Scottish Science Library and Scottish Business Information Service

– in the Scottish Parliament at 5:07 pm on 19th December 2001.

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Photo of Lord David Steel Lord David Steel Presiding Officer, Scottish Parliament 5:07 pm, 19th December 2001

We come to the final item of business, which is a members' business debate on motion S1M-2345, in the name of Fiona McLeod, on the Scottish science library and Scottish business information service.

Motion moved,

That the Parliament deplores the recent decision by the National Library of Scotland to close the Scottish Science Library and the Scottish Business Information Service because of funding problems.

Photo of Fiona McLeod Fiona McLeod Scottish National Party 5:11 pm, 19th December 2001

I open my remarks by declaring a registered interest, because I will talk about libraries. I am an associate member of the Library Association.

I thank the many members who signed my motion and who are in the chamber. I also thank the many people in the gallery who have lobbied long and hard about the crisis that faces science and business information in Scotland today.

The Scottish science library opened in 1989 to international acclaim but, without Executive intervention, it will close in 48 hours. Tonight is the last late opening of the library. Staff and users are, I know, watching us on the webcast. Why is the Scottish science library being closed? It is all for the paltry sum of £400,000. I call that a paltry sum because it pales into insignificance when we consider the £3 million that Scottish Opera was given as a bail-out with hardly the bat of an eyelid. The underfunding of the National Library of Scotland is a national disgrace. For 2001-02, its budget is £9.2 million. That is in an era in which library inflation is running at 10 per cent to 15 per cent per annum.

I move on from talking about money—I will return to it—to talking about the importance not only of the Scottish science library and the Scottish business information service but of libraries in general. As a librarian, I feel that I must inform the chamber of that because of preconceptions about what libraries are. Libraries are not only book deposits and the National Library is not just the biggest and bestest book collection in Scotland—libraries are gateways for information.

If we want to live in a Scotland that is part of the knowledge economy and in which information is open and accessible, we can say only that it is a national disgrace that we underfund our national library service to the extent that we are about to lose the Scottish science library and the Scottish business information service. The Scottish science library and the Scottish business information service are key to the promotion of Scotland as a knowledge economy. It is not only librarians and I who believe that; the Government believes that science and business are key to the promotion of Scotland. Over the past two years, we have seen strategy after strategy from the Executive. We have science strategies. We have knowledge management strategies. We have digital Scotland strategies. We have enterprise strategies. I will quote from "A Science Strategy for Scotland ", which was published this summer. It states:

"the Executive will:

  • promote Scotland as a centre of scientific excellence in which to buy or do science".

Those are fine words, but words mean nothing when we cannot support scientists in their work and we cannot support businessmen in their exploitation of that scientific research.

The Scottish science library and the Scottish business information service have 26 per cent of the National Library of Scotland's readers. That gives the lie to the information that has been put out that those services are peripheral parts of the core service, which is the National Library of Scotland. One in four users of the National Library of Scotland has a scientific or business background. One in four users of the National Library of Scotland uses it for scientific and business information. In addition, the social science collection of the National Library of Scotland is held in the Causewayside building and 21 per cent of the National Library of Scotland's readers are social scientists. All that means that almost half the users of the National Library of Scotland use the Scottish science library in Causewayside. It is inconceivable that almost half the library's users are not core users of that library. Those users should have their service preserved for them.

Last year alone, the Scottish science library dealt with 17,000 inquiries. Those were 17,000 inquiries from scientists and businessmen who want to develop in Scotland and export from Scotland. Without the Scottish science library and the Scottish business information service, those 17,000 inquiries would not have been answered as fully as they were. It is only with full information and the back-up of subject specialists that we will provide the service that those businesses and scientists deserve.

Business in Scotland is something that we all promote—not just the Executive, but every member of the Parliament. Scottish Enterprise, through its small business gateways, acknowledges the fact that businesses need information. Those small business gateways often refer users to the Scottish business information service because of the specialist knowledge that is kept there.

The incubation period of a small business is most vital in ensuring that small business's longevity. If we close the services, we will cut off a vital source of information, which nourishes those businesses at their most important time—their start-up period.

