HC Deb 10 March 2003 vol 401 cc9-11
6. Mr. Anthony D. Wright (Great Yarmouth)

What plans she has to encourage local authorities to maintain and develop rural libraries. [101459]

The Minister for Sport (Mr. Richard Caborn)

The Department recently published a 10-year vision for England's public libraries called "Framework for the Future". It is relevant to rural and urban settings, and draws on examples of good practice in country areas. We are working with Resource: The Council for Museums, Archives and Libraries and with library authorities to see how they might best deliver that vision. Twenty copies of "Framework for the Future" were sent to each of the 149 authorities in England.

Mr. Wright

I thank my right hon. Friend for that response and I am pleased to hear that we have that 10-year vision, which is completely different from that of the Tories on Norfolk county council, who recently announced the closure of one of my village libraries—Bradwell—for the princely sum of savings in the first year of £1,700. At the same meeting, they agreed to increase the hospitality budget from £28,000 to £88,000. The comment "booze instead of books" certainly springs to mind.

Will my right hon. Friend join me in condemning the Conservatives for that miserly cut and the problems that it will create for the residents of the Bradwell parish council area? Will he also send the Government's support to the parish council, the Women's Institute, the mothers' union and county councillors, which are waging a campaign to keep that facility open and endeavouring to ensure that the library in the village of Bradwell has a future?

Mr. Caborn

My officials inform me that the letter of the law under the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964 has not been broken, but perhaps the spirit of the law has been. "Booze instead of books" has a ring about it. I hope that all local authorities will take the "Framework for the Future" document seriously. It tries to reposition libraries in the 21st century as major centres of resource to help communities to develop. It does not view libraries in the traditional sense, as they were a decade or more ago. We are trying to upgrade libraries so that they can be a major resource for all communities, whether in rural or urban areas.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome)

Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that those of us who live in country areas have us much interest in and entitlement to a public library service as anyone else? Will he ensure that the extra unit costs of providing small branch libraries and a peripatetic service are recognised in local government settlements? Will he also ensure that small public libraries have broadband, so that they can offer the modern range of services that we want them to provide? At the moment, broadband is not available in my constituency.

Mr. Caborn

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would acknowledge that tremendous investment has been made in the infrastructure of libraries. I believe that 85 per cent. now have access to broadband, and another 13 per cent. have access to the internet in one form or another. Few libraries do not have such access, although I acknowledge the hon. Gentleman's point. There is a cost factor for rural libraries, but we will look into that. The speed at which we have been able to invest in the library structure to bring it up to date with e-development is considerable by any standards.

Lawrie Quinn (Scarborough and Whitby)

My right hon. Friend has a great interest and expertise in the rural areas of Yorkshire, and he has just acknowledged the importance of broadband. Will he encourage a greater partnership with the regional development agencies around the country to ensure that there are links with the wider community and with business, so that they can make the most of the library service, which needs to be mobile in sparsely populated areas like mine, in the north York moors?

Mr. Caborn

My hon. Friend makes a good point. An investment of about £780 million is going into public libraries. The "Framework for the Future" document says that integration is necessary, and I believe that the RDAs should develop libraries in their areas to ensure that greater use can be made of them, especially by small and medium-sized businesses and for learning.

Mr. Malcolm Moss (North-East Cambridgeshire)

Since they came to power, the Government have systematically rigged the funding of local authorities to shift resources from the rural shire counties to Labour metropolitan areas. It is hardly surprising that rural libraries are all too often the first casualties of Government-induced pressure on resources. Given that rural library closures are on the increase, is the Minister content for his Department to preside over this diminishing but none the less priceless resource?

Mr. Caborn

That is not the case. The present Administration have now brought about fairness in local government financing. We inherited an unfair system of distribution, and now there is fairness. [Laughter.] Conservative Members are disagreeing with that. There has been investment in libraries, and the constructive dialogue with the library service has produced the 10-year vision in "Framework for the Future". That has been accepted by all of them as the right way forward; it will bring the library service into the 21st century. If the authorities to which my hon. Friend the Member for Great Yarmouth (Mr. Wright) referred put booze before books, that is a matter for them, and the electorate will make their own decision.