HL Deb 19 February 1992 vol 535 cc1305-31

5.56 p.m.

Lord Willis

My Lords, when I put my name down in the ballot for this debate and began to prepare for it in the certain knowledge that my name would come up, I realised that there was an omission in my entry in Dod's Parliamentary Companion and Who's Who. It states rather baldly that I was educated at Tottenham Central School and left there when I was 15. It should have read, "Educated at Tottenham Central School and Tottenham Municipal Libraries" for, like millions of others who had to leave school too soon, I continued to learn in the public libraries and I am still learning. I owe our library system a debt that I can never repay.

Tottenham ran a marvellous library system in the 1930s when I was a boy. It was a poor borough—poor in terms of money but rich in spirit. Our town councillors understood the value of knowledge. There was the central library, numerous branches, a mobile library, a hospital service and a range of cultural and educational activities. In successive winters as a lad I attended a series of lectures on classical music appreciation—a foreign country to me then—another series on the English poets and one on the Greek philosophers which was even more foreign. Wonderful! It was like a succession of doors opening in my mind on great vistas of understanding.

The most important aspect was the books. Row upon row of books by the living and the dead smiled silently down upon you waiting to offer up their treasures. There were books upon almost every subject under the sun—novels, reference works, art books and non-fiction from architecture through acupuncture to zoo and Zionism.

I remember still my first ever visit to our central library. I had the feeling that I was entering a temple where the librarians were like acolytes, speaking in hushed voices in a silence that added to my sense of awe and respect. I did not have two ha'pennies to rub together, yet all this, the books, the buildings, the staff were there to serve me and people like me. I began to plunder those shelves immediately, starting as I remember with Stanley Weyman's adventure yarns, working my way through Stevenson to Tolstoy and taking in on the way such esoteric works as The Moral Discourses of Epictetus—though I cannot claim that any of the morality rubbed off on me.

Your Lordships might take some gratification from the knowledge that our magnificent public library system, which is the envy of so many other countries and which we take so much for granted, was born here in the Palace of Westminster. It was William Ewart (after whose father Gladstone was named) who in 1850 pushed through in another place the laws which allowed some local authorities to establish free public libraries. It was an ancestor of our colleague the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, who took up the banner and extended the legislation, and we owe an enormous debt to Andrew Carnegie who in his later years—perhaps fired by a guilty conscience or by memories of his own poverty-stricken childhood—set out on a personal mission to provide library buildings all over the world at huge cost.

We take this inheritance so much for granted that we are in severe danger of overlooking the threat to the system presented by today's public expenditure restraints, and certainly those over the past 20 years. The sad and brutal fact is that our wonderful public library system, though still one of the best in the world, is in a state of persistent decline. That must cause alarm to all of us. It has happened at the worst possible time—a time when we are deeply concerned about fostering good reading habits among the young, about literacy and about the need to provide access not only to literary culture but to all kinds of information resources.

The total cost of the public library system represents about 1.5 per cent. of local authority expenditure. It amounts to about 23p per head of the population per week or about the cost of half of one daily newspaper. That covers not only the books and other materials which libraries stock but also the cost of the buildings and of the staff. It is a fantastic bargain and the public recognises that.

When financial constraints lead a local authority to try to close down a library, the public rises up in protest. For example, recently the authority concerned decided to close the famous Fulham Reference Library. Obituaries about the library were already being written in the local press but the local people rose up in tremendous anger. They compiled a petition of more than 7,000 signatures and the decision was reversed. That has also happened in several other places.

When surveys are undertaken about which public services are most appreciated, the public library system always comes out top or near the top. It is reckoned that about one-third of the population makes regular use of their public library. That makes it probably the most used public service in the country and is clear proof of its value. The number of borrowings in 1991 was 568 million. That equals 10 borrowings per person—every man, woman, child and babe in arms in the country. That means that regular users of the system are also big users of the system, borrowing about 30 books a year, which is a gigantic figure.

There are some people—including some who shamelessly defile the name of Adam Smith by adopting it for their own narrow political motives—who say that a free public library system may have been important in the 19th century but is not needed today. That is absolute rubbish. Of course we should all buy books as well as borrow them. All research indicates—surprise, surprise—that the people who borrow books also buy them. But we would all have to be a great deal richer if we were to buy every book we wanted to read. It makes practical sense therefore to create pools of books in what are called libraries which we can all use.

I am happy to acknowledge that most Ministers for the Arts —who have responsibility for the public library system at least in England—have firmly acknowledged their commitment to a free public library service. That is about all that they have acknowledged, but I suppose we should be grateful for small mercies. But I have to say that the threats to this service during the past 10 or 20 years have been severe. For example, if public libraries are to be fully utilised they need to be open for longer than normal office hours. Just taking the figures for England and Wales, the number of libraries open for more than 60 hours a week has fallen from 229 in 1974–75 to only 18 in the present year. They are open at inconvenient hours from the point of view of the public.

The professional librarians who run the system—and we should give credit to them because they are marvellous people—naturally try to ensure that that restriction in hours is done in a way which allows people to visit their libraries outside working hours. But that is not always possible and the decline in the number of branches open for as long as they used to be is serious.

There have also been a significant number of closures of branches. I admit of course that branches need to be closed and moved in accordance with movements of population. There is nothing wrong with that. But what we have seen recently is the closing of branches simply in order to save money because of severe financial constraints.

Finally, we have many cases where the book fund —I suppose that we should now call it the materials fund because it is used to buy not only books but cassettes, videos and other materials that libraries supply—has been severely cut. The consequence is that libraries are not able to afford as much new material as in the past, nor is their scope as wide.

Although public libraries are the direct responsibility of local authorities, there is strong legal supervision from the centre. Under the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964 the Minister for the Arts in England and the Secretary of State for Wales have a duty, not just a power, to, superintend, and promote the improvement of, the public library service provided by local authorities in England and Wales". The Act requires local authorities to provide a "comprehensive and efficient service" and it gives the Minister full powers to ensure that they do so. But have those powers been used? The answer is no. Successive Ministers for the Arts have rushed to exercise their duties in this respect with all the speed and enthusiasm of a school of arthritic tortoises. Their indifference in this area is matched only by their indolence.

The Library Association, which is the professional body for librarians and other information specialists, with 25,000 members throughout the UK, has constantly pressed successive Ministers to exercise real supervision over the system and to intervene when local authorities are not carrying out their duties. It has had a pretty dusty answer from most Ministers. I must admit that the present Minister, Mr. Renton, used his powers to demand an explanation from Derbyshire County Council when last year it closed 11 branches. The council reacted by appointing its own tribunal to investigate whether it was carrying out its legal duties. The report of the tribunal was presented just before Christmas. The verdict was guilty. I am glad to say that the Minister has intervened again and asked Derbyshire County Council to put the matter right.

I must say in parenthesis that the letter which the Minister sent, and which was quoted in the press statement issued by the Minister for the Arts, was written in such jargon that I wonder that Derbyshire county councillors could understand it. I urge the Minister to issue to his staff, and in particular to his publicity staff, a copy of Sir Ernest Gowers' Plain Words so that they learn how to write clear, precise and intelligible statements.

