HL Deb 17 November 2003 vol 654 cc1765-7

2.36 p.m.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they support the aims of the Right to Read Charter championed by the Royal National Institute of the Blind.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills (Baroness Ashton of Upholland)

My Lords, we fully support the charter's aim of tackling discrimination against people with visual impairment. To that end, we have extended the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 to education and provided more than £600 million to improve access to education for disabled students.

We have worked with the Royal National Institute of the Blind and with copyright owners to reduce delays in gaining copyright clearance when making accessible copies of printed materials. We have supported the establishment of the Reveal database, which provides information about accessible resources.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that encouraging reply. However, is she aware that two difficulties remain? One is that the problem seems to bridge several government departments—those dealing with disability, social care and education. For that reason, the people who want to improve those things cannot find a particular government person to deal with.

Is the Minister also aware that books with large print are expensive to produce and are not used very often by the children for whom they are developed, although older people use them as well? Would it be possible to develop some sort of central system? At the moment, the matter is devolved to education authorities. That does not work well, as those authorities do not work with one another. If there were a centralised way in which it could be made known that such books were available to children who needed them, it would bring a financial saving and a benefit to those children.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, the fact that the subject bridges different departments can be a strength, rather than a problem. In preparing for the Question, I talked to my colleagues in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and the Department of Trade and Industry in particular. A great deal of work continues to be done through the library service and with publishers to support the initiative. I hope that, in future, the noble Baroness will see that as positive.

The noble Baroness suggested a central system giving access to information. Part of what, we hope, the Reveal database will do is enable educationists to find the information. This month, we go live with a link between our websites and the database. I will pursue the point made by the noble Baroness.

Lord Ashley of Stoke

My Lords, the Government have done well on the issue but not well enough. One striking figure is that no fewer than one in three blind and partially sighted pupils do not have books and exam papers in the preferred format. I find that utterly incomprehensible. Will my noble friend address that point? The Government have given out lots of money, and that should be appreciated, but we cannot have children hampered by having no books or exam papers. We need a guarantee from the Government that those children will get books and exam papers in the preferred format.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, I say to my noble friend that I am sorry that we have not yet done well enough. However, we have made available £220 million specifically for the School Access Initiative, which is designed to enable children and young people with disabilities to have access not only to premises but to the curriculum, as my noble friend pointed out.

All end of key stage test papers have been available in different formats for some time. All other national test papers are produced in different formats. It is for schools and LEAs to ensure that curriculum materials are available as appropriate and in good time for children with visual impairment. With good strategic planning, that can be achieved. I take my noble friend's point, and I will pursue it.

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, given the noble Baroness's earlier Answer to my noble friend, does she offer it as a general proposition that the more departments that are responsible for a particular matter, the better it is managed?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

No, my Lords. I offer the proposition that many of the issues that affect our people span the whole of government and that we need to work effectively together. The Government believe in being joined-up, and we are.

Lord Addington

My Lords, we are talking about joined-up government on this matter. Have the Government made any progress towards having VAT removed from audio books? I remind the Government that access to literature is an important aspect of our cultural life, not only of education. By not taking action, we are excluding a large number of people.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, I remind the noble Lord that there is no VAT on books, journals, newspapers or periodicals; nor is there VAT on equipment specifically designed to support those with visual impairment. There is VAT on audio tapes, which are available to the general population. Obviously, we listen to representations, but the noble Lord will know that, under EC law, that would be incompatible with the direction in which we are travelling.

Earl Howe

My Lords, do the Government have accurate statistics on the number of visually impaired and other disabled children throughout the country, so as better to establish what their information needs are and what sector they fall into? If they do—I do not believe that they do—it would be valuable information for planning purposes.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, it is true that, traditionally, governments have not collected information. However, I can say to the noble Earl that, in the next few months, we will, for the first time, have information about children with special educational needs throughout the school sector that will, as he suggested, enable us to plan more efficiently and effectively to support those children in schools.

Baroness Wilkins

My Lords, would the Minister agree to consider setting up a national repository of electronic versions of texts—which could be used as a source for the production of accessible information and to speed up the production of accessible texts for students—as quickly as possible?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, I am not entirely sure that it would be appropriate for the Government to do that. However, it is critical that we work closely with publishers to enable access to literature of all kinds to be made available as quickly as possible.