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2.15 pm

Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne): May I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Dunfermline, West (Rachel Squire) on her good fortune? She has an opportunity that I, in my 14 years here, have never yet had. I am told that these experiences can be either frustrating or rewarding, and I very much hope that she will find her experience rewarding. It is sensible that we also congratulate the RNIB, which I am sure has done a great deal of work on the Bill. It does a huge amount of good in the community at large.

Some private Members' Bills are exotic and some affect only a few people. I am clear, as I am sure other Members are, that this Bill is not exotic but very sensible, and it will affect the best part of 2 million people, who could most certainly benefit from its provisions. They are the sort of people who need whatever help we can give them. Help for those people currently depends on voluntary agreements, and clearly we should be grateful to those who have entered into those agreements. Having said that, although I, like my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), am a reluctant legislator, on this occasion it seems sensible to consolidate those voluntary agreements in law.

It would be foolish to suggest that there are no difficulties ahead for the Bill. There are some very technical matters to be dealt with, and there are legal issues that will exercise minds far greater and more powerful than mine. It is important to make sure that when the Bill goes into Committee, as I hope it will, the concessions that we want to make are not abused. I am sure that that point will be addressed in Committee. It is essential that we do not lose sight of the need to protect copyright owners in the general run of things, and I am sure that the need for safeguards will be borne in mind. Those are issues of detail, and it would be entirely wrong to debate them today.

There really is a need for the Bill. The only figures for a complete year that I have seen suggest that about 5 per cent. of books published in a year become available to people who need such help. The hon. Member for Dunfermline, West pointed out that there are those, particularly in schools, who are reluctant to act ahead of

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legislation. I accept the need for the Bill. It is a sensible Bill, and it appears to have the support of those who own copyrights. My mailbag has been silent on these matters, and I take that to mean that no real opposition has been stirred up. The Bill seems to be non-controversial. I congratulate the hon. Lady on her good fortune, and I wish her Bill well.

2.18 pm

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): May I congratulate the hon. Member for Dunfermline, West (Rachel Squire) both on securing this opportunity and on introducing a Bill of such evident value? I also congratulate the RNIB, which I know has helped her in preparing the Bill.

I speak on this matter in three capacities. First, in a personal capacity, I know what a difference the Bill will make to many people. Secondly, I speak in a professional capacity because, as some hon. Members will know, I practised as an optician for some years, so I recognise the difficulties that many partially sighted people face in everyday life. Thirdly, I speak in my capacity as the chairman of the recently constituted all-party group on eye care, which is a worthwhile venture. It would be incorrect of me to purport to speak for the group as a whole, but we have briefly discussed the Bill in our meetings, and I got a sense of very strong support for it from the membership and a wish for it to proceed.

Blind and partially sighted people do not have a terribly good deal in this country, for all sorts of reasons. We do not pay adequate attention to the need for primary care in the first instance, and we do not pay sufficient attention to the acute phase in loss of sight and the possible interventions that can take place at hospital level. We certainly do not provide enough support in terms of the rehabilitation and equipment that partially sighted and blind people need in order to maintain their life following what is a very difficult event.

Access to written material is a constant frustration, and is something that Members of Parliament probably do not address properly in our communications with our electorate. This Bill will go a long way to deal with one aspect of that. The difficulties of students in school and in college have already been mentioned. That is a real problem that is made worse by the otherwise wholly beneficial process of integration into mainstream schools and colleges, which do not, to the same extent, have specialist staff who know their way around the system and how to access it.

This Bill will make a significant contribution to the well-being of blind and partially sighted people. I hope that the Government will be able to respond positively to it, and I hope that our contribution will be to make sure that it passes through the House without further delay.

2.21 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Miss Melanie Johnson): I am delighted to be here today to contribute to this valuable debate about the problems encountered by visually impaired people when they cannot read material that is protected by copyright in the format in which it has been published.

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The Government recognise that this issue needs to be addressed; indeed, we consulted on a possible way forward only last year. We recognised then that a solution to these problems lies at least in part in a change to copyright law. Copyright gives rights to creators, which allow them to control the use of their copyright material, including by making copies. The material that we are talking about is wide-ranging, as several hon. Members have said. It could be a book of fiction, a newspaper, a school textbook or an instruction manual for household equipment. It could even be a map or information about a job. I recently received a letter from the National Centre for Tactile Diagrams, which is based at the University of Hertfordshire in my constituency, which helped me to appreciate the wide range of copyright material that visually impaired people may currently be unable to use because it is presented in a format that is inaccessible to them. In addition, that lack of access plays a part in the exclusion of blind and partially sighted people from the cultural, social and educational life of the country.

