My Lords, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport monitors closely all developments relating to proposed changes to library services throughout England. It is for each local authority to determine how best to provide a comprehensive and efficient public library service that meets local needs within available resources. Responsibility for libraries in the remainder of the United Kingdom rests with the respective devolved Administrations and relevant local authorities.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his Answer—but the problem lies within it. Government spending cuts have impacted heavily on local authorities. The local authorities to which my noble friend refers are reducing expenditure on the library service by closing or reducing the number of buildings, under the guise of modernising. What will the Government do to dissuade local authorities from reducing the number of library buildings, such as ring-fencing funding? Libraries form the social hub in many areas and are a basic component in promoting literacy and reading. Finally, there is a group seeking to modernise libraries. When will we have its report, and will it be too late?
My Lords, my noble friend refers to the library service. There is still a strong library service in England, with over 3,142 public libraries, and local authorities invested £757.3 million in them in the last financial year. William Sieghart’s report was published on
My Lords, if the Government reduce resources for local authorities by 30% to 40%, with inevitably larger reductions in available funding for discretionary services, how can local authorities comply with their statutory duty to provide the comprehensive and efficient public library service which he mentioned?
My Lords, I could take your Lordships through many local authorities where important changes are taking place, such as Devon, which is expanding into community hubs; Newcastle upon Tyne; Northamptonshire, where there are enterprise hubs, partnerships between Northamptonshire libraries and Northamptonshire Enterprise Partnership; and Suffolk, where there is an independent organisation with charitable status. All those local authorities of different political persuasions are doing great things with fewer resources. No one is saying that there will be more resources; we all have to deal with the cuts, which all parties now recognise are necessary for the national economy. In the main, however, local authorities are doing a very good job.
My Lords, it is not good thinking to make any reduction in libraries, which play a very good role in increasing the knowledge of the nation. The economy of the country is doing well, and now, with the reduction of oil prices throughout the world, the British economy will benefit. We should support the libraries financially.
My Lords, my noble friend rightly highlights the very important role in our national life that libraries perform. As I say, libraries are changing and innovating. For instance, there is an enormous increase in lending on the e-lending side—from a smallish base, yes; but there has been a 125% increase over the past year.
My Lords, the one thing that the Minister did not mention is that the Government have a statutory duty under the libraries Act to ensure that services are maintained—that there are library services. What is the Minister doing to ensure that that obligation is met?
My Lords, will my noble friend join me in acknowledging the contribution of many local groups all over the country which are managing to keep their libraries open through volunteer work? As an example, Gresford and Marford local library, of which I am honoured to be a patron, is working with Wrexham local authority, which provides the books and the computer system, while the community group provides the manpower and raises the money for the utility bills. That works extremely well. That may be second best to having a full local authority-run library, but it does work.
My Lords, the first thing to say is that the community libraries and, indeed, the volunteers who are part of it deserve our congratulations. They are doing precisely what is happening in many communities, with communities joining together. They do not replace the extensive network of council-run libraries, but they are very important in providing that additional element of provision, and I congratulate them.
As a former chair of the Cheshire library service, I, too, welcome the examples of innovation that the Minister described. However, given that, will he please answer my noble friend Lord Howarth’s question about applying a statutory service when the funds made available to local councils are diminishing?
I think that local authorities have done extremely well; last year, there was a reduction, I think, of 39 out of the 3,142 libraries. That shows that there is a very strong system. In many cities and small towns, new libraries are opening because there is a refurbishment and the local needs are being identified in that way.
My Lords, does my noble friend accept that fundamental to any civilised society is a full network of public libraries, with books in them? E-learning is one thing, but the book is the fundamental foundation stone of the library, and may it long remain so.
My Lords, I am a keen fan of books myself, but it is important—for young people in particular, and given the fact that so many more people are looking after their lives digitally—that libraries provide that facility as well. That is one of the ways we shall ensure that there are more people visiting libraries.
My Lords, I have a special interest in libraries. I was the very first black person to be employed by a public library; I met my husband there, and I made many friends. The most important thing about the library that struck me when I came into the job was the facility provided for people who never spoke to anyone for the whole day, but who would come into the library, sit and read the papers, and have something to discuss. We need the libraries. I am sure the Government think that they are doing their best, but in the borough where I live and have worked, we are noticing the shortage of libraries. Will the Government look again at how they perform their statutory duty? It may not seem like a big thing, and libraries have improved in lots of ways, but all this is being lost now. Both my husband and I worked in a library, and that was the first move towards racial equality; I suffered in the beginning, but I was determined. So may I ask the Government to consider that the library has a greater purpose than people just going in there to get the odd book?
My Lords, that is precisely why the Government were so keen on William Sieghart’s report on independent libraries, because it provides recommendations for the Government and for local authorities. The Government greatly support that role. The libraries have a huge community role to play, and I am very pleased to hear of the noble Baroness’s experiences.