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Viscount Falkland: I thank the Minister for replying so carefully and courteously, as he normally does. The noble Lord did not address the important point about the anomaly that Sky and cable television are able to charge because their channels are encrypted but that the free-to-air terrestrial ones are not, encouraging rights owners to avoid showing sporting events on a free-to-air basis. That is a direct result of that anomalous situation. It is clearly not in the public interest. The noble Lord and I recognise that as much high-class sport as possible should be available on free-to-air to those who pay the licence fee. That situation does not allow such freedom.
I intend to withdraw the amendment. Over dinner, the joke was made that should I be successful in gaining any concession my long-standing friendship with the bookmakers would be over. My long-term relationship with the bookmakers now continues; and, I hope, with the British Horseracing Board which has urged me to put forward these views. Perhaps we may revisit the issue on another occasion. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
The noble Lord said: In moving the amendment, I shall speak also to Amendments Nos. 239, 240, 241, 244, 245, 247, 248 and 249. With all those amendments, it sounds like a big debate ahead but the issue is important rather than big.
The amendment seeks to ensure that the code relating to the understanding and enjoyment of television by deaf and visually impaired people is kept up-to-date. We want the code to be reviewed every three years instead of the ridiculous concept of "from time to time". That could mean anything. It could mean "from decade to decade" or "from each half century onwards". We all agree that the pace of change of technology in the broadcasting industry is phenomenal and that the number of cable and satellite channels is growing rapidly. We should like the code to be kept up to date and regularly reviewed. A review every three years would ensure that it does not lag behind the latest developments.
Amendment No. 239 seeks to ensure that Ofcom takes an active role in raising awareness about subtitles and other services. I find it absolutely remarkable that many deaf people are unaware of the availability of subtitles, which could solve many of their problems in relation to television. They simply do not know about them.
This is illustrated by the fact that a little while ago a noble Lord approached me and asked how his wife could receive subtitles. I said, "With analogue, it is very simple. You press the text button, 888, and there they are. You are guaranteed them nearly all the time at peak hours. It is even easier on digital television". A little while later he came back to me and said, "It is miraculous. My wife's life is transformed. She can now watch television and understand it, which she could not do without subtitles". It is a simple thing but, before that conversation, this man's wife was unable to watch television and enjoy it. That was last year in 2002.
Equally remarkable is that there is virtually no publicity about which satellite programmes are subtitled. On all five analogue channels it is indicated very clearly which programmes are subtitled. That is not the case with digital television. So the many millions of people who rely on subtitles have to wait for the broadcast and switch on to see whether the programme is subtitled. If it is not, they simply lack comprehension of what it is all about. That is not good enough. People are entitled to know which programmes are subtitled and which are not to enable them to choose in good time.
The RNID estimates that nearly half a million elderly deaf and hard-of-hearing people are missing out on the benefits of subtitlesan astonishing figure. Undoubtedly Ofcom should take an active role in raising awareness. I hope that the amendment will be acceptable to the Government.
The proposal in the Bill to extend the requirements for subtitling, signing and audio description are welcome and marvellous as far as they go, but in the small print there is the absurd provision that the companies should be allowed 10 years to introduce them. Ten years? We can start a war and finish it in a couple of months. I hope that the Committee will find 10 years totally unacceptable.
Amendment No. 240 seeks to reduce this period to five years. I believe that we are being far too modestfive years is also an exorbitant and outrageously long periodbut because we are reasonable and try all the time to accommodate the Government we have suggested five years.
I appreciate that the "relevant date" referred to in the clause is not necessarily the date on which the Bill will become operative, but it could be an earlier date. For example, for Channel 5 the date is 1st January 1998. Five years on, it is 1st January 2003. But Channel 5 is already subtitling 54 per cent of its output. In view of the remarkable developments in subtitle production, it would certainly be possible for Channel 5 to reach a figure of 80 per cent by the conclusion of the Bill.
The amendments' main targets are digital and satellite channels, which should never have been excluded from the Broadcasting Act 1996. It would be indefensible to give them a further 10 years before they are required to provide a comprehensive service to deaf and visually impaired viewers.
I suspect, although I have no proof, that cable and satellite lobbyists have been hard at work on department officials. That is just my own sense of what might have happened. Officials talk to Ministers and the word goes around. I can image the lobbyists pleading poverty, saying "Our profits will be damaged. Profits will be slashed if we have to subtitle programs. We will have to sell our grannies' jewellery. Even worse, we will have to send our wives out to work. That would be a disaster. Please don't insist on subtitling for all our programmes."
I hope that Ministers will see through those nonsensical claims of poverty and expense. The costs are relatively smalltypically less than £400 for one hour of television, which is peanuts. Millions of pounds are spent on programmes, so £400 an hour is nothing.
