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Library Service

Volume 659: debated on Wednesday 17 March 2004

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5.26 p.m.

rose to call attention to the public library service of the United Kingdom and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport's publication, A Framework for the Future; and to move for Papers.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, in opening this debate, I declare myself a lifelong supporter of the British public library system and a former chair of Cheshire County Council's libraries' committee. A number of my immediate family work, and have worked, in libraries.

I feel that I was almost brought up in my local library, Bury Knowle Library in Headington, Oxford, and in the old City Central Library in Blue Boar Street. I well remember the day in the 1950s when, as a callow 12 year-old, I received my first ever inter-library loan—a copy of the mammoth A History of Chess by HJR Murray. This exotic volume had come from sunnier climes—well, from Southampton Central Library, to be precise—but, to me, its very arrival betokened an undiscovered world of mystery, romance and learning. I had begun down the path taken years before by Virginia Woolf, of,

"ransacking public libraries [to] find them full of sunk treasure".

Many of us must have had that experience when young and, most especially, when the local library represented the major source of books in the family home, as it did to me. Today, public libraries are still held in high esteem by the public, but they are almost wholly ignored by politicians other than as venues for surgeries—a service I prized as a councillor and an MEP. Indeed, I yearn for the day when the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition at Prime Minister's Question Time throw the book at each other over the quality and funding of the public library service.

In today's Britain, when improving public services is the current catchword of party politics, our libraries are left largely speechless. Indeed, today's debate in the Lords is the first that we have had on the subject for many years, and in the other place only one such abbreviated debate has taken place in the recent past.

That is more the pity, given that this is the first government in decades to invest new moneys in the libraries, as exemplified by the outstanding People's Network programme of furnishing all our public libraries with on-line facilities and also by the publication

last year of the ground-breaking A Framework for the Future, which gives new direction to a public service which has survived rather than marched into the 21st century. I very much welcome the contribution that will come from my noble friend Lady Blackstone, who pioneered A Framework for the Future. I hope that today's debate can help the process of raising the profile of Britain's most used and most loved public service.

The Audit Commission's recent report on public libraries highlights some of the stagnation that has silently overtaken our libraries and which A Framework for the Future seeks to address. It points to deficiencies in libraries' traditional roles: book funds have diminished by some 33 per cent over the past 12 years; loans are down 23 per cent and visits by 17 per cent; and the number of libraries that remain open longer than 30 hours a week has declined by 9 per cent. Too many of our current libraries are in old buildings, poorly furbished and often wrongly sited to meet today's mobile populations.

Of course, some of those problems can be resolved by injections of cash into councils' budgets which have seen increases both in central funding and in centrally imposed new responsibilities and targets. A better use of current resources to refocus our libraries on serving current needs can also be beneficial. I give an example. At the moment certain categories of books, like cult and fantasy fiction, gay and lesbian books and 20th century American and world literature are neglected in favour of other, sometimes more traditional categories that are declining in popularity. Likewise, too many libraries fail to buy sufficient copies of regularly issued books through lack of book funds and perhaps through a fear of being accused of dumbing down by concentrating on bestsellers. But surely the customer should be king.

With regard to opening hours, too often they reflect past life and work patterns. Staff should be flexible to the idea that large libraries in the hearts of towns and cities, for instance, should open on a Sunday, now a traditional shopping day, as Wednesday was once early closing day. Sometimes we must take the book to the customer, not the other way round.

In recent years there has been a renaissance in building new libraries of considerable architectural merit and utility. Such new designs get closer to the customer and are attractive both inside and out. But not all is well. My own 1984 Chester City library is an attractive, if small, library of modern design, incorporating the charming older facade of the former Westminster coachworks. I fear that its replacement, as Chester undergoes significant retail redevelopment, will rejoice in modernised facilities, but I regret its loss of a groundfloor window on the world as its main facilities are posted upstairs, out of sight and hence out of mind.

We middle-class users too readily forget that the 30 per cent of our fellow citizens who never use libraries find them all too often in buildings that are both inaccessible and forbidding. I have often wondered too why the insides of our libraries are not more welcoming to the public. Coffee bars can add to the general welcome, without disturbing the peace, if wisely located; and toilets should be a facility offered, not concealed from the public. Truly, we need our libraries to spend a penny or two on satisfying the customer.

Many staff perform with dedication the pivotal role of linking borrower to the borrowed in a job which is neither well paid nor well regarded, nor replete with opportunities for promotion. Some reform is needed here, too, so that, for instance, a culture of floor-walking by staff can bring their skills closer to the customer, skills, as Charles Medawar describes, which are underestimated and largely underemployed. Commensurately, greater use of self-issue can free librarians from their rubberstamping role to one of active engagement with the borrowers, a plus for both parties.

I also endorse the growing practice of librarian job swaps which help to spread the adoption of best practice. But all this needs greater investment in time and energy to help to propel the library service into the 21st century. I invite my noble friend to suggest how the Government might deploy their admirable philosophy of coupling reform with public investment to achieve those aims.

So far I have concentrated on reinvigorating the traditional role of promoting books and reading, but I would like to touch on other themes of A Framework for the Future, including the People's Network, which, alongside learndirect, helps to promote learning and the expansion of digital citizenship. Indeed, the People's Network, an inspired initiative, for which we must thank my noble friend Lord Evans of Temple Guiting, illustrates the Government's desire to use the library service to support and to supplement other government and local authority objectives, including the promotion of education and gaining jobs. For those members of the community hitherto excluded, the network has found jobs for some 8,000 people, some 27 per cent of whom have never before used the Internet. But I am unclear about the future funding and expansion of this and other clearly successful initiatives, whose cost-effectiveness must be unparalleled across the gamut of the public services, sponsored by the Government. Perhaps my noble friend will reassure us.

