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Baroness Blackstone: Let me begin by saying that after this debate, which has gone on for just over an hour, I may not manage to answer all the questions that were raised. I shall write to noble Lords where I fail to do so. The first and most important point I wish to make is that the Government support and encourage religious broadcasting. From some contributions this afternoon, one would not get the impression that that is the case. Anyone who suggests that is being grotesquely unfair.
We recognise that religious programming is an important part of public service broadcasting. Noble Lords will recall that in amendments tabled by the right reverend Prelate, the Bishop of Manchester, the noble Lord, Lord Phillips of Sudbury, the noble Baroness, Lady Howe of Idlicote, I undertook to look at how that can better be reflected in the definition of a remit of public service broadcasting. Where possible, we have removed unnecessary restrictions on religious bodies holding licences. That has not been reflected in what has been said in the debate this afternoon.
Once the Bill comes into effect religious bodies will be able to hold a wide range of licences, including local analogue radio licences, national and local digital radio licences, digital terrestrial television programme licences, radio and television restricted service licences, and licences for radio and television cable and satellite services. The changes proposed in the Bill have been widely welcomed outside the Chamber. Again, that fact was not reflected in this afternoon's debate.
The only remaining significant restrictions on religious bodies holding licences relate to Channel 3 and Channel 5 licences, national analogue radio licences and multiplex licences. I should clear up one issue here that has arisen during the debate. As the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, rightly saidI support
We want as few restrictions as possible. Our policy is to allow religious bodies to hold broadcasting licences wherever that is consistent with satisfying as many viewers and listeners as possible, and giving equal respect to everyone's beliefs; in other words, we want to avoid a situation where, through scarcity of spectrum, some religions achieve access to the airwaves but others do not.
Where there is no spectrum scarcitysuch as with cable and satellitethere are no restrictions. It follows from this that restrictions could be removed in the event that significant new spectrum became available. There has already been a concrete example of this, where the introduction of additional digital radio capacity on Freeview led us to remove the restriction on national digital sound programme service licences.
I should also make it clear that in the event of any new types of licences being introduced, we would carefully consider whether religious organisations should be able to hold them. There will not be a presumption that they cannot do so. The decision will turn, as now, on questions of spectrum scarcity.
I believe my noble friend Lord Brennan slightly implied that there is no issue as regards spectrum scarcity. I should point out to him that there is. Moreover, my noble friend listed a comprehensive range of frequencies and associated licences in an effort to demonstrate that our argument of spectrum scarcity did not apply. I shall study most carefully the list outlined by my noble friend when it is printed in the Official Report, but I believe that every type of licence that he mentioned is already open to religious ownership precisely because there is no spectrum scarcity in those cases.
Let us take the case for the continuing restriction on national analogue radio licences. At present, there are only three national analogue licences, which are currently held by talkSPORT, Classic FM and Virgin 1215. Given the limited spectrum availability in this area, we have taken the view that it would be inappropriate for one of those licences to go to a religious organisation. We take that view because we do not believe that a religious radio service would have sufficient appeal to justify it having one of only three national licences. To the latter we add our concern that it would be invidious for just one religion to have a national station, while the others would not. This could be perceived as extremely divisive and most unfair.
Some people have responded by suggesting that we lift the ban for multi-faith broadcasters. That could be said to address the second problem of not wishing to disadvantage specific religions. However, it does not
Lord Archer of Sandwell: I thank my noble friend for giving way. I wish to question two points that she has just made. First, my noble friend said that there would not be a sufficient listenership to justify the award of a licence to a religious broadcaster. But is that not a matter that should be assessed on the strength of the evidence, if and when an application is made? My noble friend also made a separate point; namely, that there would be competition among Christians and between Christians and people of other faiths. Has she any evidence to suggest that that would be the case?
Baroness Blackstone: Given that we are talking about only three national licences, all I can say in response to my noble and learned friend's first question is that I believe all the evidence available would support what the Government are saying; namely, that viewing and listening figures would not justify inviting a large number of religious organisations to make applications that would be bound to fail. We believe that it is more honest to make it clear at this stage that there would not be spectrum availability, rather than invite religious organisations to carry out a lot of work in preparing applications that would be bound to fail at the first hurdle. I wish to continue with my response, so I shall write to my noble and learned friend on his second question.
Officers in religious bodies are "disqualified persons" under this clause for the purposes of holding certain broadcasting licences. I know that some people are unhappy about this, as outlined in this afternoon's debate. They believe that that unfairly stigmatises people with religious beliefs. I can assure noble Lords that this is not the intention. Given that restrictions remain on religious bodies holding licences, it is important that the remaining restrictions are effective. In order to be effective, it is important that the restrictions not only apply to religious bodies, but also extend to office holders in such bodies. If that were not the case, it would be a simple matter for a religious body to put the licence in the hands of one of its officers and thus defeat the purpose of the restriction. The position is not unique to religious bodies; similar arrangements apply in respect of political bodies, whose office holders are also prevented from holding broadcasting licences. In short, restrictions on office holders are simply a necessary anti-avoidance device.
My noble and learned friend Lord Archer asked me about the definition of "office holder" in this context. There is no definition of the word "officer" in the legislation. It would be impossible to list exhaustively all the possibilities, because all organisations have different structures. Therefore, the word has its ordinary meaning. It is a question of fact whether or not a person is an officer. Ofcom will have to consider all the relevant circumstances and make a decision. In particular, Ofcom will take into account whether the person has a formal position and what his role or function in the organisation might be. It seems to me that it is a matter of using common sense.
It is also important to recognise the nature and extent of the restriction. Religious office holders are prevented from holding broadcasting licences only to the same extent as religious bodies. They can hold all other licences in their own name. That fact does not seem to have been fully understood by speakers in this debate. I hope that Members of the Committee will agree that this is a necessary evil rather than any deliberate intention to stigmatise religious office holders. Of course that is not the case.
The restrictions on local and national digital radio will be lifted as soon as the broadcasting parts of the Bill come into forcewhich should be by the end of the year. As soon as that happens, there will be plenty of new opportunities: local digital radio multiplexes are still being licensed, so religious broadcasters can seek to obtain some of these new slots. In the case of existing radio multiplexes, there should still be chances for religious bodies to get slots on these multiplexes that are currently unfilled, or become vacant in the future. There are also opportunities to take up radio slots on Freeview.
I understand from Ofcom that it will use its best endeavours to process any applications as soon as possible after the restrictions on religious bodies are lifted by the Bill. It is also proposing to review the existing guidance on religious ownership before the ownership provisions come into effect.
Let me turn to the human rights aspect, which a number of speakers mentioned. I repeat once again that we place restrictions on religious bodies holding licences only where there is spectrum scarcity. We have sought legal advice and are confident that the continuing restrictions are fully compatible with our obligations under the ECHR. Moreover, the Joint Committee on Human Rights has concluded that it considers the position in the Bill is likely to be compatible with ECHR.
While we remain convinced that for the present there is a case for some restrictions, we also believe that the Bill offers enormous possibilities for religious broadcasters. In the light of what I have said, I very much hope the noble Baroness will feel able to withdraw her amendment.
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