Skip to main content

Clause 2

Volume 961: debated on Tuesday 30 January 1979

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

The Central Fund

I beg to move amendment No. 34, in page 2, line 36 leave out '£2 million' and insert £1 million'.

With this we may take amendment No. 35, in page 2, line 40 leave out subsection (3)

I regard this evening as a pleasant, light-hearted interlude in the serious business of discussing the Bill. From the very brief speech by the hon. Member for Nottingham, West (Mr. English), and, indeed, the uncharacteristically brief speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham (Mr. Moate), it is quite clear that we shall not be detained too long on this occasion. But no doubt on future occasions we shall have the opportunity to go into this at greater length. Certainly I do not intend to take a great deal of time on the amendments that we are now considering before the other place has a chance to consider, and I hope insert, further amendments, particularly with regard to such matters as works of reference.

However, this amendment has within it potentially the nub of our objections to the Bill. It is because we object to the Bill in gross and in detail that we wish to minimise the effects of public expenditure waste by cutting the amount from £2 million to £1 million. Let me itemise and get on the record some of the reasons why we object to this Bill.

It is an extraordinary fact that as the Bill has progressed through the House on this occasion almost every hon. Member who comes in with a casual interest stays to listen for 15 or 20 minutes and suddenly begins to realise that the Bill is much more objectionable than he had realised. The hon. Member for Renfrewshire, West (Mr. Buchan) is present. He is a dedicated author and I shall be interested to see whether he is tempted to rise to his feet on his occasion.

The hon. Gentleman is indicating "No". Perhaps he will intervene on a future occasion. I know that he is an honest man. I hope that he will study the arguments and that he, like so many others, will come to echo the words of, I think it is, Hilaire Belloc's little poem in which he says:

"Dear Mr. X, does it ever strike you,
The more we see of you, the less we like you?"
I am not applying that to the hon. Member. I am applying it to the Bill, because the more anybody studies the Bill the more objectionable he discovers it to be.

The first reason why I object to the expenditure of £2 million and prefer the expenditure of £1 million, if there is to be any expenditure, is that, in these straitened times, it is a waste of money. If I were the Chancellor of the Exchequer and had £2 million to spare, I should not give it to comparatively rich authors. This very afternoon an interesting argument was put forward at the Dispatch Box by the Minister of State, Department of Health and Social Security. A powerful argument was advanced by the hon. Member for Coatbridge and Airdrie (Mr. Dempsey), saying that the death grant had gone up by only £10 since 1947. It was then worth £20 and is now worth £30, and he asked why it should not be moved up in parallel with other social security benefits. The Minister of State said that it could not be done because it would cost £96 million to do it and there was not enough money for that, although he accepted the principle of the argument.

What irritates me is that, accepting that statement by the Minister of State, here we have a Bill providing what is admittedly a modest amount which we are told we can expend on authors, many of whom, as we have discovered on previous amendments, are not only comparatively rich but are millionaires. If I had the money to spend, that is the first reason why I would not spend it on this proposal.

If I were to take the argument further, I would put it in two parts. The first is that the way in which we are to spend this £2 million is in itself a waste. The second part of the argument, which I should have thought would appeal particularly to Government Members, is that if we decided to spend £2 million to stimulate literature in this country, this would not be the way to do it. There are better ways of doing it, even granted that we want to spend £2 million.

The first point, which must be got on the record again—I shall not labour it on this occasion, although we shall perhaps return to it later—is that authors do very well out of public libraries. We have a wonderful library system in this country which benefits not only the general community but authors. They get a royalty from the books which libraries buy. They get their 10 per cent.—or whatever the deal is with the library—on the cover price.

Secondly, publishers know that there are certain volumes which they would not be able to publish were they not confident that the libraries would buy 1,000 volumes, or whatever the figure is, and thus guarantee to the publishers—so far as anything in publishing life can be guaranteed—that they will break the back of the publishing economics. They know that however few copies they may sell to the retail trade, by guaranteeing that 1,000 or 1,500 copies are sold to libraries they will not lose on the book. And therefore some authors who would not be published at all are published because of the public library system.

