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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 Ashton of Hyde Lord Ashton of Hyde Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport 6:30 pm, 8th February 2017

My Lords, I too thank my noble friend Lord Borwick for tabling such a worthy amendment, which the Government are pleased to support. I also pass on the Government’s thanks to the Ewing Foundation and Action on Hearing Loss for bringing this important issue to our attention.

In recent years technology has changed the way we do things. Long gone are the days of a fixed phone line being the only way to make or receive a call, or having to sit in front of the square box in the corner to watch your favourite television show. In 2016 Ofcom reported that 93% of UK adults use a mobile phone; similarly, it is quite normal to watch TV at a time and on a device that suits. However, given the limited provision of subtitles, signing and audio description for on-demand services, a significant proportion of society is unfairly excluded from doing so.

The current statutory targets for subtitling, signing and audio description, collectively known as access services, on domestic linear broadcast TV channels cover 83 channels. That is over 90% of the audience share for broadcast TV. However, these targets are not duplicated for on-demand services. Over the years there has been an increase in the provision of access services—most notably, the number of service providers reporting subtitles increased from seven channels in 2013 to 22 channels in 2015—but there is room for improvement. Similarly, provision levels for audio description and sign language have remained disappointingly low, with little increase over the years.

The amendment will address this shortcoming, and the 116 on-demand service providers in the UK will be required to provide access services on their on-demand content. Through consultation with Ofcom, the industry and other stakeholders, the Government will determine the requirements that providers of on-demand programme services will be required to meet. We need to make sure that the requirement maximises the benefits to consumers while not presenting undue burdens to providers of on-demand services. Consultation will enable us to strike the correct balance. I can tell the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, that officials are engaged in discussions with Ofcom. The aim is for statutory instruments to be put in place later this year.

In reply to the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, I say that the Government have noted the three recommendations of the DPRRC on my noble friend Lord Borwick’s amendment. If the House agrees the amendment, the Government will consider any further changes that are necessary and will respond to the committee in time for Report. We will get back to the DPRRC on the second one on the appropriate regulatory authority to explain that Part 4A of the Communications Act 2003, into which the proposed new sections will be inserted, is already clear that Ofcom is the regulator unless it has appointed a separate body for that purpose. Accordingly, as it has not appointed any other body, it is the regulator, but the original drafting was simply intended to fit in with the existing structure of the Communications Act, which uses the phrase “appropriate regulatory authority” and defines that separately. This maintains consistency across legislation. We are following the advice of parliamentary counsel on that.

I accept that there are two other points. I expect to be able to respond to the committee in time for Report. We commend the amendment to the Committee.

Amendment 225 agreed.

Clause 80 agreed.

Amendment 226 had been withdrawn from the Marshalled List.