In preparing for this contribution I have been impressed with the arguments for concentrating on the young, indeed sometimes the very young, to break the impoverishing cycle which sees those excluded from the worlds of learning, skills and meaningful employment rearing the next generation, similarly bereft and excluded. That libraries have a unique role here has been revealed by the success of the Bookstart scheme, piloted in Birmingham in the 1990s and unusually supported privately by Sainsbury's supermarket chain. Its efficacy is illustrated not only by its beneficial effect on very young children's preparation for formal school, but also by the fact that their parents, often from target social classes D and E, are themselves drawn into the libraries and hence into the world of learning.

The issue of book packs, through local health visitors, is particularly innovative and successful and illustrates the benefits of joined-up government. It would be helpful to learn from my noble friend what steps are being taken to secure enduring funding for those cheap but cheerful and effective initiatives. Indeed, what other initiatives might be fostered by better liaison with national, but more especially, local businesses? My instinct is that currently, despite some sporadic green shoots of enterprise, the worlds of business and library services are still ships passing in the night.

Similarly that is the case with libraries and the tourism industry. I am one of those sad people who finds libraries tourist attractions. I fondly remember visits to the New York public library and the Harry E Widener library at Harvard. There are practical reasons why tourism and libraries should team up, if' only to dispense tourism literature better—but more could be done.

I am told that in Canada libraries encourage tourists to use their e-mail and Internet facilities to stay in touch with home—simple but effective. That leads me to another missed opportunity for our libraries. They advertise everyone else, but themselves. Libraries, so often the notice board of their local community, signally fail to market themselves in the high street. I am heartened by the experiment in Luton whereby local cinemas collude with the library authorities to advertise to the young people streaming through the doors of local cinemas that there is another world of fantasy, fact and fiction down the road: their local library. Our public libraries must be nimble in spotting where they can collaborate with and buttress other public services. Education and tourism are but two examples. The Prison Service is a third, where good dynamic libraries are the touchstone for rehabilitating prisoners.

The first door on which to knock is surely that of the wealth of other library providers found in our towns and cities up and down the land. I do not simply mean college and university libraries. What about private libraries and those attached to business and industry? They should also be brought in. Britain should become a mosaic of a single library service, not a maze of separating libraries where high hedges separate treasures that can be shared by us all.

In this respect, I am particularly pleased to learn of the British Library's recent receipt of £2.4 million from the Treasury's "Invest to Save the Budget" scheme, helping the British Library to respond to its yearly 160,000 requests from local libraries. As welcome is its involvement with local libraries in Newcastle, Birmingham and Liverpool to provide specialist material for a touring football exhibition aimed at football fans young and old, whose current reading may be limited to fanzines and football programmes.

In promoting the spread of best practice in modern libraries, we should share experiences with our European neighbours and Commonwealth colleagues. I am not sure whether this is done at anything other than anecdotal level. I understand that in Belgium it is practice to provide post boxes to return borrowed items outside libraries when they are closed. That reminds me of the new Norfolk and Norwich Millennium Library, which provides in its lobby a fast book service for the borrower in a hurry, again matching the service to the customers' lifestyles.

I would like to put some concluding questions to my noble friend. As this is Budget day, I invite the Minister to suggest to his friend the Chancellor that he make a significant hike in the funding of our public libraries at his next spending review. Spending currently stands at some £800 million. Is it really beyond the wit of the Treasury to round that figure up to £1 billion, given the cost-effectiveness of libraries and their major contribution to other government policies? Will my noble friend also approach the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister—which has a slightly confusing relationship with DCMS in respect of responsibilities for libraries—and suggest that it is intolerable to have so wide a variation in local library service spending? Some authorities spend a mere £1 per head of population, and others £2.50, which is two and a half times as much. Is it not time to expand the local authorities' statutory duty to run a library service and to hypothecate a percentage of councils' budgets to their libraries?

Can my noble friend help local councils to do a more effective job in overseeing the library service by establishing an "Oflib", or "Ofbook", tasked to inspect our libraries on a rolling basis? Incidentally, do the Government believe that the 21 standards that they set out four years ago as benchmarks for an improved public library service have been met? I am informed by one local authority that only two of the original 21 can be said to have been fulfilled.

In conclusion, I remind the House that the ancient library at Thebes had inscribed over its portal its role as "the medicine chest of the soul". Our public libraries are far from expiring, but they need some remedial first aid to help them and us to minister to our people in the coming century. I hope that the Government agree. I beg to move for Papers.

5.43 p.m.

My Lords, I am extremely grateful to my noble friend Lord Harrison for introducing this debate on public libraries. I am only sorry that there are so few speakers in this debate. I know that it is Budget day, but nevertheless public libraries deserve something better than this from your Lordships' House.

I am speaking in this debate to reconfirm my strong commitment to sustaining a strong public library system. Public libraries should be at the centre of all of our communities. They must be at the centre of our communities in promoting reading, but there are other things too that they can and should do. I will say more about those later.

As the Minister for the Arts, I was delighted to discover that public libraries were part of my remit. I was proud to have that responsibility for two years. I discovered that they had had far too little attention from government for some time. Perhaps the more glamorous areas in the arts, such as museums, were taking precedence. Perhaps public libraries had been taken for granted for far too long. Perhaps, as my noble friend Lord Harrison said, expenditure on public libraries is not under the control of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, and there is a slightly uncomfortable split responsibility between the DCMS and the ODPM.

