HL Deb 20 February 1979 vol 398 cc1703-16

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now resolve itself into Committee on this Bill.

Moved, That the House do now resolve itself into Committee.—(Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House in Committee accordingly.

[The LORD ABERDARE in the Chair.]

Clause 1 [Establishment of public lending right.]:

Viscount ECCLES moved Amendment No. 1: Page 1, line 18, leave out subsection (3). The noble Viscount said: In the absence of my noble friend Lady Young, I should like to move her Amendment. Your Lordships may remember that on Second Reading The noble Baroness, Lady Lee of Asheridge, began her speech in these words: My Lords, this is a ridiculous Bill, and from the general tenor of the debate in this House I think that the great majority of Members on all sides agree with mc that it is a ridiculous Bill".—[Official Report, 12/2/79; col. 1022.1

I am sure we all agreed with The noble Baroness, whose enthusiasm for helping authors is very well known. But why is it ridiculous? Because in the Bill we have this Registrar and all his paraphernalia. There are 40 staff, and if my noble friend Lady Young had been here she would certainly have gone into the cost of this new QUANGO. I had intended not to do it, but as your Lordships will remember the Secretary of State estimated the costs in December would rise to £600,000 a year when the scheme was fully in operation. We know that it is two years at least before the scheme could be in operation, and if one puts inflation at 25 per cent. over two years, which I hardly think is an exaggeration, the costs would be some £700,000, perhaps more. That money has to come out of the £2 million limit in the Bill on the fund which the Government put up.

I know that my noble friend felt that at this time, when Government expenditure is already running at thousands of millions of pounds beyond the revenue from the taxes, we really ought not to add more unless the public interest is really served by so doing. That, I think I can show, is not so. Of course, the trouble is that the Government were persuaded by the authors—and they tried to persuade me in the short time that I had responsibility—that there is no way in which they can be rewarded for the undoubted fact that their books are borrowed free of charge, other than by a scheme based on borrowing. If we have a scheme based on borrowing and we are not to charge the borrower each time a book is taken out—and I think that noble Lords and Members of another place are almost unanimous in saying that we cannot charge a borrower—then you are forced to a Registrar, a QUANGO, and all this paraphernalia.

I think that it is a mistake on the part of authors to say that because borrowing is the reason why they do, in justice, deserve more for their books, therefore the method by which they are paid must be based on borrowing. They are very obstinate in this connection. They really remind me of a family whose hearts are set on flying to America by Concorde, and then they find that there is not enough money for all the family to fly by Concorde and, instead of settling for Sir Fred Laker and Skytrain, they say," Father and mother can go, and we leave the children behind. "This really is not sensible, but it is exactly what authors are insisting on doing. Since they cannot get a fair and reasonable scheme based on borrowing, they ought really to look at another principle.

The noble Lord, Lord Willis, if I remember aright, said in his speech on Second Reading that authors only want justice; they are not interested in, I think he called them, "handouts." I must say to him that I think that justice when there is so little reward attached to it makes "no noise in the frying pan." Authors are very hard up, and the authors that I know would I think, possibly with certain exceptions among the novelists, far prefer a scheme where as much as possible of the money which the taxpayer is to contribute to increasing their incomes does in fact get to them. That is not going to happen under this Bill.

I would think that the QUANGO which is here set up is in fact going to make handouts. It is going to give authors a sort of Christmas tip; an average of £10 each. If that is not a handout, I really do not know what is. The fact that it is based on some sort of sampling does not get over the fact that the object that we want to achieve is not achieved.

There are other ways. I think that my noble friend was going to base her objection to this subsection that we ask the Committee to leave out simply and solely on the fact that we ought not, in 1979, to put on the Statute Book a scheme so expensive to run that half the beneficiaries get less than the cost of assessing and paying their benefit. That, I think, was her main objection. There is, of course, another one, which is that we might find a better way of doing something more substantial for the authors.

In France I understand that this is done by relieving them of having to pay the National Health contribution. It is perhaps not a way that will recommend itself to Her Majesty's Treasury, but at least it is a neat, clean way of doing it. You are classed as an artist, a writer, and then you do not have to pay the self-employed man's rather heavy charges week by week for National Insurance. It has also the benefit that it has nothing to do with taxation; it is a clear addition to your income for spending. In Eire they give special taxation reliefs to writers. I am not sure that that is a very good system because a lot of the writers whom I should most like to help probably pay little or no taxation anyway, so to tell them they are getting a relief from income tax might not be of any real help. But still, I suppose there could be tax relief of some kind that would help.

