HC Deb 25 November 1991 vol 199 cc731-50 10.45 pm
The Minister for the Arts (Mr. Tim Renton)

I beg to move, That the draft Library Charges (England and Wales) Regulations 1991, which were laid before the House on 22nd July, in the last Session of Parliament, be approved. There have been many changes in libraries since the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964. This debate, to which I have been looking forward with keen anticipation, is the result of some of the changes and of the need constantly to improve services. It is a debate not about a good service or a bad service but about how to make a good service even better.

By removing minor anomalies, the regulations will help to give library authorities greater flexibility, opportunity and possibility to develop new services. It will allow them the freedom to charge for more services, without affecting the basic, free traditional service. In effect, the regulations will help to improve the service to the reader and allow authorities to make better use of their resources.

Let me give the House a bit of history. Section 8(1) of the 1964 Act prohibits library authorities in England and Wales from charging anyone other than another library authority for library facilities, except as provided for by that section. Section 154 of the Local Government and Housing Act 1989 amends section 8 of the 1964 Act and empowers the Lord President of the Council and the Secretary of State for Wales to specify in regulations which library facilities provided by library authorities may be charged for. The regulations will replace the limited charging powers that library authorities presently have, which are set out in section 8(2) to section 8(5) of the 1964 Act.

Before drawing up the regulations, we invited library authorities to let us know which facilities they charged for or might wish to charge for in future. The results showed that services are already provided on library premises which go beyond those which could strictly be defined as library facilities. These include specialised information services, graphic design services, desk-top publishing facilities and translation services.

Those services fall outside the scope of the prohibition in section 8(1) of the 1964 Act. Thus the regulations, which give exceptions from that prohibition, do not deal with them. That is not to say that those services cannot continue to be provided on library premises. But they are services provided by local authorities under other powers and not as library authorities.

Mr. Alun Michael (Cardiff, South and Penarth)

I am interested in the line of the Minister's thoughts. He seems to be about to announce that he intends to give freedom to library authorities to decide the way in which they operate. If the Minister does not mind my saying so, I seem to have heard that before somewhere. Will he make any assumptions as a result of the regulations about how library authorities can generate income when he considers the financial support that they need?

Mr. Renton

I suppose that I must thank the hon. Gentleman for referring to my argument as a line of thought, but it is not a line of thought: it is a textual explanation of the regulations. I do not intend to make any assumptions about the amount of additional income local authorities may raise from these regulations, because it is at their discretion to decide whether to use these powers. These are merely enabling regulations.

Mr. Michael

Even if the Minister does not make such assumptions, will not Ministers responsible for local government finance make assumptions about the income that can be generated? Will he assure us that his colleagues in the Department of the Environment and the Welsh Office will not make assumptions and will leave these matters to be decided freely by local authorities?

Mr. Renton

The hon. Gentleman is making a Welsh mountain out of a small molehill. When we looked into this matter, we found that about 80 per cent. of the library authorities that we consulted said that they used the income that they generated from these charges to add to their services in other areas. The money is therefore beneficial to them.

The regulations have been drawn up to cover only those library facilities made available by the library authorities in the course of carrying out their functions under section 7 of the 1964 Act. In February 1988 my office published the Green Paper "Financing our Public Library Service: Four Subjects for Debate", which, among other things, proposed to remove anomalies and inconsistencies in library authorities' present powers to charge.

This was followed by a six-month public consultation period. Similarly, the draft regulations were sent out for comment in September 1990 to representatives of those responsible for or with an interest in the administration and operation of the public library service in England and Wales. The final draft was prepared after all the views expressed during the three-month consultation period had been fully considered.

It was as a result of this consultative process that I decided, for example, to remove the upper limit of £1.50 on reservation charges.

Mr. Mark Fisher (Stoke-on-Trent, Central)

The Minister says that the changes in the final draft were made after the full period of consultation. Did any of the library authorities—or the Library Association, or the Library Campaign—consulted during that period ask him to remove the £1.50 charge?

Mr. Renton

I know that the Library Association issued some notes—no doubt the hon. Gentleman will draw on them during his speech—in which it opposed the removal of the limit. But most of the chief librarians whom we consulted, through their association known as FOLACL —the Federation of Local Authority Chief Librarians—felt strongly that authorities should be able too exercise discretion with reservation charges, just as they do for other charges. They therefore favour the abolition of the limit—

Mr. Fisher

Would the right hon. Gentleman care to name the chief librarians in question, and the authorities that they represent? What he has said will cause great surprise in the library world. If the right hon. Gentleman claims that this view was taken, he should name the people who took it.

Mr. Renton

I regret that the hon. Gentleman has not done his homework properly. A majority of chief librarians, through their association FOLACL, thought that the maximum charge should not remain.

I shall in a moment specify the facilities for which library authorities will be empowered to charge, but first I want to remind the House of an important safeguard for free access to the library service which we have built into the provisions of the 1964 Act, as substituted by the Local Government and Housing Act 1989.

We have excluded from the scope of the enabling power two main elements which are generally regarded as traditional free public library services: the borrowing by any person living, working or studying full time in the area of an English or Welsh library authority of books, journals and pamphlets available in written form within a library or mobile library of that authority; and the use for reference and consultation purposes of all such materials and microform materials, or any catalogue of the authority's own holdings by any person within library premises of that authority.

This statutory safeguard, which is repeated in the draft regulations, demonstrates our commitment to maintaining the essential, free, traditional public library service. The regulations will replace the limited charging powers presently held by library authorities. They will preserve the existing powers to charge contained in the Act, such as for notification of the availability of a reserved item, for late return of borrowed material and for supplying book catalogues or indexes which become the property of the persons to whom they are supplied.

