HL Deb 12 December 1996 vol 576 cc1245-64

7.13 p.m.

Lord St. John of Bletso rose to ask Her Majesty's Government, in the light of previous assurances from the Government that the ELBS (Education Low-Priced Book Scheme) will be replaced in 1997 by something better, what progress the ODA (Overseas Development Agency) has made in planning and promoting an alternative scheme and what resources will be made available to support it.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I am delighted to have an opportunity today to introduce this debate. As the Minister is aware, I have for some time been an ardent supporter of the ODA and of the able leadership of the noble Baroness, Lady Chalker. However, I must say that I found it difficult to comprehend why the Government decided last year to phase out the education low-priced book scheme, which for many years has been both cost-effective and, just as important, extremely well managed.

There is no doubt that the scheme has made a major contribution to Britain's influence and reputation abroad. The arguments for the retention of what I shall refer to as the ELBS were well covered in the debate of 17th May of last year initiated by the noble Lord, Lord Thomson of Monifieth, who I am delighted to see will be speaking in this debate.

The purpose of this debate is to address what progress the ODA has made in planning and promoting an alternative scheme with, in the words of the Minister: something better when the ELBS is replaced in April of next year".

This debate also seeks to address what resources will be made available to support any proposed replacement scheme. In her reply to the noble Lord, Lord Thomson of Monifieth, the Minister said that the ELBS would be phased out because the ODA wanted to replace it with something better and she said that many of the concerns raised by noble Lords were based on: a misconception of our intentions and of the operation of the scheme".

For those noble Lords who are not familiar with the ELBS, it was set up some 35 years ago by the ODA to supply British subsidised textbooks to students at tertiary level in poor countries—in Africa, Asia, the Pacific, the Caribbean and the Mediterranean—covering practical disciplines such as medicine, science, engineering and business management. One of the major beneficiaries has been India.

British publishers have been paid a subsidy which has enabled them to produce and sell ELBS editions at a fraction of the standard edition price. From the ELBS sales by region for the calendar year 1995, more than 1.1 million books were distributed at an average unit cost to the ODA of only £2.50 per book compared with the average retail price of about £18.

I noted that one of the criticisms of the Minister of the ELBS was that the subsidy in many cases did not reach the poorer students. From the figures that I have, it appears that last year, 80 per cent. went to World Bank so-called "low income countries".

Many believe that the ODA does not regard tertiary education as a high priority and that it is elitist. Could the Minister, when she winds up this debate, comment on whether this assumption is true or false? It is noteworthy that the report in September 1994 on a review of ELBS, while it had many justifiable criticisms, recommended that the scheme should continue but should be reformulated so as to meet its development objectives more effectively.

I noted that, in answer to the Written Question by the noble Baroness, Lady David, on 17th July this year as to what progress has been made in providing a replacement for the ELBS, the Minister replied that: ODA's Education Division has had extensive discussions with various interested parties in the UK, including publishers, booksellers, the BBC and the British Council; consultations have also been initiated with relevant officials in Ministries of Education in three countries in Central Africa with a view to starting pilot book projects in this current year."— [Official Report, 17/7/96; col. WA 62.]

However, I understand from the working group of book professionals, that most participants favoured an "ELBS-style" replacement, but that the ODA's Chief Education Adviser had told them that this was not an option.

If, and I stress if, the Minister has an interest in promoting tertiary education in poorer countries, would she not agree that continuity in the supply of individual titles over the years is essential and that in many poorer countries, courses have been built around the ELBS textbooks that they have received?

Eileen Gillow, the head of ELBS administration, pointed out in her outline proposal for tertiary level textbook provision in the developing world that: students' ownership of their own textbooks is considered highly desirable by academics both in the UK and the developing world".

She went on to say that several countries—more specifically Zimbabwe and Kenya—are almost entirely dependent on ELBS for the provision of tertiary level text books. I am sure that others will touch on the alternative option of book tokens, giving students the opportunity to purchase their own textbooks. I do not intend to discuss that option this evening.

While I am well aware of the many commendable schemes that the ODA has implemented for providing books and other educational assistance to targeted countries and regions, I cannot fathom in what way the ODA feels that the ELBS has not provided value for money. The figure that I gave your Lordships a little earlier of £2.50 compared to the retail price of £18 seem in my opinion, and in that of the ordinary person, to be extremely good value.

In this phasing out period the ODA has provided the ELBS with £700,000 for books subsidies and an additional £66,000 for administration, which is approximately 50 per cent. of the ELBS budget of £1.5 million for the 1994-95 budget year. I understand that stocks of most ELBS titles are either exhausted or shortly will be. Can the Minister be more specific this evening as to the replacement scheme for the phased-out ELBS'? Further, can the noble Baroness clarify whether the World Bank low income countries, which have over the years been receiving ELBS tertiary level textbooks, will continue to receive such books? Alternatively, will those books be targeted only to the so-called "poorest" students. If so, how will the poorest students be selected? How will the books be provided more specifically to outreach students, such as nursing students in rural hospitals, who have no access to large libraries?

Finally, as we are nearing the so-called "D-day" when the ELBS will be phased out, can the Minister say whether any new arrangements have been developed and, if so, are they ready to be implemented on 1st April of next year? I trust, in the words of the closing comments of the noble Lord, Lord Thomson of Monifieth, in his debate last year, that the phasing out of the ELBS will not be a disguised cut in educational book aid.

7.22 p.m.

Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior

My Lords, the House will be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord St. John of Bletso, for tabling this Unstarred Question, particularly because many noble Lords very much wish to know the progress being made towards the replacement of the ELBS which was announced in 1995 by my noble friend the Minister. It would be fair to say that many of us, including myself, all of whom very much admire the work carried out by the ODA, viewed that decision with alarm. We did so because of our experience in many instances of the great value of the ELBS in the developing world. Perhaps also we saw yet another erosion of the influence of the United Kingdom in those needy countries.

However, since that debate I have come to appreciate the need for such a review of the concept behind the ELBS. I say that in part because of the quite remarkable advances in the field of information technology in the world and also the equally remarkable developments in the ability of developing countries to make use of this broad range of IT. In some quite remote parts of the world, I have been most surprised at the sophisticated nature of the computer hardware and software that exists and, indeed, the great enthusiasm that there is for it in those distant parts of the world.

To my mind it is probably more logical to think in terms of a range of offerings under the concept of the ELBS rather than simply in terms of books alone.

I would certainly agree that there is always a place for the ELBS, as has been mentioned by the noble Lord, in areas where for example, nurses and animal technologists out in the bush can only rely on books, not on any other means of communication. Nevertheless, there is a wide range of possibilities which could be considered.

As I believe we all know, another increasing problem is that the type of textbooks which would normally be designated under the ELBS are becoming fewer in number. One of the reasons is that they are now being published electronically. Indeed, many scientific journals are published in that way. While that is quite suitable for the western world, such publications may not be readily available in third world countries. Therefore, if we took on board the concept not only of books but also of electronic information, we could view the future provision of information (for which the ELBS scheme was set up many years ago) with more optimism and achieve much more. It is my understanding that a pilot programme using ODA funds has been set up in Ghana which comprises an electronic network. It is to be hoped that that will prove to be successful and encourage the expansion of the system.

An area where I see a particular need, if we want to move into the field of electronic communications for educational purposes, is in the provision of short-term scholarships for individuals from the developing world for, say, three months. That would enable them to come to this country to receive instruction and training in the use of information technology. They could then return to their native countries and instruct others.

While I was somewhat disappointed and concerned originally at the demise of the ELBS, I now believe that there is a new range of opportunities available based on the rapid evolution of information technology, some of which could probably be made more amenable to different areas of the world. It could provide an effective provision of textbooks—though, having been part of the ELBS and having had the honour of having some of my textbooks designated as such, I must admit that it will come hard to see the demise of a scheme which has for so long done so much good in the developing world.

7.28 p.m.

Baroness David

My Lords, I am extremely glad that the noble Lord, Lord St. John of Bletso, has tabled this Question tonight. It seems to me to be high time that we had some statement from the noble Baroness, as it is over 18 months since we had the last debate on the subject on 17th May 1995. The Minister made some firm commitments at that time which, so far as I can see, have not been kept. Her department had announced the phasing out of the scheme in the spring of that year. I shall now give your Lordships some quotations from columns 655 to 660 of Hansard of what the Minister said in that debate: We have said that it will be phased out in two years because we want to replace it with something better. We believe it essential that we do the very best for the students, particularly those poor students who cannot afford books". The Minister continued: My concern is the students and that those students will turn to the UK when they are qualified and will bring trade for the UK in the longer term". That, of course, is what we all want, and why we think it is so short-sighted to get rid of the scheme. The Minister also said: The scheme has had a fine reputation. No one disputes that. Over the years it has had some notable successes". The Minister added that, my aim… is to replace ELBS with something better… The aim is to develop well before the old scheme ceases in two years' time new' arrangements that will fulfil the objectives to which we are committed". The Minister also mentioned information technology. The noble Lord, Lord Soulsby, has just referred to that. It seems to me odd that if that really is a proper proposal, the ODA has not let us hear what it is. I am sure my noble friend Lord Peston will deal with the point because I am not so well-informed about information technology. However, I should have thought it was quite difficult to reach the distant parts of some of those countries in that way. They would need electricity and rather sophisticated equipment. However, if the Minister thinks the scheme will work, I hope that she will give us a clear description of how it is to be made to work. As I say, I am a little sceptical about that, but as the noble Lord, Lord Soulsby, was so keen on that scheme I hope it will be followed up. I believe the Minister said in the debate in 1995 that whole textbooks and encyclopaedias were being made available on CD-ROM. However, will these people have the necessary equipment to receive them?

I feel that we have been let down. What has happened since that day in May last year? The ODA set up a Books and Information Working Group, chaired by Myra Harrison, its chief education adviser, to consider alternative arrangements that might replace ELBS. The group met for the second and last time on 22nd February this year. A further meeting was to be called in April and then September, but despite inquiries no call for a third meeting has been forthcoming. The 22nd February meeting proposed that pilot projects should be set up to test the feasibility of the respective replacement schemes: the voucher scheme, the book presentation scheme, etc. Not one of those pilot schemes, so far as I know, has ever got off the ground.

It was also proposed that a bibliography of low priced textbooks should be compiled. The ODA commissioned John Smith and Sons to carry out the work, although I understand that this has proved a far more difficult task than the latter anticipated. However, the bibliography was never presented as other than a useful aid and certainly not as the main plank of the Minister's programme for replacing ELBS.