The Minister ruled out the alternative, which is that we should have a different principle altogether. Since you cannot be fair in the sense of borrowing because you cannot estimate accurately all the different loans that are made over the whole country, why not have a system, which is also not entirely fair, based on purchases? It is said that that is very hard. The Minister gave a number of reasons against it, but, so far as I can make out in reading Mr. Hugh Jenkins' book, Ministers have always been against it. They have never really cared to have a look at this scheme. I am told by the local authorities, the Association of Metropolitan Authorities, that they could see their way to a scheme which would cost very much less. A large proportion of the books bought by our public libraries come through a wholesale channel—quite a narrow channel—and they say that the calculation would be quite simple to make. This would be of great advantage.

I admit that there will be authors whose books are already on the shelves of libraries who of course would not get anything from a purchase-based scheme because it would have to start at a certain date. Does that really matter? The life of a book in a library is short. So far as I remember, eight years was the figure given by the Libraries' Association—either one or two years more or less than that—and it would not be very long before a purchase-based scheme was in fact being fair to all authors writing books in the future. Of course when a book is renewed, which it often has to be because the demand increases or the book is worn out, then they would get it at that moment too. I have not examined this scheme in detail so I do not know, but I believe it to be capable, as the local authorities say, of being a great improvement.

I see that my noble friend has arrived so I should just like to conclude by saying that there are two reasons why your Lordships should accept this Amendment. The first is because, as Members of Parliament, we are expected to pass laws which make good use of public money, and this Bill does not do so. The second is because the scheme envisaged will help hardly any authors to any significant extent, and therefore we fail in our principal objective. On those two counts we should take a little time. After all, nothing can happen in the way of a worked out scheme before the General Election. Let us take a little time and try to devise a more sensible arrangement which will give authors more money and not create one more QUANGO.

Baroness YOUNG

I apologise for not being in my place at the start of the discussion on this Amendment and I thank my noble friend Lord Eccles for stepping in. I tabled the Amendment for reasons slightly different from those adduced by my noble friend, but the principle should be taken very seriously by the Committee.

Last November I introduced in the House a debate on QUANGOs in general, a subject which has attracted a great deal of public interest and concern over what is now a major growth industry in this country. Let me make it clear that I am not against all QUANGOs—that would be quite wrong—but I believe it is the duty of your Lordships' House and Parliament to question the reason for every QUANGO that appears in every piece of legislation, and I give notice that it is my intention to question every QUANGO as it comes up because it is for the Government to say why they are establishing one and why they believe it is the right way of doing something rather than adopting an alternative course.

One alternative has been well explained by Lord Eccles, something which is quite different from the system proposed in the Bill, and it does not seem that the Government have argued the case either against my noble friend or indeed for the QUANGO in the Bill. I therefore take as my starting point the question I raised in November: is this a public function? It is a public function, so the answer to that question is "Yes". Therefore the next question is: how should it be carried out? Should it be carried out, for example, as Lord Eccles said, or is there another way? The first question I would ask The noble Lord, Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge on that point, is whether this QUANGO has been looked at by the Committee on the Machinery of Government and why they have said there must be a Registrar with all the people who go with him at enormous cost.

From the Second Reading debate, I gather that we shall start off with a Registrar and probably 12 staff. It is expected he will build up to a staff of 30 or 40 and will eventually cost £600,000. That is a great deal, to administer the scheme. Whatever may be said about the merits of whoever is appointed, we are in effect establishing a unit with its own staff which is bound to be less cost effective than something in the Treasury, the Department of Education and Science or, for all I know, the Inland Revenue, where there would be all sorts of other ancillary facilities which could be shared and used. Looked at as a purely administrative matter, therefore, I should have thought it was a very expensive way of carrying out this operation. I do not even know whether it will be the most efficient way.

I can see that it is convenient because the Registrar and his staff will not, I believe, count as civil servants; so if a check of civil servants is being done the Department will not be increasing its size, though it will be getting its administration, and the figures will not show up. I can see that argument, therefore, but I am not sure that it is an argument for having this type of QUANGO. It will be very expensive, it is by no means certain that it will be the most efficient way of doing this particular job and we shall be establishing something which will be very difficult to question, as all QUANGOs are unless there is a regular report to Parliament; whereas if this were under the direct control of a Minister we could put Questions to him and receive either a Written or an Oral Answer on any particular matter.


