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Public Libraries

Volume 515: debated on Tuesday 7 September 2010

Thank you, Mrs Main, for presiding over my first Westminster Hall debate. I am delighted to have secured this crucial debate on the future of library provision, and I am grateful to the Minister for his time. He knows of my interest in this area from his various visits to Swindon. I am pleased that the Government have recently launched a support programme for public libraries—that prompted me to request this debate.

It is vital that libraries are preserved for future generations. They provide a unique environment in which anyone is welcome to read, learn or access the internet in their area. They are places where one can relax and reflect in a quiet and open setting, and where children can be entertained by stories and encouraged to explore their imaginations while learning. Libraries are a focal point for communities and provide an important source of information, as well as bringing people from all generations together.

It is concerning to see that libraries are in steady decline in the UK, and that there are a number of further potential library closures across the country. Having spent four years as a council cabinet member responsible for libraries in Swindon, I saw first hand how much local residents supported the new libraries that we built, including the award-winning, £10 million, central library. There was real concern and anger when local community libraries were threatened—something I am sure that all MPs can relate to.

I would like to add my voice to my hon. Friend’s concerns; I have first-hand knowledge of such matters because 60,000 people across Wirral came out and protested when their libraries were threatened with closure. However, does my hon. Friend agree that we must modernise libraries and make them an amenity for the whole community and everybody within it?

My hon. Friend makes two points in her helpful intervention, and I will come on to speak about revamping and modernising the library service. The campaigns that my hon. Friend was involved in highlighted how important community libraries are to local councils. I attended lots of meetings, and I remember one attended by more people than there were active users of the library service. I told them that they should take a few more books out.

The trend in library closures needs to change because with each closure, a community is deprived of a key service. However, as with all areas of the public sector, it is important to recognise that savings to the public budget are necessary and that difficult decisions must be made by local authorities. In that context, libraries have the challenge of improving customer services while reducing costs. The Minister will be pleased to know that I am not calling for an increase in spending on public libraries, but rather for a revamp of the way that libraries are run so as to ensure that they are viable and fit for purpose for future generations.

Changes must be made to the way that library services are delivered so as to encourage customers to use them. Public use of libraries is in decline, which was shown in the 2010 Taking Part report, commissioned by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and published last month. The report shows that since 2005-06, there has been an overall downward trend in the number of adults visiting public libraries in England across all adult age categories and socio-demographic groups. Only 39.4% of adults surveyed said they had visited a public library over the past year, compared with over 48% of adults five years ago.

Reading figures, however, are not declining, and the same report shows an increase in the number of people who read for pleasure. Over 65% of adults surveyed read for pleasure and of those, 80% had done so over the past week. In addition, book sales have grown. With the popularity of books such as “Harry Potter” and the “Twilight” series, annual figures from Nielsen BookScan show that children’s book sales in 2009 increased by nearly 5% on the previous year.

Such figures suggest that the problem lies in the services offered by libraries. Numerous surveys have shown that the public want good choice, convenient opening hours and a pleasant environment from their local library. However, many libraries do not provide a service that attracts a significant proportion of the reading population. There is a market for libraries, but they must improve their ability to attract readers. Libraries should provide a useful professional service and an environment in which people want to be. They must do their job properly and adapt to what the public want and need, in order to ensure that they remain and are embraced by communities.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. Is he aware of the excellent work currently being undertaken by Lancashire county council to increase the use of local libraries? Colne library in my constituency was reopened last January following a complete refurbishment that transformed it. While continuing to deliver a traditional range of services, the library is also able to help people of all ages attain their full potential by providing services such as courses in information and communications technology, adult education and writing courses, and musical activities. There are new meeting rooms for a range of community groups, one of which I use for my local surgeries.

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention which highlighted how local libraries can adapt to the needs of individual communities. That is a good example showing how the future of that community library has been secured.

I also congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate—I know that he is a passionate advocate of libraries. My hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Andrew Stephenson) spoke in support of what has been happening in his area, but in my area, our experience of the local council has been a little different. We currently have a Labour council that is proposing the possible closure of a library in Haxey on the Isle of Axholme. It has not been at all innovative in its approach but has simply offered residents the options of the closure of the library and replacement with a mobile service, or staffing by volunteers. Although it is important to transform libraries, the challenge is for local councils to be innovative and not simply present the public with bland options. It is hit or miss around the country.

