HC Deb 23 June 2004 vol 422 cc423-30WH

4 pm

Linda Perham (Ilford, North) (Lab)

It is a great pleasure for me as the first chartered librarian to be elected to this House and as chair of the all-party group on libraries and information management to secure this debate. Libraries are the source of both knowledge and inspiration. Books—the heart of libraries—inspire and engage people of all ages and from all walks of life. They provide the information to fuel the knowledge creation of the future, and with recent investment in technology they are enhancing the UK's position as a leading knowledge society.

I was interested to read an article a bout using a library in the "How to…"column in The Guardian on 18 October 2003. It begins: Libraries are brothels for the mind. Which means that librarians are the madams, greeting punters, understanding their strange tastes and needs, and pimping their books. However, not to carry this analogy too far, my right hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith), our first Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, described libraries as "street corner universities". He was one of the early enthusiastic supporters of the all-party group, which was established in 1998 at the instigation of the Library Association, then led by the inspirational Ross Shimon.

Two years ago the Library Association metamorphosed into the Chartered Institute for Library and Information Professionals. It is the leading professional body for librarians, information specialists and knowledge managers. As chairman of the all-party group, I pay tribute to the way in which CILIP, under its excellent chief executive, Bob McKee, has helped the all-party group to raise awareness of the value of libraries to Members of both Houses and beyond.

The group also greatly appreciates the active interest of the present Secretary of State and all Ministers for the Arts since its formation. Indeed, when my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Arts was Secretary of State for Education and Skills, she kindly supported the event that the group organised in December 2001 when hon. Members presented children's books of their choice to their local children's librarians.

Hon. Members are undoubtedly aware of how much their local public libraries are valued by their constituents. I was fortunate enough to chair the leisure committee of the London borough of Redbridge in the year prior to my election to this place. I know how highly regarded are the services provided by chief librarian, Martin Timms, and his staff. Redbridge libraries have an excellent reputation, winning the charter mark award in October 2002. Between April 2002 and March 2003, 2,017,003 people visited a Redbridge library. That is the seventh highest figure in England. More than 90 per cent. of users rate the overall service highly and 92 per cent. commend the staff's knowledge and expertise.

There are thousands of libraries in this country. There are more than 4,000 public library sites in the UK, supported by more than 600 mobile libraries, not forgetting the colossal 17,000 libraries in other institutions. Libraries are found in schools, colleges, universities, workplaces, hospitals and prisons. We have six national libraries including our world-renowned British Library, so ably led by Lynne Brindley. Its collections include 150 million items in most known languages, with 3 million new items added every year. It boasts the world's largest document delivery service issuing 4 millions items a year to customers all over the world.

Books remain at the core of library service. An astonishing 116 million books are held in public libraries and 377 million loans were made last year. That is more than six loans for every person in the country. Book issues in higher education institutions total nearly 85 million.

Libraries have been quick to adapt to changing demands. As well as books, they offer compact discs, videos, learning packs, local information and access to the internet. They also offer other services, such as providing meeting areas and display spaces. Good practice exists throughout the country on how libraries are being transformed. Innovative libraries in London, such as the one opened in my borough in memory of our late council leader Keith Axon, which is designed to convert into a community centre, the Idea Store in Bow and the new Peckham library, have shown what tomorrow's libraries could and should look like.

I was delighted to be asked to attend the opening of the new Peckham library in May 2000, when we also celebrated 150 years of public libraries, especially because in the late 1960s I worked for the London borough of Southwark public libraries before university and then in vacations. The branch replaced by the new Peckham library was housed in what I remember as a corrugated-iron hut.

To give one example of innovative library projects, the annual summer reading challenge runs throughout public libraries during the school summer holidays. Almost nine out of 10 authorities take part in the annual promotion, which reaches more than 500,000 children—600,000 took part last year. Half of those children completed the challenge of reading at least six books during the summer holidays. In Redbridge last summer, 1,242 children took part, 644 of whom won medals for reaching the target, and 376 reached the local target of 24 books read. They are the library users of the future.

Our libraries are enjoyed by millions across the UK. Six out of 10 of us are members of a public library, and the service is overwhelmingly popular, as I hope my reference to services provided by my local borough of Redbridge has illustrated. Libraries have a huge potential to reach out to everyone. They are more accessible than ever: disabled access is improving, more libraries are staying open for longer hours, and 650 mobile libraries take services to even the most hard-to-reach groups. Redbridge's new mobile library, with its lift for disabled access and online link, won the "State of the Art" award in June 2002.