Having discovered that they were part of my remit, I then went on a wonderful voyage of discovery through visits to public libraries, including the library in Chester that my noble friend played such a big part in developing back in the 1980s. I went to conferences, and I read about libraries. I then decided that it was sensible to set up a series of seminars in the DCMS, bringing in experts from a variety of different fields to consider the key issues in ensuring that our public library service should be as good as it possibly could be. I am grateful for what my noble friend just said about my part in developing A Framework for the Future, but it really was a team effort. I want to express my gratitude to the many participants in the process, of which those seminars were a key part. What A Framework for the Future tries to do is provide a national vision as to why libraries matter and to set out what they should do. I also wanted to start a debate on how to improve them. I wanted them to have greater visibility, and I wanted to promote their importance, although I do not seem to have had a great deal of effect in the House of Lords.

The general public has an enormously high regard for libraries. Some 60 per cent of the population are members; 90 per cent think that libraries provide a valuable service to local communities; and 90 per cent of 16 to 24 year-olds share that view. This is a very high level of support for a public service, and it is a tribute to the dedication of many of those who work in libraries. In the light of this, one might ask whether anything needs to be done about libraries. My answer is a resounding, "Yes". The library service is not just one service; there are 149 different library services in England, and they are all autonomous, so it is a fragmented service. What is on offer varies greatly, and so do standards in our public library system. There are a great deal of gains from that autonomy and variety. It allows for innovation; it allows different means of delivery in different kinds of communities. However, there are also benefits from shared aspirations and high standards across authorities rather than huge disparities from place to place in the benefits that public libraries provide.

Moreover, the ways in which libraries are being used have changed, and we must take this into account. Libraries must be aware of this, and they must adjust to it. Between 1992 and 2002, library visits dropped by 17 per cent, and hook loans dropped by the remarkable figure of one quarter, which is a cause for concern. Library book issues went down, whereas book sales went up. That need not in any way spell the demise of public libraries—certainly not. As my noble friend has already said, libraries are not just about book loans, although that will always be an important function of libraries. We must provide books that people want to read, and we must do so in a cost-effective way that reflects contemporary needs. To give an example, renewals should be possible through a 24-hour telephone service. It should not be necessary for people to carry large bags of books back to the library to renew them.

Libraries are about other things than supporting reading for pleasure, which is the greatest of all pleasures in my view, for at least many people. They are about providing information, and they are a repository of information of all kinds. In the digital age, no public library should be unable to help people to find the information that they need. As my noble friend has already mentioned, one of the valuable services that the British Library provides to the public library system is the supply of documents remotely. This is being modernised by a Treasury grant, as my noble friend said. That certainly enhances the information services that libraries can provide. A very important part of the job of public libraries is to enhance learning and support the work of schools and colleges.

Anybody who has been into a children's library on a day when there are a couple of primary school classes there cannot but help to find that an enjoyable experience. Every primary school should be instilling in children the habit of reading. Every primary school should regularly be taking its classes into children's libraries. I am afraid that is not always the case. Similarly, every secondary school should be encouraging its pupils to use their local libraries for project work, which is true for FE colleges, too. Even before school begins, toddlers should, wherever they live, be in reach of a public library for story-telling sessions and benefit from services such as toy libraries, which I have seen in a number of public libraries but not in all of them. What discussions has my noble friend the Minister had with the DfES and his colleagues there to promote more effectively schools' use of public libraries?

Of course, learning in libraries is not just about young people. It is also about life-long learning. One of the recent success stories, as my noble friend mentioned, has been the People's Network, and the lottery grant which was provided to link up all libraries to the web has been immensely successful. That has been achieved. Associated with that are exciting programmes for IT training in libraries for adults, especially for elderly people. sometimes in partnership with learndirect. Again I have a couple of questions I want to put to my noble friend the Minister. I do not know whether any data have been collected on how far links with learndirect are leading to expanded provision in public libraries for people to acquire basic skills. Libraries, of course, can and should be helping the Government to reach their overall goal of Internet access for everyone.

My second question concerns the end of the NOF money and builds on what my noble friend has already asked. It has been said that the library service will run into difficulties in sustaining free Internet-connected services once that money dries up. I wonder whether my noble friend the Minister thinks that is a legitimate worry, and if so what plans the Government have to intervene.

As well as promoting learning, public libraries have a very important role in promoting social cohesion and a sense of pride in a local community. It is one of the few free community spaces still available. Anyone can go into a library; they can come off the street and benefit from what libraries have to offer. That space should be used imaginatively. It ought to be available for art exhibitions by local members of the community; for the work of young people in secondary schools or FE colleges who have taken part in a poetry competition—their poems should be up on the walls. There are many other ways in which we can use space in our local libraries. Perhaps it is relevant to say on Budget day that one library I visited had invited the Inland Revenue to come in and provide regular sessions for people who needed advice on how to fill in their tax forms. A little hit of that could be extended to other advisory services and perhaps across the country in other library services. Some libraries provide music clubs for young people. I could go on: there are so many uses for this space in buildings which should be used to their maximum by the local community.

One of the most pressing tasks for libraries is to reach out to those who do not use them, such as people who are likely to be socially excluded from many other areas of life. That requires libraries to undertake good outreach work, particularly in deprived inner city neighbourhoods—libraries should go into housing estates—but also in cut-off rural areas, or go to those who are in residential care or to people who are housebound.

Making libraries welcoming, warm and attractive places is important, as is ensuring that they are open at times that people want to use them. That means that they have to be open at the weekends. on both Saturdays and Sundays. But good buildings that are in the right place and which are easily accessible are enormously important. If your library building is run down, depressing and in an area hard to reach by public transport, that does not help to make it accessible to the maximum number of people. There are many new libraries in beautiful buildings, such as Norwich, Bournemouth and Peckham—just a few examples of libraries that have a great buzz about them.