The noble Lord, Lord St. John of Bletso, referred to the Written Answer to a Question I tabled in July this year. After referring to the bibliography that had been commissioned, the Minister stated: We shall continue to examine various methods of getting books to needy students, which will enable us to target books and information provision more effectively than under the former Educational Low-Priced Books Scheme. We shall consult further with publishers and other interested parties through the ODA-convened Books Working Group".—[Official Report, 17/7/96; col. WA 62.] That Question was tabled in July, but the working group does not appear to have met since last February.

I suspect that if the ODA would seriously consider creating a scheme to deliver low priced or free books to the poorest students in any significant numbers, it would discover—perhaps it has discovered—that the most cost-effective way of doing so is the scheme currently being dismantled.

I have seen a copy of a dissertation for an MA degree at Loughborough University submitted by Emily Kogos, who was librarian at Moi University, Kenya, and who had direct experience of ELBS as she was herself a Kenyan student who had made use of books provided by ELBS. I wish to quote a few phrases from her dissertation. She writes: Getting new editions of books at a lower cost has made ELBS invaluable to students especially at the post-secondary school level of education in Kenya. In the absence of such subsidised books, some bookshops such as the Text Book Centre…would order older editions of standard paper back books so that the prices could be within the reach of their customers". That enabled the customers to buy books at an affordable price. The dissertation continues: However, the research carried out in respect of Kenya shows that ELBS books actually played the role of supplying cheap text books to university students. The students come from differing backgrounds with different purchasing capabilities. The majority though come from families that need external assistance to he able to pay the fees as required in the era of cost-sharing…Research done in Kenya showed that ELBS books reach the targeted groups…Books still provide the basic tools of learning in developing countries…Following the decision by the ODA to withdraw the scheme and to phase it out completely by 1997, there was an outcry from ELBS users with hundreds of letters being sent by students, librarians and booksellers. The general feeling conveyed was that the ELBS scheme had been invaluable in helping provide the much needed cheaper priced books, as well as keeping up with the latest book editions. Most letters expressed fears that the book market at the tertiary level in the affected countries would suffer considerably and that academic standards would be affected as students find it even more difficult to buy books…In line with the original objective of the scheme, ELBS books were availed to the tertiary market in Kenya at prices within the means of most students. The research showed that the main beneficiaries of the scheme were students…ELBS played a major role in the supply of affordable text books for higher education institutions in Kenya…The ELBS book scheme provided a stimulus for students in tertiary institutions in Kenya to own books. The withdrawal of the scheme therefore brings with it the repercussions of loss of purchasing power especially in the areas of Science, Engineering and Medicine. Students taking these subjects will be forced to buy fewer books or resort to the bad practice of mutilating library hooks to survive". One of the supervisors connected with this dissertation, Mr. Sumsion, is probably known to the noble Baroness as he is the distinguished and respected director of the Library and Information Statistics Unit.

In April next year, if nothing is done, there will be no books for the students to buy. From what she has said in the past I am sure that the noble Baroness is sympathetic to the needs of students in the poorer countries of the world. To think that they will be deprived of help to get a proper education and proper qualifications is to me extremely distressing. I hope that even at this last minute—we are very close to March 1997 now—the Minister will reconsider what has happened and come up tonight with some firm proposal that will help these students.

7.38 p.m.

Lord Walton of Detchant

My Lords, I, too, am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord St. John, for tabling this Unstarred Question leading to this interesting and important debate. When I tabled a Starred Question in this House on 2nd May 1995, I felt it right to declare an interest because, like the noble Lord, Lord Soulsby, two textbooks on medicine which I had written had previously been included in the scheme, but have not been included for some years.

Subsequently, in correspondence with myself, the Minister was kind enough to say that she had every intention of making certain that the ODA would come up with something better than ELBS. She repeated that assertion in the reply to the Unstarred Question in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Thomson of Monifieth, a short while afterwards. As the noble Lord, Lord St. John, has said, this scheme has been in existence for over 35 years. Two years ago the grant from the ODA to support the scheme was £1.5 million. In 1994-95 it fell to £1.3 million. As the noble Lord, Lord St. John, has said, this year it has fallen to £766,000, or 0.08 per cent. of the ODA budget. It is true that the textbooks included in the scheme have been for tertiary level business education, engineering and technology, law, medicine and science, including social, agricultural and veterinary sciences. The books have been sold in 54 developing countries in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean and in Oceania.

The noble Lord, Lord Soulsby, is right. We are seeing a revolution in information technology, in electronic publishing, which is likely progressively to replace some textbooks in many circumstances. Some of the publishers who have had books included in the ELB scheme in the past are in the van of this electronic publishing revolution. Why would it not be possible for their electronic products, where appropriate, to be included in such a scheme in the future in those countries where the facility is available to make use of such IT material? Nevertheless, as a teacher in universities for many years, I still believe that one of the most important of all teaching aids is, and will continue to be for many years to come, a book.

In answer to the debate, the noble Baroness said that the ODA review was concerned with targeting a replacement scheme at the poorest students, in particular in countries with very low or low income. It is true that certain countries—I refer, for example, to Singapore and Hong Kong—where the electronic revolution has gone ahead apace were originally included in the scheme. Perhaps Hong Kong was included for political reasons. Surely it is not beyond the wit of man and of the ODA to exclude from such a scheme those countries, some 22 in all, which are richer, for which, as the scheme has materialised and matured, such targeting is no longer appropriate.

