Literature: Removal of Barriers

– in the House of Lords at 7:24 pm on 8 May 2003.

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Photo of Lord Addington Lord Addington Liberal Democrat 7:24, 8 May 2003

rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what measures are being taken to remove all barriers to literature for those who have difficulties accessing books in traditional print formats.

My Lords, this Question was inspired by a Starred Question that was debated a while ago. The Government were asked about the imposition of a higher VAT rating on audio books than on ordinary literature. I cannot remember the exact details of the exchange but I do recall that the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, who wears many hats—many of them very comfortably—found himself rather struggling with his brief. When I asked him whether he regarded the extra VAT payments on audio books as a tax on literature, he replied along the lines that audio books are not just for disabled people but that he enjoys them as well. That was a rather odd answer because literature in our society, as in most, defines one's intellectual place. It is a status symbol, not simply a tool. It allows one to join the top table.

Of all the noble Lords who have been kind enough to agree to take part in this debate, the noble Baroness, Lady Rendell, sits among us as a bright and shining light. She represents those who provide us, through their writing, with a commonality of interest and a point of intellectual exchange. If she writes another book I wonder how gently she will treat noble Lords.

Literature is denied to many people for many different reasons. Primarily those who experience great difficulties with reading fall into two groups. There are those who have problems with literacy generally; that is understanding symbols on a screen or on a page, an aspect that concerns me as I am dyslexic. I include in that group those who have had interrupted schooling. Such people are excluded from literature, although there are ways around the problem. There are also those who have visual problems and therefore have physical difficulties in seeing what is on a page or a screen and so are unable to interpret it. We need to address both groups as millions of people are affected. Neither group should be excluded from such a major input.

Books are a sign by which we define ourselves intellectually. To be well read and to be familiar with books is probably the greatest sign of an intellectually competent person in our society. That is a historical fact. With my noble friend Lord Russell in the Chamber I feel slightly nervous about saying anything of a historical nature, but I hope that he will not dispute what I am about to say. When the printing press and the production of paper came together to produce a book, the opportunity to spread information more widely than ever before was created. That has fundamentally changed the way in which society operates and we have embraced that totally. Thus anything we do that stops that exchange of information must be regarded with horror because it has allowed intellectual matters to be shared among everyone.

Once that technical innovation came about, no longer was knowledge confined to a small group of people, but became easily accessible. The spread of ideas and the changes in our society that were made possible through the technology have been massive. It has changed society probably more fundamentally than anything else.

Those who have problems seeing what is on a page and those who have problems in interpreting the written symbols in the past have been excluded from that vast expansion. We now have the technical ability to change that or to reduce its impact. The most glaring example is audio books. The removal of VAT on them would mean that cassettes, disks and so on can become available to everyone on even terms. Production costs will be slightly different, but the difference will not be that great. It will mean that everyone can join in this interchange of information and that we shall have a chance to go forward. If the Government refuse to do that, they will effectively be helping to exclude groups on which they spend vast amounts of money and time trying to bring into the literate world.

We are surrounded by a barrage of adverts which state that, "You must learn to read. You must become literate." In one of the latest campaigns featuring gremlins, there is the person who is embarrassed at a counter because he cannot read. However, that is only a small part of what being illiterate means to someone. It is not the functional ability to write one's name and tick the right boxes; it is the ability to join in the interchange of information in our society. It means that one can actually turn around to someone and say, "Yes, I shall check up on that. I will return to it and read it", and not need to have a person explain the issue to you. If we can manage to get more information on to tape and other forms of electronic recording, we shall enable people to join in more fully in our society.

In relation to people with a visual-based problem, the variety of changes that have already taken place are encouraging. We must congratulate the Government on having passed the Copyright (Visually Impaired Persons) Act. But, as I am always saying to the Government, the fact that they have done more or better things than previous governments is right because that is where they are at this point in the historical process. They must do more.

I wonder whether the Bill dealing with disabled people will include such items as the launch of a new reading initiative or proper co-ordination of accessible textbooks for children in schools. There are still problems despite the Government's legislation. Making sure that there is an audio textbook in basic subjects would, I should have thought, sit rather well with many other pieces of legislation we have passed; for example, the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act.

The Government should be expected to introduce initiatives so that those people who merely have slight problems with vision, compared with those people who have severe problems, should not be excluded any more. We must make sure that there is better access to their established way of receiving information. Large print, Braille and other forms of accessible printing should be encouraged at every level.

