British Library Board (Power to Borrow) Bill

– in the House of Commons at 12:06 pm on 13th March 2020.

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Second Reading

Photo of Bim Afolami Bim Afolami Conservative, Hitchin and Harpenden 12:10 pm, 13th March 2020

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

The Bill would amend the British Library Act 1972 to give the British Library the freedom to borrow. I stop at the word “borrow”, because earlier today, I was having a word with the Minister for School Standards, and he asked, “What’s your Bill about?”. I said, “It gives the British Library the ability to borrow.” He thought about it, and said, “Can’t it do that already?”. I said, “Borrow money, Minister, money.” He thought I meant borrowing books. The Bill would allow the British Library to apply for Government loans through its sponsor Department, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, represented on the Treasury Bench today by the able and fantastic Minister for Digital and Culture. I believe— I hope—that the Bill is supported by the Government. I am delighted to take it forward.

Access to books really matters. I am very lucky; I grew up in a house with a father and grandparents who love books, and went to a school that was well equipped. I grew up in a village in Berkshire that had a brilliant library, staffed largely by volunteers. It was a wonderful environment in which to grow up. All the things that I am now interested in—history, economics, politics occasionally, Latin, Greek, the ancients—[Interruption.] Yes, and more; given what is going on, I wish I was a bit more interested in science at the time, then I would know a bit more now. My interest in all those things came about through my access to books, and so my access to learning.

Photo of Scott Benton Scott Benton Conservative, Blackpool South

I could not agree more on the importance of reading books, and encouraging young people to do so. Will my hon. Friend congratulate the Chancellor on the announcement this week about VAT on books? Hopefully that will see far more young people spend money on books.

Photo of Bim Afolami Bim Afolami Conservative, Hitchin and Harpenden

That is an excellent point. I knew that there was something about the Budget that I had to add to my speech, but I had forgotten what it was. My hon. Friend has put that on the record, and I join him in congratulating the Chancellor on what he has done on VAT—and on the British Library; the Red Book increases funding for the British Library, and that will enable it to do lots of things that I will talk about.

Books can open anybody’s eyes to a new world. They enable people to discover their passions and interests, and to think about how they might improve their life and their opportunities. It is not just books but libraries that matter, because not everybody gets to grow up in a home where there are books, or where there is enough space for them to work. They may have to share a bedroom with two or three others, or with an elderly family member. It is important that they have a library reasonably near their house that they can go to—a free space where they can think, work and, through the exploration of books, start to plan their life and imagine a future for themselves. Libraries matter, and the British Library is our foremost library.

Photo of Kevin Hollinrake Kevin Hollinrake Conservative, Thirsk and Malton

My hon. Friend talks about people having books to hand near where they live. The British Library is of course in London. That is not very close for people who live in the north. Does he welcome the plans to open a northern outpost of the British Library in Leeds, and will his Bill facilitate the development of that library?

Photo of Bim Afolami Bim Afolami Conservative, Hitchin and Harpenden

Gosh, my hon. Friend is up to date with what is going on with the British Library. For the record, it is worth pointing out that the British Library is indeed in London but there is also part of it in Boston Spa, which is, I think, in the constituency of Tracy Brabin.

Photo of Bim Afolami Bim Afolami Conservative, Hitchin and Harpenden

It is close by. There are plans to open a site in Leeds, but more important than all of that is the work that the British Library does in different communities across the country. One reason why the Budget was so good for the British Library is that it will help to increase its number of outposts with public libraries to 20 across the country, with 18 of those operating a hub-and-spoke model: that is where the British Library works with a public library in a large town, with that large town working with smaller villages and smaller towns around it, thereby extending the British Library in effect all the way through to every community in our country.

That is the primary reason for giving the British Library the ability to borrow, because borrowing enables it to take advantage of certain opportunities that may not be possible through a grant. That ability, combined with commercial activities and the rest, can help the British Library do that more and, moreover, perform more than just the functions that we imagine typical of a library—the lending of books, the provision of somewhere to work and so on. Business and intellectual property centres are growing hugely in popularity in the British Library in London and all over the country, and the British Library can help to sponsor the exporting of that model in the country to give many more people the opportunity to set up a business and have the right advice when doing so.

My hon. Friend Kevin Hollinrake is a successful businessman, which is one reason why he is in this place. However, he will know many other people who could have run a successful business if they had had the right advice at the beginning. It is very important that we ensure that. That is one of the functions of a modern 21st century library.

Photo of Neil O'Brien Neil O'Brien Conservative, Harborough

Does my hon. Friend welcome the support in the Budget to extend the network of the intellectual property office to 20 centres around the country? That will provide a wonderful advantage to small businesses in my constituency.

Photo of Bim Afolami Bim Afolami Conservative, Hitchin and Harpenden

It provides a very good advantage to small businesses. If anyone from the Treasury is listening, they will have heard how popular the Budget appears to be on the Government Benches as well as on the Opposition Benches. In this House, whether on Budget day or on big issues of foreign affairs and the like, we often focus on the macro big-ticket items, but often comparatively smaller things in money terms have the biggest impact in local communities. Libraries, and indeed the British Library, are an example of that.

The British Library is enjoyed by more than one and a half million people a year, with another 27 million visits to its website. Its origins in the British Museum Library go back 250 years or so. It is home to Magna Carta, handwritten lyrics by the Beatles and, I am told, even a gravestone. I am not quite sure where they have put it—perhaps in the same place as the “Ed stone” from Edward Miliband. Sorry, that was rather mean of me, but I could not resist it.

When I visited the British Library last week to talk about the Bill, the staff were very kind. They showed me some of their manuscripts and exhibits, including manuscripts from the Anglo-Saxon era. As somebody who did his thesis on the development of the burghal system of Edward the Elder, that was a real interest to me, though not to too many others in the world.

Photo of Bim Afolami Bim Afolami Conservative, Hitchin and Harpenden

I am on the moderniser wing.

I also saw letters from the Anglo-Saxon period to the 20th century, including those from the Conservative Prime Minister Arthur Balfour—his statue is in Members’ Lobby—to a young, ambitious, thrusting Conservative Back Bencher called Winston Churchill, basically telling him to calm down. They showed me everything in between. The collection is almost unparalleled not just in this country but across the world.

