[Hugh Bayley in the Chair]
I am delighted, Mr Bayley, to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon. I am pleased to be here to debate public libraries in England; we do not do that often enough. Sadly, England is becoming a place where access to creativity, culture and the arts is rapidly diminishing. Our libraries, which sit at the very heart of our communities and offer that cultural experience, seem almost to have been forgotten by this Government.
It is difficult to give a definitive figure for the number of library closures because, tellingly, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and the Arts Council do not directly collect figures. However, according to Public Libraries News, since 2010 nearly 500 libraries, including 80 mobiles, are reported to have closed, been passed to volunteers or placed outside council control.
The hon. Lady may be aware that we now do an annual report to Parliament under the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964. Last year, we calculated that fewer than 100 static libraries had closed.
The Minister will be aware that, since 2010, 500 libraries are reported to have been passed to volunteers, to be outside council control or to have closed. Nevertheless, there are 3,000 libraries in England doing hugely positive work. They sit at the heart of our communities, promoting culture and creativity despite these difficult times.
According to one survey, public access to libraries is being curtailed. One third of libraries have reduced their opening hours and a further third have introduced charges for services that were previously free. By reducing hours and increasing charges for services such as the internet, people on limited incomes who cannot afford a home computer, and rely on libraries for school work or to search and apply for jobs, are excluded.
Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.
To recap, we are talking about the nearly 500 libraries, including 80 mobile libraries, that are reported to have closed, been passed to volunteers or been placed outside council control since 2010. We are talking about the reduction in hours and the increasing charges, especially for internet use. We are talking about the fact that library outreach services are among the hardest hit by the cuts. Limiting those services has meant that the less mobile people in our community—particularly the elderly—have found their mobile services severely limited.
The reason why libraries are as valued as they are and why I am passionate about them and their role is that they act as a gateway for personal development, promote community cohesion, act as economic enablers, promote democratic participation, inspire the imagination and fuel aspiration.
When I was growing up, my mum’s driving ambition for me was that I would not join her working on the shop floor, packing icing sugar, at Tate & Lyle. She, like many other mothers and fathers, had the insight to know that education and literacy were crucial to that aim and my future. She took me to the library every day she could, hoping that it would have a positive influence on me.
As a result, my world opened up and a reading habit was instilled in me, which has given me enormous pleasure and enabled me to continue and enhance my education. Libraries give working families such as mine access to resources, influences and learning that many middle-class families may take for granted. Libraries remain radical and empowering places. As the great philanthropist Andrew Carnegie once said:
“A library outranks any other one thing a community can do to benefit its people. It is a never failing spring in the desert.”
Sadly, under the Government’s watch, that spring is drying up.
Public libraries are not only close to my heart, but highly valued by the British public. Despite the downturn in library provision, the latest figures show that 306 million visits are made each year to UK libraries, and that 70% of five to 15-year-olds have used a library in the past year. When the Carnegie UK Trust surveyed attitudes towards public libraries, the results were overwhelming. More than two thirds of people said that libraries were essential or very important to a community. I am pleased to say that the Carnegie report identifies an increase in the number of library users between 2002 and 2006, after a period of falling use between 1992 and 2002. The Carnegie UK Trust rightly attributes that increase in numbers to the installation of the people’s network, which provided internet access in UK libraries.
Some hon. Members present may believe that libraries should or will be consigned to history, and that the rise of the e-book and digital services will render libraries obsolete. Those Members should remember that one in five families in this country do not have internet access at home. Although we have seen a drastic rise in the number of internet users in coffee shops, half our libraries still do not have wi-fi. To respond to the changing needs of the 21st century, the library offer must adapt and change. That, just like the people’s network, will take real commitment and leadership from the Government—or a Government, perhaps I should say.
Our local authorities were once the mainstay of cultural funding throughout the UK. Today, they are underfunded and reduced. They are struggling. Even the local authorities with the best practice are being forced into taking previously unthinkable action. Gateshead, Glasgow, Birmingham, Manchester and many others that have been successful over many decades are struggling to maintain a decent cultural offer. Indeed, one Tory council, Barnet—which, when I was chair of the Local Government Association culture services executive, had beacon status for its libraries—is now consulting on service reductions. It posits a choice between closing six out of 14 libraries and cutting the space in 10 out of 14 libraries to what it describes as the size of a living room.
The council proposes to rent out the rest of that community-owned space as commercial offices. I understand that Labour’s candidate in Finchley and Golders Green, Sarah Sackman, is doing all she can to stop those vicious closure proposals. I wish her and all the other library campaigners across the country well.
