Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Mr Vaizey.)
I initiated the debate because libraries are under threat. In the Wigan borough where I live, the library service faces a £1.1 million reduction and the 18 libraries in the borough all consequently have an uncertain future. Nationally the picture is even bleaker. An estimated 400 libraries have closed or are under threat of closure, and some predict that by the time the process is finished the number will run into the thousands. I am pleased that so many hon. Members are here for the debate, but I suspect that it is because many of them are also concerned about the libraries in their area. That should trouble us all.
The Government appear to have abdicated all responsibility for the matter. Time and again I have listened to Ministers, when questioned by hon. Members on both sides of the House, saying that local authorities bear legal responsibility for library provision. The Minister pledged, in the debate on the subject obtained by the hon. Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson), that he would
“stand shoulder to shoulder with local authorities”—[Official Report, 7 September 2010; Vol. 515, c. 72WH.]
to protect library services. He must have been as surprised as I was to see that my local authority took a hit of £55 million in the spending settlement, front-loaded, thus allowing no time to find the Government’s much lauded efficiency savings. As a result the local authority is in no position to protect anything but the most essential services, such as child protection and care for the elderly. Urging local authorities to take responsibility for libraries while slashing their budgets is condemning libraries to closure. To suggest otherwise is disingenuous.
I welcome the fact that the hon. Lady has secured the debate, because like her I believe that libraries are extremely important. Does she applaud the Government, as I do, for the future libraries programme? It is considering the future of libraries, involving communities more in how they should be shaped, whether through the use of technology, as community centres or by facilitating transactions and access to local services. Does she see that as a positive thing that the Government are doing as a commitment to libraries?
I do not welcome the future libraries programme when the libraries in my area have, it seems, no future, because of the incredible reduction in the council budget. I shall talk later about ways in which libraries can be improved and about work that is happening. However, I urge the hon. Gentleman to understand that libraries cost money to run and cannot simply be run by volunteers on thin air.
We all know the value of libraries. That is not in dispute. It is clear that they have a particular impact for the disadvantaged. Catch22, a charity that works with young people, sent me in advance of the debate compelling evidence of the value of libraries for young homeless people in my Wigan constituency, particularly in relation to the internet. One in five people still does not have access to the internet. At a time when six people are chasing every job in Wigan, taking away internet access does not just feel like a kick in the teeth—it is a kick in the teeth. Catch22 sent me the story of Sam, aged 20, who said:
“My life is made more difficult by not having access to the internet or a PC...It seems that everything now requires the internet; often other organisations tell me to look online to find information. This includes the Job Centre, Housing Benefit, choice based lettings, Sure Start, health information. On occasions when I have not had enough phone credit to contact an agency by phone, they have suggested that I email them. If I can’t afford credit for my phone what makes them think I can afford the internet? I do not see how I will be able to save up to buy a PC in the foreseeable future as it is difficult to manage on benefits. I do want to better myself, but it is all a struggle.”
I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this enormously important debate. Further to her last point, does she agree that libraries are a sanctuary and haven for many young people where they can do their homework when they do not have the right conditions at home and the school library is not open? To deprive them of that, especially in the most disadvantaged communities, as Oxfordshire county council proposes to do with its closure of libraries in Blackbird Leys and Littlemore, as well as in Bury Knowle and Old Marston, is a disgrace.
I agree with my right hon. Friend and know, having worked with many disadvantaged young people in the Oxford area, that people often make the mistake of thinking that Oxford is an entirely affluent area when in fact there are significant pockets of disadvantage. I am sure that libraries are a huge asset to those young people in trying to better themselves.
Libraries also obviously provide clear benefits for older people, children and single parents, but they are not merely havens for those groups. They are the heart and soul of communities. I shall not bore hon. Members with my love of libraries, which I expect is the same as theirs, forged since early childhood. I shall not explain how I have kept libraries going in my area by paying fines over years; they can rest assured that I have done my bit. The women from Standish library who are running a campaign to save it came to my surgery and explained eloquently why it is the heart and soul of the community and how it brings people together. They told me that removing the library would be like ripping the heart out of their community. That is why campaigns are springing up around the country and it is why the people of this country fought so hard in the first place for free public libraries to be established. We should pause to recognise what a struggle that was.
The Public Libraries Act 1850 was much disputed. It was a huge victory and marked a clear step forward in the advancement of working people. It was part of an era of enlightenment and social progress. It is a bitter irony that the Liberals fought for those libraries against their Tory counterparts, and that today we witness the spectacle of a Tory-Liberal coalition presiding over the unravelling of that landmark legislation.
In the north-west, that history could not be more important. Manchester central reference library was the first free public library to be established under the Act. Salford colleagues would probably remind me that Salford managed to establish a free public library under an earlier museums Act, but Manchester’s was the first free public library to be funded by public subscription under the 1850 Act.
Opening the library, the Conservative politician Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton said:
“I call it an arsenal for books are weapons whether for war or self defence.”
Incidentally, Charles Dickens also attended the opening of that library, and talked passionately about the advancement of working people, and the step that had been taken. It was in Chethams around the corner, the first free library in the English-speaking world, that Marx and Engels researched the “Communist Manifesto”. I appreciate that that argument might not appeal to the Minister, but it is important to note that the history of working struggle was rooted in one of the first free libraries in the world. Free public libraries marked a huge advance towards a better, more enlightened society. We have continued to build on that legislation and progress ever since.
Now the Government seem hell-bent on unravelling 160 years of progress, but I want to tell Ministers that the evidence suggests that once those libraries are gone, they are gone for ever. Ministers should think carefully before they take such a step.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing an important debate, although I am slightly disappointed that it has immediately become very partisan. In Aberconwy the library service faces cuts, but they have been happening since 2006. Indeed, the local authority has commented on a severe lack of investment in the past 10 years. How does she square that with her comments about the current proposals, or with her accusations against the coalition?
I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman is upset that my remarks are partisan, but this is politics, and people make political choices, which is what I want to point out.
I am sure that many hon. Members and the Minister will want to point out that library use has declined and that some library services have declined as a result.
To return to the point made by the hon. Member for Aberconwy (Guto Bebb), does my hon. Friend agree that the strength of the huge community campaign that is growing up around the country—more than 300 people met in Oxford town hall last week—is that it is non-partisan in the sense that the campaign supporters include many Liberal Democrats, Conservatives, Greens and others, as well as Labour supporters, who are appalled at what the coalition Government are doing?
That is also the case in my constituency. Those people are all united in a desire to protect their library services. They do not care whether a Conservative, Liberal or Labour Government are doing this; they value their libraries and want to see them protected.
The argument that library use has declined has been much overstated. Last year, 83 million children’s books were issued by libraries across the country, just 10% fewer than a decade earlier. If we consider the pressures that libraries are under—from cheaper books, online texts and different forms of borrowing—it is not their decline that is remarkable but their very survival.
In my Wigan constituency, library usage is up by a phenomenal 17% in six years as a result of the investment programme under the stewardship of Rodney Hill, the director of our culture and leisure trust, who himself used to be a librarian and who understands only too well the value of libraries.
I am delighted to learn that, if not surprised. I am sure that the people of Bromborough are extremely well read and passionate about reading. I certainly do not want to say otherwise.
