Motion to Take Note
That this House takes note of the cultural, civic and educational significance of libraries, bookshops and booksellers in the United Kingdom.
My Lords, I come here to talk about poverty—the poverty of our streets, the poverty of our libraries and the poverty of our bookshops. If we do not sort out our libraries and bookshops, and if we turn our high streets into places that are denuded of bookshops and our libraries are closed down, we will have a real problem in other areas.
When government departments cut budgets in one particular area, it tends to find a manifestation in another area. For instance, if you start cutting the number of libraries—we have lost more than 500 since 2010—you are building up a bill that will occur in another part of government. It will be shifted into disorder, crime, problems for schools and the fact that children will not be able to get a job because they will not have the skills and abilities. So if you wish to cut libraries, please do so—but do it on the basis that you build more prisons and more hostels for homeless people and put higher walls around your house. It is not just this Government or the previous Government or the Government before that; it will be the Government again. There seems to a real problem about understanding budgets.
If a department cuts support for local authorities, the local authorities are put into a situation where they then ask, “How can we save some money?”. So what do they do? They cut libraries. As I have said, more than 500 have been cut and nearly 9,000 librarians have gone in the past five years. That is in spite of the fact that in 1964 a law was passed making it a statutory requirement for local authorities to provide a proper library system. That was their duty—so how can you lose 500 libraries? How can you cut 21 libraries, as the county of Lancashire is looking to do? Mr Ben Wallace, an MP there, has raised the question of court action. How can you have a situation where we do not ring-fence libraries because we are not taking into account what will happen around literacy and association?
A lot of people are learning on their own; that is increasing. You have broken the communal sense of people learning in groups. The fewer libraries you have, the more people are studying on the internet and by themselves. But they really need association. There are many uses of libraries. The fact is that you can go into a library and feel the knowledge and the history. When I was a young boy, I could not read or write but I would go to the library and just sniff the books and that feeling of knowledge. I would say, “One day, this will be mine. All I’ve got to do is go to prison at some stage, where they will teach me to read and write”—which is exactly what they did.
Libraries are essential, yet what is happening is that they are being cut. I recommend that Her Majesty’s Government supply some emergency relief money to stop local authorities doing this dastardly deed, this process of philistinising our communities. That is one thing they must do. Another thing they must do is make sure that every school in the country has a library. Many schools do not. Think again. As I said earlier, if we make a saving here, we will make a loss elsewhere. Health, sociability, work and all other issues will come into play. I beg us all, before we allow another library to be lost or librarian laid off, to think seriously, “Is this a saving?”. I wrote an article for the Big Issue a few years ago in which I said that the problem with austerity is that it is too expensive. It is so expensive but does not look it. It looks like you have a saving and then you move on.
If we save our libraries, what about our high streets? What about the fact that we are losing bookshops? We have lost more than 450 since 2010. What do we do with bookshops? What are they? Bookshops are places where you buy books. They raise the intellectual temperature of a city, a neighbourhood or an area. If you go to places such as Hay-on-Wye—even though it has been knocked by the Amazonian revolution, which I will return to—or Wigtown on the Scottish border, where they have a book festival every year, it is like going to Mecca. We all love books. We all want to read books and we all buy many more than we can read. It is an insatiable appetite because we realise the importance of books and literature.
What do we get when it comes to the bookshop? Interesting data were given to me, not directly, by Mr Richard Fuller, the Conservative MP for Bedford. He wanted to know why a bookshop trading on the high street in Bedford pays £850 a square metre in rates while somebody also selling books 11 miles away pays £50 a square metre. The first is a bookshop—I think it is Waterstones—which has to up its game, sell many more books and look for all the savings it can to pay that enormous amount of money. Then, 11 miles away on some kind of trading estate, there is a vast place, as vast as the 13 or 14 others that the company has, which pays 50 quid a square metre.
When I spoke to the noble Lord, Lord Ashton, about this, he rightly made the point that we cannot get the Government fiddling around—he did not use that term; I am paraphrasing—with the marketplace, which needs to be self-regulating and should be allowed to get on with it. But the fact is that, before the bookshop in Bedford has sold one book, the ground is uneven. The ground is so uneven that the bookshop must put more effort in. Meanwhile, the other company can sell a book and it can go out from the warehouse and zoom around the world wherever it is directed. That is not fair competition.
Another interesting fact is that a lot of these Amazon warehouses are run militarily. Amazon denied recently that it used zero-hours contracts. I would like to look into that and see the evidence. It denied that its staff were run ragged rushing around and said that they were being trained up to be more skilled in the work. But Amazon has another advantage because it has lots of cheap labour. You will find that many of these warehouses are in areas where there is no other work.
Another advantage is that, in 2014, Amazon paid in the region of £11 million for activity in the United Kingdom of £5 billion. It paid that in Luxembourg. If any one of us in this House were to spend £1 anywhere in the United Kingdom, we would expect part of it to go to the Inland Revenue—or whatever they call it now. You would expect that, would you not? But by some magic process, a lot of that activity gets removed and a lot of the money ends up somewhere else. The British pound is converted, I presume, into a US dollar and ends up in Seattle.
Bookshops are an essential part of the community. If we are to do anything about them, we will have to look upon them as a cultural resource. We will have to look upon them as precious. A hundred years ago, most of the people I know who work in and run bookshops would probably have been working in the Church or something like that. I do not want to exaggerate but there is something sacred and spiritual about working in a bookshop. That is the impression I get. When I talk to these people, I am struck by their enthusiasm and absolute commitment to books. I have never been in a bookshop where the person actually wants to be a butcher or to be doing some other job. It is somebody who has a job and is task-oriented. They raise the culture.
I started The Big Issue 25 years ago. We are having our 25th birthday event on 19 October. I invite noble Lords and noble Baronesses to come along—it is not a fundraiser—and look at what we have done and what we are going to do. There are a lot of very exciting things. One of the reasons I started it was my absolute commitment to literacy. I am not talking about just the literacy of books but social literacy—the literacy of being together, of working together, of loving each other, rather than being against each other in whatever way. Since I started The Big Issue we have put an enormous effort into literacy, probably under my influence because I spent the first 16 years of my life unable to read and write and I had to rely on Her Majesty’s Prison Service to teach me how.
All the work I have done is about literacy and social literacy. Let us defend the bookshops. Let us make bookshops work. Let us reverse the process. Let us not allow a situation where a behemoth has grown among us—Amazon—which sells 97% of all our e-books. If Amazon were a newspaper, it would be in a monopoly position and we in both Houses would be all over it. I beg to move.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Bird, for initiating this debate and for his spirited contribution. For me, the big issue—if I may borrow a phrase from the noble Lord—is books and their enduring importance to civil society and the extent to which both bookshops and libraries are essential to their continued success. Without both, we will not achieve 100% literacy, which is an essential aim in the 21st century and a bedrock of social mobility, social cohesion and a strong economy.
I declare an interest as a publisher and founder of two literacy charities: World Book Day for children and Quick Reads for emergent adult readers, for which Lord Bird contributed one of the first books. I am also chair of a high street bookseller campaign, Books Are My Bag, to which I will return.
Books have been central to our history—in particular, the history of ideas—and to human experience: first, painstakingly handcrafted and painted; then hot off Caxton’s printing presses; then sold as sixpenny paperbacks; finally mass-marketed for a post-Second World War public hungry for self-improvement; and now digitally available at the click of an icon. From the pages of books have come fable, soap opera, knowledge, solace and inspiration for hundreds of years. Matthew Arnold, writing in 1869, believed that social equality would result from the spread of culture— that all people could live in “sweetness and light” if exposed to the civilising influence of books. I am sure all of us here today love books. For me, as a publisher, it is a passion for discovering new talent and valuing reading as a way of changing people’s lives.
The publishing industry as a whole contributes £10.2 billion a year to the UK economy, of which retail sales from books account for £5 billion, and whether we go for a hard or soft Brexit, hardcovers, softbacks and digital books will have a significant role to play in our export market in terms of jobs and growth. Last year book exports were over £1.4 billion, and Europe accounts for more than a third of that. But we do not know whether we will continue to have access to the single market, whether our exports will attract tariffs, whether we will continue unimpeded to hire the essential international staff we need, or even whether intellectual copyright will continue to be adequately protected.
The entire publishing industry supports more than 200,000 workers in the UK and there are 2,270 UK book publishers currently registered here for VAT. Most importantly, books sit at the epicentre of the UK creative industries, responsible for £84 billion of our economy annually and growing year on year. Broadway and West End hits are often adaptations of great books by British authors, such as Roald Dahl’s Matilda or Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Film also relies on the creativity of our authors. The top three grossing film franchises of all time—“James Bond”, “Lord of the Rings” and “Harry Potter”—are based on books by UK authors. Television, too, takes inspiration from works by our finest authors, such as the late PD James and Ruth Rendell, two former distinguished and much-missed Members of your Lordships’ House, and, more recently, dramatisations from “The Night Manager” to “DCI Banks” or the continuing franchise of the riveting, reinvented “House of Cards” of the noble Lord, Lord Dobbs.
The noble Lord, Lord Bird, spoke eloquently about the delicate book ecosystem and the crucial role of libraries and bookshops. They also play a vital role in developing the talented authors of the future. Ask any novelist what made them want to write and I guarantee the seed was planted when they discovered the joy of reading—a joy which began or was augmented through visits to their local library or bookshop.
Recently, many of our top authors, including Philip Pullman, Malorie Blackman and Michael Holroyd, wrote to the new Secretary of State for Culture, pointing out the crisis in the library sector. Since 2010, too many libraries—I have 343; the noble Lord, Lord Bird, said 500—have shut. Opening hours have been cut, alongside educational programmes and mobile libraries, and 8,000 trained library staff have been lost, together with hundreds of thousands of new books. There has been a 93% increase in volunteers—amazingly, this civic-minded army of helpers is larger than the entire staff of some of our well-known book chains. This is all due to the impossible choices local authorities have to make when their central budgets are slashed.
