Category Archives: Government

Shape of things to come

I’ve been rather preoccupied recently with proposed changes in my own local authority, about which, obviously, I cannot comment. But needless to say has kept me busy, with little time or energy to write a new post.

I did have every intention of following the last post with a rather downbeat synopsis of what public libraries can expect to face over the next four years in relation to government policy and funding, or lack thereof. Much of which might  still happen. However, the one glimmer of hope recently is that Cilip, at long last, has decided to take the government to task and insist they fulfil their legal duties under the 1964 Public Libraries and Museums Act, as well as provide statutory guidance for local authorities.

The My Library By Right campaign has been launched on legal advice received by Cilip that the Secretary of State, John Whittingdale, is failing in his legal duty  to provide clear statutory guidance on the definition of a ‘comprehensive and efficient’ service.

For many campaigners this more muscular opposition is entirely welcome. For others it smacks of ‘too little, too late.’ Personally, I think it’s a campaign that has the potential to unite together campaigners, library staff, Cilip and others concerned about the parlous state of library provision. It provides a very clear campaign focus and is a marked change in direction from the last Cilip administration. For this Nick Poole, Cilip Board and Cilip staff should be congratulated.

The campaign would also benefit from a statement of support from the SCL, who as individual Heads of Service, suffer under the same cuts as all library staff do. However, given SCL’s rather conservative stance over such matters, this might not be forthcoming. Perhaps SCL needs to consider that what the LGA wants is not actually in the best interest of the sector or their members.

One positive step that all library staff can take is to sign the online petition and encourage family and friends to do the same. I cannot urge colleagues enough to do this one little thing in defence of a profession we all care so much about.

However, before I get too congratulatory, it’s still early days and realistically it is likely to be a long, hard battle as the campaign proposes an approach that is directly at odds with the government’s vision for libraries, and runs counter to localism and devolution agendas.

In tandem with this news Ian Anstice has highlighted a number of trends influencing public library provision. Out of the 10 trends (and an eleventh in a subsequent post), the two that I think will have the most impact are the reduction in funding to local authorities and conversely the additional funding for the continuation of the Libraries Taskforce over the next four years.

The Government aims to totally remove the central grant, which has always been the mainstay of local government funding, by 2020. Instead the shortfall will have to be made up by new funding streams such as business rates. Unfortunately, this will not plug the very real financial gap. Many councils will still face significant shortages and struggle to deliver anything other than adult social care and children’s services. Also, the expectation is that extra revenue raised from the business rates will be used for infrastructure projects rather than maintaining services.

Thus, the trend towards commissioning services out and expecting a greater entrepreneurial approach – even from services ill-suited to such – to generate income will continue. For libraries this means more of the same: closures, volunteers, community groups, hollowing out, and trusts. Another aspect that’s not often mentioned is transferring responsibility for local services to parish and town councils, funded through the parish precept.

The next area is the scope and work of the Taskforce. Its impact has been rather limited until now with the emphasis on facilitating the government’s and LGA perspective of libraries. So far it has failed to display any genuine leadership of the sector or reach a consensus with those who view it as little more than a vehicle for delivering government policy. But that perhaps shouldn’t be surprising given that it’s funded by the government and therefore the old adage of not biting the hand that feeds you holds true.

The likelihood is that the Taskforce will continue to support changes that make libraries more financially independent of council funding, delivered through a variety of models and governance such as community groups and parishes. Aligned with this will be the drive to generate higher levels of income and attract funding and grants from the private and charity sectors. The creation of trusts, mutuals and perhaps even library authority mergers will almost certainly play a part also.

This all complements the current political view and move to greater localism and regional devolution. Whether the Taskforce will wish to deviate from this approach, or more importantly whether it will be allowed to, and move closer to a position advocated by campaigners and Cilip remains to be seen.

That said, if a week in politics is a long time, then four years is a lifetime and we could all yet be surprised.

It only remains for me to wish everyone a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year and I’ll see you once more on the ramparts in 2016!

 

 

 

Bridging the Gap

I enjoyed attending the Speak Up for Libraries conference this year; meeting and talking to very passionate campaigners and library users about the importance of libraries. Nick Poole, Cilip CEO, started the conference off with a excellent welcome speech extolling the virtues and values of libraries, including welcoming David Cameron to the ranks of library campaigners after his intervention in Oxfordshire, to much laughter! More detailed notes of the conference can be found on Public Library News and the transcript of Nick’s speech on the Cilip website.

