Nevertheless, the reputation of the House remains at risk. Trust once lost will take time and a consistent and continued record of maintaining high standards of conduct before it can be restored. That is true of any national institution. It is particularly true of the House. As the expenses crisis showed, unless apparently minor breaches of the rules of conduct are challenged and remedied, they can all too easily become endemic and inflamed and so seriously damage the reputation of the House”.

When we come here, as elected Members, we want to concentrate on what we were elected to do: serve our constituents and work in the national interest. We do not stand for election so that we can fill in forms about registration or respond to the commissioner’s letters. I acknowledge that all that can appear an irritating distraction from more urgent duties or even a diversion of effort into unnecessary bureaucracy. However, the last Parliament should have taught us that we cannot afford to get this wrong, individually or collectively. The rules in the code of conduct are not arbitrary. We agree them as Members of this House, and we should uphold them and be seen to uphold them. For the system to be effective, we need a strong, fair commissioner, whose own integrity is beyond doubt. We have been fortunate to have that in the previous commissioners, and I look forward to the new commissioner continuing that tradition.

6.56 pm

Sir George Young (North West Hampshire) (Con): May I add a brief footnote to these exchanges and, in so doing, speak for the first time for 22 years from the Government Back Benches? May I place on the record my congratulations to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House and his Deputy for getting the two best jobs in the Government? They have the necessary qualities of respect and affection for the House to enable them to discharge their duties, and they will be assisted by an outstanding private office and the best Parliamentary Private Secretary in the business. I wish them well in navigating the Government’s legislative programme through the House.

Paragraphs 4 and 5 of the report refer to John Lyon. I worked with John Lyon for his first two years in the post, when I chaired the Standards and Privileges Committee, and I endorse every word in paragraph 5. I pay tribute to his discretion, and one of his predecessors had difficulties on that front. He was meticulous in his dealings with the press, and I commend his integrity and thoroughness, and the clarity with which he wrote his reports. As we have heard, he was commissioner at a time of unparalleled difficulties for the House, but he never faltered. I know that he will want to clear his in- tray to the extent that he can before he departs from office, and we wish him well in his retirement. We are all grateful to the selection board for sifting the candidates. I was very impressed by Kathryn Hudson’s quiet authority when she was interviewed by the Commission. She has absolutely the right background and I wish her well.

Finally, paragraph 12 deals with the number of days. This job is demand-led, in that the in-tray is determined by the propensity of Members of Parliament to misbehave and the propensity of members of the public to complain

12 Sep 2012 : Column 387

about it. Neither of those things can be forecast. I think it is right to start where we have started and then raise the work load if necessary. I know that the incoming commissioner will be reassured by the commitment from the Commission to give the resources that are necessary should the work load, for whatever reason, increase. With those remarks, I join others in commending the motion.

6.58 pm

Sir Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): I shall be brief, Madam Deputy Speaker. I welcome the appointment of the new commissioner. As the last person to be investigated by John Lyon, I am more than willing to meet the new commissioner to share that experience. I hope that she will bring proportionality, pragmatism, expediency, common sense, and a rationale of fairness and natural justice. I hope that she will consider the impact that the inquiries have on MPs, their families and their staff. Lastly, motivation has to be part of that inquiry, as it is an important part of it; in my case, the investigation stemmed from a complaint from my Tory opponent’s lodger.

Question put and agreed to.


Business without Debate

European Union Documents

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 119(11)),

EU Mortgages Directive

That this House takes note of European Union Document No. 8680/11 and Addenda 1 to 4, relating to a draft Directive of the European Parliament and of the Council on credit agreements relating to residential property; notes the success that the UK has achieved against its key negotiating priorities in Council negotiations on this Directive and that the Government recognises the importance of a sustainable mortgage market to support a stable housing market; and supports the Government’s view that the proposed Directive should recognise differences that exist between national mortgage markets.—(Mr Syms.)

Question agreed to.

Delegated Legislation

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dawn Primarolo): With the leave of the House, we shall take motions 5 to 10 together.

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 118(6)),

Public Bodies

That the draft Public Bodies (Abolition of Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Courts Administration and the Public Guardian Board) Order 2012, which was laid before this House on 10 May, be approved.

