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Tim Loughton: I am glad to see that the Minister has moved on from blaming the Conservatives for trying to impede something that happened 157 years ago, to talking about what is happening under his Government—the dire literacy problems that our children have had for the past eight and a half years and more. Under his duties under the 1964 Act, what has he done to promote the local library service that we are debating today?

Mr. Lammy: The hon. Gentleman should go on to the DCMS website and read several of the speeches that I have read. He should contact his local authority leader and ask whether they have received a letter from me—the answer will be yes. He should also speak to the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council. He would then come to the conclusion that there is no Minister responsible for libraries on record as having done more than I have done in the seven months that I have been in the job. So, if I may, I shall proceed.
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Here in Westminster we live in extremely privileged circumstances. Our slightest information need is met by our excellent Library, which contains the best resources that the House can afford. Those resources might not be capable of replication across our 4,500-plus libraries nationwide, but why should not our citizens expect—as near as can be managed—the kind of service that we take for granted?

David Taylor: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Lammy: I shall not give way; I want to proceed and conclude my speech.

A central part of the argument put forward by the hon. Member for Sevenoaks was the issue of books versus some of the modern uses of libraries. "The Concise Oxford Dictionary" describes a library as a

I accept that that is a dry definition. Libraries are really about people, both as individuals and as members of communities, and libraries are there to serve a multiplicity of people's needs. I get tired of self-appointed, unelected, unrepresentative groups who dogmatically say that libraries are for this and not for that, or, more specifically, that they are solely for reading. I love reading, although I come from a household in which I could count the number of books on the fingers of one hand.

The central mission of libraries involves not only books but information—and information, in a computer age, must involve online services, especially in an environment in which some publishers now publish solely on CD-ROM. We have Bookstart, the summer reading challenge and adult reading groups. That is all wonderful, but libraries have never been just about books. The digital resources at our disposal today have broadened immeasurably the kind of public services that libraries can provide.

Let us look at the House in this context. The last time we wanted to check a reference in Hansard, none of us waded through a 6 in pile of paper copies. We searched the database and relied on information technology to obtain the information that we needed in a particular debate. In the same way, libraries are moving on and people across the country want those services.

In the past nine months, I have seen some fantastic new library buildings in places as far apart as Peckham, Brighton, Weston-super-Mare and rural Leicestershire. I was delighted to hear about the refurbishment of New Ash Green library in the constituency of the hon. Member for Sevenoaks. Similarly, the Sevenoaks kaleidoscope project will bring the town's museums, library and archive resources together. It is one of the most exciting examples of that in the country.

As the hon. Gentleman said, and as members of the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport pointed out in their report last year, not all our libraries are new and gleaming and many need some serious tender loving care, so I find it hard to understand why the Big Lottery Fund announcement of an £80 million community library programme strand is being criticised because none of the money—this was the implication of what he said—is being spent on books. The money is being spent on fabric, shelving and on making our libraries
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attractive so that people want to go into them, thereby freeing local authorities to invest in the book stock. We are constantly being told how bad our libraries book stocks are, yet the hon. Gentleman's own authority of Kent has increased its book fund by 60 per cent. in recent years, and in 2004–05 the libraries authorities in England combined increased lending stock by nearly 1 million compared with 2001–02.

I do not want libraries to be populist, but I do want them to be popular. There were nearly 340 million visits to our libraries last year, over 21 million more than three years ago. Nearly 50 per cent. of all adults make at least one visit to a public library each year. Most of those people visit more often and the proportion of people who visit from our ethnic minority communities has also increased.

It is important to make the point that there has been a 20 per cent. increase across the country in book ownership since 1997. Because of the net book agreement, book prices have come down. We can all nip out to local supermarkets and purchase books, which was not possible five or 10 years ago. It must be a good thing that people have books in their own homes. More working-class and underprivileged families, whom we care about across, I hope, the House, have books. For those reasons, it is significant that library visits are up. However, the use of that material will differ across the board. I have taken seriously the issue of library closures. I have written to every local authority and I have taken an interest in particular local authorities. The necessity to provide a comprehensive and efficient library service is key against a backdrop in which the
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Government have been committed to ensuring that local authorities can deliver an effective local service. The local government settlement for the next two years provides an overall increase in Government grant of 4.5 per cent. in 2006–07 and 5 per cent. in 2007–08. For 10 successive years, we have been able to provide councils overall with above-inflation increases in grant.

Libraries must remain a local service for local authorities and local people to determine. The Government take seriously the responsibilities to provide a comprehensive and efficient system. We take seriously issues relating to adult literacy and young people's literacy. Many children in our most deprived communities need the library as a place in which to work. Libraries play an important role for the elderly in particular, as the local or village librarian can be one of the few faces they see during the week.

I welcome the debate that the hon. Gentleman secured. This is an important issue, and I agree that it is as important as education. That is why I have taken the steps that I have. It is also why initiatives are going on across the library world. I hope that leaders of our local authorities will think carefully as they make their budget plans in the months ahead. I encourage him, however, to join me in singing the praises of many libraries across the country. There are forces that seem solely to want to talk down the position of libraries in Britain. That is not helpful. Much that is good is also going on.

Question put and agreed to.

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