The regulations will also correct certain anomalies in the existing legislation. Some existing powers are inconsistent or unhelpfully limited. An authority may charge a user for keeping a book or other library material longer than the allowed period, but not for any damage that he has caused to the item. An authority may charge a user the cost of notifying him that the book or other article is available for borrowing, but not the administrative costs of reserving material. It can charge for telling the customer that the item is ready to be borrowed, but not that it is unobtainable or may be consulted only in the reference library. These anomalies are corrected in the regulations.

Finally, the regulations will introduce new charging powers. They will give library authorities power to charge for assistance given by library staff, for example, in conducting research for a user among a library's materials. Many authorities are now asked by individuals and organisations to carry out lengthy research, and it seems right that they should pay for that work. The regulations do not allow a library authority to charge for staff time involved in straightforward inquiries concerned with the provision of the traditional library service, such as where to find a book or a simple reference request.

In addition, the regulations empower charging for assistance or instruction in the use of computers. Since the 1964 Act, computers have played an increasing role in the library service. Libraries use computers to store their catalogues and indexes and process information that is needed for good housekeeping, such as reserving material, recording loans and due dates. The regulations prevent a charge from being made where the computer is required to consult an authority's own catalogues or indexes.

The current section 8 of the 1964 Act allows a library authority to sell only catalogues and indexes. The regulations place no such restrictions on library authorities and they can sell material which they have researched, collated, produced or copied themselves. The regulations also clarify the power to charge for the borrowing of certain non-print materials and the provision of library services off library premises, for example, to old people's homes and to hospitals.

I repeat that all the powers to charge will, as at present, be discretionary. It will be for each library authority to decide whether to charge for any library facility for which charging is authorised by the regulations. When they do decide to charge, library authorities will be able to decide what they charge and the concessions that they give, taking into account local needs and circumstances. For example, some local authorities may decide not to charge for talking books for those whose sight is impaired, or they may exempt children and the elderly from reservation charges. Such matters will be for local authorities to decide. The draft regulations will provide that any charges which are to be imposed must be displayed on library premises.

There is no question of the regulations heralding the privatisation of the public library service. This is not so. Under the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964, library authorities have a duty to provide public library services, and they will continue to have a duty to provide a comprehensive and efficient library service. I intend to monitor charging levels. All library authorities will be contacted in two years' time so that we can assess the situation. The intention is to bring section 154 of the Local Government and Housing Act 1989 and these regulations into force on 1 January 1992.

We recognise the importance and popularity of the public library service. It is valued by all sectors of the community, and these regulations reflect the Government's determination to provide authorities with opportunities to develop and improve their library and information services as they deem fit. They are just one of a series of steps that we have taken to help library authorities. Last year, we published a manual on assessing performance in libraries, and we shall shortly be publishing another on public library objectives. We have continued and improved the public library development incentive scheme, and the first awards in the new scheme were announced two weeks ago. We shall thus continue to take steps to make the library service effective, modern and good value for money. The regulations will help in this process, and I commend them to the House.

11 pm

Mr. Mark Fisher (Stoke-on-Trent, Central)

We welcome the regulations. The Minister is right to say that clarification was needed to establish precisely the charging powers of public library authorities and that the anomalies and obscurities in the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964 to be tidied up. In his period of consultation, both on the Green Paper and on these regulations, he will have heard that from librarians, and the Library Association made it clear in its meeting with him in February. They were all glad that, when the Minister met the association, some of the changes to the draft regulations that it suggested—for example, the dropping of charging for the librarians' time—were agreed to. The Minister was right to take its advice and drop that proposal.

Unfortunately, not all the points that professional librarians made to the Minister in consultations have resulted in changes. In spite of what he said, the Library Association feels that the changes in the regulations may throw up as many obscurities and uncertainties as the provisions of section 8 of the 1964 Act. As the Minister admitted, he made one significant alteration from the draft regulations against the advice of the Library Association and of most librarians. He gave us the source when he spoke of the majority of chief librarians in their professional association, but he needs to explain that rather more.

Not many chief librarians or librarians will find it easy to believe that the majority of those advising the Minister said that the maximum charge should be abandoned. I suspect that all the correspondence that he has had, like all the correspondence that I have had, says the opposite—that this is an unhelpful and rather dangerous thing to do, and that the draft regulations were better when there was a clear maximum charge.

The change that the Minister made is a significant one. He presented it in a reasonable light, saying that it was purely discretionary and that librarians would have freedom to charge. The House will recognise that he is being disingenuous when he presents it in that light. Librarians will be free to charge, but they will be under pressure from the Minister. If they complain about lack of financing and about difficulties, he will have the perfect answer. He will say, "I have given you these powers to increase charges. Do not come to me complaining that you are underfinanced—you have the remedy in your hands. The regulations that I put before Parliament were liberal; they gave you the freedom to solve your own problems. Go away and charge. Don't come wittering to me about not having enough money. You have the remedy in your own hands."

The "freedom" that the Minister has given to library authorities is not entirely what it may seem. He knows well, especially after the events of the past couple of weeks, that many library authorities are short of money. I suspect that he will not hesitate after 1 January 1992 to advise them they should be raising charges to solve their difficulties.

