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Volume 735: debated on Tuesday 7 February 2012


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what action they are taking to provide an efficient public library service.

My Lords, DCMS Ministers have carried out a range of activities to oversee and promote a comprehensive and efficient library service. This includes writing to local authorities to set out ideas that they might consider to help continue successful public library services. Arts Council England has announced the libraries development initiative. This will look at new ways to enhance libraries’ success and relevance as vibrant local community hubs.

The Minister has given a very useful Answer. Should we not get a comprehensive and efficient library service for the 21st century? Since libraries improve literacy, should library budgets normally not be cut? Should we not limit such closures?

The noble Lord, Lord Sheldon, is absolutely right. Of course we should have a comprehensive and efficient library service. However, the term “comprehensive and efficient” represents the balance to be struck by each local authority in meeting local needs within the context of available resources in a way that is appropriate to the identified needs of the community it serves. The 1964 Act does not seek to be overly prescriptive but instead anchors the delivery of the local service to the needs of the local community.

My Lords, I should begin by declaring an interest as the cabinet member responsible for the public library service in the London Borough of Sutton where we are opening libraries, not closing any, but that was not my question. Does the Minister agree that the public library service is and should remain the responsibility of local authorities and that if we believe in local democracy, we must recognise that that includes the right to take decisions that some of us might think are wrong? Would the Minister further agree that the best solution is for local authorities to use their public libraries to further community engagement and accountability, and that libraries can do that very effectively if they are used properly?

My Lords, my noble friend is absolutely right, and I congratulate him on opening libraries. Various places around the country are opening libraries, despite some closures. My noble friend is right that decisions need to be taken locally. Every local authority in England is required to provide a comprehensive and efficient library service, as I said to the noble Lord, Lord Sheldon, and it is for each local authority to determine at the local level how much it spends on libraries and manages and delivers its services.

Is the Minister aware of how much I approve of her use of the word “community” when we talk about libraries? I use the library in the City of Westminster. When you go to it, you get a marvellous sense of community from all the different people there, but fundamental to providing an efficient library service is people being able to get there. I can get there because I can still drive, but given that Westminster, the nearest library to me, has closed—in many other areas, lots of libraries have closed—when I cannot drive any more I will not be able to use my local library, and I am quite sure that lots of old people at present are unable to use their local library for the same reason. Surely the Government ought to take at least a bit of an interest in this, while leaving the power in the hands of local authorities.

My Lords, I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Peston, is not able to get to his library. He still can? Well, I am very pleased. Travelling to libraries is very important; I could not agree with him more. They should be in places where there is public transport to get there as much as possible.

My Lords, the Minister has helpfully said how much libraries are changing to meet changing needs and to create new opportunities for reading and learning. Does she agree that the Government could do more to help libraries promote the changes that are taking place to improve access to people who hitherto have seen libraries as slightly alien territory?

The noble Lord is absolutely right. Promotion is necessary, and that is what our libraries development initiative is doing. On the subject of commercial partnerships, it says:

“This will consider how libraries can respond to increasing economic challenges in an innovative way, exploring diverse funding streams and the benefits of a resilient mixed economy”.

My Lords, could my noble friend expand her reply to the noble Lord, Lord Peston, to touch on the subject of mobile libraries, which certainly are extremely useful in rural areas and could be developed in urban areas?

My noble friend Lord Elton has a very good idea and I am sure that the Secretary of State will look at that.

My Lords, on 16 August 2010, the Minister Ed Vaizey announced an ambitious change programme for libraries. The press release said:

“The Future Libraries Programme … aims to help the library service during the current challenging financial situation, with an ambition to ensure libraries play a central role for communities in the Big Society”.

Since then we have heard little from the Minister, although more than 10 per cent of libraries have closed and many communities are without access to a library. Will the Government take seriously their duty under the 1964 Act to ensure that local authorities meet their statutory duty to provide a comprehensive and efficient library service?

My Lords, I know that the Minister Ed Vaizey takes this very seriously indeed and we have discussed it on very many occasions. It is absolutely right that there should not be many closures, but there will be diversification, and data about the library sector are published annually by the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy. Many local authorities are still developing and consulting on proposals, and consequently the overall picture is always changing.

My Lords, may I recommend to the noble Baroness that she goes to Worcestershire to see its mobile library service? It also has a mobile computer service, which is absolutely excellent.

My Lords, is the Minister also aware that the University of Worcester is opening what will be the first integrated county and university library for the people and the students of that university in the centre of the city later this year, in an iconic building that is going to be admired across the continent?

I thank the noble Lord very much for that suggestion. I commend the city and university, and I hope that many other places will emulate them and use the initiative to follow suit. I thank him very much for telling your Lordships about it.