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Volume 737: debated on Thursday 14 June 2012


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what action they will take to protect public libraries from closure.

My Lords, DCMS Ministers have taken a number of actions to oversee and promote the public library services provided by the local authorities, including writing to authorities to set out ideas that they might consider before closing front-line public library services. Arts Council England, too, has launched the libraries development initiative, which is funding projects to explore innovative ways of working to help shape a resilient vision for future public library services.

My Lords, the Minister may be aware that the Public Libraries News website has recorded 121 libraries as having closed within the past 18 months, while over 600 more are currently threatened with closure. This Government have chosen to close libraries while they promote literacy, cross the digital divide and allow children to explore their natural love of reading. Is that a choice that they can defend?

My Lords, I know that the noble Earl, Lord Clancarty, has a great interest in this and we all have sympathy for many of his views, but we are aware that some libraries have found difficulties in the present climate. To help libraries to become more efficient and successful in every way, the Government have transferred the MLA’s responsibility for libraries development to the Arts Council, which is working with local government associations on its new libraries development initiative. For the many noble Lords who are interested, a long list of projects that the Government have supported and which are receiving funding is available on the Arts Council website.

My Lords, are the Government aware that there are 250 literary festivals in this country and that the numbers are increasing? There is an appetite among people and children for more books than they can afford. How is the declared ambition for improved literacy among children to be achieved if libraries are closing?

My Lords, I am fully aware of the interest of the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, in libraries and children because we have discussed this several times, and I know that the literary festivals are mushrooming all over the country. Children’s literacy, as we have said before, is vital. We know how important it is for libraries not to close—we have a wonderful Library here—but robust data on the libraries sector are published annually by the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy. It is a local government decision if libraries are closed.

Can the Minister please comment on the fact that, due to the successive policies of Governments of all parties over many years, one in five adults in this country now cannot read to the standard expected of an 11 year-old? Governments of all parties have then expected business to go out and compete in a globalised economy with a workforce that is not fit for purpose. Will she please comment on the fact that libraries make a considerable contribution to enhancing literacy in the adult population at a time when we in business need all the help we can get?

The noble Lord, Lord Jones, makes a valid point. We are fully aware of the importance of literacy in schools. My noble friend has just confirmed that we are giving high priority to children’s literacy. We are all aware of the importance of libraries not just for books but as a social and peaceful space for people. People understand that this is not just about the facilities. Libraries also provide a lot of electronic information, but it all goes together. As I said, we are fully aware of the importance of libraries.

In view of the concerns expressed, particularly by the noble Earl, Lord Clancarty, who pointed out how many libraries are at risk, will the Minister tell me in what circumstances the Government will intervene to stop a library closing?

The Secretary of State has a primary duty under the 1964 Act, but he must also make certain that local authorities uphold their statutory duty to provide a comprehensive and efficient library service. If the Secretary of State thinks that a local authority has failed in that duty, he may call a local inquiry to investigate, but it will not be for solely financial reasons.

My Lords, in an earlier answer, the noble Baroness indicated that this is essentially a local government matter. However, does she not agree that under the Public Libraries and Museums Act, central government must ensure that local government does its job of providing an effective public library service properly?

The noble Lord, Lord Borrie, makes a very valid point. The terms “comprehensive and efficient” are not defined in the 1964 Act. However, broadly speaking, the Act requires local authorities to provide free of charge access for people who live, work or study in the area to borrow or refer to books, printed materials and pictures in line with their needs and requirements.

In view of the importance of libraries, have the Government any plans to update and review the 1964 Act?

The Government are building on the future libraries programme and the libraries development initiative, which is run by Arts Council England and is designed to test new approaches to the library service. In February 2012, Arts Council England and the Local Government Association awarded £230,000 to fund 13 library projects across England. At the moment, these difficulties are being looked into further.

I will come to my question but I wish to make the point that at 8 o’clock this morning I was reading How to Catch a Star with my two year-old grandson. Does the Minister agree that for children who do not have the good fortune to have a number of books in their house, libraries are very important and that the issue is not just that there are enough of them when you take the country as a whole but that there are enough of them locally for the people who are least able to access transport and who are most likely not to go if the difficulty of getting to the library increases?

Yes, libraries are vital for children, as is their school, which also has books. Transport to get to libraries or to any other public places where children learn is, of course, of paramount importance.