I hope that the debate will serve to deter critics of the big society from making political points by wilfully misunderstanding what the big society is all about. Such attitudes denigrate and disrespect those who, day by day, help to make our society worth living in by giving communities a quality of life that would be otherwise unattainable. I use the phrase “quality of

28 Feb 2011 : Column 126

life” advisedly. For some years in the recent past, we have increasingly associated quality of life or success or someone’s individual value in our society too closely with material accumulation, social status, fashionable glitz and glamour, brash business attitudes, career ladder climbing and so forth.

Some of those measurements of success are not necessarily bad in and of themselves. If, however, they are used as disproportionate yardsticks of what it means for an individual to be successful and to have value in our society and for us to be a strong, healthy and successful society together, then I suggest that it is time for a robust re-evaluation of what quality of life means. The current debate about the big society across the country offers, if we grasp it, a real opportunity to do so. For that reason, I welcome today’s debate.

Striving to attain today’s so-called aspirational lifestyles, which are held up as exemplars particularly to our young people, sadly all-too-often involves not only disposable material possessions, but also disposable relationships. That poses the often raised question of whether, as a result, we are any happier or more fulfilled as a society today.

High levels of alcohol and drug abuse, self-harm, a lack of self-esteem, relationship breakdown and profound loneliness across every generation provide at least part of the answer to that question.

I believe that somewhere along the way, we have lost something of the essence of the values which really make a society work: values like care, commitment, sharing and a place where every individual is given the opportunity and the capacity to play their part, whatever it may be—a part for which they are uniquely skilled and that only they can play.

Somewhere along the way, too, we may have forgotten that our most basic human need is to be loved and to feel that we matter to someone or, ideally, to a group of people. Linked to that is the need for us to feel that within that group of people, we have a purpose and a role. Is a premier league footballer worth any more or less as a person than, Dave Mairs, who several times a week coaches in the Cheshire boys league and has for years supported, encouraged and cajoled—and sometimes had to discipline—a football team of young boys? I do not think so.

Why do I say all this now? I say it because I believe that the big society holds the key to many of our contemporary challenges. Our understanding of what success means in a strong, healthy and positive society, and the positive contribution that each individual can uniquely bring to it, is, I suggest, largely what the big society is all about.

9.30 pm

Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): Every voluntary organisation and charity that I know relies on people of all political persuasions and none. I therefore regret the attempt by some Members on both sides of the House to make party-political claims for the voluntary sector. In my experience, some volunteers are members of political parties, but some—in fact, most—are not. However, the political parties of which we are members could be described as voluntary organisations. None of us would be Members of Parliament if it were not for volunteers, so let us give a hurrah for all the volunteers in our respective political parties.

28 Feb 2011 : Column 127

Because we are short of time, I suggest that my colleagues read the report of the excellent Adjournment debate on the voluntary sector that I initiated about 10 years ago.

Finally, let me mention St Helena hospice in my constituency, which will celebrate its 25th anniversary in April and which relies on 800 volunteers. Let me also mention the Colchester Gazette, which, along with Colchester Trinity rotary club, is inviting people to nominate community champions. I suggest that other local newspapers throughout the country do the same.

9.31 pm

Priti Patel (Witham) (Con): Let me say in the short time available to me that I welcome the emphasis that the Government are rightly placing on the promotion of even more community action and volunteering, and their focus on enhancing such participation. We have had an incredible debate, which has raised the need to give recognition where it is due and to celebrate the long-standing culture of community engagement and participation throughout our country.

Regardless of who is in charge—at Government level, or even in our local town halls—and regardless of the financial climate, many organisations are clearly improving the quality of life of our constituents. I pay tribute to them for their sterling work, and the praiseworthy way in which they participate as individuals and give their time selflessly to making a tremendous difference to our communities and local lives. Shortage of time prevents me from naming them all, but I invite the Minister to visit my constituency and meet many of the people who work for them, as well as representatives of some of the businesses at the heart of my constituency which contribute through charitable giving and allowing their employees to work for those organisations as volunteers.

My constituency contains many vibrant organisations, including citizens advice bureaux covering the borough of Colchester and the district of Braintree and Maldon, and charities such as Brainwave, Home-Start, Crossroads Care, St John Ambulance, my local rotary club—Witham Lions club—Tiptree youth club and an organisation called Mid Essex Talking News. As I have said, businesses give money to and support such organisations, but Government could clearly do more to assist them.

I echo the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) in referring to the tremendous role played by local newspapers in publicising the importance of community engagement and local groups such as charities and voluntary organisations. They are part of the glue that binds many community groups together and an outlet for reports of engagement and participation.

Last week, the recess gave me a fantastic opportunity to meet groups in my constituency, which have been local champions when it comes to issues that matter to them for many years. We have heard much about the role of the state, and the essential rebalancing of the relationship between the state and community groups, but these organisations know their communities best. They do not need a state-run agency or a bureaucracy to determine the right outcomes for them, which is why I welcome the Government’s steps to empower communities further.

