British Library Board (Power to Borrow) Bill - Second Reading

– in the House of Lords at 12:35 pm on 19th March 2021.

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Lord Vaizey of Didcot:

Moved by Lord Vaizey of Didcot

That the Bill be now read a second time.

Photo of Lord Vaizey of Didcot Lord Vaizey of Didcot Conservative

My Lords, I do not propose to detain your Lordships long. This is a very simple Bill that has been entrusted to me, which runs to the full extent of two clauses. Before I move to the Bill, I refer to my register of interests, including my work for the Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society.

This Bill has come from the other place, where it was ably stewarded by Bim Afolami MP. Without wishing to turn this into an Oscars speech, I briefly express my gratitude to Rob Field of the British Library for his help in preparing my remarks as well as to Cheryl Shorter and Mark Hicks at what we must now refer to at length as the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.

I am very much looking forward to the speeches from noble Lords, in particular from the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, who was for many years the chair of the British Library when I was a simple junior Minister sitting at her feet, and from my newly ennobled and very old noble friend Lord Hannan, who 30 years ago used to do my photocopying. I say to him that, if he does not have at least three quotes from Shakespeare referring to reading and libraries in his three-minute speech, I will be extremely disappointed.

As I said, this Bill is extremely uncontroversial. Its two clauses simply repeal a provision in the British Library Act 1972—the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, who is also due to speak, was there when it was going through Parliament—which prevents the British Library from borrowing. I am told by officials at DCMS that the reason why the provision was included in the 1972 Act is lost in the mists of time, despite their archaeological work—the noble Lord may be able to shed light on that.

This Bill will put the British Library in the same position as the rest of our national museums. I was lucky enough as Minister for Culture to push forward granting greater freedoms to our national museums. That included the power to borrow and to spend from their reserves and other flexibilities. I was certainly not around at the time—although, again, the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, will recall it—but it is hard to believe that 40 or 50 years ago our museums were treated as subsets of government departments, with huge restrictions. I am pleased to say that, whatever one’s view of different Governments, more and more freedoms have been granted to our museums and they have flourished as a result.

This simple Bill will allow the great British Library to have the same level of freedom as its counterparts. Once the Bill is passed, it will be able to borrow from a Treasury pot of £60 million that is made available annually and has so far been used by seven museums. It is important to stress—I do not think that any of your Lordships would take this view, but it was raised at Second Reading in the other place—that this is not a Trojan horse or some Machiavellian scheme by the Government to allow the British Library to borrow money so that they can cut its grant in future. It simply provides the flexibility and freedom enjoyed by all our other national museums.

I do not want to pre-empt any of the remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, but it is safe to say that the British Library is a jewel in our cultural crown. I am pleased to say that it still receives a generous grant from the Government of almost £100 million, but it also generates almost £20 million in commercial income. It provides free access for the public to its treasures gallery and free access for registered readers to its famous reading room. Its treasures go on tour around the country; I remember visiting the Lindisfarne Gospels in County Durham. They will be going on tour again to Newcastle next year and George Eliot’s Middlemarch is going to Coventry, our future capital of culture. It has 150 million physical items, which include 31 million books, almost a million titles, 350,000 manuscripts, almost 5 million maps and 1.5 million music scores. It adds 3 million more items every year; it has 625 kilometres of shelf space and adds 12 kilometres every year.

In this climate of levelling-up, it is also worth remembering that the British Library has a magnificent 42-acre site in Boston Spa in Yorkshire, which employs 550 people and where 70% of its collection is kept. Also, in this digital age, it is worth remembering that 5 million people a year look at items from the British Library online, 5 million people visit its website and 10 million teachers use its learning resources. When I was Culture Minister, I was very pleased to put through Parliament the non-print legal deposit regulations—an inelegant name for an important piece of legislation that has allowed the British Library to start collecting digital items. It now has 7.5 million e-books, 13 billion web items and 1.5 petabytes of data, which is apparently equivalent to 10 billion digital photos.

I am glad that the Government’s support for the British Library continues. In the last Budget, they awarded £13 million to the British Library to support its business and IP centres—again, this is a very important innovation which I think happened when the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, was chair of the British Library—which work with 20 regional and 90 local libraries to support businesses, and 12,000 businesses have taken advantage of this. The majority of those businesses are actually run by women; a third of them are run by people from BAME backgrounds and a fifth of them by people with disabilities. I was also delighted to learn that the National Lottery Heritage Fund has made £25 million available to the British Library to set up a new library in Leeds. The future of the British Library is bright indeed under the able leadership of Dame Carol Black and Roly Keating.

Since I have the Floor for just a few minutes, may I make two general policy points? I am obviously enjoying this moment of pretending that I am a Minister once again. First, I ask my noble friend who is in fact the Minister: could the Government look at the public lending right again? It seems to me such an easy win to increase the funding available for the public lending right. You can call me sad, but I was rereading my late father’s speeches in the House of Lords from when the public lending right was first introduced. We talk often in this place at the moment about freelancers. Authors are the ultimate freelancers, and for a very small amount of money the Government could make a great and dramatic impact on the lives of many authors.

