Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) (by private notice) : To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs what steps are now being taken by Her Majesty's Government to send essential aid supplies to the people of Afghanistan.
The Minister for Overseas Development (Mr. Chris Patten) : We have provided £60 million of aid for the victims of war in Afghanistan since 1980, including £10 million in the current financial year. In addition, I have just agreed a further contribution of £500,000, particularly to meet the needs of mothers and children. Two hundred and fifty thousand pounds of this is being channelled through UNICEF and £250,000 is for the relief programmes of the International Committee of the Red Cross.
Mr. Winnick : As someone who opposed the Russian occupation of Afghanistan from the beginning-- [Interruption.] I did. I immediately tabled an early-day motion in January 1980--I am pleased that the Russians are finally leaving. I note what the Minister has just said about aid to Afghanistan. Would it not be unforgiveable if the leading powers simply looked on, because of the political situation in that country, while people are starving? Is it not absolutely essential for Britain to co-operate fully with the United Nations to ensure that aid continues to be given? Finally, will the Minister comment on the report in today's Evening Standard that various factions of the resistance movement are threatening to fire on planes bringing aid? If that is so, will they not bear the responsibility for all the distress which will be caused if supplies do not reach that country?
Mr. Patten : I am delighted to make it clear to the hon. Gentleman and the House, in case there is any doubt about the matter, that we have not used, do not use and will not ever use the denial of food or medicines in order to try to accomplish political objectives. We have made it absolutely clear that we distinguish between humanitarian assistance channelled through international relief agencies and assistance for development purposes to a particular Government or regime. I wish that everybody else took the same view. We were one of the first and most generous contributors of relief in Afghanistan in the camps along the Afghan border. We shall continue to provide assistance as and when we can. I am delighted to report that the executive director of UNICEF has telegraphed us today to thank us for our latest contribution.
Mr. David Atkinson (Bournemouth, East) : Does my hon. Friend agree that, apart from the provision of food and medical aid, one of the greatest threats to the existing Afghan population, as well as returning refugees, is the millions of unexploded mines and shells which threaten to maim children as well as adults? What help does Britain propose to give to train the returning refugees in mine awareness and clearance?
Mr. Patten : We have had a mission in Pakistan talking to the United Nations co-ordinator on that very point ; we shall continue to give assistance in so far as we can so that the mines can be cleared. As my hon. Friend said, they represent a substantial danger to the returning population.
Column 982We must all want to see as many Afghans as possible return in safety and honour to their country over the next few months.
Mr. David Steel (Tweeddale, Ettrick and Launderdale) : The present aid that the Minister has announced for UNICEF and Red Cross operations in Afghanistan is warmly welcomed. Will he reaffirm his support for Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan's determination that humanitarian aid should be given, regardless of political discrimination? Will he accept that it is unfortunate that any earlier statements from the Foreign Office gave the contrary impression?
Mr. Patten : Yes, I am certainly very happy to give the commitment that the right hon. Gentleman seeks. We will continue to provide assistance from time to time as we are requested to do so. I think I am right in saying that the £10 million to which I referred earlier was provided by us before Prince Sadruddin was given his present job. I am pleased that I have had the opportunity to clear up any misunderstanding that may have existed.
Sir John Stanley (Tonbridge and Malling) : Will my hon. Friend accept that, in view of the serious suffering and malnutrition of children in Kabul--we have witnessed the scenes on our television screens--we welcome very much what he has said so far about the level of aid that has been provided? But, as the situation may well get worse, can he give the House an assurance that he will keep under review the figure that he has announced?
Mr. Patten : Yes, I am happy to give my right hon. Friend that assurance. I anticipate being able to tell the House, at intervals over the coming weeks and months, of further contributions that we have made to the relief operations in Kabul and elsewhere in Afghanistan.
Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) : Will the Minister confirm that at our meeting last week--I refer to the deputation about the question of overseas aid generally--he said he would be only too willing to search for projects in order to try to reach the figure of 0.7 per cent. of GDP for overseas aid generally? He has a long way to go and has plenty of money to play with, so we could find adequate resources for those in Afghanistan. Will he also confer with his colleagues concerning the fact that there is little point in sending food while at the same time Britain is using agencies to send in arms and weapons of war, which are probably going to Pakistan to keep the fight going? We need to feed the millions of people in Afghanistan, but there is no need for Britain, through its agencies, to continue this war.
Mr. Patten : I can assure the hon. Gentleman that one of the high spots of my year so far has been the meeting that I had with him the other day. I was particularly pleased to be able to explain to him--to his satisfaction, I thought--that the United Kingdom's aid programme was now increasing in real terms. One of the ways in which we will continue to use our aid is by providing humanitarian assistance in countries like Afghanistan, and our record in Afghanistan is pretty well as good as anyone's.
Mr. John Bowis (Battersea) : My hon. Friend's announcement of additional support for the people of Afghanistan is very welcome, but will he take note of today's reports that aeroplanes carrying aid into Afghanistan have had to turn back because the crews are
Column 983nervous about going to that country? If necessary, will he talk to his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence and others to see whether we could provide the wherewithal to get the supplies in ourselves by way of air support?
Mr. Patten : I do not know exactly why the United Nations air lift has taken rather longer than it would have liked, literally, to get off the ground, but we must hope that it will manage to start soon. I do not believe that the conversation my hon. Friend has suggesed would be either sensible or fruitful.
Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) : I do not think that the Minister fully understood the question that my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) put to him earlier. Surely my hon. Friend's point was that the flow of arms into Afghanistan must be staunched. Otherwise the war is going to intensify, as will the problems for the civilian population of Afghanistan, and further food and medical aid will be necessary as a result. Will the Minister make whatever representations he can, and will he ask his right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State to make representations, to ensure that the peace accord that brought about the Soviet withdrawal is adhered to by all sides so that genuine peace can return to Afghanistan?
Mr. Alastair Goodlad (Eddisbury) : Is my hon. Friend aware that his comments this afternoon are broadly welcomed in the House? Will he also confirm that the task of reconstruction in Afghanistan will require substantial amounts of external assistance and that he is in touch with his counterparts in other countries and with multilateral agencies to ensure that such assistance will be forthcoming?
Mr. Patten : I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. I am sure that all hon. Members look forward to the day when we can work with a broad -based Government in Afghanistan formed as a result of a genuine act of self-determination--in other words, when we can have a normal aid relationship with a broad-based Government in that country.
Miss Joan Lestor (Eccles) : I am very glad that the hon. Gentleman has cleared up the difficulties and confusion about the press reports. I am not sure whether they were false or whether there has been a change of heart. Bearing in mind the General Assembly resolution last November which stated that aid should go to all Afghans irrespective of political labels, some of us were very confused when we read in the press on Monday that Britain had ordered that its £10 million contribution must not be used for emergency food supplies. Will the Minister confirm that the press got it wrong? I was very glad to hear his correction.
I understand that at 11 o'clock this morning--and there has been no correction about this--the plane had not left the ground because the crew were afraid. If the provision of food and blankets for those people, including many children, who are in dire straits is urgent, is it not possible to consider military escort? If the fear is as great as it appears to be, are there any other ways to ensure that the relief reaches those people?
Mr. Patten : On the second point, the international relief agencies use other channels to ensure that they can maintain their medical and supplementary feeding programmes. However, it would not be particularly wise of me to set out for the House the exact nature of those channels. On the first point, our policy is consistent and it has not changed. I recognise that very often the best way to keep a secret is to make a statement in this House ; however, I hope that people will take notice of what I have said today at the Dispatch Box.
The Minister for the Arts (Mr. Richard Luce) : With permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to make a statement about public libraries. My principal concern is to facilitate the improvement of the public library service for the benefit of its users. I want to give the service access to additional sources of revenue, while preserving the principle of free access to the basic service. It was for this reason that I issued last February a Green Paper, inviting views on how we might improve the present service still further.
