Library Services (Walsall South)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 10:00 pm on 28 February 2011.

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Photo of Valerie Vaz Valerie Vaz Labour, Walsall South 10:00, 28 February 2011

Thank you, Mr Speaker, for allowing this Adjournment debate about the libraries in Walsall South. I also thank our own House of Commons Library, which is staffed by qualified professionals, not volunteers. They are experts in their field, and the whole House values the service that they provide.

“Once upon a time” is the phrase used in countless books that children pick up in a library, and for many the library is their first encounter with a book. For parents with young children, it is a social place where they can meet other parents. Children have access to books and toys, librarians suggest books to try and some have even started clubs for young children. For older children, staff run “Children in Summer” reading challenges.

The National Literacy Trust surveyed more than 17,000 pupils and it reported earlier this month that those who use the library are twice as likely to be above-average readers as their peers who do not—18% compared with 9.5%. Furthermore, those who visit libraries are more than twice as likely to read outside class every day—47% compared with 22%. Indeed, Members might be aware of a recent poll, showing that seven of the top 10 most borrowed authors are children’s authors.

If we carry on with the threats to our libraries, we will deny the next generation not only the right to be whatever they want to be in their imagination, but their access to knowledge through books. A book first encountered in a library might then be bought as a personal favourite, just as I did when I discovered with my daughter Dylan Thomas’s “A Child’s Christmas in Wales”. If there is to be joined-up government, the Secretary of State for Education should also be concerned about libraries disappearing or changing. Nationally, almost 750,000 people visit a library every day, and, according to the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals, that costs each person through local and national taxation 40p a week.

I shall touch on the statutory duties, because enshrined in the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964 is

“the duty of every library authority to provide a comprehensive and efficient library service for all persons desiring to make use thereof”.

There is also a duty to encourage adults and children to make full use of the library service, and the relevant Secretary of State has a duty to promote the improvement of libraries. Does the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport have plans to repeal the 1964 Act?

The local authority must also make a statement of what the service is trying to achieve, along with a description of local needs, including the general and specific needs of adults and children who live work and study in the area. So, you can imagine, Mr Speaker, the outcry in Walsall South when the council earmarked six libraries for closure.

In Walsall South there are libraries at Pheasey, Pleck, which serves Alumwell, Darlaston and south Walsall, and the central library is also in my constituency. This issue is not just about books; it is about a way of life and what the libraries represent. With unemployment increasing, they are needed more than ever as a support for development and new skills, and as a free public space for community cohesion.

That is what I found on 5 February outside Pleck library, where the local people wanted to present a petition—now 650 signatures strong—to save their library. Young people, senior citizens, people in work or resting, the local vicar and adults and children with diverse backgrounds and interests, from chess to internet shopping, were there. All were there using the library and protesting against its closure. Inside were a grandparent reading to a two-year-old, a hub of local people engaged in activity, and Councillor Dennis Anson’s advice surgery. I, too, have held advice surgeries in the library at Pheasey and in the central library.

In all the libraries in Walsall, there were more than 1 million visitors and more than 1 million books lent out in 2008 to 2010. The Minister has said that people have a right to campaign for their local libraries. Clearly, the council has failed to consult and to make an assessment of local needs.