For many the main draw this year was the opportunity to listen to and question Paul Blantern and Kathy Settle of the Leadership for Libraries Taskforce. This was never going to be an easy ride for them and while not necessarily agreeing with all their views they mostly retained grace under fire from very understandably frustrated campaigners, with only the occasional flare up!

Paul Blantern had a prior engagement so arrived in the afternoon but credit to Kathy Settle who was around all day and took the opportunity to talk to many attendees.

Both Paul and Kathy made no disguise of the fact that the Taskforce is both limited in scope and influence and that they are a task and finish group. Given the time limited nature of such groups the emphasis of the Taskforce appears to be identifying trends in a national context, researching and sharing good practice (although that beggars the question who decides what good practice is?), and exploring potential alternative sources of funding that libraries can tap into. The other role of the group that Paul and Kathy were keen to reinforce was as a strong advocating voice to ministers and other national decision makers.

This is all very laudable but for some campaigners does not go far enough. The difficulty is one of expectation, with the Taskforce being perceived as having more influence and authority than it actually does. The most misleading misnomer is the use of the term ‘Leadership’ when in fact, at best, it’s more of a facilitating body. Able to talk to a wide variety of individuals, organisations and ministerial departments at both national and local level but without the ability to enforce adherence.

Given the limitations in both scope and power it is easy to argue that a genuine strategic leadership body is still very much lacking within public libraries nationally.

But then again this should not come as any surprise. William Sieghart’s report, despite claims to the contrary, was not actually that independent, as it’s difficult to reconcile the outcomes of the report with the feedback given by many individual campaigners and library bodies such as Cilip, ASCEL and the SCL.

Given the delay in publication and the amount of time sat in Ed Vaizey’s office many campaigners have long suspected  a lot of pressure and horse trading to tone down recommendations that did not chime with government policy.

What we finally got was a report that recognised the challenges libraries faced but with solutions that were politically palatable to the current government. For example many submissions raised the issues of national library standards and the merging of library authorities. In its submission Cilip remarked:

“The focus on localism has been a barrier to the development of national standards that would support local delivery and identifying major economies of scale. The public library is a national brand and some elements of it can be delivered more effectively on a national scale.”

And:

“In England 151 authorities still run their own library services with a tiny number of exceptions. Some of these are very small, and the fact that there are so many authorities must lead us to question whether the service overall is efficient.”

And yet both issues were noticeably absent in the report. Sieghart would have been well aware of these but either decided they would not be acceptable and dropped them as a matter of pragmatism or as a result of ministerial intervention.

Whether this was a pragmatic approach or political interference depends I suspect on your political outlook.

A similar conversation took place at the SUFL conference with the view from the Taskforce that neither issue would be acceptable to the LGA or ministers and incompatible with the trend towards greater localism and regional devolution.

Looking at the report Sieghart’s three main recommendations were:

  • The provision of a national digital resource for libraries, to be delivered in partnership with local authorities
  • The setting up of a task and finish force, led by local government, in partnership with other bodies involved in the library sector
  • The task force, to work with local authorities, to help them improve, revitalise and if necessary, change their local library service, while encouraging, appropriate to each library, increased community involvement

Right from the outset the Taskforce was always meant to be subservient to the views of government and particularly the LGA . So, far from being ‘independent’, the report actually outlined a framework for the continuation of government policy.

This is again made clear in the recommendations concerning the oversight of the Taskforce, which he recommended:

“…will jointly report to Ministers and the Local Government Association. This partnership will foster and promote a new and dynamic way of working for libraries.”

Thus, the Taskforce was never intended to be an independent voice for libraries but rather a vehicle by which ministers and the LGA could drive forward their own vision for libraries. The composition of the Taskforce reflects established interests with calls to include campaigners and unions falling on deaf ears, leaving the only potential dissenting voice on the group being Cilip. 

Is it any wonder that many campaigners are suspicious of the Taskforce’s motives and view it as little more than a smokescreen for enabling government policy regardless?

