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Lord Ashley of Stoke: I must say how much I appreciate all of the contributions from the Back Benches. To have unanimous support for the amendments from all sides of the Chamber is very significant. I am sure that my noble friend the Minister will have taken note of that, particularly because we have seen only a very small sample of our actual support. I am very grateful; there were some marvellous speeches.
I greatly appreciate the tone of my noble friend's answer. She is obviously sympathetic but there are limitations within the department. She presented the Chamber with a mixed bag. Some proposals were very welcome. I was so glad to hear themthey were heart-warming. I was sorry to hear an apparent determination to dig in heels on exemptions because that is one of the arguments we must win. We simply cannot have such exemptions; that is out of the question. I am afraid that, much as I respect and appreciate the difficulties of my noble friend in the department, this issue will be pursued at the proper time at every possible level and I may test the opinion of the House. In the mean time, I appreciate the Minister's difficulties and I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
The noble Lord said: In moving Amendment No. 242 I shall also speak to Amendments Nos. 243 and 250. It is a small group of amendments which deals with the particular problem of audio-description. It is a crucial service for the blind and the visually-impaired. For them it is a necessity not a luxury if they are to enjoy television.
The present situation is that the BBC, ITV and Channels 4 and 5 are producing audio-description and transmissions over the digital terrestrial platform, Freeview, which were received at the last count in 65 homes. An enormous amount of money has been spent by the BBC internally, and externally by the RNIB, yet
There is no requirement for an expensive module. We do not need a module to receive audio-description. We should compare and contrast the situation that I have just described with that of Sky TV. I understand that in later debates the owner of Sky may be coming in for a certain amount of mention. However, in the area that we are discussing we should acknowledge the efforts that Sky has made. Entirely on its own initiative it is providing audio-description on the digital satellite D-sat without the need for a module. Seven million Sky homes have that capability and 3,000 hours a year of audio-described programmes are provided on Sky One, Sky Sports 1, 2 and 3, Sky Movies Max and Sky Premier.
Why do not the other channels use that function on the satellite platform? If they did they would increase access from 65 homes to a very substantial number. The reason for not doing that seems to be the cost of providing the additional audio bandwidth required to simulcast their existing audio-description on satellite. I understand the problems and I understand that, for example, the BBC might need 18 channels because of all its regional output. It is hard to find out the cost of that extra provision, but even if it were some hundreds of thousands of pounds per annum, how would that figure compare with over £2.5 billion of licence fee, £100 million on BBC 3 and £50 million on BBC News 24, which are both watched by audiences of a tenth of 1 per cent of UK TV viewers?
However, I understand that things are movingor could moveon the module front quite rapidly. It seems that the marginal cost of adapting set-top boxes to accommodate the functionality for audio-description is coming down extremely rapidly. I have heard a figure of under £10 for the marginal cost of adaptation. The ideal situation would be for all set-top boxes, whether for satellite, digital or whatever, to include the chip to generate audio-description. The uptake would quickly make it apparent which form of audio-description the visually-impaired audience prefers. I have a simple question to ask the Minister at this stage. Does the Bill as drafted permit Ofcom to lean heavily on the manufacturers and the broadcasters to ensure that the solution that I have described can be obtained, so that there is a real service for visually-impaired viewers?
I understand that there is a commercial problem in that the BBC has spent a great deal of money internally on its system. Of course, as I have described, Sky has its channel for narrative. All this needs a catalystor someoneto kick-start the process. I should like to know whether Ofcom would have the power to do that. We lead the world in this area of technology and there should be a commercial opportunity, if only we can get things started.
Finally, there is an important factor to be taken into account by Ofcom; namely, the measurement of audio description. Let us take as an example an episode of "Midsomer Murders" on ITV 1. The most important
The percentage thereforewhether it be 10 or 50must relate to each channel. Each channel must generate its own individual quota. Any programme which already has audio description on it must by law be broadcast but not count towards the quota. Ofcom must introduce a licensing system that acknowledges which programmes have been audio described and then which channel can count against the quota. Finally, Ofcom must check with blind people and their organisations about the programmes they choose to describe. I am told that Granada chose as one of the two shows it audio describes what was coming up on Granada this week. It audio describes to the visually impaired all the programmes they cannot enjoyit lists them but they are not audio described.
Amendment No. 242, which leaves out "10" and inserts "50", is a probing amendment. The figures would be a reasonable target for the main broadcast channels, but I accept that there would have to be a lower figure for the smaller channels. That should be at the discretion of Ofcom.
I want to comment briefly on Amendment No. 250, standing in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Addington, who I am sure will want to speak about it in detail. It would require Ofcom to include the minimum access requirements for disabled people and the best practice guidelines in the proposed code of practice for electronic programme guides. Easy access to electronic programme guides is essential if disabled people, and the millions more who struggle to navigate digital TV, are to be equal participants in the digital revolution and not be put off from switching to digital. I beg to move.
Baroness Wilcox: I support the principle behind the amendment but suggest that some sort of compromise position should be reached. The cost of audio description at £700 an hour cannot altogether be removed from the equation, although in an ideal world all programmes would be accessible to disabled people in a wide number of formats. A requirement that it should apply to 50 per cent of every service would be crippling to smaller channels.
On the other hand, it is clear that many large national and international channels can and should fork out such sums. The positive example set by Sky with respect to disabled access, warmly referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Carter, shows that in the case of large broadcasters where there is a will there is a way. During the course of our debates on the Bill we have constantly been made aware of the fast-pace progress
I would therefore encourage Ofcom to take into consideration the ability of different broadcasters to afford to pay for audio description when issuing the code on the provision for the deaf and visually impaired.
Baroness Darcy de Knayth: I want briefly but warmly to support this group of amendments. I well remember the frustration of failing to get the target of 50 per cent written into the Broadcasting Bill seven years ago. The Minister says that 10 years is a long timeincidentally, I greatly welcome what she said about subtitlingand seven years is long enough. Is it not disgraceful that if seven years ago we felt that 10 per cent was an inadequate target, it should still be only 10 per cent? I believe that we should be aiming for 50 per cent in this Bill. It is not just 2 million visually-impaired people who would benefit from this. The ITC research shows that many older people with cognitive problems or younger people with learning difficulties would benefit. I support what the noble Lord, Lord Carter, said about Sky TV and the audio description programmes.
The current wording in the Bill leaves the inclusion of access requirements in the code to the discretion of the regulator. Given that the electronic programming guide is the key to digital TV, it must be made accessible to visually-impaired, disabled and elderly people. I very much hope that the Minister will have a change of heart on this point. If Ofcom left access standards out of the code, it would then be difficult to challenge on it. I hope that the Minister will look sympathetically on this group of amendments.
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