HC Deb 30 July 1982 vol 28 cc1521-8

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Berry.]

2.30 pm
Mr. John Golding (Newcastle-under-Lyme)

This afternoon I appeal to the Government on behalf of literally millions of people who are hard of hearing and so phone deaf, and the increasing number who will become so in the future. As part of their liberalisation programme, which I deplore, the Government are in the process of setting mandatory standards for telecommunications apparatus to prevent hazards for British Telecom operators and interference to the system. To those new standards should be added a mandatory requirement that any telephone fitted to the BT system should be capable of being used with hearing aids.

I do not ask that all telephones be adapted immediately, nor do I expect that a mandatory standard can come into force immediately. I ask, however, that a mandatory standard for the future be adopted now. Exhortation is not sufficient. A voluntary standard will not do the trick. It could not survive in the present competitive jungle.

This cause has been presented diligently and persistently by Mr. John Hart, a former Post Office Engineering Union branch officer. He has had the backing of the establishment committee and the national executive council of the POEU and Peter Shaw and Ron Collett, officers of the union. This cause is supported by the Post Office Users National Council, Royal National Institute for the Deaf and the British Association for the Hard of Hearing. Much help has been given by my right hon. Friends the Members for Manchester, Wythenshawe (Mr. Morris) and for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Ashley).

As a union, we in the POEU have always been concerned to provide a service to individuals. We do not wish to see groups of physically handicapped people suffer disadvantage in the use of telephones because of commercial attitudes or advancing technology. Isolation is already a curse on the hard of hearing and we should not intensify it.

The telephone was invented as a by-product of Alexander Graham Bell's attempt to help the hard of hearing, including his wife. In time, it was discovered that telephones could be used by eight out of 10 hearing aid users at a flick of a T switch. That ceased to be true in Britain with the introduction of a type 700 telephone, which was phased in from 1958. Now, due to the advance of telephone technology, the T switch does not work with many telephones. The hard of hearing face telephones that are always dead. Why is that so?

To put it crudely, the sounds of the caller created magnetism that leaked from the ear piece and could be converted back into the original sounds by a hearing aid pick-up. Through time, the amount of stray magnetism has been reduced, until now there is too little for it to be used in the interests of the hard of hearing. We must rectify that. We must make it possible for hearing aids to be used effectively again with telephones.

For me, any method will do, but what is now practical and urgently required is the general use of the inductive coupler. This is a cheap and easy way of restoring the magnetism, being simply a few turns of thin wire round a receiver inset, contained in a plastic moulding. It is devastatingly simple, cheap costing perhaps 20p to 30p to produce and less than £1 to buy—and efficient. Indeed, there is no argument about its efficiency, although there is some transmission loss which, however, is negligible. Thanks to the Department of Transport, all motorway telephones are now to be fitted and, despite some inexcusable dragging of feet, all BT kiosks will be fitted by the end of the year.

The problem is that of the 27 million telephones, only a quarter of a million are fitted with inductive couplers. The POEU has done everything possible to push BT. As a contribution to the International Year of Disabled People, we approached BT with a proposal that members would demonstrate inductive couplers in homes and work places, if necessary in their own time, if BT would waive the £5 installation charge. However, we want the problem to be solved in a more workmanlike, thorough-going manner.

As I have said, there are still only a quarter of a million telephones out of 27 million fitted with inductive couplers. In all new telephones, and in replacements over 10 to 15 years, it should be compulsory to fit inductive couplers, or any other device which provides a solution for the hard of hearing. Let me emphasise that manufacturers should be required to produce telephones that are usable, not forced if they can find a better method to achieve this, to use inductive couplers.

Why make it compulsory? The answer is because BT is so lukewarm on this issue. Without compulsion BT, not fully comprehending the problem, would not, in this new competitive era, be prepared to accept the cost, however small, or risk being undercut by competitors, despite the fact that perhaps new traffic could be created.