I refer briefly to the manner in which the information about the Scottish science library and business information service has come out. The National Library of Scotland's board of trustees ignored its own consultant's report. The consultant's report did not say that the Scottish science library should be closed, but the board of trustees chose to ignore that fact. They have not just ignored the Scottish science library's advisory committee, they have disbanded it. In a letter of 2 October, Professor Anderson announced to members of the advisory committee that they should not turn up for a meeting on 25 October, because the advisory committee no longer had a role to play as there was not going to be a Scottish science library. That is appalling.

The Executive's answer to the crisis has also been appalling. Allan Wilson said in the cultural strategy debate of 25 October that the alternatives that were being proposed were sufficient; they are not. From a specialist staff of 13, only two business specialists and one scientific specialist will be transferred to the reading room on George IV Bridge. Is that what we as a nation consider to be adequate support for business and science in Scotland today?

I have a few questions for the minister. I say to his deputy that she, as a scientist, knows that the Scottish science library service is vital. To the minister I say that he has the power to do something. His deputy signed Robin Harper's motion, which decried the science library's closure. I hope that the minister will use his power to ensure that the library will not close. He need not sign his name to a motion—he has the power to do something about the matter.

The sum we are talking about is £400,000, which is less than 1 per cent of the minister's annual budget for all the national institutions. I ask the minister how much end-year flexibility he got this year. Could not he have used that to buy time to conduct a full-scale review of the National Library of Scotland's funding to ensure that the Scottish science library was kept open in the interim? It is laudable that he found £5.7 million to abolish entrance fees to museums. For the sake of £400,000, he is about to prevent access to the core collection of scientific literature in Scotland. I ask the minister to talk to the Minister for Enterprise, Transport and Lifelong Learning. This is not just a cultural issue; it is also an enterprise and science issue.

Surely the Minister for Tourism, Culture and Sport and his deputy, between the two departments that are covered by their portfolios, can find the paltry sum that is needed to save a vital institution.

Photo of Murray Tosh Murray Tosh Conservative

We move to open debate. I will allow the first four speakers up to four minutes; thereafter, I will allow closer to three minutes.

Photo of Angus MacKay Angus MacKay Labour 5:20 pm, 19th December 2001

I am very sorry that this is the first subject on which I am making a speech as a back bencher. I am sorry not because of the subject matter, but because of the circumstances in which I must rise to make this speech.

I declare an interest as the constituency member for Edinburgh South, in which the Scottish science library sits.

In referring to briefings that members have received on the matter from a number of sources, I want to bring to the Parliament's attention some points that have already been mentioned by Fiona McLeod, whom I congratulate on her excellent opening contribution and on securing the debate. First, I wish to cover the briefing that we received from the board of trustees of the library, and briefings from other sources that are closer to the library's work. The briefing from the board of trustees indicates that the consultants who were brought in to manage the proposal

"concluded that the ... service in its present form, and the overseas acquisitions related to it, were the activities that were making the least contribution to the Library mission in terms of users".

As Fiona McLeod highlighted, despite that assertion by the board of trustees, 26 per cent of the users of the National Library of Scotland is accounted for by the Scottish science library. That is a fact that flies directly in the face of what we are being told by the board of trustees.

Secondly, the chronology of events is quite staggering. In September 2001, the National Library of Scotland employed PKF as consultants—whoever they are. I am sure that they are highly qualified to make decisions about important national resources such as the Scottish science library, although I do not know what their track record is. However, at no stage did those consultants make any attempt to speak to the science library staff. That almost beggars belief. As Fiona McLeod suggested, no recommendations for specific closures of services were made even in September.

Then, in October 2001, there came the announcement. Apparently, no attempt was made at the time of the announcement or prior to the decision to consult users or staff about the impact of the library's closure. That is a pretty staggering couple of events to take place in the summer and October of 2001, before the announcement was made. The process seem to have been, to say the least, a little ragged.

My third point is the one that I have found most staggering. In the briefing from the chairman of the board of trustees, it is asserted that

"When the SSL opened, no new money was awarded by the Scottish Office for acquisitions. In consequence, the collections have always been highly selective and not in any way representative or comprehensive."

