Tag Archives: Liberal Democrats

Illiteracy and the Liberal Democrats

Nick Clegg recently pledged that the Liberal Democrats would eliminate child illiteracy by 2025, which while a worthy sentiment has to be taken with a pinch of salt from the Deputy Prime Minister.

During his time in office – and unequivocal support for overly stringent austerity measures – the gap between the rich and poor has become a chasm. Research by Poverty & Social Exclusion UK revealed:

  • Almost 18 million cannot afford adequate housing conditions.
  • 1.5 million children live in households that cannot afford to heat the home
  • 2.5 million kids live in properties that are damp
  • More than half a million children live in families who cannot afford to feed them properly
  • 12 million people are too poor to have a social life
  • 5.5 million adults go without essential clothing
  • One in every six adults in paid work is still poor

The link between poverty and low educational attainment has long been acknowledged so it seems almost absurd to boast of eliminating illiteracy on one hand while creating the conditions for illiteracy to flourish in the first place.

Even in the lead up to the general election when we expect the political rhetoric to flow thick and fast Nick Clegg’s statement appears crass in the face of increasing social inequality, driven in no small part by the government’s economic policies.

Equally, one of the historical cornerstones to challenging illiteracy – free access to books and reading via public libraries – has been consistently undermined by the coalition. Public libraries have long been concerned with raising literacy standards and the current Reading Offer is the latest in a long line of literacy based initiatives.

Despite incredible efforts by the profession to raise standards and instill the habit and pleasure of reading in children the Liberal Democrats have helped to create an environment in which there have been hundreds of branch closures, substantial job losses, and communities forced to take over libraries or face losing them.

John Leech, Liberal Democrat spokesperson for Culture, stated that he supports the ‘…creation of volunteer managed libraries as a last resort in the event of the closure of a local authority funded library’ and ‘that a volunteer run library is better than no library at all, though I would not like to see this to become the norm.’ Unfortunately, under the coalition this has very much become the ‘norm’ with libraries being handed over to volunteers almost daily.

Even in his own constituency Nick Clegg was unable to convince fellow minister, Ed Vaizey, to intervene in Sheffield’s mass handover of libraries to volunteers. Despite initially questioning the Council’s plans Vaizey quickly back-tracked and would not order an inquiry into library provision in Sheffield.

As such, it is difficult to reconcile the avowed intent to end illiteracy from a man who has been an integral part of a government that has also overseen significant library closures and the replacement of expert staff with uninformed volunteers.

No wonder author Cathy Cassidy has stated:

“Does Britain really want to add the loss of libraries to an already shocking decimation of services? At a time when far too many British kids are subsisting on food bank handouts, will we take away their ladder to learning, imagination and opportunity as well?” 

So the question is, how exactly do you end illiteracy by closing libraries?

Reply from the Liberal Democrats

The following reply was received from John Leech MP, Liberal Democrat spokesperson for Culture, Media and Sport.

Dear Leon,

Thank you for your email about public libraries.

Libraries are on the whole a DCLG responsibility but I will nevertheless do my best to answer your questions from a DCMS perspective.

Firstly, I can assure you that we support the principle of local authorities providing library access. Libraries are a vital resource in any community. Currently there is a worrying trend of local authorities shutting local libraries at the same time as spending money on other things that constituents might think are lower priority (i.e. things which are not front line services). I wish to see this trend reversed.

I do support creation of community volunteer managed libraries as a last resort in the event of the closure of a local authority funded library. This happened recently in Burnage, in my constituency, where the local council chose to close the local library against the wishes of local people, despite the fact that the annual cost was only £43000. I believe that a volunteer run library is better than no library at all, though I would not like to see this to become the norm. The expectation should be that local libraries are funding by local authorities and run by paid staff.

With regard to your question about the quality of volunteer staff, I believe that some volunteers will provide the same quality of service as paid staff while others will not. The level of training that volunteers receive is key to the service that they can offer.

My final thought on this is that local authorities ought to be protecting front line services including libraries if they truly wish to serve the needs of the local community.

Best wishes,

John Leech MP
Member of Parliament for Manchester Withington