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 agree, and I hope that is part of the problem that the Minister, as a Treasury Minister, will recognise. It is difficult to work out how we can ensure that people who are being discriminated against—as opposed to people who can read in general terms; I will return to that point—have the ability to access audiobooks, while protecting the Treasury from the cost burdens. That is probably where the biggest problem lies.

If we were just talking about people who are visually impaired—a group of people who, without being rude, can be quite easily identified—the Treasury could make those calculations quite quickly. But what about when we get into the realms of what I was just talking about—people with learning difficulties, one of which is dyslexia? A huge percentage of those people have not had a diagnosis. How do you capture them?

To the point made by Marion Fellows: how do we take into account people who are not natural readers? I do not want to get into a class situation, but I did not read many books when I was at school because I struggled to read, and I know people who were in school with me who were not dyslexic but who just did not read. We want people to expand their knowledge, education and view of the world as much as possible, so if someone can read—they are not visually impaired—but they want to use audiobooks, should that not be okay? I think the Treasury would turn around and say, “How do you find the costs?”

I agree with the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw, but I am just trying to play devil’s advocate. That is the only way we can do it. We do not know who uses e-books but they have been removed from VAT. All printed books and publications are exempt, but audiobooks are not. Even though it would be easier to define an exemption for a certain group of people—I vividly remember conversations about that when I was disabilities Minister—I do not think that would be fair, not least for the millions of people out there who are dyslexic but have never had a diagnosis; dyslexia covers a very large spectrum.

The Equality Act means that no one should be discriminated against because of their disability, sex or race—a whole list of things. Given that Parliament cannot be caught under the Act, I suspect that it might be disingenuous to tell outside bodies that they may discriminate. It would be saying, “We are not breaking the Equality Act, but we are telling you to do so.” Take an obvious example: a local authority that wanted to sell audiobooks would have to charge VAT—in a library, for instance—whereas there is no VAT on books. Parliament is telling an agency of Government—that is, His Majesty’s Revenue and Customs—to charge VAT on audiobooks. If it did so without an Act of Parliament, that would be discriminatory, but because we are exempt under section 29, it is not.

Long before the word “Brexit,” I was pretty well known for being what used to be called a Eurosceptic. I wanted to leave the European Union and for this country to have its sovereignty. But if there are laws on our statute books, we should use them. Section 6(1) of the Human Rights Act 1998 states:

“It is unlawful for a public authority to act in a way which is incompatible with a Convention right.”

There are other Acts of Parliament on the statute book. I am sure that there are plenty of lawyers who would argue one way and plenty who would argue another, but morally and ethically it cannot be right that there is legislation on the statute book—the Human Rights Act, the Equality Act and other European Acts—that states that we should not discriminate, and yet we are still in a situation in which someone who wants to improve their life for whatever reason is, by no choice of their own, penalised by our tax system. I am sure that the Minister will probably say that this is very complicated, and I know what her brief will say, because it is not dissimilar to the briefs that were given to me when I was sitting in that very chair. But because something is difficult, it does not mean it is right to do nothing about it.

One of my constituents, whose sight is failing—I will not in any way indicate who she is—is finding that her ability to work in commerce is being affected. She now relies almost completely on audiobooks, although there is also now software that will help people. She relies on audiobooks, and she does not want anybody to know that. She works from home and for her own reasons— I will not put words in her mouth—she wants to use audiobooks, because of her visual impairment. How can it be right that, if she needs an audiobook this week, she has to pay 20% on the product, but last month or last year, when she could read the publication, she did not have to pay that 20%?

Let us look at education for a second. This is where I deviate from the notes that people have helped me try to write—I will come back to some of it; people have been very supportive of me bringing this debate. Education books are quite rightly VAT-free, like all printed books. Audiobooks are not. The Minister will probably say that a lot of the VAT can be claimed back, but for individuals it cannot. If mum and dad, or grandpa and grandma, want to help their son, grandson or grand- daughter who is at a special needs school by buying them an audiobook, they cannot claim that VAT back, even if the organisation could. That child is being held back because the family perhaps do not have the money to buy the audiobook. For every five audiobooks they want to buy, one will be lost to VAT. We need taxes to pay for the schools that I have just alluded to, and for the education system, the health service and various other things. But for the public to have trust in our taxation system, it has to be fair and proportionate, and, in the public’s eye—because we are spending their money on their behalf—it has to be right and proper.

This has been going on for too long. It is worth reading the comments of the Prime Minister when he was the Chancellor:

“That cannot be right. So today I am abolishing the reading tax.”—[Official Report, 11 March 2020;
Vol. 673, c. 290.]

That referred specifically to printed books and e-books. Why on earth did it not include audiobooks? I really do not understand.

I will not be able to mention all the relevant organisations, but I have particularly been helped by Scope and the Royal National Institute of Blind People. The House of Commons Library has been fantastically helpful. I did not want the debate to be about me saying, “You’re a nasty, horrible Government, because you are not doing this”. It is not about that. Governments have not addressed this issue since before the current Government came in.

Things get left out when you are in government, and you think, “I wish I had done that.” I am leaving this House whenever the next general election comes, and I do not want to leave with a few things still on my bucket list that I wish I had done more about, perhaps when I was the Minister. I wish I had kicked harder when I was the disabilities Minister, particularly against my Treasury colleagues, so I am going to kick now for people who are suffering this 20% tax through no fault of their own, which surely has to be morally and ethically wrong.