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BBC: Humanism


3.27 pm

Asked By Lord Harrison

25 Nov 2009 : Column 364

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Davies of Oldham): The Government have made no assessment. Under the terms of the BBC's charter, this is a matter for the BBC Trust and there is no provision for Government to intervene.

Lord Harrison: But will my noble friend remind the BBC Trust of its legal obligation under the Act to reflect other ethical beliefs and philosophies, including providing bespoke programmes on humanism for humanists and the wider community? Secondly, in the light of the decision by the trust to open "Thought for the Day" to humanists, will he remind it that it should not be frustrated by BBC programmers, who will thereby deprive the vast majority of non-church goers of the wit, wisdom and wake-up call of the non-religious?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for reiterating some of the issues that we discussed in the Moses Room only three weeks ago. I am in the position of being able only to repeat what I said then. The trust reached the position that the editors responsible in the BBC had not in any way infringed their responsibility in their construction of "Thought for the Day", which they define as a programme of religion and beliefs. The trust did not think that it should intervene, and it is not for anyone to intervene from this Dispatch Box.

The Lord Bishop of Manchester: My Lords, does the Minister agree that the BBC provides a great range of radio programmes in which humanist and other non-religious ethicists can express their opinions? Frankly, complaining about the BBC not featuring non-religious perspectives in a slot that is wholly reserved for religious commentary is akin to complaining that "Match of the Day" gives no space to the game of bowls.

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, I noted that the right reverend Prelate identified the programme as being wholly reserved for religious purposes, and that is the position taken by the editors of "Thought for the Day": it is a three-minute programme devoted to the presentation of different beliefs. As for the BBC's general range, if it were thought that the BBC did not accurately reflect the faiths, beliefs and perspectives of the wide range of people in our community, it would be in breach of its charter, but the trust does not consider that to be the case.

Lord Taverne: Will the Government consider drawing to the attention of the authorities of the BBC, who generally secure a high standard for their programmes, the fact that sometimes "Thought for the Day" does not entirely live up to its name and is a bit of a misnomer? It sometimes reminds us of the dictum of Dean Swift that much of mankind is as well qualified for thinking as for flying.

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, I imagine that the noble Lord might well be right in his assessment that "Thought for the Day" is sometimes variable in its quality, but then I imagine that we think that about all BBC programmes. They have a variable content; we hugely approve of some of it, according to our perspective, and are very critical of other parts. That is certainly the case with "Thought for the Day".

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Baroness Whitaker: My Lords, in view of the findings of an Ofcom report into public service broadcasting that viewers thought religion 16th out of 17 programme subjects most valued on terrestrial channels, does not my noble friend agree that the BBC should give more respect and show more courage regarding the ancient western moral beliefs of humanism?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, my noble friend is right in identifying that survey. However, the percentage of programmes on the BBC which is devoted to religion is limited, although regularly identifiable. Programmes which reflect other perspectives are in abundance on the BBC.

Lord Grocott: If we are in the business of trading statistics, will my noble friend confirm that in the 2001 census, 77.7 per cent of people described their faith as Christianity? There were many adherents to other great faiths as well. So while it is of course important to listen to my noble friend Lord Harrison, who was careful to refer to people who attended church rather than people for whom Christianity and other faiths was of great significance, can we make sure that those views are kept in proportion?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My noble friend's faith is matched only by his accuracy regarding the percentages he has identified from the census. On the more general issue, I assure my noble friend Lord Harrison and others who have contributed to this debate in recent weeks that the BBC is fully charged of the necessity to ensure that it reflects all perspectives in our society.

Lord Howard of Rising: Will the Minister say why humanism should have preferential treatment over ordinary values that most people in this country share which are totally ignored by the BBC?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, I do not think that the argument is for preferential treatment. However, there are specific religious broadcasting slots and the question is whether they should also be available-or one, at least, being "Thought for the Day"-for the humanist perspective. That is a position which the editorial judgment of the BBC rejects at present; it regards the humanist perspective as being reflected in other programmes, and "Thought for the Day" is reserved for religious and belief statements.