Anyone who says that one cannot make inroads in encouraging more people to use libraries should look at what has happened at Tower Hamlets. That authority found that only 15 per cent of its residents were regular users. By taking the initiative to develop what it called idea stores, and turning around 100 year-old libraries—refurbishing them, making them cheerful and providing cafés and opportunities to use the web—they have had a trebling in their use. Issues of books are up by over 60 per cent.

Much of that is set out in Framework for the Future, but that was not an action plan—it was a vision of what public libraries should be like. In order to help make this vision a reality, we appointed a new advisory council on libraries. What advice has that group provided my noble friend with so far and what action has he been able to take as a result? Clearly there is an important role for the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister in funding local authorities adequately. Also important are the decisions made by local authorities on how to spend the funding they receive. Will the Minister reassure us that the reduced weighting of libraries as an indicator for CPAs will not be allowed to result in a lower priority for public libraries in local authorities? Has he yet been able to use his persuasive powers to talk to local authority chief executives and leaders? If he has not yet, I hope he will do so soon.

The other important issue is how to drive up standards across the public library service. Our best libraries are superb; our worst are pretty miserable places. At one time I thought that inspection was the answer, but on reflection I think that is too heavy handed and too costly; local government is already over-regulated and over-inspected. Has the Minister been able to develop a scheme to get the best authorities to work with weaker library authorities in their own region? Can he tell us whether any funding might be made available to bring this about? I am sure that he would agree that that approach ought to be developed.

When we published A Framework for the Future we agreed that annual library plans were over-complex, over-demanding and encouraged a tick-box mentality. We decided that much simpler public library position statements should be asked for instead. These position statements have now been analysed and I hope that my noble friend will say something about what he draws from them and what action is required following this analysis.

I end by saying that free public libraries were invented in the 19th century. They flourished in most of the 20th century, but there has been some under-investment and lack of a public profile for them in the 1980s and 1990s. That has meant that there is a danger that they might start to decline and end up on a downward slope that would be hard to climb up again. In the 21st century, libraries must reinvent themselves to meet the expectations of a different era to the time of Andrew Carnegie. They need political and financial support, but, above all, they need energy, drive and inventiveness from those who run them and work in them. We must recruit the best people to do the job. If that is done and a framework is established that will reward excellence and reinvigorate the dull and the mediocre with good leadership where it counts, our public library system can be the envy of the world.

6 p.m.

My Lords, we must thank the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, and congratulate him on his good fortune in securing this debate. We commiserate with him, of course, in so far as he has attracted few speakers. I know not whether that is due to the Budget or to Cheltenham races. Nevertheless, the noble Lord has had the good fortune to hear from one of the greatest experts on the matter, the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone. I have the honour and rather fearful duty of following the noble Baroness in the debate. She has covered many of the points.

It has always been my view—shared, I think, by many in the House—that the library system, in common with our museum and gallery service, must either modernise or die. Both are going about the business of trying to modernise. The library system has been more successful than any of us could have hoped. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, that we owe a lot to the fact that, in the short time for which she was Minister, we had in the noble Baroness a fervent supporter of literature and reading. If she will forgive me, I will pick out a few words from her launch of A Framework for the Future. She said:
"Great literature is, without question, our country's greatest gift to the world's cultural heritage, and libraries are the means by which we share and celebrate it. Reading is essential to modern life, and a major source of pleasure for millions".
How right she was. How right that must now seem to a larger number of people than when she said it.

We have had some very good initiatives. The modernisation that is taking place includes the huge success of the People's Network. There are now 32,000 terminals in libraries throughout the country. funded by the New Opportunities Fund, which I am glad to have the opportunity of praising. There have been other initiatives, not least BBC2's recent initiative, "The Big Read". One might be sniffy about attempts of that kind to promote cultural activities, but it was enormously successful. The list of books to which the public attached some importance was somewhat limited, but, nevertheless, the programme attracted a great deal of enthusiasm and provoked a great deal of interest among the public at large in buying books again, particularly backlist literature. As your Lordships know, backlist literature is always vulnerable to the increasingly competitive world of publishing, where the sharpened focus on new titles means that it is always competing with backlist literature. Forty per cent of the fiction market has, in recent years, been backlist literature, but it is a tough battle.

It is not surprising that the lists that young people create of their preferred reading are limited to quite recent works. I was fortunate enough—and unfortunate, I suppose—to have a fairly peripatetic early childhood because of the war and because I was an only child. I spent a lot of time on my own. The other day, my noble friend Lord Thomson of Monifieth, who was giving a talk at a birthday party in the Cholmondeley Room, mentioned a book of which, he said, no one would have heard. I had a slight flush of pleasure when I realised that it was, in fact, a book that had set me off reading seriously at the age of seven: WW Jacobs's collection of sea stories, Many cargoes. I was so enthusiastic about that book, although my noble friend was right to say that it was now completely unfashionable. I do not think that young readers are likely to have heard of WW Jacobs. However, initiatives such as "The Big Read" will encourage such interest.

Reading, of course, is for pleasure, in the sense in which I understood the noble Baroness's remarks in the introduction to A Framework for the Future. It is so important that people should read for pleasure, not least because they can talk about it afterwards with their friends. For a while, television took over from reading, and we all disliked its effect on reading. Now, television has reversed the situation and actually encourages people to read. There is now less of a gap between the world of reading for pleasure and watching television. When we come to consider the charter of the BBC and its role as a public service broadcaster, the BBC's role as a supporter of reading and literature will be an important part of the debates that will take place in your Lordships' House and in the other place.