If we do not start to address these problems we shall build on a historical problem. It is the historical inequality where a whole group of people are excluded from the major form of intellectual life of our nation—the "them and us" idea writ large—by not transferring as much literature as possible to an audio format. We can all probably appreciate the reverse of that, which is how many schoolchildren are put off the theatre for X number of years by having to read a play badly.

If we can create a format so that people can appreciate what is going on and the magic that can be created by the writer—to access that world and that store of information—we will remove one of the major social barriers in our society to those with visual and, indeed, degenerative problems. We will stop a group of people being excluded, or at least being greatly restricted, from a main area of activity, which is the norm. Unless the Government start to take a more proactive stand on the matter and do things such as slightly change their tax base in order to enable people to join in, they will restrict the activity and possibly the economic capacity of large sections of our society. Making greater information and literature available will encourage people to become better members of our society and will help them in everything from communication to job prospects.

I hope that, at the end of the debate, we will hear of a series of positive initiatives by the Government and some philosophy. It is always nice to hear, not just a list of what we will do, but why we are going to do it.

Photo of Baroness Rendell of Babergh Baroness Rendell of Babergh Labour 7:35, 8 May 2003

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Addington, on introducing this important subject in the form of an Unstarred Question. I only regret that I did not think of doing so myself. In speaking on the subject of accessible literature for the visually impaired, I declare an interest as an author of fiction all of whose books appear as audio books. I shall try not to repeat what the noble Lord, Lord Addington, has said, but it is such an important subject that it will not matter much if I do. We should all know, and think, about this subject.

The majority of people think of audio books as useful for their entertainment on long car drives. They forget, or have never considered, that audio books are the sole gateway to literature for many thousands. The blind and partially sighted, and patients recovering from severe injury or with physical disabilities, may be dependent on audio books. Also among them are those unable to hold conventional books and people with brain tumours who have difficulty focusing on a printed page. It is an irony that for those severely disadvantaged men, women and children—the very people for whom books should be readily and cheaply available—access to reading costs more than for the fully-sighted and the non-disabled.

Audio books can sometimes be twice as expensive as printed paper versions. Young, visually impaired Harry Potter fans are indignant at having to pay, in some cases, seven times more for a CD or cassette version than sighted children pay for the hardback or paperback. The most recent Harry Potter book, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, costs £76.99 on audio CD as against £10.49 for the hardback, and £42.49 on audio cassette as against £5.59 for the paperback. That is because audio books attract the full rate of VAT, which is 17.5 per cent, while printed books are—as they should be—zero-rated.

Why is this? Her Majesty's Customs and Excise classes audio books as "performance" rather than books. When VAT was introduced to the United Kingdom in 1973, books, newspapers and related items were zero-rated because it was thought inappropriate to impose a tax on literature. At that time, the audio book industry was virtually non-existent, and apparently no one foresaw how it would gather momentum. Elderly and middle-aged people, born blind or late afflicted by sight damage, could never have imagined, when they were young, that such a solace, comfort and boundless resource would one day be available to them in the form of the recorded work of their favourite writers—not only permanently popular fiction and the best sellers of the day, but time-honoured world literature. We should consider particularly those who, while they had the faculty of sight, were great readers, unable to imagine existence without something to read. Audio books are a lifeline to such people, amounting to a reason for living for many.

To put oneself in another's shoes is often the best imaginative feat in attempting to understand someone's plight. I can picture how it would be for me, as someone who reads for some hours every day, if I were deprived of reading matter. If the rules governing VAT were rewritten now, when audio books are the mainstay of the blind and partially sighted, making the difference between misery and contentment, no right-thinking, compassionate person who has given the matter consideration would argue for the retention of such a tax.

If audio books were zero-rated, a standard two-cassette audio book pack currently selling at £9.99 would retail at £8.49—closer to the price of the paperback version of the same book. A six-cassette pack, costing £19.99 at present, would sell at £16.99 and would, therefore, be nearer in price to a hardback book. The current difference in price between audio and print books is discriminatory. In fact, it is a classic example of discrimination against the incapacitated. It penalises those who have no option but to read the audio version. It is also illogical. The content of published work is the same, whether presented in print, in Braille, on a screen via computer disc or by means of a voice recording.

Commercially and—I might say—intellectually, zero-rating on audio books would stimulate the audio book market so that a wider range of reading materials would become available to people unable to read printed books. At present, only about 2 per cent of titles appear in recorded form each year. If Her Majesty's Government will acknowledge that the present system is unfair, it should be possible for a solution to be found.