The Minister said in answer to a parliamentary question from my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) that the Library Association had said that there was no problem with money and that there was a choice. He will recall that the association's chief executive, George Cunningham, wrote the next day as follows: I must, with respect, make it emphatically clear that the Library Association has said nothing of the kind that could be interpreted in that sense. On the contrary, as you know from exchanges with our President and otherwise, the Association has stressed the need for more resources to be made available for public libraries. That was the very message that we conveyed to you at our meeting in February, and it has been the gist of many statements made by our President since. The Minister accepted that he had made a mistake. He answered a question of mine by saying: I am glad to have the opportunity of correcting a slip of the tongue"— we all know that such mistakes are easy to make— when I referred to the Library Association. I intended to quote the report 'Libraries' Choice', which said that the key issue was choice rather than money. The Minister has admitted his mistake. I suppose that it is easy to confuse a professional association with a magazine. The House may find, however, that it is a rather surreal difficulty of the Minister's not being able to tell the difference between a professional body and a journal. Leaving that aside, it is not clear from the Minister's reply whether in his apology or his answer to me he admitted that it was not the Library Association that made the remark or whether he admitted that money is an acute concern of library authorities. I am sure that he will take the opportunity to say that he understands that library authorities throughout the country have grave money difficulties.

The right hon. Gentleman will have seen the Library Association's survey of April when it examined 78 library authorities, 70 per cent. of which stated that cuts had been made. It is those authorities that will be coming to him and complaining about the financial circumstances that the Government have placed on local authorities, which has led to the cuts.

I suspect that the Minister will be quoting the regulations to the library authorities. In effect, he will say, "Go away and increase your charges." So when Berkshire comes to him as a shire county and says, "We have had to cut £287,000 from our library authority this year", the Minister will say, "Go away and raise charges." When Warwickshire says that it has had to cut—

Mr. John Bowis (Battersea)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. Would he preclude charging within the fairly limited range of possibilities that is available within the regulations? Would he restrict the amount to be charged, and if so to what level? If not, will he say precisely what he is complaining about? It appears that he is worried that there will be excessive charges. Is he saying, however, that charges should be possible, and if so to what extent?

Mr. Fisher

I think that I have made it clear to the House, including the hon. Gentleman, if he has been following my argument, that the Opposition believe that the Minister would have been well advised to take the advice of the Library Association and to adhere to the draft regulations, which provided a maximum limit of £1.50. Library authorities would not then have had to go to the maximum, but they would have known the maximum sum that could be charged. Instead, by removing the maximum charge, the Minister has opened the way for much higher charges. When library authorities, such as Berkshire, that have been compelled to make cuts complain to the Minister, he will tell them, "The answer is in your hands." Warwickshire, which cut 12 per cent. of its book fund, may receive exactly the same answer from the Minister.

Mr. Alan Meale (Mansfield)

I was grateful for my hon. Friend's remarks about the scale of charges. He spoke also of the huge cuts forced on library authorities throughout the United Kingdom. Can he say what those cuts in library services mean in real terms? What kind of books are being cut from the curriculum?

Mr. Fisher

The kind of books that will not be bought this year will vary from authority to authority. Berkshire's cuts include a 14 per cent. opening reduction in opening hours—so libraries will be open for shorter hours. Warwickshire's cut of 12 per cent. of its book fund means that it will not provide any national newspapers in its libraries, and will reduce the number of periodicals. When Somerset had to cut £155,000 from its book fund, seven further libraries had to close an additional half-day a week. Also cut will be the range of books offered—whether to children or young people, or those who have sight problems.

Not just the three shire counties that I cited will be affected. The Library Association survey showed that 70 per cent. of the 78 authorities that replied are making cuts this year. They include Bedfordshire, Cheshire, Cumbria, Gloucestershire, Lancashire, Nottinghamshire, and metropolitan districts such as Calderdale, Dudley, Kirklees, Oldham, South Tyneside, Wolverhampton and Walsall. There are present in the Chamber hon. Members whose own authorities have made cuts—and if they visit the libraries in their constituencies, they will come to know what those cuts mean on the shelves.

Mr. Meale

I asked that question of my hon. Friend because I have been contacted by many librarians in the east midlands area, who are fearful that the cuts will affect the provision of children's books and the provision and usage of services to children. I agree with my hon. Friend that such cuts can only lead to fewer services being offered to a group that is most in need.

Mr. Fisher

Nevertheless, the Minister will be quite within his rights to say to such authorities, "In the light of the regulations, you have the answer. You can do something about it. Raise charges. You make a lot of reservations—why not reinforce your book fund by making a profit on them and notifications. That way, you could solve at least some of your problems."

What is behind the Minister's thinking? I am glad that the right hon. Member for Shoreham (Mr. Luce), the former Minister for the Arts, is present. As I understood the right hon. Gentleman's speeches and everything that he said about his Green Paper, he would not have abolished the maximum. He saw the need for a maximum charge to prevent exactly the circumstances that I described. I recall that he spoke about his Green Paper a great deal throughout the country, and always stressed the importance of the maximum charge, which was left in the regulations that the present Minister inherited. It was not on advice from his predecessors that the current Minister for the Arts made this change—and, in my view, he was not given such advice by professional librarians, such as those who belong to the Library Association, and certainly not by the Library Campaign—though the Minister is saying that some chief librarians advised him to remove the charge.

Mr. Renton

I am flattered that the hon. Gentleman attributes more Machiavellian spirit to me than to my predecessor, my very old right hon. Friend the Member for Shoreham (Mr. Luce). However, the hon. Gentleman forgets two things. There are no maximum charges at present. There is none in the present situation. All that my right hon. Friend the Member for Shoreham suggested was that there might be a maximum charge of £1.50 only in respect of reservations. He never suggested that there should be charges for all the things for which we are now introducing, or clarifying, the right to charge. I was strongly advised by FOLACL—the Federation of Local Authority Chief Librarians—the other professional organisation, which is in dispute with the Library Association on this issue, that a maximum was not a good idea. I feared that an established maximum of £1.50 would become a minimum, or a norm. I felt that the local authorities should reach their own conclusions on the appropriate figure to charge for reservations. Flattered as I am to be described as Machiavellian, what the hon. Gentleman has said is rather far from the facts.

