Previous SectionIndexHome Page

1.59 pm

Mr. Nigel Waterson (Eastbourne): I congratulate the hon. Member for Dunfermline, West (Rachel Squire) on doing well in the ballot. I know from my own experience that a Member who comes high in the private Members' ballot is never lonely. We are besieged by good causes that wish a Member to take up their banner. There are difficult choices to make, but if I may say so, the hon. Lady has made a good choice in bringing the Bill forward.

I am aware of the immense amount of work that is involved in bringing a private Member's Bill together and trying to carry Members of all parts of the House in roughly the same direction at roughly the same speed.

The Bill has the support of the official Opposition. Until the Royal National Institute for the Blind began to lobby Members about the problem, I was unaware of the technical, legal problems that were being caused to many blind and partially sighted people. I join the hon. Lady in congratulating the team that has been involved in the excellent work that has been done at the RNIB in putting everything together, in considering the realities and the safeguards that are needed, and on its most effective lobbying of all hon. Members in setting out the merits of the proposed legislation.

As always, there are points of detail on which some of us may have differing views, but that is why there is consideration in Committee. Such points are not for today's debate. This is a good Bill and a necessary Bill. It seeks to address a clear case of discrimination against blind and partially sighted people. It would be a travesty if it did not receive Second Reading today.

15 Mar 2002 : Column 1196

As the hon. Lady has so eloquently described, the problem is in the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988, which wholly overlooks the needs of visually impaired people. As she has told the House, a survey carried out a couple of years ago revealed that only 5 per cent. of titles—I gather that about 100,000 are published every year in the United Kingdom—were available in formats that were accessible to people with visual impairment within a year of their publication. That is a damning statistic.

Another statistic is that nearly half—47 per cent.—of blind and partially-sighted students in universities and higher education do not usually obtain books in their preferred formats. We all know that it is difficult enough studying a course at university in the first place, without having additional difficulty because one suffers from visual impairment.

As the RNIB pointed out to me, there are about 3,000 or more voters in my constituency who are shut off from accessible reading material because of the copyright restrictions that the Bill is aimed to deal with. I am sure that the matter has been drawn to the attention of other right hon. and hon. Members.

We have heard from both the RNIB and the hon. Lady about blind and partially sighted learners having to give up in despair. They throw up their hands and walk away from courses because they cannot secure access to relevant study materials in a format that is accessible to them.

In a sense, the irony is that the various formats are invariably produced—not on a profit-making basis—by voluntary and charitable organisations. They have limited resources but they are extremely successful in producing the formats that are required.

It is right to emphasise, as the hon. Lady has done, that no one is setting out to threaten copyright and the legitimate interests of authors, publishers and distributors. I am pleased that only just up the road from my constituency is the national recording centre of the Talking Newspaper Association, which is at Heathfield. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Mr. Hendry), who has given me some details from the centre. It does a tremendous job, both locally and nationally. It transcribes on to tape the contents of 1,100 of the 1,400 regional and local newspapers that are produced. That is an amazing achievement in itself. It runs also a national service that records more than 200 newspapers and magazines on to cassettes and transcribes about 75 titles into electronic format.

In a sense, it is a sort of sister organisation to talking books, and every bit as important for blind and partially sighted people. I can certainly say that from meeting them in my constituency. Talking to members of the Eastbourne Blind Society, I am always struck by how reliant they are on both talking books and talking newspapers. Their products are "read" by 230,000—nearly 0.25 million—blind and partially sighted people in the country. It is not just current affairs that they read, although hopefully they will all read avidly the reports of our debate that will no doubt appear in the national media. People with particular hobbies or interests can access specialist magazines through the service; people can also examine classified ads and pursue job opportunities of which they may otherwise be unaware.

15 Mar 2002 : Column 1197

The Talking Newspaper Association of the United Kingdom makes a fair point about the fact that it gets no Government funding; it is a voluntary and charitable organisation. It says that it can only operate effectively with the co-operation of local and national newspapers, and is in the happy position of having agreements with all the local newspaper editors and publishers, as well as national titles. However, it says that there have been a couple of occasions when reservations have been expressed about the provision of the state-of-the-art electronic service. It says that

The hon. Member for Dunfermline, West is trying to tackle that problem, which is more widespread in other areas, in her Bill. The Talking Newspaper Association puts it graphically:

I do not think that that analogy is over the top. Unbeknown to many people, nearly 0.25 million of our fellow citizens are effectively discriminated against, as I have described. I therefore commend the work of the Talking Newspaper Association.