In answer to a Starred Question that I asked a year ago, my noble friend Lord McIntosh of Haringey said that the exemption that we already had from VAT on books and newspapers, children's clothes, food and public transport fares would be put at risk by attempting to secure it for audio books. I am afraid that I did not understand that reasoning then, and I do not now. Surely, we are not going to fall into the trap of having VAT suddenly slapped on food and fares because we seek exemption for recorded reading matter. Surely, Her Majesty's Government could make a strong case to the European Union for zero-rating in that one instance, without jeopardising the status of printed works.

Photo of Lord Sandberg Lord Sandberg Liberal Democrat 7:41, 8 May 2003

My Lords, I add my congratulations to my noble friend Lord Addington on seeking the debate and speaking so eloquently on the subject, as he always does.

I must declare an interest. A couple of years ago, I suddenly developed macular degeneration. I had not realised that it was such a problem. My happiness in life has certainly been made difficult by it. About 2 million people in this country have a sight problem. Four out of five sufferers are aged more than 65—again, I must declare an interest, sadly—and most of them suffer from macular degeneration.

Most literary and other works produced in accessible form for people such as ourselves are produced by voluntary sector organisations such as the Royal National Institute of the Blind, the National Library for the Blind and the Calibre cassette library, another voluntary organisation that does great work. Recently, we passed legislation to remove the requirement to seek copyright clearance. That has helped us considerably. In the past, that requirement delayed the production of accessible copies of books. Again, that progress is due mostly to the voluntary sector.

A new service from the National Library for the Blind and RNIB, called Reveal, is to be launched in June. It has received start-up funding from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, and it will make it much easier for people with sight problems to locate copies of accessible books. It will be possible to access a database containing a record of every accessible publication. I hope that we can receive an assurance from the Minister today that this vital service will continue to receive not only the blessing of the Government but their financial backing.

These are positives. However, there are other issues which are not so positive to which I should like to refer. Last year the RNIB and others called for a major new access to reading fund, to which a range of providers could apply to expand provision of books in accessible formats. Precious little financial support has been provided by the UK Government—in stark contrast to the more generous public funding in the USA and many other countries.

The Government are apparently resisting this demand. I should like the Minister to set out what action the Government are taking to encourage the publishing industry to publish more works in accessible formats. There would, for example, be a huge market for books in clear print which would benefit 85 per cent of people with vision problems. The market for audio books, previously mentioned, is also significant and growing among people with sight problems and other print disabilities. Yet there is no financial or other incentive to the industry to make these possible.

Public libraries could and should play a stronger role in opening up literature to people with sight problems. They should be encouraged to build their own stocks of audio and large-print books and increase access to literature for those who cannot read standard print. Yet the Government's latest strategic review of libraries, entitled, A Framework for the Future, fails to identify this as a strategic objective. Indeed, it fails even to mention access for people with disabilities. This serious omission must be made good.

The barriers to literature for those with sight problems and other disabilities are all surmountable. It is high time for a concerted effort by government and the publishing industry, who need Government incentives to level the playing field for people with sight problems who want to access literary works but cannot.

Photo of Baroness Wilkins Baroness Wilkins Labour 7:49, 8 May 2003

My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Addington, for having secured this debate and for his untiring efforts in bringing this important subject to the attention of the House. I apologise for not being present at the start of his speech.

Perhaps I should declare an interest in that I am slightly dyslexic. I do not have the difficulties with spelling and print which many face, being just a slow reader with a poor short-term memory. But in terms of daily frustration, in particular when dealing with the volume of papers in your Lordships' House, I can assure noble Lords that it is far more annoying than being in a wheelchair.

Last year we took the important step of removing copyright barriers to reading for visually impaired people. The Copyright (Visually Impaired Persons) Act 2002, ably steered through the House by my noble friend Lord Morris of Manchester, was a major leap forward in opening up the world of books to blind, partially sighted and physically disabled people. At Second Reading of that Bill, I raised the need for further action to secure equal access to works of literature for visually impaired people, and I should like to return to that theme today.

As I am sure we are all aware, the process of transcribing a book into accessible formats such as large print, audio or Braille, can be expensive and time-consuming. The National Library for the Blind has pointed out that current Braille technology allows a book in Braille to be printed in approximately 20 minutes. However, it takes around four months to scan, edit and format a print book to create an electronic Braille file for production. Due to this lengthy process, it costs the NLB approximately £750 to produce an average book of adult fiction in Braille. Obviously the time and cost associated with Braille production seriously limits the number of books that can be produced annually across the UK. The NLB itself produces only around 400 Braille books each year.