Libraries should be seen as key community centres, open to all, where, alongside books, people can rely on other essential life services. Arts Council England recently evoked a vision of libraries as cultural and performance hubs for local communities. Reversing the decline in library provision and ensuring that every school has its own library will be a start to reversing the decline in the literacy skills of our young. We are the only developed nation where our young people significantly underperform their elders, according to the OECD’s 2012 survey. Our poor performance is also affecting our economy. It is estimated that more than 9 million adults of working age in England have low basic skills, which is costing our economy around £80 billion per year.
However, bookshops are also under pressure, as your Lordships have heard. The number of independent bookshops has halved since 2005 and they continue to be under threat, with expensive rents, as we have heard, and business rates, while their online competitors trade from warehouses in less expensive out-of-town locations. Online retailing of books has been welcomed by consumers, who can shop at any time of the day or night and have books delivered to their door. They can elect to read on an electronic reading device, most choosing a Kindle, where Amazon invested early and heavily in the UK, achieving over 90% of e-book sales.
If we want a diverse and healthy market in bookselling, we urgently need to consider the competitive landscape in both e-books and physical books. But why does any diminution of high street locations actually matter? Let market forces prevail. But bookshops bring something that online just cannot do. As bookseller Rohan Silva, a former adviser to Downing Street, says, if you buy online and click on a book by a specific author, the other books recommended to you will fall resolutely into that same category. That is not how it works in bookshops. The careful curation they bring provides for serendipity, with displays arranged to encourage discovery and staff who get to know the customers, and whom customers trust to recommend new books that may otherwise never get read.
If you know what you want and prize convenience, you will order online but if you want the serendipity of discovery, you will visit a bookshop: an exciting cultural hub where research has shown that about 70% of new book discoveries take place. Bookshops, alongside book groups, literary festivals and talks by authors lead to the enriching of our cultural life. Algorithms cannot yet replace his. They cannot replicate the eagerness, enjoyment and wonder that I saw on the faces of young children as they sat and browsed in the children’s section at my local—and now sadly defunct—Books Etc. on Saturday mornings.
Watching children at a local bookshop just across the road from my daughters’ school—one of London’s largest state primary schools, on a housing estate in Bayswater—led me to think about how the UK could join the international celebration of World Book Day. That led to the charity, which is now in its 20th year, making a connection between schools and local bookshops. More than 13 million £1 book tokens have been given to children each year to exchange in bookshops, together with the special production of £1 World Book Day books, which are effectively free, allowing children to experience the joy of bookshop discovery and reading. But the leading creative position of UK publishing, the global influence of British authors and the whole extended creative industries which thrive on books are in danger of collapsing if we do not have a diverse and vibrant high street for bookshops, both chains and independents, as well as a decently funded library system.
We publish hundreds of thousands of new books a year and the democratisation of access to books via print on demand or digital-only editions has encouraged an explosion of self-publishing and crowd-funded books. But very few new authors, carefully curated, funded and edited by publishers, will be discovered without choice on the high street. Our independent bookshops are the places where unlikely bestsellers are made, but for many indies it is a hand-to-mouth existence powered by passion and a love and belief in the transformative power of books, rather than the usual returns of a business. Some independents are able to develop only thanks to the philanthropy of authors such as James Patterson, whose financial grants have helped nearly 300 indies to date. From Scarborough to Surbiton and from Peckham to Penzance, independent bookshops have been awarded grants for basic repairs, renovations, new projects and storytelling corners to help boost a love of reading in the young.
Our bookshops, such as the newly refurbished Foyles in London, are temples of culture which we would be foolish to allow to wither away. This is why publishers, bookshops and authors have joined to create Books Are My Bag, a campaign initiated pro bono by the company of my friend for many years, the noble Lord, Lord Saatchi, which underlines how a passion for books and literature, and pride in our unique global contribution to letters, is an issue that resonates across parties.
I am coming to the end. The big issue is: how can government assess and help to rebalance the competitive landscape in bookselling in the UK, and encourage more people to value our bookshops before we lose them altogether? Central government also needs to address the funding deficit in local authorities, where competing essential services too often result in library closures. Our trajectory towards one library per 50,000 people is simply a disaster. We have a stark choice. If we lose our celebrated bookshops and libraries we will never improve our nation’s literacy. We will also lose our next generation of authors and the source of our competitiveness in the creative industries. This simply cannot be allowed to happen.
My Lords, I too thank the noble Lord, Lord Bird, for giving us this debate but, probably even more so, for the passion with which he introduced it, born not least of personal experience. I found that I agreed with pretty well everything that he said, but I particularly thank him for making reference to school libraries, as indeed did the noble Baroness, Lady Rebuck. We are all rightly concerned about the disappearance of public libraries, but less well known and recognised is the virtual disappearance of school libraries, or at least anything that could properly be called a library, particularly in primary schools. That merits far greater concern and attention. I wonder whether it will get the attention that it should until and unless it becomes part of Ofsted inspections and schools have to pay attention to that important issue.
I declare an interest as a trustee of Cityread London, a charity that unites the whole capital every year by inviting it to read the same book together. Cityread audiences are encouraged into libraries and bookshops to take part in a high-quality arts programme that explores London’s history through literature. Every April, more than 30,000 Londoners engage in a shared, cultural experience that connects us to each other and the city we call home. In addition to this ambitious Cityread London plan for mass engagement through high-profile public events with iconic partners, the charity works closely with and is led by libraries to reach communities at grass-roots level. London’s libraries guide and inform Cityread’s accessibility and inclusivity objectives, providing support and infrastructure for our work with specialist partners for non-English speakers, emergent readers, visually impaired readers and London’s prison population. Again, I am glad that reference has rightly been made to prison, and I was interested to hear that the literacy of the noble Lord, Lord Bird, came through prison experience, another area which does not get nearly enough attention.
In the short time available today, I want to concentrate on an area I know best and of which I have most experience, particularly from 40 years as a London borough councillor, including 13 as leader of that council and the next 12, by my own choice, as cabinet member for its library service.
Until the general election, when the rules governing all-party parliamentary groups were changed, I chaired the libraries APPG. Sadly, that APPG has not been reconstituted since the general election, but I am pleased to say that working with CILIP, the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals, which gave us an excellent briefing for today’s debate, we hope to relaunch it later this year. One of the last meetings that we had before the general election was with William Sieghart, whose panel had then just published its independent report for England. One outcome of that report was the establishment of the Leadership for Libraries Taskforce. Its then newly appointed chair was present at that meeting and gave us a commitment that he would report back to another meeting of the APPG. Sadly, there has not been another meeting of the APPG, but I hope that we will soon be able to rectify that and the chief executive of the taskforce has already agreed to come and speak to such a meeting.
After wide consultation, that taskforce has published its overall strategy document, Ambition for Public Libraries in England, which has been with the Minister since June. It would be good if the Minister could give us today the Government’s response to that document. I suspect that is unlikely, but it would certainly be very welcome if, after those four or five months, he can now at least share with us informally—perhaps we could promise not to tell anyone—what exactly the Government’s thinking is on this document and, most importantly, when we will get the proper response.
I have some particular questions to the Minister. CILIP has called for,
“the establishment of a clearly-mandated and appropriately resourced development function for public libraries”.
Will the Minister say what the Government’s view is on that? It is probably even less likely that the Minister will tell us what will be in the Autumn Statement—if, indeed, he has any idea himself—but can he at least give us the department’s view on CILIP’s call to provide emergency relief from the closure of public libraries by local authorities? The noble Lord, Lord Bird, referred to this.
Over the past decade, the public library world has not been short of reports; there has been report after report by two successive Governments on what they could and should do. What has been singularly lacking from successive Governments—Labour, coalition and Conservative—has been any action. We look forward to hearing what the Government are going to do, not with further reports and reviews but with action.
The briefings for this debate from CILIP and the House of Lords Library give alarming figures for the decline in the public library service and in the number of professional librarians employed in it. It is an alarming picture. The noble Lord, Lord Bird, referred to this, as did the noble Baroness, Lady Rebuck. The picture is stark enough, but it is a historic picture which, by its nature, is inevitably out of date because it comes from figures reporting what happened last year or the year before. It does not look at what is going to happen or at what is happening in the current year. The outlook for local authorities is far worse now than it has been in recent years. We face a very grim outlook for the public library service.
In the past, Ministers have been very reluctant to review whether a library authority is properly fulfilling its statutory duty to provide a comprehensive and efficient library service. There has been some indication that the new Minister may be willing to take a more robust attitude towards this. The noble Lord, Lord Bird, mentioned Lancashire, which is a case in point. In his reply, can the Minister confirm that that is indeed the case?
CILIP has described this country as being at,
“the precipice of the most significant literacy and skills crisis in the post-war era”,
with the UK already,
“bottom of teenage literacy league-tables amongst twenty-three developed nations”.
It is unrealistic to believe that library services can be immune from the severe budget cuts that are hitting all local authorities, but in my experience library authorities are becoming increasingly polarised between the good and the bad. A good library authority recognises the wider and important role that libraries can and should play, not only at the heart of their local communities, but in making a significant contribution to the wider aims and strategies of the local authority and its partners, not least in employment and skills and in public health and well-being. That means working with partners to invest in the library service for the future, something which significantly happens in other countries in times of recession, whereas a bad library authority simply sees its libraries as out-of-date book-lending services in old and expensive buildings, often in the wrong place.
