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Lord Ashley of Stoke moved Amendment No. 149:


The noble Lord said: My Lords, it is no exaggeration to say that this group—Amendments Nos. 149 to 159A—will determine not only the future amount of television that can be enjoyed by disabled people with sensory impairment but the quality of their enjoyment. General technological advances have been made, and the potential for the future is immense, as we are all well aware. The adjustments that must be made for disabled people are very tiny by comparison. There is no doubt that companies could make them if they so chose. It is Parliament's responsibility to see that they do so.

Tonight I shall focus on four areas. First, I shall refer to Ofcom reviewing the code—Amendment No. 149. Secondly, I shall speak about the inclusion of deaf-blind people. Thirdly, I shall speak to Amendment No. 153 on the time scale for reaching targets. Fourthly, I shall talk about the power of Ofcom to exclude programmes from having to meet the requirements. I shall also comment briefly on the government amendments.

Amendment No. 149 will require Ofcom to review the code relating to the provisions for deaf and visually impaired people at least once every three years instead of "from time to time". We discussed the issue in Committee, and those who supported me agreed that the phrase is far too vague and far too loose. The noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, rejected our views in Committee, arguing that we should trust Ofcom. She said that she would expect Ofcom to review and revise the code regularly, and that to require more would impose an unnecessary burden.

I disagree for three reasons. First, I am sure that those about to lead Ofcom—the noble Lord, Lord Currie, in particular—will take their

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responsibilities seriously. However, their successors may not do so. Secondly, Ofcom will be an extraordinarily busy regulator, and it may be inadequately funded for that task. Without a legal requirement to review the code, it will be pushed aside to make way for any other business legally required. The sheer volume of Ofcom's work could be decisive. Thirdly and significantly, placing a statutory requirement on the timing of a review signals Parliament's view that the code is a matter of importance.

It is not a question of trusting Ofcom, as intimated by the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone. It is a matter of Parliament telling Ofcom that the code really matters to disabled people and must be kept updated because of the dynamism of the industry and the rising expectations of disabled people.

I turn to Amendment No. 150. In Committee the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, recognised the special problems of those who are deafblind, but she was content to leave the Bill as it was without any amendment referring to them. However, it is essential to recognise that without such reference in the Bill Ofcom will not have the authority to meet the special needs of those with a dual handicap. Provision for those who are deaf and provision for those who are blind are simply not enough because that assumes that those who are hearing impaired can see well and that those who are visually impaired can hear well. Clearly, that is not the case. There is a wide spectrum of impairment ranging across both disabilities and allowance has to be made for that.

It would be especially unfortunate to reject this amendment because it is quite easily possible to make simple changes that would be of great benefit to deafblind people. For example, increasing the size of lettering or changing the font can make all the difference for those who are deaf but have little sight. We do not know what benefits will emerge for the future, but for now we must ensure that Ofcom has the power to consider them. We hope that the Government will accept this amendment. Frankly, I think that it would be outrageous for the Bill to leave this House without a reference to deafblind people.

I turn to my Amendments Nos. 150B and 153. It really is ridiculous to allow television companies 10 years to reach the subtitling target set out in the Bill. For a dynamic industry 10 years must seem like a joke. In Committee my views received welcome support, even from the Minister. The noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, accepted the thrust of the argument and said that challenging interim five-year targets would be set. As usual, my noble friend Lord McIntosh has kept faith and tabled new clauses which go some way towards relieving the deep anxieties of many disabled people. We are pleased that all sides of the House understandably expressed concerned at the incredible 10-year provision in the Bill.

I shall therefore not be moving my Amendments Nos. 150B and 153. However, I am very sorry that my noble friend's timescale does nothing about targets for signing and audio-description. I think that it is wrong

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to fail to do so. I hope that when he replies he will be able to make some provision on signing and audio-description, both of which are terribly important.

The new clauses will ensure that there are a number of developments which are very important to disabled people. Ofcom would have the responsibility to see that every television channel promotes the service they offer to disabled people. That is really splendid news on this important issue.

The figures for subtitles, signing and audio-description will now be averaged over 12 months rather than on a weekly basis. I appreciate that companies want some flexibility. However, to move from a weekly to an annual basis is far too big a jump. It is just not acceptable. I think that a monthly basis would be a reasonable compromise. It is not clear how that will affect disabled people, but I expect it to be less of an issue on subtitling than on signing and audio-description. Disabled people and Members on both sides of the House will appreciate any clarification from my noble friend on those two points—signing and audio-description.

The Bill's five-year interim target for subtitles is set at 60 per cent. Although that is less than my amendment provides for, it is a compromise and is none the worse for that, especially because of the important addendums that the target may be increased, the date may be brought forward by order of the Secretary of State, and Ofcom will have explicit power to set further interim targets after the 10-year anniversary. The significance of that is that subtitles may be extended beyond 80 per cent, moving us closer to the dream of 100 per cent subtitles, where all deaf people can watch all television in comfort and with comprehension. That would be one of the best, if not the best record, in the whole world.

I shall mention a final provision of the new clauses. Where the Secretary of State chooses to alter any of the 10-year targets by order, he can do so only by replacing them with a higher target. Again, that is good news. I express my appreciation to the Government and to my noble friend Lord McIntosh in particular for the constructive way in which they have tackled these problems.

