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Public Bodies (Abolition of the Library Advisory Council for England) Order 2014

Volume 759: debated on Wednesday 4 February 2015

Motion to Consider

Moved by

That the Grand Committee do consider the Public Bodies (Abolition of the Library Advisory Council for England) Order 2014.

Relevant documents: 13th Report from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments, 15th and 21st Reports from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee

My Lords, the Advisory Council on Libraries—or the ACL, as it was known—was established by Section 2 of the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964. The 1964 Act set out that it was the duty of the council,

“to advise the Secretary of State upon such matters connected with the provision or use of library facilities whether under this Act or otherwise as it thinks fit and upon any questions referred to it by him”.

That was the sole statutory function of the council. The ACL comprised persons who had experience of administering library services operated by both local authorities and other bodies. The chair and members of the ACL were appointed by the Secretary of State and it met three times a year.

The abolition forms part of the Government’s public body reform programme, which sets out to reform the landscape of public bodies, to increase transparency and accountability, to cut out duplication of activity and to discontinue activities that are no longer needed. In July 2010, the then Secretary of State at DCMS announced a number of proposals in a Written Ministerial Statement, including the abolition of the ACL. In addition, the abolition was announced as part of the Cabinet Office’s public bodies review on 14 October of that year. However, the 1964 Act does not provide for the ACL’s abolition, so it was necessary to include it in Schedule 1 to the Public Bodies Act 2011 to achieve its legislative dissolution.

Since the proposed abolition of the ACL was announced, there have been no further meetings of the council and DCMS has conducted itself on the basis that ACL is effectively defunct. In that time, the role of gathering appropriate intelligence about the library sector and providing advice to the Secretary of State has been undertaken by DCMS in collaboration with local government and others within the sector, such as Arts Council England, which is the development agency for libraries, and the Society of Chief Librarians.

The ongoing requirement for the ACL results in unnecessary duplication of the knowledge and sector expertise already found among other statutory and non-statutory organisations in the library sector. The Secretary of State’s statutory duty to superintend and promote the public library service remains unchanged, so there will be no reduction in accountability. The 1964 Act places a duty on the Secretary of State to superintend and promote the improvement of the public library service provided by local authorities in England, and to secure the proper discharge by local authorities of the functions relating to libraries conferred on them as library authorities under that Act. There is also a statutory power to intervene when a library authority fails, or is suspected of failing, to provide the required service. This power has been exercised only once since 1964, with intervention by way of public inquiry in 2009 relating to proposed changes to Wirral’s library service. The advice of the ACL was not sought in connection with the use of this power.

Noble Lords will be aware that the Independent Library Report was published on 18 December. It did not include any consideration of or reference to the statutory requirements of the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964. However, one of the report’s key recommendations is to establish a task and finish group for libraries, which would provide the necessary leadership, be the advocate for public libraries in England and take forward programmes to support a number of specific actions, including: supporting the creation of a national digital library network; responding to the outcomes of the current e-lending pilots; and encouraging and developing the library workforce.

A 12-week consultation on the proposed abolition of the ACL commenced on 17 February and closed on 9 May 2014. Only nine responses were received to this consultation, with seven answering the specific questions. The majority considered that the advisory function should not be transferred to another body, with just over half considering that the ACL should be retained. The responses to the consultation were given careful consideration, but the departmental view remains that the function of advising the Secretary of State does not require a statutory body. The ACL is not a technical or fact-gathering body. It is inflexible, with its primary aims and membership being prescribed by a statute, and it is no longer a relevant structure.

As I have said, the function of advising the Secretary of State does not require a statutory body. The ACL duplicates the knowledge and sector expertise already found among other statutory and non-statutory organisations, and in DCMS. Here, I should like to insert an interesting point. I asked the officials to provide me with the minutes of the last two meetings of the ACL. At the last meeting, in February 2010, when the ACL did not know the outcome of the general election, a minute under “AOB” noted that DCMS’s public value programme was looking at costs and benefits of public bodies. It was also considering the future of the ACL, so the ACL seemed doomed even in 2010.

DCMS has and will continue to work with relevant bodies, including Arts Council England, the Local Government Association, the Society of Chief Librarians and the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals, to ensure appropriate intelligence about the library sector is captured. This will supplement skills and expertise available in DCMS, which of course includes qualified librarians. Furthermore, the Government consider that the establishment of the task and finish group and its range of functions further negates the requirement for the ACL.

I commend the order to the Committee.

