Digital Economy Bill - Committee (4th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:15 pm on 8th February 2017.

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Photo of Lord Borwick Lord Borwick Conservative 6:15 pm, 8th February 2017

My Lords, I declare my interests in the register, and as a trustee for more than 20 years of the Ewing Foundation for deaf children. It is a great charity which works in schools to help deaf children make the most of their education; partly by helping the teachers to ensure that their hearing aids and cochlear implants are working well and by giving teachers advice on how to get the most out of the equipment and how to help the children.

Many trends are apparent in the field of deafness, not least the rapid rise of cochlear implants, the rise in literacy rates in children and, of course, the rise in late-onset deafness as the population generally ages. The vast majority of deaf people speak and read perfectly, as most are elderly people who learned their language and how to read as children. I thank Action on Hearing Loss and the Bill team in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport for their help in drafting this amendment and their support in its passage. They have helped to clarify my thinking on this important issue.

This is an enabling amendment, permitting the Secretary of State to bring forward statutory instruments to require those who transmit television programmes to provide subtitles, then audio description for viewers with poor eyesight and, lastly, British Sign Language interpretation for people who find that easier. I am told that all terrestrial television programmes now carry subtitles and a growing number of pay-to-view programmes are already having subtitles added. Sky has told me that about 60% of its entire output will carry subtitles by September this year; it should be applauded for voluntarily doing the right thing. Thank you. However, the advance of audio description and sign language does not seem so good. The latter two aids to understanding are far more expensive than subtitling and it is possible that technological advances will play a part in solving the problem of deaf people who can communicate only with other sign language users.

Already, in America, I have seen demonstrations of software that will enable simultaneous translation from American Sign Language to text. If that is available, translation from text to British Sign Language on an iPhone will not be far behind. When the statutory instruments come through, we must bear in mind the speed of technological change and not be too prescriptive in the manner in which subtitles are delivered. We should instead seek a statutory instrument that merely says that subtitles should be available on all programmes. A swift statutory instrument will serve as encouragement to the broadcasters to continue and expand their good work. If we are in a position where the broadcasters and the Government are competing with one another to seek the broadest and quickest implementation of subtitles across channels and services, I would say that that is great.

We should remember that TV companies are simply responding to demand. It is not just the hard of hearing: think of TVs in noisy venues, football fans who want to read the half-time match analysis over the din in the pub, or people watching television in a noisy gym. All will appreciate this change. This sort of measure will also help to solve the biggest problem of sensory deprivation: that of isolation. If subtitles enable a deaf person to be on an equal footing with those in the hearing world, then we and the Government will have done one more thing to put disabled people in a position to thrive in society. I beg to move.