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The last year has seen extensive consultation with each of the 13 libraries and with their communities. Each community has been asked to come up with its
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own plan for the future of its library, with a push towards a community-led model. One positive outcome that has emerged has been the general willingness for some degree of community involvement and volunteering. That needs to be applied to all 34 libraries, however. Clearly, different arrangements will need to be worked out for each of the different communities, and I have heard from discussions with my local communities that they do not believe a community-led model to be sustainable. The input of a professional librarian is seen to be essential, because not all communities will be able to identify sufficient volunteers to run a service, and even those that might have that expertise available at the moment might not be able to sustain it over time. An insistence on a community-led model may deprive disadvantaged areas of a library service, which surely goes against any principle of equity.

There are issues about training volunteers, the use of the information technology system, the maintenance of book stocks, and responsibility for and the cost of the property. If property is passed to community groups, will it be offered at a peppercorn rent? We do not really have answers to any of those questions yet. In principle, many of the issues were mentioned in yesterday’s council recommendation, but what exactly will they mean in practice?

Along the line, suggestions were made that parish councils, for example, could set a precept to raise money for the running of libraries. That would be totally unacceptable to my constituents. Why should they pay twice to borrow books, in comparison with library users in other Dorset communities whose libraries are not under threat of closure?

The Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964 states that it shall be a duty of every library authority to

Recent guidance on the Department’s website said that the closure of one or even a small number of library branches does not necessarily signify a breach of the Act. A library may be closed to ensure better overall provision. However, I am talking about a proposal to close 13 libraries that stems almost wholly from financial considerations. I would be grateful if the Minister would clarify exactly how the guidance would apply in such circumstances.

Finance is a key driving force for Dorset county council because of the continuous financial pressures to balance the books. It has been said to me, “Keep your library, but we will make more cuts in social services.” I understand that there are pressures, but we must think about the overall quality of life.

Charging for the loan of books was raised with me when I attended a council meeting recently. The cabinet member responsible for libraries challenged me to introduce a private Member’s Bill—I wish it were so easy—to amend the 1964 Act. I shall not be taking up the suggestion. Nevertheless, on behalf of that cabinet member, I would like to ask the Minister for his views on charging for the loan of books.

Concerned residents have wondered whether the whole book stock could be put in a trust, and whether there could then be charging for books to make
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it possible to maintain the book stock. I would find charging unacceptable, but some communities are very concerned about the potential loss of their libraries. Of course, there is the worry that the book fund will be cut and cut again. It has been cut to fund the retention of libraries during the consultation period. Obviously, it is vital that there are funds to maintain the stock of books, including those for children and the visually impaired. There must be a core stock of books available for all libraries.

Next year is the national year of reading, as I keep reminding Dorset county council. I have pointed out that it is not a terribly good idea to close 13 libraries during the national year of reading. Seriously, we are at a crossroads, in this country are we not? We want to improve children’s and young people’s literacy standards. We know that we have to engage boys, in particular, in more reading. This cannot be the time to be cutting back. It must be a time of finding innovative ways to engage children and young people with library services. There are excellent schemes—Bookstart and the summer reading challenge, for example—but there must be many more things that we could do.

Dorset library service has considered moving some libraries into schools, which may be a solution for some communities. It would not work for my two libraries, but I can see that it could be a solution. For my communities, I am interested in using the extended school money for extended school provision in the library. That would work so well in the two villages. Young people from all sorts of backgrounds could have sessions in the library as part of the programme. Joined-up thinking is needed to bring things together.

The library service cannot be static. Changes must be made, and innovative activities must take place in the buildings. It is important that this country retains its proud tradition of a free public library service, as it meets so many people’s needs. I reflect on my own time as a young person. Using the library every night was an important part of my eventually becoming the first person in my family to go to university. I am passionate about the need for access to books, and indeed the internet, in the library, for young people from all backgrounds. It is not always possible for them to find at home the peace and quiet that they need for studying, and obviously not all families have resources in the home.

