“I pretty much failed the first year of my law degree due to my disability and not being fit to study. I couldn’t afford to buy any of the accessibility items I needed. DSA gave me a lifeline. With the specialist equipment including a specialist mouse bar, laptop, dictaphone, extra-large screen, specialist software, printing and book allowance and various other provisions, I was able to retake everything the following year and actually cope with the work load. Without DSA I wouldn’t be where I am now.”

Even under the current system, it is not easy to get support. One student in my constituency is having to get an unnecessary diagnosis of dyslexia because his diagnosis undertaken the previous year in the sixth form was not accepted by the DSA authorities. Since there is no clinical need for a new diagnosis, he is having to apply to the university hardship fund to pay for it privately.

For all its difficulties, DSA provides an essential lifeline for people with disabilities who without it would have to give up on their education and ambitions, or would not have been able to apply in the first place. Cutting it will make many disabled students’ lives much more difficult, but, worst of all, it will result in a country where people with disabilities begin to think that they cannot even aspire to higher education and must limit their ambitions. It will do incalculable damage to equality. I urge that the proposed cuts be abandoned.

3 pm

Kate Green (Stretford and Urmston) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert) on securing such an important debate. Since so many others wish to speak, I shall make only four points. I endorse the comments made by colleagues from all parties.

First, I want to repeat the point about how vague the specifications are for access to support. That is true for computers but also for accommodation. Will the Minister comment on the guidance in the Student Loans Company handbook in relation to the non-medical help manual? Are there any plans to revise the guidance on what makes someone eligible for the help outlined in bands 3 and 4?

Secondly, students need access to good quality advice, and not just in relation to the disabled students allowance. When this debate was announced and I posted on Twitter to say that it would be taking place, I was contacted by someone who told me that they had been told that they could not access DSA unless they were on employment and support allowance or in receipt of personal independence payments. That is clearly incorrect, but it suggests that someone in the university advice service is misinformed about eligibility and the welfare benefits system. What support is going to be given to university advice and welfare services to ensure that they are properly equipped to support students who might have an entitlement?

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Thirdly, what will happen to students who begin a course in 2014 when the new provisions come into effect in 2015-16? Will they be able to maintain any support that they have been receiving ahead of the changes right through to the completion of their studies after 2015-16?

Finally, what assessment has the Minister made of the effect that the changes may have not only on disabled students’ access to university but on their choice of university? We already know that access is a key criterion for disabled students when they select a university, and these changes could further constrain choice by further restricting the courses that disabled students can consider if universities that offer their desired courses are not supportive with access and in facilitating their studies. Has the Minister paid any attention to the question of choice and the need to maximise access to not just any university but the university and course that would be right for the student? That should be disabled students’ driving criterion, not whether or not they get disabled student support.

3.3 pm

Sarah Champion (Rotherham) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hood. I thank the hon. Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert) for securing such an important and timely debate.

I begin by addressing the reality of what it means to be a disabled student. Despite living in what we assume is an open and inclusive society, disabled young people often face problems that do not make the headlines, and they start from a young age. We already know, for instance, that 27% of young disabled people aged 16 to 19 are not in any form of education, employment or training. By contrast, the same is true of only 9% of their non-disabled peers.

A Disability Rights Commission study found that 45% of disabled people said they had experienced problems at school as a consequence of their impairment. Further to that, 26% of disabled people have reported negative experiences in mainstream education, in part because of poor facilities and the negative attitudes of other people. In turn, it is hardly surprising that disabled adults are only half as likely to have formal qualifications as their non-disabled counterparts. All these issues arise prior to university. To redress these compound barriers, it becomes even more important that we make it as easy as possible for disabled students to make the transition to higher education.

Last year, the Muscular Dystrophy Campaign found that 40% of university inter-campus transport was inaccessible to disabled students. In addition, 30% of university social and leisure facilities were not accessible to disabled students. I find it surprising and saddening to hear that the Government plan to introduce changes to funding for disabled students that cut out all but the most severely disabled people. It strikes me as unfair for a number of reasons. There cannot be a sliding scale of equality: you are either equal, or you are not. Everyone should be treated equally and allowed access to the support and modifications that will enable them to flourish.

Cutting funding to disabled students with what the Government deem to be lesser support needs will mean that although some students are given support to access university on a level playing field, others will be denied access to equality of education.

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Mrs Ellman: Does my hon. Friend share my concern that the Government have stated that they want to replace existing Government support to disabled students with support from local authorities? This is at a time when local authorities are under the hammer, particularly those in poorer areas such as Liverpool.

Sarah Champion: I completely agree with my hon. Friend. It seems that local authorities and the voluntary and charitable sector are meant to fill all the gaps created by this Government.

It is unfair and unreasonable to think that any person should be barred from furthering their education because of a disability. The Rotherham Disability Network has told me the same thing. Its chair said that the major impact of the funding cuts on disabled students in Rotherham is that the potential hardship caused by paying for modifications will mean that many families will have to decide whether they can afford to send their son or daughter to university at all. Many such students are from disadvantaged backgrounds, with the odds stacked against them in economic and disability terms. Unfortunately, the funding cuts will be make or break when it comes to deciding whether to go to university. Surely that is not fair.

Around 40,000 disabled people graduate each year, but levels of disabled students dropping out of university are high. I worry that that figure will become higher under these changes, resulting in a drop in the number of disabled graduates. Disabled students have enough barriers to face in getting to university in the first place; we should not be cutting the vital support they need to access university learning and services while they are there. That exemplifies why the amount of money given to students should be needs-based, rather than based on arbitrary caps associated with the Government.

Ultimately, there must be genuine equality between disabled and non-disabled students, and if funding to disabled students creates a high bill, it is a price we must pay for equality. More than that, it is a price we must pay for the economic viability of the country. I would much prefer a short-term financial intervention to enable disabled students to fulfil their potential and get a good job to their being stuck in a world of part-time, low-pay work for the rest of their life.

The Government must find some other way to fund this critical support. They certainly should not be penalising disabled students, so I urge them to reverse their decision.

3.7 pm

Andy McDonald (Middlesbrough) (Lab): It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hood, and I thank the hon. Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert) for securing the debate.

I start by saying to the Minister that it is reprehensible that we are here talking about a backwards step for disabled people’s access to education. I thought we were supposed to be in the business of making life better for people, not worse. It simply cannot be right for the Minister to abdicate his responsibility to universities and say, “You get on with it. It is your duty to provide access to education and observe the principles of the Equality Act.” Surely to goodness that responsibility rests with Government as well.

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The National Union of Students has reported that 59% of disabled respondents to their “Pound in Your Pocket” survey are worried about not having enough money to meet the basic living expenses of university, while 55% are considering leaving their course. Putting another barrier in their way is certainly not going to help. Such financial challenges only add to the multitude of barriers already faced by disabled students. They are more likely to drop out than their non-disabled counterparts and less likely to be able to access postgraduate degrees. Disabled students also face reduced choice when deciding which university to attend. Many students take the opportunity to travel away from home, but for disabled students that might not be an option. Students with special care needs may require support from parents or assistants, and their choices are dictated by accessibility.

Receiving the disabled students allowance massively improves disabled students’ experience and success while in higher education. Research has shown that students receiving DSA are more likely to achieve the very highest degree classifications than those who do not. The decision to remove DSA funding for standard specification computers, software and associated instruments compromises disabled students’ ability to get ahead and make the very best of their time in university.

Mr Sheerman: Does my hon. Friend agree that the fundamental difference between us and the Minister is that he does not understand that the direct payment was the emancipation of disabled people, allowing them to see going to university as a right?

Andy McDonald: Absolutely. My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. That principle has been enshrined, and we should treasure it.

It is not good enough to suggest that everyone owns a laptop or that computers are now ubiquitous among students. They are not cheap, and it simply cannot be assumed that everyone from an area like mine has one. For those from a well-heeled background, where these things are easily provided, that is fair enough, but it is not the case for families from other backgrounds.

The changes to DSA also fail to recognise the needs of the up to 98% of disabled students who require specific software to help them with their studies. The Government have suggested that cheaper tablet and notebook devices might be suitable for disabled students, but such machines are simply not equipped with the power or memory to support specialised software alongside standard office and internet programs, as the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard) so eloquently explained.

My second major concern is about moving responsibility for providing non-medical support from the Government to individual institutions. The reforms assume that disability is evenly distributed, but that is not the case. There are smaller institutions where disabled students make up a higher percentage of the total number. How will those institutions cope with the changes? Some higher education institutions might be deterred from actively recruiting disabled students, simply because of the cost if they attend. Indeed, Teesside university in my constituency has warned that it might cost up to half a million pounds to replace any funding elements that are withdrawn.

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Universities currently have a duty to provide reasonable adjustments for their students, but they are largely undefined and open to interpretation. I am greatly concerned that if institutions are unable adequately to provide for disabled students, there will be limited means to raise the issue. Confusion and uncertainty will undoubtedly affect the level of applications from disabled people and the subsequent willingness of disabled people to seek the support they need to progress and attain qualifications.

Many disabled students in Middlesbrough would suffer as a result of the changes, and I recently met the NUS welfare officer at Teesside, who provided some key examples. A student in computing and digital forensics suffering from—I hope I pronounce this correctly—visual stress/Irlen syndrome required ClaroRead software and modified glasses to enable her to read without undue hindrance, but she would not have been able to purchase those essential tools without DSA. We can all cite many such examples, and they will be repeated all over the country, but I will bring my comments to a close. These individuals are not seeking to cheat the system or to get something for nothing; they simply want their right to succeed in education. The punitive changes to DSA will undoubtedly limit the ability of disabled students to fulfil their ambitions and their potential. It is simply incomprehensible that legislators in a wealthy, modern country are looking to withdraw support from those who require it simply to get an education.

3.12 pm

Lilian Greenwood (Nottingham South) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert) on securing this important debate, and it is good to see it so well supported. When the Universities Minister announced the Government’s proposed changes to DSA on 7 April, they came as a real shock to universities and students alike, and gave rise to a great many questions.