Mr. Fisher

I do not know whether that was a slip of the tongue, or whether the Minister is becoming confused, but I do not see how a maximum can become a minimum. I do not think that the Minister meant that. He seems to need some education in basic semantics. It could be a norm, as he suggested; but, by definition, it cannot be a minimum.

In his draft regulations, the Minister's predecessor referred only to reservations, but in England alone there are nearly 7 million reservations a year. If income is increased from the present low levels, there will be considerable potential for an increase in library authorities' income. The Minister says that, to date, there have been no maximum—

Mr. Michael Mates (East Hampshire)


Mr. Fisher

I am grateful to the hon. and—classically, at least—learned Gentleman.

The reason why there has been no need for a maximum reservation charge in the past is that, until the present Government came along, library authorities were well funded. Our library system was the envy of the world, but, following the cuts that were carried out throughout the 1980s and are still being made, the pressure on library authorities to seek income generation has increased enormously. The Minister and his predecessors have been telling them, in various documents and speeches, to do that and thus to help themselves.

The Minister says that he is flattered by being seen as Machiavellian. His motive is not entirely clear. Is it a matter of principle? Does he believe, like one of his predecessors, Lord Gowrie, that people value things more if they are charged for them? In a not very distinguished speech that Lord Gowrie once made in Ealing, he said that library users would appreciate services more if they had to pay. I do not think, however, that this Minister believes in that principle.

Is it pragmatism? Presumably the Minister did his homework and worked out how many reservations were being made and what income was being generated. A survey carried out last year gave him some idea of the mean income from reservations and he worked out what increased charges might mean for the library authorities. If his reason for abolishing the maximum was the financial benefit for library authorities that he envisaged, he should tell the House about it.

Anticipating our lines of argument, the Minister has tried to deflect comment on what I suspect lies behind the Government's proposals: the changes introduced by his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment and the fact that the proposals are part of a process to privatise all or part of public library services. He knows that the Secretary of State for the Environment has added libraries to the list of services that will be considered for compulsory competitive tendering.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Harold Walker)

Order. The hon. Gentleman is going very wide of the matter that is before the House.

Mr. Fisher

I am trying to establish why there is to be this very significant change. It is important for the House to understand the motive. I suspect that the motive, in conjunction with increased competitive tendering, is to move towards privatising the public library service.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

That may be in the hon. Gentleman's mind, but I am afraid that for him to address these matters does not come within the Standing Orders.

Mr. Meale


Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman must address himself to what is in the motion before the House.

Mr. Meale

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I think that my hon. Friend is perfectly correct, because he is replying—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman cannot rise on a point of order and start challenging my ruling.

Mr. Meale

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. There is no point of order. The hon. Gentleman must not seek to debate my ruling with me. I very much hope that he is going to resume his seat.

Mr. Fisher

If I was travelling a little wide, I shall come back within the scope of the regulations. In that the regulations provide the potential for the generation of income, they are related to other Government moves on competitive tendering that will also bring income to the local authorities. All I am doing is responding to what was said by the Minister, who referred to privatisation. I believe that he was correct to raise it as a spectre, but that he was wrong to dismiss it so lightly. I suspect that he did so only because he was embarrassed about it. He knows the dangers of competitive tendering for the public library service. If he has listened to librarians, he probably knows very well that there are no private companies. He told the Library Campaign that he believed that W. H. Smith could probably move in and offer services. I think he knows—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman has totally disregarded the advice that I offered to him. I very much hope that he will observe what I said.

Mr. Fisher

I am grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I was replying to the point the Minister made. When he referred to privatisation he was not ruled out of order—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I have no recollection of the Minister referring to privatisation. Had I been aware of it I should have ruled him out of order. I very much hope that we can stick to the matter that is before the House.

Mr. Fisher

Of course I accept your ruling, but when the record is consulted it will show that the Minister referred to privatisation. The hon. Member for Dulwich (Mr. Bowden) shakes his head, but the Minister must acknowledge that he raised the question of privatisation.

Mr. Renton

It might help if again I put on record what I said. There is no question that the regulations herald the privatisation of the public library service. That is not so. I am delighted to repeat it.

Mr. Fisher

The Minister did raise the question, but sought to deflect it. I believe that he was a little hasty in doing so. That is a shadow which I suspect is worrying librarians and falling over the public library service.

An even more significant problem is the fact that the Minister then referred to what is still free in the public library service. He referred to books and to the use of information material. I hope that when the Minister replies to the debate he will take the opportunity to emphasise that, contrary to much of the tone of the Green Paper and contrary to the tone of what the Minister said this evening, the Government recognise that the public library service is not just a book loan service but is a book and information service. The information side of the public library service is every bit as important as book loans. The Minister referred to the free loan of books and also said that the use of information will be free.

The draft regulations make it clear that charges can be made for research, for collating and for supplying catalogues and library material. The Minister should clear up exactly what is meant by "collating" and "computer", because that is not clear. The regulations mention "apparatus", which is not clearly defined but which will have to be charged for in future.

There are plenty of issues that the Minister should clear up in his circular. In resolving some difficulties, regulation 3(2) throws the net very wide and includes the use of cubicles, research and instruction, which at present are free. I hope that the Minister will say that he hopes that library authorities will continue to supply such services free. Despite the fact that he has introduced regulations giving them the power to charge for those services, I hope that he will say that he believes that it is good practice to provide instruction in the use of equipment free. Once charges for instruction and for using a cubicle are made, the free public library service will disappear.