User satisfaction with libraries in my constituency stands at an all-time high of 91%. That shows that libraries can be an enormous success and that they can go from strength to strength.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. In the borough of Wigan, which I also represent, there have been concerted campaigns, such as Bookstart, to encourage people to use libraries. People are already taking ownership of their libraries. When the residents of Ashton heard that their library was under threat, they almost immediately set up an online petition to prevent it from being taken away.
I am aware of the campaign that my hon. Friend has mentioned, and she is a passionate supporter of it.
I gave the example of my Wigan borough, because it shows that libraries can continue to improve and to be relevant, but they need investment. In researching this debate, I was pleased to see that web hits on libraries nationally are up by 4%, which shows that libraries are starting to adapt to changing usage and that they can be a success. I say to the Minister that library usage is undeniably changing, so by all means let us debate the future and the improvement of such services, but let us not pretend that libraries can be run on thin air and that this Government are presiding over anything other than the unravelling of one of the great steps forward in civilised society.
I have heard a great deal of talk about volunteers, and the hon. Member for Central Devon (Mel Stride) has asked me about them. Coming from the charity sector, I am well aware of the value of volunteers, but we cannot run a service on volunteers alone. We need infrastructure and paid staff. To suggest that volunteers can take the place of skilled librarians is an insult and not something with which I want to be associated.
Does the hon. Lady have a specific reference to someone saying that volunteers should take the place of librarians?
I have heard a great deal of talk in this debate about the use of volunteers. I am interested to know whether other hon. Members share my sentiment about the use of volunteers. I presume that the Minister is dissociating himself from the view, and I am grateful to him for that, because it is insulting to skilled librarians to suggest that they can be replaced simply by volunteers.
In conclusion, this is a test of whether this Government value not just libraries but communities. If the Minister takes this step, there will be no way back for generations. I urge him to ensure that libraries are protected. If he will not, I urge communities to make themselves heard on the national day of action on 5 February.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy) on securing this 90-minute debate. She referred to the fact that earlier in the parliamentary Session, I had a Westminster Hall debate on the future provision of library services. I am delighted to see so many hon. Members here today to debate this important subject.
Libraries face challenging times. First, the funding of library services is not a statutory requirement. There are certain rules, criteria and aspirations that councils should change, but when facing challenging budgets and the need to make efficiency savings or cuts, they often see libraries as a relatively soft target. When I visited libraries across the country in my role as lead member for libraries on Swindon borough council, I found all too often that officers and councillors did not use the libraries themselves and so did not appreciate their value to local communities.
We must acknowledge falling usage. Five years ago, 48% of adults visited libraries compared with 39.4% now. Such a fall is against a backdrop of increased reading, particularly among children, so the decline in visits is a worrying trend. Plenty of surveys have been commissioned and much money has been spent on asking people how they would like to see their library service improved rather than on actually improving it. The surveys have shown that the public want good choice, convenient opening hours and a pleasant environment. That sounds obvious, but all too often local authorities do not embrace such factors. I will briefly touch on each of them and on how local authorities can embrace the new opportunities that present themselves.
Let me first turn to good choice. When I was preparing for my Westminster Hall debate, the fact that staggered me the most was that only 7.5% of a library budget is spent on book stock. Too much is spent on the corporate structure, different layers of managers and the bureaucracy of categorising and labelling books. We do not have a universal system. Imagine Amazon getting different towns to categorise the same books; it is madness. That money should be released back into the local libraries. It should be given to local library managers, who understand their own individual communities, to spend on books to get people back in. We would not see a commercial bookshop spending only 7.5% of its turnover on books. We should also allow residents to have a greater say on the books that are stocked. When we opened our new £10 million central library—unlike many public sector projects, I am pleased to say that it was delivered on time and on budget—we allowed local residents to choose the book stock. Unsurprisingly, those same residents came to take out those books after it opened.
As for convenient opening hours, libraries must embrace the mentality of the retail sector. We opened the new North Swindon library on a Sunday. It is next to one of the largest Asda/Wal-Marts in the country and so Sunday is one of its busiest days. Moreover, the new central library is open on a Sunday. A community library should always match the footfall of the local area. Self-service equipment inside new facilities that are not traditional libraries also provides a good opportunity to improve services. For example, I have visited leisure centres and community centres that have installed self-service equipment. Such facilities offer an extension of the mobile library service project in the sense that they are taking books out to the community. Such facilities should not necessarily replace traditional libraries in an area, but if there is no library and there is not enough money to provide one, they can help.
Self-service equipment often costs only £5,000. If a mobile library service is already touring in similar areas, it does not take too much to replenish the stock. All too often, existing community libraries are open for limited hours—in many cases it can be between eight or 10 hours —so volunteers can step in and help to ensure that that facility is open for longer. Users who rely on and appreciate the expertise and skills of the traditional core staff can still go to the library in the hours that already exist. If volunteers wish to open beyond those core hours, then more power to them, and such action is certainly something that the big society should embrace.
On the importance of having a pleasant environment, another challenge for libraries is that as much development has taken place in this country over the years, all too often libraries have been overlooked for section 106 contributions. If hon. Members look back at the history of many of their community libraries, they will struggle to remember the last time that they received a lick of paint or a modernisation. Too many libraries are not meeting customer expectations. I am delighted that in my constituency section 106 money was used to rebuild the Highworth library and it has just been announced that Moredon community library will have a major refurbishment on the back of a 350-house development just down the road. Those are the types of opportunities that local authorities should embrace and we as politicians should lobby to ensure that libraries are considered seriously where section 106 money is available.
We should also look to combine facilities. There is a very big national campaign for libraries. The right hon. Member for Oxford East (Mr Smith) talked about the 300 people who came to an event at Oxford town hall. We have had similar experiences in my constituency. There was a threat of closure to the Old Town library and my hon. Friend the Minister came to visit Swindon during the campaign against that threat. The Old Town library was a very poor facility with limited opening hours and falling usage, but the local community passionately supported it. When I was still the lead member on the council for libraries, I challenged that community to get behind their local library and boy, they did so in droves. In the end, a compromise—
The hon. Gentleman is making a compelling case for a good future for libraries, and I am pleased to hear about the changes that he has described. What impact does he feel the current financial settlement that local authorities are dealing with, including the speed and depth of the reduction in their funding, will have on the ability of people doing the job that he used to do—being a lead member on the local council for libraries—to deliver the type of vision that he is outlining?
The obvious answer is that it is a challenge, not only for libraries but for any service. However, we are in the reality that we are—we have to tackle the public deficit. I do not want to get all political, but I think that any debate that we attend in Westminster Hall will show that all services face similar pressures. That is why libraries must look in particular at their corporate structures and at the fact that they are only spending 7.5% of their budget on book stock. It does not take a brain surgeon to realise that money is not being efficiently spent right across library services, so there is still a challenge ahead.