Photo of David Johnston David Johnston Conservative, Wantage

Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the challenges for national treasures such as the British Library is that their buildings can often start to be unfit for the purpose of storing the great items that he is talking about? For example, parts of the building might be falling down or be energy inefficient. Perhaps they could show more of their collections to the public if they could simply borrow, as this Bill allows the British Library to do, in order to upgrade their facilities or build new parts of their buildings.

Photo of Bim Afolami Bim Afolami Conservative, Hitchin and Harpenden

I agree with my hon. Friend. It is probably worth saying at this juncture that giving the British Library the power to borrow does not mean that I now do not wish everything the British Library does to be done better; of course there are things it could do better. Indeed, my hon. Friend makes the point about the British Library showing off much more of what it has. I agree that these items should not just be for showing to Members of Parliament before they present a Bill. They should be presented much more to the public. Having the ability to borrow will give the British Library the freedom to innovate much more than it does today, and that will enable it to show more of its collections to the public. If it does not do so, I am sure that the Minister will say, “Well, hold on—you have now the ability to borrow. Why not push the boat out a bit more with different types of exhibition and exhibits?”

Photo of Damien Moore Damien Moore Conservative, Southport

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is important that we get the British Library out on the road, so that communities up and down our country are able to take advantage of not only the library van, but the British Library van at that?

Photo of Bim Afolami Bim Afolami Conservative, Hitchin and Harpenden

There’s an idea. That is the kind of project for which the British Library can ask the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport for a loan. That is what giving it financial freedom can help it to do.

Photo of Kevin Hollinrake Kevin Hollinrake Conservative, Thirsk and Malton

Will there be any restrictions on what the British Library can borrow the money for? Local authorities have borrowed lots of money from the Public Works Loan Board and bought some things that, I think it is fair to say, they do not necessarily understand, such as very expensive shopping centres that may not be part of the commercial retail space in the future. What borrowing restrictions will be put on the British Library?

Photo of Bim Afolami Bim Afolami Conservative, Hitchin and Harpenden

My hon. Friend makes a very important point. It is worth now explaining exactly how the process works. In effect, the British Library currently has a grant in aid from the Government through the Department. Under this Bill, in the event that the British Library wishes to borrow any money, it will submit an application for a Government loan. That application will include all terms, including the period of time and any terms on the debt, and the man or woman in Whitehall will have to approve that. But there is no monopoly on wisdom anywhere, so let us just say that the investment does not work—that it goes wrong. In that event, the grant in aid to the British Library would be reduced. This Bill will therefore not result in a loss for the taxpayer. If the British Library takes on debt that it does not pay back—either in part or in full—the consequences will be on the British Library. The big failsafe is the fact that the debt has to be approved by the Government. The British Library will not be going out to commercial banks; it has to go through the Government. Hopefully, that will avoid the problem mentioned by my hon. Friend.

Photo of James Cartlidge James Cartlidge Conservative, South Suffolk

My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. Is not the key point that this legislation is not revolutionary? I believe that the Natural History Museum and the Science Museum have both enjoyed this borrowing power since 2013, and that it is quirk of legislation that the British Library has not. Is it not therefore the case that, rather like many of the books that I have borrowed, this legislation is overdue?

Photo of Bim Afolami Bim Afolami Conservative, Hitchin and Harpenden

I agree with my hon. Friend. It is worth saying that in 2013 many DCMS-sponsored museums—such as Kew Gardens, the British Film Institute, Historic England and the Ministry of Defence museums—were given 12 operational freedoms to help them become more financially independent and access finance for new projects, through commercial revenues, philanthropic donations and the like. Of the 12 freedoms, the British Library has 11. It is just that the 12th was prohibited by the 1972 Act, which this Bill seeks to change. My hon. Friend is indeed right that this Bill will bring the British Library up to date with other similar museums.

Photo of Rob Butler Rob Butler Conservative, Aylesbury

I wonder whether my hon. Friend could explain how the British Library will repay the money it borrows, because we are the party of responsible borrowing, as he knows, and indeed as the Chancellor outlined in his Budget only this week.

Photo of Bim Afolami Bim Afolami Conservative, Hitchin and Harpenden

My hon. Friend asks a very good question. The British Library will first have to submit a business case that satisfies the Government. For example, it might want to make its members’ centre bigger and more attractive, in order to attract new members—I think the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Batley and Spen, is a member. Its members pay a yearly subscription, so that investment could recoup the library money over time.

Photo of Laura Trott Laura Trott Conservative, Sevenoaks

My hon. Friend has helpfully outlined that a business case would have to be made for the loans. How will we monitor the impact of the loans and how effectively the money has been spent?

Photo of Bim Afolami Bim Afolami Conservative, Hitchin and Harpenden

That is a very good question. My under- standing is that the monitoring will be, first, whether the library pays back the money on time, because by paying back on time we show that we are satisfying the terms of our debt and upholding our end of the bargain. More broadly, the Minister on the Treasury Bench is responsible for overseeing the British Library, and indeed all the other sponsored museums and libraries. It is therefore the Department’s responsibility to ensure that the library is operating in a sensible way.

Across both its sites, at Boston Spa in west Yorkshire and at St Pancras in London, the British Library holds over 150 million items. It is interesting to think about the scale of the physical collection, which expands by something like 8 km every year—the distance between Westminster and Greenwich. Then there is the digital archive, which in 2019 alone expanded by the equivalent of 2 billion web pages. The library’s expertise in digitisation means that rare and fragile objects are available for anyone to see online while protecting them from damage—a point my hon. Friend David Johnston made earlier. That expertise, because it is online, can be shared around the world.

Why is it important that that expertise should be shared around the world? After all, it is the British library, this is the British Parliament and it is for this country. It is important because we are not an isolationist or inward-looking country. The British Library, like the BBC and all sorts of institutions, is critical to our soft power. Those institutions are critical for displaying to our partners and friends around the globe that Britain is not just a leader in the things they know about, such as our armed forces or the English language; we are also a cultural leader. Showing that culture is so important to this country, and the British Library is a key part of that.

