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UNCORRECTED TRANSCRIPT OF ORAL EVIDENCE
To be published as HC 1815-iii
House of COMMONS
TAKEN BEFORE the
Culture, Media and Sport Committee
Tuesday 13 March 2012
Ed Vaizey MP
Evidence heard in Public Questions 161 - 198
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Taken before the Culture, Media and Sport Committee
on Tuesday 13 March 2012
Mr John Whittingdale (Chair)
Dr Thérèse Coffey
Mrs Louise Mensch
Mr Adrian Sanders
Examination of Witness
Witness: Ed Vaizey MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State (Minister for Culture, Communications and the Creative Industries) Department for Culture, Media and Sport, gave evidence.
Q161 Chair: Good morning. This is the third session of the Committee’s inquiry into library closures. I would like to welcome this morning the Minister for Culture, Communications and Creative Industries, Ed Vaizey.
Ed Vaizey: Thank you, Chairman.
Q162 Paul Farrelly: We have seen different authorities taking different approaches to their library services: some authorities deciding to prioritise or protect the services, and some closing branches wholesale, such as on the Isle of Wight. The reality, though, is that none of these cuts would be happening without the cuts in the Comprehensive Spending Review. To what extent are you concerned that library services are being singled out as easy targets to take the brunt of some of these cuts?
Ed Vaizey: Well, Mr Farrelly, I do not agree that it would not necessarily be happening if there were not cuts in the Comprehensive Spending Review, nor do I agree that libraries are being unfairly singled out. In a number of local authorities where tough decisions have been made in recent months, they could have been mooted five or six years ago and perhaps the nettle was not grasped. Perhaps the financial situation has forced some councils to grasp the nettle now; perhaps the financial situation is a convenient way to grasp the nettle. There may be cases where resource implications have forced councils to look at a library service that they have not examined in the past. I think there is a kind of mixed picture there, but it is striking that in quite a few examples that I can think of, library closures-or reconfiguration of the service, if you like-have been discussed in the past.
I also do not agree that library services are being singled out. I think councils are having to make very tough decisions across their entire budgets. As recent court judgments have said, library services cannot be immune from such decisions, but I do not think that any council would regard closing a library or a number of libraries as an easy decision. You only have to see the reaction of the communities when a library closure is mooted to realise that that is the case. I do not think councils are falling over themselves to make an easy cut in libraries. I think a lot of them are thinking through very carefully what provision there is, how they can afford that provision and how they can provide the most effective service for their communities.
Q163 Paul Farrelly: You talk about grasping nettles. On the Isle of Wight, for instance, the council made it quite clear that the library service would not face cuts of 25% if it were not for the Comprehensive Spending Review. Yet in my county, Staffordshire, there has been a decision not to close libraries and to protect the service. To what extent is Staffordshire, in taking that decision, not grasping a nettle?
Ed Vaizey: Well, I think Staffordshire is entitled to take the decisions that it wants to take as far as its library service is concerned. I think that is absolutely at the core of what, no doubt, we will debate over the next hour or so: how much freedom local authorities should have to configure their library services. There will be local authorities that decide that the best way of providing the library service they want to provide is by keeping buildings open. Others will say that they need fewer buildings but they can provide a more effective service from those buildings. As I say, I think there is a spectrum. The point I wanted to make in my first answer is that many councils have been discussing how to reconfigure their library service for a number of years. There may be some councils that have come to the issue because of the settlement they received in their Comprehensive Spending Review, but they will be looking at all their services across the piece, not just libraries.
Q164 Paul Farrelly: To what extent do you think, if at all, that libraries are an easier target because, if you look at the headline usage, it has declined somewhat? But in those overall statistics, it amazes me in this fastchanging world how resilient the use by younger people and families is. Do you think that we should look more closely at the data in deciding whether libraries should stay or close?
Ed Vaizey: I agree with you that libraries are very resilient and I do not think that the library service is in crisis; some people would like to give the impression that the library service is in crisis. I think that many local authorities are running fantastic library services. It is true that adult visits to libraries dropped off significantly, by about a fifth, from about 2004-2005 through 2010. They have now stabilised. As you indicated in your question, Mr Farrelly, the number of visits by children has remained at a very high level. I think we can give great credit to charities like Book Trust and The Reading Agency that run fantastic book-reading schemes, particularly The Reading Agency, focused around libraries. I think every local authority now takes part in the Summer Reading Challenge, using libraries as a focus for children’s literature. There are some very good stories out there.
As far as using statistics, I think you are absolutely right. I had a meeting with CIPFA-the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy-which collates library statistics. I wanted to drill down into how they collect those library statistics and I suggested to them, and will take this forward, that we sit down with them and the Arts Council and look at how we can use those statistics to flag up where there might be room for improvement in particular library authorities. If there is, as it were, a "red signal" that one particular library authority might be spending too much on administration or is missing an opportunity to make savings that could ensure it could keep more of its library buildings open, I think we should take that opportunity. The statistics are important, but a bald reading of statistics can often lead to misleading conclusions, which is why I want to have a proper partnership between CIPFA and the Arts Council.
Q165 Jim Sheridan: Minister, you may have seen reports in today’s press about local authority chief executives being awarded something like 17% increases. Now, I accept that you are not directly responsible for these increases, but do you understand the frustration that people feel when they see their community facilities closing down while at the same time these already highly paid-paid more than the Prime Minister at times-chief executives are receiving these kinds of increases?