My Lords, I apologise to the Committee and to my noble friend for missing her opening remarks. No doubt the library advisory council has served its time and should be wound up, as my noble friend indicated. However, does she consider that an outside process for both advice and monitoring is still desirable? This is apart from performance assessments that might be made by government and local authorities. For independent monitoring can give us some assurance of the real extent to which the library service may be improving consistent with national and local demand.

On maintaining an ever improving library service, how do we compare with our European Union partners? To our own advantage, should we perhaps take note of certain other systems and methods deployed by some of them and, if so, which ones?

Regarding further constructive developments over the next few years within the library service, which targets does my noble friend wish to draw to our attention?

I well understand how the library service came to be abolished. It was part of the massacre of the quangos that arose from government policy and, clearly, the time for change was ripe. The library service throughout the country is living through an ongoing crisis. At a time when there is a great diffusion of concern and good will expressed on many sides, it is important that there is a body that focuses the needs arising across the country.

First, the Minister spoke about the responsibilities being devolved to DCMS, the Arts Council and the Society of Chief Librarians. They are all very good and authoritative people but they have lots of other tasks in hand. As she will know, when several authorities hold responsibility for something, there is a danger that decisions fall through the gaps.

Secondly, the statutory duty of superintending, promoting and improving the library service falls far short of what is happening because libraries are being closed. In Lincolnshire yesterday, the council voted on which libraries to close and there was a storm of support on Twitter for libraries in Lincolnshire. That is happening all over the country. People are devoted to seeing the library service evolve a new form of library establishment, so that libraries, which are no longer just about books, become valued community enterprises. I took part in efforts to save my local library. It is now Primrose Hill Community Centre as opposed to Chalk Farm Library. Its activities have expanded and it has become a hub of community activity. Although it still promotes books, of course, it also shows films and runs reading classes for children. Libraries are evolving into this amazing new format as a consequence of the crisis that resulted from their falling into disuse. I emphasise that the ongoing policy of support for libraries is enormously important and should not be neglected.

My Lords, I echo my noble friend’s remarks about the current crisis libraries are facing. They are not a luxury but a practical tool and provide vital public space for individuals and families across the country. They are a resource for parents and young children, schoolchildren who do not have a place to work at home, jobseekers who are trying to gain new skills and employment, elderly people living in isolation and community groups. Increasingly, they are incubators for new ideas and places where businesses come to fruition.

Personally, I regret that over the past four and a half years the Government have been slow to respond to the growing crisis in the sector. At a time when many library services were under threat there was no sense of urgency, coherent strategy, direction or guidance for local authorities, and no idea about what might be the minimum acceptable outcome. Libraries are provided at local level, and councils, rightly, have the first claim on leadership, but the Government have a clear duty to minimise the damage done to the library service and to provide an overarching strategic vision.

I feel a little as though I am in a “Monty Python” sketch. We are considering the case for a body in this debate on its proposed abolition, but the Ministers have told us that essentially the ACL is a defunct body, with no staff, premises, assets or liabilities. In other words, it is a dead parrot.

I, too, welcome the Independent Library Report for England, published just before Christmas. However, as Ed Vaizey, the Minister, tells us, it,

“did not include consideration of the statutory requirement of the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964”,

and,

“makes no reference to the ACL”.

I admit that I find it difficult to follow the argument that since the ILR did not consider the statutory requirement of the statutory Act or the ACL, its abolition is not dependent on the report’s publication, yet one of its primary recommendations now apparently negates the need for the ACL. As the Delegated Powers Committee suggested, the considerations of the ILR clearly intersect with the practical implementation of the duties placed upon the Secretary of State and local authorities by the 1964 Act, and it is therefore reasonable to see the outcome of the ILR as relevant to the decision on the ACL. I am sorry for all these abbreviations—they will get worse when we get to the recommendations.

Clearly, my party believes that there is a good case for a body to support development, innovation and best practice, including measures to find efficiency savings and increase impact, helping to lessen the pressure for cuts to services. That is why we welcome the conclusion of the review to establish the libraries’ task and finish group. I rather like that name. Gone are the days of a good old task force; it is now “task and finish”. Maybe that is where some of my concerns are.

Cross-party and organisational working must be at the heart of its activities. The Department for Education, the Department of Health, DCMS, BIS and the Department for Communities and Local Government, all have a role to play, as have organisations such as the British Library, Booktrust, the Reader Organisation, the National Literacy Trust, Arts Council England—as we heard from the Minister—the CILIP and the Reading Agency.

