HL Deb 11 December 1991 vol 533 cc835-64

9.25 p.m.

Lord Annan rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they are satisfied with the progress being made in constructing and equipping the new British Library; and whether the present managerial and financial structures are rational.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I am asking the Unstarred Question in my name on the Order Paper to illuminate the unhappy vicissitudes suffered by the British Library, and I do so for two reasons. The first is that whenever a new chapter of mismanagement opens it is always the British Library that is blamed, whereas in fact, as I shall show, the Office of Arts and Libraries, the Department of the Environment and the Treasury are responsible for these delays and frustrations. Secondly, I do so for a personal reason. When I was a trustee of the British Museum I was chairman of the committee that supervised the departments of printed books and of manuscripts. Control of those departments passed to the British Library when it was established in 1973, but I have continued to take an interest in the library because I remember the atrocious conditions in which the staff, who served the public so well, worked in the British Museum. There are some ignoramuses who consider the new library to be a monument to the vanity of a few pampered scholars. They forget how important it is to scientists and engineers and they forget the staff working in cubby holes and in passages with antiquated equipment.

The staff have been waiting for a new library since 1951. It was to have been opposite the British Museum in Bloomsbury and the decision to go ahead was taken in 1964. In 1966 the borough of Camden suddenly objected and in October 1967, without any consideration of an alternative site, the Labour Government told the trustees that the scheme was cancelled. Their decision evoked a philippic from the chairman of the trustees, Lord Radcliffe, of a savagery that I have never heard equalled in your Lordships' House, so biting was his indignation at the contempt and double-dealing with which Whitehall had treated the British Museum.

But to continue the story, the committee, set up mercifully under the noble Lord, Lord Dainton, recommended that the best site was still in Bloomsbury but it offered alternatives. In 1977, 25 years after the original decision to build was taken, outline proposals for the St. Pancras site were approved. But so dire was the nation's financial plight that still no funds were provided or commitment made.

In 1979 the Conservative Government were even more determined to cut public expenditure so the funds for the project were reduced from £22.5 million to £9.5 million. The first stage was sub-divided and for the next 10 years the construction limped on. The first phase is now expected to be completed in 1993 and the whole project completed in 1996. But let no one suppose that the project when completed will resemble the original plan in the 1960s. The newspaper archives will still languish in Colindale; there will still be the same need for out-housing. Only 73 more seats for readers will be provided over the present 1,103. Originally it was planned to provide 3,440 reader seats.

I could not, even were I to try, emulate Lord Radcliffe tonight; nor do I wish to do so. Against the voices of many eminent men and women, recent Ministers for the Arts have stood firm and upheld the decision to erect a new library. Only the other day, so I understand, Mr. Renton gave the library an additional grant to meet the expenses of the transition from Bloomsbury to St. Pancras; not as much as the library needs of course, but still it was something. The present chairman of the board, Mr. Michael Saunders Watson, tells me that some of the managerial inefficiencies to which I shall refer are now being remedied, but there still seems to me to be an unsound management structure.

One might think that the client, the British Library, would be a party to all major decisions. In fact, for years the British Library was frozen out of the managerial structure. The client is held to be the Office of Arts and Libraries. A senior official of the OAL is called the project sponsor. That term does not suggest to me a firm managerial hand; it suggests to me a godfather, one who makes promises at the font for another which, alas, are very rarely kept when the infant grows up. He has to negotiate with the Property Services Agency (the PSA). That is a division in the Department of the Environment. Does it manage? Not at all. It delegates management in turn to Laing's which it employs to organise the day-to-day work on the site and to chase sub-contractors.

In May of this year the Public Accounts Committee drew attention to some of the managerial failings in its publication called A New Building for the British Library. For four years the OAL did not really regard itself as being really responsible for the control of the building. Weaknesses experienced in 1986 and again in 1987 were not remedied. The steering committee on which the British Library was represented was set up in 1978, met once in 1983 and did not meet again until 1986. The PSA failed to monitor the rise in London building costs which was caused by the boom in office building in the 1980s.

When the time came for the handover of the completed work to the British Library, the board of the British Library found time and again that quality had been sacrificed so that the PSA could say that the building was on time; in other words, it was on time but the quality had been cut. In fact, no adequate quality check existed. Nor could the British Library fathom what exactly was going on, so ambiguous was the terminology and so complex the descriptions of the procedures that the PSA was following.

I daresay that the worst of all failures occurred when the book stacks were handed over. The stacks were built by a Dutch firm. The lowest tender was produced by a British firm. But it was never told why its bid was rejected—presumably on the grounds of quality and of lower efficiency. The miserable Dutch firm has proved to be monumentally inefficient. The British Library, like the board, identified 20 major faults in design, manufacture and installation. The PSA never thought to load some sample book stacks with books. When that was done on handover, the stacks would not operate as planned. But by that time hundreds of stacks had been delivered. All of them had to be returned for modification.

I am not complaining that the contract went to a Dutch firm. I regret to say that at Stansted Airport contract after contract for fittings and finishes went to our Continental competitors because the architect thought that in design, price or item British firms could not match their rivals. But British firms should be treated with a modicum of courtesy. The British firm has tendered to provide seats for the auditorium. A year has passed and it has not heard a word. The firm provided a specimen chair so that the architect and the PSA could judge it. However, because it had other designs in mind, it also said that if the specimen was not the kind of chair required it would be very happy to present other designs. But, again, the firm has not heard a word. It is disgraceful.

I understand that since the Dutch disaster the steering committee has devised a plan to prevent similar failures in the future. I am bound to say that the history of the project puts a very heavy questionmark over the competence of the PSA. The Secretary of State for the Environment made his name in 1980 for being the most vigorous of all Cabinet Ministers in tackling overmanning and inefficiency in his department. I wonder whether the Minister could ask his right honourable friend the Secretary of State, now that he is once again at the helm, to divert his gaze from Docklands and turn it onto the PSA and either make it efficient or liquidate it.

I do not forget the difficulties under which the PSA operates. The agency can do excellent work. Indeed, those who attended the party held for Black Rod the other day heard him say what a marvellous job it had done with the extensive refurbishment in the House of Lords. It was completed within a week of the new Session opening. Then, of course, when one is working for the House of Lords, as a certain lady said, "It would, wouldn't it?" Again, the PSA redecorated the Barry Rooms in the National Gallery. It did it very well indeed, but there of course the money came from private sources, and the agency worked under the eagle eye of the noble Lord, Lord Rothschild.

Cannot the Department of the Environment learn a lesson from the construction of the Sainsbury Wing at the National Gallery? The paymaster for that wing was Mr. Simon Sainsbury. His counterpart at the British Library is the OAL. Mr. Sainsbury was advised by Mr. Stuart Lipton, a man who could judge the efficiency of the contractors and subcontractors employed. Does the PSA ever consult such experts in the private sector? Every day, Mr. Sainsbury was on the site, exhorting, checking, chivvying, exploding, demanding explanations for delays, controlling the architect (no light assignment), and imposing his will upon the project.

Every month, the noble Lord, Lord Rothschild, chairman of the National Gallery trustees, met Mr. Sainsbury and the contractors to see that the gallery was getting what it had asked for. Everyone there knew on what date various areas were to be handed over. The British Library still does not have a confirmed set of handover dates. The noble Viscount will say immediately that there is one essential difference between the Sainsbury Wing and the British Library: those who built the Sainsbury Wing knew how much money they could spend, planned accordingly and were accountable only to themselves.

The British Library has been bedevilled by the eternal stop-go of our nation's economy. So I ask tonight: is it not time that the Treasury devised some new safeguards to enable projects of that magnitude to be completed more efficiently? I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Beloff, is not in his place tonight. He conducts a merciless vendetta against the Treasury, but I am bound to admit that I have more sympathy for the Treasury's plight than he has.

