HC Deb 02 May 1961 vol 639 cc1355-64

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Hughes-Young.]

3.39 a.m.

Mr. John Morris (Aberavon)

This House has been sitting for well over thirteen hours and now, at twenty minutes to four, it seems a not inappropriate time to discuss a subject which is very dear to my heart. I think that this is the first time that Welsh literature and Welsh books have been the subject of a debate in this House. It is a tribute to this Mother of Parliaments that while we roam the wide world on subjects of all sorts of abstruse matters here at this late hour—or very early hour—of the day we turn to the question of the survival of one of the oldest living languages in Europe.

We in Wales have to fight to preserve our own nationhood and our language is a very important facet of that nationhood. Unless we have a living language, literature cannot survive. At this juncture, I should like to pay a tribute to the enthusiasm to those in the world of Welsh publishing. They are not the great politicians; they are not the people who get publicity; but they are the practical men of our nation who are responsible to a great degree for the present spate of Welsh publishing.

These men have provided the inspiration for the books now produced in Wales, and in many instances they have provided the capital for their production. Many of them have, at great sacrifice, played a very great part in the production of books today and it has been for many of these people a labour of love. I hope that one day Wales itself will pay honour to them. I am sure that when history looks back on the survival of the Welsh language it will give them the honour they so richly deserve.

In addition to the people who are playing a great part in Welsh publishing, I should like to pay a tribute to the Minister for his interest in this matter as a whole and also for coming here himself to reply to this debate at this hour. Every time I have discussed this matter with him he has shown a very great deal of interest in it. I am able, on behalf of the Union of Welsh Publishers, to convey to him their indebtedness to him for the sympathetic hearing which he always gives to them and, indeed, for being the Minister who has been responsible for raising the grant for Welsh books from £1,000 a year to £3,000 rising to £5,000. I hope most earnestly that when the present period of grant ends it will be extended. I hope that the Minister will consider that as well.

I think that the crux of the issue has been summarised in a leading article in the Western Mail. I have not the exact words with me, but its purport was that there would be little purpose in giving grants to a newly developed manifestation of the arts in Wales if the one tried and tested vehicle of cultural expression died; it would be a tragedy if the language in our books which we know and love so well withered away and died for lack of support.

I hope, in the brief time at my disposal, to confine this debate to the present grant and the way in which it is administered. I read only last night, to refresh my memory, the Ready Report We owe a great debt to those persons who took part in the preparation of that Report and also to the hon. Member for Caernarvon (Mr. G. Roberts), who was one of the signatories of the Report.

It may well be that the provision of a greater number of schoolbooks is the answer on a long-term basis. Today, we cannot discuss the laying of the long-term foundations. I shall not go into the long-term prospects, but confine myself to the immediate prospects of providing a sufficient number of popular books for adults now. This is the immediate problem of today.

It is the University of Wales Press Board which administers these grants. The Minister has himself said, in reply to my questioning, that the board must proceed empirically, that there is no precedent for its activities and the way in which it administers the grants.

That makes it all the more important for hon. Members, who are the custodians of the public purse, to see that any statement that is made on their behalf, or in respect of their works, does not become a precedent for the future if it will be to the disadvantage of Welsh book publishing. One statement to which I took exception was in the Minister's Report, in which it is stated that new works only, as distinct from reissues and reprints, are eligible for grant.

I could understand that statement if the grant were very limited, as was the original grant of £1,000. But now, with a substantially larger grant, there should be no necessity to limit the grant to new books. One the other hand, if the money is not available, that is a case for increasing the amount of the grant. I am wondering whether that statement was made at the Minister's wish.

Many books are now out of print and to reprint, to reissue or to republish them would, in the majority of cases, be too great a risk from the publisher's point of view. One has only to refer to such names as Sir Owen M. Edwards, Daniel Owen, and T. Rowland Hughes to realise that no publisher would dare republish some of those books today. It is in that context that the Minister must say whether the statement to which I have referred will be a precedent for the future.

I could quote many other names. The travel books in the Crwydro series is a good example. Within a short while many of these books will be out of print and it will be a tragedy if a publisher cannot be found to reprint them because of lack of financial support.

The final decision as to which books will receive a grant rests with the University of Wales Press Board, and I do not question the way in which it reaches its decisions. But what is the yardstick by which it decides the amount which is to be allocated to each book, once it has reached a decision that a particular book shall receive a grant? We know that grants have been awarded in respect of books of sums varying from £25 to £150. I would have preferred the Minister to have broken down those figures in his Report and to have told us how many books, without naming them, received £25, how many received £50, and how many received over £100. I would think, from what I have heard, that a far greater number received grants in the region of £50 to £60 than over £100.

