Digital Broadcasting to the Deaf and Hard of Hearing

– in the House of Lords at 10:02 pm on 6th December 1999.

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Photo of Baroness Anelay of St Johns Baroness Anelay of St Johns Conservative 10:02 pm, 6th December 1999

rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what they consider will be the impact of the digital broadcasting revolution on the 8.7 million deaf and hard-of-hearing people who live in the United Kingdom.

My Lords, I have tabled this Question to give the Government the opportunity to tell the House what they consider will be the impact of the digital broadcasting revolution on the 8.7 million deaf and hard-of-hearing people who live in the United Kingdom. What policies are the Government pursuing to ensure that hearing-impaired people are not excluded from the digital revolution?

It is right that any discussion about digital TV should consider the level of accessible broadcasting. It is right as a matter of principle. After all, everybody loses out when hearing-impaired people do not have the opportunity to participate fully in society. The media, particularly TV, are largely responsible for forming the cultural reference points of society. The programmes we watch on TV and video are very much the topics of everyday conversation at home and at work. Subtitles and signing mean that hearing-impaired people can keep in touch. Limited access can leave them culturally excluded and socially sidelined. It is also common sense to promote the importance of seizing the opportunities offered by technical advances to maximise the use of good quality subtitling and signing.

It is also good commercial common sense to develop subtitling. If cable and satellite operators fail to capture this market, most people will subscribe to digital terrestrial television as switch off looms. That may be good for DTT but not for digital television overall.

Before I venture further I should pay heed to the warning given by King Lear about scurvy politicians who pretend to see the things they do not. I readily confess that unlike others in this House, I am a novice on these issues. I thank those who try to help me to become a little less ill informed and must state that any errors in my speech are mine alone.

I am grateful to the Deaf Broadcasting Council, the Royal National Institute for Deaf People and the British Deaf Association for their briefings. I also thank Chris Higgs, at the ITFC, the biggest independent subtitling facility in the whole of Europe, and Ruth Griffiths at the BBC. They showed me their subtitling facilities. One cannot fail to be impressed by the commitment and dedication of the subtitlers to their task.

The first subtitled programme appeared in the United States in 1971 but research into subtitling here began only in the mid-1970s when the noble Lord, Lord Ashley of Stoke, contacted the University of Southampton about the whole issue. I am delighted that he is taking part in the debate today. Indeed, I am delighted to be able to wish him a happy birthday and even more delighted that the timing of the debate just squeezes into his birthday period.

Technical innovations over the years have improved the quality and speed of subtitling output. However, we cannot expect voice recognition software to provide an automatic subtitling service in future without the human intervention of editing. I thought at first that subtitles and signing should be easier to provide in the digital age, though at a cost. I have learnt that it is far more complex than I ever imagined. Different viewers have different requirements and different priorities. However, it is not just a question of subtitles, whether open or closed, full or edited, but of signing too, and what kind of signing: by human being or by Simon, the virtual human signer, a system currently being developed and facing quite a few problems.

I learnt about the technical difficulties of digital subtitling and the lack of awareness among the public about how to access the subtitles. I learnt of the extraordinary difficulty of just doing the job of a subtitler. Typing is only the beginning. The real art is in editing the text for clarity. It must be done sensitively so that none of the original meaning is lost. Add to that the skills of synchronising the subtitles with the soundtrack, making clear who is saying what to whom, even when they are not on screen, and timing the subtitles so that they coincide with camera shots. No wonder it takes up to 15 hours to subtitle one half-hour programme.

Those who subtitle live programmes are lucky if they get even a few minutes advance notice of the script and have to work at breakneck speed. I estimate that at present I am speaking at about 130 words per minute. Subtitlers have to cope in news sessions with anything up to 250 words per minute. I hope Hansard will not have to face that speed from me today.

It is, indeed, a difficult task faced by those who produce subtitles. However, it is not a case of everything being so difficult that one does nothing. It is so important that we must take action to increase the quality and quantity of subtitling and signing. What is the current situation? What might be done by broadcasters and the Government to improve it, preferably without further regulation?

The Broadcasting Act 1996 and an associated order require 5 per cent of programmes to be signed each week on digital terrestrial television by the 10th anniversary of their launch. There is no requirement in law, or the ITC code, as to how sign language is delivered. The British Deaf Association makes the point that broadcasters should make a mix of provision allowing the maximum number of deaf people to enjoy their programmes. This should include at least some programmes "presented in" as opposed to "interpreted into" sign language.

Statutory requirements also mean that the new digital terrestrial television programme providers must subtitle 5 per cent of their programmes in the first year, rising to 50 per cent in year 10. Those targets, when averaged with the analogue simulcasts' targets, bring the overall accessible output for hearing impaired people to 11 per cent for this year. With many more digital channels expected, it is feared that that percentage is unlikely to improve with the result that choice will be reduced proportionately. Of course, digital satellite and cable channels are not legally required to subtitle anything at all. But because the 1996 Broadcasting Act applies to all DTT services, it means that those Sky channels must provide subtitling for 5 per cent of their programmes.

