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Mr. Michael Fallon (Sevenoaks) (Con): I am pleased to have the opportunity to introduce a short debate on public libraries. I should say at the outset that by "public libraries" I mean local libraries. It was three years ago, on the eve of war, that we last debated the importance of our national libraries, and we may need to revisit the funding of those libraries and, indeed, of school libraries. It is local libraries, however, for which I should like to claim attention today, because of the growing concern about their future.
In a similar debate seven years ago, the House was told that the situation was critical. I think that it has grown worse. In the past 10 years, the library service has been in decline. The stock of books in our libraries has reduced by more than 20 per cent. and the number of books issued has declined by 36 per cent. Book spending in libraries has been cut from £138 million 10 years ago to £93 million this yeara cut of about one third in real terms. We have learned that councils across whole swathes of the country are planning library closures. Twelve libraries are to close in Devon, nine in Lancashire and others in Buckinghamshire, Cumbria and Chester. It is alleged that at least 70 libraries may disappear altogether. Who knows? There may be plans to close others in the London area that will not be publicised until after the local elections.
It is not an entirely gloomy picture. A few more libraries are open longer. I understand that 78 libraries are open for more than 60 hours a week, but that is still fewer than 2 per cent. of the total. There is excellent practice in areas such as Hampshire and Westminster, where libraries are on the up, with more visits and more books being issued. In my own area of Kent, Swanley library has been rebuilt, and Sevenoaks library is being completely modernised. I certainly welcome the additional funding that has recently been provided, including £6 million over a three-year period and the successful implementation of the people's network, on which I congratulate the Government. I look forward to the commitment from the Big Lottery Fund to help community libraries. That is all good news, and I am certainly prepared to give credit where credit is due, but it is not enough. It is clear that the public library service has reached something of a tipping point. Councils are under severe budgetary pressure this year, as never before. Some councils are downgrading the priority that they give to library services at the expense of other services.
Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): I am grateful to my hon. Friend for securing the debate and taking an intervention. In my constituency, it is proposed to close Finedon library because of lack of funding. I associate myself with the campaign to keep it open and hope the council will think again.
I hope the authorities in Northamptonshire will listen carefully to what my hon. Friend said. I do not want any library closed, as I shall go on to say. Unless the Government act more decisively, we could see many more public libraries start to wither away much more rapidly than they have done.
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What have the Government been doing? They began with their five-year plan. We are familiar with that in various Departments. That is not a criticism; there should be a plan. They issued a document, "Framework for the Future", then they got going on the library service itself, with a series of Whitehall-driven initiatives. In 1998, we had annual library plans. In 2001, public library standards were issued. Then we had public library position statements and in 2004 public library service standards. Those have been superseded, I understand, by what is described as a new suite of best value performance indicators within the comprehensive performance assessment culture block. Next year, I understand, there will be public library impact measures.
A blizzard of paper, but while all that has been issued, the service has in general terms continued to decline. The Audit Commission reported that half of all library services were inadequate. In an excellent report last year, the Culture, Media and Sport Committee stated that it was
in Government policy. Most seriously of all, its report has been badly neglected. I have rarely seenthis is not a criticism of the present Minister; it was probably his predecessora more pathetic response than the Government's response to that Select Committee report in Cm 6648.
That will not do. Public libraries are not a purely local service. Councils have a duty to provide it, but the Minister has a duty to ensure that it is provided. Under the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964
We are not discussing the maintenance of the drains or refuse collection. The service is provided locally and Parliament insisted that the Secretary of State has a national responsibility to superintend it in the 1964 Act. Under the 1964 Act, the Minister has powers to intervene, and, as we have heard, he also has funding streams at his disposal. The Government must examine the public libraries service and convince hon. Members that they are properly discharging their duty to superintend it. I have read the Minister's speeches and welcome his personal commitment to the library service,
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so I hope that he will not take it amiss when I say that warm words are not enough and that I want to see the Government act.
I want the Minister specifically to consider five things. First, will he stop the proposed closures in Northamptonshire, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone) mentioned and elsewhere? He has a duty under the 1964 Act to intervene where the service is not being properly provided. I understand that he has partly exercised that duty by writing to the library authorities, and I thank him for doing so. I hope that his letter made it clear that he is ready to exercise his power to intervene under the 1964 Act, if a programme of wholesale closures is introduced in the next few months.
Secondly, I hope that he will do more to protect book spending and reverse the decline in spending on books. If the Minister can find the money to provide new technologies such as the internet and support services that allow families to access libraries, surely it is not beyond the wit of the Government to do more to protect the core spend on books.
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