Ed Vaizey: Well, Mr Sheridan, you were a local councillor and I am sure you kept your chief executive on a fair retainer in a Scottish council. I will not say any more than that. I think that people do look at the pay of senior officers in local authorities and wonder whether individuals are paid too much. Some local council leaders robustly defend their chief executives. If I look at my own county, the chief executive is effectively responsible directly, really, for a £1 billion budget and a huge range of services. You can argue about whether their salaries are justified. I think, again, it comes back to local accountability. If a local authority is going to make decisions about its library service, it has to explain them to the community and the community will be entitled to ask questions. One of those questions might be, "Why are you closing the library when you are paying your chief executive x thousand pounds a year or you have just given them a 17% pay rise?" My view, and as you indicated in your question, Mr Sheridan, is that that is a matter for local authorities. That is about local accountability. They should justify the salaries that they are paying.
Jim Sheridan: Well, hopefully they will.
Q166 Mr Sanders: Good morning. You were a fervent advocate of Government intervention two years ago. In February 2009, you criticised Andy Burnham’s refusal to take action in the Wirral. You said to the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals, "If Andy Burnham is not prepared to intervene when library provision is slashed in a local authority such as the Wirral, it is clear that he is ignoring his responsibilities as Secretary of State, which in the process renders any sense of libraries being a statutory requirement for local authorities meaningless". Do you think the current Secretary of State’s apparent refusal to use the powers available to him has now rendered the 1964 Act meaningless?
Ed Vaizey: No, I think the 1964 Act still has a huge role to play in library provision. In terms of my position as the Opposition spokesman on this issue, first, I made it absolutely clear that I did not believe the library service was in crisis. I did not believe it then and I do not believe it now, so I did not jump on any bandwagons to say that libraries were going to hell in a handcart when I was Opposition spokesman. I also made it absolutely clear that I did not regard the closure of a library as being somehow unacceptable, and that it was down to local circumstances.
When I was Opposition spokesman, there were two high-profile cases. One was the Wirral, another was a small library in Swindon, which is a good textbook example of how emotive library closures are. It became national news that this small library in Swindon, despite being a quarter of a mile from a brand new central library in Swindon, was closing. I took the trouble as Opposition spokesman to visit both Swindon and the Wirral to see for myself what was happening. I took the view that the closure in the Wirral would justify a public inquiry, and I called for a public inquiry when I was Opposition spokesman. Andy Burnham eventually agreed to that and a public inquiry-the libraries inquiry perhaps to put it more accurately-was held and found against the Wirral. But the reason it found against the Wirral and the reason I think the Wirral stands out as a case was because it had not undertaken any kind of library review. It had undertaken an asset review, and decided how many buildings across the piece it wanted to keep open, but it had not done any kind of engagement in terms of library services and how they were used by the population in the Wirral.
Out of that inquiry came the Charteris Review, which I am sure all Members of this Select Committee are familiar with. In a sense, if there was a silver lining to the cloud of the Wirral, it was that we got from the Charteris Review very clear guidance on how a library authority should go about assessing what kind of library service it was providing. One of the first things I did when I became Library Minister was to write to every local authority in England-and I am only responsible for library authorities in England, not in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland-and remind them of the Charteris Review, urge them to look at it and let them know that we would be assessing any decisions they made in the light of the Charteris Review.
You ask whether the 1964 Act has any impact still despite being almost 50 years old. Well, first, it has an impact because it makes libraries a statutory responsibility. Although people might think that libraries are first in the queue for cuts, it nevertheless remains the case that local authorities still have to provide a comprehensive and efficient library service and they are very well aware of that statutory duty. Secondly, it allows us to assess each library authority’s decisions. Despite the fact that people like to describe me as inactive and standing by, my officials have sat down with, I think, seven local authorities that have been high profile in terms of their decisions about their library services, and discussed the process that they have been through and the impact they think these changes will make. After they have done that, they will advise me on whether they think there has been a prima facie case of a breach of the 1964 Act. I think the 1964 Act still has import. As I say, it provides a statutory duty. That was put up for consultation in the modernisation of libraries review at the end of the last Government. It was quite clear that nobody wanted that statutory duty to be removed and I have made it absolutely clear that we will not remove it. Secondly, it allows my Department to engage with local authorities to review their plans.
Q167 Mr Sanders: When you were calling for intervention in the Wirral it was because the council was proposing to close nearly half of its libraries. We are aware of the situation in a London borough-the London Borough of Brent-where the council has closed half its libraries. What do you think are the key differences that mean intervention was appropriate in 2009 but not in 2011?
Ed Vaizey: As I say, the key difference was that the Wirral had not undertaken any kind of a review of its library service. It had not looked at how it would engage with different demographics in the Wirral, be it older people, younger people, unemployed people, disabled people and so on and so forth. That was absolutely to the fore of what Sue Charteris concluded in her review. By contrast, and I think it has been made clear in the two court judgments, Brent has undertaken a very significant and extensive review of its library service. I maintained in Opposition and I maintain now that closing a library is not a breach of the comprehensive and efficient statutory duty. There is a library authority in London, Tower Hamlets, which closed half its libraries and has now renamed them "ideas stores". Whether it is appropriate to call a library an "ideas store" causes some vigorous debate in library circles. If you look at the figures for visits to libraries in London, you will see the Whitechapel library is the third most visited library in London. If you go and visit the ideas stores in Tower Hamlets, you will see it is virtually standing room only. They are extremely popular libraries. Sometimes you have to make tough decisions. I do not want to dwell on Brent because, as you know, we have issued a letter in which we have said we are minded not to call an inquiry into Brent, but we have given people time to put in submissions to us on the basis of that and we will have to evaluate those submissions and then take a final decision.