The BBC adopted the recommendation in the Davies Report that DTT subtitling targets should be 50 per cent of digital output for each new programme provider by the fifth year of digital broadcasting and 100 per cent by the 10th year. That is an improvement on the requirements set by the ITC, which allows broadcasters 10 years to achieve subtitling for 50 per cent of output. But it is surely right to expect the BBC to lead the way because it is funded by the licence fee. Deaf people pay the full licence fee and rightly expect to get full access.

The RNID played its part this year in issuing a voluntary charter and inviting broadcasters to sign up to it. It believes that the charter seeks a way forward in partnership so that digital services are progressively made available to the widest range of the viewing public. It believes that an agreed form of best practice should be adopted across the broadcasting and subtitling industries to improve the quality and increase the provision of subtitling. I appreciate the points put forward by broadcasters that the targets and requirements set in the charter may conflict with some of the regulations set by the ITC. But the RNID also argues that any BBC video or DVD where the original programme is shown with subtitles should be marketed with closed caption subtitles. It also asks that the Government, the ITC and Hearing Concern work together to establish a practice of consistent, independent monitoring of subtitling provision.

My questions to the Government therefore are as follows. With regard to the charter, what is the Government's response to the issuing of the charter and to its voluntary nature? Do the Government agree that the introduction of a digital licence fee is especially untenable for the deaf and hard-of-hearing viewers? Do the Government accept the RNID recommendation that all BBC channels should have parity of subtitling output before analogue switch off is implemented? Are the Government considering an increase in the levels of subtitling on DTT set by regulation in order to bring forward the date at which parity exists between analogue and digital services?

I understand that the Government say that they will carry out a review of subtitling in November 2000. I am rather puzzled about that. Can the Minister say why subtitling and signing are not now being considered as part and parcel of the major review of broadcasting which the Government announced will take place in the new year in order to produce a Green or White Paper before the next general election? Is there a specific reason why the subtitling review is being left until later?

I believe that we must find a way of improving both the quantity and quality of subtitling and signing in the digital age. Technology has given us some opportunities. I know that human beings are needed to make a reality of seizing those opportunities. Tonight I thank all noble Lords for taking part in the debate and look forward to the Minister's response.

Photo of Lord Ashley of Stoke Lord Ashley of Stoke Labour 10:14 pm, 6th December 1999

My Lords, that was a fine speech by the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, and I congratulate her. It was comprehensive, shrewd, to the point and precisely what was required on this occasion. I thank her also for her choice of subject. It is not everyone who chooses the rather unpopular subject of deafness and hard of hearing people, but it is a subject that merits consideration by the House.

One of today's vogue phrases is "social exclusion" by which is meant people who are too poor to participate in society's activities. As the noble Baroness implied, there can be no greater social exclusion than that of profoundly deaf people when there is no subtitling on television. I have personal experience of that because for 28 years I was totally deaf. When I lost my hearing in 1968, there was practically no subtitling on television. That great media became for me totally irrelevant and, because my wife was as loyal as she was, it became irrelevant to her because she would not switch on the television. Two people were deprived of television because of total deafness, mainly because the broadcasting authorities did not subtitle programmes.

Regardless of how clever the programmes were--and I have been a television producer myself for eight years--and how fascinating the discussions were, I had no access to television. The silently moving lips were meaningless to me. The moving pictures without descriptions were also meaningless. That is the measure of the issue that we are debating tonight.

Any failure by the broadcasting authorities fully to subtitle all programmes means that deaf and hard of hearing people are excluded. There is no doubt that television is the paramount means of communicating news and information as well as entertainment, so that is a serious loss. As such, it is a diminution of the human rights of deaf and hard of hearing people.

I did manage to get some improvements to the last two Broadcasting Bills and in discussions with the Independent Television Commission after the last Broadcasting Act, I secured some increase in the inadequate proposals for digital television. The ITC, to its great credit, was responsible and helpful. Provisions for digital television are still inadequate and will mean that as digital television progresses, deaf and hard of hearing people will be left way behind.

I have been concerned with and involved in subtitles for many years. After the 1970s, when there were virtually no subtitles, the BBC pioneered the work admirably. It deserves great credit for that pioneering work, which was followed by the ITV companies. Today, the ITC caption targets are for 55 per of programmes on terrestrial television to be subtitled and 80 per cent after five years. That is a considerable advance on the early days. Those figures are nowhere near perfect and much remains to be done--but the BBC and the ITV companies deserve credit for that increase in subtitles, which in some cases is greater than the statutory requirements, and for the standards on analogue television.

