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Baroness Buscombe: I thank the Minister for her extremely full response, but, with great respect, I feel that she has entirely missed the point. We are addressing in these amendments a point of principle.

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Mr. Kerridge of Premier Christian Radio said recently:


    "The changes in the Bill are a bit like being invited to a wedding that took place last year. Faith groups are being asked to help the authorities in other areas of society for the social good, but are excluded when it comes to communication".

I hear what the Minister said about certain areas in which it is possible for religious broadcasters to be on air. That said, we are talking about discrimination against one particular class, one particular sector, of society, and that cannot be right.

I am extremely grateful to all noble Lords who have spoken in support of this amendment, most particularly those who added their names to my amendment. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford is sadly not in his place, but the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Manchester spoke so eloquently in his place. I particularly appreciate the support of the noble Lord, Lord Brennan, and the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, for the amendment. I also want to thank my noble friends Lord Crickhowell and Lord Elton. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer of Sandwell, almost apologised for not being here to intervene at Second Reading. He has missed quite a lot thus far. We have had an extraordinary number of interesting and sometimes, if not always, amusing debates. I encourage him to stay with us for the remainder of the Bill's scrutiny. I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Phillips of Sudbury, and the noble Lord, Lord McNally, whose support for the amendment I greatly appreciate. He said that he would vote for it if we were to put it to a vote, which we will not do this evening. However, following the Minister's reply, I have every intention of putting it to a vote on Report.

The noble Lord, Lord Brennan, made a particularly eloquent speech. As he said, history gives no clear democratic indication as to why this restriction is required. We need an answer or an acceptance from the Minister that this disqualification should be lifted, and we have not received that this evening. This is a question of choice. I hear what the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, said—there are opportunities for those who represent different religious bodies to speak on radio. "Thought for the Day" was one example. I am sure if I rang up and asked to speak I would not get a slot—my name is not Anne Atkins. I have always wondered who Anne Atkins is.

It is interesting that the Government are working so hard to reassure us that strong content rules, coupled with a strong competition law regime, are enough to ensure that we can retain quality broadcasting. Yet when it comes to religious broadcasting we are not in a safe position. I think that is what it is—I cannot believe it is anything to do with spectrum scarcity. I simply will not accept that vacuous argument.

The noble Lord, Lord McNally, pointed out that religious broadcasting has not always been benign. I entirely agree. He used the example of some extraordinarily aggressive broadcasting on American television. I have often listened to it and it is extremely

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disturbing. I think that is the main reason why the Government are concerned. There may be a strong lobby stressing that concern, but the Government cannot rest upon that argument if, at the same time, they want us to be assured that we have strong content rules in place.

We on these Benches are not satisfied. Noble Lords have asked the Minister to give us clear reasons. As I have stressed, it is ultimately a question of principle.

It has been suggested to me that this proposal to discriminate against one particular sector, which happens to be religious broadcasters, by preventing them even from making an application—as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer of Sandwell, said, we should let the merits be decided by Ofcom—makes the Bill hybrid. I will have to research this to be sure, but the ruling on hybridity applies to a piece of legislation that treats one class of persons differently from others. This religious disqualification seems to do this and if the Bill is hybrid in this way, it is in real trouble. This is really worth investigating and I ask the Government to consider that between now and Report.

I am grateful to the Minister, who has offered to write to me about my rather technical questions on multiplexes in particular. But this is really a question of choice and democracy—it is a question of principle. I am so grateful to all noble Lords who have supported the amendment. For now, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 288 and 289 not moved.]

Lord McNally moved Amendment No. 290:


    Page 296, line 32, leave out subsection (6) and insert—


"(6) No order is to be made under subsection (5) other than one that is confined to giving effect to recommendations made by OFCOM in a report of a review under section 384."

The noble Lord said: The amendment would provide an opportunity to discuss the recommendation of the Joint Committee that there should be no powers to amend primary legislation on media ownership by means of secondary legislation. Unfortunately, I was absent this morning when the Committee discussed media ownership. Briefly, the Joint Committee felt that the Government were rushing their fences in terms of taking this power to secondary legislation in the area of media ownership.