If a person goes into a small branch library to borrow a book for studying which perhaps has a BBC video accompanying it but the library has neither the book nor the video, the Minister knows very well that that person will be charged for getting the book and video, for reserving them, for being shown how to work the video if he is not used to operating it and perhaps for a cubicle in which to look at the film. Those charges are specified in regulation 3(2). Somebody who asks a branch library for something simple such as a book and video to do studying may be charged for four, five or six different items. The Minister should recognise that that is not unlikely and should say whether that is his intention.

There is a curious omission from charging—activities in libraries. I hope that the Minister will make it clear that they are not covered by the regulations and that they should be provided free. Readings to children, poetry readings, play sessions in holidays, discussions and writers in residences are without the scope of the regulations. I hope that the Minister will make it clear that those imaginative and good services, which the best public libraries offer, are not to be charged for because they are without the regulations and that that is what the Government intend.

The Government's record on public libraries in the past few years has been nothing short of appalling. Library authorities—I have quoted as many Tory-controlled authorities as Labour authorities—are having to cut their book funds and their opening hours. The Minister is giving himself an out. He is telling them, "Increase your charges. I have removed the maximum. You can now increase your income and solve your problems." That is the reality. I suspect that that is the first move in competitive tendering for more areas of the public library service. The hon. Member for Dulwich shakes his head, but competitive tendering is privatising part of the library service. The Secretary of State for the Environment has said that library services will be suitable for competitive tendering.

Whole parts of the public library service will be privatised. Those services that are not—as covered by the regulations—will be charged for, not up to a maximum amount but to the extent sought by a library authority. A library authority that is pressed will probably have to consider dramatically increasing the prices charged for reserving books and so on to meet its obligations to provide services to the elderly, the disabled and people with poor sight.

The Government's policies cut the public library service. Under the guise of giving freedom to increase charges, the Government are forcing library authorities to increase charges. That is to the Government's discredit. They have one opportunity left: I hope that the Minister will issue a circular interpreting the regulations. I hope that he will make clear the meaning of such definitions as "computer", "collating" and "notifying" and clear up the issue of library activities. The right hon. Gentleman will not be able to clear up the mess that the Government have made of the public library service over the past 12 years. The sooner the Conservatives are out of office, the better.

11.31 pm
Mr. George Walden (Buckingham)

I am always happy to work myself up into a great cultural stew, given half the chance. I listened carefully to my right hon. Friend the Minister, hoping that he would give me a chance. I am afraid that I could not find anything objectionable in his speech or in the regulations. Being a fair-minded person and still hoping that I had a chance to get a cultural stew going, I listened carefully to the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher), but he did not give me a chance either. I am a little stuck. All that I can do is to agree with my hon. Friend the Minister about the regulations and add some comments.

It is a little coy of us not to be frank. We are talking about books versus videos. It is evasive nonsense to talk about the two together. There is a great problem in terms of people reading books; there is no problem about getting people to look at videos. The problem is not in the library service but in the schools. People are not taught to read books. Only now are we confronting the reality of what goes on in our primary schools, which cannot even teach people to read.

The animadversions of the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central on books and libraries smack a little of romantic cultural trash. The real problem is in the schools. If we get matters right there, people will make far greater use of the extraordinary facilities available in our libraries. I looked at computer print-outs of what people borrowed from our libraries and what is in the libraries. It was a disappointing study.

Mr. Patrick Thompson (Norwich, North)

My hon. Friend spoke about the standard of teaching reading in primary schools. Does he agree that the main problem is not so much in the schools as in the teacher training colleges? Will my hon. Friend comment on that?

Mr. Walden

I would, but you would jump on me like a ton of bricks, Mr. Deputy Speaker, if I went one step further down that road. You nod, Sir, although you do not have a brick in your hand yet.

I am trying to cut through the nonsense that I detected in the speech of the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central and to get through to the essentials of what is wrong with our libraries.

Mr. Fisher

The hon. Gentleman seemed to be saying that one of the problems is that people do not borrow enough library books. I presume that he knows of the Government's statistics which show that loans last year amounted to 500 million. I think that that is more per capita than any other European country. The hon. Gentleman is on the wrong tack if he is saying that the problem with our public library service is that it is not valued or used, because it certainly is.

Mr. Walden

I am sorry but I am going to say something that will shock the hon. Gentleman's egalitarian sentiments to the core. One should examine not only the statistics, which, as he knows, are a pretty crude form of measurement, but what people in fact borrow. This is dangerous territory. The word that I have in mind begins with the letter "e"—does he have it on his lips? The next letter is "1". If the hon. Gentleman examines what people borrow, one discovers that the quality is pretty depressing. Is not it awful that I am making quality judgments? The word begins with the letters "e" and "1" —has he got it? If one breaks down the statistics of the millions of books that are borrowed, one finds that the material is readily available at a cost of about £1.25—perhaps I am exaggerating because it is probably now £1.75—on the station bookstall.

I now touch on the hon. Gentleman's implied romanticism about libraries being a source for the elevation of public taste, but it is not like that. Let us be frank. I have examined the material and the hon. Gentleman clearly has not. He is talking about figures, but I am talking about the stuff that people buy. The hon. Gentleman's implication that ordinary people are able to have access to the great cultural traditions of this country, to our great literature and so on is technically true, but people do not read it. I shall not indulge in such nonsense because it is not true and the hon. Gentleman knows that. However, he must pretend that it is. He has the word beginning with "e1" on his mind. I had better give him a chance to speak.