Debt Management and Relief

That the draft Tribunals, Courts and Enforcement Act 2007 (Consequential Amendments) Order 2012, which was laid before this House on 21 June, be approved.

12 Sep 2012 : Column 388

Public Bodies

That the draft Public Bodies (Abolition of the Crown Court Rule Committee and Magistrates’ Courts Rule Committee) Order 2012, which was laid before this House on 17 May, be approved. That the draft Public Bodies (Abolition of Environment Protection Advisory Committees) Order 2012, which was laid before this House on 21 May, be approved.

That the draft Public Bodies (Abolition of Regional and Local Fisheries Advisory Committees) Order 2012, which was laid before this House on 21 May, be approved.

Northern Ireland

That the draft Northern Ireland Act 1998 (Devolution of Policing and Justice Functions) Order 2012, which was laid before this House on 11 June, be approved.—(Mr Syms.)

Question agreed to.

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 118(6)),

Social Security

That the draft Jobseeker’s Allowance (Sanctions) (Amendment) Regulations 2012, which were laid before this House on 9 July, be approved.—(Mr Syms.)

The House divided:

Ayes 256, Noes 177.

Division No. 67]

[7 pm

AYES

Adams, Nigel

Afriyie, Adam

Aldous, Peter

Andrew, Stuart

Arbuthnot, rh Mr James

Bacon, Mr Richard

Baker, Steve

Baldry, Sir Tony

Baldwin, Harriett

Barclay, Stephen

Baron, Mr John

Barwell, Gavin

Bebb, Guto

Beith, rh Sir Alan

Bellingham, Mr Henry

Benyon, Richard

Beresford, Sir Paul

Berry, Jake

Bingham, Andrew

Blackman, Bob

Blackwood, Nicola

Blunt, Mr Crispin

Bone, Mr Peter

Bottomley, Sir Peter

Brady, Mr Graham

Brake, rh Tom

Bray, Angie

Brazier, Mr Julian

Bridgen, Andrew

Brine, Steve

Brooke, Annette

Browne, Mr Jeremy

Bruce, Fiona

Bruce, rh Sir Malcolm

Buckland, Mr Robert

Burley, Mr Aidan

Burns, rh Mr Simon

Burrowes, Mr David

Burt, Lorely

Byles, Dan

Carmichael, rh Mr Alistair

Carmichael, Neil

Carswell, Mr Douglas

Cash, Mr William

Chishti, Rehman

Clark, rh Greg

Coffey, Dr Thérèse

Collins, Damian

Cox, Mr Geoffrey

Crouch, Tracey

Davey, rh Mr Edward

Davies, Glyn

de Bois, Nick

Dinenage, Caroline

Djanogly, Mr Jonathan

Dorrell, rh Mr Stephen

Doyle-Price, Jackie

Drax, Richard

Duddridge, James

Duncan, rh Mr Alan

Duncan Smith, rh Mr Iain

Dunne, Mr Philip

Ellison, Jane

Ellwood, Mr Tobias

Elphicke, Charlie

Eustice, George

Evans, Graham

Evans, Jonathan

Evennett, Mr David

Fabricant, Michael

Fallon, rh Michael

Featherstone, Lynne

Field, Mark

Fox, rh Dr Liam

Francois, rh Mr Mark

Freeman, George

Freer, Mike

Fullbrook, Lorraine

Gale, Sir Roger

Garnier, Mark

Gauke, Mr David

George, Andrew

Gibb, Mr Nick

Gilbert, Stephen

Glen, John

Goodwill, Mr Robert

Gove, rh Michael

Graham, Richard

Grant, Mrs Helen

Gray, Mr James

Grayling, rh Chris

