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Mr. Bryant: I think we all agree on the absolute necessity of putting disabled people's interests at the heart of discussions about the future of information technology in the communications industry and broadcasting, but I still do not understand why what strikes me as ghettoising those issues by relegating them to a single member of the board constitutes an advance rather than a retrograde step.
Michael Fabricant: The hon. Gentleman makes a powerful point. As the hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey) said, if one person out of only three performed the task, there would be a very odd ghetto in the shell Ofcom organisation to be set up by this paving Bill. However, while I cannot put words into the mouth of the hon. Member for Ceredigion, I think he tabled the amendment not because he particularly wanted it to be passed today, but because it could serve as a mechanisma gadget, if you likeenabling us to debate an issue that would not have been debated without it.
Mr. Simon Thomas: The hon. Gentleman is right, and on this occasion I do not mind his putting words into my mouth. Let me also say, however, that what we really need is an explanation from the Government of how the words of the hon. Member for Rhondda (Mr. Bryant) can be made flesh. If the needs of people with disabilities are to be at the heart of Ofcom, how is that to be achieved? We cannot take it for granted. My amendment may be flawed, but at least it tries to explore that question.
Michael Fabricant: Indeedand, after this brief debate, the Minister will have an opportunity to sum up. I hope he will tell us then what specific measures will be taken. I warn him that I shall ask some questions in a few moments, which I hope he will be able to answer despite the short notice he will have been given.
I raise these issues because the disabledincluding the blind and partially sightedneed a voice in Ofcom. Whether such issues should be discussed by one "dedicated" person, as the amendment states, or by several people is a moot point, but what is important is that they be discussed.
Brian White: The hon. Gentleman's argument underlines the problem with the amendment. Although it and the previous amendment would establish on the Ofcom board a representative for those interest groups, they would not necessarily create a board that can respond to such issues. Surely the important question is how Ofcom will respond to the valid issues that need to be addressed, rather than whether a "dedicated" board member should put the arguments of such interest groups.
Michael Fabricant: As the hon. Member for Ceredigion saysputting words into my mouthlet us hear the answer, and I hope that we will indeed hear it from the Minister at the end of the debate. I repeat that Plaid CymruI do not know why I am defending that partywas right to table the amendment, because without it the whole question of disability would not have been debated in the Bill's remaining stages.
Discussing the amendment enables us to put on record the fact that both sides of the House are concerned about this issue. Without such discussion, we might give out the wrong signalnamely, that Parliament is not concerned about such issuesand at a time when the technology is available to overcome many of the problems associated with digital exclusion.
Before I finish, I should like to ask three or four brief questions of relevance to the amendment, which I hope the Minister can answer. Have Ministers had high-level discussions with disability organisations, and do they plan to have such discussions in the next few months? Those organisations need to be reassured that, if the amendment is not pressed to a vote, Ofcom will nevertheless promote the interests of disabled people. Will arrangements be made to ensure that alternative programming formats are available, and will such formats be publicised effectively, so that people with visual impairment or other disabilities will know about them? Time and again, this Government and past Governments introduced beneficial initiatives, yet the very people who could have benefited from them did not because they did not know that such initiatives existed.
Will the consultation process involve proactively seeking the opinions of visually impaired people? That is an important issue. Will fully accessible regional meetings, which the hon. Member for Ceredigion would probably welcome, be organised? Of course, this issue concerns not only blind people, but deaf people and those with other disabilities. Technological solutions exist to enable people with disabilities to play a more active rolenot just by watching television or listening to the
Miss McIntosh: The White Paper referred at length, in the context of the communications sector, to those with disabilities. It is regrettable that the Bill is silent on how the needs of people with disabilities will be met. Once again, I congratulate the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Thomas) on raising the issue of people with disabilities through the amendment.
It is right to discuss the issue of whether the Secretary of State should ensure that membership of Ofcom includes a "dedicated" or designated member, so that the needs of the disabled are represented. However, I am mildly surprised that the amendment is exactly the same as that tabled in Committee. As my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) recalled, several powerful written representations were made, notably by the Royal National Institute for Deaf People and the Royal National Institute for the Blind. Responses to the White Paper went further than the amendment. They referred not only to those with disabilities, but to the elderly, those on low incomes and those living in rural areas.
In asking whether Ofcom will reflect the needs of those with disabilities, I remind the Minister of my particular interest in equal opportunities. Sometimes, those of a different gender can also be regarded as disabled. Will that issue be reflected in the composition of Ofcom and through the work of its committees? As the hon. Member for Ceredigion will recall, I suggested a slightly different wording for his amendment. Rather than referring to a single "dedicated" member of Ofcom, it should have stated that, in the working and decision making of the committees, regard will be had to such interests. I am disappointed that the hon. Gentleman did not succumb to my alternative wording. None the less, I pay tribute to Standing Committee members and to other hon. Members for working to meet the very real needs of the deaf and the blind.
I want to deal in particular with subtitling, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield alluded. I expect that Ofcom will consider subtitling and encourage broadcasters to extend its use as far as possible. Contrary to the wishes of the RND, the Bill is silent on subtitling and signing on television. I draw the Minister's attention to my hon. Friend's eloquent comments concerning making state-of-the-art technology available to the disabled. Even though my original plea fell on deaf ears, the Minister will doubtless take this opportunity to amend the clause.
Hon. Members will probably agree that Ofcom's committees would have been a better forum in which to deal with such issues. I am sure that the Minister will respond positively to the idea of helping disabled people, regardless of their disability, and that he will explain exactly how Ofcom will achieve precisely that.
Dr. Howells: Amendment No. 14 seeks to ensure that a member of Ofcom is responsible for representing the needs of people with disabilities. I have a great deal of sympathy with the aim of ensuring that Ofcom can properly take into account the interests of the disabled. However, we made it clear during lengthy discussionswe had a half-hour debate in Committee on this one issuethat we want the Ofcom board to remain as small as possible, commensurate with carrying out its responsibilities effectively, as laid down in the Bill. During the initial period before the main communications legislation obtains parliamentary approval, Ofcom will simply be preparing for the assumption of its regulatory functions.
In paragraph 14 to the schedule, the Bill provides that, once Ofcom is operational, it can establish committees that may be advisory or that have an executive function. Such committees can include lay representation, and we will expect Ofcom to ensure that legitimate interests are properly represented within those structures. As I have said, it is not possible to find a place on the board for every group with an interest in its activities, however worthy or vital. Having said that, the communications White Paper made it clear that Ofcom as a whole must have regard to the special needs of people with disabilities, as well as to those of groups such as the elderly. It will be possible to represent such interests on any relevant committees that Ofcom may decide to establish. That is a better way to ensure that those needs are taken into account by Ofcom in all its activities than by charging a single board member with the responsibility for representing those needs.