I was talking about the threat of closure to the Old Town library in Swindon. This is what we did. About 400 metres up the road, we had a relatively new and refurbished arts centre, called the Old Town arts centre, with a 200-seat theatre in wonderful condition. So we moved the Old Town library into the arts centre, and we transferred the core 18 hours of service that already existed in the old library, so that if people liked that traditional service they could go along to the arts centre in those core times. However, there was a much larger and more pleasant library environment at the arts centre. Also, because the arts centre was manned for 40 hours a week with box office staff, the self-service library machines could be left on and if anybody had a problem using them the box office staff could step in and say, “This is how you use this facility.” So the opening times for the library went from 18 to 40 hours. In addition, every time that there is an evening show at the arts centre, the theatregoers, if they are so inclined, can use the self-service machine, so sometimes we are looking at an extension of opening times from 18 hours to 60 hours.
Obviously, the usage of that library has increased—by 24%—and membership has increased by 193%. The arts centre café had kept opening and closing, because it did not have sufficient footfall in the daytime to make it viable, but it is now viable and the arts centre itself is now selling more tickets, because people come in to the library to take out a book of their choice, they see that the show that evening has not sold out and that it is their particular choice, and so they go and buy a ticket for it. It is an absolute win-win situation, and in these times of challenging costs the council has saved itself quite a lot of money, because it is paying for one building rather than two.
Furthermore, when we built the new Central library in Swindon we made sure that the opening hours were tied up with the footfall, which hon. Members have already discussed. Again, we ensured that there was a café environment at the heart of the library, so that people did not just pop in, grab their book and leave. Instead, people spend time using the café and the library as an enjoyable environment. We also created the library so that it could be opened in part, because I have seen some fantastic new flagship central libraries being opened across the country that have then proved to be simply too expensive to open for long hours. I went to one that had cost £15 million but it was only open for four hours on a Saturday in a town centre, which was dreadful. So, within the new Central library in Swindon an express zone has been built, so that at the non-peak times a chunk of the library can remain open, matching the available budget. Also, within the library there are areas for cultural events to take place, such as readings by authors and poets, and meetings involving different groups, because libraries should be a focal point for local communities.
To summarise now, I will talk about some of the opportunities for libraries. Many people have already mentioned volunteers, and they have an important role to play. It is right to say that volunteers cannot simply replace all traditional library staff. However, the best model is one where existing core library staff are transferred, so that those people who rely on an excellent library service in core hours can still go at those times. Nevertheless, we should not then lock the library doors for the rest of the week. We should empower local communities to take over the running of local libraries at those times.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that his view of libraries, where the librarians are actually in the library and simply giving out information and books, is rather narrow? I went to an excellent event run by local librarians for young children, where the librarians showed children books. The enthusiasm of those children and the professionalism of the library staff were unparalleled. Those children were then motivated by the visit of those librarians to go to their local libraries.
The hon. Lady must have spectacular mind-reading abilities, because that is my very next point. By empowering local librarians to run their local libraries and to participate in their local communities, libraries should be looking beyond their traditional facilities and urging their staff to go out into their local communities to encourage people, particularly young children, to embrace the wonderful services and facilities that are available in the libraries themselves. Part of that process involves reducing the corporate structure and trusting local librarians to understand their communities. We all represent very different communities with different challenges, and library services should be tailored on a localised library-by-library basis to suit local demands. So I agree 100% with the hon. Lady’s comments.
The final point about volunteers is that where there is no alternative but to close a library—I am not advocating the closure of libraries, but when there is a “last chance saloon” situation—there are examples of volunteers stepping in and local authorities should be willing, at the very least, to say, “We will hand you that facility.” A good example of that process in the South Swindon constituency is the Walcot library. The local council decided that it was no longer viable, in part because the Parks library, which was not too far down the road, had been refurbished on the back of section 106 money. However, the local community took over the Walcot library, and the library is now partly a charity shop, partly a community facility and partly a library, which is far better than having no library service at all.
I have already talked about extending self-service, both into non-core library buildings and within library buildings. I repeat that there is a need to refocus library budgets on book stock. The fact that only 7.5% of library budgets is currently being spent on book stock is simply unacceptable.
Moreover, as politicians we are always talking about empowering local people, but if we are going to empower local people we need to pass on local information and engage with local residents, and in turn local residents need to register their views. Where better to do all that than in a local community library? People can pop in, look at the notice board, see the latest grand scheme that elected politicians or communities have put forward and register their comments. There are many examples of such schemes. In my constituency, there is the “Connecting People, Connecting Places” scheme, which the council has introduced. Although the council is trying to push that scheme, it must understand that the best way to deliver it is through libraries.
Another point is that where there are facilities that are only open for eight or 10 hours, surely we should open them up to other community groups, whether they are youth clubs or different local organisations that can use the building in which the facilities are situated. The council has already paid the rent and the rates, and these days most bookshelves are on wheels. Consequently, if a youth club wants to attend a community facility in the evening, it does not take much to move the bookshelves to the edges of a room and the youth club can take on that facility and use it. It is a crying shame that local authorities and local council tax payers are paying for these wonderful buildings to be shut for the vast majority of the week.
My final point is that it is essential that local authorities do not sleepwalk into a situation where our much-loved libraries experience a steady and continual decline. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Minister, because he is a passionate advocate of libraries. We just need to convince all local authorities of all political parties that they need to make libraries a priority.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak, Mr. Turner. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy) on securing this important debate and on making such a cracking speech, which encapsulated the central arguments that are facing every single constituency in this country at the moment where there are people who are passionately concerned about the possible loss of their local library. I equally congratulate the hon. Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson) on a splendid speech, detailing—in no small degree—the kinds of changes that have already taken place within my constituency and other constituencies to improve our library services, so that they actively engage with the local community and become part of it in ways that are both imaginative and innovative.
However, the bottom line is that none of those improvements can be developed and none of our libraries can advance without some financial support, and this issue is going to spread beyond libraries. People in my constituency are concerned about not only the threat to local libraries, but the threat of closure of sports facilities. This is an example of what the Government have touted as central and essential to the big society: localism. Yet, when one looks at the local reaction, constituents’ opinions are being ignored. My constituents are being ignored because my local authority simply does not have the money, however much the amount needed might be reduced by the engagement of volunteers and more imaginative opening hours.
As an aside, many of the libraries in my constituency are housed in historic buildings. Kensal Rise library, which is under serious threat, began part of its collection with a donation by Mark Twain of his own books. That gives an idea of how old the building is, and as we all know, older buildings are much more difficult to maintain.
There are legal issues involved in the opening and the public use of libraries, and it is not possible to provide that use without some financial support. It is fantasy on the part of the Government to sit there and say, “Well, this is a choice for local authorities. They have to balance their budgets. We’ve given them money in real terms,” when the Government know absolutely that the authorities have not been given money in real terms to support the services that are central to local communities.
In my constituency, thank heavens there has been an election and the political colour of the council has changed. For the five years up to 2010, the budget, which was very generously donated to local authorities by the Labour Government, was balanced by a Lib Dem-Conservative council in my constituency. Well, if Liberal Democrats and Conservatives are supposedly much better at balancing their budgets than a Labour Government are, where has the money suddenly gone? Why are all the community facilities upon which constituencies such as mine will increasingly depend, under threat?
