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Amendments made: (a) to (c) in lieu of Lords amendments Nos. 38 to 40 and 42.

Remaining Lords amendments agreed to.

Committee appointed to draw up Reasons to be assigned to the Lords for disagreeing to their amendments Nos. 6, 27, 31 and 32: Ms Hazel Blears, Mr. Dominic Grieve, Mr. David Heath, Mr. John Heppell and Kali Mountford; Ms Hazel Blears to be the Chairman of the Committee; Three to be the quorum of the Committee.—[Mr. Heppell.]

To withdraw immediately.

      Reasons for disagreeing to Lords amendments Nos. 6, 7, 31 and 32 reported, and agreed to; to be communicated to the Lords.
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Falun Gong

8.35 pm

John Robertson (Glasgow, Anniesland) (Lab): I want to present a petition on behalf of more than 15,000 people throughout the United Kingdom who wish to protest against the appalling persecution of Falun Gong practitioners by the Chinese authorities.

The petition states:

    The Petitioners further declare serious concerns about allegations of unlawful detention and torture, which have led to countless injuries and over seven hundred documented deaths.

    In addition, the Petitioners declare their respect for the peaceful and traditional message of Falun Gong, and its principles of truthfulness, compassion and tolerance.

    The Petitioners therefore request that the House of Commons urge the Government to work with its international partners to bring the perpetrators of this persecution, including Jiang Zemin, to justice for the crimes that they have committed.

    And the Petitioners remain, etc.

To lie upon the Table.

Health Services (South Buckinghamshire)

8.36 pm

Mr. Paul Goodman (Wycombe) (Con): I wish to present a petition on behalf of more than 40,000 people in South Buckinghamshire against cuts and closures in our local health services.

The petition states:

To lie upon the Table.
9 Mar 2005 : Column 1659

Radio Services (Visually Impaired People)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Fitzpatrick.]

8.37 pm

Rosemary McKenna (Cumbernauld and Kilsyth) (Lab): I am extremely grateful that I have secured this debate on Government support for radio services for people who are visually impaired. I want to express my thanks to Royal National Institute of the Blind Scotland for its assistance in preparing for this evening's debate.

Over the past 10 years, and particularly since 1997, we have moved forward considerably in raising awareness of the problems encountered by people with disabilities of all kinds. In my time in local government in Scotland, I chaired many committees that addressed issues of equality of opportunity. I therefore know that much has been done.

Members will be aware of substantial measures taken during this Parliament aimed at improving the quality of life of people who are blind or partially sighted. Those include new legislation on copyright, guide dogs in taxis and special educational needs, together with the extension of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, the creation of national eye care pathways and so on.

An estimated 2 million people in the UK have uncorrectable sight loss—about 3,000 people per constituency. Ninety per cent. of those are aged 60 or over. However, a stark picture of the typical blind and partially sighted person in the UK emerges from a series of recent RNIB research reports. The average profile is of a woman in her 70s who lives alone on the margins of poverty, with no contact with social work services, who has not left her house in the previous week even to go into the garden.

Therefore, while the Government have done a lot to address the exclusion of people with disabilities and visually impaired people in particular, too many of our constituents with serious sight problems remain excluded and isolated. I cannot imagine what it would be like to lose my sight, especially if I lived alone. How would I read my mail or the newspaper? Although many young people gain access to news through various media, it is the elderly who still value the daily and weekly newspapers. They are a lifeline for many.

Of course, there are many excellent services that help blind and partially sighted people to remain as independent and safe as possible. Much of that support is provided by carers, social work services and the voluntary sector. I want to focus on one inspiring service, VIP On Air. It is the first radio station in Europe that specifically serves a blind and partially sighted audience in Glasgow and west central Scotland. Not only is the principal audience visually impaired, but so are the presenters and producers.

John Robertson (Glasgow, Anniesland) (Lab): I, too, have been fortunate enough to visit VIP On Air. Does my hon. Friend agree not just that it does an excellent job, needs to do more and needs help to broaden its service to the rest of the country, but that Glasgow city council in particular has done an excellent job in subsidising it and finding premises for it?

Rosemary McKenna: My hon. Friend is right. Along with RNIB Scotland, the Guide Dogs for the Blind
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Association, Visibility and Playback, Glasgow city council played a major role. It formed a consortium to operate and develop VIP On Air. A listeners' forum has also been formed, which regularly gives the station team feedback via an e-mail group. Both the listeners' group and the visually impaired volunteers have representatives on the project board.

