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Library Services (Walsall South)

Volume 524: debated on Monday 28 February 2011

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mr Goodwill.)

Thank you, Mr Speaker, for allowing this Adjournment debate about the libraries in Walsall South. I also thank our own House of Commons Library, which is staffed by qualified professionals, not volunteers. They are experts in their field, and the whole House values the service that they provide.

“Once upon a time” is the phrase used in countless books that children pick up in a library, and for many the library is their first encounter with a book. For parents with young children, it is a social place where they can meet other parents. Children have access to books and toys, librarians suggest books to try and some have even started clubs for young children. For older children, staff run “Children in Summer” reading challenges.

The National Literacy Trust surveyed more than 17,000 pupils and it reported earlier this month that those who use the library are twice as likely to be above-average readers as their peers who do not—18% compared with 9.5%. Furthermore, those who visit libraries are more than twice as likely to read outside class every day—47% compared with 22%. Indeed, Members might be aware of a recent poll, showing that seven of the top 10 most borrowed authors are children’s authors.

If we carry on with the threats to our libraries, we will deny the next generation not only the right to be whatever they want to be in their imagination, but their access to knowledge through books. A book first encountered in a library might then be bought as a personal favourite, just as I did when I discovered with my daughter Dylan Thomas’s “A Child’s Christmas in Wales”. If there is to be joined-up government, the Secretary of State for Education should also be concerned about libraries disappearing or changing. Nationally, almost 750,000 people visit a library every day, and, according to the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals, that costs each person through local and national taxation 40p a week.

I shall touch on the statutory duties, because enshrined in the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964 is

“the duty of every library authority to provide a comprehensive and efficient library service for all persons desiring to make use thereof”.

There is also a duty to encourage adults and children to make full use of the library service, and the relevant Secretary of State has a duty to promote the improvement of libraries. Does the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport have plans to repeal the 1964 Act?

The local authority must also make a statement of what the service is trying to achieve, along with a description of local needs, including the general and specific needs of adults and children who live work and study in the area. So, you can imagine, Mr Speaker, the outcry in Walsall South when the council earmarked six libraries for closure.

In Walsall South there are libraries at Pheasey, Pleck, which serves Alumwell, Darlaston and south Walsall, and the central library is also in my constituency. This issue is not just about books; it is about a way of life and what the libraries represent. With unemployment increasing, they are needed more than ever as a support for development and new skills, and as a free public space for community cohesion.

That is what I found on 5 February outside Pleck library, where the local people wanted to present a petition—now 650 signatures strong—to save their library. Young people, senior citizens, people in work or resting, the local vicar and adults and children with diverse backgrounds and interests, from chess to internet shopping, were there. All were there using the library and protesting against its closure. Inside were a grandparent reading to a two-year-old, a hub of local people engaged in activity, and Councillor Dennis Anson’s advice surgery. I, too, have held advice surgeries in the library at Pheasey and in the central library.

In all the libraries in Walsall, there were more than 1 million visitors and more than 1 million books lent out in 2008 to 2010. The Minister has said that people have a right to campaign for their local libraries. Clearly, the council has failed to consult and to make an assessment of local needs.

I am very pleased that my hon. Friend has secured this Adjournment debate. Does she accept that there is also much concern in my constituency about the possibility that a number of libraries will be closed there? In view of the very large-scale cuts, announced last Friday, that are now being undertaken by the council, does she agree that there is a fear that further libraries will be closed, be it in her constituency or in mine, and that we are bound to be very concerned about that on behalf of our constituents?

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. I agree. There is a threat of closures across the whole of Walsall, including in his constituency and that of the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr Shepherd).

Consultation should be at a local level with the staff and the users, and it should not just be about how the service is changed to make savings or about how we use different technology. A few days after the Pleck protest, the council said the libraries would be safe for a year, but who knows what is in store for the future? An inquiry into Wirral’s library service in 2009 said there was strong case for reviewing the decision on services earmarked for closure when they were located in an area of significant deprivation and when they had interdependent links with schools and children’s centres. That could be a description of almost all these libraries. In Walsall, the librarians have to travel from one end of the borough to another, and the cost of travel time and schedules should be looked at as part of the consultation with the staff.