Green, rh Damian

Greening, rh Justine

Grieve, rh Mr Dominic

Griffiths, Andrew

Gummer, Ben

Gyimah, Mr Sam

Halfon, Robert

Hames, Duncan

Hammond, Stephen

Hancock, Matthew

Hands, Greg

Harper, Mr Mark

Harrington, Richard

Harris, Rebecca

Hart, Simon

Heald, Oliver

Heath, Mr David

Hemming, John

Henderson, Gordon

Hendry, Charles

Herbert, rh Nick

Hinds, Damian

Hoban, Mr Mark

Hollobone, Mr Philip

Hopkins, Kris

Horwood, Martin

Howarth, Mr Gerald

Howell, John

Hughes, rh Simon

Hunt, rh Mr Jeremy

Huppert, Dr Julian

James, Margot

Javid, Sajid

Jenkin, Mr Bernard

Johnson, Gareth

Johnson, Joseph

Jones, Andrew

Jones, Mr Marcus

Kawczynski, Daniel

Kelly, Chris

Kirby, Simon

Knight, rh Mr Greg

Kwarteng, Kwasi

Laing, Mrs Eleanor

Lamb, Norman

Lancaster, Mark

Lansley, rh Mr Andrew

Latham, Pauline

Leadsom, Andrea

Lee, Dr Phillip

Lefroy, Jeremy

Leigh, Mr Edward

Leslie, Charlotte

Letwin, rh Mr Oliver

Lewis, Dr Julian

Liddell-Grainger, Mr Ian

Lidington, rh Mr David

Lilley, rh Mr Peter

Lloyd, Stephen

Lord, Jonathan

Luff, Peter

Lumley, Karen

Macleod, Mary

Maynard, Paul

McCartney, Jason

McCartney, Karl

McLoughlin, rh Mr Patrick

McPartland, Stephen

Menzies, Mark

Metcalfe, Stephen

Mills, Nigel

Milton, Anne

Mitchell, rh Mr Andrew

Moore, rh Michael

Mordaunt, Penny

Morgan, Nicky

Morris, David

Morris, James

Mosley, Stephen

Mowat, David

Mulholland, Greg

Mundell, rh David

Munt, Tessa

Murray, Sheryll

Neill, Robert

Newmark, Mr Brooks

Norman, Jesse

Nuttall, Mr David

Offord, Dr Matthew

Ollerenshaw, Eric

Opperman, Guy

Ottaway, Richard

Parish, Neil

Patel, Priti

Pawsey, Mark

Percy, Andrew

Perry, Claire

Phillips, Stephen

Pickles, rh Mr Eric

Pincher, Christopher

Poulter, Dr Daniel

Pugh, John

Randall, rh Mr John

Reckless, Mark

Redwood, rh Mr John

Reid, Mr Alan

Robertson, Mr Laurence

Rogerson, Dan

Rudd, Amber

Ruffley, Mr David

Russell, Sir Bob

Rutley, David

Sandys, Laura

Scott, Mr Lee

Selous, Andrew

Shapps, rh Grant

Sharma, Alok

Shelbrooke, Alec

Simmonds, Mark

Skidmore, Chris

Smith, Miss Chloe

Smith, Henry

Smith, Julian

Smith, Sir Robert

Soubry, Anna

Spelman, rh Mrs Caroline

Spencer, Mr Mark

Stanley, rh Sir John

Stevenson, John

Stewart, Bob

Stewart, Iain

Stride, Mel

Stuart, Mr Graham

Sturdy, Julian

Swayne, rh Mr Desmond

Swinson, Jo

Thurso, John

Timpson, Mr Edward

Tomlinson, Justin

Truss, Elizabeth

Turner, Mr Andrew

Tyrie, Mr Andrew

Uppal, Paul

Vaizey, Mr Edward

Vara, Mr Shailesh

Vickers, Martin

Walker, Mr Robin

Walter, Mr Robert

Watkinson, Angela

Webb, Steve

Wheeler, Heather

White, Chris

Whittaker, Craig

Wiggin, Bill

Williams, Mr Mark

Williams, Roger

Williams, Stephen

Williamson, Gavin

Willott, Jenny

Wilson, Mr Rob

Wright, Jeremy

Wright, Simon

Young, rh Sir George

Zahawi, Nadhim

Tellers for the Ayes:

