HC Deb 06 March 2002 vol 381 cc339-46
Mr. Simon Thomas

I beg to move amendment No. 14, in page 1, line 6, at end insert— '(2A) The Secretary of State shall ensure that the membership of OFCOM includes a member dedicated to ensuring that the needs of people with disabilities are represented.'. Amendment No. 14 is a slight rehash of what was discussed in Committee, but it is an important amendment none the less. We need to be seen to have debated this issue on the Floor of the House, and to hear the response from the Minister. The amendment seeks to ensure that the membership of Ofcom includes a member dedicated to ensuring that the needs of people with disabilities are represented. It is important to emphasise at the outset that I am not seeking to ensure that there is a representative from one of the disability groups in Ofcom. That would be difficult to achieve. One cannot conceive of the kind of structures that might be necessary to give rise to an election—or whatever it might be—to get such a representative into Ofcom. It is important, however, to recognise how Ofcom will meet the needs of disabled people as it is being established by the House.

It was argued in Committee that all members of Ofcom should deal with the needs of disabled people, and that this is not an issue that we can hive off to one individual. I accept that, as a central premise and as a general way of working, it would be good for the whole of society to operate along those lines. Nevertheless, if we do not flag up clearly at the legislating stage just how the needs of disabled people are to be looked after by Ofcom, we are in danger not of having every Ofcom member look after them but of having none.

There are about 9 million disabled people in the United Kingdom, and the 2 million of them with serious sight problems are of particular relevance to the Bill. There is an obvious link there to broadcasting, and we are all aware of the campaign for subtitles in the broadcast media. That is one important example. A second example relating to sight problems is the use of the internet and the communications revolution related to it. We increasingly see the need to adapt the services available, and most internet products now have special accessibility facilities in their software to help people with disabilities to use that software to its best advantage.

People with disabilities are now increasingly accessing the full benefits of our society through the communications revolution. The question we must ask is how we can ensure that their needs are represented on the body responsible for regulating that revolution.

Mr. Bryant


Nick Harvey (North Devon)


Mr. Thomas

I shall give way first to the hon. Member for Rhondda (Mr. Bryant).

Mr. Bryant

I thank the hon. Gentleman enormously for giving way. He made very cogent arguments in Committee on this point. I am still concerned, however, because I do not see why putting all the responsibility for looking after the rights and interests of disabled people on to one person on the board is better than ensuring that the whole board has that responsibility. I point to the example of the BBC. None of its governors has special responsibility for the disabled, yet it has probably the best record of any broadcasting company in the world, not only because of legislation but because of the voluntary action of the governors in ensuring that the vast majority of its programmes are subtitled. It has also taken into consideration the needs of the disabled in the development of its internet services.

Mr. Thomas

The hon. Gentleman knows that I do not really disagree with him. I could point to S4C—SpedwarC—as another example of a service that is heavily subtitled, both for linguistic reasons and for reasons of access. I shall use another example, however, slightly to counter his argument.

In a school, each governor is responsible for ensuring that the needs of children with special needs are met. One governor, however, is specifically charged with that duty. I do not necessarily disagree with the hon. Gentleman, but I fear that unless we discuss the matter properly and—even if we cannot include a measure in the Bill—secure a response from the Minister, rather than one person being responsible for the needs of people with disabilities, no one will be responsible.

6.30 pm
Nick Harvey

The hon. Gentleman is making some good points about the needs of disabled people in the context of the technological revolution, but what does he intend "dedicated" to mean? If he is suggesting that one member of the board should be designated responsible and should go about the task in a dedicated way, I am sympathetic to his proposal, but I suspect that he wants one person to carry out the task to the exclusion of all else. Given that the board might comprise only three people, there could be a chairman and a chief executive, and a third member dedicated solely to safeguarding the interests of disabled people. I doubt whether that is what the hon. Gentleman intends, but I think it is what his amendment says.

