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The Lord Bishop of Manchester: My Lords, I support the amendments to which the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, spoke with such eloquence and conviction. I spoke in some detail on Second Reading and in Committee on the issues that the amendments raise. I shall not, therefore, repeat what I said in those debates save to emphasise that I recognise the constructive contribution and potential of the independent religious broadcasting industry.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, indicated, independent religious broadcasters find themselves disadvantaged by the means of controlling licence allocation, which I suggest could be achieved in other ways. For example, there are strong content regulations which could be even further strengthened, as the committee chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, recommended. Some of the more damaging and possibly unintended consequences could then be avoided, thereby removing the necessity for current disqualifications.
The Church has expressed concerns over several areas of the Bill and throughout its progress I have sought to bridge the gap in those areas between the Churches, the Government and the broadcasters. Indeed, I led a cross-party delegation to the Secretary of State to find a way forward on these religious issues. I have encouraged my colleagues to negotiate a solution and to find a consensus but up to now on this particular issue there has been no success. I am disappointed about that. But even though there may be a Vote on the amendment tonight, I still very much hope that the door will not be closed to further negotiations in the future. Indeed, I hope that such negotiations will have been made more possible by the debate we had earlier on the public interest plurality test. It is all the more necessary because independent religious broadcasters will now face yet another hurdle of regulation in the Bill under the public interest test.
Baroness Howe of Idlicote: My Lords, I, too, support the amendments in the group in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe. Like the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Manchester I had hopedindeed, I still hopethat we would find an agreed solution to the issue of the remaining prohibitions on media licence ownership by those with a religious background. I hope that that can be achieved before Third Reading.
I had hoped that the acceptance in principle by the Government of the plurality public interest test would mean a preparedness by the Minister to accept the amendments of the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe. If that had been the case, any potential applicants with a faith background would, in addition to the plurality public interest test, also have to abide by an additional religious regulation as to what form of religious broadcasting would or would not be acceptable. In other words a double hurdle would already be in place, and rightly so for those who wish to avoid the more extreme kinds of religious broadcasting sometimes found, for example, in the United States. But unless the Government accept the amendments of the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, those with a faith background applying for a licence would indeed face a triple jeopardy: public interest plurality test; specific religious requirements; and the prohibitions to licence ownership remaining in the Bill.
Surely that would mean there would be an even greater risk of human rights infringement than might have existed previouslynotably those indicated by the pre-legislative scrutiny committee, the Joint Committee on Human Rights and the religious advisory committee of the UNA.
I had very much hoped that the noble Lord, Lord Brennan, would speak this evening. We have received a note expressing his sadness that he cannot be here. One of the points he wanted to stress that he still believed was that this continued disqualification is a breach of human rights.
In 1999 or 2000, I think, the then DCMS broadcasting Minister, Janet Anderson, was pleased to claim credit for the White Paper's commitment to allow religious broadcasters to apply for national analogue radio licences. One can well understand the frustrationindeed, the resentmentthat those still prohibited must feel when that promise never materialised. They were never even invited to the consultations on the subject. If you add that to the fact that, as we have heard, considerable doubt has now been cast on the Government's fall-back argumentusing the scarcity of spectrum availability as an excuse for not removing these restrictionsit must be clear that those still prohibited and the considerable potential audience who want to hear their programmes are being denied a right to practise their profession. As we know, they can apply for licences in other EU countries and, if granted, their programmes can often be heard in the UK. The only difference is that neither the licences nor those programmes are subject to the same rigorous public service broadcasting regulation that would be applied had they been allowed to practise their profession over here.
I very much hope that the Government will either change their mind or announce that they have always been of the same mind. I hope that they will remove these quite unnecessary restrictions on those with a religious faith background.
It seems to me that in many areas of this country at the moment discussions are taking place through religion. It is unfortunate sometimes to use anecdotal evidence, but I heard a perfectly sensible BBC local radio programme the other morning. It lasted for about an hour. It was a phone-in about attitudes towards Muslims in this country, with a sensible young man taking the calls. It was all expressed in terms of religion. I was crying out for religious people on the programme or a religious channel where the matter could be expressed more fully and more richly and challenged in a way that would satisfy the people who were phoning in, most of whom were seeking information and enlightenment and not the argy-bargy which, sadly, occurred.
Religion is still one of the principal ways for many people to manage their lives. For many people in groups, communities and the country as a whole, it is a way to manage how they think that the community should go. Simply because we see some appalling examples in the United States of America, it does not mean that we should go that way. We do not go that way in many other areas of our broadcasting. The spectrum will be available soon, as the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, pointed out. Will the Minister give us some assurance that he will think again about the issue? As the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Manchester said, the opening of the door would be extremely welcome.
We are dealing with something about which we are rather diffident in this country. We deal with it in subterraneous ways, but it is very important to us. We are dealing with a democracy of ideas, and are in danger of excluding a huge area and body of ideas that informs many people, some very consciously, some very effortfully, some unconsciously but it is still around. It would be dangerous, and a denial of their freedom to express their ideas, were we to shut the door firmly at this time. I hope that we can have some assurance that the matter will be looked at again.
Lord Chan: My Lords, I also support the amendment. There are no local Christian radio licences granted outside London, and I would certainly like to tune into Christian radio in Liverpool and elsewhere on Merseyside. That is very important. The current disqualification on religious broadcasting, particularly Christian radio companies, means that there is a definite disadvantage to those of us who want to listen to Christian radio.
More than 70 per cent of people in the 2001 national census declared that they were Christian. Another 5.5 per cent declared that they were followers of other faiths. That is the majority of the country, so the matter is particularly important. I, too, am very puzzled as to why the disqualification has continued in regard to Christian radio stations applying for licences.
A large number of peopleI understand that the number is 276,000have sent petitions to the department asking for Christian broadcasting. Over many years, many constituency petitions have been laid before Parliament in another place, including those from the constituencies of the Prime Minister and other Cabinet Ministers. That shows at least some unmet public demand from people such as me throughout the country. If regulators or market conditions frustrate our quite legitimate demands for such services, this is the opportunity to put an end to that in Parliament. The Government could lift the ban.
In other countries in Europe, such as the Netherlands, religious radio stations have no difficulty at all applying for licences and receiving licences. Further afield, in New Zealand, a country with a much smaller population, there are several radio stations broadcasting with a Christian background. I hope that the Minister will accept the amendment.
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