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Gloucestershire Libraries

Volume 550: debated on Wednesday 12 September 2012

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

This debate has turned out to be extremely topical. In the past week, the importance of libraries has been highlighted by children’s laureate Julia Donaldson, author of “The Gruffalo” and “The Snail and the Whale”, which I think is a masterpiece of children’s literature. I must have read it at least 50 times with my kids and I never stopped enjoying it. Ms Donaldson says that

“Libraries…provide a wonderful opportunity for adults and children to browse, borrow and engage with books, but they are also great community centres.”

She is right, of course. Libraries are community hubs and noticeboards, providing sources of information as well as pleasure and learning. They are vital in communities that face particular challenges, where free access to books is not some middle-class luxury, but an essential local service—and not simply access to books, but access to quiet work space, including for homework, when sometimes that is impossible to find at home. In the internet age, modern libraries increasingly provide access to the net for those who cannot easily afford the latest home PC, thus combating both digital and social exclusion.

Hesters Way is one such community in my constituency. It belies Cheltenham’s stereotypical image as a picture-perfect, universally affluent, regency resort town. Three of the six worst-scoring neighbourhoods in Cheltenham, according to the Government’s multiple indices of deprivation, are in Hesters Way, and all three are in the bottom 17% of neighbourhoods nationwide. According to one of those indices, educational outcomes, two of those neighbourhoods are in the bottom 10% in the country. Hesters Way’s schools, both the primary schools and the stunning new All Saints academy, are benefiting significantly from the pupil premium. I am not citing those statistics to embarrass anyone in Hesters Way, which boasts many community success stories, not least in education now at both primary and secondary levels. I am doing it simply to underline the fact that it is a part of Cheltenham where many people have to work very hard to make ends meet and where the luxury of buying a new computer or splashing out on new books in the beautiful branch of Waterstones in town is not always possible.

In short, Hesters Way is an area that needs a library, and given that the source for the statistics I have cited is the county council’s own dataset, it should have known that, too; yet the rather opaque process followed in Gloucestershire suggested that Hesters Way’s was one of those libraries that was surplus to county council requirements. At this point, I should say that I understand the Conservative administration’s genuine problems. I accept the need to reduce the deficit at national level and it was inevitable that local government would have to play a part in that. We may have argued in this place about the pace and scale of the cuts, but that was not Gloucestershire county council’s responsibility. Tough decisions would have been necessary, whatever the political flavour of the administration. All the same, recent figures from the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals, which gathered survey responses from 93 library authorities, highlight the scope for different approaches, given the political will.

According to the institute’s survey, some English authorities reported increases in expenditure; eight reported reductions in revenue expenditure of 2% or less; 45 reported reductions of between 2% and 10%; 25 reported cuts of at least 10%; and two reported cuts of more than 20%. The scope for political decision makers to follow different paths is clear. I am not sure whether Gloucestershire was among those that responded to the survey, but if it was, we would have been at the very top of that league table. Politicians often trade statistics, but let me quote from a letter that John Holland, the previous assistant head of Gloucestershire’s libraries and information service, sent both to the leader of Gloucestershire county council, Councillor Mark Hawthorne, and to the Minister. He wrote:

“Whilst the need to make savings and reduce services is clear, the proposed cuts to the library service are damaging and disproportionate. The library service is a high profile cost-effective service representing only 1.45% of the county council budget, yet loans over 3.3 million books and other media and has nearly 3 million visits from users a year. The proposed cuts reduce the current library service budget by 43%, a far greater cut than the overall county council target of 28%.”

Even allowing for annual variations in the book fund, Gloucestershire is still at the very top end of the cuts being made by library authorities in England.