The tests showed either that the grant is sufficient to make it worth while for a publisher to publish a book, or it should be sufficient to result in an appreciable reduction in the price of the book. A grant of £50 on a 2,000 edition represents only 6d. per copy. If the grant is only £25, naturally the amount per book will be even less. It will, of course, be 3d. per copy. Can the Minister say whether the amount of money allocated to specific books in the past has been sufficient to make the venture worth while?

It may well be that the University of Wales Press Board has been overcautious. I have heard that publishers—I hope that it will not recur, because of the amount of grant available—have asked the Press Board to lump several grants together for a certain book rather than spread out the money in penny packets of £25 for one book, £35 for another and, say, £50 for another.

Having regard to the tragic state of Welsh publications, it would be scandalous if the administration of affairs is such that hundreds of pounds has gone back to the Treasury at the end of a financial year. I should like to know whether that has happened. Obviously, the board is in difficulties. It does not know at the beginning of the financial year how many books it will get for grant or by what yardstick to allocate the money that is available. There will always be money left over at the end of the financial year. If that is the case, if substantial sums have not been used by the end of the financial year, I ask that the money may be carried over to the next year. That would solve the problem if it arises. If it is not possible to carry over the money, a supplementary grant might be allocated to books which already have received grants. A third possibility is that the money could be made available for the specific printing of reprints which are not available for grant under the existing scheme.

There is scarcely time for me to discuss the giving of grants on an insurance principle whereby, if a book sells particularly well, the publisher might be prepared to pay back the grant, or part of it, to the Press Board. On the other hand, if a book sold badly, the publisher might use the insurance principle for a bigger grant at the end of the year. If the money that is available through the Treasury for the scheme is limited, would the Minister consider making a loan as opposed to a grant? If the publisher could double his sales, he could halve his costs. That is the crux of the matter.

In contrast, the smallness of an edition results in uneconomically high prices which, in turn, limits the number of buyers. If the Government could assure the publisher of a loan so that he could print 50 per cent. more books, the result would be a reduction in the price. A loan could be used to finance the stocking of books over a period of years, which would obviate the problem of a book being out of print within a few years, as now happens. The loan might be used to finance the keeping up of type, as certain religious denominations do for their hymn books. This, again, reduces the cost of a second edition.

I should like to know what is to be the future relationship of the Welsh Books Council, which has now been set up. The council is an organisation of local authorities based on the pattern of the Cardiganshire Book Association, of which I, as a Cardiganshire man, am proud. I should like to know how that organisation will tie up with the present scheme of Government grants. I understand that its main object to be to help authors. I hope that it will keep to this object and not enter into the realms of publishing, except in exceptional circumstances and in co-operation with publishers.

Publishing in Wales is a tender plant and we must be careful that it does not wilt away in the face of the strong blast of competition which might be unfair. I hope that, in his reply, the Minister will be able to give encouragement to local authorities to support this worthy cause of the Welsh Books Council and say that if it spends money in this way it will not suffer in the amount of grant it receives from the central Government.

Finally, in this Parliament we have discussed on many occasions the large-scale production of books for underdeveloped countries which the Chancellor of the Exchequer proposes. He proposes to sell them cheaply, and this applies to scholastic and popular books. The price indicated is 1s. 6d. a copy. In the Civil Estimates the total sum of £400,000 is mentioned. History will mock us if, while providing these large sums for popular books overseas, at the same time we neglect the needs of one of the oldest living languages in Europe and a need on the doorstep of this Parliament.

3.56 a.m.

The Minister of Housing and Local Government and Minister for Welsh Affairs (Mr. Henry Brooke)

The fact that the House of Commons is sitting until after four o'clock in the morning to discuss the publishing of books in Welsh is itself significant. I am sure that both the hon. Member for Aberavon (Mr. Morris) and I, and, I trust, other people, will remind critics of that fact when it is suggested that Parliament at Westminster has no interest in the Welsh language.

I am obliged to the hon. Gentleman for raising this subject, and I certainly do not demur at his having caused me to sit up through the night to reply, because he knows that I am closely interested in this and that I appreciate the kindness of his remarks at the beginning of his speech.

For the record, I should state just how this grant has grown. It was started in 1955, at the rate of £1,000 a year, and I was glad when it was possible for me to announce rather more than a year ago that it would be raised for 1960–61 to £3,000. It is £3,500 for the current year and it will rise by £500 a year to a maximum of £5,000 at the end of the five years. It will then come to an end, because it is felt—and we have gone into this very thoroughly with the publishers—that there should be a sufficient corpus of Welsh literature then to enable the publishers to continue their job of publishing books in Welsh and to pay their way.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether the grant was wholly spent. The answer is that out of the £3,000 available in 1960–61 I understand that £475 was repaid to the Treasury at the end of the year. But I have said that the grant for the current year will be £3,500, and there is no necessity for any of that to be repaid unless it has not been spent.