My understanding, which is drawn from the self-same briefing, is that the Scottish science library opened in 1989. That means that, for 12 years, the board of trustees has presided over the running of a science library in which, in its words,

"the collections have always been highly selective and not in any way representative or comprehensive."

What board of trustees would run a facility for 12 years on that basis? To be frank, I do not believe that statement. It looks far too much to me like justification after the fact, rather than a genuine attempt to represent the truth about the facility.

My final point relates to what could be done to retain the Scottish science library. As I understand it, staff have—despite the lack of consultation—been making efforts to develop a proposal for some continuation of the services. However, because the review took place between the summer and October and the announcement was made in October about closure in December, there has, in effect, been no time to examine a range of realistic alternatives. That is a pretty strange way to conduct the business of such a precious resource.

I understand that, although about £400,000 is the allocation that is currently required to run the facility, £100,000 would make it possible to retain the Scottish business information service—SCOTBIS—website. That would ensure retention of at least some of the staff expertise in science and business and ensure a remote inquiry and document delivery service, all of which would provide a core service that would be of great value to students, business and science alike.

I realise that the current minister was not responsible for the original decision, but I ask him—because he is responsible for whether it will go ahead—whether he can assure us that there are no other moneys in his budget or available to the Executive, either from end-year flexibility or from windfall moneys from other sources, that would enable the project to continue at a cost of £100,000? If such moneys are available, the minister should re-examine what I regard as a wrong and precipitate decision.

Photo of Brian Monteith Brian Monteith Conservative 5:25 pm, 19th December 2001

I am delighted to speak in the debate. I am pleased that Fiona McLeod lodged her motion and that it was accepted for debate. I miss her participation in the Education, Culture and Sport Committee, of which she used with me to be a member. I also welcome the speech from the back benches by Angus MacKay, which was very useful.

I have spoken to officials of the National Library of Scotland about the issue that we are debating. A key consideration that is being overlooked is that many of the officials appear to disagree with their trustees and to favour the retention of the Scottish science library in its present form. I attach great weight to their opinion, because they are the people who must run the range of facilities at the National Library of Scotland and who must deal with the enormous variety of demands on the library's resources from the general public and more specialised groups. It was appropriate for Angus MacKay to point out that 26 per cent of the total readers who use the National Library of Scotland is accounted for by the Scottish science library.

Specialised groups often require that special attention be paid to their interests. What might seem to be a trifling economy can have an unexpectedly damaging effect on a minority. In my view, the Scottish Executive already rides roughshod over too many minorities. The minister is well aware of that.

I agree that the proposal to close the SSL reading room makes a mockery of any national science strategy. The Executive's response amounts to saying that users of the Scottish Science Library will have to get on without it as best they can.

Like Angus MacKay, I will refer to some of the briefings that we have received. The fact that we have received so many briefings about the matter suggests that there is genuine concern about it. I refer members to the briefing from Professor Michael Anderson, who is chairman of the board of trustees, although I will pass over the points that Angus MacKay has already taken up.

Professor Anderson states that the NLS

"is NOT closing the Causewayside building".

That is not the point. I have not suggested, and nobody has suggested to me, that the Causewayside building is to be closed. Professor Anderson goes on to say that the NLS

"is closing the separate Science and Business Information Reading Room".

However, it is not accepted or believed that services can be provided over the internet.

Photo of Fiona McLeod Fiona McLeod Scottish National Party

We are told that the Causewayside building will remain—that it will not be sold off—and that the map reading room will be open to the public. However, if someone turns up for the science reading room, they will be sent to George IV Bridge. Does Mr Monteith agree that that is ludicrous?

Photo of Brian Monteith Brian Monteith Conservative

I heartily accept Fiona McLeod's point, which bears merit as it stands.

The briefing from Professor Anderson is damning and undermines its own case. It states:

"NLS's total acquisitions budget is set by the Executive and has never received adequate inflation compensation in a situation where inflation of publication prices has ranged in recent years between about 6% and 20% per annum."

What is being done about that? What are the trustees doing to fight for the cause of the National Library of Scotland?