I would remind The noble Baroness that the provision that there should be a regular report to Parliament is contained in the Bill.

Baroness YOUNG

I am glad to see that and I take the point, but it always means finding time to debate it. Opportunity must be found to discuss such matters, and those of us who sat here until 10.45 last night on other public business know that finding Parliamentary time to debate all these things is not easy, especially as often what one wants to do is not to have a major debate on, for example, how the Public Lending Right Bill is going but simply to ask a question about a particular matter. That is very difficult to do under the QUANGO system because, as in this case, one cannot ask questions of a Registrar. Indeed, if we did so Lord Donaldson would be the first to say, "That is not a matter for me but for the concern in question", and we should all feel sympathetic with the Minister. I can also see, from his point of view, that not only will it not add to his number of civil servants but it will avoid his having to answer a number of awkward questions which Members would no doubt wish to ask. I am sure he would be the first to admit that that is not a good reason for having a QUANGO, especially if one believes in open government and public accountability.

We are therefore left with having to look for some other reason, and I should like to know whether the Committee on the Machinery of Government has looked at this matter, why they decided in favour of a Registrar and a QUANGO, why they did not put the subject within a Department or find some other way of dealing with it and whether they do not feel that this is a very expensive and inefficient way of dealing with the problem. Having said that, let me make my position quite clear; I do not wish in any way to hold up the Bill, though in my view it is a matter of public importance and concern that we should question the reason for establishing yet another QUANGO.


I was delighted to hear The noble Baroness, Lady Young, say that she did not wish to hold up the Bill. I take seriously her point about QUANGOs. I was also delighted to hear her say that she was not opposed to all QUANGOs because I would remind her that the biggest QUANGO of all is the House of Lords; we are all here by virtue of patronage. Some of the patronage may go back a few centuries; nevertheless we are not here by any right other than that, and therefore we must tread carefully.

"QUANGO" is the new "in" word. Some clever Dick invented it 18 months or two years ago, so today every public body has this halter put round its neck, and "QUANGO" is used as though it were some four letter word, which of course it is not if your Lordships can spell. To use the analogy of The noble Viscount, Lord Eccles, who spoke about flying to America in Concorde without one's family, what he is proposing by the Amendment is flying on Concorde to America without a navigator. It is as simple as that.

A number of the points made by both Lord Eccles and Lady Young were really Second Reading points; the difference between purchase right and loans right has been argued interminably in both Houses of Parliament. A special Commission of Inquiry was set up to go into it—a special technical investigation group—and it was discovered that the cheapest, best and most efficient way was the loan sampling system proposed in the Bill. Why on earth we have to come back at this stage to this basic issue of principle I do not understand. It has been discussed time and again.

We know that this scheme will be expensive to administer and, as I said on Second Reading, it is expensive only in relation to the total sum of money involved. But if we have a scheme, and if Parliament decides not to "help" writers—a term to which I deeply object—but simply to give writers some kind of justice, the scheme clearly has to be administered. So there are two points. First, we have decided that the loan scheme is the right one, and, secondly, we hope that Parliament will eventually agree that the scheme should be put into operation. Therefore, what do we do? Do we float it on the sea without anything to carry it? We have to have an organisation to administer it.

The noble Baroness quite rightly said that we ought to look at whatever body is set up and make sure that it is efficient. All we have at the moment is a kind of guess. It may be that modern technology, the micro-chip and everything else will in the course of the next two years revolutionise the kind of organisation that we need for the loan-sampling scheme. We just do not know. However, what is certain is that we have to launch it under a navigator, and there has to be some kind of registrar—call him or her what you like; the Bill happens to call him a Registrar—who will draw up and administer the scheme. Parliament will then have the right to debate the scheme, because it is to be laid before both Houses of Parliament. We can then argue about whether there are too many people involved, or whether there are not enough, and whether or not the scheme is going to be efficiently operated. One cannot agree that a certain amount of public money should be paid to authors out of justice and then not have anybody at all to administer the scheme. One cannot hang around the organisation this so-called clever word Quango, as if that in itself makes it disreputable.

Therefore I very much hope that the Amendment will not be pressed, but that if it is your Lordships will resist it, because it will only hold up the Bill, dismember it and make it one-legged. The only thing for your Lordships to do is regretfully to say "No" to the Amendment.