However, if Braille producers were able to receive electronic text files directly from publishers, much of the scanning and editing process would be avoided. If all publishers were to do this, the number of Braille books produced would double. The National Library for the Blind has been approaching publishers to establish such agreements. Major publishers such as Random House and Penguin have agreed in principle, and numerous smaller publishers have signed up to the scheme. The NLB has also approached authors directly to provide digital text of their books, so that newly published books can be made available at the same time as print books. Most recently it was able to produce Michael Palin's Sahara in Braille even before it was available in the shops.

Such bilateral agreements are obviously very welcome, but progress might be faster if there was a central repository for such files. Almost four centuries ago, the law established that a copy of every piece of published material should be deposited with the British Library so that it could be accessible to anyone who wanted to read it. It is to be hoped that that soon could be extended to copies of electronic publications. A central repository, whether in the British Library or one of the other deposit libraries, of electronic text copies of every publication to which approved bodies such as the RNIB and the NLB had constant access, could bring immense benefits. It could encourage arrangements whereby material was produced as and when required, to each individual's preferred format, rather than in bulk.

This also highlights the need to create copyright exceptions, where necessary, for other groups of print disabled people. Many with severe dyslexia face exactly the same kind of issues as visually impaired people—the dearth of audio and clear print formats and the inconvenience of endlessly scanning books to produce accessible formats—only they still have unjust copyright barriers to contend with.

Journalist Sunil Peck, who is visually impaired, feels it is outrageous that, in this information age when vast documents can be zapped between computers on the superhighway in seconds, he is left with no option but manually to transcribe any books he wants to read. Braille books are still few and far between. As we have heard, audio books are either too expensive or too abridged. Electronic books are usually incompatible with screen reading equipment. So Sunil has to get a print book and scan each page, one by one, into his PC. Depending on the length of the book, that can take anything from a few hours to a few days. It is both time-consuming and tedious.

Writing on the BBC's "Ouch" website, Sunil has suggested that publishers should release books for sale as text files or on a compact disc, and that they could be sold alongside printed copies in bookshops. He has argued that it is time for publishers to wake up and realise that blind people represent an untapped market of literary consumers. Publishers' profits would increase, and thousands of visually impaired people would seize the chance to get their hands on the latest titles in order to read them while they are still hot off the press. His plea to us is this:

"Please politicians, publishers and anyone else wielding enough influence to get things moving—sort something out to prevent accessing new books being like the thirteenth labour of Hercules".

I hope that the Minister will hear his plea and be able to give us some encouragement today that the Government are taking action in this important area.

Photo of Earl Russell Earl Russell Liberal Democrat 7:55, 8 May 2003

My Lords, I, too, thank my noble friend Lord Addington for introducing this Question and for the extremely powerful and moving way in which he did so. I have never heard a more effective description of what it feels like to be on the wrong side of a barrier to learning.

My late wife remembered when she encountered that barrier at the age of two and a half and decided that she must learn to read. She was in the car when her parents drove past a Guinness advertisement. Everyone in the car but her burst into hoots of laughter and she had absolutely no idea what they were laughing about. The frustration, she said, made her determined to break through that barrier. She told me that she was reading two and a half weeks after that.

We do not all have the privilege of that kind of experience but some of us have had some remarkable ones. Two weeks ago it was my privilege to propose the health of William Shakespeare on his birthday. In the course of preparing my talk I discovered that William Shakespeare's father was illiterate. It is hard to think of a longer journey culturally traversed in one lifetime.

There are a few lines—almost totally unknown as they happen to be in Henry VI, Part II—in which there is an indication that that may have caused a good deal of tension in the Shakespeare family. There are words put into the mouth of Jack Cade, who complains that, for his forefathers, tally and score were good enough but there had been created things scarce worthy of naming in a Christian society, like a noun and a verb. One cannot help wondering whether there is something semi-autobiographical in that.

I am not saying that everyone will make a transition across a barrier as big as that but, by the law of averages, among all the people who are the wrong side of the barrier there should be at least one.

I declare a number of interests. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Rendell, I declare an interest as an author. I recall to my content that I was invited to waive all of my privileges in the way of a Braille edition of my first book. No one thought that my subsequent books were worth doing it for, which is a matter of great regret to me.