There is an irony in the Government’s failure to think their own policies through. We are entering an era of something called welfare to work, and while no one argues with the pressing need to get people off welfare and into work, the Department for Work and Pensions says that it expects the majority of first contacts with those who are looking for work to be via the internet. My hon. Friend pointed out that that already happens in her constituency, as it does in mine. For young people who are looking for work, are very confused by the benefits system and have no computer access of their own, the local library is the first port of call, because the equipment and the information are there, and highly skilled and highly trained people can help them. With the best will in the world, in many instances volunteers will not be able to provide the multifarious layers of expertise and information that our libraries are capable of furnishing at the moment. I am not going to stand here and pretend that this is very often the case, but it is certainly the case at the moment that we value things only when we think we are going to lose them, and when it comes to things such as local libraries, this has certainly been the case for many years. People suddenly think, “My goodness, we might be losing this but it’s so valuable for our community.”
It has already been touched on that libraries provide services for the whole age range, from the very young to the very old. I remember that when I was a child we were not allowed to speak in a public library—it was a silent place—and it is fascinating to see that now there are special areas for children. Children are having stories read to them, and we have heard from the hon. Gentleman about local poetry readings. That is very big in my constituency, because I am fortunate to have a lot of poets there—quite apart from authors—who are very well recognised around the world. The central issue here is that if the Government are genuine in their talk of a big society, of localism and of passing power down to local people to make the decisions, they have to acknowledge that at the moment their stringent slashing of funding to local authorities—
I realise our economic inheritance has been skated around very diplomatically in this debate, but it now needs to be raised. I understand that the hon. Lady’s argument is that there should be more funding and resources for libraries. We inherited a debt the interest alone on which is £43 billion a year—more than we spend on the education budget. For there to be more resources, would the hon. Lady increase the deficit, or cut expenditure elsewhere—in which case where? Or would she raise taxes and, if so, which ones?
First, I would nail this gothic novel that runs through the Conservative-Lib Dem Government and has been expounded by all their adherents, that our present economic difficulties are the exclusive responsibility of the previous Labour Government, who spent excessively. Nothing could be further from the truth. The whole world went through a major economic crisis because the present Government’s friends—the bankers, whom I have not noticed taking any major cuts under this Government—threw the whole world’s economic structure into parlous peril.
What I am talking about is what this Government purport to be a basic principle: localism, in which it is the voice of local people that is overwhelmingly heard. The point that I was making before I gave way to the hon. Gentleman was that that voice cannot be heard if central Government stifle it and put a gag around it, as they are doing. It is an offence to us all to pretend to local people that they can have the same level of the services upon which they depend when there are massive cuts in the financial support for those services. It is equally an insult to all our intelligences to presuppose that volunteers—the charitable sector—will be able to take up the slack and continue to provide the services.
In concert with my hon. Friend, who was fortunate to secure this debate, it seems to me that the number of right hon. and hon. Members hoping to participate today is an indication of how important the issue is throughout the country, and the Government really should think about it again.
I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy), and I agree entirely that libraries are, and should be, the heart and soul of our communities. I also agree with the point that volunteers provide an add-on, and we have to take on board the differences between our communities which mean that the services that volunteers can contribute will differ greatly from one community to another.
I have a distinct sense of déjà vu. Just four years ago I spoke in the House, to a Labour Minister at that time, about Dorset county council’s plans to close 13 libraries. The 13 libraries were saved after a long battle, with reduced opening hours at most libraries in the county, and new friends groups set up and existing ones strengthened. Usage at all those libraries has gone up over the four years. The current county council proposal is that funding will cease for up to 20 communities where there is currently a library—20 out of 34 libraries. Originally, those communities were asked to come up with a business plan, by May this year, on how the community could run the library, and yet very few details have been provided on what, if anything, the county council will contribute. A book fund is, of course, vital, and if there is no centralised book fund can a community actually say that it has a library? I do not think so.
Given the scale of things, Dorset county council has had a relatively good settlement. It is still not good for the county, but these are local choices. The council has made a decision to spend £1 million on a new library in Dorchester, which cannot be accessed easily from places in my community that might lose their libraries. Interestingly, in one of its reports, Dorset library service states that its vision is of a
“dynamic library service fostering the joy of reading, learning and a love of knowledge to enhance lives and build communities”.
Could we possibly disagree with that? No, we could not, but I hope that most of us would disagree with the closure of 20 libraries. Dorset county council’s own equality impact assessment talks about the impact on older people and children, and on people in rural communities. It also talks about providing mobile library services, but they are not a real substitute where children’s gaining a joy of reading and learning is concerned. Equally, the council’s report accepts that there is a risk that the reconfigured service will be deemed not to comply with the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964, which requires library authorities to provide a comprehensive and efficient service. I ask the Minister to monitor closely what is happening in Dorset. We have been here before, and we had the support of the previous Minister.
In my constituency, it is proposed to seize the funding of four libraries. I use all of them for my surgeries, so I declare an interest. For the most part, they are in quite large communities rather than small villages; one is in a large village, and the others are for the most part in built-up urban areas. Those libraries are used, and there are plenty of potential users. Two of the libraries are now co-located with children’s centres, which is excellent. Parents come in to see the health visitor and then sign up their baby for a library membership card. We need those services and have been working on them for the past four years, but now libraries are the first thing to be cut, because that is seen as an easy option, even though they are important for our children.
In the limited time available, I will concentrate on children. Our Government are committed to raising children’s reading standards. The introduction of a standardised test is being discussed, although I have some doubts whether test results should be published. We want to equip our children with the skills that they need for later life. Surely we must build on the use of libraries. The Bookstart scheme was saved recently. I know that authors made many representations. I say this to them: a child gets a book at 11. It is great that one book will go into a household without many books, but children must have libraries to go with it. Libraries are the complement to the Bookstart scheme, so I hope that those authors will come along to Dorset to argue for the survival of our libraries.
Dorset has a high proportion of older people, and the importance of libraries to older people cannot be overemphasised. Libraries allow them to get out of the house and engage in activities. The number of book and reading clubs has grown enormously, which is excellent. As has been said, there are lots of innovative ways to get more people into libraries, and communities are willing to play their part, but that part must be reasonable and must be backed not by expensive offices at county hall but by skilled librarians and other staff. I want efficiency and joint use, and I want to work with the excellent friends groups within the county council to retain a dynamic library service, but we need a bit of help from the Minister, whom I commend for his commitment to the country’s library service.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy) on obtaining this extremely important debate and on how she presented her case. I will not repeat everything that has been said about the value of libraries, but I agree with the hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke), particularly about libraries’ value to older people—they help get them out of the house—and to children. In my rather deprived constituency, libraries are critical to the future of children and young people and help supplement their education.
Lewisham council is in a somewhat different position from some of the councils discussed today. My hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham East (Heidi Alexander), who, like me, has supported saving our libraries, would be here if she were not on a Standing Committee. Lewisham council has 12 libraries, which it has worked hard to reorganise and bring up to date. From 2005-06 to 2009-10, Lewisham invested £6.5 million in capital expenditure on libraries. It also entered into partnerships with Croydon and Bromley councils in order to negotiate jointly new e-book and e-audiobook services. The consequences have been increased library use, increased opening hours and general huge success.
In a constant drive for efficiency, Lewisham has also developed new models. We acquired three additional community libraries over those years. One, at the Pepys resource centre in my constituency, is run by ECO Computer Systems in partnership with Hyde Housing and is supported by local volunteers and, crucially, by the council’s library and information service, which supports new facilities by providing up-to-date stock, delivering professional advice, organising activities and promotions, training partner organisations and offering technical services such as access to online resources.