Like the noble Baroness, Lady David, I have read with great interest the paper by Emily Kogos from Kenya. It made abundantly clear that students in the university where she was librarian have been wholly dependent on the books published under the ELB scheme. Like the noble Baroness, I have seen masses of letters to the Publishers Association and other organisations from students in Nigeria, Uganda, Malawi and other parts of Africa, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. It surely cannot be the case, as has been implied in certain correspondence, that the ODA believes that tertiary education in such countries is elitist. Such tertiary education will produce in the future the teachers in all disciplines in those countries; and they need the support of the scheme.

I do not believe that we can or should underestimate the crucial importance of British influence in the education of those students in developing countries. From my experience in British universities, and my chairmanship of the Sub-Committee of the Science and Technology Committee of your Lordships' House looking at the international investment in UK science, I know how greatly British education and British textbooks have influenced the work in many developing countries. It has ultimately been responsible for a good deal of inward investment from those countries, and individuals educated by British books and learning have ultimately made contributions.

The great virtue of the ELB scheme has been the rigorous selection of books, controlled local prices, the absence of pirating and the low distribution costs. Surely it is not out of the question that of the 54 countries originally included, the 22 which are now regarded as too rich should be discarded. The suggestion has been made that some of the books have been purchased by professional visitors to developing countries for personal use. That must be only a minimal problem. The textbooks in the scheme have not been advanced level textbooks but textbooks for use by undergraduate students.

Is it right that ODA believes that tertiary education is elitist? The chief education adviser to ODA said in correspondence with the ELBS administrator and others that the continuation of ELBS, even if modified, was not an option. Why ever not? It seems to me extraordinary that that should not have been considered.

The working group established by the ODA saw an excellent and detailed paper produced by Eileen Gillow. However, that paper, consisting of many pages with a carefully marshalled set of arguments, was not discussed by the working group. It was told that it must consider only alternatives to the ELBS and not a modification of the scheme. In view of the fact that the scheme will run out by the end of March next year—that is only three months from now—it is important to ask what the ODA proposes to put in its place. Will it be a scheme which will help tertiary level education by the provision not just of books but of electronic and IT material for countries which can use them? What will be the unit costs? What will be the administrative arrangements? What will be the total resources provided? As a result, will students in poorer countries have better access to teaching level books than the ELBS provided? Many of us are doubtful that that will be the case. Will the new arrangements have been developed, fully assessed, evaluated and in place by 1st April?

Many of us believe that any scheme proposed by the ODA will not effectively replace the ELBS, which has done so much to use British textbooks for the education of students in developing countries. I hope that the noble Baroness will reassure us to the contrary. Many of us believe that any scheme put in its place will not be better. Some of us have come together with the full support of the Publishers Association to establish an ELBS replacement trust because we genuinely believe that the scheme is so important to the future of education overseas that we must replace it with a similar scheme.

7.48 p.m.

Viscount Waverley

My Lords, the principle of distributing textbooks to those who in normal circumstances would be unable to receive them is commendable. It plays an important part in alleviating poverty by attacking illiteracy, which in turn creates the future professional and trading culture. It can also assist with teaching in agricultural and engineering matters, addressing practical issues. To that end, I am grateful to my noble friend for organising the debate.

With that said, and to reiterate my position as regards our last debate, I have long suspected that the ELB system was flawed. This is as much to do with direct publishing and distribution issues as with the age in which we live, of across-the-board, Treasury-led cuts. It is inevitable that some schemes had to go.

I have never been entirely clear who were the main beneficiaries under the existing scheme—the UK book industry, either through the contribution to administrative costs or by the resulting ability to retain an agent who could then service other forms of book orders, or those people in the country of destination who in many cases, I suspect, could afford the title anyway.

Additionally, bookshops around the developing world certainly cannot be relied upon to hold price structures that reflect the ELBS principles. That point cannot be denied. Retailers have to achieve, or strive to achieve, a certain percentage on turnover and hike prices in local currency to offset inflation and currency fluctuations, often over official rates. Only intensive and accurate agent scrutiny would resolve that. From a central bank perspective, scarce foreign currency is also used. Possibly the death knell of ELBS is even due to the complicated computations used in the UK. I do accept one point, however: local printing, as an alternative, other than in larger markets with a reduced book list, is probably not the answer.

I also accept that my concerns could be argued in other ways, but, regrettably, it appears that funds for ELBS do not seem to be available. But does not the ODA commit to substantial assistance in other book-related aid? Perhaps the Minister could tell us more about that.

However, we are where we are. What are we going to do about it? I have given some thought to how to resolve this. I was certainly impressed with the IT proposals. Hard copy is an expensive commodity, and it might be that IT is the answer. I would want all my previous concerns addressed, and those of publishers, while at the same time giving the recipients a speedy, effective, wide range of titles which can be paid for in local currencies, even at a cheaper cost than that at which they obtain ELBS titles currently.

This is what I came up with. A core catalogued list of titles covering subjects appropriate to developmental needs should be created from a wide range of publishers, with order-taking facilities set up in each university town in targeted countries. It would be quite simple to identify likely candidates as agents, who should have some idea of the publishing world—although that is not necessarily essential. Pre-paid orders would be submitted weekly via a UK central point for dissemination and execution. Orders would be consolidated for a weekly or bi-weekly air-freight service for customs clearance and local distribution. Because of the appalling nature of many overseas internal postal services, orders could be collected by the client or hand-delivered.

Advantages to all this would be that expensive intermediaries would be cut out and there would be stricter control on prices and quality of service. In other words, everybody would get what they want.

The noble Baroness, Lady David, was right to remind us that only three months remain until the official end of ELBS.