The debate is important because there is no quango like the Scottish Arts Council or sportscotland between the NLS and the Executive. The minister is directly accountable to the Parliament for the library, as he or she should be. It is unfortunate that we cannot have a vote on the motion. We cannot have a vote because it would be an embarrassment if members such as Angus MacKay were able to express their opinions but were forced, under the whip, to vote with the minister.

The Presiding Officer is going to cut me short, so I will make my comments in round terms. Where is the science strategy? Where is the cultural strategy? If we do not accept that science is part of Scottish culture, we deny culture in Scotland. Science is bound—woven—into the education and culture of our society. We must take that into account. Culture and science are wrapped together, but that is being denied.

Napier, Simpson and James Clerk Maxwell are the names that should resound around the walls of the chamber. Had the debate been held two months ago, Dr Elaine Murray and perhaps even Mike Watson might have been on the back benches taking Angus MacKay's position and making the same comments that he made. However, today they must defend decisions that they did not make—the argument is not with them but with what the previous minister decided. I appeal to them: this is their opportunity to show humility and magnanimity. I ask them to accept that it is time for a review, to put off the judgment and to reconsider it.

Photo of Nora Radcliffe Nora Radcliffe Liberal Democrat 5:31 pm, 19th December 2001

I also received the briefing from the chairman of the board of trustees.

I will make just one comment about the science reading room. It does not matter where the reading room is located, as long as its facilities are still available. If it makes sense to move the reading room to George IV Bridge, that is fine. The important point is that the specialist staff—

Photo of Fiona McLeod Fiona McLeod Scottish National Party

There is no space at George IV Bridge to fit in another reading room. The specialist staff will be reduced in number from 13 to three.

Photo of Nora Radcliffe Nora Radcliffe Liberal Democrat

Fine—I bow to Fiona McLeod's superior knowledge. I was about to say that the important point is that specialist staff are in post to help and advise people and that funding for acquisitions is in place, which is vital.

There is no point in my repeating the points that other members have made. However, I will make a general point. We are in an information age—there is a vast amount of information out there. It does not matter how much information we have, or how good that information is, unless it is possible to store it somewhere. People need to know what information is available and where they can lay their hands on it when they need to, or when someone else is interested in looking at it.

Libraries are the centre of this debate. Without libraries to collect, maintain and collate information and to make it and specialist guidance available so that people can gain access to it, there is no point in funding research, education or literature—all that information becomes useless if no one has access to it. If the Executive is putting money into anything, that is where it ought to go.

Photo of Robin Harper Robin Harper Green 5:33 pm, 19th December 2001

Like all other members present, I have been lobbied extensively on this matter from the first news of the imminent closure of the science library.

One of the defences in the briefing that we have received from the trustees is that they will provide most of the library's services in the form of extra access to information technology and so on. I would like to place on record a letter that was published in The Scotsman last month:

"As a member of the Scottish Science Library Advisory Committee for 13 years ... I was surprised and shocked to hear of the National Library of Scotland's decision to close this valuable resource."

The letter goes on to say that the library has offered

"an excellent service since its inception" and that it is a

"valuable source of information for both small and large enterprises.

One reason given for closure is that all scientific information is now available through the internet. This is a myth. While much scientific, technical and business literature is available on the internet, it is not always there, it is not easily found, nor is it always free!

The only way to find essential information is to use a balanced combination of traditional and electronic resources with, preferably, a first class library to support you."

The science library is universally accepted as such.

The letter concludes:

"The science library provides that support through its specialised business collections and the skills of its staff."

That letter was written by Alan Gomersall, who was the director of the science reference and information service at the British Library.

We have had a lot of talk about numbers, all of which has been extremely useful, but we have also had reference to vision. The issue boils down to whether the Scottish Executive has a vision for the future of science in our business and scientific community. If the Executive's vision includes inclusion and accessibility—which the Scottish science library provides in spades—the Executive must try to do everything that it can to keep the library open. However, if the Executive does not have 20:20 vision but suffers from extremely impaired vision, it will allow the closure to go ahead. I support the motion.

Photo of Murray Tosh Murray Tosh Conservative

Since I first did my sums, three members have asked to join the debate, so I am about seven minutes light. Unless the minister disagrees, I am prepared to take a motion without notice.

Motion moved,

That the debate be extended up to 18:00.— [Fiona McLeod.]