The Green Paper evoked a notable response. About 7,000 individuals and organisations replied, 2,000 of them by personal letter. There has been a vigorous and healthy debate and I am grateful to those who took trouble to let me know their concerns. I have arranged for a summary of their responses to be placed in the Library of the House. The Green Paper addressed two related groups of topics. First, the encouragement of joint ventures with the private sector and the possibility of further moves towards contracting out--measures which do not require legislation. Secondly, the correction of anomalies in library authorities' present powers to charge and the possibility of widening those powers--measures which do require legislation. There was wide support for joint ventures with both public and private sector bodies. To encourage their wider introduction, I will undertake a programme of case studies, provide pump- priming funds for selected schemes through my public library development incentive scheme, and look for other cost-effective ways of helping possible partners, including voluntary agencies, to get together.
Many who commented adversely on contracting out assumed wrongly that it was equivalent to privatisation of the library service. Library authorities will remain responsible for the nature and quality of any service that they contract out. The only purpose of contracting out is to produce as good a service at less cost, or a better service at the same price. I believe that the practicability and value for money of that approach should be tested. I shall commission some work to examine that approach, involving those authorities that have expressed interest. If it seems satisfactory, I will fund some pilot investigations.
I turn to the question of charging. Although there was general support for a free basic service, there was no consensus on what it should cover or how it should be defined. I concluded that it will be necessary to adopt the alternative approach, mentioned in the Green Paper, of specifying those services for which charges may be made. I propose doing that by regulations to be made, in association with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales, under an enabling power contained in the Local Government and Housing Bill presented to the House on 1 February by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment. I will specify in a moment the particular powers that I intend introducing in that way.
Before doing so, I remind the House of an important safeguard for free access to the library service that we have built into the Local Government and Housing Bill. We have excluded from the scope of the enabling power two main elements that are generally regarded as the core of the free public library service. They are, first, the
Column 986borrowing--by any person living, working or studying full-time in the area of an English or Welsh library authority--of books, journals and pamphlets availabe within a library or mobile library of that authority ; secondly, the use for reference and consultation purposes of all such materials and microform materials, or any catalogue of the authority's own holdings, by any person within a library of that authority. That statutory safeguard demonstrates our commitment to maintaining the essential core of a free public library service. Subject to that major safeguard, I propose, in due course, using the power in the Bill, to make regulations to preserve the powers to charge currently contained in the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964, to correct certain anomalies and to introduce modest new charging powers. The relevant regulations will be subject to affirmative resolution by Parliament.
I intend giving library authorities power to charge for : obtaining and notifying the availability or non-availability of an item reserved, subject to a limit that we shall prescribe ; damage to materials and equipment ; the borrowing of certain non-print materials for which a charging power would be appropriate ; the late return of borrowed materials ; articles that become the property of the person to whom they are supplied ; the use within the library of certain facilities, such as computers.
I also propose giving library authorities power to charge for assistance given by library staff--for example, in helping a person conduct research among a library's materials, over and above what can reasonably be expected as part of a general service. It seems reasonable to us that the library authorities should have discretion to charge for special services involving their staff in more than half an hour's work.
All the powers will be discretionary. Authorities will be able to decide whether or not to charge for any service. When they do decide to charge, they will be able to decide whom they charge and the concessions that they give. We will also have powers to require that those charges are made known in advance to members of the public. We will not take powers to proceed with certain other measures, such as book premium subscription services or charges for special book collections.
We will carry out further consultations before the appropriate regulations are introduced. We shall also consider with local authority associations and others how more library authorities can be encouraged to reinvest in their library services a substantial part of the income that the services earn. We know how beneficial an incentive that practice can be to development. I believe that those changes will help to improve still further our splendid public library service.
Mr. Mark Fisher (Stoke-on-Trent, Central) : I welcome the statement, and congratulate the Minister on his courage in coming to give it orally to the House. This must rate as one of the most embarrassing and humiliating climbdowns by any Minister in recent times. Every proposal that the Minister put forward in his Green Paper he has had to abandon in the face of the intelligent criticism that he has received from all around the country.