In Cheltenham, the suggestion was that Hesters Way library would close as a county library and that the community might take it over, with residual support of some £20,000 per annum from the county council. Hesters Way is also, for all the reasons that I have mentioned, an area in which volunteers are not as easy to come by as they are in more affluent areas. In practice, what was meant by “the community” was the local neighbourhood project, which was initiated and supported by Cheltenham borough council. The plan was far from ideal; it would have resulted in the loss of the library’s existing premises; and, most of all, it risked the loss of professional librarians—a nationwide issue highlighted by the institute. An issue that was never resolved was the risk that non-public libraries would not pay public lending rights, thus reducing the income to authors as well.

I pay tribute to all those who supported a tremendous campaign to save Hesters Way library as a public library, including the outstanding county councillor, Suzanne Williams, Councillors Charmian Shepherd and Mike Skinner, and Chris Pallet and Nancy Graham. Most of all, I pay tribute to a non-party political voluntary campaign group, Friends of Gloucestershire Libraries, which surpassed all our efforts in its dogged campaign to defend Gloucestershire’s library services, and gathered 13,000 petition signatures and took the battle all the way to the High Court.

Again and again, Friends of Gloucestershire Libraries highlighted the impact of the cuts, particularly the careless way in which the strategy seemed to have been put together. In its case to the High Court, it highlighted an issue that was particularly relevant to Hesters Way—that of equalities—which I had raised personally on a number of occasions with Councillor Hawthorne. On Wednesday 16 November 2011, His Honour Judge McKenna ruled that Gloucestershire county council’s plans for our public library service were unlawful on equalities grounds, the council having failed to consider properly the impact of its proposals on disadvantaged groups—just as Friends of Gloucestershire Libraries and many others had pointed out.

Councillor Hawthorne, for whom I have a great deal of time in other respects, dismissed the ruling as being

“tripped up on a technical point”.

I have to disagree with his conclusion very, very profoundly. I think that it was a damning judgment that could have been avoided if the county council had been prepared to listen to dissenting voices.

To be kind to the county administration for a moment, the outcome in Hesters Way is good. The forced rethink has resulted in the library staying open in its current premises as part of the county network, albeit with reduced hours, which is a tremendous community victory. Friends of Gloucestershire Libraries, however, remains deeply concerned, and reports that under the redrawn plans, seven libraries still face closure. Public library services will be withdrawn from those areas, and local communities will be offered the chance to run and fund their own library facilities as volunteers. Those facilities will not be part of the statutory public library network.

Friends of Gloucestershire Libraries has raised with me, and with the Minister on a number of occasions, an issue that directly concerns him: the duty of the Secretary of State under the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964 to

“superintend, and promote the improvement of, the public library service provided by local authorities in England and Wales, and to secure the proper discharge by local authorities of the functions in relation to libraries conferred on them as authorities by or under this Act”.

I am grateful for the opportunity to point out that we have similar issues about libraries in my constituency of Stroud. For example, we have a very well run community library in Painswick, which is well supported and, indeed, has the support of the county council. It is a great success story, so will my hon. Friend join me in congratulating the people of Painswick on making such a successful effort?

I am not familiar with the situation in Painswick, so I had better not venture into that. I remind the hon. Gentleman of the provisions from the 1964 Act that I read out. It is the duty of the Secretary of State to

“superintend, and promote the improvement of, the public library service provided by local authorities in England and Wales, and to secure the proper discharge by local authorities of the functions in relation to libraries conferred on them as authorities by or under this Act”.

Those local authority duties include the provision of a

“comprehensive and efficient library service for all persons desiring to make use thereof”.

The Minister is familiar with those powers, as he drew attention to them in the case of the Wirral in 2009, when we were both in opposition.

My hon. Friend raises concerns that libraries may be closed, but my understanding is that no library in Gloucestershire has closed, and that they will all continue. That is certainly the case in my constituency of Gloucester, and I welcome the proposal for greater flexibility in the provision of library services which I hope in due course, in the ward of Matson, which is similar to Hesters Way in many respects, will result in opportunities for the community to be more involved through voluntary work, work experience for the young and the greater provision of other facilities alongside the library.