Lewisham was a beacon Labour council that innovated, widened participation and met the needs of the most vulnerable in the community while reducing costs wherever possible. However, the Tory-led Government have changed all that. Last autumn, like so many other councils, Lewisham was forced to propose closing five libraries as part of the programme of cuts imposed by central Government. Understandably, that led to public outcry with protests and marches as Lewisham council undertook a wide-ranging consultation on how best to meet the Government’s demands. As in all other local authorities in the country, most of the budget was devoted to social care, so it was obvious that our libraries could not be shielded. My bottom line was that we must keep the buildings for community use. The last thing we need in Deptford is another betting shop.
The council agreed to consult further and draw on the experience of the three new libraries. The community response has been amazing. People are determined to keep their library service. Local Labour councillors and community activists are working with people who have never before stepped forward to find a solution to the problem.
My library service faces severe cuts; eight libraries will be largely turned over to volunteers. The right hon. Lady touches on something that my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson) mentioned. Does she not agree that it is incumbent on every local authority to consider its entire property estate to see whether it can combine services in one building in order to reduce maintenance and running costs?
Of course. There is no doubt about it. One of the new libraries that I mentioned does exactly that. My council, under a Labour Government, did everything as Labour dictated in order to make the best use of community facilities and become as efficient as possible. That is why we were awarded beacon status.
The community members coming forward are ambitious. They want longer opening hours and further innovations. I am confident that New Cross and Crofton Park libraries in my constituency will be saved. They will certainly have my continued support. The council has received 10 expressions of interest from organisations wishing to take on one or more of the library buildings and run library services from them. It seems like a great success in the making, but we must remember that front-line library jobs will be lost, perhaps forever. Most importantly, community effort can be maintained only with council support and council tax payers’ money. The installation of self-issue technology will be essential to the operation of the libraries, and that is likely to cost about £59,000 per building. The council’s outreach unit will probably be required to contribute more than 100 hours a week to servicing the outreach offer.
The cost of Lewisham’s service was already the lowest in inner London, and the cuts will bring it down to just over £14 per resident. Thanks to the Labour Government’s investment, a new library is due to open in Deptford later this year. But what lies ahead? The cuts being imposed by this Government on Lewisham are already destroying other services. The Deptford job centre has been closed and a second employment advice service, Opening Doors, faces closure as a direct result of the cuts in Government grant. As my hon. Friends the Members for Wigan and for Hampstead and Kilburn (Glenda Jackson) have pointed out, it is the young and the unemployed in particular who need library services if they are ever to stand a chance of getting a job and a future career in the present climate.
I am proud of the way in which my community is endeavouring to meet the challenge of library closures, and I hope that the new ways of working will help us meet other challenges, too. However, let no one be in any doubt that this is not a panacea. None of us is going to become a volunteer brain surgeon very soon, and I doubt and would be surprised if many of us would volunteer to change incontinence pads. Whatever we may learn and/or achieve with our libraries in Lewisham, we will still face a Government who are bent on destroying our communities and their prospects.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Turner. I will be brief. I note that I am the only representative of a Welsh constituency present. I am surprised by the stories that Opposition Members have been telling about the land of milk and honey that existed in this country before 2010. The library service in my constituency of Aberconwy in north Wales has been under constant threat of closure for the past five or six years, a period in which we have had a Labour-led Assembly Government and a local authority led by either the Labour party or Plaid Cymru in coalition with Labour.
My point about partisanship is important, because the campaigns undertaken in my constituency to protect library services have been led not by political parties, but by communities. They are concerned about the future of the library service because they understand, as does the rest of Wales, how important libraries are. After all, not many countries can claim to have a pop group such as the Manic Street Preachers, who sang about libraries giving us power. Indeed, that lyric is now in place above Cardiff city library, so we take our libraries seriously in Wales. The libraries in Wales grew from the slate quarrymen of north Wales and the miners of south Wales—they grew from a feeling of society. I am astounded at the lack of confidence expressed by some hon. Members about the ability of our communities to contribute to the protection of library services.
My constituency of Aberconwy faces a threat to many rural libraries. There is no doubt that people in those communities would much rather ensure that the future of those libraries is fully funded and fully staffed from the local authority. However, we also understand that, over the past five years, despite repeated attempts to persuade the local authority and the Welsh Assembly to fund those libraries properly, that has not happened. We therefore face a challenge, and that challenge is to make the most of the resources available to us. I am confident that, if the rural communities in my constituency —places such as Llanrwst and towns such as Llanfairfechan, which are pretty far from the main, central library in Llandudno—are forced to choose, they will work as a community to ensure that they protect the libraries. After all, even though the Welsh Assembly has said that the local library service in Conwy is underperforming, it is still a fact that, in an area with a population of less than 100,000, there were 500,000 visits to libraries in Conwy last year and more than 500,000 books were lent. Most importantly, there were 90,000 hours of internet use.
The communities that I represent fully understand that, despite five or six years of campaigning against the decisions made by a Labour-led local authority and Assembly, they will have to continue to fight in order to try to ensure a prosperous future for their libraries.
I know from my experience in north Yorkshire that local communities are coming together and are excited about the opportunities provided by changes to library use. What does my hon. Friend have to say about the opportunities for libraries in rural areas to become hubs for internet usage by their local communities? It is a good opportunity for libraries to grow the range of their services.
I concur with those comments. I recently attended a town council meeting in Llanfairfechan that was held to try to ensure a future for the local library. One of the key issues at stake is that the internet services in that library are heavily used by local people who would not otherwise have access to the internet. Therefore, the provision of other services in libraries, and combining them with those offered by the local authority, offer a way forward. We thoroughly appreciate that libraries have to move forward.
I am surprised that this debate has been so partisan. Ultimately, we have seen an ongoing threat to libraries over a long period. If that was not the case in England, it was definitely the case in Wales. We, as communities, have to take responsibility for the services that we want. We should try to ensure that funding continues to be provided to ensure that we have a selection that appeals to people. We need a professionally led service, but the comments that have been made about the bureaucracy, the different labelling, the central cost and so on need to be taken on board.
Ultimately, however, the big difference between the coalition in Westminster and the Labour-led coalition in Cardiff is simple. The Minister has stated time and again that local authorities and communities should make decisions about the future of library services. That is in complete contrast with the Labour-led Welsh Assembly, which has basically told Conwy council to modernise—in Wales, modernise means “close things”—or it will take over the service. I commend the approach of our coalition Government and can only say that people in my constituency would be delighted if the Welsh Assembly Government took the same approach.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy) on securing this debate. I have been struck by the remarks of all the hon. Members who have spoken so far about how passionate we are about library services. In some sense, there is a shared vision that library services are part of our future and not a thing of the past.
A recent ten-minute rule Bill of mine argued that the 1964 Act, which covers library services, should be extended to cover related cultural services as well. That set down a marker and said that not only are cultural services important, but that the Act—limited though it is, and which protects library services—is important and that we should all stand up for it. During that debate, I explained that part of the reason why I am so passionate about libraries is that libraries were not always free in Liverpool. My grandfather used to steal books from Liverpool central library, but I have checked with my dad and apparently he put them back. It is good to use this opportunity to restore the reputation of the McGovern family.