Many Members might be thinking, “Why does the British Library really matter? Yes, the library is important, but it is not really core to my politics or the concerns of my constituents.” I will say two words for why it matters: levelling up.[Interruption.] I can see Opposition Front Benchers saying that they have another four years of this. Indeed, they might have another 10 years of it. It means levelling up regionally. As I have said, the British Library reaches out across the country beyond its two sites. With the ability to borrow, it can do even more and have more ambitious plans for spreading its model and its knowledge and expertise throughout the country.

The British Library matters because it is at the forefront of what a public library means in the 21st century. It is not just about lending books and providing people with space to work. In its own words,

“helping businesses to innovate and grow” is one of the British Library’s core public purposes. Through its network of business and intellectual property centres in public libraries across the country, the British Library offers support and advice to entrepreneurs and small businesses, helping them to thrive, with most of those people being outside the main site in St Pancras; it is important that the House appreciates that.

I visited the business and intellectual property centre in St Pancras last summer with Baroness Neville-Rolfe, to look at ideas for promoting businesses in underperforming regions and helping entrepreneurship. That was when I first came across the people who run the British Library, long before the Bill was conceived, and I was really impressed with the work they were doing. As I was walking around, I talked to not only members of staff but the businessmen and entrepreneurs themselves, and I saw the value that they were getting out of that service. Indeed, I met a constituent who said, “Gosh, Bim, I had to come to the British Library because our local library didn’t have that capacity”—they travelled into London to get that advice from entrepreneurs. My constituency is only 35 miles from London, so imagine how difficult that is for somebody who is 150, 200 or 300 miles away from London. That is what we need to change, and that is one reason why we need the British Library to be able to borrow money.

It means levelling up not just regionally but with those who are under-represented. The impact that the British Library is already having on groups of people who are otherwise under-represented in business is unmistakable. From January 2016 to December 2018, of the business and intellectual property centre users who started a new business, 55% were women, compared with 22% for new business start-ups across the UK, and 31% were from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds, compared with only 5% nationally. Further- more—I found this stat really surprising—17% of all the people who come through the British Library’s business and intellectual property centre have a disability of some kind; nationally, the figure is below 2%. The British Library has already shown that it is doing good work, and we need to help it to do more.

It means levelling up to ensure that the British Library can innovate, just like the entrepreneurs that it helps. The DCMS voted loans scheme, which is the process whereby the British Library will get access to the debt, has already been used by other cultural institutions for things such as new buildings to house collections and conservation studios or to move staff into; newly constructed, purpose-built storage spaces; building new galleries; increasing visitor footfall; and putting more objects on display. Those are the sorts of thing that the British Library could do if it had the ability to borrow.

Our cultural institutions in this country need to be much more commercially minded to generate extra sources of income to help them continue their valuable work. If we go back, say, 40 years, the grants in aid to certain public institutions might have been bigger, but they did not have a digital presence in those days. Now, all those institutions need to have a significant, prominent, effective digital presence, because if they do not, people will not value the physical presence. That is a huge expense that did not exist 40 years ago, and our cultural institutions need to be able to have that.

It is worth me talking about the St Pancras Transformed project, to give a flavour of what could happen across the country if the Bill passes. It is a public-private partnership to extend the London site, to create more exhibition spaces, improved public areas, a better offer for business users and a permanent home for the Alan Turing Institute. It will also provide flexible accommodation for third-party companies and institutions.

Photo of James Cartlidge James Cartlidge Conservative, South Suffolk

My hon. Friend is getting to the nub of the matter and he is making a fantastic speech. On the other services that the British Library could provide and the commercial aspects, can he tell us whether some of them will be charged for? Obviously, the overwhelming service provided by the British Library is free to use, but some of us would argue that, if it provides a competitive charge for services to cross-subsidise that, that could be justifiable.

Photo of Bim Afolami Bim Afolami Conservative, Hitchin and Harpenden

The answer is that some would be charged for and some would not. I repeat the example I gave a few minutes ago about membership. If there were a members’ area in the British Library—it has one at the St Pancras site but if it wanted to extend that model to one of the public libraries across the country—members would pay a subscription that enabled them to go to a certain part of the library. There would also probably be a café in that part of the library, which would obviously charge for food and drink: coffee, tea and the like. Again, the café would be making commercial revenue and the members would pay, but that would not prevent people from going to the library, using the computers, borrowing books, getting advice for their business and so on entirely for free. It is a mixture and it would really depend on the part of the country people are in.

One of the things we have thankfully moved away from in this country over the last 10 or 15 years is the idea that one centralised model works everywhere. I know that libraries operate in my constituency differently from how they operate in the constituency of the hon. Member for Batley and Spen. It is just different: the demographics are different, the ages of people wanting to do things are different; the atmosphere is different; the landscape is different; the sorts of companies people want to set up are different; and the types of books people borrow are different. This is about giving our institutions enough freedom that they can move forward and innovate in an entrepreneurial way, but do that locally in a way that is locally based and locally sourced.

It is time that we gave the British Library the same freedom to borrow, the same flexibility and the same opportunities that so many other cultural institutions have, because this country will benefit from that. The British Library overall will benefit, both in St Pancras and in west Yorkshire. The expanding network of public library hubs will benefit. Indeed, the British people, whom we were all elected to represent, will benefit.

In speaking to colleagues about this Bill, they have been generally supportive, but I was asked one question more than any other. Indeed, I touched on it when my hon. Friend Laura Trott made this point earlier. What happens if the British Library borrows money and cannot pay it back? Just to reiterate, should the British Library apply for and receive a Government loan, it would have to pay it back, and if it did not pay it back either in part or in full, the grant in aid would be reduced correspondingly, and the British Library would have to adjust to that reduction in revenue. Ultimately, it would have to make sure that the public purse—the taxpayer—did not lose out as a result of the Bill. It is very important that the House recognises that point.

Some people, although I definitely do not agree with them, have mentioned—[Interruption.] Yes, this sounds like a straw man, but it is actually true. Some people have said that what libraries actually need to do is to move entirely online and get rid of the physical books. [Interruption.] No one here—good—but some people do think that. Indeed, I know some people do because, when I was speaking to the Department about the Bill and thinking about the questions people had already been asking and what had come up, one of the main things that came up was, “Bim, you’re going to have to have an answer to this question”.