28 Feb 2011 : Column 128

9.35 pm

Roberta Blackman-Woods (City of Durham) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Member for Dover (Charlie Elphicke) and the Backbench Business Committee on securing today’s debate on what is clearly an important issue. There has been a degree of cross-party consensus, but there are also a number of points on which we have diverged, and I shall deal with them shortly.

Although the Government coined the term the big society, they did not invent the concept. Many hon. Members have pointed to the fact that this is not a new idea. The truth is that for volunteers and for charitable and voluntary organisations across the country, the big society already exists and has done for a long time. They know that, because every day throughout the country they are delivering the big society in our communities. Indeed, much of the language of the big society simply builds on a rich tradition in this country of community, localism, co-operation and building a better society for all.

Many hon. Friends have highlighted that in their contributions. My hon. Friends the Members for Dagenham and Rainham (Jon Cruddas), for Newport West (Paul Flynn), for Leicester West (Liz Kendall), for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue), for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Tristram Hunt), for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy), for Darlington (Mrs Chapman), for Glasgow North East (Mr Bain), for Bolton West (Julie Hilling), for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin), for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) and for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) highlighted the need for the state and civil society to work together to tackle social problems, improve services and empower our communities. They demonstrated an outstanding grasp of the need for voluntary sector organisations and communities to have a framework of support, and not to be just left on their own. We also heard a number of erudite speeches demonstrating our strong philosophical basis for encouraging active citizenship.

Many Government Members, including the hon. Members for Dover, for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart), for Stourbridge (Margot James), for Pudsey (Stuart Andrew), for Erewash (Jessica Lee), for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman), for Bristol North West (Charlotte Leslie) and for Battersea (Jane Ellison), rightly paid tribute to the excellent work undertaken by volunteers in their constituencies. However, they failed to grasp the notion that the state can facilitate voluntary activity and community enterprise. We heard only about the repressive nature of the state, not that it could support communities in being more vibrant.

The previous Labour Government understood the voluntary sector, particularly its expertise and ability to be flexible and innovative, and we worked hard to support it. How much we valued the sector is highlighted by the fact that in our 13 years in office we more than doubled funding to it and created the Office of the Third Sector—now the Office for Civil Society—in the Cabinet Office. Labour was not content to rest on its laurels, however. Before we left office, we set out radical plans for boosting funding, volunteers and asset transfers to the third sector. We also designed the social investment bank and launched the first social impact bonds. We used the asset register to begin identifying assets to transfer to the third sector, and we announced that we would mutualise British Waterways. We pioneered community service for young people, which was established

28 Feb 2011 : Column 129

as “v”, and began a census on volunteering so that areas would know about the nature and extent of volunteering locally.

The current Government are to some extent continuing what we started in office through their broad direction of travel, such as by encouraging volunteering, supporting and seeking to expand the number of social enterprises and third sector organisations, and looking at ways to enhance the role of mutuals and employee-owned companies. That is why we support the motion—encouraging a greater sense of community and more partnership with the voluntary sector is something we should all support.

Even before this Government took office, they trumpeted the big society, and in office they point to it as a central tenet of their policy agenda. Yet earlier this month, the Prime Minister had again to defend the notion against persistent criticism, even though he has declared the big society his central “mission”. Given the six years that he has apparently been thinking about this idea, one can only wonder why, in office, he is not clearer about how to execute it. There is a gaping chasm between the well-meaning intentions of the hon. Member for Dover and his motion, and the reality of his party’s economic policy.

When the Minister, whom we will hear from shortly, was asked two weeks ago on the radio if the big society was in trouble, he flatly denied it, saying:

“I don’t think there’s a problem”.

However, the truth is that the Government are in danger of undermining the big society if they do not pay more attention to three things, the first of which is developing an infrastructure of support for the voluntary and community sector. The Government have not given enough time for the voluntary sector and communities to develop new models of operation or to plan effectively for their futures in the new world. They should be working together in partnership with the voluntary sector and constructing frameworks of support, rather than adopting the “sink or swim” mindset we have seen so far.

The Opposition see a key role for social enterprises and mutuals in improving service delivery. This means supporting social enterprises and mutuals and helping them to improve service delivery, and seeing a key role for community organisers in helping communities to articulate their needs and shape services. The Opposition also recognise that new jobs can be grown, including in disadvantaged areas, in order to promote employment, and that this can be done through the social enterprise model. We see this as a partnership approach, with the state acting as a key player in helping voluntary activity to flourish. That contrasts with an approach, much seen of late from the Conservative party and demonstrated in a number of speeches today, that advocates a withdrawal of the state and a characterisation of it as overburdening and a barrier to voluntary activity. The state can sometimes act in a way that is not helpful, but that is not always the case, and it can be encouraged to behave differently.

Damian Collins: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Roberta Blackman-Woods: Very briefly, because we are running out of time.

28 Feb 2011 : Column 130

Damian Collins: On that point, are there any areas of deregulation that the hon. Lady can identify where she thinks we should move back from the agenda established by the previous Government?

