HC Deb 04 March 2003 vol 400 cc761-6

'It shall be the duty of OFCOM to encourage electronic communications network operators and terminal equipment manufacturers to cooperate in order to facilitate access by disabled users to electronic communications services.'.—[Mr. Mr. Simon Thomas.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Simon Thomas

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Amendment No. 209, in page 61, line 44 [Clause 61], at end insert— '(e)apparatus for endusers with disabilities, which is capable of being used in connection with an electronic communications service.'. Amendment No. 70, in page 136, line 23 [Clause 149], at end insert— '(d) the need to ensure sufficient spectrum is available for the transmission of audiodescription, a textbased teletext service and other services designed to meet the needs of disabled people.'. Amendment No. 71, in page 137, line 35 [Clause 151], at end insert— '(6) In exercising his powers under this section, the Secretary of State must have regard to the need to ensure sufficient spectrum is made available for the transmission of audiodescription, a textbased teletext service and other services designed to meet the needs of disabled people.'.

5.30 pm
Mr. Thomas

New clause 20 is intended to ensure the implementation of a key facet of the European Union framework directive—the importance of regulators encouraging network operators and terminal equipment manufacturers to co-operate in order to facilitate disabled users' access to electronic communication services. We need to bridge the gap so that disabled people are not denied access to mobile phones, digital radio or digital television simply because the equipment does not meet their needs.

Electronic networks and services that cannot be accessed because the equipment at the user end fails to meet the user's needs is a bit like a train that, although fully accessible, cannot be boarded by disabled people unless steps are provided at the station. Deaf and deaf-blind people cannot gain access to emergency services if no usable text terminal is available, or if the equipment is available but prohibitively expensive. All of us who use mobile phones regularly should consider how difficult it would be for us to use them, or to use digital radios, if we could not read the visual display and there was no audio alternative. It is now possible for visual displays to be read out in audio form by computer software, but we have not been able to extend that to more portable IT products such as mobile phones.

Amendment No. 209 is intended to give the Secretary of State power to consider terminal equipment for people with disabilities in determining the scope of universal service. It goes to the heart of the Bill. We have a universal service provision, and it is important for that to include such equipment. Ofcom would have a duty to promote inclusive design, and to take account of the small number of people who may not ever be reached by a completely liberalised telecommunications market because of their disabilities.

This is not the first time that we have considered these matters. Until the 1990s, BT was obliged to ensure that its telephones met the needs of, for instance, people with hearing impairments with inductive coupling. I understand that in Denmark text phones are readily available to deaf, deaf-blind and speech-impaired people through Danish Telecom at subsidised prices. Last month the Government acknowledged the importance of that principle when they backed the establishment of an advisory committee on disability access by the European Commission's communications committee. It will consider the whole issue of terminal equipment, along with other aspects of access for disabled people.

The new clause and the amendment tabled in my name are important, as are the amendments tabled by the hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey). I am sure that he will wish to speak to those amendments. It is important, even at this fag-end of our discussion of the Bill, that we take the opportunity once again to ensure that the needs of disabled people are debated on the Floor of the House of Commons and that we properly consider the matter. I hope that the Minister's response will be as positive as possible, so that we do not need to divide the House on this issue, and so that we will know that the Government have listened to the lobbying by people with disabilities of us, as Members of Parliament and, more importantly, of the Minister as the representative of the Government here tonight.

Mr. Greenway

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in support of new clause 20. The hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Thomas) will recall that, as early as our third sitting in Committee, I was the first to raise the concerns of the disabled, the blind, the partially sighted and the hard of hearing. The hon. Gentleman makes the point that I was trying to make in Committee, which is that it is all very well for the Government to rely on clause 3(3)(i), which places a duty on Ofcom to have regard to the needs of disabled persons and those on low incomes, but many elderly people—let alone those who are partially sighted—find telecommunications equipment extremely difficult to use. We had an interesting discussion in Committee about how we could better encourage equipment manufacturers to have regard to the needs of the disabled—and, especially, of the elderly—when designing items such as the zappers that help us to get the maximum use from our television sets, videos and so on.

The hon. Member for Ceredigion has hit on a good point in his amendment, in that it would require Ofcom merely to encourage electronic communications network operators and terminal equipment manufacturers to co-operate". There would be no intense obligation. Having discussed this issue on a number of occasions in Committee, and notwithstanding the direct reference to the needs of the disabled, the elderly and those on low incomes in the Bill, there remains the overwhelming sense that a little more needs to be done. For that reason, I hope that the Minister will be able to say something in his reply to the hon. Gentleman that will encourage us to feel that Ministers might decide, if not here today but in the other place, to go a little further. The organisations that represent the people about whom we are concerned feel that more needs to be done, and their voice needs to be heard. I hope that the spirit of what the hon. Gentleman has suggested will commend itself to the Minister.

Nick Harvey

I wish to speak to amendments Nos. 70 and 71. The future provision of audio-description, accessible teletext services and other services for disabled people will depend entirely on an adequate spectrum allocation. If that does not happen, any provisions that might be put into the Bill, now or subsequently, risk being made redundant simply by the lack of a joined-up spectrum policy. We are not talking about a vast amount of spectrum. Audio-description, for example, can be delivered very efficiently. It would not do to have the delivery of key services jeopardised by a lack of adequate foresight. The amendments would tackle this issue by ensuring that the Secretary of State and Ofcom had such issues at the forefront of their mind. Rejecting the amendments out of hand, however, would send the very negative signal to disabled people that their rights and needs were not being given adequate priority.