Libraries are the hubs of our communities. They provide a safe and friendly environment, which means that people feel at ease to try out new skills and experiences. Some 27 per cent. of regular public library users are from social classes D and E, compared with 22 per cent. of the whole population. Libraries provide spaces for young parents and toddlers, for homework clubs, and for older users to get online and learn new skills in a known and trusted environment. Digital communications are making libraries even more accessible, with the provision of online services allowing easier access to information. More than half of UK online centres are in public libraries, and the service is perhaps doing more than any other to help to ensure that we meet our targets for e-Government.

The lottery-funded People's Network, which at £120 million is the largest single information and communications technology investment in the history of the public library service, has dramatically expanded internet access. The project, managed by the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council, has successfully bridged a digital divide, opening up universal public access to the internet. Not only are there 32,000 computer terminals, but every public library staff member has been reskilled and trained in ICT. Over the past year, 23,000 people have started a formal education course online in their local library, and 62,000 report gaining a new skill. Some 8,000 people have found new jobs thanks to the People's Network, 20,000 have been able to keep in touch with their families, and 52,000 have used the People's Network for activities to support their local community. It is worth emphasising that that huge project, which is a sea change in the public library services, has been delivered on time and within budget. Importantly, more than a quarter of the people who used the People's Network last year joined their library and enjoyed the more traditional services.

I am pleased that Chris Batt, who so energetically directed the team that delivered the People's Network, has transferred his skills and experience to leading the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council. I hope that the Minister will agree that the success of the People's Network must be sustained to ensure that it remains free at the point of use, now that lottery funding from the new opportunities fund is running out.

I am confident that our libraries are performing a valuable and expanding service, but there is no room for complacency. We must invest in the future. Although there is much to be proud of, there is a lot to do. Libraries are not realising their full potential. It is all very well to call for improved stocks of material and for longer opening hours, which means paying for more staff time, but I know from bitter experience that when it comes to prioritising spending in local council budgets, those who support more resources for education, social services, roads and a host of other services are usually heeded before demands for the improvement of the library service. The reduced weighting of libraries as an indicator for comprehensive performance assessments must not enfeeble their status and high-quality service. The huge regard in which the public service is held by the British people must be recognised and rewarded.

"Framework for the Future", which was published last year, set out the Government's vision for public libraries over the next 10 years. The MLA has been charged with leading on the implementation of that vision with three central priorities: to promote reading and learning for everyone, regardless of income and background; to encourage positive access to digital skills and services; and to take a leading role in tackling social exclusion in communities. The framework also recognises the need to build on the skills and capacity of staff in the library service, particularly those who are working on the front line, so they can play their vital part in the dynamic period of change on which our public service has embarked.

There were many trail-blazing, exciting projects under way in libraries countrywide long before the announcement of the Government's new strategy, but "Framework for the Future" is now providing a framework to meld those together and turn the best national initiatives into local offers that are open to everyone. "Framework for the Future" will ensure the dynamic future development of our public libraries while safeguarding their traditional role at the heart of our local communities, which continues to be highly valued by all citizens.

Libraries cannot implement these programmes by themselves; they need support from key partnership agencies and the private sector, and sustained investment from central Government. The MLA's new investing in knowledge campaign highlights the wealth of knowledge that is contained not only in libraries, but in museums and archives, and it underpins learning, community cohesion, economic development and creativity, all of which the Government care passionately about.

At the heart of this vision is the concept of a knowledge web, which is a new approach to online access to cultural services that will give everyone, whatever their age, background and level of interest and understanding, seamless and tailored access to the collections and expertise of our knowledge institutions. The MLA is leading a consortium to agree the standards and protocols that will make that concept a reality.

The important thing is that forward-looking programmes, such as investing in knowledge, "Framework for the Future" and the People's Network, are mapping out an exciting future for public libraries. I particularly welcome the recent announcement that visits to public libraries have increased dramatically since the introduction of new services, such as the People's Network. Since 2002–03, which was the first year of the new services, there have been an astonishing 5 million additional visits across the UK. That is an excellent return on the investment, and I urge continuing commitment and support from central and local government, so that libraries can retain their position as one of our most treasured public services.