So I thought about an answer to the question. My view is that there has to be a mix. Yes, we have to have physical collections, but we also have to match them with digital collections, a good online presence and digitising things where we can so that we can share them across the world—for example, for a school kid doing a project. We all remember having to do projects at school, and we had to go to a library and do all these things. The worse one I had to do was something on the WWF. I spent lots of time working on it, until, the night before, I realised it was meant to be about the World Wildlife Fund, rather than the World Wrestling Federation, which meant I did not get a very good mark. I do not know why I have shared that with everybody, but I have been living with the shame for a long time.

Photo of Rob Butler Rob Butler Conservative, Aylesbury

Does my hon. Friend agree that actually there is a distinct joy in having a physical book and turning the pages that simply cannot be replicated by moving everything online and having an entirely digital world?

Photo of Bim Afolami Bim Afolami Conservative, Hitchin and Harpenden

I agree so strongly, as somebody who owns well over a thousand books. My wife is always complaining that I buy more books than I can read.

The philosopher/hedge fund manager Nassim Nicholas Taleb wrote a famous book called “The Black Swan”, but in his book “Antifragile” he makes the persuasive point that if we really want to judge how long a type of technology will be around, we should look at how long it has already been around, because that actually tells us more about it than anything else. In every single age, we all think that the new thing will be the thing that endures, but of course what tends to happen is the new thing is replaced by another new thing and so on. Books are not a new thing. Books have been around for a long time, and I am sure that books will be around for centuries to come.

Before I conclude my remarks, to everybody’s joy—[Interruption.] There was too much laughter from the Whip at that. What is the point of libraries in the modern world? We have talked about access to learning, digital, soft power and levelling up, all sorts of things, but the real point, I think, of libraries—and where the British Library is so important and why it needs this power—is that libraries help to strengthen communities. They help to provide a place for people to go, where they can come together, but yet be solitary at the same time. Thriving libraries in our communities, in our towns, cities and villages all across the country, are one of the things that if we can support them in this Parliament—and the British Library can help play its role in doing that—we will be serving our constituents very well indeed.

The Bill is a small but critical piece of legislation to help strengthen our communities, to help level up the country, to help improve our soft power, to help bring the British Library into the modern world, and to help improve the access that entrepreneurs and people who want to start their own business have to quality advice. It is a small thing, but it could become a big thing, and it could be a big thing for all our constituents and in all our constituencies. I ask the House to support the Bill.

Photo of Tracy Brabin Tracy Brabin Shadow Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport 12:42 pm, 13th March 2020

It is a huge pleasure to speak in this debate. I thank Bim Afolami not just for introducing the Bill, but for the time that he spent with me this week. Who knew so much politics could happen over egg and chips in the Tea Room? I hope to be able to work with the hon. Member to pursue the Bill further. I also share with him a love of books. I definitely would not be standing here today and be the woman I am without the mobile library that came round my estate and my local library in Birstall. I certainly agree with what the hon. Member said about libraries being a quiet place where people can gather their thoughts: I would not be able to have done my homework in quite a chaotic family house without my local library. Winning the book “Puff, the Magic Dragon” as a prize in a writing competition enabled me to think as I grew up that writing could be a career for me, and indeed I did pursue it for many decades.

While there is a list of things that I believe the Budget did not address, the British Library certainly is not one of them. I will not make any bones about the fact that I am a huge supporter of the British Library. Like the hon. Member, I have been a member for many, many years. I used the Library on a daily basis, and it became my office when I was writing scripts and books. One thing the hon. Member did not mention is that the British Library has a speed dating evening. Men are in short supply, so if anybody is single, I recommend that for where they can meet some very clever women. [Interruption.] Nobody’s single, so there we are.

I am sure that most Members will be familiar with the British Library’s premises, but, as the hon. Gentleman said, that is not the only site. Keen observers of the library will know that is also has a 44-acre site in glorious Boston Spa—unfortunately, not in my constituency and quite a drive away, but still in Yorkshire. Some 70% of its collection is already stored in West Yorkshire, so it makes sense that the British Library aspires to have a public library in West Yorkshire, too. I really welcome the commitment to provide £25 million from the Heritage Lottery Fund to the West Yorkshire combined authority to support the library in pursuing a new Leeds city centre presence, making the prospect of a British Library north much more realistic. We in West Yorkshire would absolutely welcome with open arms a public-facing British Library base, adding to our already fantastic cultural offer. From Channel 4 to Sky to the new film studios, it is a great place to live and work.

I would just like to take this opportunity to congratulate the leaders of my local councils who have managed to get the West Yorkshire devo deal over the line. We will soon be seeing a West Yorkshire Mayor, who can unlock all that funding for our region to build on the massive and brilliant cultural offer that will define West Yorkshire in the years and decades to come.

Photo of Kevin Hollinrake Kevin Hollinrake Conservative, Thirsk and Malton

I join the hon. Lady in welcoming the West Yorkshire deal. Will she also welcome the likelihood of a York city region deal, which will encompass York and the rest of North Yorkshire with its own elected mayor?

Photo of Tracy Brabin Tracy Brabin Shadow Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

I am not surprised that the hon. Gentleman intervened on that point. I am sure, given his abilities of persuasion, that that is just around the corner any day now. He will have to talk to his colleagues to make that happen, but I am sure he has friends in the right places, which is always helpful.

We will, hopefully, secure the money to support the British Library in Leeds and West Yorkshire. There is also the £13 million, which the hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden talked about, to expand the Business and IP Centre national network to 20 centres in 2023, with 18 of those developing hub and spoke models to extend their reach into more local libraries and places across England.

My local libraries in Cleckheaton, Heckmondwike, Birstall and Batley will be delighted to support that, but I have to mention the cuts to our local councils, which have meant that all the libraries I have mentioned are hanging on by a thread. They are being kept open for our communities by dedicated volunteers who are working full time, Monday to Friday. The hon. Gentleman talked about why we keep libraries open. They are centres to combat loneliness, access digital services and keep young people off the street. I believe there is much more we can celebrate about libraries than just books. They are the heart of our communities.

