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Public Libraries

Volume 801: debated on Monday 3 February 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, following the publication of the report by the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals and The Big Issue, Public Libraries: The Case for Support, on 15 October 2019, what plans they have to invest in England’s public libraries.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question in my name on the Order Paper, and I bring to the attention of the House my interest in this product.

My Lords, the Government are committed to supporting a sustainable, long-term future for libraries in England. We want libraries to be resilient and equipped to meet local challenges—to thrive, not just to survive. The Government announced proposals in December 2019 to increase local government resources by £2.9 billion, meaning spending power will rise by 4.4% in real terms in the year 2020-21. The Government are also investing £125 million, through the cultural investment fund, in regional museums and libraries over five years, starting in 2021.

I thank the Minister for that reply. Might there be a cross-government problem whereby the Minister for the creative industries is in charge of promoting libraries while the local government Minister actually spends the money? In recent times, 6,000usb people have lost their jobs in libraries and we have had 10% shrinkage in libraries, and there has been no intervention by the ministry of culture.

I start by thanking the noble Lord for the work he does in this area and for his beautiful blue report, which I have a copy of with me and which makes good reading. He makes a good point about the need for close working between government departments and I would like to think that we have made real progress on that, with the establishment of the Libraries Taskforce, together with the Local Government Association, and the establishment of a clear five-year strategy up to 2021, the Libraries Deliver strategy, which the noble Lord will know. For the first time, we have some clear data about libraries; not so long ago, we did not even know how many libraries we had. We are now building a dataset that will allow both departments to make good decisions.

My Lords, does the Minister recognise that people go to public libraries not only to find books but sometimes to learn digital skills, to access their social security benefits and perhaps even just to keep warm and find some human kindness? Have not the wholesale closures of public libraries over the last 10 years been an assault not only on the concept that reading and learning are precious in themselves but on the very principle of community?

The noble Lord is absolutely right that these are invaluable institutions, which often represent a real anchor within communities and are often used by the young, those not in employment and those from black and minority communities. However, I disagree with the blanket picture of gloom that he paints. About 25% of libraries have seen their visits grow since 2010—in fact, since 2006. There is a real divergence in how libraries are responding to the needs of their communities, and we need to learn from those which are most successful.

My Lords, I must declare an interest as co-chair of the Libraries All Party Parliamentary Group. I have the noble Lord’s report as well. The Minister has referred to the cultural investment fund. While it is very welcome, I think only 10% of that fund has actually been allocated to libraries, and it is all capital. The problem libraries have, which is leading to the closures that have already been referred to, is the lack of revenue funding. Arts Council England has recently published its 10-year strategy, which highlights the transformative work of local libraries in their communities. How will the Government ensure that enough revenue funding is available for libraries to sustain this work and ensure that it reaches all parts of the community?

The noble Lord is ahead of me if he is confident that 10% of the fund will be allocated to libraries; my understanding is that the split between museums and libraries has not yet been determined. On revenue funding, both elements are important and we are seeing that the successful libraries are the ones that are being most innovative in responding to the needs of their communities, including in digital literacy and other services that they offer. The funding settlement for local authorities this year will help contribute to sustaining that.

My Lords, I have some confusion in interpreting the figures that are constantly put by one Minister after another giving an indication of the Government’s commitment to the Question currently under discussion. They sound like huge amounts, but I have no way of conceptualising them as percentages of or trends towards the kind of progress that we must surely all want. I heard the figures, but can the Minister guess—or, perhaps, do even better—whether the five-year plan she announced a moment ago will undo the losses of the 10-year lack of a plan that is just ending?

I do not want to guess at the Dispatch Box, as ministerial careers get cut short if one makes a habit of that, but it is clear that there is massive divergence between the top-performing libraries —the 25% which are seeing their footfall grow—and those which are seeing their footfall decline. We are trying to understand from those very successful libraries how to replicate that more broadly across the country. One thing that certainly comes out of this is that commissioned libraries appear to be disproportionately represented in that rapidly growing element, so perhaps there is also something about visibility of funding which helps in planning.