All of us here know the difference DSA can make to disabled students and to their ability to benefit from the opportunities offered by higher education. In that regard, a couple of students in my constituency have written to me. One says that they have just completed their BA in sociology, for which they have been awarded a first-class degree, and that they are going on to do a master’s degree next year. They add that

“quite honestly I could not have achieved this without support from disabled students allowance.”

Having a hearing and visual impairment, they feel that there are real challenges in studying for a degree and that DSA has been absolutely essential. In this student’s case, DSA provided funding for note-taking support in lectures; library browsing support; reader support, whereby a support worker could read aloud sections of written text; practical support with finding buildings on campus; assistance with paying for books, paper and printer ink; and assistive technology, including a laptop, a printer and magnification capacity. It is clear that all those things are necessary for someone to achieve such great results.

I had a further letter from a mathematics undergraduate at the university of Nottingham. They say they received a DSA-funded mentor, who not only helped them to

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undertake their work, but supported them with social situations—obviously, part of university is the opportunity to operate in a new environment. They say:

“Without my mentor my experience at university would have been very different and I fear I would have been overwhelmed with academic issues.”

They say they would not have had the opportunity to experience university in the same way as a non-disabled student might.

The Equality Challenge Unit showed us that disabled students who receive DSA do better than those who do not, and we should look at extending it, rather than reducing it. When the Minister made his statement to the House, he talked about modernising the system, the equality impact assessment and limiting the public funding available and making sure it was targeted at those most in need. That raises a number of questions, which he really must answer. How is the review being carried out and who will be properly consulted? When will the equality impact assessment be published and to what extent will its conclusions require changes to his proposals?

There is real concern about the funding for disabled student support and about potentially targeting it on those in most need. What happens to those who have minor or moderate needs, but for whom DSA is nevertheless important? As one of my hon. Friends said, there is also the impact on institutions, especially smaller ones and those with a disproportionate number of disabled students.

I am particularly concerned to raise one other issue. The university of Nottingham has told me that Student Finance England has jumped the gun, is assuming that DSA will be cut and has started implementing reforms—before we have even had a proper debate in the House. Will the Minister confirm that any changes will be properly consulted on and debated before they are implemented? Will he ensure that Student Finance England is made aware of the fact that its actions are unacceptable and have caused unnecessary panic and distress, as the university of Nottingham told me?

DSA is vital, and any revisions must be undertaken only with care and after proper consideration and debate. The Minister must listen and respond.

3.16 pm

Nic Dakin (Scunthorpe) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert) on securing the debate. It is clear from the comments made how strong feeling is on the issue—not only in the House, but outside.

I would like to quote my constituent, June Jacobs, who recently wrote to me:

“The allowance made a big difference to me and it saddens me to think that the next generation of students would not have access to funds that could make the difference between succeeding in their studies or not.”

With the word “succeeding”, she puts her finger on the issue before us. Succeeding is about aspiration and about enrolling on the course of our choice, remaining on it and achieving—it is about all that, and DSA has a track record of helping people to succeed.

From my experience as a principal of a sixth-form college, I know that the message DSA gave young people was about building aspiration and belief. It allowed them to believe in themselves and to believe that they would go forward. It also showed leadership

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by the Government on this crucial issue. That leadership helps to break down barriers and create access. As a result, DSA was, and is, transformative in people’s lives.

By going down the proposed route extremely hastily, the Government risk giving the wrong message. Indeed, as my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) said, that message is already out there and causing damage, which will create more damage tomorrow. The proposals will constrain people’s aspirations and choices, which is really negative.

The Minister is a good Minister, and I hope he is listening, reflecting on the debate and trying to find ways, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Mr Blunkett) said, to take the battle back to the Treasury. We will be with him in that battle, because he needs to win it. As things are, the pain will far outweigh the gain, and that, in political terms, is the test.

We risk making a very bad decision very hastily. This process is happening too quickly for us to have proper consultation and to involve all those who need to be involved if we are to get this right and ensure that, if we go down a different route, the implementation of any proposals will protect the future.

3.19 am

Paul Blomfield (Sheffield Central) (Lab): I join the congratulations to the hon. Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert) on initiating the debate, which is important to me. I am delighted to represent more students than any other Member of the House—36,000 of them. Both Sheffield’s universities are in my constituency and I have met students from both to talk about their concerns, and mine, about the DSA proposals.

In a letter to Members of 3 June, to brief us in anticipation of the NUS lobby on the Friday of that week, the Minister described the changes as “measures to modernise” DSA. I would have thought better of him than that, because it is the sort of Orwellian doublespeak that makes people cynical about politics. This is not about modernisation, as he knows. It is about balancing the Department’s books on the back of disabled students, just as the Treasury sought to do with other vulnerable groups, with the attack on the student opportunity allocation earlier this year. He fought his corner then, and I hope he will do so in the present case.

In the letter, the Minister identified what he described as unsustainable growth in spending on DSA, with an increase over this Parliament of £37 million. That is a tiny proportion of his budget and just 6% of the £620 million growth in grants and loans to students in private colleges, which is partly policy design and partly a failure by his Department to maintain adequate controls over that budget line. The wrong people are paying for the consequences of those mistakes. The priorities are wrong, and those with disabilities are being punished for the black hole in the Minister’s budget.

Disabled students’ No. 1 priority in choosing a university is the access and support that they will have; that is more important to them than the choice of courses. They are more likely to drop out than non-disabled students. We can all throw statistics around, but I want to share a story about a university of Sheffield student union officer, Kat Chapman. She is dyslexic and recently finished her degree, with a high 2:1. She is delighted to be embarking on a master’s degree at Cambridge. She is

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the model for the sort of person we want to progress in universities: a woman and a scientist. She clearly said to me that her delight at going to Cambridge

“is overshadowed by the fear of not receiving the same help that I have done through my undergraduate degree.”

The Minister has said that universities should meet the cost of supporting students such as Kat, but will making disabled students more expensive for universities improve access to higher education? Of course not. Universities will fulfil their equality obligations, which the Minister talked about earlier, but that will happen at a cost if there is no funding. The universities that are the most inclusive will face the greatest costs.

The Minister said in a communication of 25 June that

“it is not the case that students with ‘mild’ dyslexia”—

such as Kat—

“will no longer receive DSA funding.”

An assessment of Kat’s needs would determine who pays. I ask him for clarity: which needs will the Government help to meet, and which will it be left to universities to meet? Will he think again about this foolish short-term policy and take the case to the Treasury?

3.23 pm

Mrs Emma Lewell-Buck (South Shields) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hood. I thank the hon. Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert) for obtaining the debate.

Many people already know that I have mild dyslexia and dyspraxia. I know that without the support that came from my university I would never have qualified as a social worker, and that is why the proposals concern me. From 2016, a person in my position may be denied the opportunities that allowed me to succeed academically.

According to the Minister, the Government propose to ensure that the limited public funding available for DSA is targeted in the best way, to achieve value for money, while ensuring that those who are most in need get the help they require. However, I am not convinced and the Government have not provided enough evidence to show that support for those with moderate needs will be maintained. There is still a threat that they will be locked out of higher education. That is a further blow to disabled students who are already suffering as a result of the Government’s trebling of tuition fees. A report by the National Union of Students found that 55% of disabled students have considered leaving their courses, compared with 35% of non-disabled students. I cannot imagine how the changes will encourage students to remain on their courses, or future students to enter higher education.

Universities have a duty not to discriminate against students with disabilities under the Equality Act 2010, passed by the previous Labour Government. It is of course right to expect higher education institutions to carry out those duties as my university did. However, the Government have been unable to explain how institutions are supposed to meet the duty under the reformed scheme. Their share of responsibility will greatly increase, but we do not know where they will find the resources to carry out that responsibility. We do not even know the effect that the proposals will have on the total DSA spend. It is worrying that the Government

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have rushed ahead without either conducting a full analysis of the impact or holding a public consultation, to ask institutions whether they will be able to cope with plugging the gaps left by DSA.

Even more worryingly, by giving institutions more responsibility for delivering specialist support, the Government will create a situation in which the most inclusive universities will be hit hardest. That could, as the National Association of Disability Practitioners pointed out, have perverse consequences: those universities might not be able to afford to be so inclusive, or they might be forced to make cuts in other areas.

Disabled people already face disadvantages in higher education. They are less likely to enrol and to study full time, and more likely to drop out before finishing their course. If that is the situation now, we can expect it to get worse once the Government’s DSA cuts take effect. Disabled people thinking about entering higher education today will have no idea what support to expect, or what the effect on their finances will be.

I feel lucky to have been supported with my dyslexia and dyspraxia. My condition is relatively mild, but the help that I received made a difference and helped to get me where I am today. I am concerned that people with mild conditions will be written off under the Government’s proposals and will never get the opportunities that I have been lucky enough to have.

3.26 pm

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): I congratulate the hon. Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert) on obtaining the debate.

I want first to say clearly that I am concerned about the cuts and the dramatic effect that they will have on the people who need the DSA the most. The hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) talked about belief, hope, opportunity and ambition, and all those things will be hurt by the slashing of the grants.

Early-day motion 48 notes the NUS research finding that

“55 per cent of disabled students have already seriously considered leaving their course compared to 35 per cent of non-disabled respondents”,

with 54 per cent citing financial difficulties. Clearly, there is an issue. The reason I, a Northern Ireland Member, am speaking in the debate, is that the change will affect students from Northern Ireland who go across to universities on the mainland. The hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams) talked about Wales and Scotland, and there will be an effect for people from Northern Ireland as well. The change will affect us all.

I know from some of my constituents that the DSA helps with buying special equipment required for studying, non-medical helpers such as note-takers or readers, extra travel costs that disabled students may have and others costs for things such as tapes and Braille paper. Non-medical help such as that provided by note-takers is critical to disabled students. Some require their help throughout the semester; others need their assistance whenever they must go into hospital, which for some is a fact of life. Surely, the House recognises the importance of such helpers, particularly those who help when a student is in hospital.