Q168 Mr Sanders: I know it is awkward for you to talk about Brent, but it does really go to the heart of this issue because needs assessments seems to be the difference and actually what is a needs assessment? If you think of a community such as Brent, it is hardly surprising that, for example, older Asian people, who may not have English as their first language, will not be filling in council survey forms that explain why they want to protect the library service, or that primary school children do not fill in council surveys to explain why perhaps they pop into a library on their way to school or on their way back from school. There seems to have been a lack of direct communication with the actual users of services in Brent. You have met representatives of Brent to discuss the library closures, but have you met the campaigners who opposed the actual plans, who are actually the users of the services, not the providers?
Ed Vaizey: Mr Sanders, I have not met Brent. Brent’s council has been in to discuss their proposals with my officials. I will have to double check whether Brent campaigners have met my officials or not, but I took advice very early on as a Minister about whether I should meet both councils and campaigners. I was advised, and I agreed with that advice, that that would prejudice my decision. As the Minister, where I have to take a view on the advice given to me by officials, it is arguable, and I agreed with the argument, that if I met campaigners, that could somehow prejudice my decision. If I met officials from councils, that could prejudice my decision. I have taken a view that I should keep at arm’s length from the organisations involved in the various campaigns, but that I should take advice from officials about whether or not they believe, on the basis of their investigations, that there has been a prima facie breach of the comprehensive and efficient duty. That is the position I have taken.
You mentioned specific issues about whether Brent properly consulted. As I say, I do not want to dodge the question in any way, Mr Sanders, but we have not yet made a final decision on Brent. What I would say is obviously there have been two extensive judgments in the High Court and the Court of Appeal examining how Brent went about its decisionmaking process.
Q169 Mr Sanders: This goes really to the heart of the issue because what you seem to be saying is that if the courts were okay with the decision, the Government is okay with the decision. The breach of the duty is a matter for the courts, yet Justice Ouseley, when he ruled on the judicial review of Brent Council’s decision, said that it is for the Secretary of State to decide what to do, and the duty was not dealt with by the court in the way that the Secretary of State has to deal with it. Is there a glimmer of hope that you may yet intervene in Brent?
Ed Vaizey: I do not think I was saying that, with great respect, Mr Sanders. What I was saying was that, in terms of how I would engage with the community, it was particularly your reference to the Asian population that was addressed in the High Court judgment. We have to analyse in the Department whether or not we believe there is still a comprehensive and efficient service after the changes have been made, and we absolutely understand that the courts have made it clear that that is a decision for us. The process of consultation can still be subject to judicial review, just as any consultation process undertaken by any council on any part of its responsibilities can be subject to judicial review.
Q170 Mr Sanders: When you were appointed as the Minister, you described yourself as a champion of libraries. How many library closures have you stopped?
Ed Vaizey: Well, I think that it is clear that I regard myself as a champion of libraries because I believe we have a very effective library service across the country. The first speech I made as a Minister was about libraries. The second thing I did was set up the Future Libraries programme, which was to get the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council to engage with councils on ways that they could provide innovative library services. One of the things that came out of that, for example, was the tri-borough merger of library services, which I know the Select Committee has heard about. I know that you had the councillor from Kensington and Chelsea in to give evidence. That was Westminster, Kensington and Chelsea, and Hammersmith. They claim they saved £1 million by doing that. Does that mean that by doing that that they have kept libraries open? Perhaps it does. Would I want to claim credit? Well, you have three very go-ahead, dynamic, Tory-led councils, which, I think, should claim the credit for running a very dynamic library service. Do I think the Future Libraries programme has made a difference? Yes, I do. Do I think that moving libraries to the Arts Council, where we bring together local cultural provision with local library provision, will make a difference to library offers? Yes, I do. Will the fact that the Arts Council is now spending more on projects like the Future Libraries programme-which it now calls the Libraries Development Initiative-help libraries? Yes, I think it will. Will the survey and analysis that the Arts Council is now going to undertake about the configuration of library services in the future make a difference? Yes, I think it will. Will the fact that libraries will be encouraged to apply for grants from the Arts Council, from Grants for the Arts-which they have always been able to do but had not perhaps realised-and that the Arts Council is now going to write to every local authority to make that available and provide a fund for libraries make a difference to libraries? Yes, I think it will. Does the fact that every council knows that when it makes changes to its library provision, it will be called in by my officials and asked to explain them and see them through; that that I have written to local authorities on, I think, three occasions to remind them of the Charteris Report, of their statutory duty, and of the opportunities they have to provide a modern library service, make a difference? Yes, I think it does. But could I point to a single library that I can claim sole credit for saving? No, I cannot.
Chair: I think we will want to explore some of those points in more detail in due course.
Q171 Mrs Mensch: We are going to come on to the elasticity of the term "comprehensive and efficient"-
Ed Vaizey: We are indeed.
Mrs Mensch: -in some detail later. One of the many things that it does not specify is how integral to a comprehensive and efficient library service professionally trained library staff are. How integral to such a service do you think they are?
