Clause 6. — (Special Provisions as to Non-County Boroughs and Urban Districts.)

Orders of the Day — Public Libraries and Museums Bill – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 8th June 1964.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Sir Edward Boyle Sir Edward Boyle , Birmingham Handsworth 12:00 am, 8th June 1964

I beg to move Amendment No. 24, In page 5, line 1, to leave out from the beginning to "by" in line 17 and to insert: 6.—(1) Where—

  1. (a) the council of a non-county borough or urban district was a library authority immediately before a date (in this section referred to as a "review date"), being the date of the commencement of this Act or falling ten years after that or any subsequent review date, and
  2. (b) the population of the borough or urban district at the review date is less than 40,000,
the Secretary of State, if, after consulting the council of the borough or urban district and also the county council or, where the county council is comprised in a joint board established under section 5 above, the joint board, and after taking account of any likely changesin the area and population of the borough or urban district and of other relevant matters, he is of opinion that to do so would lead to an improvement in the library facilities made available under this Act in the borough or urban district, may at any time before the next review date by order provide that on a date specified in the order the council of the borough or urban district shall cease to be a library authority.(2) The power to make an order under subsection (1) above shall be exercisable. This is the big Government Amendment to Clause 6 which arose directly out of our proceedings upstairs. I hope that the House will bear with me if speak at rather greater length on this Amendment than on some others we have considered today. The Amendment has two objects. First, it gives effect to undertakings that were given in Standing Committee, as reported in c. 184 of the OFFICIAL REPORT, that the Secretary of State would have regard, among other things, to the alternative service provided by the county council, the effect of local government reviews and other changes likely to affect the population of the library authority in question. My hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mr. Denzil Freeth) will recall the importance that a number of hon. Members attached to ensuring that when this Clause operates consideration will be given not merely to the population as it is today, but also the prospective future population.

The second object is to make the new subsection (1) fit the existing subsection (2) which was added in Standing Committee. The Committee, in its wisdom, carried an Amendment saying, in effect, that the power to refuse an application to continue a library service for a small authority shall be exercised only by Statutory Instrument subject to annulment in pursuance of a Resolution by either House of Parliament. I said that I did not propose to ask the House to reverse that decision taken in Standing Committee, but this in a sense is drafting to enable the new subsection (1) to dovetail with the decision taken by the Committee on that occasion.

The new subsection (1), in lines 10 and 11, requires the Secretary of State to take account of any likely changes in the area and population of borough or urban district". This would include boundary changes and changes in population for other reasons, for example, overspill of population from the area of one authority to another. Subsection (1) as redrafted also provides that the Secretary of State may deprive a library authority of its functions only if he is of opinion that to do so would lead to an improvement in the library facilities made available … in the borough or urban district". This gives effect to the principle that no authority should be deprived of its functions without regard to the standard of services which it would be likely to get from the county council.

It has always been the intention of the Government to take account of this factor. On Second Reading, I said that I held the balance between county and borough rather more fairly than some of my hon. Friends. My hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice (Mr. Wall) is not present, but I think that he would not mind my saying that he was unfair in accepting too uncritically the view that my Second Reading speech was tilted in favour of the counties.

This subsection makes it absolutely clear that the Government's intention is, without question, to have regard to the standard of the alternative services which any small borough would get from the county council. Apart from giving effect to these undertakings given by my hon. Friend the Joint Under-Secretary in Committee, the subsection has been redrafted to fit in with the new subsection (2).

The effect of subsection (2) is that the taking away from a borough or urban district council of its library powers must be done by means of an Order made by Statutory Instrument subject to the negative Resolution procedure. I hope that the House in the future will not use this procedure too indiscriminately, in such a way as to obstruct the proper administration of the Act. As the hon. Gentleman knows, I was not in Standing Committee that morning. But one of the things that impressed me was the moderate tone in the speeches on both sides of the Committee in favour of an Amendment which was then carried against the Government, and I am satisfied that there will not be any indiscriminate use of this procedure which would make it, I think, impossible to carry out the Act.

The effect of this revised wording is in substance the same as before, except for this: if an authority with a population of less than 40,000 is to be deprived of its library powers, there will now have to be an Order made by Statutory Instrument instead of just a refusal by the Secretary of State of an application made by the Council. The administrative procedure will be rather different because no formal application from an authority will be necessary. Instead, there is a requirement that the authority shall be consulted by the Secretary of State and that it seems to me, is clearly right.

I want to mention one other effect of the revision and change made from the original wording in the Bill. Subsection (1), in its original form, meant that a library authority with a population of under 40,000 which failed to apply for the continuance of its powers within six months of the review date lost them automatically. It was never the intention that a local authority should lose its powers by oversight—1 think that if my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State was here he might say per incuriam—but this could have happened under the original wording. Under the revised subsection all library authorities will retain their powers unless and until the Secretary of State makes an Order under subsection (1) or (5).

Perhaps I might mention that in the Amendment, in page 5, line 28, leave out "(1) or" is consequential on the one I have just been discussing. No application is required under the new version of subsection (1) and that subsection now contains the requirement for consultation with the county council or joint board.

