Backbench Business

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:25 pm on 15 June 2023.

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Photo of James Murray James Murray Shadow Financial Secretary (Treasury) 3:25, 15 June 2023

It is a pleasure to serve under you, Mr Sharma, my parliamentary neighbour in Ealing. I start by wholeheartedly congratulating Sir Mike Penning on securing the debate. I listened to him with great interest and I thought his speech was very thoughtful, heartfelt and informative. Indeed, in preparing for this debate, I found it informative to understand the nuance of the issues relating to audiobooks in greater detail. As well as thanking the right hon. Member, I thank several organisations that have campaigned for this change, including the Macular Society, the Society of Authors, and the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain, all of which have called for the exemption of audiobooks from VAT.

Before coming to the debate, I read an early-day motion that has been tabled as part of the campaign. I also found that informative in setting out the benefits of audiobooks for the many people with sight loss, visual impairment, dyslexia or other reading disabilities. The motion explains how audiobooks offer unique opportunities for visually impaired and dyslexic people to improve their education on a par with their peers. It recognises the role of audiobooks in enabling visually impaired and dyslexic people to continue working independently for longer and thereby contribute to the economy for longer. It explains how audiobooks open up a world of information, literature and poetry to visually impaired and dyslexic people. The attractions and benefits of audiobooks are clear, but there is the question of how much they cost.

Although this debate concerns VAT on audiobooks in particular, there is a wider context. Inflation and the high tax burden in our country affect people’s spending across the board. Before the debate, I also read that the application of VAT to printed publications dates right back to the introduction of VAT in 1973, when printed books, newspapers and magazines were given a zero rate.

Recent technological changes are raising questions over how the tax system across the board adjusts to a more digital world. That applies in many parts of our society and economy, and it raises questions about fairness, consistency and revenue raising. In response to technological changes, since 1 May 2020, the zero rate of VAT charged on printed books, newspapers and magazines has also been applied to e-publications. However, as we heard from the right hon. Member, the sale of audiobooks continues to be subject to the standard rate of 20%.

I will listen with interest to the Minister’s response, because the attractions and benefits of audiobooks are clear, and I am sure that she will recognise many of the points made about the importance of audiobooks for people with sight loss, visual impairment, dyslexia and other reading disabilities. The Opposition appreciate, however, that expanding the scope of VAT is complex and can add pressures to the public finances. I am sure that the Government will carefully consider this issue, and like other Members, I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response.