I thank my hon. Friend for securing this debate on an important topic that matters so much to so many of our communities. She mentioned a consultation run by one Conservative-controlled council in north London. Would she like to comment on Croydon council, which, under the Conservatives, consulted local people on how they wanted their libraries to be run—so far, so good—but subsequently privatised the libraries, even though that had not been one of the options for consideration during the consultation?
I think it is awful that a council would go out to consultation on an option and then disregard the views that people express. I cannot conceive of that. I understand that councils are struggling enormously under the cuts that the Government are making, so essential services such as libraries are at risk. At one time, Croydon council’s libraries were considered to be among the best that we had to offer in the capital.
The hon. Lady highlights the actions of a Labour candidate in a Tory-controlled authority. Will she enlighten the House on what Labour MPs and candidates have done in Labour councils that have closed libraries, such as Barking and Dagenham, Bolton, Bradford, Hackney, Lambeth, Leeds, Liverpool—the list goes on? More than five times as many libraries have been closed by Labour councils as by Conservative ones.
What astounds me about the Minister’s contribution is that he does not seem to think that he has any responsibility in this debate. He wants to offload the responsibility on to councils, but he has offered very little leadership to enable those councils to take decisions collectively to make the best of their resources. I do not understand how the Minister has the brass neck.
My hon. Friend will have heard, as I did, the Minister cite Lambeth as a Labour-controlled council that has closed libraries. In fact, Lambeth has opened a new library in Clapham and has closed no libraries at all. Does she agree that the Minister should withdraw his comment and apologise?
No; I am done now.
We must make the best use of the money currently assigned to libraries so that they can make the best use of limited and diminishing resources. That takes leadership, but such leadership has been sadly lacking. When the coalition abolished the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council, it transferred responsibilities and resources to Arts Council England in what I believe to be an ill-conceived and ill-thought-through botch. The MLAC resources were reduced from £62 million to £46.5 million, and the libraries element was reduced from £13 million to £3 million. Understandably, the Arts Council remains arts-centric despite its broadened remit, so libraries are left with slashed resources and without leadership at a time when they need it most. William Sieghart recently stated:
“The way the service is set up, it is run totally dysfunctionally. The DCMS has responsibility, but no budget, the Arts Council has been given a role reluctantly, and the DCLG looks at the local authorities who actually make decisions.”
“I’m frightened and worried for the library network. In the arctic blast of austerity, some authorities will struggle to know what to do with their library service. They will just hand over the keys and say goodbye, and that will be a disaster.”
Mr Sieghart hits the nail on the head. I should say to hon. Members who do not know that he has been commissioned by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and the Department for Communities and Local Government to publish an independent report on the public library service in England.
The Arts Council believes that it can steer, help, support and guide a national network of libraries with a dedicated half-time post. I am an optimist, but that is optimism taken to the extreme. I presume that the Arts Council is doing its best with an enormous portfolio and significant cuts to its budget—indeed, there have been significant cuts to the arts sector as a whole—but it was never a good idea on the part of the Government to push libraries on to the Arts Council. I can only assume that Ministers looked for the easiest berth in which to park a problem about which they lack the nous or imagination to think creatively. That is to the detriment of the Arts Council and the library sector.
Only a few weeks ago, the Government moved formally to abolish the Advisory Council on Libraries, which had been left to rot for a number of years and was already effectively redundant. Although it had only an advisory role, it brought together leaders from a range of library sectors as well as other relevant parties such as publishers and authors. It helped to place public libraries within the context of broader library and information provision, which set challenges of improving performance and quality. If the Minister had had a mind to, he could have benefited from decent independent advice, which could have helped to provide the leadership that is sadly lacking. I think it a great pity that he did not. I would hope that the next Labour Government will consider re-establishing the advisory council.
I remember when the sector had great hopes for the Minister. Libraries would be safe in his hands. He would often write e-mails on a Sunday night to library professionals, telling them this and offering support on that. He was their champion. He attacked my right hon. Friend the Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham), accusing him of
“ignoring his responsibilities as secretary of state”
over library closures in the Wirral.
I quote the Minister:
“Andy Burnham’s refusal to take action in the Wirral effectively renders the 1964 Public Libraries Act meaningless. [Interruption.] While it is Local Authorities’ responsibility to provide libraries, the Act very clearly lays responsibility for ensuring a good service at the culture secretary’s door. [Interruption.] If Andy Burnham is not prepared to intervene when library provision is slashed in a local authority such as the Wirral, it is clear that he is ignoring his responsibilities as Secretary of State, which in the process renders any sense of libraries being a statutory requirement for local authorities meaningless.”
