HL Deb 06 March 1979 vol 399 cc9-15

3.3 p.m.

The MINISTER of STATE, DEPARTMENT of EDUCATION and SCIENCE (Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge)

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a third time.

Moved, That the Bill he now read 3a.—(Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge.)

Viscount ECCLES

My Lords, I had expected that my noble friend Lord Amory was to say a few words about Clause 4 of the Bill which affects the local authorities. At the Committee stage I moved to delete the part of the clause which provides for penalties. The noble Lord, Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge, made a reply which interested me very much, and he has kindly since sent me a full explanation of the legal position. I am convinced by the Minister's arguments, and I hope that the local authorities will now be reassured.

Some critical remarks which I made on Second Reading led to a very interesting correspondence which has made me even more doubtful as to whether we should agree to the Third Reading of the Bill. I received no letter in favour of the scheme proposed in the Bill. One letter was refreshingly blunt. I had deprecated the fact that a lorry driver can in three months earn as much money as many well-known authors can earn in a year or more. A lorry driver took me up on this. He wrote to say that there was nothing unfair in the relative rates of reward. He said that his job was dirty and exhausting, and he was in charge of a lethal weapon. What chance had he of ever hearing his work praised by a friend—he underlined the word "friend"—on the BBC? Authors, he said, had quiet, clean, safe jobs, and, except for the most famous, he did not see why they should be paid any more than he was himself. There is a point there. I do not happen to agree with it, but it shows that subsidising culture is not universally popular and that any scheme which we have before us ought to be effective and worthwhile, and the cost ought to be reasonable. I am sorry that it is not so in the Bill.

The other letters were from authors who rejected the principle of the Bill; that is to say, a borrowing-based scheme. They wanted either tax reliefs on their royalties or a purchase-based scheme. The merits of those two alternatives we can leave for discussion when the White Paper is published. But I wonder how typical are these objections to the Bill as it stands. The concerned public, if asked, does not always support a bad Bill thrust upon it by a Government in political trouble. What Cabinet Ministers who sit for Welsh constituencies thought was good for Wales, the Welsh people rejected out of hand. In the campaign for the public lending right is it not likely that the Writers' Action Group played the part of the Welsh Nationalists? If we could ask 100,000 authors what they thought about the Bill, which does them so little good and which costs so much, I believe that a large majority would tell us to devise something better; and this we could do if we wished.

In a few minutes the Bill will become law because the two Front Benches are agreed to let it through. This consensus depresses me, but I console myself with the fact that better times are coming. After the Election common sense and a real regard for public expenditure will once more be in fashion.

3.7 p.m.

Viscount AMORY

My Lords, before the Bill receives its Third Reading there is one question that I should like to ask the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge. At an earlier stage in our debates some of us raised the question regarding reference books which are not lent but are used, and we said that we thought that in fairness the authors of the reference books ought to be covered. The noble Lord, Lord Donaldson, said that while that would not be possible to start with, he held out hope, I think, that perhaps later a way might be found to do it. Afterwards I raised the question with him. I said that it looked to me as if under the Bill the limit would apply to books which were lent and therefore it would not be possible to cover reference books which are not lent. The noble Lord was kind enough to write to me about this and to say that that was the position, and that if reference books were to be covered later an amendment to the Act, or a new Act, would be required. I thought it might be worthwhile asking the noble Lord whether he would confirm that, so that it can be on the record.

3.9 p.m.


My Lords, I do not want to drive with the noble Viscount, Lord Eccles, along with the lorry drivers. I, too, think that there is a point here. I do not see why lorry drivers should not be paid as much as authors; equally, I do not see why authors should not be paid as much as lorry drivers, or even managing directors. I certainly think it unfair that the vast majority should be paid less. I am not surprised that the noble Viscount should have received one or two—or perhaps several—letters of opposition to the present scheme, bearing in mind that he opposed it in his last speech.

I have received several letters, too—all favouring the scheme. Over six or seven years of actively campaigning for the Bill I have received hundreds of letters of support, and not one in opposition. Moreover, I consider that I am in a position to say that I mix with more authors than does almost anyone else in this House. I am president of the Writers' Guild of Great Britain, and therefore I declare an interest, and I am an active member of the Writers' Action Group, and I can assure the House and the noble Viscount that if one was to take a poll of authors in this country, as he suggested, one would find that the overwhelming majority of them would be in favour of public lending right and of this particular scheme. It would be nothing like what happened in the devolution votes last week.

3.10 p.m.