Finally, it being that time of year, it behaves me to wish the Minister bon voyage for tomorrow and her well-earned holiday.

7.53 p.m.

Lord Thomson of Monifieth

My Lords, I listened with great care to the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley. When he said that his proposals would give everybody what they wanted, I began to feel a little doubt as to whether the Waverley plan would be any better than the existing situation.

Viscount Waverley

Perhaps I should make it clear that, having established this type of operation on behalf of UK publishers in 14 overseas countries, I speak to that end with some experience.

Lord Thomson of Monifieth

My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord in the sense that I share his feeling of gratitude to the noble Lord, Lord St. John of Bletso, for raising this issue. I confess that he has raised it in a timely way, which had escaped my notice, my having initiated the debate nearly two years ago. This is a proper time for us to ask the Minister, the noble Baroness, Lady Chalker, to tell us what the results have been of the steps that she initiated following that debate in May 1995. Although we disagreed with her views about the ELBS, we were all rather encouraged by her confident assertion that she intended to phase it out and replace it with something better. As has been said by a number of noble Lords, we have no evidence so far of something better being created. The meetings that were intended to plan this seemed to come to a dead end almost a year ago, in February this year. Perhaps something is happening. This debate will have been well worthwhile if the Minister is able to produce something better for us.

Having thought a good deal about these matters since our debate, I fully recognise that the ELBS, as the Minister told us nearly two years ago, is only one of many ODA-assisted efforts in the field of educational books. I am particularly aware of the role of Book Aid International, for example, which she mentioned on that occasion and with which I was actively associated for many years when it was the rather splendid Ranfurly Library Service.

Last year Book Aid International sent out 680,000 books, principally to sub-Saharan Africa and to countries in particular need. Those books were provided by some very welcome assistance from the ODA but also by the voluntary effort of the Rotarian movement in this country and very generous gifts from the educational publishers. I refer to that because there was a certain tone in what the Minister told us on the last occasion which indicated that she believed that one of the weaknesses of the ELBS was that it was in the commercial interests of publishers rather than directly in the interests of development priorities.

We all recognise that the Minister, perhaps more than anybody else in British politics, is devoted to the field of overseas development and understands the difficult priorities better than anybody else. However, I venture to say that in the field of educational books there is an identity of interest between the development needs—of which education is a very important one—and the fact that the English language and British education are two of our great assets worldwide. I believe that the interests of the publishers and of our development aims in helping the poorest countries in the world overlap a great deal and largely coincide. The role that the publishers play in Book Aid International in terms of donations which go along with the subsidised ELBS ought to be taken account of.

Not knowing what the Minister will tell us about what has happened since the last meeting of the working group in February, we are searching for some constructive proposals. In May 1995 I said that I accepted that the ELBS, like any other scheme, needed to adapt to changing circumstances. The noble Lord who spoke about the impact of information technology on tertiary education is absolutely right; we are in a revolutionary new situation. However, one must be cautious about how applicable it is to some developing countries; the situation varies a great deal from one to another. I am actively engaged with a charity which deals with the training of journalists in third world countries. We have constantly to be aware that the kind of technology used in newspaper production in this country is not necessarily applicable to some of the poorer countries of the world. We must take account of information technology but we need to be careful about how we apply it.

In my brief remarks I wish to offer to the Minister a plan which would enable the ELBS to deal with its weaknesses and to be part of a wider mosaic of educational publishing from this country. I wonder whether we might streamline the existing ELBS scheme instead of phasing it out. We might concentrate it on the poorest countries and accompany it by an ELBS contribution to the book banks and presentations discussed in our last debate. Alongside that, I believe that there is a role for encouraging publishers in this country to go out of their way to see what help they can give. In eastern and central Europe, we engage a good deal in know-how operations and know-how funds. Perhaps we could try to do know-how fund operations in terms of publishing in some of the poorest countries of the world and help to encourage local publishing.

In the last debate the Minister mentioned the Indian experience in this field. I know, for example what Book Aid International does in its very modest way (it operates largely on a shoestring). It provides know-how kits for publishers in developing countries on how to set about the job of being a successful publisher. There are a good many ways in which the ELBS scheme, instead of being phased out, could be adapted and incorporated into the overall strategy of the Minister in this particular field.

It is on that point that I want to end, as other noble Lords have done. We are all aware that the Minister, like all Ministers, has had problems in the battle over public expenditure priorities. As I read the Red Book on the Budget, the ODA budget is fairly static in inflation terms and probably facing some reductions. It would be very helpful to us if, in responding to the particular problems of the future ELBS scheme, the Minister were also to put it against the context of her educational strategy for the ODA, to reassure some of us that tertiary education still has a significant role to play along with other forms of education in terms of our aid programme. Within tertiary education, perhaps she could assure us that the educational book side will be dealt with in a way that, as I said in my final words in the debate of May 18 months ago, is not in any way a sort of smokescreen to conceal a real cut in this particularly important form of educational aid.

8.3 p.m.

Lord Peston

My Lords, I join with other noble Lords in thanking the noble Lord, Lord St. John of Bletso, for introducing this short debate. I have a couple of interests to declare and, regretfully, an interest not to declare. I am a director of two very small publishing companies, neither of which has ever had a book in the ELBS or is ever likely to have. On the negative side, I am not and never have been the author of a textbook that has been adopted by ELBS. But, being above these things, that will not prejudice me against them. I am also, as is the noble Lord, Lord Walton of Detchant, one of those involved in trying to set up a trust to do something in this area in the future.

