HC Deb 08 May 1990 vol 172 cc154-67

`(1) An applicant for a licence to provide any of the services mentioned in subsection (2) may declare that he intends to provide a Christian broadcasting service under this section; and in that case, if his application is successful, his licence shall (in addition to any other conditions which, subject to this section, apply to that licence) be subject to the conditions set out in subsection (5) (in this section referred to as "christian broadcasting conditions").

(2) The services are—

  1. (a) A non-domestic satellite service (as defined by section 38(2));
  2. (b) A licensable programme service (as defined in section 41(1));
  3. (c) An additional service (as defined by section 43(1));
  4. (d) A sound broadcasting service to which section 78 applies;
  5. (e) A licensable sound programme service (as defined by section 104(1)).
  6. (f) An additional service (as defined by section 106(1)).

(3) Where an applicant for a licence for a service mentioned in paragraphs (a) to (c) of subsection (2) makes a declaration under subsection (1), paragraph 2 of Part II of Schedule 2 shall not apply to him; and accordingly the persons mentioned in that paragraph shall not be disqualified from holding a licence for such a service subject to Christian broadcasting conditions.

(4) A licence subject to Christian broadcasting conditions may not be issued to or held by any person except a body which is a charity registered under the Charities Act 1960 whose principal object is the propagation of Christianity.

(5) The Christian broadcasting conditions are that

(a) a substantial proportion of the programmes shall be directed to—

  1. (i) explaining what the Christian faith is and its relevance in the modern world;
  2. (ii) encouraging an improvement in moral standards in private and public life and an awareness of Christian ethics; and
  3. (iii) providing Christian counselling services.

(b) the programmes broadcast shall be predominatly of European origin;

(c) there shall be no broadcast appeals or requests for finance or other material benefits for the licensee or any person connected or associated with the licensee.

(6) Where the licence for any such service as is mentioned in paragraphs (a). (b) or (c) of subsection (2) is subject to Christian broadcasting conditions.

  1. (a)section 6(4) shall apply with the omission of the words from "and they shall also" to the end; and
  2. (b) without prejudice to its powers under section 42(4) the Commission may, if they consider it appropriate to do so, determine that section 6(1) shall, in its application to that service, have effect with the addition of the following paragraph—

"(e) that undue prominence is not given in its programmes to the views and opinions of particular persons or bodies on religious matters."

(7) So far as it relates to religious matters section 84(2)(b) shall not apply to any service which is licensed subject to Christian broadcasting conditions.

(8) In the application of

  1. (a) section 6(1)(c) (as substituted by virtue of section 42(4));
  2. (b) section 6(1)(e) (as added by virtue of subsection 6(b) above); and
  3. (c) section 84(2)(a),

to any service which is licensed subject to Christian broadcasting conditions, those provisions shall not be construed as imposing any duty on the licensed service which is inconsistent with those conditions; but shall be construed as prohibiting dominance by one particular church or ecclesiastical group.

(9) In its application to an application for a licence to provide a licensable sound programme service subject to Christian broadcasting conditions, section 105(2) shall have effect as if the reference to section 84(2) were a reference to that subsection as modified in accordance with subsections (7) and (8) above.'.—[Mr. Michael Alison.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Michael Alison (Selby)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

At first sight, the proposed new clause might seem to be somewhat sweeping and ambitious, particularly as the Minister of State has already offered so much that was not originally in the Bill on religious broadcasting. I make no apology for initiating through the new clause a brief debate, I hope, on religious broadcasting and Christian broadcasting in particular.

Large numbers of our constituents regard this aspect of the Bill as easily the most interesting and important part of it. Letters to colleagues reinforce that view. The Christian religion and Christian broadcasting are still very important in Britain. For example, 62 per cent. of the population see at least one religious television programme a month, and that is a very high proportion.

As for radio, BBC Radio 4's "Sunday" programme has a larger audience than "The World this Weekend", while the alternative on BBC Radio 2, "Good Morning, Sunday", has twice the audience of "Sunday". These compete with a number of local radio religious broadcasts. We are not talking about a marginal interest.