However, the problem lies with digital terrestrial television and digital cable and satellite television. The digital revolution, on which so many high hopes are pinned, will pass deaf and hard of hearing people by unless urgent action is taken. The new digital programme providers only subtitle 5 per cent--rising to 50 per cent as late as the tenth year. For deaf and hard of hearing people, to wait 10 years for a mere 50 per cent of digital television programmes to be subtitled is insulting. Only 5 per cent in the first year. What happens to the remaining 95 per cent? Does it not matter? Are deaf people to be deprived of 95 per cent just because people say, "We are giving you 5 per cent subtitling"? How preposterous; how absurd. What a deprivation of human rights. How casually we all take this 5 per cent. It is scandalous. I am amazed that the House of Commons and the House of Lords readily accept the situation.

A major problem and, as I said, a scandalous one in so far as it concerns deaf people is the fact that digital, cable and satellite television channels are not legally required to subtitle anything at all. They have no obligation whatever to do so. How can Parliament let that situation exist? All the other channels have a statutory requirement, while cable and satellite have no legal obligation whatever. Why should deaf people have the right to subtitling on some channels but not on others? Why should some broadcasters have statutory liability to provide subtitles while others do not? It is absolutely ludicrous.

I am not making a party point--although perhaps I am--but these inconsistencies are the clear responsibility of the last Tory government; there is no doubt about that. They are manifestly crazy, bizarre and farcical, as well as being very damaging to deaf people. I recognise that there can be problems because satellite programmes can come from anywhere in the world, but I believe that they can be overcome.

The noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, mentioned the RNID, of which I am president, although I should have declared that interest earlier. I am still rather deaf, even though I have the cochlear implant. Recently I went with James Strachan, the chief executive of RNID, to see the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, Chris Smith, to discuss what we would do about subtitling on cable and satellite television. The Minister was very helpful and said that he had on several occasions made clear his concern to the major cable and satellite broadcasters about the poor level of subtitling and expressed his keenness that they should provide more subtitling. The Secretary of State also said that there is likely to be broadcasting legislation early in the next Parliament to keep up with the fast-changing broadcasting industry and to ensure that regulation is relevant and effective. He assured me that the department would be carefully considering the provision of services for people with sensory disabilities.

The cable and satellite companies would be very wise to note the Minister's remarks. However, they would be very unwise to assume that we are simply going to wait for another broadcasting Bill. We are not going to wait. I give them clear notice of what I personally intend to do. I shall involve as many noble Lords and MPs as I possibly can. The excuse that it is difficult for cable and satellite companies to be able to afford subtitles because they are short of money is a very thin one. They should not have been granted licences if they could not afford to provide access for all viewers. I believe that their licences should be taken away if those companies cannot fulfil their responsibilities to all viewers.

If cable and satellite television companies believe that they can be so dismissive of deaf people and their rights of access to television, they must think again. I give them a very clear warning. Their failure to match the BBC and ITV with subtitling will be one of the first cases that I shall refer to the new Disability Rights Commission when it starts in April. The Disability Discrimination Act says that "reasonable" provision must be made by all service providers. I do not believe for a second that denying deaf and hard-of-hearing viewers the right to television programmes will be seen in any way as "reasonable" by the courts. This matter would certainly go before the courts.

As digital television advances, we need a far more careful assessment of what provision is made by the broadcasters, especially cable and satellite. They ought to appreciate the commercial benefits--as the noble Baroness rightly said--provided by deaf and hard of hearing viewers, but, if they do not, we should campaign to get them to fulfil their clear moral responsibilities. We need to debate them frequently. We need to keep in touch with Ministers, inform the Select Committee, inform the Independent Television Commission and use the full rigour of the new law of the Disability Discrimination Act to force television companies if they are unwilling voluntarily to provide subtitles. We need regular monitoring of their output so that when we attack them the campaigns will be well informed and pressed home effectively.

Today marks the end of the easy time for broadcasters, especially cable and satellite broadcasters. From now on we shall scrutinise them and, if they fail, we shall take the appropriate action accordingly.

Photo of Lord Hussey of North Bradley Lord Hussey of North Bradley Crossbench 10:25 pm, 6th December 1999

My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay of St Johns, has raised a subject which is of extreme importance to the 8.7 million deaf people in this country and, by the natural function of age, to the many more who will be afflicted by this agonising handicap.

I must declare two interests. First, as a result of an incident in 1944 I am disabled in the hand, spine and legs, but fortunately not in the head. Secondly, I was chairman of the BBC for 10 years, which might raise in some minds the question whether or not I was damaged in the head! In the head are centred the three fundamental senses: hearing, seeing and speaking.

Although I have no personal experience of loss of hearing I have some knowledge of the loss of sight as I was dropped by the Germans in a prison camp for the blind, quite by mistake incidentally. However, for reasons that I shall not bore your Lordships with, it undoubtedly saved my life. It also gave me a vivid understanding of the pain, frustration and, I would almost say torture, of the loss of one of these vital senses.

