Libraries

– in the House of Lords at 11:00 am on 30th June 2005.

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Photo of Baroness Rendell of Babergh Baroness Rendell of Babergh Labour 11:00 am, 30th June 2005

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. In doing so, I declare an interest as a writer of fiction.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government what is their assessment of the condition of public libraries in the United Kingdom.

Photo of Lord Davies of Oldham Lord Davies of Oldham Deputy Chief Whip (House of Lords), HM Household, Captain of the Queen's Bodyguard of the Yeomen of the Guard (HM Household) (Deputy Chief Whip, House of Lords)

My Lords, as if we did not know that. Public libraries are vital, immensely popular and well used. Visits to UK libraries increased by 19 million between 2002 and 2004, to 337 million, coinciding with the increased variety of activities that they offer. The forthcoming audit by the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council of the quality of library buildings will clarify the current level of repair and standard of presentation. The results are expected later this year.

Photo of Baroness Rendell of Babergh Baroness Rendell of Babergh Labour

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his encouraging and optimistic reply. Is he aware that the buildings, library book stocks and the stock of out-of-print books are generally in a very poor state? The sum spent on them represents between 1 per cent and 2 per cent of local government expenditure. Is he also aware that computer equipment originally bought with lottery money is wearing out and will need replacing from existing budgets, and that some authorities are now having to charge for access to the Internet?

Photo of Lord Davies of Oldham Lord Davies of Oldham Deputy Chief Whip (House of Lords), HM Household, Captain of the Queen's Bodyguard of the Yeomen of the Guard (HM Household) (Deputy Chief Whip, House of Lords)

My Lords, my noble friend is quite right that there are strains on budgets—but, of course, these are local authority resources. The pump-priming of the £120 million that set up the People's Network and developed computer facilities in every library has helped to increase usage of libraries. But of course there are ongoing costs, as my noble friend has identified. These are part of the support given to local authorities, but the decisions to be taken on the allocation of support to their libraries are for them to take.

Photo of Lord Clement-Jones Lord Clement-Jones Spokesperson in the Lords, Culture, Media & Sport

My Lords, the Minister has painted an extremely rosy picture, if I may say so, especially when the Department for Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee described the library service as a service in distress. It also said—and it is no wonder in the light of the Minister's reply—that the DCMS needs to raise its game. In response to the Select Committee, what in particular is the DCMS doing about the fabric of libraries in terms of lottery funding availability? What is it doing to change the standards of libraries properly to meet the needs of users?

Photo of Lord Davies of Oldham Lord Davies of Oldham Deputy Chief Whip (House of Lords), HM Household, Captain of the Queen's Bodyguard of the Yeomen of the Guard (HM Household) (Deputy Chief Whip, House of Lords)

My Lords, of course, the original development of the computer service, which is greatly used in libraries and accounts for the very significant increase in visits to libraries in recent years, is proof of the department's concern that libraries should offer up-to-date facilities. That is against a background in which we all recognise strains on local authority budgets and therefore strains on public libraries.

But of course a number of libraries are absolute beacons of achievement. To cite the obvious one, Bournemouth library won the "Building of the Year" award a few years ago—and Norwich library is another example of a local authority being prepared to develop its facilities in a very extensive way indeed.

Of course, I accept what the noble Lord says; there were substantial criticisms in the Select Committee report. The Government are about to respond to that report and the noble Lord would not expect me to produce that response here today.

Photo of Lord Harrison Lord Harrison Labour

My Lords, given the wide remit of the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council, does my noble friend think that it provides a sufficient voice for the public, who are very concerned about what they perceive to be a deterioration in public library provision?

Photo of Lord Davies of Oldham Lord Davies of Oldham Deputy Chief Whip (House of Lords), HM Household, Captain of the Queen's Bodyguard of the Yeomen of the Guard (HM Household) (Deputy Chief Whip, House of Lords)

My Lords, my noble friend is right. In some cases local communities' involvement should take a more direct form and they should have a greater direct say in the development of the facility in their locality. However, local government exists to deal with those issues. The amount of central funding that my department can offer to local authorities is necessarily limited. We seek to encourage greater use of libraries and we are encouraged by the increasing number of library visits in recent years. However, much remains to be done. My noble friend is right to emphasise the local dimension of this matter.

Photo of Baroness Warnock Baroness Warnock Crossbench

My Lords, has the Minister recently visited a relatively rustic public library where the facilities are absolutely pathetic and many years out of date? I hope that the Minister can reassure me on this matter but it seems to me that a higher priority may be accorded to city public libraries than to provincial ones where perhaps the need is even greater. Certainly my local public library in Marlborough has no money and is low in the local authority's priorities. The inhabitants of Wiltshire are very badly served. I hope the Minister will say that this is not the case but I think that that is probably true of many counties.

Photo of Lord Davies of Oldham Lord Davies of Oldham Deputy Chief Whip (House of Lords), HM Household, Captain of the Queen's Bodyguard of the Yeomen of the Guard (HM Household) (Deputy Chief Whip, House of Lords)

My Lords, I do not want to generalise too much but performance is patchy. I emphasise that cities are able to concentrate their resources more successfully and therefore local people are much more aware of the large significant libraries which are often provided. There is more difficulty in that regard in rural areas. However, I believe that libraries are adjusting to the times. There is no doubt at all that libraries are aware that they have to cater for changing needs or they will not gain local support, which is essential. We should recognise that one dimension of competition for the libraries is undeniable—the fact that so many books are now purchased in paperback form at discount prices due to the hugely successful development of the publishing industry. That means that a very large number of people choose to buy books rather than to borrow them.

Photo of The Earl of Listowel The Earl of Listowel Crossbench

My Lords, what is being done to make public libraries more attractive to children and to develop the children's sections of public libraries and the staff who work in those sections?

Photo of Lord Davies of Oldham Lord Davies of Oldham Deputy Chief Whip (House of Lords), HM Household, Captain of the Queen's Bodyguard of the Yeomen of the Guard (HM Household) (Deputy Chief Whip, House of Lords)

My Lords, that is a very important dimension. Libraries are encouraged to recognise that links with schools are of very great significance, not least as regards the whole development of improved literacy performance in this country. We need to ensure that the reading habit starts early. That is absolutely congruent with the work which is being done, and the emphasis which is being placed, on reading in young children's education. The libraries have their part to play in that.