HC Deb 08 September 2004 vol 424 cc721-4 12.32 pm
Mrs. Annette L. Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole) (LD)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision about accessible formats for printed works for visually-impaired children. The Bill aims to build on the important changes brought about by the Copyright (Visually Impaired Persons) Act 2002. I congratulate the hon. Member for Dunfermline, West (Rachel Squire) and the noble Lord Morris of Manchester on the passage of that private Member's Bill on to the statute book.

However, visually impaired children still face problems in accessing literature. Children who are visually impaired or have other reading disabilities such as dyslexia are not getting the accessible information that they need to ensure that they have opportunities equal to their non-disabled peers, both in education and in leisure reading. Jacqueline Wilson, the popular children's author, has given her support to the Bill and, with many other famous authors, supports the important Right to Read campaign.

Access to literature for visually impaired children, who cannot read standard print text, is made possible through accessible formats such as large print, audio tape or Braille, or synthesized speech for children with a reading disability such as dyslexia.

Visual impairment in children is fortunately a low-incidence disability, with approximately 23,000 children between birth and 16 years of age in the UK affected. I recently met a family in my constituency with a baby born blind and they feel very isolated.

In addition, about 4 per cent. of the population are severely dyslexic. A further 6 per cent. have mild to moderate problems. Synthetic speech output or audiotape is often one of the only ways in which children with dyslexia can access literature.

The Department for Education and Skills states that funding is available for the provision of accessible information through the schools access initiative, which can be used for the production of materials to enable access to the curriculum for children with reading disabilities.

However, recent parliamentary questions have revealed that it is not clear nationally how much money is being spent on access to literature for children with reading disabilities via that initiative. Reports from teachers, support workers and the voluntary sector identify significant shortages.

I am delighted that I no longer hear of cases where children who are wheelchair users are prevented from attending their local schools and that funding is available for appropriate adaptations, but I am concerned about the adequacy of funding for visually impaired children. On making inquiries of the local authorities in my area, I discovered variations in policies. In one authority, any expenditure under £3,000 had to be financed by the schools from devolved funding. The threshold was higher in the two other local authorities.

Despite the obligations laid on schools and local education authorities by the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act 2001, children are not getting the materials that they need or want in the format that they require. Textbooks can cost several thousand pounds to adapt into accessible formats, and specialist teachers spend many hours adapting textbooks for students in individual schools. I have learned of teachers in Dorset this summer spending much time producing "Romeo and Juliet" in large-print format. Currently, there is no national co-ordination of accessible information for schools, leading to duplication and resource wastage.

The Royal National Institute of the Blind's "Shaping the Future" campaign report, published in 2000, found that one in three blind and partially sighted pupils in mainstream secondary schools did not always get their school test and exam papers in their preferred format and that 25 per cent. of secondary pupils in mainstream schools said they did not usually get handouts in a format that they prefer. No major study similar to "Shaping the Future" has been undertaken since the introduction of the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act 2001. However, organisations such as the VI Forum—an e-mail group for teachers and support assistants working with blind and partially sighted children—regularly feature stories of pupils not getting the materials that they need to gain access to the curriculum.

The RNIB carried out an informal survey of teachers, asking them which key stage 3 and 4 textbooks they would like the charity to produce during the 2004–05 academic year. Seventeen subjects and 129 different texts by 22 different publishers were requested, but the RNIB has the capacity to produce only 10 publications in accessible formats. A teacher asked the RNIB to transcribe two music scores into Braille. To cover costs, an £800 charge had to be made for the work, but the teacher had a total annual budget of only £500 for four students.

The Right to Read Alliance has argued for some time that a constructive step would be to increase the schools access initiative budget and provide dedicated funding to support the national co-ordination of publishing in alternative formats and to commission centrally not only specialist books but those for which there would be a particularly high demand.

Given the relatively small number of blind and partially sighted children in the school population, too much financial responsibility has been put on schools. The problem is exacerbated by the diversity of materials that children need and the range of formats. My Bill therefore proposes that national co-ordination of accessible format materials be undertaken to avoid duplication and resource wastage.

A second problem is knowing what accessible information resources are available. Moves towards solving that problem have already taken place with the creation of Revealweb, supported and managed by the RNIB and the National Library for the Blind. That online database contains all the accessible format works available from the not-for-profit sector. It therefore allows anyone—parents and teachers—to search for where they could find an accessible format copy of a book that they need for a child. My Bill proposes that a similar initiative be established to include accessible format works produced commercially. That would enable the parents and teachers of children with reading disabilities to find out whether the books that they are looking for are already available in accessible formats.

There are still cases where a visually impaired child will not be able to access a newly published book at the same time as other children. One of the major barriers that not-for-profit agencies face in making accessible format copies of literature available at the same time as, or soon after, print versions are published is gaining access to the electronic files of the text. If a document has to be scanned and then formatted, months can be added to the time taken to produce accessible formats. Publishers and voluntary sector transcription agencies working together can build relationships based on trust, whereby early access to electronic versions of texts can be arranged. My Bill proposes an improvement to that situation.

The library and statistics information unit at Loughborough university conducted a survey of library authorities in 2000 and found that only 5 per cent. of library authorities had a written policy on services for blind and partially sighted people and that only 25 per cent. had a specific budget for those services.

It also conducted a survey of 600 blind and partially sighted people in 2001 that found that 50 per cent. had not used their public library in the last three years. The other 50 per cent. who had used libraries reported difficulties with using the services on offer. My Bill includes a modest proposal for library services.

In addition to the measures contained in my Bill, I want to raise the issue of the VAT that is levied on the audio books that people with reading disabilities rely on to access literature. I hope that the Government will work at European level to secure a reduction of the VAT levied on audio books, bearing in mind that print works do not attract VAT.

In conclusion, a lack of accessible-format curriculum materials and books is having a profound effect on the opportunities available to children with reading disabilities. A number of solutions are needed to improve that situation and my Bill contains some simple proposals, including dedicated funding within the schools access initiative budget to ensure efficient co-ordination and production of accessible information; the establishment of a complete database of commercially available accessible-format works, to complement the Revealweb database; the establishment of a national repository for electronic versions of texts that have been published to facilitate the transition of works into accessible formats; and libraries to have written policies on services to blind and partially sighted people and allocate a budget for those services. I hope, therefore, that the House will support my Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mrs. Annette L. Brooke, Mr. David Heath, Sandra Gidley, Mr. Phil Willis, Brian White, Linda Perham. Rachel Squire. Mr. David Amess and Peter Bottomley.