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Restrictions On The Holding Of Licences

Volume 178: debated on Friday 12 October 1990

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Lords amendment: No. 466, in page 146, line 21, leave out from ("corporate,") to ("and") in line 27 and insert

("shall be construed in accordance with sub-paragraph (2A)")

Motion made, and Question proposed,

That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said amendment.— [Mr. Mellor.]

With this it will be convenient to take amendments Nos. 467 to 477 and 483 to 499.

9.45 pm

At an earlier stage my hon. Friends and I sought to reduce the number of local radio stations that a company could own from six to four. The Minister will not be surprised to hear that I oppose a system that would allow as many as 20 stations to be owned. It runs a risk of creating something like a game of monopoly, with the companies racing about bidding for the plums. It poses the possibility of large private monopolies being created to the detriment of small local stations and it could make a mockery of the bidding process. Why have the Government agreed to amendment No. 484, to leave out ("six") and insert ("twenty")?

The hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan) gives me an opportunity to deal with a point that was not always clear from the debates in the other place. Indeed, it was not always clear to me until it was spelt out to me, so I am not assertin great superior insight into the subject.

There is a crucial distinction here. We have changed the rules in a more significant way than just numbers. In the early stages, we were referring to stations. We are now referring to channels. Some independent radio stations in rural areas operate now on up to six channels, because different channels may be required to reach the whole area. A metropolitan example of that is LBC, which has one station with two channels.

We are not talking about 20 stations. At present, there are already over 130 channels in the system, so the limit of 20 gives nobody, on the face of it, more than 15 per cent. It is less than that. But the number of channels is set to expand rapidly, so we shall not be creating a monopoly.

We came up with an ownership system that people thought was crude and not convincing. The Radio Authority came up with another system that we felt needed modification to be acceptable. We suggested, in the spirit of open government which the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland would commend, that the AIRC and the Radio Authority, in the light of certain guidance that we sent to them about our response to the Radio Authority's original proposals, should examine our guidance together and come back to us, when we would try to agree to their proposal.

There are undercurrents here. While we do not want monopolies—the Bill is strong on control; it is only in relation to the non-DBS satellites that we have been remotely criticised for not being rigorous—we must remember that we are dealing with small battalions, so there is every advantage in allowing some element of multiple holding. What is left is still small in the context of enterprises outside of television companies. I hope that, in moving from stations to channels, and in due course promulgating—as we shall do by laying an order—the full details of the ownership arrangements, we shall have an arrangement with which the industry feels happy. I want the industry to be confident about the future and believe that it will be much more confident about it if it believes that it has shaped a crucial sector—the ownership requirements.

In further proving that there is life after death in this instance, I gather that I shall have the privilege of dealing with the order when it comes forward. I look forward to then being able to justify what has been done.

I am grateful to the Minister, who made an extremely helpful intervention.

Question put and agreed to.

Subsequent Lords amendments agreed to.

Lords amendment: No. 478, in page 148, line 43, at end insert ("or the Authority")

I beg to move, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said amendment.

With this we may take Lords amendments Nos. 479 to 482, 16, 21, 134, 171, 173, 254 and 256.

Both Houses have made a great effort to try to ensure that a rigorous but fresh climate for religious broadcasting is established under the Bill. I gather that there may be one or two residual problems, so I may intervene later if there are points that I need to pick up.

As the Minister says, many of these matters are technical and, although there are about 700 amendments to come, we are content to accept most of them as technical and will not delay the House. However, I should like the Minister to explain one or two more aspects of this group of amendments, particularly amendment No. 482, which requires the ITC and the Radio Authority to bring into force guidelines.

The Minister will know that hon. Members have received a great deal of correspondence on that matter. The constituency of the hon. Member for Swindon (Mr. Coombs) includes Vision Broadcasting and my constituency contains UCB. Both of us have been exercised by the representations of those two organisations on the guidelines, which are currently drawn up by the Radio Authority. The ITC is beginning work on its guidelines.

Both sides of the House are at one in their general aim to prevent American-style, charismatic, evangelistic broadcasting in this country. We do not want the sort of broadcasting where the power of the medium is used to extract a great deal of money with emotional force and all the other sordid elements that have crept in in the United States.