That is why I requested this debate, which I hope will highlight that although councils have difficult decisions to make, there are options that can transform the service that is offered, as my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Andrew Stephenson) highlighted.

I am pleased that the Minister has announced that the future libraries programme, led by the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council and the Local Government Association group, will work with and support councils to deliver key services for communities while driving costs down. I welcome a rethink of the way that library services are delivered, and I endorse the introduction of shared services, merging functions, staffing across authorities and greater connection with other local services, where appropriate for the community. Councils need to deliver fresh initiatives to achieve cost savings and new partnerships, and they must make the most of digital advancements because further opportunities will arise through the medium of digital books.

We must ensure that libraries deliver the services that communities want and need, and that they can adapt and be shaped by the local people who use them. That is why library services should be run at a local level. Local authorities are important for the delivery of library services, but the responsibility of the day-to-day running of libraries must lie with library managers.

The person running the library and their relationship with the community is what matters. Flexibility and efficiencies can be enabled by cutting out bureaucracy and upper management. If libraries are run from the bottom up, front-line staff are given the freedom to provide a service that caters for the public who want to use them. Managers are often too heavily controlled from above, and each individual library should be released so that it can have a relationship with the community. The most important person should be the manager who must know their library, their customers and the needs of their community. By cutting corporate structure and giving management back to individual libraries, services can be tailored to—and led by—the community.

Where possible, back offices should be reduced, and activities that are not part of the libraries should be removed. Public library statistics state that only 7.5% of library expenditure for 2008-09 was spent on book stock, which is staggering. There should be a reduction in bureaucracy through the use of universal categorising and cataloguing, and labelling should be standardised. Costs saved by cutting through red tape can be spent on improving stock, opening hours and the environment of the libraries—areas that have been shown to be important to the public but which have all too often been neglected. National library campaigner, Tim Coates, is passionate about that issue, and rightly so as it is exactly how Hillingdon local authority helped to transform its library service.

If services are released from a corporate structure that undermines managers, decisions can be made about vital areas such as stock. Such decisions can be made directly in response to requests and local demand without additional bureaucracy or delay. When we opened our new central library, we allowed local residents to pick and choose—within legal boundaries—any item or book that they wanted to have in the library. That is important, as people will not use libraries if they do not have the books that they want or the stock is not up to date with new releases or trends. Big-name bookstores such as Waterstones often provide a wide variety and an up-to-date collection, and a pleasant coffee culture environment in which to enjoy a book. Libraries must be able to compete and go further by also providing additional services that are unique and appropriate to the local area. Again, I refer to the excellent example given by my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle.

Local communities need to be able to access services or be offered a service that they want. The library manager can be responsible for successfully offering and delivering services appropriate for the area—as they know it best—working in conjunction with volunteers. For example, delivery services to the elderly in local care homes or reading time for children after nurseries or schools finish, with the use of volunteer groups, can help to take the library directly to the community and drive up usage. I recently experienced that when I took part in the launch of the Swindon summer reading challenge for children, acting as an elephant in the support cast for author Neil Griffiths’ excellent live story time. Thankfully, my red-faced performance, which has not featured on YouTube, did not put off the children, with an amazing 2,598 children signing up—a just reward for the staff and volunteers who went that extra mile to make the library exciting for the children.

Local solutions can be developed to increase opening times. In Swindon, we saw the Old Town community library facing closure. I know that the Minister is well aware of it. There were concerns about limited opening times, fears of falling usage following the opening of the new Central library and concerns about an unsuitable and cramped building. That was typical of so many closures across the country. However, local campaigns were organised, led by local activist and passionate library supporter Shirley Burnham, and thankfully a practical solution was found by moving the library into the arts centre just around the corner. Incidentally, that move is happening as we speak. The move started today, and knowing Councillor Fionuala Foley and head of libraries Allyson Jordan, there will not be any delay in the library opening later this week.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. We could certainly use his experience elsewhere in Wiltshire. My local council is proposing to close Melksham library and replace it with bookshelves in the foyer of an out-of-town swimming pool and leisure centre. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the arts centre that features in the innovative solution that he has outlined is a much better bedfellow for a library than the rather damp suggestions that people have been experiencing in my part of the county?