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I am sure that hon. Members have already looked through the background notes for the debate, which clearly explain who needs help: they include people with autism, people with sight or hearing issues and people with learning difficulties, of whom there are almost 22,000, as well as about 3,400 people with mental health issues, nearly 3,600 people with multiple disabilities and 540 people with wheelchair mobility. Clearly, complex health and physical needs must be addressed. People’s concern about the proposal is therefore understandable.

According to the Equality Challenge Unit, 71% of disabled graduates gained employment in 2012, compared with 42% of disabled non-graduates. Already a high number of disabled students consider leaving university because of high costs, and surely the figures are testament to the importance of providing disabled students with DSA, which enables them to pursue some of the ambition that we in this Chamber want to encourage.

If the change to DSA is pursued, there will be direct implications for people whom I and other hon. Members represent. We have heard about the cutting of DSA for dyslexic students, and the Minister has referred to those with complex needs or exceptional circumstances receiving DSA. I should like to know, for the life of me, exactly what that means, because I do not see that coming down to the people whose grants will be taken away from them.

The one issue that has perhaps not been hinted at is the bill for DSA. In 2011-12, the bill was £124 million for 53,000 undergraduates. The latest figures from the Student Loans Company, however, show that spending on DSA had reduced by almost £5 million in 2012-13, despite the number of claimants rising by almost 2,000. More seems to be being delivered with less money, so will the Minister say how his figures work out, given the reduction of almost £5 million and the almost 2,000 extra students? Why are we considering further cuts given some of the cuts that are happening already? In 2013, of the whole United Kingdom, Northern Ireland was hit hardest by the benefit cuts, with £750 million taken out of the economy. The case for the DSA proposal is not proven and is not acceptable. I strongly object to what is taking place.

3.30 pm

Mr Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): Mr Hood, it is very kind of you to call me to speak briefly, even though I failed to tell you that I wanted to speak. I am conscious of that.

As the MP for Huddersfield, I represent Huddersfield university, which was the university of the year this year. The university has an amazing student body—including Coco Toma, the communications officer, and others—that constantly talks to me about how the proposals will affect disabled students. The empowerment and emancipation of students provided by this direct gift from the Government is wonderful. People know about DSA; they anticipate it; and it changes lives. I have talked to disabled students who say that, if they had the new system that the Minister will introduce, they would not have thought about going to university.

I know that the Minister will be embarrassed, but he and I get on very well. I think that he will change his mind. If he does not, this will be a big political issue at the general election. I hope that an incoming Labour Government will make it clear that we will change the proposal, because it is wrong.

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I have great respect for the hon. Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert), but disabled students are particularly double-whammied because the tremendous increase in student debt hits them more than anyone else. Disabled students have not forgotten the pledge or that the Liberal Democrats led us up the garden path. We all thought that they would never be in a coalition.

Dr Huppert: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr Sheerman: No. The hon. Gentleman did not give way to me, so I will not give way to him. The fact of the matter is that some people in Cambridge tell me that, whatever he does, they will not forget the pledge. He might work hard for the disabled students allowance, but they will not forget the breaking of that pledge.

Dr Huppert: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr Sheerman: No, I will not give way. The hon. Gentleman will get his come-uppance at the next election, and so will any Government who introduce this dreadful scheme.

3.33 pm

Jason McCartney (Colne Valley) (Con): Thank you for squeezing me in, Mr Hood. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, and it is a pleasure to follow my near neighbour, the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman). Like him, I have engaged closely with the students union of my local university, the award-winning Huddersfield university. I thank Josh, the president of the Huddersfield students union, and Daniel, the democracy and campaigns officer, for coming down to brief me. I voted against the rise in tuition fees in December 2010 because I was concerned that students from low-income backgrounds would be put off applying to university. I did not go to university.

Dr Huppert: Like my hon. Friend, I voted against the rise in tuition fees. I am the first Member of Parliament for Cambridge to vote against a fee rise. When there was a Labour MP, she voted for a fee rise having promised to oppose it.

Jason McCartney: That is worth putting on the record.

I am concerned about the proposed changes—they are just proposed at this stage—because Josh and Daniel explained to me the implications, the worries about the cost of modifying laptops, and the importance of scribes and note takers. They talked about their first hand experience of students they study with who have dyspraxia and dyslexia. That is why I am here representing them today. They have questions about the complexity of different learning difficulties and how they would be categorised. There is also the cost of modifications to accommodation. Huddersfield university is investing hundreds of thousands of pounds in new accommodation, and there would be concerns about that, too. They told me that more than 700 students at Huddersfield university currently receive DSA, so it is close to people’s hearts in my part of the world.

I look forward to hearing from the Front Benchers, particularly the Minister, whether we will look again at the proposed changes. I encourage the Minister to engage with local students unions, to involve them in the process and to work hard so that every student, no matter what their economic background or disability,

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has a fantastic opportunity to engage in our world-class universities, particularly my wonderful, award-winning Huddersfield university.

3.35 pm

Mr Liam Byrne (Birmingham, Hodge Hill) (Lab): It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hood. I add my congratulations to the hon. Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert) on securing this debate.

I have a simple argument to put to the Minister: the proposals are flawed, they need to be dropped and they need to be dropped now. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) that the Minister is a good Minister and a good man. He has been put in a difficult position, and I hope that in today’s excellent debate he sees a consensus that stretches across the House. We are here with him to help him win the argument and to put the proposals where they need to be, which is in the bin.

We have heard powerful arguments this afternoon about the success of DSA, how the proposed changes are slipshod and why it was wrong to develop these proposals not in the open but in secret. We have heard powerful arguments about why DSA is so successful. We do not give disabled students enough help to change their lives by going to university, and we have to hold on to that basic fact in this debate. I congratulate the National Union of Students on its work to expose how important DSA is to thousands of students. Some 60% of disabled students are terribly worried about the cost of living, which is a much higher proportion than for most students. More than half of disabled students have thought about dropping out of their course, which is a much higher proportion than for most students. That is why DSA is so important to students across the country.

Today’s debate has been particularly powerful. My hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck) told her own story, but we have also heard stories from my hon. Friends the Members for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey), for Middlesbrough (Andy McDonald), for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) and for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) and from my right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford East (Mr Smith) about people they represent who have serious worries. The National Union of Students has collected similar stories, such as the story of Lucia, who said that university “wasn’t easy.” She knows that

“without the validation and…support from DSA I wouldn’t have kept going… I certainly wouldn’t have been able to get my first class honours degree, and I would have been lucky to finish.”

There are stories such as Suzanna’s. She said:

“I get DSA for dyslexia. I expect I am one of those David Willetts would class as having ‘mild difficulties’. My study…advisor is a godsend.”

She now wants to finish neuroscience and cure Parkinson’s disease. She said:

“Without DSA I would probably still be a waitress. A bad waitress at that.”

There are stories like Charlotte’s. She said that when she was making her university choices the availability of DSA was key to her getting into university and changing her life. In the background briefing for this debate we have heard argument after argument for protecting, preserving and enhancing DSA.

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The Campaign for Science and Engineering makes the interesting point that if we care about the supply line of science, technology, engineering and maths skills in our economy, we should care about the future of DSA:

“One of the most worrying developments for STEM is the removal of…‘higher specification and/or higher cost computers…because of the way in which a course is delivered’”.

CASE continues:

“DSA funding will… only be provided for ‘the most specialist non-medical help (NMH) support.’ The definition of… ‘specialist’ is not clear.”

Many hon. Members have made that point today. The proposal would damage the chances of people on STEM courses in particular, which is why the changes are such bad news. In this House we are always happy to hear the case for reform. When pressed by hon. Members at oral questions the other day, the Minister said that no student would be worse off. That is a very big promise. Let us be honest: most of us here would like to believe him, but when my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Mr Blunkett) tabled a parliamentary question to the Minister on 26 June about the extent to which DSA would be supported in future, answer came there none. The question was dodged, and that is why so many of us in this House have such serious concerns.

The Minister will no doubt want to remind us that the bill for DSA has gone up. That is true, but in the last year for which figures are available it has gone down by £5 million, while the number of disabled students who are supported has gone up, so each of them is actually getting much less. That is why we are so worried about a kind of carte blanche shunt of responsibilities to universities.

We have heard very clearly today the warnings from experienced people in this House about what happens when responsibility is shunted over. The hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard) put the case powerfully. There is too much ambiguity in an Act as high level as the Equality Act, important though that is. We should be honest about what is going on. This is a cost shunt to universities—let us call it what it is—but it is a cost shunt without any safeguards to go with it, and that is why so many of us are worried. I think the Minister will acknowledge that that is one heck of a gamble with the futures of disabled students in our country. It is certainly not a gamble that we want to see.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) made an important point when she underlined how the risk of a postcode lottery in the way disabled students are supported will mean that people’s choices will be damaged. They will not be able to pursue the choices that they want. As my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) pointed out, it will be the most inclusive universities that are most damaged by the proposal. The worst-case scenario, we are told, is grim indeed.

I was concerned, as I know the Minister was, when I read the briefing from people who are expert in supporting disabled students, which stated that the worst-case scenario could see 60% to 70% of DSA eliminated. That is an enormous bill. The Minister accepts there is a problem with supporting disabled students at university, which is

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why he is not proposing the abolition of DSA. The fact that DSA is to continue is an acceptance of the principle that extra central Government support is needed.

We are not being told what the real objectives of the reform will look like. By how much does the Minister seek to cut the bill? How big will the cost shunt be? They are not the sort of questions we should be debating here this afternoon. We should have been debating them long ago—in January, February or March—before the ministerial statement appeared. Opposition Members are worried, as I am sure the hon. Member for Cambridge is too, that organisations such as the National Deaf Children’s Society felt they were not given a real chance to put their points of view in meetings that were simply cut short. That is not a standard of consultation that we are prepared to see, because the issue is simply too important.

