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Baroness Darcy de Knayth: I commend Amendment No. 79 to which the names of the noble Baroness, Lady Wilkins, and the noble Lord, Lord Addington, are added. I support very much all that they said, in particular what the noble Lord, Lord Addington, said about one person not being beleaguered. The noble Baroness, Lady Wilkins, mentioned that communications service providers benefit greatly from the practical advice that they get from committees such as the one we are discussing. That is ably demonstrated by DIEL. It is vital that such provision should continue.
Lord Ashley of Stoke: There is nothing worse than arguments being repeated in this Chamber ad nauseum. Therefore, I propose to speak briefly. I endorse what the noble Baroness, Lady Wilkins, said about Amendment No. 79. The name that she mentioned, DIEL, is an odd one. I am not particularly keen on that name. It is to be abolished. The letters "DI" stood for disability and "EL" for elderly. However, the body has an admirable function. It has campaigned actively, aggressively and persuasively for disabled and elderly people. It has done a good job. That provision will be lost under the Bill. There is no similar provision. It is entirely wrong that the Government should omit that provision. This is a very simple amendment. I am sure that my noble friend will consider it sympathetically. As I say, it is a very simple and modest amendment but I hope that the Government will give a categoric assurance that they will take it away and consider it.
It is of paramount importance that the committee we are discussing should include a majority of disabled or elderly people. There is absolutely no point in having people with no experience of the matters they are to discuss. If the disabled and elderly are not represented on the committee they will be excluded. On the question of exclusion I commend the speeches that have been made on other amendments in the group we are discussing. I warmly accept the principles behind the amendments. The noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, mentioned numbers that are too small to be read easily by elderly or disabled people who have sight impairment. It is not just a matter of not being able to press buttons or to read tiny text. What that really means is that they are completely excluded from television as a method of communication. No thought has gone into that matter. If accepted, these amendments would go a long way to including disabled and elderly people in the matter we are discussing. It is a simple but profoundly important point.
Lord Carter: Amendment No. 25, which stands in my name, tackles this problem in a different way. I shall make my main argument when speaking to that amendment. However, I want to pick up one point that the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, made. I believe that she referred to Clause 3(3)(i). However, I believe that Clause 330 refers to the employment of disabled
Baroness Finlay of Llandaff: I wish to speak briefly in support of what the noble Baroness, Lady Wilkins, and the noble Lord, Lord Addington, said. I remind the Committee that disabled people comprise a very diverse group but that another group must be considered within that; namely, those who have a temporary disability. Many hospital patients and people who are recovering from episodes are severely disabled. They also need to be considered. I do not think that it is possible for one representative with a disability remit adequately to represent the breadth of people who may be affected by the provisions in the Bill. Therefore, I support the wording of and the sentiments behind the amendments.
The Lord Bishop of Manchester: It would be strange if there were no support from these Benches for the amendments that we are discussing. The Committee will be well aware that as bishops and, indeed, clergy we come constantly into pastoral contact with those who are elderly, disabled and financially disadvantaged.
Many of the interventions that have been made have echoed points that would happily have been made from these Benches and I shall not repeat them. I gladly give my support to the amendments but not simply for professional reasons, as clergy from my own diocese would certainly endorse. During many years of my upbringing, my mother was confined to a wheelchair. I know very well the issues about access with which the amendments seek to deal, so I support them.
Lord McIntosh of Haringey: I am not at all surprised that there has been unanimity of support for the amendments around the Committee, not only for the reasons given by the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, on the efficiency of the lobbying, but because of the genuine feeling in favour of the issues raised. We are all united in our desire to see improved access to communications services for people with disabilities. We are anxious to see that the digital divide, as it is called, does not exclude disabled or elderly people, or people on low incomes.
The noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, is right: we are concerned that there is a risk that the problem could get worse as existing and future services are delivered by electronic means rather than more conventional ones. That cannot be allowed to happen. We cannot be denied a fully inclusive society simply because of technological advances.
What is the government response to the issues? Let me come back to the general duties of Ofcom, which have been a common theme of our consideration of the Bill for a day and a half of Committee time now, as is quite right. Those general duties are the key. We have
We must also consider the amendments in the light of the role that the consumer panel will play. A number of speakers have dealt with that subject. Formally, people with disabilities, the elderly and those on low incomes are named constituents of the panel. It is true that the formal requirement is for only one person on the panel to represent those interests, but I hope that I can convince the Committee that the actual commitment goes a good deal further. The panel has to provide Ofcom with informed advice about their interests, and Ofcom will have to have regard to their interests in carrying out all its functions.
We have looked at whether the amendments will add anything real and tangible to what Ofcom will do. As well as the fully inclusive general duties to which I referred, the specific "have regard to" and the remit of the consumer panel have included specific provisions where most needed to ensure that everyone has access.
Let us consider the universal service provisions set out in the universal service order. By virtue of the provisions in Clause 3(3)(i), Ofcom will have to take into account the needs of people with disabilities, the elderly and those with low incomes. The current draft, which is out for consultation, aims to safeguard the interests of disabled end-users and to ensure access to, and affordability of, publicly available telephone services equivalent to those available to other end-users. It requires Ofcom to take specific measures to ensure availability of directory inquiry services, text relay services, priority fault repair services, specially adapted public call boxes, and the provision of contracts and bills in suitably adapted formats.