Ed Vaizey: I have always maintained, Mrs Mensch, that professional librarians are at the core of any local authority service, and I could not conceive of a local authority service being run without the support of professional librarians. Does that mean that there has to be a professional librarian present in every library at every moment that the doors are unlocked and the public are coming in? No, I do not believe that. There has always been a debate about the balance between professional librarians and volunteers. I was struck, for example, by reading the Bourdillon Report, which I know is probably bedside reading for most of the Committee. It was published in 1962 in the run-up to the 1964 Act, and even then, 50 years ago, they were talking about the opportunities to economise on professional time by using non-professional staff. It is clearly an issue, when you have highly qualified, highly trained librarians, who quite rightly are an expensive resource because they deserve to be well remunerated, whether you can deploy them across every library in a local authority area. Do I believe that professional librarians lie at the core of the local authority service? Of course I do.
Q172 Mrs Mensch: It does not worry you then that the number of professional librarians has declined?
Ed Vaizey: Well, I know that Annie Mauger presented her evidence to this Select Committee, and I have the highest regard for Annie Mauger, not least because she is sitting behind me as I say this. She represents-and there is a clue in the name-the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals and I do not think she would be doing her job if she was not alerting people to what she perceives as concerns about a decline in the number of professional librarians in local authorities. But we have to be realistic and I think we have to use that resource as effectively as possible.
There are huge opportunities as well, on which I think it is important to reflect. One of the depressing things about the discussion about libraries is that it is stuck in this binary debate about closures and a crisis in the library service. I think we should be thinking creatively. If professional librarians can train up volunteers, you could potentially open more libraries in local authority areas. If you said that not every library is going to be an absolute bells and whistles library staffed by professional librarians, you could have more libraries. If libraries are about books and promoting literacy and promoting a love of reading, I think we should think creatively. I was monstered, of course, when I gave a speech where I cited a library in a pub in North Yorkshire. People said, "What an idiot, how can he possibly be talking about a library in a pub?" Well, I was intrigued by a story the other day-I think it was about Philadelphia, where they have a library in a phone box. People donate books, there is a shelf of books by the bus stop, people borrow the books, but inside the book it says, "This is where your local library is". It is a promotional tool. I think we should see books everywhere. I think we could see libraries in village halls. In Cholsey in my constituency, the council would not open a library and there has never been a library in that big village, but a library has been opened. They have done it with books that they have borrowed, and some books that they have bought. I think that councils should be out there offering the services of professional librarians to support those libraries by giving advice and training, by potentially providing equipment, by providing access to the book stock. I think there are huge opportunities out there if only people would grasp them.
Q173 Mrs Mensch: A very small proportion of library budgets, 9% I believe, is spent on books. One of the most significant expenses in the library service is professionally trained staff. What long-term impact do you think on library services a reduction in professional staff will have? This is not to imply that it will necessarily be a negative impact, but just to ask for your assessment of it. In the last evidence session, Dr Coffey gave the example of an authority where the number of professional librarians had been reduced but footfall had actually increased, presumably by increasing the spending on stock to give a wider range of books. Has the Department done any work in terms of looking at the impact of the reduction in the number of librarians on the service as a whole in the long term? As a corollary, is it the feeling of the Department that, as you appear to indicate in your answers, a little may go a long way and that perhaps resources are better spent on other things?
Ed Vaizey: As I say, Mrs Mensch, I think we have to be realistic and we should not let the best be the enemy of the good. I would be delighted to work with Annie Mauger on the basis of the research that she has undertaken to look at how significant this issue is, and to engage with the Arts Council to put it on their agenda to communicate to local authorities where there might be concerns about a reduction in professional staff. But I would also say that people should meet halfway. I do not think people should say that having volunteers in libraries is a disaster. There have always been volunteers working in libraries. There was a quote from a prominent library campaigner describing volunteers as sad people with empty lives. I think you all know as MPs and members of this Select Committee, that our constituencies, our local communities would not function without the dedication and support of volunteers, whether it is in the Citizens Advice Bureau or, indeed, the Women’s Institute and other community organisations that exist. I think we should not see this as an either/or- either you have a library service completely supported by professional librarians or you have a library service completely staffed by volunteers.
I also think we need to look beyond volunteers and professional librarians to think about people trained to engage with their communities. I am sure you have been given the example of Hillingdon time and again. I think one of their focuses is on issues such as customer service and engaging with library users, not just in terms of books, but in terms of access to community services, adult education, health and so on. There are many different kinds of professionals who could engage with libraries, but we should also not be embarrassed to say that volunteers are an important part of the mix for libraries.
Mrs Mensch: Absolutely.
Q174 Steve Rotheram: Minister, excluding libraries in phone boxes, some have argued that volunteer-run libraries will diminish community access to a professionally run library service. How concerned are you about that contention?
Ed Vaizey: I think I have covered a lot of that ground with the questions that Mrs Mensch asked me just now. I do not think that volunteers are a threat to professional librarians and I think in a funny way, although library campaigners will probably take great umbrage at this, volunteers provide a huge opportunity for professional librarians. It gives them another string to their bow to say that we can be a support network for volunteers who want to run libraries. There are plenty of examples of community libraries up and down the country that have been highly successful. There are examples where libraries that have been taken over by the community end up opening longer and having a book stock that is more in tune with what people want in the local community because it is run by people who are on the ground, by neighbours and friends. I have village shops in my constituency that are run by volunteers, but that does not prevent people from having access to professional retailers. I think a balance has to be struck. If there is a message I want to get across to the Select Committee, it is that we should not see it as an either/or situation, that we should not see an increase in volunteering in libraries as somehow a failure of the library service. I think it is an opportunity for the library service.
