HC Deb 18 December 1995 vol 268 cc850-2W
Mr. Waterson

To ask the Secretary of State for National Heritage if she will make a statement on the public library review following the publication of the ASLIB report and the subsequent consultation exercise. [7149]

Mrs. Virginia Bottomley

The provision of the public library service is a statutory responsibility of local authorities, in England and Wales under the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964. The legislation provides a broad framework, requiring local authorities to provide a "comprehensive and efficient" library service but leaving the details of how the service is to be provided to local decision making; we do not intend to change these arrangements. My responsibility, under the same Act, is to superintend and promote the improvement of the service and to secure the proper discharge by local authorities of their functions in relation to libraries. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales has an equivalent responsibility in Wales.

Libraries are of great value in our national life. They introduce children to the world of books and reading, and foster their interest through adulthood. They offer lifelong support for learning and education. They are important sources of reference material and public information. They give individuals and businesses access to an information base of commercial and economic importance.

This is a time of major change for the direction and management of the public library service, especially given the continuing revolution in information technology. To address these new demands, the Government have launched a number of major initiatives in the library and information sector.

Potentially the most far-reaching of these is the public library review. This demonstrated the importance attached to libraries by the public and examined a number of fundamental issues:

the nature of the public library service in England and Wales. and how it should respond to changing demands;how each library authority can provide a clear specification of what it sets out to achieve;how performance can be effectively monitored and the results published;how to involve the private sector, to diversify sources of funding and to take maximum advantage for the community of the national resource which public libraries represent;the use of information technology in public libraries; andfuture arrangements for co-operation between library authorities. including the role of the regions in England.

The responses to these issues, and others posed by documents such as report on library services for children and young people "Investing in Children", deserve serious and detailed consideration. My Advisory Council on Libraries and the Library and Information Commission, among others, will have an important contribution to make. The Library and Information Services Council (Wales) will similarly be providing advice to my right hon. Friend. I intend to report on the issues further in a policy paper to be published next year.

I am pleased to take this opportunity to announce a successor scheme to the public library development incentive scheme, to run from April 1996, which will match central Government funding to local resources. It will focus on practical proposals for library development in the context of the issues outlined above, and will give priority to projects with the widest potential application and relevance.

Like all public services, libraries must justify the level of financial support they receive and express clearly their role, in terms which can be easily understood. Under section 7 of the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964, a library authority has a duty to provide a comprehensive and efficient library service. In fulfilling this duty, a library authority is required to have regard to the desirability of a number of factors: encouraging people to make full use of the library service; providing advice on its use; and having facilities available for people to borrow or refer to books and other materials which are sufficient in number, range and quality to meet both the general and special requirements of adults and children. In Wales, public library services are provided in both English and Welsh as appropriate, having regard to the linguistic character of the area served. It is not the Government's intention to move away from this definition, but to illustrate it in support of our statutory role to "superintend and promote" public libraries in England and Wales.

The consultants' report on the public library review, the publication of which my predecessor announced in his answer of 16 May, Official Report, columns 150–51, covered a range of subjects in considerable detail. However, I believe that in dealing with the core functions of public libraries, it attempted to be all-inclusive and it confused the different functions and objectives of public libraries.

In the Government's view, the most important functions of the public library service are:

  1. (i) providing reading for pleasure
  2. (ii) enlightening children and developing lifelong reading skills and habits in adults
  3. (iii) encouraging lifelong learning and study
  4. (iv) providing reference material including public information about local and national Government and EU publications, current affairs, and business information
  5. (v) providing materials for the study of local history and the local environment

To carry out these functions, libraries must by statute provide books and other printed material, such as periodicals, as well as "other materials". Many libraries now provide a wide range of non-book materials such as cassette and video tapes, multi-media and open learning packages, talking books, compact discs, CD-ROMs and other new media. Libraries are also expected to provide suitable places and facilities, and assist users in directing them to the appropriate material. To encourage access and use by the widest range of the local population, public libraries frequently serve a variety of cultural needs and provide special materials such as large print books and sub-titled videos. They also provide services for the housebound, as well as providing disabled access to, and within, library buildings.

My right hon. Friend and I should like to make it clear once again that the Government have no plans to privatise the public library service. However, as with all public services, the Government are concerned that it should be run as efficiently as possible. The public library service has already developed, and continues to develop, creative partnerships with the private sector, including the voluntary tendering of certain areas of support services. Following the publication of the consultant's report into contracting out, which I announced to Parliament on 19 July, Official Report, columns 1457–58, the Government are continuing to consider steps that might be taken to encourage more effective management of public libraries and to involve the private sector more in providing library services. There are a number of options, and I shall make a further statement to the House on these matters next year.

The public library service is a great British success story. Its quality and professionalism is admired worldwide. The local public library is freely available to everyone and is used regularly by a wide cross-section of society. For many people, the public library is their cultural centre and their university—a means of access to the world of information, knowledge and works of creative imagination. For children, the public library is often where they begin to read and to learn. For many older people, the public library also provides their meeting place and their community centre, and reading is at the heart of their quality of life.

The Government recognise the importance of the public library service, and are committed to its development and improvement as we face the challenges of the future.