Twice I shared a small room with two 23 year-olds, one a British Gurkha officer blinded by the blast of a shell and the other an American flying officer rapidly losing his sight after his plane had been shot down in flames. The courage with which they faced this appalling personal tragedy lives with me still.

There is no point in arguing which is better or worse, to be deaf, dumb or blind. They are all devastating and, what is more, they are permanent. We are concerned with the deaf although I shall make some reference--I hope with noble Lords' agreement--to the blind. The onset of digital television and radio is an immense step forward in the provision of radio and television services and in the quality of those services. The advantages are threefold. First, the picture is much clearer, more distinct and immeasurably better. Secondly, the sound improves in equal measure. Thirdly, the number of channels is massively multiplied, although I accept that some may not think that is an advantage.

As we have already heard, there are 8.7 million deaf people in this country. The RNID estimates that by the year 2001 over 43 per cent of the population aged 50 or over will suffer from some degree of hearing loss. Some 20 per cent of licence paying households will include some who suffer from loss of hearing. The whole point of the BBC is that it should cater for the whole population regardless of age, taste or health. That is why the BBC is funded by a universal poll tax, currently £101. The issue is whether sufficient is being done to cater for the deaf and, if I may say so, the blind.

Broadly speaking there are three ways in which the deaf can be helped. They are all expensive. The first and most effective is subtitling; the second is closed signing; and the third is audio description, which means a description is given of what is going on in a programme. It is in its early stages and is not really relevant to this debate.

Our discussion today has been simplified by the excellent report, The Future Funding of the BBC, under the chairmanship of Gavyn Davies. It is a masterly document. It raises many issues, about which of course we may have differing views. But no doubt there will be a debate on this report in your Lordships' House in the new year.

The report examined what concessions had been made for the deaf. There is no financial concession on the licence fee, and even the RNID believes that that is appropriate. Digital needs to be inclusive of the whole population. It has great potential for improving services to those with these crippling disabilities. It is the responsibility of a universally compulsorily funded BBC to take the lead in such action. The report unhesitatingly condemns the present arrangements as wholly inadequate and recommends major improvements.

To its credit, the BBC has rapidly accepted this criticism and reassessed its targets in line with the recommendations--keeping the BBC where it is already, ahead of independent television in this area. However, I was told only today that that is not correct. I am not really concerned at the moment whether ITC is ahead of the BBC or the BBC is ahead of ITC. The BBC, in its position as a national broadcaster, should be leading the way.

As the noble Lord, Lord Ashley, said, what is important is that we need more subtitling. That is the critical issue. It is not cheap. It should not be forgotten that it is not a cheap operation. I think that the objective at the moment that has been accepted by all--certainly by the BBC--is to achieve subtitling of 50 per cent of all programmes within five years and of 100 per cent within 10 years. Already the BBC is beating its self-selected targets; I am confident that it will also measure up to these.

More than £2 million has been invested in subtitling in the past two years; the annual running costs are just over £2 million. These costs will increase further. The concentration is on subtitling because that is the most straightforward and effective system. The BBC--and no doubt ITC--will continue with signing. But that is very expensive and much more complicated because individuals each have their own system; there is no common language in signing.

I confirm also the noble Baroness's tribute to those people who work on the subtitling. I also had the opportunity of seeing them. They are very dedicated people, doing an extremely difficult and arduous job. They deserve our thanks and appreciation.

Although it is not strictly within our remit, I should like to make some further reference to the blind. Very little has been done for the blind. Of course they have the advantage of radio, which I have always believed to be a superb service, where, as the children say--and I have letters to confirm it--the picture is so much better.

Nevertheless, the loss of sight is an appalling, cruel and permanent handicap. Hitherto, the only concession made to the blind was a discount of £1.25 on a licence fee of £101. The report recommends--rightly in my view--that this should be increased to up to 50 per cent and not restricted, as the current discount is, to households which contain only the blind. That is most welcome.

Nevertheless, in spite of what I have just said, I must confess that I have a slight feeling that if the Government are prepared to remit the licence fee for everyone over the age of 75--and that is 3 million households, including, incidentally, my own--they might consider doing the same for the 348,000 permanently blinded people, or should at least plan to do so in future. There is a slight contrast between 348,000 of the permanently blind and some 3 million households. I suggest to the Minister that that is something the Government might well consider.

However, spurred on by Mr Gavyn Davies and his colleagues, great efforts are now being made to take larger and more compassionate steps to improve the position of both the deaf and the blind. The noble Lord, Lord Ashley, strongly outlined that point.

I admit that I feel a sense of guilt that I did not do this while I was chairman of the BBC. But the reason for that was simple. From the moment I became chairman in October 1986, I had one clear objective which dominated every decision that I took and I was ably and generously supported by my colleagues on the board of governors and the board of management. That objective was to deliver the BBC, at the end of my chairmanship, with its channels and licence fee intact. Now that that has been achieved, I believe that it is appropriate--indeed, it is necessary--to correct some of the unfortunate anomalies.

