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1.50 pm

Mr. Nigel Waterson (Eastbourne): I should like to congratulate the hon. Member for Dunfermline, West (Rachel Squire) not only on coming high up the ballot for private Members' Bills, but on not taking the easy option. There are always two choices on these occasions. One can either choose a high-profile passing bandwagon and go down in a blaze of glory and—it is to be hoped—publicity, or do what she has done. She has taken pains to deal with a highly technical—and, from one point of view, narrow—issue in order to deliver enormous benefits to a large number of our constituents. Some 3,000 or more people in each of our constituencies will benefit, and I pay tribute her for what she has done. It is not easy to keep track of a Bill of this sort.

As I made clear on Second Reading, and as my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) said in Committee, the Bill is an excellent measure that has the wholehearted support of the official Opposition. The principle that it involves could not be clearer: our visually impaired constituents should have unnecessary obstacles

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removed from their lives, whether it be in their leisure activities or their studies. They face quite enough obstacles in their lives already.

Another principle that the hon. Lady mentioned is also at stake. This country is a world beater in intellectual property. It is absolutely right that intellectual property should be fully protected in all its forms—hence the issue of safeguards was mentioned on Second Reading. The hon. Lady has dealt with it in some detail and it was discussed in depth in Committee. It is fair to say that those two principles have been entirely reconciled in the Bill in its current form, not least by the amendments made in Committee.

It is important to mention some of the issues that have been addressed, as the hon. Lady has done. Perhaps the most important condition or safeguard in many respects is the so-called one-for-one exception, which goes a long way to reassure those who might have had concerns about the Bill's effect on intellectual property. I take on board what she said about the database issue, which may have to be revisited on a future occasion. The new provision—I think it was introduced in Committee—enabling schools, libraries and voluntary organisations to make and distribute multiple accessible copies is also important, as are the provisions relating to so-called intermediate copies. It seems to me that, in Committee, the genuine concerns of a number of people and organisations were addressed as fully as they can be in the practical world. That is a very good thing.

The hon. Lady also reminded us of the reasons for introducing the Bill. It can take years to obtain the necessary copyright permissions, even with the best will in the world, simply because of the time that these things can take. The key statistic, which was also discussed on Second Reading, is that only 5 per cent. of all the books published in one year are available in an accessible format one year later. Some 47 per cent. of blind and partially sighted students do not usually get books in their preferred formats. It beggars belief that they can continue their studies in those circumstances, given all the other difficulties that they face.

We are also told in the RNIB briefing—I pay tribute, as the hon. Lady did, to the RNIB's excellent work in preparing some meaty and useful briefing material on the Bill—that that organisation spends about £60,000 a year chasing authors, agents and publishers for permission. The position is ludicrous, in that authors who would be helpful and supportive if they knew of the problem are unaware of it because of the number of intermediaries in the chain. There have also been many examples of people who have refused point blank to give permission. I shall not give their names, but it is rather surprising that major authors who have made millions of pounds or dollars from their works have behaved in that way.

On Second Reading I mentioned the Talking Newspapers Association, which is based at Heathfield, just up the road from Eastbourne and in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Mr. Hendry). It does excellent work, taping and transcribing the contents of some 1,100 regional and local newspapers as well as the nationals with which it deals. Although its task is easier than that of those who must deal with books, it is very sympathetic to the Bill. I have received support not just from my local branch of the association, but from the Eastbourne Blind Society.

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As I have said, an average of at least 3,000 people in each of our constituencies have no access to reading material because of copyright restrictions. Talking to those people, we cannot but be struck by how much they rely on talking books and talking newspapers to remain in touch not just with specific interests or even studies, but with the world in general. The Bill would make it much easier for them to do so.

I do not want to detain the House, given the 2.30 pm cut-off. It seems that the Bill still has cross-party support, and I am delighted to reiterate my party's support for it. I wish it a swift passage.

1.59 pm

Ms Meg Munn (Sheffield, Heeley): I too support the Bill, whose benefits are obvious. I agree with the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) that this is an ideal subject for a private Member's Bill, and I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline, West (Rachel Squire).

As my hon. Friend said, the RNIB estimates that more than 3,000 people in the average constituency are visually impaired. Yesterday, the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association was in the Houses of Parliament raising awareness of issues relating to vision, and offering eye tests. I asked what percentage of people were found to be short-sighted or suffering from other eye problems as a result of the tests. Apparently, almost everyone over 45 needs assistance with eyesight, usually when it comes to reading. I am not quite there yet, but having been short-sighted since the age of seven I know how important it is to be helped to see properly.

My hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline, West pointed out that people we know often bring to life the problems experienced by those who cannot read what they want or need to read. Late in life my father could not read very well, and found books with larger print very helpful. Some people at the church I attend also need assistance of this kind. My hon. Friend mentioned churchgoers as well. On Sundays, I usually sit next to Hilda and Ray Horbury, members of my church who are in their 80s. Unfortunately, Ray's sight has deteriorated over the past couple of years. At our church, he benefits from a large-print book, but I see at close range the distress that is caused in a central part of his life when material that is not large print is used. It means that he cannot access information, take part in activities or be part of a service when he wants to be. In these days of technology and despite the array of assistance that is available, it is a dreadful shame that there are barriers that prevent people from participating fully in life for as long as they can.

I particularly welcome the Bill's definition of a visually impaired person and the fact that it is drawn widely to ensure maximum benefit to all those who cannot access copyright material in the form in which it has been published. There is no doubt that the Bill has wide support, and when the issue is discussed outside the Chamber it seems straightforward. However, although my hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline, West has shown that to be true, introducing legislation is not without its problems. The longer I spend here, the more I realise how difficult it is to produce good legislation that works, so I pay tribute to her for having overcome the problems and technicalities of introducing legislation that, on the face of it, seems simple.

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Other Members want to take part and to put their views, so I end by saying that the Bill has my full support. I hope that it commands the support of the House and of the other place.

2.2 pm

Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham): I add my full support for the Bill, partly on behalf of my party and partly on a personal basis. I am introducing another private Member's Bill on copyright law, which has led to confusion on two levels. First, I am occasionally showered with approval from institutions involved with the visually impaired. Although I am tempted to lap up their applause, I must acknowledge that the hon. Member for Dunfermline, West (Rachel Squire) should receive it.

Secondly, and more substantially, people say, "You are introducing legislation that would increase the criminal penalties against those who seriously abuse copyright law. How can you favour legislation that widens access to material?" Of course, the two are not incompatible. I agree with the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson), who rightly emphasised that we must properly protect intellectual property—the purpose of my Bill is to increase criminal penalties in line with the trademark provision—but there must be exceptions.

It has always been understood that personal copying is not a problem, although the Bill goes slightly further by addressing multiple copying and copying without the author's permission, but for an entirely necessary and desirable public good. The hon. Member for Dunfermline, West painstakingly explained how she has created through the legislative process a series of safeguards that protect copyright holders. I am entirely satisfied that that meets their purposes as well as those of the visually impaired, and it strikes me that the balance has been well preserved. I fully support the legislation.

I have two final points to make. First, we are all receiving a lot of submissions from different groups, so I acknowledge the work of the universities. The Bill will contribute substantially to the work of higher education. People have been severely inhibited by copyright problems in universities, which have publicly acknowledged that the legislation will be an excellent help to them in making it possible to assist their visually impaired students without fear of legal comeback.

Secondly, the Bill will also help many voluntary organisations. Like many constituencies, mine has a talking newspaper, which has expressed full support, and I hope that the legislation proceeds rapidly.

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