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Lord Addington: This is a group of amendments to which I have been waiting to speak for a long time. The noble Lord, Lord Ashley, has done a magnificent job of going through them all individually and explaining what is behind them. He has actually touched on a series of subjects which we in the disability lobby have all been talking around for a long time. The fact is that we should try to enact what we can on this issue and do it now.

The points about audio-description and subtitling are based on, shall we say, what we are capable of doing. What is the technology there for? The primary point of a 10-year wait is that it is a long term project,

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but it will not be dealt with or even thought about until it is a medium term project. Finally, it is panicked about in the short term and done badly. That tends to be my experience of these matters. However, we can do it now for under 400 per hour. That figure has been constantly quoted to me for the past three years. In real terms, the cost is falling.

That is a tiny percentage of the cost for virtually any television programme. On the issue of exemptions, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Ashley, for tabling this amendment and for allowing me to add my name to it. This issue has been a bugbear of mine for a while. Within a huge package of channels designed for the age of multi-channels—effectively anorak TV—those who are hard of hearing should be allowed to indulge their passion for, say, programmes about World War II produced from old newsreels and using a voice over. They are cheap to make with possibly a very low audience. The same programmes are repeated again and again, giving hours of broadcasting, and they could be dealt with easily by one small package of subtitles.

What runs through this series of amendments is that they are all technically achievable now. If the Government reject the amendments, not only will they be picking a fight, but they will be saying that they will not do what is easily achievable.

I shall now do the reverse of common parliamentary practice by congratulating the department on including a clause in the Bill relating to provision for the deaf and visually impaired. But you cannot go to this party without taking more than one bottle with you; you must be there for the long haul. We must get the matter right now or we shall have to return to it again and again.

As regards the first amendment in the group, the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, hit the matter squarely on the head—the code must be reviewed regularly. Perhaps the expression "from time to time" has a wonderful legal precedent of which we have never heard which means that the code will be reviewed every two years and three months. But unless the expression means precisely that, the suggestion of a review every three years seems a valid one.

We are not talking about the cutting edge of technology. We know what we can achieve with the technology that is available. I hope that the Government will be prepared to take the amendment on board. They do not have to adopt its wording. I do not care who is carrying the standard so long as we win the battle. We want to get the provision into the Bill so that we do not waste time returning again and again to half measures. We can do it now. Let us do so and then forget about the matter and turn to something else. I support the comments made about the deaf-blind.

The Lord Bishop of Manchester: We on these Benches always listen with the greatest respect to the points that the noble Lord, Lord Ashley, makes. He spoke eloquently and movingly on behalf of the profoundly deaf, the hard of hearing and the blind. He also emphasised the other needs of the disabled which

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this part of the Bill appears to misunderstand. I join the support given to the amendments by the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, and the noble Lord, Lord Addington. I hope very much that the Minister will respond not only with sympathy but also with practical suggestions.

Lord Puttnam: I hope that I may refer to a slightly unusual angle in supporting the noble Lord, Lord Ashley. I have spent the past six years visiting schools, particularly primary schools, looking at the way in which technology, when used well and with determination, can transform the lives of people who up until now have been excluded completely from society. The notion that for commercial reasons technology that is available is not being used to change people's lives is a very worrying comment on our society.

Baroness Wilkins: I support this set of amendments. When 5 million people regularly use subtitles and it appears from NOP research of January this year that another half a million deaf and hard of hearing elderly people could use them if they knew how to access them, the case for this set of amendments seems very strong. Cable and satellite channels have already been given three years' notice of the 80 per cent subtitling target, making the 10-year lead-in time appear excessive. As we have already heard, the cost of subtitling is cheap. It is getting cheaper and easier all the time so the case for exemptions seems unnecessary. As the noble Lord, Lord Addington, so ably said, it is possible to adopt the provision now. Let us do it. I beg the Government to support the amendments.

Baroness Howe of Idlicote: I support this group of amendments. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Ashley, not only on the way in which he presented the amendments but also on the way in which he has conducted his own life and, indeed, on the way in which he has done so much for the disabled generally.

