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Libraries: Local Government Finance Settlement

Volume 768: debated on Thursday 11 February 2016

Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the impact of the Local Government Finance Settlement on the provision of libraries.

The Government fully recognise the importance and significance of public libraries. It is a service delivered according to local priorities, but local authorities have a duty to provide a comprehensive and efficient service. It is too soon to determine the impact of the finance settlement, which was of course finalised only this week.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that in Lancashire, which is where I live, the budget recommended to the county council this very afternoon involves a reduction in the number of libraries across that large county from 74 to 34—in other words, 40 libraries are to be closed? Is this acceptable, as far as the Government are concerned?

My Lords, decisions on library services are of course a local authority matter, and Lancashire Council has completed a consultation seeking residents’ views on service design, need and use—libraries are changing all across the UK. We understand that a further period of more detailed consultation will be undertaken between May and July. I encourage residents to make the council aware of their specific library needs and ideas for the future.

My Lords, does my noble friend accept that not just libraries but museums and galleries are under great pressure? Does she remember that in the financial statement in November, which was a very favourable one for those of us interested in heritage and the arts, the Chancellor talked about cutting heritage—galleries and museums—being a false economy? Can we do something to ensure that what is good for the nation is good in local government?

I entirely agree with my noble friend about the importance of funding for these areas. As he said, the settlement was very reasonable. Indeed, on the local government settlement, the proposal that has been adopted this week was made by Labour authorities, including Lancashire. The point is that libraries are changing—we have talked a lot about digital change, and volunteers are coming in. Lancashire is doing the right thing by consulting on change. I am sure that the final proposal will be different from what was first put forward.

My Lords, the Prime Minister’s mother has done what the Minister asked and sat down and wrote a serious letter to a local authority complaining about local authority cuts. Does not that indicate that we have reached a very serious situation indeed, and the Prime Minister and his Government need to do something about it if they are to maintain the social fabric of local communities?

My Lords, the settlement means that every council will have for the financial year ahead at least the resources allocated by the provisional settlement. In addition, those councils with the sharpest fall in grant money will now receive transitional funding as they move from dependence on central government grants to greater financial autonomy.

My Lords, the Minister has twice mentioned the changing nature of libraries. Of course, they are not just about books. Nowadays, they are a major and vital source for internet access, especially in poorer areas, where people need them to apply for jobs and where fewer households have broadband. Especially in rural areas where broadband coverage is much lower, they are a vital part of rural sustainability. The Government are rolling out broadband very quickly, and that is encouraging, but it does need time. What support are they giving to those vital online centres, many of which are closely related to libraries or in libraries, both for the sake of heritage but also for the sake of our economy?

The internet is absolutely vital, and obviously vital to these hubs which are bringing libraries and other services together. By May, 99% of libraries will have wi-fi for the customers to use, and 1,000 of the wi-fi connections have been provided through grants from the DCMS, for exactly the sort of reason that the right reverend Prelate articulated.

Will my noble friend thank all the volunteers in counties such as North Yorkshire and across rural England who are keeping local libraries open in exactly the way that the right reverend Prelate has suggested? What more can the Government do to encourage more local councils to train volunteers in this way?

My noble friend makes a brilliant point. There was a 20% increase in volunteers working in libraries last year. Some local authorities are embedding this into their statutory service, as in Buckinghamshire. The Government are encouraging this joint provision because it will help to take our brilliant libraries—there are 3,000 across the UK—into the future.

My Lords, the Minister is right that it is local government’s responsibility to make the decisions on how to implement the Government’s severe budget cuts to local government, but does she accept that it is central government’s responsibility under the 1964 Act to ensure that there is a comprehensive and efficient library service, to which she referred, and which is the responsibility under the 1964 Act? If so, when and how are the Government going to implement that responsibility?

My Lords, the duty is of course on local authorities, but the noble Lord is right: the Secretary of State has a statutory power to intervene when an authority fails to provide the required service. Complaints that a local authority may be failing are considered very carefully by my department, case by case. The closure of a library branch, or branches, is not necessarily a breach of the 1964 Act—but of course we keep this under very careful scrutiny, as he knows, and publish a report on libraries every year, which is very important.

The fact is that that statutory duty requires the Minister to intervene. In fact, Ed Vaizey said that central government can and will intervene if a council is “planning dramatic cuts”. Of course, many councils are finding themselves in incredibly difficult situations. How many councils have the Government actually intervened on, and to what effect? How many have they actually called in to see whether they are meeting the statutory responsibility? This is an issue that this Government cannot duck.

My Lords, we take our responsibilities seriously. The department is engaged with a number of libraries. I have an annexe, which I am very happy to share with the noble Lord, setting out some of the different actions we have taken in respect of particular areas, including Lancashire. Of course, we want councils to do the right thing because this is rightly a matter for local people.