HL Deb 11 July 2001 vol 626 cc1157-70

7.50 p.m.

Lord Ashley of Stoke rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what proposals they have to ensure the comprehensive subtitling of television programmes.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I want to declare my personal interest in the debate before the House. I was totally deaf in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. For the past eight years I have been able to hear something, but not perfectly, with the aid of a cochlear implant. I am also president of the Royal National Institute for Deaf People.

Subtitles in the 1960s and 1970s were unknown to the public, yet they were crucial to deaf people. That meant that many deaf people were unable to take advantage of what was available. For years I could not follow any television programmes; television was a medium beyond my comprehension. There were only silent pictures with no dialogue for me because there were no subtitles. "News Review", the BBC's half-hour programme, was the only subtitled television when I first lost my hearing.

As I said, for years television was a no-go area for me and for thousands of other deaf people. Even now, with a cochlear implant, it is still difficult to follow the sound on television; like many other people, I still need subtitles. Without subtitles, deaf people are deprived of the right—and it is a right—to the daily and exciting world of television. That is unfortunate and most unfair on them.

I want to pay a warm tribute to the BBC, which has voluntarily led the way without any legislative compulsion. It has been a pathfinder, brilliant and consistent. Also good value is now given by ITV. I am pleased to hear that ITV, with 63.5 per cent subtitling, has just exceeded its 61 per cent target for 2000 and greatly exceeded it on ITV2, its digital channel. Some organisations claim that they have spearheaded the campaign for subtitles. That is of course nonsense because I have been doing so for 30 years in and out of Parliament—but I do not want to dwell on that.

Recently, the RNID scrupulously researched, campaigned vigorously and strongly influenced the right people as regards subtitling. Led by David Livermore, chairman, and James Strachan, Chief Executive, their efforts have led to major advances and deaf people are indebted to them.

Furthermore, the Deaf Broadcasting Council, led by Ruth Myers, has been active and extremely helpful. It has been the voice of people relying on subtitles and it has closely monitored the availability. Many other organisations in the field have been involved and I am grateful to all of them.

One man who is neither deaf nor a member of any deaf organisation is Chris Smith. As Secretary of State at the DCMS he was perceptive, understanding and enormously helpful to deaf people in the provision of subtitles. He fought that corner very well and I and many deaf people are grateful to him. I want to pay a warm tribute to him.

It has been estimated that 5 million people use subtitles frequently and to many of them the subtitles are indispensable. Therefore, the question before the House is: why are so many broadcasting organisations still failing to provide sufficient subtitles? The costs are generally not high in the expensive world of television. They start at £400 an hour. Although the costs can be more for live subtitling, they will certainly decline as technology develops and better voice recognition systems emerge. Deaf people would happily be involved in trials of automatic subtitling.

I believe that the Government should be congratulated on their attitude to subtitles. In the Communications White Paper and the Review of Statutory Provision of Subtitles, they committed themselves to comprehensive subtitling. Those are echoes of the great work of Chris Smith.

That is very refreshing to me because I had to press Ministers to go much further than they had intended in the 1990 and 1996 Broadcasting Acts. Now, it seems, the Government are nearly as enthusiastic as deaf people—and that really is something! I must say, however, that one Minister was extremely helpful in those early days; it was David Mellor. He listened and readily changed his proposals when we pointed out their inadequacies. Full marks to David Mellor. He bulldozed the department and got those changes through and he helped deaf people enormously.

To me the increase in digital terrestrial television (DTT) subtitling targets from 50 per cent to 80 per cent by each DTT channel's 10th year is one of the most refreshing and vitally important steps in recent years. I am delighted with it and we shall be watching those developments very carefully. We hope that they will not slip.

I hope that all DTT channels will work towards the same voluntary targets as those to which BBC digital channels are now committed. The BBC is now working to 100 per cent by the 10th anniversary of the start of its DTT service. That is an annual increase of 10 per cent and it is a remarkable and very welcome commitment.

