Digital Economy Bill - Committee (4th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:30 pm on 8th February 2017.

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Photo of Lord Grantchester Lord Grantchester Shadow Spokesperson (Energy and Climate Change), Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) 6:30 pm, 8th February 2017

I support Amendment 225, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Borwick, and thank him for introducing it. We on this side of the House would claim that it has our fingerprints all over it, as it was introduced and spoken to in the other place by our honourable friend Louise Haigh MP. We agree that people with hearing or sight disabilities should be able to watch catch-up or on-demand services in the same way as they can watch standard linear TV, whether on a traditional television or on a computer, tablet or mobile phone.

We agree that broadcasters have not made sufficient progress—with the exception of the BBC, which has 98% accessibility on iPlayer. I understand that 76% of the UK’s 90 on-demand providers still offer no subtitles at all, that 85% of Sky’s on-demand content via its set-top box is inaccessible, and that only 5% of Virgin Tivo on-demand services have subtitles. I understand that on linear TV 16% of content is watched with the subtitle option switched on. The noble Lord, Lord Borwick, may well be correct to say that other broadcasters are moving in the same direction as the BBC.

This service provision is critical for people with sight or hearing disabilities, who can feel isolated and socially excluded from family, friends and society in so many ways, especially with this new way of watching TV. In the other place the equivalent amendment was withdrawn following the Minister’s commitment to take action.

We are content that this amendment would enable the Government to introduce a statutory instrument to give Ofcom the powers to fix the exact level of the quota necessary, balancing the need to make content accessible with the cost to the industry. Following consultation, Ofcom can replicate the mechanisms used for linear TV, which works on a sliding scale that requires large broadcasters to provide access services on a higher percentage of their content than the smaller ones. Furthermore, Ofcom may cap the total cost of meeting those requirements at 1% of a broadcaster’s relevant turnover.

Two issues remain, both of which the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, mentioned. Both were also raised by the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee. First, the “appropriate regulatory authority” should be named on the face of the Bill. My understanding is that the 2003 Act has Ofcom as the default regulator unless an alternative is specified, and that Ofcom has the power to designate an alternative regulator. If the Minister can confirm that this is the position, and that the custom and practice of most modern enabling legislation is similar, we would understand that the recommendation of the Delegated Powers Committee might fall away.

Secondly, we would support that committee’s recommendation that the statutory instrument should be enacted through affirmative resolution, and not by the negative procedure. There are significant reasons why that should be so, which are not limited to mere detail and technical content.

The appropriate regulatory authority, Ofcom, will have significant powers to impose substantial financial penalties for any contravention. The regulations will impose important new statutory duties on broadcasters, which may be required to increase their provision over time. Of course, all this will attract significant public interest, and the interest of both Houses of Parliament. I am sure the Minister will also confirm that Ofcom will consult widely, most notably with organisations representing people with sight or hearing difficulties.

We understand that the Minister will be minded to accept the amendment, for which we are grateful to him. Has he had discussions with Ofcom, and can he give an indication of when Ofcom might undertake, and conclude, its consultation process? I would be grateful if he could tell us when he might expect that this provision could be enacted.