I am extremely glad that this issue has been highlighted by this excellent report which will cost the BBC and all other broadcasters money. However, no doubt the new director-general, who has already demonstrated a concern for the issues of health, will examine carefully the allocation of his resources. Of course, it is not necessarily practical to compare budgets in one area with budgets in another, but I believe that there is something bizarre in the report from the Select Committee in the other place that BBC News 24 will cost £53.9 million this year when it has fewer than 10,000 people watching its digital channels without subscribing to pay television, although no doubt pay television itself will increase those numbers. I think that that is a point worth considering.

I commend the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay of St Johns, as will many of the deaf, and I believe also the blind, for raising the issue in the public mind. As our world becomes more prosperous, those who have lost their sight, hearing or speech should occupy a higher place in our priorities. They deserve no less.

Photo of Baroness Young of Old Scone Baroness Young of Old Scone Labour 10:37 pm, 6th December 1999

My Lords, I rise with some diffidence, knowing that I must declare my interest as the current Vice-Chairman of the BBC. My diffidence arises from following the noble Lord, Lord Hussey, and listening to his remarks calling into question the rightness of one's head.

We are of course at the edge of the digital age and we have seen the huge new wealth of entertainment, information and education, in particular in terms of public service broadcasts. Digital broadcasting will enable greater creativity, involvement in citizenship and an opportunity for inclusive access to education and lifelong learning. I agree with my noble friend Lord Ashley that the 8.7 million deaf and hard of hearing must be able to share in this wealth through subtitling and signing, and eventually through audio description.

As regards subtitling, the BBC has adopted targets as demanding as any of those laid down for UK broadcasting as a whole. Indeed, it has regularly exceeded its targets. Overall, its subtitling level is nearly 57 per cent of output across BBC1 and BBC2, 60 per cent of output on Digital BBC1 and BBC2 and 30 per cent on BBC Choice. The total number of hours of subtitling has risen by 57 per cent in two years and the budget has increased by 30 per cent. As the noble Lord, Lord Hussey, pointed out, the target is for digital to have 50 per cent subtitling in five years and 100 per cent in 10 years. At the moment we are well ahead of that objective.

The noble Baroness, Lady Anelay of St Johns, referred to the need for the public to understand the subtitling services that are available. Indeed, during a recent BBC deaf awareness week, there was an opportunity, through trailers shown across the services, to provide information on the subtitling service. Of course, TV output with British sign language interpretation is also important. There is a need for that to be developed on the digital as well as the analogue service.

The noble Lord, Lord Hussey, referred to audio description, which is the system whereby descriptive narrative can be delivered alongside the main soundtrack, as small and inconsequential. There have been a number of false starts and false investments in the system--there was a rather unsuccessful European scheme--and so far there has been the lack of a practical and cost effective approach on analogue television. The advent of digital technology provides a new opportunity and there is now a need to see the industry set technical standards and for there to be an affordable and assured supply of receiver modules. There has recently been a pilot on BBC2 and there will be a full service from May next year. It is modest at the moment--2 per cent rising to 10 per cent over the next 10 years--but it is a rich new service that is made possible by digital technology.

It is fundamental that the deaf and hard of hearing share in the digital revolution. Much has been done, and much more will be done, but I share the view of the noble Lord, Lord Hussey, that the technology requires investment. It would be unseemly now and at this time of night to make a naked plug for more money, but I remind your Lordships that the licence fee review is under way. I believe that the case is compelling for sufficient funding to be provided to ensure inclusive access for all to the necessary benefits--they are not luxuries--of digital services and to ensure inclusive access to opportunities for lifelong learning to enable everyone, deaf and non-deaf alike, to be involved in citizenship in the digital age.

Photo of Lord Swinfen Lord Swinfen Conservative 10:41 pm, 6th December 1999

My Lords, following on from four such distinguished speakers, most of what I originally intended to say has, as is inevitable, already been said. However, there are one or two points that I should like to make. I should declare an interest in that I have used a hearing aid since 1971. At that time, when it was prescribed for me, I was told that at some stage I would become totally deaf and hear nothing. However, I am delighted to say that my friend, the noble Lord, Lord Ashley of Stoke, told me today that, with modern advances in medicine, that is not inevitable. That is a great relief.

The noble Lord, Lord Hussey of North Bradley, pointed out that, with the demographic change taking place in this country, an increasing number of people will suffer from deafness or will be hard of hearing. One of the advantages I have with my National Health Service hearing aid is that it can pick up sounds from the induction loop. I use it in the Chamber because the induction loop here is absolutely splendid. The hearing aid is also useful in churches and in some theatres where an induction loop is fitted. I understand that one can get a portable induction loop system to put on a table if one is in the middle of a conference. I see that the noble Lord, Lord Carter, who has spoken on this subject in the past, is nodding his head vigorously.