I note that no such interventions have been made under this Government. What does the Minister now think of his own words?
The Minister clearly understood the sector when he was in opposition. He promised much, but in government, he has, sadly, delivered little.
We now have a dysfunctional national governance framework for libraries in England; Government Members who said one thing in opposition but do another in power; and a public libraries sector that is wilting due to the Government’s lack of leadership.
Surely there is now significant justification for creating a library development agency, decoupling the libraries portfolio from the Arts Council and using the remaining budget to create a lean, dedicated, passionate strategic national body that provides the leadership and advocacy the sector so urgently deserves. Any such agency should not curtail innovation or stifle the sector with bureaucracy, but enable local library authorities to seize the opportunities that exist, and support change and innovation.
The London Libraries Development Agency was an example of that being done successfully. It was founded in 2000 with one key aim: to develop and implement a co-ordinated strategic vision for library and information services across London. It was born from a recognition that the 400 public libraries, 30 mobile libraries, 1,500 service points, 17 million books and 2 million other items were one of London’s unsung success stories. That amazing asset resulted in 50.5 million visits each year, 42 million loans and 10 million inquiries, at a cost of just £23 per head.
It was equally clear that, although each of the 33 boroughs gave a distinct emphasis to their services, they all had much in common and were potentially much stronger together than apart. Council staff, of many different political persuasions, recognised that the sum should be greater than the parts and that, when they worked together, they could add real value to the libraries in their borough. That led to the creation of the first library development agency for the capital.
There is now a clear need for a bigger, more co-ordinated, more passionate voice for libraries at a national level, to provide strategic leadership and advocacy across Government for public libraries. We need a clearer sense of who will drive a workable vision of the sector’s future. I envisage an agency dedicated solely to libraries—one that will be lean, but not emaciated, and action-focused, with a mission to make a real difference to front-line services and the millions who use them. That needs to be absolutely rooted in delivery—always.
Established within the DCMS, the responsibilities of such an agency could include actively sharing best practice in and beyond the sector to maximise impact and make the best use of resources at every opportunity; driving efficiencies and saving as much money as possible to be spent on front-line services; pushing a national offer of actions for the years ahead so that everyone is clear about what the focus and direction should be; commissioning public, not-for-profit and private sector bodies to deliver on specific outcomes that secure a core national offer and drive innovation; advocating the case for public libraries across Government, reaching out beyond the DCMS and delivering on a co-ordinated, prioritised set of key actions; advising the Minister of State responsible for public libraries to successfully discharge his or her legal responsibilities; and reporting to the Secretary of State annually on the state of the public library network, highlighting best practice, identifying opportunities and noting areas of concern.
I urge the Minister, who is not a bad man, to take action now. He should make it his legacy. He should give us a commitment to produce a further report—actually, no, please do not give us a commitment on that, because I do not want to see any more round tables and circular arguments that go nowhere. We do not want empty pledges, and nor do the library sector and library users. We want the Minister to act with clarity, vision and determination.
When the Minister responds, I hope he will address the issues I have raised and those that my hon. Friends will raise. I hope he will recognise the need for greater leadership and clarity on an issue that, I am sure he will agree, is of great national importance.
It is a great pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Bayley. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown) on securing the debate and, much more importantly, on making a really excellent speech, a first-class speech, a committed speech, an informed speech, a knowledgeable speech—possibly a speech that was written in a library. She knows a lot about libraries; she was involved with them when she was in local government in London, and it showed. She would make a fantastic Minister for Libraries—if it was not for the fact that I will be in that role if the Labour party wins the next election.
My hon. Friend pointed to the value of public libraries, and she was absolutely right to do so. Libraries are trusted by the public. They are not just places for learning, but community meeting places, where young people go to find information about jobs, children without computers can do their homework and grannies meet for knitting circles. Last week, BBC 6 even announced it would be broadcasting programmes from a series of Manchester libraries to celebrate libraries’ role in inspiring musicians.
However, as my hon. Friend set out, libraries are under extreme financial pressure. Over this Parliament, there will be a 40% cut in central Government funding to local authorities. That means that local authorities are making difficult decisions, often resulting in library closures, cuts to opening hours and staff, and the transfer of libraries to the control of voluntary groups.
I am happy to do that, although I was going to come to that at the end of my speech. Resources are clearly one of the most important problems. The worst thing about what the Minister’s colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government have done is take out the needs element from the local authority funding formula. That means that in Surrey, Berkshire and Dorset the local authorities have received 1% increases in their resources, whereas in Durham, Liverpool and Hackney, the places where council services and libraries are most needed, the cuts are the biggest. A Labour Government would rejig the formula within the overall envelope, to take the pressure off the hardest pressed local authorities.