Day after day, at Question Time in this House, the Government are belaboured by noble Lords, indignant that more public money is not being spent on this or that pet cause. One might think that the word "inflation" had never been heard. The Treasury well knows that a few, but still an appreciable number, of those pleas will succeed. What can it do but demand that Ministers cut projects that it identifies as less urgent or very costly? Yet in so doing it forces economies upon construction, and as a result contractors cut corners and lower quality. Architects are told to replan their schemes, and the expense in the end is greater than the savings expected at the moment of crisis.

Should not the Treasury designate a few great public projects to be exempt from stop-go finance? Cannot the Treasury set up a small committee containing expert financiers to advise it on that problem? I am afraid that the Treasury gives the impression of being rather contemptuous of outside advice.

I must also allude to one piece of scandalous Treasury folly: having forced the OAL to abandon the original scheme for the library, 4.5 acres of the original site will remain vacant. The Treasury has ruled that that area must be sold. Can folly go further? If the Treasury had taken that view of the Hampton site, which remained vacant for 40 years, the Sainsbury Wing would never have been built. It is inevitable that in the next century the library will need this land. It is not as though the Treasury will earn much money from the sale—commercial development on it is prohibited. In days long gone by, expenditure of museums and galleries was under the control of such enlightened Treasury knights as Sir Dennis Procter and Sir Edward Playfair, former members of King's College, Cambridge. Cannot Mr. Nicholas Monek—another King's man in the Treasury—turn his attention to this matter and stop what I call, by malignant design, farthing-pinching policy? This is a problem which we must face.

I have raised these questions because the British Library is one of the greatest treasures in our cultural life. It is not only the British Library that is at stake in these matters, so is the British Museum. The British Museum is desperate to use the space that the library will vacate. Everyone here knows the Mummy Room. Hundreds of thousands of children, year in, year out, make Joey's acquaintance—that touching naked mummy that lies in the case. They gain their first inkling of antiquity and mortality. The Mummy Room has remained unchanged since I was a child.

The Tutankhamun Exhibition gave the public an idea of how the mummies in the British Museum could be displayed. The physical separation of the British Museum and the British Library is perhaps the most important single event for the public and for scholars in this decade.

It is for these reasons that I ask tonight: does the Minister really think that the financial decisions now and in the past are rational? Is he satisfied that the management of this great project is in good hands?

9.42 p.m.

Lord Quinton

My Lords, I am sure that we are all grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Annan, for raising the Question that we are considering tonight. I am particularly grateful because it gives me an occasion to relieve frustrations generated in a five-year period as chairman of the British Library board when it was not proper for me to speak in too vocal a manner about the way in which the project was being handled by its overlords.

Of course, the manner in which decisions are taken about the continuing process of construction is an extraordinary arrangement, with the Treasury pulling the levers in the middle distance. The Office of Arts and Libraries—not a strong element in the ministerial structure—endeavours to respond to these. In all my time, the attitude of the Office of Arts and Libraries to the library was satisfactory, agreeable, supportive and helpful. It was what was going on in the middle distance that was so disastrous.

At any rate, going from the Office of Arts and Libraries there was the Property Services Agency and beyond them Laing. Laing were not constructing the building, they were putting out contracts to other people—a matter of the most unspeakable complexity. Perhaps that is inevitable. It was frequently said—with how much truth I do not know—that this was the largest public building project in Europe since the war. It certainly was very large, almost a Pentagon-sized undertaking. It was rather unprecedented from a managerial view and it is not surprising that the existing structures, which are perfectly capable of putting an annex on to a hospital, would find it beyond their powers to cope effectively with bringing into existence such a noble and comprehensive conception. Certainly, they have been found wanting in this regard. It is a pity that something was not done much earlier to rationalise the proceedings.

I agree with the noble Lord that behind this Byzantine managerial apparatus is something more fundamental: the role of the Treasury in the whole operation. Many of the matters to which the noble Lord, Lord Annan, referred occurred before my time. In my time, the Treasury's operations were somewhat attenuated. They took the form of successive persons appointed to the rank of chief secretary lopping £10 million off the budget.

The background—the human, dramatic background—is perfectly obvious. A new chief secretary comes in and he wishes to make his mark. He gets a bloody nose at health, education and defence and so he turns on the British Library at the bottom end of government spending.

Noble Lords will be aware of the story of W.W. Jacobs concerning a Thames lighter or tug where rather aggressive human relationships obtained among members of the crew. The captain bullied the mate; the mate bullied the deck-hand; the deck-hand bullied the cook; the cook bullied the cabin boy and the cabin boy, as a last resort, took it out on the cat. The British Library is the cat of English public institutions.

The noble Lord, Lord Annan, described the manner in which the library's activities were seriously interfered with by these arbitrary, undiscussed and merely fiat-like withdrawals of previously offered funding.

Such actions cause more damage and incur more expense than is actually saved. They are ritual, magical acts like not stepping on the lines between the paving stones. They are comparatively small sums relative to the total cost involved in the project and on the whole they have the effect of immensely reducing function. Anyone committed to or emotionally or professionally involved with the British Library cannot but feel embarrassed at the moment that the number of seats was to have been greatly increased for readers as part of an idea of the library greatly enlarging its constituency. All that has been abandoned.

It is rather as though, confronted with a £9,000 car, one decided to cut the expense by taking out the back seats. The car will still run—the wheels are there. It is definitely a car, there is an engine and a petrol tank. It is just no longer useful as a family vehicle. That has rather been the effect of these trivial, marginal cuts.

The whole matter stands in rather curious contrast with what goes on in France. In outbursts of enormous, Napoleonic enthusiasm, President Mitterrand has committed £725 million to the production of his Bibliotheque de France. It is intended—and I have no doubt that this intention will be fulfilled—that it should be brought into operation in 1995 before the completion date of the already painfully mutilated British Library scheme.

One understands to some extent why the Government have not tried to deal with this matter in one fell swoop. Instead they have dragged it out from the first approval in 1978, or thereabouts. It will be completed in 1996. That is a period of nearly 20 years. I am not sure why it could not have been achieved in a shorter time as that delay enormously augments the total cost of the scheme.

No doubt the Treasury is committed to the idea that one must pay for things out of revenue, that the revenue must be distributed among the various claimants and that claimants must put up with rations. I believe that is a serious mistake. The budget of the claimant, although big in human terms—we are talking about a figure of about £450 million—still represents only about 2 per cent. of the national budget of the NHS or 2.5 per cent. of the budget for defence or education.

Behind the Treasury's extraordinary treatment of the library there lies a more spiritual and fundamental reasoning. The Treasury has a grudging and reluctant attitude towards the library. That contrasts with the attitude shown towards the French project which enjoys enormous governmental enthusiasm. I am not claiming that the French project is not wildly misguided in parts and neither am I claiming that it has not undergone some extraordinary mutations before arriving at its present state. The idea of leaving all books printed before 1945 in the Rue de Richelieu and of keeping all books that date from the use of the atom bomb in the new library is rather a strange one. Fashionable women, attired in ragged clothes, waited on President Mitterrand and caused him to change his mind about that folly. Nevertheless, the whole project animated public excitement and there is the feeling that the leaders of the community are genuinely enthusiastic about it.

French is no longer a lingua franca, despite appearances. English is the most important language in the world at the present time. In a sense the British Library is the focal heart of the English language and literature, expressed in English, is our greatest contribution to art of any description. It is our most important cultural asset and is therefore a proper topic for enthusiasm.