My third argument, which proves beyond doubt that authors do well out of public libraries, that they would do worse were public libraries not to exist, is this. Public libraries provide for authors a showcase for their works; there can be no question of that. A person goes to a public library, sees a book, takes it out, saying "I have never read this author before", and then goes out and buys a book by him.

I shall not go into this point at great length, but I have received a letter from a bookseller who had written to The Times on this subject saying that he was totally opposed to public lending right. I shall paraphrase his letter to me, but I will gladly read it to my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Mr. Rhodes James) later in the debate if he wishes.

The bookseller said that his shop puts inside every copy of its books a little tab with the name and address of the shop. He said that last year between 50 and 60 persons had come to his bookshop to buy books, saying "We came to your shop because we found inside a book we got from the library a little sticker saying 'Bought from May & May'" He pointed out that that was 60 books sold by his shop alone as a result of people borrowing a book from a public library. But, of course, these people buy more than one book. They come to the shop, he said, and see others that they would like to buy. That is the experience of just one bookseller.

There is no doubt—there is certainly none in the retail trade—that public libraries generate interest in books, thus benefiting the authors because the books are then bought through the retail trade, with royalties of 10 per cent. on the cover price.

I wonder whether my hon. Friend has that letter in his possession and can give further details.

I do not have it in my immediate possession, but when this matter comes back to the House—I do not want to speak at great length tonight—I will gladly read the second paragraph, which makes the point in great detail and from the personal experience of that bookseller.

Why should we spend £2 million rather than £1 million on these authors? They are already doing well out of public libraries. That is my first objection.

My second objection, which needs to be hammered home, is that out of the £2 million to be spent on the whole scheme, £600,000 is to go on the Civil Service. Surely that is indefensible. About 30 per cent. of the entire amount is to go to civil servants to dish out the other two-thirds. If anyone thinks that one-third to be spent on bureaucracy is reasonable, I ask him to look at the case of the Performing Right Society. The proportion spent on administration by the society is only 13·5 per cent. The £600,000 proposed is a ludicrous amount to spend on the bureaucracy under this Bill, even if one grants the principle of the Bill, which I do not. The bureaucracy must be cut.

Thirdly, I cannot understand how any Labour Member in particular can accept that, under the Bill, those who do best are those who are already doing best. This is a Bill to make rich authors richer. If the idea were "We have some poor budding authors who need encouraging, so let us give them some money so that they can write their masterpieces in garrets because at the moment they have no time", there might be a reason for this scheme. But to say that the books plucked most often from the shelves of 72 public libraries will be the books by Mr. Alistair Maclean, a millionaire living in Switzerland, and that therefore he is to get the maximum amount is indefensible.

The Minister of State has proved very reasonable, and we are grateful for the concessions he has made and for the amendment he intends to move in another place, but surely he can see that the Bill is crazy. If we want to stimulate writing in this country, we do not stimulate it by giving money to people who are already making a million out of it. That must be wrong.

11.45 p.m.

Without going into the different shades of literary opinion about who is a good author and who is not so good an author, I remind the House that we heard earlier this evening about the proportion of books in public libraries which are works of reference. What we do know—in addition to the 50 per cent. to which, I think, the hon. Member for Glasgow, Spring-burn (Mr. Buchanan) referred—is that up to 70 per cent. of books taken off the shelves are in any case just light novels.

I cannot understand why, at a time when we need every penny that we can lay our hands on, this Government should bring forward a scheme to reward light novelists when we already know that they will give no such reward to the compilers of serious works of reference. There can be £1,000 to Barbara Cartland and to her heirs after her death, but nothing for the compilers of works of reference. It must be wrong. It is crazy. Even given the principles of PLR, it is a mad and wasteful way to spend money.

I agree with almost everything that the hon. Gentleman has said, but I had a slight pause when he seemed to imply that Her Majesty's Government had some deleterious motive in this respect. Surely he knows that nobody is proposing the Bill in order to assist the poor author. The Bill is proposed, and supported by his own Front Bench, merely in order to assist members of both Front Benches and other people who are already prosperous authors.

