Skip to main content

Television (Access)

Volume 480: debated on Monday 6 October 2008

7. What steps he plans to take to enhance access to television for people with visual impairments as part of digital switchover. (224378)

Blind or partially sighted people are eligible for the digital switchover help scheme, which provides help with equipment, installation and after-care support. Audio description is accessible through the equipment provided by the scheme.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his interest in this subject, particularly in relation to audio description, but is he concerned that the industry’s target is 10 per cent. by 2013, whereas awareness of the service has already gone up from 43 to 72 per cent. among people with visual impairment? Is not digital switchover a unique opportunity to ensure that people can get Freeview receivers that include audio description? Will he urge the industry to increase the target to a more realistic level and to do so within months, rather than years, so that my constituents can benefit during 2009?

I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend for the determination with which he pursues these issues and for his work with the Royal National Institute of Blind People on these incredibly important matters. He is right to remind us that the digital switchover provides an opportunity to ensure that everyone can enjoy the benefits of digital technology. There are two issues on audio description. One of them is to ensure that it is as easy as possible for people to use. We are currently reviewing the core receiver requirements—the set-top box requirements—to find out whether we can make that easier still, so that we give people single button access to audio description. But he is right to push me and to ask whether more programme makers should include audio description on their services. Although I cannot give him a firm commitment today, I give him a commitment to look again at whether the ambition for programmes to carry audio description can be raised.

Is the Secretary of State aware that, in the past few months, it has been apparent that a number of people who invested early in digital terrestrial TV set-top boxes to get ahead of switchover have discovered that they now do not work due to the fact that Freeview has changed the technology that it uses? Will he consider whether there is a case for extending the help scheme to any vulnerable or elderly person who suddenly finds that they are faced with black screens as a result?

I am aware of the technical problems raised by the hon. Gentleman, who is the Chairman of Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport. Indeed, I have begun to notice an increasing number of letters on the issue arriving from hon. Members on both sides of the House. I agree with him that it is somewhat annoying, to say the least, for people who invested in digital technology very early to find that it does not work. I will look closely at the issue, and if he wants to meet to discuss it further, I am happy to do that, too, but it is now very important to maintain people’s confidence in the services that they are switching to.

With regard to access, the Secretary of State will be dismayed to hear that my local council has announced that many, if not a majority, of its tenants are likely to be without any access to TV after digital switchover. That is absolutely unacceptable for all my constituents, particularly those who are disabled or who have any sensory impairment. What guarantees can the Secretary of State give—I am not referring to the companies, which are offering a prayer and a promise—that my constituents will not be without a TV signal, and that switchover will not be allowed to happen if huge numbers of people cannot access TV?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising the issue. The problem relates to a relay transmitter in the Skelmersdale area, if I am not mistaken. Obviously, we are approaching the switchover point in Granada-land, as we in the area like to call it; I think that a date is to be announced later this month. That should focus the minds of a few Labour Members. Clearly, we have to be sure that we are on top of such issues and that there is a fair solution, so that people can continue to access television services. I am aware of the issues that my hon. Friend raised and I am working through them, but I would be happy to meet her to discuss them further.