To take up one further point made by the noble Lord, Lord Annan, the distinction, the detachment and disengagement of the library from the museum is important. It is slightly absurd that the library should have been a department of the museum. I hope that what I say will not be understood as implying any hostility to the museum, but the plain and brutal fact is that the library is, in two respects, five times as large as the museum—in terms of the number of its employees and the size of its turnover. To make the library a department of the museum, which because of complicated accidents of inheritances from Soane, Cotton and the like, it was for a very long time, until 1973, is an absurdity. It is as if the Royal Navy was a department of the Royal Marines, to use an analogy which I hope will appeal to the present chairman of the British Library board. Excellent as the Royal Marines are, their activities are of a different nature and character from those of the Royal Navy and are carried out by a very much smaller number of people.

I think it fair to say that the British Museum is primarily for contemplation, but also, and very importantly, for study. The British Library is primarily an institution for study which has contemplative elements—the glorious royal library collection and wonderful individual objects such as Magna Carta, the Codex Sinaiticus and so on. The two point in different directions and are of very different sizes.

One might say that that is ridiculous and just fussing about names. It is not quite that. Perhaps I may refer briefly to the Shaw benefaction. A substantial part of the bequest of George Bernard Shaw was left to the British Museum. The bulk of that has been appropriated by the British Museum as currently constituted. A little of it is occasionally shuffled across the counter as a douceur to the British Library, but in terms of the interests and intentions of the late George Bernard Shaw it was obvious that that money was intended for the library and not for improving the wonderful collection of Assyrian and Egyptian objects and the like for which the British Museum is rightly renowned.

The real point is that even though the seating has not increased greatly there will be a little more seating. The transformation of the conditions of the staff, which was a priority, was very much needed and will at least take place, even in the truncated library. Under the present working arrangements the curators—highly scholarly, experienced, indispensable and irreplaceable people—look as if they are in a modest town hall late in 1939 engaged in the improvised distribution of gas masks, ration books and identity cards, separated from one another by cardboard partitions. It is shameful that a great cultural institution should relegate highly-skilled people doing demanding work to operate in partially insulated corridors. That is what happens.

The final point which I should like to emphasise and to which the noble Lord referred, is that it is vital to retain the northern part of the site. It is not now of any particular commercial value even though it might have been two or three years ago. It was part of the original idea that the library should be put there, and the noble Lord, Lord Annan, referred to the newspaper library. There are many other possibilities closely involved with and germane to the library which could be sited there.

Even in its decayed state the project is remarkable. People say that it is a failure because all of the books will not be there. Under the present arrangements fewer than 40 per cent. of the books—part of the research library facility—are kept in and around Bloomsbury; 60 per cent. are outhoused. In the new library the proportion which will be outhoused compared with that which will be contained in the library will be completely different.

The fact that the scheme is not perfect does not mean that it is not an enormous improvement. I hope that nothing will be done to prevent the further improvement which is still possible if a rather more rational and enthusiastic attitude is adopted towards that great institution.

9.54 p.m.

Lord Dainton

My Lords, it is beyond my powers to try to emulate in any way the oratory of the two preceding speakers. I am most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Annan, not only for arranging this debate, but for laying out so clearly to your Lordships exactly what has been the history of the project. I hope that your Lordships will pardon me if I speak with some feeling on the issue of libraries because I have many personal debts to pay to them. Had it not been for a reference library in my native city, it would not have been possible for me to find the way to my ultimate career and to find there books which determined my decision to go to Oxford, if I possibly could, to read chemistry, and which provided me with the intellectual equipment that enabled me to gain the financial help which had made possible that visit to, and ultimate residence in, Oxford. I therefore owe libraries a great debt.

Oddly enough, though a scientist, my life has been bound up with libraries almost ever since. When I was in my late 40s, I began to see what everyone now talks about; namely, the explosion of information and the exponential growth of scientific publications. At that time I was chosen to be chairman of a body called the Advisory Council on Scientific and Technical Information. I learnt that it was possible that some amelioration of that condition—of difficulty of access, of finding material and of knowing what it was that you wanted—would be possible by means of making use of advanced computer technology.

That served to help the scientist, but my most educative experience of all was my 15 months as chairman of the National Libraries Committee, the outcome of which, as your Lordships have heard, was the bringing into a coherent, rational relationship of a vast range of libraries and services scattered over more than 15 sites in London and one in Yorkshire. The recommendations of that National Libraries Committee were almost all accepted and incorporated in the 1972 Act and the British Library opened its doors on 1st April 1973.

During our deliberations on the National Libraries Committee, we became acutely aware of the urgent need for a new building to bring all the materials together. Although that matter did not lie within our terms of reference, we studied the matter carefully and concluded without any difficulty that the nation could not afford not to bring the collections together under one roof. We therefore exceeded our brief and urged that a purpose-built library should be designed and constructed as soon as possible.

That was almost 25 years ago. Nine years later, I was even closer to the problems as chairman of the British Library board. I became even more acutely aware of the responsibility of maintaining in a fit state for use what I think your Lordships may not realise is the richness and variety of that library. There are over 17 million volumes; the mind boggles. I have forgotten the precise figure, but there are certainly more than 24 million patents. There are millions of stamps. If you want to listen, you can listen for 18 years, if you listen for 8 hours a day, to the National Sound Archive. It is not a process out of which one could come with one's mind in a sound condition. There are maps, music, manuscripts, often of great rarity and beauty, and great collections such as the India Office Library and Records.

Moreover, as a chemist, I knew perhaps better than most that to retard the all-too-evident deterioration of that material all that stock must be brought together and kept in a pollutant-free atmosphere at constant temperature and constant relative humidity. I well remember the afternoon—I think it was 16th September 1980—when I went to discuss the matter with the then Prime Minister. She quite rightly posed certain alternative supposed solutions, including miniaturisation of the collection, which were and still are less cost and time-effective than building a new building. She at once grasped the force of the arguments resting on the inexorable laws of chemistry.

Naturally, I was gratified when the reasoned arguments were accepted and the building was authorised. A building admirably designed for the library's uses was drawn up by Colin St. John Wilson and Partners. What then followed has been described in some detail by the noble Lord, Lord Annan. It is indeed a sorry tale which I shall not relate because, as he remarked, it is fully documented in the report of the Public Accounts Committee issued a mere six months ago.

Moreover, the Government have decided that no more building shall be authorised and, as we heard, some 4.5 acres of land to the north of the site should be sold. If that were to happen the library would be only half the size originally intended and inevitably some collections will suffer and deteriorate. I cannot emphasise too strongly that it would lose for ever land which is certain to be needed by the end of the century. If that land is not kept, the nation will pay an opportunity cost far higher than that of keeping and using it for the British Library.

The noble Lord, Lord Annan, gave some account of what happened during construction. In my judgment there are just two factors which have contributed to the unsatisfactory situation. The first is that there have been too many people involved in the decision-making and some important persons left out of it. It is a classic case of too many cooks. It has resulted in poor information flow, hesitancy in decisions, procrastination and indeed all those components which impede wise planning and the smooth, uninterrupted and economical flow of work.

Secondly, and just as, if not more, important, is the fact that the library, which after all is the ultimate client to occupy and use the building, has had no place in the PSA's organisational diagram for managing the contracts. In that structure any changes of the client's brief are the responsibility of an official of the Office of Arts and Libraries—the sponsoring department—called the project director.

I shall spare noble Lords further details. I merely comment in complete confidence that one day the printed account of the history of this construction project will find its rightful place on the shelves of the British Library. It will form part of Social Sciences, where one will see a business school textbook entitled Case Studies of How Not To Manage.