We need more good library authorities, and we need real leadership from a Government who truly understand and appreciate their importance and value.
My Lords, I, too, thank and congratulate the noble and energetic Lord, Lord Bird. I always admire his passion, and it would be remiss if we did not pay careful heed and attention to the warnings he has so clearly set out today.
I declare my interests as set out in the register of the House. In particular, I declare that I am chairman of Culture Perth and Kinross, the charitable trust that, inter alia, operates 13 library premises and four mobile libraries in Perth and Kinross. I thought it would be interesting to give the House a few facts and figures about how our regional library system is interacting with our local residents, as it indicates the extent and breadth of what a modern library systems does in its local area. I am sure it is pretty typical, and I hope that we make the bar of the good library authority set out by the noble Lord, Lord Tope.
In our area, we have about 150,000 people. Our libraries get more than 600,000 visits a year. We lend well over half a million physical items a year. I mentioned our mobile libraries. They make 105 stops every fortnight, bringing library services to remote communities, and especially to the elderly. Our online offering is growing very rapidly. It now gets more than a million visits a year and downloads are growing rapidly. To deliver these services—further to the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Rebuck—we have 120 staff and nearly 200 volunteers from our community, and we would not be able to deliver our services without those fantastic volunteers.
There is also quite a breadth in what we offer. It is not just lending books and tapes and things like that. Four of our libraries are very modern and are part of school campuses. A member of the general public can walk in off the street through one door and be presented with a good library, or you can come in from the school. This is very helpful to the schools, because it allows them to benefit from the environment of a very serious library, which is much richer than would typically have been available in a traditional school library. Certainly Perth and Kinross Council feels this is a valuable model or numbers 2, 3, and 4 would not have been built.
We are in partnership with Citizens Advice Scotland and offer a programme Benefits Advice in Libraries. Perth and Kinross is one of the poorer parts of the United Kingdom, so we can use our premises and staff to help with that sort of programme, which does what it says on the tin. We have just been awarded a lot of funding to improve our digital skills programme, which is training people in our area in digital skills. These are just a few examples of how we are engaging with our community in ways that probably would not have been done in the past.
This is made possible because we have a strong and stable staff. The average length of service of our staff is long—very long when looked at with commercial eyes—and we have a very supportive local authority. The cloud on our horizon is caused by the way in which the Scottish Government are dividing their financial cake, which seems likely to lead to cuts for us which, rather awfully, will affect most those least well off in our community. So my first question to the Minister is: does he agree with me about the desirability of organisations such as Culture Perth and Kinross offering and continuing to offer the services that they do to their community?
I move to my second and final theme for the day. I am also a member of your Lordships’ Select Committee on Social Mobility, which delivered its report in the spring. It has yet to be debated. For the nine months before that, we heard an enormous amount of oral evidence and took a huge amount of written evidence from all over the United Kingdom on a broad spectrum of social mobility issues. Two of the great common themes that arose are relevant to today: first, that the availability of good-quality careers assistance and advice was inadequate; and, secondly, that going forward people typically might have several careers during their working lives.
Today, the venues for delivering assistance and advice are largely schools, colleges and job centres. I feel that we should tool up our libraries in this regard. Once people are beyond school and college age, today the jobcentre is their only option for getting a lot of this careers advice and assistance. There is, I am afraid, some reluctance among some people to go into jobcentres for that, particularly if they are in work at the time. I do not think they would have that reluctance where libraries are concerned. Indeed, libraries represent a very good potential nexus for providing careers assistance and potentially a good venue to provide the advice.
To be clear, assistance is about having the information and helping to get access to it efficiently. Face-to-face advice is a skill set which probably lies outwith libraries, but they could provide the venue. Culture Perth and Kinross had an awayday for the board and the senior staff just last month, where we spent some hours discussing this very theme. My sense of the meeting, which is reflected in the minutes, was that the board and the senior staff thought that it was a good piece of thinking, but we certainly do not have the money to put this evolution into effect.
In closing, the eighth, and last, recommendation of our Select Committee on Social Mobility was that the Government should do a cost-benefit analysis on increased spending on careers advice, because we had a feeling that spending on careers advice was economically positive for the UK. You spend a pound, and the economic benefit to the UK was greater. Indeed, analysis has been done by the Gatsby Foundation, under the able Sir John Holman, assisted by PwC, which very much shows that. I feel that a small amount of spend on libraries to develop careers support further would pay for itself handsomely in the UK. It would also greatly assist with keeping libraries open. Accordingly, I would ask the Minister whether he would agree to look into the idea that libraries play an increased role in careers support going forward.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lords, Lord Bird and Lord Ashton, for securing the time for this very important debate. We live in a services economy. In these Brexit times, when people talk of manufactured goods or rules of origin, I feel that the role of institutions in nurturing some of our most productive industries is neglected. Libraries are one of those institutions that are a cog in the machine that drives our prosperity and plugs our current account deficit with the world.
I have recently come back from my party’s conference in Birmingham, an enjoyable pilgrimage that I have been making for over two decades. While I was there, I had the pleasure of visiting the city’s vast new public library. It is the 10th most popular visitor attraction in the UK, studded all around with great multicoloured rings. Inside, the warm hubbub and generously filled shelves make one feel at home. I confess that I spent more time in there than I should have—time I was meant to spend in the ICC—but I have no regrets. This was the heart of the local community, and I felt like a visitor in a welcoming home, watching children run to see if the books they wanted were in and parents enjoying the peace that brought. Those children will read widely and fruitfully, and I have no doubt that some of them will go on to be the doctors and engineers that our economy needs, especially with lower EU migration.
The educational significance of libraries often takes a back seat to the community ideals that we prioritise. Fundamentally, books can expand the mind. Studies show that when we read books, we can empathise with the characters and feel what they feel, as the author intended. I was a bookseller in Kenya, in east Africa, and owned a very large bookshop. My personal experience is that a mind open to learning, whether it is a child’s or a grown-up’s, is always attracted to reading books. The mere action of entering a room fringed by books helps to focus the mind on the matter at hand.
In my local shopping centre, Ealing Broadway, the second-floor library is an oasis of calm for students. Around May, the place starts to fill up, until it is full to heaving by June. There are also computers, vital for those who need to fill out online forms. The shift to online registration for council services has resulted in there being far more demand for the computers in the library.
Listening to the Chancellor’s speech in Birmingham, I got the general flavour of a relaxing of the fiscal tightening we have seen since 2010. He mentioned that we must prioritise the industries that we excel in and develop the infrastructure around them. If he is serious about that, he could well start by reducing the cuts pencilled in for library budgets. Libraries have lost a quarter of all paid staff since 2009, and their budgets are due to be cut further. As they provide a space for young people to get on with their revision and learn, as well as being useful community centres, there is a clear interest in at least maintaining current funding levels. I would wholeheartedly support such a policy, as part of a new post-Brexit economic policy. The circumstances in which the previous Chancellor set his fiscal rules have changed. So should our policy.
My Lords, of all the places on the face of the planet where the subject we are debating might cause most surprise, it should surely be this Chamber. We are all of us formed by books, even the noble Lord, Lord Bird, who had to wait until Her Majesty’s pleasure to achieve those skills and is now a learned man able to hold his own in intellectual exchange. We are all of us the fruit of learning and intellectual activity, and nothing epitomises that better than a bookshop or a library. It seems odd to me therefore that we should be spending a couple of hours on a Thursday afternoon feeling the need to make a case for these objectives. We are the evidence that these objectives have, in our case, been achieved and we therefore stand as the living evidence before the world of the need for them when we leave this place.
However, as we are here discussing this, I had a bit of a wheeze. Our Library is a truly remarkable place, and no more remarkable service does it provide than our briefing notes for these debates. The one that it prepared for today is astonishing, and I would be surprised if anyone speaking in this debate has not dug deeply into it. I had a feeling that if I could have got four other speakers in the debate to take it in turns with me just to read the Library Note, so that it got on the record, we would have made the case in trumps. We would have saved ourselves an awful lot of time too. It is a remarkable and wonderful piece of briefing material. What does it do? It sets out, in brief form, the corners of the world and social and political activity, from which emerges the strong advice that libraries are essential to the well-being of any properly organised society. UNESCO is there; the Arts Council has done its report; even the Department for Culture, Media and Sport has commissioned work that comes to the same conclusion; the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals agrees—you would expect that, as there is a bit of a personal interest involved for its members, but at the same time they know the truth here better than anyone else—and the Booksellers Association comes to the same conclusion: libraries are good for us, and bookshops are a proper thing to expect to see on our high streets.
On cost/benefit analysis, which we heard mentioned a moment ago, the briefing note looks at the benefits in the world of economics, health and well-being, education and culture, and comes to the same conclusion all over again: this is an investment in the many facets of a properly organised and balanced social activity for a nation, community or neighbourhood. It is all there in the briefing paper but here we are fulminating, voicing our anxieties and saying we want more attention to be given to libraries and bookshops because we feel that, despite that evidence, there is a diminishing degree of investment in what ought to be an infrastructural part of a properly organised and healthy society.
In my own case, before I had any books of my own, there were libraries. I do not quite share the beginnings of the noble Lord, Lord Bird. I could read, I passed the 11-plus examination and went to a grammar school. This debate and the previous one actually belong together; in terms of social mobility, they are two sides of the same coin. My brother, who failed, did not read, although he was as intelligent as I was. It took the trade union movement to give him his opportunity to be socially mobile as a shop steward and then as a regional organiser, and then he was offered a place at Ruskin College, Oxford, this boy who failed the 11-plus and did not know how to read—most extraordinary.