It is certainly true that never has so much money been screwed out of a Government by so few people to so little purpose. My hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge groans—

Is my hon. Friend seriously saying that for £12 a year we should go through this whole rigmarole of expending £2 million? That is what is insane about it. As I say, if the purpose were to stimulate literature in this country, and if it would make the difference between my hon. Friend writing another book and not writing another book, there might be something to be said for it. But to spend £2 million merely to give an average of £12 a year, which is what it is—no one denies that £12 is the average—must be a misuse of public funds at this time.

Without expatiating at length, may I turn next to the question of dead authors. The Minister of State has accepted an amendment to reduce from 50 to 20 the number of years after the death of an author during which his beneficiaries may expect public lending right. That is an improvement of 30 years, but even so it seems to me absurd. The Bill is supposed to be a measure of justice for authors, not for dead authors, and if the object is to stimulate literature in this country—that should be its purpose if it has any at all—it cannot be a stimulus to literature to give the heirs of dead authors £1,000 a year, or whatever the cut-off figure is, especially since they are likely to be people who have already benefited substantially from the inheritance from the dead author through the royalties earned during his lifetime.

Next, there is the question of foreign authors. Why should we spend £2 million of taxpayers' money in order that Mr. Harold Robbins, living in California, may be even richer than he is now? I know that the Minister of State, as I understand him, has said that he will introduce an amendment in the other place to limit that to some extent, but that is the way the Bill will leave this House. That is what we are now considering—that dead authors' heirs will benefit, that foreign authors will benefit and that trivial authors will benefit. Can that be the best way of spending our money?

I see that another author, the hon. Member for Luton, West (Mr. Sedge-more), has joined us. I was looking at his book only yesterday—£4·95 as the cover price, and I hope that he gets 49p for every volume sold. Good luck to him. But I should be interested if he would confirm that he has an agent to whom he will have to pay 10 per cent.

Out of the £2 million, we have to take £600,000 for the bureaucracy. Of the remaining £1,400,000, 10 per cent. will go to the agents. Is it the Minister's purpose to put £140,000 into the pockets of agents? It is insanity? It cannot be the way to spend money.

On Second reading the Secretary of State said that the purpose of the Bill was to stimulate the cause of literature in this country. The aim was good although the means was bad. From the £2 million, or the £1 million to which I seek to reduce the figure, the Civil Service gets one-third. There is then the money given to the dead authors, which will increase as years go by as there will be more dead authors on the roll. We have to give the money to rich authors, millionaire authors, trivial authors, foreign authors and their agents.

We have said that it is incredible to spend £2 million in order to give an author £12 a year. But it will be more like £5 a year to authors living in this country once the money has had the little erosions taken off it. Do the Government seriously maintain that giving an author £5 a year, with taxes and other deductions, is the best way to spend £2 million? That cannot be so.

I believe that parts of the Bill need destroying, but I am not being totally destructive. If this amendment reduces the £2 million to £1 million, there are better ways of spending the money in the cause of literature. Many people might say that there are other more deserving areas. But even in an endeavour to spread literature, it would be preferable and cheaper to give £1 million to the Arts Council to hand out to authors whom it believed most needed it.

Is my hon. Friend suggesting that, without any accountability, £1 million or £2 million should be handed by the Government to the Arts Council? Can he reconcile that with his Conservative principles and the control of public expenditure?

I reconcile it with the greatest of ease. Under the present scheme, the £2 million, amongst other financial erosions, has £600,000 taken off it for the bureaucracy. It is not ideal to give it to the Arts Council, but in that event that £600,000 would be available for authors. The Minister's purpose, to help the cause of literature, would be further advanced, because there would be more money to give the authors.

A second way of spending the money would be to give a series of prizes for literature. We do not have many such prizes in this country. We have the Booker prize, the W.H. Smith prize and one or two others. In France, for example, there is the Prix Goncourt which offers two or three times as much as the Booker prize.

Surely it would stimulate literature far more if we gave each county council in England and Wales and each region in Scotland an amount of money to award a prize in its own area. Certainly a series of prizes awarded in that way, or through the Arts Council, would do far more to help literature, if that is the Government's aim. There could be prizes for the best romantic novel of the year, the best biography of the year—which I am sure my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge would win year after year—and so on. At least that would be justice for authors and a better way of spending the money.

I shall be interested to hear whether the Minister, in replying to this debate, says that it is his solemn belief that this scheme, with all its financial erosions, would help literature more, stimulate writers more and encourage young writers more than a system of prizes.

