First Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation


Tuesday 21 January 1997



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The Committee consisted of the following Members:


Church, Ms Judith (Dagenham)

Faber, Mr. David (Westbury)

Faulds, Mr. Andrew (Warley, East)

Grant, Sir Anthony (South-West Cambridgeshire)

Hampson, Dr. Keith (Leeds, North-West)

Hawksley, Mr. Warren (Halesowen and Stourbridge)

Jamieson, Mr. David (Plymouth, Devonport)

Khabra, Mr. Piara S. (Ealing, Southall)

Lynne, Ms Liz (Rochdale)

Madel, Sir David (South-West Bedfordshire)

Mans, Mr. Keith (Wyre)

Moonie, Dr. Lewis (Kirkcaldy)

Mullin, Mr. Chris (Sunderland, South)

Parry, Mr. Robert (Liverpool, Riverside)

Robathan, Mr. Andrew (Blaby)

Rowe, Mr. Andrew (Mid-Kent)

Sproat, Mr. Iain (Minister of State, Department of National Heritage)

Tipping, Mr. Paddy (Sherwood)

Wood, Mr. Timothy (Comptroller of Her Majesty's Household)

Mr. E. P. Silk, Committee Clerk.

3 First Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation Tuesday 21 January 1997

[MR. JOHN MAXTON in the Chair]

Draft Broadcasting (Sign Language) Order 1996

4.30 pm

The Minister of State, Department of National Heritage (Mr. Iain Sproat): I beg to move, That the Committee has considered the draft Broadcasting (Sign Language) Order 1996. The Broadcasting (Sign Language) Order 1996, which we are debating today, honours the commitment given by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State at the Report stage of last year's Broadcasting Bill on 1 July to introduce a 5 per cent. target for the provision of sign language in digital programme services. The target is to be achieved by every service within 10 years of its commencement. The Broadcasting Act 1996 sets out minimum targets for subtitling and audio description provision in digital programme services for people with sensory impairments. The statutory targets are that by the 10th anniversary of the introduction of any digital programme service, not less that 50 per cent. of non-excluded programme hours broadcast in any programme service should be subtitled to such technical standards as are specified by the Independent Television Commission and not less than 10 per cent. of non-excluded programme hours broadcast should be presented with audio description. The percentages can be amended by order. The Act also provides for the Independent Television Commission to set interim targets. In view of the early stage of development of the technology associated with on-screen sign language, the Government decided that it would not be appropriate to set a percentage target for signing in the Act itself, but for the Act to contain a provision for the Secretary of State to set such a target by order. The Broadcasting Act 1996 also provides for the Independent Television Commission, after consultation with those representing interested parties and the broadcasters, to draw up, and review from time to time, a code on promoting the understanding and enjoyment of programmes by persons with sight or hearing impairment. The code will apply to all digital services, including the simulcast services of the existing analogue broadcasters, which at present are subject only to subtitling requirements. It has to include the targets set out in the Act and in any statutory order. On 29 October, the Independent Television Commission published for public consultation its draft code on subtitling, audio description and signing, inviting comments by 17 December. The draft code sets interim targets for non-excluded programmes and 4 for subtitling and audio description in excluded programmes. The commission has received a number of detailed responses from bodies representing those with sensory impairments. It is considering carefully the points that have been raised before publishing its final code. Due to the technical difficulties associated with sign language provision, the Government did not set a sign language requirement on the face of the Broadcasting Act 1996. However, taking into account the advances in the provision of sign language that digital technology is likely to offer, we thought it right to introduce a target now. We believe 5 per cent. to be a realistic target for sign language provision. I commend the order to the Committee.

