HL Deb 28 November 1991 vol 532 cc1479-84

8.24 p.m.

Viscount Astor rose to move that the draft regulations laid before the House on 22nd July be approved [27th Report from the Joint Committee Session 1990–91].

The noble Viscount said: My Lords, these regulations will empower library authorities in England and Wales to make charges for providing the library facilities which are set out in the regulations. They will replace the limited charging powers which library authorities presently have, correct certain anomalies in the existing legislation and introduce new charging powers. They have been drawn up only to cover those library facilities made available by library authorities in the course of carrying out their functions under Section 7 of the 1964 Act.

The draft regulations were sent out for comment to representatives of those responsible for, or with an interest in, the administration and operation of the public library service in England and Wales. The final draft was prepared after considering all the views expressed during the consultative period.

I must now address a point which has caused some anxiety in another place. It was as a result of the consultative exercise that my honourable friend the Minister for the Arts decided to remove the upper limit of £1.50 on reservation charges. The Federation of Local Authority Chief Librarians strongly urged its removal. The Government accepted the arguments that there was no indication of need that a maximum charge, which could soon become a norm, should either be specified or set so high.

As no recommendations for the level of charges are made in respect of other services, there seems little reason for specifying a maximum in relation to readers' requests. It would be more appropriate simply to confirm the ability to charge and allow authorities to regulate that charge.

Before specifying the particular facilities which library authorities would be empowered to charge for in the regulations, I wish to reassure noble Lords that the Government have taken positive steps to ensure that the traditional free public library service is not undermined by the regulations.

An important safeguard for free access to the library service has been built into the provisions of the 1964 Act, as substituted by the Local Government and Housing Act 1989. The Government excluded from the scope of the enabling power two main elements which are generally regarded as the traditional free public library service. Those are, the borrowing and consultation of written material. That statutory safeguard, which is repeated in the draft regulations, demonstrates the Government's commitment to maintaining the essential free traditional public library service.

As I said, the regulations will preserve the existing powers to charge contained in the 1964 Act. They will also correct certain anomalies. They will introduce new charging powers and give library authorities power to charge for assistance given by library staff.

All the powers to charge will, as at present, be discretionary. Authorities will be able to decide whether or not to charge for any service. When they do decide to charge, they will be able to decide whom they charge and the concessions which they give. Authorities are required to make those charges known in advance to members of the public. The Government's principal aim is to facilitate the improvement of the public library service for the benefit of its users; to give the service access to additional sources of revenue, while preserving the principle of free access to the traditional service. The regulations are just one of a series of steps that the Government have taken to help library authorities, and they will continue to take steps to make the library service efficient, modern and good value for money.

The regulations will help in that process. They clarify existing legislation and introduce modest new charging powers which reflect the new type of library facilities commonly provided since the introduction of the 1964 Act. I commend them to the House.

Moved, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 22nd July be approved [27th Report from the Joint Committee Session 1990–91].—(Viscount Astor.)

Baroness Birk

My Lords, the noble Viscount explained the origin of the regulations. I do not wish to examine that aspect in any depth as it is getting late. It was the Green Paper entitled Financing our Public Library Service: Four subjects for debate, published by the Government in February 1988, which held out the prospect of raising a great deal more money for public libraries by charging for more services and charging more for those services. That was always regarded as unrealistic and indeed was opposed by the vast majority of the thousands of individuals and organisations who responded to the Green Paper.

It is to the credit of the former Minister for the Arts, Sir Richard Luce, that he took those representations on board and modified his proposals in the light of them. The consequence is that in the broadest terms little change is being made to the law on library charges. As the noble Viscount pointed out, it will still be unlawful to charge for the lending of books and it will still be lawful to charge for the lending of other materials like cassettes and videos. More important, the former Minister for the Arts was insistent that the new legislation should do no more than allow local authorities to charge for some services but not compel them to do so. I therefore wish to pay tribute to Sir Richard for being that unusual thing, a listening Minister. He took heed of the representations made to him and avoided the idea of compelling charges for specific services.

So far, so good. There are, however, aspects of the regulations now before your Lordships' House which are worrying. One of the strongest characteristics of the British library system is the facility for inter-lending between different libraries. By this means, a member of the public who finds that his or her own local library does not have a certain book in stock can arrange for it to be obtained from another library. For example, it may be another public library, a university library or, in the last resort, it could be the British Library. It is the view of the Library Association, which represents 24,000 librarians in the United Kingdom, that aspects of the present regulations will endanger that valuable inter-lending practice.

The regulations will allow libraries to make a charge for reserving material for a reader. That will apply whether the material requested is stocked by the library to which application is made or has to be obtained from another library. In the draft regulations which were sent out for consultation to a large number of organisations, a limit of £1.50 was set on the reservation charge which could be levied. Sir Richard Luce and his short-lived successor Mr. Mellor both intended to impose that £1.50 limit as a maximum charge for the reservation of books. But the present Minister for the Arts, Mr. Timothy Renton, decided to remove it.