If the Minister wants a better way to spend the £1 million which I propose to cut off the £2 million, why not buy more books for public libraries? In that way the general public would benefit because more books would be available. Also, the authors would benefit because they would get the royalties on the books bought by the libraries. Everyone would benefit. Alternatively, the Minister could consider improving library facilities, or having more specialist libraries. I want to cut the £2 million to £1 million because the money is at present ill spent and because there are so many better ways of spending it. I have already outlined the different ways in which the money could be spent.

I hope that when another place considers this Bill it will not be blinded by the sort of glib euphoria which was spread over this House, emanating from a small tightly-knit group of literary-motivated authors who want to get more money for themselves. This is particularly so with novelists. Why should this small group of novelists have swayed the Government and the House? I hope that the other place will recognise that, if justice for authors is the cry, it should be justice for all authors. Let that justice be more wisely dispensed financially than is proposed in the Bill.

In 1975–76 the education authorities, using taxpayers' money, spent £53 million on books. The public library authorities spent £28 million, also of taxpayers' money. The national libraries spent £1 million, once again taxpayers' money. There are no figures for universities. The total, excluding the uni- versities, is £82 million, which represented 45 per cent. of the total turnover by United Kingdom publishers. Therefore, the taxpayer is already supporting United Kingdom publishers to the tune of 45 per cent. of their turnover.

I hope that the hon. Member will remember that in the excellent Resale Prices Act brought in by a former leader of the Conservative Party when he was only President of the Board of Trade, there was one exception to the question of resale price maintenance, namely, the net book agreement. When the hon. Member quotes these figures, I hope that he will remind the House that books are the only things that are allowed to be charged to places like libraries at above their market value.

I take note of that point. Unfortunately, it rather conflicts with a point I intended to make. Far from resenting the activities of the libraries, the publishers and authors actually encourage the libraries to buy their books by offering them a very substantial discount.

12 midnight.

Often it is more than that.

The taxpayer spent £82 million in 1976. I have often accepted the argument that many authors are perhaps hard done by in terms of the return they receive. However, if the author today is in need of more financial support, I do not believe that the taxpayer should be called upon to pay more money to support him. That is my case for saying that it is better to spend £1 million than £2 million. The Bill calls for £2 million. I do not think that anything should be paid, but £1 million is better than £2 million. If the amount were reduced to £1 million, the pressure would be greater to reduce the administrative costs. The expenses would be so disproportionate to the total funds available that this scheme would probably have to be scrapped and a more sensible scheme introduced. That more sensible scheme would be on the lines proposed, or mentioned as a possibility, by my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, South (Mr. Sproat).

I am no great fan of the Arts Council. However, State patronage is not new. It has been accepted throughout the centuries. I would much rather see patronage by the State through the Arts Council handing out significant sums of money to worthy authors than the height of folly which this Bill has reached of providing £2 million, of which £600,000 will go to civil servants and its administration. The rest will be distributed. On average it will pay about £12 to each of 113,000 authors.

I do not believe that the Minister of State, left to his own devices, would have produced a Bill of this kind. I do not believe that he thinks it is sensible. Not many hon. Members think that it is sensible. However, the Bill has three or four friends. I gather that my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Mr. Rhodes James) is a new-found friend. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] I am encouraged. However, the Bill has two or three friends. The hon. Member for Putney (Mr. Jenkins) has been a staunch friend of this Bill. It also has two special friends. One is the Leader of the House. The other is the Shadow Leader of the House. With supporters such as those, it makes it pretty certain that the Bill will be passed. However, I emphasise that neither Ministers, if left to their own devices, nor Parliament would have produced a Bill of this kind now. They would not suggest that we spend £2 million on helping authors. It is certain that at the time of the next Budget the Chancellor of the Exchequer, whether Labour or Conservative, will face a crisis in public expenditure and will be looking for major cuts. I shall not go too far down that road. There are now many greater priorities demanding public expenditure support than this Bill, when one-third of the money provided under it will be devoted to setting up a new bureaucracy.

Will the hon. Member explain why the Opposition Front Bench is in favour of increasing public expenditure for this object?