It follows from those figures that the idea that Britain is largely a secular nation cannot be sustained. Indeed, ascertainable evidence shows exactly the opposite. It is true that only 11 per cent. go to church weekly and 20 per cent. monthly—a much higher figure, incidentally, than those who attend sporting events the day before. But, according to the IBA itself, the strength of support for Christian views and values in Great Britain is extremely high. The latest IBA survey on religious beliefs says: In total claimed membership of any Christian faith accounted for 79 per cent. of people. Even amongst people who are not at all religious, two out of three describe themselves as 'Christians'. 13 per cent. of people admitted having no religion. A MORI survey in October of last year showed that 84 per cent. of people claimed that their religion was "Christian", while a Gallup survey of last December gave the figure as 77 per cent. On those percentages Britain is a Christian country.

12.15 am

I said earlier that my hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State had shown himself to be generous in his response to the Christian and more widely religious broadcasting lobby. He has also been painstaking, perceptive and sensitive in his response to lobbying. Those qualities take time and effort and many hon. Members as well as many people outside are deeply obliged to him for his personal interest in these matters.

The lobbying group with which I have been associated, which includes CARE campaigns, the Evangelical Alliance and Christian Standards in Society, lobbied for three objectives. First, we requested, in the words of the Bishop of St. Albans, who is a member of our group, and nine other denominational leaders, that religious programmes be specified among those which would comprise a properly diverse output. I am glad to see that Government amendment No. 114 specifically responds and gives effect to that request. We shall debate it later, but suffice to say at this stage that we are grateful to the Minister for honouring the undertaking that he gave in Committee and elsewhere about that improvement to the Bill.

Secondly, we expressed concern that Christian and other religious bodies were being restricted in a way unprecedented in previous broadcasting legislation. The Bill excluded them from holding any ITC licence and thus from the possibility of managing their own programme schedules and competing in the market place. In the long term, this exclusion would mean inadequate funding for religious programmes and consequently a decline in quality. Therefore, we asked the Minister of State to think again about the exclusion of responsible Christian bodies from the management of television channels. The Minister thought again and to good effect.

Government amendment No. 352 makes the radical, fundamental change to the original Bill by lifting the disqualification of religious bodies from holding television service licences for both non-domestic satellite and cable services. Such bodies are thus to be enfranchised as owners and managers in their own right in this area. This matter will be debated when we come to the Government amendment, but my hon. and learned Friend has given us everything that we could possibly ask for and we are deeply obliged to him.

In the light of these two major changes and improvements to the Bill, secured with the full co-operation and active assistance of my hon. and learned Friend the Minister, it might seem churlish to land him with this lengthy new clause at a quarter past midnight. However, there remains a third objective which my group has not yet secured. It relates to certain restrictions in the Bill that have been dubbed with the code phrases "no editorialising" and "no undue prominence." Clause 84(2)(a) says: undue prominence is 6not given in its programmes … to the views and opinions of particular persons or bodies on religious matters". Clause 84(2)(b) says: there are excluded from its programmes all expressions of the views and opinions of the person providing the service on religious matters". In the view of the group that I represent, those limitations are unacceptably restrictive and inhibiting and incompatible with that very generosity towards religious broadcasting, more widely, as represented by the proposed Government amendment that I have mentioned. Thus it appears paradoxically, to our legal advisers at least, that even if a Christian group were to be granted a licence, while it would be free to broadcast programmes on materialism or easy sexual morals or something quite incompatible or foreign to the Christian religion, it could not broadcast about the Christian faith. A radio station run by a local church would not be able to broadcast its own worship to the community that it served. That seems ludicrous, to put it mildly.

I know that the Minister believes that the Bill's provisions in this regard are not as restrictive as we fear, but our anxieties about restrictions on religious matters were reinforced when the shadow Radio Authority contradicted the Home Office. In January, the Home Office was good enough to listen to a tape recording of a typical programme broadcast by a sane and Christian radio station from the Isle of Man, and said that it would be acceptable under the Bill: it certainly did not want such broadcasts to be banned. In March, however, the shadow Radio Authority was asked for its views about the programme. It said that the "editorialising" clauses in the Bill would prevent such programming, and would be the death knell of the service as it currently functioned.

Incidentally, the Home Office—and my hon. and learned Friend the Minister in particular—may be interested to know that the governor of the prison on the Isle of Man thought that the programmes were so good for his inmates that he extended radio listening hours for the sole purpose of tuning in to them. That was the programme that the shadow Radio Authority deemed "unsuitable" and likely to be caught by the Bill's "editorialising" provisions.

