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Lord Donoughue: I thank the Minister for that very positive reply. I shall indeed accept what he says and that will be my approach on other similar amendments. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 45 not moved.]

Clause 11 agreed to.

Clauses 12 to 14 agreed to.

Clause 15 [Duration and renewal of multiplex licences]:

[Amendment No. 46 not moved.]

Clause 15 agreed to.

Clauses 16 and 17 agreed to.

Clause 18 [Duration and conditions of digital programme licence]:

[Amendments Nos. 47 and 48 not moved.]

Lord Ashley of Stoke moved Amendment No. 49:

Page 18, line 11, at end insert--
("( ) that in each year not less that 10 per cent. of the programmes are presented in British Sign Language").

The noble Lord said: In moving this amendment I wish to speak also to Amendments Nos. 50 to 52. All parliamentarians know that there are well-intentioned policies in the clauses of any Bill but without precision and detailed targets they can be meaningless generalities which can easily be evaded. I regard these points as among the most important that I am able to digest in the Bill.

The deaf and hard of hearing and visually impaired people do not want a Bill exuding goodwill and glowing with good intentions. They want one that guarantees beneficial action. This amendment seeks to do that. It is undoubtedly necessary, especially in view of the Government's initial regrettable willingness virtually to bypass in the Bill the interests of sensorially disabled people. The Government have yet to show that they intend action to protect and promote the interests of sensorially disabled people, despite the welcome assurance from the Minister tonight. We know from experience that targets are essential. They are virtually the only way to get action.

Before the 1990 Act television was a nearly barren area for deaf people. Ninety per cent. of programmes were not subtitled. I pay tribute to the Minister involved, David Mellor, who was marvellous throughout the discussions on the Bill. That Act required Channel 3 to subtitle 50 per cent. of its programmes by 1998. The BBC and Channel 4 are conforming and Channel 5 will follow.

We now have 32 per cent. of programmes which are sub-titled, and next year it will be 37 per cent. The broadcasters are clearly following what is prescribed in

6 Feb 1996 : Column 222

the Act--no more and no less. Nevertheless, it is progress. It is too slow, but it is still exciting for deaf people. It has already made a vast difference to them. There is now tremendous expertise in sub-titling and I congratulate the BBC and ITC under David Glencross for raising the quality of sub-titling for news and current affairs programmes to really splendid heights.

But the sub-titling of other programmes should be greatly expanded. The purpose of these amendments is to lay down targets for digital television. We should be clear--I hope the Minister will agree--that if no targets are specified in the Bill there will be no duty at all to provide sub-titles. It is essential not only that there is a duty, but that it is laid equally on all broadcasters, because sub-titling, as he said a few moments ago, imposes an additional cost. Therefore, logically, it would be quite unfair for some television people to bear that cost and others to evade it. I look forward to the Minister assuring the Committee that everyone who presents television programmes will be taking his fair share of the burden of the cost of sub-titling.

The target is for 100 per cent. sub-titling. The technology is available and the target of 100 per cent. is not unreasonable because it is only by that figure that we shall have equal access. Basically, that means equal opportunity. I recognise the need for phasing. We are not demanding that kind of figure overnight, but, unless that figure is in the Bill and phasing is understood and recognised, we shall get nowhere.

Digital technology will also give new opportunities to the more than 60,000 people born profoundly deaf and who rely on sign language. At present there is only one hour of sign broadcasting a week. I recognise that one reason why hearing viewers object to signing on screen is that it is visible to them and they do not need it. But, with digital technology, it is possible to have "a channel within a channel" so that the signer is only visible to those people who need it. This opportunity to give signing deaf people access to the television world should be taken. The 10 per cent. specified in this amendment is, if anything, too reasonable a figure and we should build on it.

