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Authors, Booksellers and Libraries: Economic Recovery

Volume 817: debated on Monday 10 January 2022


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they intend to take to support the economic recovery and growth of authors, booksellers, and libraries, in England after the pandemic.

My Lords, Her Majesty’s Government are committed to supporting the UK’s world-leading publishing industry. We support all parts of the literary ecosystem, with libraries, for instance, benefiting from the £5 million libraries improvement fund, and authors from the annual £6.6 million public lending right. Booksellers, too, are central to the Government’s build back better high street strategy, which will ensure that businesses are profitable and resilient as we emerge from the pandemic.

My Lords, despite the interest in books shown by the public during the pandemic, many authors, like other freelancers, have suffered financial hardship and fallen through the gaps in support. Will the Government consider increasing the PLR fund, which has been frozen for the last seven years? Will they look, too, at business rates, which favour Amazon warehouses over high street bookshops? Bookshops are not just shops: in tandem with libraries and schools, they can, and often do, provide enormous social and educational value at local community level.

I certainly agree with what the noble Earl says, and I am pleased to say that the Booksellers Association reports that independent booksellers have increased in number over the last two years: more than 50 new independent bookstores were opened last year and the year before. That includes the excellent Forum Books in Whitley Bay, thanks to the encouragement of Ann Cleeves, the author of the Vera books, who, I am pleased to say, was awarded an OBE in the New Year Honours List for services to reading and libraries. The noble Earl is right to point to the plight of authors. A statutory instrument is being introduced today increasing the rate for the PLR. Authors also benefit from support from Arts Council England, including through its “time to write” grants—so they are in the Government’s mind.

If the Government genuinely agree with the noble Earl, when are we going to do something about this unfair competition between Amazon and the high street bookshop? Amazon may be good, but people can browse in a bookshop, and they should be able to do it without fearing that the bookshop will close.

As I said, the Booksellers Association reports that the number of independent bookshops has grown over the past 22 months. Its membership is up 12% since the pandemic began. As my noble friend knows, we will continue to consider the arguments for and against an online sales tax which, if introduced, would raise revenue to fund business rates reductions.

I would like to ask the Minister about the current consultation on a change to UK copyright law relating to the UK’s future IP exhaustion regime, the impact of which could be far reaching for authors. Does he share my concern that, according to the Publishers Association, a move to international exhaustion could cost authors more than £500 million a year in lost income? The Minister will know that the author community is very concerned about this. I declare an interest as a non-executive director of a publishing house, as stated in the register.

As the noble Baroness will know, this matter is being led by the Intellectual Property Office, but it is clearly a complex matter which touches on not just the work of DCMS but other government departments. Officials across government are analysing the responses before Ministers are able to make an informed decision on the UK’s future approach. It is very much a case of measuring twice and cutting once rather than rushing forward into a decision and bearing the consequences later.

My Lords, as pro-chancellor of the University of Gloucestershire I am very aware that during the time of pandemic there have been issues with ebooks relating to university libraries. How will the Government address the current issues of excessive pricing, restrictive licensing and lack of availability of academic ebooks?

My Lords, that it is a matter for publishers and their academic customers. I am pleased to report that ebook sales have increased during the pandemic, so people are continuing to buy them, but I will take that point back to the department.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that to ensure that authors get fair recompense we should do far more to ensure that readers are accessing legitimate books, not least by removing illegitimate material online? Will he tell us what progress has been made in developing the codes of practice to detect and remove illegal content, as committed to by the Government in the creative industries sector deal of 2018.

This is a matter which has been touched upon in relation to the review of intellectual property rights. The consultation brought forward concerns in the sector about the unauthorised reproduction of books, so it is being looked at. I will write to the noble Lord on the follow-up work that has been done in the meantime.

My Lords, the proposed procurement Bill is supposed to make procurement more accessible to small businesses by ensuring that the social value of contracts is considered when choosing suppliers. Can the Minister assure the House that social value will include supporting local booksellers and suppliers when considering the procurement of books for local libraries and schools?

My Lords, while independent booksellers are indeed showing signs of a hopeful comeback, as the Minister said, it is important to acknowledge that there are closures as well as openings of new shops which are still up against the might of online delivery services and chain shops. What consideration are the Government giving to reducing barriers for small, independent bookshops which are, after all, livening up our high streets and making book buying and reading more appealing? Will the Minister discuss business rates or small tax incentives with his Treasury colleagues to allow independent booksellers to survive and be able to support their local communities?

The noble Baroness is right. Despite the encouraging news, challenges remain for independent booksellers as we emerge from the pandemic. That is why the Government have put in place one of the world’s most comprehensive economic responses worth £400 billion to protect jobs, businesses and public services throughout the pandemic. We have provided support through the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, business rates relief for eligible high street retailers, grants for small businesses and government-backed loans. We have also protected commercial tenants from eviction and debt enforcement because of non-payment of rent until March 2022.

My Lords, it goes without saying that the PLR should be doubled, and that will be an easy win for my noble friend. I declare an interest as I work with the Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society. On libraries, within central government there needs to be much more co-ordination between the levelling-up department, the Department for Education and the Minister’s excellent Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. I urge my noble friend, who has a very busy diary, to meet entrepreneurial figures, such as William Sieghart, who are pioneering new ways of providing library services to ensure that libraries continue to be relevant in the 21st century.

Yes, I would be delighted to meet Mr Sieghart and anyone else who would like to make representations on behalf of libraries. Libraries are the bedrock of our communities. I am pleased to say that in the last year before the pandemic there were nearly 180 million visits to libraries. That is more than the combined number of visits to Premier League football games, the cinema and the top 10 UK tourist attractions and, of course, libraries have played such an important role in supporting people through the pandemic. I would be very happy to discuss that further.

My Lords, my noble friend reminded us that the pandemic has been particularly challenging for creative freelancers, including authors and writers. The Minister will also be aware of the challenges to his department in dealing with freelancers as a sector, given the breadth and diversity of the freelance community. What consideration have the Government given to the appointment of a freelance commissioner or the establishment of a freelance creative council to ensure that the concerns of freelancers are effectively represented and clearly understood?

The Government provided some money just before Christmas to help freelancers working across the creative industries and the cultural sectors who were affected by the omicron wave of coronavirus. I am grateful to the noble Baroness, who I saw was making sure that that message was getting out to freelancers. I would certainly be happy to discuss with freelancers and their representatives the challenges that remain as we continue to face the pandemic.

My Lords, the Minister’s warm words in support of libraries are welcome, but since 2010 more than 800 public libraries have closed and the number of qualified librarians employed by local authorities has decreased from more than 18,000 to just over 15,000. Warm words are all well and good, but what more practically can be done to support local authorities to keep libraries open and, where that fails, to support local communities themselves to keep libraries open?

I do not recognise the figure the noble Lord cites. The dataset published by Arts Council England in August last year indicated that there have been around 200 permanent closures of static libraries in England over the decade ending December 2019. New data covering the period up to the end of December last year will be published in the coming months. The statutory duty is on local authorities to deliver a comprehensive system. The Secretary of State has a role to step in and encourage a public inquiry if that duty is not being met. The Government provide not just warm words but significant taxpayer funding to local authorities to deliver that statutory obligation and additional funding through the DCMS such as the library improvement fund and through Arts Council England, as I have mentioned.