So what of the future? My constituents want libraries to be in buildings that are stand-alone, not part of another service, because they are places to work, to revise—just as I did in Richmond library—and use reference books, and to become skilled in information technology and to discover different types of music. My constituents want the staff to be professionally qualified people who provide them with expertise and support. Volunteers like Hitesh, who set up a chess club for young children, have their place, but they too are not free and would cost money to manage; all volunteers need supervision and training. My constituents want their libraries to be needs-driven, not demand-led, and to remain free. If libraries did charge, this would be a breach of the statutory duty to provide books free of charge for those who live and work in the area. My constituents said to me that they do not recall the closures as being part of any political party’s manifesto; they knew nothing about this at the election.

I could have come up with many statistics to make the case for keeping all the libraries, but it is about more than that because libraries are part of our heritage and part of the fabric of society; people have paid their taxes for services such as parks, hospitals and schools for the common good. Everyone, I am sure, has been into a public library at some time in their life. They are not just about borrowing the popular books. The most borrowed classic author was Roald Dahl, but Jane Austen and Shakespeare are also on the list. When the first library in Manchester was opened in 1852, Charles Dickens said that libraries

“will prove a source of pleasure and improvement in the cottages, the garrets and the cellars of the poorest of our people.”

I would add that they are not just for the poor but for everyone.

There are, on one count, 59 Members of this House who have written books. I am sure, Mr Speaker, that you will remember the joke: what is black and white and read all over? Yes, a book, and one hopes those books by my hon. Friends will be read all over—in all the public libraries. Sadly, the Minister is not on that list yet, although his esteemed parents are, but he did have the title of librarian as vice-president of the Oxford Union.

Finally, I would like to remind the Minister of famous librarians, who include politicians Golda Meir and Mao Tse-tung, the philosopher David Hume, and others such as Lewis Carroll, Benjamin Franklin and Jacob Grimm. As with all the best of Grimm’s stories, I hope that this one has a happy ending. With apologies to Mr Grimm, I would end as follows: “So the children and adults laughed and cheered as the Minister said, ‘Have no fear—your libraries are safe for the future’, and everyone in the kingdom was glad. The end.”

I am grateful for the chance to respond to the hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz). I am grateful to her for calling for this Adjournment debate, which allows me to talk specifically about library provision in Walsall and about library provision in general, about which she made a number of points.

I begin by saying how much I regret that I am not on her list of 59 authors. I am afraid that I took the more relaxed approach to authorship in deciding to be an editor rather than an author. I have edited three volumes: “A Blue Tomorrow”, “The Blue Book on Health” and “The Blue Book on Transport”. “A Blue Tomorrow”, which as you know, Mr Speaker, was the start of the process of Conservative modernisation, reached the dizzy heights of the 20,046th best seller on Amazon. I will, perhaps when I leave my ministerial position or when I leave this House, become an author when I publish my memoirs. I have already thought of the title: “Fun While It Lasted”.

The hon. Lady made a number of specific points about libraries. I share with her and the hon. Member for Walsall North (Mr Winnick), who is in the Chamber to support her, a passion for libraries. I am a champion of public libraries and I think that we all share a desire to see libraries thrive and survive not only in this tough economic climate, but for ever and a day. We recognise that libraries are neutral spaces and community hubs where people can go. They are not just places for lending books, although that is their essential central function, but places where people can access the internet and music, as the hon. Lady said, and where toddlers, youngsters and adults can access education and information.

To have a sensible debate about libraries, one has to define its terms. One cannot pretend that no library should ever close. In opposition, I never tied myself to a position of opposing every proposed library closure. The previous Government’s proposals on the modernisation of libraries, which were published last March, a month before they called the election, stated that

“the Government recognises that library closures may sometimes be necessary, but closures must form part of a strategic approach to service provision”.

We share that position.

The hon. Lady opened her remarks by praising the excellent service of the House of Commons Library. She implied that it is an excellent service because it does not use volunteers. As I am sure she is aware, more than 16,000 people across the country volunteer in their local libraries. I am sure she is also aware that the previous Government’s document that was published just in March last year stated:

“All libraries should consider how best to attract, nurture and utilise volunteers, to complement their workforce.”

Again, we share that position. Volunteers are an important element of library provision, but they must never take the place of professionals and must work with them.

What do we mean by a professional? During the important debate that we have had on libraries throughout the country for the past few months, an impression has perhaps been given that libraries should be staffed only by professional librarians. The Government’s position is that professionals should work in libraries, but that they do not necessarily all have to be professional librarians. The previous Government’s review of public libraries stated:

“Library services are best when staffed by a mixture of professionals including librarians and people qualified for work in other fields.”

Given the advent of technology and the provision of community services, it is important to have a mix of professionals in our library services.

