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House of Lords

Monday, 17th November 2003.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Rochester.

The Lord Chancellor: Leave of Absence

The Lord Chancellor (Lord Falconer of Thoroton): My Lords, before business begins, may I take the opportunity to inform the House that I will be attending a Cabinet meeting on Wednesday, 19th November? Accordingly, I trust that the House will grant me leave of absence.

RNIB: Right to Read Charter

2.36 p.m.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they support the aims of the Right to Read Charter championed by the Royal National Institute of the Blind.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills (Baroness Ashton of Upholland): My Lords, we fully support the charter's aim of tackling discrimination against people with visual impairment. To that end, we have extended the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 to education and provided more than 600 million to improve access to education for disabled students.

We have worked with the Royal National Institute of the Blind and with copyright owners to reduce delays in gaining copyright clearance when making accessible copies of printed materials. We have supported the establishment of the Reveal database, which provides information about accessible resources.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that encouraging reply. However, is she aware that two difficulties remain? One is that the problem seems to bridge several government departments—those dealing with disability, social care and education. For that reason, the people who want to improve those things cannot find a particular government person to deal with.

Is the Minister also aware that books with large print are expensive to produce and are not used very often by the children for whom they are developed, although older people use them as well? Would it be possible to develop some sort of central system? At the moment, the matter is devolved to education authorities. That does not work well, as those authorities do not work with one another. If there were a centralised way in which it could be made known that

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such books were available to children who needed them, it would bring a financial saving and a benefit to those children.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, the fact that the subject bridges different departments can be a strength, rather than a problem. In preparing for the Question, I talked to my colleagues in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and the Department of Trade and Industry in particular. A great deal of work continues to be done through the library service and with publishers to support the initiative. I hope that, in future, the noble Baroness will see that as positive.

The noble Baroness suggested a central system giving access to information. Part of what, we hope, the Reveal database will do is enable educationists to find the information. This month, we go live with a link between our websites and the database. I will pursue the point made by the noble Baroness.

Lord Ashley of Stoke: My Lords, the Government have done well on the issue but not well enough. One striking figure is that no fewer than one in three blind and partially sighted pupils do not have books and exam papers in the preferred format. I find that utterly incomprehensible. Will my noble friend address that point? The Government have given out lots of money, and that should be appreciated, but we cannot have children hampered by having no books or exam papers. We need a guarantee from the Government that those children will get books and exam papers in the preferred format.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, I say to my noble friend that I am sorry that we have not yet done well enough. However, we have made available 220 million specifically for the School Access Initiative, which is designed to enable children and young people with disabilities to have access not only to premises but to the curriculum, as my noble friend pointed out.

All end of key stage test papers have been available in different formats for some time. All other national test papers are produced in different formats. It is for schools and LEAs to ensure that curriculum materials are available as appropriate and in good time for children with visual impairment. With good strategic planning, that can be achieved. I take my noble friend's point, and I will pursue it.

Lord Trefgarne: My Lords, given the noble Baroness's earlier Answer to my noble friend, does she offer it as a general proposition that the more departments that are responsible for a particular matter, the better it is managed?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: No, my Lords. I offer the proposition that many of the issues that affect our people span the whole of government and that we need to work effectively together. The Government believe in being joined-up, and we are.

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Lord Addington: My Lords, we are talking about joined-up government on this matter. Have the Government made any progress towards having VAT removed from audio books? I remind the Government that access to literature is an important aspect of our cultural life, not only of education. By not taking action, we are excluding a large number of people.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, I remind the noble Lord that there is no VAT on books, journals, newspapers or periodicals; nor is there VAT on equipment specifically designed to support those with visual impairment. There is VAT on audio tapes, which are available to the general population. Obviously, we listen to representations, but the noble Lord will know that, under EC law, that would be incompatible with the direction in which we are travelling.

Earl Howe: My Lords, do the Government have accurate statistics on the number of visually impaired and other disabled children throughout the country, so as better to establish what their information needs are and what sector they fall into? If they do—I do not believe that they do—it would be valuable information for planning purposes.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, it is true that, traditionally, governments have not collected information. However, I can say to the noble Earl that, in the next few months, we will, for the first time, have information about children with special educational needs throughout the school sector that will, as he suggested, enable us to plan more efficiently and effectively to support those children in schools.

Baroness Wilkins: My Lords, would the Minister agree to consider setting up a national repository of electronic versions of texts—which could be used as a source for the production of accessible information and to speed up the production of accessible texts for students—as quickly as possible?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, I am not entirely sure that it would be appropriate for the Government to do that. However, it is critical that we work closely with publishers to enable access to literature of all kinds to be made available as quickly as possible.

Disabled Students

2.43 p.m.

Baroness Sharp of Guildford asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Why students who become disabled during their period of study are denied access to disability benefits available to students who are disabled at the outset of their studies.

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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Work and Pensions (Baroness Hollis of Heigham): My Lords, it is not the case that students who become disabled during their period of study are treated differently from those who are disabled at the outset.

Baroness Sharp of Guildford: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply, but can she explain the catch-22 situation that arises for some students? For example, a student who gets a bad sports injury and is out of studies for a year, or perhaps a little longer, is not eligible to claim student benefit because he is not studying. Equally, he is not eligible to claim income support; he is still classed as a student because he wishes to return to study. He is not eligible to claim job seeker's allowance because he is not in a position to seek work; nor is he eligible to claim incapacity benefit because he has no contribution record. The student is eligible to claim disability living allowance but, due to the assessment process in such situations, it may take a year before he is assessed. Therefore, there is a real problem about on what the student should live in the mean time.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, the noble Baroness is right to say that the source of funding for students who become disabled while at university will change. Certainly, for the first 60 days of their temporary withdrawal from university, they would be eligible for their student support to continue to roll over. For the next 60 to 195 days, they would be eligible for discretionary or hardship funding from local authorities and may be able to tap disability living allowance. After six months, they are eligible for income support and housing benefit if they meet the qualifying means tests.

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