I am grateful for the chance to respond to Valerie Vaz. I am grateful to her for calling for this Adjournment debate, which allows me to talk specifically about library provision in Walsall and about library provision in general, about which she made a number of points.
I begin by saying how much I regret that I am not on her list of 59 authors. I am afraid that I took the more relaxed approach to authorship in deciding to be an editor rather than an author. I have edited three volumes: “A Blue Tomorrow”, “The Blue Book on Health” and “The Blue Book on Transport”. “A Blue Tomorrow”, which as you know, Mr Speaker, was the start of the process of Conservative modernisation, reached the dizzy heights of the 20,046th best seller on Amazon. I will, perhaps when I leave my ministerial position or when I leave this House, become an author when I publish my memoirs. I have already thought of the title: “Fun While It Lasted”.
The hon. Lady made a number of specific points about libraries. I share with her and Mr Winnick, who is in the Chamber to support her, a passion for libraries. I am a champion of public libraries and I think that we all share a desire to see libraries thrive and survive not only in this tough economic climate, but for ever and a day. We recognise that libraries are neutral spaces and community hubs where people can go. They are not just places for lending books, although that is their essential central function, but places where people can access the internet and music, as the hon. Lady said, and where toddlers, youngsters and adults can access education and information.
To have a sensible debate about libraries, one has to define its terms. One cannot pretend that no library should ever close. In opposition, I never tied myself to a position of opposing every proposed library closure. The previous Government’s proposals on the modernisation of libraries, which were published last March, a month before they called the election, stated that
“the Government recognises that library closures may sometimes be necessary, but closures must form part of a strategic approach to service provision”.
We share that position.
The hon. Lady opened her remarks by praising the excellent service of the House of Commons Library. She implied that it is an excellent service because it does not use volunteers. As I am sure she is aware, more than 16,000 people across the country volunteer in their local libraries. I am sure she is also aware that the previous Government’s document that was published just in March last year stated:
“All libraries should consider how best to attract, nurture and utilise volunteers, to complement their workforce.”
Again, we share that position. Volunteers are an important element of library provision, but they must never take the place of professionals and must work with them.
What do we mean by a professional? During the important debate that we have had on libraries throughout the country for the past few months, an impression has perhaps been given that libraries should be staffed only by professional librarians. The Government’s position is that professionals should work in libraries, but that they do not necessarily all have to be professional librarians. The previous Government’s review of public libraries stated:
“Library services are best when staffed by a mixture of professionals including librarians and people qualified for work in other fields.”
Given the advent of technology and the provision of community services, it is important to have a mix of professionals in our library services.
Before the hon. Lady spoke specifically about library provision in Walsall, she asked whether the Government plan to repeal the statutory provision for libraries contained in the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964. I can tell her categorically that we have no plans to do so. The previous Government did indeed put that statutory provision up for consultation when they reviewed their library plans, but 80% of respondents said that they supported its continued use. The statutory duty remains a very important safety net for the provision of libraries.
Let us be under no illusions about the fact that the library service has suffered over the past decade or so. The number of visits to libraries and the number of adults borrowing books have dropped, and library provision throughout the country has been patchy. It is a local service, and it is up to local authorities to provide a good and comprehensive library service, but some are better than others. The power that I and the Secretary of State have is the statutory duty, which allows us to intervene in the most extreme cases.
One of the things of which I am most proud is that in opposition I encouraged the then Secretary of State to intervene in the case of the Wirral, where the closure of more than half the libraries was proposed. Thanks to that intervention, not only were the library closures halted, but, even more importantly, the report that was produced by Sue Charteris set out some important guidelines on how local authorities should go about their statutory duty. I genuinely believe that those guidelines have put a brake on the number of library closures being proposed. Indeed, I am confident that most local authorities are taking their duties under the 1964 Act very seriously and are examining the Wirral guidelines closely before taking decisions. Library provision in Walsall is no exception to that rule.
Of course, difficult choices are having to be made. Walsall council, like councils up and down the country, is tackling the legacy of the budget deficit left to us by the previous Government. We are having to reduce spending, which is leading to very difficult choices having to be made, and Walsall council is no exception. However, I believe that it is approaching the provision of the public library service in a positive way. I am told, for example, that it plans to invest more than £200,000 in radio frequency identification systems in libraries, which will allow people to check out library books and check them back in again without a librarian having to be present, delivering substantial administrative savings. There is also the possibility of sharing services with other library authorities in the region, an option that I believe is currently being discussed and that I am keen to see encouraged throughout the country.
What is encouraging about the situation in Walsall is that the questions being asked are not about how services can be cut and branches closed but about how services can be maintained and improved, with branches kept open even on a reduced budget. Indeed, I believe that the local authority has announced that there will be no branch closures in the next year, because it has chosen to consult the public on the way forward. I know that the hon. Members present this evening will lead that consultation, hand in hand with the local authority.
The public, whether they are library users or not, will be fully involved in the decision-making process in Walsall, and they will look to their civic leaders to guide them in that process. I understand that the consultation will involve traditional methods, as well as discussions on social networking sites and even by text message. Walsall council appears to be a thoroughly modern local authority, and I do not think many would disagree that that is an admirable attitude to adopt when looking to address budget reductions.
It is all very well for people to talk about their fears for the future of the library service, but I hope that the hon. Member for Walsall South will embrace in good faith the approach that Walsall library is taking. I hope that when she works with her local authority on the future of the library service, she will look around her at the myriad good examples up and down the country of fantastic, forward-looking, dynamic library authorities.
In the previous debate on the big society, I heard my hon. Friend Guy Opperman say that it had been a cross-party debate, and I believe that the debate about libraries should be such a debate. We should recognise and celebrate the good practice of local authorities, whatever their political complexion. For example, Barking and Dagenham council, which is not as far as I am aware a Conservative local authority, has announced that rather than cutting and closing library branches, it will review its service to explore where efficiencies can be made. I am told that the decision to spare the library service from closures has galvanised enthusiasm in the community, with more volunteers coming forward.
Slough has put its library service out to tender and Essex county council is now due to help to run that service, which will reduce Slough’s administration costs. Last September in Ramsey, Cambridgeshire, work began to transform the site of an old cinema into a new library learning centre. In Luton, the new Marsh Farm library opens in just over a month, having been relocated to the local school.
Authorities around the country have library construction and refurbishment projects on the go. Of course, that is happening in places where a review of the library estate may result in fewer library buildings overall, but, like the previous Government, we have always been clear that closures do not signal an automatic breach of the 1964 Act. Sometimes a library authority will close or consider closing a library to ensure a more efficient service in its area.
Leeds, which again is not a Conservative authority, has just consulted on such proposals. Following a strategic assessment of its service, the council proposed redistributing services to provide much better value for money and an improved service offer. As its plans put the viability of a number of low-use, high-cost, small buildings into question, the authority engaged in a meaningful consultation with its communities, so that everybody understood what is proposed and how it could affect them.
Members of the London Libraries Consortium are achieving better value for money. Shared contracts have saved them roughly £1.5 million over five years. Havering, the lead authority in the consortium, has extended opening hours within existing budgets. Being part of that consortium means that those boroughs have 148 branches and nearly 6 million books in stock. With no tender process, no legal fees and support from shared specialists, new partners in the consortium save nearly £50,000.
The fact that authorities are improving their library buildings demonstrates that I am not the only person who still believes not only that our public library service can survive the current climate, but that it can blossom during and after it.