Secondly, I also reveal to the House my complete obsession with museum storage. The Boston Spa site—already a fantastic resource for the British Library and the country—could be made even better if the Government leaned in with the British Library on the digitisation of print items, because that is the way the world is going. It could turn into a fantastic regional resource in Yorkshire with the right amount of investment and imagination.

With those two free hits afforded to me by being able to steward the Bill through this place, I make my points and beg to move.

Photo of Baroness Blackstone Baroness Blackstone Independent Labour 12:43 pm, 19th March 2021

My Lords, I was indeed the chair of the board of the British Library, so I declare that as an interest. Indeed, I was in the role in 2013 when the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced a four-year pilot package granting a number of freedoms, including the freedom to borrow, to the national museums and galleries following a report by Neil Mendoza—now the noble Lord, Lord Mendoza—which recommended these freedoms. As we have heard, they became permanent in 2015.

I am not sure that the noble Lord, Lord Vaizey, ever sat at my feet; I think I actually sat at his when he was a Minister. I thank him very much for bringing into the House this Private Member’s Bill following the completion of its initial stages in the other place, where it received cross-party support. The exclusion of the BL in 2013 was, in my view, an anomaly, so I am really delighted that this is now rectified in this Bill by a small amendment to the British Library Act 1972. I am confident that it will have the same cross-party support here as it had in the other place.

I am very grateful for all the positive things the noble Lord, Lord Vaizey, said about the BL, because he had more time; I have only three minutes. It is a great national institution. It is one of the largest and most influential national libraries in the world. Its vast collections are international, and through digitisation it is working to make some of its truly valuable collections, including rare manuscripts, available to readers around the world. It has made a start, but the amount of further work to be done is daunting.

I want to say just a bit about what it does in the UK. It runs a fantastic exhibition programme, which in recent years has ranged from a celebration of the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta—which the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, will remember well—to Harry Potter. Its many exhibitions, small and large, have attracted thousands of visitors to the BL beyond its readers, who use the library and its collections to have the resources they need to carry out research.

The BL has also been innovative in spreading its services beyond the base at St Pancras through a network of business and intellectual property centres, as the noble Lord, Lord Vaizey, mentioned. These provide invaluable advice for those wishing to start a small business, so as such it is a great aid to entrepreneurial drive in this country. As the noble Lord, Lord Vaizey, mentioned, it is also developing an ambitious plan to develop British Library North, working with Leeds City Council and others to open and expand its base in Yorkshire as well as a new site in Leeds.

Giving the BL the power through the Bill to borrow, whether from the Government—who have a pool from which the national museums and galleries can borrow for agreed projects—or commercially, will allow the BL to introduce further innovations which it may not be able to fund from its grant in aid. These might include efficiency improvements to its estate, upgrading digital systems, which are so vital, or developing and expanding commercial products and services. Of course, it will be up to the library to make the case for such projects. I strongly commend the Bill and hope it will go through unamended.

Photo of Lord Cormack Lord Cormack Conservative 12:47 pm, 19th March 2021

My Lords, it is a very real privilege to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone. She was a very distinguished chairman of the British Library and did much to enhance it, and we are all in her debt.

I regard my noble friend Lord Vaizey with a degree of affectionate envy today, because I have the Bill that has languished at the top of the list from our ballot last year and is never going to be debated in this House unless I draw a high place in the next ballot. But he has done a service in bringing this Bill before us.

I am by nature against anomalies and for flexibility, and the Bill does away with a quite extraordinary anomaly. When you look at all our other great museums and galleries, it is right that this, one of the greatest institutions of its kind in the world—if not the greatest library in the world—should enjoy these simple benefits, not least because it is itself a marvellous lender. I speak with very real experience, because I was responsible for organising a couple of major exhibitions in Lincoln in 2015 to commemorate Magna Carta and in 2017 to commemorate the great Battle of Lincoln. We borrowed a number of our most significant things, including the Luttrell Psalter in the first exhibition. I had nothing but help from Claire Breay, who heads up medieval manuscripts, and her colleagues, and I pay tribute to them. Those who are lenders should be able to be borrowers too—and, of course, they do with their own exhibitions.

My noble friend is right that I was present when the original Act went through in another place. However, I am very sad that our noble friend Lord Eccles is not able to be here today. His father was very much the godfather of the British Library, and I know that our noble colleague is inordinately proud, and rightly so, of what his father achieved. I shall never forget the great opening ceremony and the series of other ceremonies that followed the opening of the library. Although there were views about its architecture, it has established itself as a quite marvellous institution, and it deserves every possible help from government.

When I look back on my nearly 51 years in Parliament, nothing from an Act of Parliament has been of greater benefit to the people of this country in the cultural sense than the British Library. I am very glad indeed that we have the opportunity to speed this Bill on its way this morning.

Photo of Lord Janvrin Lord Janvrin Crossbench 12:50 pm, 19th March 2021

My Lords, it is a huge privilege to follow the noble Lord, Lord Cormack. I refer to my interests as a present member of the board of the British Library. It has been a great pleasure to listen to the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, who was such an inspiring chair of the library when I first joined the board.