Naturally, the quality of subtitles is crucial and I regret the difference in quality which exists today. BBC subtitles are as near verbatim as possible and are generally accurate. On the other hand, other broadcasters sometimes show a person speaking for a minute and then a brief 10-word sentence appears which is supposed to cover the dialogue. Imagine the frustration of deaf people, unable to follow it. It is gigantic. 'That is by no means good enough. The frustration of deaf people in observing talking lips for minutes on end but seeing few words on the screen is appalling. A reasonable number of spelling mistakes are acceptable and I believe that we should recognise them as inevitable for live, speedy subtitling. The way in which operators get down the words is miraculous. Even with a speedy speech the words appear in perfect English, which is a miracle to me.

However, I am told that channels in the United States which have 100 per cent subtitling achieve that only by reducing the quality of the output. That is cheating and I hope that no British channel will try it. Achieving targets by lowering standards will be unacceptable to deaf viewers and I hope that no one in Britain will be tempted.

In the past, governments were great believers in persuasion. I am afraid that that does not include me. It is fine up to a point, but I have no doubt that progress will be limited without the power of the law. Now the Government have stated that they believe that the new minimum statutory requirements will need to be in place to make progress. They propose that targets for subtitles should be extended to digital, cable and satellite channels in new legislation. I welcome that most warmly; it is vital. Voluntary action is all very well but only up to a point. We need the power of the law, the power of Parliament, to ensure operation.

I have never understood why such broadcasting organisations should be able to get away with little subtitling. Why should terrestrial television face compulsion when they do not? It is unfair to regulated broadcasters as well as to deaf people. I believe that that must be remedied as soon as possible. There will be some strong opposition and some strong vested interests.

A leading official of the satellite broadcasters has said that he sees the application of the new DTT requirements on all cable and satellite channels as disproportionate and burdensome. That is a warning shot, if you like, and it is up to deaf people, organisations and Ministers to be resolute in ensuring that the requirements are imposed and observed. But it must be noted that BSkyB has decided to accelerate involvement in subtitling specifically in "Sky News". Again that is welcome news.

I am greatly concerned, as is the RNID in its excellent briefing on the subject—I know that my noble friend is listening carefully—by the uncertainty created by not knowing when a communications Bill will be introduced. I regard that as crucial for the future. The Government need to reaffirm their commitment to the first tier principle of extending subtitling requirements to cable and satellite television in the expected communications Bill. They should clarify that, if more than one such Bill is planned, the subtitling requirement will be in the first one.

I urge that as a matter of priority a communications Bill which includes subtitling should be brought forward in this Session of Parliament; otherwise, broadcasters will be upset because it will widen the very unfair gap in regulation between digital terrestrial television, digital satellite and cable. Deaf people and their organisations will be upset because of the extra frustration. I hope that today the Government can allay our anxieties. We are dealing with an issue of great importance to many people. The previous government moved, but this Government have really put their foot on the accelerator. If they keep their foot down and insist that these changes take place, against growing opposition as the costs rise—it is a minimal cost compared with the general cost of television—they can help 8½ million deaf people and certainly the 5 million people who use subtitles frequently. I should be most grateful for any assurances that my noble friend is able to give.

8.2 p.m.

Lord Rix

My Lords, I have known better houses in my time, but look at the quality. I welcome the opportunity to speak on this important issue, although I shall be unable to enjoy the luxury of a 15-minute soliloquy because I do not have all that much to say.

Access for all goes with active citizenship and the noble Lord, Lord Ashley of Stoke, and I have both campaigned long and hard on that. I support the noble Lord's remarks about the need to take advantage of technology in securing wider access to programmes through comprehensive subtitling of television programmes. I greatly welcome the progress made in the past year and value the cross-party enthusiasm which has helped to get us as far as we have in both planning and delivery. I particularly welcome proposals to ensure that targets for subtitling, signing and audio description on digital terrestrial television are extended to digital cable and satellite channels. The issue now is when that will happen. The momentum built up to ensure that this issue is taken seriously by all broadcasters must not be lost. That is why we ask the Government to introduce legislation soon through the proposed communication Bill, or Bills, to ensure that there is access for all.

