HL Deb 11 May 2004 vol 661 cc137-40

Lord Ashley of Stoke asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they have studied Ofcom's proposals for the future of subtitling television programmes.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport (Lord McIntosh of Haringey)

My Lords, the Government are committed to extending access to broadcasting services for people who are deaf or hard of hearing. That is why we have the new statutory requirements in the Communications Act 2003. The Act requires Ofcom to draw up a code on subtitling provision. The Government are fully aware of Ofcom's proposals but, provided it adheres to the provisions of the Act, the detail of the code is a matter for Ofcom.

Lord Ashley of Stoke

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that Answer. Is he aware that profoundly deaf people are entirely reliant on subtitles for following television? But, although the recent Communications Act provided for what he and my noble friend Lady Blackstone called, "a dramatic increase", in subtitling, that aim is being frustrated by Ofcom's proposals. Ofcom has now withdrawn the preposterous proposal to end the subtitling of parliamentary programmes and the equally preposterous proposal to end the subtitling of live television programmes. It has withdrawn its silly ideas. However, Ofcom is still insisting that it should end the annual increase in subtitling, which we have now and which is very valuable; it is also insisting that it will license only 50 out of the 200 television channels that we have. That means that 150 channels have no responsibility for subtitling. That is bizarre and the intentions of Parliament are being absolutely disregarded. What can the Minister do to help?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I share the pleasure of the noble Lord, Lord Ashley, that Ofcom has withdrawn its proposal to exempt live programming and parliamentary programming from the subtitling obligation. It is in no small degree due to his efforts and those of the advisory committee that that has happened.

Where he and I still have to disagree is about whether there will be a dramatic increase in subtitling. The Mom code says that there has to be an increase to 10 per cent at the end of the first year—that is the end of December this year—and to 60 per cent four years later. I call that a dramatic increase. The issue then is whether there should be annual targets. My view is that broadcasters in the normal course of business will wish to advance towards the 60 per cent target at a reasonable pace, but if they do not I would expect Ofcom to pursue them and to ensure that they do.

As regards the channels that are to be exempt, that is done on grounds of cost and is justified by the Act, but Ofcom is undertaking a study of cheaper methods of subtitling, which should increase the number of channels covered by the subtitling obligation.

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, should not Mom be requiring the satellite and cable companies to be making the step-by-step increase in the proportion of programmes that are subtitled? Was that not in the spirit of what we agreed when discussions took place on this issue during the course of the Communications Bill's progress through this House? Does the Minister also agree that the hourly cost of subtitling is very low—between £250 and £400 an hour? Taking that into account, surely Ofcom should be issuing a requirement that subtitling should increase every year.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, has rightly drawn attention to the fact that digital, cable and satellite channels are now included for the first time in the subtitling obligation. I have already replied to the question of whether there should be annual targets. Ofcom argues that, as light regulators, it should not be setting annual targets for all channels, but I have already indicated that I expect broadcasters to move towards their 60 per cent five-year target at a steady rate—and if they do not, I would expect Ofcom to do something about it.

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, is it not the case that it is perfectly technically feasible to add subtitles on an optional basis—that they need not be seen by people who do not need to see them? Why is it then so difficult for the television companies to continue as Mom would prefer?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I am not aware of the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, about optional subtitles. I have no reason to doubt his comments, but I do not think that that affects the thrust of the Question put by the noble Lord, Lord Ashley.

Lord Rix

My Lords, does the Minister not agree that, sooner rather than later, television programmes should be interpreted in all accessible formats?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I assume that what the noble Lord, Lord Rix, is saying is that in addition to subtitling there should be audio description. If so—yes, I do think that the targets for audio description are inadequate. There may well be technical ways forward to improve on those targets and I am negotiating with broadcasters to that effect.

Lord Addington

My Lords, does the Minister accept that, when he said that these, changes should lead to a dramatic increase in the provision of services to help people with sensory impairments to enjoy television", [Official Report, 1/7/03; col. 8844.] that we did not assume that it would mean a freeze for five years at 10 per cent; we expected it to go on increasing?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

No, my Lords, I do not think that Ofcom expects a freeze for five years at 10 per cent. It says that there will be a target of 10 per cent at the end of year one and a target of 60 per cent at the end of year five. As I have made clear, I expect that target to be approached steadily. If it is not approached steadily and there is no improvement in the mean time, I expect Ofcom to do something about it.

Baroness Buscombe

My Lords, with regard to music channels, for example, is not the challenge to find the right balance between the need to subtitle and the need to protect copyright in a way that does not make the provision of music totally unworkable in practice for the industry?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I am sure that that is one of the considerations that Ofcom will have to take into account, but I am not sure that it has been addressed in the Ofcom code at present. I shall have to look into the matter and write to the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, about it.

Lord Carter

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that the Ofcom Advisory Committee on Old and Disabled Persons met for the first time last Thursday? I declare an interest as a member of that committee. The final decision on the Ofcom code is for the main board, but the chairman of Ofcom, the noble Lord, Lord Currie of Marylebone, gave us an undertaking at our first meeting that the views of the advisory committee would be taken into account by the main board.

I hope that my noble friend agrees that it is very important that the Ofcom code that finally appears is fully in line with the very firm assurances given by Ministers in both Houses during the passage of the Communications Bill. We have already heard a quote from the Minister. The noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, the then Minister of State, said: Ofcom will have the ability to set interim targets on the way to meeting 10-year targets, as the ITC currently does, so provision of subtitling, signing and audio-description will grow year by year".—[Official Report, 3/6/03; col. 1259.]

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I have already been quoted three times in the past few minutes. As the Bellman said in The Hunting of the Snark, What I tell you three times is true". I cannot go back on what I said on 1 July last year. What I meant by a dramatic increase is I believe, achieved by the Ofcom code. Continuing progress towards 60 per cent subtitling in five years' time, which is what the Act requires—all credit to those who insisted that it should—is dramatic progress. I congratulate the advisory committee on its work and look forward to the full board of Ofcom accepting the representations that the advisory committee has made to it.

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