That, however, in no way compensates for the form in which this new piece of non-legislation will be introduced. It is a sad but accurate reflection of the lack of importance that the Government ascribe to the public library service that the legislation should appear as clause 124 of the
Column 987Local Government and Housing Bill. It will be seen through its Committee stage by the Secretary of State for the Environment, whose tender concern for the public library service is a byword in the House. We believe that the service is of great cultural importance and deserves the attention of the Minister responsible, in this instance the Minister for the Arts, and we wish that he had sufficient spirit to fight for his own service rather than allowing it to be handled by other Ministers behind his back.
We welcome the Minister's constructive reply to the 7,000 responses that he received, which utterly rejected his absurd and dangerous ideas such as the premium book lending scheme and compulsory tendering for services to old people's homes. In particular, we welcome the news that there will be no new definition of the core service, that services to old people's homes will not be put out to competitive tender, that there will be no new definition of who is and who is not eligible to use public library services and that libraries will continue to serve free of charge companies, corporate bodies and collective bodies as well as individuals.
Will the Minister confirm that charges will not be possible for inter- library loans, that no authority will be able to introduce a premium book lending scheme, and that the proposed legislation applies only to England and Wales? Will he tell us what will happen about libraries in Scotland? Above all, will he confirm that library authorities will be free to decide not to charge for new services, and that there will be no element of compulsion?
In short, will the Minister confirm that all that clause 124 of the Local Government and Housing Bill does is clarify sections 7 and 8 of the 1964 Act, and that he got it completely wrong in his Green Paper? In doing so he wasted a great deal of public money, and alienated any remaining good will that his Government might have in the public library service since so under -funding and reducing support for it. At least the statement makes it clear that the exercise has been unnecessary, and shows the public how little the Government care for the public library services--as for all other services that local authorities provide.
Mr. Luce : That was the most awful lot of fabricated hot air that I have heard from the hon. Gentleman for some time. Whether it meant that he really agrees with what I am doing I am not entirely sure, but that may well be precisely what he means.
As far as I am aware, this is the first time in history that we have had a public debate on such a scale about our library system. A Green Paper has been produced and there has been much constructive discussion, and my concern now is to ensure that we find ways of improving our excellent public libraries still further. The suggestion that all the proposals in the Green Paper have been rejected and that I have decided to implement none of them is absolute nonsense from beginning to end. I have rejected some, such as the premium service, because I do not consider them worth pursuing, but my statement listed a range of effective measures that I propose to introduce. I might add that much of what I propose covers anomalies that existed under Labour Governments in the 1960s and 1970s. I think, therefore, that underneath it all the hon. Gentleman must agree with everything that I am doing.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned clause 124 of the Local Government and Housing Bill. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment and I, along with
Column 988other Government colleagues, have made it clear since July 1987 that the Government as a whole would introduce enabling powers to allow certain local government services to be chargeable, and that among those services would be library provision. It seems logical, following that and having said that the Government would legislate, that we should provide a clause in the Bill to do just that. We are fulfilling an undertaking that the Government gave in 1987. Believing as I do in maximum discussion and open government, I believed that there should be discussions after the Green Paper about the future of the library service and the right way to proceed. I believe that we have had sensible discussions.
The hon. Gentleman asks about inter-library lending. In the 1960s and 1970s under Labour Governments there was freedom to charge for inter-library services, and that is what happens today. I have already explained that the measure applies to England and Wales but not to Scotland. That is a matter for my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland.
Mr. Toby Jessel (Twickenham) : Does not my right hon. Friend's excellent decision to continue to uphold the entirely free lending of library books give the lie to the irresponsible scaremongering of Left-wing local authorities and Opposition Members?
Mr. Luce : My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I have provided an additional safeguard for the core library services in clause 124 of the Local Government and Housing Bill, but in a handout to the public Derbyshire county council said that it believed that the Green Paper meant that the Government were planning to charge everybody, even children, for the free service. That was a total and utter distortion of what the Green Paper said.
Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness and Sutherland) : Does the Minister agree that the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher) appeared to be looking a gift horse in the mouth? The Minister's climbdown is entirely welcome. The proposal that there should continue to be a basic free library service throughout the country would have appealed to a capitalist such as Andrew Carnegie. Even the late Joe Orton would have seen a good deal of sense in the Minister's proposal to charge for damage to library books.
We welcome in particular the Minister's decision to scrap the proposal for a premium book service, which was always nonsense, and his proposal that there should be an annual fee to secure access to more popular books, as well as his decision to scrap the proposal to charge for the lending of books that are brought in from another library. That decision supports the concept that the library service is a national service. We see much cause for rejoicing in the Minister's repentance, and we shall take it in our stride that he has allowed these matters to be delegated to the Secretary of State for the Environment.
Mr. Luce : I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his remarks. I made it plain in the Green Paper that the Government intend to maintain a free basic service, and there has been no change. Since the Green Paper was published, however, various people have deliberately misrepresented what I said in it. I gave as an example Derbyshire county council, but there are many others. I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's support. As for the inter-library lending service, I have already made it clear
Column 989that I intend to introduce a discretionary right to charge for the reservation of books, but there will be an upper prescribed limit of £1.50.
Mr. Timothy Raison (Aylesbury) : Is my right hon. Friend aware that there will be a wide welcome for his decision that the lending of the printed word will continue to be free? Is he also aware that most people will see the very good sense of introducing new discretionary charges as a means of supporting the amount of revenue that is available to the library service? Will his sensible proposals for some experiments in contracting out be kept within a specific time scale?
Mr. Luce : I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his remarks. I have already explained that I shall be introducing regulations concerning discretionary charges, and they will be subject to affirmative resolution. Before that, however, I have undertaken to hold consultations with the revelant authorities and with anybody else who is concerned, so there is plenty of scope for consultation. I shall proceed as rapidly as I can with a study of the practical problems of sub-contracting. I hope to identify particular local authorities that would like to co-operate in pilot investigations.
Mr. Jeff Rooker (Birmingham, Perry Barr) : Is it not the case that, when the Department of the Environment comes to determine the rate support grant, or the revenue support grant when we have the poll tax, assumptions will be made about what local authorities should obtain from charges, even though they are discretionary, as a way of fixing the grant level? Is this not a back-door method of pushing local authorities to make these charges? Will the Minister explain how his statement will affect libraries that do not operate in one building as they used to do? In my constituency, one school library in a school with 2,000 pupils is run by the public library service ; it is the public library, and the public can walk in and use it. Another library organises book fairs to encourage people to come and look at books. Will they be pushed to charge for organising such activities? If they are, that will be a thundering disgrace.
Mr. Luce : On the hon. Member's first question, I must remind him, as I stress time and again, that the powers being given are discretionary. It will be totally up to local authorities whether to make charges and if they do they can decide in what areas they will make them and what concessions they will grant to particular categories of people. There is no change on that. I am seeking to give local authorities scope to raise resources that will enable them further to improve the service to users. That is the main objective of the statement. The position remains precisely the same for school libraries, hospital libraries and prison service libraries. Since the 1964 Act, it has been possible for local authorities to provide services, often with special financing arrangements, to schools, hospital authorities and others. There is no change from the charging position that existed under Labour Governments.
Mr. Patrick Cormack (Staffordshire, South) : Is my right hon. Friend aware that the rather churlish reply of the listening party to the listening Minister will not be echoed throughout the country? Most people will be
Column 990extremely glad that he has listened to representations and has produced an exceptionally balanced and fair statement and has given the strongest safeguard ever for the free lending of books to people who want to borrow them.
Mr. Luce : I am very grateful for my hon. Friend's remarks. When I introduced the Green Paper I said that we would continue to have a basic, free service. I thought that would be strengthened by introducing, as I have, the safeguard in the Bill.
Mr. Merlyn Rees (Morley and Leeds, South) : May I declare an interest? My background owes a great deal to the use of a public library. When one went to school and stayed on while so many did not, it was beneficial to use "research" facilities in the local library. May I ask the Minister about section 10 of his statement which is about charging for "unreasonable research"? How will that be determined? What is reasonable and what is unreasonable? Surely it is not for local authorities of any persuasion to tell a young person trying to study that the information that he is asking for is unreasonable when they would not know.