But we must look to the future. Noble Lords have heard all the facts and, as I said earlier, they are available in the PAC's report. Therefore I conclude with two questions to the Government and hope for affirmative answers. The first question is this: in order to avoid recurrence from now on of the difficulties which have been experienced, will the Government take a firm hand and ensure that the management and decision procedures are reformed in such a way that the customer, the British Library, has its rightful place in any new structure? Secondly, will the Government give an undertaking that the land to the north of the existing building works, whatever its use may be in any interim, will be available for the continued development of the British Library, which is not only absolutely necessary but inevitable?

10.3 p.m.

Lord Thomas of Swynnerton

My Lords, I too should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Annan, for introducing this important subject. I should like to congratulate him on two counts: first, on his brilliant polemic. He said that he did not think it was the moment to emulate Lord Radcliffe. I think that he did so very effectively. The second reason it is an appropriate moment for this matter to be discussed is that by a tragic accident the noble Lord introduced the matter on an occasion and at a time when the British Library has its work interrupted by the first large-scale industrial action that it has experienced.

I believe that during the course of this week matters have progressed favourably. However, the work of the library has been thwarted over the past week or so. It is appropriate that this issue should be discussed at this time. No doubt that industrial action, whatever the obvious causes, reflects a deeper malaise which must have something to do with the unhappy story which the noble Lord, Lord Annan, told us.

I intervene in the debate for three reasons. First, I have used the British Library for well over 30 years as my main resource for research. I began to use it in the days of Sir Angus Wilson's supervision of the reading room. I continue to use it. I used it last week when Mrs. Nina Evans held that position. In passing I wish to express my gratitude for all the superintendents of the reading room, library assistants and others who have made my work much easier than it would otherwise have been.

Secondly, not entirely through my own will, I became the organiser of a protest group in the 1980s which was against the construction of the new British Library. I shall not say, "I told you so," having listened to the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Annan, because when we put our name to our letter of protest we did not envisage that such catastrophic confusion would arise. In seeking to preserve the present structure of division of labour between the British Museum and the British Library, our motive was that we prized the Round Reading Room of the British Museum. We believed the possibilities for contemplation and reflection in that room were extremely important. We did not believe that it was possible, much less desirable, to concentrate all the activities of the British Library in one building. We considered that some compromise should be achieved between the museum and the library. In some respects we were correct, as I believe even the noble Lord, Lord Dainton—who spoke of the virtues of concentration—would agree. Since then there has been no real effort to concentrate resources. I cite one example. There has been no attempt at any stage to bring in the British Library's collection of newspapers. They are sited a long distance away in Colindale. For those who have to read newspapers, such a distance is a serious impediment to scholarship.

Thirdly, I had the privilege of serving on a committee chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins of Hillhead. It was set up on the invitation of a former Minister for the Arts, Sir Richard Luce, to make suggestions on how the reading room of the British Museum or the British Library should be used in future. The committee included three Members of your Lordships' House, other scholars, an architect and an architectural journalist. The committee made two suggestions. The first was that great efforts should be made under the auspices of the Arts Minister to try to find another library which could fit satisfactorily into that great room. The second suggestion was that it might be possible for the British Library to continue to use the Round Reading Room instead of asking it to build a proposed new humanities reading room. We saw the confusion which that might cause and we recognised the desire of the Library and the Museum to get out, so to speak, of each other's way. However, we all thought that it was worthwhile paying that price if we could continue to have that great reading room as part of the Library.

I know that the noble Lords, Lord Dainton and Lord Annan, and others believe those views to be romantic and sentimental and, therefore, foolish. Nevertheless, they are shared by a large number of scholars and writers of this country. They are shared also by a new group which has kindly sent me its recent report—the British Library Regular Readers' Group. That group would like to see a continuing association between Bloomsbury, the Museum, and St. Pancras, the Library. After all, the years when it was thought desirable to concentrate everything in one building now seem rather unfashionable years. That seems to be an unfashionable point of view.

I have three further points which I wish to make. First, I wish to remind your Lordships of the purpose of the British Library. I only mention that because sometimes in the press we see suggestions that one of the functions of the Library should be to stage exhibitions, hold concerts or to do things other than its main purpose: to provide books for readers, to act as a library of last resort for scholars or for interested persons. That is the Library's main purpose and it is one which the British Library shares with other great libraries throughout the world; for example, the Library of Congress and the Bibliothéque Nationale and others on the European Continent.

I agree strongly with the noble Lords, Lord Dainton and Lord Annan, and my noble friend Lord Quinton when they said that it would be a grave error if the Government continued to seek to persuade the British Library to sell off the land available on the northern part of the St. Pancras site. If the Treasury continues to insist upon that, it is showing a lack of interest in the future development of the Library, making it impossible for it to contemplate expansion of holdings or readers in the future. I agree with noble Lords who have spoken on this matter that it should be looked upon as a serious test of the Government's intentions. If they do not abandon their effort to persuade the Library to sell, we must conclude that they are making an extremely philistine decision.

The third point which I want to make is much the same as the point on which my noble friend Lord Quinton concluded; namely, to remind your Lordships that the British Library—and I do not mind conceding this—wherever it is sited, is a jewel in the nation's cultural life and must continue to be able to shine. It seems to me that one difficulty in recent years is that so much money has been spent on the building that there has not been enough money available for the maintenance of more humdrum, regular services—and they are not so humdrum. For example, when one speaks to anyone involved with the British Library one hears complaints about the cutting of the acquisition or accession budget.

In an article in the British Library staff newsletter, Focus —which does not explain the whole problem —David Paisey says: the German section in Bloomsbury has not had any funds for the purchase of new German monographs across the entire range of the humanities for twelve months, nor shall we have any in the foreseeable future. Apart from times of war, the Library has never before allowed such a lapse since regular acquisitions funding began in the early nineteenth century, which is why our foreign collections are so outstanding, and so outstandingly well used". That has been a regrettable side of recent expenditure in the British Library and cannot be allowed to go on if we are to continue to look on the British Library as the jewel we wish it to be.

My second point is that bibliographical advice services, although admirable, are small indeed in comparison with a great library such as the Library of Congress. Thirdly, the hours of opening of the British Library are pitiful in comparison with other libraries. It opens for a maximum of 60 hours a week in comparison with the Library of Congress which opens for 74. That may appear to be an unimportant matter to your Lordships, but most noble Lords, if no one else, will realise that a great deal of work is done by historians, scholars and others after the hour of 5 o'clock.

There are other weaknesses in the present funding system of the British Library which should be carefully looked at. And they must be attended to if we are to continue to think of this great institution in the way so eloquently expressed by noble Lords who have already spoken, wherever it is sited.

10.17 p.m.

Lord Birkett

My Lords, I, too, cannot rekindle the great blaze of indignation which swept through your Lordships' House in the first two speeches of the debate, but I can congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Annan, on raising the matter in the first place and join with him and every other speaker in the debate so far in saying that it is unthinkable that the four-and-a-half acre site to the north of the present library should be sold off. The library can be usefully and profitably put to so many good uses. However, I want to concentrate briefly on only one; that is, the National Sound Archive.

Everybody recognises that at its present site in Exhibition Road its premises are inadequate. It is vital that it is rehoused, and in a way commensurate with the importance of sound in this age. This is the age of sound. Young people of today rely more upon sound than upon the written word. Your Lordships may find that a cause for regret, but it is true. I do not mean only those teenagers who can be seen throughout the land stunned by the volume of what they hear over their headphones. I mean sound used in the most imaginative and scientific way—all the forms of sound known to us.