I certainly support the Bill, which was so eloquently introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Vaizey. As has been said, it corrects a past inconsistency and brings the library into line with other major museums and galleries. The ability to borrow will be a useful additional tool for the British Library board and indeed a very timely one. For these are very exciting times to be on the board of this vital national asset. It is that buzz of being in the right place at the right time. The British Library is certainly about heritage—old books are wonderful things. However, it is also about cutting-edge research, digital and data, encouraging entrepreneurs, supporting communities through the public library network, and global collaboration. It has a key role in our 21st-century knowledge economy.

These are exciting times indeed. However, they are also difficult times. Like everyone, the library has been coping with Covid and the lockdowns, endlessly finding new ways of doing things. I take this opportunity to pay tribute to the dedication and hard work of the staff at every level in rising to meet these unprecedented challenges. However, the light ahead is there. The library is fully engaged in focusing on how it can support this country’s post-pandemic recovery and renewal. I commend to the House the library’s strategic statement of intent published in October last year, Living Knowledge for Everyone. As has been mentioned, we have ambitious plans in London, in our existing campus at Boston Spa, and in creating a new presence in the centre of Leeds. This is a major programme to create jobs and businesses, to foster innovation and to invest more widely across the country. I take this opportunity to thank the Minister and all her colleagues in DCMS for the support and encouragement the Government are giving to the library in realising those plans.

I end where I began by thanking the noble Lord, Lord Vaizey, a most notable alumnus of DCMS, not only for his two interesting policy points but for sponsoring the Bill, which will give us and the library important flexibility in managing our resources in the years to come.

Photo of Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Green 12:54 pm, 19th March 2021

My Lords, this week I had great pleasure in joining Mary Robinson, chair of The Elders, and Nick Merriman of the Horniman Museum, at an event with the UK Committee of the International Council of Museums. Our focus was on museums and libraries as thought leaders in the battle against climate change. Dr Merriman made the point that while they are often thought of as custodians of the past, in fact their key place in our society is as inspirations for the future. As someone who, I should perhaps declare, holds a reader’s ticket for the British Library, I have always found it to be that.

Six years ago, I took part in an event inspired by the artist Monica Ross, a recitation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in the British Library foyer— a very public exhibition of the importance of rights that, even then, were obviously under threat. It was a case of looking backwards to past success and forwards to the need to defend it. In 2008, the library held an exhibition entitled Taking Liberties: The Struggle for Britain’s Freedoms and Rights. That was the first public place where I encountered the argument that I have used very regularly since: that universal basic income, guaranteeing the dignity of the right to the essentials of life without the need to rely on charity, was a logical place for human rights doctrine to reach.

That the British Library is a crucial international resource for the nation is a statement of the obvious. It must be properly funded by the nation to ensure that it can keep up its comprehensive collecting remit and an ability to share the riches thus collected. I hope that is an uncontroversial statement, although in the age of continuing privatisation it needs to be said. An idea that was one day radical and way out there, contained only perhaps in a flimsy short-run magazine deposited in the stacks, may one day be a crucial seed that germinates to solve a problem and enrich the national fabric.

The British Library must not be treated as a business, forced to turn, as have our universities, into a competing commercial business taking financial risks. I have to say that talk of commercial projects, as we heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, makes me nervous. As we all know, business models have an unfortunate tendency to collapse, and we need to make sure that the library, one of our national foundations, is in no danger of that. With considerable caution, acknowledging the view taken by the library board, I support the Bill. However, your Lordships’ House, all of us as library readers, and the whole nation, need to keep an extremely close eye on the future funding from the centre of our government to the British Library—that other centre of our national life.

Photo of Lord Eatwell Lord Eatwell Labour 12:57 pm, 19th March 2021

My Lords, I declare an interest as another former chair of the British Library.

As has been acknowledged already, there is no rational reason why the BL should be excluded from a source of finance that is available to other great public institutions. However, the government scheme itself is questionable. The very essence of a project that is funded by borrowing is that it should earn a return. Hence, borrowing will inevitably push the BL towards a more commercial approach to the provision of its services. Could the Minister explain how that fits with the library’s mission statement: to

“make our intellectual heritage accessible to everyone, for research, inspiration and enjoyment”?

In this context, what commercial activities do the Government have in mind, and will the Minister reaffirm the assurance asked for and given by the noble Lord, Lord Vaizey, that government will not consider borrowing in any way as an alternative to the grant in aid?

One of the great success stories of the past 15 years has been the growth of the BL’s business and intellectual property sector. As the then chair of the BL board, I opened the first centre in 2006, taking over two reading rooms previously dedicated to access to patents. Now they are fully accessible online. As we have heard, the initiative has spread, with 10 centres opened in London and 15 around the rest of the country, and now there is a plan for further expansion. This business and intellectual property centre national network provides entrepreneurs and SMEs across the UK with free access to databases, market research, journals, directories and reports, backed up with seminars and business advice. The whole package is worth thousands of pounds to a start-up. The result: in the past three years, the network has helped to create 12,000 new businesses. Can the Minister assure the House that the Government will continue to support the BL in building on that remarkable success and continuing to provide these services free of charge?