For me, though, it was the Burry Port public library that fed me intellectually at a time when I could not afford books. When I became a student of English literature—I got a degree in it and went on to teach at the University of Wales—it took me until I was 16 to have a book to put on a shelf at all. What would have happened to me, for all that my grammar school was brilliant, if I had not had a library at my disposal, as well as the working men’s club with its newspapers and its intellectual exchanges? Remarkable intellectual resources were available. Yet here we are, at this point in our nation’s history, thinking that all the advances in which we can ascribe some importance to these social developments are now under threat. It is a sad day indeed.
If you go into a library, what do you see? You see child reading circles, all the way through to interlibrary loans. Do they still exist? I used to be able to milk the interlibrary loan system for brilliant books from all over the world. Just fill in the form, come back in a fortnight and you have the book you want. I did not have to go to the Bodleian or the Cambridge University library for those books; I had them in Burry Port, a tiny backwater in south Wales. I hope that does not go on the record. They will never forgive me if they hear me call them that.
We are living at a time when information is increasingly in the private domain, with people looking at their screens. I am not a Luddite and it is fantastic that you can find what you want by pressing a button, but that robs you of lateral interests and cross-referential possibilities, of having two or three things open on the table so that you can see how things work out together. Then there is social interaction—“Have you read so-and-so?”. Put two or three people together and you have an informal seminar in a minute. Libraries offer safe space, at a dangerous time, for children and vulnerable people to sit and enjoy social activity and to be together in each other’s company. We do ourselves no service if we rob ourselves of facilities of this kind and if we do not see that the money put into developing libraries in this way is not a drain on the public purse but an investment in the future of the country. It is simple—a no-brainer.
There is a question that has been referred to already which I would like the Minister to resolve. I think the 1964 Act makes it clear, but none the less the department says:
“In considering how best to deliver the statutory duty each library authority is responsible for determining, through consultation, the local needs and to deliver a modern and efficient library service that meets the requirements of their communities within available resources”.
The responsibility is put squarely on the local authority. Yet the Act says that,
“it shall be the duty of the Secretary of State to superintend, and promote the improvement of, the public library service provided by local authorities in England and Wales, and to secure the proper discharge by local authorities of the functions in relation to libraries conferred on them as library authorities by or under this Act”.
That seems to be a contradiction; I would like it resolved, and I wonder if the Minister will do that for us. Is the Secretary of State right to discharge his duty simply by passing the buck to the local authority? No; I see the Minister’s head being shaken, and that reassures me. I hope the shaking of the head will lead to a torrent of words in passionate defence of the principle that I am adumbrating so that I can go home and have a cup of tea with some contentment.
It should be a truth universally acknowledged that any civilised society worthy of the name must be in want of libraries.
My Lords, it is interesting to follow the noble Lord, Lord Griffiths, for the simple reason that I am the person who has taken part in both debates so far today. Before I go into my own relationship with literature—such relationships seem to be a theme of this debate—I would like to say a bit about libraries. Libraries have to be the easiest and cheapest way of having outreach into the community by local or national government. They are instantly accessible. I remember going to the library and leaving with recycling bags, leaflets about road closures and transport plans, and information about new planning structures. Everything was available as you walked past, rather than leaflets coming through the door that get thrown away along with pizza delivery menus. You could see them and relate to them, which made it all more real. If we do not ensure that that aspect of libraries is there, all their functions other than just issuing books will suffer.
Libraries also offer decent online computer access—something that easier to use than struggling with the phone. All these things happen in one place, with support, structure and people behind you. That is important in delivering local and national services or engaging on a voluntary basis, and that is what we have to look at. If we damage that, we damage everything that happens at libraries and make things more expensive. The noble Lord, Lord Bird, spoke about our saving today but having to make huge investments tomorrow in order to catch up on the things we have missed out on—leaving holes to which we simply apply an emergency patch.
Books are the dominant way in which we engage with culture in our society. I speak as a dyslexic who knows—I think this is something I share with the noble Lord, Lord Bird—that if you are trying to become a fully formed part of the culture of our society, access to books is very important, as is your feeling welcome when you access them. Good libraries and bookshops encourage you to expand your breadth of activity. I have to admit a great sin here: I will be the first person to confess to buying books from Amazon. As has been mentioned, you get a nice list of things it thinks you will read—because of course, we only read one type of book. Occasionally we might indeed fall into that trap, but a good bookshop suggests other things you might want to try; its recommendations make things slightly more interesting. Indeed, sometimes bad bookshops are even better because they confuse you and make you dive around for what you are looking for—you have to work a bit harder. Like the noble Lord, I like the idea of the wonderful world of bookshops that reach out to you personally and say, “Come in. Things are available. Interact with them”. We have to ensure that this is encouraged and that we do not get rid of it.
We also need to make sure that the big online monster that is Amazon realises that the appetite for literature it is feeding is initially fed by bookshops and libraries, which encourage people to read that extra book, to engage and fill the gaps. I live nearly nine miles from my closest bookshop, and Amazon has a perfect way in, a justification for fulfilling my needs if I do not want to get into a car to go to that bookshop. We must make sure that Amazon realises that if it engages with this sector, we will not be that unfriendly, because it does address a need. We must make sure it pays its way.
Also, let us be slightly optimistic. I can remember when Waterstones was the big, bad enemy in the book world, when it was taking out all the small people. That was only a few years ago. It was opposing things and stopping diversity in the market. It is not now. It is now seen as part of the friendly group. It has changed its style, or has simply been overtaken. It is important to engage and make sure that we get out there. Libraries, bookshops and so on allow us to engage. If we can encourage them all to work together, they will complement each other. We need to make sure that Amazon does not put itself in the position of being the enemy. Public opinion, and indeed parliamentary opinion, eventually catches up. How long will we put up with somebody saying, “We are dodging this”? We have gone after most of the big companies that have done this, and most of them have decided that it is not worth running away. How much pressure are we putting on to make sure that companies such as Amazon are seen to be at least contributing to such activities, and engaging and supporting? We can go too far in addressing them all as one huge monster, but they have to be encouraged to see that there is a benefit in supporting and helping each other. Without that, we will lose the thing that allows us to access literature: supplying books in a way that makes us engage and look for new ways forward, ways to engage with other forms of literature.
We have not really mentioned books on disc, which is another important way into literature. Being dyslexic, I admit that I have many such books and can access them only through that means. Anything written in dialect might as well be written in ancient Latin, as I cannot get on with it. It is the way that many people interact with literature. Encouraging that brings us back to libraries, which are a very good source of making sure that one can engage with literature. If a well written book is being read to you by somebody else, you are still experiencing literature and interacting with it, and you can still become a part of the intellectual life of your nation. The worst thing is not to have access to that; you are cut off from something that is often designed as mass communication and entertainment—and then we put a little stamp on it later on, saying that it is intellectual. I wonder what Shakespeare would make of the fact that people are reading his plays as they sit in the audience, as opposed to listening to the actors. That is just a little aside.
If we are to encourage the utility of libraries and the richness that bookshops give, we must start to think in the round and slightly more long term to see how they feed off each other and support each other. Without that we are in danger of cutting away large chunks of what gives civilised life that little bit of comfort.
My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend on initiating this debate and speaking so personally and passionately. When I was six, my parents were told that I would never learn to read but it was a good thing that I had blonde hair and blue eyes. My mother took me home and taught me to read, and introduced me to books and libraries, and I have been passionate about books ever since.
My remarks will focus on libraries, although many of my comments could relate equally to bookshops. My main question is whether the general duty,
“to provide a comprehensive and efficient library service for all persons,”
as outlined in the Public Libraries and Museums Act, is in fact being met with respect to an often excluded group: people with learning disabilities, who were not mentioned in the Library briefing note.
I know of few initiatives in public libraries that welcome them. Shared reading groups offered by the Reader Organisation are open to readers and non-readers alike, to listen to literature read aloud and discuss what they have heard—but many people with learning disabilities struggle with oral storytelling because making sense of words takes them longer and they lack the confidence to participate. The good news is that their visual literacy is usually much stronger, and a preferred and good channel of communication.
Most people with learning disabilities have never used a library, and there is a lack of suitable books on the shelves for people who find pictures easier than words. Books Beyond Words, the charitable company that I set up five years ago as a spin-off from St George’s, University of London, is trying to rectify this. I declare an interest as the founder, editor and board chair, and also because my disabled son is a member of a Beyond Words book club supported by the Surrey library service. I hope that noble Lords will be patient with me while I explain the rationale behind this novel approach.
Beyond Words, in partnership with public libraries, has been developing book clubs in some London boroughs, Worcestershire, Kent, Medway and elsewhere in the south-east for adults whose visual literacy is far superior to their word literacy. The county that has taken this further than any other is Kent, where 16 different libraries now offer regular monthly or bi-monthly book clubs, and 10 special schools are starting book clubs for the senior students. These clubs will transition to a community library as school leaving approaches. I hope that their local libraries will survive because these are people who do not have easy access to transport.
The book clubs generally start with books from the 50-strong series published by Books Beyond Words. They are wordless books that tell stories in pictures to help people explore and understand their own experiences, and to learn about adult life and how to cope with its bigger challenges, such as love and relationships, health, death and crime. All the books explore relationships and emotions—perhaps unsurprisingly, given my background as the psychiatrist and psychotherapist. As there are no words, the group members look at pictures in turn, describing and discussing what they see and co-creating the story. Unlike in other book clubs, no pre-reading is required. It all happens in the club. Members can then be encouraged to borrow the books to reread at their leisure later. Some people who can read words say that they still prefer books without words since they can understand the story and the characters at a deeper level.