Photo of Steve Reed Steve Reed Shadow Minister (Education) (Children and Families)

There has rightly been a lot of very positive talk about libraries in the Chamber this morning, but does my hon. Friend share my regret that, because of the scale of cuts to local authorities over the past 10 years, more than 600 libraries have closed down in that time? Despite talk about the end of austerity, local councils will in fact be receiving even deeper cuts over the next few years. For the libraries that remain, their futures still look tenuous and that is not acceptable.

Photo of Tracy Brabin Tracy Brabin Shadow Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

I could not agree more. My hon. Friend knows more than most about the impact a library can have on a community. I pay tribute to Kirklees Council, which has managed, by taking from Peter to pay Paul, to keep all our libraries open. It is really important that town libraries are not the ones to suffer when we have the conglomerations locally of Leeds, Manchester and other big cities. Town and village libraries should not have to pay the price and I will continue to campaign on that.

The British Library is a proud British institution and a mark of quality, like the V&A, the National Portrait Gallery and the British Museum, but these institutions, which, like the British Library, are DCMS-sponsored museums, can borrow money, as the hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden has discussed. It seems inequitable that the British Library is not part of that group, and it is right that this disadvantage now be removed, as was first recommended in 2017, in the Mendoza strategic review of national museums. This legislative step will at last bring the library in line with all other DCMS-sponsored museums.

The ability to borrow effectively reflects how cultural institutions now operate. Many of them need additional financial support to improve their digital systems, make their buildings and storage more energy efficient and develop their services. These are all issues that the British Library may choose to address with these new powers. Or it could follow in the footsteps of others by borrowing money to build new buildings, move staff to purpose-built spaces, construct new galleries, increase visitor footfall and make sure that wherever people live they can access the library’s extraordinary offer. There is something amazing about being a member of the library. Members can request the most extraordinary rare book, which is then, by the brilliant staff, brought to where they are studying, writing and researching. It is an incredible facility, and I recommend that anyone who does any research become a member.

Perhaps more importantly, used properly, the ability to borrow will allow the British Library to use its funding more effectively. I would, however, also like to pick up on a point the hon. Member made. We must ensure that the borrowing is not viewed as a substitute for its grant in aid, which is currently worth more than £96 million a year. It cannot be: “Well, you’ve borrowed, so we’re going to reduce your grant”; it must be supplementary to expand and celebrate the brilliant work the library is doing around the country. It must be an additional funding tool, not a replacement.

These are definitely exciting times for the British Library. It had 1.64 million physical visits last year, and it is not just the books; its exhibitions are incredible, the shop is great and the café is great. Visitors have to get to the café very early to get a seat, because it is packed with very young, clever people with their laptops; visitors have to camp out to get a decent view. The library also has 27 million website visits, as the hon. Member said, and 16,000 people use its collections every single day. We are debating today how we can help an already-strong institution thrive in the years and decades to come. It is about time there was some levelling up, so I welcome that, but it must always be reflected in our towns and villages, not just our big cities in the north. That said, I welcome the Bill very much, and I hope it makes progress.

Photo of Neil O'Brien Neil O'Brien Conservative, Harborough 12:52 pm, 13th March 2020

This is an excellent Bill, and I pay warm tribute to my hon. Friend Bim Afolami, whose constituency I zoom through every morning on my way here, for bringing it to the House. He has spotted an important lacuna in the law and an opportunity, at no cost to the taxpayer, to get more value out of one of our most important public institutions. I congratulate him on bringing the Bill forward and I hope it makes progress.

Like my hon. Friend, I want to pay tribute to the important role of books and public libraries in our community life, and in my own life. Like him, I probably would not be here if it were not for libraries and books, whether it was Kirklees library, which we have already heard about, which used to drive its little van around Dalton when I was a child, or Huddersfield public library—the children’s bit in the basement where I enjoyed much of my childhood. At university, I was lucky to be able to use the Bodleian, an incredible library, and to stand outside the Radcliffe Camera—for bibliophiles, it is this wonderful vent where the smell of old books is wafted at you on an industrial scale. I am not sure I ever really benefited from the intellectual resources of the library, but at least I enjoyed the smell.

In my own constituency, there is the wonderful work done by places such as Kibworth community library and Fleckney library, which is not just a great library; it also has a wonderful café and is a hub for the community where all kinds of other things happen.

Photo of Mark Tami Mark Tami Opposition Whip (Commons)

I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman has been to St Deiniol’s library in Hawarden in my constituency, which is the home of Gladstone. What is interesting about that library is that Gladstone had a habit of crossing out the things he disagreed with and writing in what he thought was appropriate, and it is fascinating to see those books.

Photo of Neil O'Brien Neil O'Brien Conservative, Harborough

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for drawing that to my attention. It seems a typically Gladstonian move. I would love to visit that library at some point; perhaps we should have a library exchange.

It should be a great source of pride for this country that the British Library is literally, by catalogue size, the largest library anywhere in the world. It currently holds between 170 million and 200 million items and, frankly, I love the uncertainty of that. I have often wondered, “How do you know if you have too many books?” I think if one is unable to number them except within a range of plus or minus 15 million, it is possible that one has too many books. That is slightly unfair on the British Library, because it knows how many books it has; the uncertainty comes from the fact that there are so many other things in there, and my hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden already mentioned the gravestone and the possibility that the “Edstone” may reside there.

As well as 30,950,000 books, there are 824,101 serial titles, 351,116 manuscripts, 8,266,000 philatelic items or stamps, 4,347,000 cartographic items or maps, and 1.6 million music scores. As has been mentioned, the British Library grows its collection by 3 million items every year and currently requires 625 km of shelf space, which is growing by 12 km a year. To put that into context, that is enough for roughly three speeches by my hon. Friend Robert Courts—[Laughter.] In the virtual space, the library harvested over 70 terabytes of web content for the UK web archive in 2016. We are not sure at present how many of the 70 terabytes consist mainly of cat gifs, but we do know that the library is cataloguing everything with a .uk domain, so we are in a slightly meta position here in that, as we speak, our words are being catalogued by the very institution that we are discussing.

