Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): I am grateful to the hon. Lady for intimating to me that she wished to raise that point of order. I think that she will know that the Chair cannot opine on the second part of her question. The answer to the first part of her question is no. She has, however, put the matter on the record and attention will, no doubt, be paid to her anxiety.

Clause 1

The Office of Communications

Mr. Simon Thomas: I beg to move amendment No. 14, in page 1, line 6, at end insert—

'(2A) The Secretary of State shall ensure that the membership of OFCOM includes a member dedicated to ensuring that the needs of people with disabilities are represented.'.

Amendment No. 14 is a slight rehash of what was discussed in Committee, but it is an important amendment none the less. We need to be seen to have debated this issue on the Floor of the House, and to hear the response from the Minister. The amendment seeks to ensure that the membership of Ofcom includes a member dedicated to ensuring that the needs of people with disabilities are represented. It is important to emphasise at the outset that I am not seeking to ensure that there is a representative from one of the disability groups in Ofcom. That would be difficult to achieve. One cannot conceive of the kind of structures that might be necessary to give rise to an election—or whatever it might be—to get such a representative into Ofcom. It is important, however, to recognise how Ofcom will meet the needs of disabled people as it is being established by the House.

It was argued in Committee that all members of Ofcom should deal with the needs of disabled people, and that this is not an issue that we can hive off to one individual. I accept that, as a central premise and as a general way of working, it would be good for the whole of society to operate along those lines. Nevertheless, if we do not flag up clearly at the legislating stage just how the needs of disabled people are to be looked after by Ofcom, we are in danger not of having every Ofcom member look after them but of having none.

There are about 9 million disabled people in the United Kingdom, and the 2 million of them with serious sight problems are of particular relevance to the Bill. There is an obvious link there to broadcasting, and we are all

6 Mar 2002 : Column 340

aware of the campaign for subtitles in the broadcast media. That is one important example. A second example relating to sight problems is the use of the internet and the communications revolution related to it. We increasingly see the need to adapt the services available, and most internet products now have special accessibility facilities in their software to help people with disabilities to use that software to its best advantage.

People with disabilities are now increasingly accessing the full benefits of our society through the communications revolution. The question we must ask is how we can ensure that their needs are represented on the body responsible for regulating that revolution.

Mr. Bryant rose

Nick Harvey (North Devon) rose

Mr. Thomas: I shall give way first to the hon. Member for Rhondda (Mr. Bryant).

Mr. Bryant: I thank the hon. Gentleman enormously for giving way. He made very cogent arguments in Committee on this point. I am still concerned, however, because I do not see why putting all the responsibility for looking after the rights and interests of disabled people on to one person on the board is better than ensuring that the whole board has that responsibility. I point to the example of the BBC. None of its governors has special responsibility for the disabled, yet it has probably the best record of any broadcasting company in the world, not only because of legislation but because of the voluntary action of the governors in ensuring that the vast majority of its programmes are subtitled. It has also taken into consideration the needs of the disabled in the development of its internet services.

Mr. Thomas: The hon. Gentleman knows that I do not really disagree with him. I could point to S4C—SpedwarC—as another example of a service that is heavily subtitled, both for linguistic reasons and for reasons of access. I shall use another example, however, slightly to counter his argument.

In a school, each governor is responsible for ensuring that the needs of children with special needs are met. One governor, however, is specifically charged with that duty. I do not necessarily disagree with the hon. Gentleman, but I fear that unless we discuss the matter properly and—even if we cannot include a measure in the Bill—secure a response from the Minister, rather than one person being responsible for the needs of people with disabilities, no one will be responsible.

6.30 pm

Nick Harvey: The hon. Gentleman is making some good points about the needs of disabled people in the context of the technological revolution, but what does he intend "dedicated" to mean? If he is suggesting that one member of the board should be designated responsible and should go about the task in a dedicated way, I am sympathetic to his proposal, but I suspect that he wants one person to carry out the task to the exclusion of all else. Given that the board might comprise only three people, there could be a chairman and a chief executive, and a third member dedicated solely to safeguarding the

6 Mar 2002 : Column 341

interests of disabled people. I doubt whether that is what the hon. Gentleman intends, but I think it is what his amendment says.

Mr. Thomas: It is certainly not what I intend, but I do not think the amendment says it either. I do not have Roget's thesaurus to hand, but I am sure that requiring that one member be dedicated to meeting the needs of people with disabilities does not mean that that member cannot be dedicated to other matters as well. The amendment does not use the phrase "solely dedicated". I think that the hon. Gentleman's argument is rather tendentious.

I say to the hon. Gentleman, and to the Minister, that if my drafting abilities are flawed after a couple of years here, I am happy for the Government to exercise their full power and produce a better example—but they have not done so yet. No doubt the Minister will say that this is yet another issue for a communications Bill rather than an Ofcom Bill.

The Towers Perrin report is an important independent report to the five current regulators, which considers how Ofcom would work and how different groups would be represented—or, at least, would have a say and an input. It states that Ofcom should

Surely people with disabilities constitute an important stakeholder category. There are 9 million disabled people in the United Kingdom, 2 million of whom have sight problems. If we do not say in this paving Bill exactly how their needs will be met, we are in danger of forgetting those needs.

I hope that my amendment will entice the Minister to say a little more than he said in Committee. He was sympathetic—I think that was the word he used then—but I want a fuller explanation of how the needs of people with disabilities will be met by Ofcom. If they are not to be met by a person who is designated, dedicated or whatever, how will the Ofcom structures meet them? I should like the Minister to say a little more about that before the publication of the communications paper and the communications Bill.

Given the lobbying by disability organisations and the requests of people with disabilities—fair lobbying and fair requests—I think it incumbent on us to provide maximum access to communications of all kinds. That means that before passing any legislation we should pause to think about how it will meet the needs of disabled people, to debate the issue, and to give the Minister an opportunity to give what I hope will be a cogent and coherent explanation.

Michael Fabricant: Again, I shall speak briefly.

I support at least the principle of the amendment, although I too have doubts about the draftsmanship. I think I got the hint from what the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Thomas) said at the outset that he would not press the amendment to a vote, but we shall have to wait and see.

Nevertheless, as the hon. Gentleman said, we ought to debate the matter here, and the amendment provides a mechanism for us to do just that. A large proportion of

6 Mar 2002 : Column 342

those in the United Kingdom suffer from disabilities of one form or another. I have received an excellent briefing from the Royal National Institute for the Blind, which makes some interesting points. I would tell the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Paul Farrelly), if he were present, that I did not have to go out to lunch with its representatives.

The hon. Member for Rhondda (Mr. Bryant) rightly pointed out that the BBC has already done much to support people who are hard of hearing, by providing subtitles. I stand to be corrected, but I believe that the BBC provides a higher proportion of subtitled programmes—or closed-caption programmes, as they would be called in the United States—than any other broadcasting organisation in the world. That is commendable, although the same is done by other UK broadcasting bodies.

There are other issues, however. There is, for instance, the whole question of what the RNIB calls digital exclusion. We heard about that earlier in the context of the inability to provide broadband in certain parts of Scotland and Wales, and in some rural areas in this country, but there are other forms of digital exclusion, some of which affect blind and partially sighted people. Such people could be watching, or at least enjoying, television programmes with their families if only audio descriptions were available.

Next Section

IndexHome Page