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Broadcast Media (Disabled People)

Volume 488: debated on Monday 2 March 2009

7. What steps he plans to take to extend the accessibility to disabled people of broadcast media. (259233)

The Communications Act 2003 sets minimum targets for subtitling, signing and audio description on television and places a duty on Ofcom to ensure that those requirements are met. Ofcom will undertake a review of television access services this year, and we will await the conclusions of that review.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that modern technology has been an immense boon to millions of people who have disabilities, by extending their horizons and enriching their lives? Is it not good to see many people with disabilities presenting television programmes, and the facilities provided by audio description which allows television programmes to be fully comprehensible to the 2 million people in this country who are partially sighted or blind? The companies are obliged to put text on 80 per cent. of their programmes, but only 10 per cent. of them are audio described at the moment. Should we not double that before the digital changeover happens?

I agree entirely about the power that digital television brings. Last year, we changed the core receiver requirements under the digital switchover help scheme to give single-button access to audio description services, and we are looking at this all the time to see how we can go further. My hon. Friend and I attended a reception in the House with the Royal National Institute of Blind People, which is campaigning to go further on audio description targets. As I said, Ofcom is looking at the issue, so I will have to wait for its review, but he may know that Sky announced last week that, from the beginning of this month, it will voluntarily double its target to 20 per cent. I should like other broadcasters to follow that lead and voluntarily and independently increase the amount of audio description, but we will follow through with Ofcom and come back to the issue later in the year.

Despite the deliberations of the hon. Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn) on his blog, I should like to put on record my support for his comment today about audio description. Indeed, may I encourage the Secretary of State to convey the cross-party consensus in the House to Ofcom to ensure that the 3,000 people who are either blind or visually impaired in Shropshire, and, indeed, those throughout the country, benefit from audio description when the digital switchover takes place?

I certainly welcome what the hon. Gentleman says, and I think that he is right to raise the issue. There has been cross-party support for the early-day motion that has been tabled on the subject. Of course, that must be balanced against some of the very real pressures that the media industry is facing, and we have been discussing some of those issues today. We all want to go further, but in a sustainable way. That is the key issue that Ofcom is addressing, but the hon. Gentleman should have no doubt about my intention to keep a close eye on the issue and to make progress where we can.

May I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the initiative that he personally has taken in accelerating the work on audio description? The current window of opportunity in respect of digital switchover or analogue switch-off is enormously important for people with visual impairment. Will my right hon. Friend do all he can to publicise that, and to persuade television companies that there is an audience out there who, as a result of this process, will be able to benefit from our maximising the number of programmes that have audio description, along the lines of the plea, to which I know he is sympathetic, made by the RNIB?

May I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend for his work on this issue? He has been a determined campaigner on these matters since I took on this job, and some of the progress we have made is in many ways down to his determination. He makes a very good point about these services being attractive more generally to television viewers, and I think Sky’s decision last week can be seen in that light. We would all like to go further, and my right hon. Friend is right to say that when nearly everyone is talking about a particular television programme, it is very excluding for certain sections of the community if they cannot join in that conversation in the pub or at work, or wherever. These are important matters, therefore, as they are about having a society in which everyone is involved and about enabling everyone to play a full part in the cultural life of the nation. That is something I want to do in my job and, as I said a few moments ago, we want to go further, but we will do so when we hear Ofcom’s advice.