Mr. Thomas

It is certainly not what I intend, but I do not think the amendment says it either. I do not have Roget's thesaurus to hand, but I am sure that requiring that one member be dedicated to meeting the needs of people with disabilities does not mean that that member cannot be dedicated to other matters as well. The amendment does not use the phrase "solely dedicated". I think that the hon. Gentleman's argument is rather tendentious.

I say to the hon. Gentleman, and to the Minister, that if my drafting abilities are flawed after a couple of years here, I am happy for the Government to exercise their full power and produce a better example—but they have not done so yet. No doubt the Minister will say that this is yet another issue for a communications Bill rather than an Ofcom Bill.

The Towers Perrin report is an important independent report to the five current regulators, which considers how Ofcom would work and how different groups would be represented—or, at least, would have a say and an input. It states that Ofcom should actively promote clear links with, and understanding of, all OFCOM's key stakeholder categories. Surely people with disabilities constitute an important stakeholder category. There are 9 million disabled people in the United Kingdom, 2 million of whom have sight problems. If we do not say in this paving Bill exactly how their needs will be met, we are in danger of forgetting those needs.

I hope that my amendment will entice the Minister to say a little more than he said in Committee. He was sympathetic—I think that was the word he used then—but I want a fuller explanation of how the needs of people with disabilities will be met by Ofcom. If they are not to be met by a person who is designated, dedicated or whatever, how will the Ofcom structures meet them? I should like the Minister to say a little more about that before the publication of the communications paper and the communications Bill.

Given the lobbying by disability organisations and the requests of people with disabilities—fair lobbying and fair requests—I think it incumbent on us to provide maximum access to communications of all kinds. That means that before passing any legislation we should pause to think about how it will meet the needs of disabled people, to debate the issue, and to give the Minister an opportunity to give what I hope will be a cogent and coherent explanation.

Michael Fabricant

Again, I shall speak briefly.

I support at least the principle of the amendment, although I too have doubts about the draftsmanship. I think I got the hint from what the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Thomas) said at the outset that he would not press the amendment to a vote, but we shall have to wait and see.

Nevertheless, as the hon. Gentleman said, we ought to debate the matter here, and the amendment provides a mechanism for us to do just that. A large proportion of those in the United Kingdom suffer from disabilities of one form or another. I have received an excellent briefing from the Royal National Institute for the Blind, which makes some interesting points. I would tell the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Paul Farrelly), if he were present, that I did not have to go out to lunch with its representatives.

The hon. Member for Rhondda (Mr. Bryant) rightly pointed out that the BBC has already done much to support people who are hard of hearing, by providing subtitles. I stand to be corrected, but I believe that the BBC provides a higher proportion of subtitled programmes—or closed-caption programmes, as they would be called in the United States—than any other broadcasting organisation in the world. That is commendable, although the same is done by other UK broadcasting bodies.

There are other issues, however. There is, for instance, the whole question of what the RNIB calls digital exclusion. We heard about that earlier in the context of the inability to provide broadband in certain parts of Scotland and Wales, and in some rural areas in this country, but there are other forms of digital exclusion, some of which affect blind and partially sighted people. Such people could be watching, or at least enjoying, television programmes with their families if only audio descriptions were available.

Mr. Bryant

I think we all agree on the absolute necessity of putting disabled people's interests at the heart of discussions about the future of information technology in the communications industry and broadcasting, but I still do not understand why what strikes me as ghettoising those issues by relegating them to a single member of the board constitutes an advance rather than a retrograde step.

Michael Fabricant

The hon. Gentleman makes a powerful point. As the hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey) said, if one person out of only three performed the task, there would be a very odd ghetto in the shell Ofcom organisation to be set up by this paving Bill. However, while I cannot put words0 into the mouth of the hon. Member for Ceredigion, I think he tabled the amendment not because he particularly wanted it to be passed today, but because it could serve as a mechanism—a gadget, if you like—enabling us to debate an issue that would not have been debated without it.