I find it hard to understand why anybody should support this Bill and why the Opposition Front Bench—which is normally so wise and shrewd and the repository of great wisdom and consistency—has, on this occasion, I am sad to say, been deflected in its judgment.

I hope that the Minister will understand that we are being fairly brief. We hope that he will respond with a helpful approach as he did on previous amendments—although not on those to the previous Bill.

My amendment seeks to delete clause 2 (3), which provides for the power in future to increase the limit on the sums to be paid under subsection (2)—in other words, the power subsequently to increase the sum of £2 million by statutory instrument. I suggest that we delete that. This is not a destructive blow aimed at the Bill. If in future there is extra money available for distribution to authors, it would be far better to use it through a scheme handled by the Arts Council to help authors in need. Therefore we would be better without this proposition.

I am astonished by my hon. Friend's sudden enthusiasm—I agree with much of what has been said—for the Arts Council.

It is a choice of evils, I emphasise to my hon. Friend. I mentioned the Arts Council, but I would much rather it were the Minister of State or my hon. Friend who was making the judgment. It is not difficult to find struggling authors, who are producing perhaps their first work, who need financial support, and who would be grateful for and find it helpful to have a few hundred pounds given to them by the Arts Council, instead of the prospect of £2, £3 or £4 coming through public lending right.

Rather than have this provision allowing for future increases in the sums of money, if £2 million were made available to help authors it would be possible in every constituency for about £3,000 to be allocated so that five or six authors could receive a grant of £500 each every year. That is how substantial it is. Worthy causes could be helped. But the provision made in the Bill is a total waste of money and it would be far better to delete it.

If we are to have a £2 million scheme, so be it. Let us leave it there and let the Registrar administer that scheme. But let us have no further increases in the future. Let any money that becomes available in future be used much more sensibly by a future Government.

I shall speak very briefly and hope that the hon. Members for Aberdeen, South (Mr. Sproat) and for Faversham (Mr. Moate) and the House will not consider it a discourtesy. I understand that undertakings were given as to the time and the timing of the debate and I do not want to presume upon hon. Members' time. I know that there are several other amendments that hon. Members wish to discuss.

Both hon. Gentlemen have expressed again to the House their opposition to the principles of the Bill. Although Conservative Members have said that very few people are in favour of the Bill, I remind the House that this Bill has been moved by the Government, it has not been opposed by the Opposition Front Bench, and it has passed through Committee. It has now returned to the House.

The amendment seeks to reduce the amount of money from £2 million to £1 million. I remind the House that £1 million was the sum proposed two or three years ago when the first Bill came before the House. Of that £1 million, there would, at that stage, have been administrative expenditure of £400,000—nearly half. Because of rising costs, because of inflation, and because it will be a further two years before the measure begins to be implemented, £600,000 of the £2 million is likely to go in administrative costs.

The hon. Member for Faversham is correct when he says that if the figure were reduced to £1 million the administrative expenditure would still be not far short of £600,000, so that we get to an absurd position.

The Minister must surely realise that what he said earlier was a little specious. He is well aware that this House was not allowed an opportunity to divide on Second Reading, and that the Whips on each side appointed to the Committee only one opponent of the Bill. Does he really think that that is a fair way of dealing with a measure which is not approved of by the majority of people in the United Kingdom?

I shall not pursue the second point, because Committees of the House are appointed not by the Whips but by Mr. Speaker.

They are appointed by Mr. Speaker. I do not want to pursue that matter, because I should be out of order.

I repeat that to reduce the amount to £1 million would be counter-productive. I re-emphasise that it will be two years or so before the scheme is likely to be in operation.

I raised a matter on the last occasion with which the Minister did not then deal. Is the £1 million or the £2 million the net cost to the Government allowing for the income tax and so on that the Government will presumably recover when the money is paid to authors?

It is the gross cost. We could not administer it by way of net cost, because we do not know what the income tax would be on the authors receiving the money. It would depend on their circumstances.