I have some sympathy for the Amendment, though not total sympathy. I ought to declare an interest because I have written books, though only in a small way. I am all for authors, and I consider that they have been extremely badly done by for a hundred years by public lending libraries. I understand that there are 600,000 loans a year from public libraries in this country, which is the greatest number in the world per head of population. I do not want to make a Second Reading speech.—


Six hundred million.


I meant 600 million. I agree that it seems absurd that £600,000 should be needed to administer a grant of £2 million. Presumably it is hoped that the grant will be increased eventually. It may go up to £4 million, to £6 million, to £10 million, or to £12 million, but I do not suppose that the administration costs of £600,000 would really increase considerably if the grant went up. I do not suppose that more staff would be needed to administer the scheme if the grant was £10 million rather than £2 million, but perhaps I am wrong there.

For the life of me I cannot understand why the borrower cannot be charged at least a small fee for fiction, because, after all, fiction is amusement. The public have to pay to go to a cinema; they have to pay to go to all places of amusement. I know of the Government's argument that the public can go into museums free of charge, and I quite agree with that, but one cannot visit a museum and run out with a Michelangelo or with the Elgin Marbles. One cannot borrow exhibits from a museum; but a public lending library operates on a completely different basis. I am all for people going into a library and reading the books there without a charge. I am also all for their borrowing free of charge any technical, reference, scientific, or historical books; but I cannot understand why they should take fiction books home free of charge. I cannot think why someone should take out, for instance, three or four Barbara Cartlands, but presumably he is doing so for some form of amusement. Surely such a borrower should be made to pay a small fee.

I imagine that following the huge wage rises we have had the average industrial wage will be about £70 a week, and it would not be such a great hardship for a reader to pay 5p a week to borrow a fiction book. I know that the Government have their hearts set against this idea, but I think it is a great mistake to make everything free to the public, because in doing that we are destroying their self-reliance and their sense of responsibility, while it makes a further charge on the taxpayer. Perhaps I am off the Amendment somewhat, and I apologise for that, I wanted to speak on Second Reading, but unfortunately I was ill. I hope that the Government can devise a scheme in which the borrowers of fiction will have to pay a small sum.


Does not The noble Viscount agree that it is difficult to define where fiction ends and literature begins?


May I have 30 seconds of your Lordships' time? Having taken part in three Second Reading debates on this subject, I naturally intended to be here for the Committee Stage. Owing to my own incompetence, or perhaps due to the expeditious way in which the House conducted its earlier Business, I was not present at the start of this debate and so I apologise to the Minister. I also apologise to The noble Viscount, Lord Eccles, for having not heard the beginning of his speech, so it would be very discourteous if I were to comment thereon.


I feel that I must support my noble friends in their concern about the cost of the scheme. The Bill has come to your Lordships again because everyone is worried that the administrative cost is out of proportion. At Second Reading I said that I would table an Amendment to provide for a sales-based rather than a loans-based scheme. I am still of that opinion, but I have not taken that course because your Lordships' House made it quite clear on Second Reading that it wanted the Bill to go through. I have had discussions with people in the Association of County Councils and we feel that at this stage it would be wrong to hold up the Bill. All along the Government and—I point out to The noble Lord, Lord Willis—the authors have been absolutely adamant that it must be a loans-based scheme. We still believe that a sales-based scheme could have been devised, but I do not think that much effort has been made—


I wish to emphasise once more that there was set up, at considerable expense to the taxpayer, a technical investiagtion group which investigated all the possible schemes, and it came up with the loans-based scheme. The noble Lord would be entitled to object if a purchases-based scheme, or a sales-based scheme had been included in the Bill, because they were found to be more expensive and would possibly be more inefficient. There has been included in the Bill the scheme which the investigating group, which was engaged on the matter for a year, decided was the best scheme and which, based on the experience of other countries, has also been proven to be the best. Does The noble Lord really want to go back to the worst?


I think I am right in saying that purchases-based and loans-based schemes were considered, not the sales-based scheme. All along we have been trying to find a way of doing it less expensively. Anyway, I reiterate my point that at this stage we are not pressing that particular line, but I hope that when it comes to consultation about the scheme the Government will take every opportunity to listen to the views of the people who are going to administer it; that is, the local authorities and the Library Association.