I ask the House to forgive me for speaking a little longer than usual on this Amendment, because there are one or two other points that I should like to make. First, it is not my idea that all decisions on library functions will have to be postponed until the county review required under Section 28 of the 1958 Local Government Act has been carried out. There will probably be areas where county reviews are not likely to be a relevant factor, but where there is doubt as to their effect this ought to be taken into account and in some cases, but only some, it would be right to postpone the decision on library functions.

I and my Department are very keen to hold the balance fairly—on the one hand, not to hurry up decisions where there is real uncertainty about local government boundaries in the future, but, equally, not to use the 1958 Act or allow it to be used as an occasion for an indefinite filibuster in what may be one or two sensitive areas. I think that that would be wrong. The hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Mr. Boyden), who is not in his place now, said, fairly enough, that we had not said very much about standards during these proceedings. I want to emphasise the words of the Working Party, namely, that it is not enough in the assessment of efficiency to consider any given public library authority in isolation. The words of the Working Party are very relevant to the Amendment which we are discussing: The performance of any authority has to be examined in the light of the performance of others. For instance, the efficiency of a smaller authority must be compared with that of any system with which it might be merged or with which it might enter into closer co-operative arrangements. It would be no service to the public for the Minister to withdraw the library powers of an existing authority on the grounds that essential standards were not being mantained if the authority which took its place were then to maintain equally low or even lower standards, and it is no answer to this argument to say that the alternative authority has greater potentialities unless those potentialities are at least demonstrably in sight of being realised. Then again, the interaction between two or more systems must be taken into account in considering the actual or potential efficiency of either. In other words, we need to form a plan of what will be the best development prospects of the library service considered as a whole, and in doing so I can assure the House that there is no question of the Government starting with a prejudice either on the side of the boroughs or on the side of the counties.

I sound two notes of caution. There may be places where it would clearly be in the interests of the inhabitants of both the areas concerned—the county and the borough or urban district—if the two library services were joined, for example, by pooling their resources. There are many cases in which they might then greatly extend the range of books available. By using one library to serve both the town and the surrounding county, they might well be able to improve the service all round. These are considerations which my right hon. and learned Friend and his successors should take into account. No one should think that the new wording implies that he could not properly take into account the benefits to the county council area of the amalgamation as well as to the borough or urban district, but, of course, the borough or urban district will, naturally, expect an assurance that any change will not be for the worse from their point of view.

The Secretary of State is entitled here to take the long view. He will not expect a sudden and dramatic improvement on the day of a transfer, if such a transfer is decided upon, but he must be satisfied that the change will lead to an improvement and the best planning of the arrangements in the area.

I believe that, in practice, it will often be found the best method to keep to the timetable proposed in the original wording of subsection (1). Subsection (1) as it left the Committee provided that unless an application for the continuance of the council as a library authority were approved, it should cease to be a library authority six months from the notice of the Minister's refusal, or, in the event of no application for continuance, one year from the review date.

It is, broadly, my right hon. and learned Friend's intention, though we have this altered procedure and altered legislative language in Clause 6(1), to allow the same sort of interval for arranging the transfer if the authority concerned desires it, although there may be occasions on which it might be better to fix some other date, such as the beginning of the next financial year. I cannot help feeling that one advantage of the procedure by order, subject to negative Resolution, is that it will allow for greater flexibility.

I hope that I have shown that we have given considerable thought to the wording of Clause 6. We have taken notice of the points raised by hon. Members on both sides in Committee. On the one hand it is important that justice should be seen to be done for the smaller boroughs, but, equally, we must remember the objective of the best library service all round. This is a matter which must not be decided by who shouts loudest. In each area we must consider what is best for the future of the library service and for those who use it, and I suggest to the House the new wording of Clause 6 gives a reasonable procedure both for settling what are bound to be a number of extremely difficult questions and for settling them in a way which affords reasonable parliamentary control by the House.

9.0 p.m.

Photo of Mr Fred Blackburn Mr Fred Blackburn , Stalybridge and Hyde

The Minister of State has said that the words of the Amendment are very clear and easy to understand. They may be crystal clear to the right hon. Gentleman, but many people will think that they are imprecise. The provision after taking account of any likely changes in the area and population of the borough or urban district seems to me to have to cover two things: first, the local government review, and, secondly, the question of overspill. The Minister of State did not say what other relevant matters there are.

The words would lead to an improvement in the library facilities made available are to cover the comparison between the standard of library facilities provided by counties and those provided by non-county boroughs or urban districts.

The language is rather imprecise. These words are now introduced to fulfil a number of promises given in Committee on certain Amendments which were accepted in principle. The Amendments were clear in their wording and could be easily understood. My experience of Ministers is that, if an Amendment is extremely clear and everybody can understand it without any worry, the Minister in charge always says, "Whilst I accept the Amendment in principle, it may not be worded exactly correctly and I will table an Amendment, properly worded, on Report".

