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Lord Thomson of Monifieth: The Minister has described the problem fairly and thoughtfully. However, is it not a fact that the ITC has pressed the Government for stronger provisions in the text of the Bill in respect of quality control?

Lord Inglewood: I am advised that that is so.

Lord Thomson of Monifieth: Have the Government rejected the ITC's advice on this matter?

Lord Inglewood: As is implicit in what I said, we do not agree with the ITC on this matter. We believe that to go down the road along which some siren voices are calling us might jeopardise the very existence of digital terrestrial television.

Lord Donoughue: The Minister has been very helpful. We have secured what we wanted in probing at this stage. The difference between us is that the Government see what we define as quality as an obstacle to digital television getting off the ground while we do not see it getting off the ground without some quality requirement. We say that for the ITC to have that requirement will raise the sights of the initial digital operators. I do not believe that it will in any way raise their costs or that it will deter anyone. In my view, we are well shot of anyone who is deterred by a quality requirement.

We are not talking of lofty cultural ambitions. We are talking about the ITC having the power and authority, and a requirement, to make inquiries and to establish certain basic standards. I still believe that that is a desirable objective. I believe that the ITC would welcome it. It is our experience that the ITC would not abuse such a requirement; it has a great commitment to see this measure succeed.

We may have to return to this matter. We have had a general but useful discussion. We shall consider returning to the issue at Report stage and may have to take the view of the House on it. The debate has clarified matters and has been helpful. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 28 not moved.]

Clause 7 agreed to.

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Lord Desai had given notice of his intention to move Amendment No. 29:


After Clause 7, insert to following new clause--

Common carriage subscriber management service arrangements between qualifying digital multiplex licensees

(" .--(1) This section has effect with respect to the making of arrangements which--
(a) apply to all independent analogue broadcasters in the award of digital multiplex licences, and
(b) provide for programmes made, commissioned or acquired by or on behalf of one or more of the holders of such licenses to be available for subscription in identical substantive circumstances by all customers of multiplex operators,
being arrangements made for the purposes of enabling digital television (taken as a whole) to be able to compete effectively with other television programme services in the United Kingdom, and in free, fair and effective competition one digital programme service with another; and any such arrangements are referred to in this section as "SMS common carriage arrangements".
(2) Any application from a independent analogue broadcaster for a digital multiplex licence shall, in addition to being accompanied by any such proposals as are mentioned in Clause 8 below, be accompanied by the applicant's proposals for participating in SMS common carriage arrangements made under this section; and where a person has duly made such an application, the Commission--
(a) shall send details of his proposals for participating in such arrangements to the Director General of Fair Trading, and
(b) shall not proceed to consider whether to award him the licence until the Director General of Fair Trading has communicated to the Commission his satisfaction with the proposed arrangements.
(3) If the Director General of Fair Trading is dissatisfied with the SMS common carriage arrangements at any time, whether before licence award, prior to commencement of services, or during the lifetime of the licence, he shall be empowered--
(a) to alter the terms of the licence, or
(b) to revoke it in its entirety.
(4) The provisions of subsection (3)(a) are to be exercised subject to a six months' period of notice, following consultation with the licensee and the Commission.").

The noble Lord said: I am in somewhat of a quandary as regards the amendment. I put it down rather late yesterday. I note that Amendment No. 187 in the name of the noble Viscount, Lord Astor, my noble friend Lord Donoughue, and the noble Lord, Lord Thomson, covers similar territory. In order to save everyone's time I shall not move the amendment.

[Amendment No. 29 not moved.]

Clause 8 [Award of multiplex licences]:

[Amendments Nos. 30 and 31 not moved.]

Lord Donoughue had given notice of his intention to move Amendment No. 32:


Page 8, line 33, at end insert ("and the extent to which such services (taken as a whole) may be expected to include programmes of high quality").

The noble Lord said: In our general misunderstandings about groupings, I had grouped this amendment with our discussions on Amendment No. 27. I should be happier if Amendment No. 32 were taken as grouped.

[Amendment No. 32 not moved.]

Lord Ashley of Stoke moved Amendment No. 33:


Page 8, line 33, at end insert ("and to be accessible to persons with a sensory impairment;").