Mr. Luce : I appreciate exactly what the right hon. Gentleman is saying, and I also appreciate his support, which is shared by the vast majority of the British public, for our public library system, which is one of the best in the world. We should also understand the scale and nature of the changes that have taken place in our library system in the last 25 years or so. The range of expert specialist information that is now available in public libraries is enormous. Many businesses, scholars and other people wish to draw upon the services of public libraries. If a local authority feels that it wishes to introduce discretionary charges for businesses or people or any specialist group that wishes to use more staff time than the 30 minutes that I have chosen, then it is reasonable to allow discretion to make a charge.
Sir Geoffrey Finsberg (Hampstead and Highgate) : May I, as a former public library committee chairman, thank my right hon. Friend for what he has said, and for keeping Colonel Sibthorpe firmly in his grave? Will he say yet again how monstrous it was for local authorities such as Camden to encourage by scare tactics pensioners to write to their Members of Parliament saying that the Green Paper was intended to bring in a charge for the public library service? Will he try to educate Opposition spokesmen about the difference between a Green Paper and a White Paper?
Mr. Luce : My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Her Majesty's Opposition do not understand what true consultation really means. A Green Paper is for the process of public discussion about the right thing to do. My hon. Friend is right to say that some sections of the community deliberately went out of their way to distort what we were proposing for discussion in the Green Paper, and the Government's intentions. I have given some examples and my hon. Friend has given another. They are now seen to be very foolish for what they did. Several Hon. Members rose --
Mr. Speaker : Order. I must have regard to the subsequent business and I have to tell the House that no fewer than 35 right hon. and hon. Members are seeking to take part in the broadcasting debate. We have a ten- minute rule application as well. I shall allow questions
Column 991on this to go on for a further 15 minutes, bearing in mind that the matter will be discussed in debates on the Local Government and Housing Bill.
Mr. Norman Buchan (Paisley, South) : Why does the Minister expect to get credit for withdrawing a statement that should never have been made in the first place? Is it not rather like saying, "We are going to break your fingers," and then when that does not happen we have to say, "Thank you very much"? It is monstrous that the suggestion of a charge for borrowing should ever have been made. We are delighted that the lady was for turning and that our books are not for burning. The Minister must come back with better than this.
Why does the right hon. Gentleman confuse the nature of libraries? In this age, why should the use of computers be charged for any more than a reference book should be charged for? Lastly, we are delighted that he is to keep his hands off Scotland.
Mr. Luce : It is not I who suggested that the Government proposed an end to the free basic service. That was suggested in certain other quarters, including one or two unions and one or two county and district councils that I have already quoted. I made our position quite clear in the Green Paper, and I have not changed one bit on that. There has been no change as far as I am concerned. As the hon. Gentleman has said, none of this applies directly to Scotland. He also knows that since the 1964 Act successive Governments have had certain powers to charge. Labour Governments did not choose to change that in any way or to restrict the powers of the 1964 Act. As I see it, my job all along has been to overcome some of the grey areas, the anomalies that exist and that have been growing because the nature of libraries has changed. Libraries have expanded and the amount of information at their disposal has changed. We need to adjust to that.
Sir Hector Monro (Dumfries) : I declare an interest. Does my right hon. Friend agree that some of his many excellent recommendations may be difficult to implement if we lose the net book agreement? Is he prepared to have discussions with his right hon. Friend about that and will he confirm that the library licence will continue?
Mr. Luce : As my hon. Friend knows, the net book agreement is primarily a matter for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry who at the moment is undertaking a study on general competition policies. No doubt this matter can be incorporated in that study. As I say, that is primarily a matter for my right hon. Friend, but my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro) is right to draw my attention to it because it is a matter of general concern in terms of the levels of readership in this country. I did not quite catch the second part of my hon. Friend's question.