However, it would be wrong to disregard the Taskforce altogether. Paul Blantern made the point that without their intervention libraries would have one less tank in the armoury. They are able to make representation to government and the LGA that individuals cannot. Equally, both Paul and Kathy indicated that they were happy to talk to individual councils and advise on the pros and cons of the different options available such as the viability and sustainability of volunteer libraries.

Another interesting point raised was the how the Taskforce operates behind the scenes. Paul mentioned a meeting with Iain Duncan Smith regarding the vital role libraries play in developing digital skills for Universal Credit. He indicated that the Taskforce could encourage funding for libraries that deliver services which benefit the DWP.

This would certainly find favour with many services who struggle to cope with the rising demand from job seekers. However, the success of such an approach can only be judged by how quickly such funding becomes available, if at all.

This leaves campaigners in somewhat of a conundrum. They can ignore the Taskforce and continue with outright opposition to government policy in the hope that a eventual change in administration will result in a better deal for libraries. Or they can accept the limitations of the Taskforce, that it will never be the leadership body they would like, but work together where interests coincide.

Whatever happens bridges need to be built on both sides whilst recognising that there are major differences in ideology and attitudes. Perhaps one small start would be for campaigners not to attack Paul Blantern, in his role as Chair of the Taskforce, over changes made in Northamptonshire . It’s hard for a CEO not to be defensive about his own authority. In return, perhaps Paul could refrain from holding his own library service up as an exemplar in recognition that many campaigners disagree with the changes he has made.

There are at least three more years of austerity and five years of the current government left. Campaigners, the Taskforce, and all interested bodies and organisation must try to work together, where circumstances and interests coincide, to ensure that even if library services don’t thrive they do at least survive.

What shape those library services will take over the next few years I’ll leave for another post.

 

 

 

It’s Complicated!

I doubt that many people, when the coalition government came to power, could predict the precarious state that public libraries would find themselves in five years later, particularly in England. Obviously over that time local authorities have responded in unique – at least as far as libraries were concerned – and not always popular ways including establishing volunteer led libraries, reducing library networks through closures, and hollowing services out by cutting hours, budgets and staff.  A few have gone down the route of commissioning out, mainly in the form of not for profit trusts.

However, the situation has become so fluid that solutions which appeared robust even a couple of years ago are looking unstable in the current climate. This is not necessarily the fault of the managers involved. I admit that my own views have changed, driven by the fact that it is one thing to develop practical alternatives to mitigate a 10%-20% reduction in funding and another to design a service around 40%-50% cuts, with more to follow. Services are being contorted by the unremitting grind of austerity into misshapen delivery models that ill-match their purpose: from a shop front of ragbag, mismatched council services to financially brittle libraries dependent on the availability and philanthropy of the local community.

That said, it’s also undeniable that councils are under immense financial pressure as the setllement from central government is substantially reduced year on year. According to the LGA central government has cut the settlement to councils by 40% since 2010 with a further reduction by 2018. The current furore between David Cameron and the leader of Oxfordshire Council shows that even the most ardent tory councils have had enough.

No wonder some local authorities seek to transfer assets, co-locate services, and turn libraries into ‘community hubs’, whatever that phrase means.

However, such approaches do not lend themselves to genuine service development and the outcome is that library services become pale imitations of their former selves, far removed from the ideal of ‘comprehensive and efficient’, which is sacrificed on the altar of austerity economics.

Library staff, campaigners, and local communities are often faced with a difficult dilemma when threatened with library closures. The option of choice for most councils appears to be to off-load parts of the network individually to local community groups and volunteers. Another option is to hand over to a private company but thankfully there are few examples of this in the UK. The main one being Carillion, which appears to be an unmitigated disaster. That said, Self-service and Bibliotheca’s Open+ are being used as an excuse to replace staff altogether. This is not a criticism of such technology but it is being used increasingly not to enhance service development but merely to enable staffing cuts.

A pragmatic solution? Personally I prefer my libraries with the human touch.

Another option that fewer councils have adopted is the mutual/trust approach. Many campaigners rightly point out the pitfalls in taking such a path and the pros and cons are summed up on Public Library News.

The main concern about trusts seems to be that they are viewed as a backdoor to privatisation, lack accountability in the way they operate, not least regarding FoI, remove accountability out of the hands of elected representatives, and offer lower employment terms and conditions  for staff. I have great sympathy for some of these concerns particularly over withholding information under the guise of commercial confidentiality.