Is my hon. Friend familiar with the way Croydon and Wandsworth councils, which were at the time both run by the Conservatives, attempted to secure value from their libraries by putting them all out for tender jointly? Wandsworth chose the best value bid in the tender operation. Croydon chose the worst value bid, and happened to go with a firm of builders with which it had a £450 million property development joint venture. Will my hon. Friend comment on that example of Conservative values?
My hon. Friend has set out something that is of extreme concern to the people of Croydon. I wonder whether what the council did was legal. To issue consultation, ignore it and then take into account completely different factors does not seem to me to hold water.
In Lincolnshire a Tory local authority decided that it wanted to close three quarters of the libraries. It is very different from Croydon—a large rural area needing a totally different library service. A consultation was held, which was so inadequate that local library campaigners took the council to the High Court and won. It had not been properly carried out and the council must now do it all again. Would not it have been better to carry it out properly in the first place? That is what we think. It is similar to the Croydon case and shows that local authorities must take their responsibilities seriously, which is not happening at the moment. The Minister does not provide the leadership that he should.
My recollection is that Brent also lost a judicial review for carrying out an inadequate consultation. Does the hon. Lady not undermine her argument by being so partisan and focusing only on Conservative councils? Surely she should also hold Labour authorities to account.
The point I was making about cuts to local authority grant, which were overseen by the Secretary of State, is that the Tory-led coalition made the funding decisions that were imposed on Labour and Tory councils around the country. There were unfortunate results in local authorities led by Labour, the Tories and presumably the Liberals as well. The problem was driven by the unfortunate way in which the Secretary of State carried out, or failed to carry out, his responsibilities.
The Minister is a cultivated man who reads books and may even have visited a library on occasion. The problem is that he has failed to persuade his colleagues in other Departments of the significance of the cultural life of the nation. For the country to have a good cultural life, all the Departments must work together. We need the Department for Education and the Department for Communities and Local Government to be on board. We need them all to understand; we even need the Ministry of Justice to understand that it is a good idea if prisoners can read books.
I agree with everything my hon. Friend is saying and welcome her passion for the sector. The Government are also missing a trick on the economic development role that libraries can play in their communities. It is not only the obvious Departments that should be involved. All Departments would benefit from understanding libraries’ community role.
Once again, a colleague has anticipated what I was going to say. My hon. Friend is right.
There seems to be quite a lot of confusion regarding numbers. The Minister says that he produces an annual report. We have figures from the trade unions and from the Carnegie UK Trust. I do not want to debate statistics, but it is clear that library provision is down, and that is not helpful to many communities.
Will my hon. Friend consider visiting the Upper Norwood joint library, which will be opening five days a week instead of just three because the newly elected Labour administration in Croydon has reinstated £50,000 of the funding that was cut by the previous Conservative administration?
I am very pleased to hear what is happening in my hon. Friend’s constituency and congratulate the Labour local authority responsible.
Despite the unhappy austerity that libraries face, there is a growing consensus about the role of libraries in modern Britain. The professional bodies have done a lot of work on that. The Society of Chief Librarians feels that every library should offer four things. The first, obviously, is books and reading; the second is information; the third is action to facilitate digital inclusion; and the fourth is health and well-being. I have sparred with the Minister on several occasions about the need for more Government action on digital inclusion, and the Government’s failures on broadband, and there is no need to go over it all again today. Suffice it to say that 5 million households are not online, and 11 million people lack basic online skills. Digital exclusion is a problem for many groups of people—not just old people, but also young people and, particularly, people on low incomes. Under the previous Government we had the People’s Network. A massive investment was rolled out through the library service. The present Government do next to nothing on digital inclusion. I have urged the Minister more than once to switch £75 million from his failing SuperConnected Cities programme into digital inclusion. I further urge that the best location for that would be in the public library service, which would give a boost to the libraries and to digital inclusion.
The geographical aspect of access also matters. It was fantastic that campaigners in Lincolnshire won some of their points in the High Court. It goes to show how, when a determined group of local people put their mind to it, they can achieve things for their community. It is not acceptable that people in a rural area should have to travel for more than an hour to reach a public library. I do not know why the Minister did not intervene, but I know why one of the professional bodies has passed a vote of no confidence in him, given that he has not intervened in any of the places in question.
Lincolnshire would have been a good start.