Mr. Fisher

The hon. Gentleman has a justified reputation as someone with a good intellect. He is selling himself very short by such ill-informed and anecdotal nonsense. It would be interesting to know how many hours he has spent this year in public libraries. I suspect that if he is honest he might have spent a maximum of six hours there. Other people know much more about the public library service and do not rely on anecdotes and impressions gained by wandering into a library and saying, "Good Lord, Catherine Cookson has been borrowed a lot, but I don't see people borrowing Bertrand Russell" and concluding that that must mean that people borrow trash. First, that is wrong about Catherine Cookson and, secondly, the hon. Gentleman does not understand the wide range of loans in the public library service. I speak as someone who was chairman of a public library authority for a number of years. I think that the hon. Gentleman is talking about anecdotal and wrong information. He is not doing justice to the standards of analysis that he usually sets.

Mr. Walden

That was a long intervention. I am glad that the hon. Gentleman covered his flank quickly with regard to Catherine Cookson because it was a little boast.

I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman realises that several years ago authors' and public lending rights were introduced which meant that statistically our knowledge of libraries was greatly improved because we could discover who borrowed what. Instead of judging by the crude statistics of the number of books, which tell us nothing about how libraries were used, we could use computer print-outs.

Mr. Fisher

indicated dissent.

Mr. Walden

It is no good the hon. Gentleman shaking his head defensively. The Leader of the Opposition tends to do that when he is embarrassed.

I have computer print-outs from public libraries and I base my judgment partially on them. Otherwise my judgments are based on spending quite a lot of time—slightly more than the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central gratuitously implied—in public libraries. There are 120 villages in my constituency and I go out of my way to champion, where I think it reasonable and sensible, the existence of libraries in those villages. I know what I am talking about.

I have compared what goes on in our public libraries with what goes on in public libraries in France, in Russia and in China. Perhaps the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central has done that too. Let us hear the benefit of his researches.

Mr. Fisher

The hon. Gentleman should know that he is on the wrong track when he tries to adduce evidence from the public lending right because it applies only to living authors, who form quite a small amount of the book stocks of libraries. The hon. Gentleman gets only a partial view of the pattern of loans.

Mr. Walden

The hon. Gentleman raises his most valid point so far, which is not saying a lot. What he says is true because we do not pay dead authors. If we did, Shakespeare would be in a higher class. It is obvious that we have had an important complement of knowledge through the information, which must be put together with other information, about which books by non-20th century authors people borrow. I put those figures together.

Mr. Rupert Allason (Torbay)

I caution my hon. Friend not to rely on public lending right figures. They relate not only to living authors, but to authors living in the United Kingdom.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. This is all very interesting, but it does not have a great deal to do with the regulations. I hope that the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Walden) will return to the regulations.

Mr. Walden

I obey your instructions, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I accept the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Mr. Allason) as another limiting factor, but I insist that the use that is made of libraries should be studied seriously and not talked about as a form of cultural romanticism, as it so often is by the Opposition Front Bench.

The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central made the particular point that my right hon. Friend the Minister would no doubt use the regulations as an excuse to turn the financial screw on libraries when they ask for more money. First, it is slightly ironic that the representative of the Labour party, which complains so much about centralising power, should complain when my right hon. Friend decentralises power within reason through the regulations and allows local authorities to charge what they want.

Secondly, I see no difficulty in saying to local authorities, "Yes, there is a limit on money. Yes, we attach importance to what you do in providing books, but you could charge for videos and such like because we know that that is what life is about. We make an exception of books, for the obvious reason that it is rather more difficult to get people to read books. If we were to charge for them, fewer people might read them. By and large—all the arguments are open to a bit of exception—that does not apply to videos or other services. We give you liberty to charge for the other services." If at the back of my right hon. Friend's mind is the thought that some of the income from those services could be used to support book-lending facilities or to extend the range of books, that is an entirely legitimate policy. I do not suggest for a moment that that is his thought, but it is mine.

The regulations could be said to put village libraries at risk, as the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central has suggested, through privatisation. If that were to happen, village libraries would collapse because the clientele is too small and the libraries would not be viable. Two things need to be said about that. First, such libraries will not be privatised, because I see nothing in my right hon. Friend's statement to imply that they will. In fact, my right hon. Friend explicitly said the opposite. Secondly, earlier I said that I support all village libraries in my constituency. However, I do not support them if no one is reading their books. Let us be realistic. I have examples in my constituency where I have found it impossible to support a village library because no one has borrowed books from it. What am I supposed to do? I do not want to get into one of those cultural, romantic stews. Therefore, I say that I am sorry, but that if people start borrowing the books, I shall defend their library to the death.

Mr. Fisher

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman supports his village libraries, but will he tell them that they will be particularly hit by the regulations with the removal of the maximum limit for reservations? By definition, a village library tends to have a small stock. The whole basis of our public library system has involved inter-library loans and the advance reservation of books. Because of the removal of the maximum charge for reservations, the hon. Gentleman's constituents who live in rural communities will be subject to a potentially unlimited charge for reservations. They will be penalised simply because they happen to live in an area with a small library that has a small stock.

Mr. Walden

I believe that my right hon. Friend is giving scope to local authorities to charge if they wish— they are at liberty to do so. If my local authority raises reservation charges to the point where my village libraries are stifled, I shall kick up a fuss.

I assume that the figures that the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central quoted about reservations apply to videos as well as to books——

Mr. Fisher

There is no dispute about that.

Mr. Walden

I dispute that in the sense that I make a distinction based on the "el" word—elitist—one should not mention because there would be gasps of horror on both sides of the Chamber. I make a distinction that conforms with reality.