As with much technological change, improvements to subtitling would benefit a much wider audience than one might at first imagine. The interests of deaf and hard of hearing viewers are clear and have been eloquently spoken to by the noble Lord, Lord Ashley. Comprehensive subtitling can greatly increase people's access to programmes and improve the quality of the viewing experience for those who otherwise would struggle to make sense of what they were viewing. This is important whatever programme people may be watching, whether it is a news programme, documentary, sports programme, film or soap opera.

However, your Lordships will not be surprised that I want to move on to consider the needs of those with learning disabilities, many of whom do not read particularly well, and ask what we can offer them. It is known that a considerable proportion of people with Down's syndrome, for example, experience hearing loss. Through traditional subtitling they may well be able to improve their viewing experience. However, we could go further and consider plain language subtitles which reinforce and repeat key programme content and help the learning disabled viewer to get a clearer picture of what the programme is about. We have the technology to do this. A plain language subtitling track could be selected in the same way as one now accesses 888 for traditional subtitles. This could be specifically written with people with poor literacy skills in mind.

In effect, we can personalise programmes and, in so doing, increase their effective audience. I should like to remind noble Lords of the huge success of the BBC television series "Let's Go" which I had the pleasure to present. That was the first ever television series in the world for people with learning disabilities. Forty programmes in total were produced in the late 1970s and early 1980s and they were accessible to practically all. However, times have moved on and much more sophisticated methods of communication are now available. As is to be expected, there is now considerable interest in how we can improve the literacy skills of adults with learning disabilities who may have missed out on formal school and college education.

The idea of a plain language subtitling track is an excellent way to use people's viewing experiences to support their development of literacy skills. This approach has been used by the charity Libertas of which I have had the privilege to be chairman since its inception in 1988. We have worked with great success at well over 120 sites of historic and cultural interest, of which Westminster Abbey is but one and, I believe, your Lordships' House is yet another, to improve the quality of visitor experience by the provision of audio tours for people with visual impairments, learning disabilities and for those who are hard of hearing through a personal induction loop. As a small charity it is now considering the production of audio-visual tours with signing tracks and video for people with profound hearing loss. If we can see such potential offered by the new technologies that surround us, we ask others who are much more important and powerful to do the same and maximise the potential uses of digital technologies for the good of all.

If we fail to take advantage of the opportunities provided by the digital media we shall be in danger of contributing to the digital divide which has been spoken of before in your Lordships' House where some people have access to the technologies and others do not. To fail to take advantage of the potential of these technologies for the good of all disabled people would make us guilty of a serious lack of foresight and creativity. I hope that the Minister will be more than reassuring as his response echoes around this empty—well, almost empty—Chamber.

8.7 p.m.

Viscount Falkland

My Lords, it is with some diffidence that I rise on behalf of these Benches to support in its entirety the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Ashley of Stoke. He has done so much for deaf people that in this field his is a household name; likewise, the noble Lord, Lord Rix, has worked for Mencap and disabled people.

Those of us who reach a certain age have parents who, towards the end of their lives, have increasing hearing problems. As people now live to a greater age than they did before, the problems in that area increase. We all know about deafness through relatives and friends. At one period during my time at school I had great difficulty in hearing for a particular reason. One is aware even from that relatively limited experience that if one is deaf one cannot hear what is going on and begins to feel lonely and excluded. That is one aspect of the particular disability which until recent times has been very much under-estimated by the general public, let alone those involved in broadcasting.

Last week I saw a girl aged about three years who was with someone whom I took to be her mother. They were conducting a vivacious conversation in sign language. It was heartening to see that little girl with a joyful face involved in those exchanges. I marvelled that that little girl with her disability was able with a smiling face, without any self-consciousness, to communicate in the street with others. But what about later on? That leads on to what we are discussing tonight. Since reading the briefing material for the debate, I have learnt that five million people use subtitles. That is a huge number in relation to the population of these islands. I do not know what the proportion is in other countries.

However, we in the United Kingdom lead the way in this area. The situation is not perfect, as the noble Lord said in introducing the debate. It is a question of changing the culture and the attitude, not only of the public at large, but of those who have a particular interest in putting into the public arena material which needs to be heard. The public service broadcaster, the BBC, has acted with great alacrity to meet the requirements.