That is why I have tabled the new clause—drafted with the assistance of the National Council for Christian Standards in Society and the particular help of Mr. Gareth Littler and Lady Watherston,who are members of the society,and designed to provide for an active but responsible propagation of the Christian faith by respectable, charitable, non-profit-making European licence holders, subject to all the safeguards against abuse that are already in the Bill.

John Wesley had the freedom of the open air in the 17th century, largely because he was banned from more official channels of communication. He made good use of the open air. We want to ensure that, if John Wesley were alive today, officialdom would not ban or inhibit him from the airwaves. If the Minister of State can show us a more satisfactory way forward than the new clause, I will gladly seek leave to withdraw it.

Mr. Mellor

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for Selby (Mr. Alison) for the cogency with which he has set out his case, and for the generous and handsome tribute that he has paid to my efforts. I am very touched by what he has said; but I like to think that what we have done was done with the approbation of every Member of the House. The aim was to strike a fair balance between ensuring that responsible Christian broadcasters had the opportunity to participate in the expanded access granted to, in particular, local radio and television services, and maintaining adequate protection against the exploitive religious programming that might be provided by religious cults—or by the American evangelists who have almost brought our religious broadcasting into disrepute.

Lest anyone should imagine that these are fanciful concerns, let me draw attention to a provocative letter in today's Times, in which a director of the Unification Church says how important it is for the country's moral welfare that the Moonies should be able to broadcast more widely to the nation. I trust I am not alone in the House in thinking that we should resist that.

As my right hon. Friend has said, as a result of the letters that we have received, and of representations made by hon. Members on both sides of the House, responsible Christian broadcasters will be permitted to own local radio stations, local cable channels and on-DBS satellite channels—subject to the discretion of the ITC or the Radio Authority, as appropriate. They will not be permitted to own national television or radio stations; I think that that is a fair distinction.

So far so good, but my right hon. Friend is right to point out that there is a problem in relation to the "no editorialising" and "no undue prominence" arrangements which were not geared specifically to religious programmes and which might appear to take away with one hand what we have given with the other. That is not our intention.

The Home Office has sought to argue, because it is what we believe, that neither of the provisions would preclude, say, a local group of churches with their own community radio station from broadcasting their own services. It would be ludicrous if it had that effect.

But I acknowledge that there is a grey area here. There are a number of opinions, not all of which are mutually consistent. Therefore, it would be to everyone's advantage if the matter were sorted out in a different way. That is what I propose to do, and I want briefly to give the House details of how we propose to tackle that.

First, there will be a requirement relating to fit and proper persons, offensiveness, advertising and restrictions on donations. All those will apply to religious broadcasting. That is right. Advertising will be allowed, but it has to be subject to a tight code. We do not want to see the free and easy approach to donations that has appeared in the United States. People not regarded as fit and proper persons should be excluded and the ITC and the Radio Authority will have the power to do that.

I propose to remove completely the "no undue prominence" and "no editorialising" arrangements from religious broadcasting and to replace them with a concept yet to be fully worked out. There would be a new requirement for all licensees that the ITC and the Radio Authority are prepared to see go forward as owners of stations that any treatment by them of religious matters must be responsible and not exploitive—concepts that will be fleshed out by the ITC and the Radio Authority in codes on programme standards.

I hope that that will prevent the inappropriate abuse of the airwaves by extreme religious groups while at the same time making it clear that legitimate Christian broadcasters have nothing to fear by the public protection devices made necessary in order to prevent any movement across the Atlantic of the unacceptable manifestations of religious broadcasting which are all too prominent there.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend and others who have continued to point out to me that, although we have moved considerable distances on the issues, there is nevertheless scope for moving yet further. It is a difficult and elusive balance to strike to allow those who are responsible free rein while restricting those who are irresponsible. I hope that we have got nearer that elusive balance in what I have had to say, and I hope that on that basis my right hon. Friend will be prepared to withdraw his new clause.

Mr. Darling

It may be appropriate to state the Opposition's position on the new clause, although if it is not to be pressed it may be academic.

Many of the problepms that we are discussing would not have arisen if the Government had at the outset said that it would be necessary for broadcasters to provide a wide range of programmes which would include religious programmes. In other words, there should be something similar to the present requirement for broadcasters to produce religious programmes of the sort that we see today. It is because the Government made no such provision that, understandably, a number of religious organisations and churches wrote to hon. Members asking that suitable amendments be made.