I do not believe that what the hon. Gentleman has envisaged will happen, because life is not like that and because I have a sensible county council and I do not believe that the regulations will have such an impact on books as the hon. Gentleman has implied. If they did have such an impact, I would make a fuss about it. I am a realist and if I discovered that my right hon. Friend had inadvertently got something wrong, I would not hesitate to draw it to his attention. However, I am so confident about his overall judgment that I doubt whether those circumstances would arise.

11.47 pm
Mr. Patrick Thompson (Norwich, North)

I am grateful for the chance to speak briefly in the debate. I want to talk not about the content of the regulations, but about the manner in which they have been presented to the House. I want to raise a serious and important point.

Those of us who wish to take part in such debates like to go to the Vote Office to obtain a copy of the draft statutory instrument and to study it briefly. Obviously we turn to the explanatory note and we expect it to explain clearly what the statutory instrument is about. The explanatory note to the regulations must be read many times to be understood.

When I first arrived in the House in 1983 I raised the issue of gobbledegook. I am sure that my right hon. Friend, who is the Minister responsible for the civil service, would be the first to agree that there has been a great improvement in getting rid of such gobbledegook in documents produced by his colleagues in the civil service.

I am afraid that there has been a slip in the rate of progress when it comes to the regulations. The explanatory note states that section 8(2) of the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964 empowers the Lord President of the Council … to make regulations authorising those library authorities to make charges for such library facilities made available by them as may be specified in the regulations and to make provision as regards charges by library authorities for library facilities, other than provision requiring the making of charges, as they think fit. I am sure that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, will agree that intelligent people can, in time and with sufficient research assistants, make sense of all that. However, that is not good enough. Those people in my right hon. Friend's Department with responsibility for writing such nonsense as an explanatory note should be sent back, as from the classroom, to rewrite it in clear language that can be understood by Members of Parliament who are too busy to waste hour after hour trying to understand the meaning of one paragraph.

I hope that I have made my point and that my right hon. Friend will discuss with his colleagues in the Ministry ways in which explanatory notes can be expressed clearly to the advantage of Members of Parliament and democracy.

11.50 pm
Mr. Rupert Allason (Torbay)

I declare an interest at the outset: I am an author.

I read the regulations with great dismay, despite the gobbledegook and my right hon. Friend's assurance that his intention was to clarify existing regulations and bring others up to date. My dismay is centred on the knowledge that the key to any free society has to be access to information. Any obstacle that is placed in the way of our citizens obtaining access to information has to be deplored. I do not want to over-egg the argument, but it is a characteristic of Soviet-style totalitarianism that either the contents of libraries or access to them is controlled. I am worried that my right hon. Friend is placing an obstacle in the way of people's access to library facilities.

My worry centres on the discretion that my right hon. Friend so enthusiastically offers to local authorities. We have had bitter experience in the past two years of what happens when local authorities are given the slightest discretion—particularly in relation to the community charge and the amount that they charge for second homes. I believe that only one local authority took the option to offer a zero rate for second homes and an overwhelming number of the authorities opted to charge double—the maximum allowed under the legislation. In the light of that, I hope that my right hon. Friend will think carefully before offering such discretion to local authorities.

I accept that there is a difference between library and information services. I would not advocate not allowing local authorities to charge commercial organisations. I am not saying that the authorities should abuse the service, but they should take advantage of it. I could quite understand if charges were introduced for commercial organisations, but I am bound to say—despite my interest in the subject—that to charge a citizen to enter a library and use its services causes me grave concern. The Government are clearly worried about the issue, otherwise they would not have imposed a three-line Whip on the measure as the time approaches midnight! When the House divides, I shall have to vote against the Government.

There is a great demand for libraries. In addition to the other libraries in Devon, there is a marvellous central library in Torquay. I pay tribute to the hard work done in those libraries, which cater for a large number of pensioners who live in my constituency, are interested in the past and wish to research various obscure details of history. It is unacceptable that pensioners should be charged for any service that they seek in the library.

I have the Royal National Institute for the Blind in my constituency, so a high proportion of the population is partially sighted. The services offered by the library to the partially sighted such as large-print books and the talking book service are extremely important. I would deplore any obstacle placed in the way of those individuals.

I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Minister will respond by saying that it is all a matter of discretion and local accountability and that in a democracy local authorities should be allowed to make their own decisions on priorities in their area. However, we have had a bitter experience with the community charge. I urge my right hon. Friend to take a page out of the Prime Minister's book and ensure that every library in the country has, not a citizens charter, but a library users charter, available to everyone who goes into the library so that users are aware of exactly what they can accept, what level of service they should receive, where the Government recommend an entirely free service and on which services my right hon. Friend thinks it appropriate to place a small charge—the emphasis being on small.

The Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher), made a great deal of the minimum, maximum or norm. But the reality is—he is perfectly right in this—that the so-called maximum will be the norm. My right hon. Friend the Minister must accept that. I hope that he will take the opportunity of incorporating into such a mini citizens charter the exact rights of library users.

There are so many sacred cows when local authorities are under intense financial pressure, but libraries are the key to a free society, and I urge my right hon. Friend the Minister, even at this late stage, to think again about the draft regulations. I hope that he will not introduce them. I am bound to tell him that I shall certainly vote against them. I urge the dozens of colleagues who have come to support me this evening to follow me through the Opposition Lobby.