Motion agreed to.

Photo of Murray Tosh Murray Tosh Conservative

Speeches should still be kept to about three minutes.

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party 5:36 pm, 19th December 2001

I congratulate Fiona McLeod on achieving this debate and on her eloquent introduction to it. I also congratulate Angus MacKay—I see that we shall receive spirited contributions from him from the back benches. Such speeches might not be good for his future career, but they will certainly entertain us.

This topic is a symptom of the increasing problems that are found in the heritage sector. Brian Monteith rightly said that the issue concerns direct funding from the Executive to what is broadly a heritage organisation. When we heard this morning from the librarian—he is in the public gallery—it was quite clear that, shorn of the bureaucratic language, he was essentially talking about yet more cutbacks within his library. In recent days, we have also heard about cutbacks in the National Museums of Scotland, in a variety of arts organisations and in Scotland's smaller museums. Throughout the cultural and heritage sector, people are saying that money is being squeezed and that constraints are being applied that they cannot live within. That is what is said privately.

However, organisations that are dependent on the Executive for money are nervous of saying things publicly. They therefore employ consultants and produce reports. Sometimes, the consultants whom they employ are poor and do not even talk to staff, as Angus MacKay mentioned. Sometimes, the organisations employ good consultants. The job of the consultants is to find cheaper ways in which core cultural tasks can be undertaken.

If that was a matter of greater efficiency, none of us would object. In reality, most of those organisations have had to become more efficient year on year simply to survive. Now their core services are being cut to the bone and, indeed, beyond. They cannot provide their core services, so—Angus MacKay put it well—they have to find excuses for continuing to make cuts. That is why they use phrases such as, "These will be available on the internet," and, "There is a lack of demand." I am grateful that Fiona McLeod totally exploded those arguments.

We need people who are prepared to tell the truth about such matters. I commend Sir Stewart Sutherland for speaking out about one case in which I am involved, which is the Scottish place-names survey. The survey is about to run out of money. When it does, there will be no comprehensive examination of place names in Scotland. Such activities take place worldwide and are important to academic study of where we came from and what our society is.

When I submitted a written question to a previous deputy minister responsible for the arts and culture—there have been many and no doubt another will be along in a minute—I was told that the matter was not the responsibility of the Executive. However, Sir Stewart Sutherland, who is the principal of the University of Edinburgh, which houses the survey, was quite prepared to say—and to be quoted as having said—that such surveys were a normal part of Government expenditure in almost every other country in the world.

I welcome the Minister for Tourism, Culture and Sport to his new role, but I say to him that he will have to persuade his colleagues and his department that we need to be a normal nation that funds its cultural activities in such a way that we can not only enjoy but be enriched by them. That will be the measure of his time in post. If he fails to do that, he will have failed as his predecessors have failed, which means failing Scotland.

Photo of Sylvia Jackson Sylvia Jackson Labour 5:39 pm, 19th December 2001

I thank Fiona McLeod for today's debate, which will widen the discussion on a very important issue. I also thank Angus MacKay: for someone who is not intimately involved with the National Library of Scotland and the Scottish science library, he clarified well the briefing that members received from the library's board of trustees. I thank him especially for his reference to the review that was undertaken and its shortcomings.

When one reads in the briefing about funding issues—which have obviously been a significant problem for the National Library of Scotland—one has to ask what on earth was being done in the intervening period and why questions were not asked. On this occasion, I agree with Brian Monteith.

I will quote from the briefing:

"NLS's total acquisitions budget is set by the Executive and has never received adequate inflation compensation in a situation where inflation of publication prices has ranged in recent years between about 6% and 20% per annum. In the current Comprehensive Spending Review period, NLS's acquisitions budget has been fixed by the Executive in flat cash terms so a further erosion of purchases ... can ... be expected over the three years. Under these circumstances it would not have been possible substantially to protect the science acquisitions budget without disproportionate damage to other collections."

Funding is obviously a substantial issue. I support all the references that members have made to the funding issue. With the management of the science library in mind, I ask that a further review be undertaken. Angus MacKay recommended that we go for a short period of status quo so that a more extensive review can be undertaken. That review should consider not only the funding but the management. That would be welcome.

