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Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. Does he share my view that the Government should more closely link their bookstart initiative, which attempts to encourage very young children to start reading books, with the provision of local library services?

Mr. Fallon: Yes. That is a good example of how we need to keep joining up what the Government are doing and make sure that initiatives are tied together.

I am concerned about expenditure on books, because the £90 million a year figure that I quoted earlier is less than 9 per cent. of the total library budget. If the stock of books is not refreshed and restored, the attraction of the library inevitably diminishes and a vicious cycle by which fewer people want to visit libraries and borrow books begins. Will the Minister re-examine the matter to see what can be done through encouragement, exhortation, ministerial appeal and existing powers and funding streams better to protect spending on books by the library service?

Thirdly, I have given hon. Members examples of local authorities that have been commended to me—Hampshire is one and Westminster is another—because libraries are on the up. The Government could do more to promote good practice and find out what works in stemming the decline in the library service. They also need to establish what is stopping other councils from picking up that good practice and implementing it more universally.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): Will the hon. Gentleman include Leicestershire in his list of local authorities that show exceptionally good practice? It has particularly strong links with larger schools in Leicestershire that have their own libraries. The authority and those schools feed off one another, and links have been built between schools and local libraries. There is great potential to stop the drift downwards, which the hon. Gentleman is describing so vividly.

Mr. Fallon: Indeed. I commend Leicestershire for that. We should examine the lack of linkage between
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libraries, particularly in the big conurbations. Why, for example, are library cards not more usable across all the London boroughs? There are examples of good, indeed excellent, practice, and some library authorities have improved their services, but that should not blind us to the fact that overall the service is still in decline, despite the best efforts of librarians.

Fourthly, will the Minister champion the users of a library just as much as he has championed those who work so hard to provide the service? It is important to help to fight the fight for modernisation, to get libraries into attractive buildings, and above all to get them open at accessible hours. Only 2 per cent. of our larger libraries are open for more than 60 hours a week. They should open for much longer and, above all, should open in the evenings and at weekends, because the modern lifestyle demands such access.

I hope that the Minister will help the library service to get away from some of the more restrictive thinking of the past and inspire much more customer focus. Why can modern service organisations such as Tesco deal with the problem of finding a work force that can operate at antisocial times, during weekends and in the evenings, while we have so signally failed to persuade councils to do that in running library services?

Finally, there is the issue of marketing. We need to think about library membership. What more could be done with the card that one signs on for when one moves to a particular area? What could be linked to it? Could it apply more generally or be a passport to similar services offered by the council or the private sector?

Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that the real strength of a library is not how shiny a building it is housed in but the service—primarily books and information—that it offers? The most alarming point that he made is that only 9 per cent. of library expenditure goes on books. That is true of libraries near me. The Jubilee library in Brighton recently opened at a cost of £14 million, but expenditure on books to put in it has not risen. Is not that a crazy balance? Even if we have to look at other ways of providing library services in other buildings, such as children's centres or family centres, that are having a lot spent on them, we need to put more into the resource that they offer than the fabric of the buildings.

Mr. Fallon: I certainly endorse that. There is a temptation, of course, for those who want to renew their library services to add additional facilities. The new technologies are important. Other information services linking up with Government information streams can successfully be provided in libraries. Nevertheless, the Select Committee came to the conclusion that my hon. Friend articulated so well—that books must be at the core of the library service. New technologies come and go—that is why they are new—but in the end books and access to books must lie at the heart of the service.

I have given the Minister four or five things that I would like him to consider and act upon. I hope that he will now apply the Government more actively to what can be done to improve the service. If we let local libraries continue to decline, we will be failing not only those of us in this House who love libraries, and people who choose to borrow from libraries all their lives, but
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people who need libraries: those who do not have the luxury of books at home, or quiet places to study them; those who need access to books after school or during the school holidays; those who are studying after work towards better qualifications; and those who are driven to explore the world of information and reference that is available to them. If libraries are service stations of the mind, it should not be left to council bureaucrats to restrict access to them.

Libraries are as much part of our education system and common culture as they are cherished parts of our local community. If they wither away, we lose part of our cultural capital and the local points of reference between the knowledge and literature of the past and our present generation, whom those stocks should enrich. Public libraries are not the council's to cut nor the Government's to neglect. They belong to us all.

It being Six o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

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

6 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Mr. David Lammy): I am grateful to the hon. Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Fallon) for raising a subject that has not been discussed on the Floor of the House for several years. It is an important issue for communities throughout the country. This is the second occasion on which I have followed the hon. Gentleman. The first was my maiden speech. He was gracious then and I am grateful for the gracious manner in which he presents his arguments.

When William Ewart introduced the Public Libraries Bill 157 years ago, there was some dispute in the House about the nature and merit of public libraries. It was argued that the ratepaying middle classes would subsidise a service that would be used by the working classes to better themselves. In the face of Tory opposition, and after a hard fight, the Public Libraries Act became law in 1850, but it applied only to boroughs with more than 10,000 people.

Even then, two thirds of local ratepayers had to agree to fund libraries with a limit of a halfpenny on the rate to pay for them. The money raised could not be used to purchase books. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would not subscribe to the views of his political forebears and, like me, he is glad that common sense prevailed so that, by 1855, the libraries rate was raised to a penny and the boroughs were allowed to buy books.

Even so, we owe a massive debt to Victorian library philanthropists such as Henry Tate, John Passmore Edwards and, of course, Andrew Carnegie, whose generosity enabled the building of nearly 400 libraries throughout the country. The words "Carnegie library" still resonate today. The hon. Gentleman will surely join me in celebrating the work of those visionaries in establishing public libraries as the university of the street corner.

In an age of empire building, the undeserving poor and hard knocks, those people perceived libraries as a way to further education for the many, build closer and fairer communities and encourage a fairer society with opportunities for all. However, they were also hard-
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headed men of commerce, not given to seeing the world through rose-tinted glasses. They saw the business case for public libraries, too. In 2006—157 years later—there is still a strong business case for libraries. When a quarter of our 11-year-olds have literacy or maths skills below an acceptable standard, we need libraries. When nearly 12 million adults have a reading age of 13 or younger, we need libraries. When 5 per cent. of our people are unemployed, we need libraries.

Public debates of the day—on interfaith dialogue, the respect agenda and civic renewal—require our libraries to continue to provide the sort of open, neutral spaces where people from all socio-economic backgrounds can come together, mix and learn from each other. If, like me, people think that those things are important, they will support our libraries' work to make things better.

Delivering the £9 million Government-funded Bookstart scheme that provides a gift of books to babies and young children three times before they reach school age is inextricably linked to the work of our libraries. We should all be proud of that initiative. We should also be proud of the homework clubs that 60 per cent. of library authorities run to help to ensure that out-of-hours school work gets done. The summer reading challenge that sustains the reading ability of 600,000 children while they are away from school during the long summer break is also a success story. Libraries also host formal and informal sessions for adult learners, giving second chances to people who feel that their school failed them and who would not want to return to a formal educational environment. Work is also being undertaken with high quality bodies such as the BBC and major publishers to get across the value of public libraries. In addition to all those things, there is a range of events to draw in all sections of local communities, including those who are sometimes hard to reach.

Providing mediated or self-help information facilities, either from the printed page or from digital sources, to turn the information poor into the information rich is also vital in the 21st century. Such activities go on in libraries all over our country almost every day of every week. That is why the Government think that libraries are important. We live in an information economy in which knowledge is key to not lagging behind.

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