Lord Harries of Pentregarth: Does the Minister not agree that although the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, is understandably unsatisfied about the decision of the BBC over "Thought for the Day", the BBC is making increasing efforts to be really fair and impartial in its coverage of humanism? For example, during the summer I made three three-quarter-of-an-hour programmes with three atheists called "The Atheist and the Bishop", and most people who heard them felt that the BBC was scrupulously fair in trying to balance the arguments.

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, I am sure that many noble Lords who, like me, heard those programmes would agree with the judgment. I emphasise that there is a standing conference on religion and belief which the BBC consults and there is a humanist representative on it.

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Lord Alton of Liverpool: My Lords, is it not true that in a country where there has been radicalisation and alienation, particularly of young Muslims, it is important that the BBC should continue to hold the ring in the way that it does in promoting tolerance, diversity and community coherence? In that sense, should we not pay tribute to the way that the BBC has managed what is a very sensitive debate?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, I certainly agree with the noble Lord that this is a sensitive debate as I wriggle at the Dispatch Box in my attempts to respond to these telling and predatory questions. The fact is that we have invested in the BBC Trust a responsibility to ensure that the BBC fulfils its charter, and the judgment of the trust at the present time is that the BBC is doing that.

City of Westminster Bill [HL]

Revival Motion

3.36 pm

Moved By The Chairman of Committees

Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe: My Lords, I apologise for intervening at this stage and not giving prior notification to the noble Lord the Chairman of Committees, but I am not sure where I raise this question and it seems that this may be the appropriate point. In the light of the increasing criticism into which the House has come of late and our seeming inability to stay ahead of the curve and keep abreast of the changes that are needed for this House, could he say which committee will be looking at the Wright report, which was published yesterday in the other place, setting out a more democratic approach to dealing with business in the Commons and whether we can undertake a similar review in this House? If we can, which committee would do it, and if we cannot, why not?

The Chairman of Committees (Lord Brabazon of Tara): I am not quite certain what the noble Lord means. This is a Revival Motion for the City of Westminster Bill. Revival Motions have not been debated or divided on for the past 30 years, so the noble Lord has some distinction in raising this matter today. As to the question he raises, if the noble Lord is interested in the report from the House of Commons, which I have looked at, it will be a matter for the Procedure Committee. I commend the Motion.

Motion agreed.

Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe: I apologise to the Chairman and the House. I jumped the gun. My question is appropriate to the next matter.

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Lord Brabazon of Tara: We are now moving on to the Transport for London (Supplemental Toll Provisions) Bill, which is another Revival Motion. Again, these Motions have not been debated for the past 30 years until just now.

Transport for London (Supplemental Toll Provisions) Bill [HL]

Revival Motion

Moved By The Chairman of Committees

Motion agreed

Beverley Freemen Bill [HL]

Third Reading

3.39 pm


Moved by Lord Brabazon of Tara

Lord Graham of Edmonton: My Lords, I congratulate the Committee and the Beverley Freemen on having reached the end of a very long journey. It started some years ago when I came to the House and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mustill, was trying to get what was known as the Beverley Bill passed. It has been up and down and in and out of both Houses but I am very pleased to say that the Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Bill, which has just gone through, had spatchcocked into it a major piece of legislation, which was an attempt to bring up to date the legislation that has dealt with freemen over many years.

I am pleased to say that it has been very well received and I congratulate the Beverley freemen and all other freemen, who of course derive their power locally from medieval times. They do a marvellous job of work. I congratulate them and the Committee on having seen us this far.

Bill passed and sent to the Commons.

Deputy Chairmen of Committees

Administration and Works Committee

Communications Committee

Consolidation etc. Bills Committee

Constitution Committee

25 Nov 2009 : Column 368

Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee

Economic Affairs Committee

House Committee

Human Rights Committee

Hybrid Instruments Committee

Information Committee

Liaison Committee

Procedure Committee

Refreshment Committee

Science and Technology Committee

Standing Orders (Private Bills) Committee

Statutory Instruments Committee

Tax Law Rewrite Bills Committee

Works of Art Committee

Parliamentary Broadcasting Unit Limited (PARBUL)

Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST)

Membership Motions

3.40 pm

Moved By The Chairman of Committees

Deputy Chairmen of Committees

Administration and Works Committee

Communications Committee

Consolidation etc. Bills Committee

Constitution Committee

25 Nov 2009 : Column 370

Delegated Powers and Regulatory ReformCommittee

Economic Affairs Committee

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