I make one final point relevant to the role of the BL in the UK’s research base. The British Library is in the wrong place in government. As the noble Lord, Lord Janvrin, argued, it is a research institution. It should be working together with the other research institutions that are gathered under UKRI. As chairman, I attempted to move the BL from DCMS to UKRI. The relevant Secretaries of State totally agreed, but we were all foiled by Sir Humphrey at the DCMS—or rather, as was the case at the time, Dame Humphrey—who was anxious to retain the 8% of the DCMS budget that the BL represented. Will the Government now do the right thing: allow the BL to join the nation’s research base at UKRI, where it rightly belongs?

Photo of Lord Holmes of Richmond Lord Holmes of Richmond Conservative 1:01 pm, 19th March 2021

My Lords, it is a pleasure to take part in this debate, and I congratulate my noble friend Lord Vaizey on the excellent way in which introduced the Bill and, indeed, on all the work he did as a DCMS Minister.

Literacy is everything. Just look to our prison population to understand what transpires when we fail people in that respect. When I say literacy, I mean across the sweep, including financial and digital literacy, and I congratulate the British Library on everything it does, understanding the breadth of what we mean when we talk about literacy.

Does the Minister agree that the British Library has such a crucial role to play when it comes to the levelling-up agenda: yes, in its fine building at Boston Spa, yes in the excellent plans for Leeds city centre but, more than that, with its hub and spoke model, which positively impacts people right across the country? When it comes to accessibility, will he confirm that the British Library does everything to attempt to make the collection and the materials accessible to all, not least disabled people? Indeed, when we look to the fabulous business scheme already mentioned by my noble friend Lord Vaizey, it is very positive that almost 20% of those who avail themselves of the business service are disabled people—almost one-fifth, compared to a national average of just 2%. Can my noble friend say some more about some of the opportunities which the British Library will have available to itself through this borrowing which would not be available under the current grant-in-aid arrangements?

In conclusion, the British Library is such an excellent example of our soft power. I believe the Bill would serve it, and through it, us, so very well. The British Library is a vital vehicle for levelling up, literacy and learning, for part of our Covid recovery, helping communities up and down the country, businesses to start and the build back better agenda. The British Library: the word.

Photo of Lord Berkeley of Knighton Lord Berkeley of Knighton Crossbench 1:03 pm, 19th March 2021

My Lords, I, too, support the Bill, and I am very glad that the noble Lord, Lord Vaizey, has picked up the ball rolling our away from the other place. This is my first opportunity to welcome him to our Benches. It is wonderful to have such an enthusiastic and knowledgeable supporter of the arts with us.

I should perhaps declare an interest here, in that the British Library bought from my family the manuscripts of my father, Sir Lennox Berkeley, and we are very happy that they are cared for, expertly catalogued and curated, so I have some experience of dealing with the library from this end, and its expertise is exemplary and admirable. The British Library is a bit like a pulsing octopus, and one of the tentacles extends to Aldeburgh, where my father’s letters and papers relating to his work and the life he shared, early on, with Britten have been acquired by the Britten Pears.

Such outreach can be so constructive and inventive. We must not forget that running libraries, galleries or other arts organisations is a business. I would say to the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, that, having been on the board of the Royal Opera House and run three festivals, I know that if you do not treat artistic organisations as a business, you are in real trouble. All these institutions, like the BL, need the ability to borrow. To take just a small example of wanting to acquire a rare manuscript, the timeframe may be narrow, and other would-be purchasers may be snapping at the heels of the seller. I take the point made by the Minister in the other place that borrowing from the state is probably the best financial route, but this should not totally exclude commercial borrowing, and I do not think it now will.

I also endorse the plea from the Opposition in the other place that the Bill not be used as a reason for in any way reducing the government grant to the library, and I ask the Minister whether she would endorse the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Vaizey, that Machiavelli is not at work here.

Finally, the library needs to be on an equal footing with, and in a similar position to, other institutions in terms of borrowing. As we have heard, it is only the peculiarities of the 1972 legislation that prevent this, and which this welcome Bill puts right.

Photo of Lord Hannan of Kingsclere Lord Hannan of Kingsclere Conservative 1:06 pm, 19th March 2021

My Lords, it is always a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley of Knighton. His works here, like his earlier works, put me in mind of Yeats’s phrase about “Burke’s great melody”.

The next time you are in the vicinity of the British Library, I invite you to stand on the Euston Road and contrast two neighbouring buildings: the high, mute, forbidding walls of the British Library and the soaring, exquisite architecture of St Pancras station next door. I suggest that in that brickwork, we may descry something of the difference between public and private sectors.

I was for a long time a Member of the European Parliament, as were a large number of noble Lords on all sides. In fact, it is rather like Dover in Act V of “King Lear”: we have all ended up here, wherever we started. My noble friend Lord Vaizey challenged me to come out with a suitable quotation from our national poet. The obvious one, Polonius on borrowing, is singularly inept to our present debate, but how about Prospero in “The Tempest”:

"Me, poor man, my library

Was dukedom large enough”?

That seems apt for a debate about libraries in this Chamber.