Photo of Brian Adam Brian Adam Scottish National Party 5:42 pm, 19th December 2001

It is a privilege to speak in the debate. Other members have spoken about the weaknesses in the review of these services. I would like to talk briefly about some of the things that Angus MacKay spoke about.

As a scientist, I know that scientists never have all the original research material and all the papers published to hand. People cannot afford to buy every edition of every journal; our ancient universities cannot do that, let alone the Scottish science library. One of the wonderful services that is available through places such as the science library is access to the general inquiries and distribution service. Someone can go along and tell the people there the problem, and if they do not have the particular copy of the journal required, they can access it very quickly. That requires specialist knowledge, people, a place, money—but it is being taken away.

Scotland's success in the past has been built on its scientists and their ability to translate their work into enterprises. If we take direct access to these services away from our scientists and our businesses, it will run totally counter to all the other areas that the Government is trying to develop. It is not joined-up government. It is almost Luddite. We are not quite burning the books, but we are certainly locking the doors. That is totally unacceptable.

I am sure that the minister will be able to find such a paltry sum of money somewhere, in someone's pocket. Perhaps Mr MacKay is glad that it is no longer his responsibility. However, we need some money to tide us over until we can have a proper review of what is going on. If we are going to caw the feet from our small businessmen, and caw the feet from our scientists, there is not a lot of hope for the future. I do not want the business of government to be done by glossy documents. We need access to the direct information that will support our scientists and support our small businesses so that they can grow into large businesses.

I was watching television last night and thinking about what is happening at NEC in West Lothian. We have had a succession of such problems. Perhaps this is the new economy, but those companies do not represent indigenous growth. If we are to get indigenous growth in science, we need the fundamentals to underpin it, including a proper national science library and business information service.

Photo of Marilyn Livingstone Marilyn Livingstone Labour 5:45 pm, 19th December 2001

I, too, would like to congratulate Fiona McLeod on securing today's debate. I thank Angus MacKay for adding clarity to the debate. Some of the issues that I wanted to raise have already been covered so, as a member of the Enterprise and Lifelong Learning Committee, I will concentrate on other relevant points.

Last week, the results of the new research assessment exercise showed that, once again, 97 per cent of chemistry, biological science and physics research submitted to the exercise was of national or international levels of excellence. An important issue for the Enterprise and Lifelong Learning Committee is the increase in the quality of the science base and science research. I am sure that no member disagrees with the view that that should underpin Scotland's economic recovery and stability. It is an economic development issue.

The science strategy highlighted Scottish excellence in science and said that it was necessary to

"promote Scotland as a centre of scientific excellence in which to buy or do science".

That is important. We are considering the issues around commercialisation and taking science out into schools, to encourage more people to get involved. We are facing shortages in science and engineering. That is the background.

One of the issues that has come out loud and clear is the need for a balanced approach. I think it was Robin Harper who said that we need a balanced approach to information. Although information on the internet is very valuable, we need to retain expert staff. Nothing can beat one-to-one, individual attention and support. It is important that we consider support for science in the round—support for people in school and in business and scientists themselves.

This is about having a breathing space for a more extensive review. We must look at the issues. It is really important that we reconsider the situation. I ask the minister to take on board the points that I have made.

Photo of Margo MacDonald Margo MacDonald Independent 5:47 pm, 19th December 2001

This is one of those wee gems of a debate that is perhaps unexpected. However, it should not be unexpected, because we are discussing a very practical issue.

The trustees of the National Library of Scotland say:

"NLS should, in the Trustees' view, do what it does do well rather than offer a further degraded service across the board."

In other words, they are prepared to limit the aspirations for the service. They are prepared to lower the ceiling and say, "We can do this little bit well and forget the rest." The trustees should be out in the wider world, looking to see how they can market their unique service.

Marilyn Livingstone referred to the possibilities for science and the importance of seeing science as an integral part of lifelong learning. That is where the National Library of Scotland should come into the picture. I suggest that the NLS should have approached business interests. It should also do that in the future—I will come on to the extension in a moment. Why does the NLS not approach Scottish Enterprise and talk about getting together? Scottish Enterprise offers a business information service that is not as good. The two things fit together neatly.