Karen Bradley and

Mr Robert Syms

NOES

Abbott, Ms Diane

Ainsworth, rh Mr Bob

Alexander, rh Mr Douglas

Alexander, Heidi

Ali, Rushanara

Allen, Mr Graham

Ashworth, Jonathan

Bailey, Mr Adrian

Bain, Mr William

Banks, Gordon

Barron, rh Mr Kevin

Beckett, rh Margaret

Begg, Dame Anne

Benn, rh Hilary

Benton, Mr Joe

Betts, Mr Clive

Blears, rh Hazel

Blomfield, Paul

Bradshaw, rh Mr Ben

Brennan, Kevin

Brown, Lyn

Brown, rh Mr Nicholas

Brown, Mr Russell

Burden, Richard

Campbell, Mr Alan

Campbell, Mr Gregory

Campbell, Mr Ronnie

Coaker, Vernon

Coffey, Ann

Connarty, Michael

Corbyn, Jeremy

Crausby, Mr David

Creagh, Mary

Creasy, Stella

Cruddas, Jon

Cryer, John

Cunningham, Alex

Cunningham, Mr Jim

Cunningham, Sir Tony

Curran, Margaret

Danczuk, Simon

Darling, rh Mr Alistair

David, Wayne

Davidson, Mr Ian

Davies, Geraint

De Piero, Gloria

Denham, rh Mr John

Dobbin, Jim

Docherty, Thomas

Doran, Mr Frank

Dowd, Jim

Doyle, Gemma

Dromey, Jack

Dugher, Michael

Durkan, Mark

Eagle, Ms Angela

Edwards, Jonathan

Efford, Clive

Esterson, Bill

Evans, Chris

Farrelly, Paul

Fitzpatrick, Jim

Flello, Robert

Fovargue, Yvonne

Gapes, Mike

Gardiner, Barry

Glass, Pat

Glindon, Mrs Mary

Goggins, rh Paul

Goodman, Helen

Greatrex, Tom

Green, Kate

Greenwood, Lilian

Griffith, Nia

Gwynne, Andrew

Hamilton, Mr David

Hamilton, Fabian

Hanson, rh Mr David

Harris, Mr Tom

Healey, rh John

Hepburn, Mr Stephen

Hillier, Meg

Hilling, Julie

Hodge, rh Margaret

Hopkins, Kelvin

Howarth, rh Mr George

Hunt, Tristram

Irranca-Davies, Huw

Jamieson, Cathy

Jarvis, Dan

Johnson, Diana

Jones, Graham

Jones, Helen

Jones, Mr Kevan

Jones, Susan Elan

Jowell, rh Dame Tessa

Kaufman, rh Sir Gerald

Keeley, Barbara

Kendall, Liz

Khan, rh Sadiq

Lammy, rh Mr David

Lavery, Ian

Leslie, Chris

Lewis, Mr Ivan

Long, Naomi

Lucas, Caroline

Lucas, Ian

MacNeil, Mr Angus Brendan

MacShane, rh Mr Denis

Malhotra, Seema

Mann, John

McCann, Mr Michael

McCarthy, Kerry

McClymont, Gregg

McDonagh, Siobhain

McDonnell, John

McFadden, rh Mr Pat

McGovern, Jim

McKechin, Ann

McKinnell, Catherine

Mearns, Ian

Michael, rh Alun

Miliband, rh David

Miller, Andrew

Moon, Mrs Madeleine

Morden, Jessica

Morrice, Graeme

(Livingston)

Morris, Grahame M.

(Easington)