I agree entirely with the comments that have been made. It is a far too modest suggestion that we reduce from 10 to five years the time for digital, cable and satellite channels to reach the subtitling target. We have heard mention of Channel 5 which I believe has managed voluntarily to reach a figure of 54 per cent in five years. Sky News has made a successful attempt in that regard.

The noble Lord, Lord Ashley, pointed out that the costs are reducing. They seem fairly low already. The price continues to fall due to significant advances in subtitling technology.

I got to grips the other day with DVDs. I was given for Christmas—that is probably the way to get me to get to grips with something—a collection of Audrey Hepburn films. I put my favourite, "Breakfast at Tiffany's", into the slot. Immediately appeared not only the title, but the possibility of seeing and hearing the film in about 20 different languages. It was amazing. If that is possible, it is clearly more than possible that the same will happen as subtitling technology speeds up.

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Quite apart from the amendments helping the Government's "inclusive" agenda, there are surely bottom-line advantages to communications companies in attracting wider audiences. We have heard already the figure of 5 million regular users of subtitling. That is a considerable potential audience to attract to channels. An even more significant figure from NOP research this year is that the use of subtitling does not, as one would surely expect, increase with age.

As most Members of the Committee know, those with hearing impediments are already the largest group of disabled in the UK. As we are all living longer, and some deafness will almost inevitably appear the older one gets, those overall numbers will clearly grow. There is a potential market to be exploited.

It is sensible to ask that Ofcom's duties include ensuring that likely users of subtitling services, both analogue and digital, have adequate information promoted by all channels, that the services exist and—at least as important—how to find and access them. That is somewhat more difficult for the elderly, given the complex systems we all now try to grapple with, than for the younger generation.

To help ensure that we know how the policy is progressing, I suggest that Amendment No. 245, which proposes that Ofcom collate and publish information on subtitling on a yearly basis, makes sense. Even if I have made the case for the amendment mainly on economic grounds, it is of course a primary duty of all governments to ensure that we all have equal access to the everyday means of gaining information, education and entertainment. The RNID estimates that there are as many as 500,000 elderly people who are deaf and hard of hearing, and there are the visually impaired as well. They all miss out on the benefits of subtitling. As the RNID states:


    "This represents a huge number of people who are experiencing a reduced quality of life—missing out on news, documentaries, sport and all the other information and enjoyment that television can bring".

I very much hope that the Government will be able to accept what I think are, in a way, far too modest proposed changes, and reassure many who fear that that group of disadvantaged citizens will continue to be sidelined.

9.15 p.m.

Baroness Blackstone: My noble friend Lord Ashley of Stoke knows how much I sympathise with him and the issues that he has raised. I shall start with Amendment No. 236 and work through each amendment, as they are all rather different.

We would expect Ofcom to review and revise the code regularly, particularly as technical developments in the area can sometimes move quite fast. I would like to say to the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, that her attack on civil servants was completely inappropriate. However, the decisions as to the frequency of any reviews and revisions should ultimately be left to

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Ofcom, which will have the experience and expertise to judge when such reviews and revisions might be necessary. Giving Ofcom a duty to review and revise the code at least once every three years could put an unnecessary burden on it and I doubt that it would lead to a substantially different result. We should trust Ofcom. I believe that it will be committed to carrying out regular reviews in that area.

I turn to Amendment No. 239. The current duty is to give guidance as to the means by which the services should be promoted. I cannot see that the word "extensively" adds much to Ofcom's requirement. There is already a substantive obligation in Clause 298(1)(a) for Ofcom to provide guidance on the extent to which relevant services should promote the understanding and enjoyment of programmes in their service. The amendment would undermine it.

We have considerable sympathy with Amendment No. 241. It is in the service provider's best interests actively to promote the services they offer to hearing impaired and visually impaired people as these groups make up an important part of their audience—over 10.5 million people. However, I am aware that that does not always happen and that large numbers of sensory-impaired people, particularly the elderly, are unaware of the existence of subtitling, signing and audio-description and are therefore unable to benefit from them.

