Culture, Media and Sport CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by Desmond Clarke

1. Executive Summary

Widespread protest reflects not just concerns about closures in rural and deprived areas but also worries about literacy, access to education and knowledge and the degradation of the library profession.

There is also a debate about how library funds are spent and the need to “streamline” the service and reduce the 151 separately managed authorities.

There has long been a concern about the “woeful” lack of leadership for the sector and the failure to promote a powerful vision for a modern library service. Both the Minister and the All Party Parliamentary Library Group previously agreed the need for some form of library development board.

A comprehensive service necessitates providing resources which are accessible to all to support literacy, reading and the acquisition of information and knowledge.

It is necessary to maintain a thriving network of branch libraries to ensure services are accessible by the young, elderly and disadvantaged. Such libraries are a highly valued local service especially in small towns and villages. We have to be concerned that a few flagship libraries do not disguise a ruined hinterland.

Public Library Service Standards should be re-introduced. They continue to be an effective measure of provision in Wales (Welsh Government: Maintaining a Valued Service 2011–14 document attached).1 The Scottish Executive published in 2007 A Public Library Quality Improvement Matrix for Scotland.

The development of e book lending services by library authorities is haphazard if not in turmoil. DCMS and ACE (Arts Council England) should urgently develop a strategy for a viable national service available to all. PLR should be introduced for e book loans.

Much can be done to improve efficiency, including merging library services across authorities, implementing fully national standards and simplifying processes, eradicating layers of management and sharing back-office functions. Central services charges imposed on library authorities need to be put under the spotlight. It is reasonable to suggest that across the country total gains of about £100 million could be realised.

Disproportionate cuts to services and major closures of community and mobile services are not compatible with providing a comprehensive service under the Act. These cuts often have the greatest impact on the young, the elderly and the disadvantaged as well as those in rural and deprived areas.

Ministers were wrong to close the Advisory Council on Libraries which is prescribed in the Act. The ACL should have been developed as an expert body to provide independent advice to ministers and to report annually on the condition of public libraries in this country. The Council did not incur any costs other than travel expenses for some of its members.

The Secretary of State has adequate powers under the Act to intervene and to set up a local inquiry if required as was shown by the Wirral and previously, the threatened Derbyshire cases. I do not doubt that councils such as the Isle of Wight were aware of this risk when they decided to amend their closure plans.

While the “light touch” adopted by the current Minister may be welcomed by the Local Government Association and councils, it does not deal effectively with the worst cases and has necessitated some local campaign groups having to seek expensive judicial reviews. It has also led to widespread criticism of ministers in the media with the often repeated complaint that they have been “sitting on their hands”.

Both the current Minister and his predecessor in the last government have rightly rejected a proposal from the LGA that the 1964 Act should be repealed. Removing the statutory duty would allow some councils to evade their responsibilities and allow the provision of quality library services to become even more a post code lottery.

There is a need for ministers and those responsible for library services provision to communicate a clear message as to what every citizen’s entitlement should be in terms of library provision (A Library Charter).

There are several examples of innovative and well managed library authorities but alas, there are an increasing number of authorities that are failing the millions of people who rely upon public libraries. The very slow process of persuading 151 separately managed authorities to change, improve and to focus on the diverse needs of their communities requires leadership, vision and the determination of the strategic agencies, the profession and local politicians to deliver. We have had numerous reports and studies, the two year Library Modernisation Review and different inquiries. What we urgently need is action. As has been said before, there is a need for everyone to “up their game”.

2. Introduction and General Observations

2.1 I am a library campaigner. I retired as President and CEO of Thomson Publishing Services Group, a division of the Thomson Corporation (now Thomson Reuters). I was previously a director of Faber & Faber and I have been a Non Executive director of several businesses including a leading library and wholesale supply group and a publishing technology business. I am a former chair of the library charity, Libri.

2.2 Government and many local authorities are facing broad opposition to the disproportionate cuts being imposed on public libraries. While protests often reflect particular concern about closures in small towns and villages, they also reflect worries about literacy, access to education and knowledge, and the degradation of the library profession. There is also confusion about the volunteer agenda and how volunteers should be employed to enhance community services.

2.3 In the background is a debate about how library funds are spent, the need to “streamline” the service, and the balance between corporate and support service costs with the investment in front line services. In particular, questions are being asked about whether we need 151 separately managed library authorities in England and how this structure impedes innovation, modernisation and efficiency improvements. Related to this is the need to reduce significantly administrative costs given that about 20–25% of the budget for most library services (and in some cases, up to 50%) is committed to council recharges and library support costs.

2.4 There has long been a concern about the inability of government, its agencies and the professional bodies to provide effective leadership for the sector. There has been a failure to communicate a powerful vision for libraries in the 21st Century. What do we expect public libraries to do and how will they be relevant in 10 years time? Specifically, there needs to be a greater focus on the role libraries play in encouraging literacy through reading, in education and in bridging the “digital divide” but also in recognising their crucial role as a community hub for a range of activities from home work clubs to home delivery for the housebound. The reasons why we should all strive to support the vision must be clear to everyone, not least local politicians. There is also a need to ensure that the “library offering” is properly marketed.

