Select Committee on European Union Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witness (Questions 340 - 354)

WEDNESDAY 8 MARCH 2000

MR BOB TWITCHIN

  340. That is absolutely right. That could be achieved.

  A. I think that certainly could be and it would be a tremendous fillip to moving things along. I have to say that I have worked with the Employers Forum on Disability for a long while. It is an organisation which has grown very rapidly. My perception is that since the passage of the Disability Discrimination Act, it has concentrated the minds of industry and organisations marvellously. Now hearts and mind are all very well but if there is a possibility of prosecution—Organisations tend to avoid difficulties. I think if you can avoid the possibility of having cases brought and so on then it is a tremendous incentive to get it right; to take some trouble in advance. One of the things which has happened is that an awful lot of work in this area has tended to be reactive. When a problem occurs people tried to put it right. Nowadays, what is beginning to happen is that people are looking at their processes, the way they are doing business, and saying, "How can we avoid trouble in the future because it is going to be cheaper to do it this way." I think if we can get some mechanism into this whole area of having information provision e-commerce, then I do feel that is most likely to deliver the goods.

  341. On a statutory basis really, with the Government taking the lead.

  A. I believe there has to be a statutory framework, a statutory provision in the background. One of the things that is happening now that is in place is that there is much more incentive for people to get together to work out codes of practice, but there has to be the suggestion that if it is not sorted out that action could be taken.

  342. Rather like the Disability Discrimination Act, where adjustments were required on a statutory basis in buildings employing a minimum number of people. Westminster buildings, etcetera, were statutory requirements in organisations employing, whatever.

  A. That is right.

  343. You would require a similar situation for access to the Web. I cannot see any reason why that could not be worked on. May I ask my second question which is completely different. The last few questions have been dealing with telephony rather than e-commerce as such. You said in your opening comments that your concern was to make the telephony or even e-commerce available to older people, young people, and making websites. Those were your three suggestions. With regard to older people I do think, with the greatest will in the world, particularly with the sort of people my friend Lord Cavendish was talking about, the mentally and physically impaired, there comes a cut-off point where you say even if they could access the internet they probably would not, and they may not necessarily need such access. I take your point about telephony and your point about equipment which is available. I happen to have, sadly, first-hand experience of a mentally and physically impaired person. All I know is that to get a telephone, where he could have a human voice at the end of it, because he was seriously aphasic and only able to press one button, I really had to go to about ten different stores and eventually I got one that worked. But when it comes to e-commerce, do we not have to accept that there will be sections of the population—that although it would be marvellous to say that everybody is going to be involved in the Internet and e-commerce—there will be sections of the population to whom that will not apply, or they will not be capable of dealing with it.

  A. I am very, very glad to have a chance to respond to that. That is one of the things that is absolutely key in any programme which is developed either in Europe or in the United Kingdom, to look at the requirements of older people, and to recognise the fact that you are not going to get everyone on the Internet, but you have to get mechanisms by which everybody can have access to these services, the information, the products that are available over the Internet. Perhaps I could read this. I had a note from one of the members of my Committee who is involved in the health services, particularly dealing with older people, and she suggests: "I think it might be useful to highlight the need for opportunities for older people particularly to learn about the new technology. It will certainly bring benefits to them if they can master it." It talks about it being beyond the purse of many elderly. Access through libraries, which is the only way we can get to them, which in many rural areas is not possible as public transport is poor, so we should be considering access through sub-post offices, churches, etcetera. I think I would add to that indirect access. What organisations should we be working with or identifying who can be the intermediary for getting this information to people? How should we be advertising the fact of these services, whether local radio, local papers. How can we make people aware?

  344. That is a brilliant idea. In fact, to get the benefits of it to this section of the population, who would not be able to access it themselves, there should be a link in the technology.

  A. That has to involve people and it may well be in the EU that it would be different for different states.

Viscount Brookeborough

  345. Three very quick questions. When you were talking about interference with mobile phones and digital cordless phones, do those only interfere with the individuals who are using them, or does this interference carry further in that if there is somebody with a hearing aid, do other people in the same building get interference?

  A. My knowledge is only anecdotal. I understand that if somebody using a hearing aid passes through an office or close to where people are using digital cordless phones, or close by someone who is using a digital mobile phone, there can be an unpleasant effect. It is most serious for the user.

  346. Therefore, it may be affected by digital TV as well if it is being used inter-actively?

  A. Probably not, because you are not as close to the actual equipment. We are looking at the electro-magnetic fields here. I have not heard of it occurring with digital TV. I do not think you would get that close[2].