The feeling was that somehow religious organisations were being banned from access to the airwaves under the new television and radio regime. I do not think that that was ever the Government's intention, but it would have been far better if at the outset it had been clear that broadcasters would be required to produce a wide range of programmes, not just religious but including religious programmes, so that people could have access to programmes that they undoubtedly want to see, such as "Songs of Praise".

But there is a difference between acknowledging that fact and going on to say that they want something more akin to a television or radio station the object of which is to promote one particular view of religion.

There is not a single Christian view on anything. Christianity is but one faith, but there are many different churches within that religion. It would be impossible to create a Christian radio or television station that was even slightly acceptable to all who profess to practise the Christian faith.

12.30 am

I am not sure whether the amendment was intended as a stalking horse or to be enacted, but on the basis that it was meant to find its way into legislation, I offer the following observations. It would be impossible to accept a proposal that allowed a Christian church or organisation access to radio or television without at the same time permitting other religious interests precisely the same facility—to argue that Christians should enjoy access but that those who follow the Islamic faith, for example, should not. Such a proposition would immediately fall foul of the European Convention on Human Rights.

What is to prevent religious cults from gaining access to the airwaves in the way that the Minister described? I am sure that few right hon. and hon. Members would like to see the Moonies or similar organisations enjoying such access. I feel sure also that the majority of right hon. and hon. Members and the general public would not want to see in this country the situation that obtains in the United States, where television stations are owned and operated by organisations claiming to be of a religious or even Christian nature but which are really fronts for other, wholly undesirable groups that should never be given access to our airwaves.

Many people in this country who never go near a church from one year to the next may still consider themselves to be Christians or adherents of another faith. I am sure that even they would feel uneasy if they learned that all kinds of "churches" were to be given unrestricted access to our airwaves without question, and without any promise of a balanced approach—running mere pro-paganda stations for publicising views that might not command anything like popular support.

If new clause 32 ever finds its way into an Act, it would create wholly unwelcome problems in British broadcasting. I am glad that the Government's view appears to be that it should be resisted. I was pleased to infer also from the remarks of the right hon. Member for Selby (Mr. Alison) that he does not intend to press his proposal. He indicated one of the difficulties that could arise when he spoke of the Christian view. I do not agree that such a thing exists. The right hon. Gentleman gave an example of sexual morals, but I do not believe that there is a concluded view on what is right or wrong in terms of matters that the hon. Gentleman would describe as being concerned with sexual morality. It would be wrong unquestioningly to hand over the airwaves to any group in the way that the right hon. Gentleman described.

The analogy with John Wesley is wholly misplaced. No one seeks to prevent individuals from gathering wherever they choose to debate particular views. That is quite different from giving someone the ability and the right to reach into the sitting room of every house throughout the country. I feel sure that the right hon. Member for Selby acknowledges that that is so.

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

The hon. Member for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Darling) talks as though the country's entire airwaves are to be handed over to some religious group or another. He fails to acknowledge the new situation in which a large number of radio and television outlets will be opened, giving rise to the possibility that a particular point of view or subject matter may be concentrated on one channel far more than has ever been possible with the traditional forms of broadcasting with which we are all familiar, and which the hon. Gentleman may prefer. In addressing ourselves to the new structure, it is surely reasonable to consider whether a channel could reflect a predominantly Christian outlook, as understood by the people running it.

Mr. Darling

I do not take that view. I agree that in future there will be more and more opportunities for broadcasting, both on television and on radio, but I would be reluctant for people to tune in to the Catholic station, the Protestant station, the Muslim station, the Hindu station, whether it was cable, satellite or any other kind of television. I would also be reluctant to have a Labour party station or a Conservative party station. We really——

Mr. Roger Gale (Thanet, North)

We have four BBC channels.

Mr. Darling

The hon. Gentleman's paranoia is getting the better of him. Perhaps it is not surprising at this early hour in the morning.

I do not like the idea of dedicated radio and television channels on which all that one gets is propaganda. Surely that is not the future of broadcasting. Surely, even in the Government model of broadcasting, there is some sense of balance and questioning. It would be wrong to throw up our hands and say that, because there are many more channels on television and radio, we should hand them over to whoever wants them, without question.