In the briefing material there was an excellent brief from ITV, but I was surprised that there was a kind of slight sourness about the BBC's brief in that it said that its was a voluntary and not a statutory commitment and that it was necessary for the BBC to lead the way. That is true to a certain extent, but it shows that there is a slight attitude that other people should be leading and we should be following. In general, looking at the briefing material, the situation is encouraging. The aims are very praise-worthy, particularly the BBC's with its target of 100 per cent subtitling in 2008. It will be difficult and expensive for them to reach that.

The noble Lord said that the cost of subtitling is small relative to the total costs of television production. However, that varies with the kind of television production that it is. There needs to be recognition by television companies and by manufacturers of videos that those who are handicapped and cannot hear must be provided for. They must make an effort to provide for them. I do not accept one of the themes of the briefing material that government and those bodies who have been named by the noble Lord should be allowed some leeway because of the costs of starting up new services. There is obviously a balance to be struck here between the costs overall and the budget for subtitling. That will increase the costs in a difficult start up. Generally speaking, that is not an excuse for doing nothing. I do not suppose that it would be used as such, but we should be wary that it is not used as an excuse for being tardy in introducing subtitling to the level that the noble Lord has said we need to reach.

I am sure that the Government are aware of and will press for the implementation of the cultural change with regard to this particular disability and the need to involve hard of hearing or deaf people in all television programming.

This morning I went to the board meeting of a company involved in video piracy. I asked them about the prospects for subtitling. They said that in the United States most large companies making videos of documentaries and feature films subtitled them in the manufacturing process. It was a normal process. What the quality is I do not know. I take the noble Lord's point that the greater extension of subtitling in America is not always of good quality. However, I was told that that level of commitment to subtitling videos is not the case here. There must be a more energetic attempt to bring that up to a more acceptable level. More and more people use videos.

Technology in due course will change. All kinds of technologies will change. Indeed, we know that we shall be switching from analogue to digital television. I expect that we shall have a great deal of discussion about that matter with the new communications Bill and thereafter, because it presents many difficulties. But there will be a great many old and disabled people with this disability and others who will not be well informed about the matter. They will have old equipment and will not want to change. It is very difficult to get people to change.

I should like to mention my neighbour. This shows how deaf people are very conscious of other people's problems. I was very touched that my neighbour came to me and said that he was very hard of hearing. He said: "On summer evenings, do please tell me if my television is on too loud". I thought that that was extremely encouraging. That is another argument for increasing the arrival of subtitling because people turn up their appliances to levels which causes nuisance to neighbours. I know because my mother did that when she was reaching old age.

Generally speaking, deaf people are very conscious of other people and what other people might think of them because of their feeling of exclusion and loneliness. That is another argument for bringing forward rapidly the changes which the noble Lord has demanded and asks the Government to support.

BSkyB is leading the way, particularly with "Sky News". I am pleased about the change of attitude in the industry. It is worrying, however, that we shall have to wait for new legislation in the new Session of Parliament for an extension of the provision from digital terrestrial television to digital, cable and satellite. That is a big gap. There is still no certainty. The noble Lord, Lord Ashley, has pressed the Government—and I hope that the noble Lord answering the debate will be able to give some encouragement—to treat this as a priority.

I have nothing further to say, except that I have admiration for the noble Lord who introduced the debate and for the clarity with which he presented it and the force of his arguments. I do not think that anyone would disagree with them.

8.17 p.m.

Baroness Anelay of St Johns

My Lords, I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Ashley of Stoke, for introducing the debate and for giving us the opportunity to press the Minister on this important issue.

The noble Lord has two unassailable advantages: first, he is the expert on the subject; and, secondly, he has right on his side. So I must and do give him 100 per cent support in what he has said tonight. The noble Lord's debate will also be welcomed by the five million deaf and hard of hearing people who regularly use subtitles and also the one million who depend upon subtitles in their viewing of television. As noble Lords have pointed out, the potential number of users is much greater. Indeed, even beyond the 8.7 million people who have been mentioned today, there are also people who use subtitles routinely, people who can hear perfectly well but who either work or take their leisure in surroundings where the volume on a television has to be turned down. That is vital because it educates people who have hearing in the importance of subtitles.