The second amendment calls for up to 50 per cent. of output to be made available through audio-description for those with a visual handicap. It is now technically possible to provide a spoken explanation, as the Minister mentioned a few moments ago, during the gaps of dialogue and the actions of people in the scenes on television. That effectively makes the visual world of television meaningful for blind people. This method of audio-description is marvellous for blind people. It is wonderful, very simple and subtle and also very helpful. In giving a figure of up to 50 per cent., I again believe that we are being far too modest, but as a modest person, I am only asking for something which is very reasonable. I am tempted to believe that the Minister will condemn me for being far too modest. I hope that he will build on it and add to what I am suggesting.

I conclude by saying that Amendment No. 52 has a very simple and straightforward intent: that is, to give backbone to the code dealing with provisions for deaf and blind people.

6 Feb 1996 : Column 223

We all recognise and agree that codes are very slippery, like eels, and they can very easily wriggle away. Their value in establishing and publicising what can be done can be debased or destroyed if there is no commitment and no sanction. Just one major evasion of a code can lead to it losing all value because if one evasion is allowed, others will very quickly follow.

I am sure that all new licence holders will profess dedication to the cause of access for those with sensory disabilities. I hear them say that already. But I am sure also that they will testify dedication to other causes--for example, profits--to which they may give priority. The cause of the sensory disabled can be protected only by Parliament ensuring that a licence condition requires adherence to the code of practice. Licensees will take note of licence conditions. I hope that the Minister will be able to respond constructively to those positive amendments. I beg to move.

10 p.m.

Lord Inglewood: My understanding is--no doubt the noble Lord will correct me if I misrepresent his intentions, and if I do so, it is unintentional on my part--that his amendments will require all digital television broadcasters to subtitle their programmes using close caption subtitles. Sign language interpretation would be required for another 10 per cent. and up to 50 per cent. would be accompanied by audio description. I shall deal with the amendments as a group because the same fundamental issues apply.

It goes without saying that the Government welcome the recent significant increases in the proportion of television programmes which are accompanied by Ceefax and Teletext subtitles. Those improvements are as a direct result of the provisions in the 1990 Broadcasting Act. I believe that they are an excellent illustration of what can be achieved by a sensible and gradual approach undertaken in full co-operation with the broadcasters. The virtues of such an approach are reflected in the proposals in Clause 19.

Those proposals require the ITC to draw up a code giving broadcasters guidance on promoting understanding and enjoyment of programmes by people who are deaf, hard of hearing, blind or partially sighted. Interested groups of viewers as well as broadcasters will be consulted by the ITC before the code is drawn up. That will provide an opportunity for full and frank discussion on exactly how the interests of people with sensory impairment can best be served.

I am sure that the Committee will agree that real achievements have taken place as a result of the codes and the work that has been done in connection with them. We believe that to state on the face of the Bill percentages of the sort proposed would be both arbitrary and inflexible. The great characteristic of the code is that it will be drawn up after extensive consultation and will be flexible in the light of technical and commercial developments. For example, if automatic voice-activated stenography were to be feasible in the future and adaptable to sub-titling technology, live sub-titling will become easier.

6 Feb 1996 : Column 224

The noble Lord's next set of amendments affect the status of the code as regards whether it is to take the form of guidance or whether it is to be mandatory. That is obviously a crucial matter. But the achievements of the codes in the past give rise to great optimism. We believe that the code will continue to be an effective, flexible and adaptable device for achieving the kind of results which the noble Lord seeks.

I hope that he will agree also that, pending discussion, it is not appropriate at this stage for percentages of the kind which he suggests to appear on the face of the Bill. We believe that the way in which we are approaching the matter will best serve the interests of those who are suffering from sensory impairments. I hope that that will give some indication of the way that the Government's mind is working in that respect.

Lord Ashley of Stoke: I feel strongly about these figures and targets, but the Minister is being constructive and I appreciate that. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 50 to 53 not moved.]

Clause 18 agreed to.

Clause 19 [Code relating to provision for deaf and visually impaired]:

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