The action by Derbyshire County Council in closing 11 branches is only one of many recent examples. Three libraries were closed in Greenwich. In Hackney three branch and two reference libraries were closed. Two libraries were closed in Manchester. In Kirklees two branch libraries and one mobile library were closed. Hammersmith is proposing to "restructure" its services—an ominous word—and there is even talk of privatisation. What are we coming to? How on earth can we privatise a public library without betraying all that it stands for?

Let us consider another threat—these cuts in book funds. Derbyshire has made a 50 per cent. cut in the money available for books and materials; Somerset has made a 20 per cent. cut; Warwickshire a 20 per cent. cut; Islington a 10 per cent. cut; and Liverpool a cut of £100,000. In Camden no new books are to be bought after September 1991. If that is not evidence of the pressure that is being put on our library system and the threat to this great institution I do not know what is. During the past 10 years in particular, but also during the past 20 years in truth, there has been a steady decline in the scope and quality of our libraries. It has all been done in the name of efficiency and cost-effectiveness and the system has been put at risk.

Not only public libraries are affected; school libraries are facing severe difficulties because of cuts. Good school libraries depend not only on having a good individual library within each school but on providing a common school library service. That used to be the practice of most education authorities. But with the so-called devolution of management and budgeting of schools to head teachers and governors, those common services are under serious threat. The school library services are often provided on an agency basis by the public library service. That will not survive in certain areas because some schools simply will not co-operate.

There are problems elsewhere in the library world. Something which worries me out of my wits is that the university libraries, including some of the most prestigious, are selling off some of their treasures to finance current consumption. They have no right to do that. Those treasures do not belong to them. They belong to the country, to our tradition and to our history. It is a scandal that in order to make ends meet universities should even consider selling off those treasures. That has happened recently with Manchester's John Rylands library and at the Edinburgh University library. I ask the Minister to intervene to stop that.

In the days before the coming general election we shall hear a great deal about the quality of life. I believe that our public libraries have contributed more to the quality of life than anything else in our national life except perhaps the BBC. Both are public services and to some extent they cannot be judged by ordinary commercial standards. Of course they must be efficient. They must make the best use of limited resources. But they should not be expected to show a profit or cut services to provide some local authorities or the Government with a budget victory. They should not become victims of economic dogma.

In essence, I am talking about books—probably the most important invention and development in the entire history of mankind. Where should we be without books? They are our friends, companions, guides, teachers and entertainers. Is it not true that you can measure the degree of freedom in a country by its attitude to books? Where they burn books or ban them you have dictatorship. Dictators are afraid of books because they carry ideas and ideas threaten dictatorships. When you kill a book you are killing reason.

Books have changed the world. Harriet Beecher Stowe's book Uncle Tom's Cabin sold in the shops for 50 cents but it changed a generation's attitude towards slavery. Tom Paine's The Rights of Man ushered in a new era of democratic thought. Karl Marx's Communist Manifesto became one of the most influential books ever produced. Perhaps the most influential book of all is the Bible. How do you put a value on those and other books? In the modern commercial jargon which is increasingly creeping into local government and local services, how do you measure the cost-effectiveness of books?

The answer is that you cannot any more than you can measure the cost-effectiveness of a Mozart concerto, a Beethoven symphony or a Shakespeare sonnet. Nor can you put into a balance sheet or a local authority budget the true value of our public libraries. It is inestimable. That is why we must reverse those cuts and stand on guard to protect the public library system. The public library system is not ours. It was created by our forefathers and it is our duty to hand it on in good condition to our children. It has taken over 100 years to build and it can be destroyed in a decade if we are not careful. My Lords, I beg to move for Papers.

6.13 p.m.

Lord Quinton

My Lords, first, I apologise for the fact that if the debate takes the full two-and-a-half hours allocated to it, I may have to leave because of an appointment from which I cannot extricate myself.

Like the noble Lord, Lord Willis, I shall concentrate on two aspects: first, the general evidence of decline in the public library system to which he drew attention; and, secondly, in a little more detail, the problem as regards disposal. I am not quite as anxious about the sale of expensive treasures as I am about careless chucking out of the basic standard equipment of libraries of which there is some evidence.

I begin with the evidence of decline. In an article by Mr. George Cunningham, the chief executive of the Library Association, in a recent number of the Bookseller there are two very useful diagrams or tables. One indicates—and this was alluded to by the noble Lord, Lord Willis—that the number of libraries open for more than 60 hours per week has declined from 229 to 18 over a period of 18 years. That is an extremely steep decline. However, 60 hours is quite a lot. Like many of your Lordships I am a happy, continuous and grossly self-indulgent user of the London Library. That is open for 50 hours per week and I do not believe that it has ever been open for longer. It is open from 9.30 to 5.30 on six days per week, and is open for two extra hours on Thursdays. Therefore, I suspect that the picture may not be quite so bad. Nevertheless, that is not to deny the general tendency to which the noble Lord, Lord Willis, referred. It is quite obvious that, brutally speaking, the public library system is starved of resources, as are many other valuable and important services.

The other connected phenomenon to which the noble Lord also drew attention is the decline in use from 650 million withdrawals five years ago to 570 million withdrawals in the latest recorded year. That is a rather significant fact in its correlation with the diminution of services testified to by that reduction in the number of libraries open for more than 60 hours. There are many other indications; namely, the closures of which the noble Lord spoke, and so on. There is a connection between those two factors, but although the decline in resources is related to the diminution of use, there seem to me to be two long-term factors which should also be taken into account—large tides which are to some extent running against the public library as a continuing institution.

The first such factor has been with us for a long time; that is, the paperback revolution. That certainly transformed book buying practices. It made the idea of buying books a reality to an enormously large constituency. When paperback books first hit the market in England with the original five Penguins—Ariel by André Maurois and one or two others—they were 6d each. In the light of the subsequent increase in the RPI, they would now be 75p or 15 shillings. In fact, you are lucky to get away with £2.99, and £3.99 or £4.99 are much more common prices for fairly mass market paperback books. Nevertheless, it remains true that they are in the order of one-third or less of the price of a hardback book. Many more people own a substantial number of books than used to be the case.

I must take a small literary excursion. It would not be proper in a debate of this nature if there were not one. Readers of Hardy and, in particular, Far From the Madding Crowd will remember the arrangement in the wagon or caravan of that admirable figure Gabriel Oak, the shepherd. He owned about eight books—the Bible, Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress and something called Walkingame's Arithmetic, which was an 18th century arithmetic text. That is not an unrealistic picture. Gabriel Oak was a skilled man as a shepherd. In some ways he was ambitious, and nowadays we would say that he was an upwardly mobile man. I do not for a moment doubt the essential correctness of Hardy's view that such a man, even as a reader, would have an extremely small number of books.

The large number of people who now graduate from universities tend to have quite a lot of books even if they are rather tattered and, because of paper decay, are rather gingery around the edges. It is a good tide if some of the reading needs of the citizens are met by that ready and inexpensive availability of books.