I mentioned my peripatetic childhood. I went on to read all kinds of authors who did not figure in the lists produced after "The Big Read". Perhaps, I will be permitted the luxury of mentioning one or two. Graham Greene is, of course, still on the main lists. He is an important author for all kinds of reasons, not least because his work creates a great deal of discussion. George Orwell is still on the main lists. Aldous Huxley and DH Lawrence, who used to be seen as writers for people going through their adolescence, have almost disappeared. Others whom I like, such as Forster and others, are still there but are, seemingly, rather dated to the younger generation. The women authors that I liked when I was at school—Pamela Hansford Johnson, Pamela Frankau, Rosamund Lehmann and others—seem to have disappeared completely, although a very good biography of Rosamund Lehmann was published recently. and I recommend it to others. It is rather like a book group now; one indulges oneself in telling fellow members of the group what one likes. I would not like to leave the Chamber without mentioning a minor master, Patrick Hamilton, who wrote just after the war. His psychological novels based in seedy Brighton and London were minor masterpieces, if not major masterpieces. He has disappeared to some extent, and his plays—Rope and Gaslight—are not often seen, because of the disappearance of the repertory companies.

Happy to have got that off the page to your Lordships, I must say that it is important for libraries to introduce people to translations. Introducing readers to translated authors such as Chekhov or Tolstoy or to French authors, who are somewhat different and can be difficult to translate, encourages the learning of languages and interest in other cultures. That is an important function of libraries.

I am a little dismayed by the figures that were quoted. The noble Baroness quoted some figures. It is dismaying that recent statistics that I have seen show that only 9.6 per cent of the amount spent by libraries is spent on new books. There may be a good reason for that, and the Minister may be able to cheer me up on that point. It may not be such a significantly low figure as I take it to be.

The modern side of making computers and IT technology available to people is very important. But such technology is quite expensive and the certainty of core funding is, of course, always important. There is always a doubt about that in all areas of the arts. The continuity of core funding and the reassurance that it gives is absolutely vital. I hope that the noble Lord will be able to say a few words about that.

Children are taking to books now. I am very encouraged. I have an 11 year-old who has become an avid reader thanks to JK Rowling and Anthony Horowitz, two of the leading children's writers. He has become, thanks to computers, a dedicated writer as well. I do not know where he gets this from. I am far too lazy to do that, although I have always been interested in writing. He also illustrates them, so there must be something right going on in the world which prompts children to take these kinds of steps forward.

Broadcasting and literature are now much closer friends and I am hoping that this impetus will continue. I do not know whether noble Lords are aware of it but, for what I think is the first time ever, there is an All-Party Book Group, which is very encouraging. I went to its inaugural meeting and it was very interesting. I am pleased to see the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, who is the inspirer of that book group, on the Benches behind me. I thought that was a wonderful initiative. I was told by a very prominent member the next day, "You must be careful about book groups. You will find that inevitably the majority of regular attendees will be women. They will like to talk about books, in particular about their frustrated ambitions to be writers". I said "Oh no, no! That won't happen in the Houses of Parliament". We shall see, but I am quite sure the noble Baroness will give us a programme which will be varied and stimulating, and navel-gazing will be kept to a minimum. On the first meeting of her group there was such enthusiasm among the small group that I would encourage other noble Lords, who may not be aware of it, to attend regularly.

That is all I have to say, except that I would select one quotation from the reactions to A Framework for the future, which I think hit the nail on the head. It is an extract from the remarks of the Poet Laureate, when he said that libraries,
"are vital to the intellectual health of the nation, and as such, should be properly funded, developed and cherished".
I hope the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, will give us some hope that that will the case.

6.13 p.m.

My Lords, I very much welcome this debate and congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, on giving us the opportunity to assess the impact of this DCMS publication, Framework for the future. As noble Lords know, this report was actually published over a year ago. The noble Lord, Lord Harrison, said that there had not been any debates about libraries since then, but in fact there was a debate about facilities in public libraries for those who have difficulties accessing books last June. I shall come to that in a minute.

There has also been the publication, yesterday, of library statistics since the last annual appraisal on 20 February 2003. These statistics show, once again, that this Government's keenness about targets really does not work. For instance, out of the 18 public library standards targets set by DCMS, only two were met by all libraries across the country. These statistics also show that, far from increasing library usage, the number of people visiting libraries seems to have been decreasing since the standards were introduced.

What is the reason for this rather depressing situation? Like the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, I certainly do not believe that the library system is about to collapse. I wonder, however, whether opening hours do not suit as many people returning from work as they might? Or is it that libraries do not carry enough of the kind of facilities, which have been mentioned by several noble Lords, that the general public are now looking for?

The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport has a statutory responsibility to promote the development of the public library service under the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964, and to ensure that local authorities provide a
"comprehensive and efficient"
library service. The public library service is administered by local authorities and funded through what was once the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions. Would the Minister tell me why it is that the public library service is the responsibility of the DCMS, but it appears that the funding of the service is the responsibility of a different department? Is this not illogical?

When the new public library standards were issued in April 2001, it was stated that these standards would be reviewed from time to time, partly to ensure that the administrative burden placed on local authorities required to achieve these standards does not become disproportionate. As I have already said, it appears that these standards are not working. Is this because the administrative burden is, perhaps, excessive?

The DCMS publish an appraisal of the annual library plan, as submitted by each library authority, every year. This appraisal forms a key planning tool, and facilitates the assessment of each authority's performance against locally set standards and targets. Would the Minster explain why an annual appraisal has now been substituted by a Public Libraries Position Statement? Perhaps he could also explain to me, because I do not understand it, the reference to a "post steering group discussion" on 26 January this year.