We talk a great deal about lifelong learning. Surely libraries have a crucial role to play in it. Not so long ago, people were predicting that cinemas would be a thing of the past, but that has not happened. Some people might feel that libraries are a thing of the past in a digital age, but I do not think that that is the case. I think that they are really important.

I am pleased that the Sustainable Communities Bill is making progress. I would like to emphasise the contribution of a library to village life. Part of a sustainable community is having resources that are easily accessible to all people, and the many activities that can be carried out in a library add to the life of a village.

I support the case for community involvement—for example, communities can best decide the hours, so that there is a balance—but I do not think that community-led libraries are the solution for all communities. I hope that the Minister will continuously monitor the situation, and I ask him to give his view of
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the library service for the country, and how Dorset county fits in with it. Most of all, I hope that Dorset county council will firm up a satisfactory offer for all the libraries in Dorset.

12.47 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Mr. David Lammy): I thank the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) for this debate and for the manner in which she made her remarks. She has for some considerable time been a keen advocate of services to young people in particular. As she said, she raised the issue of proposed closures in Dorset with me some time ago, and I am grateful that she put on the record my intervention at that stage.

Like the hon. Lady, I was the first person in my family to go to university, and that was largely due to using the local library service. I entirely understand why she has taken up the issue as she has, and why she continues to be a strong advocate for her constituents.

As the hon. Lady said, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport leads on public library policy for the Government. Through the Department and delivery bodies such as the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council, the Government have encouraged significant national improvement in our libraries, including the extension of opening hours across the country—the hon. Lady will recall that that was a significant problem just some five or six years ago—an 8 per cent. increase in book acquisitions and visits rising to more than 290 million a year. Libraries are hugely popular with the general public.

We published a framework for the future—the first national strategy for public libraries—and we continue to deliver a range of capacity-building programmes under that banner, particularly for librarians in our libraries. As this debate is taking place, right across the country there are young people in our libraries, Sure Start schemes in our libraries and librarians serving pensioners. Our libraries are providing the sustainable resource that the hon. Lady described.

It is right to say that public libraries are, fundamentally, a local service. The White Paper, “Strong and Prosperous Communities”, has set out the Government’s vision for future relationships between central and local government. There will be increased autonomy for local authorities, which will give them the maximum freedom to use their resources to respond to the needs of their local communities and to involve those communities in the design and running of services. A new outcome-based performance framework will be in place from next year that will cover all local authority activities.

Local authorities have a statutory duty in relation to libraries, and my Department has a duty to oversee that, to benchmark performance, to share best practice across the country and to describe a national minimum standard. Dorset has proposed significant changes to its services, and it is legitimate for interest to be taken at a national level in those changes. However, it would not be right for the Government to be prescriptive about any proposed changes. The hon. Lady will understand that library services can differ hugely in different parts of the country. In my constituency,
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libraries provide services to a hugely ethnically diverse community in an urban context, which provides challenges that are very different from those faced in her constituency. It is right that local authorities take a view and are able to adjust services to meet their particular needs.

As the hon. Lady has said, Dorset library service is highly rated, scoring level 4 in the comprehensive performance assessment and meeting seven out of the 10 library standards. It is in the top quartile of library services in England, with user satisfaction of 94 per cent. for adults and 93 per cent. for children, and it is in the top six English counties for libraries per capita. That is a high-performing local authority, and for all the reasons that she mentioned, Dorset will want to ensure that that continues.

Dorset library service is innovative and has pioneered the simple use of e-mails and text messages to communicate with users. It is working to re-engage young people through out-of-hours sessions, and projects with young Travellers in their communities. Later this year, it will introduce a youth café as part of the Reading Agency’s “book bars” programme. It also provides a free reading group service for 210 groups around the county.

Nevertheless, significant changes have clearly been proposed, and I recognise the public concern about some of those changes in Dorset. I wrote to the chief executive of Dorset to express my concern and views about the valuable contribution that libraries make to their communities. I asked my officials to remain in close contact with Dorset, and they have been in regular contact over the past year about the nature and detail of the review.

