HC Deb 15 December 1983 vol 50 cc1205-14

Amendments made: No. 57, in page 73, line 35, after `towards' insert `(a)'.

No. 58, in page 73, line 37, at end insert `or

  1. (b) any fees incurred by any person in respect of the exercise in relation to apparatus to which this section applies of any function conferred by or under section 21 above.'. —[Mr. Butcher.]

Mr. Alfred Morris (Manchester, Wythenshawe)

I beg to move amendment No. 56, in page 74, line 9, at end insert— '(3A) The results of all research financed under this section shall be set out by the Secretary of State in an annual report laid before both Houses of Parliament.'. Intervening from the Opposition Front Bench for the first time at this stage of the proceedings on a Bill that has been debated for more than 300 hours over a period of 13 months, I feel like an intruder on the last lap of an Olympic marathon. Happily, I am here by invitation, not as an intruder, and am delighted to join, even at this very late stage, the admirable team that has worked so tirelessly in opposing a Bill, the purpose of which is so strongly resented here and in the country.

I have two prefatory points to make before turning to the amendment. First, I am extremely sorry that my hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk, East (Mr. Ewing), who has given such notable service and leadership as a member of the team, cannot be with us today because of his wife's illness. He is very much in cur thoughts and we feel deeply for him. Secondly, on a personal note, I naturally very much regret the absence from the Opposition Benches today of another former leading member of the team. I refer to my brother, the right hon. Charles Morris, who also gave stalwart service, based on his long experience and expertise in this field and who today is very widely and justifiably missed.

The amendment is to clause 81, which gives the Secretary of State power to promote the interests of disabled people. It is an amendment prompted by the speech, of very considerable distinction, by my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mr. Golding) in Standing Committee on 1 December. As my hon. Friend said in his speech, legislating to help disabled people is no new endeavour for him. Indeed, his earliest experience of working on Committee here, very soon after his election to the House following the untimely death of Stephen Swingler, was as a most hard-working member of the Standing Committee on the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Bill, as it then was, between December 1969 and March 1970. Since then, as a Back Bencher, as a Minister and, more recently, as a Chairman of a Select Committee, my hon. Friend has been a well-informed, wholly genuine and at once skilful and successful campaigner to improve the well-being and status of disabled people.

My hon. Friend was especially concerned in his speech of 1 December about the problems of the hearing impaired, whose number he estimated at 5 million. It is on their claim that I, too, will concentrate today. Nor is that in any way inappropriate since, as my hon. Friend recalled, Alexander Bell invented the telephone while attempting to help the hard of hearing, who included his own wife.

To be hard of hearing very often means being lonely and isolated, and a telephone can be both a lifeline and a godsend. It can make all the difference between a full and fulfilling life and one of extreme dependence on other people. If they are not able to use telephones on the same terms as other people, the hard of hearing are denied equal opportunities in work and social life. Their mobility is restricted and their dignity is offended.

The need is not merely for telephones in the homes of people who are hearing impaired, but for such people to be able to use all telephones on equal terms with everyone else. If there is any phone that normally hearing people can, and have the right to, use which is unusable by the hearing impaired, to that extent the hearing impaired are doubly handicapped and can suffer double despair.

In reply to a parliamentary question on 2 December, I was told by the Minister that: The Government are determined to ensure that disabled persons continue to be able to obtain telecommunications equipment adapted to their needs. We have included provisions in the Telecommunications Bill to achieve this, and the draft BT licence includes conditions specifically to safeguard the interests of disabled persons." —[Official Report, 2 December 1983; Vol. 49, c. 646.] The hearing impaired will derive only the minimum of comfort from that assurance. In fact, they will be extremely disappointed that the Government have not used the chance now available to them to ensure that modern technology improves not only the employment opportunities of people with hearing impairments, but their quality of life.

The hard of hearing have for many years now been the victims, not the beneficiaries, of advancing technology in this subject. They alone in modern society have been left worse off by recent innovations.

From the time of its invention until 1958, the telephone fortuitously produced sufficient magnetism to make it usable by people with hearing aids designed for its use. Some 80 per cent. of hearing aid users could enjoy freedom of movement in the pursuit of work and pleasure by being able, in common with normally hearing people, to use any telephone of their choice.

The year 1958 saw a significant advance in technology. While it improved telecommunication for most of us, a vast number of hearing impaired people were denied use of the telephone. This was because of the replacement of the existing 300 type instrument by the incompatible 700 type. Millions of hearing impaired people were robbed by an advance in technology of the ability to make telephone calls that they had come to take for granted.

