HL Deb 10 July 1991 vol 530 cc1396-9

2.59 p.m.

The Viscount of Falklandasked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will support any plans by local authorities to transfer public libraries to private enterprise.

Lord Hesketh

No, my Lords.

The Viscount of Falkland

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that reply. I am not sure whether it will reassure old people in particular, for whom the public library is in some cases almost a lifeline when they lose their mobility. Does he feel that the Government are fulfilling their obligation under the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964 to maintain an efficient and comprehensive service? If there is a move towards transferring public libraries to private enterprise, will the Government be able to fulfil that obligation?

Lord Hesketh

My Lords, the noble Viscount has in some ways anticipated my reply. In the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964 this issue is sacrosanct. The reality is that, if there is a possibility of competitive tendering to increase efficiency and to provide more funds elsewhere, the Government support it. However, as he rightly pointed out, the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964 clearly sets out the statutory responsibilities of local authorities.

Lord Bottomley

My Lords, does the Minister agree that this is one of the most reactionary suggestions made in the House for some time? Is it not an insult to Carnegie and other public spirited people who provided these libraries which have served the community for so long and will, I hope, continue to do so for many years to come?

Lord Hesketh

My Lords, in truth it would be fair to say that there can be no more capitalist or privatised library than any Carnegie Library founded by the great man.

Lord Beloff

My Lords, in intervening I must declare a financial interest as the recipient of a tiny income through the admirable Public Lending Right Act. It seems to me that the Minister might go a little further. What worries many people is reports of councils which find that they are trespassing into the private field by engaging in activities such as hiring out videos, whatever they may be, and other similar activities and neglecting what the noble Lord, Lord Bottomley, pointed out is their historic purpose of making serious reading available without charge to every man, woman and child in this country.

Lord Hesketh

My Lords, the Question on the Order Paper is to an extent hypothetical because it assumes in some ways a compulsory obligation with regard to competitive tendering which is not the case. Perhaps I may put it in this way. Even in your Lordships' House we have recently appointed a new head of the Library, for the first time using competition among the parameters. The interest of the Government is in providing better opportunities and better services. If they can be improved by allowing competition, we shall provide more opportunities for those who use the libraries—in other words, the consumer.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that the competition of which he has just spoken has been going on in public libraries for years? I was chairman of a public library for nearly five years. There was competition among the various people who applied to the library for posts. Therefore, what the noble Lord said is not new. Furthermore, does he not agree that the public library service librarians and staff are probably the most beloved staff members of any local authority? Their relationship with education is very important too. They can bring to ordinary people copies or wonderful paintings. By and large the public library service is something to be preserved and assisted, not just sold off.

Lord Hesketh

My Lords, I am thrilled that the noble Lord should feel that novelty is not a requirement at the Dispatch Box. Furthermore, I am thrilled that he should endorse the policy of competition. I have to assure him that there is no intention of flogging off anything.

Baroness Birk

My Lords, I am very glad to hear that. However, have we not heard it before in relation to other matters? We have to be a little wary. Is it not true that one of the most important features of the British public library scene is the interlending facility? Where a client cannot obtain a book from a local library, the library can get it from another library. With 65,000 new titles being published every year, contracting out would considerably weaken interlending.

Lord Hesketh

My Lords, the noble Baroness may be unaware that her colleague, the noble Baroness, Lady David, came to see me on this very issue when I had the honour of having responsibility for these matters in the Department of the Environment. She may also he aware of the fact that Part V of the 1989 Act has still not been implemented.

Baroness Phillips

My Lords, can we have an assurance that even Westminster, which manages to sell the homeless and the cemeteries and to close the schools, will not do the same thing to the public libraries?

Lord Hesketh

My Lords, as the noble Baroness is well aware, Westminster council was unable to get a tender. The policy is to provide an opportunity for competition to be seen. If there is no competition and there is no desire for someone to provide the service at a cheaper price, all well and good.

Earl Russell

My Lords, like the noble Lord, Lord Beloff, I must declare an interest. Is the Minister aware that, as university libraries are under pressure, the dependence of university students on the public library service has very much increased? Therefore, any decline in that service or any shift in the direction of market forces could constitute a risk to the standard of the British degree. When the Minister speaks of efficiency, can he tell me what he means by it? I am not sure he means the same as I do.

Lord Hesketh

My Lords, one thing of which the Minister is aware is that the Question on the Order Paper has absolutely nothing to do with university libraries.

Baroness David

My Lords, I thank the Minister for remembering our visit to him and for his sympathetic reception on that occasion. Is there any intention to implement Part V of the 1989 Act?

Lord Hesketh

My Lords, the Government's intention is, as always, to try to be accommodating. Whether that means that there will be a hasty or a less hasty implementation of Part V, I cannot judge.

Lord Ross of Newport

My Lords, does the Minister who is responsible for these matters agree with me that it is a matter of grave concern that libraries are being shut for days in the week or are open for fewer hours due to cuts in local government expenditure? Does he not deplore that?

Lord Hesketh

My Lords, that again is the responsibility of the local authorities involved and not the Government.

Perhaps I may interject against myself and make a business statement.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, can the noble Lord—

Noble Lords


Lord Hesketh

My Lords, I have risen and have made a decision. I am going to make a business statement.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, I—

Noble Lords


Forward to