Consultation should be at a local level with the staff and the users, and it should not just be about how the service is changed to make savings or about how we use different technology. A few days after the Pleck protest, the council said the libraries would be safe for a year, but who knows what is in store for the future? An inquiry into Wirral’s library service in 2009 said there was strong case for reviewing the decision on services earmarked for closure when they were located in an area of significant deprivation and when they had interdependent links with schools and children’s centres. That could be a description of almost all these libraries. In Walsall, the librarians have to travel from one end of the borough to another, and the cost of travel time and schedules should be looked at as part of the consultation with the staff.
So what of the future? My constituents want libraries to be in buildings that are stand-alone, not part of another service, because they are places to work, to revise—just as I did in Richmond library—and use reference books, and to become skilled in information technology and to discover different types of music. My constituents want the staff to be professionally qualified people who provide them with expertise and support. Volunteers like Hitesh, who set up a chess club for young children, have their place, but they too are not free and would cost money to manage; all volunteers need supervision and training. My constituents want their libraries to be needs-driven, not demand-led, and to remain free. If libraries did charge, this would be a breach of the statutory duty to provide books free of charge for those who live and work in the area. My constituents said to me that they do not recall the closures as being part of any political party’s manifesto; they knew nothing about this at the election.
I could have come up with many statistics to make the case for keeping all the libraries, but it is about more than that because libraries are part of our heritage and part of the fabric of society; people have paid their taxes for services such as parks, hospitals and schools for the common good. Everyone, I am sure, has been into a public library at some time in their life. They are not just about borrowing the popular books. The most borrowed classic author was Roald Dahl, but Jane Austen and Shakespeare are also on the list. When the first library in Manchester was opened in 1852, Charles Dickens said that libraries
“will prove a source of pleasure and improvement in the cottages, the garrets and the cellars of the poorest of our people.”
I would add that they are not just for the poor but for everyone.
There are, on one count, 59 Members of this House who have written books. I am sure, Mr Speaker, that you will remember the joke: what is black and white and read all over? Yes, a book, and one hopes those books by my hon. Friends will be read all over—in all the public libraries. Sadly, the Minister is not on that list yet, although his esteemed parents are, but he did have the title of librarian as vice-president of the Oxford Union.
Finally, I would like to remind the Minister of famous librarians, who include politicians Golda Meir and Mao Tse-tung, the philosopher David Hume, and others such as Lewis Carroll, Benjamin Franklin and Jacob Grimm. As with all the best of Grimm’s stories, I hope that this one has a happy ending. With apologies to Mr Grimm, I would end as follows: “So the children and adults laughed and cheered as the Minister said, ‘Have no fear—your libraries are safe for the future’, and everyone in the kingdom was glad. The end.”