Roberta Blackman-Woods: The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point, and we can always look at ways in which the state or central Government can better facilitate voluntary activity.

Our approach is based on the view that involving the voluntary and community sector more in public service delivery helps to create more responsive public services that are better geared to meet the needs of the communities they serve. This is not simply an ideological rejection of the state, as we often hear from the Conservatives and as exemplified in the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) and others, which was not selected for discussion today. Our partnership model, therefore, does not require an abandonment of the belief that the state should be the ultimate safety net in delivering vital public services.

We, too, recognise the need to make commissioning more community-oriented, and we therefore welcome the debate that has already begun in government about how to commission services with greater involvement from local communities. This is an important step forward, although much of what has been written and said so far does not seem to reflect the complexities existing in our neighbourhoods and the diversity of voices they contain. It is essential that commissioning involves more than listening to those with the loudest voices.

We also recognise the need to expand philanthropy and individual generosity, but that should not be the whole story. We need a sensible alliance between Government and the voluntary sector to encourage entrepreneurial activity in a way that promotes social values and empowers our communities. Labour recognises that the Government are starting to do this with the big society bank—taking over our idea of a social investment bank—but we also know that it is not going to be operational until much later this year and that the money it will dispense will not make up for the huge amount being lost to the sector through cuts to central and local government funding. So the Government need to address how the big society is being undermined through the cuts

The Government also need to look at how the big society agenda is not really engaging with the equalities agenda. That is important, because communities do not start from a level playing field, and the Government need to do more to recognise that some of the cuts have fallen disproportionately on the poorest communities, which therefore need additional support.

In conclusion, we should all recognise that where we have unresponsive or poor public services, they should be changed and other providers brought in, but we also all need to recognise that the state has a role to play in mediating the vagaries of the market and tackling social injustice and inequality. We need the state and civil society to work together. Simply withdrawing state services and funding before leaving voluntary and community organisations to pick up the pieces will not make our society bigger or better.

28 Feb 2011 : Column 131

9.46 pm

The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Mr Nick Hurd): We have heard 39 speeches—I did count them—which were often lofty, sometimes earthy and always interesting; I thank the Backbench Business Committee and congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Charlie Elphicke). In the short time available, I wish to make three quick points in response to an excellent debate.

First, I wish to express a personal conviction. I really believe that we have barely scratched the surface of what can be achieved in this country if we strike a more effective and balanced partnership between government, business and civil society, including active citizens in our communities who want to get more involved. That is what we are working towards, because we need a new approach to tackle the entrenched social challenges that we face. As many speakers have said, relying on big government and “Whitehall knows best” just has not worked well enough, and it must be time to make better use of the talents and resources of this country. Of course this will involve a big culture change and it will not happen overnight, which brings me to my second point.

The new approach requires strong leadership from government, and not a traditional top-down programme; to make this work we have to redistribute power in a bold and genuine way, to allow communities to take more control and to recast government so that it supports community action, rather than stifles it. That is now happening and it is being built on three core strands, the first of which is the transfer of real power to communities.

First, power is being transferred in the form of information. Whether we are talking about crime maps, departmental business plans or detailed breakdowns of local authority spending, our constituents already have more information than ever before on what is being done in their name. With that comes the power to act and challenge, and the Localism Bill offers people new rights and opportunities to take more control, not least in the planning process. That is being supported by a new attitude from government which asks, “How can we help?”, rather than saying, “You can’t do that.” That is why it was right to review the health and safety regulations and the vetting and barring regime. It was encouraging to see the Department for Communities and Local Government immediately set up a new bureaucracy-busting service and challenge communities to tell it what is getting in the way, and 140 communities have already engaged in that process.

The second strand of Government action is fundamental public service reform. Yes, we do believe that we can deliver better public services by opening up the market to competition and new providers, including social enterprises, mutuals and the voluntary sector. We do believe in giving communities and front-line professionals much greater freedom to meet local need. We also want to get the public more involved in shaping the services they use, whether that be through personal budgets or greater involvement in how resources are allocated and services are commissioned. We will soon be publishing a White Paper on public service reform, which will set out our plans in more detail. All I will say for now is that when one visits social enterprises such as Zest in Sheffield, which is delivering public services in a fantastically fresh way, the two senior nurses who have set up their

28 Feb 2011 : Column 132

own social enterprise in Leicester or a group of public agencies in Calderdale working together to shape a new service on debt advice, one has a strong sense of how much better things could be if we gave people at the sharp end much greater freedom and responsibility.

The third strand of action is about encouraging more social action in our communities. Of course we are not inventing anything new: this is about building on the fantastic work done in constituencies across the country by dedicated people who know the value of giving time and/or money to help others. We want to encourage a step change in attitudes to giving both time and money. Our recent Green Paper set out how government can help in traditional and non-traditional ways, such as by setting up new match funding schemes to encourage local endowments and private sector support for volunteering projects or by encouraging civil servants to get more involved in community service, thereby setting an example to other employers. The national citizen service has enormous potential to connect our teenagers with their power to make a contribution to the community. Our Communities First programme will give more deprived neighbourhoods access to a new grant programme that will help them to implement their own plans, supported by community organisers whose job will be to build local networks and leadership, encouraging people to come together and take action.