We have in the past two or three years put some powerful organisations into being with the Competition Act, the Enterprise Act and now with Ofcom, but we are not yet sure how in practice they will operate. There is a great deal of proper concern about how media ownership will shake out under the new regime. Parliament should rightly keep control of media ownership matters through primary legislation. As the pre-legislative committee said, in due course Parliament may well be happy at the way in which the new bodies and the new Acts are working, but media ownership is too important to entrust, at this stage, to secondary legislation, and we ask the Government to draw back from that.

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5 p.m.

Lord Puttnam: I support the amendment tabled by my noble friend Lord McNally. There is no reason to debate this matter in too much detail, but for us this was very much a power too far. We have spent some time in Committee discussing the pros and cons of the Secretary of State having the ability through secondary legislation to vary licence conditions. This is a far more serious and important matter, and by raising it we are helping the Secretary of State to pause and think about the implications of this power.

The power would mean that, in the run-up to an election, the Secretary of State of the day—it may well not be the current Secretary of State—can be lobbied by media owners anticipating that they may well be able to receive improved levels of access or favours in a post-election period. That would not be true of the Secretary of State alone; it would be true also of Front-Bench spokespersons from other parties. Surely, the best possible protection would be if the Secretary of State would make such a recommendation only following the advice of Ofcom. That would protect her and any other person finding themselves in the position of being lobbied by media companies. That is a sensible way forward, and I urge the Government to resist the grab for power, as on this occasion it could well turn round and bite them.

Lord Davies of Oldham: I am grateful for the way in which the mover and my noble friend have contributed to this short debate. The issues as we see them are these. In the Bill, there is a balance between the powers of Ofcom and the Secretary of State to ensure that neither body has too much power in relation to change in ownership rules.

The Bill distributes different roles in the change process to different bodies. Ofcom has the responsibility of carrying out the reviews under Clause 384 and recommending changes. The Bill puts the order-making powers in the hands of the Secretary of State, who must consult Ofcom before exercising her powers, except where Ofcom has itself recommended the changes that she is making. Then, of course, Parliament has the opportunity to scrutinise any proposed changes before they become law and, if it so chooses, to reject them.

The intention of the order-making powers is that the Secretary of State should have the flexibility to respond to changing circumstances. In that way, it future-proofs the Bill as far as possible. Consistent with that, we believe that the Secretary of State should be able to take the initiative if she feels that changes are warranted. Ofcom will have the opportunity to make recommendations, which is right and proper. However, we would not want to be in a position where the Secretary of State could not act because Ofcom had no plans to review part of the legislation that was ripe for change.

I am somewhat surprised that the noble Lord, Lord McNally, spoke as he did to the amendments. It has caused me to think further about the position,

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which we thought was much more in line with the case put forward by my noble friend Lord Puttnam—namely, the question of balance and how often such an event would occur. We are seeking to have balancing factors between the two actors in the position and Parliament's right to decide on the matter in the final instance with an affirmative resolution.

I hear what the noble Lord, Lord McNally, says about primary legislation, but he will know how difficult it is and how long-term primary legislation needs to be. We recognise that ownership rules are an important part of the Bill, but we also recognise that this legislation is meant to obtain for a considerable period of time. There are bound to be changes in what, after all, is probably the most rapidly changing area of economic and technological development. We believed that we should assure the Committee that there is a balance within the legislation that guarantees that the two primary actors—the Secretary of State and Ofcom—work in consort, and that Parliament has the final say in terms of an affirmative resolution.

I hear what both noble Lords said. I hope that I have responded as fully as I can in reassuring my noble friend Puttnam. As for the noble Lord, Lord McNally, I can say only that the particular thrust that he put on the amendment would really suggest that the legislation and the issues of ownership ought not to be subject to change at all except by a fresh Broadcasting Bill. We have seen the processes involved with regard to this Bill. I do not believe that we have it in mind to introduce another Bill in the next two or three years, but ownership issues could certainly occur in a more limited time than that in which we could hope to bring back a piece of legislation of this magnitude. It is on that basis that I hope that the noble Lord will recognise that we have a balance and proper safeguards in the Bill and that he will withdraw the amendment.


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