I was pleased to see the Department for Culture, Media and Sport's press release at the beginning of this month which announced that the Government have put into effect the broadcasting order which this House passed on 8th May. The 1996 Act made provisions for that extension to be introduced. We, on these Benches, at that time welcomed the move forward to a situation where 80 per cent of the programmed output by digital terrestrial TV must now be subtitled.

It is right as a matter of principle to ensure that as much broadcast material is subtitled as possible because everyone, as noble Lords have pointed out, loses out when hearing impaired people do not have the chance to participate fully in society. The programmes that we watch on television and video are very much the topics of everyday conversation, both at home and at work. Subtitles and signing mean that hearing impaired people can keep in touch. Limited access can leave them culturally excluded and socially side-lined. I have read much in the papers recently about politicians who use sociological language, so let us just say that it keeps us in touch with what everyone else is talking about—whether it is "Coronation Street", "East Enders" or whatever.

I welcome the progress that the industry has made since the 1996 Act came into force. I shall not repeat the details. The noble Lord, Lord Ashley of Stoke, gave those in a clear and concise manner. I welcome all the advances made by BSkyB, the BBC and ITV. However, there is the "but" that was mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Ashley—and it is a big "but". We are still far from the goal of comprehensive subtitling of TV programmes on cable and satellite. At the moment it looks as though the Government are standing in the way of that progress. They have the opportunity today to give us an assurance that they do not intend that to be the case.

In May, the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey, who at that time was answering in the House for the DCMS, stated that the Government were, keen to achieve a level playing field across all delivery platforms". He went on to say that the Government intended, to extend the statutory targets—for subtitling, signing and audio description—on DTT to digital cable and digital satellite services. Primary legislation is required and we hope to introduce a draft communications Bill, to include this provision, early in the next Parliament".—[Official Report, 8/5/01; col. 2119.] When I read that speech and saw the words "draft communications Bill", my heart dropped a little. It looked then as though one might be putting away the good day when we would have subtitling extended.

So what has happened even with that draft Bill? Nothing so far. The broadcasting companies had been led to believe during the previous Parliament that the communications Bill would be the first Bill in the next Parliament if Labour were returned to power. However, in the Queen's Speech there was reference merely to a draft Bill; and in this House we have heard nothing since. I have seen plenty of rumours in the press that we will not see that draft Bill for many months. Perhaps the Minister can tell me that the press are wrong. In the meantime, we are told that we can expect a paving Bill to set up a shadow Ofcom. That really would be extraordinary. I am not sure how it would work. I hope the Minister will take the opportunity to inform Parliament what on earth is going on. Will there be an Ofcom paving Bill? And when? Will subtitling be part of that? When will the draft communications Bill be published? Will the Government reaffirm that that will be the vehicle for subtitling changes?

I appreciate that the draft communications Bill will be a detailed, lengthy and technical Bill. Much of it will achieve all-party support but all of it will require proper parliamentary scrutiny. I am not asking the Government to rush anything through. I know they cannot do that. What I am asking the Government to do is to give the House an indication that they take seriously the matter of subtitling extension to other platforms and intend to bring forward the draft communications Bill very quickly indeed. After all, we are fortunate in this House. We normally have a rather larger participatory audience on broadcasting matters. A significant number of Peers on all sides of the House have detailed expertise in these matters. I am sure that they are ready, willing, able and keen to get to grips with the communications Bill. The best guesses in the press so far have been that we shall have to wait at least until July 2003 before the Bill will reach the statute book. I hope the Minister can tell me that that is not the case.

The Question of the noble Lord, Lord Ashley, refers to comprehensive subtitling. The noble Lord rightly directed us to think in broader terms, first, of quantity—of going beyond 80 per cent to 100 per cent and what that would mean for the industry and for all of us who would use subtitles. The noble Lord also very properly made us think about the issue of quality of subtitling. I know that there are many views among users of subtitles about what they see as quality. I hope that we shall be able to discuss subtitling in detail as we go through the communications Bill.

