HC Deb 09 May 1990 vol 172 cc305-10
Mr. Mellor

I beg to move amendment No. 656, in page 28, line 11, leave out subsection (1) and insert— '(1) A Channel 3 or Channel 5 licence shall include—

  1. (a)conditions—
    1. (i) specifying the relevant minimum number of hours in a week for the purposes of this section, and
    2. (ii) requiring programmes with subtitling to be broadcast in the licensed service during not less than that number of hours in each week; and
  2. (b) conditions requiring the holder of the licence to attain such technical standards relating to the provision of subtitling as are specified in the conditions.'.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Paul Dean)

With this it will be convenient to take Government amendments Nos. 657 to 669.

Mr. Mellor

I am delighted to see the right hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Ashley) in his place as well as my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Hughes) because they have both taken an active interest in this matter. It was a particular pleasure for me to be able to discuss certain changes in subtitling arrangements for the deaf with the right hon. Gentleman and I was most grateful to him for his kind words of commendation for what I announced in Committee.

The effect of the amendments will be substantially to redraft clause 32 and to require Channel 3 licensees to subtitle at least 50 per cent. of their programmes within the first five years of the new franchises. Similar requirements have been laid on Channel 5. I should make it clear that neither channel will be able to make a charge specifically for such subtitling. The cost will have to be absorbed. I believe that that is the very least that we should expect the companies to do. It is a substantial increase on what we said that we wanted them to do at the outset. I hope very much that they will not only achieve that, but will do better. There is nothing to stop them doing so. I see the figure not as a ceiling but as a floor, and I hope that they will create a ceiling above the floor. It is a challenge that we all want them to live up to, and more than meet. I commend the amendments to the House.

Mr. Jack Ashley (Stoke-on-Trent, South)

I warmly welcome the amendments because I know that they are of great value to deaf people. The amendments will be warmly welcomed by the Deaf Broadcasting Association after its vigorous campaign for them. I pay tribute to Austin Reeves and Jane Oberman who have worked so hard on the issue of subtitling.

Amendment No. 661 is the crucial one. It ensures that, by 1998, 50 per cent. of all programmes on Channels 3 and 5 will be subtitled. The House should recognise that the amendment is largely due to the Minister of State, who has shown great understanding of the problems of deaf people. It is not the first time that he has done so. When he was a Minister at the Department of Health and I sought to press him about modern implants for deaf people, I found that I did not need to do so because he found millions of pounds for that precise cause to help deaf people. By supporting the amendments he is helping to ensure that deaf people are no longer excluded from the entertainment, education and information provided by television. I am grateful to him for the work that he has done. I wish to place that clearly on the record. He has a fine record. Television has a crucial role to play in society, and from now on deaf people will be able to join in the discussions about what was on the box last night, which they could not do in the past.

I have one reservation about the wording of the amendments, and I hope that the Minister will be able to deal with it later. The part of amendment No. 661 that refers to the year 1999 and thereafter refers only to the greatest number of hours in a week which seems to the ITC to be "reasonably practicable". Those magic words are always brought in by civil servants, whom I am not attacking for one moment, and they can be a means of evading the issue if we are not careful. They may leave a loophole so that in subsequent years the percentage could fall below 50 per cent. if that was later seen to be "reasonably practicable". That is unlikely because there would be a big row if any company tried it. Nevertheless, I hope that the wording will be changed so that deaf people can look forward to the increase in subtitling without a fear of backsliding by any company.

I hope that there will be a steady increase in the percentage of programmes covered by subtitling year by year so that 50 per cent. is achieved in 1998 and there is a steady continuation thereafter. The goal is 100 per cent. subtitling. Deaf people have a right to understanding and comprehension of television, and I am glad that we are moving in that direction.

10.45 pm

I also welcome amendment No. 656; subsection (1)(b) will ensure that subtitling is of the highest standard. Amendment No. 668 will ensure that no charge is made for subtitling. Both provisions will be greatly appreciated by deaf people, who tend to be among the poorest sections of society.

When the Bill reaches the other place, those who rely upon signing should not be forgotten. The Minister should consult the Deaf Broadcasting Association so that those who rely upon signing for communication may be included in this forward-looking provision for deaf people.

I express again my appreciation of the efforts made by the Minister, by the Deaf Broadcasting Association and by others outside the House who have campaigned so assiduously. The provisions mean something to deaf people. Subtitling, however imperfect, is of enormous value. I watch television when it is subtitled because I can comprehend it. Being totally deaf, I cannot understand programmes which are not subtitled, no matter how hard I try to lip-read. Subtitling is crucial—the box is meaningless without it. With subtitling, it is proper television for deaf people. I welcome the amendments.