The hon. Gentleman refers to Matson, which is interesting because it seems to be a parallel case to that of Hesters Way. It is an area of deprivation, as he obviously well knows. In the case of Hesters Way, the offer of a community takeover resulted in a neighbourhood project supported by the district council, which is Liberal Democrat-led Cheltenham borough council. I am not sure exactly what the situation is in Matson, but I understand that the library is also staying open as a public library. If Friends of Gloucestershire Libraries is correct, there are still threats of outstanding closures to public libraries, and the question of whether invitations to communities, neighbourhood projects or other institutions to take them over will succeed is still outstanding.

No, I am sorry. I have given way twice, which is stretching the courtesy of the House in an Adjournment debate at the best of times, so I will press on.

Friends of Gloucestershire Libraries has raised the Secretary of State’s responsibilities and the possibility of his intervention in Gloucestershire on a number of occasions, but decision came there none—not even a reply to some of its communications until yesterday, less than 24 hours before this debate. The Minister probably owes some eagle-eyed official in his Department a drink for having spotted that potential little embarrassment. The letter to Johanna Anderson, one of Friends of Gloucestershire Libraries’ most uncompromising supporters, rather surprisingly implies that intervention by the Secretary of State in the form of a public inquiry is still possible. It says that the Department has been in the process of gathering evidence since April 2011 and offers the excuse that

“the council’s plans have been subject to considerable change over a sustained period of time”—

but not as much change as many campaigners in Gloucestershire would like. I suggest that the Secretary of State had better get a move on, or all the decisions will have been taken and implemented before he has finished gathering the evidence.

The powers of the Secretary of State in the 1964 Act are serious ones that are not to be used lightly, but in a county where the decisions of the council and the processes by which they have reached them have generated such opposition, and even been ruled unlawful, I would have thought that they could and should be exercised. This is not a request for the Secretary of State to run Gloucestershire’s libraries for us, or even to take all the decisions that need to be taken locally; it is a request for him to make inquiries and, in the words of the Act, to

“superintend, and promote the improvement of”

public library services. It is not at all clear to me that this duty is currently being fulfilled in the manner that the authors of the Act might have expected. We all wish that these decisions could be taken in a time of expanding budgets and generous local government settlements, but sadly, as we all know, that is not the case, and there may still be more pain ahead. However, as the institute has pointed out, different and more careful approaches are possible.

As Julia Donaldson made so clear in her recent public statement, libraries are a precious local and national resource that need to be celebrated and defended with as much courage and resourcefulness as the tiny snail on the tail of a whale so that future generations, whatever their personal circumstances, can be given a space to discover, to read and learn, and to enjoy stories like hers.

I am grateful for the opportunity to respond to this important debate and the points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood). I understand the concerns that are being raised, and will no doubt continue to be raised, in several quarters.

My hon. Friend made some effective points about the importance of libraries and prayed in aid the children’s laureate, Julia Donaldson. He and I have something in common in that we are both regular readers of Ms Donaldson’s wonderful literature. I think that all Members of this House agree with the sentiments that she has expressed about the importance of libraries, reading and literature. I respectfully disagree, however, with Ms Donaldson’s analysis of the state of the public library service in England, for which I am responsible. It is worth making it clear that I am not responsible for superintending the library service in Scotland or, indeed, in Wales or Northern Ireland. Those powers have rightly been devolved.

Libraries remain a statutory service, and it is worth putting on record that this Government have no intention of changing that. That is a very important safeguard for the future of libraries in England. It is worth pointing out, when one considers the history of public library provision in this country, that libraries have always been supported and paid for either by councils or by philanthropic endeavour. In fact, the growth of the public library service in this country initially started with the grant so generously provided by Andrew Carnegie, and continued with Parliament’s enabling of councils to raise rates in order to pay for the service. Nobody should be in any doubt about the importance of the public library service in promoting literature and education, because in the 19th century many councils opposed building public libraries in case there was too much education in their area. Public libraries are, therefore, a local authority service, and it is important for central Government to recognise that and to be cautious about when they intervene.

