HC Deb 26 July 1999 vol 336 cc4-5
3. Dr. Howard Stoate (Dartford)

What assessment he has made of the investment in new books made in each of the past three years by library authorities; and if he will make a statement. [91341]

The Minister for the Arts (Mr. Alan Howarth)

Data collected by the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy show that library expenditure in England on books and pamphlets was £83.4 million in 1996–97, £74.5 million in 1997–98 and an estimated £77.5 million in 1998–99. The level of book expenditure will be covered in the new national library standards that we aim to introduce in 2000–01.

Dr. Stoate

Does my hon. Friend agree that that rather unsatisfactory result has been produced by the previous Government's failure to invest properly in libraries and education in general? What do the Government intend to do to rectify the situation, and what will their proposals mean to my constituents in Dartford?

Mr. Howarth

Sadly, my hon. Friend is right about the very destructive squeeze on libraries expenditure which we inherited. Local authorities have had their best settlement for seven years. They also have a statutory duty to provide a comprehensive and efficient service, and my right hon. Friend and I are determined that they should do so. Hitherto, a comprehensive and efficient service was never defined, but we are requiring local authorities to produce annual library plans and we are in discussion with the Library Association and the Local Government Association to develop public libraries standards, which will include a benchmark for new book purchasing.

Mr. Christopher Fraser (Mid-Dorset and North Poole)

Government expenditure under this Administration is less than under the previous Administration. In 1995–96 it was £171 million; in 1999–2000 it is £90 million. How can the Minister justify that?

Mr. Howarth

I do not seek to justify the plans that we were driven to adopt from the previous Administration.

Mr. Derek Wyatt (Sittingbourne and Sheppey)

In the 20th century, our use of leisure and workplace time has changed and many of us need access to libraries on Saturdays and Sundays. What discussions has my hon. Friend had with the Library Association and the Local Government Association about achieving fuller opening on Saturday afternoons and all-day opening on Sundays?

Mr. Howarth

The vision that my hon. Friend holds out is very attractive, and that is one of the matters we are considering in our discussions with the Library Association about standards for libraries; but he will be well aware that opening libraries for the hours that we would both wish would be costly.