Subtitling costs have fallen in recent years and are set to fall even further. Subtitling companies are using new software that significantly increases staff productivity, which is vital to bringing costs down and making it easier for companies. I saw voice recognition technology demonstrated five years ago. It worked then and it certainly works now. It is developing quickly and is already being used by some subtitling companies and the BBC.
Subtitling has become an intensely competitive business, so companies have been forced to reduce their charges to broadcasters. I was amused the other week to receive a letter from a subtitling company executive asking me to help him to find new markets. He wrote, "The reduction in subtitling charges has been brutal". Maybe brutal to him but I warmly welcome that cut. If I could, I would make it even more brutal.
Those factors are all important and, in aggregate, they make providing subtitles a very easy option. I hope that Ministers will set their faces firmly against the lobbying and arguments made by company representatives.
Cable and satellite companies have greatly exaggerated the costs. If they want to maximise the audience for their programmes, why not use subtitles? By refusing to subtitle adequately, they are excluding deaf viewers. The pathetic subtitling currently offered discourages many deaf people. There are 8 million deaf and hard-of-hearing people. Not all of them use subtitling but many have an interest in it and should be catered for.
Amendment No. 241 seeks to buttress the two previous amendments and to ensure that more people know how to access subtitles on both analogue and digital television and should know in advance which programmes are subtitled. Amendment No. 244 seeks to reduce the number of exemptions for subtitling or signing or audio description by ensuring that a large broadcasting company is prevented from obtaining too many exemptions for some of its channels.
This is a complicated issue. Like the subtitling amendment, the amendment on exemptions is of profound importance to us. These are the two key amendments and I hope that the Government will be willing to accept them because they will be pursued at all stages of the Bill. The amendment seeks to try to stop Ofcom providing too many exemptions. Often, when people subscribe to digital, cable and satellite television, they have to buy a package of channels. It is therefore wrong and misleading for broadcasters to be able to plead that it is technically very difficult and that they cannot afford subtitling, signing or audio descriptions of one of their specific channels.
It is really a concern that the Government are considering exempting a large number of channels. They should think again because if exemption were granted to all channels with an audience share of below O.05 per cent it is estimated that fewer than half, that is, 66 of the total 150 channels, would be faced with the requirements. I believe that such a high figure is unacceptable. The case for very few exemptions is strengthened by the low cost of subtitling, which I mentioned a moment ago.
I am glad that Kim Howells in another place said that he sympathised with the spirit of the amendment. But we do not want sympathy for the spirit; we want support for the content. He argued that it would be at best burdensome and impossible in many cases for Ofcom to investigate the details of each establishment and the funding arrangements to determine whether exclusion was appropriate. Of course, it is not impossible. And it is hardly burdensome. Every commercial broadcaster has financial accounts and other information which is publicly available. It is impossible to accept the Government's excuses to exempt these channels. It would be burdensome on deaf and hard of hearing people if they do so. I hope that they will think again. The amendments are of profound importance.
Amendment No. 245 seeks to ensure that information which Ofcom already collects is placed in the public domain. The Bill will extend subtitling, signing and audio description requirements to some 150 channels, digital, cable and satellite. With so many it is likely that Ofcom will have to take on trust a great deal of information provided by the broadcasters. It
Finally, I refer to Amendments Nos. 247, 248 and 249. They deal with the omission of people who are deaf and blind from the provision for Ofcom to review the code giving guidance to deaf, blind and partially sighted people. Having one of these sensory disabilities inevitably creates problems. I know from personal experience how devastating total deafness can be. But total deafness and blindness to some measure must be unbelievably difficult. For those who are totally deaf and totally blind, clearly television has little to offer.
But many deaf blind people have the use of one of these faculties, which they should be able to maximise. It is for them that these amendments are intended. The amendments are put forward in good faith. If they are brushed aside by the Government a great number of people will suffer. If accepted by the Government, especially the amendments about subtitling and exemptions, millions of deaf, hard of hearing and sight-impaired people will be helped. I beg to move.
Baroness Wilcox: I support the amendments proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Ashley, in general and Amendment No. 236 in particular. I am amazed at the audacity of the civil servants that they have put this classic, this old chestnut, this out of "Yes Minister" wording of "from time to time" when referring to the frequency that Ofcom should review the code on the provisions for the deaf and visually impaired. That is surely too loose.
In such a rapidly changing industry, would it not be sensible to have a maximum period of time between reviews to ensure that the code does not fall out of date? As we have heard, as new technology becomes available, it is important that the code is regularly altered to reflect the situation on the ground. The cost of failing to alter the wording of the Bill in this way may well be that as Ofcom is stretched in different directions, it begins to interpret "from time to time" as "whenever it suits us" or "very rarely indeed" to the detriment of the disabled consumers who have much to gain from new technology, if only they were able to take advantage of it.
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