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Session 2000-01
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Delegated Legislation Committee Debates

Draft Broadcasting (Subtitling) Order 2001

Second Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation

Monday 30 April 2001

[Mr. Peter L. Pike in the Chair]

Broadcasting (Subtitling) Order 2001

4.30 pm

The Minister for Tourism, Film and Broadcasting (Janet Anderson): I beg to move,

    That the Committee has considered the draft Broadcasting (Subtitling) Order 2001.

The draft order revises the percentage set out in section 20(3) of the Broadcasting Act 1996. The Secretary of State is empowered to amend the percentage by section 21(1)(a) of the Act after consultation with the Independent Television Commission in accordance with section 21(3). Section 20(3)(a) sets the minimum percentage of programmes on digital terrestrial television services that must be accompanied by subtitling for the deaf. The draft order increases that percentage from 50 per cent. to 80 per cent. Section 20(3) requires that percentage to be achieved by the 10th anniversary of the date of commencement of the provision of any digital terrestrial programme service. The first such service started in November 1998.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport announced his intention to increase the percentage in the report on the review of the statutory requirements for the provision of subtitling, sign language and audio description services on digital terrestrial television published on 29 January 2001. The current final target, introduced by the 1996 Act, is for at least 50 per cent. of programmes to be subtitled on DTT services; that was similar to the then existing target for analogue services laid down by section 35 of the Broadcasting Act 1990.

The 1990 Act specified a statutory provision for subtitling on channel 3 and Channel 5 analogue television services. Those targets were for at least 50 per cent. of programme hours on channel 3 to be subtitled in 1998, with the percentage for 1999 and thereafter to be determined by the ITC; and for at least 50 per cent. of programme hours on Channel 5 to be subtitled by its fifth anniversary in 2002. In 1997, the ITC raised the analogue target for channel 3 to at least 80 per cent. of programme hours to be subtitled in the year 2004. Channel 4 has no statutory requirement to provide subtitling, but has agreed to match the increases on channel 3 so that at least 80 per cent. of its programme hours are subtitled in 2004. That target has been incorporated into its licence.

The BBC has no statutory requirement to provide subtitling either, but aims to achieve subtitling of peak time output on BBC1 and BBC2 in 2001 and of 80 per cent. of all output in 2004. Following the recommendation of the Davies review panel on the future funding of the BBC, the corporation accepted that on its new digital services it would aim to achieve 50 per cent. of programmes subtitled in the next five years, and 100 per cent. by 2009. All channels are meeting, and in some cases exceeding, both their analogue and the interim DTT targets set by the ITC. The interim targets begin at least 5 per cent. for the first year, and rise by 5 per cent. each year to reach the 50 per cent. target by year 10.

Digital technology has great potential to open up new opportunities for everybody. Adequate access is essential to enable us all—able-bodied people and people with disabilities equally—to play a full part in today's society. Our goal is to ensure that all groups can benefit. People with disabilities will be able to derive real gain from the new and sophisticated services that digital technology can offer, including services such as home banking, home shopping and access to the internet.

Television services can be particularly valuable to and valued by people with disabilities, including those with sensory impairments. That is why, last year, we undertook a review of the requirements set out in the Broadcasting Act 1996 and in statutory orders for the provision of subtitling, signing and audio description services on digital terrestrial television. That review also considered other aspects of the provision and reception of those services, including provision on cable and satellite television channels. The review began with preliminary discussions with consumer groups, major broadcasters and the ITC. In July, we issued a consultation paper to which we received 36 responses, and we carefully considered all of them.

As a result of that review, we decided that the target for the provision of subtitling on digital terrestrial television programmes, which will be of benefit to at least 8.7 million people in the United Kingdom who are deaf or hard of hearing, should be raised from at least 50 per cent. to at least 80 per cent. The draft order we are debating will achieve that. The 80 per cent. target will not have to be met until the 10th anniversary of the start of the service. Given the time that will elapse before even the longest established digital service, which began broadcasting on 1 November 1998, will attain its 10th anniversary, it is not unreasonable that the higher target should apply to existing as well as to new services.

We want to achieve a level playing field across all delivery platforms; therefore, we believe that subtitling targets for digital terrestrial television should apply also to digital cable and digital satellite services. The Government have long encouraged cable and satellite broadcasters voluntarily to increase the amount of subtitling that they provide on their digital services. It is encouraging that some of the more established channels provide that service, and that several of them exceed the statutory targets, despite low audience share. However, minimum statutory requirements must be imposed if progress is to be made. Therefore, primary legislation is necessary, and it will be included as part of the planned communications Bill. Committee members are aware that we hope to introduce a draft Bill early in the next Parliament.

