Previous SectionIndexHome Page

1.35 pm

Mr. Dismore: I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) on steering his Bill this far. His Third Reading speech was somewhat disparaging, but he has nothing to be ashamed of and much of which to be proud. When I was preparing for today's debate, I looked at the notes for my Second Reading speech. The hon. Gentleman was perhaps lucky not to have had the benefit—or otherwise—of that speech as it had a lot to say about the Bill, as he might have expected. I am pleased that I have rather less to say today, as the Bill has been improved.

Few Members manage to take a private Member's Bill this far, so the hon. Gentleman should also be proud of that. I hope to be able to repeat that trick in two or three weeks—perhaps with the assistance of the usual channels on his side.

Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne): That might be arranged.

Mr. Dismore: Obviously, the hon. Member for Uxbridge has the thanks of all the people involved in the

15 Mar 2002 : Column 1190

environmental world, and I echo their gratitude. However, he would also be thanked by many who cannot speak for themselves—the dolphins and seals which will live to a ripe old age and the other marine wildlife which will benefit from what he has achieved on their behalf.

While we are talking about people who cannot speak for themselves, I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind remarks to my parliamentary neighbour and hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Thomas), who has also done a good job in helping to pilot the Bill. As the hon. Gentleman might know, I have had several discussions with my hon. Friend about the Bill and I am glad that the House has reached a consensus about taking it forward.

1.36 pm

Mr. Swayne: I briefly add my tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall). The measure is a not insignificant step in addressing a large gap in our environmental policy—so much biodiversity is threatened in the maritime environment. It is an enormous task to bring the protection of the maritime environment up to the standards for which we have been working in respect of the land.

My hon. Friend has carried out a tremendous task. He has been ably assisted by the hard work of the Minister for the Environment and his officials in improving the Bill. It is a good Bill and we wish it every success.

1.37 pm

Tony Cunningham: I, too, add my congratulations. Normally, I go home on Thursdays but I attended today's debates because of the sheer volume of letters from my constituents asking me to support the Bill.

I offer the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) my congratulations and those of my constituents.

1.38 pm

Mr. Meacher: The hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) must be feeling weighed down with congratulations, but I am only too glad to echo what other Members have said. The hon. Gentleman has steered the Bill positively and constructively through choppy waters. Given my classical upbringing, the analogy that came to mind was that of Scylla and Charybdis. Several times, I thought that the measure might hit one or the other—or even both at once. The hon. Gentleman has done extremely well. The Bill is very worth while.

The House spends far too much time on confrontational activity, although we broadly agree on many issues. It is refreshing that we have achieved consensus on a matter of considerable importance to us all. The hon. Gentleman can take credit for engendering that spirit.

The measure has also shown us a new and significant role for private Members' Bills. Although they are often enacted, they are sometimes confined to a relatively small role. I would never describe their role as insignificant, but it could be more important. This is unquestionably an important Bill. I consider that private Members' Bills should have a wider coverage and role—as long as the Government are able to ensure that their policy prevails in the end, of course. I believe that that is well understood. I shall be brief because other Bills follow, which are also of considerable importance.

15 Mar 2002 : Column 1191

The Bill is important for three reasons. First, we have protected land-based SSSIs pretty effectively with the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 but marine sites have much less protection, and yet a high proportion of Britain's biodiversity is in the seas around us.

Secondly, the marine environment is an important part of promoting the policy of sustainable development. It is a very difficult policy. Everyone will pay lip service to it but its effective and balanced application is a work of art. Reconciling development and conservation under the Bill will not be easy. The hon. Member for Uxbridge said delicately that compromises had been made that he would have preferred not to have been made, and he spoke about other interests riding roughshod over conservation. I really do not believe that that will happen. Mechanisms have been put in place to ensure a balance.

The hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) is right to say that we must take people with us. We want a broad consensus, not only in the House but "out there", that our fishing communities should be able to thrive but that marine biodiversity in our marine sites should be preserved wherever possible.

Thirdly, the Bill is important because, although we have European Union protection of international sites—European marine sites—there has been a gap in the legislation in terms of national sites of marine importance. The Bill plugs that gap. As legislative slots are not easy to obtain, I am very grateful, speaking for the Government, that we have had the opportunity to take the first step in our major review of marine conservation, and to channel it through the Bill. Next week I shall travel to Bergen to discuss with the Scandinavian and other Ospar countries the issue of marine conservation in the north-east Atlantic; these matters must be pursued internationally and nationally.

