HC Deb 08 June 1964 vol 696 cc182-92

Amendment made: In line 3, leave out "Minister of Education" and insert "Secretary of State".—[Sir E. Boyle.]

10.29 p.m.

Mr. Chataway

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

The proceedings in Committee falsified the hope which I expressed on Second Reading that this could be described as a relatively uncontroversial Measure. There has been controversy, although often not of a sort which divides hon. Members along party political lines. Our proceedings might have surprised some of the more extreme critics of the House of Commons. Certainly, the Executive could hardly have been subjected to a more thorough scrutiny than it was on this Bill and many hon. Members, on both sides, could hardly have proved more effective in that probing process.

One of the more important results of the Committee discussions has been that my right hon. and learned Friend has agreed to a number of extra safeguards for those smaller authorities which feel themselves threatened. Already today, the House has again fully discussed the question of size. I hope, however, that hon. Members will not underrate the safeguards which have now been introduced. There is power to hold a public inquiry. The Secretary of State is required to take account of the local changes in the area or population of a borough or urban district, and this means giving consideration to likely local government reforms. My right hon. and learned Friend has to be satisfied that the withdrawal of library powers from a borough or urban district council will result in improved services to the inhabitants.

In addition to that, application for renewal of library powers can now be rejected only by means of a Statutory Instrument subject to the negative Resolution procedure. It was in this connection that the Executive were most clearly seen to have limits to their persuasive powers, at least when they were exercised by me. My right hon. Friend has subsequently indicated to hon. Members that in all the circumstances he will not seek to have this provision for the negative Resolution procedure deleted.

I cannot pretend to be without misgivings on that decision of the Committee. There is danger, as, I think, the hon. Member for Sunderland, North (Mr. Willey) recognised, that the House could be faced with an unduly large number of Orders. I hope, however, that authorities and hon. Members will accept, as the Committee accepted, that the purpose of the Bill is to raise standards and that this will inevitably involve a reduction in the number of library authorities. It will not be easy for the smaller authorities to reach the standards described by the Working Party's Report. A more effective local co-operation than has hitherto been seen will be needed, and the smaller authority wishing to retain independent library powers will have to face a higher expenditure per head, as the Working Party showed, than is required from a larger authority.

Another and contentious matter has been that of costs. My right hon. Friend pointed on Second Reading to the upward trend in recent years of expenditure, both capital and recurrent, on the library service. The Bill will certainly lead to a substantial further increase in expenditure on libraries. It was this prospect that led some to hope for an increased revenue from charges.

As to books, the principle of a free library service is retained in the Bill. My right hon. Friend dealt fully with this subject in Committee, but perhaps I may remind the House of two of the practical arguments against any general introduction of charges for this service, which has from its inception been free. If a charge is made for a library ticket, it may be substantial enough to deter the reader whose initial purpose is to borrow only one book; and it is often from borrowing just one book, perhaps about their hobbies, that many people are led on to more reading and to greater use of their local library.

If, on the other hand, a charge is levied on each book lent, this must provide a strong incentive to an authority to spend its money on that class of fiction which has the quickest turnover and is the greatest revenue earner. The Bill does not, therefore, provide for any charge on books, except in the specific limited circumstances described in Clause 8.

For the lending of gramophone records, pictures, films, and so on—services which some authorities provide and some do not—a charge may be made. This has seemed to be a worthwhile amendment, because, for one thing, there is evidence that without revenue from charges, some authorities might suspend this service.

A more major change effected in Committee is the freedom now granted to authorities to charge for entry to museums and art galleries. Earlier today, the House discussed this change in some detail.

I have referred to the increased spending on libraries which is likely to result from the Bill, and I recognise that the prospect of this increased rate-borne expenditure is relevant to the review which is now being carried out by the Government into the proper balance between financing from rates and from taxes. Compared with total local government spending the sums here involved are not large, but any likely increase such as this must be taken into account when considering what burden the ratepayer can in future years be expected to shoulder.