I shall make several points but I shall not go over the ground covered by other noble Lords, as most of the material has been dealt with very effectively. The noble Lord, Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior, introduced the subject of IT. I am as committed to IT as any Member of your Lordships' House. I spend—perhaps waste—a great deal of time on the Internet. I use CD-ROMs and so on. However, although I accept all the visions of the future, we are a million miles away from the end of the book. With all respect to noble Lords, it is absurd to suggest that the future of education in the third world within our lifetime lies with IT. I should like to believe that, but it is simply absurd. The situation does not even lie like that with us. I am sure that, like me, the noble Lord spends most of his time reading books. There are CD-ROMs which are better than books—the Oxford English Dictionary on CD-ROM is undoubtedly better than the book. But there have been very few examples of that so far. The other thing to bear in mind is that they are all much dearer in electronic form. We shall not save money by going electronic—one day it will happen but not in anything like the near future. If we are serious in our desire—I emphasise my seriousness—to help the emerging countries (or whatever expression one wishes to use) in the educational field, books are of the essence. I have no doubt about that whatsoever. The question therefore is how we do something about it.

Secondly, following the observations of the noble Lord, Lord Thomson of Monifieth, I believe in utilising everybody's interests. Therefore, to be told that this is in the commercial interests of publishers I find astounding coming from the Conservative Benches. Of course, following Adam Smith, we want things to be in people's commercial interests so that they do them. Certainly, I shall not advocate anything that is not in someone's commercial interests because, if it is not, then nothing will happen. So I do not regard as a minus point and cannot believe that it could be the serious view of the ODA that one objection to the scheme is that it is in the commercial interests of publishers.

Viscount Waverley

My Lords, do they not contribute to the overall costs of the activities abroad?

Lord Peston

Of course they do. We do not expect our publishers to be altruists. We expect our publishers to respond to incentives. In my judgment this is a suitable incentive and, to use an expression that I do not particularly like, one which is cost effective. I refer again to the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley. If he is right and this is just across the board led Treasury cuts, we are wasting our time. What are we doing here late on a Thursday night? If this is simply a case of the arguments following a decision rather than a decision following the arguments, I certainly do not know what I am doing here, because I am quite tired. I assume that we are discussing this matter rationally in terms of the correct use of a given budget—in this case the ODA budget. We are not playing the old game of "Let us spend some more"; we simply say that within that budget our judgment is that one gets extremely good value for money for approximately £750 a year.

That is my position. I have heard nothing from the ODA to dissuade me from that view. If one reflects on it, it is clear that for £750 one places in the hands of the eventual leaders of the societies about which we are speaking books in English written by people in this country. I can assure noble Lords that I have no great hope that in these few minutes we shall persuade the Minister to change her mind. But I can assure her that in three or four years' time we shall be in this Chamber and some noble Lord will rise and ask, "Why, in all these countries, are all the textbooks written by Americans? Why did no one do anything to make sure that they were written by British people?" In the noble Lord's own field, does he want all the books on veterinary science to come from the United States? I must tell him that, when this scheme goes, should the noble Lord, Lord Walton, and I not have the success for which we are hoping, that is what will happen. Interestingly, however, someone will then say, "We shall have to find some funds to get the scheme started again."

That is certainly my position. Books matter and IT will matter one day but we are nowhere yet near that point, and I believe that this is an amazingly good way of doing things to help those countries. Again, I do not move back from the point that I believe that it also helps our own country. I know that in under-developed countries we are concerned with altruism and all that and I stand second to none in my desire to be a caring person in world terms. But what I deeply care about is British influence throughout the world and I do not want to see that diminished.

As I said, I do not want to go again over the ground. But I must echo other noble Lords in asking, where are the ODA's new proposals? Essentially the scheme will die in what is not a very long period of time. I must tell the noble Baroness that the noble Lord, Lord Walton, and I and colleagues have not had enormous success in raising additional money. I also say to her, slightly tartly, that the fact that she has been unable to support us has not exactly made life easy for us in trying to persuade anyone else to support her. I wrote to her and she wrote back to me about as disobliging a letter as she possibly could have done in terms of my having asked for some help. I was told—to paraphrase her reply—that there was very little on offer from her department to help us get started.

I would at least hope that if the noble Baroness feels that her department can do nothing more, we may get more support from her department in what we are trying to do. I do not hold out a great deal of hope that we can do much. It is not easy, in such a short period of time, to raise that kind of money. We are trying, but it is not easy.

One point that puzzles me about the ODA position is that anybody who knows anything about tertiary and higher education knows that in any society the people involved are above average. Whether we are discussing our own or anybody else's universities, we are not discussing the poorest of people but those a little further on. If one's desire is to help in that area, naturally one will end up helping a few better-off people.

When I was a student, though I thought I was incredibly poor, it turned out that even then I was one of the better off. I had no idea what real poverty was. But nobody suggested that grants should be abolished. If we want to help students in other countries, we must accept that some of the help will go towards the elite. However, we shall also be helping a number of extremely poor people. I do not understand the argument that the money is wasted; it is based on a view that we can target or fine-tune so brilliantly that the money goes only to the most deserving. There is no experience of policy-making in any country in the world that says it can be done that accurately. A broad range must be helped in order to help anybody at all. I do not accept the argument that, because richer people gain as well as the poor, that is a reason for stopping the help.

