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Lord McNally: I am listening to the Minister, but this reminds me of a problem that came up on day one. When Ministers go to conferences, where there are various vested interests, they get carried away by the event and start giving assurances. They tell people not to worry because those troublesome meddlesome Peers are not going to do anything to the Bill. "Rest at night, lads", the Minister says, "because we will deliver the Bill".
The problem is that noble Lords read. They read these speeches and get mad about them. I urge the Minister to tell them down the corridor, in another place, that a little deference in this case could go a long way. I refer not only to Tessa Jowell but also to Mr Kim Howells. They give the impression that we are just a rubber stamp. They are going to be wrong.
Baroness Blackstone: I have had numerous conversations with both Mr Kim Howells and with Tessa Jowell. Neither of them has ever given me the impression that they think this House is just a rubber-stamping body. I do not know where the noble Lord, Lord McNally, gets that from. I am also sure that Tessa Jowell would not have referred in her speech only to "lads"; she would have talked about "lasses" as well.
I give this Chamber an absolute assurance that neither I nor my ministerial friends on the Front Bench, nor the Secretary of State nor the Parliamentary Under-Secretary responsible for broadcasting believes the House of Lords to be somehow irrelevant. I might remind Members of the Committee that my noble friend Lord Davies has just conceded that the amendment moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, was something that we should take back and consider. There will be other examples where we shall want to do that.
I turn to the amendment we are discussing. The creative industries in this country, including the music industry, are essential to deliver the quality that we want in our broadcasting services. Their success contributes enormously to our economic well being. Developments in electronic communication services bring with them a whole range of extra scope for creativity. Important as that is, however, I do not believe that it is appropriate to single out that group as one of the matters to which Ofcom must have regard when undertaking its duties. We have emphasised from the outset of the legislative process, both in the White Paper and in the Bill, that it is the public interest that really counts in the regulation of communication services.
The noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, mentioned the content board. As we will talk later about the content board, I think that it would be wrong for me to engage now in what the board will or will not do except to say that the content board is part of Ofcom and any panels that it might set up will be a matter for Ofcom. As I said, I do not think that that should be put on the face of the Bill.
Where the work of creative performers has an impact on the public, we have focused on ensuring that Ofcom has the necessary responsibilities, notably in relation to the provision of high-quality and diverse services in the public service broadcasting remit and in the provisions for original production. In that way, we are creating real opportunities for creativity to flourish. I attach a great deal of importance to that.
There is already a fairly long list of matters to which Ofcom is to have regard and it is difficult to see what impact Amendment No. 22 would have on any particular Ofcom decision. It is to the public interest that Ofcom should look, and that is what the Bill provides for. I hope that in the light of what I have said the noble Baroness will withdraw her amendment.
Baroness Buscombe: I thank the Minister for her response. If I may, I should like to respond briefly in relation to my comments on the Secretary of State. I thank my noble friend Lord Brooke for his intervention. It was actually the Secretary of State's personal touch that was so damaging. The speech written by the civil servants was damaging enough, but I think that the Secretary of State made matters worse. It is a lesson for all of us.
I also thank the noble Lord, Lord McNally, for his interest in the matter. There were, of course, vested interests at the forum. Although the issue is particularly important to them, they were equally concerned that all the lobbying which they are continuing to undertake with all of usand quite rightly so, as this is an important Billis not a waste of their time. I think that I was on the right side of the debate as it was I who received the applause.
I thank the noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, for his support for Amendment No. 22. He used the word "reassurance", which as much as anything else is what the music industry is looking for. It is tremendously important to show support for the music industry particularly now when it feels that it is being completely hammered by the Government in the Licensing Bill. We are speaking about an important part of the industry. Our music creators not only contribute significantly to our cultural life but are a commercial asset. I therefore think it right to urge the Government to urge Ofcom to take on board the interests of UK creators and performers and the impact on them of developments in relevant markets. For now, however, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
The noble Baroness said: In moving Amendment No. 24 I shall speak also to Amendments Nos. 41, 62 and 81. Amendment No. 24 makes it clear on the face of the Bill that when Ofcom carries out its duty to further the interest of consumers, "consumers" refers not only to those who have the physical and financial capacity to use the latest technological developments but also to disadvantaged consumers such as those with disabilities, the frail and elderly and those on very low incomes. We welcome Clause 3(3)(i) which states that Ofcom must have regard to,
Different consumers will have different interests that need to be furthered and it is important that Ofcom takes that on board. Amendment No. 62 ensures that Ofcom bears in mind the differing experience of disadvantaged consumers when it conducts its consumer research. Amendment No. 81 makes the suggestion that when Ofcom publishes advice for consumers, it should be in a format that is accessible to those with disabilities.
Those who are most in need of having their interests protected by Ofcom are the disadvantaged consumers who are disabled, elderly or perhaps on a very low income. Those groups include the most vulnerable in society who must rely on technology more than others for safety, entertainment and to stay in contact with family and friends. Advances in technology open up real possibilities for an increase in the quality of life of those people, who because of disability, age or income are unable to be fully active in other areas of society.