If there is a need for modernisation, let us hear it. The Minister is a good man and a good Minister. He should be up front with us about how much he is seeking to save. He should be debating with us what extra safeguards need to be put in place to protect the rights and opportunities for disabled students in the years to come. The need is urgent. Lord Addington has told the other place that guidance for April is being drawn up. All of us wanted to be part of any changes that needed to be introduced. That is what we got when the DWP proposed to change the DLA and introduce the personal independence payment. It is the approach that we saw when the DWP wanted to introduce universal credit. Those were big and important changes, and Opposition Front Benchers were invited to the Department to discuss them. We may have disagreed with the conclusions, but at least we had the chance to flag up a few warnings, make a few suggestions and ensure that the debate was had in public, not in secret.

I think the Minister is a good man who will want to think again about the proposals. The debate should not have been today; it should have been in the early part of the year before the proposals were drawn up. If modernisation is needed, let us hear the arguments. If there are savings to be had, let us hear the targets, but we will not stand by while disabled students are given a bunch of proposals and told to like it or lump it. Disabled students demand and deserve much better than that.

3.45 pm

The Minister for Universities and Science (Mr David Willetts): It is a pleasure to respond to this important debate, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert) on securing it.

I want to make it absolutely clear that we are not abolishing DSA. Some Members who intervened have assumed it would disappear. It is a substantial item of spending now running at about £125 million, but we envisage that there will continue to be significant DSA in future. Several Members, particularly the hon. Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield), did not like my statement that we were modernising it, but let me explain briefly what modernisation means and why we are engaging with it.

The system of DSA has not changed significantly since it was introduced in 1974. Since then, there have been widespread technological changes, some of which

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have improved disabled people’s ability to access education through advances in IT, but some things that were previously available by special arrangement are now widespread. For example, many people have laptops or other forms of access to IT. So there have been advances in technology, which have spread across the country.

Let me tackle head-on another significant change that has happened: the spread of equality duties under the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 and the Equality Act 2010. The right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Mr Blunkett) was emphatic on that point. I have enormous respect for him and his work, but it is reasonable for us to say what is the right balance of responsibility between institutions’ legal obligations under the Acts and individual payments to students via the DSA. There may well be types of provision that are better and more efficiently delivered on an institutional basis via the universities’ obligation than via individual student support.

Perhaps as a lay person I can give a simple practical example. If a university has a library where people with disabilities find it hard to access material, it is a legitimate question to ask whether the DSA should provide for their costs to access the library or whether the library should be organised in such a way that every time someone comes in—

3.47 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

4.2 pm


Mr Jim Hood (in the Chair): Before I call the Minister, I remind right hon. and hon. Members that 15 minutes extra—the time taken for the Division—will be added to this debate. The debate that was supposed to start at 4 pm will start 15 minutes later.

Mr Willetts: I am not sure that this extra time will be as good as that in the Belgium versus United States match, but I will do my best. I welcome hon. Members who have come for the next debate and apologise to them.

I was starting to wind up the debate, explaining why it is legitimate to carry out the review and why the term “modernisation” is legitimate. One argument in that regard was about technical change. I was also saying that there is a genuine issue about obligations under the Equality Act, whereby universities have a duty to make reasonable adjustments for students who are disabled. We have to get the balance right between the institutional obligation on the university and personal financial support for the individual student. I was giving an example of how a library should function, saying that the obligation could be discharged by a library properly training its staff to help people with a range of disabilities. That may be a more effective way of delivering support for disabled people than individual disabled students turning up at the library with a personal assistant to help them. It is legitimate to try to get the individual versus institution balance reviewed in the light of the equalities duties.

The right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough did not like the fact that I referred to the funding available for universities, but several hon. Members,

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beginning with my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge but not only him, specifically asked, “How will universities pay, given that you are expecting them to discharge these institutional obligations?” There are two genuine points to be made in response, although more could be made.

First, with regard to the equalities duties that the House has introduced under successive Governments, by and large we do not say, “We therefore need an extra stream of funding for the NHS”, any more than we say that there should be extra public support for Marks & Spencer. Hon. Members should remember that, legally, universities are independent institutions outside the public sector. The general view across the House, when we have imposed equality duties, has been that that is just part of the proper functioning of an institution.

Secondly, it is fortunate that our universities are in a healthy financial position. I will not stray from the point, as happened in the argument a few minutes ago between the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) and my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge, but the sums going to universities for teaching—the combination of the grant income and the fee income that they receive—is rising substantially as a result of the controversial changes that we introduced, going from £7.9 billion total income in 2011-12 to £9.9 billion in 2015-16.

To be frank with hon. Members who voted against the £9,000 fee—I suspect that the majority of those in this Chamber did so—it is inconceivable that universities would have enjoyed a £2 billion increase in teaching income in the life of this Parliament under any other model of financing universities, especially one that depended on public expenditure through grant. There is a genuine increase in their financial resource. Several hon. Members expressed concern that our proposal comes at a bad time, when universities have not got any money, but in fact they have had an increase in their cash resource.

Mr Byrne: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way with characteristic generosity. Can he help hon. Members? He has made an eloquent argument for the need to rebalance responsibilities between central Government and independent universities, saying that we need to do so because it is a long time since we have considered the matter. By how much is he seeking to reduce the DSA budget over the next financial year and the one after? He must know, because he has a list of specific measures.

Mr Willetts: I was going to get to that point in a moment. We are still consulting—it is a genuine consultation—so I cannot give the House a specific figure, because that will depend on a host of things, including exactly how the proposals are implemented and wider effects. However, it is a budget that has grown rapidly. Incidentally, the right hon. Gentleman said that that growth had stopped. There is always a difference between the provisional figures and the final outcome figures. My personal expectation is that the final outcome figures for the latest year should be higher than those for the previous year. It is not fair to compare final outcome figures with provisional figures. We will see. The budget has increased from about £88 million when we came to office to about £125 million now, so it is legitimate to look at it. However, we do not have a specific allocated figure.

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Mr Sheerman: Will the Minister give way?

Mark Durkan (Foyle) (SDLP): Will the Minister give way?

Mr Willetts: I will give way briefly to the hon. Member for Huddersfield, but I have a lot of specific points to make, so after doing so I shall make progress.

Mr Sheerman: The Minister knows what I am going to say. He is looking through rose-tinted glasses at the future of finance in higher education, but it is not all as rosy as that. A vice-chancellor recently said to me, “The real worry that I have is that the whole HE system is based on a mountain of student debt.” That is our worry. It is not as rosy a picture as the Minister has painted.

Mr Willetts: That is a separate issue. The graduate repayment system is a fair, sustainable and viable way of financing our universities, and it would be a mistake to try to reverse that.

I turn to some of the specific issues that have been raised. Let me say clearly to right hon. and hon. Members that we will fund non-medical help that would not be a reasonable adjustment for higher education institutions to make. We will define the obligations of the institutions, and on top of that there will be support for non-medical help, which in certain situations will include support for students with specific learning difficulties, as well as other groups. Hon. Members mentioned IT, and we will make a contribution to the costs of higher-cost and higher-specification computers in certain circumstances if they are required purely because of the student’s disability. We will pay the extra costs that arise from those computers being required by students with a disability, rather than have a general payment for laptops when they are now widespread across society. We will also cover additional costs of specialist accommodation in exceptional circumstances.

Mr Andrew Smith: Have the Minister and the Government looked into the implications more widely, beyond higher education, of the Government making such a definition of what is a reasonable adjustment by universities? Is there not a real risk that others will cite that definition and say that anything that goes beyond it is not a reasonable adjustment for them, thereby denying disabled people in other areas too?

Mr Willetts: That will be the last intervention that I take, because time is tight.

We are consulting, and we will produce guidance that will help make the crucial distinction between what institutions can legitimately be expected to do and where individual funding is required.

We are talking about education, and I want to come back to that, because several Members raised the topic. It is a distinct responsibility. We are consulting, and we will continue to meet a whole range of groups representing disabled people. We have already discussed the policy changes with, for example, the National Union of Students, Universities UK and the Office for Fair Access, and there will be many further such meetings in the future.

Institutions will be expected to have reasonable adjustments in place by September 2015. We believe that the time scales provide sufficient time for us to

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work with institutions and stakeholders to ensure that changes are introduced effectively, but I understand that some institutions are concerned that they will be disproportionately affected due to their high numbers of disabled students. Several Members have made that point, which will be considered before guidance is issued to the sector in the autumn. The guidance will help institutions understand better the role that DSA will play, enabling them to consider the support they will need to provide. We will also provide regular updates for the HE sector over the coming months.

Student information and guidance, which will include information on DSA changes as well as on the wider student support package, will be available in September in the normal way. Once we conclude our consultation meetings, we will be in a position to issue draft guidance in early autumn on what DSA will cover. That guidance will benefit higher education institutions and assessment centres in particular. Stakeholders will have the chance to review it and ensure that it is sufficiently clear and understandable before it goes live. I undertake to lay the relevant regulations at that time, which will allow Members to see the regulations and the draft guidance in parallel. Before adopting either, the Government will continue to have due regard to the impact of the changes on the aims set out in the Equality Act 2010. We will publish our analysis on that at the same time.

A point was raised about existing students and DSA students beginning university in 2014-15. They will remain on the current arrangements in 2015-16. I have already announced that the maximum available DSA amounts will not be changing. We are not adopting a blunt approach to the provision of non-medical help. We realise that non-medical help will be the responsibility of higher education institutions, but we recognise that in certain areas, perhaps as a result of the impact or severity of a disability, DSA has an additional role to play once reasonable adjustment has been made. In the case of complex needs, we will assess the severity of the impact on the education of the student. It will not be a simple physical assessment of their disability; it will be an assessment of how the disability challenges they face affect their ability to benefit from higher education. That is the assessment that has to be made. We will focus on the educational impact and the severity of their educational needs. I would also like to—[Interruption.]

Mr Jim Hood (in the Chair): Order. When the Chairman can hear conversations at the back of the room, someone is out of order. I urge Members to pay attention to the Minister’s contribution.