We also need to consider where mobile provision would be most effective. My hon. Friend the Member for West Ham set out very well how such provision has been reduced, which is very significant. The mobile provision in my constituency is extremely valued by some people.
Governance is another issue that needs attention. When I have talked to councillors involved in library provision, and to the professional bodies, they have praised standards in Wales. We should perhaps go back and borrow from the Welsh model for our system. The Government seem to be taking a completely laissez-faire approach. The Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964 requires local authorities to have a comprehensive and efficient service, but the Government have not fleshed that out in any way or form. At one point the last Labour Government had 24 indicators, and I agree that we do not need to be quite so bureaucratic, but we do need to think about the key measures for a good library service so that we do not have a postcode lottery.
My hon. Friend raised the important matter of professional leadership, and she made a good point. The Government got rid of the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council, and I do not know whether the Minister has completed the abolition of the Advisory Council on Libraries or whether he is just in the process of doing so.
I have no doubt that the Arts Council is doing its best, but its best is clearly not good enough. Arts Council staff are not professionals in this area. A part-time professional is working on it, but one part-time professional for a national network of public libraries is not nearly sufficient. The different stakeholder groups are not being brought together at the moment. The Society of Chief Librarians, the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals, the trade unions and the British Library all have a role to play in helping to share good practice, develop the library service and advise the Minister. My hon. Friend the Member for West Ham made a very good suggestion, and it is one that I will seriously consider.
To achieve those things we might need to update the 1964 Act, which is so brief that it lacks the teeth necessary for a proper library service. The most important thing is that libraries remain a statutory duty of the local authorities. Although it is great to have volunteers helping in libraries, particularly in certain communities or where libraries are extremely uneconomic, it is obvious that we cannot hand over a whole library service to a voluntary group. The problem is, first, that there is a big skills gap and, secondly, that there will be initial enthusiasm for such ventures—there is often initial enthusiasm for such things—but we need a professional library service that is well managed in the medium term.
It is important to have professional librarians in every library authority. Before becoming a Member of Parliament, I worked for a charity called the National Association of Toy and Leisure Libraries. We ran children’s groups in libraries, which was great. Mums and toddlers would turn up and, as well as having story time and the chance to share books, there would be an opportunity to borrow toys and engage in different kinds of play, which helped mothers and babies to learn together. All that is fine, and some of that work is well done, and perhaps better done, by volunteers who are in tune with the people coming into the library. However, stock control and purchasing policy are professional jobs: we need to have professional librarians on whom volunteers can depend—that is key. We need to make it clear that there is a good role for volunteers and a good role for staff, but we need to distinguish those roles and have clearer guidelines and a code of conduct so that we do not jumble them up.
I have spoken about resources and what we would do. It is also clear that back-office functions can sometimes be shared between library services in different local authorities. I understand that people who have looked into this in detail think there is still scope for more savings from such sharing. Despite the fact that libraries face tough times, we must assert that libraries are not about the past—they are about the future. We want a successful, modern economy, and the modern economy is knowledge-based. Where better to build that modern economy than the library?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship in this important debate, Mr Bayley. I apologise profusely for the number of interventions that I made during the excellent speech by the hon. Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown)—it is brilliant that she has secured this debate. I also apologise for intervening on the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman), but it is probably clear that I feel, to a certain extent, that much of the Opposition’s position on public libraries, and indeed on my role as a Minister, is somewhat distorted, if I may put it that way. I would not accuse either hon. Lady of doing that themselves, but four and a half years of pent up frustration may be apparent because this is the first real debate on libraries in this Parliament. Given the importance that the Opposition spokesman attaches to libraries, it is surprising that there has been no official Opposition debate on this subject. There was a debate on arts and culture two or three years ago, and I look forward to her using her influence to call an Opposition debate in the main Chamber so that we can properly debate libraries.
Although both speeches were excellent, another element that added to my frustration is that the only library authorities to be criticised were Conservative-controlled. If someone made it back in Philae from the comet that is spinning hundreds of millions of miles away from us and landed in this debate, they would think that everything was perfect both under Labour authorities and under the previous Labour Government. It may surprise people to learn that libraries did close under the last Government, and that many Labour local authorities have closed libraries over the past four years.
The main reason for my receiving criticism is because it is alleged that I have not used my power under the 1964 Act, an Act that is 50 years old, to intervene and order an inquiry into some of the closures that have been announced over the past four and a half years. It is important to put that in context. The power has been used only once in the 50 years that the Act has been active—it was used in 2009 by the then Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, the right hon. Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham), to intervene on Wirral metropolitan borough council’s proposed closure of half its libraries.