Amendment No. 41 seeks to promote media literacy among disadvantaged consumers. Such literacy, by encouraging a deeper understanding of the technology involved by those who have so much to gain from it, would be of real value to those consumers and an excellent addition to the Bill. These groups also include those with special needs who require designs that are easy to use and understand. For, in an unfortunate paradox, those who have most to benefit from technological advances are those who are prevented from using them due, for example, to small letters and numbers that cannot be read, buttons that are hard to push and complicated systems that are difficult to understand.
Without referring at an early stage of the Bill to the different types of consumer need that Ofcom should consider, Ofcom will not have the legislative back-up to go the extra mile to ensure that the interests of all consumers are furthered. It seems to me that even without a regulator in sight, companies will be falling over themselves to meet the needs of the affluent, the technologically minded and the able-bodied proportion
Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville: I declare an interest. I appear on the letterhead of PHABPhysically Handicapped and Able Bodiedbut I do not do so in any executive capacity. Nor do I think that that particular disability is one that is particularly affected by Amendment No. 24. However, I recall from being a Member of another place for the best part of a quarter of a century the series of occasions when Members of Parliament were subjected to very considerable lobbying by correspondents on issues relating to the disabled and their reaction to the media. No one who has not experienced that should be in any doubt that it is an issue that resonates within those who have such disabilities. I cannot help feeling that it is desirable that it should be on the face of the Bill.
Baroness Wilkins: I speak to Amendment No 79, which is grouped with Amendments Nos. 24, 41, 62 and 81, which I support. The purpose of Amendment No. 79 is to ensure that the statutory representation of disabled and older people is continued in the new regulatory framework laid out in the Bill, enabling the consumer panel to give informed advice on all issues affecting disabled and older people to Ofcom and the service providers. Without that, the Bill will signify a severely retrograde step in meeting disabled and older people's needs and one which can only get worse over time.
Currently, there is a statutory advisory committee in telecommunications, called DIEL, which provides the regulator with invaluable advice on the interests and access requirements of disabled and older consumers. The DIEL committee has 11 members, which enables it to reflect the wide range of impairments among disabled people alongside the interests of older people.
The Communications Bill makes no comparable provision. It removes both the statutory representation and the comprehensive breadth of advice. Instead it offers possibly one person appointed to the consumer panel to represent disabled and older people. Even if the Minister could give the Committee the assurance that one person with disability expertise would definitely be appointed to the panel, that person could not possibly represent the needs of all disabled people, such is our diversity. This proposal would turn back the clock about 30 years to the time when disabled people were grateful for any representation.
The current advisory committee, DIEL, has ensured that the telecommunications industry has avoided many pitfalls in relation to disabled and older people during its existence. In a letter to its chair, Bob Twitchin, the national manager of BT's Age and Disability Action section stated:
There is a danger, which will be voiced many times during this Committee stage, that disabled people will be increasingly excluded in the information society unless their needs are fully protected by measures in the Bill. It is hard to see how Ofcom will be able to receive informed advice in this crucial area unless an advisory committee akin to DIEL is established under the auspices of the consumer panel.
Similarly telecom companies will be required to consult the panel on improving services for disabled people. How is the panel to give informed advice without the sort of depth and breadth of expertise and the legitimacy that DIEL could marshal? As the Disability Rights Commission has made clear in its briefing on the Bill, equal access to communications services for disabled people is a matter of civil rights not social policy and an essential prerequisite of equal citizenship. If we are to achieve full social inclusion of disabled people, the building blocks have to be put in place in all aspects of society's structure. The ways in which we receive information and the ways in which we communicate are obviously basic to our functioning in society.
The Bill will lay down the framework for years to come so it is imperative that the needs of disabled and older people are fully protected on the face of the Bill. Providing for their statutory representation through an advisory committee which is composed of a majority of disabled people is one of the essential building blocks for ensuring that disabled people will not be left behind and shut out of the information society.
Lord Addington: My name is added to Amendment No. 79 in the group of amendments that we are discussing. I wish to speak in support of that amendment and, indeed, the entire group. If I did not recognise all the words that the noble Baroness used, I definitely recognised the tune. If we carry on at this rate we shall be able to come up with something we can all hum happily together.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Wilkins, has just said, Amendment No. 79 is concerned with retaining what we have. I refer to a situation where one person is bombarded by dozens of different people saying that they do not understand the position. As a disability spokesman I know exactly what will happen to such a person as it happens to me. Dozens of people say to me, "You do not understand my specific needs". One has to say, "Wait a minute; there are other people involved. I need to get a balance. I need to find out what is going on". It is incredibly difficult to get such a balanced view. One needs to consider many views. One needs a consensus view. I hope that Members of the Committee will adopt such a course throughout the Committee stage. We need to represent the views of all
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