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Baroness Wilkins: My Lords, I speak in support of Amendments Nos. 31, 32 and 46. I agree with all that the noble Lord, Lord Addington, and the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, said.

I, too, was delighted to hear Stephen Carter, Ofcom's chief executive, announce at the Broadcasters Forum on Disability that he was laying plans before his board to set up a standing committee to advise Ofcom on issues affecting disabled and older people. With such a commitment, the purpose of this amendment has been accepted in principle. All that is needed is for the Minister to ensure that that commitment is not lost.

It is essential that a commitment to maintain an advisory committee for disabled and older people is on the face of the Bill. With such a fast-changing industry, the complex and wide-ranging needs of disabled people in relation to all the areas covered by Ofcom can too easily be forgotten. The Disability and Older People's Coalition, which is made up of a large number of leading disability organisations, remains concerned at what might happen under a different leadership of Ofcom or under a government less committed to social inclusion. There is no guarantee that such a

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committee, and all its expertise and good work, would not be jettisoned. The Minister may well try to provide reassurance that that would not happen but, as the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, said, it has happened before. Oftel set up a consumer panel without specific statutory provision and then later abolished it.

The purpose of Amendments Nos. 31 and 32 is to ensure that that cannot happen. If it was considered essential to set up DIEL back in 1984 before the era of mobiles, digital radio and multi-channel TV, giving Oftel a statutory advisory committee on matters affecting disabled and older people, how much more pressing it seems today. This Government have done more than any other to take action against social exclusion. I am sure that the Minister accepts the threat of exclusion which disabled and older people face in relation to communications services and trust that he will see the case for these amendments.

Similarly, Amendment No. 46 seeks to ensure that the consumer panel—the body charged with holding Ofcom to account on behalf of consumers—can carry out its duties in respect of disabled and older people effectively. The consumer panel must inform itself about the needs of disabled and older people and have regard to their needs in carrying out its functions. If it is to be effective in those duties and make a meaningful contribution to the future inclusion of disabled and older people in the digital revolution, it must draw on a wide range of expertise and establish its credibility with disabled and older people. The odd person on the panel will not be able to do this—they cannot hope to cover the wide range of access barriers confronting different groups of disabled people. Nor is it acceptable to expect disability and older people's groups to help the panel unless they are resourced to do so. Without a statutory committee these resources are highly unlikely to be made available.

Not only do the whole disability sector and Age Concern back this amendment but support comes from the industry too. BT has backed the establishment of such a committee so that it can go to one place and get informed, holistic and reasonable guidance on improving its services for disabled people. It is essential that a specific advisory committee is placed on the face of the Bill.

The range of issues and challenges in relation to disabled and older people in this area is vast which is why these amendments seek to ensure that both Ofcom and the consumer panel are required to maintain permanent disability and older people's committees. DIEL has been forced to carry out both roles but that was only for telecommunications. Now we have a body dealing with every type of communications service and an even greater range of challenges.

If disabled people and older people are to have faith in Ofcom and the consumer panel, they must have a voice and a place within each and this must be specifically provided for on the face of the Bill. I urge the Minister to think again and accept these amendments.

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11.15 a.m.

Lord Ashley of Stoke: My Lords, even in the presence of my noble friend Lord McIntosh I shall make a very brief speech. The brevity arises from the fact that the case has been substantially made in the splendid speeches of the noble Lord, Lord Addington, and his supporters. All I want to say is that the All-Party Disability Group strongly supports these amendments. Disabled people are genuinely fearful that if the measure we are discussing is not on the face of the Bill it can easily be eroded. The case made by the noble Baroness is a very strong one. Past experience shows that these committees wither away. They have no value unless they are incorporated on the face of the Bill. I am sure that my noble friend will take account of that point and do what he can to help.

Lord Carter: My Lords, I wonder if when my noble friend replies he can deal with the very important point that was made by the noble Lord, Lord Addington, and the noble Baroness, Lady Wilkins, on the problem that arises if there is one disabled person on the panel. At the moment I believe that there is a blind person on the consumer panel. I believe the whole House will understand that the requirements of blind people differ from those of the deaf and those disabled people who use wheelchairs and, indeed, from those of older people. The matter cannot be dealt with by one disabled person serving on the consumer panel.

As I understand it, all telecoms companies are to be required by their general conditions of entitlement to consult the consumer panel on services for disabled people. If that is the case, I am not sure how that panel will receive the advice it needs on the range of services which need to be provided for disabled people if there is not a committee to advise it or other advice is not made available to it. I should be grateful if my noble friend could deal with that point when he replies to Amendment No. 46.

The Lord Bishop of Manchester: My Lords, I add support from these Benches to the points ably made by the noble Lord, Lord Addington, and other speakers, and particularly to the points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Carter. The arguments are persuasive for a specific advisory board, and for it to be laid down in the Bill. As has already been said, the Minister represents a government who have a good record in these spheres, so I hope that he will be sympathetic to the amendment.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil: My Lords, I do not feel very comfortable at finding myself in a minority of one. Personally, I marvel at the degree of faith placed in the suggestion that yet another committee be appointed. Although I am happily not all that disabled, I may at least be older than anyone who has spoken so far. Therefore, I feel that I can speak on behalf of old people. I would take no comfort whatever if the Government were minded to accept the amendment.

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I cannot believe that the noble Lord, Lord Currie, and his colleagues are really in need of yet another committee strung round their necks. The Bill, in terms of the instructions it contains for Ofcom, is already an indecently large affair. I see no need to complicate matters further. It would be absurd. I do not want anyone to say that I do not sympathise with either old people or the disabled, and I hope that no one will waste their time doing so. However, I do not believe that appointing such a committee would in any way help. I find it inconceivable that the noble Lord, Lord Currie, and the very substantial staff whom he will need will for a moment be either so stupid or so insensitive as not to take the greatest possible trouble to see that the needs of old people and the disabled are fully met.

Lord Currie of Marylebone: My Lords, I want to emphasise that Ofcom announced last week—my chief executive announced in a speech—that we will set up a panel of this kind, precisely because we think that it will have considerable value. Disability is one of those genuinely wide-ranging issues that spans the whole spectrum of Ofcom's activities, and that can be well tackled by a converged regulator. A panel of that kind will be extremely helpful in guiding and informing the work of Ofcom.

Baroness Howe of Idlicote: My Lords, I am sorry to disagree with the noble Lords, Lord Peyton and Lord Currie. I go back to a comparison with the little debate that we had on ethnic groupings, and why it was still important at this stage to have them firmly in the Bill. The whole approach may not have been firmly embedded in the same way as for other groups—to some extent I include gender—that have been more absorbed.

I want to refer briefly to very thorough research that we did at the Broadcasting Standards Commission—it was some time ago—which gave two clear indications from the wide groupings of different disabled people. First and foremost, they wished to be treated as individuals. Secondly, they wanted a body that was representative of all their problems, that would bear them in mind, and that would ensure that whatever legislation was passed would consider their problems. I suppose that we should all declare an interest so far as age disability is concerned, and it may be an issue in future.

Lord Currie of Marylebone: My Lords, the noble Baroness indicated that she was in disagreement with me. I am not quite sure of the basis of that disagreement.

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