British Library Board (Power to Borrow) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 1:15 pm on 13th March 2020.

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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.