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Lord Morris of Manchester moved Amendment No. 8:

"( ) The Secretary of State shall exercise his powers of appointment under subsection (3)(a) and (b) with a view to securing that at least one of the members of OFCOM is familiar with the special requirements and circumstances of individuals who are disabled and individuals of pensionable age."

The noble Lord said: In moving this amendment I shall briefly address also my two related amendments; namely, Amendments Nos. 16 and 68. They were drafted in close rapport with the Royal National Institute for the Blind, among other disability organisations, and I am especially grateful to Caroline Ellis of the RNIB for her care and concern in liaising with me about them.

For disabled people, the good society is one where no opportunity is lost to reduce the handicapping effects of their disabilities and where their right to full social equality and inclusion is unquestioned and undoubted. That quintessentially is the case for this trio of amendments.

will be making decisions and providing services of immense importance to disabled people in terms not only of their right to social and clutural inclusion, but even of their status as citizens. Yet as the Bill is now drafted, the board of embryonic Ofcom will be assessing its strategy free from any obligation to consider and prioritise the rights and access needs of disabled people. In fact, the existing regulators are already designing criteria for the new body's structure and working arrangements without reference to the access needs of disabled people.

Such omissions are a recipe not for reducing, but for increasing, the handicapping effects of disabilities; and they are omissions my three amendments seek to

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rectify now, before it is too late. The first of them--Amendment No. 8--aims to ensure that the new unified regulator has, from the outset, the necessary expertise and commitment to put the needs of disabled and older people at the very heart of Ofcom's work.

Towers Perrin's report to the regulator's steering group cites "strong links with stakeholders" as a key design criterion for Ofcom; and disabled and older people are a huge and hugely disadvantaged stakeholder group in relation to communications services. Taking into account partners, parents and children, more than one in four of the population are disabled or significantly involved in the problems of disabled living. There are, too, over 10.5 million older people, a great many with special needs in terms of communications services. The White Paper on communications acknowledged that access to communications services often poses particular difficulties for disabled and older people. It states that:

    "Services may be more important to them than the population at large. Adequate access is essential to enable all to play a full part in today's society".

But disabled and older people are often now denied access by exclusive design, by the cost and technical difficulties of ensuring access, by the absence of necessary equipment and by lack of training among service providers.

If Ofcom's work and ethos is to be informed by any real understanding of the special requirements of its disabled and older stakeholders, it is clearly important for at least one board member to have experience of their problems and needs. Given that the first board members will play a key role in developing Ofcom's strategies and structures, there is a need now to provide on the face of the paving Bill--indeed for it to be writ large there--that at least one of them must have that experience.

Amendment No. 16 puts further emphasis on the importance of prioritising the needs of disabled people and other disadvantaged groups. Ofgem and Postcomm have similar obligations to those set out in my amendment and they have helped those two organisations to ensure that such needs are fully addressed.

Of the wide range of public policy issues Ofcom will be charged to address, none is more urgent than that of how disabled and other disadvantaged groups are to be included in the digital revolution. Thus, even in embryonic form, and while still awaiting its specific regulatory functions, it is timely now to put the civil rights and access needs of disabled and older people in the forefront of its thinking.

The White Paper said that Ofcom would merely give, "due weight" to the needs of disabled people. But organisations such as the RNIB and the Advisory Committee on Telecommunications for Disabled and Elderly People--DIEL--believe we must go further. They point in particular to the lack of access for disabled people to basic communications services and the often costly equipment required to achieve it. For example, visually impaired people cannot access the paltry number of audio described programmes on

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digital terrestrial TV because no one will fund the production and distribution of the special modules required to receive the audio description signal. This in turn begs the question why they should have to pay more for access than sighted people. All of this emphasises again the urgency of making proper provision for their needs from the outset.

Amendment No. 68 is about ensuring that Ofcom meets--again from the outset--the information and communication needs of disabled consumers. Ofcom will have a direct relationship with members of the public seeking information or making complaints, requesting advice on redress and commenting on points of concern; and Towers Perrin stresses that servicing consumer needs will require the commitment by Ofcom of substantial resources and senior management attention. Yet no attention has so far been given to addressing the way in which disabled people will be helped to interact with the single regulator on equal terms with non-disabled people.

