HC Deb 02 February 1999 vol 324 cc835-42

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Hanson.]

10.26 pm
Mr. Derek Wyatt (Sittingbourne and Sheppey)

This is, surprisingly, the first Adjournment debate on libraries, according to the Library. That is what we think, at least, and I will claim it until told otherwise. In the light of the Evening Standard report last week, claiming that up to 20 public libraries are to close in London alone, it is a timely debate, especially as we are celebrating the national year of reading.

Going to the library is, after visiting the pub, eating out, driving for pleasure and eating at a fast-food chain, the fifth most popular pastime in the United Kingdom. There are four types of library in use in the United Kingdom. There are our six great deposit libraries, led by the British library, which are the envy of the world; the academic libraries in our universities, hospitals and colleges, which are seriously underfunded; school libraries, on which I shall dwell at length shortly; and our public libraries, which are under threat everywhere.

Ms Linda Perham (Ilford, North)

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. As he says, it is our first debate on libraries. I want to make a contribution as chair of the new all-party group on libraries and as a professionally qualified librarian. I welcome the Government's declared commitment—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)

Order. I understand that the hon. Lady wants to contribute to the debate at a later stage. She cannot make a speech within the hon. Gentleman's speech. It will be more appropriate if she makes a short contribution when he has completed his speech.

Mr. Wyatt

There are thousands of libraries, such as the wonderful cricket library at Lord's, the library at the British Film Institute, where I dwelt at length when I was writing my book "Wisecracks from the Movies", and the one at Windsor castle.

Libraries come under two Departments, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and the Department for Education and Employment. In the joined-up government that we are constantly being told is happening, I look forward to hearing my hon. Friend the Minister's response on what initiatives he has undertaken with my hon. Friend the Minister for School Standards regarding school libraries.

The British library is one of the six legal deposit libraries in the United Kingdom and Ireland, dating back to an Act of 1911. The others are Oxford, Cambridge and the national libraries of Scotland, Wales and Ireland. The Irish national library is in Dublin, but there is no national library of Northern Ireland, which is surely an oversight. Perhaps in the new mood that exists there, the deposit library at Trinity college, Dublin, could open a digital version at Queen's university, Belfast, or simply plug itself into an on-line British library.

The British library needs to be redefined for the 21st century. It needs to be the focus for the whole library system, not only in the United Kingdom but in our embassies and high commissions and, most important, in our British Council offices. It needs a private finance initiative to finance the digital library of the future, so that we can all visit it from the comfort of our homes. It also needs to be the lead player in the national grid for learning and the university for industry. Why are we trying to reinvent the wheel? The British library should be the centre of our library policy, and an all-enveloping technology broad-band hub should be built at St. Pancras that lays the architecture down to link every academic library and, as important, every school and every public library.

As for our school libraries, it is amazing that no regulations exist that lay down how much money schools should spend on library books per student. Nor is there a law that lays down how large a given school library should be. At least, that is the case in England and Wales. In Northern Ireland, the recommendation is that school libraries should have spaces of 40 sq m. How generous! In the United Kingdom, however, there is no ring-fence regulation that says that schools should spend a minimum amount on books. That is absurd.?

I have visited 33 of the 44 school libraries in my constituency and most of the schools have no full-time librarians. Worse, two libraries are in corridors and, worse still, some of the books are 20 or 30 years old. Other schools in my constituency, thanks to parent-teacher support, have superb libraries. As libraries go on line, it will be the well-off primary and secondary schools that have suites of 60 computers and ISDN lines. The policy is exclusive, not inclusive, and it is unfair. In the information technology world, we talk of the information rich and the information poor, and some of my schools have been information poor for most of this century.

Figures released recently show that provision for school library services fell in the United Kingdom from £2.17 per pupil in 1994–95 to £1.98 in 1996–97, with more than 30 per cent. of secondary schools no longer having a full or part-time librarian. Ofsted should be charged with providing a report on the state of information-rich and information-poor schools, especially with regard to the libraries, library books, computers, internet costs and online support.

