Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Baroness Wilcox: I thank the Minister for taking the time to respond to the amendments—the importance of whichhe recognised. I thank my noble friend Lord Brooke for his support. I am delighted to know that his name still appears on the letterhead of PHAB. In speaking to her own amendment, the noble Baroness, Lady Wilkins, also supported the other amendments in the group. The noble Lord, Lord Addington, indicated

6 May 2003 : Column 1001

that he did not recognise all the words but recognised the tune. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Darcy de Knayth, and the noble Lords, Lord Ashley of Stoke and Lord Carter, the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Manchester for their support.

I am disappointed. I was quite encouraged when the Minister began his response, but ended up feeling again that an aspiration rather than a fact is being expressed. The experience of disadvantaged consumers is that, unless they are mentioned early on the face of a Bill, they have an uphill fight all the way. When I was chairman of the National Consumer Council—set up by the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, 28 years ago, continued by the Conservative government, and continued to this day by the Labour Government—its mandate was to be the voice of the consumer, with a special brief for the disadvantaged consumer. That made an enormous difference to the way in which we approached our work. Every time we examined an issue, we did so for the able-bodied consumer and for all of those who did not have a big enough voice; but because that requirement was on the face of our mandate, every time we examined matters we did so in relation to the disadvantaged.

I shall not press the amendments, particularly Amendment No. 24, at this stage. However, I ask the Minister to note the support expressed for them—not by people who do not understand how to read a Bill: they can read "must have regard to" and they can hear the wonderful aspirations expressed in the Minister's comments. But these are aspirations. My experience teaches me that that is not good enough. I ask the Minister to reconsider this matter. I know that we shall discuss other amendments tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Carter, and others who can speak personally of issues, even within their own families, who have great expertise and who always speak for the disadvantaged. But if I have any expertise to bring to bear here, it is based on the fact that for 10 years I spoke for the consumer, particularly the disadvantaged consumer. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Carter moved Amendment No. 25:

    Page 4, line 15, after "choice," insert "accessibility and usability of services,"

The noble Lord said: The amendment seeks to insert "accessibility and usability of services" into the general duties of Ofcom. The amendment is grouped separately. Although it seems to cover the ground that we have covered in relation to the previous group—so we shall not have a long debate on it—it approaches the matter in a different way. It would be helpful to the Government were they able to accept it.

Under the heading "General duties of OFCOM", Clause 3(4) states:

    "In performing their duty under this section of furthering the interests of consumers, OFCOM must have regard, in particular, to the interests of those consumers in respect of choice, price, quality of service and value for money".

6 May 2003 : Column 1002

The provision sees the issue entirely in market terms—it sees the consumer in terms of a market. The object of including the words "accessibility and usability" is to meet that point. It is all very well having choice, value for money and the rest, but if there are people who are not able to access or use the services, then their needs are not being met. The purpose of the amendment is to ensure that in interpreting and performing its primary duty and in furthering the interests of consumers, Ofcom takes into account issues of accessibility and usability alongside the other issues of affordability, choice and quality. As we have heard, if services are not accessible and widely usable, disabled consumers, those with literacy problems and many for whom the digital services are difficult to use will not be able to exercise real choice or to obtain the value for money mentioned in the Bill.

My noble friend Lord Currie emphasised that Ofcom is a creature of statute. Therefore, what the Bill does or does not make explicit really matters. That was borne out in paragraph 16 on page 9 of the report by the Joint Committee:

    "If duties are not stated with sufficient clarity in legislation, there is potential for regulators to exercise their functions in a manner at odds with the intentions of Government and Parliament. In determining OFCOM's general duties, Parliament will do much to set the terms under which that body will perform its functions".

So there is an argument that the current wording could mean that Ofcom overlooks the vital issues of accessibility and usability while fulfilling its other functions under the clause; or indeed that it will take a less robust approach.

We believe that it is far better to be explicit and to state that that the Government expect the new regulator to work for the basic right of disabled and older people to access and enjoy the same information and resources as the rest of society.

In reply to the previous group of amendments, my noble friend Lord McIntosh pointed out the diversity of the requirements of disabled people. I declare a past interest which I should have declared at the beginning of my remarks. For nine and a half years before I entered government I was executive producer of the weekly "Link" programme for people with disabilities. Every week we had 15 minutes of television. I am well aware of the diverse requirements of disabled people, who have many different disabilities, and of the need for "accessibility and usability" to be clearly stated among the general duties.

Later amendments deal with particular aspects of a disability. We know that disabled people have a special requirement of "accessibility and usability". The later amendments involve audio description, sign language, subtitling and so on. The amendment is intended to ensure that in addition to those specific requirements—which, to some extent, are scattered through the Bill, as my noble friend explained in response to the previous group of amendments—there should be an overarching requirement with regard to disability in particular of accessibility and usability, and that that should be clearly set out in the general duties.

6 May 2003 : Column 1003

I am sure that my noble friend has a briefing that says, "resist" but I cannot for the life of me see why there could be any problem about including the words "accessibility and usability" in the clause, which refers to,

    "choice, price, quality of service and value for money".

I beg to move.

6.30 p.m.

Lord Addington: The noble Lord pointed out that unless a provision is added to the Bill, particularly in this context, this approach will not become a prime requirement. We shall later consider various amendments relating to disability and much of our debate will be about how we have not got the best out of existing technology. We have not done so, but we could have done so with more of a will and more pushing here and there. Having "accessibility and usability of services" early in the Bill would be a great spur and help us to avoid those problems. It would also help us to deal with current technical problems, which the noble Lord discussed. I refer to the farcical history of audio description: there was a requirement to produce it but no one was able to use it. That is a smack in the face of the Government's protestation that we do not need such a provision. If it happened once, it will happen again. Technology will advance. There is the idea that technology will always be able to solve problems if we can bring it into the argument, develop awareness and ensure that producers know that they should be doing something in this regard. That is a huge part of this field, which deals with many disabilities and, in individual cases, disability packages. Unless such a provision is placed up front in the Bill, the Government will miss things, not through any lack of will or good intention but because the proposal asks too much. There should be a requirement to take action as a primary duty.

Baroness Darcy de Knayth: I too support the amendment. To pursue the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Addington, someone from a disability organisation said:

    "All too often in the past regulators with a weak accessibility remit have overlooked opportunities to strengthen the inclusion of disabled people".

They cite the example of the awarding of licences for the new digital terrestrial service, which is a case in point. The ITC could have made accessibility for disabled people a key criterion in the awarding of the licences, but it did not. Nor did it use the opportunity to require bidders to demonstrate how they would provide access to audio description. The person who briefed me on this amendment wrote:

    "so the new Freeview service is a disaster from that point of view".

Baroness Wilcox: I support the amendment, as one would expect in view of what I said on the previous group of amendments. I was very interested to learn about the weekly "Link". One learns much in this place about what other noble Lords get up to. "Accessibility and usability" are words that are precious to people who do not have easy access to services. As the noble Lord, Lord Addington, pointed

6 May 2003 : Column 1004

out, we will increasingly access such services through technology. I am only too delighted to support the amendment. We are trying to introduce such a provision early in the Bill so that everything follows from it.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page