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EU: Electronic Communications Framework

Volume 727: debated on Wednesday 11 May 2011

Question

Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government how they will ensure the implementation of the European Union electronic communications framework.

My Lords, Her Majesty’s Government have worked closely with the regulators, Ofcom and the Information Commissioner’s Office, as well as all the people concerned, to identify the legislative changes to implement the EU electronic communications framework. These are being implemented through a negative statutory instrument which was laid before Parliament on 5 May, ahead of the deadline of 25 May 2011.

I thank the Minister. Would she agree that the use of the telephone is essential if you are to be treated equally in today’s society, and that the 50,000 deaf people who rely on British Sign Language do not have that same access to telecommunications as hearing people? The technology exists in the video relay service, which has been universally available in the United States for the past nine years. What action will the Government take to ensure that the telecommunications market meets deaf consumers’ needs now that this EU framework places a duty on them to do so?

The noble Baroness, Lady Wilkins, makes reference to a very important part of the European framework whose use is essential especially for the deaf. We are of course sympathetic to the challenges faced by deaf users when accessing telephone and other services. However, the framework makes it clear that decisions regarding such services, including the provision of video relay services, can only be made by Ofcom, the regulator, after a process of review, consultation, cost-benefit analysis and a proportionality test. Ofcom is currently conducting a review of relay services and the Minister, Ed Vaizey, met recently with members of the UK Council on Deafness.

My Lords, the Government will be aware of the largest ever demonstration by disabled people, taking place today outside these walls, against the loss of their rights to equal citizenship. Can the Minister please send out a positive message today that she will ensure the implementation of the European Union electronic communications framework for deaf users of BSL, so that they can have equal citizenship?

I thank the noble Baroness for that question; we have heard the people outside. The framework for disabled consumers also clarifies that the national regulators are given the responsibility to impose obligations on all operators for the provision to disabled users of equivalent access to certain electronic communication services where appropriate, and Her Majesty’s Government support that.

My Lords, can my noble friend give an estimate of the number of British Sign Language users who could be gainfully employed and come off benefit with the introduction of this new system?

My Lords, does the Minister share my concern that the 50,000 UK BSL users cannot use the telephone in the same way as ordinary hearing people can do? They cannot contact their doctor, MP, bank or even just order a takeaway. What plans do the Government have to introduce VRS to the UK in the same way as it has been introduced in the US over the past nine years, to address the shocking disadvantage faced by this group of disabled people?

My Lords, I am aware of the use of VRS in the United States but, as I said earlier, the matter comes under the Ofcom legislation. However, the Minister, Ed Vaizey, is doing all that he can to support this.

My Lords, given that Ofcom has had oversight of this problem since 2004, is there anything further that the Government can do to encourage rather faster action? As we have heard, there is a tremendous number of people who are disadvantaged in a way that should have been made parallel, shall we say, in about two or three days’ time. It would be helpful, knowing that this number of people is likely to grow over the years, if rather faster action could be taken by Ofcom.

The noble Baroness, Lady Howe, is right: more and more people will use this system. The implementation of the framework will mean that the regulator, Ofcom, and the Information Commissioner will have the tools that they need and will be able to take effective action to deal with this growing number.

The key benefits to consumers with the revised framework include the strengthening of consumer protection through new provisions intended to make certain that consumers are better informed about supply conditions and tariffs and can switch providers more easily. That is just one of the many benefits. There are many others.

Does the Minister agree that Ofcom has been dragging its feet for nine years? It has done nine reviews on this and still nothing has happened. We need government intervention to force Ofcom to get on with it.

As I mentioned before, I know that this has been quite a long process with regard to Ofcom. That is why the Minister, Ed Vaizey, is looking into this and trying to push it further. We are fully aware of the noble Baroness’s concerns.