Many Conservative Members, having achieved a Christian channel, would find that there was a request for a channel that put forward the views of Islam and they would howl for it to be closed down because they disagreed with what it said. I daresay that those who disagreed with what the Christian channel was broadcasting would be asking for that to be shut down. Sooner or later someone would say something which caused offence to someone else.

I do not think that the majority of people in this country want channels to be dedicated to a single view, although I agree that the opportunity for that exists—as the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) suggested—but it is not an opportunity that I want to take.

I prefer the model that we have developed which has a sense of balance and questions any views which are put forward, so that we do not end up with channels broadcasting propaganda, and people tuning in to the propaganda channel that suits them.

The majority of people find religious broadcasting satisfactory at present. At the risk of sounding conservative, that is how I would prefer to see it remain and I see no need for the type of change that the right hon. Member for Selby was promoting. The change frightens me, many other hon. Members and many people outside this place.

Rev. Ian Paisley (Antrim, North)

I should like to congratulate the Minister on considering the representations made to him and going a long way towards meeting them. I welcome the fact that he will take editorialising in hand and make a definite statement about where the line should be drawn on that issue.

Surely, when we are discussing the widening of broadcasting, it is only right that we should consider the widening of religious and Christian broadcasting. I cannot agree with the Opposition spokesman who put forward the view tonight that we can discuss the widening of broadcasting in the Bill, but for some reason Christianity should not be allowed to widen its net within the scope of broadcasting as it is envisaged in the Bill.

I should have thought that Christianity had as much right as any other section of the community to make its views known. I agree with the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Darling) that it is hard to define the Christian view because each denomination would put forward its own interpretation of the Christian religion, and I can well understand that. That gets us into debate and into controversy.

I was slightly amused when the right hon. Member for Selby (Mr. Alison), who moved the new clause, referred to John Wesley. If John Wesley had been living today, the BBC would not have allowed him on its channels. He had only a tiny following to start with, and until he had a respectable number of followers, meeting houses and churches, he would have been banned from the airways.

We then have to define who are the extremists. John Wesley was looked on as being very extreme in his day. We all have to decide where we stand. We all know whom we consider to be extreme, but from where they stand, they see their view point. Christianity and the Bible doctrines make their way by arguments and the proclamation of the gospel message. Broadcasting should make it possible—within reason, for there must be reason in this—for the preaching of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

If one does not like something on the radio or television, one can always turn it off. No one is compelled to listen or watch anything. I cannot agree with the argument that it was all right for John Wesley to be an open air preacher, but one would not want him to preach in one's drawing room. If one does not want him in one's drawing room, one can always shut off the set. One does not need to listen to him there.

Christianity should have the same rights as all other religions. I should have no objections to Islam broadcasting its teachings. As a Protestant, I believe in civil and religious liberties for everyone, and it has a right to broadcasting. If it said things with which I did not agree, I should not say that its broadcasts should be stopped—I should say that it was entitled to put forward its view.

Christianity is not a plant that needs greenhouse treatment. It can stand on its own legs and make its own way forward. The Christian religion, which was up against everything when Jesus Christ rose from the dead and sent forth his apostles, carried the world before it—a world of temples, paganism and false religion. Without any establishment, finance or anything that the world could do for it—it was on its own—it was able to carry the day. I have no doubt that Christianity will make a vital contribution to properly controlled religious broadcasting.

I trust that the Minister will persevere. As a Calvinist, he may know something about the perseverence of the saints, although my Arminian friends would know nothing about that. I hope that we shall end up with an Act that deals sensibly with religious broadcasting, so that all people who want to hear the gospel of Jesus Christ proclaimed will be satisfied that they were at least listened to and respected, and got the same deal as others. That is all that we are asking for. We are not asking for patronage or a special place. We are asking for our rightful place, so that the message of the gospel can be proclaimed in broadcasting.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate. I add my tribute to the Minister's response to the different approaches made to him. I support the plea made by the right hon. Member for Selby (Mr. Alison). Perhaps it is worthwhile asking why there is concern that there should be freedom of Christian and religious broadcasting. Over the years, there has been censorship. For example, it was not until the advent of ITV that I got the opportunity to broadcast, because the establishment keeps its own grip on the issues.

We must consider what happened in the BBC this year. During Lent, the period before Easter which is one of the most sacred periods in the Christian calendar, it was the task of the religious division of the BBC to get a response from the unbelievers to that most sacred period, which should have been an opportunity for Christians to meditate.

