Culture, Media and Sport CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by the National Federation of Women’s Institutes

About the NFWI

1. The National Federation of Women’s Institutes (NFWI) is an educational, social, non-party political and non-sectarian organisation. It was established to ensure that women are able to take an effective part in their community, to learn together, widen their horizons, improve and develop the quality of their lives and those of their communities and together influence local, national and international affairs. The WI has some 210,000 members in 7,000 Women’s Institutes across England, Wales and the Islands.

2. The WI plays a unique role in providing women with educational opportunities and the chance to learn new skills and take part in a wide range of activities. This ethos has guided the organisation since it was formed in 1915 with the aims of building an educated and informed civil society, and enabling women to take an active part in civic life. In the organisation’s early history, this commitment was directed towards expanding library provision—with WIs forming their own village libraries, often when local authorities were uninterested or unwilling to provide them. The WI worked to spread awareness of the Carnegie Trust’s work in establishing libraries, and WI members lobbied their local authorities to ensure that they took advantage of the funding on offer. Since then WIs have developed close links with local libraries, and members have championed library services in their own communities. A number of WIs have evolved directly from community links stemming from local libraries.

3. As the largest voluntary women’s organisation in the UK, the WI is uniquely placed to comment on the importance of libraries to our members and the impact of service reductions on women. The NFWI is also one of more than a thousand partners in the Government’s Race Online 2012 Scheme, and is committed to helping more than 10,000 WI members become Digital Champions.

4. The NFWI’s Love Your Libraries campaign was launched after a resolution on the closure of local libraries was adopted by delegates at the 2011 AGM following a year of debate on issues facing public libraries on a local level. The campaign aims to raise awareness of the value of libraries and the services they provide to communities.

5. Our response to the Inquiry is informed by a survey circulated to WIs, and consultation with members. As the NFWI is not involved in the delivery of library services, we have focussed our response on the areas we feel most able to comment on, in particular libraries and communities.

Summary

Libraries are a vital part of community life, particularly in rural areas, and contribute to outcomes across a broad range of policy agendas including lifelong learning, child literacy, wellbeing and digital inclusion.

Professional staff must be at the heart of a 21st century library service, and while volunteers have a role to play in public libraries, there is no evidence that communities have the capacity or appetite to run services themselves.

The NFWI is seriously concerned that the local authority duty to provide “comprehensive and efficient” public library services is compromised by the extensive scale of the closures, and that the lack of scrutiny of these proposals is incommensurate with the scale of the changes proposed.

The powers granted to the Secretary of State under the 1964 Act are sufficient to enable the Government to oversee libraries effectively, but it is unclear under what circumstances the Secretary of State would exercise these powers.

What constitutes a comprehensive and efficient library service for the 21st Century?

6. While the Act does not define “comprehensive and efficient” it is clear that such a service will deliver for a diverse range of changing communities and recognise that needs are different in different areas. Features essential to a comprehensive and efficient library service are highlighted throughout the submission, but our members have indicated that the expertise of professional staff is central to the modern library service.

7. The expertise of professional staff must be at the heart of the modern library service. Staff provide the links between formal library services and the particular needs of their communities, ensuring that services are responsive and meet the needs of local people. They are a vital source of support, guidance and training to library users, helping direct users to appropriate resources for their needs. For many WI members, librarians are at the heart of the community:

“The local children see her as an integral part of village life—she has welcomed my children to the library by name since they were babies”

“I use the library almost every week lending books and for finding information. The staff know me well and are able to find almost everything I have asked them for, getting books from other libraries and finding information on a variety of topics and hobbies”

8. The WI believes that libraries have a key role to play in enabling the “Big Society” by providing the facilities and tools to enable citizens to take an active part in public life. It is extremely important that community library services are responsive to local needs, and communities have a role to play in speaking up for and helping to shape their local services.

9. However, the proposals for community-transfers and the increasing focus on volunteers running libraries in the absence of professional staff, presents problems of capacity, competence and sustainability which have not yet received due scrutiny and assessment. The WI believes that volunteers have an important role to play, but they are not a replacement for a trained, professional library service.

10. We are concerned about the ability of communities to take on the running of local libraries, particularly around their ability to raise sufficient funds to keep library premises running and replenish book stocks, and around the loss of expertise from removing professional librarians. In a time of economic downturn, existing community groups may have limited capacity to take on additional responsibilities.

11. Many volunteers are time-poor; already involved in many other aspects of community life and would find it difficult to take on the running of a complex local amenity without funding and professional support mechanisms. There is also no evidence to suggest that communities have the appetite or capacity to run such services themselves.