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I am not familiar with that area in particular. There are opportunities to extend the library service in places such as leisure centres, with self-service machines, but I question their replacing the library service and I suggest that the council thinks a little more and comes up with more innovative ideas and consults the local community a little more widely to find a solution that will work.

The move to the arts centre will not only provide a modern, improved environment. In addition to transferring the existing 18 hours of staffed opening, those hours will be extended, through the use of self-service machines, to the 40 hours for which the arts centre is open during the daytime, plus any evening performances—crucially, at no extra cost to the taxpayer. With the additional footfall driven by the library, the arts centre will surely see increased sales for its performances and the café will be made more viable—a real win-win situation, thanks to the willingness to adapt and change. That highlights the thrust of my proactive case.

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for mentioning the Old Town library, which is in my constituency. I can tell you, Mrs Main, that as an instinctive bookworm and a user of the library service in South Swindon who gave an involuntary shudder when he learnt that the third edition of “The Oxford English Dictionary” is not to be put into print, I am somewhat of a traditionalist when it comes to libraries. However, I was delighted to hear my hon. Friend’s reference to the need for a place of quiet reflection. Does he agree that in any move to new premises, such as the welcome arts centre development in Old Town, we must remember that at the back of it all libraries should remain places where there can be quiet reflection for those who use them?

I thank my hon. Friend. I am delighted that he shares my passion for libraries. I know that Wroughton library benefits from his family’s exhaustive use of the book stock. He is right to say that there should be provision for quiet study time, but also sometimes we need to make libraries more welcoming, so it is a question of achieving that balance.

For libraries to attract more readers, they need to improve the library experience. The environment must be welcoming for all ages, and clean. Staff should be smart and well presented, as well as friendly, knowledgeable and helpful. Opening times can be synchronised to the opening hours of local shops or footfall for the area—for example, if there is late-night shopping or Sunday trading. Innovative ideas need to be encouraged to provide new solutions that fit the local area and demand.

More must be done to ensure that libraries, particularly our small community libraries, can survive the current financial climate and are providing a service that is fit for purpose and the community that it serves, not a one-size-fits-all approach. Libraries need to adapt to changing times and be led by local demand. Services must deliver choice, convenience and quality customer care. Responsibility for management should be based at local level, so that the people who use and cherish libraries can have a say and are involved in the future of their community libraries.

My fear is that although many people agree with the sentiments expressed in my speech, a failure to act will see the steady and continual decline of our much-loved community facilities. I therefore urge the Minster, in his most determined and enthusiastic style, to do all he can to encourage local authorities to ensure that libraries are viable and fit for purpose for future generations.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson) and I will attempt to rise to the challenge. First, I welcome you, Mrs Main, to the Chair. This is the first time that I have had the opportunity to debate under your chairmanship. You and I came into the House together, and it is always a little depressing when one sees a colleague rise in advance of oneself, as you have, but in your case I can say that it is thoroughly deserved, and you have chaired this debate in a consummately professional manner.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for initiating the debate and for the many excellent points that he made. What characterised his speech, which perhaps does not characterise many of the contributions on libraries that one reads on blogs or in newspapers, was that it was relentlessly positive. He saw the opportunities that exist in the library service up and down the country, and by and large I can say that that was the case for the many excellent contributions that we heard this afternoon, including from my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral West (Esther McVey), who talked about the need to modernise, and from my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Andrew Stephenson), who illustrated the fact that his libraries are being innovative. The concerns of my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) and the hon. Member for Chippenham (Duncan Hames) were valid and illustrated their awareness that libraries are a force for good in their communities. They were simply encouraging their local authorities to think again about how to be more innovative.

My hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon (Mr Buckland)—a man I have known for many years—reminded us that traditionalism and modernisation can co-exist and create a whole that is greater than the sum of the parts, as it has indeed done in the person of my hon. Friend.

