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Dudley Library Closures

Volume 465: debated on Wednesday 24 October 2007

What is a library? Is it a collection of books, DVDs, CDs and videos? Is it a place to expand knowledge or surf the internet? Is it a community hub, an information exchange, a homework club, a writers’ club, or a rattle and rhyme club for toddlers? The answer, of course, is that it is all of those and much, much more, but not for much longer in my constituency or in Dudley. I applied for this debate because, unless the Minister can come to our aid, the library service in Dudley is under threat with the recent announcement that the Dudley library authority is to close five libraries.

How did we get to that point? In October 2005, Dudley council commissioned a peer review of the service. It recognised many strengths, including staff commitment and motivation; high customer and partner satisfaction rates; excellent work with children, including Bookstart and rattle and rhyme sessions; improving book stock and usage; and improving information and communications technology provision and usage. It was hardly a poor report. However, it highlighted a number of areas to develop, such as management arrangements better to support and develop services and staff, and a need for stronger leadership and a clear vision for the service. It commented on a lack of flexibility to meet projected future needs.

Following that report, in September 2006, Dudley’s cabinet approved the document, “Providing a modern library service…a strategy for the future.” It proposed a vision for the library service to be open and accessible to all. It set out principles that would result in a modern service, chief among which was a proactive service valued by partners and stakeholders, and a service that exceeded standards and expectations of which we could all be proud. Staff and users cheered.

We were promised—and we looked forward to—services focused on the community’s needs with well trained and competent leaders, the right stock in the right place at the right time, bright lights, and welcoming, flexible buildings as a focus for communities. We were promised a proactive service that would be valued by partners and stakeholders—a can-do organisation. What did we get? There was an announcement in the press last month that Quarry Bank, Woodside, Dudleywood, Amblecote, and Wallheath libraries were to close. That announcement fell well short of our lofty ambition. There will be a disproportionate impact on my constituents because four of the closures will affect them directly. The plan was viewed quite simply as a cynical attempt to cut services in areas of low book and computer ownership to save money and help with the council’s finances and overspend, and to put pressure on the most politically marginal seat in Dudley.

Did I hear my hon. Friend correctly? Is Dudley council choosing to close libraries in areas of low book and computer use? If that is true, it is nothing short of disgraceful.

I am sorry to say that that is exactly right. Although GCSE results are improving year on year, the closures can only have a detrimental effect on that improvement.

Following the 2006 report, the authority held a staff conference. I was invited to make a contribution as a local MP and member of the all-party libraries and information management group. Although there was a degree of apprehension, many of the staff felt able to contribute and were confident that the subsequent year-long review would provide further opportunities to consult decision makers. Sadly, that proved to be the high point of the process, rather than the beginning of a genuine dialogue in which everyone had a stake and there was a wish to go from strength to strength.

Apart from on one or two half days and through visits from consultants, nothing was heard for the best part of a year. I received many letters on the issue from library staff, and I shall give the Minister a flavour of how they felt. One letter stated:

“I was told that there is to be no staff conference this year (2007). I feel this is a pity as all sorts of half truths and rumours are circulating around the libraries. It would have been an opportunity to announce to everyone in one go the new structure of the service and the place of everyone in that structure. The protracted and secret rolling out of change over months and months gives staff the feeling of instability and insecurity, made worse by being addressed in manner that makes them feel untrusted. Was not communication a subject that the Peer Review highlighted as an issue to be addressed?”

Another letter stated:

“‘Blueprint for the future’ has begun with a dramatic reduction in senior staff at Stourbridge Library. So much so that staffing such a large library open for 40 hours a week has become difficult to the point of not being able to deliver the quality of service to our customers of which in the past we have been so proud. Other libraries in Dudley are suffering in a similar fashion and we know they support us but are unable to give us their backing for fear of repercussions.”

A third letter stated:

“Our management have not forseen the problems we now encounter or if they have they choose to ignore them. They have used behaviour that is not far from threatening to intimidate the staff and prevent us from having an opinion. We have reasonably requested meetings and have been denied. We wholly embrace the remodelling of our service however recent events resulting in the present chaotic situation we now find ourselves in have led us to have no confidence in the process so far.”

Sadly, local residents and users of the service have also largely been left out of the review, which has once again allowed the rumour mills to roll. Reports of possible closures periodically appeared in the press and were subsequently denied by the authority. The first official word on the review was announced to the press at the beginning of September. The decision was agreed by the cabinet on 12 September and rubber stamped at a meeting of the full council last week. Thankfully, it has been called in by the scrutiny committee and will be examined in Dudley this very evening.

The Minister has experience of local authority matters and knows how to run a competent consultation. Will she comment on the fact that we are not able to get a copy of the full report, and on the lack of evidence of a feasibility study or any consideration of alternatives to the closures? There has been no impact assessment on the damage that might be caused to education or attainment and no significant consultation with staff or users. There is no evidence that local partners or businesses were consulted.