We have decided on the 80 per cent. target for subtitling because we want to ensure that the maximum practicable subtitling is provided equally across all platforms. Some organisations, including the Royal National Institute for Deaf People, feel that the target figure should be 100 per cent. and, following the recommendations of the Davies review, the BBC has stated that it aims to achieve that for 100 per cent. of its digital terrestrial output within 10 years. Recently, in the House of Lords, the question was asked why the commercial channels could not also achieve that target. We need to strike the right balance between practicability and benefit. Concerns were expressed during the consultation by the ITC and other organisations that a 100 per cent. target might not be feasible. It would be extremely difficult and expensive to meet, given that more live and/or late-delivered programmes would need to be subtitled.

In the circumstances, we consider that the 80 per cent. target is challenging but achievable, and it is in line with the analogue target for 2004. I quote from the letter that the Royal National Institute for Deaf People sent to the Committee:

    We believe that the increase in subtitling from 50 to 80 per cent. of DTT output represents a victory for commonsense.

The Government agree. I commend the order to the Committee.

4.39 pm

Mr. John Greenway (Ryedale): We welcome and support this timely order—[Hon. Members: ``We?''] I thought that the hon. Member for Lewes (Mr. Baker), at least, might be present on the Opposition Benches, given that he has frequently raised the issues under discussion. However, Liberal Democrat Members of Parliament are fairly thin on the ground, and they are obviously off doing other things, although I will not detain the Committee by suggesting what.

The draft order will be welcomed by the 5 million deaf and hard-of-hearing people who regularly watch programmes and make use of subtitles. The Minister said that as many as 8.7 million could benefit. I find that figure staggering, but as the population becomes more elderly, it is understandable. The step forward that we are taking is worthwhile and important. We welcome the progress that the industry has made since the 1996 Act came into force and agree that it is now time to go further. As the Minister pointed out, that legislation provided for the extension that we are considering and for consultation with the ITC.

We all welcome the fact that various main terrestrial channels have accepted the new 80 per cent. target. Channel 3 is already exceeding the target, and BBC2 has made great efforts. The Minister rightly praised the work of the Royal National Institute for Deaf People: I am sure that all Committee members have received its briefings and agree that reflecting on some of the questions that it has raised will be worthwhile.

The Minister mentioned that the Government intend to include cable and satellite television under the future communications Bill, and we agree that the time is right to do that. I understand that Sky has already made significant progress—[Interruption.] I welcome my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Mr. Viggers), who has just arrived. I welcome his support—I have been using the royal we, and his presence proves that that was the correct terminology.

Mr. Peter Viggers (Gosport): I assure my hon. Friend that my support would have been given earlier had I not been selected for two Committees sitting at the same time.

Mr. Greenway: I had ventured to suggest that certain groups of hon. Members were pretty thin on the ground, but I had not thought that that extended to our party. My hon. Friend's presence is welcome.

It is important that Sky has enthusiastically embraced the target and made progress towards it. We look forward to taking matters further through primary legislation at the earliest opportunity.

The Minister mentioned that 80 per cent., not 100 per cent., was set as the target because some DTT programmes are difficult to subtitle: in particular, news programmes and live broadcasts present problems. It is right to strike a balance between practicability and benefit—the phrase that she used—but we should exceed 80 per cent. when it is appropriate. We are enthusiastic about the campaign and work of the Royal National Institute for Deaf People. We need to press the matter further, but it is important to take into account the circumstances in which the industry has to operate—we should not set artificial targets for their own sake. We want to exceed 80 per cent. when circumstances allow.

In the past, the hon. Member for Lewes (Mr. Baker) has voiced concern about advertisements, which is why I am surprised that he is not here. Although we might not be a position to proceed much further with the issue, I should have thought, that it is in the interests of those who want to use advertising to get their message across to act as soon as possible, given that the potential audience is 8.7 million.

We welcome and support the order. It is an important step forward, although we will make further progress in due course.

4.44 pm

Janet Anderson: I thank the hon. Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) for his unqualified support for the order. It is a great pleasure when we agree, especially on something so worthwhile. I share his surprise that the hon. Member for Lewes has not graced us with his presence, given that he asks many questions about these matters.

I agree with the point that the hon. Member for Ryedale made about advertisements. It is in advertisers' interests to get their message across to the additional audience of 8.7 million. That is one reason why many broadcasters choose voluntarily to exceed the targets, which we welcome.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for acknowledging that there must be a balance between practicability and benefit. As he and I both said, there are certain problems in ensuring that subtitling is available in time for news and live broadcasts. I thank the RNID for all that it has done and the support that it has given us. We will continue to work with it and with the industry. I thank the Committee for its valuable input and sensitive understanding.

Question put and agreed to.


    That the Committee has considered the draft Broadcasting (Subtitling) Order 2001.

        Committee rose at fourteen minutes to Five o'clock.

The following Members attended the Committee:
Pike, Mr. Peter L. (Chairman)
Anderson, Janet
Dowd, Mr.
Fisher, Mr.
Greenway, Mr.
Mandelson, Mr.
Reed, Mr.
Rogers, Mr.
Ruddock, Joan
Viggers, Mr.


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Prepared 30 April 2001