Every time I passed through St Pancras station, it had an elevating and ennobling effect. We think of it as a heritage-y kind of building now, but it was cutting-edge in 1867, its roof the largest unsupported structure in the world at the time, a glorious work of wrought iron lattice. And next to it, the state-funded British Library, likened famously by the Prince of Wales to an academy for secret police. Although a case can be made for the spacious and comfortable reading rooms, the exterior, which is what most people see, is about as forbidding as it could be. Being a state-run and state-managed project, we find that a Bill passed in 1972 led to the final opening on that site in 1998, years behind schedule, hundreds of millions of pounds over budget and with more than 20,000 acknowledged design flaws, one of which was that there was not enough space for the books.

Whenever one makes a criticism of government management of any project, it is always assumed that one is critical of the thing itself. The early 19th-century French economist, Frédéric Bastiat said that whenever we say that education, healthcare or whatever it is should not be run by the government, we are accused of being against education, healthcare or whatever it is. Nothing could be further from the truth in this case. One of the happiest moments that I have spent in recent years was the time, six years ago, when all four surviving original copies of the Great Charter were gathered in one place in the British Library. In fact, I was looking at them with an expression of such awed lust that somebody surreptitiously photographed me and then posted the image on social media with the caption, “If Hannan gets his hands on all four copies of the Magna Carta, will he be like Sauron with the Ring?”.

So it is in a supportive spirit—breaking the consensus, if you like, as the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, suggested—that I ask whether it is really appropriate in this age for the Government to run a library, any more than it is for a Government to operate an airline, install a telephone or build cars.

Photo of Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Labour 1:10 pm, 19th March 2021

My Lords, I declare an interest as a former director of the British Film Institute—a body that, in its functions, has many similarities to the British Library; the British Library does for books what the BFI does for film. Indeed, we share an interest in sound and some of the materials supporting films, which often have papers in both places.

Like the British Library, the BFI was organised and supported by the DCMS—previously the Office of Arts and Libraries, or OAL—and what was called our sponsoring department. The noble Lord, Lord Vaizey, said that he could not imagine a less controversial Bill. I support him in that—it is not controversial in today’s terms—but he is entirely wrong to believe that matters were different in the old days when I was the director of the BFI. Indeed, we were treated exactly as he described —as an adjunct to the government department—with all that that implied in terms of headcounts, terms and conditions, staff being restricted, payments and funding. All that was completely controlled and utterly policed by the department; it was done in the best possible sense, of course, although I recall being carpeted on a number of occasions for trying to do—rather presumptively, apparently—what is in the Bill.

The meat of what I want to say regards the museum freedoms listed in the Explanatory Notes. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Vaizey, and his colleagues on having been able to get these through government in 2013 and making them permanent in 2015. When I was at the BFI, the idea that we could have no limits on pay awards, have flexibility to be dropped in and out of central procurement, be able to invest the money that we raised ourselves from our great sponsors —J Paul Getty Jr, in particular—and have the ability to work through different arrangements in relation to expenditure limits and central marketing and advertising was unheard of, it really was. Indeed, we were heavily looked after in that sense. That was not without reason because, in part, we were delivering government policy. Unlike the previous speaker, I think it entirely appropriate that the Government have at their centre a concern and overall responsibility for the way in which culture is delivered and supported and, of course, stored and maintained for future generations in a way that would not happen under the private sector.

This has been a very good debate. We devote little time in this House to cultural issues. This is a wonderful example of an ability to reflect on what the British Library has achieved, what previous generations have done in setting it up and what current generations are doing to make sure that it is fit for purpose in future. I hope that we will be able to do this again. In the spirit of what the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, said, I am sure that there is no dissent in the House that this Bill should be allowed to go forward quickly.

Photo of Baroness Falkner of Margravine Baroness Falkner of Margravine Crossbench 1:13 pm, 19th March 2021

My Lords, it is a privilege to speak in this debate and support the Bill. I had a small walk-on part with the British Library: I was on the advisory council until December last year while the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, was its distinguished chair, with the brilliant Roly Keating as chief executive. I must say, now that I have left it—to chair the EHRC—I look back at how well run the British Library was in the time I was there. I hasten to add that that is not to imply that my other institution, the EHRC, is not fabulously well run, but it was a period when the library grasped innovation with both hands and leapt forward in many ways.

This institution absolutely deserves our wholehearted support but, with the events of the past year, there is a real danger of children and younger people forgetting the import of a physical book. Although the library does great stuff digitally, we must not forget that it is still the place where we can come in off the street, walk into that great building—I rather like the building, I must say—and stand there in awe, looking up at those towering stacks from the old great Reading Room of the British Museum. It is a pleasure to be in that physical space.

However, one of the key points of this Bill is to recognise that the library—in common with its museum peers, which already have the freedom—is an innovative and responsible custodian of public finances. Other museums have used the freedom to develop their commercial offers, borrowing at low rates to invest in income-supporting works that can create a return on their investment and supplement the grant in aid. In 2018-19, the library generated £17.1 million of commercial income, representing growth of 29.5% since 2015-16—the last time for which we have reliable statistics from the pre-Covid era.