2.5 The present Minister and the All Party Library Group have previously suggested the need for some form of Library Development Board to provide strategic leadership, to develop a vision for a modern library service, to encourage and support improvement, to undertake research and to share best practice. It could also establish standards for the provision of library services. That group could be hosted by the Arts Council but it is essential that it is set up with people who have the vision and expertise to work with the profession and local politicians in building a vibrant service which meets peoples’ real needs.

2.6 It is important to recognise that the quality, reach and efficiency of library services does vary considerably between authorities. There are several well managed authorities which deliver a quality service to the benefit of residents. There are also about 40 major renovations and new builds in progress, mainly in city centres, and a number of authorities have come together to share and improve procurement, bibliographic services and even, management. In particular, librarians are often highly motivated, caring and committed to serving their communities.

3. A Comprehensive Service

3.1 Library authorities fulfil their duty to provide a comprehensive service by offering a service, inclusive to all, which supports reading, literacy, education and the acquisition of information and knowledge. Library resources should be easily accessible by public transport and available during key periods of demand. In particular an authority should ensure that children, the elderly, the disadvantaged and the housebound can access a thriving network of community libraries supported by mobile services and home delivery. We have to be concerned that a few flagship libraries in city centres do not conceal a ruined hinterland.

3.2 A comprehensive service should include:

(a)Suitable and appropriate access to library services.

(b)Provision of a suitable and appropriate range of books, other materials and computers for public use.

(c)Access to e books for free loan as these become available.

(d)Provision of adequate staffing levels.

(e)Provision of adequate space and attractive buildings.

(f)Recognition that libraries often provide a unique community resource with related services that are highly valued by local residents.

(g)Improvement in the quality of services to meet the changing needs of communities.

3.3 Previous governments introduced Public Libraries Service Standards to set an acceptable level of service provision and authorities were required to report annually on whether these standards had been achieved. Such standards were initially welcomed though they were later revised and then, withdrawn. However, the Welsh National Assembly still requires its authorities to report annually against agreed service standards (See attached Welsh Government Maintaining a Valued Service).2 The Scottish Executive in 2007 published A Public Library Quality Improvement Matrix for Scotland. I suggest that Public Library Service Standards should be re-introduced in England to ensure that the quality of library services does not become a post code lottery.

3.4 E books and on line information services will become an increasingly important means for delivering the written word and information. There are many licensing and copyright, technical and commercial issues related to the development of e book lending. Some will question the extent to which public libraries will ever be a major player in this market given the temptation for innovative commercial players to want to take “ownership of the customer”. It is worrying that the Arts Council’s Library Development Initiative almost ignores e books.

4. An Efficient Service

4.1 More can be done to improve the efficiency of the public library service. The DCMS has in the past commissioned reports by the consultants PwC (PricewaterhouseCoopers) and PKF to identify opportunities but insufficient work has been done to optimise potential gains.

4.2 At the heart of the problem is that we have 151 separately managed library authorities, ranging in size from a handful of libraries to those with more than 100 branches. They often use different systems and processes, have their own back-office and management structures and lack the expertise to market their services and efficiently manage resources to the optimum benefit of communities. Westminster Council has reported that it will deliver annual savings of £1.1 million (about 10% of its controllable costs) when it merges its library services with those of two neighbouring councils. Across the country it is reasonable to suggest that by reducing the number of authorities by a third (as has been suggested by the current Minister) savings in the region of £50 million might be delivered. This seems to be a realistic target given that there were just 98 authorities 14 years ago.

4.3 Hillingdon Council has shown that it can deliver annual savings of £300,000 by better managing its resources, improving its procurement and removing layers of management. At the same time it is implementing a programme of refurbishment and has seen usage increase by up to 50% in its refurbished libraries. The council has been careful to introduce improvements and resources in each refurbished library which meet the particular needs of the local community.

4.4 Implementing national standards and simplifying processes in every authority has been painfully slow. The technology is often dated and sometimes incapable of communicating with the systems of neighbouring authorities. While I accept that recently there have been a number of initiatives to share back-offices and to improve procurement and the supply chain, much more could and should be done. Having to rely upon 151 separate management teams to deliver change and efficiency improvements is inevitably slow.

4.5 The elephant in the room is the central services charge imposed by councils on their library service. These charges vary in their make up by authority but can equate to 20% of a library authority budget. Such charges have escalated in recent years and, with increased labour costs, have squeezed the budget available for books and other resources.

4.6 Could the public library service across the 151 English authorities deliver annual savings of about 10% of its £1 billion budget by better structuring, managing and delivering its services? The answer I suggest is YES and these savings should not impact on the service provided to library users. However, such savings will only be possible given strong leadership and the support of government, the profession and local politicians.