With the advances in television and radio design and construction, why cannot an induction loop be fitted to modern televisions and radios so that their signals can be picked up by those who wear hearing aids? That should be possible. It would be similar to the one that is portable and can be put on a table. It would also mean that those who are hard of hearing and need at the moment to turn up the volume of their television or radio will not irritate their neighbours, particularly in blocks of flats, because they will not need to turn up the sound to the same extent. It can all be done on the induction loop.

I wonder what effect the Disability Discrimination Act will have in that respect. Will there be a case against manufacturers who do not cater for those who are deaf or hard of hearing and who need to wear a hearing aid? Also, are the Government satisfied that purchasers of televisions are provided with adequate and suitable literature to make certain that they are able to operate the Teletext system effectively and receive the subtitling? I must admit to being an idiot where technology is concerned. I have considerable difficulty in following all kinds of technical instructions.

The other point that I want to raise relates to guides to television programmes. I do not buy the Radio Times or TV Times; I receive my information from the local paper, whose editors are kind enough to include a freebie. But I have never seen any indication in that guide as to what programmes are subtitled. Would it not be wise to include such an indication in the guide, particularly in relation to television? I should like also to back up a point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Ashley of Stoke. What is being done to make certain that cable and satellite television carry subtitling?

Photo of Lord Addington Lord Addington Liberal Democrat 10:46 pm, 6th December 1999

My Lords, the process of preparing for this debate has been something of a learning curve. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, for her wonderful description of all the parts of this world of broadcasting with which I am not totally familiar. I must admit that the RNID laid its hand rather heavily on this debate--and a good thing too. However, I must apologise to both the RNID and the RNIB for confusing them at a conference fringe meeting last September when I gave out the wrong name. Dyslexics have a terrible problem with names and initials and it came to the fore then.

Having got that public apology out of the way, I want to say that it is obvious that, with a new form of broadcasting and new types of technology, we now have the opportunity to right what is clearly a wrong. As was pointed out by a number of speakers, and most clearly by the noble Lord, Lord Ashley, we have an opportunity to make sure that we understand this world. Every time we talk about disability, we find ourselves stepping almost magically through doors to new worlds where the perception of day-to-day reality is always changing. The noble Lord, Lord Ashley, has helped us on this occasion to go through one of those doors. We are dealing with a kind of exclusion from everyday experience which must hit people very hard, especially when we consider the fact that someone with a hearing impairment will find social interaction on a day-to-day basis at best difficult. Even those who have hearing only through certain ranges and, with modern hearing aids, can interact normally still often miss points. I know that from personal experience. We must attempt to deal with that difficulty. It may be expensive and difficult, but we now have the technical ability and, I hope, in the Disability Discrimination Act the legal necessity of solving the problem.

When I began to study this subject and to receive briefing on it, I was slightly shocked to discover that the BBC was not the front runner. I think I can safely say that the ITV networks were crowing justifiably over the fact that they had slightly better figures. I expect the BBC to be at least as good as any other broadcaster because it is publicly funded. To give credit where credit is due, normally it is. However, if it has been overtaken it should ensure that at least it matches others in the field. The fact is that both groups claim that they are beating self-imposed and statutory targets.

The notion "could do better" seems to loom rather large here. As the noble Lord, Lord Ashley, put it, it is ridiculous that someone should wait 10 years to have full access to something which is a major part of life. Evidently, it can be done quicker. Whether a carrot or stick drives them to achieve that target I do not know. However, this is a good opportunity for this part of Parliament to say that it is prepared to wield the stick.

The BBC faces an extra problem in that it seeks more licence money for digital broadcasting, which is not a matter to which I am opposed. I know that every single disability group to whom one talks claims that it has the biggest client base in the country. The dyslexics and the RNID can probably challenge that claim. If the BBC is failing in this department then potentially a section of the community will be cut off from a large part of the activities of that public service, and that must be addressed rapidly. I hope that when the noble Lord comes to reply to the debate he will be able to say how the Government are applying gentle or perhaps firm pressure to deal with that. Unless we encourage this process we are preventing a section of our society from achieving interaction with others and one result will be social exclusion.

I do not believe that I can add to the technical debate on the figures and how this can be achieved for the simple reason that I do not have a sufficiently good grasp of it. The fact remains that if people are talking about this it must be possible. Generally, if one tells people that they shall do something as part of their basic function it is amazing how often they take it in their stride after an indeterminate amount of moaning and groaning about it. The whole idea of public service broadcasting and its requirement to achieve certain aims is not something that people like very much until they get on with it and realise that often it has financial benefits. The great growth in costume drama that is seen by many groups does not seem to affect viewing figures. I said to someone, "Just imagine Dickens without being able to understand the words". The reply that I received from behind a paper was, "Yes, it sounds wonderful, doesn't it?" Unless one brings in people one will not achieve anything.