12.45 am

As the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Darling) said, the Bill as it appeared originally led many people to believe that there would be a limitation beyond understanding on Christian broadcasting. I welcome the assurance that the Government will consider the matter further. I trust that they will remove the ambiguities. If those who are responsible for implementing the changes in the legislation have their own interpretation, there is obviously a need for clarification. With regard to freedom of choice, I am amazed that the Government, who believe in market forces, and the official Opposition, who regularly speak on behalf of minorities, argue that we must be careful lest we open doors and allow other people to put their views forward. If we dismiss the concept of a Christian perception of issues, perhaps we misunderstand a broad consensus of Christian morality and aspects of Christian teaching.

I can certainly understand finer distinctions of theology. However, many of us may have a perception of the Christian aspects of a particular situation. If secular writers are right to present their interpretations of Christianity—and quite often they are critical of it with justification—it is equally proper that Christian writers and producers should be presenting their views so that people can make their own choice.

With regard to censorship, is it not amazing that when issues are raised about the standard and quality of secular broadcasting the reply is that people can always turn off? Why is the same standard not applicable for those who dislike Christian broadcasting? In the past, the Christian Church was prepared to go to the market place, to the Forum and even into Caesar's household. I welcome the fact that the Christian Church is beginning at last to awaken to the use of modern media to extend its message so that men and women can believe.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury)

I thank my hon. and learned Friend the Minister for the two major concessions that he made earlier and particularly for the concession that he has announced tonight. It is a particularly difficult balance to strike to find a way of excluding—to put it bluntly—the Moonies while allowing people to preach the gospel. It is important to say "preach the gospel" rather than "give an objective, distant view of Christian ideas."

It is a pity that Opposition Front-Bench spokesmen have chosen to resurrect once again the old multi-faith issue. That was satisfactorily put to bed in the Education Reform Act 1988 and a perfectly satisfactory formula was found to take account of the legitimate interests of other faiths while bearing in mind that this is still predominantly a Christian country. If the ideas expressed by my hon. and learned Friend the Minister are developed along similar lines, I am sure that they will be fruitful.

The compromise, upon which my hon. and learned Friend the Minister spent much time working, on the old "no editorialising rule" was widely accepted as it was originally interpreted. The religious advisory body for TVS, which has representatives of the major Churches and is chaired by a bishop of my church, Bishop Murphy-O'Connor, was in favour of the Government's compromise. It is only in the past couple of weeks, since the Radio Authority made its revelations, that it has become clear where the flaws are in this approach. We should be likely to eliminate genuine Christian organisa-tions from putting over a genuinely Christian point of view.

In developing his constructive and positive further concessions, I suggest to my hon. and learned Friend the Minister that it is important that we do not leave the whole power of interpreting the concept of responsibility to the broadcasting authorities. It is important that it is enshrined in law that the basic distinction is not whether people are allowed to put a view over responsibly or not, in some secular sense of the word, but whether radio stations owned by Christians put over views that are fundamentally Christian but also inter-denominational when giving different Christian Churches a go, or whether they are giving a narrow plug to their own sect. That must be the key distinction. Providing a station offers a reasonable amount of inter-denominational access, it should be deemed to be responsible. I say that only because the examples given by the hon. Member for Belfast, South (Rev Martin Smyth) suggest why there are good grounds for not wholly trusting the secular broadcasting authorities to interpret rules favourably to the Christian Churches.

I am certain that my hon. and learned Friend has been as patient with other hon. Members as he has been with myself. He has replied to several long letters, point by point, and I am sure that we shall resolve the issue satisfactorily, thanks to his efforts.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey)

I thank the Minister for his concessions and for the seriousness with which he has dealt with the representa-tions so far. I must reflect, slightly amusedly, on the alternatives open to people when confronted with religious broadcasts—either those transmitted on the radio or personal appearances. It is easy to turn off a religious broadcast on the radio, but less easy if one is listening to a live speech by John Wesley or the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley) outside one's window. The argument must be, therefore, that it is perfectly proper to give people the choice.

