If you haven’t yet seen it Cilip has received a reply from the Conservatives as part of the Election Watch Campaign. As expected it is the usual political fluff, managing to fill space without actually saying anything of substance. A sort of fifty shades of vanilla, which describes most of mainstream politics at the moment!
Part of the problem is that the campaign letter itself is fairly bland and non-specific, inviting a insipid response in return, which is precisely what’s happened. As a reply it is too inane to even bother critiquing and merely proves the point that politicians don’t communicate to elucidate, merely to make themselves or the party look good.
Anyway, I prefer to let the coalition’s atrocious record on libraries and public services for the past five years stand for itself.
So far there doesn’t appear to have been any replies from the other political parties but obviously, the most anticipated will be from Labour (did anything ever come of the consultation carried out by Helen Goodman?) and I hope Cilip has better luck than myself in receiving a reply. Despite three emails to Chris Bryant and a Twitter exchange he still hasn’t bothered responding.
That said, he might just be killing time until Labour is elected and hoping for a more exciting portfolio and thus libraries are so far down on his list of interests that it’s not worth formulating an informed response.
Leaving silent Bryant aside, I did have slightly more luck when contacting Labour via the House of Lords and received a response from Lord Collins, whose reply is below including his speech re: Abolition of the Library Advisory Council for England.
While I appreciate that Lord Collins at least answered, and that Labour appears to at least acknowledge the difficult situation libraries face, unlike Ed ‘crisis, what crisis?’ Vaizey, this has not translated into any clear statement or commitment from Labour regarding library provision. And like the Conservatives the reply manages to say a lot without actually answering the questions asked.
So far, it appears that Labour’s policy on libraries is to not actually say what their policy is, but then again, perhaps they just don’t have one!
- There are now at least 330 fewer libraries open for 10 hours or more a week – an 8 per cent drop.
- The number of visits has declined rapidly since 2010. In 2009/10 there were 322 million visits, but by 2013/14 visits had fallen to 282 million – a 12 per cent drop.
- The percentage of people visiting libraries in the most deprived areas, which rely on public libraries the most, has fallen since 2010 from 46.2 per cent of people to 36.8 per cent. That is a 21 per cent drop.
- Since last April a further 216 static libraries and eight mobile libraries have been put under threat of closure or passing to volunteers.
Public Bodies (Abolition of the Library Advisory Council for England) Order 2014
Lord Collins of Highbury (Lab):
My Lords, I echo my noble friend’s remarks about the current crisis libraries are facing. They are not a luxury but a practical tool and provide vital public space for individuals and families across the country. They are a resource for parents and young children, schoolchildren who do not have a place to work at home, jobseekers who are trying to gain new skills and employment, elderly people living in isolation and community groups. Increasingly, they are incubators for new ideas and places where businesses come to fruition.
Personally, I regret that over the past four and a half years the Government have been slow to respond to the growing crisis in the sector. At a time when many library services were under threat there was no sense of urgency, coherent strategy, direction or guidance for local authorities, and no idea about what might be the minimum acceptable outcome. Libraries are provided at local level, and councils, rightly, have the first claim on leadership, but the Government have a clear duty to minimise the damage done to the library service and to provide an overarching strategic vision.
I feel a little as though I am in a “Monty Python” sketch. We are considering the case for a body in this debate on its proposed abolition, but the Ministers have told us that essentially the ACL is a defunct body, with no staff, premises, assets or liabilities. In other words, it is a dead parrot.
I, too, welcome the Independent Library Report for England, published just before Christmas. However, as Ed Vaizey, the Minister, tells us, it,
“did not include consideration of the statutory requirement of the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964”,
“makes no reference to the ACL”.
I admit that I find it difficult to follow the argument that since the ILR did not consider the statutory requirement of the statutory Act or the ACL, its abolition is not dependent on the report’s publication, yet one of its primary recommendations now apparently negates the need for the ACL. As the Delegated Powers Committee suggested, the considerations of the ILR clearly intersect with the practical implementation of the duties placed upon the Secretary of State and local authorities by the 1964 Act, and it is therefore reasonable to see the outcome of the ILR as relevant to the decision on the ACL. I am sorry for all these abbreviations—they will get worse when we get to the recommendations.
Clearly, my party believes that there is a good case for a body to support development, innovation and best practice, including measures to find efficiency savings and increase impact, helping to lessen the pressure for cuts to services. That is why we welcome the conclusion of the review to establish the libraries’ task and finish group. I rather like that name. Gone are the days of a good old task force; it is now “task and finish”. Maybe that is where some of my concerns are.
Cross-party and organisational working must be at the heart of its activities. The Department for Education, the Department of Health, DCMS, BIS and the Department for Communities and Local Government, all have a role to play, as have organisations such as the British Library, Booktrust, the Reader Organisation, the National Literacy Trust, Arts Council England—as we heard from the Minister—the CILIP and the Reading Agency.
Mr Vaizey’s case for the task and finish group is that its functions are far wider than the sole advisory function of the ACL—as we heard from the Minister in her introduction—and, as he says, more importantly, it will also be focused on delivery. Unlike the ACL, the membership of the task and finish group will be flexible and dynamic, so that it can adapt to suit the specific tasks involved. The TFG will report jointly to Ministers and the Local Government Association and will be independent of government.
When, in October 2011, the Arts Council took over responsibility for supporting and developing libraries from the former Museums, Libraries and Archives Council, it did not take on the MLA’s supervisory role for libraries—again, a point raised by my noble friend. At a time when libraries are withering on the vine in many communities, oversight is even more critical than at any time before. The point the noble Earl made was absolutely right. I agree with the view that the recommended role and structure of the task and finish group are not suitable for the ACL, whose primary aim and minimum membership is prescribed by statute. However, I do not necessarily accept that the establishment of the TFG and its range of functions negate the need for statutory independent advice in the Secretary of State’s meeting his obligations under the 1964 Act. I fear that in performing its job, working with a range of authorities, it will miss that fundamental requirement that we must have a library service. And what is that library service? It is certainly not a second-hand bookshop in a local high street. It is more than that, and we need to be very careful about the standards that we set.
Mr Vaizey’s view is that, as we have heard from the Minister today, advice and guidance from stakeholders and officials at the DCMS are sufficient to meet the function of providing advice to the Secretary of State, including on the use of his statutory powers. I am not sure that the fact that nobody has taken action is necessarily evidence that there is no need for action. Clearly, with the number of library closures increasing and access to libraries diminishing, that is not the case at the moment.
Although DCMS has stated that no budget is allocated to the ACL—I think that its abolition will save approximately £2,500 a year; this is obviously not a budget consideration—I ask the Minister whether, during the period of the ACL’s inaction, any external advice to the Secretary of State has been brought into the department and, if so, what the cost of that advice was