I notice that the 2003 DCMS appraisal of annual library plans clearly states that it is unlikely that the targets will be met by the authorities in March 2004 as planned. Thus the performance of public libraries will fall beneath standards set by the Government. This appraisal, published in February 2003 and now updated by the position statement, details a number of strategic failures. For example, the first DCMS objective was to ensure that,
"library authorities must enable convenient and suitable access for users of libraries".
This target has not been met. We want the potential in all our public libraries to be utilised, to ensure that everyone has access to resources, knowledge and information—particularly the groups in society that would otherwise be disadvantaged by not being able to do this. Again in February 2003, the report A Framework for the future was published, and it offered,
"a long-term strategic vision for the public library service".
In the report, based on the extensive consultation and research with the MLA—previously Resource—the Government states that they are,
"committed to public libraries and all that they stand for. Our strategy for their future makes promoting reading their key priority. Libraries also have—and will continue to have—a central role in helping people from all walks of life to be part of the communications revolution sweeping the world".
The Government press release on the day of the report's publication stated:
"The launch of Framework for the Future is the beginning of the action phase. The Culture Department, together with Resource: The Council for Museums, Archives and Libraries, and a newly-constituted Advisory Council on Libraries, will work with leaders from local government, libraries and education services to make this vision a reality".
In May 2002, the Audit Commission published a report entitled Building Better Library Services, which concluded that local libraries focused on current users, rather than on attracting new users. We welcome the new initiatives and ways of encouraging new users, such as offering limited free Internet access in libraries. It is self-evident that libraries need to renew and communicate their purposes to the communities they serve.

Like the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, we welcome the development of new libraries, such as the new Central Library in Bournemouth, pictured in the report. This new library is in the central part of the town and maintains excellent transport links, with the bus terminal positioned directly outside the building, in addition to a multi-storey car park. The old library in Bournemouth, which was built in 1913, was on the outskirts of the main town centre. The new library, built very recently, has 45,000 more books and over 50 computers available free for an hour's Internet use. It even has toilets and baby-changing facilities, something which your Lordships' House does not have and which the old building in Bournemouth lacked as well. The surroundings are very pleasant and offer open-plan reading tables, an easy reference system and well trained staff in a modern and accessible environment.

This new library is always busy and has become a focal point for the town, highlighting how such a facility can considerably improve social cohesion while making valuable resources available to all members of the community. The library hosts events to raise public awareness of national initiatives such as the Big Read and the Orange Prize. In addition to the numerous books stocked, the library boasts a collection of spoken word CDs and cassettes, which are available free of charge to those who are visually impaired. Initiatives such as this should be warmly welcomed. However, I am afraid it seems that Bournemouth library, however worthy, is unfortunately not the norm.

I now return to the debate on 8 May 2003 when Her Majesty's Government were asked:
"what measures are being taken to remove all barriers to literature for those who have difficulties accessing books in traditional print formats".—[Official Report, 8/5/03; col. 1295.]
In that debate, I referred to the report Framework for the Future, the subject of this debate. In the report, the Government argue passionately—and rightly—for the importance of reading and access to literature. While detailing a number of ways in which problems of illiteracy and increasing skills can be addressed, there is no mention of any strategy to assist the blind or visually impaired. With today's increased technology, would it not be appropriate for the Government to consider addressing the issues that the visually impaired face by setting targets for public libraries to carry a selection of audio books which meet the demands of the general public?

It has been established that audio hooks are by far the most popular method by which visually impaired people can access literature. The drawback, as is so often the case, is the cost. Has there been any progress since the debate on 8 May? In that debate, the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Oldham, said, when referring to VAT on audio books:
"I hope that I can give a slightly more positive response this year"—
that was last May—
"although I cannot promise to solve all the problems of British taxation in regard to the European Community".
He went on,
"I am able to say this evening that the Government will engage in the negotiations positively. with a view to getting the rate of VAT down on audio tapes of books"".—[Official Report, 8/5/03; cols. 1309–10.]
I hope that the Minister will be able to reassure us on that.

This has been a most interesting debate. I think we are all trying our best to improve the services offered by public libraries, as they are an ever more vital part of community cohesion and education. I look forward to hearing the Minister's response. After that, perhaps we could all retire to our splendid Library here and carry on the debate.

6.24 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport
(Lord McIntosh of Haringey)

My Lords, we are all grateful to my noble friend Lord Harrison for introducing this debate. He is right that the subject deserve more attention in your Lordships' House. It is sad, as he said, that so few people have been inspired to take part in the debate. However, we have made up in quality what we lacked in quantity.

I was particularly pleased to have the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Luke. I looked back at the passage of the Public Libraries Act 1850, the first Act to establish public libraries in this country. It was promoted by a Liberal MP, William Ewart, and attacked by the Conservative Party on the grounds that, as one Conservative MP said,
"people have too much knowledge already: it was much easier to manage them twenty years ago; the more education people get the more difficult they are to manage".
I am glad that the noble Lord, Lord Luke, does not echo those sentiments.

It is true, we have to admit, that libraries face a great deal of competition for people's leisure time. It is hardly surprising that if people are watching, on average, four hours of television a day, there is less reading of books. In addition, purchasing books is relatively cheap in relation to disposable income than was the case many years ago. Therefore, a lot more books are actually being bought. It really does not matter, from the point of view of our aesthetic and intellectual objectives, whether the books are bought or borrowed as long as people are reading. I think it is a triumph that people are reading as much as they are. But the effect on public libraries cannot be denied.

