HL Deb 09 March 1998 vol 587 cc4-7

2.44 p.m.

Lord Walton of Detchant asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they accept the commitment made by the last administration, when they withdrew funding for the Educational Low-priced Book Scheme, which made cheap British textbooks available to students in developing countries, that they intended to replace that scheme with something better; and, if so, what they propose.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I can confirm that we agree with that commitment from the previous administration. We shall continue to seek ways of increasing the availability of affordable books and learning materials in developing countries.

One way that is being achieved is through a successful initiative between the Department for International Development, John Smith and Son Bookshops and a number of publishers. This is the development and publication of a bibliography of low-priced texts for developing countries which includes nearly 900 titles, also available on the web site. Book prices are discounted by the publishers and all are priced below £20.

Lord Walton of Detchant

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that helpful and encouraging reply. In doing so, perhaps I may declare an interest. Two of my own textbooks were formerly included in the ELBS some years ago.

Is the Minister aware that the removal of the government grant for this scheme has caused great concern to students in many developing countries where textbooks in medicine, nursing, science and engineering, economics, law and business have been widely welcomed? There is now evidence to suggest that other countries, in particular the United States, are moving into this market to the detriment of British educational influence.

Is the Minister also aware that a charitable trust has been formed with four Members of your Lordships' House as trustees to try to replace that scheme targeting low-priced books at Sub-Saharan Africa, the Caribbean and the Indian sub-continent?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I am aware of that in general terms, and welcome it. However, the decisions on the old ELBS were taken by the previous Government on grounds with which we agree. The scheme did not primarily benefit the poorer countries. A substantial and increasing proportion of the books were sold in the better off countries of South-East Asia. They also focused somewhat on the tertiary sector, for which I appreciate the noble Lord and others have provided material. The development priority was more on the primary and intermediate sectors. There were good reasons for changing the scheme and developing instead particular educational projects in specific countries. That is what we are doing.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, I believe that the distribution of the textbooks was under the aegis of the British Council, although I may be wrong. If it was, have consultations ensued with the British Council about any proposed changes? What is the result of those consultations?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, the noble Lord may be slightly out of date, in the sense that the decision was taken some time ago. Distribution was not primarily through the British Council but through commercial publishers. The subsidy was to the publishers rather than reducing the price in the shops of the developing countries.

Lord Monkswell

My Lords, can the Minister assure the House that only up-to-date textbooks will be subject to this scheme and not out-of-date textbooks? As a supplementary question, what plans have the Government to make these up-to-date cheap textbooks available to UK students who are suffering financial hardship?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, the books in the bibliography are as up-to-date as we can make them although in these areas some wisdom lasts for some time. However, the scheme does not apply to distribution of British educational books within the UK.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, the Minister mentioned the web in his Answer. Can he tell the House to what extent the purchasers of textbooks from developing countries are benefiting from the low priced books which are generally available on the virtual bookshops such as amazon.com? One way to assist might be to enable developing countries to get on to the Net so that they can benefit from the reductions in prices that those virtual bookshops are offering.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I appreciate the noble Lord's point. The uptake of the web is very different in different developing countries. In the Indian sub-continent particularly there is quite a substantial access to the web and therefore to information in this form.

Lord Hardinge of Penshurst

My Lords, I should mention that I am responsible for the production of the bibliography referred to earlier. It is a good initiative, but very much smaller than the ELBS. Is the Minister aware of DfID's own working group on books and information, which was set up specifically to suggest replacements for ELBS, and which has been reconvened by the present Government? Will any of its main proposals—namely, book banks, voucher schemes and information audits of DfID projects—be piloted in the near future?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, some of the proposals from the working group are under consideration now. In the meantime, a number of specific projects which arise from the principles reached by that group are already under way, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa.

Baroness David

My Lords, is the Minister aware that I very much regret the absence of the noble Baroness, Lady Chalker, today? She made that firm commitment that there would be a new scheme to replace the ELBS scheme, and a number of us believed her. The commitment was made in response to a number of Questions and even an Unstarred Question. I do not believe that it was a subsidy for the publishers, and I do believe that the ending of the scheme has been greatly to the detriment of education in a number of countries. Can we hope that this Government will be a hit more imaginative?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I am very well aware of the noble Baroness's participation in the earlier debates on this matter. I can commit the Government to being imaginative in this field, as in many others.

Earl Russell

My Lords, a moment ago the Minister spoke of wisdom having a long life. Is he aware that information tends to have a rather shorter life? Does it help to apprehend that point if he imagines teaching a course on British political parties with the aid of textbooks published in 1963?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I am not entirely aware of the particular publication to which the noble Earl refers. However, there are textbooks on political parties which still contain some wisdom and which were written before 1963. I would not wish to deny them to political students in other countries.

Lord Lucas

My Lords, I was concerned about the noble Lord's remark about not wishing to participate in supplying books for tertiary education in developing countries. Does that not follow on the rather regrettable elements of the Government White Paper? It is the Government's stated intention to lift people out of poverty; but as to taking them forward to prosperity, the Government have no interest. Would it not be better to emphasise the provision of university education and that level of textbook in developing countries, so that they gain the ability to lift themselves out of poverty rather than relying on us?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I was repeating some of the reasons why the previous government closed down the scheme. I did not intend to imply that we were against supplying tertiary textbooks under this or any other scheme. All I was saying was that the previous government and ourselves found that the balance was slightly too far away from basic textbooks, which are much needed in the poorest countries.