Mr. Peter Hardy (Wentworth) : The Minister may feel that he could have presented worse proposals to the House, but does he not understand that some of his proposals will lead to the Government being regarded as meaner in spirit and more attached to dogma than some of the less philanthropic Victorian captains of industry? Does
Column 992he accept that there are those--perhaps some of them are his advisers--who are eager to see greater uniformity? Will he make it quite clear that uniformity will not be an aspect of Government policy, and certainly not if it is to be applied at the lowest standard?
Mr. Luce : Why the hon. Gentleman should reach the conclusion that these proposals contain an intention to restrict libraries--he referred to a meaner spirit--I do not know. The whole purpose of this exercise is to give library authorities the scope to improve their services still further by making charges in reasonable sectors, which will be the subject of further debate in the House as a result of the regulations. My simple concern is to enable our efficient library service to improve still further, and to give it scope both to do that and to provide an even better service to the user. As to uniformity, I make it plain again that the power is discretionary, and the local authority alone can charge what it decides to charge, or can decide not to charge at all.
Mr. Barry Field (Isle of Wight) : My right hon. Friend may not be aware that the Isle of Wight had the first comprehensive free lending library service, long before the public library service. The announcement that he has made today will be widely welcomed. Is my right hon. Friend aware of the considerable financial liability of local authorities that have to provide a prison book service, particularly to prisons holding international terrorists who require books in other languages, which are extremely expensive? My right hon. Friend has already alluded to the prison service. Will anything in his statement enable a more realistic charge to be made to the Home Office?
Mr. Luce : My hon. Friend has drawn attention to an important point. Libraries provide a wide range of special services, including library services to prisons, schools, hospitals and old people's homes. Under my proposals, the position on such services would not change. There has always been discretion to make special financial arrangements with the authorities in charge--as he rightly says, in the case of prisons it is the Home Office, and in the case of schools, it is the school service--about the charges to be made for those services.
Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow) : Will free photocopies of scientific periodicals still be available from Boston Spa? If I were to send the Minister a great deal of evidence that I have had in the course of preparing for the third Dainton lecture for the British Library from the universities of Hull, Leeds, Birmingham, Cambridge and Norwich--this shows that the price of scientific periodicals has gone up faster than the average inflation rate, creating a real problem for university libraries-- would he consider that specially expensive form of scientific information through periodicals and books?
Mr. Luce : I will give thought to the point raised by the hon. Gentleman and give him a fuller answer by letter. As he knows, Boston Spa is part of the British Library, and what I am proposing here affects only the general public library system.
Mr. John Bowis (Battersea) : I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend's announcements on continuing free access to the library book and the modest increase in opportunities to bring extra income to the library service. However, will he reconsider his suggestion that one of the criteria on research aspects be half an hour, because half
Column 993an hour may have more to do with the ability of the librarian than the complexity of the research? Will he also consider ensuring that whatever criteria are used should be clearly labelled as such and publicised for the people using the service?
Mr. Luce : Of course I will take my hon. Friend's point into account. As I have already stressed, we shall have consultation on the proposals before regulations are introduced. The regulations will not be introduced until after the Local Government and Housing Bill receives Royal Assent.
Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South) : Do the joint ventures that the Minister is proposing mean that libraries will be splattered with advertisements? The private sector does not show any genuine altruism in these matters. What about this half-hour charge? Does this mean-minded measure mean that people who are, for example, disabled, slow to move or slow to read will face a penalty charge? If it is to apply to the public at large, will it apply to Members of Parliament? Will they be charged, or will there be one rule for Members of Parliament and one for the public outside, who are facing the imposition of charges by this mean-minded group of Tories?
Mr. Luce : Once again, there was rather a lot of hot air in that question, but I shall ignore that and answer the specific questions. There is a great deal of support for joint ventures between the public library service and the private sector, which cover a range of services in which value for money and better services can be achieved--for example, in publishing and information. There is a joint venture experiment on ethnic minorities with Asian publications in Leicestershire, and an experiment on information services in Gateshead. We are trying to harness the private and public sectors to provide better services.