Although I want to make a relentlessly positive and enthusiastic speech, I will just pause for about 30 seconds to make a cheap party political point. It is interesting to note that the coalition Government have fielded no fewer than seven Members of the House, whereas the Opposition, who presided over the decline in library usage that we have learned about over the past five years from the statistics produced by the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy, have not fielded a single Member of the House to talk about their own thoughts and plans for libraries. When I was in opposition, I found extremely frustrating the lack of action from the Government in providing a leadership role.

I said earlier that one thing that I find depressing about the libraries debate is that so much of it is couched in negativity and quite a lot of it is based on a lack of knowledge and a huge degree of ignorance. It was interesting for me that in opposition, when we discussed the library closures in the Wirral—in the constituency now represented by my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral West—and in Swindon, I was, I think, the only Member of Parliament who bothered to visit both places and at least felt that I knew something of what I was talking about. Most people were happy to get on their hobby-horse and talk about the closures, never having got into the detail of the debate.

Much of the debate is conservative with a small c and somewhat negative. I myself see a huge opportunity and an optimistic future for libraries. I am an enthusiastic champion of libraries and will do all I can, in the time that I have as a Minister, to encourage local authorities to cherish and value their libraries, but also to innovate and modernise in their libraries.

In opposition, before I had been sent to the coalition Government’s re-education camp, I did want to set up a library development agency. I learnt in government that first, we have no money, and secondly we are not particularly pro setting up quangos. It may therefore appear somewhat confusing that one of my first acts as a Minister was to abolish the quango responsible for libraries—the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council—so I had better square the circle regarding how that decision came about.

That gives me an opportunity, first, to say how grateful I am to the council’s chairman, Sir Andrew Motion, its chief executive, Roy Clare, and all the team who so ably support them. The MLA has come to the table and understood the political necessity of saving overhead costs and delivering as much money as possible to the front line. We are working hand in hand with it to ensure that we have a smooth transition and that its functions continue to be carried out at the same time as we achieve a cost saving. As my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon said, that is the kind of thinking that should be going through the heads of library authorities up and down the land.

I am confident that we will have a smooth transition. The specific detail of what will happen has not yet been decided exactly, but we are working closely with the Arts Council, for example, to look at the future. The Arts Council already supports important reading and literature initiatives—notably, the Reading Agency, which is behind the summer challenge, in which my hon. Friend realised his vocation as an elephant. That gives me an opportunity to praise Miranda McKearney and all those who work for the agency, because they do an enormously valuable job in encouraging children to read.

In the meantime, I am delighted to say that I have had the opportunity to put in place the library support programme. What is exciting about it, albeit that my press release was couched in slightly bureaucratic language, is that it brings the Local Government Association to the table. It explicitly recognises that local government has a huge role to play in library organisation and that diktats from Whitehall should not dictate the pace of change in local authority libraries, which should be local authority-driven. I am absolutely delighted that Liberal Democrat councillor Chris White, who is in charge of the programme, has worked so well with us to realise its aims. More than 100 local authorities expressed interest in getting on board, and more than 30 are now part of the initial stages. It is important to stress that libraries are a local service and that it is not for the Government to tell local authorities how to run their local library service—we exist to encourage and support. In particular, I hope that the library support programme will bring together different views about innovation and modernisation and enable best practice to be shared.

It is not all doom and gloom in the library service. We absolutely acknowledge the passionate support among the local community for the Old Town library, but one of the frustrations about the Old Town library campaign, as my hon. Friend will acknowledge, was that Swindon was somehow seen as withdrawing from the library service, when, in fact, a new £10 million library had been built literally half a mile down the road. The same is true up and down the country. If one goes to Norwich, one will see the Millennium library, which is the most visited library in the country, with 1.5 million visitors. In Newcastle, Her Majesty the Queen opened a new central library with a great new civics facility, which already has a podcast from me on its website, just to enhance the service. Manchester has blazed a trail, with the first public library to be successfully co-located with a further education college. It has also announced a full-blown strategy to develop its central library and a network of community libraries. York saw the first private sector sponsorship of a library service in the country, with £300,000 from Aviva. Luton and Wigan are examples of the successful operation of library services within charitable trusts. I could also talk about Essex and Leicester, and Hillingdon has already been mentioned. The library service in Kent is now seen as integral to delivering local authority services. Tower Hamlets has re-engineered its libraries and attracted a whole new group of people in to use them. There is therefore a massive amount of innovation.