My father's rule was that the academic value of any work was in exact inverse proportion to its commercial value. I have not yet been reduced to his position of having to pay the publisher to publish my books, but here we have an example of how the market operates in a detrimental way. We have here representatives of fact and fiction but, having read and very much enjoyed the Blood Doctor, it is not for me to say which is which. But I enjoyed it very much indeed.

I recall very vividly sitting in the round room of the Public Record Office opposite a senior colleague of very great distinction; a person who restored manners to debate in our field, where they were very badly needed; who brought us to the end of the days when R.H. Tawney could say that an erring colleague is not an Amalekite to be smitten hip and thigh. He was in his first week back after an operation for a detached retina. He was about the height of the noble Lord, Lord Gilmour of Craigmillar, so one can imagine how low he had to bend to read a 17th century manuscript. But, recovering from his detached retina, he crouched down in an effort to read the document with an immense jeweller's lens screwed into one eye. One could feel the sense of frustration coming across the room. He was one of the most eminent 17th century historians who lived this century. I felt for him at that moment.

If it does not get taken out that way, it gets taken out another way. John Milton—or so my mother told me when I was young—suffered acutely from his frustration in being unable to read Greek. He taught his daughters the Greek letters so that they could pronounce the words, but he did not teach them what the letters meant. So they were reading what was, to them, double Dutch.

We read in recent newspaper reports that four out of five women between the ages of 50 and 80 are more or less full-time carers. That is the other place where the frustration falls, if it does not fall on the technology. I do not think that it is an improvement. That frustration, too, deserves remembering in the course of tonight's debate.

On the question of large print, I remember in days gone by sitting close enough to the Woolsack to observe the print in which scripts delivered from the Woolsack were being read. They were of the sort that I envied the occupant of the Woolsack. They were of the sort that are not regularly available, and certainly not in supermarkets. I do not regard myself as being visually impaired, though perhaps I should. I did once when I broke my spectacles in the course of speaking on a very long Bill. However, when shopping in supermarkets, I have often had to ask someone for assistance in reading the small print on certain products because I am unable to read it. If I cannot do it, who else cannot read small print? In the course of considering great literature, I hope that we may also consider great food; the frustration of being shut out from it may be equally great.

The noble Baroness, Lady Rendell, was able to say that all her books have been translated into Braille. It would be a good idea if we could all follow her example. It would be a good idea if authors were able to take a part in the responsibility for cataloguing, for listing, and for publicising their work. After all, it is their own work that they are publicising and it is perfectly fair that they should be asked to do so. But when it comes to digital reproduction, here I must plead that it is I who am on the wrong side of the barrier to learning: I simply cannot do it. When we reach that point, I hope that I may live to receive the sympathy that I offer to those who are on the wrong side of it at present.

I strongly agree with the remarks made by the noble Baroness, Lady Rendell, about VAT. I appreciate the importance of the doctrine of a level playing field within the European Union. Fair competition is necessary if one is to dismantle tariff barriers, but we should not treat the EU as if it were the latest version of the Berlin Wall. After all, it has been known to renegotiate its rules. In fact, the number of ministerial Statements that we have heard in this House in which it has been described as having done so is considerable.

Therefore, because we sometimes find that an element of the European rules is not what we think it should be, we should not throw up our hands in horror and say, "Oh, the European Union; it is impossible. We can't possibly do anything". Visual impairment is not confined to the British Isles. When we come across that sort of thing, I do not understand why we should not undertake a little quiet negotiation with people who experience exactly the same problems to see whether they would consent to doing something about the situation. That does not seem to me to be an impossible request.

Of course, and inevitably, points will be made about cost, and so they should be, because costs are real. I have indicated that authors should take a share of the cost, and I am willing to put my money where my mouth is. But I also think that one ought to consider what economists call the dependency ratio—the proportion of the population which is earning as against the proportion of the population which cannot earn and has to live on the dependency of others. Suppose William Shakespeare had never learnt to read—what would that have done for the dependency ratio? Think of the number of actors who would have been out of work.

If you can enable people to use talents—real, rich, profitable talents, which they otherwise could not use—you create earners. If you create earners, you create taxpayers. If you create taxpayers, you create revenue. The annual reports from the Government actuary show that the number of taxpayers matters quite as much to the total revenue raised as the rate at which tax is paid—in fact, probably rather more. It always fluctuates faster than the Government actuary expects. So I think we might find that a little generosity was not only for the enlargement of the human spirit, not only for the enlargement of human rights, but even for the enrichment of the Treasury.