It is true, as my noble friend Lord Harrison said, that visits to public libraries have been going down. as have book loans, although there is some indication that the number of visits to public libraries, perhaps because of the wider range of services now provided, has bottomed out and is increasing slightly The MLA figures show that there could have been an increase of 2 to 3 per cent of visits to libraries in 2002–03, and I find that encouraging.

It is also true that declining use of libraries and declining hook loans are accompanied by declining funding, because it is thought by local authorities that this is a less important service. But they are profoundly wrong, because of course, despite the decline there has been, as my noble friend Lady Blackstone said. 60 per cent of people in this country are members of a public library. There are more visits to public libraries than there are to professional football matches or to the cinema. As far as the customers are concerned—the users, the readers, although it is more than readers, as I shall show—libraries are one of the most important services that local authorities provide. There are 4,600 public libraries in this country, a lending stock of 84 million books and 32,000 public access computers with access to the Internet. That is quite a service.

It is right that I should say a word about the contribution that libraries make to the priorities of central and local government. Of course they are justified in their own right; of course they are justified on their basic service. But, in addition, they play a very important role, and I shall be responding to the questions of my noble friend Lady Blackstone in a minute. They raise standards in our schools, they provide books for babies, they encourage family reading, reader development schemes and homework clubs and they provide help for lifelong learning. They improve the quality of life for older people—after all, libraries are a safe, warm, community space in which people can meet. This is particularly valuable for older people. I have heard bingo clubs described in the same terms, but I rather think that libraries provide a little more than they do. Libraries provide help in terms of the economic health of the communities. If they provide, as they do, adult basic skills, business information for small and medium-sized companies, then they are an economic resource for this country. If I am asked to say the right words to Gordon Brown then, yes, those are the words that I would use. I think that there is a very significant economic benefit.

I was very pleased to hear the welcome for the People's Network, particularly from the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, and the noble Viscount, Lord Falkland. It has been a remarkable achievement, not just to get the lottery funding in the first place but to get it on the ground and to get it working in nearly every one of this country's public libraries. If you extrapolated from a survey of 30 library authorities, you would find that, nationwide, nearly 24,000 people had started a formal education course; over 62,000 people report gaining a new skill; over 105,000 IT training sessions were run in public libraries; and 7,000 people have found new jobs.

There is an issue about sustainability, because you put in computers and train staff but they become obsolete in a period of years. Part of the bid to receive NOF funds for the People's Network, however, was that local authorities were obliged to submit plans, illustrating how they would continue to fund their People's Network centres once the NOF funding ceased. I have confidence that local authorities are aware of that obligation. I am also conscious that it probably will not work everywhere and that we shall have to find some additional funding from somewhere, in order to make sure that it continues.

Let me now turn to the A Framework for the future, which is referred to on the Order Paper and, as has been recognised, is the brainchild of my noble friend Lady Blackstone as a most distinguished Minister with responsibility for libraries. The basis of A Framework for the future was that, although there were plenty of examples of good practice in libraries—and some of them have been given by speakers today—and plenty of examples of local authorities providing modern, high-quality libraries and understanding their potential, there were also plenty of examples of local authorities who do not. That was why A Framework for the future was published: to provide a 10-year strategic vision; to encourage greater innovation and greater efficiency in the library service; to promote books, reading and learning; to encourage access to the digital age; and to develop community and civic values.

It was not just a publication in its own right, however. What happened immediately afterwards was that my noble friend Lady Blackstone commissioned the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council to prepare a three-year plan of activity to turn that vision into reality. That action plan was published in September last year at the Public Libraries Association conference in Torquay, at which I spoke. It is funded with £3 million over a period of three years. There is a long list of targets, and achievements towards those targets, in the action plan and in our reports on that plan. I will return in a moment to the point made about targets by the noble Lord, Lord Luke.

As has been said, one of the purposes is a sort of glorified self-help. If we have a library service which is widely varied in quality, it is enormously important that we should have the best helping the less good. Therefore, with the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council, we are setting up help teams, using the Improvement and Development Agency and the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister peer review system. These teams are already in training and starting to be in operation. They will bring together library leaders and staff to work with individual authorities, to help them to improve their libraries. We will be seconding mentors to libraries and encouraging pairing-up with other libraries. We have a leadership programme for about 450 library staff, developed with the Society of Chief Librarians and with the MLA.

Valid points were made, in particular by my noble friend Lord Harrison, about the marketing of libraries. I heard my learned friend Lady Blackstone praising Tower Hamlets' Idea Stores. She is quite right. I too have been there, and what is being done is terrific. Hampshire is proposing to re-brand its libraries as "Discovery Centres". I rather like the word "libraries". I like Peckham's wonderful new library, which has the word "library", about 100 feet long, on the roof. I would rather stick to that brand, which I think is an enormously important one and describes what it is. I believe that we can build on it, to extend the range of services that a library provides without losing the essential element behind it. It is certainly true, however, that we do need to market our libraries substantially better.

The noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, referred to the fact that the expenditure on books is only 9.6 per cent of total library budgets. It is also true that, as there is a decline, there is the horrible tendency that more money goes on administration and less on frontline services. That happens everywhere. We have to do something about that. The Advisory Council for Libraries, which my noble friend Lady Blackstone revived and which I have been using intensively, is very concerned on that point. I am not convinced that we are getting the right deals out of publishers and booksellers on books, using our purchasing power. I am certainly not convinced that we are doing the most economical thing. There is one study which shows that it costs as much to purchase and to index a book as it does to buy a book. That cannot be right. We have to find some way round that, and indeed we are actively doing so.