The other tendency is not to my mind—and perhaps that is because of senility—in any way as attractive. I refer to the overwhelming of text by sound and image. I suppose we must put up with that in the community as a whole. What depresses me is the invasion of public libraries by large illustrated books not properly stacked on the shelves but stood sideways so that the glamorous shiny outer cover of people surfing on Bondi beach or whatever it might be, is clearly visible to the users of the library. In the same way libraries set out stocks of video cassettes and items of that nature which their users can borrow. I view all that with some anxiety. My general picture of what is happening is that material of even lower quality than much of what is borrowed from libraries in the traditional style is being circulated.

Early last week I was in a library in a small town in the South of England where much of my own education went on. I was astounded how it had changed. It had originally been a corn exchange, but such are the historic mutations up with which we have to put. It was a handsome dignified George Eliot type of building, even if it was in Hampshire. It used to be filled with cases and one navigated around the cases and found the books. Now it is open-plan and everything is in bright and brilliant colours. It is an effort to draw people in but I wonder whether it is well advised.

Confronting the problem of the shortage of resources, the noble Lord, Lord Willis, said that there needed to be more finance and the free library system should be continued. But we should envisage the possibility of dividing the services of the public library system into two parts—that is, an educational part which will be provided free and a recreational part which will not. There is a mass of passive escapist reading of low-grade material by such authors as Wilbur Smith. I for one have no wish to prevent people reading it or even supplying it to them on easy terms. The idea of their making some small payment —for instance, 10 p for each withdrawal—for those works, with suitable fines for holding the books too long, seems to be entirely reasonable. It would probably generate around £40 million a year which would do a great deal for the restoration, for example, of book purchase.

I am partly driven to that conclusion by a deep consciousness that the more rhetorical, sentimental and emotional feeling one has about public libraries —I share that with the noble Lord, Lord Willis—is in my case a little choosy, perhaps snobbish. It goes towards the books that are genuinely of an educational character and not towards Victoria Holt. I do not know how the line should be drawn. All drawing of lines is relatively arbitrary. I suggest quite simply fiction published in the 20th Century and supplementary things like purely joke books—volumes of Viz and so forth—always supposing public libraries stock them.

At any rate, we have allowed public libraries to be financed purely out of public funds when to a large extent they do not foster the kind of thing that Andrew Carnegie, for example, had in mind, which was self-improvement. They foster what I suggest is anything but innocuous. Impassive and innocuous fantasy satisfaction should not be provided on the back of the serious provision of educational material —in the broadest sense of "educational".

I have spoken for a long time and I must close fairly rapidly with a few words on the issue of disposal. There is an interesting little book by a man called W.J. West who has hastened round secondhand shops and identified a large number of books that libraries have thrown out. They are not Audubon prints and so on out of which a university could make a fortune, but humble, humdrum books—histories of Rome and the like—which would be part of the basic educational stock of a public library. He quotes one public librarian as saying, "I am in business here and want the stock to turn over".

That is not a good idea. It is not part of the educational conception of a public library; it is part of the conception of a recreational library. In a recreational library, the stuff loses its currency fairly quickly. The favoured passive satisfying authors go out of fashion and new ones come in. Therefore disposal is something at which one needs to look closely.

I am slightly less worried by the managerial librarian who wants the stock to turn over quickly and condemns the book that has not been borrowed x number of times a year, than by the politically correct lady somewhere who filleted the shelves of her library of material she felt to be politically incorrect. That is a kind of ideological prudery comparable to that which kept out James Joyce's Ulysses, but now rather more humble volumes like Little Black Sambo are consigned to oblivion.

I do not know how that is to be controlled except by ventilating the fact that it is happening and by people vociferously complaining about it. I am suspicious of any attempt to restore the resources of public libraries through local government. The local government authorities which have most cut their public library resources are the ones which, on ideological grounds, refuse earmarked library money because they do not have money for something else that they want more. I do not understand that there is any direct way in which the Minister can cope with the problem except directly and not by some indirect presentation of money.

Lord Wyatt of Weeford

My Lords, perhaps the noble Lord will allow me to intervene. He is a great librarian. What does the noble Lord consider should be done about the practice of turning over stock when in that stock are often rare books which cannot be replaced? The books are sent around the countryside when they should be preserved and owned by the library concerned, whether it is a university or public library. Is there not a law which can be brought to bear on that kind of disposal?

Lord Quinton

My Lords, here I turn into the managerial person. I believe that the books should be kept in libraries where the arrangements are such that they can be consulted. Sometimes a library is totally incongruous with some of its holdings. They are not equipped to allow people to see the holdings; they have them locked up with complicated arrangements whereby perhaps somebody in a supervised way can be allowed to see them.

I suspect a lot of the items are in a way dead, although they are not of the highest value in the library. I do not believe there is a general answer. I shall make one point on the matter of disposal before I sit down. The acquisition of a book by a library is like marriage; a certain amount of initial expenditure is involved in bringing it off but that pales into insignificance in comparison to the haemorrhage of money that occurs after the marriage has taken place —or after the book is installed in the library. Much of it is once and for all—the bibliographic entry; but much is concerned with the storage and maintenance conditions for it.

With 65,000 titles being published each year, the idea that libraries should have any large part of it is difficult to square with any kind of rational management. The fountain of new material is so great that something must be brought out or, absurdly, vast areas will be covered or undermined by library basements. The disposal issue is a real one. One cannot say that the disposal is frivolous and irresponsible; much of it is inevitable because of the congestion and the expense to which it leads in the publishing industry.

6.29 p.m.

Baroness White

My Lords, I feel distinctly embarrassed in intervening in this debate at all, particularly after two such eloquent speeches by my noble friend Lord Willis and the noble Lord, Lord Quinton.

I looked with interest at the entry on the Order Paper and the subject chosen by my noble friend Lord Willis. I felt glad that someone intended to raise the issue. I thought that I might intervene modestly for a few minutes towards the tail end of a long list of distinguished speakers in your Lordships' House. Quite frankly, I am shocked at the small number of those taking part in what is an important debate. It was not until the day before yesterday that I went into the Whips' Office to look at the list of names. I was astonished.

My own contribution, to which I shall come in a moment, was intended to raise a small but important issue in what I had hoped would be an outstanding debate, which is what it should be. The debate was opened in an admirable way by my noble friend and most interestingly continued by the noble Lord, Lord Quinton.

However, I must make my intervention in due course, on a particular aspect which will not surprise noble Lords when I come to it. I have always been interested in books. I grew up in a household which had an ample supply of them. After taking an Oxford degree and not knowing what to do, for some time I was a temporary and unpaid reader's adviser in the New York Public Library on 42nd Street. One could not find a more prestigious and exciting library anywhere in the world. It not only had priceless volumes on the upper floors in the music and drama libraries, but there were also the collections of the Astor, Tilden and Lennox Foundations.

We were also the administrative centre for the circulating libraries of Manhattan and the Bronx. Working in that library, I learnt more about New York than most New Yorkers themselves knew about their own city. It was a wonderful experience. Later on I was at the Library of Congress, not working but just looking around. I was bred with the highest quality of public libraries! I must not pursue all that. This afternoon I hope to put a few questions and suggestions to my noble friend Lord Morris of Castle Morris, who will take part later in the debate, concerning the position in the Principality of Wales to which most noble Lords are aware I am dedicated. Most of the speeches in the debate today will be dedicated to the problems besetting public libraries in England and the troubles that their staffs are having to face. That has been vividly described by my noble friend Lord Willis. It is natural that that should be so because in recent times the greatest difficulties have been experienced, particularly in areas such as Derbyshire, which has been specially mentioned. Some of the difficulties have been very serious indeed.