Albert Owen: Will the Minister give way?

Mr Hurd: I am afraid that I have no time for interventions if I am to give the last Back Bencher the chance to wind up the debate.

We are going further than the three strands I have discussed. The hon. Member for Dagenham and Rainham (Jon Cruddas) talked about business having a bigger role. On 2 December, the Prime Minister made an important speech to business, setting out a new deal, Every Business Commits, challenging business to step up and play a bigger part in helping to tackle the social challenges of the day. Since then, the biggest banks have pledged £200 million to help to capitalise the big society bank, and businesses in the community are actively developing, in response to that speech, a network of business connectors—individuals who can make connections between local businesses and local organisations that need support.

That brings me to the role of the voluntary and community sector and the need to support it through what is, as many hon. Members have pointed out, an extremely difficult and challenging time. We should not forget that the majority of the voluntary sector does its valuable work with no help from the taxpayer at all, but many of our constituents will be surprised to learn that the sector receives almost £13 billion in public money, before the benefits of gift aid are counted. Faced with the monstrous legacy of a deficit that costs us £120 million a day in interest alone, we have always been clear that the sector cannot be immune from the need to find savings on that scale.

I know from my everyday contact and conversations with the sector that it is most anxious about cuts at the local level. We cannot control local authorities, but we have given a very strong steer that we do not expect them to cut the sector disproportionately. Many local authorities, such as Reading and Wiltshire, have confirmed

28 Feb 2011 : Column 133

that they will be maintaining or even increasing their investment. However, many have taken a different course. With our new transparency requirements, local communities will be able to see how their council has responded to the tough choices before it and to make their own judgments.

We are not laissez-faire about this issue. We see the voluntary and community sector as a key partner in this new partnership and we are actively trying to help it manage a very difficult transition by making it easier to run a social enterprise or voluntary sector organisation. Lord Hodgson will soon report to me with ideas on how to cut red tape for small charities, and we will continue to invest in the infrastructure that exists to support front-line organisation, trying to make it more effective. We have set aside £100 million as a transition fund to give a lifeline to the organisations that are most vulnerable to cuts. We are actively considering what we can do to encourage giving and a White Paper will be published after the Budget.

We are in the process of setting up the big society bank with £200 million of capital from the private sector and an expected £400 million from dormant bank accounts. Our recently published social investment strategy document sets out the role we see for it in growing the social investment market, thereby making it easier for social entrepreneurs to access capital. We want to make it easier for charities and social enterprises to work with government and we will soon publish our response to a consultation on the changes to the commissioning process needed to level the playing field and reduce the ridiculous amount of bureaucracy in the system.

There is no getting away from the short-term pain that a number of charities and social enterprises are feeling, but we want to work with them and help them to take advantage of the serious long-term opportunities that the big society agenda offers. They include the chance to deliver more public services, the chance to mobilise people and win arguments at the local level about what priorities should be and the chance to benefit from the time and money that we hope people will give more of in future. The Government are doing a huge amount to create the right conditions for this rebalancing of power and responsibility.

My final point is that this is not a Government programme, however important our lead is. It depends on a grass-roots local response from organisations and individuals who see a chance to do things in a better way. It is too early to say how high or far the bird that my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart) described will fly. It will take time, but we believe that we are going with the grain of what people want—more open, efficient government, better connected communities with people looking out for each other, more respect for the voice of the citizen, giving people real power to make a difference to the things that they care about, and a greater sense of togetherness at a tremendously challenging time for the country.

Whether we call it big society or stronger society, there ought to be more common ground on the need for a new approach, one based on a wholly positive vision of a better partnership between all elements of society, and a genuine belief in what people can achieve if they are trusted and given the power to make a difference to the things that they care about.

28 Feb 2011 : Column 134

9.55 pm

Guy Opperman (Hexham) (Con): It is rare to have three mentions of John F. Kennedy, or for the philosophers Hobbes, Paine and Burke to feature so heavily in such a debate, for T. S. Eliot to be quoted at will, and for Deng Xiao Ping and Gulliver to slide in at the end, as though important to that part of the debate. It is meant to be about free schools and the Localism Bill. The internet creates an environment that makes it possible for this option to be the way ahead, and for a national citizens service, as well as all the other matters that we are concerned with.

My hon. Friends the Members for Pudsey (Stuart Andrew) and for Crawley (Henry Smith) spoke at length about their background in help for hospice care. My hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey talked about his seven years working at a hospice which had 90% of its support from the public. My hon. Friend the Member for Crawley said that big government must be an enabling Government. Four Members took us on an intellectual high road. The hon. Members for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) and for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Tristram Hunt), and my hon. Friends the Members for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart) and for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman) traded frameworks, criticism, 300 years of history and the extent to which Paine did or did not belong to them. It was an education, to say the least.