Mr Willetts: Thank you, Mr Hood. I was trying to go almost too fast, because there is so much material to cover. I was trying to clarify the issue of specific learning difficulties and dyslexia, which has arisen in the debate. My announcement used the term “complex needs”, and I wish to make it clear that DSA will support those for whom the impact on their higher education needs is most severe. That is the approach we propose to take.

We are in consultation on technology with groups such as the British Assistive Technology Association. I assure Members that the Government are committed to supporting disabled students in accessing higher education. Students are right to expect support from their higher education institution, and DSA has been available to

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complement that support for nearly 25 years. That is not changing. What is changing is the balance between the two types of support, and that balance should be struck in the light of the Equality Act 2010. I conclude by assuring Members that over the summer, the Government and officials will continue to develop thinking, engage on policy issues and consolidate our work. We will, of course, continue to consult and keep the House informed as our proposals develop.

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Flooding (Somerset)

4.15 pm

Mr David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): I am extremely pleased to have secured the debate, which will consider the aftermath of flooding in Somerset. I am delighted to be supported on this occasion by my hon. Friends the Members for Wells (Tessa Munt) and for Taunton Deane (Mr Browne) and the hon. Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset (Mr Liddell-Grainger). We have been acting effectively as a team on the issue, and long may that continue.

I cannot honestly say that I have not had the opportunity to speak at length about flooding in Somerset on previous occasions. By my count, this is the 16th occasion this year when I have spoken on the subject. It has been a recurrent theme over my 18 years in Parliament, and sometimes I feel that I have spoken about little else. Looking back in Hansard the other day, I found that in March 2009, in a debate that I had introduced on the subject, I said:

“I am convinced that if we had proper dredging of some of our rivers and proper clearing of debris and strengthening of banks on some of the smaller tributary streams, it would make a substantial difference to the way in which we deal with these matters.”—[Official Report, 12 March 2009; Vol. 489, c. 553.]

I was right on that occasion, as were many, many local people, who had been saying the same things year in, year out for a long time. I had the opportunity to say some of those same things to the Minister’s predecessor, the hon. Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon), when he came down to see me in Langport in April 2012.

No one can honestly say that the flooding in Somerset this winter caught them by surprise; we knew it was going to happen. The good news is that, despite the reports about the conditions underfoot at Glastonbury festival last weekend, Somerset is now predominately dry. The floods have gone. We need to keep repeating that, because there are still people who ring up businesses in my constituency—I am sure it happens in my colleagues’ constituencies, too—saying, “Is Somerset open for business? Are you still under water?” No, we are not under water. Come and have a jolly good holiday in Somerset. It is a much better place to go than places that are further away. [Interruption.] No, I do not mean the Minister’s constituency. Somerset is a thoroughly good place to have a holiday.

Before I proceed to a catch-up on where we are, I repeat, as I have on many occasions, my thanks to everyone who was concerned during the flooding crisis with dealing with the conditions on the ground. People worked tirelessly, whether they were officers of the Environment Agency, the police, the fire brigade, council officers or volunteers. There were so many that it would be invidious to mention people by name, but they know how much their work was appreciated. I also thank those who helped in other ways, such as providing cattle fodder from the far ends of the country or providing cash to the appeals organised by the Somerset Community Foundation and others. We are deeply appreciative of that, as we are of the attention we were afforded for a few brief weeks by the Government.

The Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Minister and many other members of the

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Government came down to see for themselves what the issues were. Were we lucky that we happened to have a few weeks before the Thames valley flooding to make our point? Yes, I suspect we were, but nevertheless, we did, and we appreciate the attention we were given.

Mr Jeremy Browne (Taunton Deane) (LD): Will my hon. Friend expand on the point he just touched on? We all feel a genuine sense of gratitude that leading members of the Government—the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister and others—took such a close interest in the situation in Somerset, but surely the task now is to ensure that that interest is not passing and that the legacy of the attention afforded to our county is that we see over a period of years, not months, exactly the changes that were promised during those visits. That will ensure that the risk of floods is alleviated in the future.

Mr Heath: My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and that was why I called for today’s debate, which is perhaps unseasonable. Now is the time not only when work must happen in Somerset, which it is, but when decisions must be taken that will affect the situation for years to come. That is what I want the Minister to respond to.

I will briefly touch on the background, because we cannot escape the fact that elements of the Somerset flooding were avoidable. We expect flooding on the levels; it is a normal state of affairs. This occasion, however, was unprecedented due not only to the extreme weather conditions, but to now widely acknowledged policy mistakes. I have drawn attention to two glaring errors many times over the years, but they now have a common subscription. First, the landscape is artificial and does not maintain itself. Every drop of water that needs to be pumped away from the fields and the communities in the area must be pumped uphill into rivers that are higher than the surrounding landscape. People forget that and talk nonsense about natural drainage and flood plains when such drainage will never happen. The land is effectively reclaimed. It is land from the great mere of Somerset. Unless the water is pumped, drainage will not happen.

Secondly, an environmental heresy was allowed to develop for far too long at senior levels in the Environment Agency. It was assumed that the environmental benefit of the area was in the watercourses rather than in the land in between, which meant that what are essentially canals were being artificially preserved at the expense of the quite invaluable flora and fauna. I hope that that is now a thing of the past.

What is on the list of things to be done and how have we been managing? There have obviously been immediate acts of recovery and restitution. I understand that farm funding is considerably undersubscribed, but the Minister might be able to provide an up-to-date assessment of whether the funding has reached the farmers who need it. I also wish to add one caveat: we have not to date seen huge damage to orchards, but it is possible that it will appear later on. If we need to come back to the Department, I hope the Minister will be sympathetic if orchards have lost tree stock.

Dredging is now happening. There has been a lot of local cynicism as to whether it has been done sufficiently quickly and properly, and whether lip service has been

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paid, but I am satisfied that genuine dredging is taking place along the identified stretch. After a slow beginning, it is starting to catch up, and I think six crews are now at work. What a pity it is that we do not have the equipment that was given away or sold for peanuts many years ago. Nevertheless, the relevant area has been reconstituted and we have the hard-standings that enable the dredging machines to do their work. Will the Minister update us as to when he expects the initial tranche of dredging to be completed?

Increasing the capacity of watercourses will not satisfy local people, however. We accept the argument that increasing capacity is the most effective use of early funds, but I am conscious of the fact that the upper reaches of the Parrett were also severely flooded. Around Langport, Muchelney and Martock, there are bottlenecks that need addressing. Are we able to increase capacity under the bridge at Great Bow wharf at Langport? There are also plans to widen and deepen the Sowy diversion stream to provide extra capacity, which is a sensible idea that I would like to see happen, but it needs to be properly planned. We need to consider the potential consequences for other communities and reassure them that they will not be adversely affected by the Sowy being used to a greater extent. That issue would be particularly apparent at Beer Wall, which is where my constituency adjoins that of Bridgwater and West Somerset, and Aller Drove, which saw unprecedented flooding. Aller does not normally flood, but this time it did. I think that there was a miscalculation and that someone made a mistake in lowering the level of the river wall. Those calculations have to be right. As we use the Sowy, we must be sure that adverse effects are not happening elsewhere.

Mr Ian Liddell-Grainger (Bridgwater and West Somerset) (Con): My hon. Friend is making some good points about the Sowy. The Minister is aware that part of the Sowy development must include the barrage or the sluice—whatever we want to call it—below Bridgwater, which would complement what my hon. Friend is discussing. Will the Minister also consider ensuring that the scheme goes into the autumn statement? We need money for the Sowy and for the barrage, but it can come only from central Government. Does my hon. Friend think that that may be a way forward?

Mr Heath: I most certainly do agree, because that was going to be the principal point—

Mr Liddell-Grainger: I am so sorry.

Mr Heath: We are at one on the issue. This is the big ask. This is what we need from the Minister. I know that he will not answer today, because he is not in a position to do so, but this is the most important demand.

Purely local schemes to alleviate flooding are also needed. Thorney is a tiny village—a hamlet—that is now rather curiously described as two different places for the purposes of flooding, because it floods separately at two ends, so we now have Thorney north and south, or greater and lesser—I am not quite sure how to describe the two ends of the village. A bund of some kind—a way to stop the water coming in—would be effective, however. That is a relatively low-cost solution and one that is being considered. I want an assurance that it actually will be built to protect the people of Thorney.

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Similarly, we need to look at Muchelney Ham, a small part of Muchelney that was subjected to flooding. We also need to examine the highways situation, where the county council will be taking the lead.

I think we all agree that it is extraordinary in this day and age to have a village such as Muchelney completely cut off for week after week. We must establish at least one way to get in and out. Feasibility studies are being carried out as to whether it should be the Drayton road or whether there is a better alternative, but something must be done to ensure that people can get in and out of the village.

Mr Browne: I am hugely sympathetic to the residents of Muchelney, but while my hon. Friend is on the topic of highways, will he also discuss what could be done to improve the resilience of the A361? It is a major trunk road that links Taunton, the county town of Somerset, to the main body of the county, including Street and Glastonbury, but its resilience is inadequate. There seem to be two tasks: keep the flood water down and try to ensure that the road is open for longer stretches of time during floods.

Mr Heath: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, because the next thing written on my piece of paper is “A361”. I do not like the idea of Taunton being cut off from civilisation and we need to do something about the A361, but the question is, what? I am not convinced that simply raising the level of the road along its entire length is the most sensible use of funds, but we need to do something in combination with the sluice, which I will come back to in a moment. We need to mobilise whatever funding is available—whether from Network Rail, which otherwise needs to do something about its track across the levels, or the roads agencies—and use it in the wisest way to ensure that the road is not closed again and that we all have easy access to the pub at Burrowbridge, which served as such a useful headquarters for the media during the flooding.

Are we going to see the replacement of the necessary pumping facilities? Some have already been done, but we brought in those massive pumps during the crisis and they were an extremely good thing. We need to ensure that they are available when we need them, and without having to ask, as we need a boat to be available when necessary. Such facilities need to be built.