In complying with the code, Ofcom will have to give guidance on the extent to which services should promote understanding and enjoyment by people with sensory impairments. It is right for this guidance specifically to cover the need for service providers to make users aware of subtitling, signing and audio-description and of how to access them, and we will consider whether an amendment is necessary to the Bill to make this absolutely clear.

I have some sympathy with the underlying aim of Amendment No. 244, but it would be rather difficult to put into practice. First, the fact remains that the obligation to provide assistance to disabled people, and with it Ofcom's only lever, is on the licence holder, even if the service forms part of a family of channels. By the same token, the costs of providing the subtitling, signing and audio-description would fall on the licence holder rather than on the parent company.

Secondly, it would be extremely difficult and resource-intensive on a practical level for Ofcom to investigate the establishment and funding arrangements of each channel in order to consider the impact of its relationship with a parent company on any case for exclusion from the obligations. I must therefore disagree with my noble friend Lord Ashley of Stoke. I cannot accept this amendment.

I turn to Amendment No. 240. Following the review of the statutory requirements for subtitling, signing and audio-description, the report of which was published in January 2001, we believe that a 10-year period in which to satisfy these obligations is a target which for some will be quite challenging. But it is achievable. This target will give those services with new obligations, like digital, cable and satellite

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services, enough time to plan for their introduction. The time-scale does not mean that there will be no subtitling on those channels until the end of the 10-year period. Ofcom will have the ability to set interim targets on the way to meeting 10-year targets, as the ITC currently does, so provision of subtitling, signing and audio-description will grow year by year.

We do, however, understand concerns expressed that 10 years is a long time and that early progress should be expected. The arguments are particularly strong in relation to subtitling, which is a well established technology that can already be provided at a relatively low cost—I agree with what was said about that—and which is likely to become cheaper to provide as new developments such as voice-recognition come on stream. Again, I accept the arguments in that regard.

We do not believe that it would be right to reduce the overall 10-year timetable for the reasons that I have already given. However, we will consider amending the Bill to set out a fixed, interim five-year target for subtitling, which would apply to broadcasters with new requirements to provide subtitling rather than leave the matter to Ofcom. A challenging five-year target would allow progress on providing subtitling to be accelerated in the early years. That would ensure that those broadcasters with new requirements in that area could catch up as quickly as possible with those already providing subtitling, and it should help to lead to a dramatic increase in the amounts of subtitling available over the period. We will consider the details further and come back with an amendment on Report.

As the Bill now stands, Ofcom must consider the extent to which codes made under this part of the Bill have been complied with in carrying out its annual factual and statistical report under Clause 351. It will be for Ofcom to decide the appropriate level of detail that should be included in its report, and I am sure it will consider the arguments for providing as much information as possible so that people with sensory impairments can properly assess the levels of provision on different services. I am not therefore persuaded that an amendment to the Bill is necessary.

I turn to the remaining amendments in the group. I know that people with a dual sensory impairment can have sight and hearing loss to such a degree that it leads to problems with accessing information. Specialised means of communication, such as the "deafblind manual alphabet", have been developed for people who have significant impairments to both their sight and hearing. Those means are not particularly well suited to television and realistically, as my noble friend Lord Ashley said, a person would need to have some form of hearing or visual ability in order to enjoy or understand that medium. In such a case, the current duty to promote understanding and enjoyment for people who are hearing impaired and visually impaired should satisfy any need in that respect, as should the existing duty on Ofcom to ensure that the code drawn up under Clause 298, or any revision to it, is accessible to persons who are deaf or hard of hearing and blind or partially sighted.

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Those people with a more serious dual sensory impairment clearly have specific needs. I am aware that the talking teletext service is particularly useful for them and I wonder whether concerns about the future of that service after digital switchover may lie behind the amendments. We had a full discussion of that issue at a previous sitting and I shall not repeat what was said then.

We have taken into consideration the needs of people with disabilities throughout the development of the Bill, including in relation to the provisions on television services for the deaf and visually impaired, and I believe that the measures that we have introduced represent a significant improvement. I hope that my comments have reassured noble Lords that we take these issues seriously and that we are willing to consider changes to the Bill.


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