The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central accepted that the Labour Government were over-regulatory and over-zealous in their last few years. It was noticeable that the hon. Member for Darlington (Mrs Chapman) made clear her love of the organisation but posed constructive alternatives, as did the hon. Members for Glasgow North East (Mr Bain), for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue) and for Leicester West (Liz Kendall). They all spoke at length and with great bravery and concern of their views on the matter. My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol North West (Charlotte Leslie) came up with a couple of prize comments, such as that we should trust people, as they are more than capable. She wanted a competent state, not a flabby state.

This was a cross-party debate. The hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams) described how some of the regulations had been relaxed. The Government have made progress. Only two weeks ago I held a debate in Hexham, where 150 people came to talk about the big society. Ten organisations fronted up and several deserve particular citing. I name just one—Humshaugh village shop, which won the Countryside Alliance award for the whole of the north-east for the way it went forward.

We are grateful to the Backbench Business Committee. My hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Charlie Elphicke) deserves great credit for bringing the matter before the House. Interestingly, he was supported by Members from all parts of the House. Everybody should support the motion.

Question put and agreed to .

Resolved ,

That this House supports the Big Society, seeking stronger communities where power is decentralised and social action is encouraged.

Mr Speaker: We come now to the Adjournment. There may be a pregnant pause at this point, but I do not want to keep the hon. Member for Walsall South

28 Feb 2011 : Column 135

(Valerie Vaz) waiting for very long. I should be grateful if Members who are leaving the Chamber would do so quickly and quietly, extending the same courtesy to the hon. Lady as they would want to be extended to them in similar circumstances.

28 Feb 2011 : Column 136

Library Services (Walsall South)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mr Goodwill.)

10 pm

Valerie Vaz (Walsall South) (Lab): Thank you, Mr Speaker, for allowing this Adjournment debate about the libraries in Walsall South. I also thank our own House of Commons Library, which is staffed by qualified professionals, not volunteers. They are experts in their field, and the whole House values the service that they provide.

“Once upon a time” is the phrase used in countless books that children pick up in a library, and for many the library is their first encounter with a book. For parents with young children, it is a social place where they can meet other parents. Children have access to books and toys, librarians suggest books to try and some have even started clubs for young children. For older children, staff run “Children in Summer” reading challenges.

The National Literacy Trust surveyed more than 17,000 pupils and it reported earlier this month that those who use the library are twice as likely to be above-average readers as their peers who do not—18% compared with 9.5%. Furthermore, those who visit libraries are more than twice as likely to read outside class every day—47% compared with 22%. Indeed, Members might be aware of a recent poll, showing that seven of the top 10 most borrowed authors are children’s authors.

If we carry on with the threats to our libraries, we will deny the next generation not only the right to be whatever they want to be in their imagination, but their access to knowledge through books. A book first encountered in a library might then be bought as a personal favourite, just as I did when I discovered with my daughter Dylan Thomas’s “A Child’s Christmas in Wales”. If there is to be joined-up government, the Secretary of State for Education should also be concerned about libraries disappearing or changing. Nationally, almost 750,000 people visit a library every day, and, according to the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals, that costs each person through local and national taxation 40p a week.

I shall touch on the statutory duties, because enshrined in the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964 is

“the duty of every library authority to provide a comprehensive and efficient library service for all persons desiring to make use thereof”.

There is also a duty to encourage adults and children to make full use of the library service, and the relevant Secretary of State has a duty to promote the improvement of libraries. Does the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport have plans to repeal the 1964 Act?

The local authority must also make a statement of what the service is trying to achieve, along with a description of local needs, including the general and specific needs of adults and children who live work and study in the area. So, you can imagine, Mr Speaker, the outcry in Walsall South when the council earmarked six libraries for closure.

In Walsall South there are libraries at Pheasey, Pleck, which serves Alumwell, Darlaston and south Walsall, and the central library is also in my constituency. This

28 Feb 2011 : Column 137

issue is not just about books; it is about a way of life and what the libraries represent. With unemployment increasing, they are needed more than ever as a support for development and new skills, and as a free public space for community cohesion.

That is what I found on 5 February outside Pleck library, where the local people wanted to present a petition—now 650 signatures strong—to save their library. Young people, senior citizens, people in work or resting, the local vicar and adults and children with diverse backgrounds and interests, from chess to internet shopping, were there. All were there using the library and protesting against its closure. Inside were a grandparent reading to a two-year-old, a hub of local people engaged in activity, and Councillor Dennis Anson’s advice surgery. I, too, have held advice surgeries in the library at Pheasey and in the central library.

In all the libraries in Walsall, there were more than 1 million visitors and more than 1 million books lent out in 2008 to 2010. The Minister has said that people have a right to campaign for their local libraries. Clearly, the council has failed to consult and to make an assessment of local needs.

Mr David Winnick (Walsall North) (Lab): I am very pleased that my hon. Friend has secured this Adjournment debate. Does she accept that there is also much concern in my constituency about the possibility that a number of libraries will be closed there? In view of the very large-scale cuts, announced last Friday, that are now being undertaken by the council, does she agree that there is a fear that further libraries will be closed, be it in her constituency or in mine, and that we are bound to be very concerned about that on behalf of our constituents?

