HC Deb 26 February 2001 vol 363 cc566-8
4. Mr. Paul Goggins (Wythenshawe and Sale, East)

If he will make a statement on the level of investment in new books made by local authority library services in each of the past four years. [149388]

The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Mr. Chris Smith)

Library authority expenditure on books was £74.2 million in 1997–98, £75 million in 1998–99 and £79 million in 1999–2000 a 5.3 per cent. increase on the previous year. For 2000–01, it is estimated that expenditure on books will have risen to £79.5 million—a further 0.6 per cent. increase on last year.

Mr. Goggins

I assure my right. hon. Friend that those improvements are reflected in my constituency, where Trafford and Manchester councils are investing in new books and new facilities. What action is he taking to encourage libraries to work with schools and colleges to extend the joy of reading those new books to the 7 million or so adults in our country who still cannot read any better than an average 11-year-old?

Mr. Smith

Libraries are, of course, important for the whole population, including young people and students. The use of libraries is extremely prevalent; about 10 million people visit their public libraries every fortnight. It is important that libraries, which are primarily run by local authorities, invest properly in their facilities and in their book funds, and make them available to their populations. Trafford is a good example of a council that has done precisely that. For the first time ever, we have instituted library standards, which we published on 12 February. Those standards put in place targets for library authorities in matters such as opening hours, library location and book purchasing, which will ensure that library facilities become increasingly available in the next three years.

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire)

The Secretary of State talks in rosy terms, as he always does, about the increase in spending on libraries and in reading and so on under the Labour Government. That would be wonderful if it were the case for all local authorities. Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that many authorities such as Wiltshire county council—the sixth worst funded county in England—cannot afford social services, or to educate children or mend the roads? I fear that under those conditions, it certainly cannot afford to increase spending on libraries. If the right hon. Gentleman is so keen to increase spending on libraries, will he make a specific grant available to increase the number of new books in counties such as Wiltshire?

Mr. Smith

The hon. Gentleman implies that libraries should take second place to other council services. I remind him that libraries are a statutory service under the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964 and that they are vital to the education of the whole population. Local authorities ought to pay attention to library services. The environmental, protective and cultural services block of the revenue support grant settlement, which my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister recently put in place, has been increased by 4.3 per cent.

Mrs. Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton)

Is my right hon. Friend prepared to intervene if local authorities propose drastic closures, as is the case in Plymouth, where Trelawny library, Combe Dean library, Lipson community college library and the mobile library service all face cuts under cur irresponsible Conservative council, which nevertheless finds it possible to axe parking charges for people who do not even live in our city?

Mr. Smith

I am indeed prepared to intervene where unwarranted cuts are threatened in library services, and we have done so on several occasions. I am pleased to say that when we have intervened in recent years, library authorities have either withdrawn or cancelled plans to close libraries and reduce services. That seems to be prevalent in Tory authorities. For example, Tory-controlled Kensington and Chelsea council recently proposed to close Notting Hill library; one of only six libraries in the entire borough. There was a lot of local unhappiness and we were contacted by many local residents. As a result of my chief library adviser"s contacting the authority on two occasions, I am pleased to say that even the Tory party in Kensington and Chelsea has withdrawn its proposals.