Sound is an evocative thing. I am sometimes reminded of that intelligent and imaginative child who, when asked whether she preferred television or the radio, said, "The radio, because the pictures are so much better". She was right. Sound has a future commensurate with that of the printed word. Who would have thought 50 years ago that there would be enormous sales of gramophone records containing the sound of steam engines—dozens of them, differentiating one from another. An exceedingly imaginative sound recordist named Peter Handford made a series of best selling records based on that. It may very well be that his sounds remain when the engines themselves have rusted away beyond repair.

Who would have thought that some time ago the complete works of Shakespeare would be put on record by Argo about which the noble Lord, Lord Annan, knows very well because he was concerned with some of it at the time. There may well be people of this generation who will have heard the complete works of Shakespeare without ever reading them. They will have read all the novels of Dickens through their ears and not through their eyes. Once again, your Lordships may consider that a regrettable state of affairs although I have to say that when novels are read by Dame Judi Dench or Sir Michael Hordern, it is not such a bad thing after all: it can be quite exciting.

There was a time when the pirates who used to go to opera houses with small contraptions and make pirated recordings were busily pursued and condemned because they were breaking every known law of contract and copyright, as indeed they were. But those very people who were hounded out of the opera houses are now being eagerly sought in order that their recordings may go into the archive because they have become historic. I am not suggesting that that is any argument for piracy, which is the bane of the recording industry.

Nevertheless, the emphasis on and the influence of sound in our lives is hugely important. I cannot believe that in an age when discography is becoming as important as bibliography that we should neglect sound. It needs premises as spacious, well-equipped and forward looking as that provided for books. Because there are thousands of years of history attached to our literature we should not think that there are not thousands of years of history about to be attached to the sounds of our civilisation. I believe that the National Sound Archive is vitally important. For that reason alone as well as many others, I echo all the previous speakers in saying that it is simply unthinkable that the site to the north should be given away.

10.23 p.m.

Lord Jenkin of Roding

My Lords, I feel that I have wandered into a debate which is somewhat beyond my class, as it were. The learned speeches that we have heard from noble Lords in all parts of the House testify to an experience of the library and of all libraries which 1 simply cannot claim to have. My justification for speaking is that as the Secretary of State for the Environment I suppose I bear some share of the responsibility for the debacle which the noble Lord, Lord Annan, and my noble friend Lord Quinton described with such eloquence.

All I say about that is that on the couple of occasions during my brief tenure of that office when I was involved directly with decisions about the library, it was with my noble friend Lord Gowrie who was then Minister for the Arts. Looking back on that I realise precisely what was wrong: neither of us was in charge. I was supposed to be in charge of the PSA and he was the sponsoring Minister for the British Library Board. As we sat around the table with our advisers, both in my department and on one memorable occasion on the building site in the Euston Road, the truth was that neither of us had any feeling that we were in charge. So far as I was concerned, it was his budget and I was there as the Minister for the PSA helping to achieve the objectives.

I do not believe that I am misinterpreting my noble friend's view, but I believe that he saw me there as the man who was going to provide his library. The ghost at the feast was the non-present Treasury Minister. The real question was whether the money was going to continue to be forthcoming to embark on what we were then considering to be the next phase.

In fact, the phases had been split up into segments so small as to be almost meaningless in terms of the actual provision of library facilities. I have seen the analysis by the Public Accounts Committee. With the help of Commander Saunders-Watson, I looked at what the plan was and what it is now. It is better now than it has been for a number of years. The structure has improved as a result of the PAC report. However, when one comes back to it, it was a failure of ministerial control. It was not clear who was responsible for what at ministerial level; or, if it was supposed to be clear, nobody ever made it clear to me.

There were periodic visits to the Prime Minister in terms of complete desperation. It depended upon the eloquence of the delegation and the current state of the Prime Minister's digestion (though that would be unfair to my right honourable friend, because I think she is quite extraordinarily tough) and how she felt about things, whether or not permission was given to go ahead with the next phase.

One has to say that the way in which governments set out to manage these very major functions leaves an enormous amount to be desired. As one who played a part in it I can only feel something of a sense of shame. I hope that lessons will be learnt. I am told that as a result of the PAC there is now a file in the Office of Arts and Libraries called "Lessons Learnt". That is a good thing. But it now needs to be put firmly into practice if we are going to go ahead on a better basis than hitherto.

I too was going to say something about the National Sound Archives, but the noble Lord, Lord Birkett, has said it all with such enormous eloquence and fun that I do not want to add anything, except to say two things. First, it is clear that the space in Exhibition Road is already too small. The facilities will have to be moved and new ones provided. Secondly, with all the facilities available, how can one ever imagine people doing important research on, say, elements of music with the manuscripts in one place and the sound archives in another? Surely to goodness they must be brought together.

That brings me to the only other point that I should like to make—and every noble Lord who has spoken has mentioned it. I say to my noble friend on the Front Bench and through him to his right honourable colleagues in the departments concerned, but principally his right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, that they must abandon the idea of selling the four and a half acres. I know why they want to sell them. I have been a Treasury Minister. It is not the proceeds of the sale of the land; I may have thought a couple of years ago that that may have been worth while. But as the noble Lord, Lord Annan, said, the land is actually worth much less. Camden Council has extremely stringent planning requirements. If the land is not going to be used for the library, then it may only be used for residential purposes. It will have no commercial value. That has clearly been ruled out on planning grounds and would be subject to appeal if an application were made.

But with facilities like the sound archives which have to be brought onto the site and the fact that we shall have only 73 more readers' places in the library as planned than there have been on the Bloomsbury site, surely to abandon that four and a half acres now would not, as my noble friend Lord Thomas said, be so much an act of philistinism; it would be a most catastrophic act of shortsighted financial management. The four and a half acre site was originally bought as a single site. Nine acres were wanted but the vendor said it was either all or nothing, so they bought the 12. In fact nine and a half acres were what they wanted. It is going to be cut off at eight—rather like half a liner. There is something akin to naval architecture about the architecture of the library. I am not sure. I am going to wait until it is finished before casting a view on it. It is very difficult to imagine it when it is only half finished. But if it stops where it is even after Phase 2, and they have only just started digging out the foundations, it is still going to be like three-quarters of a liner and it will not look right. It will not have the facilities and it will not be able to bring onto the site all those things which there ought to be.

I look for as firm an undertaking as my noble friend on the Front Bench can give that he will draw the attention of his right honourable friends to the unanimous view of those who have spoken in the debate that this sale must be abandoned. Of course it will be used for the moment—the contractors need it. I acknowledge fully that my right honourable friend the Minister for the Arts has asked the British Library for an analysis of what might go on the site. At the moment, however, the position is still as was stated by his predecessor, Sir Richard Luce, that as soon as the contractors are off the land will be sold. That simply must not be allowed to happen. I hope that the message will sound loud and clear in the relevant departments. It would be the most appalling piece of short-sighted management. Please, it must not happen.

10.30 p.m.

Lord Armstrong of Ilminster

My Lords, it is a long and sorry tale and I do not propose to go over all the ground that has been so eloquently set out by the noble; Lords, Lord Annan and Lord Quinton. The lessons are surely three: first, the great importance in any major project of this kind of the most thorough advance planning so that one can avoid constant changes in specification as the project proceeds; secondly, the need for a project manager with a clear brief, proper responsibility to act on behalf of the ultimate user, if he is not a representative of that user, and sufficient authority to exercise that responsibility effectively. The third lesson involves money; the difficulty of not knowing whether money would be available, how much money would be available and in what time-scale. The result has been a project which falls short of the hopes and ambitions of those who dreamt of it and first launched it, which has certainly taken much longer to complete than it need have done and has cost a great deal more than it should have done.

