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Television Services (Sight-impaired People)

Volume 478: debated on Monday 23 June 2008

7. If he will take steps to encourage the incorporation of voice-over narration and talking menus for elderly and sight-impaired people in the digital switchover process. (212572)

Blind or partially sighted people and those aged 75 or over are two of the groups eligible for the digital switchover help scheme. Voice-over narration, or audio description, is accessible through the equipment provided by the scheme. Recent trials of a talking electronic programme guide developed by the Royal National Institute of Blind People appear promising and will be kept under consideration by my Department in relation to the scheme.

I am sure that the RNIB and others who are concerned about people with sight impairment will welcome my right hon. Friend’s response. I am sure that she appreciates that the digital switchover, which could open up access to so many services, might extend the digital divide unless this process is put in place expeditiously.

Will my right hon. Friend agree to ensure that voice-over narration and talking menus are made available without delay through the core receiver requirements and for the set-top boxes that are available through that support scheme, which she mentioned? Will she also ensure that they are in place and available in good time for switchover in south Wales and my constituency of Cardiff, South and Penarth—that is, the middle part of next year?

First, I acknowledge the contribution that my right hon. Friend made to digital switchover during his time as a Minister at the Department of Trade and Industry. He is right to say that if we do not get this right it will increase the digital divide just when the opportunity of digital switchover ought to extend access to more programmes. We will ensure that audio description is integrated into the offer for all who need it. If we make progress as swift as technology allows on the electronic programming guide, clearly we will want to incorporate that, too, into the digital switchover programme.

Is the Minister aware that switchover in the borders later this year will affect hundreds of disabled and elderly people for whom it is essential that controls and menus are easy to use, if they are able to access digital TV at all? Will she assure the House that an individual’s need, not the cost, will be the deciding factor in which type of digital receiver is provided, because some disabled people find freeview easier to use than Sky?

Indeed, we must ensure that individuals have access to the system that suits them best. We have been working to ensure that the equipment available is accessible not just to the general population but to those with the greatest need, who might find it difficult to use buttons on a handset or whatever. That concern has driven our negotiations with manufacturers over the nature of the equipment.