Q175 Steve Rotheram: I think the reason that there is such interest in this particular aspect of it is to get into the Government’s mindset on this particular topic. To what extent is the introduction of community-run libraries a means of replacing a professionally run library service with a free one?
Ed Vaizey: I think they are almost sequential decisions. When a council examines its library service and decides what it regards as a comprehensive and efficient library service, taking into account all the range of factors, including the resources available to it, it makes a decision about what is appropriate. If there is then an opportunity for a library that might shut its doors to remain open because the community is prepared to take it on, as has happened in many local authorities over the last couple of years, that opportunity should be seized where it is possible and where it is viable. I think that councils should see themselves in a position of supporting that, whether or not it provides, for example, a peppercorn rent, or training and advice from its professional staff, or access to its services at a reasonable rate. I do not regard community libraries as replacing the comprehensive and efficient library service that a council is under a statutory duty to provide. We would not take a decision in the Department not to hold an inquiry into a library service if they came to us with an argument saying that it does not matter because a lot of our libraries are being run by communities. We would still want to see a comprehensive and efficient local authority-run service in the local authority.
Q176 Steve Rotheram: But it appears that you are arguing that you do not believe that local authorities are getting rid of professional library staff because they can replace them with volunteers.
Ed Vaizey: No, I am saying that local authorities should be using their professional library staff as effectively as possible. I said earlier that if there is a significant problem in terms of reduction in professional library staff, I would be very happy to sit down with Annie Mauger and CILIP to discuss that issue and to sit down with the Arts Council to see whether it was an issue that bore closer examination.
Q177 Steve Rotheram: Are there any plans to do that because that is the argument-
Ed Vaizey: Yes, absolutely.
Steve Rotheram: -and it has been around for some time, so there should be some plans, something concrete in place to enable you to do that.
Ed Vaizey: As I said, I am very happy to do that and that will now happen.
Q178 Dr Coffey: Minister, Suffolk County Council went through a process that could have seen a significant number of libraries closed if not taken on by the community. But after consultation, quite a different model has come out-the Industrial and Provident Society as a legal basis, where we now have a volunteer chairman, who is chairman of the board of this new limited company. Given that the county council is effectively contracting for its provision, do you think that is a successful way forward that other local authorities could embrace?
Ed Vaizey: We have never shied away from the fact that local authorities could look at a range of different models, for example the tri-borough service that I mentioned, in terms of who actually runs their library service. We would certainly encourage local authorities to cooperate and possibly merge their library services, in effect virtually if you like, while retaining democratic control. In Hounslow you have a private contractor, John Laing, running their library service. Now we have the model that is coming forward in Suffolk. Provided the local authority is providing a comprehensive and efficient library service in keeping with its statutory duty, who it decides should run that, whether it runs it inhouse or contracts with either a notforprofit, a mutual or a private company, should be a decision that the local authority is free to take. I think, although people might raise an eyebrow at this, in terms of the silver lining to the cloud that appears to have descended on the debate about libraries, if different models of provision come forward, that is very exciting and interesting and we should look at them and encourage their success rather than immediately predict their demise.
Q179 Dr Coffey: I think certainly in Suffolk it will not become fully operational until June 2012. Currently, the structures are limited by what is already in existence. Would you, perhaps if you were visiting the Red House at some point, meet Clive Fox, the new chairman, who is also in Aldeburgh, just to have a chat about structures? Perhaps the DCMS could think through whether there are better ways of having legal entities that can do this.
Ed Vaizey: Well, the Red House is closed for refurbishment, but I am hoping to come up to Aldeburgh either for the festival or the Aldeburgh Proms, and I would certainly be delighted.
Dr Coffey: Lovely, thank you.
Q180 Chair: Can I explore a little further what my colleague Louise Mensch described as the elasticity of the definition of "comprehensive and efficient"? Do you think it is satisfactory that the Act, while requiring a comprehensive and efficient service, provides no real guidance about what that means?
Ed Vaizey: That is a very important question, Mr Chairman, and it is something I will be very interested to see the Select Committee’s conclusions on. If you look at the history of the Act, and the technical definition of "comprehensive and efficient", based on the Roberts Report and then the Bourdillon Report that followed on from that, "comprehensive" was to do with the stock of books. I think you have to remember that even in the 1950s, books were an expensive resource and not every household could simply go out and say, "I will buy five or six bestsellers this weekend". "Comprehensive" was focused very much on the spend by local authorities on book stock and how many books they should stock. It was not focused on buildings. "Efficient" was to do with library authorities, and really the Act emerged because of a need to reduce the number of library authorities. Because over the previous hundred years, the way that libraries came to be provided was by Parliament allowing different local authorities to raise rates to pay for libraries. You ended up having whole multiple tiers of local authorities, some local authorities at the time with fewer than 30,000 residents, being technically a library authority. I think at the time of the report there was something like 450 library authorities. So that was that.