When one book has been finished, group members choose what they would like to read at the next meeting. At a recent book club in Epsom, co-facilitated by my son, the book club members were looking at the books on the library shelves to see what they might read next. One woman picked up books on epilepsy and diabetes, as she has both conditions. She then picked up the book When Dad Died and held it close to her. She was a little tearful and told the group that her dad had died and that she missed him. This prompted other group members to talk about their bereavements. The group agreed to read the book together at a future meeting. These books help people access and share their feelings and their own stories and support each other.
One school group in Kent catches the bus between the school and the library to get to the book club. It is a busy library and the group members are part of the life of the library—reading their books, talking and signing about the stories, guessing what comes next. Their teachers consider the whole experience to be a really useful part of their education, preparing them for their next steps in a very practical and enjoyable way. Many of these book clubs undertake what was called the Six-book Challenge, and is now called Reading Ahead. This national event is organised by the Reading Agency and supported by local libraries. When six books have been read individually or in a group, Beyond Words clubs host a small event to celebrate, with a certificate or a gift.
Many book club members may take a while to feel at home in a library for a variety of reasons. But book club meetings present a perfect opportunity to look for other books and return loans. Members learn how to use electronic devices for registering their loans and are soon keen to show other library users how to do this. Librarians guide them, offering suggestions on books that they might like. The Kent main libraries have a dedicated set of shelves for quick reads and easy read material, and other examples that people have then chosen include illustrated books on ABBA, trains, sport or cookery.
My experience is that libraries want to be as inclusive as possible but do not always have the skills and knowledge that they need. Sometimes they might have books without words, but no one reads them as they do not know where they are or how to use them. Training is usually necessary, with both librarians and volunteers quickly learning what works and how to sustain it. Once librarians have understood the needs of a group of people who are not generally library users, they become enthusiastic supporters. They observe people enjoying themselves and benefiting from books, as well as learning to use the library.
The first steps after deciding to host a book club are usually very simple—identifying a quiet place to meet, creating a shelf for suitable books and advertising the plan to partners and community groups locally. This is very important because people have to be recruited to come as new users. Book clubs then develop in a range of ways and expand beyond their original remit. For example, one group helped local hospital staff learn about books in this series that help people access healthcare, and another invited a policeman to come to the club after reading a book about criminal justice and was then invited to visit the police station. Several groups have gone on to explore art books for stories or visited the National Gallery or their local art gallery. Nine book groups in Kent obtained funding from the Arts Council, in partnership with Kent libraries and the Skillnet Group, to co-create three short stories in a new fantasy series called Picture This. The groups imagine the stories with artists and are proud now to have their own copies and see their own creation on the shelves of their local library, and available for others to buy.
Libraries and bookshops should be important parts of all communities, to support the widest possible range of people, including disabled people, to socialise, enjoy and learn. Libraries are free, warm and welcoming, and usually provide a disability-friendly environment. This is so important for people with such a low rate of employment—less than 10% of people with learning disabilities are in work. But belonging to a book club can provide a chance for a member to move into volunteering, as happened when Julie became a volunteer at Deal and Dover libraries and now helps to run book clubs for other people with learning disabilities.
The reduction in skilled staff in libraries and the threats to bookshops come at a very exciting time in the history of learning disability. More people than ever before aspire to a life of full participation rather than one of care. We should never underestimate the personal, social and cultural capital that comes from belonging to and participating in such valued mainstream activities and facilities. Does the Minister agree that public libraries and bookshops are ideal places to introduce people with learning disabilities to the world of books, if they and their supporters know that they will be assured of an appropriate offering and a warm welcome? Libraries and bookshops are safe places for vulnerable people to meet each other, to develop friendships through sharing their stories, and to develop their visual literacy in a supportive and enjoyable setting.
My Lords, I, too, add my congratulations the noble Lord, Lord Bird, for securing this debate. I want to speak today about the future of libraries and other shared community spaces in rural areas, as a vital contributor to rural sustainability. I should declare an interest as the president of the Rural Coalition, which brings together a range of rural interest groups, and as a bishop responsible for a large number of rural parishes across Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire.
As noble Lords will know, rural areas face particular challenges when it comes to connecting with the wider world. Many rural towns and villages can be hard to reach by public transport, while telecommunications access can be very poor indeed. Around 1.5 million rural households struggle with an inadequate or non-existent broadband connection. This lack of connectivity means that many of those who live within rural communities, particularly the most isolated rural communities, can be heavily reliant on local services when it comes to connecting to the wider world. Isolation is one of the greatest threats to rural life, and shared community services and spaces such as libraries provide the best way in which to combat that threat.
The problem, of course, is that rural services have much lower footfall than their urban counterparts, which in turn limits the amount of investment and support that local authorities and companies are willing to provide. Rural libraries can be difficult to justify at a time of severe budget constraints. A 2013 Defra report concluded that the future of rural library provision lay in increased economies of scope—that is, reducing cost through diversification of service provision—rather than trying to increase economies of scale. Rural areas need libraries that are co-designed with other services and local spaces, whether that be the post office, a local cafe or shop, a village hall or, indeed—and this suggestion was sadly lacking from the final Defra report—even the local church.
In this internet age, there is less need for libraries that provide an enormous reference section, and far more need for many of the alternative services that libraries can provide, such as Sure Start and other children’s services; internet access for those who do not have their own connection; IT advice and support for those who lack digital literacy; and, indeed, a simple space for members of the community to meet. In some particularly rural and remote communities, the books themselves do not even need to be present the entire week round. A number of noble Lords have talked about mobile libraries, which can ensure access to books for a number of different communities. They have been operating for decades. I remember as a child in the tiny hamlet where I was brought up that once a week the mobile library would arrive and we would all queue up and go in and get our books.
What is required is that shared community space, a platform from which these vital services can be provided. This is not simply about protecting the spaces and libraries that we already have—many rural villages have been operating without an adequate library service for years. We need to empower local communities to reimagine existing community spaces, helping them to refurbish these areas, staff them, very often with volunteers, bring in new equipment and, vitally, connect them to the internet, so that they can provide a connectivity hub for the local community.
At this point, my interests as a bishop in the Church of England should become clear, because the Church of England is the guardian of 10,199 rural community spaces, which we call parish churches. These churches are important to those who use them as a place of worship on a regular basis and to those who mark significant moments in life through baptisms, weddings and funerals. That remains our core business, but it must be remembered that the use of these buildings is not restricted to Christian worship. Our churches are buildings for the whole community, not just the faithful. In some cases, they are the last public building remaining open in a small rural community, and form a tangible link with the past as a source of local identity.
In recent years, the Church of England has rediscovered a medieval concept of the nave belonging to the local community and being a place that can be used more widely and made more accessible to the wider public. Noble Lords will be aware of the role that the Church has taken in providing foodbanks and debt advice. Sometimes they meet in the church itself; there is a rising wave of imaginative adaptation of church buildings for wider community use, which has breathed new life into them. An increasing number now house a village shop, a post office or a digital hub, and there is real scope for adapting local churches to provide some of the vital services that libraries can bring. St Peter’s in Peterchurch, Hereford, is a brilliant example of how a local church can be adapted to better serve the local community’s needs, with a children’s centre, a coffee shop and a fully functioning library, beautifully adapted to a place of worship which reaches the whole community through a volunteer-run transport scheme.
As I said previously, a vital aspect of any rural community hub is internet provision, something which many rural libraries already provide, and here church towers or church spires can provide new possibilities in those hard-to-reach areas. I know that conversations have already been held between the Church of England, DCMS and Defra about using church spires to wirelessly connect rural spaces to good-quality broadband. This is something that I hope we will be able to explore further in the future.
Reimagining how communities use their local churches is easier said than done. Communities themselves can be reluctant to allow changes to be made to their public spaces and, even when they are willing, the process of redesign does not come cheaply. St Peter’s secured funding for its redesign through a range of initiatives, including LEADER and the Rural Development Programme—both funded through the EU. Future post-Brexit funding streams will need to become available if further schemes are to become viable.
I hope, however, that the Minister recognises that there is some potential here for the Church and the Government, along with many other rural community organisations, to work, both locally and nationally, more closely together when it comes to the future of rural services—libraries being just one very good example of that—so that we can ensure the future sustainability of rural communities across our nation.
My Lords, I am very grateful to my noble friend Lord Bird for the opportunity to speak in this debate. When I was a teenager and in my 20s when I could not afford to buy books, the local library—a very well-stocked library—was in many ways my window on the world, a chance to learn about other cultures. My own passion was for books on art. This was a time, too, when bookshops seemed to be thinner on the ground than even today, when we have had so many recent closures.
Today, with the ability to buy books online from Amazon, AbeBooks—which is owned by Amazon—and other retailers, there is at least in theory a greater potential for people to access books. Yet you can walk into some homes today—middle-class homes—and there is not a single book in sight. It would seem that so many people got rid of books in favour of the internet and, perhaps, e-books. This shift in culture against books will have of course affected the poorest among us, who do not have access to the internet.
There are fundamental questions about how important books and libraries are in 2016. There are questions about how literate you can be using only, or mainly, the internet and how much we ought to redefine what literacy means in the digital age. Nevertheless, the libraries expert, Sue Charteris, in a University of Liverpool newsletter in 2012, pointed to the UNESCO report that indicated that reading for pleasure is the single best indicator of social mobility, with the UK currently rated 47th out of 65 nations in this regard. Within this context, she made the observation that: “Those that need”—a library service—
“most are the ones that don’t know they need it”.
I would say that they are the ones who have not discovered reading for pleasure, which is not necessarily something that a school will teach you, at least not by itself. I echo the concern of the noble Lord, Lord Tope, about disappearing school libraries.
