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The Lord Bishop of Chester: My Lords, my friend the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Manchester is unable to be in his place today. He and his wife are hosting, I hope, a dry lunch for 140 guests at his house, which is part of a programme of welcoming people in his new diocese of Manchester to their home. He is sad not to be here as he has burnt the midnight oil and followed the progress of the Bill most closely.
I also welcome the Secretary of State's comments in another place, repeated here today, about the early lifting of digital licence restrictions for religious bodies, which should bring some relief to them because they have hitherto been excluded from this marketplace.
I turn now to the amendments before the House. From these Benches, we continue to support the complete lifting of the disqualification on religious bodies. There are two elements to the disqualification. The first is that certain licences are not available to religious bodies, and the Minister set out which they are. I believe I can give the assurance that, in any event, the Church of England could not afford to buy any of them and therefore we would not be directly affected in the immediate future. However, for the reasons given, the danger that that could happen is genuine. The second element is that there is, as it is termed in the legislation, a determination to be faced by religious bodies before they can apply for licences.
We look forward to the ending of both disqualifications, although the one relating mainly to analogue services will naturally fall out in due course. However, we recognise that the amendments are a step in the right direction. Therefore, despite certain reservations along the lines of the principles set out by the noble Baroness, we want to give a cautious welcome to the amendments, as echoed in yesterday's statement by religious leaders across the board. Our reasons are as follows.
First, the licences still restricted are relatively few, numbering 20. I believe that in a sense we can discount that restriction in the short term, especially as they are analogue licences. Secondly, the notion that religious bodies will face a determination is less satisfactory. In some ways, it is unfortunate that that is on the face of the Bill. We look forward to the time when the availability of spectrum means that those restrictions can be released.
On the other hand, we believe that some controls need to be retained in order to protect children and vulnerable people from exploitation. That might well be done through the normal processes of Ofcom. However, we should not underestimate the need for a
At present, that is to be achieved through ownership restrictions. We believe that ideally there would be another and better way. It is hoped that the ministerial review, announced yesterday and referred to again by the Minister, will address what the long-term safeguards for religious broadcasting should be like. But we need to be honest that religion can be a force for both good and bad in the world. While I fully accept the basic principles enunciated by the noble Baroness, I believe that we must be fairly down to earth and honest about the role of religion in the modern world. To my mind, that is not an argument against religion. The best things in life can be converted to the worst, and that is a general rule.
Why are the amendments a step on the way? They are cast in terms, exactly as the Minister said, which create a positive climate in favour of religious broadcasting. In that sense, we reverse the presumption against it. That is why, while acknowledging the force of the arguments advanced by the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, ultimately I am not persuaded that this House should seek to insist on its original amendment.
This legislation marks a sea-change from the previous regime under the 1990 and 1996 Broadcasting Acts. I remind the House that yesterday's statement involved the right reverend Crispian Hollis, Bishop of Portsmouth and Roman Catholic spokesman for communications in England and Wales, the reverend David Deeks, Co-ordinating Secretary for Church and Society for the Methodist Church, and other Church figures, together with the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Manchester. In their statement, they welcomed the Government's amendments as being good progress towards our ultimate goals.
When I was a teacher in higher education, I remember that if I had a student whom I considered to be at least on the way to where he should be, I used to give sympathetic understanding if I felt that he was not yet quite there. In a sense, that is how we feel about these amendments. Perhaps I may also add that my friend, the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of York, who is chairman of the Archbishops' Council communications group, has also indicated his support for the position set out in yesterday's statement.
Lord Phillips of Sudbury: My Lords, my name appeared with that of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Manchester at an earlier stage of the Bill when we tabled amendments to what was then Clause 261. Our objective was that more positive regard should be paid to religious broadcasting. We are grateful that the Government responded to that and we now have a far better Bill in that regard. Like others who have spoken, I believe that progress has certainly been made.
It is odd to disagree on this matter with a right reverend Prelate, who should, after all, be my master. However, I cannot help feelingperhaps it is my East Anglian backgroundthat he was a little too supplicant in what he said. The analogy of the student was somewhat odd. The Government are not our student; they tend too much to be our master.
I believe that a principle is involved here. Although, as a good lawyer of the common law school, I believe that one should err in favour of pragmatism rather than principle, because principles can throw dust in one's eyes, I do not accept a pragmatic reason for overturning the amendment that we put into the Bill.
If we are talking about popular appeal, it is just as well to remember that according to the latest census, which has recently been published, well over 80 per cent of the people of this country still describe themselves as "Christian". Noble Lords may wish to dissent from that, but that is how people see themselves.
Lord Phillips of Sudbury: My Lords, honesty forbids me from pursuing that line. However, 71 per cent is not bad. I believe I was confusing the figure with that for all religious denominations, including Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Confucians, Jews, Zoroastrians, and so on, which came to well over 80 per cent.
I am perplexed as to how, whether in logic, principle or pragmatism, one can hold the view that money talks when it comes to such bodies, except if it is religious money. I say that particularly in an age where, even if one is not religiouswhether one is a convinced atheist or an agnosticthere is a general sense of a lack of spirituality in the life of the nation and an excess of materialist influence. It is odd that an eroticist can purchase one of these radio channels and that that is all right.
The truth is that provisions in the Bill will allow Ofcom to cut out anyone who is not "a fit and proper person" or someone who is not going to be responsible or who is going to be exploitative. That is the answer
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