Data around trusts is also hard to come by so how successful they really are in comparison with a council run service is difficult to reliably quantify.

However, despite these qualms we should not just dismiss the trust approach. Now I have previously argued in favour of trusts, not because I believe they are the ideal solution, but because they offer a pragmatic option over fragmenting library networks by closure or handing over to volunteers. I’ve also never been entirely convinced that this undermines local accountability, mainly because it’s the elected representatives that have helped to create the current crisis. Ask campaigners in Sheffield, Herefordshire, Lincolnshire, Kirklees…in fact almost anywhere in the country how well local accountability is working!

Yes the ideal might be a fully funded and council run service but in the current political climate and a government ideologically opposed to properly funding public services this is a unrealistic expectation. Maybe circumstances will change in the future under a more sympathetic government but we have a long way to go before we get there. In the meantime we need to develop pragmatic interim solutions.

The latest authority to go down the trust route is Devon, with the adoption of a new identity as Libraries Unlimited South West, which Ian Anstice observed could imply ambitions beyond the Devon area. I’ve explored regional library trusts in previous posts comparing them to  NHS trusts and surmising that perhaps similar cross boundary cooperation could work well for libraries.

Often staff are supportive of the trust model as an alternative but prevented from pursuing this by council members who, for some unfathomable reason, prefer threatening to close libraries as a way of coercing communities into running them.

So if it genuinely comes down to a choice between the option to keep the network mostly intact and run mostly by paid staff and qualified librarians or face the fragmentation of services and handing over to volunteers I know which option I’d choose. In fact where a council is intent on off-loading a large proportion of its library network then campaigners should challenge the council to adopt a trust model.

However, as I say, it’s complicated, and for the foreseeable future likely to get more complicated still.

Keep library staff to keep changing lives

For anyone who has missed it there is an excellent interview with Kathy Settle, Chief Executive of the Leadership for Libraries Taskforce and Nick Poole, Chief Executive of CILIP, talking about library priorities particularly in relation to the Government Spending Review in November.

You don’t have to agree with everything that’s said but there are some very important points for library staff and campaigners alike to reflect on. Amongst the many comments the following from Nick Poole really stood out for me:

“My biggest concern is that we allow services to be hollowed-out in the name of keeping up appearances, keeping the doors open while reducing the range and quality of services offered by skilled and qualified staff.

We can’t afford to focus on the short-term situation while allowing library services to be systematically under-funded. We need to fight the battles ahead while remaining focused on the real aim – which is to deliver the modern and comprehensive library network that the public need and have a right to expect.”

I doubt there is anyone within the sector that would disagree with these sentiments and all credit to Nick for making such assertions so publicly. This acknowledgement of the importance of paid staff is further evidenced by Cilip Board members support for the resolution on the ‘amateurisation’ of public libraries proposed by Andy Richardson. The reason for the proposal is explained by Andy here.

The importance of skilled and qualified staff delivering a meaningful service to communities is highlighted through the Libraries Change Lives Award. Every year this provides a showcase for wonderfully innovative projects that have a real social impact within communities. It’s worth reading through the list of past winners and this year’s shortlisted finalists to get a flavour of how important libraries are and can be to their communities.

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The real point here is that it is paid staff that dream up, develop, and deliver on these initiatives.

And let’s not forget that this is just the tip of the iceberg of all the projects that happen everyday within libraries. The real point here is that it is paid staff that dream up, develop, and deliver on these initiatives. Without them none of this innovation would be possible.

Unfortunately, the steady encroachment of volunteer run libraries threatens to undermine all of this. As Martyn Wade, Chair of Cilip Board states:

“Volunteers should be an asset. We should recognise the valuable skills, knowledge, enthusiasm, experience and fresh perspectives that volunteers can provide. But we must act when the quality and long-term sustainability of library services is at risk.”

Even innovation that is now taken for granted and considered standard service e.g. reading groups and film nights were first and foremost instigated by library staff or developed in partnership with individuals and organisations. Other initiatives developed with bodies like the Reading Agency have become mainstays of library provision such as the Summer Reading Challenge or Reading Ahead (previously the Six Book Challenge).

Staff continue to provide innovation from the library based Fab Lab in Exeter to the Get it loud in libraries project. Despite the challenging financial reductions and the fragmentation of services innovation is in the blood of librarians.