  347. So it could be quite a problem for somebody with hearing difficulties in an office building?

  A. I believe so, yes.

  348. To move to those with learning difficulties, there are something like five per cent of all children who have learning difficulties. We only have the funds to look after special needs of 2 and a half per cent. Has any research taken place in firstly how that 2 and a half per cent are coming to terms with computers and, secondly, the 2 and a half per cent who are not being cared for, are they dropping behind to an even greater extent?

  A. I do not know of any research. What I would be pretty certain of is, as you say, that they are dropping behind. There is a need for research. I know that the National Deaf Children's Society is looking for funds to start a research project to see how disabled children use the telephone and telecommunications, in general, which will pick up this issue of use of the Internet for children with hearing impairment. There is no information available in that field, at the moment, and that is fairly generally true.

  349. Because at the other end of their school life a vast proportion of those who become homeless or leave school early do have learning disabilities.

  A. What I think is so frustrating is that once you get digital technology, it is actually inherently much easier to transform this information into different formats and to have different kinds of displays, so potentially there is a tremendous opportunity for producing simple interfaces that could be very helpful for people with learning disabilities.

Chairman

  350. You very kindly opened by giving us your three priorities. You talked about the website, you talked about older people. Unless there is anything further you want to say on older people, the bit that does remain is students with disabilities, if you wanted to make any comments there.

  A. I think we began to touch on this when we began to talk about children. It seemed to me to be a systematic weakness of the European communication that the issues about disabled people were moved into one particular area and not referred to in the other areas. It seemed to me that targets in the key areas such as young people—and we have talked about the pupils having access and being able to use the Internet and really becoming members of the information society—in that programme the children with additional requirements and special needs must be integrated into that. The target is part of the main stream to make sure that they can be included from the outset.

  351. I understand, yes. Is there anything further you would like to say to us? We did send you a set of questions and we have not gone through them all. We have touched on some but if on reflection you would like to drop us a note afterwards on points that you had prepared yourself.

  A. There is one question, in particular, I would like to comment on, where you in your question 6 talked about: could consumer protection (I like the protection from minority groups) could they hinder the growth of e-commerce? I believe there is virtually nothing that will hinder the growth of e-commerce. It is going to happen. However, I do think that the protection of minority groups is key to Europe really fully benefiting from this in terms of the bringing of the disabled—I suppose I would like to go back. When I started work 30-odd years ago, a file was a brown cardboard folder and there were filing cabinets. At that stage I reckon my disability was about a 30 per cent overhead in terms of the amount of effort I had to put in compared with my able-bodied colleagues. For me, the development of information communication technology has really made an enormous difference to the way in which I am able to interact on a level playing field with other people and contribute at the level which I am capable of doing. Having seen that, it is terribly frustrating to know that there are other groups of disabled people who are not benefiting in the same way. If the technology were really brought into play, I am sure it could be done in a way that would not be so expensive that it would delay or hinder economic growth. To give one example. Deaf blind people who at the moment really can only use the text telephone service with equipment costing £5,000. Perhaps 10,000 people in the United Kingdom could benefit from that system, so it is not an enormous amount of money in total. In Europe, as a whole, there are obviously proportionately more and it is in areas like that where it is tremendously important that there should be a European approach, because it is by tackling these things on an Europe-wide base or having consistency Europe-wide, that you can increase the size of these small groups and enable people and really make it much more easy to include those people, those groups in the general interactions which are now being far more electronically based.

  352. You could make the economic case as well as the social case.

  A. Absolutely.

Lord Cavendish of Furness

  353. May I ask something coming out of that. It is a difficult question and a rather provocative one. Is there a European country which can be said to lead on these matters? Who could be said to adopt the leadership?

  A. I would say practically it is the United Kingdom. In terms of what we have actually delivered we have done an enormous amount. One particular example, seeing this morning the new text relay service which is going to be coming in over the next year: it is a network to enable people with different types of text phones to communicate with each other, and to bring in a relay operator who will act as a speaker for people to interpret between the hearing third person and the person using speech automatically. That is something in which we are definitely leading. There is a great need to have a system in place which will identify best practice and will enable that to be picked up by the other Member States.

Chairman

  354. On that very encouraging note I think we will conclude the meeting. Thank you very much indeed, Mr Twitchin. It has been very helpful indeed for the Committee. If there is anything further you wish to say to us, please drop us a note on that or e-mail us.

  A. Thank you, my Lord Chairman.





2   The witness subsequently added the following:

The cause of interference between hearing aids and digital mobile and cordless phones is the electromagnetic transmissions emitted by the handsets and, in the case of cordless phones, also by the base stations. Although these are weak, they are picked up by the circuitry of hearing aids close by, generating interference. If interactive TV is delivered via telephone line, cable or link from a satellite dish, the outgoing signals will not be emitted as electromagnetic radiation from the TV set. Thus, there should not be interference with hearing aids.

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