The option that has been argued for is either for the majority religious group in the country or for the largest minority one. If we are properly to allow the broadcast media to transmit the range of our culture, it would be ludicrous to exclude religion and programmes that intend to broadcast and share the message of religion. If we allow radio to broadcast music, drama and current affairs, it would be unfair and illogical to do that, just as it would be unfair and illogical to allow the transmission of radio and television programmes to the ethnic minorities without them being able, as appropriate, to have their proper religious content so that the Muslim, Hindu and Sikh minorities could also have their way. Those of us who argue for Christian broadcasting permission do not seek to exclude that for other faiths as well. Of all the faiths that should have that opportunity historically and numerically in this country, it must be the Christian faith.

It has not yet been pointed out to the Minister that, if we are allowing freedom of choice, one alternative that it is right to allow to be broadcast over the airwaves is a spiritual alternative. I have had the experience, as I am sure other hon. Members have had, of being at home late in the evening and wanting a restful alternative on the radio. One cannot find one. One either finds talk, which is not what one wants, or unsuitable music. People may want consolation, support, guidance, help or even prayer. All that should be available. It is only proper that we allow the spiritual side of everybody's life, which is available at different times and in different degrees, to be reflected in those who own and transmit through our radio and television network.

I take seriously the Minister's point that some sects would seek to use the power that ownership in the radio and television media gave them to broadcast propaganda, including evil propaganda. Like everyone else, I oppose the idea of recruitment into closed sects such as the Moonies and other similar denominations, with all the disadvantages that it entails for the recruit. Surely the answer to that problem is that those who broadcast religious programmes should be required, under properly regulated arrangements, to declare who they are, who owns and runs the programme and what name their sect goes by. That will make it perfectly possible for people to understand who is in charge. If we required that, we should still take the risk—as we do now—that some people will be betrayed into something that they do not entirely understand, but the risk will be far less substantial if there is a requirement to sign and identify what is being provided in a proper and effective way, and if people are then allowed to choose.

Mr. Darling

I am interested in the hon. Gentleman's remarks. Most hon. Members who have spoken have agreed that having the Moonies on the radio or television is a bad thing and that we are not very keen on it. How does one draw the line between an organisation such as the Moonies and an organisation to which none of us would object—the mainstream Church perhaps? Even under the scheme that the hon. Gentleman proposes, I do not suppose that the Moonies would say, "We are Moonies. We are out to con and brainwash people to get lots and lots of money. That is our true intention." They are a little more sophisticated than that. How does one draw the line? Are we not stuck with the fact that if we use the "You can switch it off" argument, it must apply to all denominations and not just to one or two?

Mr. Hughes

That is a perfectly proper question, to which there are two answers. First, some of the activities of certain sects have been ruled illegal and would be governed by other parts of the law. Certainly, the Unification Church falls outside the law in some respects. Secondly, I should be happy to entrust a decision about the distinction between a small, perfectly proper sect and a small sect that may be regarded as improper by a majority of people to a proper advisory body, which could at all times have an accountable reporting function.

Of course it is a difficult distinction, but our case is that one starts with the faith for which there is substantial current demand. The right hon. Member for Selby (Mr. Alison) made it clear that we are talking about large numbers of people. Of course, with small denominations, the distinction is more difficult but it cannot be beyond the wit of humans to determine a pragmatic method of deciding, always subject to revision.

I listened to the Minister's remarks about what he hoped to do in relation to the third proposal that had been put to him. I should like to explain what those of us who wish him to adopt that proposal are seeking to achieve.

Let me quote from the IBA's fifth background paper, produced for the Report stage: We agree that the prohibition of control of mainstream television services at a national level by bodies whose aims are wholly or mainly religious should be maintained. We would not consider it unreasonable in principle, however, for permission to be granted to such bodies to hold a licence for cable and satellite channels, particularly where these services are provided on a subscription or pay per view basis. Clause 6(4) would be a restraint on possible abuse. We do not believe that the 'no editorialising' requirement of Clause 6(4) would prevent the broadcasting of religious services or acts of worship which coincided with the religious affiliation of the owner of a service. Clause 6(4) would only be infringed if the service was used to promote the particular religious views and opinions of the person providing the service. We should not allow the matter to depend on what the IBA believes; it should be a matter of law, and clear in law. Moreover, I do not think—I hope that it is not the view of the House—that we should prevent someone who owns a service from preaching or teaching or sharing a religious service that reflects his view. For example, I refer to a Nonconformist view, a Presbyterian view, a Roman Catholic view, a Methodist view, an Anglican view or anything else—even a different view and a known different view on key tenets of the Christian faith. Surely those matters must be able to be transmitted, irrespective of whether they are the views of the owner of the station in question.