Disability access is not referred to anywhere in the Towers Perrin scoping report. Yet this is plainly an essential design criterion--a "must have", to use Towers Perrin's own terminology. That issue was highlighted by DIEL in its response to the White Paper. It said:

    "Both OFCOM and the Panel should have ethos and funds to ensure full accessibility to their services, for example, disability access ... and consumers should be able to interact successfully with both organisations using their preferred means of communication".

That is precisely the aim of my third amendment.

People with disabilities have a wide variety of information needs: from Braille, large print and tape for visually impaired people through to textphone access for deaf and deaf-blind people and plain easy-to-read English for people with learning difficulties. Meeting their needs effectively will be made possible only by a planned approach, the preparatory work for which must include a well co-ordinated strategy for ensuring that disabled consumers are fully able to interact with Ofcom using their preferred format and means of communication.

The mechanism proposed in the amendment is to require Ofcom to develop and implement an accessible information policy. The RNIB, with its acclaimed expertise in providing accessible information, advises that this should be the starting point for all information providers if they are to make their services accessible to everyone. Without an action plan with clear guidelines for staff there is scant likelihood that Ofcom's systems will be designed inclusively of disabled people. And making such provision from the outset will at once save money and ensure best practice.

The Government's response to that amendment might be to say that the issue it addresses is fully covered by the Disability Discrimination Act's reasonable adjustments/provision of auxiliary aids and services duty on service providers. But that is not so. The DDA does not prescribe that information should be made available by a service provider in a person's preferred format, which means, for example,

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that people with sight problems may not receive the information they need in a form they can most easily read. Also, the DDA puts the onus not on the service provider but on the individual disabled person to seek redress if his information and communication needs are not addressed.

The RNIB and other disability organisations point out as well that disabled people often have extremely low expectations of their needs being met and that this is a very real barrier to their rights being respected. Others are worn out by constantly having to complain about inadequate provision; and this is made worse by the inherent problems of enforcing rights through the courts, which, for disabled people especially, can be a costly, complex and intimidating process. Instead, a proactive approach by service providers is required; and here it has to be said that the record of government departments in providing information in alternative formats is anything but exemplary.

I am sure that my noble friend the Minister understands how important these amendments are to disabled people and how strongly their organisations support them. I know that she will want to be as helpful as she can when she comes to reply, just as I know that my honourable friend Maria Eagle, who has my warmest best wishes for all possible ministerial success as the new Minister for Disabled People, will be keeping a helpful eye on the issues I have addressed this evening. I beg to move.

Lord Addington: The noble Lord proposes a group of amendments with, I am afraid, a ring of familiarity about it. In relation to other Bills, I have more than once suggested having on a governing board someone who has an interest and expertise in disability. We keep coming back to the issue because we feel that we need to. Experience tells us that we do not get it right.

The noble Lord, Lord Morris of Manchester, said that what happens is that one has a long and protracted legal struggle, one eventually gets something brought in at the last minute that does not fit in with existing structures and one ends up wasting time and money and annoying people. Surely we have got to the stage at which such provisions should be brought in automatically. The DDA is not a perfect vessel--I hope that we shall deal with that in due course. However, we currently need something along the lines proposed by the noble Lord.

We are always being told that mass communication is the biggest thing in our age. Unless we manage to bring in this large group in our community--"large groups" is a better way to refer to the disabled population of this country--and start to structure the situation before we set something up, we shall always get back on the merry-go-round of make do and mend, of plastering over and of saying, "Oh, I didn't realise that that was happening". That is roughly what goes on in all disability discussions.

I hope that the Government's response will be very positive and constructive. The Minister has heard similar speeches from me on other occasions; that is because the issues keep coming back in relation to all

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fields. If the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Manchester, has not got the perfect answer now, I know from experience that he is more than happy to come back and to try again and again until we get something better--until we get something in the right place and in the right Bill.

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