The trouble with the library debate is that the minute one mentions an example of innovation, people throw up their hands in horror and say that everything is going to hell in a hand basket. If someone happens to mention that Hillingdon has put coffee shops in its libraries, people throw up their hands and say, “The Government want to turn libraries into coffee shops.” No, we do not; we just think that there is nothing wrong with being able to buy a cup of coffee and then read the paper, borrow a book or access the internet. I tried to make a speech that I recently gave about libraries slightly more interesting by mentioning that there is a library in a pub in North Yorkshire. It was immediately said that the Government want all libraries to be closed down and put in pubs. No, we do not. As my hon. Friend so eloquently said, this is about putting library managers and the people who run the library service in charge. If they think that their local community would find it easier to visit a library in a pub, they should be entitled to try that out.

There are some key principles behind the library support programme and the Government’s support for libraries. Local authorities should ask themselves what their library is for. Of course it is about books, borrowing and reading, but it is also about digital access, inclusion, access to the computer network and information. As my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon said, the library is a place to have thinking time and to be quietly contemplative. Libraries are also great community centres for people who are new to an area, and refugees, in particular, find them a fantastically useful resource that can help them begin integrating into the local community. Libraries are also a massive resource for helping local councils to put services in front of local residents.

As my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon said, however, library authorities also have to look at where they can cut costs. I have gone on record again and again as saying that it is a matter of intense frustration that there are 151 library authorities. Before I risk contradicting myself, let me say that I will not impose change or force library authorities to merge, but it is absolutely sensible that library authorities should find ways to work together. I was delighted that Hammersmith and Fulham and Kensington and Chelsea, each of which has six libraries, will now work together. Even so, Hillingdon has 18 libraries, which is three times more than Hammersmith and Fulham. Rutland has five libraries, and I am delighted that it is working with Lincolnshire, which has 61. Library authorities therefore cover a huge range of sizes, ranging from 80 or 81 libraries in Kent down to five in Rutland, and it makes sense for people to work together to try to save on bureaucracy.

Instead of thinking of a library as a cost—as somewhere where savings have to be made—local authorities should think of it as a resource, where innovation can happen. We are moving into the digital age, and people will be reading e-books, so they will want a place to go where they can be introduced to and try out new technology. In the same way, libraries in the 19th century were set up to introduce people to books, when books were an expensive resource and not available in every household.

Training is also incredibly important. If we are to put library managers in charge, we must also ensure that we concentrate on training them and librarians so that they can provide a service for different kinds of users.

One issue that we have not talked about is post offices. My area has lost a number of post offices in the past few years, and along with the post office we also lose the village shop. Will there be discussions between Ministers about how we can get the Post Office to work more closely with library authorities on possibly co-locating?

What concerns me about that intervention is that my hon. Friend has clearly bugged the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. About 45 minutes ago, I was having a discussion with the Minister responsible for post offices. I said that there is a clear correlation between libraries and post offices as community resources. I would be delighted to have discussions with my hon. Friend, because he, I and the Minister responsible for post offices are clearly on exactly the same wavelength.

The location of a library—location, location, location—is incredibly important. I have talked about libraries co-locating with GP surgeries, health centres or, indeed, supermarkets. Again, the headlines said that the Government planned to close down libraries and put them in supermarkets or, indeed, leisure centres. However, the key point, as my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon said, is ease of use for users and residents. If co-locating means that libraries can stay open longer without additional costs to the taxpayer, or that they can increase their footfall and the number of people passing by who say, “Oh, there’s the library. I must just pop in,” that must be a good thing.

I will bang the drum for libraries and campaign for them. I will make the point again and again that I am not abdicating my responsibility when I emphasise the fact that local authorities are responsible for libraries. Libraries are a massive resource, and I am happy to stand shoulder to shoulder with local authorities in encouraging them to innovate, cut costs and move forward into the future.

Sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(11)).