I want to end on a point that I think is really significant in terms of the work that the library does. The people who have spoken in this debate may not know that it is a real challenge for hard-to-reach communities to engage with libraries. Children from those communities tend not to engage with libraries and instead go straight into digital; even then, they tend to learn in other ways. Adults and businesspeople do not realise that the British Library has a fabulous centre for entrepreneurship and IP. Over the past several years, the library has done an enormous amount of outreach work in those communities. I hope that, if the borrowing capacity for it in the Bill is approved, it will be able to progress that work, especially on its levelling-up agenda, and reach out to those communities and bring them into itself—our national library—but also other libraries across our country.

Photo of Lord Moylan Lord Moylan Conservative 1:16 pm, 19th March 2021

My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Vaizey and all the others who have brought this Bill thus far. I support it, but I want to put it in the context of our recent fiscal history.

It was Gordon Brown, when Chancellor of the Exchequer, who sought to increase the Government’s spending power through the great Ponzi scheme of forcing capital expenditure off the government balance sheet and on to the books of quasi-governmental bodies that could ill bear it. The effect was that the bodies required to take on their own debt found themselves paying a much higher rate of interest than they would have done had the Government been the borrower— understandably so, because their credit rating was much lower. We still live with the hospitals and other cherished institutions that were burdened by that debt, the cost of which is far higher than it need have been. In some ways, this Bill is the last knockings of that process. To the British Library board, it is an anomaly that it is denied a freedom granted to other museums and great collections. Perhaps we should be asking, rather, to whose benefit those other institutions were given the power in the first place.

None the less, given where we are, this is not a bad Bill. On the face of it, it does not oblige the British Library to borrow and, in practice—despite, if I may say so, the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone—it is likely to borrow only from the Government, for which bank would lend to it? Although its land and, in my view, very fine building—by Colin St John Wilson—are valued in the books at more than £500 million, they are in effect worthless as collateral. It is hardly likely that the Government would allow the national collection of books and manuscripts to be seized by a bank to redeem a defaulted loan—although if they did, it would be the jumble sale of the century.

For all that, should one oppose this modest Bill? I think not. The British Library is held in such high regard that it would be like depriving a revered aunt of her favourite sherry. I shall not use my vote to refuse her that tipple—but let us hope that it does not go to her head.

Photo of Lord Thomas of Gresford Lord Thomas of Gresford Liberal Democrat Shadow Attorney General 1:19 pm, 19th March 2021

My Lords, I too declare an interest as an ordinary member of the British Library for some years. I welcome this Bill, which will put an end to the anomaly that no one can explain: the British Library being the only one of the 16 arm’s-length bodies sponsored by DCMS which does not have the capacity to borrow. The strategic review of 2017 revealed that its then grant in aid of £93.9 million was larger than any of the other institutions’, but at the same time it was the only one that did not have any income from commercial activities. The noble Lord, Lord Vaizey, said that it now generates £21 million.

The grant in aid amounted to nearly 80% of the library’s total income, as opposed to the British Museum, whose grant in aid amounted to 45.5%. Some 17.4% of the British Museum’s income comes from commercial activities. I echo the concern of the noble Lord, Lord Eatwell, and others—that the new flexibility does not mean that loans should replace rather than supplement grant in aid.

I had the experience of publishing a book covering the history of the relationship between the Prince Regent and his estranged wife, Princess Caroline of Brunswick and their daughter, Princess Charlotte of Wales. I cannot overemphasise the importance of the wealth of books and documents of the period contained in our national institutions: the National Archives, the national libraries of Scotland and Wales, and of course, the British Library. Equally important are the sources kept all over the country by county archives. I spent some 17 years researching and writing my book and the trail took me from the Royal Library at Windsor to every part of the country. The British Library was a central source and its facilities at St Pancras are excellent, as is the careful and valuable assistance of the staff.

I am delighted to hear about the plans for Boston Spa and Leeds from the noble Lord, Lord Janvrin, but I am afraid that I do not share the awed lust of the noble Lord, Lord Hannan, for St Pancras station. But of course, as the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, pointed out, we are entering a new era in which the digitisation of books and other sources widens the scope of research by making it possible to read books and papers online. I spent part of yesterday, in connection with my current project, reading at home online an eyewitness account of the Battle of Navarino in 1829. I did not have to travel to St Pancras to do that.

The digitisation of newspapers is also critical. There are commercial organisations which do that. The National Library of Wales has a long-standing project to digitise Welsh newspapers stretching back to the 18th century. It would be impossible to pinpoint eyewitness accounts of significant events without such facilities and, in particular, their search engines, which take the researcher to the relevant page and article in an ocean of newsprint.

A problem that has come to the fore is that communication today by electronic means results in a lack of written record. Those careful letters which our parents and grandparents wrote have nearly disappeared. The answer may be for hard drives to be handed over to our libraries under the regulations to which the noble Lord, Lord Vaizey, referred, but who is going to separate the trivialities from the important records? Another function of the British Library is the putting on of many events and workshops to draw youngsters in to the joys of reading. I have in the past wished that my grandchildren were close enough to London to participate in these events.