However, many people are, with some justification, concerned that the draft guidelines on which the Radio Authority is working at present may, in one or two particulars, be going too far, especially in relation to restrictions on appeals and donations and exactly what is meant by proselytising. The religious churches that might apply for the licences are perfectly happy to accept the restriction not to appeal on the air for money, but the guidelines on which the Radio Authority is presently working state that no other literature can be produced in support of their activities. That seems to put the churches at a disadvantage in relation to other charitable organisations. It is one thing not to use the power of radio or television to ask for money, but if organisations such as Vision Broadcasting or UCB cannot put out leaflets in support of their activities or ask people to support them in door-to-door campaigns, that seems to be going extremely far, and I am not sure that that is the intention. I should be grateful if the Minister would give his views on that and some guidance, both to the Radio Authority and the ITC, which are currently drafting their guidelines.

It is difficult to define proselytising—[Interruption.] The Minister has a definition to offer from a sedentary position and I look forward to hearing it later, but hon. Members who do not consider themselves a walking thesaurus would say that it meant to propound and propagate religious beliefs, which is explicitly allowed under this set of guidelines. However, the next sentence in the guidelines says that companies may not use any material
"to proselytise or recruit members."
Once again, this is a matter of using written material which companies may want to circulate to members of the public in support of their claims.

There seems to be some confusion here and it would be helpful if the Minister gave some guidance to the Radio Authority and the ITC to clarify the matter.

We are content with all other aspects of the amendments.

I should like to carry forward the expressions of anxiety by the shadow Minister for the Arts about the draft codes of conduct and of programme content that are beginning to appear.

I had occasion to write to my right hon. and learned Friend about this a few days ago, so he is well apprised of the situation. There is no doubt that the new regulatory bodies, the ITC and the Radio Authority, which are the very creatures of this Bill, are arrogating to themselves powers of interpretation and discretion which are all weighted in the direction of restrictions that are the very reverse of the Minister's own liberalising and expansionist philosophy on religious broadcasting. So much is certainly beginning to come through in the draft to which the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher) referred.

I want to give the Minister the flavour of what I am complaining about. On 18 October last the new draft broadcasting, advertising and sponsorship codes on religious broadcasting were made available for comment. In a letter accompanying the draft codes the controller of advertising at the IBA wrote:
"After very careful consideration both the shadow ITC and Radio Authority have concluded that there is not a sufficiently persuasive case to prohibit programme sponsorship by religious organisations".
But my right hon. and learned Friend will recall that as long ago as April he wrote to parliamentary colleagues as follows:
"Religious organisations will be allowed to sponsor programmes and to advertise on both TV and radio".
So who is running the country, to ask a rhetorical question? I hope that the Minister will confirm that the controller of advertising at the IBA had no discretion or any option other than to reflect the Minister's decision as conveyed to colleagues in the House on this matter.

This is not a nit-picking point. As my right hon. and learned Friend will know from the letter that I sent him on 24 October and from representations that he has received from other colleagues, the two broadcasting organisations already mentioned by the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central, United Christian Broadcasters—the Stoke-on-Trent radio station—and Vision Broadcasting cable television from Swindon, both approved and authorised to operate by the present Cable Authority, would be threatened with closure and extinction if the draft programme code circulated by the new Radio Authority were to be implemented, and if it were to be echoed, copied and reflected in the parallel television code, which would affect Vision television.

My right hon. and learned Friend will have noted from the material that I sent him that the UCB station at Stoke-on-Trent falls foul of the new draft code in at least eight identifiable and separate particulars. Yet that very station is warmly commended and authorised by the present Cable Authority. I remind the Minister that, judging from references that he and the Prime Minister have made in correspondence with me and Lord Halsbury, Vision television and UCB are regarded in Downing street and in the Home Office as acceptable and desirable bodies whose future is to be safeguarded and enhanced.

The liberalising regime that my right hon. and learned Friend has sponsored and provided for in the Bill is designed not to mutilate but to multiply groups such as United Christian Broadcasters and Vision Broadcasting. We look to my right hon. and learned Friend for arm assurances that no code will be acceptable to the Government that cannot accommodate and secure the future of UCB and Vision Television.

The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central mentioned the difficulty that we have already encountered in paragraph 7.7 of the draft code——

It being Ten o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.

Ordered,

That, at this day's sitting, the Ways and Means Motion and the Lords Amendments to the Broadcasting Bill may be proceeded with, thought opposed, until any hour.—[Mr. Kirkhope.]

Lords amendments again considered.

Question again proposed, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said amendment.