The 1964 Act, which provides the main statutory basis for our public library service, covers Wales as well as England although with some significant differences. Over the past decade or so Wales has not experienced the dramatic closures and diminution of services and hours of opening and so forth, which have been described by my noble friend Lord Willis. My inquiries in the immediate past indicate that although we do not feel disposed to have a campaign to save our libraries, which I believe is now being organised, nevertheless there are areas of disquiet. The responses to my inquiries refer to slow erosion rather than dramatic closures and to lower basic standards. There is nothing exciting, but there are fewer professional posts and a decline in other posts. There is some decline in book stocks and less is spent per head of population and so forth.

There appear to be two main areas of anxiety. The first is urgent: it is to ensure that we have a highly dynamic and active service in our library system in Wales which will combine modern and up-to-date information services with the traditional cultural and recreational uses of public libraries, as discussed in the two preceding speeches. In Wales we have our own excellent National Library of Wales at Aberystwyth. Close by we have what used to be the College of Librarianship which is now restructured and integrated with the University of Wales as the Department of Information and Library Studies.

We now need to develop new services in partnership with the Welsh development agencies, possibly in some areas with the private sector, to service some of the small industries and businesses, particularly in rural Wales, where we need up-to-date information technology. I understand that progress on these lines has already been attempted particularly in East Anglia, Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire. We need something similar in the Principality. The public library service is also an information service. In Wales we now link library and information activity, which is a sensible development and should be encouraged.

If the East Anglian experience is as successful as I have been led to suppose it to be, it could be valuable for us. We must overcome the daunting employment problems which have arisen in rural Wales in the past year or two and for which it is very difficult to find adequate solutions. We want this dynamic and active approach and that requires the requisite resources.

That is one area in which one is anxious that on the Welsh scene we should be able not only to maintain the popular public library service but to combine and develop it in a way which is appropriate to modern practice. However, the major preoccupation among the staff and those responsible for the administration of the public libraries, is what is going to happen in the Principality under local government reorganisation. At the present time the pattern in Wales is that for the most part we have county libraries, with the Secretary of State for Wales, as my noble friend Lord Willis mentioned, holding particular responsibility for the public library service in the Principality.

There are exceptions. There are five district areas which, with the specific consent of the Secretary of State for Wales, which is statutorily required, have obtained their own individual administration. I refer to Llanelli, Merthyr Tydfil, Cynon Valley, the Rhondda and, more recently, Newport. Our Secretary of State has to undertake a decennial review of this and other aspects of the library service. He also has a statutory duty to superintend and promote the library service in the Principality.

The whole pattern may completely change if we have certain Government-proposed local government reorganisation which may mean that we shall have a number of separate units which could be much smaller than the existing counties. Who will advise the Secretary of State as to the most desirable pattern of public library provision in those circumstances? Will that advice be adequate?

As I understand it, at present there is no power of inspection by the Welsh Office to evaluate in detail the strengths and weaknesses of the individual county library services. There is a body, appointed and serviced by the Welsh Office, called the Libraries and Information Service Council—LICS for short—which has been enjoined to prepare a Libraries and Information Plan (LIP)—I use capital letters. There is also in Wales a branch of the professional Library Association with approximately 1,000 members, about one-third of whom are from the public library service, the others being mostly from university or school libraries. How effective will the advice be on which the Secretary of State for Wales, of whatever persuasion, can rely, which ever pattern of local government is to be promoted in Wales?

There is some monitoring of the five district council libraries to which I have referred, but there seems to be no top grade professional inspection on which a major reorganisation might be based. What used to be a strong professional advisory team at the Department of Education and Science in England has, I understand, been whittled down to one person. In Wales reliance appears to rest on the part-time services of the recently retired in-house librarian at the Welsh Office—someone certainly of great experience but perhaps not best placed to stimulate a Secretary of State who has much else on his mind.

I make this brief intervention because we have a different system in Wales and I am anxious that proper regard should be paid to the values and the potential of the public library service in the Principality.

I look forward to hearing any comments which the noble Lord, Lord Morris, may make from his considerable knowledge of the library organisation in Wales. I hope that he will indicate what his thoughts may be on the situation which I have described. So far as concerns the noble Viscount on the Government Front Bench, I shall excuse him because I did not give him notice that I was going to raise Welsh matters. I doubt whether he has an instant knowledge of the library situation in the Principality. However, if he cares to visit us at some time, we shall be very happy to educate him.

6.43 p.m.

Lord Beaumont of Whitley

My Lords, I have in the capacious bag which I lug about your Lordships' House at any given time, at least three books, sometimes more. Today—I looked before I came in to your Lordships' House—there is an American thriller by Mr. William G. Tapply, there is the autobiography of my noble friend the Leader of my party, Lord Jenkins of Hillhead, and there is a specialist book on "Preaching in Context".

I suppose I can start to draw lines, which the noble Lord, Lord Quinton, suggested that we might, between educational and recreational books from the ones that I read day in and day out. He will know far better than I how very difficult it is to draw distinctions of that kind.

The autobiography of my noble friend Lord Jenkins of Hillhead is no doubt a highly educational work, but I am reading it purely for entertainment. If one sinks to the lower end of the range, to those books which we sometimes are unkind about because they are written for a mass romantically-minded market, I wonder where one would put the novels of Georgette Heyer, which although undoubtedly written for that market and extremely popular as a result, are in fact intensively researched and extremely accurate about the periods with which they deal. That is an interesting aspect raised by the noble Lord, Lord Quinton, who made an extremely stimulating speech, which I shall certainly read in great detail.

The books that I read differ widely in price and differ widely in the use to which I put them. The ones that I have at the moment are all good books and they are all provided by the free library service of this country—one of them brought down by Express Bookworm, all the way from Kirklees Library I see, looking inside.

I speak as a compulsive reader with an omnivorous appetite; one who, when I was at school and they tried to find something for which I could take responsibility, was made a librarian. When the Army could not find anything better for me to do than make me an education sergeant, I looked after the local unit library. Since then I have never bought a book until I have read it and know that I want to read it again and keep it. (However, I do assure the noble Lord, Lord Willis, who is keen that we should all buy books, that when I find treasures of books I give them as presents to my friends).

I am therefore a grateful and devoted fan of our library system. I have recently, in addition to using the well conducted facilities of your Lordships' House—and like the noble Lord, Lord Quinton, the London Library, usually when I need some kind of specialist book—I have had occasion to use three local libraries: Richmond, Westminster and Lambeth, all of which have highly courteous and devoted staff. Two of them are highly efficient and the third has been sent by an inefficient council into a descending spiral of poor resources and inefficiency in organisation out of which I do not know how it is ever going to climb.

Nevertheless, all these libraries should be supported and it is the least good of those libraries which is the one that most needs support because it has more people out of work using it and it has more disadvantaged people in the borough.

What are the threats to these libraries? Mainly it is money. The extraordinary system of local government finance which has emerged from the decisions, if one can call them that, of this Government over the past 13 years forces even the best councils to economise on book buying and to flinch from the buying of expensive books, which are sometimes the ones that they should most have on their shelves.

