Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Elton: My Lords, I am very seized of the point about equal treatment of all. Why, when the only issue now appears to be spectrum scarcity, pick on this one category to exclude from bidding? That must be discriminating against them and in favour of the rest.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: No, my Lords, because the others can be excluded on the grounds that they are not fit and proper persons. I should be shouted down if I said that religious organisations were not fit and proper persons. Forty religious organisations hold broadcasting licences in this country. They are and can be fit and proper persons. That is not our argument. Our argument—to which I shall turn next—concerns the widest possible choice, an issue raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox. That is the point about those local monopolies and national analogue radio stations.

The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chester very fairly recognised the dangers of a rich sect buying a licence. The noble Lord, Lord Phillips, disagreed, but it was a fair point. It could happen; there are sects, particularly in the United States, representing, perhaps, a minority view in a religion but with the financial power to buy out TalkSport, Classic FM or Virgin 1215. I do not think that any noble Lords would think that that supported the range of religions in this country, let alone the range of popular choice.

Lord Phillips of Sudbury: My Lords, I am most grateful to the Minister for giving way and am sorry for interrupting his flow. He talks of the rich, American, nutty religious organisation buying in that way. Does he not accept that they would be caught by the "fit and proper person" test if they were sufficiently exploitative and nutty? However, if they comply with that test, what is the difference between such a sect and a commercial bloke with real attitude who wants to put across a whole set of ideals and values that might be, in the eyes of some, unhelpful to the public weal?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I did not use the words "exploitative" or "nutty"; the noble Lord, Lord Phillips, did. We have had the bidding procedure for 13 years and it has worked perfectly well until now. There have not been the kind of problems that the noble Lord, Lord Phillips, anticipates. The motivation for bidding high to run a national analogue station is

16 Jul 2003 : Column 888

to reach a large audience. That is what makes for popular radio and what people want. We fear that the involvement of those with non-commercial instincts in those matters might restrict the range of choice for customers.

The noble Lord, Lord Brennan, made several points, to which I shall attempt to respond. He started by talking about political advertising. I want to take the opportunity of what he said to clarify a remark that I made earlier, perhaps in jest, to the noble Lord, Lord Thomson of Monifieth, that the Government believed that the ban on political advertising is in conflict with the European Convention on Human Rights. I should have said that we were unable to make a statement on the front cover of the Bill that the provisions are compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights in the terms required under the Human Rights Act. It is a significant restriction. We believe that there are strong legal arguments that the ban would survive challenge. Nevertheless, for the avoidance of doubt, we made that caveat to the statement that we normally make.

The noble Lord, Lord Brennan, said that other countries do not have spectrum scarcity of analogue radio as they have broken it up. That is why we are talking about only the three national analogue stations. There are no restrictions on religious broadcasting on the many local analogue stations. The noble Lord said that religious organisations would be at the mercy of a multiplex owner. The evidence of that is to the contrary. There are religious organisations holding licences under multiplexes owned by others.

The noble Lord talked about equality. I did not quite see the point of the argument about Mr Murdoch, but I knew that he had to come into the debate at some stage—the noble Lord, Lord McNally, refrained from mentioning him.

Lord McNally: My Lords, I must tell the Minister that the idea of Mr Murdoch being refused Channel 5 on the grounds that he is a religious broadcaster has many attractions.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I shall leave the noble Lords, Lord McNally and Lord Brennan, to fight that out.

The procedure has worked unchallenged since 1990, and I see no reason why it should not continue during what I hope will be the relatively brief period of spectrum scarcity. The noble Lord, Lord Brennan, said that we were the only country in Europe. I could go wider than Europe; but, to take one example, in the Netherlands all broadcasters must produce programmes that reflect the full range of religious and philosophical tendencies. That would be difficult for some religious broadcasters. I think that the noble Lord would agree that that would be what others have called discrimination.

Lord Brennan: My Lords, perhaps I may assist the Minister. I was not dealing with countries that do not

16 Jul 2003 : Column 889

allow religious broadcasting in the public sector because it is against their constitutions and so on. My argument was directed at the independent sector.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, it is exactly in the independent sector that we allow religious broadcasting. There is no conflict. I have provoked several noble Lords to their feet by attempting to answer as literally as I can the points raised in debate. I must return to the fundamental point.

4.45 p.m.

Lord Elton: My Lords, I point in the direction of the noble Lord, Lord Kilclooney, because it appeared that the Minister was beginning to make his winding-up speech without answering the noble Lord's very pertinent question.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chester listed those who took part in the statement issued yesterday. It included the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Manchester and representatives of the Catholic Church and the Methodist Church. I do not think that I used the phrase "across the board". I am sure that in the time available it was not possible to reach all branches of the Christian religion.

Lord Kilclooney: My Lords, my question was not who was included, it was who was excluded. The right reverend Prelate said that there was support "across the board" for the Government's position. I wanted to know whether the council of free churches, the evangelical churches or the United Reformed Church were involved. They are important sections of the Christian community in the United Kingdom.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I am not claiming that all parts were involved.

The Lord Bishop of Chester: My Lords, for the avoidance of doubt, the group comprised the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Manchester; the Roman Catholic Bishop of Portsmouth, who speaks for the Catholic Bishops' Conference of England and Wales; the Reverend David Deeks, the co-ordinating secretary for church and society in the Methodist Church, in which he holds a very senior position; Peter Blackman, the director of the Churches Advisory Council for Local Broadcasting, which is soon to become the Churches' Media Council—clearly, he would hold a remit for a whole range of organisations, although I do not know the details of his contacts—and Andrew Barr, chairman of GRF Christian Radio, who was previously head of education and religion in BBC Scotland. Given the nature of the event, the group cannot include everybody. However, it is quite wide-ranging given that it was put together at very short notice.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I do not think that I can go further than what has been said.

16 Jul 2003 : Column 890

Clearly, there are those within and outwith the Christian religion who have not been involved in these debates. If I may so, I do not think that that detracts from the very powerful speech of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chester and his recommendations to the House.

As the noble Lord, Lord McNally, says, there are issues of such profound principle that we go back to the House of Commons and say, "Do not only think again once, but think again twice". That is what the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, is asking today. The noble Baroness based her arguments on a point of principle rather than one of detail, and I respect her for that. However, the issue of principle that we are discussing is that, so far as is reasonably practicable, we should encourage the greatest possible diversity and plurality, and the highest standards of broadcasting, in this country. We would be making a mistake if prematurely—I say "prematurely" deliberately—we removed remaining restrictions from those few licences that still suffer from spectrum scarcity, thereby running the risk of purchasing by sects that did not reflect the wide variety of demand for high quality broadcasting in this country. I urge those of strong religious belief, in particular, that they should recognise the extent to which the Government have gone to heighten and to encourage the role of religious broadcasting, and not to send the issue back to the House of Commons.

Baroness Wilcox: My Lords, I am grateful to all noble Lords who have spoken, both today and at earlier stages in the Bill. Nothing alters the fact that the Government are bringing in a Bill that is flawed. It is discriminatory to single out religious organisations in primary legislation and ban them from even entering the competition for certain categories of broadcasting licence. We stand by the principle and I wish to seek the opinion of the House.

4.50 p.m.

On Question, Whether the said amendment (No. 130M) shall be agreed to?

Their Lordships divided: Contents, 111; Not-Contents, 165.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page