The British Library underpins public libraries and local libraries nationwide, but there are many challenges still to be addressed. The loosening of the financial constraints imposed by the British Library Act 1972 will enable funds to be released, and I am sure they will be utilised for the benefit of historians and writers in all parts of this country. Lastly, as your Lordships might expect, I am entirely a supporter of public lending rights.

Photo of Lord Bassam of Brighton Lord Bassam of Brighton Shadow Spokesperson (Further & Higher Education), Shadow Spokesperson (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) (Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and International Trade) 1:24 pm, 19th March 2021

My Lords, I declare my interests as a trustee of Brighton’s wonderful Royal Pavilion and Museums Trust, which now runs our museums and the Royal Pavilion service, and as a co-chair of the People’s History Museum in Manchester, which houses an important national collection. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Vaizey, on his tour de force of British Library statistics in the form of facts, figures and general info. It was a wonderful introduction to this very uncontroversial Bill.

It has taken just under a year for the Bill to clear its Commons stages and make it to your Lordships’ House today, so I would guess that the journey to further financial freedoms and the ability to borrow has been stretched out. But given the long history of progress towards this point, from the original Act in 1972, I suppose we should be pleased at that. We hope that our considerations will be swifter, allowing the change the Bill proposes on to the statute book before the end of the Session.

This is a short but important Bill. As other colleagues have noted, it implements a key recommendation of the Mendoza review of national museums: to bring the rights of the British Library into line with the 15 DCMS-sponsored national museums, and to enable it to borrow money both privately and from the Government. The British Library, as we have heard from all the speakers in the debate, is a proud British institution with bases in London and in Boston Spa, in Yorkshire. We also of course support the development that is to take place in Leeds, creating a big northern presence and contributing towards the levelling-up agenda.

As well as allowing access to books and reading rooms, the British Library hosts a range of exhibitions, runs school visits and has a large outreach programme, all of which we support. While many people think of the British Library as being London-centric, as the noble Lord, Lord Vaizey, commented, its Boston Spa site hosts some 70% of the entire collection, as well as offering public reading room facilities. It also supports around 600 local jobs, which has no small economic impact. The institution undertakes important partnership work with libraries across the UK, as well as working internationally. As an exemplar of soft power, I can think of nothing better. Also, with its range of digitalisation and preservation of professional exchange initiatives, it leads in its field. After a year of the Covid-19 pandemic limiting its earning potential, the ambition to expand further and the ability to access funds from other sources are arguably more important than ever.

I share some of the concerns raised by the noble Lord, Lord Eatwell, about the potential corrupting impact of it being taken further into the commercial world of borrowing, but my and my party’s primary concern is that we did not receive an assurance from the Minister in another place that the British Library’s ability to borrow money will not become a justification for the Government reducing grant funding further. I hope that the Minister can reassure us on that point. With that, I give this Bill our party’s blessing.

Photo of Baroness Barran Baroness Barran The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport 1:28 pm, 19th March 2021

My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Vaizey for bringing forward this Bill, which was successfully taken through the other place by my honourable friend Bim Afolami, the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden. I would also like to thank Dame Carol Black for the time she has given me in preparing for today’s debate. The Bill has had no amendments and enjoys government support.

I also thank all noble Lords who have taken part in this debate. As the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, just said, it is a short but important Bill that seeks to bring the British Library in line with its peers. As we have heard, the British Library Act 1972 created a vital new national institution—even if my noble friend Lord Hannan does not admire the architecture—but this same legislation is preventing the library from potentially accessing an opportunity to support its future.

As we have heard in the speeches of noble Lords, this is an institution that has touched all our lives. My last visit was made with my noble friend Lord Cormack to see the history of writing exhibition and the remarkable Leonardo da Vinci notebooks. When I ran a charity, it was my favourite place for meetings when we could not afford to hire meeting rooms, because of the excellent business centre and even better tea room, so I am a huge personal fan.

In the 21st century, we expect our national cultural institutions to be more self-governing and financially independent. That is exactly what the operational freedoms introduced for our national museums and galleries in 2013—which the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, acknowledged were particularly helpful—help them to be. The British Library enjoys all these freedoms except one: the power to borrow. This Bill will remove the legislative barrier that prevents the British Library having the same freedom to borrow that its fellow national museums and galleries already enjoy.

I will comment on some of the points raised by noble Lords. My noble friend Lord Vaizey raised the public lending right. This is something that we work on with the British Library annually and is determined at the spending review. Over 22,000 authors benefit from public lending right payments and the rate per loan has increased by 58% since 2010-11.

A number of noble Lords, including the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, and the noble Lords, Lord Eatwell, Lord Thomas of Gresford, Lord Berkeley of Knighton and Lord Bassam of Brighton, questioned the relationship between the powers to borrow that the Bill would give the British Library and its access to grant in aid. The two are separate; I reassure the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, of that.

Questions were raised about our funding for national museums, and I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley of Knighton, for his eloquent exposition on the merits of having a commercial element. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Janvrin, would feel the same in relation to philanthropy. The Government remain committed to supporting our world-class national museums and galleries, which make such a rich contribution to our society and economy, and are implementing the recommendations of the Mendoza review and the range of funding sources that it identified.