In conclusion, we are not being told enough about how to access any written information that is being produced on this matter. I believe it was suggested that it should be once a week at prime time on the BBC. One can give it the same amount of push as the advertising of other programmes. There is one guiding light. When one starts to notice it as something in which one is not interested and leaves the room that is probably when the BBC, or whoever else is concerned with it, has got it right. One is perhaps going slightly into overkill if on the same day an individual says, "Oh, no, not again", and makes himself yet another cup of tea. But perhaps the goal is achieved when it begins to be noticed by those who do not need it. I cannot remember once turning on a television set and seeing that piece of information. I suggest that at the very least the BBC, and ITV for that matter, can address these problems straightaway.

Having said that, I very much hope that tonight we shall hear that the Government guide broadcasters to achieve as quickly as possible the provision of 100 per cent better information, through television, to the deaf and those who are hard of hearing. Whether we like it or not, television is a vital part of the media and our society and will remain so.

Photo of Lord McIntosh of Haringey Lord McIntosh of Haringey Deputy Chief Whip (House of Lords), HM Household, Captain of the Queen's Bodyguard of the Yeomen of the Guard (HM Household) (Deputy Chief Whip, House of Lords) 10:55 pm, 6th December 1999

My Lords, I hope that noble Lords will not think that I am currying favour when I say that this is the kind of debate which is particularly helpful to government and is a feature of this House at its best. This is not a debate in which anyone has been scoring points--party political or any other points. It is a debate in which we have attracted among the speakers those with a great deal of expertise, and have learnt from their personal experience. That is enormously valuable.

I agree profoundly with the opening remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, who spoke of the problems of cultural and social exclusion. As the noble Baroness knows, they are dear to the heart of Chris Smith and his colleagues in the Department for Culture. The more she presses us to give effect to our ideals the better it will be. She is also right to say that there are perfectly sound commercial reasons for broadcasters to improve the services, both analogue and digital, for the 8.7 million deaf and hard of hearing people in this country. That 8.7 million forms a very large minority. They are customers for advertised products and services. If the broadcasters ignore them, they do so at considerable financial peril. If that lesson goes back to them from this debate, then something valuable is achieved, even if nothing else were achieved.

I congratulate the noble Baroness on the research that she undertook for her speech. Quite rightly, she drew attention to the difficulties in producing subtitles and the very great skills required to produce them efficiently and effectively. The noble Baroness did not talk about the difficulties of signing and audio-description. In view of the balance of the subject matter of the debate, I hope that the House will forgive me if I concentrate on subtitling.

Increasingly, there is some recognition of broadcasters' obligations to disabled people. I congratulate my noble friend Lord Ashley, in his capacity as chairman of the All-Party Disablement Group, on his initiative. I understand that he has invited two broadcasters, both of whom are blind, to speak at a meeting of the all-party group tomorrow evening. I know that the blind are not strictly speaking the subject matter of today's debate, but it was justifiable for the noble Lord, Lord Hussey of North Bradley, to draw attention to the relevance of broadcast services being accessible to the blind also.

We have made clear that in the digital era it is important that all sections of society should have access not only to the current free-to-air services but to new additional services. We believe that people with disabilities could derive real benefit from the new and sophisticated services that digital television offers. That includes the possibility of a separate channel for signing and audio-description. We hope that when analogue services are switched over to digital every home in the United Kingdom with a television set and a telephone will have guaranteed basic access to the Internet and interactivity to which the noble Lord, Lord Addington, referred. That is particularly valuable for people who are housebound.

I find the issue of subtitling targets as set by the Broadcasting Act 1996 difficult to set out. I shall not attempt to expound them. I had them put into a table. Even there it is a complex procedure. Basically the 1996 Act required the ITC to draw up a code on promoting the understanding and enjoyment of programmes by persons who are deaf or hard of hearing with targets on subtitling and signing laid down in the Act and by order. The Act set a target that not less than 50 per cent of programme hours broadcast in any programme service should be titled with other targets for signing.

The ITC has set interim targets which, together with the final target, run to 2004. The BBC and Channel 4 have in broad terms agreed to match those targets. We intend to review the targets next November because it will be two years after the start of digital terrestrial television and we will have clearer ideas of progress and possibilities in that area.

The noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, asked whether that could have been brought forward into the wider review. That review could easily take longer because it is a legislative review. We wish to settle the review of subtitling targets as soon as possible. Indeed, that was what Chris Smith told my noble friend Lord Ashley at their recent meeting, to which my noble friend referred. We agree that the review must include specific reference to subtitling targets.

The commission's code was published in February 1997 and the ITC has stated that it will keep arrangements under review so that it stays abreast of technical developments.

My noble friend Lord Ashley referred to monitoring the targets. Compliance with the code is a licence condition for all digital programme service licence holders and the commission will monitor progress towards meeting those requirements. Under the 1996 Act, it has the power to impose sanctions, including fines, on licensees who do not comply with the code.