Amendment No. 35 seeks to provide that, if there is to be an increase in the amount in future—which may be necessary—there shall be primary, not subordinate, legislation. That would waste the time of the House considerably. We have spent a great deal of time on the Bill. It would not be desirable for the house to bring in a separate Bill, not on the principle but to increase the amount in line with inflation at that time. Although the Goverment have done very well indeed over the last three or four years with regard to inflation, there is still an element of inflation in the economy. Therefore, we must make provision in the Bill for that element to be taken care of without the necessity for further primary legislation.

Most of the arguments put forward by the hon. Members for Aberdeen, South and for Faversham have been based on their opposition to a public lending right. The House has approved the Bill. I suggest that the minimum viable sum should be £2 million based on the scheme now before the House. Therefore, I ask the hon. Gentleman to withdraw his amendment.

In the sure knowledge that we shall have another chance to discuss these matters later, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

I beg to move amendment No. 39, in page 3, line 12, at end insert—

'(4A) It shall not be lawful for any author in any proceedings whatsoever to claim that a library or any member of its staff has discriminated against him in any way his book or books have been or are made available to the public'.
I appeal to my hon. Friend to accept the principle behind the amendment. There is no doubt that, in theory, it is open to an author to seek to claim, through the courts, that the sales of his books are being hindered by the discriminatory policy of one of the chosen 72 librarians.

Before the public lending right was proposed and before the Bill was introduced, it was possible for a librarian to exercise his professional judgment whether to put on a display of books by an author or authors. Should the Bill become an Act, the librarian will be in a somewhat exposed position, because an author will be able to take him to court. Therefore, this extra responsibility will have been assumed by librarians.

The professional integrity of the librarian will be interfered with in several ways. There is the danger, first, of his being taken to court and, secondly, of being reported to the Registrar, and he may interfere.

The librarian decides whether to buy or not to buy—that is the question—a single copy or multiple copies of a particular book, whether to put it in the reference section or the lending section or whether to put on display books by one author as against another. Another part of the librarian's job is to advise on reading matter for study, and so on. If the author does not sue in court and reports to the Registrar, what action can the Registrar take? Will he interfere in the policy of the librarian because an author has complained that his books are not getting a fair display?

If the amendment is not accepted, the freedom of choice exercised by the professional librarian to purchase material to meet the needs of the community could be severely restricted. I appeal to my hon. Friend to accept the principle behind my amendment and to try to do something to meet my point in another place or when the Bill returns to this House.

12.15 a.m.

I know the deep concern of my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Springburn (Mr. Buchanan) in this matter. He has been good enough on a number of occasions to discuss it with me privately and to give me instances of the evil which he feels would emanate if his amendment were not carried. I shall ask my hon. Friend to withdraw the amendment, although I accept the principle behind it.

The difficulty lies in the words in his amendment:
"It shall not be lawful for any author in any proceedings whatsoever".
The amendment seeks to use the vehicle of the Bill to create a massive immunity to librarians from actions by authors and goes way beyond the provisions of the Bill.

There is no provision in the Bill under which an author could bring proceedings for discrimination. If he wished to take such proceedings, he would have to do so under the appropriate part of the criminal or common law. An aggrieved author would have that right. As a lawyer, I must admit I cannot think of one case in which an author has ever taken such proceedings. He would have some difficulty in doing so under the criminal law unless he could prove that the librarian was committing a criminal offence. The amendment would remove from authors all those rights.

It is not the Government's intention, and it is not the intention of the Bill, to interfere with the proper running of a library. That job lies wholly with the librarian. It is for the librarian to decide which books he will purchase and which books he will put on special display. That rule will apply equally in the sample libraries. There will be no interference by the Registrar in the running of the library. Indeed, the whole idea of the scheme is that that library should be a sample library.

In some instances the librarian may choose to highlight a particular book, author or style of novel to attract readers. He may try to change the habits of readers in that way. Some of the best books I have ever read have been books I have never intended to pick up in the library. I have chosen them either because they have been on display or because I have been in a hurry. In that way I have discovered some gems of books which in the ordinary way I would never have chosen by just browsing through the shelves. The author concerned will now, under these provisions, receive some remuneration because I have chosen that book in that way.

It would be extremely difficult for any author to take this matter to court and win under the existing common law. That would certainly be impossible under the criminal law, unless he could prove a criminal offence.

On a clear understanding that I grasp the principle that concerns my hon. Friend, perhaps he will be prepared to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.