Even though there has not been too much reference to it this evening, I want to refer to learning initiatives. One of the main things that libraries can do to make a real difference to people's quality of life is the promotion of reading and informal learning, and indeed of formal learning. A Framework for the Future identified five learning offers which libraries will make to the community and which will be marketed as national activities. Those are: early years services, to which reference was made by my noble friend Lord Harrison, namely Bookstart, book bags, and encouraging parents to share books with children from an early age; learning for young people, which involves the Positive Activities for Young People programme for the vulnerable eight to 19-year-olds, and to steer them towards reading. That is the work of the Reading Agency, which is particularly concerned with literacy targets and opening up the world of the creative imagination to people whose homes, I am afraid, are book-free zones.

My noble friend Lady Blackstone referred to this as out-of-school learning and referred in particular to project work. She asked whether we were having discussions with the Department for Education and Skills about collaboration in this area, and I can assure her that we certainly are. The Secretary of State for the DCMS, Tessa Jowell, is working with the Secretary of State for Education and Skills, Charles Clarke, to encourage visits by schools to museums and libraries. Of course that is part of it, as is also the availability of libraries for out-of-school learning.

I am a member of the Cabinet Committee on Adult Basic Skills, and the chairman, Charles Clarke, referred to the locations for adult learning. He of course mentioned universities and colleges and also, quite rightly, the National Health Service and prison populations—where there are quite a lot of people who need adult basic skills. I piped up and said, "Libraries as well", and he immediately added it to his list, because clearly these are obvious places for adult learning.

I discovered to my astonishment that we do not know what libraries can contribute to adult learning. If I was asked. "What facilities are there? How many libraries have room for individual learning workstations as they do for ICT work stations, or room for study circles or seminars and so on?", I find it shaming to say that I do not know the answers to those obvious questions So I am setting in train a survey which will make sure that I do know the answers. When DfES comes to me and says it wants to use the libraries for e-learning, or when Ofcom comes to me and says it wants to use libraries for media literacy, I will be able to give answers on what we can provide.

That leads me on to the issue of adult learning. I can assure my noble friend Lady Blackstone that the links we have with learndirect are absolutely critical. Ann Limb, its chief executive, is very conscious of the contribution that libraries can and indeed do make. These are not projections for the future.

Inevitably there has been talk about funding. My noble friend Lord Harrison wants me to appeal to Gordon Brown for more money. The difficulty is that, as everyone knows, libraries are funded as part of local authority block grants. There is no ring fencing for libraries. If local authorities are either poor or mean—in my experience all local authorities are either poor or mean and sometimes both—there is no way that we in DCMS, who have the responsibility for library standards, can ensure that any given amount of funding will be allocated to libraries.

The noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, wants the certainty of core funding. Of course we want it too, but we do not have it. The way to get an improvement in library standards is not with sticks, because we do not have any sticks, but with carrots.

The noble Lord, Lord Luke, was exaggerating a little when he accused us of damaging the library service with the overuse of standards. He must know that—

My Lords, targets and standards are two approaches to the same thing. The noble Lord must know that for 150 years local authorities have had responsibility for setting their own budgets, including libraries. For the first part of those 150 years, under Conservative governments, there were restrictions on the amount of money that could be spent on libraries—a halfpenny rate comes to mind. More progressive governments have moved ahead, but we have not yet said that central government will prescribe how much local authorities will spend on libraries. I do not believe that we should. I recognise the difficulties that it involves.

We find ourselves in the position of having responsibility in DCMS for standards in libraries but without the means to carry them out. What are we going to do about it? I have hinted at the answer already, in the sense that we have been establishing standards or targets—whichever one wishes to say. We have not achieved 100 per cent compliance with all those standards. We set an ambitious target of the end this month. In almost all these areas we are seeing improvements in the quality of services according to our own standards and targets.

The Advisory Council on Libraries has been simplifying the targets with position statements. We have simplified them by excluding those that are no longer necessary because they are being 100 per cent achieved. So I think that it will be accepted that we are doing the right thing. My noble friend Lady Blackstone asked me about how the advisory council works. It has set its own agenda in those ways. I have set it additional targets for e-learning and for the sustainability of the People's Network. In general, we have a lot of pressure, a lot of collaboration between library services and a lot of things that we can do from the centre, in terms of help rather than force, to improve the library standards to such a level that we can all be proud of them. As we receive future reports on the progress towards the achievements set out as being possible in A Framework for the future, I hope that that it will be seen that we are making that progress.

I have not answered the question of the noble Lord, Lord Luke, on disability. I visited the National Library for the Blind. I agree with him entirely about the value of the services that it provides. I wish I had a positive answer on VAT, but, as he knows, negotiations for VAT last autumn did not come to anything. Therefore, the cautious response of my noble friend Lord Davies was rightly cautious.

I say again that I am grateful to all noble Lords who have taken part in the debate. I repeat my thanks to my noble friend Lord Harrison for introducing it. I am glad to have had the opportunity to respond.

My Lords, I hope and believe that tonight's debate has furthered the cause of better understanding of public libraries. I too would like to thank all noble Lords who have contributed. As the Minister said, we may be few in number but I think the quality was extremely high.

I would like to take up the suggestion made by the noble Lord, Lord Luke, of retiring to our own Library for further discussion, but I fear that we might disturb some of our colleagues who might otherwise like the silence there. The noble Lord prompts me to thank all those who work in our own Library, and especially those at the research desk who have contributed yet again to the background material I have used tonight.

Finally, as I am in the House of Lords with Dukes and others, perhaps I may be permitted to remind your Lordships of Shakespeare's The Tempest. The dispossessed Prospero was isolated on the magic island when he said that his library to him was "dukedom large enough". With that I beg leave to withdraw the Motion for Papers.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.

House adjourned at twelve minutes before seven o'clock.