The noble Lords, Lord Annan and Lord Quinton, have had a splendid time attacking the ultimate villain of the peace, the Treasury. I feel a little sorry for the old Treasury, perhaps because I served in it for 20 years, including some time in a division which controlled one part of public expenditure. It was not the arts. I was not sufficiently sound on the subject to be let loose on the arts.

I was attracted by the suggestion of the noble Lord, Lord Annan, that certain major projects should be exempt from the changes and chances of public expenditure control and that the British Library should be one such project. But can one say that a project should be totally exempt from control, however it may proceed, whatever may be the overruns of costs? That is a very difficult judgment to make. If the price of that were that some other important and desirable project in another field had to be put off, I can see that noble Lords would be rising in this place to protest most vigorously. So I am not sure that that suggestion would work out, though I find it attractive. At any rate this burden of the British Library has hung like an albatross round the necks of successive Ministers for the Arts and it has swallowed up funds which could otherwise have been available for much needed major works and maintenance at national museums and galleries.

One problem to which a number of noble Lords have drawn attention is that the Property Services Agency is, as its name implies and has been in this case, an agent and not a principal. I had a vivid demonstration of that when I worked in the Cabinet Office. By the back door of the office, through which come and go the people who carry the papers around to circulate them among the departments, there was an overflow pipe in the wall. It was constantly trickling and dripping water which formed a puddle directly outside. Of course, the puddle was unsightly at all times and dangerous on days such as this when it would freeze over. I asked the office services people in the Cabinet Office to refer the matter to the PSA with a view to getting the matter put right. There was a long delay—a delay not of days or weeks but of months while nothing appeared to be happening.

Eventually the office services people came to me and said that the PSA very much regretted that it was unable to do anything because the source of the water that was overflowing through the pipe could not be traced. I could see that desperate action was required. Therefore, I prepared and wrote a short but strongly worded letter to the director of the PSA drawing attention to the matter and the very long time taken to deal with it. I suggested that if the agency could not find the source of the water, it should put something under the pipe to catch the drips and run the water off into a drain so that it would not collect outside the back door of the Cabinet Office. I was at some pains to ensure that this was effective so I headed the letter, "Cabinet Office Leak". That ensured that it received very wide circulation around Whitehall. Sure enough, within a week, a little cup had been put under the overflow pipe which directed the water into a drain and we had no more problems.

From direct experience of the Victoria and Albert Museum I can speak of the benefits of untying from the PSA and of having our own works department. Admittedly, when we were untied two or three years ago, we discovered large arrears of maintenance which had accumulated over the years because the PSA was not funded to do everything that needed to be done. I am sure that the agency knew that it needed to be done; but it just did not have the funds to deal with it. However, now at the V&A we can decide for ourselves what should be our priorities for expenditure on buildings and maintenance within the funds of our grant. We can manage our own works programme, as a result of which projects we undertake as a general rule come in on time or within budget.

What is past so far as concerns the British Library is past. It is most important that we should look to the future. We have one of the greatest, if not the greatest, research libraries in the world. We have one of the biggest, of not the biggest, publicly funded civil projects in the world since the war. We must not fall short of the opportunity and challenge that face us. Judging by the recent annual report of the board of the British Library, I fear that there is a great danger that financial constraints will force economies which will affect the ability of the library to maintain its pre-eminence of standing and the quality of the service which it ought to continue to enjoy and provide.

There are two further aspects in the matter, both of which were well spoken to by previous speakers; therefore, I need refer to them only briefly. First, it is clearly vitally important to preserve the four-and-a-half acres of land at the back of the St. Pancras site for the library's future use, even if it is some years before development is possible, whether for the National Sound Archive or any other British Library use. Like the noble Lords, Lord Birkett and Lord Jenkin, I have a soft spot for the National Sound Archive, having been a governor many years ago of the British Institute of Recorded Sound, which was what the archive was called before it was taken under the wing of the British Library. It is a marvellous institution and deserves all the support that we can give it.

I do not believe that the noble Lord, Lord Birkett —if he will forgive me for saying so—should be too dismissive of those who like to enjoy their great 19th century novels by listening to them rather than reading them. Charles Dickens was the greatest public reader of his works there has ever been.

The second point that I should like to emphasise is one that was emphasised by the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Swynnerton: the Library must be sufficiently financed to enable it to maintain its pre-eminence as a library of international research and reference. Legal deposit is not enough. In a world of ever-increasing international communication, it is important that the Library should be provided with the funds necessary to acquire all the publications that it needs to enable it to maintain and develop its outstanding, and internationally renowned and valued, collections.

10.40 p.m.

Earl Russell

My Lords, I too should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Annan, for asking this timely Question. I should also like to express my admiration for the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin of Roding. It was a brave speech; it was an honest speech. Because it cleared up misunderstandings, I believe that it was a useful speech. Because it used past ministerial experience to clear up present misunderstandings, it was the type of speech that adds to the dignity of the House.

I speak as a regular reader at the British Library, and as a member-designate of the advisory board; but since I have yet to attend my first meeting, I do not believe that I can speak in that capacity. In this debate, as a change from yesterday, I speak not as a provider, but as a consumer. What is interesting is how often, as soon as one gets away from the adversarial model of industry—not that I am suggesting that that is the way it should be run—one finds that the providers and the consumers are speaking with a single voice, and that the villain of the piece is the Treasury.

I am on the whole a satisfied reader. I have received a great deal of service at the Library, and, like the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Swynnerton, I should like to express my gratitude for that. There are some things about the new plans which are especially welcome. On the subject of opening hours, upon which I have been saying for 30 years what the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Swynnerton, has just said, I had given up hope of anything ever happening. Now, I understand that we are to have much extended opening hours, not just for books but for manuscripts. Even more, we shall be able to read books and manuscripts in the same room. That will save me days. I should like to say how much that is appreciated.

There are, though, some matters of concern as well. I am worried, like other noble Lords who have spoken, about the small increase in the number of seats. The number of research scholars in other countries goes on increasing rapidly, even if for the moment it does not in this. It might again here. We also have a welcome change in that the age for readers is going down to 18, which means that undergraduates will be able to read at the Library. I agree with the phrase used by the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Swynnerton, that this is a library of last resort; so, were things not to be done about the ordinary university library in the University of London, one might find that the pressure on the British Library was becoming much more acute than had hitherto been envisaged.

Speaking on behalf of your petitioners, the students of King's College, I would say that a great many of them would be going to the British Library, because I should be sending them there myself for things which I would much rather be able to send them to the college library.

I shall mention also the foreign language acquisitions budget which the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Swynnerton, mentioned. Whenever I hear real discontent from my colleagues, that is usually the area in which it is concentrated. There is also the manuscripts acquisitions budget. The cost of manuscripts in recent years has inflated beyond imagination. If the British Library does not buy the manuscripts they will probably go to the States. People apply for grants to go and read them as they turn out to be vital. In the end, the Treasury spends a great deal more money than it would have done if it had bought the manuscripts in the first place. It is the classic false economy.

I entirely share the concern which has been expressed by every noble Lord who has spoken about the additional land to the north. 1 am concerned about outhousing. I had very much welcomed the idea that we might be able to do without outhousing for many years. That would have been a great gain and particularly vital to those who are able to go along for one day in the week when they are free from teaching. If one is told that the book will be there in three days, it is no use at all.

The same applies a fortiori to the large numbers of scholars who are able to come up one day a week, or even occasionally one day a month or one day a term, from the provinces. If the book comes in three days' time it might as well not be there at all.