For obvious reasons, I was not a member of the Standing Committee. I forget whether at the time I was presiding over the Police Bill, or enjoying the company of the Scots. However, I was very interested in the progress of the Bill, not only because of my own great interest in the library service and what was to happen to it, but because of my constituency interest, because in my constituency there are three non-county borough library authorities which are extremely proud of the provision they make but are in danger of losing it.

In Committee, the Joint Under-Secretary gave three very definite and precise promises. First, with regard to the effect of the Local Government Commission's review he said this: I undertake that we shall do our best to find a form of words to meet this kind of Amendment before Report. I do not know why the words of the Amendment needed to be considered, or why a different form of words was necessary. However, the Government have chosen this form of words. I am not quarrelling with the Amendment. I am merely saying that it is not as precise and clear as the Amendments moved in Committee.

I raised on Second Reading the question of the local government review, because my constituency comes within an area which is at present being considered by the Local Government Commission. We do not know how long it will take the Commission to report or how long it will be after the Commission has reported before Parliament considers the matter. It would seem to be rather foolish to transfer the library authority to the county council if in a short time we get a report from the Commission that there is to be an amalgamation of a number of authorities, as some of them have expressed a wish to do, and a new county borough is formed. I take it from the speech of the Minister of State that that promise is supposed to be covered by the words likely changes in the area and population". Any likely growth of population is a factor to be taken into account. Again, we have this very definite promise by the Joint Under-Secretary: We shall be prepared to write a provision of this kind into the Bill".—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Standing Committee E, 9th April, 1964; c. 184.] The Amendment was much clearer than the words the Government now propose to write into the Bill.

This is also a constituency matter, because Hyde, in my constituency, has a population of about 32,000, is a library authority and believes that it provides an excellent library service. Before long it will have a population of well over 40,000, because of the overspill being received from Manchester. I take it from the explanation of the Minister that that matter is covered by the wording of the Amendment.

Photo of Sir Edward Boyle Sir Edward Boyle , Birmingham Handsworth

I have been doing some comparing while, the hon. Gentleman has been speaking. I note that although we discussed five Amendments together in Standing Committee it would seem that … any likely changes in the area and population of the borough or urban district… is a reasonable digest, of those five, very much longer Amendments.

It should be remembered that one of the Amendments moved by the Opposition talked of … expected in the near future… and I have deliberately drafted this Amendment without the inclusion of those rather limiting words.

Photo of Mr Fred Blackburn Mr Fred Blackburn , Stalybridge and Hyde

The right hon. Gentleman is clear about what the Amendment means. I hope that those who have not heard his explanation will be equally clear.

The third factor is the alternative service which the county council could offer. In Standing Committee, the Joint Under-Secretary said: … my right hon. Friend has appreciated the force of the arguments which have been deployed. We shall, therefore, on Report seek to write into the Bill a provision to that effect."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Standing Committee E, 9th April, 1964; c. 184.] I take it that the words in the Amendment, … would lead to an improvement in the library facilities…", would carry out that promise. I do not know whether the Minister has considered the Amendments which my hon. Friends moved in Standing Committee on this point, and whether he thinks the words in his Amendment are more precise. Perhaps we should not look a gift horse in the mouth. The right hon. Gentleman is confident that the Amendment will carry out the three promises to which I have referred. We have those promises on the record and I hope that the right hon. Gentleman's Amendment will achieve the purpose he has in mind.

Photo of Mr Robert Grimston Mr Robert Grimston , Westbury

In calling the hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mr. Denzil Freeth), will he be rising to move his Amendment?

Photo of Mr Denzil Freeth Mr Denzil Freeth , Basingstoke

No, Mr. Deputy-Speaker. I rise to intervene in the debate.

I thank my right hon. Friend for fully fulfilling the promises he made in Standing Committee. I am grateful to him for insisting on consultation, for stating that the Secretary of State must take account of any likely changes in the population or area and I agree that this is a concise form of phraseology. I like the phrase "relevant matters", because it is fairly broad and will enable every possible consideration to be made in every possible circumstance.

Photo of Mr Fred Blackburn Mr Fred Blackburn , Stalybridge and Hyde

Would the hon. Member be prepared to say what he understands to be the meaning of "relevant matters"?

Photo of Mr Denzil Freeth Mr Denzil Freeth , Basingstoke

Any matter which the Secretary of State would consider relevant.

Photo of Mr Denzil Freeth Mr Denzil Freeth , Basingstoke

Even more important, it will mean that urban district councils and borough councils will be able to submit to scrutiny every point they have in mind which is related to the provision of library facilities.

Several Hon. Members:

rose

Photo of Mr Denzil Freeth Mr Denzil Freeth , Basingstoke

I will not give way. I think that we have done enough semantics for the moment.