However, for this to continue skilled and qualified staff need to play a central part in all libraries; not just as managers and supervisors of volunteer run libraries, the overseers of the charity shop or hub and spoke model run by unpaid amateurs but as innovators embedded in their communities delivering core services.

For an overwhelming argument in support of paid staff look no further than the Libraries Change Lives Awards. Good luck to all those shortlisted.

What is comprehensive & efficient?

Providing a ‘comprehensive and efficient service’ is considered the touchstone of library provision and a constant refrain during campaigns to save libraries from closure. The notion is enshrined in law through the Public Libraries & Museums Act 1964 and until 2010 there was little reason to fully discuss, let alone define, what this actually meant. After all, we all knew what it meant, right! In the best progressive tradition libraries were not only considered a good thing by their very existence but de facto ‘efficient & comprehensive’ became synonymous with expansion: more libraries, more staff, more resources to cater for a growing population and expanding towns and cities.

Only twice has a government felt compelled to conduct a formal public inquiry into local authorities plans for library closures: once in Derbyshire in 1991, and more significantly in the Wirral in 2009. Unfortunately, such intervention was short-lived as were the lessons learned.

The election of 2010 and the introduction of an austerity driven coalition government resulted in a rude awakening for the library sector including the abolition of the MLA and the Advisory Council on Libraries. Faced with large scale reductions, deprofessionalisation, and the steadfast non-intervention by the Minister of State for Culture – who for decades it was thought would always intercede for the benefit of libraries – the great cornerstone of library protection turned out to be more fiction than fact.

The difficulty is that no one is able to define what comprehensive and efficient actually means, at least not to the extent that meets general consensus and acceptance. For some the term is associated with an extensive network of physical buildings and paid staff, while to others the term is equally applicable to few service points but with reliance on technology such as RFID, 24/7 online services, wifi, and mobile apps for libraries.

Some authorities consider volunteer libraries to form part of their statutory provision and thus retain the characteristics of a comprehensive service, while many campaigners would take issue with this approach. Because the term is not defined in the 1964 Act it is open to a wide variety of interpretations.

Even during judicial reviews the courts have refused to get drawn into the quagmire of a legal definition, concentrating instead on the technical aspects of the consultation process.The MLA had produced a checklist for local authorities to use but again this has more to do with the process rather than defining terms or meaning.

Thus, the concept has failed so ‘comprehensively’ (pun intended) that Herefordshire Council can now seriously suggest reducing library provision down to a single main library, with the remaining taken over by volunteers or being self-service only.

So the question becomes that if the notion is no longer fit for purpose does it need replacing and if so what with? I realise this will be a contentious and in some quarters heretical suggestion but to continue with a principle that has become so outdated and impractical allows others to control the narrative to the disadvantage of meaningful library provision.

In my submission to the Sieghart Review I suggested that a set of core principles and values should be established similar to that which underpins the NHS. These principles should be regulated nationally but with scope for local interpretation.

For example, principles for the public library service might include:

  • Free access and membership for all  
  • Provision of and access to information in appropriate formats e.g. online resources
  • Access to books in all formats
  • Provision of a community space – for individual study, lifelong learning, workshops, and changing expectations e.g. maker spaces/hack spaces
  • Access to economic wellbeing opportunities – recognising the economic roles of libraries e.g. providing access to employment and benefits information, facilities for job hunting, re-skilling, and innovative approaches such as business hubs and enterprising libraries

The Voices for the Library manifesto is similar in advocating for a defined level of service including paid staff and professional librarians.

Such core principles should be overseen by an independent body that recognises the specific opportunities and remit of public libraries, enables evidence based research, sets standard, shares best practice, and provides advice to the relevant government departments and Minister for Culture. Perhaps along the lines of the Scottish Library & Information Council.

The term ‘comprehensive’ and efficient’ is no longer helpful and is inadequate to capture the changing nature of library provision. It lacks definition, is relative, and in many instances unquantifiable and could more usefully be replaced with a set of core principles and values as outlined above.

The principles and values should be based on continuing free access to literacy, learning and information and underpin the social value and instrumental role libraries play in creating a literate and educated population.

Addendum

A detailed account of the now defunct library standards and relation to the 1964 Act can be found on Public Library News: Public Library Standards in England.