It was only four years ago that British Telecom developed the inductive coupler, a cheap device which artificially restores the necessary magnetism to make it possible again for people with suitable hearing aids to use the telephone. The coupler, used on its own or in conjunction with an amplifying handset, has given new hope and confidence to the hearing impaired, even although the number of telephones with the couplers fitted is so limited. Imagine their disappointment and dismay, however, at the advent of a further, more recent technological so-called improvement. I refer to the new electronic telephones that cannot accept inductive couplers, amplifying handsets, or any of the other aids that can assist disabled people. The hearing impaired, both as individuals and through their organisations, made clear their indignation, and the Secretary of State was compelled to set up a working group to seek solutions to the problems.

The problems will doubtless be solved in due course, but to what effect? Just around the corner lurks a new generation of telephones which will incorporate some even more advanced technology, namely, the ceramic and piezo-electric crystal receivers. These operate on such a low current that it will again be impossible to use inductive couplers and amplifying handsets. Once more, hearing impaired people will be the victims of technological advancement.

This cruel cycle must be broken. A lasting solution must be found. It must be one which permits technological innovation, but not at the cost of further handicapping the hard of hearing. After all, what is the use of introducing phones that millions of people cannot use? That is not progress, but a way of mocking the plight of some of the most needful of our fellow citizens. The Government have a clear responsibility to ensure that all telephones can be used by people with hearing aids, and it is just not good enough to restrict their use on the grounds of cost or—and the technical case is often dubious—that inductive coupling could impede technological progress.

If technological progress excludes millions of handicapped people from a lifeline service, then it is not progress. It makes no sense to claim that something is slightly better technologically if it denies the handicapped a service they so vitally need.

The draft BT licence, by default, indicates the way out of the dilemma of trying to balance the claims of technological innovation with the needs of the hearing impaired. Condition 6 of the draft licence says a public emergency call service must be provided whereby any member of the public—I underline the word "any"—may at any time use the telephone to communicate with any of the emergency services as swiftly as practicable.

In an emergency, the nearest telephone becomes a lifesaving facility. Any telephone can, at any time, become an emergency telephone. Yet the new incompatible telephones put the emergency services out of reach of the hearing impaired. So how can condition 6 possibly be met for the hard of hearing, in their millions? That is a question that the Minister must address himself to in reply to this debate tonight. I put it to him that the solution, as to most of the other telephone problems of the hard of hearing, is that from a not-too-distant future date, say three or four years, all new telephones supplied by BT must be capable of direct coupling to suitable hearing aids. That is, in my view, an inescapable necessity if condition 6 of the draft BT licence is not to become meaningless for millions of handicapped people. It is important also that, from the same date, every telephone provided by other suppliers, and connected to a publicly available network, should be capable of direct coupling to a suitable hearing aid. One way of achieving that would be to make a mandatory provision in the appropriate British Standard.

6.15 pm

There must be an on-going programme of research to serve three purposes, and Parliament must be kept informed of its progress. First, to solve the problems created by the introduction of electronic telephones, so that they are capable of accepting additions, such as loud bells, flashing lights, amplifying handsets, inductive couplers and other devices to suit the needs of hearing impaired and other disabled people. Secondly, to ensure that future generations of telephones are capable of meeting the needs of all disabled people, at least to the standard associated with the 700 type telephones. Our third purpose must be to provide a continuing programme of research into new apparatus to help the disabled generally, using the most up-to-date technology.

This approach to the problem would restore to the hearing impaired the degree of telephonic mobility they enjoyed prior to 1958, would not impede technological progress and would ensure that the advantages of modern technology would be shared by all.

The speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme in Standing Committee was much informed, as he said, by the work of John Hart and Ron Collett, his Post Office Engineering Union colleagues, who have done so much to help the British Association for the Hard of Hearing. John Hart is a former chairman of the POEU's London regional council and, for many years, has combined an interest in the welfare of deaf people with research into the technical possibilities of alleviating their handicap by the use of the telephone. I honour him and Ron Collett for their advocacy of the proposals I am submitting to the House today, and am most grateful for all their assistance to me.

I know they share my concern—I speak not only as the promoter of the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act and a former Minister for the disabled, but also as president of the North of England Regional Association for the Deaf— that very much more needs to be done to help people who are completely deaf as well as the hard of hearing. Their problems are even more daunting and could, in many cases, be very substantially eased through telecommunication systems.