Photo of Lord Luke Lord Luke Conservative 8:06, 8 May 2003

My Lords, it is a great privilege for me to follow the noble Earl, Lord Russell. He has a completely unique way of putting his arguments and making us think. We are all most grateful, of course, to the noble Lord, Lord Addington, for raising this important matter and making an eloquent speech.

There are, as we have heard, over 2 million people in this country with uncorrectable sight loss, and many more who cannot easily read small print. At the same time, it appears that only 5 per cent of material published in print is eventually produced in accessible formats such as Braille, large print or audio. Quite clearly, therefore, the RNIB has a strong argument when it says that these people are being discriminated against.

In February this year, the Prime Minister's Strategy Unit published its report on public libraries in which the foreword, by the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, says:

"Equality of access to information and learning is vital if we are to offer everyone the opportunity to achieve their full potential . . . my ambition is to take this vision of what libraries can offer to a wider audience".

It states in the body of the report:

"The value of reading stretches far beyond just to the individual—it brings social benefits. It is hard for people to be active citizens unless they can read newspapers and Government publications".

I am not so sure about Government publications.

It is clear that the intention is there, but what is actually being done to implement those wholly admirable aspirations? Can the Minister tell us of any concrete plans? We know that the RNIB is dissatisfied, as we heard today, with the services provided by public libraries to blind and partially sighted people. Would it not be possible to ring-fence grants to local authorities so as to target specific requirements such as the essential special staff training, appropriate equipment and, of course, more titles in alternative formats? It appears that only 25 per cent of public libraries have a specific budget for services to the blind and partially sighted.

As so often in this country, when there is a lack of services provided for particular groups of people, at least some of the shortfall is made up by voluntary organisations, headed in this case by the RNIB. The RNIB provides an audio book service comprising some 12,000 titles. Two and a half million books are sent out to members each year.

There is also the Talking Newspaper Association, which reaches more than 200,000 visually impaired listeners. That body receives some funding from the national lottery, but it has been turned down by the Home Office for government funding on the grounds that it operates a "leisure service". What better illustration of how the Government can speak, sadly, with two voices? They say how important reading newspapers is for producing active citizens on the one hand and, on the other, fail to persuade the Home Office to get off its backside—please excuse the phrase. At any rate, we are hugely indebted to the voluntary sector.

We have heard some excellent speeches this evening, and I look forward to the Minister's reply. I hope that he may at least be able to promise to bring to the attention of his friend, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the eloquent arguments of the noble Lord, Lord Addington, and the noble Baroness, Lady Rendell, as to the iniquitous tax on audio books for no good reason.

Photo of Lord Davies of Oldham Lord Davies of Oldham Government Whip, Lords in Waiting (Whips) 8:11, 8 May 2003

My Lords, this has been a most impressive debate, powerfully introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Addington, followed by a series of very significant speeches in which a number of important points were made. I shall do my best to reply to all of them. I assure the House, and especially the noble Lord, Lord Addington, who introduced the debate, that of course we regard the issue as very important. We embrace the issue enthusiastically as the debate is established.

Access to books and publications are fundamental to the social inclusion agenda. I assure the House that the issue rightly has a high priority. The Government are committed to ensuring that those with disabilities and those who might be excluded can participate fully in all aspects of life. Across Government, different departments are tackling the question of access with a variety of innovative approaches, often establishing positive partnerships with charities and representative organisations. I hear and applaud what the noble Lord, Lord Luke, said about the important role played by charities and organisations. We all recognise that they do extremely valuable work in this area, and the Government's role is to support, encourage and listen to charities when they put forward propositions that deserve very serious consideration.

The debate illustrates the effect of activity in this area. I offer some obvious examples. Public libraries have always been in the forefront of helping those with reading problems, whatever those problems may be. As the noble Lord, Lord Luke, noted, in February the Department for Culture, Media and Sport published the first national vision for public libraries, the Framework for the Future. The document offers a vision of libraries and information services in the next decade, to be supported by an action plan.

The framework's main thrust is that libraries and library authorities have a responsibility to respond to the needs of their communities, and reminds practitioners that reading and access to literature is a powerful tool for social inclusion. Its absence, as the noble Earl, Lord Russell, emphasised, means that when barriers exist to effective reading the cost is borne massively by the individual and the wider society too.