In public libraries, the situation is critical. I shall give a quick overview of what is happening in the United Kingdom today. Barnsley plans to close 23 branch libraries. Surrey is reported to be closing 16 branch libraries and Haringey may close two or three. Kingston upon Thames intends to cut the schools library service. Islington may cut its library service so that only five open at the weekends. However, 10 years ago, more than 200 public libraries opened for 60 hours or more. Today, the number of libraries open for 60 hours a week has declined by 49 per cent. There are none open for 60 hours a week in Wales or Northern Ireland and only 43 in Scotland. The number open for 45 to 60 hours has declined by 19 per cent.

A Sheffield university questionnaire found that 48 per cent. of the local authorities which replied had closed libraries in the past 10 years. Some 74 per cent. had reduced opening hours and 69 per cent. had closed for financial reasons. We should compare those figures with the Government's statement of their intention to build a public library network connecting all 4,000 public, but not school, libraries by 2002. That simply does not add up to a coherent, joined-up strategy for libraries for the 21st century and I await my hon. Friend the Minister's response with much interest. I wish to persuade my hon. Friend the Minister to ensure that public libraries open all day on Saturday and Sunday, so that those children from information-poor homes can have access to books and the internet.

I am passionate about libraries because it was through them that I came to understand the value of literature. Later, I was a publishing director at William Heinemann. As a councillor in Haringey, I sat on the leisure committee and learned what a rip-off the buying procedures for library books were. That issue needs attention. if amazon.com or amazon.co.uk can produce a website with 1 million or 2 million books to buy, why can we not produce the same service off the back of the technology to buy library and school books?

As we face the 21st century, I wish to ask my hon. Friend the Minister a favour. Will he lean on the new opportunities fund officials to pre-select the information-poor areas in our communities to make a pre-emptive strike for the homework club funds and to insist that they are placed in local schools or public libraries?

Finally, I shall quote from Frances Hendrix, who said: If the public libraries in the UK do not act as the bridge between the new electronic information world and the language and history of print, then no one will, and we risk losing our culture heritage and education.

10.35 pm
Ms Linda Perham (Ilford, North)

I want to make just a brief contribution. As I said in my intervention, I am a professionally qualified librarian and I chair the recently formed all-party group on libraries. I welcome the Government's declared commitment to libraries as the cornerstones of their communities and their aim to deliver better education services and to improve reading and literacy standards. I especially welcome the plans embodied in the document "New Library: The People's Network".

However, like my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Mr. Wyatt), I am worried about the continuing problems with libraries. Local authorities are reducing book funds and opening hours, and even closing libraries. I join my hon. Friend in urging the Minister to be alert to the anxiety about that among members of the public and of the profession.

10.36 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Mr. Alan Howarth)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Mr. Wyatt) on securing this debate. His commitment to reading, to books and to the part that books can play in the life of our society is well known in the House. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, North (Ms Perham), who spoke from her background of professional knowledge. I welcome very much holding a debate in the House on the extremely important subject of libraries.

The Government attach great importance to libraries. They are valued institutions in their own right, and they contribute to the Government's objectives in many ways.

They underpin education by providing essential support for children, students and lifelong learners. They enhance public access to the world's store of knowledge and information. They combat social exclusion by helping to bridge the gap between those who can afford access to information and those who cannot. Increasingly, they have a role to play in the modernisation and delivery of public services.

Above all, our libraries are highly respected and cherished by the public, who use them a great deal. I can think of few other public services to which nearly 60 per cent. of the population subscribe. More than 423 million book issues are made each year in England—nearly nine for every man, woman and child. It is that bond with individual users and communities that represents the sector's major strength, and long may it remain.

Libraries fulfil many roles in delivering economic and social benefits to communities. They are broadly based organisations, delivering a multi-faceted range of services to their members.

The Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964 requires local authorities in England to provide comprehensive and efficient library services and makes it the duty of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to ensure that they do so.

Mr. Bob Russell (Colchester)

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Howarth

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will allow me to carry on.

My Department takes that duty very seriously, but the key players in the delivery of public library services, as the legislation makes clear, are the local authorities that are responsible for running them. Decisions about the delivery of the library service on the ground, including decisions about opening hours, are for local authorities to make, rather than for the Government. However, I urge authorities to have proper regard to their statutory responsibilities.

