Library Services (Walsall South)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 10:09 pm on 28 February 2011.

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Photo of Ed Vaizey Ed Vaizey The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport 10:09, 28 February 2011

I am delighted to meet any Member of the House who wants to discuss their local library service. As I said, my first priority is excellent local library services across the country. I believe that the key to that is sharing best practice across local authorities. I truly admire how Walsall is going about its business, because it is genuinely consulting and not rushing to judgment. It is determined to provide a comprehensive and efficient library service for the people of Walsall, which takes its culture very seriously. I was privileged to visit its new art gallery to see its superb collection. I do not want to reinforce the impression that I am an entirely frivolous figure, but my abiding memory of my visit is the fact people in the lift are told what floor they are on by the voice of Noddy Holder, a former resident of Walsall—[ Interruption. ] I am delighted that you know with which band he plays, Mr Speaker.

Such innovation is going on elsewhere. In Barnsley, for example, a new lift library is opening at Great Houghton later this year in a building that will co-locate a GP practice and a pharmacy, and facilities for district nursing, adult and social services. I heard what the hon. Member for Walsall South said earlier about the need for libraries to be libraries, but I also passionately believe that co-locating with other community services can secure a library’s future. Indeed, having a library in a local building can secure that building’s future.

Stoke’s local service centre and library is also a fine example of what can happen when services are based in a single building. The centre incorporates training and conference rooms and a customer contact facility. I could go on. I could talk about how Windsor and Maidenhead is not closing its libraries but turning all 12 of them into a community service.

Let me also say something about the national debate about library closures. At times it has become very passionate, which is completely understandable. In a slightly perverse way, it is welcome because it reminds not just hon. Members but local councillors how passionately local people care about their libraries. Perhaps it reminds all of us not to neglect a service that perhaps we have taken for granted in the past.

There is genuine work going on behind the scenes. It cannot always be the subject of a press release or statement, but the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council works with a range of local authorities. I will not name them here, but those local authorities have hit the headlines with the number of headline closures that they are proposing, and the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council is having a significant influence on those authorities. I have received calls asking me or the Secretary of State to call in particular proposals. The reason we have resisted that is that we are confident that the MLA is engaging with those local authorities and working with them before they reach a final decision.

May I use this opportunity to put on the record my support and admiration for the leadership of Roy Clare, the chief executive of the MLA? He has been a fine public servant. He served the previous Government incredibly well, thoughtfully and with energy and dedication. Few people in the country know and understand the library service better than he does. I am delighted to have the opportunity to work with him in government.

I said repeatedly in opposition and many more times in government that I am a champion of libraries. I stand by that. My first speech as a Minister was on libraries. My first initiative as a Minister, long before library closures became the subject of national debate, was to put in place the future libraries programme, which is designed to share best practice with local authorities and to raise the profile of library services with local authorities. Campaigners are right to hold their councils to account if they think what is happening in their community is wrong or unfair, but I am confident that local authorities will listen and work closely with the MLA and that, despite some of the pictures of doom and gloom that we read about in the press across the country, in many local authorities there is a thriving, innovative local library service.

I thank the hon. Lady for allowing me the chance to talk about libraries in the Chamber. She is absolutely right to bring to the attention of the House her concerns about the future of library provision in her community. Let us have a sensible and reasoned debate about library provision. Let us not rule out for ever any closure of any library, provided that it is in context and part of a strategic overview. Let us not do down the work of volunteers—the tens of thousands who work in our libraries. Let us have a range of professionals working in our libraries. Let us have libraries that are lending books, helping to educate children and adults, providing safe community spaces, access to technology and to council services. Let us work to encourage local authorities to see libraries not just as an add-on but as central to their provision. As I say, I am confident that that is the case in the vast majority of local authorities up and down the country. Let us tell the good stories about libraries, while maintaining a watchful eye on what is happening in some of the more difficult cases.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.