Valerie Vaz: I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. I agree. There is a threat of closures across the whole of Walsall, including in his constituency and that of the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr Shepherd).

Consultation should be at a local level with the staff and the users, and it should not just be about how the service is changed to make savings or about how we use different technology. A few days after the Pleck protest, the council said the libraries would be safe for a year, but who knows what is in store for the future? An inquiry into Wirral’s library service in 2009 said there was strong case for reviewing the decision on services earmarked for closure when they were located in an area of significant deprivation and when they had interdependent links with schools and children’s centres. That could be a description of almost all these libraries. In Walsall, the librarians have to travel from one end of the borough to another, and the cost of travel time and schedules should be looked at as part of the consultation with the staff.

So what of the future? My constituents want libraries to be in buildings that are stand-alone, not part of another service, because they are places to work, to revise—just as I did in Richmond library—and use reference books, and to become skilled in information technology and to discover different types of music. My constituents want the staff to be professionally qualified people who provide them with expertise and support. Volunteers like Hitesh, who set up a chess club for young children, have their place, but they too are not free and would cost money to manage; all volunteers

28 Feb 2011 : Column 138

need supervision and training. My constituents want their libraries to be needs-driven, not demand-led, and to remain free. If libraries did charge, this would be a breach of the statutory duty to provide books free of charge for those who live and work in the area. My constituents said to me that they do not recall the closures as being part of any political party’s manifesto; they knew nothing about this at the election.

I could have come up with many statistics to make the case for keeping all the libraries, but it is about more than that because libraries are part of our heritage and part of the fabric of society; people have paid their taxes for services such as parks, hospitals and schools for the common good. Everyone, I am sure, has been into a public library at some time in their life. They are not just about borrowing the popular books. The most borrowed classic author was Roald Dahl, but Jane Austen and Shakespeare are also on the list. When the first library in Manchester was opened in 1852, Charles Dickens said that libraries

“will prove a source of pleasure and improvement in the cottages, the garrets and the cellars of the poorest of our people.”

I would add that they are not just for the poor but for everyone.

There are, on one count, 59 Members of this House who have written books. I am sure, Mr Speaker, that you will remember the joke: what is black and white and read all over? Yes, a book, and one hopes those books by my hon. Friends will be read all over—in all the public libraries. Sadly, the Minister is not on that list yet, although his esteemed parents are, but he did have the title of librarian as vice-president of the Oxford Union.

Finally, I would like to remind the Minister of famous librarians, who include politicians Golda Meir and Mao Tse-tung, the philosopher David Hume, and others such as Lewis Carroll, Benjamin Franklin and Jacob Grimm. As with all the best of Grimm’s stories, I hope that this one has a happy ending. With apologies to Mr Grimm, I would end as follows: “So the children and adults laughed and cheered as the Minister said, ‘Have no fear—your libraries are safe for the future’, and everyone in the kingdom was glad. The end.”

10.9 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport (Mr Edward Vaizey): I am grateful for the chance to respond to the hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz). I am grateful to her for calling for this Adjournment debate, which allows me to talk specifically about library provision in Walsall and about library provision in general, about which she made a number of points.

I begin by saying how much I regret that I am not on her list of 59 authors. I am afraid that I took the more relaxed approach to authorship in deciding to be an editor rather than an author. I have edited three volumes: “A Blue Tomorrow”, “The Blue Book on Health” and “The Blue Book on Transport”. “A Blue Tomorrow”, which as you know, Mr Speaker, was the start of the process of Conservative modernisation, reached the dizzy heights of the 20,046th best seller on Amazon. I will, perhaps when I leave my ministerial position or when I leave this House, become an author when I publish my memoirs. I have already thought of the title: “Fun While It Lasted”.

28 Feb 2011 : Column 139

The hon. Lady made a number of specific points about libraries. I share with her and the hon. Member for Walsall North (Mr Winnick), who is in the Chamber to support her, a passion for libraries. I am a champion of public libraries and I think that we all share a desire to see libraries thrive and survive not only in this tough economic climate, but for ever and a day. We recognise that libraries are neutral spaces and community hubs where people can go. They are not just places for lending books, although that is their essential central function, but places where people can access the internet and music, as the hon. Lady said, and where toddlers, youngsters and adults can access education and information.

To have a sensible debate about libraries, one has to define its terms. One cannot pretend that no library should ever close. In opposition, I never tied myself to a position of opposing every proposed library closure. The previous Government’s proposals on the modernisation of libraries, which were published last March, a month before they called the election, stated that

“the Government recognises that library closures may sometimes be necessary, but closures must form part of a strategic approach to service provision”.

We share that position.

