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I thank the Member for his question. Libraries has a 2014-15 budget of £34·5 million. Future budgets are, as yet, unknown as they are dependent upon the outcome of the next spending review. That budget is used to run 98 libraries and approximately 37 mobile libraries and home call vehicles.
Investment projects over the next few years include £28 million for the e2 project to replace the library computer system; new libraries in Lisnaskea and Kilkeel at a cost of £2·5 million; and £1 million plus of maintenance work that is also scheduled to take place this year.
Libraries promotes events in its buildings through engagement with the press and also by the use of social media. It also has promotional partnership arrangements with other organisations, including DARD, to assist rural dwellers, and DEL. Around access to benefits and job assistance.
Those are just two examples of activities that have been carried out to ensure that the public library service remains at the heart of all our communities.
I thank the Minister for her answer. What confidence can she give the House that rural libraries have a future and that she will protect that future, considering that, with regard to their user numbers, they sometimes outperform urban libraries? Although their numbers are significantly lower, they are a bigger proportion of their population centres.
I assure the Member that I have made libraries a priority. Indeed, last year, seven libraries were in a precarious and vulnerable situation. One example at the heart of the Member's question is the library at Draperstown where, recently, the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development and I worked with the community. We were involved at the launch, but we certainly worked with the community and came together to look at all of the activities that happened in that area through the conduit of the library.
I am aware that the figures are relative. They are not the same. You cannot compare urban areas with rural dwellings; it is like comparing apples with oranges.
At the same time, a library's survival is down to the many people who use its facilities. The wider the range of facilities and the better those are embedded in the community, the stronger a library's chances of survival. I agree that it is crucial that we try to secure the future of libraries, because they provide valuable public services.
I thank the Member for his question. As I said, one has already been taken forward. The ones in, I think, Killyleagh and, certainly, Carnlough are progressing well. The remaining four are in Fintona, Kells and Connor, Richhill and Greystone in Antrim. There have been ongoing discussions with Libraries NI about trying to look at different partnerships and different provision in those libraries — some more than others, I have to say. I received representations about Fintona library from my colleague representing West Tyrone. It is crucial that the community come together to look at what libraries can provide and to get behind them to make sure that the service is sustained not just in the here and now but for the future.
In the Minister's answer, she talked about keeping libraries at the heart of our communities. When she took up office, she was aware that eight libraries had been closed in Belfast, all of which were in disadvantaged communities, including Sandy Row, Andersonstown, Belvoir, Braniel, and so on. Will she look at rebuilding the libraries in those areas and at investing in the service for the communities affected, as she goes forward with her investment strategy?
I have to be honest with the Member: I have not looked into reopening those libraries or even building new ones. I do not believe that the decision was the right one. I share the Member's concern, particularly about those deprived areas where there is little opportunity for people to get involved in a service that has no stigma attached to it. You go through a library door, and there is no stigma at all attached to it. The service that people received there was, I believe, second to none; that is what I have been told. However, people in those communities have moved on. Library provision in the context that I spoke about previously has been looked at, but I appreciate that it has not been done in all areas. If there is an increase in demand, I am happy to receive the Member, along with whomever he likes, to argue for that and to hear his case. I cannot give any other commitment above and beyond that.
The Member may have heard about the new contract for the libraries' computer system, the E2. That includes using things such as Kindles and iPads, particularly for home visits, to help people who cannot access the library service, either because they have mobility issues or because they look after dependants. It is not just about getting a book; it is about providing access to broadband. It really is important that people, regardless of their gender, age or where their live, have that access. Broadband and internet use are as vital as ever, particularly in breaking down isolation, improving numeracy and literacy, and looking at opportunities for jobs and training.