Then there is the coming threat of compulsory competitive tendering. There may be some areas in the library system where compulsory competitive tendering is beneficial. However, it is quite clear that there are other areas where it is not and one of those is the acquisition of stock. That should be a matter for the combined wisdom of those who know the area, the people and their needs. Noble Lords who are of my age and sex will remember the unit libraries in the Army which had, wherever one went, exactly the same —I think it was 169 volumes if my memory serves me right. All of us in our generation are, as a result, exceptionally well read in The Good Companions. There was no hope that if one was posted one would find a different selection. One started The Good Companions all over again. One longed for the quirks and quiddities of individual selection.

If you cannot hand over selection to outside mechanical providers, nor can you do simple sums about choice. Twelve copies of the latest Jeffrey Archer novel are not a substitute for one copy of the autobiography of the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins, selling at £20, even if the 12 are taken out more often than the autobiography.

That is the second threat; namely, that of compulsory competitive tendering. I believe that the third threat is the possible abolition of the net book agreement. The seemingly rational idea of doing away with resale price maintenance in this field will have the effect of making cheap books cheaper and the more expensive books much more expensive. Moreover, it will probably price many books out of publication altogether; in other words, it will price out of publication a large proportion of really valuable books.

In the previous debate, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Norwich in his maiden speech talked about the value of ethics and of having trained experts in the matter in public life. There is not much money in publishing books on ethics. Under such a system, fewer books on ethics would be published.

There are ways out of such problems and away from such threats. I should like to pay a tribute to Mr. Timothy Renton who I think is a sensitive and caring Minister; but I do not pay a tribute to the general policies of his party in the fields of competition and local government. I believe that there needs to be a major change either in the Government of this country, or in the thinking of the Government of the country, before we shall be able to arrest a decline in the libraries.

One method which is available to combat such problems is that concerning the efforts to make money from the additional services which the libraries provide. For example, Sutton, which has a reputation backed up by figures as one of the best and most efficient library authorities in the country, manages to make all its extra services pay—that is, the ones for which it is allowed to charge—and that helps to fund the more basic work of providing books, which is what really matters. I certainly agree with the noble Lord, Lord Quinton, in that respect.

One of the most important tasks is to ensure that we value the library system and thereby use it more. That would be a valuable contribution to which, perhaps I may say in shorthand, the rich can contribute. The Members of your Lordships' House who have stayed for the debate, especially those who are taking part, are obviously people who know their local library systems. However, there are many people, including, I imagine, many in this House, who do not even know where their local library is and who, if they want a book, simply buy it. That is very good for authors and publishers. I do not say much against it. However, if it turns the library into a service solely for the poor, it very soon becomes a poor service. It is important that the library system should be cherished by the literate classes of the country. And if there are any classes in the country which are not literate, we must cherish the library system in order to help make them so. I say that because, as we know, illiteracy is one of the major problems of today.

The BBC and the library system—and I put those two together as the noble Lord, Lord Quinton, did —are good examples of the institutions which I think we can genuinely say are the envy of the rest of the world. The institutions which are the envy of the world are, for some reason which is very difficult to fathom, always the most tempting prey for the barbarians within our gates. Culture and civilisation need defenders. It is for that reason that I particularly thank the noble Lord, Lord Willis, for instituting the debate, even though I share with the noble Baroness, Lady White, the dismay that so few of your Lordships have chosen to take part in it.

6.55 p.m.

Lord Morris of Castle Morris

My Lords, I am sure that the House will be grateful to my noble friend Lord Willis for providing this opportunity to discuss the library system without, for once, concentrating on the British Library building which I regard as one of the finest and most exciting building projects of the 20th century and which others mock as the great pink whale stranded in St. Pancras. Public libraries are in their worst state since the system was founded about 150 years ago. Libraries are closing, reducing opening hours, trimming services and cutting jobs because of dwindling grants from local authorities". So says the Library Association as quoted in The Times of Tuesday 18th February 1992. Who will dare say that the association is wrong? The Government may well reply that this is entirely a matter for local authorities and that they must set their priorities and apportion scarce resources as seems best to them. But there is more to it than that. Public libraries are part of a complex reticulation of services provided by local authorities. Their problems are not single; they are multiple and inter-related. Perhaps I may be permitted to give your Lordships a few examples.

Librarians are currently being plagued by the threat of the Government's favourite idea; namely, compulsory competitive tendering. That was nicely analysed by the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, in his speech. I agree with the statements. It should be obvious to the meanest intelligence that there is little scope for CCT in public libraries; and, where there is, they have been doing it for years. Stock selection and stock management, as the noble Lord said, cannot be contracted out. That is what librarians are trained and paid for. Acquisition of stock is something that most library authorities already contract out to library supply companies. They switch between firms to get the best deals. That flexibility would be lost under the proposed system with authorities locked into contracts with suppliers of between four and six years.

Similarly, the net book agreement—which, as the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley said, is no bad thing—means that library suppliers are unable to compete on price and so CCT does not apply. As regards processing and cataloguing, what is not already contracted out could not be contracted out except at additional cost. It is the firm opinion of the Library Association that CCT for support services would have a major, deleterious effect on the organisation of public library services as most of them are integrated services with a high premium on staff flexibility. That flexibility would be imperilled by CCT, and the alternative provisions would be expensive and less effective.

The final proof that CCT is a non-starter in the public library system is provided by the fact that no one seems able to identify a market in library support services. For example, Westminster City Council and Cambridgeshire County Council have both voluntarily tried contracting out library support services, but they failed to find appropriate bidders. Similarly, Devon, Kensington and Chelsea and Suffolk have tried to contract out video supply, but no one wants to know. Compulsory competitive tendering for libraries is a deeply dead duck and should be contracted out —to the dustbin.

A second extraneous problem that librarians face comes from the local management of schools initiative. One of the most effective areas of the public library system has long been the common service for school libraries. That is now likely to be severely undermined by the LMS procedures. The result will be that from him that hath not, shall be taken away even that which he hath because the weakest, most deprived schools will lose the benefit of common services. Goodness knows, the overall level is already appallingly low. A recent survey showed that four out of five schools have fewer than 10 books per pupil. The gallant attempts that library authorities have made to supplement the often disgraceful shortcomings of school libraries are currently in peril from the new educational ideology.

Thirdly, local government reorganisation poses severe problems for the public libraries. As my noble friend Lady White has pointed out, there is acute concern in places such as Wales. My noble friend was right that monitoring and advisory services to the Secretary of State on the issue of reorganisation should be a high priority in Wales, as should the tendering of advice and the tender concern for the problems of the Welsh language in a bilingual community which is not bilingual across the whole of its area. Those are urgent problems for Wales, but there are plenty such problems elsewhere.

It seems clear to the disinterested observer that, on the whole, the large library authorities are very efficient. Leicestershire's county library service is generally thought to be one of the very best, but many library authorities could end up as a series of little district library services, with all cohesion gone and all economies of scale lost. Those are all matters that are totally beyond the control of librarians, but which have the most serious consequences for the national public library system.