Hon. Gentlemen opposite have at times suggested that this should be relevant expenditure for general grant. We have taken the view that libraries remain essentially a local government service, but if one were to make the libraries relevant expenditure for the general grant it would only be logical to go a great deal further than does this Bill in making provision for control to be exercised from the centre. We have preferred to follow in this respect the recommendations of the Roberts Committee.

In commending the Bill to the House I should like again to pay tribute to Sir Sydney Roberts and his Committee. Aspects of their Report have come in for sharp criticism at times, but the Bill, as I say, is largely founded on their work. Under it, new duties are laid on the authorities and the Secretary of State; there is provision for greater co-ordination between public and non-public libraries; there are here the means to provide a better and a more even library service in this country. As the Roberts Committee showed, increased educational provision has had an enormous effect upon library services. Educational and recreational demands on libraries are inevitably changing and inevitably growing.

The Bill paves the way for a big improvement in the public library service in tune with modern educational advance, and I hope that the House may now give it its Third Reading.

10.33 p.m.

Mr. Sydney Irving

This is an important Bill which gives great opportunity for raising the standards in the public library service to meet both existing needs and the needs which we can foresee in the future, and, especially as it has been improved in Committee, I think that most people will welcome the Bill.

The Bill, however, in my view, has two characteristics which distinguish it from most other legislation dealing with local government. The first is in giving the Government supervision while not providing any Treasury support in return for this supervision. This may well prove in the end to be the weakness of the Bill, because while the Minister, in the terms of the Bill, can take over the powers of an urban district or non-county borough, it is inconceivable that he could take over the powers of a county council or a county borough council, arid in this sense he has no sanction at all, if those authorities fail to come up to standards. Enforcement would be very difficult indeed.

The second characteristic of the Bill is its very great vagueness on some of its most important aspects. Standards and supervision are two examples of this. Therefore, the success of the Bill will largely depend on the spirit of the Minister who is to operate the Bill when it becomes law. So far, we have only had one clue as to what this spirit will be. We have under the Bill the appointment of a library adviser, and yet I think that it is true to say without exaggeration that the terms of this appointment have dismayed the whole of the library profession.

I do not know whether the appointment has yet been made. If it has been made, I do not know who has been appointed. I wish whoever is appointed, or is to be appointed, well in the appointment. But this means that the library profession in this respect, fears the worst, because the post has been advertised on the scale of £2,237 to £2,572. Librarians have long wished to have parity with the teaching profession. Not only have they been refused this, but in this refusal they have been affronted by the terms of this appointment. There are 486 members of the education inspectorate who are on terms of appointment higher than the senior library adviser who will advise the Minister on the operation of the Bill. I accept that there may be a difference between an education inspectorate and a library inspectorate, but I cannot understand why this differential should be so wide as to put 500 people, to say nothing of the 40 or more in Wales, in the education inspectorate above the highest appointment to be made in the Ministry in respect of the library service.

The other unfortunate aspect of the Bill, perhaps the major weakness, is the failure to give any guidance about one of the most crucial aspects of the library service, one referred to in almost every report before the Bill came before the House. The success of the new enterprise depends almost entirely on an adequate supply of properly trained and qualified staff. On this, the Bill gives no guidance. We are still left very much in doubt about the Minister's intentions in this respect. Unless this is made good, the whole of an otherwise excellent Bill cannot operate in the way it is intended to.

Therefore, while this is an excellent Bill, it depends more on the spirit of the Minister operating it than on its terms, and so far in this respect I cannot think that the prospect for the future is very rosy.

10.42 p.m.

Mr. Duffy

I agree with the Joint Under-Secretary of State that the Bill was subjected to keen scrutiny in the Committee. I was pleased to hear him say that he thought the scrutiny was most helpful. Looking back over the short time that I have been a Member of Parliament, I thought that I saw the House at its best during the Committee stage of the Bill.

