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Baroness Howe of Idlicote: I too support the amendment, which was so succinctly and technically competently moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe. The very clear way in which the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Manchester put his point makes the case even more unanswerable.
Clearly, too, the Government are to be warmly congratulated on moving some way to remove the existing statutory disqualifications. There is a question as to the reason for their ever being there in the first place. The removal already proposedI join other speakers in emphasising that what we say on this matter applies to all faiths, and not only the Christian faithwill be a tremendous benefit, even if the benefit of the changes already agreed will be quite a little while delayed. The right reverend Prelate explained that, and I will not go into it.
However, the concession makes it even more mysterious that the Government have not gone the whole hog and removed all such restrictions on those with a religious background. I look to the noble Baroness the Minister for a full explanation. What possible justification can there be in today's world for not treating applications for any licence, whether analogue or digital, in exactly the same way, by asking "Do the applicants fulfil the financial and other requirements for that particular licence?" and "Are they, in the objective view of those granting the licence, the best candidate?"
That central point remains unanswered and requires an unequivocally clear, and above all convincing, answer from the noble Baroness, if the Government will not accept the amendment. The explanations so far about current spectrum scarcity simply do not stand up. There can surely be no logical reason why this one group should be excluded from consideration and citizens be deprived of their programmes.
Not only did the pre-legislative scrutiny committee raise the issue, but there are serious questions, which have already been mentioned, as to whether current human rights legislation is infringed by continuing such a discriminatory policy.
In an age when radio and TV licences are granted to those providing so-called adult entertainment, and when an increasing quantity of violence, sex and bad language is tolerated in mainstream programmes, it becomes increasingly ludicrous that the risk of some kind of religious contaminationnot vice, but religionremains the one area which has to be subjected to this absolute taboo.
As I have said, the Committee will require an unequivocal and convincing reply, ormuch bettera straightforward acceptance of the amendments in the face of the arguments, which are literally unanswerable.
Lord Brennan: The Bill seeks, among its objectives, to make provision for the regulation of television and radio broadcasting. Such a statutory objective is of democratic import; therefore, if we find in its terms a provision that a significant proportion of society shall not be allowed even to apply for a radio/TV licence, nationally as well as locally, our democratic antennae should very carefully be switched on to find out why.
The history of the legislation, which I have looked at in detail, gives no clear, democratic indication as to why, in 1990, 1996 or now, the restriction is required. When the Government were taken to the European Court of Human Rights in 2000, their lawyers, presumably on the Government's instructions, accepted that the present restriction was a breach of Article 10 of the Convention on Human Rightsa restriction on the freedom of religious expression. Their case had to rely upon the second paragraph of Article 10, which allows such a restriction to be applied if, and only if, it is a response to a pressing social need so as to be necessary in a democratic society. A pressing social need necessary for democracythat is serious stuff.
The only explanation that I can gauge from the Government's arguments in 2000 to justify that exception relied on the practical question of whether there was sufficient frequency availability. Then, their argument was accepted by the Commission, and the case did not go further, while now it might. The critical question is: if the Government have determined that frequency is the justification for restricting the democratic right, and if otherwise that democratic right should be given force, explanations about frequency availability must be forthcoming and convincing. From my present investigation, I fear that that is unlikely to happen.
I shall explain why. On VHF frequency, which we use for local and national stations, as I understand it, Ofcom is about to look at resetting UK standards currently based on tests made in 1947. That may
Since the Government went to court in Strasbourg in 2000, provision has been made for 50 local digital audio multiplexes. According to my calculations, within each multiplex, there are 10 subdivisions and 500 frequencies opportunities. On medium wave, in certain parts of the country, regional frequencies can be made available subject to certain power factors without interfering with the general availability of main stations on medium wave. On long wave unused capacity has now been cleared in Scotland and will be used by stations there. Finally, we can expect digital radio mondial in the near future, with yet new standards. The result may be a doubling or tripling of availabilityit matters not.
The result of what I have briefly summarised is that the argument that there is no available frequency is simply unacceptable. It begins to concern me democratically. The Human Rights Committee of the House has asked the Government for a reasoned explanation, so the Government must give an answer. I have not seen one; the Explanatory Notes are silent on the question. Is not an answer sufficiently given by just a detailed resume of current thinking about frequency availability? The first step in the argument is the democratic right; the second is why the Government are justified in restricting it.
Members of the Committee may note that in subsections (5),(6) and (7) of Clause 340 the Secretary of State has the right reserved to him or her to revoke a disqualification by laying before the House appropriate delegated legislation. It must follow, therefore, that the Government must anticipate circumstances in which the democratic right will become exercisable. We can look to two answers. If it is frequency, justify itnot just now, but in the long term, as the Bill may stand for years to come. If it is not frequency in a convincing way, the amendment must be carried.
These proposals do not come before the Committee on behalf of religiously inclined citizens of this country, but from me as a democrat. I do not understand why those who would wish to tune into religious broadcasting in this country should find themselves in the same legislative slot as politicians or advertising agencies. The citizens of the nation would think it ludicrous. I do, too, subject to what the Minister may say, but I can assure him that this important democratic issue will not go away.
Lord Avebury: I hesitate to cross swords with the noble Lord, Lord Brennan, who obviously knows a great deal more about human rights than most Members of the Committee. However, without knowing the details of the case that he mentioned, surely it does not lead to the exclusion of the religious views in question from the broadcasting arena. The provisions simply exclude certain classes of persons from the ownership of broadcasts. That does not mean
But the supporters of this amendment ask for something more: the right to own stations. If the noble Lord, Lord Brennan, represents those views accurately, they are saying that it is a democratic right. It is not my right to own a newspaper. I would like to own The Times, but I do not have the money to do that. Rationing will be by cash. If the right were extended to certain people to bid for religious broadcasting channels, it would not necessarily involve the kind of religion that the noble Lord, Lord Brennan, or I would approve of. It is rationing by the purse.
Lord Brennan: We are not engaged in democratic patronage. We are engaged in the involvement of peoples' rights. The matter is not a question of ownership. The ownership of a radio station will be determined by Ofcom on the principles set out in their approach to the provision of radio station licences. The question to which I referred was the refusal to allow part of our society to apply to become owners. The factors that the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, has raised may well play their part in an Ofcom decision, but I do not find "Thought for the Day", "Sunday Morning" and one local broadcasting station in London to provide the same democratic benefit as the 650 that are available throughout Europe.
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