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Lord Elton: My Lords, back in the 1980s, I was for a time the Minister with responsibility at the Home Office for radio regulatory affairs. I am entirely persuaded that the argument on spectrum is short term and will rapidly fail. For the purposes of this debate, it should therefore be disregarded. However, a much bigger and more important issue is the way in which our society and the media that serve it developed over the previous century and into the current century. We have become an increasingly materialist and secularised society. That has been very much helped by the media.
Our children have lived through a whole series of revolutions, none of which were even on the horizon when I was a child. They lived through the credit card revolution. Noble Lords will remember that very damaging slogan:
The Bill is relegating, for the first time, any religious applicants for licence to a second class. There are the first-class secular applicants and the second-class spiritual applicants, which must be unacceptable not only from the spiritual point of view, but from the equality point of view of which I had hitherto thought that the Government were so very well seized.
It is a question of democratic choice, not only of Christian wishes. I speak as a Christian, and I am very open to that argument, but the question is about the whole range of spiritual belief. Other religions should not be locked out of this forum, thus making them in another respect minorities in our society. The proposal in the Bill is wholly bad, therefore.
An extraordinary product of the regime that we have already is that there is only one local religious Christian broadcasting company, and that is in the metropolis. Why should the South East be particular in that way? Why should a third hurdle be put up, as the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, eloquently put it, on the course over which any applicant has to go to get a licence?
The provision is targeted against an interest that it would benefit this country to encourage. I ask the noble Lord to think again about it. If not, I shall gladly go into the Lobby with my noble friend in support of her amendment.
Lord Puttnam: My Lords, I shall briefly break my purdah to support the arguments that I have been hearing, particularly that of the noble Lord, Lord Elton. Successive governments have hidden behind spectrum scarcity as a way of not getting their heads around a difficult but very important issue.
I was on the "Today" programme this morning. I happened to be speaking immediately after the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark. I heard myself say on air, and I certainly believe it, that I had very little to add to what Tom Butler had just said because it made total sense. There are many mornings when, as I am in shower, I wish that the whole of the "Today" programme were "Thought for the Day", because it makes a lot more sense than anything that precedes or follows it.
We are talking about a marketplace of ideas. It would be extremely nice to think that the marketplace of ideas built around faith had as important a role to play as any other marketplace in the media spectrum.
Lord Hylton: My Lords, I apologise for not having been able to take part in earlier stages of the Bill. Of course, I am well aware that religious broadcasting in the United States has quite often earned itself a bad name. I do not think that the same phenomena are likely to repeat themselves in this country, given the very different nature of our religious culture and of the various faiths and religious groups here. I would have thought that there was a very strong case for further experiments in religious local radio broadcasts. The human rights case for them has been mentioned, and it seems to me to rest on freedom of expression as well as freedom of belief and religion. There should of course be ample opportunities for humanists to put their point of view, just as for religious believers. In today's world situation, many conflicts are raging or are liable to break out and inter-faith dialogue is particularly needed. I should have thought that religious broadcasting would provide a good opportunity for inter-faith dialogue to take place on the radio in a reasonably public manner. The right
Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, we have heard some passionate speeches about religion and religious broadcasting and the need for religion in our society. It so happens that, as an unbeliever, I do not agree with them but that is really not the point. The amendments and this part of the Bill are not about religious broadcasting; they are about a very limited restriction on the ownership of channels.
The fundamental point is that the Bill hasin direct contrast to what the noble Lord, Lord Elton, saidenormously increased the ability of religious organisations to operate radio and television channels. I am sure that the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Manchester will confirm that, from our debates yesterday and with universal agreement, we refined and expanded the requirement on public service broadcasters to cover religious matters in their programming.
The Lord Bishop of Manchester: My Lords, I am indeed happy to confirm that I warmly welcomed that aspect of the religious remit within public service broadcasting and I recognise also that there has been a relaxation of the regulations in the area that we are debating. Other issues of course remain and the amendments seek to raise them.
Lord McIntosh of Haringey: Indeed, my Lords, and I am trying to address those issues. I make it clear that the debate is not about religion or religious broadcasting; it is about a residual restriction on the ownership of certaina very limited number ofchannels, where there is still spectrum scarcity in relation to religious organisations.
Lord Elton: My Lords, I apologise for interrupting because I should probably know the answer but, when new channels become available, am I right in believing that they will not be subject to those restrictions?
Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I am coming to the end of my speech rather than at its beginning but, yes, where there is no spectrum scarcity, licences are already available to religious organisations. When new spectrum becomes available, we can remove the ban by order. I believe that I could sit down on that point, couldn't I?
Baroness Buscombe: That is fine, my Lords, because it foreshortens my response. This is a matter of principle. It is rather like the ITN debate, which involved saying, "It is okay in future but not quite right now". As the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, said, this matter is about freedom of expression, freedom of belief and democratic choice. If that were the case, why is there not discrimination in relation to other bodies on the grounds of spectrum scarcity?
I support all noble Lords who took part in this debate; all of them made such powerful speeches. I refer in particular to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Manchester, the noble Lords, Lord Bragg, Lord Chan, Lord Hylton and Lord Puttnam, the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, and my noble friend Lord Elton. Each of them supported the amendment, for which I am very grateful. We must agree to disagree with the Government. I wish to test the opinion of the House.
Resolved in the affirmative, and amendment agreed to accordingly.