I am equally glad that my right hon. Friend has fully fulfilled his undertaking to write into the Bill words to the effect that any change in a library authority will have to lead to an improvement in the library facilities of a borough or urban district council. I am also glad that my right hon. Friend has accepted the decision of the Standing Committee in relation to exercising this power only by Order, and Order subject to annulment by Resolution by either House of Parliament. As my right hon. Friend knows, both sides of the Committee, with one or two exceptions on each side, laid very great stress on this principle, and we should be grateful to him for accepting the wisdom of the Committee by redrafting this Clause about the axis of that decision.

It is good that the onus should be on the Secretary of State to approach local authorities, to inquire into their intentions and look into them in his own time and in the order of his own choosing. It would have been very sad if some library authorites had found that their right to remain library authorities had gone by default because a letter had not been answered. In general, therefore, I should like to thank my right hon. Friend very much for all that he has done.

With regard to the two Amendments standing in my name in the Notice Paper, as I said earlier, the first Amendment was put down, in the main—

Photo of Mr Robert Grimston Mr Robert Grimston , Westbury

Order. The hon. Member cannot discuss his Amendments now; he will have to do that when I put the second half of the Question. That is why I asked him earlier.

Photo of Mr Denzil Freeth Mr Denzil Freeth , Basingstoke

I apologise, Mr. Deputy-Speaker. I was trying to explain why I did not intend to move them. For various reasons I have given I shall not move them, and will not dwell longer on them. I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. I am sure that the Bill is very much better through the wisdom and statesmanship which he was brought to it.

Photo of Mr James Jones Mr James Jones , Wrexham

I am very pleased with the Amendment. I was very worried during the Second Reading debate about the figure of 40,000, as I have a constituency case affected by it. Wrexham has a tradition of 78 years as the first local authority in Denbighshire to establish a library. I am very pleased that the Minister has seen fit to move this Amendment, and I am quite satisfied with it.

Photo of Mr Kenneth Lewis Mr Kenneth Lewis , Rutland and Stamford

I, too, would like to thank the Minister for this Amendment, which has gone a long way to reassure those of us who were a little worried in Committee. He has removed any idea that there was prejudice on his part then. A great many small library authorities are quite as good as the larger ones, and some of them are better. What I like about the Amendment is that it provides that no library authority shall cease to be such unless that would lead to an improvement in the library facilities.

When my right hon. Friend was speaking just now, I thought that he was inclined to support the view that it might be justifiable for a small authority that at present had a library to amalgamate with a large one, because the smaller one would improve the larger authority. That is as though a bucket of water, dropped in the sea, could make any difference, or as though a ruly person could, on going into an unruly house, improve the household.

Larger authorities should look after themselves in this connection. I do not think that there would be much advantage in a smaller authority being amalgamated with a big one in order to improve the big one. The big authority has to improve itself, and has to be told by my right hon. Friend that it should improve its library service, if that service is deficient. If, within a county council area, a small borough has a superior library service, the large county should be told that because of the borough's good deeds in the past and its present good standard, it should be allowed to continue. I therefore take it that in putting down this new Amendment my right hon. Friend intends to look at all these matters with an open mind. I hope that he, or whoever his successors may be, will do just this when dealing with smaller authorities.

9.15 p.m.

Photo of Mr Joseph Harper Mr Joseph Harper , Pontefract

I interrupt the vote of thanks which seems to be circulating throughout the Chamber in gratitude to the Minister to say that I am against the Amendment. I am certainly against the population limit of 40,000. There seems to be a fetish in every debate in the House and, indeed, elsewhere in the country that there should be larger and larger authorities. It is said that a county borough must have 250,000 population before it works properly and that an urban district council cannot be worked with a population of under 50,000. This is all wrong.

The hon. Member for Rutland and Stamford (Mr. K. Lewis) said that some of the smaller library authorities are better than the larger ones, but somebody has got it into his head that the larger the better. [Laughter.] I am glad somebody is laughing. This is the first laugh that I have heard here today. One would think that the future of England was at stake on this issue, but this is not so.

We are fast getting into a situation where if one is small one is of no account and if one does not get out of the way one is kicked out. If that cannot be done by fair means it is done by foul. We in this Chamber, of course, do it by fair means, because there is such a thing as a Statutory Instrument, known as Mr. Secretary of State. I may appear to be biased on this subject. I belong to a small authority, and I am proud of it. We do a better job than the big authorities in many ways.

There are two library authorities in my constituency, but I have not been approached by them on the subject of the Bill or on libraries in general. In Pontefract, we have a very good library authority. I do not say that it could not be better. Since this Bill was introduced it has taken steps to improve the library service by employing extra staff, and so on.

The other library authority in my constituency is quite remarkable. My hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley (Mr. Duffy) did a great deal of homework on this subject before Second Reading, especially on the statistical side. He found that the other authority to which I refer, Castleford, has the finest record of any non-county borough in the West Riding in the matter of library services, and the West Riding authority is supposed to be one of the best education authorities areas in the country. The Castleford service is certainly better than that of any county borough, with the exception of the City of Sheffield, which is also in the West Riding.

