Office of Communications Bill [Lords]

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Mr. Thomas: On a point of order, Mr. Gale, may I ask for your guidance on the way in which you want to deal with the amendments?

The Chairman: The custom and practice is that only one amendment, in this case amendment No. 46, is moved. None of the other amendments have been moved. If the hon. Gentleman wants to move other amendments, he is entitled to indicate that to the Chairman, and it is up to the Chairman to decide whether to accept that. Initially, we are dealing with amendment No. 46. The other amendments do not have to be moved or withdrawn.

Column Number: 46

Mr. Thomas: Thank you, Mr. Gale. I should like to respond to the debate on amendment No. 46. The Minister's response, which I was looking forward to, was disappointing because it added nothing to the written replies that I have received from Ministers. With the full communications Bill likely to come in draft form before very long, we should have a better idea of how the consultation process should be undertaken.

The Minister said that somebody described the Bill as a mouse. In my amendments, I have tried to give the mouse a little Welsh squeak and bit of highland dress. The issue will arise again because, despite what he said, many in broadcasting in Wales have been asking for a Welsh representative on Ofcom.

Michael Fabricant: Did the hon. Gentleman notice an inconsistency in the Minister's statement in that there are national members for Wales, Scotland and Ireland on the board of the BBC, the Independent Broadcasting Authority used to have such representation, and the Independent Television Commission still has? Why is it suitable for them, but not for the new consolidated board?

Mr. Thomas: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. I add the example of the Strategic Rail Authority, another utility regulatory body that has a member for Wales appointed by the Assembly.

I am grateful for the support of the hon. Members for Upminster (Angela Watkinson), for Lichfield, for Sheffield, Hallam, for Vale of York and for Tewkesbury on the amendment's principle. The response of Government Members such as the hon. Member for Rhondda showed that subtlety does not work and that I should have been blunter in my original speech. Perhaps they forgot what I said this morning; what was fed back to me was not what I said. That was especially true of the speech by the hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate, which was antediluvian and anti-devolution.

The amendment does not mention the Welsh language because it deals with the devolved structure, which is the Government's chosen method. I say to the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Paul Farrelly) that if anyone were to use wrecking tactics in the devolved Administrations it would be his party because it is in control in Wales and Scotland. The arguments that have been advanced are designed deliberately to thwart my ambitions, which is a pity because I have been advocating something that many in Wales will expect from Ofcom in one way, shape or form.

The Chairman: Does the hon. Gentleman want to move his amendment, or will he seek leave to withdraw it?

Mr. Thomas: I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Thomas: I beg to move amendment No. 48, in page 1, line 6, at end insert-

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

Column Number: 47

We move to another aspect of representation, but one that may find more favour with Government Members. I hope that it does because it has been advocated by many of their constituents, and it is not confined to Wales.

Amendment No. 48 would ensure that within the membership of Ofcom, a member is dedicated to ensuring that the needs of people with disabilities are represented. There is a material difference between this and the previous amendment, which it is worthwhile underlining. I do not attempt to seek a representative member on Ofcom for people with disabilities. That would be very impractical, as it is difficult to think of one organisation that could claim to represent all disability organisations throughout the United Kingdom. It might also be impossible to achieve in the context of what the Minister said in response to my earlier amendments.

3.15 pm

I hope that the Minister will appreciate that I have made every effort, and tried every little way, to get my points across, within the Bill's ambit. I hope that he will be a little more open to the spirit of the amendment. As he said earlier, there are nearly 9 million disabled people in the United Kingdom, including 2 million with serious sight problems. The report commissioned by the present five regulators, the Towers Perrin report to the steering group of those five regulators preparing for Ofcom, said that Ofcom should

    ''actively promote clear links with, and understanding of, all of Ofcom's key stakeholder categories.''

Of all those stakeholder categories, the major one is surely people with disabilities. The way in which disability legislation has moved on, and our tackling of discrimination in society, raises the question of how Ofcom will ensure that in the whole gamut of its responsibilities-from broadcasting to communications to broadband to accessing the internet and wireless services-the doors are equally accessible to people with disabilities.

Mr. Bryant: Is there not a danger that having only a single person in charge of ensuring that the needs of people with disabilities are represented will lead to the marginalisation of their needs and views? Would it not be better if every single member of the Ofcom board were dedicated to ensuring that the needs of those people were represented?