Here is a further compelling reason why there should be an annual statement to Parliament about progress made by use of the power the Secretary of State is now seeking in clause 81. In the first such report, I hope it will be possible for him to prove that he is working to the three to four-year timetable I have proposed for all new telephones supplied by BT to be made capable of direct coupling to suitable hearing aids. At the same time, I trust that the report will give evidence of his commitment to the sympathetic hearing scheme. I am sure that all organisations of and for deaf people and the hard of hearing would be grateful if he could express his unequivocal support for it in this debate today.

Our amendment does not seek an annual report to Parliament simply for the sake of recording what would have happened even without any legislative requirement of the kind that the amendment proposes. We want to excite progress, not merely to see it reported, and believe that our amendment will have that effect.

Christmas is coming and I hope that the Minister will feel able to accept the amendment. It is put forward entirely without party animus as a means of helping millions of handicapped people who, like everyone else, want to be part of and not apart from society.

Mr. Lewis Carter-Jones (Eccles)

Does my right hon. Friend recall that a similar amendment was incorporated in the then Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Bill, which he promoted, and that there was no vote on it? It was accepted by both sides of the House without equivocation. Does my right hon. Friend hope that he will get the same response this evening?

Mr. Morris

My hon. Friend is right to say that there were no party differences about the need to enact that section of my Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act. It was a moment in parliamentary history when both sides of both Houses of Parliament came together to seek agreed objectives that were widely supported all over the country. You especially will remember, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that there was no rancour whatever at any stage of the proceedings on my Bill. I hope very much that the Minister, when replying tonight, as my hon. Friend the Member for Eccles (Mr. Carter-Jones) was suggesting, will follow the lead that was given in the Session 1969–70. There is no case for rejecting our request for a progress report to this House on what is being done to promote the interests of the disabled.

As the Minister will have noticed, there is no animus whatever in my approach today. If he feels that the drafting of the amendment could be more felicitous, we shall try to co-operate with him. I do very much hope that he will respond not only sympathetically, but constructively when he replies. I hope he will have learnt from the debates of 1969–70 that we never used the word "compassion". We decided, after consultation between the two sides of Parliament, that disabled people no longer wanted compassion. They want understanding. They want independence. They want respect. They want to be people who, as I have said, can be a part of and not apart from society. Above all, they reject condescension. I hope very much that the Minister will respond constructively to my appeal. I most warmly commend the amendment to the House.

Mr. Butcher

I take the point of the right hon. Member for Manchester, Wythenshawe (Mr. Morris) that the last thing that the disabled want is condescension. They want to be seen as an integral part of our way of life and our society. I think that they would be the first pressure group to ask that they should not be picked out as a group requiring treatment which sets them apart from society. I am sure that they wish to be integrated within society as a whole and, therefore, we should set the measures that are introduced in this place in that light.

The right hon. Member for Wythenshawe has graced our proceedings with his usual considerate manner and has made a number of astute observations, some of which I believe we can go some way towards satisfying in the Bill and in the licence. This is the third or fourth occasion on which we have debated the disabled while considering the Bill. We are trying through this proposed legislation to enshrine rights for the disabled that will meet their expectations of the telecommunications service, and it is our aim to do so in the most practical manner possible.

About three or four issues which were raised in Committee concerning the disabled remain outstanding. I wish to reassure hon. Members, especially members of the Committee, that I have already taken up, in correspondence with Sir George Jefferson, the new questions which have been raised. I welcome this opportunity, therefore, to explain to the House a little more about the Government's policy on the needs of the disabled. I am talking about their need for telecommunications equipment and services. I shall try to answer some of the questions that have been asked. I may not be able to deal with some of them now because we have not yet formulated answers, but I hope that I shall be able to show how we are trying to find some of the key answers.

We understand and appreciate the concern and needs of the disabled, including the visually handicapped, the hearing impaired and those handicapped in other ways. In a previous debate we explained that the licence refers to the disabled in the generality and in the particular in accordance with certain types of disability. There is presently available specially adapted telecommunications apparatus which enables the disabled to use the telephone. I know how important such apparatus is in the home and in places of work. I know also that there is concern that changes in technology will lead to difficulties in obtaining such equipment. I am aware of the concern that a more competitive industry will lead to difficulties in supplying apparatus for which there will, in some instances. always be a limited demand.

The Government are determined that that will not be the result. We are determined to ensure that the disabled can continue to obtain telecommunications apparatus that is adapted to their needs. We have included provisions in the Bill to achieve this. There are also such provisions in the BT licence. I do not want to say too much now about the provisions of the Bill but I shall draw attention to clause 3. We have already spent some time discussing the clause, which sets the framework for many of the functions of the Secretary of State and the director, including the important licensing function.

