Backbench Business

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:00 pm on 15 June 2023.

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Photo of Mike Penning Mike Penning Conservative, Hemel Hempstead 3:00, 15 June 2023

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered the matter of VAT on audiobooks.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr Sharma. We are in the coolest place in Westminster, so let us see if we can stay in here; this is probably the only room with any decent air conditioning.

I will start by declaring an interest: as well as being a former disabilities Minister, I am also dyslexic. I was not diagnosed until I was in the military, when I was sent on a course and was told by an education officer that I was dyslexic. I thought that it was some kind of tropical disease. No one ever said to me at school when I had real struggles with English and maths, particularly reading, that I might have a learning difficulty. I was told by my headmaster that I was thick and I was not allowed to take my 11-plus exam—I would have failed it. But no one with dyslexia is thick; they just struggle sometimes with understanding words and mathematics. I also declare an interest in that I am a non-executive director of a law firm, even though, unlike the Minister, I am not legally trained.

Let me say at the outset that I would like this to be a genuine debate, because it is not an “us and them” situation. For people with visual impairment, or with dyslexia or another learning difficulty that prevents them from being able to read the written word as easily as most people, the subject of this debate is an anomaly that I hope we can try to resolve.

I know that there are discussions about the issue within Government; I think there were when I was a disabilities Minister back in the coalition Government, but it looked at the time as if it would be difficult to resolve. Campaign groups out there have said to me, “We should be able to take the Government to court” under the 2010 legislation, although of course the Government are exempt—under section 29. My speech might show that the Government should take note when it comes to other pieces of legislation, because the legislation as it is at the moment may well be technically illegal; I again cite the fact that I am a lay person and not a legal beagle.

According to the Publishers Association, in 2020 sales of audiobooks rose by 69%, which might have had a lot to do with covid. The Prime Minister, who at that time was the Chancellor, said on 11 March 2020:

“A world-class education will help the next generation thrive, and nothing could be more fundamental to that than reading. And yet digital publications are subject to VAT. That cannot be right. So today I am abolishing the reading tax.”—[Official Report, 11 March 2020;
Vol. 673, c. 290.]

He was talking about e-books, but I do not think that anybody out there knows the difference between audiobooks and e-books. Actually, I think the Government made a genuine mistake. We have zero VAT rating on books and publications of all types—whether that be academic, fiction or non-fiction—and e-books are exempt. Why were a whole group of people, from many different backgrounds, thrilled for a minute or two by the announcement, only to realise, once they saw the small print, that they would still be excluded?

For many of our constituents, audio is their only communication with the outside world and their way of finding out what is going on. If someone uses audiobooks to read fiction or non-fiction, perhaps, as we all want to do, they want to get on in life. Audiobooks are part of that process—for training, learning and education. We are holding them back by having 20% VAT on every audiobook they purchase.

People with disabilities are already being penalised extensively; Scope has said they are £970 per month worse off—a figure I recognise from when I was the Minister. We give people with disabilities other benefits, but if someone is using audiobooks extensively, that 20% is a huge amount of their income or household income. We are not just talking about people who are visually impaired or who are dyslexic, like myself. My form of dyslexia is quite minimal, but I tend to memorise everything. As Members have probably noticed, I do not tend to read from a script; I get much too wooden when I try to. In my case, it is much better to memorise most of the points that I want to raise.

My question to the Minister is simple. I know she cares passionately about making equality fair, but the Equality Act 2010 as it stands does not quite hit the nail on the head or do what is says on the tin. Does it protect all people from discrimination? In other words, does it protect people who need to use audiobooks from discrimination, when they have to pay 20% to be able to read? The rest of the population who can read visual books do not have to pay that.