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Lord Elton: My Lords, the trouble with the conference that the noble Lord, Lord Brennan, looks forward to with such hope and confidence is that it will take place after the Bill has reached the statute book. We are actually making the law for now, not as it may be in a few years' time. We are legislating, it seems, for the spectrum that is available now rather than as it will be in a few years' time. The question I cannot avoid asking myself, and therefore the Minister, is: if the other provisions in the Bill are insufficient to regulate religious broadcasters, how will they be sufficient to regulate anyone else? If the provisions are not sufficient to regulate anyone who broadcasts, the Bill itself is defective and should not be on the statute book anyway.
If Ofcom is not sufficient to regulate religious broadcasting now, how will it become so when the Minister proposes to remove restrictions when more spectrum is available. There seems to be a conundrum: either the thing works or it does not. If it works, it should control everyone; if it does not, it is not fit to control anyone. All that is against the background of the threat to human rights and the proposed referral to the United Nations Commission at Geneva under Article 10, to which the noble Lord, Lord Brennan, has obliquely referred.
I ask your Lordships to bear in mind also what the noble Lord, Lord Phillips, said at the beginning. He said that we are living in a period when the whole tone of social understanding and behaviour is very much influenced, if not governed, by the media and what goes on in it. The Minister made a strong comment at the beginning about the availability only for the time being of three programmes on analogue terrestrial radio and said that not one of those should be dominated by a religious faith, but nothing about a multiplex which was open to all faiths. Why not a multi-faith broadcast on a multiplex station?
All faiths have a right to be heard on air and the debate between them should be free for people to make up their own minds. I think therefore that the Bill is defective. It is also a gag which should not be applied in this respect.
Lord McNally: My Lords, in the early stages of the Bill we supported the amendment moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox. However, during this debate we have listened to two very important statements: one from the Minister himself, which I think was none the worse for its fullness and for the degree of movement it showed in the Government's thinking; and the other from the right reverend Prelate.
At this stage of a Bill, it is incumbent on this House to listen to statements such as that made by the Minister. I know that will bring some disappointment to the noble Lord, Lord Luke, and the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, who were hoping for our support today, and indeed to colleagues such as my noble friend Lord Phillips who is looking for a certain consistency. It will also come as a disappointment to the Centre for Justice and Liberty, which has been a vigorous campaigner for change.
Anyone listening to the debate would concede that considerable progress has been made and that both the Government and the Churches are approaching this issue in a constructive spirit. I have more confidence than the noble Lord about the promised conference. I certainly hope that that conference will deal not just with the position of specialist radio and television stations, but with the perhaps even more important fact that we want mainstream religion to be kept on mainstream channels. We do not want it to suffer the same fate as politics and be pushed out into the ghettos and the further extremes of the schedules because we have been reminded that there is still a great religious undercurrent in this country.
In such circumstances, I always fall back on the advice of probably one of the greatest general secretaries of the TUC, George Woodcock, who said that good trade unionism consisted of a series of shoddy compromises. And sometimes so does good politics.
The religious arguments have been well made during the Bill's passage. The Government have responded constructively. I hope that the Conservatives now feel that enough is enough. If they do not, in the light of what the Minister and the right reverend Prelate said, it would be frivolous to send the Bill back to another place and we shall support the Government in the Lobby if there is a Division.
When the noble Lord, Lord Phillips, said that 80 per cent of the country was Christian, he was quickly corrected by the right reverend Prelate, who rightly said that 71 per cent was Christian, and 80 per cent in the diocese of Chester. But of course, the Bill is not just for Chester; it is not even just for England and Wales; it is for the United Kingdom. If Scotland and Northern Ireland are still to be considered as part of the United Kingdom, because Presbyterianism and Roman Catholicism are strong in both countries, I can quickly upgrade the percentage from 71 back to 80; 80 per cent of this country is Christian.
I noticed that the Minister four or five times claimed assistance from Church leaders. The right reverend Prelate said that Church leaders across the board were giving a cautious welcome to the Government's position. What exactly does "across the board" mean? Who are these Church leaders "across the board"?
There is an interesting development here in Britainnot so much in the United Kingdom, but in Britainof a great growth in evangelical Churches involving many in the black community. There is also a council of free churches, including the United Reformed Church. Are any of those Churches included in "across the board"? Do they support the Government's position?
Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, this has been a deeply serious debate and I am grateful to all who have taken part in it. Perhaps I may start by referring to the speech made by the noble Lord, Lord Alton, because something he said so misunderstands the Government's position that it would be wrong for me not to correct it at the outset. Just before he sat down, he described our position as discrimination against those who have a religious outlook. Nothing could be further from the case.
My personal position is well knownthe noble Lord, Lord Alton, knows it; he knows that I am not a religious believer. But that is entirely irrelevant. If we consider the Bill's progress through this House and
On the issue of ownership of broadcasting channels, which is, after all, what we are debating, apart from three national analogue stations for which there is spectrum scarcityand only while there is spectrum scarcity, not thereafterwe believe that restrictions should be maintained. Only for the 16 ITV franchiseswhich are, after all, monopolies of independent television first choice, so to speak, in their geographical areasand for Channel 5, which is a national channel, are we proposing to retain restrictions. For all the other channelsand there are about 900 of themrestrictions that existed under the 1990 and 1996 Acts will be removed by the Bill.
On the question of the religious content of broadcasting, which is by no means the same thing as religious ownership of broadcasting channels, I believe that there is universal recognition that the role of religion in our society has been fully recognised in the definition of public service broadcasting and in the standards required of all public service broadcastersnot just the BBC but all those who aspire to public broadcasting status, which, unlike in other countries, includes the vast majority of broadcasting in this country in terms of audience.
We have listened and introduced amendments to protect the interests of religion in broadcasting andI say to myself and to my noble friend Lady Whitaker if she is presentand other beliefs. The issue of respect or otherwise for those who have a religious outlook is not before us.
Specific points have been made and those of the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, and others deserve a specific answer. She and others, notably the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, referred to human rights. We have rules on these things. The Joint Committee on Human Rights has approved our position. We respect its judgment on that; it is respected across both Houses and across all political persuasions. Applications to the European court for a ruling that our position is wrong have been declared inadmissible by the court. There is no case to be made under the European Convention on Human Rights that we are outwith those rules.
The noble Baroness mentioned the plurality test as being an influence on our judgment. The important point is that the plurality test applies only to mergers. We are here discussing the possibility of acquisition by the highest bidder of a particular national analogue station, which would fall outwith the merger regime. Therefore, the fact that we have applied and strengthened the plurality test during the Bill's progress does not detract from our argument about the restrictions.
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