I was pleased that the importance of libraries was recognised only two days ago by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport when it sponsored a seminar at the Department, chaired by Heritage Minister Lord McIntosh and attended by councillors, library professionals and other interested parties, including myself as chair of the all-party group. In her speech, the Secretary of State challenged public libraries to offer and deliver the services that people want and to involve, engage and inspire their customers. I was delighted that Lord McIntosh took the opportunity to announce the award of £2 million to fund improvements to build on the success of the public library service.

My last job before I entered this place was in a further education college library. A student came up to me at the reference desk and asked for the "FBI Handbook". Using my professional skills, I quickly ascertained that he meant the "BFI Handbook"—the British Film Institute handbook—but, as any fan of the "X Files" knows, the truth is out there, and libraries are central to finding it.

4.16 pm
The Minister for the Arts (Estelle Morris)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, North (Linda Perham) on securing this debate. It is particularly appropriate in a week that has seen the important seminar at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, which takes forward the next stage of library celebration and reform. She has every reason to be proud of the fact that she is the first chartered librarian to sit in the House of Commons. She will understand it when I say that I hope that she is not alone in that group for long. I have always believed that one of the best ways to serve the public in the Houses of Parliament is to bring in skills and experience from the outside world. I hope that she will soon be joined by like brains and others from that sector.

Regardless of my affection for The Guardian, I much prefer to see my hon. Friend described as somebody from a street corner university than a brothel, and I am sure that all hon. Members in the Chamber would agree. I thought that the two forms of language used by The Guardian and the former Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith), illustrated how people from all walks of life can find a way with all forms of language to describe libraries and their importance in our society.

I also want to put on record my thanks to the sector in its widest form—to the MLA for its work as strategic adviser to the Government and its hard work over the past few years since it was set up in taking forward the reform agenda. I also thank the thousands of librarians whose work is sometimes not praised as much as it should be, but is taken for granted because of the success of libraries. They are such an important part of their communities.

It is a good time to discuss libraries, because, although they have been around for 150 years, this is a pivotal time for them. While not forgetting any of their successes and the contribution that they have made over the 150 years, they are looking forward to the future, to modernising and to making sure that they can fulfil their remit to our country and our communities, while adapting to new technology and the challenges faced by our communities and all parts of of our public sector.

I like to think that libraries are one of the earliest examples of public service. They are much older than many other services that now have a higher profile and they have perhaps contributed more than any other. Their aim has always been to be non discriminatory and to give everyone, regardless of their background or income, the opportunity to refer to and read books of all kinds—great works of literature, reference material, newspapers, magazines and local information—perhaps before it became fashionable to talk about opportunity and being non-discriminatory. Therefore, libraries have been centre stage in the great movements in education and self-improvement for a century and a half, and there is no doubt that that tradition continues today.

Libraries are important in their own right and we should take nothing away from that However, they also make a huge contribution to the wider aims of central and local government. Libraries play an immense part in other areas of policy and activity. They help to raise standards in our schools, and have done so for many a year, and provide activities mentioned by my hon. Friend, such as the "Books for Babies" scheme, reader development schemes and homework clubs. Libraries contribute to older people's quality of life and give, as she said, a safe community space for people to meet.

They promote the health of communities by providing health-related advice and promotions. Libraries are key to promoting the economic vitality of communities, in a way that is not often recognised, through their support for learning in communities, including providing adult basic skills and giving safe places to learn for many types of people let down by formal learning establishments. Libraries also provide skills and information for small and medium-sized companies. They are a huge resource for the people of this country, and they help the Government to address their key priorities.

However, as the 2002 Audit Commission report "Building Better Libraries" reflected, physical visits to libraries and the borrowing of books have been in decline in the past couple of decades. That is not to say that all our library services were poor as we reached the new millennium; we recognised that there were many examples of good practice. However, we know that such examples were not copied by everybody and were not shared throughout the sector. Much of the challenge now is not to reinvent things, or create things that are not already there, but to make sure that all libraries practise at the level of the best.

As my hon. Friend said, it is pleasing that in 2002–03, the number of visits to public libraries rose by nearly 5 million across the UK, turning the trend of the previous decades. Although it is too early to say, I am confident that that is the beginning of a set of statistics that will show increasing visits to libraries in the years to come.

