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British Library Board (Power to Borrow) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:10 pm on 13th March 2020.

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

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.