Within their own authorities, librarians also have to face the most severe problems. As my noble friend Lady White pointed out, those problems are less severe in Wales where we can point to perhaps less dramatic cuts, but the process of slow erosion, as she described it, is one with which we are all too familiar.

Over the past 10 years, cuts to the library service have produced a deepening crisis. Occasionally the cuts have been dramatic, but usually in both England and Wales—I do not speak for Scotland—it has been a slow haemorrhaging of resources year upon year. As the noble Lord, Lord Quinton, pointed out, opening hours have been slashed. My noble friend Lord Willis said that the number of libraries that are open for 60 hours a week or more in England and Wales has dropped—I make no apology for repeating his figure —from 229 in 1974–75 to 18 in 1991–92. Indeed, 60 hours a week is not a ridiculous figure. Many supermarkets are open for 60 hours a week, so why should a public library not be able to open for as long?

Those cuts in hours have an enormously damaging effect on the library habit, which must be acquired —we are not born with it. As has been wisely said: We cannot raise a literate generation, or improve reading standards, if people keep finding their libraries shut. In the financial year 1991–92, Sheffield has cut the opening hours of its community libraries by 25 per cent. and North Tyneside has imposed an overall cut of 62 per cent., leaving all its branch libraries open for only 10 hours per week. Camden library authority has bought no new books since September 1991. The dreary list goes on and on.

Even the good and successful initiatives have been enfeebled by this long process of blood-letting. The library and information plan scheme, jointly run by the British Library and the Office of Arts and Libraries, is highly commendable. Linked with it is the public library development initiative scheme, which awards £250,000 a year to a wide variety of innovative library schemes. But only 40 per cent. of the funding for that scheme is provided by the Government, leaving 60 per cent. to be found by the librarians from other sources. Sponsors do not come easily. Andrew Carnegie is long dead. The money is simply not there.

Against that dismal background, it is hardly surprising that public library book issues have declined. Mr. John Sumsion of Loughborough University has derived some useful statistics from analysis of the public lending right, which he has done so much to implement successfully. The Government may take some comfort from the knowledge that, in issues per capita, the United Kingdom stands third in the world league at 9.9, surpassed only by Denmark at 15.2 and the Netherlands at 11.7. Britain has double the issues per capita of the USA, and six times that of France. However, United Kingdom book issues are declining sharply. In 1981–82 there were 649 million issues; in 1989–90 that had dropped to 565 million. After 1986, the issue statistics show a noticeable decline, which accelerates as we get into the 1990s.

The public lending right statistics show, however, that the decline in issue figures has affected fiction far more than children's books. It seems that children's librarians have been lobbying hard and successfully to avoid cuts to their service. The draft report of the Library and Information Services Council (England) shows that since 1982–83 the decline in issues has been 8 per cent. for adult non-fiction; 20 per cent. for adult fiction and 0 per cent. for children's books. It gives me great pleasure to note that in public libraries Mills and Boon books are in decline and that Enid Blyton rules OK. It seems that, even in the context of steadily reducing resources, librarians have successfully maintained one vital part of their educational responsibility. All praise for that is due to the librarians; no thanks can be given to the Government.

As I said earlier, the Government may well say, "This is entirely a matter for the local authorities. They must order their priorities as they think best." The Government will adopt a hands-off, arms-length, non-interventionist posture and will blandly survey the inexorable logic of the law of supply and demand. I must put it to the noble Viscount, Lord Astor, that the Government's responsibilities may not be shrugged off so easily. As my noble friend Lord Willis has said, Section 1 of the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964 makes that clear, stating: From the commencement of this Act it shall be the duty of the Secretary of State to superintend, and promote the improvement of, the public library service provided by local authorities in England and Wales, and to secure the proper discharge by local authorities of the functions in relation to libraries conferred on them as library authorities by or under this Act. I believe that the ultimate responsibility now rests with the Lord President of the Council, for England, and with the Secretary of State for Wales but that, in practice, it devolves on to the Minister for the Arts. It will be interesting to hear—if the noble Viscount, Lord Astor, can tell us—how the Government have "promoted the improvement" of the public library service and how they have ensured that each library authority provides a comprehensive and efficient library service for all persons desiring to make use thereof", as is required by Section 7(1) of the Act. The Library Association had some doubt last year about whether the Minister had fulfilled what the Act described as his "duty" when it considered taking him to court.

To be fair—and we on these Benches always try to be fair —the present Minister seems to be more aware of his duty in this area than perhaps some of his predecessors. My noble friend Lord Willis has reminded us that the Minister has taken action over the alarming closure of 11 libraries in Derbyshire. The county authorities there pre-empted more decisive measures by appointing an inquiry team which reported just before last Christmas. Since then, the Minister appears to be superintending the activities of the library authority in a brisk and proper fashion. However, as Derbyshire is a famous target for government intervention, I ask the noble Viscount, Lord Astor, whether the Government have a similar intention to intervene in Warwickshire which, I believe, is a Conservative-controlled council, and which has decided to have no national daily newspapers in any branch public libraries in its area —save two. One has a trust fund of its own, and in the other the town council has agreed to pay. Surely the provision of national daily newspapers is close to the centre of any modern information service, and it is difficult to see how any library authority which deliberately decides not to provide them can be said to be giving a comprehensive and efficient library service". I look forward to hearing what action the Minister proposes to take in Warwickshire.

So far as concerns the public library service in this country, we can only say, in the words of the poet John Pudney, Complaints is many and various", though it must be said that the complaints come largely from the librarians and not from the readers. We should be building on achievements, expanding access to library services, buying more books, developing new branches, bringing in new readers, and creating and satisfying their thirst for knowledge and understanding. Instead of that, since 1979 more than 340 libraries in England and Wales have closed.

7.11 p.m.

Viscount Astor

My Lords, I am delighted that this debate is taking place. The noble Lord, Lord Willis, has provided us with an opportunity to consider, and applaud, what is a popular and well-used public service.

Perhaps I may, for a moment, take your Lordships back to 1927, when the Kenyon Committee wrote: The public interest in libraries has greatly increased and we believe that there is now a far healthier belief in the value of knowledge and in the importance of intellectual life in all the busy centres of national activity than in any previous period of history. In such centres the public library is no longer regarded as a means of providing casual recreation of an innocent but somewhat unimportant character; it is recognised as an engine of great potentialities for national welfare and as the essential foundation for the progress in education and culture without which no people can hold its own in the struggle for existence". What was said then applies with even greater force today. I am sure that all your Lordships will agree with that.

The public library service has come a long way since the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964. There has been considerable change, improvement and development. Public libraries have become a major information resource, allowing everyone full access to books, periodicals and now other materials such as CDs and videos. Their role is to support and serve the needs of their communities for information, individual education, culture and leisure. Public libraries play a major part in maintaining and improving literacy. In pursuit of their statutory duty, public libraries provide books and non-book materials, for lending and reference to both adults and children, through service points ranging from the largest city centre libraries to small village part-time centres and mobile libraries.

There are nearly 137 million books available in UK public libraries, through 4,063 central and branch libraries and 735 mobile libraries. In addition, there are 789 small branch libraries and 18,297 outlets in homes and hospitals. That is impressive. Public libraries do much more, however, than just lend books. They provide reference and inquiry services, study facilities and a wide range of specialised services for special client groups within the community, such as schools, hospitals, prisons, the housebound, the handicapped, and many others. In 1989–90, for example, nearly 46 million inquiries for information were made in UK public libraries—nearly a million per week.