Linda Perham

I should like to follow my right hon. Friend's point by referring to the number of book issues declining. Although there have been 5 million extra library visits, perhaps connected with the online provision, she will agree that people do not go to libraries just to borrow books. Many other services are available. They may go in just to look at things, so the increased visits are not much of an indicator about the value of libraries, or how much they are used.

Estelle Morris

My hon. Friend is right; that is one statistic among many that we need to consider when we look at the usage of libraries and how well received they are by the community. One thing sometimes leads to another; libraries have faced up to a responsibility to contribute to wider agendas, and getting people into them is one way to get people used to reading books. As she says, both things need to be done to get more books into libraries. We do not want to replace books with computers; we do not ever want a situation in which people can go to libraries only to access a wider range of services than the core services.

There is a challenge, about which nobody is complacent. In February last year, our response to that challenge was to publish "Framework for the Future", the first ever national strategy for public libraries. It sets out the long-term strategic vision for public libraries. The Department commissioned the MLA to prepare a three-year plan that would begin to turn this vision into a reality. The plan was published in September 2003, funded with £3 million over three years. Through that action plan, we hope to work further with libraries and local authorities on revitalising libraries and making sure that they are able to meet the challenges.

The action plan focuses on a number of major activities, many of which are helping libraries to build capacity. As my hon. Friend said, it was good news that, at Monday's seminar, we were able to announce a further £2 million over this year and the next one to help with that capacity building.

I want to mention five initiatives that will be taken forward as part of the work that the MLA is doing with the sector. The first point is that it is important to ensure that people know about the contribution that public libraries can make and, equally, to ensure that libraries know what local communities want. I do not like the phrase "marketing of the libraries" and I would much rather say "communication between the libraries and the people that they serve." One of the priorities will be to ensure that people know about the libraries and that they are aware of what the community wants.

The second point is about ensuring that the good practice that exists in libraries is spread throughout the sector. I am particularly pleased that the difference in the quality of library services across the country will be tacked by what we might term "peer review". We must ensure that library staff can learn from the best and that is why we are setting up teams, which are based around the Improvement and Development Agency peer review system. They will bring together library leaders and staff to work with individual authorities alongside local staff. Through the framework action plan, we are able to make funding available to those library services so that they can implement their local improvement plans. I hope that the ideas of using mentors and secondees, and pairing up with other authorities—what is essentially good practice in professional development in many other sectors of our lives—becomes embedded and accepted as good practice in libraries.

Thirdly, it is crucial that libraries make the best use of the funding that is available to them. That is why we are commissioning a review of library funding and how books are bought; we want to establish good practice. I hope that that might include different local authorities working together more effectively, perhaps on a regional or sub-regional basis. Lessons could be learned from the book or retail trades. We ought not to think that they are separate and that they have not got things to learn from each other. That is a challenging agenda and it calls for a major change in the way that libraries operate. However, it is one that is important if we are to transform public libraries so that they are credible and sustainable.

Fourthly, libraries can continue to play a key role in education. "Frame work for the Future" has identified five major ways in which libraries already make a contribution to learning: early years services, out-of-school-hours learning, work with disengaged young people, services for adult learners and high-quality reading activities for adults, which promote the enjoyment of books. I want to pay tribute to the work that the Book Trust has done, in particular in managing the work that has been done with Sure Start and other organisations that work with young children, their parents and their community.

Fifthly, I want to discuss leadership and work force development. None of the wider agenda, and our aspirations for the sector, will work unless we begin to give people who work in it the skills that they need. That is why I am particularly delighted that the MLA is developing a national leadership training programme, which should improve the potential of 450 senior or younger library staff. They will be able to help us to manage that change.

There is no doubt that libraries have not lost their popular appeal. There have been stages in the course of a century and a half when they have been more used or less used. However, nobody has ever stopped seeing them as central to their communities. As elected representatives, we all know the passion that exists when anyone's library is closed. Even people who do not use them want to know that they are there at the centre of their community for when they are needed. The decisions that we take in response to the framework, the work that the MLA and the sector are doing to take on the challenges of 21st century society, and the way that people still want to have affection for libraries but want them to modernise to help people cope with their lives and challenges will set in train the role that libraries can play in our country for the next century and a half. I wish them well, and I think that we have made a good start.

I thank my hon. Friend, not only for securing the debate, but for the work that she does with the all-party group to ensure that libraries stay at the forefront of Parliament's agenda.