The extent to which planned library closures are compatible with the requirements of the Public Libraries and Museums Act (1964) and the Charteris report

12. The NFWI has concerns about the compatibility of planned library closures with the requirements of the Public Libraries and Museums Act and the Charteris Report. The Act requires local councils to provide “comprehensive and efficient” public library services. We believe this duty is being compromised by the extensive scale of the closures and are concerned that there seems to be little scrutiny of the cumulative impact of reforms on the nation’s public library network as a whole.

13. The failure to make an assessment of local needs was at the centre of Wirral Council’s statutory breach of duty, as identified in the Charteris report. The report emphasised the specific needs of certain groups (children, older people, disabled people, unemployed people and those living in deprived areas) and found that the “absence of a strategic plan or development plan for the service” hindered the ability of the Council to describe how its plans and use of resources would meet the needs of the community. The implications of this finding remain relevant given recent legal challenges and in particular the recent High Court ruling on the legality of decisions made by Gloucester and Somerset County Councils. This found the breach of “equality duties is a substantive and not merely a technical or procedural defect” and went on to state that the results of the decisions “would result in major and unfavourable changes to the provision of statutory services…including the equality groups intended to be protected”.1

The impact library closures have on local communities

14. Libraries are the hub of local community life, with library buildings offering a space for members of the community to meet and socialise, and providing further opportunities to access information about community news and activities. WI members have stressed the importance of libraries as a physical space within the community with many members describing their local library as:

“A focal point for the community.”

15. In addition to the core services that libraries provide, they facilitate community engagement providing a gateway for citizens to get involved in other community groups and activities. Libraries offer information about local events, host a variety of community groups and provide a chance for people to meet and socialise. As one WI member said:

“It keeps our village together.”

16. Many WIs hold their meetings in spaces offered within libraries, and have developed close links with local library staff. Significant numbers of WIs have their own book groups. WI members have reported that the services offered to WI book groups by libraries are invaluable, and that their operation would be compromised without this service:

“I am a member of two book related groups—a reading group and a poetry group—both are dependant on books borrowed from my local library.”

17. The importance of the physical space offered by library buildings means that while the services they house may be delivered in a different way, the loss of this space means that communities lose the hub that can be the linchpin for local life.

18. Libraries and mobile library services also play an important role in rural areas. Residents in these areas may lack local community facilities, have limited public transport services which presents additional barriers to accessing amenities, and may have already lost other local facilities such as banks and post offices. One member emphasised the importance of their mobile library service in a rural area:

“Living in a rural village, no shop, one morning a week Post Office in village hall. Doctors in the next village. Buses almost non-existent. We need to keep our mobile [library].”

19. These services provide an often vital lifeline to those in isolated areas who are at risk of loneliness. Libraries provide a welcoming, neutral and open-to-all space, and have a large geographical reach. As such, they have an important role to play in helping to maintain the wellbeing of the local community. Through this work, and also through innovative partnerships with local health services, such as “books on prescription” schemes, libraries can make a contribution to delivering outcomes in a wide range of areas, addressing for example the Government’s wider and inter-related agendas on wellbeing, health and lifelong learning.

20. In an increasingly interconnected world, there is a need to ensure that libraries remain relevant and adapt to these changes, while remaining true to their core purpose. Many members reported that their own local library already offers electronic services, including online catalogue searches, email updates and computer access. WI members understand the need for libraries to adapt to embrace an increasingly digital world, but are also keen that books remain at the heart of libraries:

“A lot of people still like the feel of books to read.”

21. With 8.4 million people in the UK who have never been online, representing 16.8% of the adult population, the availability of free internet access, and the expert guidance and training to accompany it is essential in ensuring that all in society can utilise these tools. According to the Office for National Statistics, 23% of households do not have an internet connection, meaning that the provision of free internet access in public places remains important.2

22. Libraries have a central role in equipping society to embrace these new technologies, and in building a society ready to take advantage of modern technological advancements. The availability of computers and internet access within libraries is augmented by the range of free or low cost courses in IT skills offered by libraries that ensure people have the knowledge and skills to be able to successfully use new technology.

“I was taught how to use a computer and the internet and emails there, as well as attending different courses on various skills.”

23. Half of those who do not have an internet connection at home said they didn’t have one because they “don’t need the internet”.3 However, internet access has financial benefits, as households offline are missing out on savings of up to £560 per year by shopping and paying bills online.4 With evidence showing that digital inequalities replicate and compound existing inequalities by race, age disability and gender, it is clear that internet access also has an important role to play in combating social exclusion, by providing opportunities for communication and lifelong learning for all ages. WI members reported that libraries had helped open up new communication methods and social networks tackling isolation to those that had not previously used the internet:

“For the older members of our community it is a source of pleasure and company and for some it has introduced them to new skills such as IT so it is now easier to talk to distant children and grandchildren.”

24. Library staff are key to communicating and championing these benefits to those who may not know the advantages it could bring, and guiding non-computer users to sources of training to enable them to get online and use new technology successfully.