The thrust of my hon. Friend’s remarks was that he wants a public inquiry into Gloucestershire county council’s decision. He is right to say that we are still looking at and gathering evidence about the changes being made by the council, so it is worth putting on record that it would be wrong for me to comment on the particular changes that are being made until the Department reaches a decision, but I will enlighten my hon. Friend on how it goes about making those kinds of decisions.

The critical point raised by the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) was the scare that libraries in the county will be closed, but my clear understanding from the county council—this is certainly true in my constituency and, I believe, in that of my neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Neil Carmichael)—is that no libraries will be closed. There is a danger—I do not know whether the Minister has spotted this—that this is an artful and early kick-off to a Lib Dem county council election campaign, with scares about libraries being closed when the reality is that none will be closed. What would the Minister say to that?

As I have said, libraries are a local service, and county council elections are local elections. I hear what my hon. Friend has said, as have the electors of Gloucester no doubt. I look forward to observing—perhaps from a distance—the vigorous election campaign that will be conducted in Gloucestershire in the weeks and months to come.

I want to put on record my absolute rejection that this is in some way the launch of a Lib Dem election campaign. I wish we could recruit 13,000 petitioners and the High Court to our cause, but I do not think that that is credible. However, if the electors of Gloucestershire wish to try a different approach, they will know which way to vote in May 2013.

If my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) will forgive me, I will not give way. The election campaign seems to be beginning in the middle of this debate; I want to get back to the issues at stake.

Let me be clear: it is genuinely the case that the position in Gloucestershire has been uncertain for some time. As my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham pointed out, Gloucestershire county council made its final decision in April 2012, but that was then called in for scrutiny by the Liberal Democrat opposition and, after that scrutiny was rejected, there was further consultation. As I understand it, the final decision about the shape of Gloucestershire county council’s library service was made only this month—September 2012—so I respectfully suggest to my hon. Friend that it would be difficult for the Government to call a public inquiry when the position of the public library service is changing.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham rightly said that these are serious powers not to be used lightly. When one reads debates about the future of library services and calls for inquiries, one assumes that an inquiry is called every minute. In fact, the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964 has been on the statute book for almost half a century, and in that time only one inquiry has ever been called, and that was the inquiry to which he referred—the Wirral inquiry. I hope that he will understand, therefore, that one cannot simply call an inquiry will-nilly.

Since being honoured to take up this position in the coalition Government, I have always taken the independent advice of my officials about whether there is a prima facie case that a particular council has breached the requirements to provide a comprehensive and efficient library service. I will take their advice on Gloucestershire in the fullness of time, now that its provisions have become clearer.

The Minister might not yet be aware of the library in Tewkesbury linking up with the Roses theatre next door in order to expand and provide a centre of cultural excellence. It will seek additional funding for that. Are there not opportunities for libraries to go beyond what they do already?

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. Without wishing to comment on the specific issues in Gloucestershire, it is worth pointing out that there are great examples of innovation in the public library service up and down the country.

It is my job to tell the good news about public libraries in this country, because the press are interested only in publishing the bad news. As my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Neil Carmichael) pointed out, Painswick, which was closed under the previous Government—I do not remember calls for an inquiry then—has reopened as a volunteer library. So there are many positives.

In fact, at a time of economic difficulty, when, as the hon. Member for Cheltenham pointed out, people have to look at their budgets—whichever party was in power, there would have been cuts to public expenditure—the public library service is funded by local authorities to the tune of £900 million a year, and more than 3,300 libraries are still open and serving the public across the country. When the news is all about whether a library is closing, the libraries that are opening or being refurbished are rarely reported. The Society of Chief Librarians estimated that, at the end of last year, 40 new or significantly refurbished libraries would open in 2012, and that has already been achieved. Libraries are opening as well as closing.