This resource and a marvellous pool of expertise is being lost—the staff are being reduced from 13 to three, which is a terrible loss of talent. Can we have an extension to the end of the financial year? It seems incredible that the Scottish science library does not have a marketing and promotions department. The trustees say that they have approached business and external sources for sponsorship, but "without success".

For goodness' sake, the trustees are selling something that is unique and of high quality, so I fail to see why there should be such continued lack of success. An extension should be given. A time limit could be placed on it, such as the end of the financial year. Do not close the place down on 21 December. Let us have a look with Scottish Enterprise's marketing and promotion outfit.

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

I sympathise entirely with what the member says, but does she accept my point: that a basic level of national funding is required for heritage activities in Scotland, and that the Executive is failing to meet that requirement? The situation that we are discussing is a symptom of that problem.

Photo of Margo MacDonald Margo MacDonald Independent

I do not disagree in the slightest, but right now we are here to try to manage a crisis—because it will be a crisis if we lose the resource. Mike Russell is right to say that the Executive needs to sort out its heritage problem, but right now we need to stop the library and reading room closing and contracting further. I ask the minister for time until the end of the financial year, and to take on board what Angus MacKay, Marilyn Livingstone and Mike Russell have said. The minister could make the thing fly if someone tried hard.

Photo of Mike Watson Mike Watson Labour 5:51 pm, 19th December 2001

I, too, congratulate Fiona McLeod on securing this debate on the decision by the National Library of Scotland to close the Scottish science library and the Scottish business information service reading room. The priority has to be to ensure the continued success of one of our cherished national institutions. I note what Mike Russell said about who makes those decisions and that it has been alleged that the Government has no right to interfere. I may be stating the obvious, but operational decisions are a matter for the board of trustees. Decisions on arts matters are traditionally taken at arm's length from ministers. If that were not the case, some of the people who have been on the other side of this debate would be critical.

I emphasise that the National Library of Scotland is not withdrawing support for science and business information. In fact, it will organise some of its business in a more cost-effective way. I defer to Fiona McLeod, who is a librarian and has greater knowledge of these matters than I do, but I have examined the matter in as much detail as I have been able to in the time in which I have had responsibility for this area and I think that the library has taken appropriate action to preserve the library for future generations.

All public bodies work within the constraints of strict budgets. We all know that that is a fact of life. I wish to say something about the financial figures.

Photo of Mike Watson Mike Watson Labour

I would like to, but I am constrained if I am going to answer the debate before 6 o'clock. I apologise to Mr Harper.

The National Library of Scotland has always successfully balanced the provision of excellent service against its budget constraints. Mike Russell made a point about funding and heritage. The National Library of Scotland receives annual grant in aid of £10.5 million from the Scottish Executive. In recent years, a further £13 million was spent on the refurbishment of the George IV Bridge buildings, so suggesting that it is a question of underfunding, when there are wider issues—

Photo of Mike Watson Mike Watson Labour

I will give way to Mr Russell by dint of his position, but I cannot answer the debate if I continually give way.

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

As the minister will discover, one of the key problems in his portfolio is that the amount of money that is spent on capital projects is part of the problem: a major refurbishment often results in higher running costs. There must be a balance. It should not just be about—I see the Deputy Minister for Tourism, Culture and Sport looking worried—putting new projects into place and talking about capital all the time; it should be realised, as Fiona McLeod has said, that the rate of inflation in libraries is much larger. Just talking about refurbishment capital is irrelevant.

Photo of Mike Watson Mike Watson Labour

We are talking about recurring expenditure and keeping the reading room open. I question some of the figures that have been bandied about in the debate. Despite operating for many years as well as it could with budget constraints, the National Library of Scotland has found itself facing a £400,000 deficit next year. That would not be the figure on an on-going basis—it would be £1 million for the following year and the deficit would continue to rise beyond that. Action had to be taken. The trustees had only one option—

Photo of Mike Watson Mike Watson Labour

I cannot give way: I will not have time to answer the debate if I give way. We have already extended the debate.

