HL Deb 02 May 1995 vol 563 cc1324-6

2.55 p.m.

Lord Walton of Detchant asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they propose to terminate the English Language Book Scheme through which the Overseas Development Administration provides subsidies to British publishers to enable them to produce textbooks at low prices for sale in designated third world countries; and, if so, whether they will urgently reconsider this decision.

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, the subsidy to British publishers under the Educational Low-Priced Books Scheme will be phased out over the next two years. During that time, in consultation with publishers and other interested parties, we will be developing new strategies to achieve improved access to key textbooks and other essential learning materials for the poorer students in the poorest countries in pursuit of our developmental objectives.

Lord Walton of Detchant

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. I must declare an interest, as two of the medical textbooks which I wrote were once included in the scheme. The Minister referred to the difficulty of reaching the poorer students, but does he agree that the department's review concluded that the scheme's merits outweighed its minor limitations and that it should be retained, with some modifications? Is it not a precisely targeted scheme meeting an essential need among students who cannot afford textbooks at developed world prices? As such, it makes a contribution to Britain's influence and reputation abroad out of all proportion to its modest cost of £1.5 million a year.

Does the Minister further agree that 78.5 per cent. of books in the scheme are sold in low income and very low income countries? Does he also agree that the ELBS is much admired by USAID, which might well step in and publish American books with a similar scheme at the cost of British influence?

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, I am sure that the Government agree with the noble Lord that the achievements of the scheme and the value of British books in developing countries are great. The problem, as we see it, is that this scheme has not been appropriately focused on the poorer students in the poorest countries.

Since the review in 1988, it was determined that the scheme should be focused on countries which had a per capita income of less than 1,000 dollars per head per year. In fact, currently 22 of the 54 countries to which the scheme applies are now outside those guidelines. We are not satisfied that, taking the scheme as a whole, we are satisfactorily targeting the poorer students in the poorest countries. Some are less poor students in richer countries and in some of the poorest countries the price of the hooks is probably such that the poorest students will not be able to buy them anyway.

Lord Thomson of Monifieth

My Lords, is the Minister aware that this is a deplorable decision? Is he further aware that it was a Conservative Government who in 1960 initiated the scheme, which has given some of the most effective kinds of aid to the poorest countries of the Commonwealth and engendered good will towards Britain in the best possible way? Does the noble Lord know that his colleague, the Minister for Overseas Development, has agreed to meet a deputation? When that deputation is heard, will the Government seriously reconsider one of the best pieces of British aid towards the Commonwealth?

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, we do not accept the noble Lord's criticisms. But we are concerned to ensure that the benefits of the scheme as provided in the past will be more closely focused and carried forward into the future.

Lord Quirk

My Lords, while it is certainly true that the ODA review of last year drew attention to grave defects in the ELBS, and while it is good to know that alternative means will be found to get British books into the hands of those in the poorest countries, will the Minister agree that one of the main achievements of the ELBS has been not just to allow poor students to read books in libraries but also to be encouraged and enabled to buy their own copies?

Lord Inglewood

Yes, my Lords, but the problem is that the poorest of all seem to have been excluded. That is one of the matters that we want to try to address.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, will the Minister explain how he proposes to help the poorest of all students?

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, the scheme will be phased out over the next two years. We are currently seeking advice from the Chief Education Adviser. Research will be put in place leading to pilot schemes. Secondly, we are discussing the matter with the publishers of the books concerned.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, in that case, will my noble friend and his department consider the use of a non-governmental organisation, which would by definition have its focus much more narrowly drawn in the way that the Government currently intend?

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, I thank my noble friend. We shall endeavour to use whatever instruments give us the best result at the end of the day.

Baroness David

My Lords, does the Minister agree that 78.5 per cent. went to low-income and very low-income countries, which does not fit in with some of the remarks that he has just made? Can he guarantee that the same level of benefit will go to the user in any new scheme that is proposed? Will care be taken to ensure that the structure of geographical desks at the ODA will not create a bottleneck preventing the proper uptake of the books?

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, we shall endeavour to ensure that the kind of problems to which the noble Baroness referred in the last part of her question do not arise. We shall endeavour to focus the resources that we shall use for this purpose in the best possible manner. I cannot guarantee that everything will work out, but I can guarantee that that is our intention.

Lord Rea

My Lords, in view of the highly cost-effective short and long-term benefits of this scheme, both to this country and to the developing world, using only 0.08 percent. of the ODA's budget, will the Minister agree to further talks with International Book Development, the administrators of the scheme, to discuss how best to take it forward?

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, I understand that the company is being consulted as part of the wider consultation exercise.

Noble Lords

Next Question!

The Lord Privy Seal (Viscount Cranborne)

My Lords, we have one more Question to go and only six minutes, or rather less, in which to discuss it. Perhaps we should proceed to the next Question.

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