The population of Castleford in the late 1950s was about 43,000, but for one reason or another it is going down. In 1960 it had dropped to 41,690. In 1963 it dropped to 40,300. In 1964 it is just over the 40,000 mark—40,240. By the time the Bill is passed it may be below 40,000. If this is the yardstick which we are to apply, two of my library authorities will go out. One is the best in the West Riding, and if my hon. Friend had done some more homework he might have found out that it was the best in the country.

Photo of Mr Patrick Duffy Mr Patrick Duffy , Colne Valley

Certainly—for its size.

Photo of Mr Joseph Harper Mr Joseph Harper , Pontefract

Therefore, I do not know why the Minister has moved an Amendment like this or why he has written into the Bill the figure of 40,000, to which I take very great exception. I do not think that population has any great bearing on the matter.

The Minister, in his reply, might say that the bigger the population, the bigger the rateable value, the bigger the product of a penny rate and the more money the local authority will be able to invest in the library service. But is that so? I do not think that it is. If it were so, the West Riding County Council would have a better library service than Castleford, but it has not. The Minister indicated that if there were two authorities which were a little insensitive—one has to read into these things and one does not always arrive at the right answer—they can get together with the county. Who gets together with any county without the county taking charge? If Pontefract, with a population of 25,000, dovetailed in with the county, it would not be Pontefract; it would be the West Riding County Council. The county council would take charge and would be the boss. As the right hon. Gentleman said, the counties are not always the best library authorities. I do not think that this would add anything to what Pontefract has now. It certainly would not add anything to what Castleford has.

I ask the Minister to think again about this Amendment and to withdraw it. I do not think that it will benefit anybody. We have carried this farce of bigger authorities and larger boundaries too far. It is getting us nowhere. Somebody has got a fancy idea in his head. If he thinks that it will not work one way, he will work it another way and we shall finish up with it not working at all. I suggest to the Minister that he looks further at this Amendment with a view to withdrawing it.

Photo of Mr Patrick Duffy Mr Patrick Duffy , Colne Valley

I want to take issue with the Minister's statement that he has met all the points raised in Committee on Clause 6. He certainly has not done that. He has not met the objection to this Clause that I put forward through the medium of the Amendment which I moved in Committee. The right hon. Gentleman may recall that I was particularly concerned at that stage about his writing into the Bill of this population criterion of 40,000. I know that he has made considerable concessions. The Amendment is a big improvement. Nevertheless, it does not meet my objection to the 40,000 criterion which is implicit in the Clause.

It is not good enough for the hon. Member for Rutland and Stamford (Mr. K. Lewis) to say that the Minister will, presumably, judge with an open mind the right of independent library authorities to continue to be independent library authorities even though they have a population of less than 40,000.

Photo of Mr Kenneth Lewis Mr Kenneth Lewis , Rutland and Stamford

I said that I hoped that my right hon. Friend and his successors would judge this with an open mind. If they do that, the smaller authorities, if they are efficient, will stay.

Photo of Mr Patrick Duffy Mr Patrick Duffy , Colne Valley

Does the hon. Member really believe that the Minister can bring an open mind to bear on this question whilst he persists in retaining the 40,000 population criterion?

Photo of Mr Kenneth Lewis Mr Kenneth Lewis , Rutland and Stamford

I have already proved that my right hon. Friends on the Front Bench are receptive to pressure, influence and persuasion from me concerning smaller authorities by what they did in Rutland. I cannot assume that they would do any less for library authorities in the hon. Member's area or elsewhere

Photo of Mr Patrick Duffy Mr Patrick Duffy , Colne Valley

If there were more Rut-lands, I would agree, but Rutland is merely a symbol of the flexibility which the hon. Member has mentioned. I do not think that it will go beyond that. I doubt whether we shall see any other examples of that kind of concession.

The 40,000 population criterion will be taken by the Minister as corresponding to a minimum standard. It will be the inarticulate premise that will inform his judgment. Far from bringing an open mind to bear upon the capability of small authorities to continue as independent library authorities, the Minister will start with this objection to them simply because they have a population of less than 40,000. They will be regarded as less qualified than authorities with more than 40,000 population and they will start at a disadvantage.

The Minister would not be human if he was not influenced in that way against them. He simply cannot bring completely objective criteria to bear upon the future of authorities with populations of less than 40,000 whilst he retains Clause 6(1,b). Since he has made the concession which he has done, why has he not gone all the way and removed this population criterion? It is clear that he regards this as an integral part of his Bill. When one goes back to the Committee stage, one readily sees why. The Minister argued then that he was concerned about the cost to ratepayers. In this context, I quote paragraph 57 of the Roberts Report, which states that the public library service is not maintained, as many other local services are maintained, at a cost strictly proportionate to population, since the range of demand from a population of 20,000 in one area may be as wide as that from a population of 50,000 in another. The Minister regarded that as a significant point, and so do I.

The right hon. Gentleman clearly thinks that a smaller authority has as wide a range of demand for books as a larger authority but that the cost of meeting that demand would be much greater proportionately. He considered that to be an argument for writing the population criterion into the Bill, and, of course, he is right. Why, however, has he not taken the view that among the 194 municipal bodies and urban district councils who would be affected by the Clause, there may be some who would be prepared to bear this greater cost? Why has not the Minister been prepared to allow this? He may reply that he will be prepared to do so.