To ensure that the National Library evolves into a body that is capable of meeting demand, the trustees commissioned the review of the library's activities that we have heard of this evening. When they considered the results of the review, which was carried out by senior management officials and a team of independent consultants, the trustees were concerned with the extent to which each activity was central to the mission of a national library, as opposed to other kinds of library. As one would expect, the review took into account current and likely future patterns of use and the cost effectiveness of such provision.

The trustees recognise that although the services that are delivered by the Scottish science library and the business information service are of excellent quality and are highly valued by users, the number of users is relatively small and declining steadily. The Scottish science library and the business information service were the right solution for the needs of the 1980s and the 1990s, but times have changed and continue to change. Like all other libraries, the National Library cannot just sit aside and ignore the internet revolution.

I understand that usage has dropped by around 50 per cent during the past six years. Since 1999 alone there has been a fall in the usage figures of about 25,000 to 6,500.

Photo of Mike Watson Mike Watson Labour

I do not know what Fiona McLeod can add to what she said earlier. Some of the figures she quoted do not stand up against the information that I have—for example, on staffing. I understand that staff of the NLS are in the gallery. The information that I received as recently as today—information that I commissioned to put the record straight—is that the closure would affect 21 staff, 13 in the science library and 18 in the book bindery.

I am advised that eight staff will be retained—five from the SSL, one of whom works part time, and three from the bindery. It is true that 13 staff have agreed to take voluntary redundancy. Any redundancies are regrettable, but those figures are substantially different from the ones Fiona McLeod gave. It is fair to say that the trustees, who were faced with a very difficult situation, made what could be characterised as a brave decision, in that it took account of the broader picture. The trustees have not ignored the needs of customers of the science library and the business information service.

Rather than deplore the decision, as Fiona McLeod's motion invites us to do, we should acknowledge the circumstances in which it had to be made and credit the trustees for having the vision to look to the future interests of the National Library as an institution. The library has made it clear that it remains committed to ensuring that the services in question will remain available to those who are unable to access scientific and business material in other ways.

I acknowledge those who have cautioned that not everything is entirely electronic yet and that real books on real shelves are still needed. The library will still receive scientific, technical and business material through its legal deposit privilege. The reading rooms at George IV Bridge will continue to provide access to printed and electronic science and business resources, as will the Causewayside building.

In terms of overall access, I am advised that users who wish to visit the library in person should benefit, because the George IV Bridge building reading rooms are open every evening until 8.30 and on Saturday mornings. The former Scottish science library could offer an evening service on only one day of the week.

I am aware of the time constraints but would like to comment on one or two speeches. I say to Fiona McLeod that I mentioned the funding: the £400,000 would not be for just this year and next year; it would be an on-going commitment. It is not an amount of money that can easily be found on an on-going basis.

There are disparities between the figures. I know that Angus MacKay's speech was from the heart because of his constituency interests. He talked about £100,000 and asked whether there are other ways to find the money. He knows the history of that better than me, of course. I have considered the sources that could be explored and there is no easy way to get the science library off the hook, as it were. I say to Mr MacKay that I have considered the issue in some detail.

Brian Monteith mentioned that the staff want the library to continue. Of course. They would. I appreciate that and I appreciate the contribution that they have made. I simply say that the trustees had to consider the broader picture. That is what they have done.

Margo MacDonald talked about the library approaching business. As she stated, approaches have been made and I understand that they have been unsuccessful. If a stay of execution were granted, I cannot see what guarantee there would be that any institution, such as Scottish Enterprise, that has not hitherto been willing to work with the library would be willing to do so in the forthcoming weeks and months.

I have to conclude. I believe that the library has made a decision that will give it a secure future with a structure that is robust and flexible enough to deal with changing circumstances—and that is what it is all about. The National Library will continue to meet, efficiently and effectively, the demands that are made of it across the spectrum of its services.

I thank all the members who have spoken in this important debate.

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

On a point of order, Presiding Officer. Do the standing orders contain anything that requires someone who responds to a debate to reflect the fact that 10 of 11 speakers opposed what he said? The minister did not reflect the fact that the entire debate went against what he said.

Photo of Murray Tosh Murray Tosh Conservative

That is not a point of order. Within the time constraints, the minister made his best fist of answering at least some of the points that were raised.

Meeting closed at 18:00.