The British library also contains a huge amount of recorded music and sound, much of which is available on British Library Sounds. I will return to this point about digital content, but someone can go on to the site, as I did in preparation for this speech, and listen to Dinka songs from South Sudan, endangered Micronesian recordings, which are sort of like mid-1980s rave music, or someone from the Edwardian era singing “Seventeen come Sunday” on to a wax cylinder. It is difficult to think of a more consequential library in history than the British Library.

Photo of David Johnston David Johnston Conservative, Wantage

I want to make a point about the UK publishing industry, which is another area in which we punch above our weight. It is worth £6 billion to the UK economy, and we have 10% of all academic downloads and 14% of the most cited articles. Does my hon. Friend agree that the British Library will be a key component of how we punch above our weight in this area?

Photo of Neil O'Brien Neil O'Brien Conservative, Harborough

My hon. Friend is absolutely correct. It is a hugely important national resource, and I will be coming back to some of his points. Indeed, one of the reasons why the British Library has been somewhat dependent historically on grant in aid is that it has these statutory responsibilities.

Just think about the history of this truly wonderful national institution. The old reading room, when it was still part of the British Museum, was host for long periods of time to an incredible and diverse group of people, some of whom did not necessarily see eye to eye. It played host not just to Lenin, but Orwell, not just to Gandhi, but Muhammad Ali Jinnah, not just to Karl Marx, famously, but also Hayek. There was Oscar Wilde on the one hand, and Rudyard Kipling on the other. The list goes on and on: George Bernard Shaw, Mark Twain, Virginia Woolf, H. G. Wells, Arthur Conan Doyle. Imagine all those historical figures together. It would be the ultimate dinner party at the end of time, although perhaps a slightly combustible one.

In recent years, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden mentioned, it has been policy to give greater freedom and operational autonomy to our national museums, and our sponsored museums have already benefited from a huge reduction in bureaucracy and the associated costs.

In particular, the freedom to carry over reserves has been hugely beneficial and a big source of stability in the financing of these institutions. It has also been important to them that they have been able to determine the pay for their staff, so that they can retain the best and brightest.

As has already been mentioned, other national museums that are sponsored by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport have had the freedom to borrow following the reforms announced in 2013 and made permanent in 2015, but the British Library Act 1972 prevented the British Library from doing that. The Government’s strategic review of DCMS-sponsored museums in November 2017 concluded:

“Subject to Parliamentary time, DCMS and the British Library will explore scope for legislation that enables the British Library to borrow money.”

I am proud that we are acting on that recommendation. Removing the restriction brings the British Library into line with other national museums that already have the powers and gives it the potential to access more financial opportunities to support its growing work.

The British Library is still reliant on grant in aid for around 80% of its income, which is rather higher than some of the other institutions in the same category. I hope that the advent of the new borrowing powers will mean we can bring that percentage down over time to a level closer to some of the other institutions that are funded through the same channel. It is brilliant that the library is expanding its campus in north London, opening up new opportunities in what is sometimes described as the knowledge quarter around Euston and St Pancras.

I am conscious that while the library provides some amazing online services, as have already been mentioned, there is huge untapped potential, and that cannot necessarily be realised just through commercial partnerships. The library has done some interesting things with Google over the past couple of years, but there are limits to what can be done through more partnerships with commercial firms. As we have already discussed a little, the British Library secured £30 million of funding in the Budget this week to expand its intellectual property network to 20 centres by 2023, including, I am glad to say, one just over the border from us in Northamptonshire. That will help our businesses in Harborough, Oadby and Wigston.

Photo of Joy Morrissey Joy Morrissey Conservative, Beaconsfield

I would like to highlight the work of the British Library and what it has done to promote entrepreneurship with its business and IP centres. As a Conservative, I believe in small business and entrepreneurship. The British Library has done an excellent job in promoting not only small businesses, but young entrepreneurs and ethnic minority entrepreneurs not just in London, but across the country.

I was able to interact with the British Library at a meeting of the all-party parliamentary group for black, Asian and minority ethnic business owners. A gentleman from Burnham in my constituency who is a business owner was there. It was wonderful to see the British Library so actively involved in trying to help start-ups, and I think we need to have such things across the country. We need to support our entrepreneurs at every level, and what is great about the British Library is that it is doing that for young entrepreneurs as well. It is using city libraries and existing libraries across the country to have these hubs and the results have been really positive. All that has a measurable impact for thousands of start-ups and young entrepreneurs. More than 12,000 businesses have been created with the network’s support since 2016. I hope my hon. Friend will join me in welcoming the new endeavour, and I hope the Bill will allow the entrepreneurship programme to expand across the country.

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Order. Before Neil O'Brien comes back in, I have to say that the hon. Lady’s intervention was longer than some of the speeches I have given. By their very nature interventions should be short, as interesting as hers was.

Photo of Neil O'Brien Neil O'Brien Conservative, Harborough

My hon. Friend made an important intervention that was, like the British Library, content-rich. I welcome her words. She is absolutely right that the British Library is helping entrepreneurs, and also that the Bill will help the British Library to be more entrepreneurial. It was the library’s brilliant idea to decide to set up these IP centres—the first in the world—and we are now helping it to expand them.

I welcome the fact that the British Library is going to renew the Boston Spa campus, with all the opportunities around that. The point about having borrowing powers is that it allows for the most to be made of opportunities. I welcome the fact that the library is exploring a presence in Leeds. I love the idea of British Library North. I really like the idea that it might use the old Temple Works. It is a famous building of the industrial revolution that at one point contained the world’s largest room, which is pretty cool. The only thing I would say—to grind my own axe for a moment—is that I would love to see some of these things happening in the midlands, especially the east midlands. So, “British Library, if you are listening, do not forget your old friends in the midlands! Please use your new borrowing powers to help us too.”

All the things that the British Library is doing create opportunities to drive economic growth, in small ways and big. Tracy Brabin made the good point that there is an excellent café there. It reminded me of the old advert for the Victoria and Albert museum that described it as a very good café with rather a nice museum attached. So there are small things but also much bigger things. One can imagine the physical regeneration and wonderful things that could be done in Leeds with the new campus. The fact that the British Library could borrow would let it go that little bit further.