In general, when copyright material has only been produced in a format that a visually impaired person cannot read or see, the copyright owner's permission must be sought before it can be put into an accessible format such as large print, Braille, audio tape or—when it is graphic material—a tactile representation. Many copyright owners give that permission, but there can be delays in getting it—sometimes very long delays—as my hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline, West (Rachel Squire) said. That is why we started looking at a new exception to copyright that would allow these alternative formats to be produced in some circumstances without infringing copyright, and therefore without the need to seek permission.

An inability to access copyright material can give rise to problems for visually impaired people in many situations—in school, in the home and at work. My hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline, West gave several telling examples of the problems that disabled people currently face. As I have already mentioned, visual impairment could be one of the factors leading to social exclusion. A visually impaired person may not be able to study the necessary material to gain a qualification or to read the information that they need to take a full part in ordinary life, including in the workplace. I therefore congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline, West on choosing this worthy subject for her private Member's Bill. I appreciate that it is the culmination of much hard work by her and by the Royal National Institute for the Blind. It also has a formidable degree of support outside the House, as she has detailed.

Copyright law already contains a number of exceptions to copyright covering situations in which it would not always be reasonable or feasible to get copyright clearance. The balance in copyright law between the interests of the users of copyright material and of those who create it is extremely important, as several hon. Members have recognised in their contributions to this debate. Those—including visually impaired people—who cannot always do what they would like with copyright material can and do argue for exceptions to copyright. That is what we are considering in this debate. However, we must ensure that exceptions are fair to copyright owners as well as to users, so it is important to understand why we have copyright protection.

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In general, copyright underpins and enhances our creative industries, which play a key role in bringing us the information and the resources that we need to participate in and benefit from the knowledge economy. The Government, therefore, welcome the very positive contribution made by the creative industries to the economy and value very highly the individual contributions of many authors and composers. Copyright provides the mechanisms for these industries and creators to protect—and be rewarded for—their skill and investment in bringing us new products. Protecting creativity and providing the mechanisms for creativity to be rewarded are vital if the creative industries and authors are to continue being successful in producing high-quality material for the benefit of us all.

Copyright protection remains crucial, and that is especially true where the very success of the information society has led to many people believing that the material that others have created can be copied freely. Such issues go well beyond the subject of this debate, but it is important to stress those points because some people here may think that there are easier solutions to the problems faced by visually impaired people than those contained in the Bill. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline, West emphasised, the Bill quite rightly takes into account the very real needs and rights of copyright owners too.

Moreover, I want to acknowledge the considerable efforts that have recently been made by the publishing sector and authors to listen and respond to the needs of visually impaired people. I know that some copyright owners believe that voluntary solutions to copyright problems could continue to develop to provide all the solutions that visually impaired people need. I want to encourage the dialogue to continue, but I do not believe that voluntary solutions will provide all that is needed to overcome difficulties with copyright clearances. That is why the Government were still working towards new exceptions to copyright in this area before this Bill was proposed.

I am pleased, therefore, that my hon. Friend has brought this Bill before the House. Its intention is to deliver two distinct but complementary exceptions to copyright that, in principle, we can support. It provides a fair balance between the needs of visually impaired people and the interests of copyright owners. Visually impaired people and organisations working on their behalf will be able to act under the exceptions to provide alternative formats of copyright material that are needed to allow visually impaired people to read copyright material. However, copyright owners will have the ability to monitor what is happening to their material and obtain copyright royalties for this in circumstances where their interests might otherwise be prejudiced. That is an important balance and I know that it is one that the House will wish to maintain.

I am delighted to confirm, therefore, that this worthwhile Bill has the Government's support. I am happy to learn that the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) and other hon. Members support the Bill. As the hon. Gentleman said, amendments might be necessary and the Committee will have to consider the detail of the exceptions that may be required at a later stage. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline, West said, the Bill is about access and opportunity for many visually impaired people and about

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enabling them to have the opportunities that many of us take for granted. I therefore look forward to the Bill being debated in detail at later stages.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time, and committed to a Standing Committee, pursuant to Standing Order No. 63 (Committal of Bills).

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