There is also, I understand, concern about the need for space for a bindery. I will confirm, in my capacity as a reader, how necessary that is. A number of the 17th century pamphlets which I read regularly are not merely unbound, but in quite a fragile condition. If they are left for long like that, they will not continue to exist; they will fall apart. That would be a tragic waste of an irreplaceable resource.

Transporting goods in that condition to a bindery a long way away is not particularly good for their power of survival. Having a bindery on the spot is of immense value and it will also have an applied saving in terms of transport, which I fear will not become cheaper over the next few years.

Above all, when we say that this is a project which deserves proper finance, we should consider it in terms of investment. We should consider that it will go a long way towards covering its costs. However, no one ever notices the figures because they are put in a different place in the accounts. The British Library is an international centre, and I say that as a former American director of graduate studies. There were two graduate students in the department at Yale, married to each other: one a British historian, one a French historian. They always spent their summers working in London because the French collections at the British Library were a great deal better than the British collections at the French Library. The result was a large addition to Britain's balance of payments, but it showed in the accounts under tourism, which is one of our largest foreign currency earners. Scholarship accounts for a great deal of that and it never receives the credit it deserves.

It is not only a question of the balance of payments; foreign scholars in this country contribute a great deal of money to the Treasury. When I watch my seminar on a Monday evening gathering in a pub, and I watch good British beer going down American throats, I wonder how much that seminar is contributing to the Treasury, and how much it is offering towards covering its costs.

So when I say that the British Library is a national resource, I mean it in the cultural sense, the intellectual sense and in the sheer narrow cost sense as well. That sense should not be forgotten.

10.50 p m.

Baroness Birk

My Lords, I first thank the noble Lord, Lard Annan, for introducing this debate. It is a great pity that it is taking place at this time of night because that has meant many noble Lords who are interested in this subject have not been able to attend. I speak from the Labour Benches but noble Lords on all sides of the House have been in total agreement on this issue.

I first came into contact with the British Library in 1974 when I was a junior Minister at the Department of the Environment. Therefore I have a certain sympathy with the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin of Roding, a former Secretary of State at the department. At that time the Office of Arts and Libraries was not greatly involved in this matter. The concept for the library was and still is a magnificent one. I well remember discussing the alternative sites for the library with the architect. One possible site was Bloomsbury Square, but that raised conservation issues and would have involved demolishing some listed houses. The chosen site was in St. Pancras.

I was well aware that the longer the project was delayed, the greater the cost would be. I dealt with two Secretaries of State when I was involved in this matter. Many years later when we have still only completed part of the first phase, the cost of the project is astronomical. That is one cause of the present predicament.

The noble Lords, Lord Annan and Lord Quinton, have described the chequered history of the British Library. Inefficiency, incompetence, lack of proper management and disastrous quality control are all aspects of the project that are dealt with in the report of the Public Accounts Committee.

I now come to the matter of selling four-and-a-half acres of land. That represents a small sum in comparison with the total cost of this project. In any case that land cannot be used for anything except housing due to planning controls. It would be false economy to sell that land. It would make an excellent site for the bindery, which should be situated close to the library. It is important for conservation staff and the curators to be close together to facilitate communication between them.

Those responsible for the Library have done what they can to keep costs down. The Enwright Report made some recommendations on the unnecessary stocking of books including reprints. If the British Library were forced to charge for more of the services it provides, that could be detrimental to other activities that are vital to the library.

The reputation of the British Library and British librarians is very high, not only in this country but also abroad. It would be tragic if that were diminished, particularly as we go deeper into Europe. Our culture is an area in which we like to feel that we excel. Therefore it was particularly shameful that recently the committee which was appointed by Sir Richard Luce, the then arts Minister, to commission works of art for the library had to dissolve itself because no money was forthcoming. As I understand it, the idea was that the Treasury would give a certain amount and sponsorship should then be found. However, you cannot find sponsorship when there is nothing to trigger it off. That is the very unhappy situation now.

I should like to ask the Minister some questions. Has the committee which was set up to commission works of art for the Library been wound up? Secondly, who is responsible for quality control? The PSA has been mentioned several times. One of my missions in life when I was at the DoE as a junior Minister many years ago was to try to provide some control over the PSA. I went to both Secretaries of State concerned. One of the problems with that department - and I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, will bear this out - is that it covers so many areas (and in those days it also covered transport) that the Secretary of State does not have the time to look into everything, so those matters trundle on.

That problem did not affect only the British Library. In my time the PSA made some dreadful mistakes. It did not have the competence or the right people and probably did not receive the necessary resources. The outcome has been catastrophic. I should like to ask the Minister whether the Government are looking at the question of control and supervision. Who will supervise the supervisors? It is easy for us all to say that there is not enough quality control and this or that should be done, but unless the problem is addressed in a professional and hard-headed way nothing will improve.

I understand that although the Government have talked for a long time of selling those acres of land, no firm decision has yet been taken. I should like the Minister to tell us what is the likely outcome and whether there is a chance of keeping the four-and-a-half acres of land which are so important to the library and which could be used many times over, even before the natural expansion of the library, which will take place in any event, occurs.

There is one further question which I should like to ask the Minister concerning the trade union and the strike—a point which was mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Swynnerton. Two hundred of the assistant librarians, represented by the National Union of Civil and Public Servants, are on strike. However, as I understand the matter, there is some confusion as to whether the strike is about pay or grading. A press release was issued but was then changed because it was thought the wrong reason had been given. According to a letter which I received, the union said that it was both. The assistant librarians are evidently supported by a posse of distinguished writers who have written to a number of us saying that they support the librarians, who are underpaid and whose conditions of work are poor. That is all I know about the matter. The matter should be looked into. I told the Minister that I would ask this question and, if he cannot answer it tonight, perhaps he will look into it and let me know.

Finally, I return to the question of land. I hope that the Government will take the right and only sensible decision and not sell a splendid institution short. It would be so short-sighted. As the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong of Ilminster, said, we cannot in every instance say that a project can go on and on if the costs are mounting up. I understand that point, but the reason is as I explained earlier and as other noble Lords have said. Obviously, if the delays are so great and if, as the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, said, there is no one in proper control, the costs will go higher and higher and the original project will then become quite gargantuan. It is time that that point was grasped and that we did not just talk around it.

Unless this short debate brings that end about and proper and hard decisions and plans are made for the future, including a sensible decision about the land, millions of people who are and will be worried about the library, and millions more young people in future, will find that they do not have a library of which they can not only be proud, but from which they can gain proper use.

11.11 p.m.

Viscount Astor

My Lords, we heard a most interesting history from the noble Lord, Lord Annan. I too must be grateful to him for giving me the opportunity to record on the Government's behalf the progress with regard to the British Library.

I should start by saying, in answer to his Question, that we are in general satisfied with the progress now being made in constructing and equipping the British Library. The project is on target and should be completed within its overall budget of £450 million established in early 1990. The project has, since April 1988, been sponsored by the Office of Arts and Libraries on behalf of the British Library and is being managed by the Property Services Agency projects division. That is consistent with new arrangements for the management of projects introduced by the Government in 1988. The British Library is expected to open its first reading room in 1993, as has been planned since 1985.

Perhaps I may refer briefly to the history of the library and look at some of the successes and problems. Because of the size and complexity of the project, Ministers decided that the construction should proceed in stages. During the early part of the project, funding restrictions resulted in a decision to build in sub-stages and in November 1980 the first stage was split into two sub-stages. By April 1988, only some 20 per cent. of the total budget, or £57 million, has been spent. It is essentially to this period that the recent report of the National Audit Office addressed itself and to which the Public Accounts Committee mainly directed its criticisms. We have addressed those criticisms and the weakness in management that the Committee so correctly identified.