The hon. Gentleman may ask why there should be any unspent, but that overlooks the difficulty of administering a grant like this. It must involve making offers of sums of money in relation to individual books. It is not possible to offer more money than is available and it always may be that some of the grant offered will not be taken up in the year in question. It is difficult to ensure that precisely that sum of money and no less is spent. If the hon. Member suggests that it is desirable that there should be a carry-over, I can only say, as a former Financial Secretary to the Treasury, that the Treasury never look with favour on balances being accumulated in funds which are no longer under Treasury control. No special rule is being applied here; it is the ordinary rule. The total spent last year was £2,525, and £3,500 is available this year.

The hon. Member took exception to a statement which I made the other day about the grants being confined to new books, and reissues and reprints not being eligible. He probably agrees that the desirable aim is the provision of a greater amount of new reading material, and it would be a great pity if the money were spent in other directions, leaving not enough available for the publication of new books, because literature can live only if there is a constant flow of new books. One of the purposes of this grant is that boys and girls who have learned Welsh in school should be able to buy on the bookstalls and elsewhere, when they leave school and no longer have school books available, books in the language with which they are familiar.

I do not suggest that in no circumstances should a grant ever be made to a reissue or reprint. I feel sure that the University of Wales Press Board would not say that. These matters must be left to the board. I do not seek to interfere. If the board felt that there was a strong case on literary or scholastic grounds for ensuring that a certain book was reprinted, the Government would not stand in the way, but it would be a pity if there were not sufficient money available for the new books.

The hon. Member asked whether the grants which are offered are large enough. I feel that they were not large enough until the grant was enlarged. When the grant was first made five years ago there were relatively few applications and the board was able to offer reasonably generous sums. As it became better known a larger number of applications flowed in, and necessarily the amounts of the offers had to be cut down. Two years ago, I felt that the scheme was rather failing in its purpose because within a limit of £1,000, when the number of applications was rising, the board was not in a position to make sufficiently substantial offers.

I think that the hon. Member will find that this has been transformed by the increase in the grant. At any rate, people who are very interested in the publication of books in Welsh have assured me that they have no complaint on that score and that this trebled grant has made it possible for the board to make adequate offers. That is certainly the Government's wish, and I trust that it will work out in that way.

I cannot say what is the board's yardstick, because this must be left to the board's judgment. It is an unenviable responsibility to have to carry. I should not like it, and I do not seek to determine any of these things. I can think of no body better qualified than the University of Wales Press Board to do this job, and I should like to feel that the hon. Member joins with me in thanking the board for what it has done.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the adoption of an insurance principle. I very much doubt whether there is any-thing in that. If a book sells so well that the publisher finds, in the end, that he could have published without need of grant, he will have the grant. He will be that much better off to get on with his job of publishing Welsh books. He will have that money in hand.

I have given some consideration to the hon. Gentleman's suggestion, which I saw in the Western Mail, about an insurance scheme, but I very much doubt whether that would be workable. Nevertheless, as far as the Government are concerned I do not want to say "No" to the Press Board if it thinks that there are any fresh ways of using the money.

Of course, the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right in saying that if a publisher could double the sales he could halve the cost. Whenever I am thinking about this subject, I always feel inclined to conclude that the best way in which the Welsh-speaking public can repay all those who are taking so much trouble about the publication of books in Welsh is to purchase more freely. Indeed, I have ventured to say in Wales that there is a certain danger of Welsh surviving only as a spoken language; and it is only Welsh-speaking people who, by the purchase of books in Welsh, can make sure that Welsh survives for the future as the written language and inspires further writing. That cannot be done by the Government. It can only be done by those willing to spend their money on the purchase of books in Welsh.

The hon. Gentleman asked me about the Welsh Books Council. I am not in a position to say anything more about that than he probably knows already. I have no responsibility there. The council is a project which, I understand, is not yet in being. It is a very interesting one. Whereas this grant is for the publishers, the Welsh Books Council want to make money available to the authors. That seems to be an admirable plan.

The hon. Gentleman also asked me about the position of local authorities. That really is a hypothetical question at the moment, because until the Welsh Books Council is in being it really is quite impossible for me to say whether it would be intra vires for a local authority to subscribe to it. What I will say to the hon. Gentleman—and I hope that it will be a satisfaction to him—is that if an organisation is brought into being of the character that it is intra vires for a local authority to contribute to it, I certainly would not wish to do anything to prevent that expenditure qualifying for rate deficiency grant. But beyond that I cannot go this morning, because the matter is still, as I say, somewhat hypothetical.

The difficulty is that sales are slow. I have a great admiration for the publishers who are risking their money and devoting their energies to the publication of books in Welsh. It is too speculative a venture at present. I know that the hon. Gentleman will agree with me that the Government have shown their good will not just in words, but in hard cash. But in the last resort it does not depend upon the Government or upon the publishers. It depends upon the Welsh people themselves. I hope that one result of this debate will be that the sales of new Welsh books and reprints will go up.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at nine minutes past Four o'clock a.m.