It is essential that any regulations apply to all, whether to BT or British or foreign organisations. BT resisted also because it believes that inductive coupling could impede technological progress in the years to come, although who wants technology for progress at the expense of millions being unable to use the telephone? The answer, of course, is to work now for the distant day when digital telephones will be common.

BT believes that it is sufficient to provide inductive couplers generally in public telephones only, although even here it has been dreadfully negligent in publicising the facility where it already exists. Others, it thinks, should be fitted only on demand, at a price. That is just not good enough. As evidence given to a United States Congressional Committee has clearly shown, that does not meet the needs of the hard of hearing at work, at college, in hotels, restaurants, hospitals, or in the homes of friends and relatives that they may be visiting. It can stop them getting work or accepting transfers. It totally restricts their mobility. It impinges on their dignity.

The hard of hearing want to feel confident that they can use any telephone and they do not wish to be dependent on individual adaptors which they have to remember to carry around. There are sufficient penalties to being handicapped without adding to them. Nor can we be content with passing the buck to the hearing aid manufacturers. There is a solution. Let us adopt it now.

It is for the Government to come to the aid of the hard of hearing and introduce a mandatory requirement that any telephone fitted to the BT network must be capable of being used with hearing aids now and, ideally, at no additional cost to the hard of hearing. The Royal National Institute for the Deaf feels, like me, that there should be no extra charge for aids for the deaf—certainly that the present rental of 80p a quarter is totally excessive.

Of course, it is not only the inductive coupler that is important; there are also other aids. Amplified handsets are equally as important and should be readily available, particularly in conjunction with the coupler. Additionally, the RNID is concerned to provide a service to those who cannot use a hearing aid—a bureau-based telephone service for the deaf. A successful experimental trial took place in 1980. In essence, this means providing a contact point for the deaf to ring to get assistance to converse on the telephone through a visual means. British Telecom has agreed to give practical support by providing the bureau with equipment and with the maintenance support for one year free of charge. Additionally, the RNID has asked for help, £35,000 plus VAT, from the Department of Industry towards a further experiment. The question for the Minister this afternoon is: can it be given, please?

2.41 pm
Mr. Laurie Pavitt (Brent, South)

Like the rest of the House, I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mr. Golding) because he has brought to the subject his experience in two areas. First, he has a profound knowledge of the telecommunications industry. Secondly, he is one of the few hon. Members to understand the great difference between complete deafness and a hearing impairment. As a Member of Parliament he has sought to help both categories.

I am probably the only hon. Member to listen all the time in the House with an inductive coupling. It took seven years for the House to accept that, but now every Bench is looped. I achieved that only because the late Sir Winston Churchill, sitting below the Gangway, had his seat wired. That provided a precedent and I was therefore able to persuade the House on the matter.

My hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme has raised several extremely practical points. I shall be very disappointed if neither the Minister nor the directorate of BT do not take them to heart, particularly when it comes to an additional telephone charge. I still find it a little unpleasant, to say the least, that transistorised telephones are subject to an increased quarterly rental. The House will know that there is one transistorised telephone behind the Chair and one in the Members' Lobby. There are 15 transistorised telephones here. If a person has a transistorised telephone in his home he has to pay not only an extra installation charge but an extra rental fee. Therefore, among the disabled, the deaf are the only people not to have parity with the rest of the community.

My hon. Friend is right about the way in which British Telecom, and previously the Post Office, dragged their feet. For several years, I campaigned for inductive couplings to be placed in airports, at mainline terminal stations and at Crown post offices. I suspect that it is due to the pressure applied by my hon. Friend that that work has recently been carried out. The deaf, and those disabled by a hearing impairment, are the least visible of the disabled. They are lonely. A person with impaired hearing wants to stay within the community. The big problem, particularly with the elderly, is to persuade people to come out of their shells and to keep in contact. One way of keeping in contact, particularly for grandparents, is by using the telephone.