I have two brief points that build on those that have already been made, and I hope that the Minister will respond to them. My first point is on the situation in which local authorities find themselves and how they might go about supporting libraries in difficult times. My second is on the role of the professional librarian and how we can support them and ask them to go further in what they do.
On local authorities, it was great to hear the comments of the hon. Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson). I did not know that he was previously a leading member, but it is always important to hear from those who have been local authority members. I was a local councillor in the London borough of Southwark, and I learned a great deal from that experience. One thing that I learned is that the best way to make decisions is to consult widely, listen, marshal a great deal of research and think about a vision for the service that fits the needs of the locality. Never mind what central Government say, in dealing with a community, a town centre area or similar, we must ask what they need. We need to think hard about that, which is what the best local authorities do.
Unfortunately, local authorities face a crisis. If we think of local government as another Whitehall Department, it is the one that is under the most financial pressure, because it is being asked to make the deepest cuts and to deliver them in the shortest possible time. How will any leading member of a local authority have the time to do the work that I have just described in terms of understanding the picture of a locality and talking to community groups, especially in areas in which there is poverty? Those of us who have worked with communities that suffer great poverty know that one has to expend a lot of time getting to know people and understanding the issues. I am sure that that experience cuts across the Chamber.
That all takes time, effort and resources, which are three things that local authorities do not have. Local authorities are being forced to look at libraries from the wrong end of the policy telescope. Instead of working out how to deliver a long-term vision and to stack up the financial business plan behind that—either from co-location or from involving the private or voluntary sector—they are being forced to cut first and deal with a vision for the service after. Local authorities are being forced to say, “What can we possibly afford? Okay, well that is what we have to give people.” They do not really have a choice here. As much as it is wonderful to hear comments about the different ways in which we can do things—I absolutely support that—we must be real about the situation that local authorities are in.
I accept the comments made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock), who is very experienced at working with local authorities. We cannot say that local authorities are in position to do the kind of visionary job that we want them to when they are facing such severe cuts. One thing that the Government have done regarding the role of professional librarians, for which I give them credit, is to re-establish that it is important for politicians to assert trust in the professional. They have talked about trusting GPs and teachers, and they are right to do so. So let us start talking about trusting librarians.
Does the hon. Lady agree that although the professional librarian is clearly a very important part of the make-up of the library service, the volunteer also plays a considerable part? As a result of reading the transcript of the debate, I would not want volunteers to feel undervalued because, at the end of the day, there are 17,000 people across the library service who give their free time and spend 500,000 million hours every year working in the service. Without them, some of the smaller rural libraries in particular would not survive. In Ipplepen in my part of the world, the old library has been closed and, without those volunteers, we would not be considering moving back to a new library resource in the local village hall.
Of course, volunteers are important. In fact, last Friday in my constituency, I met a volunteer archivist from Bromborough who does an amazing job. However, if she were here, she would say that, without a library service underpinning that work, it is impossible for volunteers to get the platform on which they need to stand to do the job they want to do. It is chutzpah to imagine that we can substitute volunteers for professionals rather than seeing them as an addition, as the hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) has said. That is what most volunteers themselves think that they ought to be. For example, the charity Volunteer Reading Help makes great play of the fact that it provides additional services to schools.
I shall move on, so that I do not take up too much time. We need to trust the professional librarian. In such difficult times, local authorities ought to listen to librarians. In my experience, the librarians that service my constituency in the areas of Heswall, Bromborough, Eastham and Bebington have been incredibly creative in getting other services—for example, the university of the third age—to use their buildings. The poet laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, has not once but twice visited Bromborough to encourage a love of poetry and reading. We want to support that kind of creativity but, at the end of the day, that takes a budget. I have already made comments about that. We need to say to local authorities that where they are looking to provide a better service, they must trust the professional librarians they have and encourage them to support volunteers. They should maintain the vision of the public library that hon. Members here today hold so dear and enable those professional librarians to do the job that they are qualified to do.
I will be brief, because I am sure that you will want to start the winding-up speeches fairly soon, Mr Turner. This has been a valuable and interesting debate. We all feel passionately about the future of the library service in all its different guises. The situation that we are discussing is as much an opportunity as a threat. We could debate for hours why we are in the economic climate in which we find ourselves, but the reality is that we are where we are, and we need to find a way forward.
We need to recognise that how people use libraries has begun to change and consider what we can do to respond. A sensible way forward is to try to identify those buildings, including the library, that are used for a number of community purposes. Such an approach would mean that we are more likely to keep library facilities than lose them. If we simply looked at the status quo, libraries would close day in and day out.
However, another challenge that the Minister might like to consider is that of e-books, which have been briefly mentioned. The trend towards the use of e-books is increasing. Amazon says—admittedly, we are talking about buying rather than borrowing—that it sells twice as many e-books as hard copy books. What are the implications of that for the library service? What innovative ideas can it come up with that will enable people to access those sorts of books? If we think about the matter, it is a no-brainer. There are 1 million free books on Kindle, which we ought to try to make available to local people. Kindle has another 500,000 books available to buy. The cost of a Kindle book is usually 50% or two thirds less than the hard copy. The issue is a challenge that we must face head on.
I am pleased that Devon county council has been chosen as one of the pilot areas for the future libraries programme, and it is healthy to start looking at what we should be doing on that. We need to draw a distinction between what we do in our towns and what we do in our villages. In Newton Abbot, I am lucky that £2.8 million has been spent on a state-of-the-art library. However, it is not only a library, because it will also provide adult learning and an opportunity for adults who want to know how to spend their care budgets to talk to a professional about how they can do that. Such an approach will provide an opportunity for children to link together and for individuals to take what looking at books is about to an educational level rather than them simply having an informative role. That is where the opportunity is.
As I have said, I will not make a long contribution. First, we need to look at the better use of buildings, which I am pleased to see we are doing. In rural communities, having one or two buildings rather than five or six—if an area is lucky enough to have that number—is the right way forward. Secondly, we need to consider how to move libraries from being knowledge based, which was where they started, to being education and community based. Thirdly, we need to consider the challenge of technology and how libraries can address that.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Turner. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy) on securing an important debate. In the time I have, I want to focus on a number of points relating to Hartlepool’s library provision. In our town, we are fortunate to have well used and much loved library provision. We have the central library in York road, Owton Manor, Foggy Furze, Seaton Carew, West View, Throston and the Headland, as well as mobile libraries serving communities that do not have ready access to fixed branch library provision. We also have a home library service that provides for people aged over 80 or with a disability to be regularly given books based upon their knowledge and preferences.
I want to focus on two things. First—this has been touched on already—libraries make an enormous contribution to instilling a love of learning among young people through working in partnership with nurseries, schools, Sure Start and children’s centres. Fifteen years ago, Hartlepool children were well below the national average in GCSE attainment, but they are now well above the national average. The high quality provision that we have in libraries, coupled with investment from the previous Government, has played an important part in that.
At the other end of the age spectrum, good quality library provision can save money with regard to social care and NHS services for the older population. For example, the home library service involves people going into homes and talking to people, which reduces an older person’s sense of isolation. Such a service can pre-empt problems and provide early intervention, so that more expensive and traumatic treatments from the NHS and social care are avoided.