Defending that decision in another place on Monday, the Minister called in aid the representations which had been made to him by the Federation of Local Authority Chief Librarians. He rightly said that that organisation had taken a different view from that of the Library Association and that he preferred the former's view. But the Minister went further. He claimed that a majority of chief librarians favoured having no upper limit for the charge. I understand that there is no basis for that allegation. No survey was made of the individual views of each chief librarian in England and Wales on that point. It is the firm view of the Library Association that the vast majority of its members favour having a maximum. The Minister suggested that any maximum figure may tempt local authorities to treat it as a minimum or norm. But there is an equally compelling view that having no maximum at all will lead to a progressive rise in charges well above the maximum which the previous Ministers contemplated.

Westminster City Council, for example, recently decided that the librarian in charge of each of its branch libraries will be free to levy anything from 20p to £2 as a reservation charge. If the present Minister for the Arts had not removed his predecessors' proposed maximum, that upper figure would simply not have been admissible. So here, right away, even before the regulations are in force, we have an actual example of the upward pressure to which there is now to be no ceiling.

I know that the noble Viscount will point out that in existing law there is no maximum set for such charges. However, in recent years there have been new and harsh pressures on local authority finance and, therefore, pressures for raising more in charges. The danger of excessive charges is now more real than before. That is why it is even more important to have a maximum now than it was in the past and why the Minister's predecessors were more wise than he in deciding to impose one. I deeply regret that on this matter the Government have declined to take the advice of the Library Association which, under its royal charter, is enjoined to scrutinise legislation and tender advice to the Government upon it.

There is a further point on which I should like a definite assurance from the noble Viscount tonight. Regulation 4(1) says that where a charge is authorised by the regulations, the amount and the incidence of the charge, shall be at the discretion of the relevant authority". The Library Association has pointed out that these words appear to allow an authority to charge as much as it likes for a reservation. I understand that the Office of Arts and Libraries has suggested that a local authority would not be free to charge more for reservations than the actual cost incurred in processing them. But the words of the regulations do not seem to bear out that interpretation. Therefore, if the regulations are passed in their present form, it could be a matter upon which only a court of law could decide in the end. When the noble Viscount replies, can he make it clear whether it is the Government's view that, under these regulations, a library can only charge for the actual cost of processing the reservation and no more? I await with interest his reply.

I should like to conclude by recognising the important role played by our public libraries in the life of the country. We are all concerned about the encroachment of television on national reading habits, and illiteracy is, unfortunately, still a real problem. Our public libraries have for well over a century now constituted a valuable cultural and information resource. I repeat that we appreciate the fact that the Government are not changing the basic service; but we are concerned that these regulations could start a process of transforming it into something much closer to a commercial service. If that were to happen, the cultural life of the country would suffer greatly. Moreover, authors, publishers and booksellers would also suffer.

I therefore appeal to local authorities which are, I deeply appreciate, very hard pressed financially—indeed, many of them are capped—to exercise the powers given to them under these regulations with the greatest caution in order to protect the wonderful legacy which has been handed down to us by our predecessors. We must ensure that we pass on to our successors a system which, it is to be hoped, will be no poorer than the one we inherited.

Viscount Astor

My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Birk asked me about reservations. She pointed out, quite rightly, that the regulations allow a charge to be made for making a reservation and for notifying the user that the item is not available. All the direct and indirect costs associated with those two activities could be covered in the charge. Authorities cannot levy unreasonable charges. Their charges are subject to judicial review. It would seem reasonable to set the charge to prevent abuse without, at the same time, deterring those who need to make the reservations. Local authorities are also permitted to charge for the services which they provide each other and for providing material on inter-library loan. However, the regulations do not allow for the cost of obtaining a requested item to be passed on to the operator.

Should charges be seen to get out of hand, the Minister will consider setting a ceiling on this or on any other charging provision as seems to be appropriate. Indeed, he will monitor the charging levels. All library authorities will be contacted in two years' time so that he can assess the situation.

Baroness Birk

My Lords, the noble Viscount did not answer my question about whether it is a fact that local authorities will be allowed to charge only the extra incurred in the processing of the reservation. I asked that question specifically and requested that he reply to it tonight.

Viscount Astor

My Lords, I believe that I did reply to that question. I said that the process of notifying the user that an item is not available and all the direct and indirect costs associated with the two activities involved could be recovered in the charge. That is the answer to the question.

Baroness Birk

My Lords, with the greatest respect, that is not the answer. As I understand it, the Minister is not saying that it is restricted to the cost of processing the reservation; he is saying that libraries can do more or less what they like. But how many of us understand the regulations as they stand at present?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, I do not think that that is right. If a library charged too much, the reservation charge could become the norm and there is, therefore, a risk that the reservation charge could be tantamount to the charge for borrowing. That is something that authorities cannot do.

Baroness Birk

My Lords, I am sorry but I feel that I must pursue this point. How does the noble Viscount define "too much?". If there is no maximum, how can one define what is too much?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, I have already said that the authorities cannot charge unreasonably. It is up to the authorities to look at their costs to decide what they want to charge. Indeed, they have the discretion to decide whether they want to charge or not. They do not have to charge. They have that discretion.

On Question, Motion agreed to.