Mr. Thomas: I agree with that 100 per cent. If the hon. Gentleman wants to table an amendment on Report laying that out, I will support it. I thought that the danger was that if we did not say in the paving Bill that someone on Ofcom should be responsible for people with disabilities, that would be forgotten and the needs of those people would tend to be neglected if not ignored. Those people would then constantly have to work through their representative groups and campaigning organisations, as they currently do over transport to get access to buses and trains. They would constantly have to lobby Ofcom for recognition.

I want to avoid that. I want Ofcom to represent as many of the stakeholder groups as possible. I accept that if the Government will not move on the number

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of Ofcom board members, we must find an alternative way to ensure that Ofcom members are responsible for the different stakeholder groups. It may well be that of the individual members of Ofcom-say there are six-one might turn out to be responsible for broadcasting in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales. That might be one way of doing it. Another might be responsible for ensuring that the needs of people with disabilities are met. Another member might be responsible for community radio, with some other aspect of broadcasting. One might be responsible for ensuring that access to the internet progresses at the right speed.

That might be an attractive proposition. We have the small, focused group that the Government want, but we also have some idea, especially with the communications Bill coming up, of how we want that group to work, and how the individual members of Ofcom should undertake their responsibilities. If we do not face now the need for a lead from the top for people with disabilities, we are in danger of neglecting how their needs will be addressed.

The hon. Member for Rhondda said that everyone should be responsible for people with disabilities. Of course they should. We all should, as we undertake our tasks as Members of Parliament. We should make sure that our surgeries, and all our work, are accessible and that our publications are readable and available in different formats. We should do all those things, and so should all Government bodies and agencies.

Let us look at an analogy: school governors. All school governors are responsible for ensuring that special needs are met in their schools, but one school governor will have that as a special responsibility. That is the analogy that I would like Labour Members-although I suspect that there is a little more sympathy on the Opposition Benches-to bear in mind. Does the hon. Member for Vale of York wish to intervene?

Miss McIntosh: No.

Mr. Thomas: In that case, I shall conclude. We should bear in mind the need to make it clear now-if not in the Bill, in the Minister's response-how the needs of people with disabilities will be represented and protected in Ofcom's structure.

Miss McIntosh: I formally welcome you to the Committee, Mr. Gale. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Ceredigion. Everyone will notice that I did not stumble over that this time-a lunch break was fortunate and timely. I am not entirely in agreement with him, but as a probing amendment, his raises a number of issues for debate. We have all received many representations concerning people who are hard of hearing, poor of sight or less mobile. The elderly and those disadvantaged in other ways might also be included. Certainly, many responses to the White Paper referred specifically to the elderly, those on low incomes and those living in rural areas as well as to those with disabilities.

The amendment is helpful in probing and pressing the Government further. Can the Minister assure us

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that people with disabilities, as well as areas such as equal opportunities, will be considered both in the composition of Ofcom, which is proper for debate today, and in the way in which Ofcom carries out its work through its constituent committees? I have some hesitation over whether it is right to suggest that one member alone should be dedicated to ensuring that the needs of people with disabilities are represented. Without putting words into the hon. Gentleman's very eloquent mouth, I suggest that he considers coming forward later with a Bill-sorry, an amendment; we do not want two Bills on one subject-to say that in the working and decision-making of the committees, regard will be had to such interests.

Many people are deprived, some, as in my case, by choice. Being a Scot by birth, I can say that one is loth to part with a television set until it reaches the end of its proper life unless it can be used for spare parts for the next set. One's home can always have a number of television sets, and if they are not as yet quite so difficult to get rid of as fridges, one can always think of ways and means to add to the complications of getting rid of them. However, many areas are disadvantaged, perhaps through being unable to get the Channel 5 signal, such as parts of North Yorkshire, where my brother lives, less than 40 minutes from the Vale of York. There is not a universally accessible Channel 5 signal in this country for reasons with which we are all familiar. We should also ensure that those who are disabled for whatever reason have access to digital services, perhaps a little earlier.

One vexed question is subtitling, and it should be incumbent on Ofcom to deal with that. That could be done, preferably, in structural arrangements later in the Bill, or through a dedicated board member, if the amendment of the hon. Member for Ceredigion is successful. It is regrettable that, contrary to the wishes of the Royal National Institute for Deaf People, the Bill is silent on both subtitling and signing on television. I hope that the Minister will respond positively to the idea of helping disabled people, whatever disability they have.

 
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Prepared 24 January 2002