Mr. Corbett

We all owe a particular debt to my right hon. Friends the Members for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Ashley) and for Manchester, Wythenshawe (Mr. Morris) and to the hon. Member for Exeter (Mr. Hannam) for making us more properly aware of the problems of those who have to live in the silent world of the deaf. We are grateful, too, for the representations of the Deaf Broadcasting Association and of deaf constituents. We are particularly grateful for the way in which the Minister responded in Committee by laying much higher targets on Channel 3 licence holders than were originally envisaged. I make no complaint about where we started from—it is where we end up that matters.

Perhaps "end up" is the wrong phrase. I take the Minister's point that 50 per cent. is to be regarded in no sense as a ceiling but as an encouragement. When Channel 3 licensees know that the duty lies ahead of them, once the investment is made in people and equipment I guess that there will be rapid progress to more than 50 per cent. subtitling. I hope that there will be an expansion of signing, too, which is also important to many deaf people.

The BBC should study the provisions carefully and should not fall behind. I am happy to acknowledge that the BBC is already committed to subtitling the "Nine O'Clock News" by, I think, the autumn. That will be a major step.

All those responsible for broadcasting are now more alert to the needs of deaf viewers, and there is a need for those of us who are blessed with good hearing to do all that we can to ensure that deaf people are brought more and more into our world, so that they can play their roles as properly informed and active citizens. I congratulate the Minister again on his response.

Mr. Roger Sims (Chislehurst)

I warmly endorse the tributes paid by the right hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Ashley) to the various organisations which have so effectively and vigorously promoted the campaign for more subtitling. There was only one omission from the right hon. Gentleman's list because, of course, the right hon. Gentleman himself has campaigned effectively for a long time for the cause of the deaf. He has the admiration of all hon. Members. We all appreciate what the right hon. Gentleman does, but we cannot appreciate the disability from which he suffers. Some years ago I was unfortunate enough to catch some sort of infection which for several weeks caused me to be completely deaf. That brought home to me the sort of world in which the profoundly deaf live and made me realise how they are cut off from so much communication.

The value of subtitling cannot be overrated. It is extremely useful, even in its present form, and the commitments made by the amendments are warmly welcomed. I am grateful to my hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State for tabling them and I congratulate the Government on their response to an effective campaign.

Miss Emma Nicholson

I congratulate my hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State on his splendid amendment. We are all grateful to the right hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Ashley) who has been instrumental in bringing it about. I remind the House that the amendment benefits millions of people—not just those who have a hearing problem, but those who have a language difficulty. The English language is complex and subtitling will help millions of people in the United Kingdom for whom English is not the first language. That is important.

The amendment will also help people who have a below average learning ability or who have difficulties with reading and listening. Spoken English is highly complex but subtitling uses simple, short words and concise sentences to get the meaning across. We are pressing for more than 50 per cent. subtitling but that is not a large, extravagant or greedy aim because Covent Garden already has 100 per cent. subtitling.

Mr. Robert G. Hughes

The amendments put forward by myself and others in the Committee were tame compared with those that my hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State has tabled. Our amendments were described as draconian and unattainable by the television companies. However, my hon. and learned Friend went beyond what I and others had asked for and there was an audible gasp by deaf people and people in television when they heard his announcement. That was because deaf people recognised that the Government amendment was a major achievement brought about by their campaign.

Many people have been prepared to ignore this problem. One deaf boy who wrote to the Deaf Broadcasting Association said that he tried all the time to lip-read what was being said on television but that sometimes people turned away. Far from turning away, my hon. and learned Friend has opened a door for that young boy and many others and we are grateful to him for that.

Mr. Alfred Morris (Manchester, Wythenshawe)

A word of appreciation to the Minister is in order, and I readily thank him for the help that he has given the hearing-impaired. I also pay warm tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett) for all his humane concern for them.

Hon. Members on both sides of the House have contributed to the achievement of these amendments—not least all those who served on the Standing Committee. The Government's proposals go much further than seemed possible on Second Reading, which is very welcome, although the beneficiaries will have to wait some years for what they have sought for so long. The proposals vindicate a sustained campaign to make the Bill more acceptable to deaf people—a campaign that I am delighted to have been able to help.