The Government have given local authorities the funding to deliver tangible improvements to their services, with a real-terms increase of 39 per cent. since 1997. The authorities have delivered on that, but there are always competing pressures for funding. I have provided a small list of what is happening in the Dorset library service, but more is always possible, and Gershon has encouraged authorities to focus on the detail of their expenditure.

I am pleased that Dorset has not taken the easy way out chosen by some authorities and simply cut the book fund. It has taken stock of the whole library service, reviewed its costs and benefits and sought to evolve the service. The focus is on creating a sustainable and balanced base budget for the service in the medium to long term, and on providing a service that is appropriate to the needs of the county’s demographically diverse communities, which are rural, suburban, and in particular elderly as against young.

The Dorset review identified ways to hone procurement and stock management processes, to refine staffing structures and maximise the use of skills, to rationalise opening hours, making them clearer to understand and extending them in some areas, and to improve the library buildings. All of that is good and sound business management, although much of it lies behind the scenes.

The review also sought to provide a different means of service provision for 13 communities that are currently served by small libraries that experience low levels of use and have cost-effectiveness issues. As the hon. Lady has said, the process is not complete and
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that consultation and discussion continues. I know that she has played an active role in making her views known, but there is still a risk that some of the libraries may be closed.

There is no doubt that library closures can engender great passion in any community. That strength of feeling is valuable, and should be harnessed to help deliver a collective approach to the future of a service, but controversy does not negate justified change, and it may well be that it is right for some of Dorset’s libraries to close, so that others may flourish. That is for the council and its communities to decide and to determine over the coming period. They have a difficult decision to make. It is true that more than 80 per cent. of library traffic in Dorset occurs in just 15 of the 34 libraries. However, libraries provide important services to rural and urban communities alike, and those needs cannot be abandoned. In advance of the council’s decision, the most important factor is that the aim of the review is to improve the overall quality of the library service.

Libraries do sometimes need to close or be replaced, because of a number of common-sense factors, including demographic change. I have said before that any library closure is, of course, regrettable for that particular community, but I am pleased that discussions are taking place with communities in Dorset about other means of delivering the services. Cambridgeshire has 10 fantastically successful community-run libraries that are delivering good and appropriate services to their locality. Taking that leap of faith has enabled Cambridgeshire to keep those 10 sets of doors open and to harness the enthusiasm of their communities, while also freeing up resources to invest in the whole network of libraries in Cambridgeshire.

The cabinet of Dorset county council will make the high-level decisions about the future of the 13 libraries this summer, and I am sure that the hon. Lady will join me in watching for news with interest. If community ownership is agreed as a viable option, some local areas are ready to take on that challenge, while others need further assistance to establish whether it will suit them. If there are absolute closures, I am keen to hear Dorset’s explanations of how, through different means, it will meet the needs of those communities that will no longer have access to that library service.

The process will run until March 2009, and of course I encourage the hon. Lady and her constituents to play an active role in it. I expect that she will do so. I also encourage Dorset to continue to be involved, to consult its communities, and not to take decisions in a complacent manner. I appreciate that it is a difficult decision, but the Government have been clear about the standards that are expected and about the investment that is needed. The hon. Lady was right to emphasise programmes such as Bookstart and the summer reading challenge, which we have supported and invested in. I hope that Dorset will continue to have a comprehensive and efficient library service in the months ahead, although I recognise that some change may be necessary.

