Local authorities have a statutory duty to provide a comprehensive and efficient public library service and to fund the service. My Department monitors the local authority proposals for library service changes in England and the annual Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy statistics, compiled from detail provided by the local authorities and published towards the end of this year.
Somehow I did not expect the Minister to admit the grave situation his Government have created in the library sector. He should know that many councillors across the country are facing the prospect of closing the bulk of library buildings in their communities as Government cuts hit hard. How does that help the Minister fulfil the statutory duty to oversee the library service, and what message does he think he is sending young people and communities about the importance of reading and learning?
What message is the hon. Gentleman sending when he talks down our library service? Local authorities have always paid for libraries and have always provided them, and they fund them with more than £800 million a year. Thousands of libraries are open up and down the country and new libraries are opening. Our library service is in very good health.
The Minister does not have to shout when he is put in a corner. I wish him a very happy Valentine’s day. Opposition Members do not believe that there should be no change to the library service. We have to move with the times. However, libraries are the centre of a civilised community. They should be updated, but they are havens where people can go and where kids from poorer homes can do their homework. We should look at them as a setting in the community. It is the Government’s job to lead on this important issue.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that point. I wish him a happy Valentine’s day and note his Valentine’s tie. I agree with everything that he said. That is why we have appointed a specialist libraries adviser and why we have set up a fund of £6 million at the Arts Council to support libraries. I could go on, but I do not want to take up too much time.
Is my hon. Friend aware that Devon county council has chosen to keep all its libraries open? Despite facing the same financial pressures as every other council, it has made a political choice to support the library service. Is that not the way forward?
I welcome the Government’s decision to fund six libraries to become business incubators, but it comes at a time when unfair local government funding solutions mean that, since 2010, 640 libraries have closed, are under threat or have been left to volunteers. Why are the Government not developing a survival strategy to support local authorities? Why are the Government not recommending alternatives for the delivery of services? Where is the vision? Where is the leadership?
I sometimes wonder whether the Labour spokesman looks at a single thing that I am doing. We have given responsibility for libraries to the Arts Council, we have set aside a £6 million fund, we have published the CIPFA statistics and we are piloting automatic membership for school children. He simply rolls over when Newcastle proposes to cut its culture and its libraries, and says, “I back Newcastle.”