In brief, the Bill clearly has good intentions that will give deaf and visually impaired people much greater access to television. It could and should enable them to share in the welcome expansion of programmes of all kinds. However, so much depends on its future implementation. In particular, the exemption of programmes should be minimal, or it could be massive. On that hinges the value of the Bill to people with hearing and visual disabilities. Ofcom will decide which programmes will be excluded and that is right and proper. The issues that it should consider in making its decision are a matter for Parliament and not for Ofcom. The current wording is so loose that it could lead to either minimal or massive exemptions. The issue should be debated in this House so that Ofcom can know our views and then get on with its job.

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My own view and that of some Members of this House, as it is of the RNID and other organisations concerned with these problems, is that exemptions should be absolutely minimal and should be granted only for exceptional and pressing reasons. It would be very helpful if Ofcom were to give advance notice of applications and an opportunity for voluntary organisations to comment before any exemptions are made.

If my noble friend Lord McIntosh were to give an assurance that Ofcom would be expected to operate in an open and consultative manner on exemptions, as does the Federal Communications Commission in the United States, it would be tremendously important for deaf people and a very healthy development.

I have tabled Amendment No. 155 because in any discussion on disability, I have found that one striking fact emerges; that is, the effects of practically any disability are perceived very differently by the public from those experiencing the disability. That has very important implications for the Bill because Ofcom can assess the benefits of subtitling, signing and audio description in one way, but disabled people see them entirely differently. The public could regard subtitles, for example, with mild interest or possibly irritation, whereas to a deaf person they are crucial to watching and comprehending television. Without them, in a real sense, television is useless and irrelevant to profoundly deaf people because they cannot understand the dialogue—imagine that. Basically, that is the reason for my amendment, and I hope that my noble friend the Minister will be able to accept it.

Amendment No. 156 also relates to the need to have more than an official view before making a decision on exclusion or inclusion. Organisations for the disabled can effectively reflect the views of disabled people, and they need to have the right to do so. Consultation and transparency lead to a very different animal from protestations—which is all we have now—and the amendment would provide for them.

I know that my noble friend the Minister will do what he can, and I thank him very sincerely for the great advances that we are making for deaf and sight impaired people in the Bill. I greatly appreciate all that he has done. I beg to move.

10 p.m.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I do not want to get into the habit of speaking twice on every group of amendments but it might be for the convenience of the House if I speak to the many government amendments in this group and then respond to the debate at the end as briefly as possible.

We have made clear throughout the passage of the Bill that we fully recognise the importance of access to television services for people with sensory impairments. The provisions in this Bill and other recent developments will lead to a very significant improvement on the current position. In July 2001 we increased the subtitling target for digital terrestrial broadcasters from 50 per cent to 80 per cent. In the

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Bill, we have extended this requirement, and requirements to provide signing and audio description. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Ashley, is not satisfied with what we are doing in that regard but we have made changes. That requirement will apply to all licensed broadcasters including, for the first time, digital cable and satellite broadcasters. Those changes should lead to a dramatic increase in the provision of services to help people with sensory impairments to enjoy television. We know that many people would like us to do more. The noble Lord, Lord Ashley, knows that whenever I offer him something, he wants more. I pay tribute to him for that; he is a doughty fighter and he is very difficult to resist. We indicated in Committee that we would bring forward amendments at Report to deal with two of the concerns that had been expressed. The government amendments in this group represent the outcome of that commitment and also make a further concession to address Amendment No. 157.

The first part of Amendment No. 150A deals with the concerns expressed that many sensorily impaired people are unaware of the existence of subtitling, signing and audio description, and are therefore unable to benefit. The amendment will place Ofcom under a duty to include in its code on access to television for people with sensory impairments a requirement that broadcasters make adequate information about those services available to those who are likely to want to make use of them.

The second part of Amendment No. 150A fulfils our commitment to introduce a fixed, five-year interim target for subtitling, to ensure that progress towards meeting the main target by the 10th anniversary is accelerated in the early years. That target will apply to all services for which the relevant date is after the passing of the Bill; that is, all television licensable content services and restricted television services, and those digital television programme services and licensed public service channels the provision of which begins after the passing of the Bill. There is certainly an incentive here to get the Bill passed.

The target will be 60 per cent. In determining that percentage, we have taken into account both the desire of people with hearing impairments to ensure more subtitling provision, and the understandable concerns of broadcasters about the additional costs that this will impose on them. We believe that a target of 60 per cent strikes the right balance. It is a tough but achievable figure for the broadcasters and will lead to the availability of much more subtitling than might have been expected on a linear progression to 80 per cent.

Amendment No. 156F allows the Secretary of State to set a higher target, or require the target to be met by a different anniversary, where it appears that the 60 per cent target is likely to be fulfilled before the fifth anniversary. That will ensure that there is flexibility to require more from those services for which the 60 per cent target would be less challenging. I hasten to add that that is an upward motion, not a downward one.

Finally, Amendment No. 156H deals with another point of concern which we did not specifically undertake to consider in Committee. That amendment

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will ensure that the provision of subtitling, signing and audio description is not cut back, by changing the existing order-making power in Clause 301(1)(b) to ensure that the percentage figure for the 10-year targets for all those services can only be increased in future, not decreased. As I said, we introduced the amendment specifically to address the intention underlying Amendment No. 157, which we may be debating very shortly.

I hope that the House will agree with me that these amendments show that the Government take these issues very seriously, that we have listened to the concerns expressed and that we are prepared to act where appropriate. We believe that we have gone as far as we can and that it would not be right to impose any further burdens on broadcasters in this area. I have not gone into the detail of all the other amendments but it is obvious that they are consequential on the major points to which I referred.


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