The Earl of GOWRIE

I should like very briefly to endorse what my noble friend Lord Digby has said. As I made clear on Second Reading, we on these Benches do not think this is the best of all possible Bills in the best of all possible worlds. Nevertheless, we think it is now time, probably, that it saw the Statute Book, and we want to be able to scrutinise the working of the scheme in action on the earliest possible occasion—an occasion, after all, when most likely we shall ourselves be in Government.


I am grateful to noble Lords for their contributions. I am sorry that The noble Baroness, Lady Young, could not have put her own Amendment, because she would have done it rather more graciously than The noble Viscount, Lord Eccles. The difference between the two speeches was that one was with foils which were tipped and the other was with foils which were not tipped and were meant to kill. But I am grateful to The noble Baroness for saying that she is not trying to kill this Bill, and I can now turn to the arguments.

As to the position about QUANGOS, I think everybody agrees that there are certain occasions when it is not suitable that a Government Department should itself be doing something, and then it is necessary to have something outside it. In this case The noble Baroness will no doubt be aware that, if her Amendment were accepted, we should have to make Amendments right through the Bill, and in effect we should have to have a serving civil servant in my Department who would take over the functions of the Registrar but who would not be formally designated as such. I have said that any proposal to set up a new fringe body is scrutinised very carefully, and I really believe that this is one case where a new body is fully justified. The noble Baroness asked whether this had been scrutinised by the new body which examines Government procedures. I gather that that body is not yet in operation, so it has not. But it has been extremely carefully looked at from all sides of Government. Could we consider for a moment—

Baroness YOUNG

I am sorry to interrupt The noble Lord, but perhaps I might press that point again. I absolutely understand The noble Lord's point about it being looked at, no doubt by his Department and, I presume, the Treasury, but what I am interested in is whether or not it has been looked at by a department of Government which actually looks at the machinery of Government. I understood that this particular committee was in operation, but apparently it is not; but there must be some device within Government for looking at the machinery of Government apart from those Civil Service Departments directly involved.


I think this is the proper function of the CSD, which has looked at it. Can we consider what the functions of the Registrar will be? He will maintain the register, in accordance with the scheme, and he will make any payments due to authors, also in accordance with the scheme. He will be required to keep accounts and to be responsible as the employer of his staff. The Minister will be required to make an annual report on the working of the scheme. In my mind, this sums up the position of the Registrar. His reponsibilities will be purely executive, and his powers are set firmly within bounds, first by this Bill and, secondly, by the scheme, which, noble Lords will recall from the Second Reading debate, will have to be laid in draft before each House of Parliament and approved by a Resolution, also of each House. I repeat the assurance which I gave at Second Reading, that in the preliminary negotiations and preparation of the scheme there will be a draft scheme which everybody can consider and make their suggestions towards.

Even so far as the employment of the Registrar's staff is concerned, the approval of both the Secretary of State and the Minister for the Civil Service will be required as to the numbers to be employed, and their pay and pensions. There would be no point in keeping these functions within the Government machine where the main reason for so doing is access to Ministers. Once the scheme is in full operation, there should be no call for the Registrar to need to consult Ministers except in the provision of statements of account. It really would not be appropriate to a policy-making department, such as the Department of Education and Science, to have a small, purely executive function within its midst. That is the reaction of the Government towards the criticism that this is a new QUANGO. It is a new QUANGO, but it is a QUANGO of an extremely limited kind which we do not think could be adequately replaced from within the Department.

A number of other points have been raised about the purchase-based scheme and the sales-based scheme, and so on. As my noble friend Lord Willis said, this has been gone over again and again. I appreciate the concern of The noble Lord, Lord Digby, and he has never tried to force this in a way which was going to stop the Bill from getting through. I appreciate that. I can only assure him that we have written to the local authorities and to other groups with the detailed arguments against the sales-based scheme as opposed to the loan scheme. I have got them all here and could read them out, but I do not think it would be appropriate this afternoon. We are satisfied, after certainly six years' very careful investigation, that this is the best and only way the thing can be decently done.

I should like to make one further comment. The noble Viscount, Lord Eccles, quoted my noble friend Lady Lee, who opened her speech (rather, I must say, to my surprise) by saying that this was a ridiculous Bill. But she ended her speech (which The noble Viscount, not uncharacteristically, did not tell your Lordships) by saying that she thought your Lordships' House should support it.


I suggest to your Lordships that this might be a good moment to hear the Statement on Iran, at present being made in the other place. I beg to move that the House do now resume.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

House resumed.