I welcome the Bill, especially on the ground of timing. I also welcome it generally on the ground of character, although the Minister and the Joint Under-Secretary will know from what I have said in Committee and tonight that it disappoints me over Clause 6. I appreciate what the Minister is trying to do. I welcome his attempts at general supervision. I know that he is trying to reconcile the need for centrally imposed standards with local autonomy, which is difficult to do. But I do not think that he will convince Ilkley, Skip-ton, Bingley, Heckmondwike, Rothwell and Normanton—I make no apology for reciting these West Riding names again—that he has succeeded or is likely to.

I do not wish to appear parochial. I favour reform. Generally speaking, I am in favour of larger units rather than smaller units, but I think that the Minister should be chary about undermining the status of existing authorities by taking from them functions which they are performing with distinction. I do not think that new Clause 1 will wholly reassure the deprived authorities.

I am not indifferent to standards. I think that the Minister must be as exacting in his application to the small authorities as to the large authorities. Yet I fear that because of Clause 6, which worries me, he may set about imposing those standards on the small authorities simply because they are small, and he may appear to them to be doing it with more relish because they are small.

Yet the chief difficulty, as my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Mr. Sydney Irving) pointed out, is money, and the money will not be provided by any amount of pruning and regrouping. It is inconceivable that the public library system will be given the range and quality our changing society will require in the years to come unless we manage to provide new methods of finance. I do not think it can be done by existing methods and the Bill offers no relief.

On the contrary, the Minister claims wider powers and offers no money in return. The proposed expenditure under the Bill is hopelessly inadequate. The Minister will have to provide positive and imaginative leadership as well as general supervision if he is to compensate for the lack of money.

This means that, as time goes on, Clause 10 may become the most important part of the Bill if the percentage of the population that uses our libraries is to grow to more than 30 per cent. Here again, I echo something said by my hon. Friend the Member for Dart-ford: if library functions are to be properly fulfilled the libraries will have to be properly staffed, and unless we provide proper conditions of employment we cannot expect to see an efficient service.

Nevertheless, I welcome the Bill. It is a very good Bill—perhaps a little below my hon. Friend's description of it as "excellent"—but I regard it as a privilege to be associated with it during its passage through the House.

10.45 p.m.

Mr. Willey

I join with my hon. Friends in expressing our appreciation of the Bill. It seems quite a long time since we welcomed it on Second Reading. It has been improved since then. I thank the Minister of State and the Joint Under-Secretary of State for aiding us in the improvement and I am delighted to feel that when it goes to another place they can be encouraged by the Joint Under-Secretary of State's expectations of further improvement.

But I am very disturbed to hear what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Mr. Sydney Irving). I appeal to the Minister to impress upon the Department the need to be much more constructive, more positive, in matters like this. The Department was severely criticised by the Albemarle and Wolfenden Reports and should be much more forthcoming and positive about all these matters which aid and support education. It is discouraging if we do not get that more positive view.

We have pressed the view that there should be an inspectorate. I thought that it was agreed, whatever differences there might be about an inspectorate, that the Department would respond to this and would have a strong section which would encourage and promote the library service.

There are two main factors about the growth of the service as we envisage it about which, I am sure hon. Members will concede, we did not really get satisfaction. If the service is to be improved more money will have to be spent on it. It is unfortunate that we have not had a sufficient response from the Government on that cardinal question. I do not dispute that this is a local government service, but we are actually now providing a national service through the local authorities and we must consider more seriously the question of financing.

The second factor concerns the professional staffs. We have not had sufficient appreciation of their difficulties nor an assurance that they will be remedied. We have not had sufficient assurance that the full financial difficulties of staffing and promoting the service are properly understood by the Government.

We all welcome the fact that the Secretary of State for Education and Science is to be responsible for the library service. As the Bill leaves the House, we should emphasise again that the library is crucial to education. It is the key to education, certainly at the higher and further levels. More than that, the public library is also very often the bridge, the instrument, by which many people, particularly mature students, gain their opportunities in education.

