Culture, Media and Sport CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by Shirley Burnham

1. Summary

A “comprehensive” library service

A two-tier service is not a “comprehensive” service.

A network of good branch libraries provides a “comprehensive” service.

The local library is a safe haven for all residents.

Paid frontline library staff and a professional back office are key to a high standard of service.

The importance of the mobile library service.

Electronic media replacing books: future access to reading material will be the right of a privileged few (ref to: Hansard—5.12.2011).

DCMS has failed to formulate the policy and provide the necessary leadership to ensure a comprehensive, sustainable service.

An “efficient library service

Those with an interest are, in error, applying only narrow economic criteria to describe an “efficient” service.

The adjective “efficient” should more properly relate to a nationally consistent standard of service that is readily accessible to the customer.

National standards for public libraries must be introduced in England. The application of national standards in Wales has contributed to a rise in borrowers of 8.3%.

Remember the 21st Century stakeholders of the future

No analysis has been made of the sustainability of the mishmash of library provision currently proposed, nor how that will serve future generations.

Making connections with young readers, to build their love of reading and learning is one of the most important things a neighbourhood library and its professional staff can do.

Library Closures—their compatibility with the Law

It is those charged with ensuring that the Law is enforced, not the Law itself, who are creating a problem today.

The 1964 Act’s author, Francis Bennion, has recently clarified the Law.

Legal requirements under Equalities legislation are admirably met by a comprehensive network of branch libraries.

Ministers were outspoken on the 1964 Act’s importance in Opposition, but have changed their views since entering Government.

The 1964 Act protects against governments exercising no oversight of the public library service when a local programme of closures may be illegal.

The 1964 Act guards against governments imposing any political ideology on library service provision that might undermine the common good.

Current proposals for library closures are incompatible with the Charteris Report

Ms Charteris stated that the council had not adequately assessed how well its model would meet the needs of its constituent communities before taking a decision on closures.

The Big Society has spawned a new definition of the “community library” as a library divested in toto to volunteers. This new definition is incompatible with the “community based library service” to which Ms Charteris referred.

It is significant that Ms Charteris concluded that, had the Wirral closure plan gone ahead, the authority would have breached its statutory duties.

An undertaking made by the MLA (Museums, Libraries and Archives Council) (November 2010) to identify and report “Wirral-like” examples has not been honoured.

The impact of closures on the community

Today campaigners across the country are faced with similar problems to those that confronted residents of Old Town, Swindon when their library was under threat.

Old Town Library was “saved”, retaining a paid staff member.

Walcot Library, Swindon, replaced all frontline staff with volunteers.

The effectiveness of the Secretary of State’s Powers of Intervention

Precedent exists to confirm that the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964 is fit for purpose to permit the Secretary of State to use his powers of intervention—Derbyshire (1991) and the Wirral Inquiry.

It is those charged with ensuring that the Law is enforced, not the Law itself, who are creating a problem today.

Further to a Court Judgment against it, Somerset CC has made a policy U-turn. Had the Secretary of State intervened in Somerset, residents would not have been obliged to do his job for him at their own expense.

The role of the CMS Select Committee

Precedent exists to suggest that the Committee’s current deliberations could be dismissed in future as a “red herring”.

2. Introduction

I am a library campaigner. The Friends of Old Town Library, Swindon, was established in February 2008 to improve the amenity’s footfall when the local authority had granted it a “stay of execution”. Residents subsequently improved usage by some 35%. Notwithstanding, the library became subject to a renewed threat of closure in early 2009 (for savings of circa £17,000 pa in staff costs). The Friends group re-formed as the “Save Old Town Library Campaign. I led those two groups. Our library continues to flourish today, with paid staff, thanks to the receptiveness of Swindon Borough Council members and officers.

3. A “Comprehensive” Library Service

3.1 A “comprehensive” service must be arranged so as not to exclude the people who wish to use it. That would explain why citizens have organised themselves to defend their branch libraries and mobile library services wherever these are under threat. It is intolerable to communities when a library service is being systematically squeezed so as to exclude them from access. It is similarly intolerable to them to be presented with sub-standard substitutes and the replacement of paid staff by volunteers, when the end result does not measure up to any citizen’s definition of what a library is. A two-tier service is not a “comprehensive” service.

3.1.1 A network of branch libraries provides a “comprehensive” service. Unlike a vast central library or Ideas Store, the smaller library provides something different: an intimate space for study and contemplation near one’s home. It is an accessible safe-haven for all, particularly for the young, the elderly and infirm. Paid library staff are key to a library’s frontline operation (now recognised by Swindon) and specialist Librarians essential to a professional back-office operation. No less important is the mobile library service whose withdrawal results in social isolation of a particularly acute kind. It is not only a devastating loss to the more remote communities affected, but flies in the face of any notion of a comprehensive or sustainable service. These amenities are the lifeblood of communities, not least for their fundamental role in improving literacy and ensuring social inclusion.