I was then the Opposition spokesman, and I came off the fence to give my views on the Wirral. In fact, there were two causes célèbres at the time: there were the Wirral library closures and the proposed closure of the Old Town library in Swindon, of which my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson) will be aware. I visited both local authorities and listened to the case of both local councils. It transpired that although Old Town library was closed, it was moved to the museum next door and is now more popular than it was in its previous location. I made it plain that I thought there should be an inquiry on the Wirral, and eventually there was. It is interesting that the Opposition spokesman has not called for a single inquiry into any local authority closures except, most recently, in Lincolnshire, which happens to be Conservative-controlled.
The Minister is slightly over-egging the pudding. There is a difference between what he has done and what I have done. When I went to Lincolnshire to meet the Lincoln library campaign, I did not sit on the fence; I jumped on a wall to make a speech. Apart from that, I wrote to the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport about libraries before the summer recess, so I am not coming late to this; I did this months ago. I am sorry if the Minister did not know about that.
The hon. Lady points out that she did that in the summer of 2014. The first local authority to propose significant closures was Brent, a Labour-controlled authority that proposed to close half its libraries. Were I a man of a partisan nature, it might be expected that, as a Conservative Minister in a new Government, that would have been a political gift. I could have called a public inquiry into that Labour-controlled authority to embarrass the Opposition. However, from the get-go I made two decisions. First, I decided that my officials would investigate every council proposing to close libraries. Secondly, I decided that I would accept my officials’ advice about whether the proposed closures breached the “comprehensive and efficient” test. In one sense, my job as a politician was made more difficult, but my job as a Minister was made easier.
One of the concerns that library campaigners have raised with me is that the Minister no longer has a library adviser in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport—somebody who has come up through the ranks and understands the library service inside out and can advise him properly. That role no longer exists. I genuinely do not know the answer to this question, but I wonder whether the Minister can help us.
One of the problems that library campaigners have pointed out to me is that there is no longer a library adviser at the DCMS. The Minister has got rid of, or is in the process of getting rid of, the Advisory Council on Libraries, so he no longer has knowledge or professional advice that he can rely on when he takes action as Minister of State.
First, as far as I am aware, the Advisory Council on Libraries was never used by the previous Government to investigate library closures. Secondly, the previous Government did not, as a matter of course, investigate library closures. I changed the policy when I became a Minister to ensure that we investigate every council that is closing libraries, and we took detailed evidence from those councils.
Before the hon. Lady’s two interventions, I said that my job as a politician was made more difficult but my job as a Minister was made easier because after the Wirral inquiry, Sue Charteris, who undertook the inquiry, set out a detailed analysis of what a library authority should do if it is contemplating changing its library service. My problem with the Wirral closures is that there was simply a review of infrastructure and buildings, not a review of the library service. Since the Wirral inquiry, every local authority that we have investigated has conducted a detailed analysis of its library service before proposing closures.
It is true that Brent lost in the High Court, but the courts have never overruled a council’s decision on the basis that it was breaching the “comprehensive and efficient” test. They have mainly called out councils on their consultation processes—most notably on the basis of the Equality Act 2010, which is a relatively new piece of legislation.
It is important that I sum up the first part of my defence, as it were. We investigate every local authority that is closing libraries, and I take the advice of my officials. The power to review closures has been used once in 50 years, and so far I have not found a breach of the “comprehensive and efficient” test.
We intend to publish the Sieghart report and our response to it in the next few weeks. As the hon. Lady will know, getting a slot in the Government grid is sometimes difficult, but we have worked closely with William Sieghart, and I will talk about that at the conclusion of my remarks.
My difficulty with the Opposition is that numerous libraries have been closed by Labour councils. There has been no official Opposition debate on library closures and there is, as far as I am aware, no official Opposition library policy. Apart from Lincolnshire—one can draw one’s own conclusions about why the hon. Lady called for an inquiry into Lincolnshire’s proposed closures—the Opposition have not called for me to investigate any other library closures. Indeed, when it was rumoured that I might intervene in the Sheffield closures, the local Labour MP said that any intervention by me would be “breathtaking cheek”. That goes back to a fundamental point that we can debate endlessly.
In 2009, the hon. Lady produced a brilliant report on libraries under the auspices of the all-party group on libraries, literacy and information management. It is worth remembering that there were debates on the viability and future of the library service under the previous Government. The report recommended that local authorities should continue to carry responsibility and accountability for the provision of public library services in their area.