Before the hon. Lady spoke specifically about library provision in Walsall, she asked whether the Government plan to repeal the statutory provision for libraries contained in the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964. I can tell her categorically that we have no plans to do so. The previous Government did indeed put that statutory provision up for consultation when they reviewed their library plans, but 80% of respondents said that they supported its continued use. The statutory duty remains a very important safety net for the provision of libraries.

Let us be under no illusions about the fact that the library service has suffered over the past decade or so. The number of visits to libraries and the number of adults borrowing books have dropped, and library provision throughout the country has been patchy. It is a local service, and it is up to local authorities to provide a good and comprehensive library service, but some are better than others. The power that I and the Secretary of State have is the statutory duty, which allows us to intervene in the most extreme cases.

One of the things of which I am most proud is that in opposition I encouraged the then Secretary of State to intervene in the case of the Wirral, where the closure of more than half the libraries was proposed. Thanks to that intervention, not only were the library closures halted, but, even more importantly, the report that was produced by Sue Charteris set out some important guidelines on how local authorities should go about their statutory duty. I genuinely believe that those guidelines have put a brake on the number of library closures being proposed. Indeed, I am confident that most local authorities are taking their duties under the 1964 Act very seriously and are examining the Wirral guidelines closely before taking decisions. Library provision in Walsall is no exception to that rule.

Of course, difficult choices are having to be made. Walsall council, like councils up and down the country, is tackling the legacy of the budget deficit left to us by the previous Government. We are having to reduce spending, which is leading to very difficult choices having to be made, and Walsall council is no exception. However, I believe that it is approaching the provision of the public library service in a positive way. I am told, for example, that it plans to invest more than £200,000 in radio frequency identification systems in libraries, which will allow people to check out library books and check them back in again without a librarian having to be present, delivering substantial administrative savings. There is also the possibility of sharing services with other library authorities in the region, an option that I believe is currently being discussed and that I am keen to see encouraged throughout the country.

What is encouraging about the situation in Walsall is that the questions being asked are not about how services can be cut and branches closed but about how services can be maintained and improved, with branches kept open even on a reduced budget. Indeed, I believe that the local authority has announced that there will be no branch closures in the next year, because it has chosen to consult the public on the way forward. I know that the hon. Members present this evening will lead that consultation, hand in hand with the local authority.

The public, whether they are library users or not, will be fully involved in the decision-making process in Walsall, and they will look to their civic leaders to guide them in that process. I understand that the consultation will involve traditional methods, as well as discussions on social networking sites and even by text message. Walsall council appears to be a thoroughly modern local authority, and I do not think many would disagree that that is an admirable attitude to adopt when looking to address budget reductions.

It is all very well for people to talk about their fears for the future of the library service, but I hope that the hon. Member for Walsall South will embrace in good faith the approach that Walsall library is taking. I hope that when she works with her local authority on the future of the library service, she will look around her at the myriad good examples up and down the country of fantastic, forward-looking, dynamic library authorities.

In the previous debate on the big society, I heard my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman) say that it had been a cross-party debate, and I believe that the debate about libraries should be such a debate. We should recognise and celebrate the good practice of local authorities, whatever their political complexion. For example, Barking and Dagenham council, which is not as far as I am aware a Conservative local authority, has announced that rather than cutting and closing library branches, it will review its service to explore where efficiencies can be made. I am told that the decision to spare the library service from closures has galvanised enthusiasm in the community, with more volunteers coming forward.

Slough has put its library service out to tender and Essex county council is now due to help to run that service, which will reduce Slough’s administration costs. Last September in Ramsey, Cambridgeshire, work began to transform the site of an old cinema into a new library learning centre. In Luton, the new Marsh Farm library opens in just over a month, having been relocated to the local school.

Authorities around the country have library construction and refurbishment projects on the go. Of course, that is happening in places where a review of the library estate may result in fewer library buildings overall, but, like the previous Government, we have always been clear that closures do not signal an automatic breach of the 1964 Act. Sometimes a library authority will close or consider closing a library to ensure a more efficient service in its area.

Leeds, which again is not a Conservative authority, has just consulted on such proposals. Following a strategic assessment of its service, the council proposed redistributing services to provide much better value for money and an improved service offer. As its plans put the viability of a number of low-use, high-cost, small buildings into question, the authority engaged in a meaningful consultation with its communities, so that everybody understood what is proposed and how it could affect them.