3.2 Electronic media replacing books: future access to reading material will soon become the right of a privileged few (ref to: Hansard—5.12.2011):

3.2.1 I ask the Committee to consider the Minister’s response (Hansard: 05/12/11) to a question from Caroline Nokes MP:

Mr Vaizey: “The Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964 prevents libraries from charging for the loan of material in a form which is readable without the use of electronic apparatus. Library authorities can therefore lawfully charge to lend audio books and other audio-visual material.”

3.2.2 As e-books and online information services become an increasingly important means for delivering the written word to library users, book budgets are being slashed, even in Hounslow’s “privatised” libraries. Central government has encouraged a vision for the future of the service that ignores the value of the physical book, accepting with complacency that the Law allows for the library user to be charged for alternative provision. The public, who borrow some 310 million books from public libraries annually, do not accept that their “free” access to reading material will become the right of a privileged few.

3.3 DCMS, under Labour and now the Coalition, has signally failed to formulate the policy and provide the leadership required to ensure that all citizens are able to rely on a library service that is “comprehensive” in nature.

4. An Efficient Library Service

4.1 Because the provisions of the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964 currently represent an obstacle to local authorities’ freedom to apply swingeing cuts to library provision, those with an interest in applying narrow economic criteria to a new definition of “efficient” tend to brief against the Act’s fitness for purpose, in spite of demonstrations of its adequacy in the Derbyshire Inquiry (1991) and the Charteris (Wirral) Report.

4.1.1 The DCMS has encouraged local authorities by virtue of their publications, correspondence and ministerial statements to interpret the “efficient” library service as one to which narrow criteria of economic viability must be applied. That interpretation gives free rein to the application of disproportionate cuts: mass closures; mass staff redundancies and mass divestment of libraries, often for the sake of saving quite small sums of money.

4.1.2 Ministers should be requested to justify how their publications, correspondence and official statements since assuming office, including the 2011 publication Future libraries—Change, options and how to get there, have served any other purpose than to be charters for reducing costs.

4.1.3 More properly, the adjective “efficient” should apply to a nationally consistent standard of service provided by public library networks to the customer.

4.1.4 National standards for public libraries must be introduced in England. The application of national standards in Wales has contributed to a rise in borrowers of 8.3% (CIPFA). When a Welsh authority fails to comply, action can be taken. Due to the absence of any national standards in England, unacceptable levels of service result, for example the failing two-tier service recently imposed on residents of Lewisham.

5. Remember the 21st Century Stakeholders of the Future

5.1 It is dismaying that no analysis has been made of the sustainability of the mishmash of library provision currently proposed, nor how that will serve future generations. That dereliction of duty, from the Top down, means that prospective 21st Century residents are the country’s forgotten stakeholders, because:

5.1.1 Children now in kindergarten, the future of this country, are just beginning to learn the pleasure of books. They have not been disabused of their childish wonder at a room full of stories, free for the taking. Making connections with those early readers and building their love of reading and learning is one of the most important things a neighbourhood library and its professional staff can do.

6. Library Closures—Their Compatibility with the Law (and also refer to 7.2)

6.1 It is those charged with ensuring that the Law is enforced, not the Law itself, who are creating a problem today. Frankly, it’s down to the Ministers. Any failure on their part to understand the content of the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964 should not be tolerated, particularly now that the Act’s author, Francis Bennion, has recently clarified it.

6.2 When HM’s Loyal Opposition is reluctant to challenge the conduct of Culture ministers, any expectation that citizens may rely on the rule of democracy and the Law is undermined.

6.3 Requirements under Equalities legislation are admirably met by the provision of a comprehensive network of branch libraries. Unless the Law is to be ignored completely, the only sensible way forward is to focus on neighbourhood branches, retain them, run them properly and resist further temptation to build more new central libraries that use up all available resources.

6.4 Ministers were outspoken on the Act’s importance when in Opposition, but since assuming the responsibilities of Government feign bewilderment as to its efficacy. That is outrageous.

6.5 The 1964 Act must be retained, as it protects against governments exercising no oversight of the public library service when a programme of closures at a local level may contravene the Law. Its provisions also guard against governments imposing any political ideology on library service provision that might undermine the common good.