If British Telecom will accede to the request made by my hon. Friend, it will open up a whole world for the deaf. It is not just a way of dealing with those people who have a hearing impediment, but it will help the aged and lonely. Over a period the National Health Service will save millions of pounds on the care of the elderly and on social services.

I am delighted that most local authorities, through social services, are prepared to allow elderly people living alone to have a telephone at the ratepayers' expense. With the cuts in social service expenditure, it becomes extremely difficult to provide them. It is important that telephones provided for the elderly should have the inductive coupling, because they will often suffer from a hearing impediment. That will enable them to use a telephone that a compassionate society still seeks to provide.

2.45 pm
The Under-Secretary of State for Industry (Mr. John Butcher)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mr. Golding) on having the last word in this parliamentary Session. We were exchanging views at 8 o'clock this morning and I dare say that in the coming Session we shall exchange views on the British Telecommunications Bill. I was not aware, I confess, that the hon. Member for Brent, South (Mr. Pavitt) was instrumental in achieving the wiring of this place so that those with hearing impediments could take part properly in our proceedings.

My hon. Friend the Minister of State, Department of Industry, has charged me with the responsibility of ensuring that Information Technology Year 1982 makes an impact on the disabled and those who are disadvantaged. I am delighted to have been given that task. I wish to see that IT82 shows the human face of information technology, which will allow people to free themselves from certain difficulties by the use of the facilities that information technology makes available. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme for raising this important subject. Clearly it is desirable that the deaf should have as much access to the advantages of modern telecommunications as anyone else, so far as it is technically possible. It is important in reducing their isolation. Although the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme has sounded a warning note about the disadvantages of some recent technical developments, I believe that on balance the information technology revolution will make available more possibilities rather than fewer.

The main point raised is the suggestion that telephones connected to British Telecom's network should be required to incorporate a device, known as an inductive coupler, which will allow incoming calls to be picked up by a suitably equipped hearing aid.

Mr. Golding

My request is that the telephones should be such that they can be used by those with a hearing aid. I said that if manufacturers could find a way other than the inductive coupler that was sufficient, I should want only a mandatory requirement that they be compatible.

Mr. Butcher

Before answering that directly, I might point out that this is directed at the concern of the hon.

Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme that it is not sufficient for public telephones only to include an inductive coupler, but that the deaf want to be able to use the telephone, as he said, at work, in colleges, hotels, restaurants and in the homes of relatives and friends.

That said—I may have to return to him for clarification on his earlier point—I believe that the hon. Member will nevertheless appreciate the prime importance of suitable public telephones and the availability of special instruments for use by the hard of hearing in their own homes or where they usually work.

The hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme will agree that the record of British Telecom, especially during the past year, is a good one. From April 1981 to March this year 67 per cent. of the 77,000 public kiosks were equipped with inductive couplers. Work on the rest—mainly the less used rural kiosks—is progressing. The new standard call office, which will begin to be provided next year, will include inductive couplers, and telephones on motorways and AA and RAC phones have been so equipped.

I am glad that the hon. Member is not asking for all existing telephones to be adapted or that the mandatory requirement that he advocates should take effect at once. It would be unacceptable, as well as impracticable, to compel British Telecom to adapt the many millions of installed telephones that lack the facility. The cost of visits to nearly every subscriber in the land would be prohibitive and it would also not be right to insist immediately that all new telephones should be built with inductive couplers. If such a change is contemplated, manufacturers must have due notice so that they can redesign, where necessary, and modify their production methods.

A far more reasonable idea, and the one that I believe the hon. Gentleman is putting forward, is that inductive couplers should be made mandatory from a future date. I have considerable sympathy with that view, at least in relation to new telephone models. I am less sure that models that were designed and approved for connection under earlier rules that said nothing about inductive couplers should subsequently be compelled to incorporate those devices. The designs may not lend themselves to such a change and a manufacturer who has had the initiative to take early advantage of the opportunities of liberalisation would abruptly find himself at a serious disadvantage to one whose response had been slower.