25. The NFWI acknowledges the need for public services to adapt to a changing economic and political environment. However, we are concerned that the spending reductions, and associated cuts in public sector jobs are having a disproportionate impact on women. With women making up 65% of the public sector workforce and 75% of the local government workforce, cuts in professional staffing of libraries are likely to have a disproportionate impact on women.

26. Reductions in public services, such as the activities for children offered by libraries, are also likely to result in women compensating for the loss of these services through their own unpaid work, for example by reducing paid working hours as a result of cuts to after-school programmes for children.

27. The NFWI believes that the economic downturn places an even greater importance on the services that libraries provide. WI members stressed the importance of libraries as a place to access books, the internet and lifelong learning free of charge; resources whereby individuals can acquire new knowledge and skills:

“With the credit crunch biting it is a place where everything is free.”

28. The internet and digital technology is becoming increasingly important both in employment, and also to those who are seeking work. Many jobs are advertised online, and the internet is a useful source of careers advice and information to those who are seeking work:

“Libraries provide free access to the internet for unemployed jobseekers which is a very, very important service.”

29. Libraries provide services for all, throughout their lives. The flexibility and responsiveness to local need is the strength of the library service, enabling it to meet the differing needs of groups within the community at different times. WI members reported that they have been lifelong users of libraries:

“Wherever I have lived during a long life I have always used the local public library for reference, for borrowing books and a place to make new friends when arriving in a strange locality.”

30. Libraries are particularly important to older women—providing opportunities to socialise, find out about community activities and explore hobbies and interests. Many WI members expressed the importance of libraries in combating isolation and loneliness, particularly for older people:

“The library is also a meeting place for people who enjoy reading and who would otherwise become increasingly isolated, particularly if they live alone.”

31. The World Health Organization highlighted the role of libraries as meeting places and for access to computers and the Internet in its Checklist of Essential Features of Age Friendly Cities.5 For those with mobility difficulties or disabilities, libraries and their associated outreach services are often a vital lifeline, offering information in formats to meet their specific needs:

“At the age of 84 and a half, disabled and not always well, reading is so essential to me. The fortnightly arrival of the library van is a high spot in my life and much pleasure is gained from the travel, biography or autobiography books I reserve and receive.”

“Partially sighted. Talking books a lifeline. Mobile library provides and also helps to select books.”

32. Libraries are also central to supporting lifelong learning, both through the range of materials that they make available, and also through the provision of courses and the availability of space for community groups to meet and learn together.

33. For mothers, libraries can be an important forum to meet other parents and make friends following the birth of a child. The range of low or no cost activities offered by libraries provide a valuable service for families, helping children to learn and instil a love of reading.

“They give my reading mad eight year old son a place to go and choose many different wonderful books to read.”

34. Libraries have an important role to play in supporting and promoting child literacy and reading for pleasure. The decline in the UK’s ranking in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) to 25th out of 65 countries, from 17th out of 58 countries in 2006 is a real cause for concern, as are the increasing numbers of children who do not own a book of their own.6

“Working in a playgroup for preschool children the library enables us to provide the children with a wide variety of books that without the library they would not have.”

35. The early years activities offered by libraries, and those aimed at older schoolchildren, such as the Summer Reading Challenge play an essential part in building up children’s literacy. The 780,000 children taking part in the Summer Reading Challenge in 2011, and an increase in children’s fiction borrowing further make the case for the importance of library access for young people.

The effectiveness of the Secretary of State’s powers of intervention under the Public Libraries and Museums Act (1964)

36. The NFWI believes that the powers granted to the Secretary of State under the 1964 Act are sufficient to enable the Government to oversee library services effectively. However, despite disproportionate cuts being proposed to many library services across England, it is unclear under what circumstances the Secretary of State would exercise these powers.

37. Furthermore, it is unclear what criteria the Department for Communications, Media and Sport is using to judge whether a library service is in breach of its duties. The NFWI would welcome reassurance from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport that the appropriate analysis is being undertaken to fully understand the longer-term and cumulative impact of planned closures, proposed reforms and library service reductions.

January 2012

1 Judge McKenna, Royal Courts of Justice, 16 November 2011.

2 Office for National Statistics, Internet Access—Households and Individuals, 2011
www.ons.gov.uk/ons/rel/rdit2/internet-access---households-and-individuals/2011/stb-internet-access-2011.html

3 Office for National Statistics, Internet Access—Households and Individuals, 2011.

4 Race Online 2012, PWC, The Economic Case for Digital Inclusion, October 2009.

5 World Health Organization, Checklist of Essential Features of Age Friendly Cities 2007.

6 National Literacy Trust, The Gift of Reading in 2011, Children and Young People’s Access to Books and Attitudes Towards Reading, 2011.

Prepared 5th November 2012