Now, clearly, I think in 2012 that definition of "comprehensive and efficient" leaves a lot to be desired. The Charteris Report is an important contribution to library policy, and it provides very good guidance on what we would consider to be comprehensive and efficient in that it makes it absolutely clear that councils should be thinking about their library service in the round, not just about buildings, but that they should be reviewing their library service and examining whether every part of their community has reasonable access to library services.
I think you are right, Mr Chairman, it is an elastic definition. We have taken the view that we want local authorities to have relatively wide discretion in how they do that. It just happens to be a belief of mine that local authorities are the ones who provide the service. Of course, it is worth reminding ourselves that Central Government has never paid for local libraries in terms of a ring-fenced grant or direct subvention. It has always been a case of allowing local authorities to raise the money to pay for libraries. It is also worth remembering that libraries really took off when philanthropists like Andrew Carnegie came to the table with money. There was often a reluctance on the part of local authorities to build public libraries until Carnegie effectively said, "Here is a cheque". We have given them a wide discretion. Of course, the last Government had public library standards. They were changed quite frequently and they were eventually dispensed with because it was felt again that there was too much central control, too much box ticking, they were hard to enforce, they were observed perhaps more in the breach than in the observance.
With the Charteris Review and with, for example, guidance that was published by the MLA before we merged its functions with the Arts Council, as well as, of course, guidance from CILIP about what kind of services local authorities should be providing through their libraries, local authorities have a pretty good idea of what they should be providing. I would be reluctant to go down a route that effectively set out a tick-box menu of what a library service would provide because I think that could stifle innovation and constrict flexibility. It is an important question to reflect on.
Q181 Chair: You said that you had written I think several times to local authorities to draw their attention to the Charteris Report, but you do not see any need for the Department itself to produce broad guidance as to what in your view "comprehensive and efficient" means?
Ed Vaizey: I think that is an open question, Mr Chairman. What I would say is that quite genuinely one of the things that I want to do is see what the Select Committee concludes in its report. Since 2010, we have engaged closely with local authorities and provided guidance. We have moved, as I say, the functions of the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council to the Arts Council, and the Arts Council has very ambitious plans as to how it wants to support the local authorities and library services. I always said in Opposition that what I would like to see is a libraries development agency and I hope that the Arts Council-I expect the Arts Council-will fulfil that function. It may be that after we have received your report, we reflect on whether it would be appropriate for the Department to undertake a fundamental review of library policy. That would also potentially coincide with the research that the Arts Council is doing on what a library service will look like in the future.
Q182 Chair: The Arts Council have told us very clearly that they do not have a role in overseeing libraries, which did exist previously to some extent with the MLA. Does that not also make it harder for local authorities who are now just expected to decide for themselves what the Act requires and if they get it wrong they will lose at judicial review?
Ed Vaizey: I think the Arts Council is right in the sense that that role is now very firmly with the Department, that we look at each authority’s proposals and we take a view based on the evidence and our engagement with those local authorities-and I stress the officials engaging with the local authorities-on whether there has been a breach and whether there should be a public inquiry. Of course, it is worth saying perhaps as an aside, as you all know there has only ever been one public inquiry. It is also probably worth making the point that when you call a public inquiry, that does not necessarily guarantee that it would find against the local authority in question. I think there is a kind of assumption that the minute a public inquiry is called, it would find against the local authority, and that is not necessarily the case. The onus on deciding whether there is a breach remains firmly with the Department. I think that is absolutely appropriate based on advice from officials. The opportunity and the role for the Arts Council is to spread best practice-to show local authorities what successful library authorities look like. That is a role that is developing. As I said earlier in answer to Mr Farrelly’s question, there will be elements of that, for example, where we sit down with CIPFA and the Arts Council and look at how we can use statistics potentially to provide a more objective guidance to local authorities to assist them.
That is a very longwinded answer and the short answer would be that I want to see the Arts Council supporting local authorities. Again, I think we should try and move away if we can from a view that the Department and the Arts Council are somehow pitted against local authorities, looking for people to upend, as it were. It is just as important, I think, to celebrate the success of good local authorities that are providing great library services and to disseminate that good practice and remind people that this is a service on which almost a billion pounds is spent every year, and to which there are a quarter of a billion visits by adults. Book lending is still very high and, as you said in your opening remarks, Mr Chairman-I think it was you; it might have been Mr Farrelly-library services remain very resilient in the 21st century.
Q183 Dr Coffey: I hear what you say, Minister, about how things are reviewed, but given the lack of intervention by the Secretary of State is there not a risk that these superintending powers in the Act are still needed? Are they not giving false hope to people that the Secretary of State might come in and rescue the day?
Ed Vaizey: Well, Dr Coffey, I do not think library campaigners would necessarily take the view that we have given them false hope. As I say, the opportunity I have in the time before you this morning is to make it very clear that we are not sitting idly by, that we engage with every local authority that is putting forward proposals to reorganise its library service. Some people do not agree with us when we do not call them in for a public inquiry, but that is a matter of opinion. I have the utmost respect for the people who are campaigning for their library service based on their perspective in their local authority area, but the Act is very important. I think the statutory duty is very important. I think the engagement with our Department is very important. I read the transcript of the evidence you received from some of the local councillors. There is an interesting debate going on, if you like, a perspective certainly from local authorities that would like the Act repealed. They do not want a superintending duty. They do not want it to be a statutory duty. They want complete freedom, so they regard it as frustrating that they have to account to us. I would say it is good that they are frustrated that they have to account to us because it shows that we are taking an active interest in what they are doing. I do not think that superintendent function is redundant. I am not sure the exact question was asked in the transcript, but I think it is in the mind of every local authority when it looks at its library service: will we breach our duty? What will happen if we go too far? Will we be called in by the Department?