Mr. Pavitt

Telephones have been made by GEC Associated Automation in my constituency for decades. The hon. Gentleman is rightly outlining some possible difficulties, but I can assure him that there will be no problem on new contracts provided that the specification is as he requires it.

Mr. Butcher

I do not think that we disagree on the point and I thank the hon. Member for that clarification. If a change is to be made it should follow a sufficient period of notice and apply only to models approved after the new requirement became mandatory.

The hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme has eloquently made the case for the measure that he proposes to help the hard of hearing. There is, of course, a cost to what he proposes, which would be passed on to those who buy or rent telephones made to the new standard. Therefore, before the Government can decide finally on the matter that the hon. Gentleman has raised, we must balance the arguments on both sides.

A standard for simple extension telephones is close to completion by the British Standards Institution. An important stage in the preparation of the standard, as with all standards, is the consideration of comments by the public on the standard in draft form.

A number of comments along the line of the hon. Member's suggestion have been made by people and organisations representing the interests of the hard of hearing. These comments have been fully considered by the technical committee responsible for the simple extension telephone standard. The committee has decided that, while the first edition of the standard should contain no mandatory requirement for inductive couplers, the case for including such a requirement in a later edition should be thoroughly examined as soon as possible.

The committee has been made aware that the Government find the case made on behalf of the hard of hearing a strong one, and I am asking the committee to meet representatives of the hard of hearing so that the question of inductive couplers can be fully examined. In the light of that discussion, the Government will decide whether to use their powers under the British Telecommunications Act to make the fitting of inductive couplers a mandatory requirement for the approval of extension telephones for connection to British Telecom's network.

Apart from extension phones, there is the question of prime instruments, and in particular the question of the telephones that British Telecom supplies as prime instruments. Clearly, in the foreseeable future those will make up a substantial proportion of all telephones and, as the hon. Gentleman said, most telephones now supplied require, and are capable of, adaptation for use with a hearing aid.

British Telecom's new standard telephones are of course a matter primarily for BT. It does not believe that it is right for all subscribers to bear the cost of a facility which benefits only a minority. It also appreciates that inductive couplers will not work with the very latest electronic telephones, but it is important to remember that those represent only a relatively small segment of the market, perhaps 10 to 13 per cent. in the next year.

British Telecom is considering new ways of adapting these phones to help the hard of hearing. I take this opportunity to urge them to give considerable priority to this important work and to do so in conjuction with the manufacturers. Clearly, the proportion of such phones will rise in the next few years and there is therefore some urgency.

British Telecom's recent tariff proposals contain the welcome proposal that the 80p quarter charge for an inductive coupler should be abolished from November. The installation fee will be retained, but at its present level of £5.

This brings me to the imaginative initiative that the hon. Gentleman mentioned by the Post Office Engineering Union during the International Year of Disabled People. I understand that from April 1981 to March this year POEU engineers fitted in their own time and free of charge some 20,000 to 30,000 inductive couplers. That is a splendid achievement and I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving me the opportunity of bringing it to the notice of the House.

I began by mentioning ways in which new technology may help the hard of hearing. The hon. Gentleman may be interested to know that the Department has received several proposals which concern telecommunications for the deaf, and these are receiving particular consideration. However, they vary in size and scope and also in terms of the technology involved. It is necessary to evaluate relative merits of the proposals and to assess their viability, including the proposal that the hon. Gentleman made in his speech. At this time is not appropriate that conclusions should be forced, but I hope to make an announcment of what the Department can do to help in the near future. I might add that one important and comprehensive project—called VISICOM—arose from an initiative by British Telecom.

I undertake to keep with the hon. Members for Brent, South and Newcastle-under-Lyme apprised of developments and, as I said earlier, I congratulate the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme on having the last word in the current Session of Parliament.

I do not know whether it is a convention, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but may I wish you a most pleasant recess?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Ernest Armstrong)

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's kind wishes and reciprocate them to all Membes of the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at three minutes to Three o' clock till Monday 18 October, pursuant to the Resolution of the House of yesterday.