel 3, Channel 5 and the three analogue INR licences, it would be possible to do so specifically in legislation. They could then allow Ofcom to regulate religious broadcasters for all the other licences on the same basis as all other broadcasters in this digital age.

A further benefit would be that instead of religious broadcasters seeking licences abroad for broadcasting into the United Kingdom, and therefore evading Ofcom's regulation, they would be brought under Ofcom. That surely would be desirable.

Even if these arguments do not prevail now, these restrictions cannot be retained for much longer. In saying that, I want to make it clear, because several

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Members of the Committee have asked me about this, that I am not aware of any denomination that wishes to hold such a licence. However, there is a sizeable and growing independent Christian broadcasting industry, to which I have already referred, which is willing and waiting to play its full part.

I welcome the proposed lifting of some restrictions, and I am grateful to the Government for that. But I remain disappointed that other restrictions will still be in place. I hear the reasons that have been given in previous debates. Nevertheless, I look forward to the day when all these restrictions are removed, and pray that it will be soon. For religious broadcasting has a full part to play in our nation's life, both within the public service remit and within the range of new opportunities which the Bill now begins to make possible.


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