The framework goes on to suggest that local authorities should consult widely when considering what services should be available and take full advantages of the benefits that today's technology has to offer. We must not forget that people have many different needs. There is a range of disabilities where the requirements and demand for books and publications in alternative formats—audio tape, large print, Moon or Braille—vary very considerably.

Let us take, for example, books available on audio tape. Demand for that format, particularly in unabridged versions, is undoubtedly increasing rapidly. Loughborough University's libraries, information, and statistics unit researched this matter in 2001 and found that 62 per cent of those with sight problems prefer to read fiction via audio books. Set that trend against the rise in public library lending of audio formats—up to 13.2 million loans in 2000–01—and it is clear that the right sort of service is being made available against increasing demand.

It is important that those working with or on behalf of those with sight or access problems are aware of current trends. As the House will know, a wealth of evidence-based good practice is available and needs to be promoted as widely as possible. In October 2000, Resource, the Council for Museums, Archives and Libraries, produced Library Services for visually impaired people: a Manual of Best Practice. Updated last year, it remains a definitive guide on good practice.

The Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals also has a key role to play in promoting good practice in social inclusion and equal opportunities. One approach is its "Libraries change Lives" programme which acknowledges significant contributions to social equity. The 2003 award in this area was made, only last week, to the Portsmouth City Council library service for its work for those with sight problems. All that is important, and this debate plays its part, in publicising the achievements of the limited few in order that we can extend such achievement to the many. Indeed, both central and local government have made important strides to harness the extraordinary potential of modern technology, thereby improving services and access for disabled people. We know that the right technology can transform many people's experience of the written word, whether it be publishing on demand or other innovations.

The new technologies are a powerful ally in helping people with reading problems. As the new technologies develop—such as books online with variable type sizes onscreen and digital sound for those with hearing problems—I am sure that many other opportunities will arise. The Government must be vigilant and take advantage of the changes as they develop.

The Office for the E-Envoy has established a working group of representatives from the website design industry to improve access for those with access problems by encouraging the use of larger font sizes and audio options. I salute the work of the Royal National Institute for the Blind in that respect. I was present at its awards ceremony last year when it indicated those who had taken great trouble with their websites in order to meet exactly this need. It is an important innovation and we must encourage others to follow that pattern.

We are all aware that when it comes to considering matters of public expenditure there will always be competing priorities. The Government are inevitably mindful of that. However, funding is being targeted at disability groups. For instance, all applications for capital modernisation funding to support the UK Online network, the Government's web-based guide to information and services, was obliged to include access provision for those with physical, learning or sensory disabilities. UK Online includes a public library element, "The People's Network", funded by the National Lottery through the New Opportunities Fund which allows each computer to be configured for those with sight problems.

The Department for Education and Skills' schools access initiative supports the implementation of the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act. I recall that the noble Lord, Lord Addington, played his part in the passage of that Bill through this House. Last year, £70 million was available to support that initiative. The sum has been increased to £100 million this year and for each of the next two years. That funding can be used only for the provision of items of equipment that improve access to premises, the curriculum or information.

There is legislation designed to improve or enhance access. The Disability Discrimination Act 1995, in particular the goods and services section of the Act, places a duty on those who provide a service to the public to take reasonable steps to change policies, practice and procedures or to provide additional services to help those who would otherwise find it difficult or impossible to use that service. In January, Andrew Smith, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, announced his intention to publish a draft disability Bill later this year. The scope and content are still being finalised, but may include a duty on public bodies concerning the equalisation of opportunities for disabled people. That is an important issue for the partially sighted or those with a sight impairment.

An important recent legislative change has been the Copyright (Visually Impaired Persons) Act 2002, to which the noble Lord, Lord Sandberg, paid tribute. The Act introduces two new situations in which producing copies of accessible material will not infringe existing copyright. That is an extremely important consideration. The benefits will be felt by individuals with sight problems and not-for-profit organisations and educational establishments which exist to support them. The RNIB is currently working on a licensing scheme to give full implementation to the Act. Once this is complete a commencement order will be put in place. The legislation was designed to deal with the problems, often lengthy, encountered gaining clearance for copyright and I believe that it successfully balances the interests of those with sight problems and copyright owners. Those with sight problems require increased opportunities.