I feel passionately about books. I came from a house that did not have any books. I bought the first book ever bought in my family and can still remember the book I bought and the excitement of the beauty of a brand new book. I have wasted enormous sums of money over my life and probably owned more books than I will ever read because I find them irresistible. I want people in the third world to have that kind of attitude to books. Above all, I want them to have that attitude to books written by our people, coming from our country.

8.12 p.m.

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord St. John of Bletso, for raising this issue again and to all noble Lords for the useful points made. I was going to report, early in the new year, on what had been happening. There was no wish to keep anyone in the dark. If questions are asked, I shall always answer them, as all Members of your Lordships' House know. I am therefore glad to have this opportunity to respond and to inform your Lordships of the work undertaken to find the most effective ways we can of ensuring that the poorer students in the poorer countries have access to the books they need.

We heard some interesting ideas from the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, tonight. While I cannot respond at the Box to those ideas, we will investigate them. I believe also that where we can we should be encouraging local publishing. I, for one, was delighted when Macmillans set up headquarters in Swaziland. I was proud to open the new big warehouse there. That enables distribution to be carried out much more effectively and efficiently than from anywhere else.

Before I reply to the questions asked in the debate I should remind your Lordships of one point. In May last year when we had our debate I explained that we had to work under the Overseas Development and Cooperation Act. The British aid programme is defined in that Act as, promoting the development or maintaining the economy of a country or territory outside the United Kingdom, or the welfare of its people". I went on to say, Those are important words. The primary purpose of British aid is development".—[Official Report, 17/5/95; col. 656.] We are required by law to make sure that that is done. Therefore, when we investigated (not once, but twice) the ELB scheme—the first investigation was as long ago as 1988, as the noble Lord, Lord St. John of Bletso, mentioned—the reviewers concluded both then and in the subsequent review that the impact and effectiveness of technical assistance for education would be enhanced if we managed a book scheme at country level. It was also realised that the ELB scheme could not operate in that way. What we will do if the pilots prove to be as successful as we hope is to put books provision back into the individual country programmes so that we can target them on those poorest people whom we should be helping under the Act.

In 1995 the chairman of the booksellers wrote to me about the book scheme saying: Global schemes [of the type now being phased out] are not the most effective way of targeting aid". I agree. We are trying to be more effective, not less.

Eighteen months ago I said that there were flaws in the ELB scheme and that those had to be set right because the educational low-priced books were not reaching the poorest students as they could not afford to buy them. I am firmly committed—as this House knows—to increasing access to books in developing countries where they will remain the main source of information. However, the noble Lord, Lord Peston, should not be too doubtful about the speed with which youngsters in developing countries learn. If they can get their hands on a single computer in a village or a town, they manage to learn from computer technology extremely quickly. My noble friend Lord Soulsby, and the noble Lord, Lord Walton, were absolutely right when they pointed that out. Those children in developing countries are probably learning much faster than we did at the same stage of development.

We are examining not only how we increase the access to books in developing countries but how we can use ODA funds to improve the current situation. What have we been doing? We heard a little about that, but only snatches, in some of the contributions tonight. As we know, ELBS has continued to receive funding—it is in its last financial year—of £700,000. At the same time it has enabled us to begin other work.

ODA set up and hosted the working group with publishers and other interested parties. The noble Baroness, Lady David, said that they had not met since February. That is because, by the end of February, we had a sufficient idea of the way we should go and could start consultation in the developing countries about the suggestions which had come from the working party. Members of the working party jointly identified three priority areas. Those were to be the commissioning of a bibliography of low-priced editions; the targeted library support via pilot projects, which I will go into in a moment; and guidelines for books provision in bilateral projects, to which I referred a moment ago. But it was by consulting the ministries of education in some of the poorest developing countries that we were able to devise plans to test out the direct provision to schools and libraries of the sorts of books they need.

Let me follow up on the three ideas. The bibliography has been commissioned and, as the noble Baroness, Lady David, said, is being done by a well-known Scottish bookseller, John Smith and Son. We shall pay for that bibliography of low-priced editions. It will be available later this month and will include a list of titles of cheap student text-books in subject headings previously identified under the ELBS with additional headings for medicine. I believe that it will include veterinary medicine. I hope noble Lords realise that I have taken to heart the comments made about the importance of medical books and that they remain important.

Twelve publishers have so far agreed to contribute their list to the bibliography and I am grateful to those British publishers who have, as we knew some would, found ways of getting their products into developing markets without subsidy. That is to help us do what we want to do without making us go against the 1980 Act, and that is important. These publishers form a broader base than those who participated in the ELBS. The prices for the text books are generally in the price range of £2.40 to £10 and they compare favourably with the prices charged by the publishers under ELBS. The bibliography will contain about 300 titles to begin with. We do not regard that as final, but that is the basis on which we will build.

I am confident that the bibliography will continue to develop and will meet the real needs of students who need text books. We plan to distribute the bibliography early next year. We shall monitor its usefulness to suppliers, institutions and libraries. We shall also encourage the wider development of it.

The noble Lords, Lord Thomson of Monifieth, Lord Walton of Detchant, and Lord St. John of Bletso, raised a query about tertiary education, and some belief in the department that it might be considered elitist. I can assure noble Lords that that is not so. We have to emphasise the urgent necessity of tackling primary education as part of education for all. We are tackling tertiary education support through specific projects with universities like Lesotho's national university and through specific scholarships; in other words, closely targeting where we can be most effective and through specific academic links, which is a new project that we agreed only in July this year.

