British Library Board (Power to Borrow) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:42 pm on 13th March 2020.

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

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.