The noble Baroness, Lady Wilkins, referred to the issue of dyslexia. That is an important dimension of the problem we are discussing. The Department for Education and Skills issued a statutory Special Educational Needs Code of Practice in November 2001. This recognises the importance of early identification, assessment and provision for any child with special educational needs, including dyslexia. Dyslexia is also being addressed through the Government's National Literacy and Numeracy Strategies and by the Adult Basic Skills Strategy Unit. This includes support for teachers taking forward their responsibilities under the Special Educational Needs Act to which I referred earlier, and specific guidelines on providing for pupils with dyslexia.

I turn to the question of VAT on audio tapes. That issue was addressed this evening with typical force by my noble friend Lady Rendell who brought this issue before the House a year ago in a debate on this very matter. As she indicated, on that occasion the Government did not give as positive a response as she had wished. I hope that I can give a slightly more positive response this year although I cannot promise to solve all the problems of British taxation in regard to the European Community in the course of the next three minutes.

Suffice to say that there is a real problem about debating issues of zero-rating with the European Community, not least because at present we have extended zero-rating more widely than have most other countries in the Community. Our legitimate fear is that an attempt to debate the issue of zero-rating would leave the door wide open to potential challenges from the Community.

I heard what the noble Earl, Lord Russell, said in that regard. If I had not done so, I have no doubt that he would reiterate the point at this very moment; namely, that the European Community has a certain degree of flexibility. We intend to test that. We seek to participate fully in opportunities to which the European Community is committed at the present time to consider reduced rates of taxation. That may not mean that we meet every dimension that has been stressed, but it means that, in a way that was not possible last year in response to my noble friend, I am able to say this evening that the Government will engage in the negotiations positively, with a view to getting the rate of VAT down on audio tapes of books.

Photo of Earl Russell Earl Russell Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I am most grateful to the Minister, who is being most helpful. However, I was going to suggest a different point—that there may be other ways in which we could improve our negotiating stance within the European Union.

Photo of Lord Davies of Oldham Lord Davies of Oldham Government Whip, Lords in Waiting (Whips)

My Lords, I am sure that there are, but the noble Earl is not going to tempt me at this stage into a widespread debate on the merits of adopting a more constructive stance on the European Community. Although I have no doubt that he and I could entertain each other for many an hour on that point, I have a rather narrower brief to cope with this evening.

I shall mention the obvious point with regard to audio books. Of course the VAT issue is something on which we would want to make progress, and I do not belittle its significance, because it forms a percentage of the costs of the books. However, my noble friend emphasised that the acute problem is that books for the partially sighted or unsighted are enormously more expensive than the comparable books that the rest of us very readily enjoy, in terms of their cost in the marketplace. That is not an easy issue to resolve.

Reducing the gap between the costs is certainly an aspiration to which we should drive, but my noble friend will recognise that when audio books are produced, someone has to perform the act of reading them. If some people pay David Beckham for his footballing skills with Manchester United, it is only right that Stephen Fry is paid for his reading skills when he produces an audio book. It may be thought that such a benign service ought to be produced by people for free, out of the goodness of their hearts. However, my noble friend will recognise that an awful lot of people in the acting profession who are drawn on as readers for such books are not in a position to give their services free, and that there are costs involved.

Photo of Lord Addington Lord Addington Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I totally appreciate what the Minister says, but there a few differences. If someone wants a conventional book, they want it with a nicely bound cover. If they want the special edition, that is fine, and they pay a little extra for it. We are talking about a basic product.

Photo of Lord Davies of Oldham Lord Davies of Oldham Government Whip, Lords in Waiting (Whips)

My Lords, I understand what the noble Lord has said, and I will bear it in mind. I want to emphasise that the debate this evening has thrown up a number of very interesting suggestions on how we could make progress. I respect what he said about how we drive the costs of the books down.

I have somewhat extended my time over the allotted span. The debate has been enormously constructive. The Government believe that we have a good record in this area. In Britain, we have a strong tradition of support for those with disabilities, and initiatives that I have outlined this evening bear witness to that. I also want to emphasise the extent to which the Government are open-minded and seek to be constructive on the number of valuable suggestions made.

There is growing recognition of the importance of free and fair access. I assure the House that we will continue to work with key players on the matter to develop good practice in widening accessibility. Social inclusion is a principal part of that.

The noble Lord, Lord Addington, asked at the beginning of the debate why we could not discuss an element of philosophy as well as issues of practice. I assure him that the Government are serious about the concept of social inclusion. That means that we have to have due regard for the needs of the groups that we have identified this evening. I am grateful for the constructive contributions to the debate, which will advance that cause.

House adjourned at twenty-nine minutes past eight o'clock.