Q184 Dr Coffey: I think in the evidence that Gloucestershire submitted, that is probably the case in terms of councils being better placed than the Secretary of State to take into account local factors in their areas and to identify solutions that take those needs into account. It has already been well stated that there is quite a minefield. You suddenly have some judges making decisions on particular matters and saying the other councils should take note, and yet other judges are saying that the submissions are fine. Is there not some case for guidance to be issued on what is acceptable as opposed to just one judge’s opinion at any one time?
Ed Vaizey: We have tried to remind local authorities of their statutory duty. We have told them that they should be looking at the Charteris Report when they undertake their reviews, but I am reluctant to say, "This is how you will configure your library service and here are 10 key things you must do" because that totally contradicts the fact that it is a local authority service. We have always made it quite clear that a library service, albeit that it is a statutory duty and that we have a superintending function, is first and foremost a local authority service paid for by the local authority council tax payers. What the local authority service looks like in Suffolk could be very different from what it looks like in other parts of the country. We have provided clear guidance. I have said in my response to the Chairman that we will take very seriously this Select Committee’s report and we will reflect, particularly on the basis of that report and on the Arts Council’s report, on whether we need to go further.
Q185 Dr Coffey: One final question on the Act, Mr Chairman. When all this consultation was going on in my county there were people saying one of the ways we could raise some money was to charge. I think the model is that the county council spends 95% and each library group will be asked to come up with 5%, either through precept or generating revenue through cafés, rentals and things. The 1964 Act is very clear. It has to be free for books. Is there a reason why perhaps that could not also be discretionary? Do you anticipate any update in the 1964 Act in that regard?
Ed Vaizey: No, we do not anticipate introducing charges for books within the comprehensive and efficient local authority service. In fact, we are not going to, let me put it bluntly.
Q186 Dr Coffey: No, I expect you would not, but you are happy for charges to be made on other items from the library?
Ed Vaizey: That is how things have emerged and there is not a great groundswell of opinion as far as I am aware to make, for example, the borrowing of a DVD free of charge.
Q187 Paul Farrelly: I just wanted to ask a question I asked previously. Why do you think that you and Jeremy Hunt are better superintendents than Mr Pickles?
Ed Vaizey: Well, that is a very good question. I do not necessarily think we are better than Mr Pickles if you are talking about individual personalities. I do not know how local authorities react when they get a letter from me, but I can imagine that a letter from Mr Pickles would be a lot worse, although I notice they have not taken him up on his offer to collect his rubbish once a week.
Q188 Paul Farrelly: Let’s talk about Departments, then.
Ed Vaizey: It is a good question. I was intrigued that at the last Select Committee inquiry in 2005 and the inquiry in 2000, you had evidence from the Education Minister and from what was then the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. I think it is important that we work across Departments. I encourage local authorities to work together. I think it is important that the Department for Education, the Department for Communities and Local Government and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport all work together to have an input into library policy. The fact that libraries are now within the Arts Council strengthens the case for the Department for Culture to maintain that function because, as I say, it is bringing together local cultural provision with local library provision in, I think, an exciting and new way.
Q189 Paul Farrelly: Would you agree that in this role then it is incumbent on you to monitor what is happening? Let’s pick a convenient date of two and a half years, say by the end of 2014. Will you commit to producing a report monitoring what has happened just to make sure that all these worthy initiatives, whereby volunteers are asked to raise money to maintain and run libraries, do not wither on the vine? Will you make that commitment by the end of 2014 to produce a report in your role to see what the cumulative impact has been on libraries, whether good or bad?
Ed Vaizey: As you have asked so nicely, Mr Farrelly, I will commit. A flurry of activity from my officials; absolute horror-they will have me out the door within a minute.
Q190 Damian Collins: I just want to go back briefly to the Arts Council, which, I am sure, will be interested in your new announcement as well. The funding they have in their role overseeing libraries works out at about £70 per library in the country. Is there a danger that the Arts Council’s role will just end up being neither one thing nor the other?
Ed Vaizey: I think that was a helpful statistic provided by Alan Davey, the Chief Executive of the Arts Council, who is a great friend of mine so I hope he will not mind my raising my eyebrows there. I think there has been a comparison of the grant in aid that the MLA had and the grant in aid that has been transferred to the Arts Council. To a certain extent it is apples and oranges there. The MLA already had reduced in size by half when we came to power, but they had a strategy whereby everyone covered all the bases, as it were. You did not have a group of library staff and museum staff and archive staff. You had people who were covering all the bases but having particular areas of expertise within that.
I think the Arts Council has the resources. Unlike the MLA, which closed its regional offices, it still has regional offices up and down the country. It will have someone in those regional offices, as I understand it, who will have a focus on libraries but, even more importantly, I think, is able to engage with their peer group across a range of different cultural activities that they are engaged in supporting. I do think the Arts Council has the resources. Also, the funding for the Arts Council remains pretty generous despite these austere economic times. The amount of lottery funding, as you know, Mr Collins, has increased substantially. For example, Grants for the Arts, which is a very important programme to support arts programmes, is available to libraries and will be extended quite clearly to libraries going forward. There will be a great deal of resources and I think it is already the case that the Arts Council is spending more in terms of the projects it is supporting for library authorities in the library development initiative, the analysis of the library of the future and so on than the MLA was spending. The Arts Council is a very serious organisation. It is in a very good place at the moment in terms of how it is run and how it is dealing with quite complicated and tricky issues. I have very strong confidence that they will bring a fresh pair of eyes to the whole issue of libraries and configuring library services. I hope that local authorities will see them as a great ally and resource going forward.
