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Volume 405: debated on Monday 19 May 2003

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What action she is taking to encourage public lending libraries to open at times suitable for (a) working people and (b) parents of school age children. [113828]

On 10 February, we published the first ever national strategy for public libraries, "Framework for the Future". The whole thrust of that strategy is that local authorities must ensure that they meet the needs of their local communities and that consultation takes place. Opening times are always a prime concern of users.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. Norfolk county council has recently announced a package to increase access for working people at some libraries in the county, which is welcome. However, will he join me in condemning that same council for announcing the imminent closure of Bradwell parish council library, which will take away access not only for working people but for the elderly, the young and the disabled? Bradwell parish council has set up a steering committee in an attempt to reopen the library, but the county council appears constantly to be moving the goalposts. For example, the county council has informed us that it has removed not only the computers and books but the shelving, too, leaving the building an empty shell.

Will my right hon. Friend join me in making a last-minute plea—

I answered a similar question from my hon. Friend previously. I must repeat what I said then: the responsibility for the operations of libraries is with the local authority. We have looked at the case that he has raised, and it is not in contravention of its legal responsibilities. We are trying, however, through "Framework for the Future", to make sure that we can respond to the needs of his constituents and others in ensuring that the library service is flexible and meets their requirements. I hope that the county council will revisit its decision.

Does the Minister agree that public lending libraries now do a great deal more than lend books? Evesham public library, for example, is home to one of the Learn Direct centres, which is intended to help mothers of school age children who may wish to return to work and retrain. Against that background, will he do all that he can to ensure that county councils and other library authorities throughout the country understand the importance of offering the kind of hours that enable such people to attend?

I very much agree with what the hon. Gentleman says, which is absolutely true. Many local authorities have taken the opportunity offered by the ideas in "Framework for the Future" and are using them extremely creatively. For example, in Stockton-on-Tees, the library service is helping to break the cycle of offending by working with inmates and their families on reading skills. That is very important in enabling them to come back into society. A number of libraries are now opening on a Sunday, too, to fit in with the communities that they serve. Many good examples exist, and I hope that libraries examine those, as they are doing through the various professional bodies, so that we have not only libraries in the conventional sense but major resource centres for the communities that they serve.