The draft paragraph is headed "Proselytising" and it seems quite extraordinary that the draft Radio Authority should seek to ban and bar what it calls proselytising, which means exactly the same as evangelism. One has only to read the gospel of St. John the evangelist on television or radio and one is evangelising. However, proselytising, which means making converts to a religion, is apparently to be proscribed. I cannot believe that such nonsensical random drafting by a body that is itself a creature of the Bill can be allowed to continue unchecked. My right hon. and learned Friend must intervene and put a sharper definition, regulation and control on such drafts. Above all, he must provide that bodies such as UCB and Vision will be able to survive, persist, multiply and flourish under the new regime that he has pioneered. We are profoundly grateful to him for the imaginative, outward-looking and constructive way in which he has approached the whole question of religious broadcasting. We look to him to persist with that matter in the oversight that he exercises on the new codes of practice.

I shall start by assuming that the Government and my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister for the Arts are fully committed to the continuance in operation of the two organisations to which reference has been made in the debate—United Christian Broadcasters, which in Stoke has the advantage of a Dispatch Box speaker, the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher), on its side, and Vision Broadcasting in Swindon, for which I should like to speak.

The Minister has made it clear in previous debates and in Committee that he agrees that these bodies are doing a good and useful job and that their future should not be threatened by any legislation, or codes or guidelines drawn up under the legislation. I am sure that my right hon. and learned Friend will tell the House that it is too early to assume the worst. I would be happy to feel that I need not assume the worst in these matters. The problem is that, on 1 January, the new ITC and Radio Authority will be in office. They will then have, as it were, the power of life and death over organisations such as those that I have mentioned.

It is important for those of us who wish those organisations to continue to operate after 1 January to be reassured that that will be possible and that nothing will happen to prejudice their chances of survival. The Radio Authority's draft programme code and the shadow ITC's draft code on sponsorship and advertising contain indications that cause considerable concern.

As has been said, in its draft code, the Radio Authority has produced suggestions that would simply close down UCB in Stoke. There can be little doubt about that. Of course there will be consultations about those draft guidelines and objections will be raised. What happens if those objections are overruled and the guidelines are the same on 1 January? We want to know. What happens if the shadow ITC's draft guidelines on sponsorship and advertising are adopted? To be fair, it does say:
"The shadow ITC would welcome views on how far the draft rules should apply to advertising on specialised religious channels."
What if, at the end of the consultation exercise, it decides that those rules should apply? As I understand it, on 1 January, Vision Broadcasting, for example, would be taken out of action. We do not want that to happen. I believe that the Government do not want that to happen, and I have been assured by my right hon. and learned Friend that he does not want it to happen—but the signs are that it could and probably will happen.

In another place, the noble Lord Viscount Buckmaster called me to order and said that he hoped that
"the Conservative Member of Parliament for Swindon will pursue vigorously the cause of the broadcasting installation"
in his constituency. He also said:
"I hope that your Lordships can appreciate the nervousness, especially at Vision Cable, because in recent years the IBA religious broadcasting department has blocked the broadcasting of a number of Christian programmes, as was mentioned on earlier stages of the Bill in your Lordships' House. It blocked them for a number of reasons … Virtually all of those programmes have in the end been broadcast, with some editing or modification … but from 1st January 1991 Vision Cable will be subject to the ITC and the authority of members of the same IBA religious department as originally refused broadcasting permission for those programmes."—[Official Report, House of Lords, 22 October 1990; Vol 522, c. 1221.]
The problem is that those individuals have, for whatever reason, previously demonstrated a dislike of or a hostility towards the sort of programmes being transmitted. We have reason to be concerned about what may happen on 1 January—and on that date it will be too late, unless matters have been clarified and the Government have made it clear to the shadow Radio Authority and the shadow ITC that they will not tolerate the sort of codes and guidelines that are beginning to appear, and which may multiply and take force on 1 January.

My usual feeling is that codes and guidelines should be kept well away from Government and Parliament. We set up bodies and expect them to act reasonably on our behalf. What happens if one or two bodies act in a way that has an effect diametrically opposite to that which has clearly been stated as desirable by my right hon. and learned Friend and by Parliament? I hope that my right hon. and learned Friend will give us the answer to that. I hope that, before 1 January, he will ensure that any threat to religious broadcasting organisations is well and truly removed for good.

I join in this part of the debate with some humility because I wanted, like my right hon. Friend the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, to be a member of the General Synod—but unfortunately, as a Conservative standing in Southwark, I failed to be elected. I regard myself as a member of the Synod, failed.