Mr Vaizey’s case for the task and finish group is that its functions are far wider than the sole advisory function of the ACL—as we heard from the Minister in her introduction—and, as he says, more importantly, it will also be focused on delivery. Unlike the ACL, the membership of the task and finish group will be flexible and dynamic, so that it can adapt to suit the specific tasks involved. The TFG will report jointly to Ministers and the Local Government Association and will be independent of government.

When, in October 2011, the Arts Council took over responsibility for supporting and developing libraries from the former Museums, Libraries and Archives Council, it did not take on the MLA’s supervisory role for libraries—again, a point raised by my noble friend. At a time when libraries are withering on the vine in many communities, oversight is even more critical than at any time before. The point the noble Earl made was absolutely right. I agree with the view that the recommended role and structure of the task and finish group are not suitable for the ACL, whose primary aim and minimum membership is prescribed by statute. However, I do not necessarily accept that the establishment of the TFG and its range of functions negate the need for statutory independent advice in the Secretary of State’s meeting his obligations under the 1964 Act. I fear that in performing its job, working with a range of authorities, it will miss that fundamental requirement that we must have a library service. And what is that library service? It is certainly not a second-hand bookshop in a local high street. It is more than that, and we need to be very careful about the standards that we set.

Mr Vaizey’s view is that, as we have heard from the Minister today, advice and guidance from stakeholders and officials at the DCMS are sufficient to meet the function of providing advice to the Secretary of State, including on the use of his statutory powers. I am not sure that the fact that nobody has taken action is necessarily evidence that there is no need for action. Clearly, with the number of library closures increasing and access to libraries diminishing, that is not the case at the moment.

Although DCMS has stated that no budget is allocated to the ACL—I think that its abolition will save approximately £2,500 a year; this is obviously not a budget consideration—I ask the Minister whether, during the period of the ACL’s inaction, any external advice to the Secretary of State has been brought into the department and, if so, what the cost of that advice was.

My Lords, I thank noble Lords for their interesting comments and searching questions about the library service. I want to respond to the outstanding points raised today—not necessarily in turn but I hope to cover them all.

The noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, asked about responsibility and where the buck stops. It is quite clear that the Secretary of State at the DCMS has responsibility. It is his or her duty to superintend and promote the public library service. There is no reduction in accountability here, so that is the person to whom we should all look. Oversight is critical, but, as the noble Lord, Lord Collins, said, oversight was never the role of the ACL.

Threading all the way through this—it does not form part of my speech but it has formed part of the debate—is the perceived crisis within library services resulting from cuts in funding from local authorities. I think all of us have seen library services being cut in our own local authority areas, but in some areas they are mushrooming into something far more exciting than was ever there before. The noble Baroness gave us an example of that: a community facility or activity centre where volunteering is key, where information is held in not only book form—which perhaps most of us would recognise from when we were younger—but in all sorts of digital formats with digital access being available.

The task and finish group will do just that and look at the whole issue and come up with recommendations for the Secretary of State. I fully anticipate that they would involve not only ministries—for example, the Department for Education, DCMS, BIS, Communities and Local Government and, I am sure, more that I have not thought of—but Arts Council England and a whole host of other bodies. An independent report will come out of this.

My noble friend Lord Dundee asked whether we had looked at what was happening in the EU. Certainly, I anticipate that the task and finish group will consider what library services look like all over the world, not just in the EU but in other states. I imagine that will be part of its remit.

Any points that I have not addressed today, I am quite happy to cover in a letter to noble Lords. I reiterate that the Government consider that the abolition of the ACL serves the purpose of improving the exercise of public functions, in particular having a regard to efficiency, effectiveness, economy and securing appropriate accountability to Ministers. The function of advising the Secretary of State does not require a statutory body. With advice and guidance from stakeholders, DCMS officials are well placed to perform the function of providing advice to the Secretary of State, including the use of his statutory powers. As such, the ACL is no longer a relevant structure and is an unnecessary duplication of knowledge and sector expertise.

I referred previously to the task and finish group. The proposed functions of this group are far wider than the sole advisory function of the ACL and, importantly, it will be focused on delivery. Unlike the ACL, the membership of the group will be flexible and dynamic so that it can adapt to suit the specific tasks involved. It is also a joint group, reporting to Ministers and the LGA. The group will be open and transparent, and will publish its action plan and regular progress reports. As I said, the Government are of the view that the establishment of the task and finish group, and its range and functions, further negate the requirement for the ACL. The duties of the Secretary of State towards libraries will remain unchanged by the abolition. I commend the order to the Committee.

Motion agreed.