6 Feb 1996 : Column 214

The noble Lord said: In moving Amendment No. 33, perhaps I may make a few comments on Amendment No. 42.

It is extraordinary that after the vigour and tenacity displayed by disabled people in their fight for anti-discrimination legislation, this vital section of the Bill should have been drafted without mention of access for those with sensory impairment. It refers to the award of multiplex licences. The amendments put that right. The Bill as drafted makes nonsense of the fine words spoken by Ministers on the Disability Discrimination Act when they are compared with the omissions of this Bill.

When the Minister replies to the amendment, perhaps he will tell the Committee whether the question of access to the new broadcasting world for those with sensory difficulties was ever considered. If so, was it rejected; or was it felt to be unimportant? Let me assure the Minister that deaf people now, at last, enjoy television through sub-titling. They would not tolerate its absence on digital television. There would be marches in the streets if they were so deprived. I am sure that the Minister will do all he can to ensure not only that such access is provided for but is extended to digital television. Nor will deaf people tolerate that access being provided on a minority of the many channels that we are expecting.

There is no question that the provision of sub-titling is a matter of primary concern to sensory impaired people and it should be for those awarding the new multiplex licences. Quite frankly, I have the feeling that the people who are applying for the licences have not given this matter a great deal of thought. I am sure that the ITC is aware of it. I am sure that the Minister is aware of it. Organisations for the deaf and blind feel very strongly about the amendment. I have no doubt that many who are familiar with its implications will feel equally strongly.

Amendment No. 42 allows the commission to vary the conditions unless the appeal of the programme to a variety of tastes is unacceptably diminished. That is what the Bill says. However, once again the interests of those with sensory disabilities have been ignored or rejected by those drafting the Bill. The amendment seeks to remedy that. It is important to make clear to those who seek to vary the conditions of their licence--and I am sure they will for all kinds of reasons--that it will be a dereliction of duty to permit a diminution in the access of people with sensory problems to an unacceptable level. That would be intolerable. Accepting the amendment solves the problem. If the Minister can give a favourable response, many deaf and hard of hearing, blind and sight impaired people will be reassured. I hope that he is able to give such an assurance tonight. I beg to move.

9.30 p.m.

Lord Inglewood: I am sure all noble Lords have every sympathy with the noble Lord's concern to ensure that digital television services are accessible to those who have a sensory impairment. The Government wish to do all they reasonably can to increase access to

6 Feb 1996 : Column 215

television services for people with disabilities and also to encourage broadcasters to provide programmes of particular interest to those groups. I shall refer to those with visual or hearing disabilities. I am aware that broadcasting can provide valuable services to people with other disabilities as well. According to the latest figures from the British Deaf Association and the Royal National Institute for the Blind, there are 6.5 million deaf or hard of hearing and over 1 million visually impaired people in Britain--important groups, whose needs should be catered for by the media. Television and radio are a lifeline to some of those people, a large percentage of whom are aged over 60. They may be less mobile and rely more on broadcasting for information, entertainment and access to society. I think I can, in all honesty, say that the Government's record on this issue is a good one. The Broadcasting Act 1990 placed extensive but reasonable subtitling requirements upon broadcasters, and as a result over 50 per cent. of programming on the BBC and Channels 3 and 4 is now subtitled. That proportion will increase substantially over the next few years. The requirements will, of course, apply to their digital simulcast services.

We want to ensure that, where practicable, subtitling is provided for the new digital television services. The Bill therefore requires the ITC to publish a code giving guidance as to the appropriate nature and extent of such measures. Before doing so I expect the ITC to consult the broadcasting industry and groups representing the communities concerned. That will certainly include some of those represented today. I am confident that broadcasters and programme makers will recognise the importance of addressing those groups' needs and that they will look for new and imaginative ways to do so. We shall have a fuller opportunity to discuss the code in the context of the noble Lord's later amendments.

I spoke about subtitling. I am very much aware that subtitling, while invaluable to many, is less helpful to those deaf or hard of hearing people who, for reasons connected with their disability, do not have the fast reading skills necessary to read captions which may appear on screen only for two or three seconds. For many of those people, access to many programmes can be further improved by the provision of on-screen sign language interpretation which is already provided for some special interest programmes and which will be facilitated by digital technology. I hope very much that broadcasters will take advantage of this. Again, it will be within the scope of the ITC's code.