Clause 3(2)(a) imposes a specific duty upon the Secretary of State and the director to promote the interests of consumers, including those who are disabled, in respect of quality, variety and prices of telecommunications services and equipment. This duty provides the essential legislative safeguards for the disabled. Clause 81 empowers the Secretary of State, with the approval of the Treasury, to make grants for the purpose of supporting research into, or the development of, telephone communication apparatus that is designed for use by disabled persons. The clause provides a general enabling power. We intend that its primary purpose, at least initially, will be in the provision of telephone switchboards that are adapted for use by blind operators.

There are two main adaptations for telephones which enable them to be used by the hard of hearing. This is a measure which has been focused on by the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mr. Golding). The first adaptation is the incorporation into the earpiece of an inductive coupler, which enables those with hearing aids to use a telephone. The second is a built-in amplifier for those without hearing aids. There is concern that new technology will mean that such devices can no longer be put into new types of telephones. It seems that this problem has two main elements. The first problem is the immediate or short-term one, which is to ensure that telephones with these devices continue to be available.

The second element is the long-term problem of how we are to make the new technological telephones usable by the hard of hearing. In the immediate future, I can give a firm assurance that telephones with internal inductive couplers and amplifiers will continue to be available. This assurance is given in condition 32 of the draft licence, which obliges BT to make available telephones which incorporate those devices. This will mean that the familiar series 700 telephone, which can be fitted with the inductive coupler, will continue to be available. There has been some anxiety that the series 700 telephone will be phased out and replaced by newer telephones such as the Statesman and the Viscount, which are now available and at present are not fitted with amplifiers. Some progress is being made towards adapting the Statesman and other phones so that they can be fitted with inductive couplers. I hope that this will be successful. In the meantime, condition 32 ensures that the 700 series will be available. Technology is moving fast.

6.30 pm
Mr. Alfred Morris

We all hope that further progress will be made. What will the procedure be for reporting that progress to the House? I hope that the Minister will take the point that an annual statement of progress would be extremely helpful.

Mr. Butcher

I shall reply to that intervention in a moment.

There is anxiety about whether the hard of hearing will be able to use the new phones. We are determined to ensure that they will be able to do so, but at present nobody knows what the solution will be. We have therefore appointed a working group of experts who will look into the technological problem with a view to establishing a research programme to find a solution.

The new generation telephones need cause no immediate concern, because the old ones will be with us for some time. However, there is still concern that the present provision of those telephones is not wide enough. The working group will therefore also consider the present provision of products for hearing-impaired people to see how it can be maintained and, if possible, improved.

As for the inclusion of inductive couplers in public call boxes, condition 33 requires BT to implement a programme of adapting all call boxes so that they can be used by the hard of hearing. BT has stated that this will be done by 1985. I have taken careful note of the comments made about that time scale, and I am asking BT either to bring the date forward or at least to give a firm assurance that there will be no slippage. I am also exploring the possibility of putting in kiosks a notice explaining to the hard of hearing how to use the call boxes with inductive couplers. Finally, I am also considering possible provisions in other licences which we may grant under the Bill, such as licences for branch systems. For instance, it might be possible to adapt emergency telephones in lifts for use by the hard of hearing.

The hon. Gentleman did not refer at length to the blind and visually handicapped, but he will be aware that there is anxiety about the directory inquiries service. If BT introduced charges for directory inquiries, we would find a mechanism for ensuring that the blind did not pay. That point was made clearly in Committee, and I hope that it reassured the hon. Gentleman.

We also want to ensure that blind people should continue to have employment opportunities in the telecommunications industry. There are some 1,200 blind telephonists; telephony is the major—though not the only—source of employment for the blind. They use private exchanges which are specially modified by replacing visual signals by tactile and sound signals. The Government want this valuable source of employment to be retained. We want to preserve existing job opportunities and, if possible, to create new ones.

Technology is changing, and new models and types of private exchanges are coming on to the market. As far as possible, we want to ensure that these new models are so designed that they can be adapted for use by blind people. My Department has had very constructive discussions with the manufacturers and the Royal National Institute for the Blind, and there is general agreement in principle among all concerned that there should be a mandatory requirement that before an operator-controlled private branch exchange system is connected to the public network it should be shown to be adaptable for use by the blind. Much work has to be done in establishing what would be the essential features of such a requirement, and we hope to appoint a consultant specialist to do the work. This is a substantial step forward in safeguarding jobs for the blind, and I am sure that hon. Members on both sides of the House will welcome it.