Previously the Government have said that they set the present target at 80 per cent, and not 100 per cent, for DTT because some programmes are difficult to subtitle and some new start-up channels and niche programmes should be excluded. It is true that news programmes and live broadcasts present problems to broadcasters. Those who do the subtitling for such programmes are lucky if they get even a few minutes advance notice of a script and they have to work at breakneck speed. I am fortunate. I have had the chance to see them do so both at the BBC and at the facility which provides subtitles for ITV. They do an excellent job under very difficult circumstances.

I thank Chris Higgs of the Independent Television Facilities Centre for his briefing, which I know he made available to all noble Lords, and also for making it possible for me to make my visit to the ITFC a couple of years ago. He makes some pertinent points about the costs of subtitling, in particular for the new services and for new channels. He makes the point that subtitling can form quite a significant part of programming costs. He also gave interesting information about the costs of training new subtitlers and how long it takes to get them on-stream. But those are all matters that can be overcome.

Where there are costs and difficulties, we have to be sensitive to what the industry can do. It has to be sensitive to the needs of users and those of us who may be users in the future, who are still impatient to proceed. It is right to strike a balance between practicability and benefit, but it is right that we should work beyond 80 per cent as soon as it is practicable. We continue to press the Government. I am sure that they will respond in a practical way as soon as they can. The Royal National Institute for Deaf People is right to continue its campaign on this matter.

I come back to the main point at issue. If we want to go from 80 per cent to 100 per cent on any platforms—and certainly to 80 per cent across all platforms—the one thing we need to see is the communications Bill. I look forward to the Minister's response. But, above all, I look forward to the chance to see the Bill.

8.27 p.m.

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, I pay tribute to my noble friend Lord Ashley for introducing this important subject. Under the rules of the House noble Lords must declare their interests. One of my noble friend's interests is being very much involved, as president, with the Royal National Institute for Deaf People, and of course my noble friend declared as an interest his own deafness. My noble friend will forgive me if I say that we have never looked on his disability as an interest but as a disability which he has overcome in a most startling and impressive way. He is an example to everyone who suffers from disability. His contribution in this area is recognised throughout the country.

Through this debate today he has ensured that others who suffer have the opportunity of engaging as far as possible in life, particularly through the joys of television. Despite the many criticisms of British television—who does not criticise British television from time to time?—we all recognise what an important part it plays in the lives of the majority of our people. Therefore, it is enormously important that deaf people should have access to television as far as possible on exactly the same terms as the rest of us. The Government are committed to a policy of full social inclusion. We know that digital technology has enormous potential for opening up new opportunities for each and every citizen. We aim to ensure that all groups benefit.

I speak as someone who has seen the arrival of digital television in my household only in the past week. Therefore, the joys of it have not yet been fully revealed; nor can I say that I am likely to master all aspects of the technology as adroitly as I would wish. However, I am all too conscious of the fact that digital television can bring significant opportunities for everyone. Furthermore, one of the joys of the new technology is that it helps to overcome the barriers faced by the disabled, in particular the deaf, by the ways in which it can be employed. Great opportunities are being presented to us in this sphere and we should seek to make the most of them.

All noble Lords who have contributed to the debate recognise that the Government have acted with speed and efficacy to ensure that the requirements put on broadcasters to increase their subtitling provision have taken place over the past months. Tributes were paid, quite rightly, to the previous Secretary of State for the groundwork he put in place and the sympathetic response he gave to representations. But I do know that the present Secretary of State took great joy in announcing at the beginning of this month the extension of the requirement and the targets set for increasing the provision of subtitling through the implementation of the order which was passed by both Houses during the last Parliament.

That means that in due course the provision of subtitles will rise to 80 per cent. However, we should record that the past performance of the Independent Television Commission is to be commended. Under the old target which stipulated 50 per cent provision, it has made steady progress year on year. In no way has the commission reneged or resiled from its commitment to extend the provision. Therefore we confidently expect to see the provision rising gradually but successfully towards the 80 per cent requirement in the not too distant future.