It is useful to put that UNESCO finding next to this year’s widely reported OECD study on basic skills, which found that, out of 23 countries of the developed world, England has the lowest of all literacy rates for 16 to 19 year-olds. I thought that it might be interesting to compile a few statistics of my own on libraries, based on the countries in the OECD study. Finland, which is close to the top of the literacy table, has one library per 6,900 people. Germany, whose literacy levels are significantly higher than ours but lower than Finland’s, has one library per 7,900 people. The UK, at the bottom of the table, has one library per 17,000 people. Korea has been building hundreds of libraries in the last few years and is at the top of the table. Of course, these are rough stats that do not tell the whole story; nevertheless, we are going in entirely the opposite direction to Korea. We are rapidly closing libraries, which in itself will send out a strong signal to younger people about the value that society now places on libraries and, therefore, books in whatever context. And this is despite the clear love that much of the British public have for libraries and the protests about closures that we hear about, almost on a daily basis.
The Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy found that the number of people borrowing books in the UK halved from 1997 to 2014. To a certain extent, the internet has of course been a factor—something that has affected many countries. Yet, it is how different countries have reacted to this that makes the difference. In Germany, the reaction has been to increase opening hours, including trial opening on Sundays; to make libraries appealing not just to small children but to young people generally; and to ensure that libraries lend e-books. This has all led in the past two years to an increase in the use of its libraries. In Germany, e-books represent only 6% of book sales, so the country is already trying to cover all bases. But such strategies of course require an investment which our Government seem currently unwilling to make. It should be added that, with around 80% of sales, the physical book is still the dominant culture within the UK and, recently, sales have gone up.
In the wider society, books need to appeal to everyone, not just the middle classes. Literacy will improve only if reading becomes second nature—libraries ought then to have a huge part to play. At present, however, for too many young people, libraries are desperately uncool, not just because of the dominance of the internet but because there is no investment, they are being closed and books are being sold off. It is a downward spiral and, the more libraries we lose, the more our literacy problem is going to get worse because schooling does not exist in a vacuum. Libraries are part of the wider social context. A belief in libraries is a belief in books. I emphasise that by libraries I mean public libraries, not volunteer libraries, because it has to be a belief recognised by society at large.
As many other noble Lords have pointed out, the latest statistics on closures are, of course, appalling. The BBC’s survey in March discovered that about 8,000 jobs have disappeared and some 340 libraries closed in the last six years, with over 100 more expected this year. I have no doubt that the statutory requirement for libraries as set out in the 1964 Act has been breached in some—perhaps many—local authorities. Paul Maynard MP seems to thinks so about library services in Lancashire. But the fact is that libraries, like local museums and cultural services generally, are in the front line of cuts that affect all public services and get worse every year. I certainly do not blame most local authorities for what is the fault of central government. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Bird, that we absolutely need to get rid of austerity. But if we did that, we would also no doubt plough back funding into not just libraries but all else which alleviates poverty such as proper welfare and proper social care, because in the end, of course, illiteracy is caused by poverty. The closure of libraries is itself a form of poverty: it is the poverty of access to culture, literacy and reading for pleasure.
My final point about libraries particularly concerns living authors. I thank the Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society for the briefing on this. Without authors there would be no readers and we would not have libraries full stop. Volunteer libraries are part of the great British spirit but I believe very strongly that they should not be a substitute for properly funded public libraries. Nevertheless, book counts towards PLR remuneration could easily be made at these libraries, otherwise authors will lose out, and the Public Lending Right Act 1979 can be amended to include them. PLR should also be extended to remote e-book lending. Do the Government have plans to introduce this change into the upcoming Digital Economy Bill?
My Lords, I declare an interest as I chair the board of the British Library. I was also the Minister at DCMS some years ago whose remit covered libraries. That gave me an opportunity to understand much better than I think I had before what a wonderful contribution our libraries make.
Other speakers have spoken eloquently about the many valuable roles of public libraries and the fact that local authorities have a statutory duty to provide comprehensive and efficient library services under the 1964 Act. I shall briefly reinforce what has been said with respect to their role in education before going on to describe a particular project which has been developed by the British Library. From the time I took my then small children to my local library in quite a poor part of central London to browse in the children’s section and then to select books which they could take home—at first to have read to them and then later, when they were older, to read for themselves—I have believed passionately in libraries’ educational role. This is a passion I share with the noble Lord, Lord Bird. Like other speakers in this debate, I am very grateful to him for both securing the debate and the spirited way in which he introduced it.
As I am sure all noble Lords taking part in this debate agree, reading and literacy are central to every child’s learning. Those who are slow to read and grasp the essentials of literacy will be greatly disadvantaged in their levels of achievement across all other subjects. Moreover, if they fall behind, it is often hard to catch up and their opportunities for further education and fulfilling jobs will be seriously damaged. We know, for example, from an OECD study that 40% of unemployed adults have low basic skills.
A love of books is best instilled early and public libraries can play a vital role in developing the habit of reading through hosting book clubs and running reading programmes. The noble Baroness, Lady Hollins, mentioned book clubs, which can be very valuable for children as well as adults. Public libraries also have an important role in collaborating with primary schools, welcoming visits from groups of children with their teachers. This is especially valuable in areas where parents are unaware of their local library and what it can offer. For older children libraries also offer a quiet haven where they can study in the evening and on Saturdays, doing their homework and preparing for public exams. In this way libraries have a role in mitigating the inequality that derives from cramped and noisy homes, where concentration for these children and young people is truly difficult. For adults, libraries have played and still are playing a helpful role in developing information and computer literacy skills. They also have an invaluable role as sources for wider lifelong learning.
For these educational reasons alone the closure of public libraries over the last five years is a disaster. More than 500 libraries have closed over a five-year period. A further 111 closures are planned over the coming year. Can the Minister say what the Government plan to do to stem these closures? Can he assure the House that they will find ways of preventing the implementation of these plans? Can he say what financial help the Government will give to local authorities to maintain libraries to fulfil their statutory functions, so that places such as Lancashire—mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Bird—which has decided recently to close 29 libraries, reducing the number from 73 to 44, can rescind these plans? Can he also say what the timetable is for the recently announced review by the Secretary of State at DCMS? As the noble Lord, Lord Tope, said, what we want now is action rather than yet more reviews.
I turn to the role of public libraries in supporting economic growth and the part the British Library plays, working with public libraries to develop entrepreneurship and foster new businesses. As I am sure we all agree, libraries are an essential part of the knowledge economy. They are often at the heart of communities, provide both a physical space and usually digital access, and are well placed to be entrepreneurial hubs. The scheme that was launched in London at the British Library was to provide a one-stop shop for entrepreneurs, in particular from the creative, media and technological industries. It has since been expanded so that there is now a network of eight business and IP centres in libraries across the UK, in Birmingham, Leeds, Manchester, Liverpool, Newcastle, Sheffield, Northamptonshire and Exeter, and Hull and Norfolk libraries are also joining the network. These centres provide advice and support, knowledge resources around funding, business development and IP protection, along with workshops, networking and research services.
An independent evaluation has found that over the 10 years that the London scheme has operated at St Pancras, more than 5,000 businesses and 10,000 jobs have been created for Londoners. Some 49% of the businesses started with the help of the centre are owned by women and 32% by black, Asian and minority ethnic groups, compared with 20% and 8% across the UK for new businesses which have not had such support. Small businesses which use the service are four times more likely to succeed and be sustainable; only 10% failed after the third year of trading, as against 40% to 50% in similar schemes that lack the support these centres provide. Similar figures are emerging for centres in libraries outside London, which have not been going for quite so long, and where it was also found that a quarter of users were unemployed or had been made redundant when they came to those centres. Therefore, the scheme provides an amazing service for people who are struggling because they are out of work, but have an interesting idea to set up a new business. I could give many good examples of businesses that have succeeded through these schemes, but I do not have enough time to provide them.
I have described this scheme and told this story to illustrate how libraries can help create jobs and contribute to economic growth, as well as all the things they do for education, culture and local communities by providing information to people who need it and have no other way to find it. I hope that the Minister will acknowledge this important economic role and that the Government will act to maintain our public library system, so that the current situation does not continue and it is able to expand and develop its work.
My Lords, I too congratulate my noble friend Lord Bird on securing this debate and on the passionate and well-informed way in which he introduced it. I am glad he has done so because it is the sort of area which we could easily overlook, particularly when faced with the big, pressing issues around Brexit, although it is part of the texture of life for many people in this country. I make a very modest declaration of interest in that I have a number of books in print, and therefore I guess that from time to time I secure a small income courtesy of libraries and independent bookshops.
There are many interesting points in the briefings which our excellent Library has produced for us. The most striking and staggering one has already been mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Rebuck, and my noble friend Lord Clancarty, which is that our young people are less literate than our pensioners. We are the only OECD country and probably the only country in the world where this is the case. This is the complete reverse of what is happening elsewhere in the world, where people are trying to increase their skills and wealth and get better life chances for younger people moving up through the generations. If you like, it is development in reverse. It seems similar to that other dreadful projection we know of, that life expectancy for our grandchildren will be lower than it is for ourselves. If there were any worrying signs of a civilisation in decline, these would be two of the sort of ones you would look for.
I am going to talk about health and well-being, and not just the cultural, civic and educational significance of libraries, although they go very closely together. First, I shall refer to three major problems of modern life which impact enormously on our health and well-being: child development; loneliness, particularly in older age; and mental illness. They all affect health but none of them is within the control of the NHS and the curative health services. We have entered an era where the major causes of illness are outside the control of the NHS, and we have to think again about what we need to do. There is an old African saying which sums it up rather well: “Health is made at home, hospitals are for repairs”. Bearing that in mind, perhaps I may think about those three problems in the context of libraries and booksellers.