We are now seeing new PBXs coming on to the market. These are called distributed systems. There is no single designated operator position. Ideally, we would like them to be adaptable for use by the blind, but we do not know at present whether this is possible. We shall ask the consultant to look into that problem too.

I have devoted some time to this topic but, as we have seen on previous occasions, we are all agreed that it is important.

Amendment No. 56 seeks to require the Secretary of State to make an annual report to Parliament on the results of research financed by him under the clause. The amendment may not be necessary. The Secretary of State will, of course, be accountable to Parliament for his function under the clause just as he will be accountable for any of his other functions under the Bill. Hon. Members will be able to ask him questions about the finance for research, just as they will be able to question him about his licensing or approval functions. I see no reason to single out his clause 81 functions for inclusion in an annual report.

Mr. Carter-Jones

Clause 81 is very important. It shows that the Government intend to provide research resources. It is to be welcomed.

The Minister suggests relying upon parliamentary questions as a means of communicating what is being done, but he must realise that not many people read Hansard. There would be a double advantage in producing a report about research. Researchers would be made aware of what is being done, and we would avoid the wastage of money on research that had been done already. The report need only be a simple one, similar to that under section 22 of the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act. A short report designed to prevent people from reinventing the wheel would save the Minister money.

Mr. Butcher

I think that the hon. Gentleman may be underestimating the vigilance and vigour of the lobby in this House on behalf of the disabled. It is an all-party lobby and finds expression through one of the Select Committees. The hon. Gentleman might find, on consulting the annual report, that he could have referred to a report at much more frequent intervals. He could, for example, check the spending of the working party or of the consultants. He could increase the frequency of publication through our usual procedures.

Our resistance to this well-intentioned amendment is founded on practicalities. It is not founded on any wish to withhold information—quite the contrary.

Mr. Golding

The Minister's reply was disappointing. In the past, we have used a carrot and stick approach with him—carrots for what he has done for the disabled and stick for everything else. We shall have to give the Minister stick for his reply, because it was negative.

Much research needs to be done. The Minister mentioned research for the benefit of the blind. That is important, but so is research for the benefit of the deaf as opposed to the hard of hearing. It should be possible, with the advance of technology and telecommunications systems, to provide deaf people, who are at the moment isolated, with visual means of communication. Such provision is important and should be achieved without additional cost to deaf people.

I know that the Secretary of State wants users to pay the full cost of the services that they receive. The Opposition are keen on cross-subsidisation of services to the disabled. The Secretary of State might want people in wheelchairs to be able to get into a telephone kiosk without having to use a crowbar, and it is possible that he might want other subjects investigated, but it is certain that not much will be done unless, once a year, the Secretary of State has to set down what has happened. That is when we shall get action. It is only when civil servants suddenly see that they have a blank sheet of paper in front of them and nothing to write on it for the Secretary of State to present to Parliament that they will say, "We must get things moving."

If we rely on parliamentary questions we shall only get the crowbar answers that the Secretary of State is likely to give. We want an annual report, because it will force the Secretary of State to take action on behalf of the disabled.. That is what we are speaking for—action. We shall not get such action unless the Secretary of State is forced to stand at the Dispatch Box with a report and account for himself.

Mr. Alfred Morris

If the Minister is under instructions to resist the amendment, there is no point in pressing him to reconsider his stance. He conceded that the disabled had special problems and claims, and that is the reason for treating clause 81 differently from other parts of the Bill. Handicapped people deserve special help simply because they are handicapped. They have problems over and above those experienced by the generality of people.

Of course, we can ask parliamentary questions. On this side of the House there are some expert practitioners in the art of asking parliamentary questions. I do not want to appear greedy, but we want to be able to ask parliamentary questions and to have an annual report as well. As my hon. Friend the Member for Eccles (Mr. Carter-Jones) wisely said, such a report will focus special attention on the problems of disabled people and the progress that the Government make in solving them in each and every year.

6.45 pm

If the Minister examines section 22 of the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act 1970, he will find that the matters to which it relates are just as capable of being examined through parliamentary questions as those in clause 81. We decided as long ago as 1970 that there was a special case for reporting annually to Parliament on what had been done to improve the well-being of disabled people. Our amendment does not ask for an annual report simply for the sake of recording what would have happened without a legislative requirement such as we propose. I have already made that clear. We want to excite progress. I appeal to Ministers to reconsider their position. If they reject the amendment it will not disappear, but will return before the Bill reaches the statute book Notwithstanding what Ministers say today, the amendment will almost certainly be debated elsewhere and could well, I hope, become part of the Bill.

Amendment negatived.

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