In a twitter conversation with Nick Poole, CEO of Cilip, he quite rightly points out that standards and regulation are needed to underpin the principle of ‘comprehensive and efficient’. I totally agree and the NHS principles & values I highlighted are obviously underpinned by standards & regulation.

Nick also points out that industry standards might prove useful. Again I agree and look forward to Cilip developing some as well as stating what its view of ‘comprehensive & efficient’ is. After all, if the professional body for librarians is unable to define the term what hope has anyone got!

Situation in Wales (from Alyson Tyler)

Wales is a lot smaller than England, but your readers might be interested in the Welsh Public Library Standards, which have been in operation since 2002. Frameworks run on a three year cycle. The current framework has 18 core entitlements which sound much like your principles and values, and also 16 quality indicators, some of which have targets, some of which can be benchmarked, and some of which are impact measures. No system is perfect and not everyone agrees on everything of course. http://gov.wales/topics/cultureandsport/museums-archives-libraries/libraries/standards/?lang=en

We’ve got five years..!

save our library

It’s something of an understatement to say that the results of the general election were  disappointing, not just on a personal level but also for what it means for libraries. It’s difficult not to be despondent over the ramifications, which are outlined by Ian Anstice on Public Library News, with the headlines being:

  • Continuing deep cuts to budgets and increasing co-location
  • Off-loading more libraries to volunteers or closure
  • The removal of paid staff, continuing deprofessionalisation, and increasing anxiety about job security
  • Reducing the ability to mount legal challenges and continuing non-intervention by the culture minister
  • Continuing reduction of mobile services

This, unfortunately will be the new realism of the next five years and I believe Ian’s analysis will prove to be depressingly accurate. What we will see now is the re-invigoration of Big Society principles, underpinned by Localism, which will transform the whole public library landscape. The Conservatives are ideologically driven by the desire for a smaller state, less direct government intervention, and reduced public services delivered increasingly by third sector, voluntary organisations, and the private sector.

Libraries will continue to be, along with other public services, hostages to such ideology with little in the way to restrain the inevitable outcome and decline. I have no doubt that public libraries will continue to exist in the future but in a form that is radically different to that of 10 or even 5 years ago in terms of delivery and funding. Whether they will remain comprehensive and efficient in their new form will be open to intense debate.

For many campaigners therefore the battle to protect libraries continues but perhaps there needs to be a period of reflection and consolidation in order to formulate, if possible, a unified national strategy to resist the coming changes. I am not directly involved with the Library Campaign, Speak Up For Libraries, or Voices for the Library but it seems to me that these organsiations would be best placed to begin such a conversation.

Unfortunately, campaigns of the past five years have had only limited success. To be more effective in the future library protest needs to evolve and align with different local and national campaigns, over hospitals, education, tax avoidance etc. There is strength in unity but too many campaigns for libraries have acted in isolation. Such insularity will be even less effective in the face of rampant Tory ideology. It’s not just public libraries but all those in the public sector; schools, colleges, university, and NHS libraries that will be under threat.

The People’s Assembly Against Austerity have organised a mass protest in London on June 20th. It would be an empowering gesture if there were a large library contingent there made up of campaigners, organisations – dare I hope for Cilip input – save library groups, staff, and of course library users. Not just speaking up for libraries but shouting out for them.

What has become increasingly obvious is that it’s difficult to campaign for libraries without appreciating what is happening to public services overall. When I first started this blog it was in response to a very narrow debate within Cilip over a name change. It quickly morphed into advocating for libraries and library staff as reductions and closures increased in pace. But against this background was always the hope that the coalition would be ousted and a slow recovery could begin. That hope has been well and truly dashed.

After the election David Cameron announced his aim was “…to govern on the basis of governing for everyone in our United Kingdom” under the mantle of ‘One Nation’. Almost immediately we found out what sort of ‘one nation’ he meant with massive welfare cuts, attacks on the most vulnerable and disadvantaged, scrapping the human rights act, destroying workers rights, and more damaging austerity measures.

But we are not ‘One Nation’ and many of us do not agree with the vision Cameron offers. This government does not represent the majority. It is the result of an archaic and increasingly undemocratic voting system in which the Conservatives are governing with only 24% of the vote. This is not a mandate.