That brings me to the two big ticket items. One is the Parrett sluice, which I agree entirely with, having looked into the matter. As the hon. Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset knows, I was initially sceptical as to whether the sluice would include improvement for my area—it clearly would for his—but I am now convinced that it would. Preventing the influx of water from the Bristol channel at high tide, thereby ensuring that we can drain away water from the upper reaches of the levels, is crucial. We need the Chancellor of the Exchequer to announce the funding in the autumn statement—no doubt about it, we need it there in black and white. When we have that, we will be satisfied that the Government are keeping their promises to the people of Somerset.

Tessa Munt (Wells) (LD): While we are on the subject of sluices, will the Minister address the problem of Bleadon sluice, bearing in mind that we have all talked about how any approach has to be for the whole catchment

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area? My concern is with the Axe and Brue rivers; there is a need for dredging on the Brue, but my most important concern is the Axe, which drains out into the northern part of my patch and over towards Weston-super-Mare. Bleadon sluice was closed by the Environment Agency, which put a red notice on it in 2009. There has been a bundle going on—no one will take responsibility. I was told earlier this year that the sluice was going to be fixed at some point during the year, but we are a long way through it and nothing has happened. Will the Minister address that, since we are on the subject of sluices?

Mr Heath: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We cannot divorce the issues of the Parrett and Tone from those of the Axe and Brue. That is why the next ask is equally important: setting up the Somerset rivers authority, to absorb the interests of the existing internal drainage boards and to create real capacity to manage our complex water systems appropriately and with the benefit of local knowledge. That will not happen unless we have a revenue stream to support it, which in turn will not happen unless the Department for Communities and Local Government realises that Somerset is an exception and does not fit its rules. The Department will have to give way to establish what is already the case in some parts of the east of England—a separate levy to fund the maintenance we know to be necessary. Again, that is an ask to which the answer must not be no, because otherwise we will not have done our job.

Will the Minister also update us about how the common agricultural policy reforms as implemented in England—the pillar two payments, in particular—will be used to encourage water retention, the sort of sustainable use of land that will reduce the amount of water entering the lower reaches of the levels at the right time? That is a key component, whether it involves reforestation or simple changes in land use, to enable us to hold more water at higher levels, releasing it slowly when it can get away.

We need a balance between the environment and the community, including the agricultural community. The environment of the levels is precious. I will not have it said that the environmental benefits of the levels do not matter, because the levels are irreplaceable—if we allow them to drown, they die. Therefore, it is in our interests as environmentalists, as well as representatives of our community, to ensure that the balance is created. As I have said often, flooding 3-feet deep for three weeks is fine. That is what we expect in Somerset; it is the levels way. Flooding 10-feet deep for 10 weeks is unacceptable; that is when people are in difficulties, businesses and communities die, and vegetation dies as well.

I hope that the Minister will give as many answers as he can. We will excuse things not having been completed by next winter, provided that we have clear intent that they are under way. After all the promises that we have been given and all the efforts made, however, we will not excuse things simply being said only for nothing to happen. We will have flooding again this winter—that is a fact—but if it is as bad as it was last winter and we can turn around and say, “The Government have failed to do all those things that they said they were going to do,” then, frankly, the Government will have to answer not only to the people in this Chamber, but to an awful lot of people in Somerset, who will be very angry indeed.

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4.35 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Dan Rogerson): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hood, and to have the opportunity to respond to the debate.

I hope to satisfy my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr Heath) with my response, as far as I can on the day. As he said, he has raised the issues consistently, since long before my time with this portfolio. More recently, we have had a number of opportunities for debate inside and outside Parliament. He has been entirely consistent, as have my other hon. Friends present today, and they have worked together as a team, along with our right hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr Laws), who has also raised the issues with me.

I have only a short time to respond, so I will not set out everything to do with the extreme weather that we experienced, although it is important to mention that the effects in Somerset were replicated in other parts of the country. Yesterday I was debating with right hon. and hon. Members from the Humber estuary. My hon. Friends here today will be delighted to know that those Members were only requesting £880 million for the schemes identified in that area. We are not short of positive ideas to deal with flooding around the country.

The specific issues affecting Somerset are not so much to do with the large numbers of properties flooded—as my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome said, in other areas a much larger number flooded—as with the volume of the water and its duration, producing the longer term economic impacts on the communities affected. There was in excess of 65 million cubic metres of floodwater, covering an area of 65 sq km. Exceptionally, that floodwater stayed on the levels for more than 12 weeks.

The Environment Agency did an excellent job in carrying out the single largest pumping operation ever undertaken in Somerset. As my hon. Friend said, the emergency services, the volunteers and all the other groups from local communities and from across the country who offered assistance did a magnificent job in some very difficult conditions. In addition to the 40 permanent pumps, the Environment Agency mobilised a further 24 temporary units, increasing the ability to pump by more than 150%, although there is an interaction between the tidal nature of the catchments and the ability to get the water out into the sea, which my hon. Friend considered when talking about the sluice. I want to make it clear that there are no plans to reduce the number of Environment Agency front-line flood and coastal risk management posts. That issue has been raised in the past.

On my first visit to the Somerset levels with my hon. Friend during the episodes of winter flooding there, the clear ask from the community was for dredging of the rivers. I came back to the Department determined that we should re-examine the case for doing so. The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs followed up with a visit and asked all the local organisations to meet and to put an action plan together, with support from officials in the Environment Agency and DEFRA. That happened in a remarkably speedy six weeks. I chaired the first meeting and returned later to hear

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about some of the progress. We now have the action plan, whose delivery is crucial for the future of the levels.

Tessa Munt: Will the Minister give way?

Dan Rogerson: I will give way briefly, but I do not have much time.

Tessa Munt: It is a brief point. Will the Minister make absolutely certain that DEFRA officials stay engaged with the process, because an internal drainage board cannot do things on its own? It is crucial that DEFRA officials carry on working with the boards.

Dan Rogerson: DEFRA officials and indeed Ministers will remain involved. The Secretary of State was in the area again recently to look at progress. He has been appointed flood envoy for Somerset and Wiltshire by the Prime Minister, as I have for Cornwall. We maintain an interest in the delivery of the plan which, as my hon. Friend says, is crucial. Money has been made available from the Department for Transport, DEFRA and the Department for Communities and Local Government. For example, an additional £12.3 million from the Department for Transport has been made available to the county council to help roads recovery.

I want to pick up on some of the issues in the action plan and the progress that has been made against that plan. An important element is resilience, which is perhaps slightly more intangible than dredging and hard defences but is important. The Somerset civil contingencies partnership is providing a dedicated programme of targeted support to help people, farms, businesses and neighbourhoods to recover, including by accessing the support and advice that we have made available. They are working hard on plans to increase resilience in the future. As my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome said, flooding will happen again, so we must ensure that communities have what they need at their disposal. That is particularly so for people who have moved to the area and may not have been through this before, unlike the old hands who have and know about resilience and how to support one another.

Implementation of the action plan has started with the dredging of the Rivers Parrett and Tone. It started when the banks were stable and safe enough to support the weight of the heavy equipment, when local access permission had been sought and preparations made for receiving the excavated silt. The dredging is progressing well and is on target to be completed by the autumn. The plan is to dredge 8 km of river; so far 1.7 km has been completed and the number of gangs has increased from two to six.

Work is in hand to find alternative ways of getting water to flow from the Parrett catchment area by increasing the capacity of the River Sowy and the King’s Sedgemoor drain so that water can be pumped more easily and be diverted to Dunball where extra pumps are working. The footings have been made permanent so we can call on them if necessary. That will lower the levels in the River Parrett sufficiently to enable the pumping stations to be operated, helping to lower water levels on the moors around Langport, and to a lesser extent around West Sedgemoor, Curry moor and North moor.

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The Environment Agency is currently scoping this work and hopes to appoint a consultant by the end of this month who will work with communities and professional partners to agree aims and to include them in the development of the options. By the autumn, the agency expects to have assessed a range of options to see what is feasible. Partnership funding will be needed to build the scheme. Further key action is the construction of a barrier or sluice to deal with the impact of a rise in sea level and to protect Bridgwater from flooding, and to look at future development.

On Friday 6 June, the Environment Agency, with Sedgemoor district council, organised a technical meeting to discuss various options for the type of barrier that could be used. The meeting was attended by 60 people who received presentations from experts from across the country who have been involved in the design of other flood defence barriers. The long-term vision for Bridgwater was also discussed. A group will review these options and compile a report by September. That report will contribute to an informed decision on the preferred option.

The Environment Agency estimates that it will be three to five years before construction starts and that it will take two years to complete notwithstanding discussions on funding, to which my hon. Friend is keen to draw attention. If we have a plan by September, that will allow serious consideration of the funding options.

Under the action plan, a new Somerset rivers board is being set up. It will have greater control of and responsibility for work to maintain water and flood risk management in the area. This work is being co-ordinated by Somerset county council, working closely with district councils, the Environment Agency, Natural England and the internal drainage boards, which do such crucial work not just in the Parrett and Tone catchment areas but the Axe and Brue areas.

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The Somerset rivers board was discussed at an interim leaders implementation group meeting on 20 June. It was a positive meeting that acknowledged the need for compromises and urgency. The options under review include organisational structures, legislative requirements and funding models, all issues that will need to be discussed by local and national Government to ensure a sustainable model in the future. Proposals being considered include an appropriate catchment-wide funding mechanism to generate additional funds. These proposals will be discussed at the next leaders group meeting on 7 July. When proposals have been agreed, next steps will include consultation and engagement on them. In addition, work is under way to consider raising the road to Muchelney and building a ring-bank flood protection scheme for Thorney. My hon. Friend was keen to make the case for that.

We have made provision through funding such as the farming recovery fund, and 167 applications were received from Somerset by the 27 June deadline. That represents 44% of all the claims. It was available to other areas of the country that experienced winter flooding from early December 2013 to April 2014. The total value of claims from Somerset is over £1.5 million of the money that was made available. Repair and renew grant is also available, and householders and businesses may claim up to £5,000 to establish flood resilience measures on their property. Of the 283 properties that were flooded in Somerset, 219 were in the area covered by Sedgemoor district council. Other councils have also taken that option.