First, on child development, there are dreadful figures showing that only 50% of children in this country pass all their development tests by the age of five—in other words, that they are ready and fit to go to school and to learn. Literacy is at the absolute heart of this. The ability to read leads to so much else, as others have already said, and libraries have a vital role to play. I shall give your Lordships a concrete example.
A few years ago, the Scottish Government initiated the early years programme with the great ambition of making Scotland the healthiest and best place in the world to grow up. They set about doing that by bringing together the various government departments, and they set out a number of interventions. Surprising as it may sound, one of the major interventions was encouraging parents to read their children bedtime stories. That has all kinds of implications relating to books, imagination and, of course, human contact. If you adopt that sort of approach, recognising the importance of those sorts of things in creating healthy and resilient children for the future, you will realise that it means we need libraries. We cannot buy all the books that our children might want to read; we need libraries to supply them so that there is a regular supply of books for bedtime storytelling.
Libraries provide so much more for children, such as access to the internet and computing, which not everyone has at home. Libraries are not the enemy of IT but part of the revolution, adapting to a changing world. They also provide for people with particular needs, as my noble friend Lady Hollins said so eloquently.
I turn to the subject of older people. Loneliness in our society has a health risk which has been calculated to be equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day. This is partly about how modern society is organised, with a lack of meeting places, people leading isolated lives, distant families and divorce, all of which put pressure on people. We also know from medical evidence that people who are lonely get well more slowly, and we understand the impact and importance of high morale in older people. There is some very clear evidence that a healthy old age derives from being healthy when you get to 60, having some meaning in life and having a good social network. Again, libraries are part of the solution here: they are about older people meeting and swapping books. I remember that when I was a community worker in Liverpool years ago, older people used the library very much as a meeting place. They swapped books and, just in case they forgot, they wrote their initials in the back of each book when they had read it. I am sure that librarians hated that; on the other hand, they provided a great service to the community.
This is not a sentimental retro-vision of the 1950s. Libraries and independent book shops are not about going back and trying to stop change. They have to adapt and embrace change, and we have heard many good examples of that. I was particularly struck by the noble Lord, Lord Addington, pointing out that they are in many ways the front door to local government and, as such, could be developed still further.
I turn to a case where libraries are specifically working on a health issue—that is, mental health. The excellent briefing from our own Library tells us that, in June 2013, the Reading Agency and the Society of Chief Librarians developed a programme called Reading Well Books on Prescription. This was about ensuring the availability of a whole range of books, chosen by experts, about mental health and depression, and how to handle some of these issues ourselves. I gather that half a million people have used this service and that 90% of them rated it as having been useful. This seems to be a very valuable approach that a library can take in targeting a particular condition or range of conditions, and it may need to be expanded. I understand that Health Education England is working with libraries precisely to expand this sort of programme.
I do not want to exaggerate the importance of libraries and reading for health, but I hope to make the case that they have a significant role to play and are part of a wider trend. We tend to think of the NHS, health professionals and politicians as being responsible for our health, just as we think of teachers, schools and politicians as being responsible for our education. While they all have fundamental roles, of course, they cannot do it by themselves and we would not want them to. Education is not just about schools, and health is not just about the NHS.
Our health system at the moment is severely under strain, and we know that the NHS cannot reach everywhere. It cannot deal with child development, loneliness in old age, causes of stress and mental ill-health. It can only, as the African might say, deal with the repairs. Everyone has a role to play: employers, educators, planners and libraries. That is why my noble friend Lord Bird and I, with others, have written a “Manifesto for a healthy and health-creating society” that we published in the Lancet last Saturday. I will not talk about the detail here, but it makes the point that we need in our country—not just for health reasons—healthy and resilient communities and individuals. Libraries can and should be part of this. Or I could just say, as an African might, health is made at home and in the community.
I do not suppose that anyone is actively trying to destroy libraries, but there is a danger of our destroying part of the fabric of our life almost by accident. We are getting rid of something valuable and which could have an even more valuable role in the future if a bit more imagination and vision were applied to the issue. Let me ask two questions. Do the Minister and this Government understand the actual and potential wider role that libraries can play in building strong, resilient and healthy communities? If so, what are he and they doing to make sure that this potential is realised?
My Lords, I too thank the noble Lord, Lord Bird, not only for initiating this debate but for his very powerful opening speech. I also thank my noble friend Lord Griffiths, because he reminded me of my own childhood. I was a secondary-modern boy who failed his 11-plus, and for me, the library opened up a world of knowledge and imagination that I simply could not obtain at home.
Libraries are a practical tool and a vital public space for individuals and families across the country. They are a resource for parents with young children, schoolchildren without a place to work at home, jobseekers trying to gain new skills and employment, elderly people living in isolation, and community groups. Increasingly, as we heard from my noble friend, they are an incubator for new ideas and businesses to come to fruition.
In Questions to Ministers, I have raised the importance of the Secretary of State exercising his responsibility under the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964. Because these responsibilities have not been widely understood, the withdrawal of financial and political support for public libraries in England has gone unchecked. The last time that a Secretary of State used powers to order an inquiry into whether a local authority was fulfilling its statutory duties was in 2009. Yet Ministers have said that this is the first Government to review every closure. Apart from Lancashire, which was mentioned recently, will the Minister tell us how many councils they have actually intervened on since 2010 and to what effect? The reality is that Ed Vaizey, the Minister for most of this time, refused to intervene in any library reductions whatsoever. Despite having the resources of his department at his disposal, he preferred to rely on desktop research to assess library closures.
The government figure touted was totally at odds with the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy, independent BBC research, and what the public could see happening to their local libraries. As we have heard from noble Lords, the BBC said, from its research, that over the last six years 343 libraries closed. Of those, 132 were mobile services. Since that research the numbers have increased. The number of paid staff in libraries fell from 31,977 in 2010 to 24,044, a drop of 7,933—25% of paid staff cut in the 182 local authorities that provided comparable data. A further 174 libraries have been transferred to community groups, while 50 have been handed over to external organisations to run. This is alongside a reduction of £180 million since 2010.
Of course, the Government have also recently announced their intention to withdraw central revenue support grant, meaning that local authorities will fund local services such as libraries from local revenues, including council tax, 100% retention of the business rate and the new homes bonus. The reality is that the Government are slashing local government finance to the bone and leaving local authorities to pick up the pieces. Sadly, when many library services were under threat we had a Minister with no sense of urgency, no coherent strategy or strategic direction, no guidance for local authorities and no idea what might be the minimum acceptable outcome.
When the Independent Library Report for England was published in 2014, the Opposition very much welcomed its conclusions. There was 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 supported the review’s conclusion to establish the libraries task force. With cross-party and organisational working at the heart of its activities, with functions far wider than the sole advisory function of its predecessor, the ACL, and with its focus on delivery, it is the best hope to retain the library service in our country.
The libraries task force has already focused on the role that libraries play in improving digital access and literacy, and with Arts Council England has enabled universal wi-fi coverage in public libraries in England. Since the Arts Council took over responsibility for supporting and developing libraries from the former Museums, Libraries and Archives Council, it has made available £6 million of lottery funding to create cultural events in libraries to ensure they become and retain a community space. We have had further investment of more than £1.5 million to help local authorities work better together and have supported a range of national initiatives, including reading, digital and health issues that we have heard about in the debate. The Arts Council has also confirmed in a recent announcement, in its approach for its 2018-22 round of support, that libraries will be eligible to apply for all their funding programmes wherever proposals meet the Arts Council’s published aims. We are seeing innovation and new uses for libraries.
Since it was established, the libraries task force has, among other things, worked with partners including BT, Barclays and the Tinder Foundation to build digital skills in communities. It has continued, as we heard from my noble friend, to support the expansion of the British Library’s business and IP centre network to support small businesses, and it has published two toolkits: Libraries Shaping the Future: Good Practice Toolkit, in December 2015, and Community Managed Libraries: Good Practice Toolkit in 2016.
As we have heard from many noble Lords, in March 2016 the task force published its draft document, Libraries Deliver: Ambition for Public Libraries in England 2016-2021. After its publication, a consultation period ran until 3 June. The document does not provide all the answers, especially as funding will remain the biggest issue, but it is a road map for future developments, emphasising the importance of public libraries for a whole range of activities.
The report calls on national and local government and all other stakeholders to come together to deliver an action plan for the future. Such an action plan would also encompass governance and delivery, new ways of working, and marketing and communications. As we have heard, the departure of Ed Vaizey and the appointment of a new Minister has led to a delay in the publication of the final report and therefore the action plan, apparently to allow the new Minister time to review the document, visit libraries and talk to colleagues.
Although Matt Hancock has taken over most of Ed Vaizey’s responsibilities, he does not have the public library brief, which has gone to Rob Wilson, and his other duties are all about boosting volunteers and non-profit organisations. That may give a pointer to how he sees some of the key issues in libraries. It is hard to see him coming out against using volunteers at the expense of paid staff in libraries when his other role is all about increasing their number. His first public utterances emphasised volunteering and community action. Will the Minster indicate when we can expect the final report?
Finally, the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals has suggested that changes made to library services without reference to an appropriate statutory guideline may be unlawful not only under the 1964 Act but in respect of the requirements of the Equality Act 2010. What discussions has the Minster had with the institute on these alleged breaches of statutory duties? What is the Minister’s response to the call from the institute urging all authorities that may be considering or implementing changes to their library services without statutory guidance to put such changes on hold pending the outcome of discussions with the DCMS?
My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Bird, on securing this debate and Members from all sides of the House on all their interesting and thoughtful contributions. What came through to me from the noble Lord’s opening speech, apart from his passion and impressive desire to promote books, was his commitment to books themselves. I welcome his gratitude to government for its role in teaching him to read.
