HL Deb 11 December 1997 vol 584 cc238-40

3.23 p.m.

Baroness David asked Her Majesty's Government:

What plans they have to encourage the use of libraries by children.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, this Government are keen to support the use of libraries by children. They are central to a number of important initiatives we are putting in place. The National Year of Reading will be a high profile campaign to encourage reading by young people and their parents. The National Literacy Strategy will begin next September in primary schools and will encourage them to devote an hour a day to literacy for all their pupils and will make available money to support the purchase of extra books for children. The plans outlined in the report, New Library: the People's Network, will build on the sound education in literacy and numeracy which we shall provide for children. Most significantly, through the information technology which we shall provide in public libraries, we shall actively encourage children to use them. Libraries in all their forms will continue to make an important contribution to education and leisure.

Baroness David

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that encouraging report; quite a lot is clearly going on. But in the light of the UK survey of secondary school libraries commissioned by the Library Association, where great disparity of provision was found, could the Minister consider providing criteria for school libraries to ensure more consistency of provision and greater fairness for pupils across the country? For instance, every school should have a chartered librarian on its staff. Only 24 per cent. of schools had one; 30 per cent. of schools had no full-time or even part-time librarian. Libraries should be open for a certain number of hours. The amount spent on books should be a recommended sum. Some 13 per cent. of schools spent £10 or more per pupil on books, but 20 per cent. spent less than £2. Will the Minister tell me if it is possible to use these criteria because, after all, £2 per pupil is less than one paperback a year?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, it has been the policy of this Government and the preceding government to devolve decision-making to schools as far as possible. That is what the local management of schools initiative means. That means that schools have increased freedom to decide how to spend the money which is allocated to them. Therefore, the importance of a school library service in each education authority is all the greater. I should have thought that the kind of objectives which my noble friend recommends would be better achieved in continuing to encourage the school library service. As for chartered librarians, of course it would be desirable if they could be present in every school, but that would certainly increase the cost of running school libraries and that service might be better provided within the school library service run by the local education authority.

Baroness Platt of Writtle

My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that it is good educationally for children to act as librarians as they then make sure that the books are properly looked after?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I certainly agree with the first part of the noble Baroness's question. Children who take any kind of responsibility in a school benefit from that. However, I am less sure whether that results in better care of the books.

Lord Peston

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that I, too, was heartened by his first reply to my noble friend? One agrees that local management of schools is intrinsically a good thing. But for those of us who come from a generation for whom libraries were a boon and were central to our education, will he reiterate the Government's view that books play a primary role here and, in my judgment at least—I hope my noble friend agrees—whatever the merits of information technology, it is not a substitute for reading a book?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I certainly did not suggest, or at least I did not mean to suggest, that information technology was a substitute for reading a book. However, it is a fact that many young children are well used to the idea of using screens and keyboards. If they can be brought into libraries to use screens and keyboards there is a greater probability that they will also read books. My noble friend is entirely right about the necessity for real reading.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, will my noble friend encourage local authority teachers to take their pupils to these libraries to show what a school can offer and to enable the children to understand that libraries form an important part of their education?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, my noble friend's question underlines the importance of the school library service run by local authorities. If schools sign up to their school library service, there will be an opportunity for collaboration between schools and, when appropriate, visits to other schools and their libraries.

The Earl of Carlisle

My Lords, although the Minister's first reply was promising, and although this Question deals with children, there are many young people in detention centres or who are disabled. Will our library facilities be available for these groups who most need them?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I know that I ought to know the answer to that question but I do not know whether the library service in detention centres is run by the Prison Service or whether it is run by the education department. I shall have to find that out and write to the noble Earl.

Baroness Rawlings

My Lords, will the noble Lord inform the House how the Government will use the annual library plan which has just been published to ensure that local authorities improve their books, in particular children's books?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, local authorities have a statutory duty to provide a public library service, which of course includes the maintenance of book stocks and of children's book stocks. However, it has proved extremely difficult—I do not think that it will ever prove possible—to specify by law what the exact standard of a library service should be. That is why there are so many local complaints—at least in my area—about the closure of libraries. Any plan which encourages local authorities to increase library expenditure is very welcome.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that more children would be encouraged into libraries if we had more serialisation of books on the radio? Is it not a tragedy that the BBC is planning to phase out the book serialisation, already a meagre half-hour a week, from Radio 4?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I myself am a hot media man. I like to read things rather than hear them or see them in the McLuhan sense. I do not have personal sympathy with what my noble friend says. However, I understand that for many people having a book serialised and read out is valuable. I am quite sure the BBC will take account of what my noble friend says.