This is a slightly different category of thing, but Network Rail recently rejigged Market Harborough railway station. It is great, but everything was replaced, like for like, whereas we could have made more of the opportunity of that regeneration. I hope that this new set of powers for the British Library will enable it to make the most of the opportunities and exciting things that it is doing.

I recently published a report on—Members should not groan—levelling up. It looked at, among other things, innovation, science and culture spending. I was struck that, taking Arts Council England and Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport direct funding of national institutions such as the British Library together, London received 47%—nearly half—of the total spending in England in the period from 2010-11 to 2017-18. Amazingly, that is a slightly lower percentage than in previous decades, but the spending is incredibly London-centric.

Photo of James Cartlidge James Cartlidge Conservative, South Suffolk

Is my hon. Friend aware that, in terms of growth of DCMS sectors in the economy, yes London is No. 1, but not far behind is the north-east?

Photo of Neil O'Brien Neil O'Brien Conservative, Harborough

I thank my hon. Friend for that piece of information. It leads me neatly on to what I was going to say. It is striking that Arts Council England has targets and is aggressively moving to spend more of its budget outside London, which I welcome. It is starting from a base line of an absurd proportion of spending in London and is moving, although more slowly than I would like, clearly in the right direction. The reason why total culture is so heavily weighted towards London is not primarily to do with Arts Council England but mainly to do with directly DCMS-funded national institutions, of which the British Library is a main example. In that category of spending, 90% of the spending is in London. That is what drives the huge imbalance in spending. So many of the institutions that we love and cherish are in London. The Department is trying to do more elsewhere, but there is a lot more to be done.

Our national museums and arts institutions have become more innovative and commercial over time, because sometimes you have to speculate to accumulate. That is why today we will be giving them borrowing powers so that they can invest to grow.

It is true that the current British Library building on Euston Road is not as universally loved as the old domed reading room in the British Museum. There are so many wonderful things about that old dome. It had, funnily enough, a papier-mâché ceiling and it was opened in the Victorian era to a breakfast feast that included champagne and ice cream, which is my kind of library. The new building still had a much better fate than the French national library. Francois Mitterand’s library was built at the same time and has suffered technological problems, industrial relations problems and problems with thermal loading. The heat coming into the large glass L-shaped buildings was damaging the books, and the French press were quick to say that it was typical of a Mitterand project that it ended up cooking the books. The British Library has been more successful than that, and than the old Birmingham library, now demolished, which Prince Charles said looked like a place where books were incinerated rather than read.

Despite the fact the new reading room is not quite as beautiful as the old one, which Louis MacNeice imagined in his poem “The British Museum Reading Room” as a great beehive under which scholars worked away to store up knowledge, it is a hugely important national institution doing more and more every day to support our national life and economic growth. We should be proud of it. It is a wonderful institution. I am also proud of my hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden, who is today introducing an important piece of legislation that will support and protect an important national institution to do even more for this country.

Photo of James Cartlidge James Cartlidge Conservative, South Suffolk 1:09 pm, 13th March 2020

I will be extremely brief, but first, let me pay tribute to my hon. Friend Bim Afolami for a brilliant speech, and for presenting this worthwhile Bill.

On the principle itself, as has been said, the 1972 Act did not permit the British Library to borrow, hence the reason for this Bill, whereas other famous British institutions got those powers back in 2013. It is important to refer to the letter from the former Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Secretary of State, now Minister for Media and Data, my right hon. Friend Mr Whittingdale. He wrote to the then chair of the Natural History Museum, Lord Green of Hurstpierpoint, about the change in the museum’s borrowing powers. It is important to note that he specifically said this in the letter:

“I encourage you to make the most of these flexibilities, including through considering ways in which capital projects can create income-generating opportunities, making them suitable for loan financing.”

That is really important. I have four children and we take them to the Science Museum and the Natural History Museum. Although it is free to get into those museums, they do have specific paid-for exhibitions, which can be absolutely brilliant. I recognise that we should preserve free access, but it is perfectly right to have very attractive features within the museum that are optional and chargeable. It is interesting to understand that that is where the Secretary of State saw this borrowing power being spent—on new income-generating sources. In my view, the purpose of this legislation is to give new gross value added to the sector, so that a museum can create wonderful new creative things around the country, which is part of that agenda that we call—let us have a drum roll—levelling up. [Hon. Members: “Hooray!”] We are not going to stop. We are going to keep levelling up. This is a very good Bill. It takes a great British asset and makes it even stronger. It is part of our soft power, and it adds to our economy.

I will just finish by referring to an experience in my constituency in Suffolk, which, I hope, will be part of the levelling up agenda—east as well as north, and so on. We have a very prestigious artistic heritage in South Suffolk. We could not move any of it, as it exists permanently. We have the tree, which is technically just outside the boundary, in front of which Mr and Mrs Andrews were painted by Gainsborough in Sudbury itself. We have Gainsborough’s House, where he lived, which has now become a museum, and just up the Stour, we have Flatford mill, which is the living site of the Hay Wain, the most famous English painting, so we have huge heritage. I spoke to Mark Bills, the director of Gainsborough’s House, and asked him whether he had borrowing powers—that is the principle of the Bill. He needs them because there is to be a major refurbishment of Gainsborough’s House. Money comes from the national lottery, but 10% is held back on projects, so it needs to have the ability to borrow, even if it is, in the parlance of a library, on a short-loan basis.

I very much commend the Bill. We should all support it because it adds to a great British institution. I look forward to hearing from my old friend the Minister about what more we can do.

Photo of Kevin Hollinrake Kevin Hollinrake Conservative, Thirsk and Malton 1:13 pm, 13th March 2020

I, too, rise in support of the Bill and congratulate my hon. Friend Bim Afolami on bringing it forward. I am also going to mention those dreaded words “levelling up,” as they are a key part of this. It is something that many of us have been banging on about for years. We did not call it “levelling up” then; we called it “a fairer deal for the north” or something like that. Having said that, I fully concede that this is not just about the north; it is about every region in the UK. It is about spreading both facilities and jobs throughout the country. It is great to hear that the north-east is doing well in terms of DCMS funding. That has not been particularly apparent in my trips around the north-east—perhaps it was north-east London.