Public libraries have a leading role to play in the provision of community information. Where appropriate, extensive collections of business and commercial information, including standards, patents and specifications, and access to on-line information services are provided as part of information services to the local commerce and business community. In 1989–90, 1,024 computer terminals were available for use by or on behalf of the public. That is a rapidly expanding area through which new services can be provided. For example, we have just funded an experiment to place terminals in village shops in remote areas and thereby give access to the local public library computer network. In 1989–90, public libraries handled 8.5 million reservations for books and recordings. They are also often the first point of contact between the general public and the wide range of special, academic and national libraries.

The Government's commitment to the public library service is demonstrated clearly by the improvements we have brought about in recent years —for example, by investment—in library and information plans, and the public library development incentive scheme. Expenditure on the service remains high and that is matched by high levels of use. As noble Lords have said, the public library service is one of our most popular public services. When questions about library use were included in the 1987 general household survey, in the four weeks before interview just over a quarter of all adults had used public library services. That excluded visits just to accompany a child. Eighty-one per cent. of users, and particularly older people, had borrowed or returned books. Visitors in the younger age groups were more likely than others to have used the services associated with study, to have looked at reference books, used a photocopier or used the library as a place of study.

A different perspective of use can be gained from public lending right figures. They indicate that the number of registered authors has risen from 17,594 in February 1990 to 20,203 one year later. In 1992, 81 authors—26 more than in 1991—qualified for the £6,000 maximum payment under PLR. A further 16,783 writers over the whole range of adults' and childrens' fiction and non-fiction qualified for some form of payment. Other statistics from PLR show a marked increase in loans of junior non-fiction and in hobbies, do-it-yourself, transport and computers; and, to a lesser extent, travel and general fiction.

Not surprisingly, let me turn to the Government's record in supporting public libraries. Net expenditure (that is, expenditure after deducting income) on public libraries in England has risen by 14 per cent. in real terms over the past 10 years. The figures for gross expenditure (that is, before deducting income), which may be a fairer reflection of library activity, show an even higher increase in the order of 18 per cent. as a result of increasing income from library activities.

In order to assist public libraries to improve the efficiency of their services, the Minister for the Arts has commissioned three management tools. The first, a model costing system for public libraries, was published in 1987; the second, a manual on performance indicators, which was published in 1990; and the third was published at the very end of last year and deals with objectives for public libraries. We hope that those aids to good management will help library authorities and librarians with the planning and measuring of their services while promoting cost-effectiveness in the public library service.

The public library development incentive scheme was established in 1987. Its purpose is to encourage new enterprise in public libraries that will extend or improve services. The scheme is now in its second three-year term and up to £250,000 per annum is available. Since the scheme began, 37 awards totalling about £800,000 have been made. Awards, of course, cover up to 40 per cent only of project costs, with winners providing the remainder. An independent evaluation of the scheme, to be published later this year, shows that it has achieved some significant successes. In addition, many applications which could not be funded have led to projects progressing with funding from other sources.

No library can be self-sufficient in stock or expertise. Various formal and informal co-operation arrangements have therefore been developed between libraries of all kinds. To develop and strengthen this co-operation, the Government have supported, with funding, the development of library and information plans. Those are three to five-year plans, based upon public library authority areas and designed to create a framework within which library and information organisations of all types within the areas can make the best use of available resources. In geographic terms, about 50 per cent. of the UK is covered by LIPs. Collectively, and individually, the plans are a great success.

At the beginning of this year, the library regulations came into effect. They are concerned with the charging powers of library authorities and clarify the relevant section of the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964. They also introduce modest new charging powers, which reflect the new type of library facilities commonly provided since the introduction of the 1964 Act. Through these regulations, the Government have provided library authorities with flexibility as to the charges they wish to make and with access to some additional sources of revenue.

There are some authorities which generate as much as 9 per cent. of their expenditure through charges. This has enabled them to support a wider range of services. In saying this, I wish to remind noble Lords of an important safeguard for free access to the library service which was built into the provisions of the 1964 Act as amended by the Local Government and Housing Act 1989. The Government have safeguarded the central core of the free public library service: the borrowing and consultation of books and other printed material.

In 1989–90, the latest year for which statistics are available, income increased by 23 per cent. over the previous year in real terms, and by 71 per cent. over 10 years. Broadly speaking, income from fines and fees has not changed significantly; there is an increase in income from letting, hire of materials and equipment and ticket sales. But by far the largest and most significant increases have been in such things as income from photocopies, withdrawn book sales and snack bars. These figures are very encouraging.

When the Green Paper on public library financing was published in 1988, many respondents expressed concern that public libraries did not always benefit from the income they raised. My right honourable friend the then Minister for the Arts commissioned a survey. The resulting report, which was circulated to all chief librarians in England, revealed that over 80 per cent. of those authorities investigated managed to reinvest at least some of their income in the library service. This was also encouraging, and the report has helped library managers to seek an increase in the amount made available by their authorities for reinvestment.

Other valuable work takes place through the Library and Information Services Council. To take but one example, the council is currently examining sponsorship for libraries. Through a research project guidelines are being developed on the role that sponsorship can play in the provision of library services and how to do it well. That is for both sponsors and librarians.

Lord Morris of Castle Morris

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Viscount for giving way. I wonder whether he can help me. Is it the case that the new regulations which he has been so eloquently describing vary hardly at all the powers which libraries have under the 1964 Act? If they vary them significantly, in what way do they do so?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Morris, will remember, as I do, that we were here on the night when the provision on library charges was discussed and passed. As the noble Lord knows, libraries may make certain charges if they wish. As I have said before, it does not affect the central core of the service.

To return to the council, I am pleased to tell your Lordships that it has just established a new study of services to children and young people. I understand that the Department of Education has recently announced help for school libraries. This is not the record of a government with no interest in the public library service.

Much has been made of the decline in issues over the past few years—too much, I think—quite apart from the fact that, as I have already emphasised, public libraries are about much more than issuing books. The public library service in England still issues the equivalent of 1.3 million books per day, and across the UK the figure rises to 1.6 million.

Preliminary figures from the counties for 1990–91 suggest that the decline may have bottomed out. Even in the figures for 1989–90, it is possible to identify some authorities that have bucked the trend. The rate of decline in 1989–90 was about 1.2 per cent. compared with 3.5 per cent. in each of the previous two years. Over the 10 years to 1989–90, issues per capita have fallen from 12.1 to 10.2. It is true that this represents a substantial drop of over 15 per cent. but this phenomenon has apparently been noticed in almost every other country of the world that boasts a well developed network of public libraries.

One reason for the decline in book issues may be the increasing use of other types of material by libraries. Certainly the statistics for sound and video recordings show strong upward trends in total stock, annual additions and issues per capita. The increase is 60 to 70 per cent. over the nine years to 1990.