Mr. Simon Thomas

The hon. Gentlem0an is right, and on this occasion I do not mind his putting words into my mouth. Let me also say, however, that what we really need is an explanation from the Government of how the words of the hon. Member for Rhondda (Mr. Bryant) can be made flesh. If the needs of people with disabilities are to be at the heart of Ofcom, how is that to be achieved? We cannot take it for granted. My amendment may be flawed, but at least it tries to explore that question.

Michael Fabricant

Indeed—and, after this brief debate, the Minister will have an opportunity to sum up. I hope he will tell us then what specific measures will be taken. I warn him that I shall ask some questions in a few moments, which I hope he will be able to answer despite the short notice he will have been given.

There is the danger of what the hon. Member for Rhondda described as a ghetto within families, when a family is watching television and a blind or partially sighted family member cannot join in. The technology is now available to enable them to do just that—there is equipment for audio description—but in the whole United Kingdom only 45 households that include blind people have been given that equipment. Furthermore, there are no plans to produce more such equipment.

I raise these issues because the disabled—including the blind and partially sighted—need a voice in Ofcom. Whether such issues should be discussed by one "dedicated" person, as the amendment states, or by several people is a moot point, but what is important is that they be discussed.

Brian White

The hon. Gentleman's argument underlines the problem with the amendment. Although it and the previous amendment would establish on the Ofcom board a representative for those interest groups, they would not necessarily create a board that can respond to such issues. Surely the important question is how Ofcom will respond to the valid issues that need to be addressed, rather than whether a "dedicated" board member should put the arguments of such interest groups.

Mr. Thomas

Let us hear the answer.

Michael Fabricant

As the hon. Member for Ceredigion says—putting words into my mouth—let us hear the answer, and I hope that we will indeed hear it from the Minister at the end of the debate. I repeat that Plaid Cymru—I do not know why I am defending that party—was right to table the amendment, because without it the whole question of disability would not have been debated in the Bill's remaining stages.

Discussing the amendment enables us to put on record the fact that both sides of the House are concerned about this issue. Without such discussion, we might give out the wrong signal—namely, that Parliament is not concerned about such issues—and at a time when the technology is available to overcome many of the problems associated with digital exclusion.

Before I finish, I should like to ask three or four brief questions of relevance to the amendment, which I hope the Minister can answer. Have Ministers had high-level discussions with disability organisations, and do they plan to have such discussions in the next few months? Those organisations need to be reassured that, if the amendment is not pressed to a vote, Ofcom will nevertheless promote the interests of disabled people. Will arrangements be made to ensure that alternative programming formats are available, and will such formats be publicised effectively, so that people with visual impairment or other disabilities will know about them? Time and again, this Government and past Governments introduced beneficial initiatives, yet the very people who could have benefited from them did not because they did not know that such initiatives existed.

Will the consultation process involve proactively seeking the opinions of visually impaired people? That is an important issue. Will fully accessible regional meetings, which the hon. Member for Ceredigion would probably welcome, be organised? Of course, this issue concerns not only blind people, but deaf people and those with other disabilities. Technological solutions exist to enable people with disabilities to play a more active role—not just by watching television or listening to the radio, but by participating in interactivity through the provision of broadband. That technology should be made available, and one of Ofcom's roles should be the promotion of it.

Miss McIntosh

The White Paper referred at length, in the context of the communications sector, to those with disabilities. It is regrettable that the Bill is silent on how the needs of people with disabilities will be met. Once again, I congratulate the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Thomas) on raising the issue of people with disabilities through the amendment.

It is right to discuss the issue of whether the Secretary of State should ensure that membership of Ofcom includes a "dedicated" or designated member, so that the needs of the disabled are represented. However, I am mildly surprised that the amendment is exactly the same as that tabled in Committee. As my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) recalled, several powerful written representations were made, notably by the Royal National Institute for Deaf People and the Royal National Institute for the Blind. Responses to the White Paper went further than the amendment. They referred not only to those with disabilities, but to the elderly, those on low incomes and those living in rural areas.