4.33 pm

Ms Liz Lynne (Rochdale): There is nothing wrong with the order as it stands, but there are certain difficulties surrounding it, such as the problem with the draft code published by the Independent Television Commission. I want to know how the targets for signing, subtitling and audio description will be implemented. There will be slow progress indeed if television companies have until the fourth year to do it. They are not required to have even 1 per cent. of non-excluded programmes signed. It is incredible that we have to wait four years for that, and for the 2 per cent. of audio-described programmes. Will the Minister say why it has to take so long? The Royal National Institute for the Blind is most concerned about the time scale. Why cannot other targets be set? I know that the Government are doing their best to bring in signing, but the process needs to be speeded up. For example, could there not be 2 per cent. audio-described programmes by the end of the first year and 5 per cent. by the fourth year? That would be more realistic and would help a tremendous number of people. All programmes other than news and factual programmes will be excluded from the measure and I want to know why. The position with live broadcasts will be extremely difficult. Some live broadcasts contain pre-records; why cannot the pre-record be signed or have subtitling? It seems incredible that there should be so many exclusions. Surely the whole process should be opened up to all those with disabilities. I should like the Government to give us their definition of a news or factual programme. I think it will be defined differently. Would any future royal wedding be a factual programme? If not, will it not be able to be signed? Is the cenotaph service a news or a factual programme? If not, will it be excluded? I believe that it will be excluded, even with the order. I would be grateful if the Minister could answer my queries.


4.36 pm

Dr. Lewis Moonie (Kirkcaldy): I apologise for my slight tardiness, Mr. Maxton. I was misdirected by an official to another Committee Room where the Committee certainly did not seem to be discussing what I expected, but I did find my way here eventually. The Minister has made much of the targets that he has set, but they are not the targets that we wished to have placed in the Broadcasting Bill in Committee. He may recall that with the help of the hon. Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Hughes), we inserted rather different levels of commitment because we felt that they were achievable. Sadly, that view did not prevail and the Government, to their eternal shame, reversed our decision on Report. However, with rapidly changing technology it is quite feasible to set sterner targets for our broadcasters. We shall do so after the next election.

4.37 pm

Mr. Sproat: I shall attempt to reply first to the hon. Member for Rochdale (Ms Lynne). First, she asked how the targets will be monitored and enforced. The ITC has the power to enforce sanctions. Those sanctions include fines of up to 3 per cent. of advertising revenue for the first offence and up to 5 per cent. of advertising revenue for a second or subsequent offence. In other words, they are quite stern fines. It also has the power to shorten a licence and, in extreme cases, to abolish a licence. Those are three powerful sanctions which the ITC would not hesitate to use if appropriate. The hon. Lady said that she would like to see the target speeded up. We are talking only about signing, but I quite understand that she would include in that subtitling and audio description. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has the power to increase the targets by order if that appears to be necessary. Perhaps I could touch on what the hon. Member for Kirkcaldy (Dr. Moonie) said. He was right to talk about the rapidly developing technology. One reason why we have taken the power in the Bill to increase the targets by order is that if the technology develops we shall increase them. The Government decided against the original percentage suggested by 6 my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West because we thought that current technology simply did not make it possible. We thought that 5 per cent. was a reasonable balance to strike. It was a valuable—and not merely symbolic—gesture to those with impaired senses. We could not make it 95 per cent. because the technology simply does not exist. If the technology advances, we will increase the percentage. The hon. Lady said that everything was excluded except news and current affairs. She is absolutely right in respect of signing. It is extremely difficult to envisage signing on live entertainment programmes, with the current level of technology.

Dr. Moonie: What about party conferences?

Mr. Sproat: There are some who say that party conferences are not entertainment. We have all stood there and watched them doing it. However, it is a matter for the ITC. The Government do not have the power to tell the ITC what to do, but I will make sure that the hon. Lady's remarks are drawn to the attention of the ITC, which hopes to announce its final code by the end of this month. As the hon. Lady may know, it will meet on Thursday and her remarks will be sent to it.

Ms Lynne: On my remark about news and factual programmes, who will define what is a news or factual programme? For instance, will such programmes as GMTV come into the category of factual programmes or will they be classed as entertainment?

Mr. Sproat: The definition of GMTV, a ceremony at the cenotaph or a royal wedding is a matter for the ITC. As a rough definition, I would say that a broad cast of the cenotaph ceremony would count as a factual programme. I stand ready to have that opinion overturned by the ITC, but that is my best judgment. With those few words, I commend the order to the Committee.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the Committee has considered the draft Broadcasting (Sign Language) Order 1996.

Committee rose at eighteen minutes to Five o'clock.



Maxton, Mr. John (Chairman)

Faber, Mr.

Faulds, Mr.

Grant, Sir Anthony

Hawksley, Mr.

Khabra, Mr.

Lynne, Ms

Madel, Sir David

Mans, Mr.

Moonie, Dr.

Robathan, Mr.

Rowe, Mr.

Sproat, Mr.

Tipping, Mr.

Wood, Mr.