The decline in book issues could be due to a range of factors outside the control of library services. Not least is the competition. For example, information is now readily available through CEEFAX and Oracle direct to the public. Libraries face the challenge of how to continue to attract individuals, particularly the young, who have not been brought up in a tradition of reading books. But as we have seen tonight, and as the noble Lord, Lord Morris, has told us, they still use the service and it attracts them to come regularly into the libraries. We must be very pleased about that. There is competition in television, through direct broadcasting and through videos, and libraries will obviously have to face that challenge.

I recognise the widespread concern about cuts in public library services made by authorities last year, and planned for the next year. Although, as I said earlier, net expenditure on public libraries has risen substantially over the past 10 years, the Government have to set priorities and ensure the control of public spending, including that of local government. This means that some authorities, especially the high spenders, have to look critically at all the services they offer.

Standard spending assessments are set at levels to allow effectively managed and efficiently administered local authorities to maintain their spending on the range of statutory and non-statutory services. The best local authorities offer sound management of resources. Others, I am afraid, do not always do so. In 1989–90, local authorities in the United Kingdom spent £642 million on the provision of the public library service. This is not an insignificant amount.

It is, however, up to the authorities concerned how they achieve any necessary economies. My right honourable friend the Minister for the Arts has no powers under the 1964 Act to interfere in the day-to-day management of a library authority, which itself has the statutory duty under the same Act to provide a library service. That applies not least to opening hours. It is for library authorities to decide when to open their libraries in response to local needs. They know best what their local needs are. I have to say that 60 hours is not a magic figure. It is for the local authorities, the local library service, to decide what are those local needs.

Nevertheless, the Government are not in the least pleased to hear about inappropriate library closures or unnecessary reductions in services. Where cuts appear to strike at basic services and statutory responsibilities, my right honourable friend the Minister is prepared to step in. He has clearly demonstrated his resolve in the case of Derbyshire County Council and its closure of 11 branch libraries. He has also looked carefully at the actual and proposed cuts in the library services in several other authorities but, with this one exception, has found no clear evidence that any authority is in breach of its statutory responsibilities. I have to tell the noble Lord, Lord Morris, that we have not received any complaints on Warwickshire. From information known to us, it does not appear that Warwickshire is in breach of its duty under the 1964 Act.

My right honourable friend the Minister for the Arts and I appreciate the competing pressures on local authority resources; but some authorities may need to use their resources better and libraries should not bear a disproportionate share of any cuts. We must be clear on that.

There have been many improvements in the public library service since 1964. There have been many changes in the world since then and libraries have needed to adapt and change with them. They have been and, I believe, will be successful and that is demonstrated by our debate today. There are larger, better equipped branches; a wider selection of material, including sound and video recordings, and a range of books to meet the specialised needs of different sections of the community. Information services have been developed for local needs, drawing on a wide range of national and international sources. We have a library service and library professionals of which we can be proud.

Perhaps I may turn to specific points. My noble friend Lord Quinton mentioned the article in The Bookseller. He drew attention to the diagram and tables in that article. I have to tell him that he obviously read the article, as I did, but he did not study the graph as I did. If he had done so, he would have found that it was totally distorted in scale. I am afraid that the publishers need a lesson in proper mathematics as the graph totally distorted the figures. As I said, I have read the article, as did my noble friend, and it is an interesting article which we take note of. As always, I enjoyed my noble friend's speech and the interesting points he made. He always interests noble Lords when he talks on matters concerning the arts. I shall bring his remarks to the attention of my right honourable friend the Minister for the Arts.

The noble Baroness, Lady White, gave us the benefit of her expertise on Wales. She showed her knowledge of the Principality. As regards this debate and the number of speakers, I must say to the noble Baroness that quality has made up for quantity. The noble Baroness mentioned the New York Public Library. She even remembered that my family name is above the door. I am quite proud of that fact. I suppose I should declare an interest at this stage as I still have a strong association with the New York Public Library.

The noble Baroness asked me about local government reorganisation. I cannot respond to many of the questions asked by the noble Baroness as that is a matter of looking into the future. However, I shall ensure that my right honourable frieʼnd the Secretary of State for Wales reads what has been said tonight.

The Secretary of State for Wales has set out his proposals for unitary authorities. I cannot anticipate the work of the Local Government Commission but the Government will issue guidance to the commission about library services. The noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, paid an important tribute to my right honourable friend the Minister for the Arts. He and I share the concerns about libraries expressed by noble Lords. However, as I said earlier, the library service is an exceptional service and one of which we can be proud.

The noble Lord, Lord Morris of Castle Morris, talked about competitive tendering. The Government published a consultation paper on compulsory competitive tendering on Tuesday 5th November. Among other things the consultation paper asked for comments on the proposals to extend competition to local authority library support services. As the noble Lord, Lord Morris, pointed out, it is already the case that a number of authorities have contracted out some of their public library support services and have found a ready market, not least among the library support companies. The Government consider there is a good case for requiring all local authorities with library responsibilities to expose the support work to competition.

The Government do not propose to extend CCT to the network of library service points. The period of consultation ended on 31st January of this year. The responses that have been received are being analysed, after which a decision will be made on the value of extending CCT to library support services. The only purpose of contracting out is to produce as good a service at less cost or a better service at the same price.

As we have heard tonight, there are difficulties for some library authorities as they have to adjust their priorities to take account of economic realities. In doing this, however, public libraries should seize the opportunities that the Government are creating, thereby developing new services and charging for them, taking into account the views of consumers, and attracting and retaining users. The Government wish to see libraries rise to these challenges. We must continue to give them the right opportunities. The record of this Government has shown we have done that.

7.33 p.m.

Lord Willis

My Lords, I wish to make a few points before the end of the debate. I wish to take up a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Quinton, about the possibility of dividing borrowings between education and entertainment as it were, and making some kind of charge for borrowings. I hope that never happens as it would represent the thin end of the wedge. We would also enter a dangerous area of value judgments. Who will make those judgments? I believe that the young lady who wants to read Victoria Holt novels is just as entitled to borrow such books from her local library—which should stock those books—as the man who wants to read books by Tolstoy or John Fowles. We must not make judgments about other people's reading tastes. Once one starts to do that, one enters dangerous territory. Once one starts to charge for lending books, no matter how small the charge may be when one first initiates it, it is the thin end of the wedge.

When the Minister replied to the debate, I had a feeling we were discussing different institutions. The Minister painted a marvellously rosy picture of the library service. Much of what the Minister said was true, but he must be aware—unless he and the Minister for the Arts have their heads in the sand—that there is genuine alarm among librarians. That alarm is echoed in almost every publication on this matter that one can think of. Tomorrow week a "save the libraries day" will take place. That shows how concerned librarians are. There is to be a big meeting in the Jubilee Room in another place to discuss this matter. The Minister must be aware that there is genuine alarm among librarians. He should investigate that and not be complacent about the present situation. I hope that the Minister will forgive me for saying that. Librarians fear they are being turned into shopkeepers. They are expected to sell this and hire that and run snack bars. That is taking a skilled profession a long way down a rather shady lane.

However, the Minister was correct to say that although there were few speakers in this debate we had quality rather than quantity in the speeches we heard tonight. I was shocked when I saw the small number of speakers who wished to speak in the debate. There is a large number of academics in this House. I should have thought that they at least would be interested in books and the reading of books. I am rather surprised that they were not represented in the debate. Having said that, I wish to thank all speakers for their contributions. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.