In the few seconds remaining, I should say that I greatly appreciate the leadership that has been shown in communities. This has helped to bridge the gap between local and national agencies. We will continue to focus on delivering the action plan. There are challenges ahead, but if we work together we can overcome them so that that resilient community has a better time in future.

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VAT on e-books

4.45 pm

Mr Tom Harris (Glasgow South) (Lab): Through you, Mr Hood, I thank Mr Speaker for giving me the opportunity to raise this matter. I raised the subject under a Labour Government in the last Parliament, before the 2010 election. Sadly, many of my concerns have not receded. I welcome the Minister to her place.

It is not necessary to go into a long exposition about the importance of books or reading. We can take for granted the Minister’s agreement that encouragement to read books is a good thing, and that any Government, whatever their political colour, want to promote the reading and enjoyment of books.

I declare an interest at the outset in that I am an avid reader and, in the past four years, have become an avid reader of e-books downloaded to my Kindle or my iPad—my personal iPad mini, which I bought myself, not my publicly-funded iPad. I say that for the record lest the tiresome usual suspects see an opportunity to berate me for misuse of public funds.

My experience seems to be fairly familiar to other e-book readers. Purchasing an e-reader prompts the reader to buy more books than he or she did before. An additional benefit of e-readers is that I can now purchase books and store them unread on my Kindle instead of buying physical books and leaving them unread and gathering dust on my shelf.

Amazon states that UK users of the Kindle buy up to four times as many books as they did before they bought their Kindle. For those of us feeling the dreadful physical onslaught of the years, e-readers make print more accessible with adjustable font size and colour, and so encourage reading.

E-books offer greater consumer choice. I was delighted to discover that books by my favourite science fiction writer—the late, great Bob Shaw—which were out of print, are available again online to download. The renewed availability of previously out-of-print books from a huge range of authors has provided a much-needed revenue stream for publishers and authors, as well as offering readers greater choice.

E-books are a British success story and have helped to drive the recovery of the UK publishing industry since the financial crisis of 2008. Consumers in the UK are already the biggest e-commerce spenders in the world, and have been fastest in the EU to embrace e-books, partly because of the huge choice of English language books, partly because of competition and choice in e-book readers, and in large part because of the price competitiveness of e-books. That has brought big new opportunities to readers, writers and publishers.

Rapid year-on-year growth saw e-book sales in 2013 account for 21% of the value of the UK’s total book market, up from 8% in 2011. The Publishers Association reported that 29%, or about £1.5 billion, of UK publishing revenues in 2013 was derived from digital products. Amazon.co.uk’s Kindle e-books already outsell print books.

That is all good news, but the Minister will be aware that a change is coming that will have damaging consequences for all concerned, except the Treasury. For everyone else—authors, readers, publishers and

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online retailers—the consequences of the changes to be introduced in January, just six months from now, will reverse much of the good that the introduction of e-books has achieved in recent years.

Unlike printed books, which rightly attract a zero rate of VAT, e-books have the full rate of VAT added to their price. That is simply wrong, and I have thought so for several years. It is clearly unfair to recategorise a book as an electronic service, which is the justification for adding VAT, simply because it is downloaded rather than picked off a shelf. A book is a book is a book. The full UK rate of VAT is charged on any e-book sold in the UK, but that does not affect readers who buy a book from the Kindle store, because the VAT rate is that applying in Luxembourg, where Amazon is based.

From 1 January 2015, however, VAT will apply wherever the purchaser lives. For example, Donna Tartt’s “The Goldfinch”—which I would highly recommend to the Minister, although a drawback of e-books is that it is much harder for people to lend others their copy—which I purchased from Amazon a couple of weeks ago for £3.49, included a nominal VAT rate of about 3%. If we add an additional 20% to that cost, which is what I would have had to pay had I waited until next year to buy it, that will undoubtedly have the effect of discouraging many readers—not all, but many—from buying it.

The decision to buy a book is price-sensitive. Ofcom research shows that the willingness to pay for a single book download declines steadily as the proposed price of a book download increases. The average price that respondents were willing to pay was £3.74. About 42% of people were willing to buy an e-book at £5. Once VAT at 20% was added, bringing the cost up to £6, the proportion of consumers willing to buy it fell dramatically to 28%.

According to the Publishers Association, digital sales across all publishing increased in 2013 by 305% and digital revenues are now £509 million—or 15%—out of an overall book market of £3.4 billion. In fiction, e-books account for a third of all sales—that is £200 million —and for 7% of non-fiction sales.

But the association adds:

“These figures are likely to continue to increase, but at a slower rate of growth than in the earlier years of e-reading take-up, as the market matures... A further check on the growth of ebooks will come from the fact that they currently attract VAT (in the UK at the full rate of 20%). This is compared with the application of the zero rate of VAT on physical books—a long-standing feature of the UK’s tax regime—and is a reflection of the belief that the tax should not act as a disincentive to reading and learning. However, this important feature of the fiscal regime is absent for digital publications on which the full rate of VAT of 20% is applied. Research suggests that consumers are discouraged from buying ebooks by the VAT rate.”

The association continues:

“The European Commission Directorate-General for Taxation is conducting a full study of the whole of the VAT regime, and has identified ebooks as a particular focus of attention.

“We currently await a Communication from the Commission outlining its findings and recommendations—however, publication of this seems to be suffering from repeated delays. We believe that the UK Government should urge the European Commission to publish its findings following its study; and that the Commission should resolve to allow Member States to investigate applying lower rates of VAT on e-publications (books and academic journals). The UK should itself then undertake a similarly detailed study to analyse the impact of reducing the VAT rate on e-publications, with a view to reducing to the zero rate.”

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E-books are a hugely important part of the UK publishing industry, which is itself a hugely important part of our creative industries, and in a week when the Government are pledging to help and support our creative industries, this debate has come at an appropriate time.

The UK is the largest e-book market in Europe, but the Society of Authors is concerned that publishers’ practices and the Government’s policies are creating barriers to growth and hindering development of the publishing industry. It told me this week:

“The largest barrier to growth for most authors is the difficulty of obtaining a proper return for their professional work. Authors’ incomes continue to be squeezed: fewer books are published and sold; advances and royalties have fallen while more unpaid work is expected of authors in marketing and publicising their work, including appearances and use of social media.

“Print books attract a zero rate of VAT, but their electronic equivalents attract a rate of 20 per cent in the UK. Other EU countries, such as France and Luxembourg, have unilaterally reduced the rate of VAT on ebooks. This means the UK will now be at a competitive disadvantage, as ebooks sold in the UK will be more expensive than those sold elsewhere. The result is often to drive down prices leading to a smaller net sum going to authors. Most of the major players in the ebook market are based abroad.

“Given the rapid pace of development in the ebook market, there is an urgent need for removing VAT on ebooks to avoid the UK slipping behind European competitors.”

There are those in the industry who welcome the change from charging VAT in the country where the e-book is sold to charging the consumer where he lives. As someone who has spoken in the Commons against Amazon and others for not living up to their moral obligations to pay tax, it is a change that I understand. However, this is not about Amazon or Kobo or any of the other e-book sellers avoiding tax. VAT on e-books is not paid by the seller; it is paid by us, the consumers. If the change goes ahead in January, while the Treasury sticks to its position of insisting that an e-book is not a book at all but the equivalent of a video game and is therefore subject to 20% VAT, the industry—the whole industry, not just those specifically involved in producing and selling e-books—will suffer, and suffer significantly.

The Government argues that their legal advice

“indicates there is no scope to change the VAT treatment of the sale of digital book… products under EU law.”—[Official Report, 14 May 2014; Vol. 580, c. 682W.]

I simply cannot accept that, because Luxembourg and France have already challenged it. They cut their rates for e-books to 3% and 5.5% respectively in 2012. There is no reason why the UK cannot follow suit. I certainly do not believe that Ministers in this Government, of all Governments, are reluctant to pick a fight with the European Commission.

Other European Governments have taken on the EU on this issue. Germany, Poland and Italy are all calling for reductions in the rate of VAT on e-books. Will the UK add its voice to that call? Even assuming that the Government stand by their legal advice, which has been published and publicised, will they add at least their voice to the calls on the European Commission for change?

Incidentally, the German coalition Government’s executive board decided in April to cut VAT on audio books to 7% from 19%. The German Ministry of Culture is also pushing at the EU level for the same 7% VAT rate to apply to e-books, in line with the rate for print books in Germany, so the decision, if made, would make e-books and print books equal as far as VAT is concerned.

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A German Government spokesman said:

“Due to rapidly advancing digitisation”—

I do not know what the German for “digitisation” is, by the way, but I would be quite interested to find out—

“we insist on a rapid implementation of the agreed points. We want to make sure that print and electronic media and audio media are treated equally for tax.”

Well, hooray for the Germans.

In the House, we are only too aware of the need to nurture the next generation. As parents, we understand the importance of encouraging our children to read. My own children often borrow my Kindle to take to bed, although they have not yet mastered the art of charging the damn thing after they have used it—that may be further down the line. So, for a new generation who view CDs as a quaint old-fashioned way to buy music; who watch TV shows when it suits them, not when it suits the broadcasters; who download their video games, rather than queuing outside the shop; and who have a far greater number of distractions than any previous generation to prevent them from sitting down with a book, but who will, when choosing to read a book anyway, be more likely to buy it electronically, are we really saying that increasing the cost of that product by up to 20% can really be reconciled with an ambition to encourage the young to read literature?

Do the Government still accept that we should promote reading and literacy and do all in our power to widen reading and literacy? I know, of course, that the genuine answer from the Minister will be yes, but should we not therefore widen our support for print books to their digital equivalent? Are the Government willing to engage with the European Commission to hasten the completion of its impact study assessment of options to reform EU VAT rules, including those affecting VAT on e-books? Should the Government not be standing up to Europe and following the examples of France, Germany and Luxembourg by insisting on a substantially lower rate of VAT on e-books? This is one area where I would like to see a race to the bottom. I want the Government parties and my own party competing in the next few months leading up to the general election to see who can offer the lowest rate of VAT on e-books, because consumers, readers and authors, not politicians, would emerge the winners.