Libraries are a local authority service, and when a Labour MP told me that I would be acting with “breathtaking cheek” if I were to intervene, he put his finger on the dilemma. Quite a few local authorities have called for the statutory provision and the power for the Minister to intervene to be removed. When the previous Government consulted on library policy, they included that as a possibility. Libraries are a service that has always been paid for and run by local authorities.
And I do not want to change that one iota. Libraries must be seated at the heart of their communities, so they must be the responsibility of the local authority. The Minister is failing to understand the thrust of the 2009 report, which called for national leadership to enable councils to work together to get the best out of our library service and to make it fit for the century we live in. Providing wi-fi in our libraries is a minimum. Understanding what libraries can mean to the cultural and economic development of our communities is a must. The Minister does himself a disservice by refusing to address the central thrust of our argument, which is that the Government have failed to take leadership on the crisis in our libraries and our communities.
I reject that accusation, because when the hon. Lady says that the Government have failed to take leadership she is effectively saying that I have failed to take leadership.
At the end of last year, we published our first report under the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964, which the Select Committee asked us to do. It asked us to do it at the end of 2014, but I was anxious to have a public document around which people can debate the future of public libraries. We published our first report at the end of last year, which recorded that fewer than 100 static libraries have closed.
It is important to remember that when I was the Opposition spokesman, I was keen not to say that the public library service was in crisis. Yes, I called out the Wirral, but at no point would I have said that the public library was in crisis. Time and again, we see only the bad news reported about libraries, as though the library service is being laid waste.
The hon. Member for Bishop Auckland said in a passing remark that I have probably visited a few libraries. Yes, I have. On a couple of days I visited the fantastic Liverpool central library, in which there has been a £40 million investment. It is truly a cathedral of learning, and it has had more than 1 million visitors in the less than 18 months that it has been open. The hon. Member for West Ham referred to Birmingham, which has the biggest library in Europe. It has had 3 million visitors since it was opened by the Nobel prize winner Malala Yousafzai. Manchester central library has been refurbished, as has Wakefield’s library. The hon. Lady will know about East Ham, which has had a £40 million investment in its library. There are Havering and Streatham libraries, and the tri-borough model of Westminster, Hammersmith and Kensington, which saved £1 million and kept their libraries open. Bexley and Bromley merged their library services to save money. There is the Suffolk model—the independent industrial and provident society model—which has kept libraries open for longer. All around the country, one sees innovation in libraries and hard-working people in the library service making a real difference to hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people. We should celebrate those people.
What can one do from the centre? I cannot and do not want to run 151 library authorities, not only because it is physically impossible for me to do so, but because I believe local authorities should run their library services. I can encourage them and work with them.
When we abolished the Museum, Libraries and Archives Council, one of the first things I did was to put libraries with the Arts Council. If one looks at the framing of the 1964 Act, in terms of the White Papers that led up to it, a lot of the tone was about the merging, as it were, of cultural and library services—about putting culture at the heart of our libraries. With the Arts Council working with local authorities on arts provision, it is a totally natural move for it to work with libraries.
I just want to help the Minister, because he seems to be in a complete mess about what the role of central Government is in this sector. Could we just draw a little analogy with another public service that is delivered by local government—adult social care? However, that fact does not mean that the Department of Health does not have policy, does not provide the legal framework and that we do not have the Care Quality Commission to carry out inspections. Obviously, libraries are not as large as adult social care—what needs to be done is not as big—but it is just a little model, a little inkling, for the Minister about how he might approach libraries.
But it is important to say that most adult social care is funded by central Government, so of course the Government will have a much more hands-on role in that area.
As I said earlier, libraries are funded, paid for and run by local authorities, and they always have been since the first public libraries emerged in the middle of the 19th century. The debate then was about putting money on the rates to pay for local libraries; it was not about central Government funding or running local libraries.
The Arts Council has taken a role with libraries, and with it we have set up a £6 million fund for libraries; 75 projects have already been funded. The Arts Council has worked with the British Library and the Department for Communities and Local Government on enterprising libraries, which put libraries at the heart of the business community, whose members are a good audience for libraries. Six major city-centre libraries and 10 hubs are planned, to provide advice for small businesses and intellectual property advice. We have paid for the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy statistics to be made public and freely accessible, to help library campaigners and people involved in the provision of library services to compare and contrast their library service with that of neighbouring councils; in this context, “neighbouring” does not mean geographically neighbouring, but councils with similar topography and demography.
We have worked to extend the public lending right to audio-books and e-books. We have also worked with William Sieghart to put together four pilots on e-book lending, bringing together publishers and libraries. They are obviously natural bedfellows, but on this issue there is some concern from publishers that e-lending could potentially cannibalise their business model. Consequently, we have worked to bring both sides together, so that they can work together for a solution that all sides can be happy with.
