HC Deb 05 January 2004 vol 416 cc13-4
9. Mr. Jim Cunningham (Coventry, South)(Lab)

What recent discussions her Department has had with the Department for Education and Skills on ways to increase the use of British sign language on television. [145835]

The Minister for the Arts (Estelle Morris)

My Department is an active member of the British sign language working group, which was established by the Department for Work and Pensions. The Communications Act 2003 extends, for the first time, the signing target on digital terrestrial television to digital cable and satellite broadcasters. That target is that 5 per cent. of all non-excluded programmes should be translated into sign language.

Mr. Cunningham

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer, but may I ask her, first, whether she has a time scale for expanding those sign language programmes; and secondly. whether she is prepared to provide incentives to encourage more of them?

Estelle Morris

There is indeed a time scale—that the target should be reached by the 10th anniversary of the start of the service. That differs depending on the broadcaster concerned. For the BBC it is 2008; for some of the others it is 2010. I am not about to announce any incentives to ensure that it is reached, but it will be closely monitored through Ofcom. My hon. Friend may want to know that towards the end of last month, Ofcom published its code for people with sensory impairment, in which it set out its plans for ensuring that the target was reached and how it intends to monitor and enforce it. I very much hope that we can make progress on this important issue.

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry)(Con)

Of course, we welcome the recent official recognition of British sign language, as we do any practical action that is taken by Government or broadcasters to improve their services to people with disabilities; but given that although the broadcasting code has been extended. the figures in it have not been increased, can the Minister tell us when there will be any material sign of improvement in coverage of signing for hearing-impaired people? For that matter, when does she hope to resolve the related issue of the current technical and/or commercial impasse in extending audio description for blind service users?

Estelle Morris

The hon. Gentleman raises some interesting points. When I looked at the targets I was amazed that the target for sign language was much lower than those for other measures to help people with sensory impairment. One of the problems is that there is not a closed system, so that when programmes are signed everybody accesses the sign language as well as watching the full screen. It is hoped that in the near future, people who want signing will be able to turn it on, while those who do not want it will not need to have it. I suspect that when that technology is available there will be much faster progress towards the target. I do not set much store by the fact that the target was met, given that it was only 2 or 3 per cent.—it has now been increased by 5 per cent. More important is the ongoing technological work to create a closed system.

On the hon. Gentleman's second point, I am told that work is progress. We hope that there will soon be a workable mechanism to make access to television for people with sensory impairments more probable. From now on, progress should be much quicker.