For all those reasons, the Bill is very important. I congratulate the hon. Member for Uxbridge once again. I thank all those who have collaborated on the Bill and I strongly commend it to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed.

15 Mar 2002 : Column 1192

Copyright (Visually Impaired Persons) Bill

Order for Second Reading read.

1.43 pm

Rachel Squire (Dunfermline, West): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

I begin by declaring the assistance that I have received from the Royal National Institute for the Blind. Its help and expertise has been magnificent and I pay a particular tribute to Caroline Ellis, David Mann, Marilyn Oldershaw and the team that has supported them. I also pay tribute to the many hon. Members from all parties in the House who have been eager to give their full support to the Bill.

May I give particular recognition to the partnership that has ensured that the Bill has been given the time today for its Second Reading? I add further to their embarrassment by giving special recognition to, dare I say it, the two musketeers: the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) and my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, East (Mr. McNulty), who I know have been very keen to give the Bill their support. I thank those who have expressed their support in the other place. I also thank the Government, especially the Under–Secretary of State for Trade and Industry for her support.

Many organisations and bodies outside the House support the Bill. They include the Disability Rights Commission, the Library Association, the National Library for the Blind, the Calibre Cassette Library, the Scottish Braille Press, the Talking Newspaper Association of the United Kingdom, the Torch Trust for the Blind, the UK Association of Braille Producers, the Confederation of Transcribed Information Services, the National Federation of the Blind, the National League of the Blind and Disabled, Scope, Sense, and Deafblind UK.

A considerable number of authors have expressed their support, including Philip Pullman, Jilly Cooper, Joanna Trollope, Harold Pinter and Nick Hornby.

The purpose of the Bill is to remove the barriers created by copyright law to visually impaired people's access to books and other reading materials, while safeguarding the rights of authors and publishers. In so doing, it will greatly enhance not just visually impaired people's access to our written culture, but, crucially, the educational and employment opportunities open to such a hugely disadvantaged group.

Copyright is, in itself, a valid and valuable concept. Writers and other creators are entitled to have their work recognised and respected and to earn a fair return for their intellectual and artistic endeavours. However, visually impaired people face unacceptable delays in gaining access to books and articles in accessible formats or are denied the right to read certain books altogether because of current copyright law.

Visually impaired people cannot simply walk into their nearest bookshop and choose a book in large print or braille. With the exception of a few commercial publishers of large-print and audio books, most publishers find it uneconomic to make accessible copies of works available to visually impaired people. Research commissioned in 1999 revealed that only 5 per cent. of the 100,000-plus titles published in the United Kingdom in 1998 were available in formats accessible to the

15 Mar 2002 : Column 1193

2 million visually impaired people a year later. That shows the extent of the limited choice of reading material available.

The majority of accessible copies are produced by voluntary organisations or teachers of visually impaired students, yet the ability of schools and voluntary organisations to make books, magazines and other materials accessible and readily available to visually impaired people is massively constrained by current copyright restrictions.

Every time the explicit permission of the rights-holder is required, it is usually granted, but, typically, there are significant delays and, occasionally, outright refusals. At best it takes a month for permission to come through, but the wait is often much longer. Frequently, six months pass before it is possible to produce an alternative-format version. Sometimes, the wait is as long as two years. When permission is delayed, visually impaired people are unable to participate in our society on the same terms as sighted people. Voluntary organisations find that they waste precious time and money chasing publishers and authors' agents for permission—time and resources that they would prefer to devote to producing more material in accessible formats.

There is compelling evidence of the disadvantage caused by copyright barriers to blind and partially sighted learners in particular. The largest ever survey of blind and partially sighted young people, the results of which were published last year, revealed that nearly half—47 per cent.—of students in university or higher education do not usually get books in their preferred formats and that 33 per cent. of visually impaired children do not always get their textbooks in an accessible format when they need them.

Let me give two examples of the problem. The first is of a visually impaired student who asked her university library to enlarge on a photocopier a book that she needed for her studies. It told her that it could copy only one chapter and that she should be grateful for that. How will that student get through her reading list and complete her studies when the copyright law makes it so difficult for her to gain access to books? Will she, sadly, become one of those students who give up their studies as a result? The second example relates to the recent attempts by the RNIB to persuade the agents of two very famous children's authors to give it permission to transcribe their works, which would enrich the lives of visually impaired children. Permission was refused point blank. Is such a denial of access justified simply because children are visually impaired?