I remember what my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Mr. Idwal Jones) said and the eagerness with which he rushed forward to congratulate the Minister, as did his hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Stamford. I suspect that my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham thinks, as I do, that those who will be affected are only the authorities with a population of just below 40,000, whereas I am thinking of urban district councils in the West Riding of Yorkshire, although not in my constituency, with a population considerably less. I have no constituency interest. I am merely concerned, as is my hon. Friend the Member for Pontefract (Mr. Harper) for the smaller authorities who have been doing a good job. I want them to be allowed to go on doing a good job.

The cost to the ratepayer does not come within the Minister's province; it is not his direct concern although it is, of course, important. If the Minister was really concerned for local government and its strength and morale, he should avoid weakening it. But that is just what he is doing by taking away an important responsibility like that of providing a library service from smaller authorities and giving it to larger authorities.

9.30 p.m.

This transfer of functions from smaller authorities to larger authorities in local government for so many years now has been gnawing at the vitals of local government. As I shall say later, on Third Reading, I am not opposed to reform in local government. On the contrary, I welcome it, and I realise the case for larger units, perhaps more than does my hon. Friend the Member for Pontefract; but where small authorities can justify their retention of powers I think they should be allowed to go on possessing them.

These smaller authorities—some of them I have in mind have populations of only between 20,000 and 30,000—urban districts are still outside the conspectus of the Minister. I do not think he thinks for a minute that his concession will reprieve them. I do not think these small authorities will be impressed by what he has had to say about an alternative service. I think the Minister's criterion should not be population; the criterion should be one of efficiency. Again, I know he has said this, but again let me repeat that I do not think he will jog them on terms of efficiency but that he will jog them on terms of population size. Incidentally, before I leave the matter of population, he has not convinced me, and I suspect he has not convinced many Members who served on the Standing Committee, that 40,000 is the right figure, if we have got to have a figure at all. I have not heard any conclusive argument in favour of a particular figure.

I am not indifferent, of course, to the burden which a great responsibility such as that for the library service places upon some smaller authorities, and they, no doubt, will have to surrender their powers, and some of them may do so willingly, but nor do I regard financial resources as the only criteria. There are others I have already mentioned, such as the will to go on trying to provide this service; pride in having done it in the past and having done it well; the tradition of having been a good library authority in the past, even though it is a small, a paltry, seemingly, urban district authority, which can, nevertheless, put up a better record than many large county boroughs and even its own county council. It is with these small authorities I am concerned.

The hon. and learned Member for Darwen (Mr. Fletcher-Cooke)—I am sorry he is not in his place—reminded the Joint Under-Secretary of State and the Minister in Committee: Does he see no virtue in establishment as such? Has he never read Edmund Burke? Is he sitting on the wrong side of the Committee?"—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Standing Committee E, 9th April, 1964; c. 191.] He was, presumably, at that point directing his remarks to the Minister, but I would remind the hon. and learned Member that neither he nor his party has any monopoly of Edmund Burke. I recall that I have never heard anyone speak or argue so convincingly about Edmund Burke and with such warmth as the late Professor Harold Laski. I never heard anyone argue a case more convincingly against Edmund Burke than the late Professor Laski.

However, I think the Minister's duty above all is of course to provide general supervision, which is what this Bill is all about, to try to reconcile imposing standards from the centre with local autonomy. I do not underestimate the difficulty. It is a very difficult equilibrium to establish. I hope the Minister is listening to me because I should welcome his comments on this. I am not speaking extravagantly when I say that I think this is crucial to the success of the Bill, this establishment of an equilibrium which is fan to what the Minister is trying to achieve, a reasonable standard throughout the country, but also fair to the people in the locality who have been doing the job for many years and now believe they are being treated badly.

I do not think that the Minister has established this equilibrium through Clause 6(l,b). It is an arbitrary figure at best if he must have it. I do not think that the small authorities will be reassured by new Clause 1. If the Minister insists on having the population criterion in the Bill, it will frustrate many small authorities because they will believe that they are being judged more severely than others simply because they are small. I do not see how the Minister can bring a completely impartial criterion to bear on his judgment about the small authorities while he has Clause 6(1,b).

I do not know of anything that produced greater unanimity on both sides of the Committee than this matter. Despite the eagerness with which my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham and the hon. Member for Rutland congratulated the Minister, I cannot believe that the concern then expressed has completely drained away. There are still some hon. Members, such as my hon. Friends the Members for Pontefract and for Stalybridge and Hyde (Mr. Blackburn), who share my concern and my belief that the Bill would lose nothing if the Minister removed the population criterion. On the contrary, that would improve it. The Minister would still get the standards that he is after and that we all want, but his action would convince the small authorities that they were being treated on their merits.

Photo of Mr Edwin Wainwright Mr Edwin Wainwright , Dearne Valley

I want to say a few words on behalf of the small authorities, and I want to do without being parochial—which might appear to be very difficult.

