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Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 108 (Welsh Grand Committee),

Question agreed to.

2 Feb 1999 : Column 835


Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.--[Mr. Hanson.]

10.26 pm

Mr. Derek Wyatt (Sittingbourne and Sheppey): This is, surprisingly, the first Adjournment debate on libraries, according to the Library. That is what we think, at least, and I will claim it until told otherwise. In the light of the Evening Standard report last week, claiming that up to 20 public libraries are to close in London alone, it is a timely debate, especially as we are celebrating the national year of reading.

Going to the library is, after visiting the pub, eating out, driving for pleasure and eating at a fast-food chain, the fifth most popular pastime in the United Kingdom. There are four types of library in use in the United Kingdom. There are our six great deposit libraries, led by the British library, which are the envy of the world; the academic libraries in our universities, hospitals and colleges, which are seriously underfunded; school libraries, on which I shall dwell at length shortly; and our public libraries, which are under threat everywhere.

Ms Linda Perham (Ilford, North): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. As he says, it is our first debate on libraries. I want to make a contribution as chair of the new all-party group on libraries and as a professionally qualified librarian. I welcome the Government's declared commitment--

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. I understand that the hon. Lady wants to contribute to the debate at a later stage. She cannot make a speech within the hon. Gentleman's speech. It will be more appropriate if she makes a short contribution when he has completed his speech.

Mr. Wyatt: There are thousands of libraries, such as the wonderful cricket library at Lord's, the library at the British Film Institute, where I dwelt at length when I was writing my book "Wisecracks from the Movies", and the one at Windsor castle.

Libraries come under two Departments, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and the Department for Education and Employment. In the joined-up government that we are constantly being told is happening, I look forward to hearing my hon. Friend the Minister's response on what initiatives he has undertaken with my hon. Friend the Minister for School Standards regarding school libraries.

The British library is one of the six legal deposit libraries in the United Kingdom and Ireland, dating back to an Act of 1911. The others are Oxford, Cambridge and the national libraries of Scotland, Wales and Ireland. The Irish national library is in Dublin, but there is no national library of Northern Ireland, which is surely an oversight. Perhaps in the new mood that exists there, the deposit library at Trinity college, Dublin, could open a digital version at Queen's university, Belfast, or simply plug itself into an on-line British library.

The British library needs to be redefined for the21st century. It needs to be the focus for the whole library system, not only in the United Kingdom but in our

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embassies and high commissions and, most important, in our British Council offices. It needs a private finance initiative to finance the digital library of the future, so that we can all visit it from the comfort of our homes. It also needs to be the lead player in the national grid for learning and the university for industry. Why are we trying to reinvent the wheel? The British library should be the centre of our library policy, and an all-enveloping technology broad-band hub should be built at St. Pancras that lays the architecture down to link every academic library and, as important, every school and every public library.

As for our school libraries, it is amazing that no regulations exist that lay down how much money schools should spend on library books per student. Nor is there a law that lays down how large a given school library should be. At least, that is the case in England and Wales. In Northern Ireland, the recommendation is that school libraries should have spaces of 40 sq m. How generous! In the United Kingdom, however, there is no ring-fence regulation that says that schools should spend a minimum amount on books. That is absurd.

I have visited 33 of the 44 school libraries in my constituency and most of the schools have no full-time librarians. Worse, two libraries are in corridors and, worse still, some of the books are 20 or 30 years old. Other schools in my constituency, thanks to parent-teacher support, have superb libraries. As libraries go on line, it will be the well-off primary and secondary schools that have suites of 60 computers and ISDN lines. The policy is exclusive, not inclusive, and it is unfair. In the information technology world, we talk of the information rich and the information poor, and some of my schools have been information poor for most of this century.

Figures released recently show that provision for school library services fell in the United Kingdom from £2.17 per pupil in 1994-95 to £1.98 in 1996-97, with more than 30 per cent. of secondary schools no longer having a full or part-time librarian. Ofsted should be charged with providing a report on the state of information-rich and information-poor schools, especially with regard to the libraries, library books, computers, internet costs and online support.

In public libraries, the situation is critical. I shall give a quick overview of what is happening in the United Kingdom today. Barnsley plans to close 23 branch libraries. Surrey is reported to be closing 16 branch libraries and Haringey may close two or three. Kingston upon Thames intends to cut the schools library service. Islington may cut its library service so that only five open at the weekends. However, 10 years ago, more than 200 public libraries opened for 60 hours or more. Today, the number of libraries open for 60 hours a week has declined by 49 per cent. There are none open for 60 hours a week in Wales or Northern Ireland and only 43 in Scotland. The number open for 45 to 60 hours has declined by 19 per cent.

A Sheffield university questionnaire found that 48 per cent. of the local authorities which replied had closed libraries in the past 10 years. Some 74 per cent. had reduced opening hours and 69 per cent. had closed for financial reasons. We should compare those figures with the Government's statement of their intention to build a public library network connecting all 4,000 public, but not school, libraries by 2002. That simply does not add up to a coherent, joined-up strategy for libraries for the

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21st century and I await my hon. Friend the Minister's response with much interest. I wish to persuade my hon. Friend the Minister to ensure that public libraries open all day on Saturday and Sunday, so that those children from information-poor homes can have access to books and the internet.

I am passionate about libraries because it was through them that I came to understand the value of literature. Later, I was a publishing director at William Heinemann. As a councillor in Haringey, I sat on the leisure committee and learned what a rip-off the buying procedures for library books were. That issue needs attention. if or can produce a website with 1 million or 2 million books to buy, why can we not produce the same service off the back of the technology to buy library and school books?

As we face the 21st century, I wish to ask my hon. Friend the Minister a favour. Will he lean on the new opportunities fund officials to pre-select the information-poor areas in our communities to make a pre-emptive strike for the homework club funds and to insist that they are placed in local schools or public libraries?

Finally, I shall quote from Frances Hendrix, who said:

10.35 pm

Ms Linda Perham (Ilford, North): I want to make just a brief contribution. As I said in my intervention, I am a professionally qualified librarian and I chair the recently formed all-party group on libraries. I welcome the Government's declared commitment to libraries as the cornerstones of their communities and their aim to deliver better education services and to improve reading and literacy standards. I especially welcome the plans embodied in the document "New Library: The People's Network".

However, like my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Mr. Wyatt), I am worried about the continuing problems with libraries. Local authorities are reducing book funds and opening hours, and even closing libraries. I join my hon. Friend in urging the Minister to be alert to the anxiety about that among members of the public and of the profession.

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