Not surprisingly, local people are up in arms. In one week alone, I received a petition signed by 2,000 people and hundreds of letters, e-mails and calls. In its wisdom, the authority has suggested replacing the libraries via a system of what it calls library links. The facility will have 1,500 books. Dudley council describes the facility as suitable for the community, but it is the equivalent of only five library bookshelves. The average number of books in the libraries is currently between 10,000 and 15,000.

In addition to those 1,500 books, there will be online links to town centre libraries that will be staffed for only 10 hours a week—partners and volunteers will be asked to work in support. The request service will be available through a computer to the borough’s stock and there will be next-day delivery. The council is advocating the replacement of a building that is at the heart of the community with nothing more than an electronic ordering desk.

I confess to being a lover of books. The local librarian in the area in which I grew up was as important to me as my school teachers. One of the joys of books is picking them off the shelves and browsing through them. One can even open them at the back page to find out what happens at the end. This is about the joy of books. As a mother and former teacher, I watched my children and those whom I taught developing a similar love of books, and learning the alphabet or dictionary skills, or how to use an index or bibliography.

When I visit the libraries in my constituency, I see all sorts of people of all ages browsing and comparing books, chatting, advising people and taking advice. I see children and students doing their homework and people taking part in book clubs. I see writers, silver surfers and grannies and grandpas learning to use e-mail. Those activities are all quality experiences. This is about community. It is difficult to accept that an electronic ordering desk that sounds suspiciously like a supermarket checkout and that will be staffed for only 10 hours a week will come close to the experience of a library.

Frankly, the residents of Dudley and Stourbridge deserve more. They deserve to be heard and consulted, and to retain at least the level of service that they currently access and library staff who are well trained, professional, engaged and—importantly—valued.

The Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964 requires 149 top-tier local authorities to provide comprehensive and efficient public library services. The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport has a duty under the Act to supervise the delivery of library services and to promote their improvement. Broadly, that means that authorities are required to provide people who live, work or study in their area with free-of-charge access to books, printed material and pictures that they can borrow or refer to in line with their needs. That will not be the case if Dudley council’s new policy makes progress.

I accept that the closure of a library, or even a small group of libraries, does not necessarily constitute a breach of the Act, but the Department for Culture, Media and Sport would be alarmed if the closures were due to financial considerations alone, or if the library service was disproportionately affected by an authority’s need to make savings. I am convinced that Conservative-controlled Dudley council has been motivated by such considerations. Will the Minister formally intervene and call the authority to account to save the libraries in Stourbridge and Dudley?

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stourbridge (Lynda Waltho) on securing this debate and on the hard work she does on behalf of her constituents. I also acknowledge the hard work that my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown) does for libraries nationally. She diligently takes every opportunity to ensure that we think about the role of public libraries in our public service infrastructure.

I share a love of books with my hon. Friend the Member for Stourbridge, and I completely endorse her view that libraries are an important part of the infrastructure that enables all members of our community to develop a love of books and to access books locally. I agree that browsing around a library, if one has such a facility, is a powerful way in which to push back the boundaries of one’s knowledge, interests and experience. Browsing is about exploring new literature, information and experiences, which can only expand one’s enjoyment of life and enhance the quality of it.

The Government are proud of our record on libraries, which have improved significantly since we came to office. In the past 10 years, there has been a 39 per cent. increase in library funding. The money goes to local authorities, and it is down to them to decide how they will use their resources, but extra money has been put in. Libraries are now open longer, which is welcome, and it is important that we have reversed the decline in the numbers of library visits. In the past five years, visits have increased by 7.5 per cent., so there are now 290 million visits every year to our libraries. That translates to 1 million people going to their library each and every day when the libraries are open.

I am also pleased that we now buy 1.5 million more books than were bought in 1997. That statistic is sometimes misinterpreted. Although the stock may be less than it was then, mainly because of new technology, we are acquiring more and therefore expanding the resources in our library infrastructure year on year, and I am proud of that.

Like me, my hon. Friend accepts that libraries have to change to be relevant to and attract the customer of today. They must respond to changes in the way in which we all receive information, given the very fast-moving developments in information and communications technology. They have to change, because our leisure patterns have altered, so the way in which we want to access facilities and the range of facilities open to us have altered. They also have to change because the price of books has altered—books have become cheaper, and sometimes the facilities offered in bookshops make them very attractive for people to browse around and to take their children to.

The best of our libraries are doing just that, and I shall take two examples in my hon. Friend’s area. Sandwell has express libraries in two children’s centres, which is a powerful way to reach at a very early stage the families who are most in need and to develop in children from the earliest stage a love of books, which is hugely important. Birmingham Central library is an interesting example, because its business insight service provides support to people who want to start, grow or develop businesses. Those are two examples of how we can adapt to the modern age.