The Minister should realise that local authorities which have small libraries are at present providing the facilities that we have been talking about to the best of their ability. When the Minister says in his Amendment "after consultation" with the borough or urban council and the county council, he means that he will have a few words with them. But I always dread it when a Minister puts these words in a Bill. What the Minister means here is, "Right. I will listen to what you have to say, but if you have a population of less than 40,000 you are out." This is wrong. If this is at the back of the Minister's mind all the time, it is not fair and just. I may be misjudging the Minister on this issue, but in my short experience of the House I have always found that that sort of consultation with small authorities is of no value.

We are placing the small authority against the county council. Anyone with any experience of local authority work knows that as soon as it is possible for a county council to take over certain powers, it rarely grants those powers to a smaller authority. In the light of the possibility of this sort of thing happening, the Minister ought to be very wide in his examination of the problem.

I am greatly disturbed by the trend in both local government and industry for larger and larger units on the ground that they create greater efficiency. They do in many instances, but we must not forget that by having larger units we are inclined to lose the human touch, which is very important. To me, the local touch is the human touch. If the Government persist with a minimum of 40,000, they will remove the contact between people in these small local authority areas and their local councillors by placing responsibility for their libraries not in the hands of local library committees, but in the hands of larger units.

If the Minister can convince me that this will bring greater facilities to the people I will be with him wholeheartedly. Tonight, we have been talking about facilities for students and adult education. Where are the reference libraries to be? Are they to be in the local libraries? Or are local library committees to be told that their accommodation is not big enough and the quality of service not good enough? If these facilities are not good enough, how do we improve them? We do so by spending more money—local ratepayers' money.

Up to now, we have not heard of any grant from central funds for this purpose. Is the money to come from the larger authority? If so, it cannot spend more and more money on each local library. If it could, then those local libraries might as well stay under their own local authorities, which will be passing over the rates to the larger authority.

Obviously, this means that libraries will be centralised and that worries me. In providing facilities for students, are we to place them where students can easily reach them while living at home or on leave from university or college? Or are we to subject students to big fares to and from libraries considerable distances from their homes? Or, I repeat, are we to spend more money on each library in each local authority area?

This Amendment will not improve library facilities. We can do that only by spending more money. If we select a few libraries to improve, causing people to travel long distances to them, then we shall lose the local, human touch. The Minister should be more forthcoming on how he is to compel—because that is what this Bill means—library authorities to improve their facilities in every area throughout the country.

I hope that he will give serious thought to consulting local authorities. Two or three local authorities in my constituency are very disturbed about this. If the Bill goes through as it stands, together with this Amendment, their powers will be taken away because their populations are less than 40,000. In effect, as has been pointed out, the minimum of 40,000 population means that the Minister has made up his mind that he need take little heed of the views of local authorities with populations below that figure. If that is true, it defeats the whole object of what we are trying to do with this Measure.

9.45 p.m.

The Clause hits very hard at the principle of the human touch and efficient local facilities in the hands of local authorities. All that will be thrown away. Many of us will be upset if that happens. I do not want to appear to be parochial and I want the best kind of library facilities which can be provided so that we can make certain that students who do not have the opportunity for constant study at universities, adults taking further education courses and so on, shall have the best available facilities, at close hand and not miles away.

I shall be with him 100 per cent. if the Minister will bear that in mind and will take account of the arguments of local authorities and will give a wise and fair judgment after his consultations. However, when I see a provision about consultation between a Minister and local authorities followed by a qualification—and in this case the qualification is the limit of 40,000 population—I know what will happen. If it does, there will be much criticism from this side of the House.

Photo of Mr Frederick Willey Mr Frederick Willey , Sunderland North

It is my painful duty to point out to my hon. Friend that they face the dilemma that if they do not like the words, of the Amendment and succeed in defeating it, the words of the Bill are worse. If my hon. Friend the Member for Pontefract (Mr. Harper) regards them as evil choices, I must advise him to choose the better by accepting the Amendment, which I regard as a conscientious attempt to improve the Bill. The right hon. Gentleman has paid regard to what was said in Standing Committee. I congratulate him on having set a good precedent in accepting the decision of the Standing Committee and not asking the Patronage Secretary to rally his dis-spirited troops to reverse it. I can understand his anxiety that his Ministry may be at risk, but on balance I think that the Standing Committee's decision was right.

The right hon. Gentleman has largely met us on the matters on which he gave assurances in Standing Committee, but it is not without importance that there has been a change of attitude by the Government in one respect. In November, 1960, when he was Minister of Education, Lord Eccles said: … there is bound to be some delay because I found when talking to people in this service that they were generally agreed that a new Act could not come into full operation until the reviews of local authority boundaries have been completed". I am not quarrelling with the right hon. Gentleman's action, but I would quarrel with the lack of purpose in reviewing local government boundaries. I fully support what was so clearly said by my hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley (Mr. Duffy). There is a danger in dealing with matters like this ad hoc and filching from an authority a power without considering the general question of local government responsibility. The difficulties of a small authority could be aggravated by taking away particular powers. The proper way to tackle the problem—this should have been done more expeditiously—would be to consider the proper arrangement of local government.