It is very important to have access to broadcasting for people with sensory impairments. That is why the Bill requires Ofcom to draw up, publish and ensure compliance with a code giving guidance on the extent to which television services should promote understanding and enjoyment by deaf and visually impaired people. The Bill also sets targets for the proportion of programmes to be subtitled, audio-described, and presented in or translated into sign language. Clearly, later amendments are relevant to that. In drawing up and regulating under the code, Ofcom would have to consider the specific needs of deaf and visually impaired people.
I turn to the amendments. Amendment No. 24, spoken to by the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, seeks to ensure that people with disabilities, elderly people and those on low incomes are treated as consumers for the purposes of Clause 3(4). However, the definition of "consumer" is set out in Clause 398(5). People, including people with disabilities, elderly people and people with low incomes who meet the very inclusive criteria set out there are "consumers" and will benefit from Ofcom's duty to consumers. When people do not meet the criteria, they will not be consumers, so adding
Amendment No. 41 has to be seen in the same way. We have to weigh it against the general provision in Clause 3. The amendment seeks to prescribe more specifically to whom Ofcom should direct its attention when exercising its duty in relation to media literacy. Ofcom will exercise that duty in the interests of the public as a whole. The general provision in Clause 3(3)(i) ensures that Ofcom will take into account the needs of persons with disabilities, the elderly and those on low incomes.
I referred earlier to the work of the consumer panel in representing people with disabilities, the elderly and people with low incomes. We are sympathetic to the intention of Amendment No. 62 but, because of Clause 3(3)(i), it would result in duplication of work carried out by the consumer panel. We are creating the consumer panel specifically to give Ofcom informed advice about the range of consumer interests in respect of provision of electronic communications networks and services. We have expressly provided in Clause 16(4) that disadvantaged persons, persons with low incomes and persons with disabilities are among the groups on which the panel must be able to advise.
The panel will have the power to carry out research, a point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox. Ofcom must give reasons when it chooses to ignore the panel's advice. We do not want to undermine the important and independent work of the panel, and we do not want to duplicate the effort. Of course, Ofcom may want to carry out or commission research itself into the particular needs of the groups. Under Clause 13, it is not prevented from doing so.
Amendment No. 79 was spoken to by the noble Baroness, Lady Wilkins, and a number of other Members of the Committee. Let me make it clear that the consumer panel must have members who have been appointed specifically to ensure that the panel is able to provide advice on the interests of, among others, persons with disabilities or the elderly.
I am not suggesting, nor are the Government, that one person on the consumer panel would be able to provide Ofcom with the advice on disability and the elderly. I say that particularly to the noble Baronesses, Lady Wilkins and Lady Finlay, and the noble Lord, Lord Addington. Consultation by Ofcom is going on at the moment on the general conditions, which includes a discussion of all the issues. However, the point is that the responsibility on Ofcom is to ensure that the panel as a wholenot only one personis able to give informed advice about the interests of persons with disabilities and of the elderly.
I listened to what was said about DIEL. It is certainly true, literally, that DIEL is being abolished. However, DIEL was giving advice to Oftel only, and only on telecommunications matters. The panel has the power to carry out researchit will do soand set up such committees as it thinks right to ensure that it can do that. Ofcom has an obligation to ensure that it has the resources that it needs to do its job.
People with disabilities are named constituents of the panel. Their interest will form an important part of the panel's work. The panel cannot choose to ignore them in the face of competing pressures; it has a statutory duty to have regard to the interests of people with disabilities in carrying out all of its functionsthese are listed in paragraphs (a) to (k) of Clause 15(3)and to be able to give Ofcom informed advice on matters that impact on them.
We believe that disabled people, the elderly and those on low incomes will be better served by a consumer panel that can make its own choices about the best way to address their needs. There are plenty of options open to such a panel. It could set up working groups on particular topics. I have been very impressed by what has been said about the diversity of the needs of different groups of people with disabilities. That is why it would be inappropriate to force a framework on Ofcom and on the panel at this time. How it is done is a matter for Ofcom and the panelrather than such a provision being on the face of the Bill. The working groups could be on particular topics rather than on marginalising the disabled viewpoint. However such an approach is organised, it is not essential for us to consider it now. The panel will have to make sure that it meets its objectives of providing Ofcom with informed advice and having regard to the interests of disabled people and the elderly in carrying out all of its functions. I do not think it would be right to constrain the independence of the panel by placing a requirement on it now. All of what is asked for in the amendments, particularly in Amendment No. 79, can and should be done by Ofcom and the panel.
The last of the amendments, Amendment No. 81, seeks to ensure, by including such a requirement on the face of the Bill, that in publishing information or advice in accordance with Clause 23 Ofcom must have,
The fact that we believe that our intentions are so close to the views expressed today, and the fact that I have taken so much time to replyfor which in a sense I apologiseis, I hope, evidence that we do agree with and understand the needs that have been expressed in this debate. To employ a phrase used by the noble Lord, Lord Addington, I would rather use an example from a song by the electric string band. I shall not sing it in the presence of the noble Lord, Lord Colwyn, but it said: "You know all the words and you sing all the notes, but you never quite learnt the song they sang". I hope that we are singing the same song.
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