I stand firmly on the ground advocated by David Sheppard, Bishop of Liverpool. I recommend an article that he wrote in one of today's newspapers, in which he said indirectly that the most important part of religious broadcasting was the broadcasting and not the narrow casting that will come on cable.

Millions of people watch "Highway", "Songs of Praise", and the BBC's "Everyman". Such programmes reach far greater audiences than any of the specific religious Christian broadcasting channels are ever likely to reach. If the promotion of opportunities for radio broadcasting on specific religious channels and cable television lead to the major broadcasters—independent television and the BBC—dropping their God slots and goodness corners, the loss to the people will be great.

We may not be faced with that choice—I do not have sufficient knowledge of the matter—but I do know that the fight for Radio 3 and the broadcasting elements for Christian and other great faiths has meant that people do not watch or listen only to the listings of their choice, but can come across elements of broadcasting almost as a surprise—and faith may do the same, not as the result of evangelism, but as a part of our national life.

Large-scale national religious broadcasting is vital. I cannot speak for the organisations in Stoke or Swindon. I have not listened to their output and I am not sure that I have read what they have sent to me—if, indeed, they have sent me anything. I respect my right hon. and learned Friend and my hon. Friend the Member for Swindon (Mr. Coombs) because they know what they are talking about in speaking up for the modification of the draft code, but I do not want the code to be modified so that, although we may gain a spread of local religious channels and stations, the national radio and television broadcasters will drop what is important to those of us who have or seek faith and who want religion to be reflected in national broadcasting.

Let us look at the United States and its three major national networks. There is an absence of what we in this country take for granted.

Why does my hon. Friend think that it is an either/or situation; we can have both.

I am not sure that my hon. Friend can have been listening to me. I did not say that it would necessarily be an either/or situation.

In all humility, I should like to develop my own speech. I may be wrong, and my hon. Friend may be right. I merely want to ensure that we do not debate the matter without recognising the major influence of the hours of broadcasts that are valuable to all of us. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway) would agree with that. I doubt whether Twyford high school would have been converted to a Church of England school without the background influence of national broadcasting, even though the majority of children at that school are not necessarily of a Christian denomination.

That important element, and the work that the Bishop of Liverpool does with the Central Religious Advisory Committee, should get more attention. I hope that, as the months go by, people will listen to the chairman and members of that committee, who do have a broad knowledge of what is going on. They may be able to prevent us from falling into the idea that religion is a minority interest rather than a most important part of our national life and our national broadcasting network.

I am grateful to hon. Members on both sides of the House for their commitment to making progress with the Bill, and for their co-operation in achieving that aim. Perhaps it would be for the convenience of the House if I moved future amendments formally—not to avoid debate, but to avoid unnecessary debates. If there are then points on which I can assist the House, as I am sure there will he, I can respond to them. That may be preferable to my introducing at any length questions on which, given the consideration the Bill has already received, hon. Members may be perfectly content.

From all the heads that are being vigorously nodded, I get the impression that that is a most welcome suggestion.

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. That is a good start.

The constituents of the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher) get a bit of balance in their lives, being represented by him in Parliament and having religious broadcasters in their midst as some compensation. When we set our hand to an expansion of responsible religious broadcasting, we did so advisedly, believing that some broadcasters would view responsibly the expansion that had been made possible, but knowing that there are some other groups—cults and American-style broadcasters, for example—that we would not want broadcasting here and for which the Bill provides no mandate. That is why the Bill is carefully drawn to permit the expansion of responsible Christian broadcasting while at the same time preventing irresponsible or exploitative broadcasting.

Unfortunately, these are not self-defining passages. They require sensitive work on the part of the regulatory bodies—in this case the ITC and the Radio Authority. Frankly, I do not envy either of those bodies their task, but I believe that they are doing the best that they can to consult widely on their guidelines. I imagine that the reason why the Radio Authority has produced guidelines—guidelines that neither I nor the Government have seen, but upon which comments have been made—is to ensure that, if they are unreasonable, they can be corrected before they are promulgated formally. If it is thought that the authority is being unreasonable even when the guidelines are promulgated, much as I am reluctant to call upon the assistance of my learned friends in these matters because I do not want to add to their work with this Bill, it would be a fitting matter for judicial review.

If it is any help, we obviously considered these matters. It is not our job to be a regulator—I say that on constitutional grounds—but obviously, if something seems manifestly unfair, I dare say that comments to that effect would not be improper, if they were privately expressed.

