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Public Libraries: Funding

Volume 722: debated on Thursday 2 December 2010


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what are the implications of the Spending Review 2010 for the funding of public libraries.

The responsibility for policies relating to public libraries in England lies with the Department for Culture, Media and Sport but how local government chooses to fund and deliver library services is in the hands of individual authorities. This summer we launched a future libraries programme to help councils make the best use of their library budgets and, where possible, avoid cutting front-line services.

My Lords, given the closure of libraries, reduced opening hours, as well as cuts in book funds and information services, will the Minister ensure that local authorities have the opportunity and resources to protect the most vulnerable who use our libraries, such as the unemployed, elderly people and those seeking to train and educate themselves back into the market? Will she think about issuing a Statement, or indeed initiating a debate on the modern library service, perhaps using the March 2010 document from DCMS on modern libraries and new challenges, such as the use of volunteers, e-books, and so on? We need to protect and enhance the libraries for our children: three out of four use our libraries regularly and increasing numbers of them borrow books. Children using libraries is our future.

The noble Lord, Lord Harrison, was a most effective chairman of the Cheshire county council library so he knows that at times of economic challenge people need the library service more than ever. Libraries have an important role in encouraging reading. They also help people to return to work. They are essential for the unemployed, children and students to help them access learning and entertainment because they attract people from all walks of life and can build community cohesion. Among the new ideas being explored in the 10 pilot projects, there are many different governance models looking at the possibility of charitable status and transferring control of library services to communities. I am aware of the March 2010 modernisation review and all the progress with computers. As for the Statement and debate that he asked for, we will feed that request into the usual channels.

I declare an interest as a member of Newcastle City Council. Does my noble friend agree with me that the digital divide remains a serious barrier to social and educational inclusion in that one in four households in the UK does not have access to the internet? Does she agree that libraries will continue to play a critical role in reducing that digital divide? Is she aware of the forecast by the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals, which estimates that the service could lose up to 6,000 jobs over the next four years? Will she comment on that very, very high figure?

I agree with my noble friend Lord Shipley about the importance of the digital divide. The three-yearly public library user survey found that 25 per cent of library users surveyed in 2006-07 intended to use computers during their visit to the library. It found that 16 per cent of users had used a library computer when visiting the library. DCMS does not hold centrally the number of visits made to libraries. A digital section for libraries, too, is more and more important, as we heard on the wireless this morning.

The Minister said, quite rightly, that discretion as to how to provide a public library service is largely in the hands of local authorities. Will she say how, in the context of the Government’s requirement that local authorities should reduce their spending by 28 per cent—and a substantial proportion of that in the next financial year—Ministers will interpret and invigilate the statutory duty of local authorities to provide a comprehensive as well as an efficient public library service?

The noble Lord, Lord Howarth, is right: it is all important that the library service should continue. However, a number of authorities, I am afraid, are currently considering closing libraries. Before doing so, it is important that they should consider other options for delivering a more efficient service such as the future libraries programme. For example, authorities might consider bringing other council services together with the library service; merging parts of the library service; sharing staff with neighbouring authorities; using volunteers; and delivering library services in other community buildings.

My Lords, I remind the Minister of the importance of mobile libraries in the countryside, where they are absolutely essential. Does she agree that one way of economising would be to have them call less often—not removing them, as appears to be the problem at the moment?

The noble Lord, Lord Walpole, is right about the mobile services. It is an issue which is very much in the Government’s mind. There are more than 2 million talking books in stock as well as collections of large-print material, which are also used for the blind. Libraries also provide a valuable home service to those who are not mobile enough to travel to library buildings. In 2009-10, nearly 88,000 housebound readers benefited from this service. The Government are very much aware of this issue but, in the end, it will be a local decision.

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that in my immediately adjacent county of Oxfordshire there are to be significant cuts in the full force library service? However, the news is not all bad because there is to be a conscious attempt to involve volunteers and other groups. Will she agree to commission some kind of inquiry or conference to share good practice so that the service we all value can be maintained in its civilising influence?

I am aware of the Oxfordshire closures. Over the past 10 years the number of volunteers in libraries has increased. They regularly help to deliver homework clubs for schoolchildren, contribute to projects to digitise items in library collections and provide buddy support for new users of computers. It is important to remember that authorities remain accountable to their communities for the changes they make.

My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Bottomley, a former Secretary of State at the DCMS, appointed me as the first chair of the Library and Information Commission. Our first project, realised later by the Labour Government, was to put a computer network—known as the people’s network—into all public libraries at a cost of £120 million. What is the status of the library network, given the proposed cuts at DCMS? What provision has been made in public libraries for e-book technology, given the rapid growth in books being delivered electronically?

My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Evans, for his question as he has great knowledge and experience in this area. I congratulate him on being the first chairman of the Library and Information Commission. DCMS has responsibility in this area for policy but not for funding. The cuts at DCMS will not affect library services as they are funded by local government from Treasury funds. The decision to use e-book technology is determined by local authorities. That said, DCMS appreciates that e-book technology will play an ever important role in the future.