The hon. Lady opened her remarks by praising the excellent service of the House of Commons Library. She implied that it is an excellent service because it does not use volunteers. As I am sure she is aware, more than 16,000 people across the country volunteer in their local libraries. I am sure she is also aware that the previous Government’s document that was published just in March last year stated:

“All libraries should consider how best to attract, nurture and utilise volunteers, to complement their workforce.”

Again, we share that position. Volunteers are an important element of library provision, but they must never take the place of professionals and must work with them.

What do we mean by a professional? During the important debate that we have had on libraries throughout the country for the past few months, an impression has perhaps been given that libraries should be staffed only by professional librarians. The Government’s position is that professionals should work in libraries, but that they do not necessarily all have to be professional librarians. The previous Government’s review of public libraries stated:

“Library services are best when staffed by a mixture of professionals including librarians and people qualified for work in other fields.”

Given the advent of technology and the provision of community services, it is important to have a mix of professionals in our library services.

Before the hon. Lady spoke specifically about library provision in Walsall, she asked whether the Government plan to repeal the statutory provision for libraries contained in the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964. I can tell her categorically that we have no plans to do so. The previous Government did indeed put that statutory provision up for consultation when they reviewed their library plans, but 80% of respondents said that they supported its continued use. The statutory duty remains a very important safety net for the provision of libraries.

Let us be under no illusions about the fact that the library service has suffered over the past decade or so. The number of visits to libraries and the number of

28 Feb 2011 : Column 140

adults borrowing books have dropped, and library provision throughout the country has been patchy. It is a local service, and it is up to local authorities to provide a good and comprehensive library service, but some are better than others. The power that I and the Secretary of State have is the statutory duty, which allows us to intervene in the most extreme cases.

One of the things of which I am most proud is that in opposition I encouraged the then Secretary of State to intervene in the case of the Wirral, where the closure of more than half the libraries was proposed. Thanks to that intervention, not only were the library closures halted, but, even more importantly, the report that was produced by Sue Charteris set out some important guidelines on how local authorities should go about their statutory duty. I genuinely believe that those guidelines have put a brake on the number of library closures being proposed. Indeed, I am confident that most local authorities are taking their duties under the 1964 Act very seriously and are examining the Wirral guidelines closely before taking decisions. Library provision in Walsall is no exception to that rule.

Of course, difficult choices are having to be made. Walsall council, like councils up and down the country, is tackling the legacy of the budget deficit left to us by the previous Government. We are having to reduce spending, which is leading to very difficult choices having to be made, and Walsall council is no exception. However, I believe that it is approaching the provision of the public library service in a positive way. I am told, for example, that it plans to invest more than £200,000 in radio frequency identification systems in libraries, which will allow people to check out library books and check them back in again without a librarian having to be present, delivering substantial administrative savings. There is also the possibility of sharing services with other library authorities in the region, an option that I believe is currently being discussed and that I am keen to see encouraged throughout the country.

What is encouraging about the situation in Walsall is that the questions being asked are not about how services can be cut and branches closed but about how services can be maintained and improved, with branches kept open even on a reduced budget. Indeed, I believe that the local authority has announced that there will be no branch closures in the next year, because it has chosen to consult the public on the way forward. I know that the hon. Members present this evening will lead that consultation, hand in hand with the local authority.

The public, whether they are library users or not, will be fully involved in the decision-making process in Walsall, and they will look to their civic leaders to guide them in that process. I understand that the consultation will involve traditional methods, as well as discussions on social networking sites and even by text message. Walsall council appears to be a thoroughly modern local authority, and I do not think many would disagree that that is an admirable attitude to adopt when looking to address budget reductions.

It is all very well for people to talk about their fears for the future of the library service, but I hope that the hon. Member for Walsall South will embrace in good faith the approach that Walsall library is taking. I hope that when she works with her local authority on the future of the library service, she will look around her at the myriad good examples up and down the country of fantastic, forward-looking, dynamic library authorities.

28 Feb 2011 : Column 141

In the previous debate on the big society, I heard my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman) say that it had been a cross-party debate, and I believe that the debate about libraries should be such a debate. We should recognise and celebrate the good practice of local authorities, whatever their political complexion. For example, Barking and Dagenham council, which is not as far as I am aware a Conservative local authority, has announced that rather than cutting and closing library branches, it will review its service to explore where efficiencies can be made. I am told that the decision to spare the library service from closures has galvanised enthusiasm in the community, with more volunteers coming forward.

Slough has put its library service out to tender and Essex county council is now due to help to run that service, which will reduce Slough’s administration costs. Last September in Ramsey, Cambridgeshire, work began to transform the site of an old cinema into a new library learning centre. In Luton, the new Marsh Farm library opens in just over a month, having been relocated to the local school.

Authorities around the country have library construction and refurbishment projects on the go. Of course, that is happening in places where a review of the library estate may result in fewer library buildings overall, but, like the previous Government, we have always been clear that closures do not signal an automatic breach of the 1964 Act. Sometimes a library authority will close or consider closing a library to ensure a more efficient service in its area.