It is essential to have tertiary education. It is essential higher-level education, and it will be necessary for teaching the teachers for the future, but it must be built upon sound educational levels in the lower age groups. That is why there has been a slight shift towards primary education. It is not because we are giving up helping at tertiary levels, but because of the urgent need at primary levels. That is why our bilateral programmes have turned more towards carrying out, on a country basis in India, Pakistan, Malawi, Zambia and other countries, quite a lot more in that particular field.

I have said that I am glad that we have this bibliography stage one—and I only call it stage one—with 300 titles coming off the stocks now.

Secondly, we looked at library support through a number of pilot projects. In order to make progress we first sought the views of key senior individuals in a number of ministries of education. That resulted in the development of a list of pilot projects, based on local knowledge, of the areas of greatest need for the students. These projects will start in this financial year, and I hope literally in weeks rather than months. They have been selected to cover the needs of education, not only at tertiary level but also at primary and secondary levels, to see whether we can get books through, because there is a book shortage in the developing world, as we all know.

We have allocated £160,000 to fund the starting up of that set of initiatives this year, so that will be before the end of March. There will be more available in the year 1997-98 for these and other initiatives as we bring them on stream. An amount of half a million pounds has been allocated to the direct provision of books to these projects for the next financial year.

I must stress that these are pilot projects. Areas of need have been identified by the recipients themselves, and not by my officials nor by publishers. We shall begin the evaluation of the effectiveness of each of the pilot projects from next year onward.

The third matter that we agreed was to produce, for our country programme managers, guidelines to ensure that books and information provision is made in all projects where it is appropriate. Draft guidelines have been developed with the help of the British Council. We shall consider those once we have had the opportunity to evaluate the pilot projects, and we shall consider them with education people from the developing countries themselves.

In addition to all this, there is a large number of bilateral projects and new ones coming up through the pipeline, and each of them will include significant elements of book provision. One example is that we shall spend some £7 million on books in the new primary education project that has begun in Kenya. We have continued to support other book programmes and a number of noble Lords, particularly the noble Lord, Lord Thomson of Monifieth, spoke of Book Aid International, for which I have absolutely unbounded respect because it has done such a good job. It continues to get our support to the tune of £300,000 over the three-year period, 1994-97, but we have given it an additional project grant for particular work with books in Africa of some £97,000. That was in the last financial year.

One of the reasons that Book Aid International is so good is that it places the books among students who most need them. We anticipate continuing our grant to Book Aid International at similar levels, if not even better levels, in the next three years.

Carrying out work for Book Aid International leads us to work with another association, that for the development of education in Africa. We have provided it with £120,000 for book work. We are the lead funding agency for the organisation's group on books and learning materials. Our aim is to influence more appropriate and sustainable book policies in Africa. We played a significant role in July this year at the Zimbabwe book fair because the debate needs to be carried on, not just here or in donor countries, but in the countries which will use the materials that we are pleased to be able to fund.

Next year's topic at the book fair will be access to books. We are heavily involved in the Indaba (discussion seminars) at the book fair. All those activities will inform our books and information project as well as informing the African countries' longer-term books policy development.

The Eastern Europe Low Price British Books Scheme has operated since 1991 at a cost of £1.88 million. We have made an allocation of £100,000 per annum for low cost medical books schemes. There are many other examples I could go into, but I assure your Lordships that educational books are alive and well in the ODA. It is, however, important that we apply them in the way that I described in our earlier debate and again tonight. That is to make sure that the books reach the poorest students in the poorest countries. In this financial year some 9,000 scholarship trainees and award holders will come to the United Kingdom. They will each have received an allowance for books at an average value of £300. We shall continue that. That is right. We shall also continue, wherever we find a need that can be answered by local production, to help local producers and thereby the local economy to grow.

I have made it quite clear that I want something better. My officials have been working to produce that. When we were asked for a second ELB scheme my chief education adviser was quite right to say that we were not going to have a second ELB scheme for the reasons of the 1980 Act, which I explained at the beginning. It was not to undermine the whole question of books for students; it was to be factual about the situation we face in law.

We are looking at a number of new ideas. My noble friend Lord Soulsby and the noble Lord, Lord Walton, both mentioned the electronic media. For our programme managers we have included in our guidelines for books the whole question of periodicals—these may be available by some photocopying system or CD-ROMs—and how to use the Internet connection and electronic data bases.

As the noble Lord, Lord Thomson, said, we are looking at this pilot project of an electronic library network in Ghana. We find that there is much more scope for this than we had imagined, even though we are perhaps a little more in touch with it than the noble Lord, Lord Peston, may have been. We are providing short-term scholarships for intermediate technology under our present scholarship schemes where the overseas government concerned is identifying IT as a priority subject for study. More and more see that as an important point.

We are working away at this. If we spent all our time talking about all the things we are working away at, we would never get the work done. However, I am always willing to answer questions from noble Lords or, for that matter, anyone else, because I believe that what we are seeking to do is to ensure that the books are the right books and they get to the poorest students who have hitherto been having great difficulty in getting access to them. I would just say to the noble Lord, Lord St. John of Bletso, that ELBS does not distribute books at the moment; it puts them into bookshops for sale. So it is a rather different scheme from the one people sometimes think goes on.

I could say many more things but I have already overrun my time. I hope I have been able to convince your Lordships that there is nothing negative about what we are doing. We are making the very best use of funds in the best interests of, in particular, recipients, but also in the interests of British taxpayers. That is my job; that is what I shall do; and I shall make very sure indeed that the books get to the people who most need them.