Thus, the fight for libraries is also the fight for public services and changing the system so that it works for everyone not just an elite. The downside of the election is we have five more years of Tory government, the upside is we have five years to fight for real and lasting change.

What sort of library service will remain in five years is of real concern but sadly only time will tell.

A reply from Labour…sort of!

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!

_______________________________________________

Dear Leon,
Apologies for not getting back to you sooner, however I wanted to provide you with details (below) of the press release Chris Bryant put out put out last week setting out current policy on Libraries. I have also set out below a local story about the visit Chris did on the subject.
I am also attaching for your information a recent speech I made in Grand Committee of the House of Lords on Libraries.
Hope this assists.
Best wishes,
Ray
Lord Collins of Highbury
40 million fewer visitors to libraries under Cameron
New House of Commons Library research shows library closures have accelerated rapidly since David Cameron’s Tory led Government came to office.
  • 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.
The research was commissioned as the Government is failing to keep records on how many libraries have been closed or handed over to voluntary organisations. And despite their statutory duty under the 1964 Act to “superintend and promote the improvement of the public library service”, Tory ministers have not provided any national leadership.
The next Labour government will ensure a Culture Minister will chair the “task and finish group”, set up following the Sieghart review into libraries in order to provide leadership to the sector. It will also work with the Department for Communities and Local Government to encourage greater collaboration and cooperation between the 151 library authorities in England, and give councils longer term funding settlements so that councils can better plan ahead, deliver savings and meet local needs.
Chris Bryant MP, Labour’s Shadow Arts Minister said:
 
“Under David Cameron, successive Tory Secretaries of State – Jeremy Hunt, Maria Miller and Sajid Javid – have utterly failed library-users.
“Libraries are a vital part of the social and cultural life of this country.  They extend opportunities for people, whatever their background, to read, learn and explore and they help bridge the widening inequality gap in the country.
“That is why a Labour government will provide genuine national leadership, encourage greater collaboration in local government, and give councils longer term funding settlements so that councils can better plan ahead, deliver savings and meet local needs.”
ENDS
Notes to editors:
1.      These graphs were produced by the House of Commons Library, based on figures from CIPFA and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport’s Taking Part Survey.
2.      Library closures have accelerated rapidly since 2010 – there are now at least 330 fewer libraries open for 10 hours or more a week.  That is an 8 per cent fall.
3.      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.  That is a 12% drop.
4.      This has happened in every region in the country.
5.      Especially worrying is the decline in visits by young people – we are losing the next generation of readers and learners.
6.      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% of people to 36.8%. That is a 21% drop.
7.      Since last April: 216 static libraries have been put under threat of closure/passing to volunteers. Eight mobile libraries under threat. One new library opened. 3 refurbishments over £50,000, 11 libraries (three static and eight mobile) libraries closed, nine libraries passed to volunteers, one entirely new volunteer-run library. This is according to Public Libraries News.
Christopher Bryant says the Government needs to do more to maintain libraries By Lincolnshire Echo  |  Posted: February 05, 2015
MP Christopher Bryant visited Lincoln to discuss the current state of libraries across the county
Labour MP Christopher Bryant has called on the Government to take more “responsibility” in maintaining libraries across the county.
The shadow minister for the arts’ visit to Lincoln Central Library came after Lincolnshire County Council announced plans to hand over 30 libraries to volunteers, following a consultation that cost more than £720,000.
The idea was first mooted in 2012, with more than 20,000 signatures opposing the plans. The subsequent ruling by the High Court criticised the way in which the council reached the decision, however a second consultation has reached the same verdict.
Mr Bryant believes the importance of the library cannot be overestimated.
He said: “I think libraries for so many people are their best way of getting on in life. It is part of our social fabric. The most distressing thing is the visits in the most deprived areas have declined.
“The big solution is government cannot wash its hands. It has got to take some responsibility, it has to assess what is happening in the country. It is a bit depressing that 60 per cent of libraries in the country do not have Wi-Fi.
“I know Karl (McCartney) and I have never heard him say a word about the library in his constituents. Maybe he never uses the library?
“I think if Lucy (Rigby) is in parliament she will make an enormous difference. She is one of the best candidates we have got. The leadership of the Labour Party would listen to Lucy,” he added.
_____________________________
Speech

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”,

and,

“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