Leeds, which again is not a Conservative authority, has just consulted on such proposals. Following a strategic assessment of its service, the council proposed redistributing services to provide much better value for money and an improved service offer. As its plans put the viability of a number of low-use, high-cost, small buildings into question, the authority engaged in a meaningful consultation with its communities, so that everybody understood what is proposed and how it could affect them.

Members of the London Libraries Consortium are achieving better value for money. Shared contracts have saved them roughly £1.5 million over five years. Havering, the lead authority in the consortium, has extended opening hours within existing budgets. Being part of that consortium means that those boroughs have 148 branches and nearly 6 million books in stock. With no tender process, no legal fees and support from shared specialists, new partners in the consortium save nearly £50,000.

The fact that authorities are improving their library buildings demonstrates that I am not the only person who still believes not only that our public library service can survive the current climate, but that it can blossom during and after it.

Mr Winnick: I am grateful for the permission of my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz), who initiated the debated. If the future of libraries in the borough that my hon. Friend and I represent turns out to be somewhat different and less optimistic than the Minister has stated—let us hope not—and if library closures are proposed over the next 12 or 18 months, can we come back to him and meet him, with a delegation if necessary? Obviously, as my hon. Friend has said, this is very serious issue indeed.

28 Feb 2011 : Column 142

Mr Vaizey: I am delighted to meet any Member of the House who wants to discuss their local library service. As I said, my first priority is excellent local library services across the country. I believe that the key to that is sharing best practice across local authorities. I truly admire how Walsall is going about its business, because it is genuinely consulting and not rushing to judgment. It is determined to provide a comprehensive and efficient library service for the people of Walsall, which takes its culture very seriously. I was privileged to visit its new art gallery to see its superb collection. I do not want to reinforce the impression that I am an entirely frivolous figure, but my abiding memory of my visit is the fact people in the lift are told what floor they are on by the voice of Noddy Holder, a former resident of Walsall—[ Interruption. ] I am delighted that you know with which band he plays, Mr Speaker.

Such innovation is going on elsewhere. In Barnsley, for example, a new lift library is opening at Great Houghton later this year in a building that will co-locate a GP practice and a pharmacy, and facilities for district nursing, adult and social services. I heard what the hon. Member for Walsall South said earlier about the need for libraries to be libraries, but I also passionately believe that co-locating with other community services can secure a library’s future. Indeed, having a library in a local building can secure that building’s future.

Stoke’s local service centre and library is also a fine example of what can happen when services are based in a single building. The centre incorporates training and conference rooms and a customer contact facility. I could go on. I could talk about how Windsor and Maidenhead is not closing its libraries but turning all 12 of them into a community service.

Let me also say something about the national debate about library closures. At times it has become very passionate, which is completely understandable. In a slightly perverse way, it is welcome because it reminds not just hon. Members but local councillors how passionately local people care about their libraries. Perhaps it reminds all of us not to neglect a service that perhaps we have taken for granted in the past.

There is genuine work going on behind the scenes. It cannot always be the subject of a press release or statement, but the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council works with a range of local authorities. I will not name them here, but those local authorities have hit the headlines with the number of headline closures that they are proposing, and the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council is having a significant influence on those authorities. I have received calls asking me or the Secretary of State to call in particular proposals. The reason we have resisted that is that we are confident that the MLA is engaging with those local authorities and working with them before they reach a final decision.

May I use this opportunity to put on the record my support and admiration for the leadership of Roy Clare, the chief executive of the MLA? He has been a fine public servant. He served the previous Government incredibly well, thoughtfully and with energy and dedication. Few people in the country know and understand the library service better than he does. I am delighted to have the opportunity to work with him in government.

I said repeatedly in opposition and many more times in government that I am a champion of libraries. I stand by that. My first speech as a Minister was on

28 Feb 2011 : Column 143

libraries. My first initiative as a Minister, long before library closures became the subject of national debate, was to put in place the future libraries programme, which is designed to share best practice with local authorities and to raise the profile of library services with local authorities. Campaigners are right to hold their councils to account if they think what is happening in their community is wrong or unfair, but I am confident that local authorities will listen and work closely with the MLA and that, despite some of the pictures of doom and gloom that we read about in the press across the country, in many local authorities there is a thriving, innovative local library service.

I thank the hon. Lady for allowing me the chance to talk about libraries in the Chamber. She is absolutely right to bring to the attention of the House her concerns about the future of library provision in her community. Let us have a sensible and reasoned debate about library

28 Feb 2011 : Column 144

provision. Let us not rule out for ever any closure of any library, provided that it is in context and part of a strategic overview. Let us not do down the work of volunteers—the tens of thousands who work in our libraries. Let us have a range of professionals working in our libraries. Let us have libraries that are lending books, helping to educate children and adults, providing safe community spaces, access to technology and to council services. Let us work to encourage local authorities to see libraries not just as an add-on but as central to their provision. As I say, I am confident that that is the case in the vast majority of local authorities up and down the country. Let us tell the good stories about libraries, while maintaining a watchful eye on what is happening in some of the more difficult cases.

Question put and agreed to.

10.29 pm

House adjourned.