I think that the right hon. Gentleman is adopting the wrong approach. He ought to accept that Parliament has placed the burden upon him of ensuring that we have an efficient national library service provided by local authorities. In reviewing the responsibility of local authorities he should be guided by standards. That would have been a much more effective way to deal with the problem. Had he taken out the reference to numbers and made this depend on his new responsibility we should not have had this categorisation of authorities by population and size. This again may be considered in another place, but so far the right hon. Gentleman stuck to a number and it was not the number provided by the Report. It would have been far better had he accepted the argument advanced by my hon. Friend. He has considerably improved the provisions and given safeguards for which hon. Members asked.

Photo of Sir Edward Boyle Sir Edward Boyle , Birmingham Handsworth

I wish, by leave of the House, to reply to two or three points which have been made. Naturally enough the debate on this important Amendment to an important Clause has covered to some extent ground which was covered during the debates on Second Reading and in Committee. I make no complaint about that. Clause 6 gave the most concern to hon. Members on both sides of the Committee during the early stages of our discussions on this Bill.

The hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Mr. Blackburn) asked about the definition of "other relevant matters". I will mention one. It was referred to during the Committee stage by my hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mr. Denzil Freeth). He mentioned the White Paper on local government functions and its reference to the fact that responsibility should be entrusted to the district councils. The White Paper said that these councils were necessarily in closer touch with the people they serve than a county council might be. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the argument, I am sure that it will be adduced in discussions on the future of the smaller authorities. That sort of consideration will have to be decided when the time comes, and I cite it as an example of what is meant by "other relevant matters".

Photo of Mr Fred Blackburn Mr Fred Blackburn , Stalybridge and Hyde

As Chairman of a Standing Committee, I often hear Ministers objecting to Amendments because the language is imprecise and not clear. In this case I think the wording is imprecise.

Photo of Sir Edward Boyle Sir Edward Boyle , Birmingham Handsworth

We took trouble over this. I think that the words, …any likely changes in the area and population of the borough or urban district…", are a reasonable digest of some of the much longer Amendments which we considered in the Standing Committee. I have explained why the words "other relevant matters" have been included.

I wish to come now to what I might call without offence the last ditch stand of the West Riding of Yorkshire against having a population criterion at all. I speak with diffidence in reply to the hon. Member for Pontefract (Mr. Harper). He will remember what happened once before when I referred in complimentary terms to Castleford and the row I got into. I think that if the library service is as good as the physical education in their primary schools. I agree that it is a service which has to be considered most carefully. During the Second Reading debate and in Committee I explained why we had a population criterion. I do not think that I need quote all I said on that occasion, if only because it has been quoted by the hon. Member for Colne Valley (Mr. Duffy).

The hon. Member referred to my quotation from the Roberts Committee's Report. I think that there are only two sentences of which I need remind the House. I pointed out the words in the Report which have been quoted tonight: …the public library service is not maintained, as many other local services are maintained, at a cost strictly proportionate to population, I said: … I assure my hon. Friends that if a really good service is being provided at high cost, I am sure that the Minister of the day will not necessarily condemn it, I also said on Second Reading, and this is a justification for having the population criterion: I also suspect that we are moving into a period when it is going to be increasingly difficult for many small authorities to provide the full range of library services that are going to be demanded."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 5th February, 1964; Vol. 688, c. 1280–1.] I believe that to be true, and it would be going right away from the principle of the Roberts Report if we tried to operate the Bill without any population criterion at all.

Hon. Members are correct in saying that the 40,000 figure itself is not in the Roberts Report, but, as the Joint Under Secretary pointed out fairly in Committee, a number of bodies—not just the County Councils Association but a number of educational bodies—have recommended the 40,000 figure, for example, the Association of Education Committees, whose members include both county councils and county boroughs, the Association of Chief Education Officers, the National Union of Teachers and the Workers Educational Association. So we were not without considerable support in going for this 40,000 figure.

We have considered Clause 6 very fully. I am glad that outside the West Riding of Yorkshire there is a majority opinion of the view that the Amendment does justice to many of the points raised upstairs. It is not the intention of the Government that at present any further Amendment should be made in another place. After all the time and thought we have given to the issue of striking a balance fairly between county and borough and taking into account the relevant factors for the future and possible effects of local government reviews and all these factors summed up in the Amendment, I hope that we shall be able to settle on these words which have been so fully considered.

Amendment agreed to.

Further Amendments made: In page 5, line 23, leave out "Minister" and insert "Secretary of State".

In line 28, leave out "(1) or".

In line 29, leave out "Minister" and insert "Secretary of State".

In line 34, leave out "Minister" and insert "Secretary of State".

In page 6, line 2, leave out "Minister" and insert "Secretary of State".

In line 6, leave out "Minister" and insert "Secretary of State".—[Sir E. Boyle.]