11.57 pm
Mr. Renton

This has been an interesting short debate. Perhaps I may start by replying to the points just made by my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Mr. Allason) which, in some measure, take up points made by the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher), speaking from the Opposition Front Bench. Both my hon. Friend and the hon. Gentleman suffer from a profound misunderstanding. All that we are doing in the regulations is to clarify charges which in almost every case bar the charge for reservations already exist. Library authorities have welcomed that clarification. They welcome the removal of anomalies. We are introducing some small additional charging powers, but they do not apply to the basic provision of books for reading for anyone who lives in the area or to access for people to reference books in library premises. Those services are not being touched.

Essentially we are clarifying, removing anomalies and giving additional charging powers for such matters as the destruction of a book, for which there is no such charge at present. Does my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay really think it reasonable that there should not be a charge? If someone wishes to reserve a book and there is a cost to the library for doing so, is not it reasonable to give library authorities the right or discretion to charge—which they do not have to use?

I tell my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay and the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central, who, despite his claim that he knew absolutely everything about the library service, seems astonishingly ignorant in some respects, that what we were doing tonight is, by and large, welcomed by the library authorities. It is not welcomed by the Library Association—I regret that—but the association, in this and other matters, has taken a different view from that of FOLACL, the other professional body. The Library Association is wrong, in some respects misled, I think, by its chief executive. The Library Association makes two absurd comments in the literature it circulated to all Members, and I shall come to them in a moment.

I regret that my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay has decided to vote against the regulations. That sits ill with his own position as an author and lover of books. The regulations are designed to help and improve the library service. If I had not given this discretion to local authorities, I would have been criticised by hon. Members on both sides of the House for that, too. My hon. Friend should not forget that library authorities have an overriding statutory duty to provide an efficient and comprehensix service. If they charged so excessively that they ceased to provide such a service, there would be every ground for complaint to me as the Minister with overall responsibility for seeing that local authorities carry out their duties. I would then investigate the complaints, as I am already doing in Derbyshire and Tyneside, where customers—readers—have complained that the authorities are abusing their powers. My hon. Friend's opposition to the regulations is wholly misguided and it does not show his usual perceptiveness in these issues.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Walden) for his support and intelligent comments. As for his arrière pensée, perhaps the income from these charges will help library authorities to increase their activities in other areas. The Green Paper brought in by my non-Machiavellian predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Shoreham (Sir R. Luce), suggested that by widening charges for services and increasing existing charges to economic levels public libraries' income could double from about £22 million to £50 million a year—not a large figure. The latest CIPFA figures for 1989–90 show that income stands at just over £34 million. They also show that income is increasing in real terms, and it increased by at least 20 per cent. over the previous year.

Generally, the publication of the Green Paper on library financing in 1988 made library authorities think much more about increasing income in the very ways suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham. It acted as a catalyst to make them think about what additional services they could provide on top of the basic service of providing books. They began to think about, for instance, charging for damaged books.

I accept the strictures of my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Mr. Thompson) on the sentence in the explanatory note that he read out. It certainly could have been better drafted. I hope that he will have found the rest of the regulations crystal clear without the help of the explanatory note.

I must reserve most of my comments for the astonishing speech by the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central. He has an amazing capacity to work himself into a lather about issues that do not justify it. Perhaps I misheard him, but I thought that he said that he would not oppose the regulations; that he supported them, in fact. Yet he seemed to find nothing right with them. He said that we were ruining the public library service by introducing them; that I intended to use them as a means of substituting the community charge on local authorities' areas; and so on. It added up to one of the most absurd speeches that I have ever heard.

The regulations bring light where there is darkness or confusion. That was the aim, and in many respects we have followed the wish of the library authorities.

Mr. Fisher

The Minister correctly recalls my opening remarks. I said that, in so far as the regulations clarify matters that were obscure in the 1964 Act, we welcomed them. The Library Association and librarians will welcome them for that reason. That is the main aim of the regulations, and the Opposition do not oppose that. I congratulate the Government on that clarification. However, as I tried to explain to the Minister, the Government were wrong to remove from the draft regulations the maximum limit on reservation charges. There are almost 7 million reservations a year, and the Minister has opened up a whole area of charging that will prove extremely onerous for public library users. We oppose that rather than the clarification.

Mr. Renton

As I said before, I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman. I thought that in his intervention he would make a new point rather than repeat himself. I say again that FOLACL strongly supported the removal of the maximum sum of £1.50. The federation thought that if it were introduced it would become the norm or a minimum and it considered that it was much better to allow library authorities to decide the matter for themselves.

I spoke about two points in the briefing issued by the Library Association, which opposes the regulations. First, it says that it was obscure of me not to put in a maximum charge of £1.50 but rather to leave the amount to be decided by local authorities. That is a strange view. I do not think that leaving out a figure can in any sense be called obscure.

Secondly, I am again accused of obscurity because in the definition of a computer I did not agree with the association that the word "electronic" should be inserted to give a definition of a device for storing and processing information. The association suggested that on that definition a card catalogue could be the same as a computer. I have never heard of a card catalogue that had an ability to process information. As has been explained to the association, the word "electronic" was not inserted because in the current local authorities definition it is not used in the definition of a computer. We thought it better to stick to the present definition to avoid confusion.

The Government have a very good record on the public library service. Some 480 million books were issued last year. That is slightly lower than the figure for the previous year. However, the number of sound video tapes is increasing all the time. In 1989–90, the figure was 20 million, which is a great increase on previous years. At least 29 new, extended or converted library buildings were opened in 1990. Those figures come for the Public Library Journal. Conservatives are wholly committed to the success of the public library service. We realise its great importance, not only for the education of our children, but for the continuing education of adults. In that spirit, and in the belief that the regulations will help library authorities to develop the basic library service, I commend them to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the draft Library Charges (England and Wales) Regulations 1991, which were laid before this House on 22nd July, in the last Session of Parliament, be approved.