We work closely with the Society of Chief Librarians, which promotes its own campaigns to make libraries as relevant as possible; there is, obviously, a reading campaign, but also an information campaign, a digital campaign and a health campaign. The SCL has also launched a highly successful Books On Prescription scheme with the Reading Agency, which 91% of library authorities are signed up to. And the Reading Agency’s Six Book Challenge continues to draw in hundreds of thousands of children, and every year participation in the scheme increases.
To me, that is not the depiction of a library service in crisis. Of course, there are incidents where the modernisation, adaptation or change of a library service causes extreme concern, but everybody acknowledges that closing a library does not necessarily mean that the library service is no longer comprehensive and efficient. When we talk about a closure, sometimes we are talking about a merger of two libraries. Also, we rarely talk about the number of libraries that are opening across the country.
Earlier, the hon. Member for West Ham asked me about the Sieghart report. I would not have asked William Sieghart to produce a report unless I thought there was some opportunity to build on what I see as a highly successful public library service in England. The reason I asked him to produce this report—he has been ably assisted by a distinguished panel of publishers and other people working in worlds related to libraries—is to see how we can push forward, and the reason I asked him in particular is that he is an extremely practical man. He was the man who brought together the publishers and the libraries to support e-lending. He is now proposing a series of practical recommendations to move forward, one of which is a task and finish group that will work with local authorities to make practical recommendations to help library services to survive in what is not only a difficult financial climate but a difficult period of transition as the world itself changes, with the move to digital. It is important to emphasise that that group will meet, with local authorities at its heart, to make practical recommendations to take matters forward.
This has been a good and full debate. I completely understand the concerns of library campaigners across the country who would be concerned if they saw their local library closing its doors. However, a lot of heat and not enough light is generated in this debate. The number of library closures has been severely exaggerated. The number of closures that you, Mr Bayley, and I would regard as a library closure—that is, a building with its doors shut, empty and the lights off—is, by the Government’s estimation, fewer than a hundred. Libraries have opened up and down the country. I have already referred to the reams of central libraries that have been refurbished. In Liverpool, Manchester and Birmingham, literally millions of people are visiting libraries and there are new library members.
The Minister is, of course, right to point to the success of the new library buildings in Liverpool and Birmingham is. However, is he not a little bit worried about the library service being a postcode lottery, because he is not seeking to have a secure policy framework across the country?
I do not know what that means. For example, Liverpool reopened its central library; a million people have visited it; and until recently, Liverpool was proposing to close 10 of its 18 branch libraries. That proposal has now been withdrawn. Is it being suggested that I should have personally intervened three or four years ago to tell Liverpool, “No, you don’t run the library service like this. You don’t put money into refurbishing your central library. You’re going to keep all your branch libraries open”? Liverpool is seeking to deliver a comprehensive and efficient library service, and one of the ways it seeks to do that is to refurbish its central library to make it a hugely attractive hub for thousands of people living in that great city. That was a decision for the local authority, just as it was a decision for Birmingham to invest in a new central library, which is now the pride of the city and already one of the most well-known libraries in Europe.
Such decisions must be taken by local authorities but, as I said earlier, the number of static libraries that have been closed is often exaggerated; the actual number, while it may be regrettable, is far lower than people say. The action taken by this Government has been active: bringing on board the Arts Council, to provide leadership for libraries; providing a £6 million fund to support cultural work in libraries; extending e-lending to the PLR; working to introduce pilots with publishers, so as to promote e-lending; and now commissioning the Sieghart report, to continue to take libraries forward during the next decade or so.
As I have said, while I may understand the frustration and sometimes even the anger of some library campaigners, I feel that I can hold my head up high, in terms of being a proactive campaigner for the library sector.
Order. I thank all Members who have participated in the libraries debate; it was a good debate. I now ought to explain the procedure for what happens next.
During the libraries debate, we had two Divisions, which meant we were suspended for 26 minutes. Therefore, we could continue the next debate, which I will be happy to start as soon as Members have taken their seats and got themselves ready to debate, if there was a will from Members for us to do so, until 4.56 pm. If there is such a will, the debate will be rather longer than a half-hour debate. I see a number of Members here in Westminster Hall, so some people might value the additional time, but of course you do not have to use it. And since the next debate was granted as a half-hour debate, the rule is that the Member who secured the debate, Stephen Twigg, will introduce it and then the Minister will reply. So if any other Members seek to catch my eye, they might be in luck, but it would be courteous to let me know beforehand.