The Government's role is to provide a positive policy framework, within which the service can operate and thrive at the local level. Through the use of annual library plans, we will encourage library authorities to focus attention on various areas of their services, such as current Government initiatives, to ensure that our policy is understood and acted on nationally. We are also, of course, looking to raise standards across the board through the establishment of a new museums, libraries and archives council, and improved arrangements for library service co-ordination and representation at a regional level.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey referred to libraries in schools. He will appreciate that they are not my direct responsibility, but I take a close interest in education matters and I can assure him that I work closely with my colleagues at the Department for Education and Employment. The ministerial teams of that Department and mine are developing a shared agenda, as my hon. Friend would wish us to do. My Department played a role in ensuring that school library services were properly taken account of in the DFEE's "Fair funding" proposals.

Libraries have a major role to play in delivering educational objectives, particularly for life-long learning. They provide ready and free access to the nation's storehouse of knowledge and information, and they allow people of all ages the opportunity to maximise their educational opportunities. Libraries are particularly effective in providing access to learning for those who may be less comfortable in a more traditional or formal learning setting.

Mr. Russell

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Howarth

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me for not doing so, but I have too little time.

Libraries allow learners to set the pace and direction of their own learning. I have referred before to our public libraries as street-corner universities. To ensure that they play a central role in delivering educational services, the Government announced in April 1998 the target of connecting all public libraries to the national grid for learning by 2002 via the public library information technology network.

The development of that IT network is a key Government priority. The new opportunities fund, which was mentioned by my hon. Friend, is providing £20 million for information and communicating technology training of library staff, and £50 million for creating digitised content. Our document, "New Links for the Lottery", published on 27 November 1998 proposes further funding to the network via a new opportunities fund stream to support lifelong learning. We are considering responses to our consultation on those proposals.

My hon. Friend suggested that school libraries were left out of our plans for the network. I assure him that that is not the case. The public libraries network will, as he said, link to the national grid for learning by 2002, producing a network that will link schools—whose libraries will be central—with public libraries and other learning institutions. School librarians will be trained to support the use of the network as part of the new opportunities fund's provision for training teachers and library staff.

My hon. Friend suggested that the British library should be the centre of the network. The British library is a centre of excellence, which provides a specialised service to scholars and information seekers from around the world. That is a vital service, but it is a different service from that envisaged for the public library network. The British library will have a role to play in making available its special collections and national treasures. However, it would not be right to charge it with overseeing the provision of the network.

The Government accept that strategic leadership will be needed to ensure that the libraries sector achieves its full potential for involvement in the learning society, and to direct the creation of the public library network. That is why our recent departmental review proposed the creation of a new body—the museums, libraries and archives council—to provide strategic leadership for the whole sector. Meanwhile, we are strengthening the role of the Library and Information Commission, allowing the British library to focus better on activities more central to its role as the national library. The commission has, as my hon. Friend will know, been instrumental in suggesting how the public library network should be designed and implemented, and it will continue to play the central strategic role that my hon. Friend envisaged for the British library.

My hon. Friend mentioned the British library's digital library project. The British library is continuing to develop plans to achieve a digital capability, and I agree that that will be important in future. The private finance initiative is not the only possible route for that. The British library is exploring alternative solutions since negotiations for a public-private finance project did not produce an acceptable solution.

My hon. Friend mentioned the importance of the legal deposit libraries. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announced on 17 December our plans for the way forward on legal deposits in the light of our consideration of the report of the independent working group chaired by Sir Anthony Kenny. A copy of that report has been placed in the Library.

Because of concerns about the absence from our national published archive of non-print publications, which are continuing to increase in number and importance, my right hon. Friend has commissioned a detailed voluntary code of practice for the deposit of electronic publications. However, we have accepted the report's conclusion that a statutory system will be needed in the longer term. As my right hon. Friend announced, we intend to move towards legislation on the basis of a minimum burden on publishers once some necessary additional work on definitions and regulatory impact has been carried out.

