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Visually Impaired People

Volume 404: debated on Tuesday 6 May 2003

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To ask the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (1) what factors underlie the decision not to include a requirement for access technology for visually impaired people in the funding for the People's Network and UK online; what plans she has to include it; and if she will make a statement; [110478](2) if she will make it her policy to ensure that when public money is made available to libraries a proportion of it is allocated to library services and to access to books for visually impaired people; and if she will make a statement; [110480](3) what plans she has to ensure that the review of the Public Library Standards of England and Wales will ensure that there are specific requirements for library services to visually impaired people; [110479](4) what assessment she has made of the access to reading of visually impaired people; and what plans she has to assist the charities who work in this field to improve the level of access; [110481]

Applications for Capital Modernisation Funding (CMF) to support UK Online centres had to include access provision for those with physical, learning, or sensory disabilities. Successful bidders would have received appropriate equipment. UK Online includes a public libraries element, The People's Network, which is funded by the National Lottery through the New Opportunities Fund, allows each computer to be configured for those with visual impairments.In addition, 811 packages, made available to online centres, include large keyboards together with magnification and screen reading software, which incorporates voice output for text.The Office of the e-Envoy has also established a Working Group of those in the website design industry to improve accessibility and the Department for Education and Skills is investing significant sums to facilitate the implementation of the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act 2001 (SENDA) which will broaden access to education, and educational material. The Copyright (Visually Impaired Persons) Act 2002 removes barriers to obtaining copyright clearance for voluntary bodies and educational establishments working on behalf of the visually impaired. A commencement order is expected to be made shortly.

Current Public Library Standards encourage Library Authorities to provide effective, and relevant services reinforced by the creation of local targets which focus on important user groups including those with disabilities. A review of existing Public Library Standards will, of course, include consideration of how the standards should best reflect the needs of the visually impaired and other specialist users.

Within the local authority Standard Spending Assessment there is block funding for cultural services, including Public Libraries. In accordance with the policy for local government, outlined in the White Paper "Strong Local Leadership—Quality Public Service", there is no intention to 'ring-fence' funds to the public library service. Each local authority must use its own discretion when allocating funds in this area. No formal assessment of access to reading for the visually impaired has been made. The Government are committed to ensuring that disabled people can participate in every aspect of normal life, although, in considering public expenditure, the Government must also take into account a wide range of competing priorities. A number of different Government Departments have an interest in this policy area, and activity is wide and varied, including improving access to books and publications in alternative formats.

The Director General of the RNIB has recently written to Government Departments setting out a series of recommendations and actions which he would like to see put in place. A meeting of officials from across Whitehall is planned for mid-May and, it is expected that an announcement of what assistance might be available will follow soon after.