My hon. Friend the Member for Erdington kindly referred to my interest in the matter, and the role that I played in working for tonight's outcome of the campaign. He also referred to the work of my right hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Ashley) and the hon. Member for Exeter (Mr. Hannam), the chairman and the secretary of the all-party disablement group, which has played an important part in promoting the right of hearing-impaired people to lead fuller and more fulfilling lives.

Television is important in almost everyone's life nowadays, and exclusion from its benefits is a gratuitous further handicap for deaf people to have to bear. Sadly, all too few of those who are not hearing-impaired fail to realise that one of the most devastating additional handicap—over and above the sensory loss—is the extent of public ignorance about the social penalties imposed by deafness.

The amendments will, in time, reduce one of those penalties by allowing the hearing-impaired some of the benefits that everyone else takes for granted. I know that the BBC, which has already shown its concern for deaf people in many positive ways, will also do all that it can further to improve its contribution to making the deaf a part of, rather than apart from, a society in which they have an undoubted right to full citizenship.

All of us here have hearing-impaired people in our constituencies, and all of us know that they are entitled to the social equality that at present they are denied. The Bill, as amended, does not represent a millennium for deaf people, but it is a step forward for them, and one which I hope will soon lead to others on which they and their organisations have been, and will rightly go on insisting.

Mr. Mellor

I am deeply touched by the kind words that have been said about my role. I cannot think of a better cause to have advanced, and I am sure that all the effort that we have expended has been worthwhile.

The right hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Ashley) raised the question of the wording of the obligation after 1999. The aim is to ensure that that obligation continues, and I am more than happy to undertake to look at the wording again to make sure that it is as tightly cast as possible.

Amendment agreed to.

Amendments made: No. 657, in page 28, line 15, leave out from '(2)' to end of line 16 and insert `Subject to subsections (2A) and (2B), the relevant minimum number of hours in a week for the purposes of this section'.

No. 658, in page 28, line 31, leave out 'this section' and insert `the provision of Channel 5'.

No. 659, in page 28, line 33, leave out in relation to Channel 5,'.

No. 660, in page 28, line 34, leave out 'in that service' and insert 'on Channel 5'.

No. 661, in page 28, line 40, at end insert— `(2A) The Commission shall make such determinations under subsection (2) as are appropriate to secure that, subject to subsection (2B), the relevant minimum number of hours in a week for the purposes of this section represents—

  1. (a) in the case of Channel 3 services—
    1. (i) for the year 1998, fifty per cent. of the average number of hours in a week during which programmes were, during the year 1997, broadcast on Channel 3; and
    2. (ii) for the year 1999 and each successive year, the greatest number of hours in a week that appears to the Commission to be reasonably practicable; and
  2. (b) in the case of Channel 5—
    1. (i) for the year which includes the fifth anniversary of the date of the commencement of the provision of Channel 5, fifty per cent. of the average number of hours in a week during which programmes were, during the year preceding that year, broadcast on Channel 5; and
    2. 310
    3. (ii) for the year following that year and each successive year, the greatest number of hours in a week that appears to the Commission to be reasonably practicable.

(2B) In the case of—

  1. (a) a Channel 3 service provided as mentioned in section 14(3) or (4), or
  2. (b) a Channel 5 service provided as mentioned in section 26(2A),
the relevant minimum number of hours in a week for the purposes of this section shall for any year be such number of hours in a week as the Commission shall determine, being such proportion of the number of hours in a week determined by the Commission for that year under subsection (2)(a) or (b) (as the case may be) as appears to them to be appropriate.'.

No. 662, in page 28, line 41, leave out 'a' and insert any'.

No. 663, in page 28, leave out lines 42 and 43 and insert `this section (other than one under subsection (2)(a)(i) or (b)(i))—'.

No. 664, in page 28, line 44, leave out 'the licence to provide that service of their' and insert `every licence to which the determination relates of the'.

No. 665, in page 28, line 46, leave out first 'the' and insert 'every such'.

No. 666, in page 28, line 48, leave out '(1) and insert '(1)(a)(i)'.

No. 667, in page 28, line 49, at end insert—

'(3A) Where any week falls

  1. (a) partly within one year to which subsection (2)(a) or (b) applies, and
  2. (b) partly within another such year
that week shall be treated for the purposes of this section as Falling wholly within the earlier of those years.'.

No. 668, in page 28, line 49, at end insert— '(3B) The holder of a Channel 3 or Channel 5 licence shall not impose charges for providing subtitling in respect of any programme broadcast in his licensed service.'.

No. 669, in page 29, line I, leave out subsection (4) and nsert— '(4) In this section—

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