My hon. Friend mentioned the lack of a legal deposit library in Northern Ireland and asked about a digital version. My right hon. Friend concluded in January 1998, as a result of responses to the 1997 consultation on legal deposit, that there was almost no support for a new deposit library in Northern Ireland. Therefore, he specifically asked Sir Anthony Kenny's working group to examine the scope for improved access in Northern Ireland to deposited material through IT networking. The report's conclusion was that, if an acceptable method of networking deposited electronic material could be agreed, an access point should be located in Northern Ireland. My right hon. Friend has therefore asked Sir Anthony Kenny to examine the scope for the voluntary code to include a basis for the secure networking of CD-ROMs between the deposit libraries in a way that will satisfy copyright holders.

Important first steps towards the library network and an enhanced role for libraries in providing learning opportunities are already being taken. Libraries are extending the educational services that they offer and developing their appeal to those whose educational opportunities may otherwise be limited. Some 200 library learning centres have already been developed, offering services such as information on training and educational opportunities, including careers guidance; provision of basic skills training; courses aimed at women returners; NVQ training for those wanting to enhance skills; and business skills training aimed at small businesses.

Many open learning centres have well-established links with local colleges and are able to support distance learning. Most have a wide range of informing and communicating technology—ICT—equipment and software, with staff trained to support open learning. In addition, libraries are also offering after-school clubs, homework centres, IT resource centres, local history websites, specialised facilities for disabled library users, and outreach to housebound users via the mobile library service and laptop PCs is also being offered.

Libraries are also well placed to play a key role in another of the Government's initiatives to create a learning society in Britain: the university for industry. They are among the organisations taking part in pilot projects for the UFI through the European Adapt funding scheme. The traditional strengths of the library service in promoting reading and literacy have not been neglected, with many libraries participating in imaginative ways in the national year of reading.

Mr. Bob Russell

In the light of those wonderful pronouncements, will the Minister explain to the hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Mr. Wyatt), who introduced the debate, why there is a catalogue of library closures, reduced opening hours and so on? Perhaps he would also care to comment on the absence from this debate of any representatives of Her Majesty's official Opposition.

Mr. Howarth

To an extent, it is the season of rumours and alarmism. It is a period when local authorities are setting their budgets and there is anxiety about their capacity to sustain library services of the desired extent and quality. Those matters are clearly under active consideration in a number of libraries. I counsel the hon. Member for Colchester (Mr. Russell) not to rush to conclude that the rumours that we have heard are necessarily true or will prove to be well founded. We have provided a much better public expenditure settlement for local government than in previous years, and we can see no justification whatever for cutting library services in the present financial climate.

As I reminded the House, the 1964 Act places a statutory obligation on local authorities to provide a comprehensive and efficient library service. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State requires library authorities to produce annual library plans and we take that responsibility seriously. We shall closely examine what happens: where cuts are rumoured, my officials will inquire of the library authorities concerned what precisely is going on and we shall not be easily satisfied. We shall rigorously require local authorities to justify alterations in strategy that appear to involve reductions in services.

We recognise that there might be cases of library authorities finding it necessary to rationalise and restructure their services, because we look to them to provide a cost-effective service, which means that the pattern of library services cannot be frozen. Nevertheless, the statutory duty on local authorities remains and we attach great importance to it. I know that local authorities overwhelmingly want to honour their obligation to provide proper library services. I assure the hon. Gentleman that that is also our desire and that we shall act in that respect with great energy, thoroughness and care. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for following my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey in drawing attention to the anxieties that have been expressed. We have all seen the press stories, but I counsel hon. Members not to rush to premature judgment or premature pessimism.

Public libraries play a crucial role in promoting educational achievement, enhancing public access to knowledge and information, combating social exclusion and modernising the delivery of Government and local authority services. The Government have already committed an additional £80 million to develop library services. We are also considering the possibility of further funding through the lottery to encourage the development of computer technology in libraries. I trust that local authorities will remember that more than 60 per cent. of the adult population are members of public libraries and that libraries are among the most popular, widely used and valued local authority resources.

One of my roles is to ensure that local authorities continue to meet their statutory obligation to provide a comprehensive and efficient service and I shall continue to pursue that role vigorously. The Government's requirement on local authorities to prepare library plans is a key part of the process. However, I hope that most authorities will have the vision to provide and develop services and that they will want to go beyond the legal minimum in doing so.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at eight minutes to Eleven o'clock.