Michael Fabricant

I rise in broad support of all of the amendments, but I want briefly to raise one specific point. In the light of the comments of the hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey), the Minister will be aware that clear audio can and ought to be provided, as long as sufficient spectrum is made available. However, we in the United Kingdom have a specific problem with our type of television equipment, which can make reception of cable and digital terrestrial clear audio impossible, partly because of the way in which Nicam is transmitted. Again, Ofcom could be made to knock heads together on this issue, and I hope that the Minister will be fairly active in that regard.

Mr. Timms

I welcome the close interest that has been taken in this Bill by people with disabilities and their representatives—the Royal National Institute of the Blind has been particularly active—through the recent lobby and through letters and calls to Members of the House, who have passed on those concerns to us. We are committed to an inclusive society in which everybody can play a part, and we have honoured that commitment in the Bill and in the framework that we are setting for Ofcom.

At the heart of everything that Ofcom will do are its general duties, which are set out in clause 3. Clause 3(3)(i) requires Ofcom to have regard to the needs of persons with disabilities, of the elderly and of those on low incomes". That central duty places the needs of people with disabilities at the heart of the Bill, and of Ofcom's responsibilities.

Mr. Simon Thomas

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Timms

I will give way very briefly.

Mr. Thomas

I am grateful to the Minister. He has just mentioned the current content of the Bill, but how will Government amendment No. 215—which we passed earlier, and which imposes on Ofcom a duty in terms of the community as a whole—impact on disabled people?

Mr. Timms

The real comfort for people with disabilities is the specific reference in clause 3(3)(i), rather than the changes that we discussed earlier.

The Bill provides for the Secretary of State to make an order setting out the universal services to be provided throughout the UK. We have already launched a consultation on a draft order, which requires that all reasonable steps be taken to ensure that special measures are widely publicised, taking into consideration the needs of disabled users. We are extremely keen that people with sensory impairments be able to take advantage of all the benefits of digital television through improved access to services. The provision of subtitling, signing and audio description greatly enhances their opportunities, and allows them to benefit from the advances being made in television.

Clause 295 requires Ofcom to draw up, publish and maintain a code that gives guidance on the extent to which television services should promote the understanding and enjoyment of programmes by people who are deaf, hard of hearing, blind or partially sighted. The clause establishes targets for at least 90 per cent. of Channel 3 and Channel 4 programmes to be subtitled, for 80 per cent. of programmes on other channels to be subtitled, for 10 per cent. of programmes to be audio-described, and for 5 per cent. to be translated into sign language. I heard what the hon. Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) said about clear audio, which is also an important point.

On new clause 20, we have supported the work of the regulatory committee—set up under RATTE, the telecommunications terminal equipment directive—in investigating ways of improving access to equipment for the disabled, and we will continue to support that work. There could be further technical issues relating to network standards and specifications that would touch on Ofcom's responsibilities. Where such issues arise and, where Ofcom can play a useful role by encouraging such co-operation, I am confident that its existing duties will ensure that it does play such a role. I hope that hon. Members will gain some reassurance from that.

Amendment No. 209 seeks to add to the matters that could be covered by the Secretary of State's order under clause 61 by including apparatus for users with disabilities. However, adding terminal equipment to that list would be outside the scope of the universal services mandated by the directives. The Secretary of State would have no power to require equipment to be provided as part of those services, so we cannot accept that amendment.

Amendment No. 70 is not needed to achieve its desired effect. The mechanism to ensure that Ofcom will have regard to the needs of persons with disabilities—and in particular to the benefits that they will get from the provision of audio-description, signing, subtitling and text services—is already in place.

I have drawn the widespread concern about these matters to the attention of the chairman of Ofcom, the noble Lord Currie. He has emphasised to me how seriously Ofcom will treat these concerns, and that it will organise in order to deliver effectively on its very important responsibilities to disabled people. That intention is ground for considerable encouragement among the many people who have raised concerns about this issue in recent weeks.

5.45 pm
Mr. Simon Thomas

I welcome the Minister's comments about the present chair of Ofcom and the way in which that body has been charged with a social responsibility towards people with disabilities. Provision of the equipment is useful not only for disabled people but for a wide range of people, including the elderly, as the hon. Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) suggested. It is important that we put pressure on manufacturers, as new clause 20 suggested, to encourage them to improve their practice.

I am sure that the Minister will remember discussing similar amendments in Committee. We were told that a conference had been held, but nothing happened. Blame can be laid at all doors, but we must ensure that the matter does not stagnate for years simply because nothing has changed so far. The Minister has confirmed that Ofcom should continue to knock heads together to ensure that progress is made. The DTI and the DCMS do not always have their eye on the ball on this issue, but Ofcom can concentrate on it so that the needs of disabled people are considered at all times.

In the light of what the Minister has said, and the fact that we need to progress to another set of important amendments that would affect people with disabilities, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

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