Throughout its brief history to date, VIP On Air has greatly benefited from the support and assistance of BBC Scotland. It helped to recruit the station manager in April 2003 and has provided line management support since then. BBC Scotland has provided support and guidance on studio refurbishment, and recorded and broadcast a national radio programme to help publicise the station. It also seconded a programmer for two months to assist in the launch of the station. BBC Scotland's training programme is a crucial part of all that and one of the blind volunteers has secured an appointment as a researcher with BBC Scotland.

Not only is VIP On Air a source of high-quality specialist programmes such as those featuring unabridged talking books, it is a tremendous way of sharing information with blind and partially sighted people that is typically available only in print. Programme content includes detailed read-throughs of daily newspapers, reports on service information from central and local government, changes in transport timetables and what's on and when at the local cinema or theatre—not to mention lively phone-ins and interviews with local and national politicians, celebrities and so on.

Besides making great programmes that tackle social isolation, VIP On Air has helped to develop the confidence, skills and experience of those involved in the station. Many started as volunteers, but have progressed to become employees of VIP On Air or mainstream broadcasting organisations such as the BBC. There is a problem, however, and I ask the Minister to address it. The station currently broadcasts on the internet, at, although most of its potential audience does not have easy access to the internet. How many elderly people do we know who can listen to the radio at home via the internet? Not many. I know that we now have many more silver surfers in this country, but thousands are denied access to this excellent service.

VIP On Air is looking for a chance to reach the 3,000 mainly elderly people in each of our constituencies. It needs a broadcasting platform that its large potential audience can easily access. It has already set up a digital studio in Glasgow, as my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Anniesland (John Robertson) said, with the assistance of Glasgow city council, and it has the staff, volunteers and financial backing. I cannot stress enough the thanks that are due to RNIB Scotland, Glasgow city council and North Lanarkshire and South Lanarkshire councils. To its great credit and in the spirit of a true public service broadcaster, the BBC sits on the VIP On Air board and provides the station with training, marketing and other backing. The programming is good and there is capacity for expansion and further diversification to address a UK audience.

However, VIP On Air cannot develop further while it is restricted to the internet. It tells me that its efforts to reach a wider audience have been frustrated by certain
9 Mar 2005 : Column 1661
Ofcom regulations. Given the lack of available AM or FM band width, Ofcom has advised VIP On Air that the only realistic broadcasting option open to it is to apply for a geographically restricted community radio licence. It has indeed applied for such a licence for the Glasgow area. If granted, it will be of great assistance to blind and partially sighted people in Glasgow, but what about the rest of the UK? What about my constituents and those of every other Member?

The station even investigated whether it could apply for more than one community radio licence and broadcast from its Glasgow studio to a number of areas in the UK. Of course, that would not provide universal coverage, but it would certainly increase reach. However, it was told that it could not. Under current regulations, the nearest that we could get to that is if a large number of radio stations similar to VIP On Air were created, with their own studios, and so on. What a waste of time and resources, given that the infrastructure is there, even if the bandwidth is not.

These limitations seem unnecessarily restrictive. VIP On Air is a unique and ground-breaking radio station; indeed, it is the first such station in Europe. How much longer do blind and partially sighted people in the UK have to wait to get a chance to listen? Our visually impaired constituents constitute an often isolated and excluded community of interest spread across the UK. Surely the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and Ofcom can offer more to VIP On Air than the possibility of a community radio licence in Glasgow alone.

I have learned this week that Pure Digital has developed the first voice-enabled digital radio set in the UK. That tremendous development will be much welcomed, but that set can access only existing radio stations that have bandwidth. VIP On Air cannot be accessed as it is available only via the internet. The problem is that VIP On Air is being frustrated in its effort to secure the bandwidth necessary to broadcast to its isolated audience across the UK. I am sure that every Member of Parliament wants their visually impaired constituents to be able to receive this service. I urge the Minister to investigate urgently and to discuss with Ofcom the broadcasting barriers facing VIP On Air, which serves a community of interest rather than a geographical community.

Additionally, I call on digital providers to carry VIP On Air as part of the large number of radio stations that broadcast via digital television. I can listen to BBC Radio Scotland in my London flat because I have digital television via cable. That would help some of our constituents, but I am certain that most of our elderly visually impaired constituents do not have access to digital television.

VIP On Air is a charitable organisation—the first and only in Europe—operated on a non-profit-making model and radio could provide the bandwidth to enable it to work throughout the UK. The Government have done much to assist our poorest pensioners, but there are still many who are private people, unaware of how to obtain the help to which they are entitled, or who simply want their lives enriched. VIP On Air can help them achieve that.
9 Mar 2005 : Column 1662

I began by describing the typical profile of a visually impaired person in the UK—a woman in her 70s, living alone on the margins of poverty with no contact with social work services, who has not left her home in the last week, not even to go into the garden. Surely we can allow her to listen to a radio station that tackles such exclusion.

8.51 pm

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