Tributes were paid to the BBC to the effect that its role is voluntary and thus not governed by the requirements of legislation. We should recognise the rapid progress which at present stands at 7 2 per cent provision. The noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, indicated that by 2009 the BBC intends to reach 100 per cent provision, which is greatly to be commended. Subtitling formed a part of the Davies review panel covering the future funding of the BBC—I hasten to say at this point that Gavyn Davies is not a relation; he is well connected, but not to me—and the aspect of digital provision featured with some significance in that report. The BBC is setting an example, as we would expect. However, it is not only setting an example, but in many respects it is fulfilling the expectations we would have of the public broadcasting authority. I do not doubt that my noble friend Lord Ashley will continue to look at the rate at which the BBC makes progress. Should he find it not totally satisfactory, I know that he will continue to press in that direction. That will be of great assistance in ensuring that the corporation reaches its ambitious targets.

The issue which we must confront this evening is that there is a substantial part of television which is not covered either by its public sector remit or by the orders. I refer here to subscription television. However, it should be recognised that progress has been made in this area, not to the same extent as has been achieved by independent television as a whole —although the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, mentioned that certain channels from BSkyB have achieved high standards on some of their programmes. Indications suggest that "Sky News" will enjoy full subtitling in the near future. It is not the case that all cable and satellite television has been tardy in responding to the needs of this important sector of our community, but it is also the case that, at present, in legislative terms we have no means of ensuring that all programmes reach at least a satisfactory minimum.

Reference has been made to the need to make exemptions, in particular for programmes which serve certain niche markets with very limited audience participation. Either full exemptions will need to be granted or lower levels of subtitling will have to be expected of them. However, we shall seek to take powers to ensure that the increasing significance of cable and satellite television channels should be able to be appreciated fully by those who require subtitles as well as by the wider population. To that end, I agree with the point made by my noble friend; namely, that we shall need to be able to scrutinise adequately the quality as well as the quantity of subtitling. It is clear that if standards are extremely poor, then the experience for the deaf person falls a long way below that for the rest of the audience. Mention was made in the debate that some elements of American television, which can boast a 100 per cent provision of subtitling, nevertheless do so at a level which is far from satisfactory in terms of quality.

That point raises an issue which has been fairly reflected in a number of contributions to the debate; namely, that good quality subtitling cannot easily be achieved overnight. We must take into account the training of the specialist stenographers. The noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, told the House that she had had a chance to see those skills in action. I have not done so myself, but I hope to take the opportunity to do so in the near future. I do not doubt that the skills required for the task are of a high level. I am pleased to report that I understand that effective training strategies are in hand to ensure that these skills are enhanced. A very significant increase in demand for subtitling should be anticipated and it is important to recognise that appropriate and effective training is needed to achieve those levels of skill.

I believe that all noble Lords agree that considerable progress has been made. We appreciate that progress, but one crucial area will require additional legislation. The principal question here is how soon that legislation will come into force. Perhaps I may make the obvious point. Subtitling is an important dimension, but nevertheless only one dimension, of the extremely broad issues to be addressed in the forthcoming communications Bill. An enormous amount of consultation will need to take place in regard to that Bill which, I believe, many will recognise as possibly one of the great formative Bills of our time. All concerned acknowledge the importance of television, along with the general extension of media provision facilitated by the new technologies now becoming available in the home. That will be of the greatest significance to our people.

Consequently, as everyone has recognised, the Bill will be one of the keystones of the Government's legislative achievements in this Parliament. The preparations for it are under way at present, but I cannot give a date for the introduction of the measure at this stage. When such issues become clear, the announcement to Parliament will be given at a rather loftier level than the position which I occupy in your Lordships' House and in the Government at the present time.

I appreciate that the intention of the debate is to ensure that this important feature is included in the provisions of the Bill. We have taken today a significant step to ensure that that happens. Given the broad commitment of the Government to their crucial philosophy of social inclusion, I have not the slightest doubt that they could not seek to provide a communications Bill which did not meet the representations of noble Lords who have participated in the debate.

I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Rix, that we do not always need a massive attendance in the House to enjoy the quality of a debate. I pay tribute to every noble Lord who has participated today. I am certain that the debate has not only given this House a chance to air the issue but has made it absolutely clear that the forthcoming Bill will need to include a commitment to advance in this area, otherwise very sharp questions indeed will be asked from all sides of the House.

House adjourned at sixteen minutes before nine o'clock.

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