There have been positive developments in voluntary agreements between right-holders and visual impairment organisations, but that does not negate the need for legislation. On the contrary, at the present rate of progress, the RNIB contends that it will take 20 years to get most works covered by such schemes—and many copyright owners will still not join.

I welcomed the launch last October of the joint industry guidelines on copyright and visually impaired people which stated that it would usually be acceptable for a visually impaired person to make a single copy of a work for personal use, subject to various conditions, without seeking permission. However, publishers reserve the right to opt out, and I understand that many schools and

15 Mar 2002 : Column 1194

libraries remain wary of transcribing works into accessible formats because the guidelines do not have the force of law.

The advent of the information society has rendered the copyright problem more acute than ever. It could offer tremendous advantages to visually impaired people. However, the development of digital rights management schemes has added a new technological barrier to the copyright equation. Most of those schemes are incompatible with the screen-reading technology that blind and partially sighted people use to gain access to material displayed on a computer screen.

Let me deal briefly with how the Bill proposes to address the barriers thrown up by copyright law. It would amend the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 to create two exceptions in copyright law for the benefit of visually impaired people. Clause 1 provides for single accessible copies to be made for work purposes for the personal use of a visually impaired person without infringement of copyright, subject to a few conditions including that the work must be lawfully obtained, that there is significant acknowledgement of the author, and that the work must not already be published in a form that the person concerned can access. There would be no need to ask the rights-holder for permission in such circumstances.

The clause also makes provision for multiple-access copies to be made for and distributed to visually impaired people without asking permission, but with numerous safeguards for the moral rights of the author and without interfering with the legitimate exploitation of the work. Only educational establishments or bodies that operate on a not-for-profit basis could rely on that exception, and they would have to notify the copyright owner within a reasonable time that they had made accessible copies of the work.

In the unlikely event of serious infringements of copyright arising from the activities of bodies under the exception, the Secretary of State would have the power in extremis to prohibit the body or bodies involved from acting under the exception. The exception also provides for circumstances in which a large number of copies in an alternative format might be needed: for example, if a novel has to be studied as part of a school subject and children in many schools therefore need the same material to be made accessible, or if an organisation such as the RNIB is building up stock for its renowned talking books service.

Clause 1 also defines the meaning of an accessible copy and the group to whom the exceptions apply. The accessible copy is one that offers a visually impaired person access to the work equivalent to that of a person who is not visually impaired. It will include formats such as braille, large print, audio cassette or disk.

Visually impaired people access information in a variety of ways. Among other factors, the age of onset of disability, the amount of rehabilitation received and the facilities at the individual's disposal influence the way in which people are able to read. The Bill's definition of visually impaired persons embraces not only those who are blind or partially sighted, or have uncorrectable sight loss, but anyone who has a physical disability that means that they cannot pick up or manipulate a book, such as those with rheumatoid arthritis. That is the definition used by the publishing industry in the context of copyright issues.

15 Mar 2002 : Column 1195

Clause 2 specifies that the legislation will apply throughout the UK, given that copyright is a reserved matter. The exceptions cover literary, dramatic, musical or artistic works as defined in the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act. However, given that the owners of copyright in music are highly dependent on royalties for the making of sound recordings of the music, and that a visually impaired person can enjoy such a sound recording without any reformatting, the Bill specifically excludes the making of an accessible copy of a musical work that involves recording a performance.

The Bill's provisions are heavily influenced by the original Patent Office consultation. They are also the result of lengthy dialogue and consultation with organisations representing visually impaired people and rights-holder organisations. Toward the end of last year I was pleased to meet representatives of the Publishers Licensing Society, the Authors Licensing and Collecting Society, the Publishers Association and the Writers Guild of Great Britain. I am grateful to them for their helpful suggestions, which have influenced the drafting of the Bill.

Throughout my life, I have been fortunate enough to meet and have contact with both children and adults with visual impairment. They stand out from the crowd not because of their disability, but because of their abilities and achievements in overcoming the many obstacles that they face. I hope that the House will support the Bill today and give visually impaired people opportunities to fulfil their potential—to read, to learn, to work and to participate fully in our society.

Next Section

IndexHome Page