I find myself in agreement with many, although not all, of the points that have been raised—on the importance of books and literacy, on their wider role in civil society and on the deep and lasting pleasure they bring to those who are able to read. Libraries, bookshops and booksellers contribute enormously to the civic, cultural and educational well-being of this country. I think that we all agree that access to books is vital.
The noble Baroness, Lady Rebuck, reminded us that the UK publishing industry is an international success and significant in economic terms. UK book publishers’ turnover from sales of digital and physical books in 2015 reached £4.4 billion and total book export revenues were £1.42 billion.
While the number of bookshops has declined, 2015 showed promise for the sector with an increase in the number of physical book sales, and I am glad to say that the reduction in the number of shops has slowed.
Nevertheless, one of the more often heard complaints from independent bookshops—and many small businesses—is the effect of business rates. The noble Lord, Lord Bird, and several others talked about this. The Government announced in this year’s Budget the biggest ever cut in business rates, worth £6.7 billion and benefiting 900,000 properties, including bookshops. In addition, from 2017 small and medium-sized retailers will be permanently supported by a more generous small business rate relief and being taken out of the higher business rate. We have lifted thousands of businesses out of paying national insurance contributions.
In addition, a number of welcome initiatives support booksellers. These include the Hive initiative founded by the book wholesaler Gardners, and the Civilised Saturday initiative—an extension to the Booksellers Association’s Books Are My Bag campaign mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Rebuck—which nominated last Saturday, 8 October, as Bookshop Day, a reminder that bookshops are an integral part of communities around the country. I am glad to say that as part of that campaign I visited my marvellous local bookshop, the Borzoi Bookshop in Stow-on-the-Wold—and I bought a book. We acknowledge the competitive market pressures as retail deals with the evolving nature of the marketplace but we are doing several things in response.
I will come later to the big question of Amazon but before doing so I turn to the other important institution for book lovers we are talking about: the library. I confirm to the noble Lord, Lord Crisp, that the Government recognise the value of libraries in providing a range of activities to their local communities. The right reverend Prelate mentioned ways that that might be extended and other organisations might be involved in libraries. I will come on to that later. Yet when surveyed, of people who use libraries less than they once did the most common reason given is that they have less free time. This suggests that libraries are right to embrace digital technology. The number of e-books issued by libraries has recently increased significantly. Importantly, libraries also provide alternative book formats and audiobooks to assist people with learning difficulties or sensory impairment. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Hollins, that they are a good place to welcome those of all disabilities. They should be welcoming and safe places.
The most recent public data indicate that local authorities fund more than 3,000 public libraries in England and invested £714 million. There were 225 million physical visits to public libraries in England over the same period. To put that in perspective, that is more visits than to Premier League football matches, the cinema and the top 10 UK tourist attractions combined. However, I should clarify that the library service in the other home nations is a matter for the devolved Administrations. I support the point of the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, about the libraries in the areas he mentioned but that is the responsibility of the Scottish Government.
In England, there is a statutory duty for the provision of public libraries. The Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964 requires local authorities to provide a “comprehensive and efficient” library service for their local communities within available resources. However, while the duty is devolved to local authorities, the 1964 Act also requires 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 duties conferred on them under the Act. The noble Lord, Lord Griffiths, does not appear to be in his place—I beg his pardon; he has moved. I will attempt to explain the potential conflict he saw in this area. When we are talking about superintending, the Act provides the Secretary of State with the power to intervene by directing a local inquiry following receipt of a complaint. Contrary to what might have been implied, the Secretary of State takes these duties seriously and carefully considers complaints that are lodged.
The noble Lord, Lord Collins, was right to say that the power of inquiry has been used only once in the past 52 years—in the Wirral in 2009, under a Labour Government—but, in answer to his question, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport has investigated 11 complaints raised in respect of a number of library authorities in recent years. The Secretary of State at the time of each of these previous complaints decided not to order a local inquiry. DCMS is currently investigating four further complaints relating to Harrow, Southampton, Lambeth and Lancashire. Each complaint is considered on a case-by-case basis. DCMS collects and analyses all the relevant information regarding the proposed changes to the library service. This includes an assessment of local needs, as well as consideration of alternative models of delivery. I am afraid that I cannot give the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, a timetable for Lancashire, which is yet to be decided. If there is serious doubt that the library service provided by a local authority offers a comprehensive and efficient service, this Government will not hesitate to order an inquiry.
Let me be clear: the Government are determined to support libraries, even though they are a devolved matter for local authorities. The noble Lords, Lord Crisp and Lord Tope, asked what action we were going to take. We invested £2.6 million in 2015-16 to install and upgrade wi-fi in more than 1,000 libraries in England. This means that wi-fi is now available in over 99% of public libraries in England, in both urban and rural areas—a point highlighted by the right reverend Prelate. This was commended by the noble Lord, Lord Suri. Furthermore, the Government are working with authors, publishers and other interested groups to support the provision of e-books and other online reading resources by libraries.
Together with the Local Government Association, we set up the Leadership for Libraries task force. It involves key representatives of the sector, including chief executives of local authorities, the Society of Chief Librarians, the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals, Arts Council England, the British Library and the Reading Agency. It has a clear purpose: to provide leadership and help revive the public library service in England. It has already published toolkits and case studies to aid local authorities and, as has been mentioned, has consulted on a draft vision, Libraries Deliver: Ambition for Public Libraries in England 2016-2021. Once finalised, this will provide practical and innovative options that local authorities can use to maintain and improve library services. This will include what the right reverend Prelate described as a shared community space; in other words, to extend the use of libraries to make them more available, welcoming and useful for the whole of society.
Relevantly, the new Minister responsible for libraries, mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Collins, is also the Minister for Civil Society. He has visited a number of libraries and met library stakeholders and is currently considering with officials what further support and advice the Government can offer local authorities. The noble Lord, Lord Tope, invited me to give an outline of what is to come in this document—confidentially, obviously, but from the Dispatch Box. I am afraid I cannot help him. But I will tell him and the House that the ambition document will not sit gathering dust. It will challenge both central and local government and include an action plan. In answer to the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, and the noble Lord, Lord Collins, it will be published shortly. The task force will review and update it annually, and provide progress reports every six months.
Further support for the library sector is provided by Arts Council England. This is the development agency for public libraries in England and is funded through the National Lottery and grant in aid from DCMS. It is committed to supporting the development of the library service, while recognising the importance of safeguarding a service that is fit for purpose now and in the future. It invests directly in development activity, including funding support to the Society of Chief Librarians, as well as reading and literacy charities such as The Reading Agency and Book Trust, which deliver programmes in partnership with libraries.
We recognise that local authorities face challenges in evolving library services to meet changing public needs within funding constraints. In practical terms, we have provided them with a four-year flat cash settlement of £44.5 billion from 2015 to 2019. This provides four years of certainty and they have £200 billion to spend on local services. We will encourage local authorities to consider a full range of alternatives before making significant changes to their library services. This may include volunteers, which were mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Collins, and the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull. There are also examples of alternative approaches such as the delivery of library services by mutual organisations, as is the case in York.
I said that I would briefly mention Amazon, which is obviously a huge subject that could take many minutes to talk about. I want to highlight that this issue has not been left by itself. First, the European Commission opened a formal antitrust investigation into certain business practices by Amazon—for example, in the distribution of e-books—in June 2015. For the UK, the Competition and Markets Authority has spent considerable time with the European Commission putting forward the concerns set out by various representatives of the UK book industry, with a view to ensuring that key issues affecting the UK would be addressed as part of its investigation. The Competition and Markets Authority currently understands that the Commission’s investigations will cover many of the features of the UK market that have been drawn to its attention. Secondly, in previous action in relation to Amazon, the Office of Fair Trading opened a formal investigation of Amazon’s price parity policy in October 2012 and Amazon subsequently removed that policy. Thirdly, as I have said at this Dispatch Box many times, we expect Amazon to pay its correct share of taxes and to be a good corporate citizen, so we are not ignoring the giant elephant in the room in that respect.
The noble Baroness, Lady Hollins, talked about the exclusion of learning disability groups. I mentioned the charities that libraries are working with that are funded by the Arts Council, a DCMS arm’s-length body. I want particularly to mention the Reading Agency, which helps on some mental health issues—for example, through the Reading Well Books on Prescription programme for common mental health conditions. That programme is supported by, among others, the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy, the British Psychological Society, NHS England, the Royal College of Psychiatrists and the Mental Health Foundation. Another charity is the Book Trust, which is one of the largest reading charities in the UK and is supported by Arts Council England.
The Government also strongly support school libraries but we think it is for individual schools to decide how best to provide and maintain a library service for pupils. In fact, a survey result in 2010—some years ago—indicated that 96% of all pupils in the UK were attending a school that had a library.
The noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, mentioned the idea of libraries providing careers advice. Libraries provide a plethora of services and whether this extends to careers advice is an issue for the local authority in ensuring that the service meets local needs. But that is an excellent thing to think about and, as he said, it may well be economic in the long run to do it.
We agree that books matter. That means that the public library service, bookshops and booksellers all matter too. The Government recognise that the way people read has changed and that this inevitably will change the way they use libraries and buy books, but that does not mean that the library, the independent bookshop or physical books have become obsolete. It means that libraries and bookshops have to evolve. We will do all we can to encourage and enable reading and to ensure that everyone has access to books, for their value is impossible to overstate.
My Lords, that was a very interesting trawl through all the reasons why libraries and bookshops are not fluffy. They are not some little thing that you can add to society when you have a few bob in your back pocket. It is interesting that, as was explained by all speakers today, we see libraries and bookshops as the very intellectual backbone of society. I will be carrying on, in my itchy sort of way. I would like to think from what the Minister has said that we will see a turnaround and a reversal of their slow decline. I thank noble Lords.