Technology known as Audetel is currently under development. By providing a narrative sound track allowing them to hear descriptions of scenes and action at times when there is no dialogue, this could significantly enhance the ability of visually impaired people to enjoy television. Digital technology will allow a programme to be broadcast with more than one sound track and this may provide added potential for such a service to be offered. I understand some existing broadcasters are studying the scope to do so. I am sure the ITC will take account of this in drawing up the code

6 Feb 1996 : Column 216

of practice for digital television broadcasters to which I referred and more widely in carrying out its licensing remit.

I must, however, sound a cautionary note. The Government, the ITC and the broadcasters have taken a firm but gradual approach to the expansion of subtitling services and this has paid dividends. We have been able to work together to achieve a level, and quality, of service of which the broadcasters are justly proud, and we shall be building on that success to increase still further the percentage of programmes which are subtitled. Throughout this process we have had to bear in mind the cost of these services, and the need to train people to provide them. It would have been counter-productive suddenly to impose, out of the blue, onerous requirements on broadcasters. Similarly, we must bear in mind when looking at the new digital services that, if these services are to take off, enormous, and risky, investments will have to be undertaken by broadcasters and multiplex providers.

As I think everybody agrees, there is therefore a balance to be struck if we are not to risk holding back the development of digital terrestrial broadcasting. So far as hard of hearing and visually-impaired people's interests are concerned, the requirement in Clause 19 for the ITC to issue a code of practice is a good way of striking that balance. It would be in nobody's interests to place, from the start, obligations on new broadcasters so stringent that, combined with the need to finance new transmission infrastructure and to make receivers available at an affordable price, those obligations detracted from their ability to make programmes people want to watch, or indeed, discouraged them from investing in digital at all. I believe a similar effect would be occasioned by including, as a criterion for judging applications for multiplex licences and as the amendment proposes, the applicant's proposals for providing services for hearing or visually impaired people. Meeting such a criterion from the beginning, as well as being a significant additional cost which might detract from programming, would mean a departure from the principle that terrestrial broadcasting licences should be granted on the strength of programming proposals and on the capacity of the applicant to sustain the necessary expenditure to provide the service as widely as possible. Moreover, the money that licensees spend on, for example, subtitling might be money they cannot spend on keeping down the cost of receivers, or on rolling out transmission infrastructure. No amount of subtitling of digital programme services will be of use to the deaf viewer if he or she is not reached by the digital transmission signed or cannot afford a digital set.

Let me add that, once digital broadcasting has taken off and broadcasters and multiplex providers are showing a profit, it would be reasonable to expect them to increase their obligations towards people with disabilities and other disadvantaged sections of the community. I expect the ITC to take into account the profitability of digital terrestrial broadcasting every time it updates the code, which it will do regularly. I believe that taking this long-term approach will in the end result in a better service for those concerned than would asking broadcasters to do everything at a stroke.

6 Feb 1996 : Column 217

Moving on very briefly to the amendment to Clause 11, referring to conditions on which the ITC will agree to variations in licences, subsection (3) of that clause is drafted with the intention of achieving a balance between multiplexers' and broadcasters' need for some flexibility in determining the nature of their programme services, in particular in order to react to market signals, and the ITC's need to ensure that licensees do not depart too far from the proposals contained in their licence applications.

Clearly, in assessing whether a particular variation in licence conditions would unacceptably diminish the capacity of the digital programme services broadcast to appeal to a variety of tastes and interests, the ITC will have regard to the tastes and interests of those with a sensory impairment. A multiplex provider will certainly not be able to get away with including in his licence application proposals to provide particular programmes or other services to particular groups, only to drop such commitments once he has safely been awarded a licence. However, I have set out why I do not believe it would be sensible to compel applicants for multiplex licences to include specific proposals for services such as subtitling in those applications or for applications to be determined according to that criterion.

I have deliberately taken time to set the scene, to give a clear picture of what we believe is the appropriate state of affairs. For the sake of completeness I should add that the Disability Discrimination Act already applies to broadcasters. What is proposed here is in a sense an additional tier of specific obligation and responsibility over and above that applied by the general law.

I very much hope that in the light of my remarks the noble Lord will feel reassured by what we believe will happen.


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