I shall say only a brief word about safeguards, as it is more appropriate to discuss them in Committee. The hon. Lady recognised that it is important to protect intellectual property of all types. The UK leads the world in many respects in intellectual property, and the Opposition support attempts to strengthen copyright and patent protection. The Bill addresses the problem of providing such protection; I shall not go into too much detail, but the one-for-one exception in clause 1 makes it clear that a conventional copy of a publication has to be obtained in parallel with the production of a version accessible to blind or partially sighted people. There are also detailed safeguards on multiple accessible copies for educational establishments with a legitimate interest in producing formats for visually impaired students; those establishments are not in the business of making a profit or trying to skim off profits from the publishers or authors.

I am pleased that the Bill includes other safeguards. Had they not been included, we would have pressed for them. There may be scope for debate about their extent and whether they go too far but, again, that is a matter for Committee. We have heard stories from the RNIB and the hon. Lady about students who simply cannot obtain a complete book; they may be wrestling with a weekly reading list, but cannot get more than one chapter of a book at a time, which must be an extraordinary disincentive to pursuing a course in any subject. We have also heard about an advisory teacher for visually impaired children who simply could not get enough books in the right format to teach the children properly, which must be against the spirit of the original copyright legislation that the Bill seeks to amend.

In conclusion, I reiterate our support for the Bill; we look forward to it reaching its next stage. Blind and partially sighted people have enough obstacles to overcome in life; let us at least remove this one.

15 Mar 2002 : Column 1198

2.9 pm

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): I congratulate the hon. Member for Dunfermline, West (Rachel Squire) on introducing what I consider to be a model private Member's Bill. It is focused on a particular problem; it is relatively and properly limited in scope; it is, we now know, uncontroversial; and it implies effectively no additional burden on public expenditure. Those are all admirable qualities in a private Member's Bill. The fact that the Bill seeks to correct something which is so patently wrong and does that in a businesslike way is an additional virtue.

I also welcome the fact that we have today had a brief but important opportunity to debate the Bill. That is of the essence of the parliamentary process, as it allows hon. Members and the House to indicate the extent of support—or, in some cases, the extent of opposition—to a Bill. The hon. Lady generously acknowledged that she had been assisted by hon. Members in all parts of the House. We now have the opportunity to debate the Bill, indicate our support for it and perhaps flag up one or two specifics, as my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) has just done, which may need attention in Committee. Again, that is admirable.

I confess that I am generally rather uneasy about legislation. In my previous incarnation, I made a modest career out of trying to protect the public at large from what I saw as unnecessary or even disadvantageous legislation, but in a case such as this, I believe that legislation is entirely justified, particularly where it seeks to assist any group in society whose members are disadvantaged through no fault of their own. That is an aim to which the House should pay more attention and on which it should spend more time than it does.

The hon. Lady's speech reflected the fact that in cases such as this, there is nearly always a balance to be struck between the advantage properly being sought, and any risk of disadvantage to any other group that may have a legitimate claim. I acknowledge that the Bill seeks carefully to do that. As far as I know, none of the legitimate interest groups that could be affected has argued that the Bill should not proceed. The Committee stage will give an opportunity for such reservations to be made clear, if there are any. That is not necessarily a topic for Second Reading, but the Committee will be able to deal with it.

May I register one or two slight reservations, and perhaps put down a marker for the Committee? I am always nervous when I see a reference to the powers of the Secretary of State, such as that in clause 1, with its rather odd format, under section 31B(12) on page 4, which seeks to give the Secretary of State powers by order to prohibit or to disapply. It goes on to state that any body would therefore not be entitled to a licence, and continues:

I am not totally reassured by that, as I see nowhere in the Bill any provision for appeal.

Unless I am misreading the Bill, it strikes me that all the powers go in only one direction—that is, that the Secretary of State can prohibit. The fact that the Bill states that the Secretary of State shall exercise the powers only if he is satisfied does not make me feel any easier. I would prefer to see some further mechanism for appeal or redress under the same section.

15 Mar 2002 : Column 1199

Subsection (14) goes on to state that regulations or orders shall be subject to annulment. I would rather see the positive process, not the negative one, but that is a detail, however important.

In the explanatory notes to the Bill, paragraph 44 states rather optimistically:

Well, I hope that that will be the case. Having said that, however, simply because I wanted to draw attention to the point, this may be one of those fairly rare occasions when, even if there were more than minor work load implications, the cause is so worthy and admirable that we might all readily agree that expenditure should be undertaken.

With those few words, I add my support to the Bill and wish it well in its further stages.

Next Section

IndexHome Page