I accept that. I know that Sandwell is doing very well with its libraries, as is Birmingham, and they are both neighbouring authorities. In this case, however, there is no evidence that Dudley ever considered thinking outside the box. If it could take the example of Sandwell or of Birmingham, I would be a very happy MP, but there is no evidence of that.

I hear that point, and I will address the local issue. Central Government have an important role to play in improving and benchmarking the performance of library authorities, raising awareness of best practice and developing national initiatives that can be delivered locally. However, my hon. Friend will know that our powers of intervention are limited by the framework of the legislation. Of course, the whole thrust of public policy is to devolve more and more authority downwards. In that context, it becomes ever more difficult to get central Government intervention. Even though we at the centre may be promoting a particular policy, democratically elected local authorities may choose to do something different. I hope that my hon. Friend appreciates that difficulty.

Let me now deal with Dudley. We have set 10 service performance standards against which we judge libraries. Dudley achieved those standards in six of the 10 categories. One of the standards that it did not achieve relates to opening hours. The figure for the aggregate scheduled opening hours per 1,000 population—that is a funny way of measuring it—is 114 against the figure for all metropolitan district councils of 129. The number of library visits per 1,000 population was, at 5,081, below the national average—it was below the figure of 5,303 for all MDCs. The number of items added to the collection per 1,000 population was low—it was 172 against 223. The number of years taken to replenish lending stock was much higher than that taken by other authorities—it was 10.5 years compared with an average for all MDCs of 6.4 years.

Dudley has one of the lowest per capita spends against the 39 per cent. increase in funding. Although it meets six of the 10 library standards and is good, for example, in respect of satisfaction indicators for adults, it has the lowest score among the metropolitan districts in the region for children expressing satisfaction with the service. Only Birmingham reports being open for fewer hours than Dudley, and Dudley acquires fewer books than neighbouring districts. Birmingham Central library attracts more visitors, and the number of visits to Dudley libraries is among the lowest in the region.

I understand the point about meeting those targets, but can the Minister explain how reducing book usage and reducing the hours to 10 a week will help Dudley to achieve anything apart from a cost saving?

No, I cannot, and I am interested in that comment by my hon. Friend. She has said that she cannot get hold of a copy of the report, but I have been told that the report is online and should therefore be available to her. I suggest that she has a look and writes to me if that is not the case.

I think that my hon. Friend agrees that, given Dudley’s performance, it was appropriate to have a peer review. As I understand it, Dudley consulted the local community, which expressed the same wishes as most communities: the community wanted modern, properly equipped libraries, good-quality stock and decent opening hours. They wanted better libraries, and I think that we can all accept that a radical review is right.

I am told that Dudley is considering extending its opening hours. If that is the case, we should welcome it. If that is the way in which Dudley chooses to use its resources, it is welcome. I am also told that it is entirely recycling the savings that it makes from any changes back into the library service. I am sure that my hon. Friend can confirm that with the local authority, but if it is the case, it, too, is welcome, because there is a pattern across the country in which, when libraries undergo reviews and there are savings, they tend to be taken back to the centre. Dudley is not doing that, which we should welcome.

I thank my right hon. Friend for being so generous in taking interventions. May I ask her to address the issue that my hon. Friend the Member for Stourbridge (Lynda Waltho) raised earlier, which was about Dudley council choosing to close libraries in areas of low book and computer ownership? Whatever the excuse for that, it means taking resources from those who are possibly less able to articulate their needs and desires. It is about taking away from those who have no political power.

I could not agree more, and I was just coming to that point. I understand the concerns about the proposed five closures. I understand that those five libraries account for 6 per cent. of library issues and 5 per cent. of visits, but if we want to extend access, it may be that that is where we should provide access. I am not against closures—that is true of any Government—particularly if they lead to an improvement in the service, but we have to be clear about the objectives and whether the strategy meets them. I do not know whether, in this instance, Dudley has as an objective of widening access to its library services, and I do not know whether it has asked itself whether these closures will help or hinder that objective.

There is also an issue about consultation in Dudley with the communities affected. In my view, it is crucial that Dudley should undertake proper consultation with the communities affected and should be clear, in putting forward its revised strategy, that it has clear objectives that we all understand and feel content with.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Stourbridge has said, the scrutiny committee meets tonight. I will ask for a report from that committee. If the proposition remains that five libraries are intended to close, I will want to be reassured that the needs of the five communities are not overlooked. In that context, I urge my hon. Friend, who has brought this debate to Westminster Hall today, to continue with her good work locally to ensure that her constituents’ interests and needs are well met through a local library service.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at nine minutes past Five o’clock.