Members of the London Libraries Consortium are achieving better value for money. Shared contracts have saved them roughly £1.5 million over five years. Havering, the lead authority in the consortium, has extended opening hours within existing budgets. Being part of that consortium means that those boroughs have 148 branches and nearly 6 million books in stock. With no tender process, no legal fees and support from shared specialists, new partners in the consortium save nearly £50,000.

The fact that authorities are improving their library buildings demonstrates that I am not the only person who still believes not only that our public library service can survive the current climate, but that it can blossom during and after it.

I am grateful for the permission of my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz), who initiated the debated. If the future of libraries in the borough that my hon. Friend and I represent turns out to be somewhat different and less optimistic than the Minister has stated—let us hope not—and if library closures are proposed over the next 12 or 18 months, can we come back to him and meet him, with a delegation if necessary? Obviously, as my hon. Friend has said, this is very serious issue indeed.

I am delighted to meet any Member of the House who wants to discuss their local library service. As I said, my first priority is excellent local library services across the country. I believe that the key to that is sharing best practice across local authorities. I truly admire how Walsall is going about its business, because it is genuinely consulting and not rushing to judgment. It is determined to provide a comprehensive and efficient library service for the people of Walsall, which takes its culture very seriously. I was privileged to visit its new art gallery to see its superb collection. I do not want to reinforce the impression that I am an entirely frivolous figure, but my abiding memory of my visit is the fact people in the lift are told what floor they are on by the voice of Noddy Holder, a former resident of Walsall—[Interruption.] I am delighted that you know with which band he plays, Mr Speaker.

Such innovation is going on elsewhere. In Barnsley, for example, a new lift library is opening at Great Houghton later this year in a building that will co-locate a GP practice and a pharmacy, and facilities for district nursing, adult and social services. I heard what the hon. Member for Walsall South said earlier about the need for libraries to be libraries, but I also passionately believe that co-locating with other community services can secure a library’s future. Indeed, having a library in a local building can secure that building’s future.

Stoke’s local service centre and library is also a fine example of what can happen when services are based in a single building. The centre incorporates training and conference rooms and a customer contact facility. I could go on. I could talk about how Windsor and Maidenhead is not closing its libraries but turning all 12 of them into a community service.

Let me also say something about the national debate about library closures. At times it has become very passionate, which is completely understandable. In a slightly perverse way, it is welcome because it reminds not just hon. Members but local councillors how passionately local people care about their libraries. Perhaps it reminds all of us not to neglect a service that perhaps we have taken for granted in the past.

There is genuine work going on behind the scenes. It cannot always be the subject of a press release or statement, but the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council works with a range of local authorities. I will not name them here, but those local authorities have hit the headlines with the number of headline closures that they are proposing, and the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council is having a significant influence on those authorities. I have received calls asking me or the Secretary of State to call in particular proposals. The reason we have resisted that is that we are confident that the MLA is engaging with those local authorities and working with them before they reach a final decision.

May I use this opportunity to put on the record my support and admiration for the leadership of Roy Clare, the chief executive of the MLA? He has been a fine public servant. He served the previous Government incredibly well, thoughtfully and with energy and dedication. Few people in the country know and understand the library service better than he does. I am delighted to have the opportunity to work with him in government.

I said repeatedly in opposition and many more times in government that I am a champion of libraries. I stand by that. My first speech as a Minister was on libraries. My first initiative as a Minister, long before library closures became the subject of national debate, was to put in place the future libraries programme, which is designed to share best practice with local authorities and to raise the profile of library services with local authorities. Campaigners are right to hold their councils to account if they think what is happening in their community is wrong or unfair, but I am confident that local authorities will listen and work closely with the MLA and that, despite some of the pictures of doom and gloom that we read about in the press across the country, in many local authorities there is a thriving, innovative local library service.

I thank the hon. Lady for allowing me the chance to talk about libraries in the Chamber. She is absolutely right to bring to the attention of the House her concerns about the future of library provision in her community. Let us have a sensible and reasoned debate about library provision. Let us not rule out for ever any closure of any library, provided that it is in context and part of a strategic overview. Let us not do down the work of volunteers—the tens of thousands who work in our libraries. Let us have a range of professionals working in our libraries. Let us have libraries that are lending books, helping to educate children and adults, providing safe community spaces, access to technology and to council services. Let us work to encourage local authorities to see libraries not just as an add-on but as central to their provision. As I say, I am confident that that is the case in the vast majority of local authorities up and down the country. Let us tell the good stories about libraries, while maintaining a watchful eye on what is happening in some of the more difficult cases.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.