I do not blame local politicians for the choices that will have to be made; I blame central Government. Hartlepool borough council faces cuts of 30% in its £90 million budget in the next four years. When people are dealing with social care budgets or child protection, it is easy to see library provision as a soft target. As I have said, I blame central Government, and I ask the Minister to think again. Foggy Furze library in my constituency is due to close next month, and the merging of Throston library with the community centre has also been proposed. We face big cuts to a high-quality and much-loved service. I ask the Minister to use his powers in government to ensure that libraries are helped as much as possible and that Hartlepool’s excellent service is both retained and enhanced.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy) on securing this important and timely debate. Her fears for the future of the nation’s libraries are shared throughout the country by people of all parties and none, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford East (Mr Smith) pointed out when talking about the protests in his constituency. Libraries are popular: my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr Wright) discussed the popularity of libraries in his constituency, and my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern) talked about waiting lists for reading groups. The hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) also said that library usage was up in her constituency.
I shall start my winding-up speech by focusing on the social progress and advancement for working people that libraries provide. That was alluded to by my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan and by the hon. Member for Aberconwy (Guto Bebb). People have spoken passionately in favour of libraries because they facilitate social mobility. The Victorian pioneers who began the public library service were not a bunch of crazed public spenders. Many were hard-nosed men of industry who realised just how vital it was for both the economic and the moral health of their communities that ordinary men and women had the opportunity to learn from the great books and journals that were accessible for the first time to those without means. They gave that opportunity for self-improvement to so many.
That was a public value, which was given legal recognition by the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964. That declared, as plain as can be:
“It shall be the duty of every library authority to provide a comprehensive and efficient library service for all persons desiring to make use thereof”.
Whose Government passed that legislation? None other than that of the 14th Earl of Home, better known as the Conservative Prime Minister Alec Douglas-Home. That was the age of one-nation conservatism, when even the Tory party believed in something real called society.
Let us talk about the people whom libraries serve. They serve millions of mums, such as those in my constituency who tell me that their youngsters cannot get through the contents of the local library’s children’s section fast enough. These mums are desperate to give their kids a head start through good reading skills and an understanding of the world gained through books.
We have heard about libraries as a leisure activity for people in their later years and as places housing computers, but does my hon. Friend agree that there are still communities for whom libraries are a window for their young people on the world of books and learning? I was brought up in a household in which there was one book—the “Encyclopaedia Britannica”. When I had just turned five, my mother took me to the library. She did not read, but she understood the importance of reading. We need to preserve libraries for communities in our cities and rural areas, where libraries give children their first introduction to the world of books and learning.
My hon. Friend makes a good point about social progress, social mobility and advancement. Some of the mums whom I speak to do not have much money, so without easy access to a local library, their kids simply would not have books at home. Some of the mums are better off, but even those on middle incomes tell me that they cannot afford to keep up with their kids’ appetite for new books. The Minister can no doubt pop on to Amazon with his gold card whenever he likes, but that option is not open to millions of our fellow citizens, especially at a time when the cuts and tax hikes of the Government of whom he is a member are hitting family budgets throughout the land.
It is not just mums who are served by libraries. They also serve people seeking work and those looking for a better job. Jobseekers have told me that many big employers now advertise online only. As my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan has said, more than one in four households are not online, and the lowest earners are the least likely to have internet access at home. Without access to the internet at their local library, they would struggle to find out about vacancies.
Those seeking new skills rely on their libraries, too. The actor Chris Gascoyne, who is from my constituency of Ashfield and is now a leading light in “Coronation Street”, told me quite plainly that much of the reason why he has become a successful actor is that he fell in love with the library in Sutton in Ashfield. If people slash the library, they are slashing routes into the world of work. How much of a false economy is that?
I have not mentioned the battalions of school kids who rely on their local library to do homework, to study for exams and to help to guarantee their future success, as alluded to by my right hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock). No one is saying that the library service cannot modernise and that it should not continually look for ways of achieving more bang for its buck. However, I am sometimes confused when I read speeches given by the Minister, because whenever he is in front of an audience that cares about libraries, he says that he will
“do my best to be a champion for libraries as your minister.”
He says that he will
“keep emphasising the importance of libraries”.
He also says:
“Libraries offer opportunities and sustainable solutions—they are not a service that is simply an easy cut in tough times.”
I do not know whether those words will reassure the hon. Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson) or whether he shares my fear that they are warm words, which, as always, are charmingly spoken but which mean absolutely nothing when they come up against the reality of the pernicious local government settlement that is threatening libraries up and down the country. News is coming in from all over the country of threats to libraries. According to media reports, more than 400 libraries and 50-plus mobile libraries are currently under threat or have recently closed, and those are only the figures from half the local authorities that have done their settlements. I apologise for not having exact figures, but despite my repeated pleas to the Minister in written questions, he has not given me an exact figure.
Where libraries are not closing, they are reducing the service. Where I live in Nottinghamshire, the Conservatives reign supreme on the county council. They propose to reduce the budget for buying new books from £1.6 million to just £400,000—a cut of 75%. The average age of a book in a Nottinghamshire library will go from 5.4 years to 21.5 years, so when people sit in Notting Hill discussing the Booker shortlist, it will be two decades before those titles reach Sutton in Ashfield. What is the reason for that? The Conservative leader of the county council has summed it up. It is
“to meet the challenges of the financial settlement for local government”.
That is echoed by councils throughout the country, which many hon. Members have referred to during the debate.
If any part of my constituency reminds the world of the power of literature, it is the town of Eastwood, where my home is and where the adolescent D. H. Lawrence would borrow books on Thursday evenings from the lending library at the Mechanics institute, yet even there, where there is positive proof of the power of social mobility, the Conservative council is proposing to cut library opening hours by 40%. I feel sorry for budding Lawrences among today’s residents of Eastwood.
The Minister often says, “Not me, guv.”—he might put it more elegantly than that. He has written to every local authority, reminding them of their statutory duty on libraries, but he knows that such a letter is not worth the paper that it is printed on when his ministerial colleagues are ensuring that local councils simply do not have the cash to maintain, never mind improve, their library service. He will not get away with it, because voters throughout Britain can see that this good-value service on which they rely is under threat directly because of the coalition’s policies, and when they look for the fingerprints on the murder weapon—as Agatha Christie, one of library users’ favourites, might have put it—they will see that the Lib Dems’ paws are all over it.
I hope that every local Lib Dem councillor realises that there is no point in rushing out a petition to save their local library when their MPs in Westminster are standing by as the service is slashed. As the Minister said on the radio on Wednesday, “You have to elect councillors who believe in libraries and you have to campaign in your local area to get councils to back their library service.” Exactly, but there is only one party whose record in government locally and nationally shows that it can be trusted to protect our libraries, and I am proud to say that it is my party.
There can be no better indictment of the present Government’s hypocrisy than their treatment of Britain’s libraries. They spill out warm words of support while starving libraries of the cash that they need to continue. They pretend that these huge savings can be made without taking books off the shelves or turning the lights out as libraries close, although the Minister and his colleagues know that that simply is not the case.