7. Current Proposals for Library Closures are Incompatible with the Charteris Report because:

7.1 Ms Charteris stated: “I do not believe that the council adequately assessed how well this model would meet the needs of its constituent communities before taking a decision to close 11 of its 24 libraries”. She further stated: “Wirral MBC would need to be prepared to invest skills and time up front to develop a genuinely community based library service that is sustainable going forward.”

7.1.1 The Big Society has spawned a new definition of the “community library”—as a library divested in toto to volunteers. This new definition is incompatible with the “community based library service” to which Ms Charteris referred, above.

7.2 It is significant that the Ms Charteris concluded that, had the Wirral closure plan gone ahead, the authority would have breached its statutory duties.

7.3 An extract from November 2010 correspondence that refers to the Wirral Inquiry is reproduced below. Officials have not honoured the undertaking made:

From Roy Clare CBE, CEO, Museums, Libraries and Archives Council: 30 November 2010 (extract—original e-mail available on request).

“MLA still has sufficient resources on the ground that can be materially valuable in the very tough processes that Councils are undertaking. And we are on the lookout for Wirral-like examples and will report them if we identify them.”

7.3.1 Where is the evidence that DCMS has been notified of any “Wirral-like examples” (e.g: Gloucestershire and Somerset 2011, or Brent 2011) or that the Secretary of State has invoked his statutory powers of intervention with regard to them?

8. The Impact Closures have on Communities

8.1 When residents of Old Town, Swindon, joined forces to defend the small, unprepossessing library upon which they relied, they became aware through contact with schools, businesses, families and retired people that its loss would have a far broader impact than any feelings of personal deprivation.

8.1.1 Three primary schools and a large secondary school took part in a poster competition calling on the Borough Council to save Old Town Library. It became apparent that its loss—for the sake of circa £17,000 savings pa in staff costs—would have a considerable impact on the children.

8.1.2 The mother of a severely autistic child told me when signing Save Old Town Library Campaign’s first petition that her son felt safe and happy in the small, intimate space of the library. She could not risk taking him into the town’s large Central Library, so their visits would have to cease.

8.1.3 Residents did not consider that access to the Internet at home is a substitute for a local library. They attested that easy access to libraries containing physical books and computers would always be needed.

8.1.4 Local businesses feared that the loss of the well-used library would affect footfall and reduce trade. If residents were to go out of the neighbourhood to the Central Library, they would take their custom elsewhere.

8.1.5 Numerous elderly people were distraught. To make their way to the Central Library was not an option for most older or infirm people, particularly in winter (photograph available, on request).

8.1.6 When urged to volunteer to “run” their library, residents of Old Town resisted, fighting for and retaining a paid member of library staff. By contrast, Swindon’s Walcot Library replaced frontline staff with volunteers.

8.2 Today, library campaigners across the country are faced with many of the same problems that confronted residents of Swindon.

9. The Effectiveness of the Secretary of State’s Powers of Intervention

9.1 Precedent exists to confirm that the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964 is fit for the purpose of permitting the Secretary of State to use his statutory powers of intervention (Derbyshire 1991 and The Wirral). The issue here is that, unless the Prime Minister or this Select Committee insists that the Secretary of State use his powers of intervention when it is evident that he should, democracy and the Law are brought into disrepute.

9.2 It is those charged with ensuring that the Law is enforced, not the Law itself, who are creating a problem today. Further to a Court Judgment against it, Somerset CC has recently announced a policy U-turn. Had the Secretary of State intervened in Somerset, Gloucestershire, Brent, and now Surrey, residents would not be obliged to do his job for him at their own expense.

10. The Role of the CMS Select Committee

10.1 The Committee may find it disturbing that its current deliberations could be dismissed in future as a “red herring”. Perhaps ministers and public servants might be asked whether they share the opinions expressed in the following correspondence:

10.1.1 From Roy Clare, MLA: December 12, 2010 (e-mail available on request):

“The Select Committee report is a serious red herring from another era, with different assumptions, changed context and overlooking the incongruity of accountability and mandate. DCMS has always been on a hiding to nothing, with supposed accountability and no funding. DCLG has the funding and a duty to comply with a weak Act for libraries. MLA has never had a mandate to intervene except by invitation of Councils. You don’t like it, because you can’t engage with them, but local Councillors run local services. MLA and DCMS do not. No government has ever been attracted to a national library service and it simply won’t happen in today’s world.”

10.1.2 I rely on the good offices of Members of this Select Committee to ensure that the vital role of our nation’s branch libraries is recognised. I also trust that Members will ask the Secretary of State, with some urgency, to undertake all his statutory duties. I express thanks to the Committee for kindly reading my evidence.

December 2011

Prepared 5th November 2012