Lastly, and importantly, one activity I use my taxpayer-funded iPad for is reading newspapers, and I am a subscriber to the digital edition of The Times. I am delighted that, as revenue from journalism is increasingly scarce, newspapers have found a route to survive in the 21st century through digital subscriptions, but their route to survival is similarly under threat. This country removed taxation from newsprint more than 300 years ago—removing what was seen, rightly, as a tax on free speech. Now, however, the Treasury is stealthily reimposing it by requiring the 20% VAT levy for the proportion of every newspaper subscription that is digital. It was not this Government who introduced that, but the previous Government. This Government have merely continued it, and it is wrong.

As a former local newspaper journalist, I want a successful future for our local, as well as our national, press. When quality journalism by properly trained and professional staff is competing with numerous free sources, as well as so-called citizen journalists—well meaning amateurs with dubious qualification to write about

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their chosen field of interest—imposing an unnecessary 20% charge on newspapers is a serious blow to freedom of expression. That argument was first deployed, successfully, 300 years ago. It is no less relevant today. The Minister and her colleagues have an opportunity to be on the side of fairness, literacy, opportunity and culture. The question is whether her Treasury colleagues will allow her to grasp that opportunity.

5 pm

The Economic Secretary to the Treasury (Andrea Leadsom): It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Hood. I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow South (Mr Harris) on securing a debate on this very important subject. I am aware that he has asked a number of questions on the issue recently. As he will be aware from the answers that he has received, I am filling in for my hon. Friend the Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury in Westminster Hall, as he is in the main Chamber leading on the Finance Bill. In his absence, I will do my best to answer some of the hon. Gentleman’s questions.

Of course, no one needs to be an expert on tax to recognise the importance of books. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right—publishing is an industry in which the United Kingdom can boast to have always been, and to remain, one of the world’s leaders, be it because of Charles Dickens, Jane Austen or Agatha Christie. I understand that Barbara Cartland is one of our most lucrative book exports, but I am not personally so familiar with her novels.

Mr Harris: I suppose that at this point we should acknowledge that one of the Minister’s colleagues, the hon. Member for Mid Bedfordshire (Nadine Dorries), is consistently in the top six on the Amazon bestsellers list for e-books.

Andrea Leadsom: I am sure that my hon. Friend will be delighted to have been name-checked. Her sales will no doubt rise dramatically as a result of that helpful intervention.

The Government also recognise the crucial role that reading can play in increasing literacy among our younger generations, which is important to their future success. I remember that my two sons were five and three when the first Harry Potter books by J. K. Rowling came out. We used to snuggle up together, and none of us wanted them to go to bed, because we just wanted to get on to the next bit. There is no doubt about the contribution of some of the great British children’s and adults’ literature. I include C. S. Lewis and some of the other great children’s authors among those who have helped to support and sustain literature and pleasure in reading among young people and adults. Our new national curriculum, which comes into force this September, is clear that all pupils must be encouraged to read widely, both for pleasure and for information. We absolutely recognise the important role that books have always played in this country and will continue to play.

On the issue of tax, I begin by reassuring the hon. Gentleman that the Government recognise the importance of the e-services market in the UK and that Ministers are taking a number of actions to support the digital

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economy. E-services are a growing part of our economy, and we expect them to generate significant tax revenues going forward.

On the specific issue of VAT, I should briefly explain that, as the hon. Gentleman pointed out himself, it is governed by EU law, and that reliefs from VAT are strictly limited under EU law. As hon. Members may know, when the UK joined the European Community in 1973, we successfully negotiated to keep our existing zero rate on items such as children’s clothing, most foods and physical books, newspapers and journals. Most other member states do not benefit from that derogation.

Mr Harris: I apologise for interrupting, but when the derogation was granted on our accession to the EU in 1973, there was no reference to physical books, because e-books did not exist at the time. There was a concession on books, and as that derogation stands, it could be extended to e-books, as e-books come under the definition of being a book.

Andrea Leadsom: Yes, I accept the hon. Gentleman’s point, and I will come on to it if he will bear with me.

EU VAT law allows member states to implement reduced rates of VAT of no less than 5% for certain goods and services, listed in annexe III of the VAT directive, at the discretion of member states. One of those reliefs relates to the supply of books on all physical means of support, newspapers and periodicals, other than material wholly or predominantly devoted to advertising. Although that may sound like it includes e-books, article 98(2) of the VAT directive specifically excludes electronically supplied services from the reduced rates in annexe III. That means that the UK charges the standard rate of VAT, 20%, on e-books and the zero rate of VAT on physical books.

As hon. Members will be aware, the UK’s e-books market is a growing one. Therefore, it is not clear that it is in need of a stimulus in the form of a reduced VAT rate. Between 2011 and 2012, e-book sales in the UK increased from £138 million to £261 million, so at a time when the Government are working to tackle the economy’s problems head-on and deliver a recovery that works for all, it is not clear that we should offer fiscal support for such a rapidly expanding industry.

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab): How many e-books are currently subject to UK rates of VAT and how many are subject to, for example, Luxembourg rates?

Andrea Leadsom: The hon. Lady will forgive me—I do not have those specific breakdowns to hand, but I will happily write to her on that point. I apologise for that.

Mr Harris: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way again. She has shown great patience, and I appreciate it. What she has just said, though, rather misses the point of my debate. No one is asking the Government to offer subsidies or favours to the e-book industry. What I am asking is that an impending charge that consumers in this country are not currently paying not be levied. She is right to say that the industry is doing well and growing. The problem is that people who buy books currently and pay 3% or 5% VAT will from 1 January pay 20%. We are not asking for any kind of subsidy from the Government; we are asking for the current situation to continue.

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Andrea Leadsom: Again, I understand entirely the point of the hon. Gentleman’s debate. The issue is specifically that e-books are not counted as zero-rateable books from the point of view of the EU directive, so this is not an optional VAT charge. The EU directive requires us to treat e-books in that way, because they are treated as an electronic service. As the hon. Gentleman said at the start of his remarks, people can change the font; they can download e-books; they can switch from page to page without having to move pieces of paper, and so on. Therefore, they are deemed to be an electronic service and not the same as a physical book. The point that I am making is that our charging VAT on them is not optional.

Let me come on to the case of France and Luxembourg, about which the hon. Gentleman spoke, and in particular the difficult issue of books on Amazon. I am sure that, although he would support not paying VAT on e-books, he recognises that there has been an issue with big companies locating themselves in other places to take advantage of beneficial tax regimes that no doubt help their sales. As he pointed out, since 2011, France and Luxembourg have levied reduced rates of VAT—7% and 3% respectively—to bring them in line with their VAT rates on physical books. That is creating competitive distortions in relation to economic operators in other member states, and there has been pressure from the industry for the UK to reduce its VAT rate on e-books. The European Commission has begun European Court of Justice infraction proceedings against France and Luxembourg, and it has formally instructed them to apply their standard VAT rates to supplies of e-books. If the UK were to reduce the rate of VAT on e-books, it is extremely likely that we, too, would be infracted. I would be interested to know whether the hon. Gentleman thinks that we should seek to avoid infraction proceedings from the European Court of Justice or embrace them. We could be, unusually, on opposite sides of the argument on that point.

Mr Harris: I seem to remember being complimentary to the Minister when she spoke powerfully in favour of votes for prisoners in a debate on which we took the opposite points of view, and I believe that we are going to do the same again. I am more than relaxed about the UK being the target of court action by whichever European institution is relevant. I was relaxed about the idea when it came to votes for prisoners—we have to keep our position on that—and I see no difference, frankly, in this case. If the move would be good for the UK industry, we should stand up for that industry against interference by the EU.

Andrea Leadsom: I absolutely respect the hon. Gentleman’s position. Were we unilaterally to decide to change the VAT rate, we would, no doubt, be subject to ECJ infraction proceedings.

The other real issue is that a reduction in the rate of VAT on e-books would be likely to create border-line

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issues in the wider electronic services market, because problems of definition could lead to a widening of the relief through legal challenge and industry changes. That would put at risk serious amounts of revenue in the UK market, which is worth more than £2.5 billion.

I turn to the VAT changes that will be introduced in 2015. Currently, supplies of services, including electronically delivered services such as e-books, are taxed in the member states where the supplier is based at the VAT rate of that member state. Member states with lower VAT rates therefore have a competitive advantage, which encourages suppliers to locate there and sell to EU consumers, including the UK, at lower VAT rates. From 1 January, therefore, there will be a place of supply change, which will mean that e-books and other e-services will be taxed in the member state where the customer belongs at the VAT rate of that member state. That is designed to make competition fairer and to remove distortions.

Legal advice obtained by the Government indicates that there is no scope to change the VAT treatment of the sale of digital books and similar products under EU law. The Commission’s position is clear on the VAT rate of e-books: e-services attract a standard rate of VAT, because they are electronically supplied services. The UK’s rate is in line with EU law, and there is currently no intention to reduce the rate of VAT for e-books.

I am sorry to disappoint the hon. Gentleman by my reply, but I hope that he will be pleased to know that Ministers are focused on actions outside the VAT system to support the digital economy. In that area, we are making great efforts to encourage the digital economy. For example, in June 2013 the Government launched an information economy strategy, which includes positioning the UK strongly in the field of e-commerce by, among other things, improving digital skills across the population and creating the infrastructure to support innovation and growth.

Although I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is disappointed by my answer on VAT and e-books, I hope that he and other hon. Members are reassured that the Government support the sector and will continue to do so and that we are confident that the electronic services market will continue to grow and generate significant tax revenues.

Mr Harris: As there are a couple of minutes left, I wonder whether I could be cheeky and get in with another couple of points.

Mr Jim Hood (in the Chair): Order. The hon. Gentleman was able to intervene, but the Minister has sat down and the hon. Gentleman cannot make another speech.

Question put and agreed to.

5.13 pm

Sitting adjourned.