10.15 pm

On the whole, we should have some sympathy with the regulators in their task. After all that we have been through, I do not believe that either UCB or Vision Broadcasting will find things very difficult. I am anxious that they should not—to use the old boxing parlance—squeal before they are hurt. We have to bear in mind the fact that the ITC has not yet even published its draft guidelines. Frankly, I cannot be expected to give reassurances about a problem that has not even arisen.

As I have already said, while I cannot anticipate the ITC's individual licensing decisions, I am quite sure that Vision Broadcasting will have nothing to fear under the new regime on programming grounds if its religious broadcasting is responsible and not exploitative. So far, I have no reason to believe that its output has been anything other than responsible, and it has not been exploitative.

Some of my hon. Friends are very keen, either because organisations are located in their constituencies or because they are involved with new and exciting opportunities, as is my right hon. Friend the Member for Selby (Mr. Alison). We must also bear in mind the cautious words of my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Mr. Bottomley) and of the Bishop of Liverpool, with whom I have discussed this topic. There is another view, which is that there are real dangers in allowing expoitative religious groups in by the back door. We have to accept that there is a role for the regulators in distinguishing one from the other.

I am keen to be absolutely sure that the regulations work properly. I am satisfied in my own mind but, by setting about the process of consultation with such care, in the end it will be possible for sensible people to come to terms on the matter.

Hon. Members on both sides of the House are agreed that we do not want the high-pressure charismatic broadcasting that disfigures the American scene; we are at one with the Minister on that.

The Minister must accept that his Bill places a responsibility on the Radio Authority and the commission to introduce guidelines. By taking the arm's-length view of the guidelines—that he has admitted to in his replies--he is distancing himself far too much from the creature and from the responsibilities that he has set up.

I am sure that the Minister has listened carefully to the debate. The speech by the right hon. Member for Selby (Mr. Alison), speaking as a Church Commissioner, and those of other hon. Members should give him some cause for concern. Many of the guidelines that the Radio Authority and, probably, the ITC are working on are quite correct—for example, those on appeals for money on the air, on not denigrating other religions, and on limiting programmes about phenomena. It is not that all the guidelines are wrong. But I should have thought that the Minister would have heard enough in this short debate to realise that there is genuine concern about appeals, donations and the problem area of proselytising.

The House would be reassured if the Minister gave an undertaking to get in contact with the Radio Authority and the ITC. He has required them to set up guidelines. If he entered into a dialogue at this stage, we could get things right before 1 January. That is not asking a great deal of the Minister. He has brought the guidelines and responsibilities into force, so he owes it to the House to take a little more interest in them, and to ensure that they are the sort of guidelines that all hon. Members want.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, but may I say to him in all kindness—and I mean that—that he must not allow the fact that one of these organisations is located in his constituency to blur his wider judgment. If I started to meddle with the regulatory bodies on other issues, he would be the first to leap up and say that that was constitutionally improper. As it happens, I believe that this is a perfectly proper matter on which I dare say we shall have discussions, but we must not be thought to be trying to lean on the regulatory bodies to prevent them from dealing sensitively with a difficult matter. I do not want worthwhile broadcasters to be trampled on. That will not, I believe, be the consequence. With great respect, however, to all concerned, since the Independent Television Commission has not yet published its draft——

That is a separate body.

I return to the point that we have set our hand to expanding religious broadcasting. My right hon. Friend the Member for Selby (Mr. Alison) was kind enough to say that I have done it, but in five or 10 years' time, I do not want bitterly to regret having done it because we had levered the regulatory bodies into a position in which they were afraid to stand up against exploitative religious broadcasting.

I do not suggest that either of the organisations is exploitative; I am perfectly satisfied that they are not. Anyone standing in my position, however, would be well advised not to say too much to the regulatory bodies that will be doing their best to deal with the problems they encounter. Nevertheless, in so far as there are words that with advantage might be changed to softer or better words, in accordance with the principles that we have followed throughout our consideration of the Bill, the officials will want to have discussions about them. I do not wish to appear to be condemning prematurely regulatory bodies that will be doing their best, but I shall convey with pleasure both to the ITC and to the Radio Authority the points that have been made in the debate.

Question put and agreed to.

Subsequent Lords amendments agreed to. [Some with Special Entry.]

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I think that we missed Lords amendment No. 110 to which the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher) wished to speak.

I had put the Question on that amendment but, in view of the speed at which I was moving, I shall gladly reverse engines and allow the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher) to speak.