My Lords, while the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport does not record details of public library closures for councils in England, it monitors changes to library service provision throughout England. If DCMS receives representations that changes agreed by a council might mean that that council is failing to meet its statutory duty to provide a comprehensive and efficient library service, it carefully considers the evidence before deciding whether a local inquiry is needed.
I thank the Minister for his reply. He will know that the Government set up the Libraries Taskforce, which produced an action plan in 2016. I thought it was quite an admirable report, which stated:
“Libraries change lives for the better”.
It included reference to tackling social isolation and saving the NHS an estimated £30 million a year. Can the Minister tell the House how libraries can improve lives when in the last year alone £30 million less was spent on local libraries and a further 127 were closed?
My Lords, I agree with the noble Baroness that libraries are important. We certainly think that good libraries are a valuable asset. They strengthen communities and become community hubs. We agree that we should make sure we monitor the role local authorities have in providing a comprehensive and efficient library service. It is not helpful just to look at straight numbers of openings and closings. Sometimes it is the right thing to close a library and to produce a better, more centralised library that is in partnership with other local community areas. We support the idea of it and monitor very carefully the statutory duty local authorities have.
My Lords, the i recently quoted a librarian who spends much of her time helping with universal credit claims. She said:
“People talk about cutting library services without really acknowledging we’re doing a lot to prop up services that haven’t been provided by the Jobcentre”.
Will the Government now acknowledge and fund this vital work that libraries are doing to prop up the universal credit scheme?
I take the noble Baroness’s point. Libraries do more than just the traditional providing of books. The role of libraries has changed because the nature of society has changed with the internet. That is why we funded libraries to have access to the internet so that people who do not have it can get it, and over 99% have. I agree that in some cases libraries fulfil roles that other public services used to do. That is why, as I said, we monitor local authority provision, but we have to remember that this is a devolved responsibility. Local authorities have a duty to provide a comprehensive and efficient library service.
Will my noble friend pay tribute to the scores of volunteers in North Yorkshire who have enabled a series of isolated rural libraries to remain open, and to North Yorkshire County Council for providing the facilities? I am learning the joys of e-books, another facility that rural areas are benefiting from.
I agree with my noble friend. Community libraries and volunteers are both very important. There is no doubt that a number of libraries have closed and the library service is under pressure, as are a lot of other local authority services. The percentage of local government expenditure spent on libraries has in fact remained pretty constant, showing that many local authorities value the services of libraries and continue to make difficult choices to preserve their numbers. One of the ways they are doing so is by getting partnerships with other organisations, in which volunteers play a very important role.
My Lords, libraries are not the only public cultural assets suffering from the Government’s continuing cuts to local councils. Is the Minister aware of the intended sale next month by Hertfordshire County Council of 428 artworks, including work by Barbara Hepworth, Julian Trevelyan and other well-known British artists, despite a petition signed by local people to stop the sale? What is the department’s response to this sad and still avoidable selling off of publicly owned work?
I was not aware of that, but I will ensure that the Minister for Arts, Heritage and Tourism is made aware, if he is not already. It is sad when local authorities sell public artworks, but I accept that they have difficult decisions to make, and that is what local authorities are for. The important thing is that decisions that affect local communities should be taken locally.
My Lords, this is a question in which all Members of this House can take a personal interest. Each of us could give testimony on what libraries have meant to us. When they were small, our children relied on them often, and even in the age of social media, it is the same thing all over again with our grandchildren. When local authorities have had to cut their budgets by 60% in recent times, closing libraries offers an easy way of saving money, but simply to say that the Government have outsourced responsibilities to local authorities is not good enough to address this question.
Even if the DCMS has not conducted its own impact assessment, the unions have, and without repeating the statistics, it is a horrendous picture of dissatisfaction from those working in libraries at the service they are obliged to offer the public with fewer and fewer resources. Do the Government not feel it appropriate to put this further up the priority list and address this question with urgency, for the good of us all, and our families?
It is very easy to blame the Government when devolved decisions are not to the liking of people living elsewhere, such as noble Lords. I accept that when difficult decisions have to be made, they cause issues. We support local libraries by providing things such as wi-fi. Through Arts Council England we provide the Libraries Opportunities for Everyone Innovation Fund, the private finance initiative and the Libraries Taskforce; all are examples of DCMS centrally supporting the library service. I accept that local authorities have had to make difficult decisions. Libraries actually have been retained and it is worth bearing in mind that many local authorities have refurbished or opened new libraries. Therefore, it is a question of priorities and what a local authority thinks is important for its area.