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Local Government (Cumbria)

1.00 pm

Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle) (Lab): This is an unusual debate to the extent that, if they can catch your eye, Sir John, four of the Cumbrian Members of Parliament will speak in the debate. Two Cumbrian MPs will not be speaking, not because they do not wish to, but because they are Ministers and so are unable to do so today. My right hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness (Mr. Hutton) has sent his apologies and my hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Tony Cunningham), who is a Government Whip, is present, but unable to speak. That is a great pity, because he was, of course, the last directly elected Member of the European Parliament for Cumbria and his expertise would have been very helpful.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Mr. Reed) will be able to speak. He has not been in the House for very long, but has made a fine reputation for himself. He is a fine defender of his constituents and, as he was born and brought up in Copeland, knows the area very well. I am pleased to see that the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) has agreed to speak, although judging by his press release, I would have thought that this is his debate, and not mine. However, I am very grateful to him for coming today. Furthermore, this is probably the first time in 20 years that my neighbour the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (David Maclean, and I have agreed publicly about anything, although I must say that we work together behind the scenes on behalf of our constituents fairly frequently.

What is the reason for this debate? I am frightened that the Government will make a mistake that will have an adverse impact for decades to come on the communities that make up Cumbria. That mistake would be to create a Cumbrian unitary authority. I shall provide a brief history of Cumbria—it is brief because the county was created only in 1974 by a Tory Government. There was no logic behind its creation; it is an amalgamation of the counties of Cumberland and Westmorland, the county borough of Carlisle, the Furness part of Lancashire, the country borough of Barrow and a bit of north Yorkshire, which was thrown in for good measure. It was realised at the time that Cumbria was a very large and diverse county, and six district councils were created to acknowledge that. I do not want this Labour Government to compound the mistakes made in 1974. Cumbria has never worked well, and I should know. I was a councillor on the shadow authority in 1973 until I resigned in 1988 and had the privilege of being the chair of Cumbria county council for two years. I do not blame the individuals involved in the county—I blame its size.

The Cumbrian bid document is called “One council, One vision, One voice”—Cumbria has always been a bit short on vision. In the document, the county council states rightly that the unitary authority would not constitute a takeover by the county of the district councils, but would be a brand new authority that would take its own decisions. The document goes on to state that the new unitary council would cap council tax rises at less than 4 per cent. for the first three years. Will the Minister tell us whether those who produced the document have the power to do that?

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The documents goes on about the “one voice”, but the diverse communities of west Cumbria, Eden Valley, Carlisle, South Lakeland and Barrow cannot speak with one voice. For a start, we have different accents and traditions, our industries are different and we vote differently politically. I am not being parochial; all I am saying is that the county is too big. Cumbria constitutes 48 per cent. of the land mass of the north-west region. It should be classed as a sub-region. Its largest centres of population are Carlisle and Barrow, which are 90 miles apart. The Minister has a fine reputation as the Member for Basildon—I am sure that she is a good constituency MP—but I wonder what she would say if we proposed to put Basildon in with Brighton, Sir John, or if we put Bournemouth in with Reading. They are 90 miles apart, but we would probably agree that it would not be a good idea.

The Minister has just finished doing an excellent job as a Minister in Northern Ireland, where local government is about to be reorganised. Northern Ireland is twice the size of Cumbria and has three times the population, and yet seven unitary authorities have been proposed there, each with 60 members, plus, of course, a 108-Member Northern Ireland Assembly. Let us compare that with Cumbria, for which an 84-member council is being discussed. Does that imply—I am sure that she will disagree with this—that Northern Ireland is over-represented? No, it implies that Cumbria would be under-represented.

Let me deal with the 84 county councillors. If we are going to combine the responsibilities of the district and county councils, bearing in mind that councillors can spend up to three hours either going to or coming from a meeting, we will end up with full-time councillors—and poorly-paid full-time councillors, because they do not get paid a great deal. In reality, that will mean that we will end up with retired councillors who will not be representative of the population or plugged into their local communities.

On stakeholder support, let us look at the county council’s submission in the document, which contains 12 balloons from a variety of quangos and companies working extensively for the county council. They are supportive of the proposal, although not overwhelmingly so. The results of a MORI poll published today in Cumbria show that 72 per cent. of the population of the county think that a single council would be too remote. People are sometimes sceptical of polls. I asked for a referendum to take place in the spring, on the same day as the local county elections—3 May—but the deputy leader of the county council replied:

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