As to the hon. Gentleman's second point, there was considerable support in response to the Green Paper for some kind of charge for what was described as the value-added services, or fee-based research--that is to say, services that provide extra benefits to users through more speedy delivery of the information or a more convenient or special service. I thought it only right that we should consider providing a charge under that umbrella. I am open to persuasion, argument and discussion about the time scale of this.
Mr. Chris Butler (Warrington, South) : Will my right hon. Friend confirm that any extra revenue raised by the charges will not end up in the Exchequer, but will be recycled to the benefit of basic library services? Will he also confirm that there is already great variation between library authorities in the amount raised from charges, partly because there is confusion about the exact legal status of those charges?
Mr. Luce : My hon. Friend has put his finger on an important point. Although there is no change in the Government's position about hypothecated charges or taxation, it is important for local authority, in assessing whether to make charges, to relate that to the ways in which it can improve services to users. I hope to give local authorities some guidance on the best case histories of this when they are considering charges.
Column 994My hon. Friend is right : there has been much misunderstanding as to what is and what is not chargeable under the 1964 Act. That was one reason why we introduced the Green Paper. I hope that what I have announced this afternoon will lead to a clearer picture about what can and cannot be charged for.
Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) : Is the Minister aware that he is getting a reputation for being a parsimonious philistine, and that he ought to give an undertaking that any income that library services choose to get from the lending of tapes or whatever else will not be taken away by loss of income support for the local authority from the Exchequer? Would it not be better if all library services of all sorts were declared free, for the benefit of everybody? That would be better than this creeping privatisation and creeping charging in the library service that the Minister seems to be encouraging.
Mr. Luce : If being parsimonious means to obtain an extra £300 million of taxpayers' money to invest in a new British library, and to add 33 per cent. in real terms to overall taxpayer support for the arts in the past eight years, then I am happy to be described as parsimonious.
Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North) : Will my right hon. Friend confirm that record numbers of people, including children, are using libraries and that that number will increase dramatically when the new, brilliantly conceived British library comes on stream? Will he look at the concept of charging for damaged books, presumably including paperbacks, bearing in mind the high cost of books? How will people be charged for damaged books?
Mr. Luce : In all categories of arts, not just libraries, my ambition is to see a growing number of people enjoying the facilities. It is an anomaly that it has not hitherto been possible to charge for damage to materials and equipment. We may need to give some guidance to local authorities about how that is to be achieved, but it is right to introduce discretionary power to charge.
Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) : The Minister said a few moments ago that the British library system is the best in the world. If that is so, what justification is there for messing around with contracting out? Is not the Minister aware of the immense cultural and literary contribution that the library service has made to generations, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Morley and Leeds, South (Mr. Rees) said, including myself, who received their self-education largely from the library system? Is it not the case as well that private libraries, which I remember, have virtually gone out of existence while the public libraries have retained their strength through the way in which they have provided a service for millions of people?
Mr. Luce : I have already made it clear that the justification for sub-contracting is only on the criterion that it produces better value for money or an improved service to the consumer. Is the hon. Gentleman saying that he does not think it is a good thing if it achieves just that? My concern in all the proposals is to find ways of strengthening still further a very good and professional library system. That is the intention of the measures.
Column 995services in rural areas, such as Shropshire? Can he say under what circumstances it can be justified for taxpayers and ratepayers to subsidise the lending of compact discs free of charge? If someone can afford a player for such an expensive hobby, surely he should not expect the taxpayer and the ratepayer to subsidise it. So the crying of wolf and stinking fish from the Opposition Benches is a farce in the 20th century.
Mr. Luce : My hon. Friend is right. Since 1964 there has been a general power to make charges in the non-print area. As I have toured many libraries, I have found that many library authorities make charges for non- print facilities such as videos and cassettes. All I need to do is clarify the law, which is vague and anomalous. It is for that reason that I have introduced a specific proposal. As to rural areas, as my hon. Friend knows, there are a large number of mobile libraries which provide an excellent service. He might like to know that in the period from 1977-78 to 1986-87 there was a 37 per cent. increase in the number of service points for public libraries.