I presume that the Minister of State would hope to address the link problem—the micro version of which my previous point is the macro version, which was pointed out by the Isle of Man authorities when it looked as though they might be running foul of the law—so that, as was made clear in a briefing that the Minister will have seen, small radio stations which transmit at Christian festivals such as the Greenbelt festival or the other examples cited and Llandudno Methodist Easter festival can do their job without running foul of the law.

1 am

Is it right, as has been put to me in one of the letters that I have received, that it is still illegal to advertise sales of the Bible on television? If that is the case, is it not ludicrous that we can allow advertising of many other things—literature and so on—all of which, of necessity, must be less valuable? If that is the case, do we not need to do one last bit of tidying up of the law as well?

Mr. Kenneth Hind (Lancashire, West)

I appreciate that the hour is late, so I shall not unduly detain the House. I thank my hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State for the tolerance with which he has listened to the arguments in Standing Committee and recognised that the undue prominence provisions in the Bill, mainly clause 84(2), should be amended. Clearly, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Selby (Mr. Alison) said, we have been guided by the National Council for Christian Standards in Society and Mr. Gareth Littler, who have indicated the strength of the arguments about over-editorialising and undue prominence. Many hon. Members will recognise that the major problem is that religious broadcasting has been sanitised. I was quite surprised by the secular controls of the present regime upon religious broadcasting and the impact it has on the simple matter of spreading the gospel.

In Standing Committee we removed the worst aspects of American religious broadcasting. At the same time, we created a framework that is acceptable to the majority of society, giving freedom of religious broadcasting. This is the last piece in the jigsaw. I urge the House to endorse the views of my right hon. Friend the Member for Selby. His clear, strong and well-thought-out ideas should be introduced into the other place so that we can then commend them when they return here.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Cannock and Burntwood)

It looks as though it has fallen to me to deliver the epilogue in the debate. Therefore, I shall be as brief as possible. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Selby (Mr. Alison), who has fought a distinguished arid persistent battle in a worthy cause. I pay tribute also to my hon. Friends who fought hard in Committee, athough I was not a member of the Committee.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Selby is absolutely right to draw attention to the considerable number of letters that many hon. Members have received on this matter. The tenor of letters that I have received from my constituents is that the Government are bringing forward a Broadcasting Bill, yet they seem to be penalising the Christian faith. I inform the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Darling) that this is a Christian country, and it is right and proper that our constituents expect that we should ensure that the Christian faith occupies a central role in broadcasting religious matters. I am not opposed to opportunities for minority faiths, but we must remember that we must not ignore the majority —the Christian people of this country.

I appreciate that the Minister has concerns. I like to think that he is concerned not so much about the Moonies as about the heresies of some of our bishops and that he is anxious to keep some of those off the air. I have no doubt that, being a good lawyer, he will keep his own counsel on that issue.

The Bill is before us to provide a framework to cope with the advance in technology that has taken place. The diversity is already there. The hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) pointed that out. We are trying in the Bill to create the framework within which that technology can be made to work to advantage and without risk of abuse.

I congratulate the Minister on the moves that the Government have made. This is yet a further example among the legion of examples that exist of the Government listening. I am fed up hearing about how the Government do not listen. The Minister has worked extremely hard on this issue. We agree that it is a difficult area on which to tread. He has acted with great distinction.

Concern has been expressed about his proposals for dealing with the problem of no editorialising. I hope that he will ensure that hon. Members have a proper opportunity to examine his detailed proposals so that we may satisfy ourselves that we shall not end up with, as he called it, the ludicrous situation of having a channel run by the Church of England but being unable to broadcast its own services for the reason that the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) pointed out, quoting from the IBA briefing which says it all: Clause 6(4) would be infringed only if the service was used to promote the particular religious views and opinions of the person providing the service. What on earth is a sermon for if it is not to promote the views of the Christian faith? With that caveat, I warmly welcome the Minister's proposal and hope that he will pilot it through with the success that he has achieved so far.

Mr. Alison

My hon. Friend the Member for Cannock and Burntwood (Mr. Howarth) said that he had the epilogue, but I have an even more welcome epilogue to his epilogue, which is to say that, in the light of the Minister's helpful response, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the new clause.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

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