5. The Extent to which Planned Closures are Compatible with the Act

5.1 While CILIP estimates that perhaps 600 libraries are threatened with closure, the number of actual closures to date has been reasonably small. Councils have responded in many cases to widespread protest by offering to transfer responsibility for branch libraries to volunteer groups. Alas, there is no clear blueprint for volunteer run libraries and there is a real concern that such initiatives will be unsustainable in the longer term. Transferring responsibility to volunteer groups may simply lead to a slow death for library services in many communities, especially those in small towns and villages.

5.2 A particular concern is whether the approach of some authorities to closures and the withdrawal of services are equitable. The closure of community and mobile services can have a disproportionate impact on the young, the elderly, the disadvantaged and the housebound. Shiny central libraries may be attractive to council chiefs, and provide jobs for senior professional staff, but it is the local library which is at the centre of communities. Such libraries are valued as safe meeting places, with helpful staff and well used services such as mother and toddler groups, homework clubs, internet access and home delivery to the housebound.

5.3 The danger is that some authorities in the rush to deliver savings are simply wielding the axe. Public consultations and assessment of need are being rushed through but local protest and the recent judicial reviews have often acted as a brake, with a number of councils revising their initial proposals.

5.4 It is very questionable whether the decision to close libraries or transfer responsibility in many authorities are not compatible with the requirements of the 1964 Act. Difficult access to a library, sometimes involving several bus trips, the closure of mobile services, cuts in opening hours and much reduced resources is not compatible with the duty to ensure that the service is comprehensive.

6. Impact of Closures on Communities

6.1 The closure of the local library can seriously damage the local community often for little financial gain. Many villages, small towns and residential areas have already lost their post office and possibly, the local pub. The library is a safe haven, a source of valuable information, a centre for education and entertainment, the provider of internet access and other valued services. Furthermore, it is staffed by library staff anxious to help and advise.

6.2 Library closures have the greatest impact on the young, the elderly and the disadvantaged. The fact that volunteer groups have found it necessary to assume responsibility for many libraries with the support of town and parish councils confirms the value placed on them as an essential community resource. The value of community libraries is often seriously under valued by government officials and senior council officers. One senior DCMS official once remarked that when he wanted a book, he popped into his local Waterstone branch!

6.3 Chris Smith when Secretary of State described public libraries as “the university of the street corner”. Libraries have been and will continue to be a powerful resource in supporting literacy and the acquisition of knowledge and information. In closing local libraries, hurdles, if not barriers, are placed to impede millions of people in having free and convenient access to literature, information and knowledge.

7. The Effectiveness of the Secretary of State’s Powers of Intervention under the Act

7.1 The 1964 Act places a duty on the Secretary of State to “superintend” library authorities and to set up a local inquiry when required. The previous Secretary of State did set up an inquiry on the Wirral when that council decided to close half of its libraries. The present minister was vociferous in demanding such action when in opposition but has been unwilling to intervene in a single case since taking office despite many requests from library users faced with large scale closures and cut backs. His defence is that libraries are a local issue.

7.2 It seems that the Minister closed the Advisory Council on Libraries, the advisory body defined in the 1964 Act, without realising that it was prescribed in statute. This was a panel of senior librarians and independent advisors, which should have existed to give the Minister advice and an assessment of the condition of the service. Removing an independent and valuable source of advice to ministers was a serious mistake.

7.3 The Local Government Association has lobbied for the 1964 Act to be repealed but this has been rejected both by the current minister and his predecessor in the last government. I am sure councils would like the freedom to provide services without any statutory duty. Removing that duty will simply allow councils to ignore or evade their responsibilities. In contrast, the Welsh Museum, Libraries and Archive Council (CyMAL) has recently warned a council that it risks intervention unless it improves its weak performance as measured against the Welsh Public Libraries Service Standards.

7.4 When the Government’s agenda stresses that decisions about council services should be taken at local level, any attempt by ministers to intervene could be open to criticism. However, that does not excuse non-intervention particularly in the worst cases. In practice, the DCMS has asked some half dozen authorities to explain their plans and MLA field officers have offered advice to several authorities. This light touch may be welcomed by council officials but it can be very frustrating for local campaign groups and does not deal effectively with the worst cases. It must be of concern that residents in three councils to date have had to resort to judicial reviews, and many other groups have had to fight long battles to get their voices heard.

7.5 There are concerns that recent involvement of Arts Council England is not well defined and that their Library Development Initiative does little to address the issues facing the sector. Their officers have made no attempt to meet with library user groups and campaigners to understand their concerns.

7.6 I suggest the real issue is not whether the Secretary of State has sufficient powers to intervene but whether ministers have communicated a clear statement (a Library Charter) as to what library users should be able to expect from their local service. As the Minister has said, it is his responsibility to provide the leadership that the sector requires. I would echo that and add that he must also put in place the necessary structure to deliver a vibrant public library service available to all.

December 2011

1 Not printed.

2 Not printed.

Prepared 5th November 2012