The noble Lord, Lord Eatwell, questioned whether the British Library should sit within the DCMS or elsewhere in government. He is right that it plays a critical role in research, but we heard from other noble Lords about its strengths in many other areas. The commitment I make is that, while it stays in the DCMS, we will endeavour to do everything in our power to make sure that it continues to be the extraordinary success that it is today.

My noble friend Lord Holmes asked me to reflect on the British Library’s role in levelling up. I agree entirely with him that it has an important part to play. We remain fully supportive of all its efforts on accessibility for those with disabilities. He gave a good example with the business and IP centres. Use of a grant-in-aid loan, should it be successful in applying for one, lies with the board. Other major institutions have used those loans for commercial ventures and digital expansion.

My noble friend Lord Hannan questioned the ability of the Government and publicly funded bodies to deliver on time and to budget. I remind him that, since the delivery of the St Pancras site, the British Library has successfully delivered multiple high-profile capital projects—closing Colindale and building a new national newspaper building in Boston Spa and a new additional storage building—on time and to budget.

The noble Baroness, Lady Falkner, raised the important issue of bringing books into the lives of children as quickly and as early as possible. I remind her of the exhibition “Marvellous and Mischievous: Literature’s Young Rebels”, and the hugely successful Harry Potter exhibitions. My noble friend Lord Moylan worried about sherry going to the head of the British Library board with this new power. As he will understand very well, there is a strong governance framework, which we hope will avoid any overindulgence in the sherry department.

The British Library’s ambitions are genuinely national in scale, and I join my noble friend Lord Vaizey in recognising the work of the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, and her leadership in this area. As we heard, last year’s Budget allocated £13 million to expand the libraries network of business and IP centres in public libraries to 20 regional and 90 local centres across England, reaching more entrepreneurs in more communities than ever before. Those centres providing business advice have recently responded very swiftly to need. The “Reset. Restart” programme, launched in October, is designed specifically to help businesses respond to and recover from the impacts of Covid-19. As the noble Lord, Lord Janvrin, said, we welcome that combination of great cultural depth and expertise and entrepreneurial and business relevance, which the British Library demonstrates so ably.

As we recover from the economic effects of the pandemic, this flexibility and innovation will be even more important, particularly for all our cultural institutions as they attract visitors again. I do not have three Shakespeare quotes for my noble friend but I have one from Cicero:

“If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need.”

I am sure we can all agree with that. It is only fair that the British Library should have access to the same opportunities that its peers do to help it thrive in future. I welcome the House’s support for this Bill.

Photo of Lord Vaizey of Didcot Lord Vaizey of Didcot Conservative 1:37 pm, 19th March 2021

My Lords, I am often asked how I am enjoying being a new Member of your Lordships’ House, and when I consider the quality of this afternoon’s debate, which included two former chairmen of the British Library, one current board member, one Paralympian gold medallist, one composer and numerous elected officials, is it any wonder that it is a pleasure and a privilege to be a Member of this great House? There were many distinguished contributions and I do not propose to dwell on them, because they have been ably responded to by my noble friend the Minister.

However, I acknowledge the noble Lord, Lord Eatwell, a distinguished former chairman and, until his recent retirement, the longest-serving master of an Oxbridge college, Queens’ College, Cambridge, the alma mater of my late father. His interesting point about UKRI is a rabbit hole into which I could gladly disappear, discussing the place of museums in the Whitehall pantheon. It is very important to remember that museums—I include the British Library—have many different functions. They are not simply visitor attractions and exhibition spaces. They contribute now to cutting-edge research, whether it is the Science Museum, the Natural History Museum or the British Library. The other element that came out in many of the speeches, which I had not mentioned in my opening remarks, is the international role that the British Library plays. When I was a Minister, the British Library was doing some very important work with the Qataris.

I cannot finish without rising, although I know I should not, to the wonderfully provocative speech from my noble friend Lord Hannan. I shall defend the late, great architect Colin St John Wilson, who described the building of the British Library as a 30-year war. My noble friend will be delighted to know that the rather inauspicious site on which the British Library sits was a compromise; the original proposal was to demolish half of Bloomsbury. Wilson had to fight with Whitehall bureaucrats for the budget, and of course our great Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, a woman I hugely admire, cut his budget in half, which might explain some of my noble friend’s concerns. I hesitate to draw from his view of the British Library that all public architecture is bad and all private architecture is brilliant. I advise him to take a walking tour with me through the City of London to see some of the monstrosities that private developers have put up.

The other reason why I love being a Member of your Lordships’ House was demonstrated in today’s debate, which ran the spectrum from the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, saying that on no account must the British Library pursue any commercial activities, to my noble friend Lord Hannan saying that the British Library should be privatised tomorrow. Of course, we could privatise the British Library; that is a choice, just as we could privatise the British Army and use our defence budget to hire Russian mercenaries to defend us in our hour of need. Politics is about choices and, although I am a Conservative, I still very much believe in the public realm.

I return to my opening remarks: the British Library is a cultural jewel in our public realm, and I commend the Bill to the House.

Bill read a second time and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.

Sitting suspended.