The analogue broadcaster's obligations also apply to the simulcast digital services, which are an overwhelmingly major part of the digital services now available. The ITC has set the target of 80 per cent of Channel 3 programmes by 2005. Channel 5 is required to subtitle 50 per cent of its programmes by 2002 and Channel 4 has agreed to match the Channel 3 target. The BBC aims to achieve subtitling of peak-time output on BBC1 and BBC2 by 2001 and 80 per cent of all output by 2004.

Reference was rightly made to the Davies report, which recommends that targets for the subtitling of the new digital services should be substantially increased so that 50 per cent of programmes are subtitled in the next five years and 100 per cent by 2009, which is within the window of likely switchover from analogue television. As the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, said, the BBC has agreed to implement this recommendation.

Clearly, we have not published our conclusions on the Davies report, but we shall do so in January 2000. Of course, in considering the report we shall take account of the needs of all sectors of society, including those with disabilities. The noble Lord, Lord Hussey, argued for a reduction on the colour television licence fee. He will remember that the Davies report recommends a 50 per cent reduction in the fee for those registered blind. That, too, is a matter we shall consider when publishing our conclusions in January.

As regards the switchover from analogue to digital, I must acknowledge to my noble friend Lord Ashley that with the targets which have been set, and which we can legally enforce, it may well be that people who are deaf or hard of hearing will have to delay their own switchover during the period in which digital output has a lower level of signing. Of course during that period they will be able to stay with analogue television. We have stipulated two criteria to be set before the switchover takes place: under the availability test--

Photo of Lord Ashley of Stoke Lord Ashley of Stoke Labour

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for giving way. I was assured by the BBC that if deaf and hard-of-hearing people were to switch over to digital TV tomorrow, the same amount of subtitling would be available as is currently available on analogue TV. I should not like the wrong message to go out, but the BBC assured me on that point today.

Photo of Lord McIntosh of Haringey Lord McIntosh of Haringey Deputy Chief Whip (House of Lords), HM Household, Captain of the Queen's Bodyguard of the Yeomen of the Guard (HM Household) (Deputy Chief Whip, House of Lords)

My Lords, there are two parts to that point. There will certainly be the same amount of subtitles available on the simulcast programmes; that is, the programmes which are the same as those provided on analogue TV, but I do not believe that that is the case for the new digital programmes which the BBC will be providing. I do not believe that there is any disagreement on that matter.

The second criterion after availability is affordability, which means that prices must be within the reach of people on low or fixed incomes. The affordability test will include also take-up of digital equipment, which 95 per cent of consumers must have. I must emphasise that the switchover will be emphasised on those criteria, not on dates, although we have forecast a date of 2006-2010.

A number of noble Lords referred to the need for better information on the availability of subtitling in particular. We have asked broadcasters, manufacturers and retailers to work together to provide clear and objective information about digital TV. That applies also to analogue TV. If I may say so to the noble Lord, Lord Swinfen, my understanding is that the Radio Times--which he does not buy--includes information on which programmes have subtitles. It may be that he will have to have a small further outlay each week in addition to his free local paper.

While addressing the noble Lord, perhaps I may say also that my understanding about digital loops is that when they are available in a room they are plugged into the television set and that is how improved hearing is provided. That is clearly rather more efficient than including a digital loop in all television sets including those for people who do not need them. It is clearly in the broadcasters' interests to provide as much valid information about subtitling and signing as possible.

My noble friend Lord Ashley and the noble Lord, Lord Addington, referred to the application of the Disability Discrimination Act, which requires that there should be a balance of cost with provision. How that will be interpreted in the broadcasting area is a matter still to be worked out. My noble friend Lord Ashley also singled out the cable and satellite broadcasters, as did a number of other noble Lords, for having no formal requirements to provide subtitling and signing services. We have made clear our concern at the apparently poor level of subtitling to the cable and satellite broadcasters. We are keen that they should provide more, including on their digital services.

In response to the first question put by the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, we very much support the RNID initiative for a voluntary charter on broadcast subtitling to improve access for deaf and hard of hearing viewers. The RNID sent a consultation document to all major broadcasters: to Hearing Concern, to the broadcasting council for the deaf and to other interested parties. We have encouraged all broadcasters to respond positively to the RNID initiative.

Clearly, there are some areas in which we have powers to force things forward. When the opportunity arises, we shall certainly do so. There are some areas where we do not have those powers. Our powers consist only of encouragement and threats about taking future powers. However, whatever our powers may be, I can assure your Lordships that we take the problem extremely seriously. We propose to use whatever powers and influence we have to ensure that the social and cultural exclusion of the deaf and hard of hearing in the broadcasting area is reduced and eliminated as quickly as is humanly possible.

House adjourned at ten minutes past eleven o'clock.