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Public Libraries

Volume 742: debated on Thursday 10 January 2013


Asked By

All parts of the public sector are contributing to reducing the deficit, including local government. In the circumstances, it is right and proper that local authorities look afresh at how they deliver library services. The Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy’s library statistics reflect that authorities are reviewing and reconfiguring their services with a net reduction of 74 mobile libraries and 76 static libraries in England in 2011-12. Overall, however, there are 3,243 libraries in England, which remains an impressive network.

My Lords, first, I congratulate the Minister on his new appointment. In saying that, perhaps I may invite all Benches to regret that the noble Lord, Lord Marland, will be leaving us. With his colour and candour, he offered a lot to us and we will miss him.

According to our information, some 300 libraries closed last year across 40 local authorities. The Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964 provides the Secretary of State with powers to take action where a local authority is in breach of its duty to provide a comprehensive public library service. But, according to the DCMS website, the Secretary of State is in correspondence with a mere four local authorities. Will the Minister confirm the current situation and indicate whether the Secretary of State will be using her powers to ensure that the country retains a high-quality public library service?

First, I thank the noble Lord for his kind words. I am fast learning how to multi-task, as I cover both BIS and the DCMS, but only for the next two days.

Returning to the reality of the question, I would like to reassure the noble Lord that the Government are doing much to support and develop libraries. They have taken a number of actions over recent months, including transferring responsibility for library development to Arts Council England, giving libraries access to significant funding opportunities. In addition, Arts Council England has allocated £6 million of its grants from the arts National Lottery funding. The figures presented by the noble Lord could be disputed and we will need to come back on that, but I stick by the figures that I have given in terms of library closures.

My Lords, will the Minister comment on a quote attributed to Winston Churchill in the middle of the war? Churchill was told that there was a plan to close libraries to raise money for the war effort. He said, “No you won’t. What the hell are we fighting for?”.

I am not able to give a particular comment on that, except to say that I reiterate that the Government are very much behind the development of libraries. It is extremely important to ensure that we take note of technological change. There is changing demand for library services and it is important to bear that in mind.

My Lords, among the figures recently released, is the Minister aware of the 8% reduction in full-time library staff in the past year? That is almost double the number in the previous year, which will have had a significant effect on opening hours and other library services.

I am not aware of the figures that the noble Earl has given. However, I can say that this is part of the technological changes that are taking place. With his long interest in the arts, I am sure that the noble Earl will be aware that various changes are going on, particularly in terms of the move towards e-book lending, for example, and wi-fi. The issues are changing dramatically in terms of demand and we need to react to that.

Does the noble Viscount agree that the overall number of libraries is not really the significant issue? The issue is where they are and who has access to them. Does he further agree that the people who have most need of access to libraries are those who have very little other recourse to books and the benefits that books bring? What are the Government doing to ensure, whether directly or through the Arts Council England, that provision of libraries is available to the most deprived communities in this country?

I take the point raised by the noble Baroness. It is true that sometimes, particularly in rural areas, individuals have more of a challenge or a difficulty in reaching a public library. However, the actual figures of reduction do not necessarily represent a pure reduction. For example, in North Yorkshire, 10 ageing mobile libraries were replaced with one superior model. The service changes but does not necessarily reduce.

My Lords, I follow on from the previous question about the closure of libraries, particularly in the most deprived areas where minorities have settled. Does my noble friend agree that when we are emphasising to people the need to learn more about English and the history of our country, to deprive them of that knowledge, at the same time, could be very counter-productive?

In answer to the noble Lord’s question, I wish to say what I meant to say in answer to the noble Baroness’s question as well. It is very much up to the local authority to decide what type of library service is given. As the noble Baroness and my noble friend are aware, there is a statutory duty to give a comprehensive and efficient service to the community. That is defined as meeting local needs within the context of available resources in a way that is appropriate to the identified needs of the communities that they serve.

Following up the previous two questions, would the noble Viscount be kind enough to place in the Library a list of where these libraries have been closed? I think that he cited in his initial answer that 76 permanent libraries have been closed. Would he please publish a list of exactly where those libraries are?

The point is noted, and I will look into that. On the assumption that I am able to do it, the sentiment is there that I will put the note in the Library.

My Lords, will the Minister accept that libraries are about far more than books? In an age where community life is under great strain, they are focal points for a whole range of activities besides the traditional one. Does that not make the closure of any library a self-destructive act?

Not necessarily. The quick answer is that library services are changing, as I mentioned earlier, as a result of changing demand. It is, however, true that there is an opportunity to use libraries for different services rather than just taking books out. This includes the use of wi-fi and the provision of coffee shops; for example, there are some libraries attached to leisure centres. I repeat, therefore, that the situation is changing.