Oral Answers to Questions — National Heritage – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 22nd March 1993.

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Photo of Neil Gerrard Neil Gerrard , Walthamstow 12:00 am, 22nd March 1993

To ask the Secretary of State for National Heritage what assessment his Department has made of the impact of the current year's revenue support grant on public library provision; and if he will make a statement.

Photo of Robert Key Robert Key , Salisbury

I collect information annually from English library authorities about their expenditure plans for the coming financial year and their actual expenditure in the previous year. This year's planned spending total was higher than the previous year's outturn.

Photo of Neil Gerrard Neil Gerrard , Walthamstow

Does the Minister accept that public library services are declining and that closures of libraries and reductions in opening hours are becoming commonplace under local authorities of all political persuasions? Is that not the inevitable result of the Government's financial pressure on local authorities to cut spending? What does the Minister intend to do to help local authorities to deliver efficient library services?

Photo of Robert Key Robert Key , Salisbury

No, I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman. Total gross expenditure on public libraries in England rose by 17 per cent. in real terms over the past 10 years. I have looked carefully at actual and proposed cuts and there is no current evidence of a breach of statutory duty. Book issues were up 3 per cent. in the last year for which figures are available, issues of children's books were up by 8 per cent., and a staggering 489 million books were issued that year.

Photo of Mrs Angela Knight Mrs Angela Knight , Erewash

Is my hon. Friend aware that some local authorities such as Derbyshire see libaries as a soft target and will propose to close them or to curtail opening hours rather than trying to control expenditure in other areas? Will he undertake to keep such matters under careful scrutiny so that constituents such as mine in Erewash get the services that they require and pay for?

Photo of Robert Key Robert Key , Salisbury

Yes, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend, and to the Conservative county councillors on her council, for keeping me so well informed about the situation in Derbyshire. I have looked at it carefully and I am confident that there is no breach of statutory duty. I will not, therefore, be setting up a public inquiry, but I assure my hon. Friend that we are keeping the situation under careful review, especially in Derbyshire, and if there is any such evidence my chief library adviser will, of course, advise me accordingly.

Photo of Dennis Skinner Dennis Skinner , Bolsover

If the Minister intends to keep library services in Derbyshire under review, why does he not also guarantee that Derbyshire county council—which has had a mandate from the people against the Tory party, including the hon. Member for Erewash (Mrs. Knight), since 1981—has returned to it the £40 million of cuts in Government grant? Then no library in Derbyshire will be affected and the community education system will prosper. Let us have less hypocrisy from the Dispatch Box and from Tory Members about what is happening in Derbyshire, given that the Conservative Government are responsible for all the cuts.

Photo of Robert Key Robert Key , Salisbury

It is always a pleasure to be questioned by the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), although I wish he would change the record once a year or so. I recall a similar exchange with him before. Standard spending assessments are set to take account of library services. Derbyshire, along with other authorities, has one problem: it contains a lot of reactionary people who seem to think that libraries should not change to match the changing requirements, aspirations and demands of their people. When libraries do change, they flourish—as has happened in the past few years, with more books and more expenditure on public libraries.

Photo of Peter Bottomley Peter Bottomley , Eltham

May I refer my hon. Friend to the good interview on LBC this morning, in which the non-statutory service offered by Westminster city council—the Westminster music library—was discussed? Will he consider the possibility of a national music library which might take over some of the funding responsibilities from Westminster, which currently provides a service—scores, compositions and other printed music—for most of the country's amateur and semi-professional orchestras?

Photo of Robert Key Robert Key , Salisbury

Not for the first time, my hon. Friend has come up with an interesting idea. I should like time to think about it.