My Lords, may I support my noble friend Lord Willis for just a few minutes. Surely we have had enough of this. These various schemes have been debated, to my certain knowledge, for the last 15 years. None of them is entirely satisfactory. The purchase scheme has elements of gross unfairness—much more than anything we have managed to concoct in this Bill. I myself have heard no single writer gravely disapproving of the present scheme: it is the best of a bad lot. When I hear that it is seriously thought that tax exemption would be tolerable to our present Chancellor or to any other Chancellor I can imagine, then I think we are going into elements of sheer fantasy. Only two days ago I was talking to an accountant who manages a great many literary estates in this country. We were totting up the rough cost of tax exemption in the case of royalties to authors in this country. The minimum would be £50 million per year: the maximum probably something like double that. The cost of this scheme —far too low, in my opinion—is £2 million. Does anyone think that that makes it even worth discussion across the Floor of this House?


My Lords, perhaps I may begin by telling the noble Viscount, Lord Amory, that he is correct in his assumption. I expressed the view, which I express again, that, as this scheme develops, there should be—and I hope there will be—arrangements made to consider bringing in reference books, but it is very difficult. The problem is entirely different from anything which is in the Bill. So the noble Viscount is right in saying that this could not be done under the Bill. But this is no reason why, in due course. it should not be done.

May I next say to the noble Viscount, Lord Eccles, that he is quite right in saying that subsidising culture is not altogether popular. I do not know what that has got to do with it, because we in this House—my Government and his Government—have always stood for the fact that, popular or not, we were going to subsidise culture; and I am very proud to get up and say this here without the slightest question of anybody in my Government differing from me, and I think it very unlikely that anybody on the Front Bench opposite would differ on this point. We have one major and very important new element, which is that I see from the newspapers that the Chief Whip of the Opposition has now joined the writers' league, and we can therefore suppose that he is going to help us get this Bill through.

My Lords, it has been a long and difficult time. The Bill is not satisfactory chiefly because it does not involve enough money, in my opinion. I do not think there is anything very much wrong with it except that, but that is not a thing we can put right today. I am grateful for the support of my noble friends on both sides of me; and I hope your Lordships will now agree that this Bill should be read a third time.

On Question, Bill read 3a.

3.12 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill do now pass.

Moved, That the Bill do now pass.—(Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge.)


My Lords, I hope your Lordships will not mind if I intervene very briefly at what I regard as a rather exciting moment. It is the custom in my profession of writing to pay a great deal of attention to what we call the credits. This campaign has been waged for 30 years, and I think I should like to place on record some credits for the people who have helped public lending right to come into law. I should like to thank my right honourable friend the Prime Minister, who has always shown a very great personal interest in this problem. I should also like to thank my right honourable friend Michael Foot, who found the time and the energy, among his other duties, to push through public lending right. Then, among a host of other Members of Parliament, I should like to thank three in particular: Andrew Faulds, Jo Richardson and the right honourable Hugh Jenkins, coupled, as they say, with the name of Norman St. John-Stevas, who has always helped us in this particular cause. I must also thank, of course, the present Minister for the Arts, my noble friend Lord Donaldson, for the amount of help he has given us over the years; coupled with the legions of foot soldiers in the Writers' Action Group and the Writers' Guild, who have done so much.

My Lords, as I have said, this is the culmination of 30 years of work by the authors, starting with John Brophy, who asked for the author's penny, and going on to A. P. Herbert, who helped in the campaign. This day, as I found when I looked it up in my diary, has no particular name; it is not St. Crispin's Day, or anything like that. But henceforth, my Lords, I can assure your Lordships that in the writers' calendar it will be known as "Bruffy Day". That is a combination of the names of Bridget Brophy and Maureen Duffy, the two people who have contributed most to the writers' cause and who have carried our banner. Nothing ever deterred them, nothing put them off. They made friends and enemies; but what they have achieved in justice for writers will long be remembered. I turn finally, my Lords, to my own feelings, and they can be expressed only in Shakespeare's words: O wonderful, wonderful and most wonderful wonderful! And yet again wonderful, and after that, out of all whooping!


My Lords, I cannot but be grateful for that tribute to all of us who have worked to get this through. May I, in a few very brief words, say this: I know that many of the librarians—not all, incidentally, but many of them—have been unhappy about this Bill. I have discussed it at length with them; I have tried to meet them in various ways; and they have always assured me that they would oppose the Bill until it was law, and when it was law they would do their best to operate it properly. This is what we expect in this country, and what I am absolutely certain we shall get from them.

I should like also to say that this is a Bill about authors, not about librarians; and, in so far as there are any sanctions against abusing the provisions of the Bill, they are directed at authors and not at librarians. My Lords, I think enough has been said on this Bill, and I hope the House will now pass it.

On Question, Bill passed.