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Baroness Howe of Idlicote: My Lords, I, too, am very concerned about the Government's proposals and I support the noble Baroness's amendment. I agree very much with what the noble Lord, Lord Phillips, said. We certainly have not had a clear explanation as to why this particular group should be treated differently from some fairly dubious other groups, which apparently would be looked upon equally favourably.
Also, we have been told again and again that the regulation of this countrywe have just heard two examples of how tough it would beis sufficiently strong to deal with almost anything: for example, unsatisfactory foreign owners coming in. We have the plurality/public interest test available, quite apart from the other aspects. We are told that this concerns only a few licences. I think I heard the Minister correctly in saying that restrictions will be removed as and when. If they are going to be removed eventually, why not now?
I praise the Government for the considerable thought they have given to this matter. That is not a contradiction in terms. Obviously, they agonised over this and have gone a long way to include the religions of this country in what they are doing in the Bill. Also, I see the attraction of setting up a government body in which these as well as other religious issues will be discussed, no doubt in a slightly less frenetic setting. I have still not heard a good reason as to why the particular restrictions which exist cannot be removed.
I remind noble LordsI rather hope that we shall be reminded again in a moment or twothat many people regard the continuing of these restrictions as a human rights issue and one where, clearly, if they persisted the Government could be called to account. I very much hope the Government will think again, although I congratulate them on certain concessions they have made.
Lord Brennan: My Lords, I welcome the changes, of which the Minister told the House, in the amendments proposed by the Commons. However, in so doing I register with the House the concerns that led to a change of thinking by the Government, which they very generously stated had occurred.
The first was the very simple proposition that if one has a system of broadcasting which is opened up to all to apply, it is unreasonable and discriminatory to isolate any particular group in society from the right to apply. The only two exceptions provided for by the Bill, other than religious broadcasting, are political parties and advertising agencies, each of which, in a democratic context, it can readily be accepted can justifiably be excluded.
The first point of concern is that of discrimination. I seriously invite those on these Benches to consider how they would feel if a trade union or a group of trades union, and a gay and lesbian organisation wanted to acquire a radio licence and were told that they were not allowed to apply. Surely, that would be regarded as basically discriminatory. I do not see why, logically, those involved in religious broadcasting should be any less advantaged than others.
Secondly, that is why, when they defended the claim before the European Court in Strasbourg about this question a couple of years ago, the Government accepted that this law was a breach of Article 10 of the Human Rights Act but explained that it was necessary in the particular context of our society for the one and only reason of spectrum scarcity.
Thirdly, the question arises of whether spectrum scarcity, within the words of the Human Rights Act, is representative of a pressing need and necessary in the interests of democracy so as to justify this exclusion from application by religious broadcasters. I am gratified to see that in these amendments the Government have gone a considerable way to extend the area in which application can be made.
However, I want to raise three technical points. The first is that of analogue and only three channels. France and the Netherlands have just changed their analogue system dramatically, considerably to increase the number of channels available. If the reason for spectrum scarcity is really technical and temporarytransientit is difficult to see how a legislative disqualification should be permitted to continue. If it is to continue, what are we doing about analogue channel distribution?
Secondly, there is the question of multiplex. If there are several hundred of these channels and one creates a multiplex system in which every eight or 10 are put into a multiplex unit, common sense justifies the owner of the multiplex acquiring it and distributing the slots as he or she thinks fit in commercial terms. But the Bill denies a religious organisation the right to have a multiplex licence. It puts the religious broadcaster at the commercial mercy of the multiplex owner and makes it very difficult to understand in market terms how a religious broadcaster will acquire an individual slot. I have mentioned analogue and multiplex digital systems because we are basically talking of radio.
The embarrassment we face, not politically but as a state of affairs in our country, is that at present people are talking of going outside the UK to get licences in Spain or France to broadcast back to the UKan absurd positionor we face foreign owners outside the European Union broadcasting in, especially on cable or satellite. Otherwise, we would be caught by the disqualification requirements. All I ask is that we give continued and urgent consideration to that particular problem if, as I understand it to be, the key question is spectrum scarcity.
I merely give an example of how experts in the field, civil servants, can get themselves into a mindset which eventually can reach a stage which borders on the ridiculous. I do not think that the Government want or intend that. So, I vastly welcome the consultation that they promised, which I hope they will allow experts to attend. I understand that a few weeks ago the Government were sent expert comment about spectrum scarcityincluding some from an expert they use themselvessaying that it was not a real issue. No reply has yet been received. It is very important in this field for Ministers to use their own judgment when dealing with experts and advisers. I think that is why, when the Minister and the Secretary of State cast their minds to this topic, they made such a significant change; but, surely, there is more to come.
This is a memorable little parliamentary occasion because of its irony. The Benches opposite, which now proclaim the value of human rights and that the dignity of the citizen should apply, were in their time the very Benches that introduced this legislation. I admire their Damascene conversion. It may be belated, but I hope it will continue when we look at other Bills in this House which involve human rights and discrimination.
I hope also that the ingenuity and flare of the Minister, which he has displayed so well during the passage of the Bill, will continue to be directed at getting rid of this last little piece of law in this country, which uniquely is the only country in Europe that has this limitation.
Lord Alton of Liverpool: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Brennan, with his usual acuity, has brought us back to the issue. With his unrivalled track record in dealing with human rights questions and issues of discrimination, he has reminded us that this is ultimately an issue that involves discrimination. The noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, spelt that out at Second Reading. I said in a speech at the time that if she brought this issue to a Division, I would support her in the Lobbies. I shall do so today.
My noble friend Lady Howe has also rendered the House a service by reminding us, as has the noble Lord, Lord Phillips, that the issue comes down ultimately to a question of discrimination. I think that a double discrimination is involved here. It is not simply that we are debarring people from having the same opportunities as others merely because of their religious beliefs, but, ironically, it is possible for people outside this countrya matter alluded to by the noble Lord, Lord Brennan, a moment agoto broadcast into the United Kingdom over the heads of the authorities in this country via satellite. Some of the very worst kinds of religious broadcasting that should exercise the minds of your Lordships are able to come into the United Kingdom via satellite. So it is double discrimination.
We prevent people in whom we would have great confidence, such as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chester, who spoke earlier, from our own Church of England and other churches in this country, from having the opportunity to broadcast, while we allow the Televangelists or others who often focus on matters such as fund-raising and so on to broadcast into the United Kingdom.
So I think that the Government have recognised there is a problem here. In his speech earlier the Minister said that we have made much progress and have moved a long way from the position we were in at Second Reading, which is a demonstration of why the amendments considered in Committee and on Report have been of real worth. Like other noble Lords who have spoken, I welcome the fact that the Government have moved their position, but I think the basic issue of discrimination, raised by the noble Baroness at Second Reading, will still stand if the Bill were to proceed in an unamended form. We should bring that issue to the attention of another place and ask them whether they will go that extra bit of the journey referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Brennan.
So, without being unnecessarily provocative and recognising that ultimately another place will have its way in the matter if it so decides, and welcoming the progress that has so far been made, I think it is worth trying to go further on this basic issue of discrimination against those in this country with a religious outlook.
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