HL Deb 09 March 1999 vol 598 cc122-4

3.1 p.m.

Lord Bragg asked Her Majesty's Government:

What steps they are taking to ensure that local authorities fulfil their statutory duty to provide a comprehensive and efficient public library service.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport wrote to library authorities on 19th February 1999 emphasising the importance of annual library plans in helping him to exercise his statutory duties, and requiring 15 authorities that had produced poor plans to resubmit them. He emphasised that after the best local government settlement for seven years, unjustified cuts to library services are not acceptable, and that he would be taking immediate steps to investigate a number of authorities where significant cuts were being contemplated.

Lord Bragg

My Lords, I thank my noble friend the Minister for his reply. However, is he aware that for many people local libraries are not just a corner-shop university and not even just an educational source, but a vital asset inside a community? Is he aware that for many people they bind a community together—people from all generations and from all kinds of backgrounds? Is that taken sufficiently into consideration when the axe is swung—as it is being swung now—on so many local libraries? This is not just a matter of closing down local libraries but of helping to close down communities.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, my noble friend is entirely right about the importance of libraries. The Government are seized of that fact. The local authority financial settlement will add £2.6 billion to local authority finances in the forthcoming financial year. That is a 2.9 per cent. real increase. The real increase in the environmental protection and cultural services block which provides the funding for libraries is 3.8 per cent. Therefore there is no good justification for the kind of cuts which my noble friend rightly deplores.

Lord Alton of Liverpool

My Lords, in supporting the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Bragg, to the Minister, I ask the Minister whether he is aware of the research that points to a link between those children who truant and subsequently become involved in crime and the high levels of illiteracy among those children, and the remarks of the Secretary of State for Education yesterday that 75 per cent. of those who are in our prisons today have a reading age of only 10. In those circumstances does not the Minister agree that the Government's initiatives in promoting, for instance, literacy hours in our schools—which I strongly welcome—are being undermined by those who make a mockery of such policies by promoting the closure of public libraries as part of their public expenditure cuts this year?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I was not aware of the specific research to which the noble Lord refers. Indeed I should be grateful if he could point me towards it. Certainly the conclusions are not surprising. It is true that illiteracy and poor reading are closely associated with social exclusion and, of course, with crime. As I said in my previous answers, the Government are determined that library authorities should fulfil their statutory responsibilities. I hope that that determination has the support of the noble Lord.

Lord Renton

My Lords, I fully support the answers which the noble Lord has so far given, but can he assure the House that the Secretary of State has statutory power to compel local authorities to do what they are required to do in the event of default?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, the Secretary of State's powers are set out in Section 1 of the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964. It requires the Secretary of State, to superintend, and promote the improvement of, the public library service … and to secure the proper discharge by local authorities of [their] functions". That does not entitle the Secretary of State to take over their library services except in the most extreme circumstances. This Government and preceding governments have always taken the view that the precise way in which local authorities discharge their responsibilities should be a matter for local decision.

Viscount Falkland

My Lords, is not there a strong case for the statutory obligation to be more tightly focused? Furthermore, is the noble Lord aware that in Lambeth there is considerable public outcry at the moment about the closure of small libraries on the basis that they are uneconomic, whereas the facts appear to indicate that that council has neglected buildings, mismanaged book provision and messed around with opening hours? It appears to me to be a classic case of asset stripping.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, the position is not quite as simple as the noble Viscount suggests. There is a balance to be drawn between the statutory obligations on local authorities to fulfil certain functions and the need for local determination of priorities, which I hope those who are seized of local democracy and subsidiarity will support. I do not want to make any comments on Lambeth in particular. However, I caution against thinking that the closure of libraries is the only way to make cuts. Libraries must have a network, of course, but they also have to have decent opening hours, good book stocks and adequate staff for the purposes of information management which is what libraries are about.