It was in 1985, when the two halves of the first stage were brought together again, that it was agreed that the first reading room would be opened in 1993. The first stage is now 80 per cent. complete and we are still working towards that target. During this and the next financial year alone expenditure is expected to exceed £120 million.

There never was any commitment before 1988 to build any more than the first stage, and it was in November 1988 that Ministers agreed to complete the building with a single further stage. The board of the British Library confirmed at that time that the completed building met the key requirements of the British Library. Those requirements were: to vacate, so far as possible, the British Museum premises at Bloomsbury; to increase the open access facilities for the Science Reference and Information Service; and, through uniting the greater part of the British Library's collections and staff, to provide a greatly improved service to readers from one site.

The conditions for the preservation of the priceless collections were also to be enormously enhanced. The brief for the completion phase was drawn up in close consultation with the British Library, which accepted that within the constraints of money and space the balance of provision was right. Although progress on the first stage of the building is now well advanced and is essentially on schedule for occupation by the British Library in 1993, the project, as with all large projects of long duration, has not been without its problems. Those problems have been well and fully described this evening.

Perhaps I may now turn to a couple of problems which are more current. The specific problems include the movements of books on the shelves. Further testing is required but it is believed that that problem is solvable. There is also the jamming of the mechanisms for moving the shelving. An agreed solution has been fully tested and has already largely been installed. There is the problem of poor paint protection. The extent and seriousness of that problem and the means of rectifying it are still being discussed with the contractor under the current contract. The deficiencies in the book shelving are being addressed urgently and the supplier has an obligation to deliver to specification and to ensure fitness for purpose. However, there is no reason at this time to doubt that measures being taken by the project's management will ensure that the book shelving will fulfil its purpose.

Despite all those irritating, serious but not insuperable problems, the British Library is still confident that, provided a satisfactory solution to the shelving problems can be implemented by mid-1992, it will be able to open reading rooms in 1993 essentially on schedule and within budget.

I cannot deny that there were weaknesses in the procedures drawn up between the British Library and the Property Services Agency for the handover of the project. However, it is unusual for such a major and complex building to be handed over in stages and the full implications of staging were not fully realised in the design and planning stages. Nevertheless, staged handovers provide an opportunity for the project team and the library to learn from the experience of their mistakes - and they did make them - and to ensure that organisations, systems, terminology and procedures are modified, clarified and strengthened for the future.

Management of the project is fully in accordance with the arrangements generally applicable for the management of major projects as agreed by the Government in 1988. Costs are firmly under control and the cash limit for the first stage has remained unchanged at £300 million since it was established in November 1988. The cash limit for the completion phase has remained unchanged at £150 million since it was established in July 1990 and it is anticipated that the project will be completed within its overall budget.

Perhaps I may now turn to some of the points made this evening by noble Lords. It is my impression that every noble Lord asked about the surplus land. In 1988 Ministers agreed that the land at St. Pancras which is surplus to the British Library's requirements should be sold. In 1976 12.5 acres of land had to be bought as one lot. It has always been recognised that that exceeded needs and the unused land would be sold. But consideration is being given to what will be surplus in the future. That is the important point.

Ministers are agreed that it would make good sense for the British Library to conduct a study of its needs, starting from the current position. The British Library Board has set up a working party to study the British Library's needs, and how they might best be satisfied, after the opening of the new building in 1996. No land would be sold before 1994. That gives ample opportunity for the British Library to decide what is surplus to its needs. The future location of the National Sound Archives, the bindery and photo processing are among the proposals being considered by the British Library working party.

My noble friend Lord Thomas and other noble Lords asked about funding for the British Library, in particular long-term funding. In his recent announcement of the three-year funding programme for the arts, the Minister for the Arts indicated that he had revised allocations announced last year and had increased the British Library's grant aid for 1992–93 and 1993–9394 to £64 million and £67 million respectively. The grant aid for the third year 1994–9395 will be nearly £70 million. The Minister has also confirmed the previously earmarked provision of £4 million in 1992–9393 and £1.6 million in 1993–9394 for the move to St Pancras and occupation costs. In addition, the Government have earmarked a sum of £650,000 in 1992–9393 towards transitional costs which the library will incur as the new building begins to be occupied. Further funding for 1993–94 and alternative options will be considered by the Minister.

My noble friend Lord Thomas spoke of the reading room. The British Library Board is satisfied that the British Library's key requirements, including appropriate accommodation for the King's Library, will be met by the completed building at St Pancras. There are no plans for the British Library to retain any reader or storage accommodation in the British Museum when the new British Library is completed in 1996. The Round Reading Room will remain in use until 1996. It will then be refurbished by the British Museum as a reading room for its own selections. It has been agreed by the British Library Board that the possibility of a limited service in the Round Reading Room will be considered after 1996.

Various noble Lords have discussed the PSA. My noble friend Lord Annan referred to the need to examine the future of the PSA. My right honourable friend has already announced his intention of privatising the PSA at the earliest opportunity. The PSA is now operating as a commercial business. It is having to compete for its work. It is slimming down and is already achieving success in the market place. The PSA is improving all the time. It reinforces our view that we were right to take the decision to privatise the PSA. The business still has work to do to get itself into shape for privatisation. However, it is improving and we are sure that it can compete that process and become commercial.

The noble Earl, Lord Russell, asked about additional reader seats. If necessary, the British Library could simply provide additional science reader desks by giving up space presently allocated to staff. We have not ascertained how many desks could be provided in that way. However, once the British Library is fully operational in 1996 the British Library Board will be able to review whether there are sufficient reader seats. If considered necessary, it will be able to increase the number of seats by the reallocation of office space adjacent to the reading rooms.

The noble Baroness, Lady Birk, spoke of criticism of the project manager, and referred to demands for excessive quality. The bookshelving apart, the quality of the building is as high as anywhere. I am sure that a visit to the building would demonstrate that. The noble Baroness also asked me about the current union dispute. There is a dispute with the unions relating to the grading of library assistants. It is very much a matter for the British Library Board to resolve. The Office of Arts and Libraries is working with the British Library to help resolve the problem. The relationship with the union is a matter for the board, as I have said. However, service in the British Library continues. We hope for a successful resolution and we hope that it will not affect the move to St. Pancras.

The noble Baroness, Lady Birk, asked me also about works of art. The Minister for the Arts undertook to consider providing some funding. However, having done so, he has decided that funding cannot be provided at this stage due to pressures on the arts budget. In my view, he has properly given priority to getting the British Library at St. Pancras fully operational. The new building will not be without works of art. The British Library has access to many sculptures and paintings which will embellish the building. As I said in answer to a fairly recent Question, the Minister will review the situation.

In the words of my noble friend Lord Quinton, I am the cabin boy tonight, being used as a fairly blunt instrument to beat the Treasury. It is important to make the point that we are spending money on the library. The long-term funding is in place. The British Library has done very well out of the Treasury, and we must give it credit where credit is due. That was a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong. The problem has not been the money but how it has been applied.

Every speech this evening has been distinguished. Noble Lords have been involved in various ways in the saga of the British Library. We have heard from my noble friend Lord Jenkin of Roding, a former Secretary of State for the Environment. We have heard from two former chairmen of the British Library Board. Their contributions have been illuminating and useful and will be a lesson in the future for any project or for any Minister daring to undertake such a large project.

I know that my right honourable friend the Minister for the Arts will read with great interest what has been said this evening. No doubt he will find useful much of what has been said in his negotiations with other government departments.

It is important to look to the future. When completed, the new British Library will represent a magnificent cultural asset to the nation. It is the largest public building constructed since the Second World War, and it will enable the British Library to operate at the forefront of world technology in information handling and conservation. We must look forward to the opening of the British Library.