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British Library Board (Power to Borrow) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:52 pm on 13th March 2020.

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

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.