I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964 to broaden the scope of the general duty of library authorities so as to include a duty to provide related cultural facilities alongside the library service;
and for connected purposes.
At a time of global economic turmoil, it may seem strange to some to want to talk about culture. However, I would like to quote in favour of doing so one of this country's finest economists, Maynard Keynes. On the publication of the first annual report of the Arts Council in 1945, he said:
"The day is not far off when the economic problem will take the back seat where it belongs, and the arena of the heart and the head will be occupied...by our real problems-the problems of life and of human relations, of creation".
He was right about that. The economic problems that we face are real, many and serious; however, culture and its role in our towns and cities is highly important. I want to raise the matter in my ten-minute rule Bill, in order to put on record my concerns about what could happen to culture in some of our towns, cities and counties in Britain.
There is real fear out there that there could be not just cuts in the arts sector-everybody appreciates that there will be cuts and that the cultural sector will need to bear its share of efficiencies-but the total withdrawal by some local authorities from providing cultural services. I give the example of Somerset, which recently cut all 160,000 of its direct grants to arts and cultural bodies, while Bedfordshire looks set no longer to fund its music service. I draw on my own experience as a councillor in the London borough of Southwark, where I had to watch the local authority close the only children's museum in London. That showed me the importance of ensuring that local authorities continue to prioritise culture.
Of course local funding choices are important. I would not dream of telling local authorities what to do-by and large. The Government's role in giving local authorities enough funding will have a massive part to play in determining whether they can provide decent cultural services. Nor do I want to be prescriptive. I am not introducing my Bill in order to tell local authorities that one kind of culture is good for them. Diversity in the cultural services provided by our local authorities is a truly good thing. In my experience, great local authorities lead on culture in places as diverse as Kent, Merseyside-my part of the world-and Leicester. We have some visionary local authorities. I pay tribute to what they do in ensuring that our towns and cities are places we can be proud of, and where there are public spaces that bring people together to share in their history and heritage.
The reason for my suggestion is to start a debate. The Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964 gives the Culture Secretary an important role. It enables the Culture Secretary, if they feel it necessary, to say to a local authority, "You're in danger of not providing sufficient library services. I want you to stop with those plans. They're not good enough for the people in your area. They need a library service that provides public education"-and for a very good reason. My argument is that this public education role should be extended to the wider cultural service. There are lots of people in local authorities up and down the country who are fearful of what is to come. My question is what kind of country do we want to be? Do we want to be the kind of country where culture is, by and large, for those who already access it? Or do we want to be the kind of country where culture is for everybody and where local authorities fulfil their responsibility in involving people?
I know that there is a real appetite among local authorities to take on that role. When I put the word out that I was seeking to ask leave to introduce my Bill, I asked people to come forward with examples. I would like to quote Councillor John Warmisham from Salford. I do not know whether Councillor Warmisham agrees with my Bill-he might not-but he told me that the best example of what can be done is that of Salford Quays:
That, coming from a local councillor, is a powerful example of the good that culture can do.
There is sometimes a view in the cultural sector that local authorities do not care about cultural services because they do not consider them to be as important as housing or social services, but there are many councillors out there who really do care. I want this Bill to start a debate, to highlight those councils that do great work and to determine whether we need protection in law for the cultural services provided by local authorities. I think that we do; and we at least need to have that discussion.
In Merseyside, we know-probably better than many other parts of the country-the massive value of culture to places. Of course, this is about the economy, and I must mention the impact that City of Culture '08 had on Liverpool, Merseyside and the wider north-west. I know that people will understand the importance of that, but this is also about the strength of community that was created at the time. People have pointed out to me examples of the work that went on to bring culture not only to Liverpool city centre but to the wider area of Merseyside. I know from experience in my own constituency how empowering it was for the young people and older people in our communities when the cultural services in the local authorities brought them together to discuss their history and their heritage. We need to ask whether that needs some protection in law.
The 1964 Act has been a vital backstop to our library services at a time when they feel under constant threat of being de-prioritised, driven down and questioned. I have every sympathy with local authority leaders, who are having to make terribly difficult decisions, but the 1964 Act is an important check on what might happen. It ensures that we will never have to face the situation that my own grandfather faced when he was growing up in the inter-war years. He used to go to Liverpool central library and, I confess, he used to steal books because it was not possible to borrow library books for free at that time. The Act is important because it provides a backstop and enables the Government to question any local authority that is proposing to decimate its library services.
We all know the importance to our own constituencies of the local art gallery, the museum and the local theatre. We have all seen young people from our schools gain confidence from coming into the theatre for their first performance. My reason for introducing the Bill is simply to ask whether we want to be the kind of country in which those services are available to everybody. Do we want the Secretary of State to take responsibility for those services? Such a task need not be prescriptive or demanding, and it would not require a large amount of funding, but it would allow local people to appeal to the Secretary of State and say, "Please stop. We don't want our local cultural services to close." That is important for all of us.
Question put and agreed to.
Alison McGovern accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on