Photo of James Cartlidge James Cartlidge Conservative, South Suffolk

It is about the economics sector, not the spending of the Department. In terms of the growth in the DCMS sector within our economy, the second fastest growing part is the north-east.

Photo of Kevin Hollinrake Kevin Hollinrake Conservative, Thirsk and Malton

I absolutely take my hon. Friend’s word for that.

My main reason for speaking was to talk about the opportunity for British Library North, the wonderful potential move into the city centre of Leeds. We already have the outpost in Boston Spa, as others have mentioned —the archive—which is probably closer to my constituency than that of Tracy Brabin, but is actually in the constituency of my right hon. Friend Alec Shelbrooke. The archive contains a record of every single newspaper ever published in the UK. It is not open to the public day to day, however, so to have a proper facility in the centre of Leeds is an exciting development.

Temple Works, as my hon. Friend Neil O'Brien said, contains what was at one point the largest room in the world, a 2 acre room. It is a wonderful part of Leeds, in the South Bank, close to the new High Speed 2 station. Any such contributions and facilities, connecting the north with the midlands and the south, mean more important facilities and jobs moving to our region.

As the hon. Member for Batley and Spen said, this is all part of the West Yorkshire devolution deal. We want to see devolution right across Yorkshire—Leeds and Bradford, great, but also York and North Yorkshire—and such opportunities are the kind to be created with the devolution deals. I welcome the Bill and the Government’s agenda to level up through the distribution of jobs and facilities throughout the UK.

Photo of Caroline Dinenage Caroline Dinenage Minister of State 1:15 pm, 13th March 2020

It has been a great pleasure to listen to all the contributions about this interesting Bill. I congratulate my hon. Friend Bim Afolami on promoting it, but it has support from across the House. There is one take from every single contribution by Members from across the House: how special a place the British Library has in the heart of the British people. That is a measurable take from what we have heard today.

I am tempted to go through a whole range of different library-related puns, but I will avoid doing so other than to say that my hon. Friend’s speech was long overdue. It was a fine speech. If the Chamber would just lend me their ears for a little longer, I will congratulate some of the other people who have spoken and explain why the Government will support the Bill.

My hon. Friend Neil O'Brien articulated beautifully and exhaustively the scale of the British Library. We heard about all the different bits that many people do not understand, including the speed dating, which I had not hitherto heard of and sounds intriguing. The passion we heard from Members throughout the House articulates how fondly the British Library is regarded and held in the hearts of the British people.

Only a few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of visiting—for the very first time, I am ashamed to say—in my new role as Minister for Digital and Culture. I share the enthusiasm of my hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden and of other hon. Members for the amazing work of the British Library and its impressive variety. As so many others have said, however, it is not just the work done at the London site; it is also a typical example of national outreach, which has been going on for a long time.

We heard a lot today about the two-site organisation, with the amazing presence in Boston Spa—70% of the collection stored there, a public reading room and about 550 jobs in the region—and about how the British Library brilliantly uses its resources to reach across the UK through the Business and IP Centre national network and the Living Knowledge Network. It also works internationally through a range of digitisation, preservation and professional exchange initiatives. The business and intellectual property centres are in 13 town and city libraries across the UK, and there are plans for so many more—I will talk about that a little more. The Living Knowledge Network is a UK-wide partnership of the British Library, the National Library of Scotland, the National Library of Wales and 22 other libraries, which shares ideas and makes connections between libraries, their collections and their people.

A number of Members spoke about the business and IP centres; as a former entrepreneur, and having been a business owner for many years before I became an MP, I would like to dwell on that subject for a second. Also, as a former Women and Equalities Minister, I am super passionate about encouraging people from a range of backgrounds into business and entrepreneurship. The centres provide free access to a range of business databases, so that people can research markets and identify new opportunities in a much less terrifying environment than some of the normal, formal, business-type facilities. The centres provide training and give one-to-one advice on intellectual property. Crucially, they are in spaces that we all instinctively know are dedicated to the provision of reliable information—public libraries.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden pointed out so beautifully, the centres’ success rate among women, people from black and minority ethnic backgrounds and people with disabilities is phenomenal, which is fantastic, because we want to tap into everybody’s entrepreneurship, no matter where they are in the country, or their background. The centres reach groups that are otherwise fundamentally under-represented in business, and so are brilliant for our country. That is why I was so pleased on Wednesday when my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer confirmed Government investment of £13 million to expand and accelerate the spread of the network, ensuring that this vital service reaches even more brilliant budding entrepreneurs, right across England.

The Government’s view is that an institution as important as the British Library should have the same choices and opportunities as its great cultural peers. This Bill will remove the legislative barrier that denies the library the freedom to borrow that its fellow national museums and galleries enjoy.

As we have heard, the British Library Act 1972 created that important national institution to be the heart of the UK’s information network, a national archive, and a working repository of printed and digital publications, and to support research of all kinds. Unfortunately, for some reason, that same legislation prevents it from making the most of every opportunity to thrive.

In 2013, our national cultural institutions, including the British Library, were given the operational freedom to be more self-governing and more financially independent. That has given them much greater autonomy, so that they can make decisions independently and have greater flexibility regarding their income. That helps them to innovate and continue their fantastic work. The British Library enjoys all those freedoms—except one, crucially: the power to borrow. Other museums and galleries have benefited from that power, using it to improve their sites, shrink their environmental footprint, provide better access for visitors, and gain more space to display our national collections. It is only fair that the British Library has the same opportunity. The Government agree, so I urge the House to support the Bill.

Photo of Bim Afolami Bim Afolami Conservative, Hitchin and Harpenden 1:22 pm, 13th March 2020

With the leave of the House, I very much thank all hon. Members who contributed to the debate, and I thank the British Library, its leadership, and all its staff for their work. My plea is that they reach out to me and other Members of this House, so that we can work with them to spread the British Library across the country.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time; to stand committed to a Public Bill Committee (Standing Order No. 63).