It is time for the Minister to come clean. Will he accept that he is not a champion for libraries and that he is responsible for a reduction in services? Will he tell us whether he warned the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Chief Secretary to the Treasury during the spending round that the cuts to local authorities would put them under pressure to reduce library provision? Will he tell us just how far he thinks library services can be cut while the law is fulfilled? Will he guarantee that the 1964 Act will remain in place for the lifetime of this Parliament? Finally, does he accept that librarians, such as the ones whose expertise we, as MPs, are lucky enough to draw on in the House of Commons, require special skills, or does he have plans for the House of Commons Library service to be staffed by volunteers? There are many questions for the Minister, and I hope that he will now provide some answers.
I am grateful to serve under your chairmanship for what I think is the first time, Mr Turner. I congratulate the hon. Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy) on calling this important debate.
I thank hon. Members for some extremely valuable contributions. I thank not only the hon. Member for Wigan, but my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson), who showed how a go-ahead and visionary local authority can adapt its library authority. The hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Glenda Jackson) gave an impassioned defence of her local library service and called for more Government spending as we tackle the deficit. The hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) rightly said that her county council is making the decisions, some of which she disagrees with, and she is perfectly within her rights, as the local Member, to do so. The right hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock) gave an inspired review of what is happening in Lewisham and said the changes there are a great success in the making.
I will just finish my review, if the right hon. Lady does not mind.
My hon. Friend the Member for Aberconwy (Guto Bebb) reminded us that local authority library services are often debated and that the debate about the future of local libraries did not begin on 6 May 2010. The hon. Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern), who has introduced a ten-minute rule Bill, reminded us again of her passion for libraries. My hon. Friend the Member for Newton Abbot (Anne Marie Morris) mentioned e-books, which are very important indeed. There are complicated issues surrounding e-books, not least to do with the future of this country’s publishing, which is our most important and successful creative industry. The hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr Wright) ended the Back-Bench contributions by making an impassioned plea for me to intervene in the library service in his area.
The Labour party spokesman, the hon. Member for Ashfield (Gloria De Piero) made a wonderfully engaging speech, which ended with a series of questions for me, but let me also ask her a few questions. I would hate to think that her speech shared the same motivation as that by the hon. Member for Wigan, who revealed what was behind her speech in replying to an intervention when she said that “this is all politics”. The hon. Member for Ashfield asked whether I would guarantee the future of the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964. Yes, unlike the previous Labour Government, who showed rank hypocrisy in publishing a document on the modernisation of the library service just as they were running out of time. Their Minister with responsibility for libraries published a document asking whether we still need a statutory library service. If Labour had been re-elected, it would have got rid of the statutory library service, but Opposition Members now shed tears for the library service. When I campaigned against the closures proposed by the Labour council in the Wirral, where were Opposition Members? Again, rank hypocrisy.
The hon. Lady has had a chance to speak. I have been sitting here, but I have not had a chance to speak. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Minister on the way in which he is approaching the subject, but I tell him that Gloucestershire has received the worst local authority settlement in the country. Seven of the eight libraries in my area face the prospect of being cut to volunteer-only services. Will my hon. Friend’s officials work with Gloucestershire county council to make sure that it is given every possible support? Even a volunteer library requires seed corn to keep it going. Incidentally, this is not only about libraries being cut to volunteer services, because Gloucestershire’s mobile library service is being cut altogether.
I will certainly give my hon. Friend that commitment. I will explain exactly what the Government are doing in a minute. First, however, given that this is all politics, let me perhaps correct some of the impressions given by Opposition Members. The hon. Member for Wigan opened by saying that libraries in her local authority had no future.
I feel driven to intervene because the Minister mentioned Wirral, which is where my constituency is situated. Will he tell us why, if Labour is not committed to the 1964 Act, a Labour Secretary of State used it to inquire into what was happening in Wirral?
The hon. Lady will have to ask him—first, because this is all politics and, secondly, because I asked him to do it; indeed, I had to push him, kicking and screaming, to do it.
Every local library is different, but there is a lot of good news on local libraries. For example, Wigan will potentially be part of the Greater Manchester future libraries pilot project, which has already identified 15% savings if the authorities involved work together. Despite the fact that the hon. Member for Wigan said that her libraries have no future, £1.5 million has been invested—
No, I will not give way, because I have only five minutes left.
The number of visitors to libraries in Wigan has risen by 13%. Tower Hamlets closed libraries, but it did so with a strategic vision, re-engineering them and turning them into idea stores. Calling libraries idea stores upset some traditionalists, but visits to idea stores have gone through the roof. Despite reducing its budget, Hillingdon has kept all its libraries open and refurbished them under the inspired leadership of Councillor Henry Higgins. This week, I met representatives of Havering, which is pioneering signing up kids and babies to libraries. The London Libraries Consortium—12 authorities working across London—has already made enough savings to increase opening hours substantially. Swindon, which I visited in opposition—I invited a prominent library campaigner to visit Old Town library with me, but he told me he was too busy—has invested £10 million in a central library and has moved the Old Town library to an arts centre, where there have been more visits. Lancashire has pioneered the “Get it Loud in Libraries” scheme. What happens also depends on how people go about things. The local authority in Leeds is closing libraries, but it is doing so in a strategic way and bringing the local population with it.
I have not sat back. My first speech as a Minister was on libraries, when I communicated my passion and support for libraries. I said it was right—I think it is right—that local library users challenge a local authority that is planning to close libraries. My first executive action as a Minister was to set up the future libraries programme, because I felt passionately in opposition that much of the innovation in good library authorities was not being communicated to many authorities that were perhaps not so innovative and which did not have such a go-ahead approach. After the debate, I will meet some of the local authorities involved in the 10 pilot projects. I also made sure that the Local Government Association was involved in the project from the start, because libraries are a local authority service.
I recently wrote to every local authority in the country—there are 151 library authorities, and I have gone on record as saying that that is too many and that people should be thinking about cross-border working and mergers to reduce overhead costs—to remind them of the statutory duty, which still exists thanks to the election of a Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition Government and despite Labour’s plans to get rid of it.
At any one time, local authorities are considering their plans, and almost every library closure that has been mentioned today is a proposal—these things are being consulted on. In Oxfordshire, in my own backyard, the proposals will undergo a three-month consultation. In response to my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown), let me say that the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council—I pay tribute to Roy Clare, who is a fantastic leader of that organisation—is working with authorities to show them ways of moving forward without necessarily closing all the proposed libraries.
No hon. Member can say with all honesty that no library should ever close in any local authority area. We need a strategic vision. The good thing that came out of the Wirral inquiry, apart from the fact that the Wirral’s libraries were saved, was that the Charteris report now provides local authorities with clear guidelines on how they should reorganise their library service, if that is what they want to do.
Some 75% of children and 40% of adults visit libraries. Unlike the hon. Member for Wigan, who introduced the debate, I think that libraries have a future. We talked about the potential closure of the Kensal Rise library, which was opened by Mark Twain, and despite the best efforts of Opposition Members, I have to say that the death of libraries has been greatly exaggerated. It is up to local communities, working with local councillors, to keep our libraries open, with volunteers supplementing and working with librarians, rather than replacing them. All of us who care about libraries must work passionately to save this service and make it as effective as possible, instead of spreading pointless scare stories.