Office of Communications Bill [Lords]

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Michael Fabricant: The hon. Gentleman makes a reasonable point. We spoke earlier about there being national representatives on the board of the BBC, but no representative for the disabled. I still think it is important that the issue be raised. The hon. Member for Ceredigion who proposed the amendment was the first to say that it should not necessarily be in its

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current form, but it gives us an opportunity to tease out a response from the Government. Watching the Minister's rapid scribbling, I believe that we will get a response on those points. I look forward to that.

I will not delay the Committee any further. This is an important issue. The technology exists to enable the disabled to play an active part in those areas over which Ofcom will have control. It is important that Ofcom, even as a shell organisation, recognises that it has a responsibility to the disabled and I congratulate the hon. Member for Ceredigion on tabling his amendment.

Angela Watkinson: I support my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield on audio description for visually impaired television viewers. Visual impairment covers a wide spectrum; only a small proportion of people are registered as totally blind. Many people who are visually impaired watch television in the company of sighted people. An additional help with audio description would enable them to take a fuller part in that. That points towards the need to have someone with specialist knowledge. An interest in disability and specialist knowledge are needed to enable the specific technical improvements to be made available to those who need it.

Dr. Howells: I appreciate why the hon. Member for Ceredigion tabled the amendment. It deals with an important issue, as I am sure hon. Members on both sides agree. Ensuring that disabled people's interests are properly represented in Ofcom will be extremely important. The hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam was right to ask for that undertaking, and I hope that he will take my word for it. Currently, there are five different regulators, plus the BBC and S4C, and we are making progress.

I keep returning to the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, North-East. We seem obsessed with broadcasting, but there are many other forms of communication that we can work on, and to which the hon. Member for Lichfield drew attention. We fully recognise the importance of access to television services for people with sensory impairments, and consultation on the draft of the main communications Bill will enable us to get it right.

The Government recently reviewed the current requirements for the provision of subtitling, signing and audio description. We also considered that in the context of the advent of digital broadcasting, which offers much greater scope for meeting requirements in that regard. We decided that the target for subtitling provision on digital terrestrial television should be raised from 50 to 80 per cent. of programmes by the tenth anniversary of the start of the service, and we are determined to get there. That is one of my main priorities. The current targets for sign language and for audio description, to which the hon. Gentleman referred, are 5 per cent. and 10 per cent. respectively by the tenth anniversary. Those are immediate targets, but we want to drive them forward.

The hon. Gentleman read out a brief from the Royal National Institute for the Blind; he will not

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know that I met the RNIB to discuss the issue. The technology relating to audio description services is still relatively new, expensive and, for many people, difficult to get hold of. That is reflected in the numbers that the hon. Gentleman quoted; I thought that they were a little higher. However, we are determined that there will be greater access to the service. I have heard an audio description and I am not sure whether I am a huge fan, but I can see its tremendous potential.

I am sure that you are aware of the technology, Mr. Gale, but for the benefit of the Committee, I should explain that a description comes over an attachment to a television, so that the blind or partially sighted person can hear what is going on in the story on screen during a purely visual passage in the programme. That is important in dramas, feature films and so on. We are very much up to speed on that technology and we want it to be greatly extended.

The requirements on digital terrestrial television for all those services should be extended to digital cable and satellite services when legislation permits. I cannot contemplate Ofcom's having less ambitious targets than some of those that I mentioned. I am determined that it will take the targets forward. Its responsibilities and remits will mean that it has to develop those services in ways that exceed the achievements that we have seen so far.

Mr. Thomas: The Minister will have recognised that this is a probing amendment, and I welcome much of what he says. However, I think that he will accept that, during an earlier debate with the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam, we established that the early Ofcom would have an important and influential role on the production of the communications Bill and the regulations that follow it. Will he give an undertaking that, notwithstanding the merits or otherwise of the amendment, he will, on appointment, instruct the chairman or the first members of Ofcom, in a letter or guidance, that the needs of disabled people need to be taken into account as part of their influential role set out in clause 2?

Dr. Howells: No, I am not prepared to do that. No Government worth their salt would appoint a chair of a public body who would not address the huge needs of disabled people. Many Opposition Members do not seem to understand that the Bill will allow regulators to prepare the new regime, but it will not interfere with the existing one. During early stages of the discussions, one of my biggest worries was that the existing regulators might lose their best staff because of the uncertainty. They would have been severely weakened as a result. The creature that we are setting up will not have the right to interfere with the role of the existing regulators until the Bill receives Royal Assent.