For these reasons, we welcome the fact that the right hon. Gentleman and the Joint Under-Secretary have helped us to improve the Bill. The Roberts Committee can at last feel some consolation in that the Bill is now leaving this House and will soon be considered by another place.

10.51 p.m.

Sir E. Boyle

I should like to thank the hon. Member for Sunderland, North (Mr. Willey) for his remarks and all hon. Members, especially my hon. Friend the Joint Under-Secretary, who have been involved in the passage of the Bill. I am very glad that we have been able to debate it during this last Session of this Parliament It has been on the sidelines for some time, but I could not give longer notice of it because it was uncertain, even until just before 5th February, whether we would be able to get it in this Session. I am very glad that we have been able to do so and I share in the tributes paid to the Roberts Committee. Perhaps it is poetic justice that my right 'hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State, who appointed the Roberts Committee in 1957, should have returned to Curzon Street just in time to see the Bill on the Statute Book.

This is an important Measure which definitely lays on the Secretary of State responsibility for this service. The Bill says that From the commencement of this Act it shall be the duty of the Secretary of State to superintend, and promote the improvement of the public library service provided by local authorities in England and Wales. … That is one of his duties and we have discussed how information on the progress of those duties should be given to Parliament.

As has been said, improvement can be made only by money, and hon. Members will remember that in Committee I said that we faced the possibility of an increase of £14 million a year on the current £23 million, rather more than 50 per cent., to bring the libraries up to the standards suggested. I should not like to deny that the whole purpose of the Bill, which is to raise standards in public libraries, will involve greater expenditure.

I have two comments on that. The first is on the question of how we shall urge this greater expenditure. I said on Second Reading that I had no doubt that, when the time came, the Minister of the day would send out a circular in which he would have to go into great detail to set out the criteria. I pointed out that we had already had the Bour-dillon Working Party's Report on Standards, and I said that I envisaged a circular setting out criteria close to those suggested by the Working Party. It seems essential that they should be as objective and as clear as possible.

Secondly, I recognise that the Government are not directly providing the extra £14 million, but this must all be seen in the context of the remarks of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister about the balance between central and local government finance. When, in due course, we come to take decisions about that balance, these by no means negligible sums of money now being put on local finance as an extra burden will obviously be one of the many factors needing to be taken into account.

I thought that the hon. Member for Dartford (Mr. Sydney Irving) was a little too pessimistic. He rather reminded me of the time when I moved from Curzon Street to Richmond Terrace. Someone who is greatly respected in the education world said to me, "You are changing your job and you will, therefore, come across a completely new set of grievances". I said, "No doubt I shall come across grievances in due course, but I do not agree that this is the most important or immediate matter with which I shall be concerned."

Of course, the Bill has staffing implications for the local libraries and for the Department. I said on Second Reading that I hoped that notice would be taken of the advice given to library authorities to pay librarians adequately and, above all, to provide them with career prospects. The Bill will clearly have staffing implications for the Department. I have said that the post of library adviser in the Department, which had hitherto been made on a temporary basis, had now been made permanent. We cannot stop there. This must be the basis for further action.

I would not tonight wish to comment on a particular salary offered. I do not think it would be right to do so, but I assure the House that we shall at the Department fully recognise the implications of the Bill in the work of the Department as a whole.

I conclude by echoing what has been said about the importance of public libraries to the whole education service. We shall surely need to consider in years to come not only students as we traditionally name them, but the very rapidly growing section of the public, both men and women, who mean to gain qualifications of one kind or another. I believe that the growth in the number of qualifications offered and the growth of the numbers seeking qualifications—what might be called the "Robbins penumbra"—may be infinitely greater than any of us supposed. In this context public libraries are of great importance and this Measure will go forward as not the least of the Measures passed in this last Session of the present Parliament.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.

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