For the Minister’s benefit, may I put it on record that, as far as I know, not a single library in Gloucestershire will close? Given that this debate is about Gloucestershire libraries, we should have clarity on that point. My hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham has been unable to name a single library that will close. It was simply a scare that some might close. I have been told by the county council that that is not the case.

I hear what my hon. Friend says. Not only are libraries purported to be closing not actually closing across the country, but new libraries are opening, including, for example, the Hive in Worcester, which is the first ever joint public and academic library in the country—as well as the renovation of the Passmore Edwards centre in Newton Abbot. In 2013, the city of Birmingham will open Europe’s largest public library, costing more than £100 million, and the refurbishment of the Liverpool central library will be completed. Three quarters of children in England and 40% of adults still regularly use our public libraries.

We are doing all we can to support libraries. The first speech I made as a Minister was about libraries and the first action I took was to write to every local authority to remind them of their statutory duty to provide a comprehensive and efficient library service; to point them to the Charteris review, which was the inquiry conducted by Sue Charteris into the Wirral closures; to guide them on how they should approach any review of libraries; and to make it clear that every council thinking of reorganising its library service should do so only after a thorough review.

We handed responsibility for libraries to Arts Council England—a bigger organisation than the Museum, Libraries and Archive Council that was previously responsible. We have united under one roof the provision of culture and of libraries, to provide a more joined-up and effective service. At the end of the month, the Arts Council’s new grants for the arts fund will open for applications—£6 million for libraries to work with artists and cultural organisations on arts and cultural activities. In June 2012 the Government announced a series of pilots to test automatic library memberships for schoolchildren.

Perhaps I can emulate the hon. Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) and try to draw the Minister back to Gloucestershire. The hon. Member for Gloucester made the confident assertion that no libraries in Gloucestershire will close, yet Friends of Gloucestershire Libraries lists seven that are still at risk of closure, at least as public libraries, if not completely.

The libraries are listed on the Friends of Gloucestershire Libraries website. They are all outside my constituency so I will not list them. Has the Minister received any assurance from the county council that there will be no library closures in Gloucestershire?

In a sense, my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester makes my point for me. There is a dispute in the Chamber between two Gloucestershire Members about whether libraries in Gloucestershire will close. I will take advice from my officials on whether Gloucestershire is providing a comprehensive and efficient service, once it is clear what that service is. I have been reluctant to talk specifically about Gloucestershire precisely because of that point, but I understand that there are ongoing negotiations about transferring to community groups the libraries that are disputed by my two hon. Friends.

The hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) referred to Friends of Gloucestershire Libraries, which lists Brockworth library as one facing closure. Brockworth is in my constituency, and the library has been handed over to the community which is doing an excellent job at keeping it going and linking it with other community groups. I have every hope for that library and do not accept that it will close as suggested by Friends of Gloucestershire Libraries.

I suggest that the easy way to resolve this issue is for the Minister to come and see what is happening in Gloucestershire. He could admire the renovation of the central library in Brunswick road in Gloucester, which has been magnificently restored and improved by the county council. He could see what has happened in Painswick where the library has reopened, and the community library in Brockworth mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson). He could see the efforts being made in Hesters Way, and review the situation for himself. He would be welcome in Gloucestershire to see our magnificent libraries.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, but I am running out of time.

In conclusion, my Department reviews all proposals for library reorganisation put forward by councils. We will review Gloucestershire’s proposals and issue a decision on whether to hold a public inquiry in the fullness of time once those proposals are clear. A £6 million fund has been provided by the Arts Council, which is now responsible for superintending and promoting the library service. Yesterday, the Cabinet Office announced an initiative to promote volunteering by young people in libraries, and we are piloting automatic membership of libraries for schoolchildren. We are publishing data by the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy publicly so that members of the public, MPs and councillors can compare their library services with similar services across the country. To echo some the remarks made by my hon. Friends, I make no apology for the increase in volunteers in libraries. They make an enormous difference to the provision of library services.

House adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 9(7)).