Brian White: As a fellow refugee from the Utilities Bill, my hon. Friend will be aware of the issues that arose during the setting up of Ofgem. People reacted to the shell authority to the exclusion of the existing regulators. The fear is that people will not go to the existing regulators but address Ofcom, in its shadow form, and that fear drives many of the amendments. Relating that issue to the experience of Ofgem and the Financial Services Authority would be helpful.

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Dr. Howells: That is a valuable point, and I give that undertaking to the Committee. We must understand that the powers of the existing regulators remain intact until the Bill receives Royal Assent.

Mr. Allan: I shall briefly describe the issues that motivate our concerns. The Minister is right: existing regulators will remain in place. However, they may decide that Ofcom's disability unit will take a different form from those that exist in the current regulators. People will express concern if they perceive a weakening during the interim period. We are trying to address that concern: it is a watching brief. During the interim, Ofcom might propose that the radio authority contracts with a different regulator for its disability officer service in order to prepare for a merger. I hope we can keep an eye on those matters.

Dr. Howells: That is a good point. I say to the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam that we might improve the systems of communication. I would have thought that the Committee would welcome that. We have an opportunity to assess what has happened so far to the vast community who suffer from a disability, and the way in which it is represented in communications, and in other ways. That is one of the prime purposes of the Bill, and the way that Ofcom would work.

Mr. Thomas: As I said earlier, this is a probing amendment. It was designed to clarify the views of the Minister and establish how Ofcom will look after the needs of disabled people. We have had some encouraging news: the Minister gave a commitment to progress to new targets. He set out how the present regime might co-operate with a shadow Ofcom in ensuring that those needs are met. We will return to the issue, but I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

3.45 pm

The Chairman: We now come to the next group of amendments.

Miss McIntosh: Mr. Gale, if this is the appropriate moment, I request to move formally amendments Nos. 34 and 36.

The Chairman: The procedure is that the hon. Lady makes her speech if she wants to speak to those amendments. Amendment No. 34 is moved formally. If the hon. Lady wants to move amendment No. 36 separately, the amendment will be debated now, but will be moved formally later. However, she will need to give plenty of notice of her intention.

Miss McIntosh: I am grateful for your guidance, Mr. Gale.

I beg to move amendment No.34, in page 1, line 11, at end insert-

    '(3A) Appointments by the Secretary of State shall be made in consultation with and following consideration by a Joint Committee of both Houses of Parliament.'.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to take the following amendments: No. 41, in page 1, line 11 at end insert-

    '(3B) Appointments made by the Secretary of State falling within subsections (3)(a) and (3) (b) shall be subject to a vote of approval from a designated Select Committee of Parliament.'.

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No. 36 in schedule, page8, line 39, at end insert-

    ', following consultation with and consideration by a Joint Committee of both Houses of Parliament'.

Miss McIntosh: I became increasingly alarmed by the Minister's comments in the previous debate, for reasons that I will share with the Committee. Amendment No. 34 is self-explanatory and seeks to insert a new subsection (3A):

    ''Appointments by the Secretary of State shall be made in consultation with and following consideration by a Joint Committee of both Houses of Parliament.''

Amendment No. 36 would also ensure that the appointment of any member of Ofcom as deputy chairman was made

    ''following consultation with and consideration by a Joint Committee of both Houses of Parliament.''

I look forward to the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam moving amendment No. 41. Conservative Members have some sympathy for the role of the Select Committee, and we will discuss that when we debate later amendments.

The Minister in the House of Lords recognised in his concluding remarks on Third Reading that there would be a pre-legislative scrutiny Committee, which the Minister confirmed in today's debate. The Minister will have detected in our discussions on earlier amendments the reason why we are loathe to leave the Bill and enter a vacuum for a considerable period between the publication of the broadcasting Bill and its formal consideration in the House. That vacuum will mean that the continued fusion of several matters, under the remit of existing regulators, will not be considered by the House other than through the pre-legislative Committee.

A reliable source informed me that we cannot formally refer to such a pre-legislative Committee as anything other than

    ''a Joint Committee of both Houses of Parliament.''

There is a need for both amendments, which relate to the appointment of two chairmen and a deputy chairman. When those appointments are made, consideration should be given to the ongoing merger of the work. As the Independent Television Commission pointed out, the ITC and BSC audience research programme and various operational groups set up under the regulated steering group are already co-operating. My concern, which is shared by hon. Members on both sides, is that it is beyond the powers of the House to consider the Bill once we have left it unless we formally work that in.

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