6.45 pm

In asking whether Ofcom will reflect the needs of those with disabilities, I remind the Minister of my particular interest in equal opportunities. Sometimes, those of a different gender can also be regarded as disabled. Will that issue be reflected in the composition of Ofcom and through the work of its committees? As the hon. Member for Ceredigion will recall, I suggested a slightly different wording for his amendment. Rather than referring to a single "dedicated" member of Ofcom, it should have stated that, in the working and decision making of the committees, regard will be had to such interests. I am disappointed that the hon. Gentleman did not succumb to my alternative wording. None the less, I pay tribute to Standing Committee members and to other hon. Members for working to meet the very real needs of the deaf and the blind.

I want to deal in particular with subtitling, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield alluded. I expect that Ofcom will consider subtitling and encourage broadcasters to extend its use as far as possible. Contrary to the wishes of the RND, the Bill is silent on subtitling and signing on television. I draw the Minister's attention to my hon. Friend's eloquent comments concerning making state-of-the-art technology available to the disabled. Even though my original plea fell on deaf ears, the Minister will doubtless take this opportunity to amend the clause.

Hon. Members will probably agree that Ofcom's committees would have been a better forum in which to deal with such issues. I am sure that the Minister will respond positively to the idea of helping disabled people, regardless of their disability, and that he will explain exactly how Ofcom will achieve precisely that.

Dr. Howells

The hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) made an intriguing comment. She said that, sometimes, being of a different gender is a disability. Was she referring to women or to men?

Miss McIntosh

That is an open question, which we can debate on another occasion.

Dr. Howells

Amendment No. 14 seeks to ensure that a member of Ofcom is responsible for representing the needs of people with disabilities. I have a great deal of sympathy with the aim of ensuring that Ofcom can properly take into account the interests of the disabled. However, we made it clear during lengthy discussions—we had a half-hour debate in Committee on this one issue—that we want the Ofcom board to remain as small as possible, commensurate with carrying out its responsibilities effectively, as laid down in the Bill. During the initial period before the main communications legislation obtains parliamentary approval, Ofcom will simply be preparing for the assumption of its regulatory functions.

In paragraph 14 to the schedule, the Bill provides that, once Ofcom is operational, it can establish committees that may be advisory or that have an executive function. Such committees can include lay representation, and we will expect Ofcom to ensure that legitimate interests are properly represented within those structures. As I have said, it is not possible to find a place on the board for every group with an interest in its activities, however worthy or vital. Having said that, the communications White Paper made it clear that Ofcom as a whole must have regard to the special needs of people with disabilities, as well as to those of groups such as the elderly. It will be possible to represent such interests on any relevant committees that Ofcom may decide to establish. That is a better way to ensure that those needs are taken into account by Ofcom in all its activities than by charging a single board member with the responsibility for representing those needs.

Mr. Simon Thomas

The Minister mentioned how he expected the committees of Ofcom to take into account the needs of the different interest groups. It would be beneficial for the House if he could say explicitly that he would expect the committees to take into account, in whatever way is thought appropriate, the interests and needs of people with disabilities.

Dr. Howells

I can say that unequivocally. As my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondcla (Mr. Bryant) made clear, we have a good and healthy tradition of so doing among broadcasters in this country. I would expect that to continue and, on that basis, I will oppose the amendment.

Mr. Thomas

I am encouraged by what the Minister said in response to my intervention, because that was a more explicit recognition of the need for Ofcom to take account of the needs of people with disabilities through the working of its committees. I can tell the hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) that that is why I did not change the amendment. She addressed her argument to the committees and I addressed mine to Ofcom, and I suspected that the Minister would say that this Bill is only the paving Bill for Ofcom and that the issue is for the future and is not debatable now.

We have had a useful debate. It is especially useful to debate the matters on the Floor of the House, because it sends the signal to people with disabilities that we are not letting matters slip. In the light of the Minister's response, especially on the role of the committees of Ofcom, and the opportunity to debate the issue under the next communications Bill, I beg to seek leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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