Q191 Damian Collins: Given the resources, do you think their role is going to be as a spreader of best practice rather than a body that is going in to help turn around library services in an ailing authority?
Ed Vaizey: Yes, I think that their main function should be to disseminate best practice. We should obviously tread carefully-I do not think we should go in, as it were, à la Ofsted or whatever. I think we should use the Arts Council to collect and disseminate best practice but to be seen as a resource. As I say, if we can identify local authorities that are not performing as well as we think they could perform, I hope that the Arts Council would make the offer that they could come in and provide support. I think there will be resource behind that to, say, take local authority leaders who are running a very effective library service in terms of the professional librarians who are doing that in a given local authority and encourage them to work with local authorities where we could make good headway.
Q192 Damian Collins: Do you have any concerns that given the Arts Council’s main field of expertise they may have strong points of view on collaboration between local art collections and historical collections and books but may have less of an insight on the role of services that are used to support staff at businesses, similar to the facility provided by the British Library and some of the regional libraries as well? Do you have any concern about their skill base and the breadth of their knowledge?
Ed Vaizey: I do not want to sound complacent. I do not have huge concerns. Another strength of the Arts Council is that it is very self-aware. I think it is aware of where it might have weaknesses and will look to cover those, either in-house or by partnering with appropriate organisations that could cover that expertise.
Q193 Damian Collins: Just a couple more questions. What response have you had from the LGA and local authorities about this change? Because some local authorities might think they are perfectly capable of doing this by themselves and do not really want the Arts Council sticking their nose in.
Ed Vaizey: In terms of moving the resource to the Arts Council, we have not had any pushback as far as I am aware. I will check my records but I am not aware of any. In fact, I think most people regard it as a positive move. I have the highest regard for Roy Clare, the Chief Executive of the MLA when we wound it up, and many of the staff who worked at the MLA, but I think people were not convinced it was a robust enough organisation. I think now people feel that, with the Arts Council, which has a pretty good reputation compared with what it was five or six years ago-we should also not forget that local authorities are used to working with the Arts Council on cultural provision-this is an opportunity.
Q194 Damian Collins: Just finally, you touched earlier today on the triborough plan in Central London, and that is something we have taken evidence on. Do you think either through the Arts Council or from your Department there should be greater encouragement for local authorities to look at combining the library services to create efficiencies that they can spend on the front line?
Ed Vaizey: The honest answer is yes. It is a very, very contentious point, in the circles that I move in, as it were. It is not necessarily something they talk about down the Dog and Duck, but you are treading on the toes of local authorities by saying that they should merge. However, I think that we should look at the statistics, look at the provision, and where we see obvious opportunities for merger, we should encourage them. We also have to be mindful of not treading on the sovereignty of local authorities. Each local authority is accountable to their local population and ultimately I think it is a decision for them whether they seek to merge services. We should not forget that there is a great deal of cooperation that now goes across local authority boundaries. Westminster, Kensington and Chelsea and Hammersmith have taken it to the next logical stage, but you have the London Libraries Consortium, you have SPINE in the East of England, you have the Manchester regional councils working together. A lot of progress has been made. There may be areas where we could encourage people to go further.
Q195 Damian Collins: Do you think that is something that the Arts Council will recommend to authorities using its new role?
Ed Vaizey: I think the Arts Council would be reluctant to do that. I think that should probably be something that we in the Department would look at taking forward if we thought there was an opportunity.
Q196 Chair: Just on that, you talked about further progress can be made. I wonder if you saw the article by Tim Coates, the former head of Waterstone’s, who suggested that, if you brought together the library services across all the 33 London boroughs, you could save £80 million on operating them as a single service under the control of the Mayor of London. Is that something you would look at?
Ed Vaizey: I saw the article, Mr Chairman, because I got sent it by a man called Desmond Clark. I do not know if you have come across Desmond Clark.
Chair: I think he sent it to me as well.
Ed Vaizey: I would urge you to get on his email circulation list because it is the best press cutting service for libraries that you can get and it is an example of the big society in action. If we tried to get a similar press cutting service in the Department it would probably cost us about £4,000 a month.
That goes back to the earlier point that I was making to Mr Farrelly: we need to look at the CIPFA statistics and see when you drill down into them, working with CIPFA, what they actually flag up in terms of spending. I think Boris did mutter about two years ago-I think he said at an after-dinner speech that he wanted a London library service. I have not heard anything since and I did not see it in his 10-point plan to be re-elected as mayor, but we will see if it gets raised in the run-up to the election, and how the London boroughs react when he raises it.
Q197 Damian Collins: I think it is a nine-point plan, I do not think there is a number 10.
Ed Vaizey: Oh, is it? I have never heard of anyone going to the electorate with a ninepoint plan. Only Boris could go to the electorate with a ninepoint plan.
Q198 Chair: I do not think we have any more questions, so I thank you very much.
Ed Vaizey: Thank you very much, Mr Chairman.