Murray, Ian

Nandy, Lisa

Nash, Pamela

O'Donnell, Fiona

Onwurah, Chi

Osborne, Sandra

Pearce, Teresa

Phillipson, Bridget

Pound, Stephen

Qureshi, Yasmin

Raynsford, rh Mr Nick

Reed, Mr Jamie

Reeves, Rachel

Reynolds, Emma

Reynolds, Jonathan

Riordan, Mrs Linda

Ritchie, Ms Margaret

Robertson, Angus

Robertson, John

Robinson, Mr Geoffrey

Roy, Mr Frank

Ruane, Chris

Ruddock, rh Dame Joan

Sarwar, Anas

Sharma, Mr Virendra

Sheridan, Jim

Skinner, Mr Dennis

Slaughter, Mr Andy

Smith, rh Mr Andrew

Smith, Owen

Spellar, rh Mr John

Straw, rh Mr Jack

Stuart, Ms Gisela

Sutcliffe, Mr Gerry

Tami, Mark

Thomas, Mr Gareth

Timms, rh Stephen

Turner, Karl

Umunna, Mr Chuka

Vaz, Valerie

Watson, Mr Tom

Watts, Mr Dave

Whitehead, Dr Alan

Williamson, Chris

Wilson, Phil

Winterton, rh Ms Rosie

Wishart, Pete

Wright, David

Wright, Mr Iain

Tellers for the Noes:

Tom Blenkinsop and

Nic Dakin

Question accordingly agreed to.

12 Sep 2012 : Column 389

12 Sep 2012 : Column 390

12 Sep 2012 : Column 391

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dawn Primarolo): With the leave of the House, we shall take motions 12 and 13 together.

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 118(6)),

Family Law

That the draft Child Support Maintenance Calculation Regulations 2012, which were laid before this House on 2 July, be approved.

That the draft Child Support Maintenance (Changes to Basic Rate and Minimum Amount of Liability) Regulations 2012, which were laid before this House on 2 July, be approved.— (Mr Syms.)

Question agreed to.

12 Sep 2012 : Column 392

Gloucestershire Libraries

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mr Syms.)

7.14 pm

Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD): This debate has turned out to be extremely topical. In the past week, the importance of libraries has been highlighted by children’s laureate Julia Donaldson, author of “The Gruffalo” and “The Snail and the Whale”, which I think is a masterpiece of children’s literature. I must have read it at least 50 times with my kids and I never stopped enjoying it. Ms Donaldson says that

“Libraries…provide a wonderful opportunity for adults and children to browse, borrow and engage with books, but they are also great community centres.”

She is right, of course. Libraries are community hubs and noticeboards, providing sources of information as well as pleasure and learning. They are vital in communities that face particular challenges, where free access to books is not some middle-class luxury, but an essential local service—and not simply access to books, but access to quiet work space, including for homework, when sometimes that is impossible to find at home. In the internet age, modern libraries increasingly provide access to the net for those who cannot easily afford the latest home PC, thus combating both digital and social exclusion.

Hesters Way is one such community in my constituency. It belies Cheltenham’s stereotypical image as a picture-perfect, universally affluent, regency resort town. Three of the six worst-scoring neighbourhoods in Cheltenham, according to the Government’s multiple indices of deprivation, are in Hesters Way, and all three are in the bottom 17% of neighbourhoods nationwide. According to one of those indices, educational outcomes, two of those neighbourhoods are in the bottom 10% in the country. Hesters Way’s schools, both the primary schools and the stunning new All Saints academy, are benefiting significantly from the pupil premium. I am not citing those statistics to embarrass anyone in Hesters Way, which boasts many community success stories, not least in education now at both primary and secondary levels. I am doing it simply to underline the fact that it is a part of Cheltenham where many people have to work very hard to make ends meet and where the luxury of buying a new computer or splashing out on new books in the beautiful branch of Waterstones in town is not always possible.

In short, Hesters Way is an area that needs a library, and given that the source for the statistics I have cited is the county council’s own dataset, it should have known that, too; yet the rather opaque process followed in Gloucestershire suggested that Hesters Way’s was one of those libraries that was surplus to county council requirements. At this point, I should say that I understand the Conservative administration’s genuine problems. I accept the need to reduce the deficit at national level and it was inevitable that local government would have to play a part in that. We may have argued in this place about the pace and scale of the cuts, but that was not Gloucestershire county council’s responsibility. Tough decisions would have been necessary, whatever the political flavour of the administration. All the same, recent figures from the Chartered Institute of Library and

12 Sep 2012 : Column 393

Information Professionals, which gathered survey responses from 93 library authorities, highlight the scope for different approaches, given the political will.

According to the institute’s survey, some English authorities reported increases in expenditure; eight reported reductions in revenue expenditure of 2% or less; 45 reported reductions of between 2% and 10%; 25 reported cuts of at least 10%; and two reported cuts of more than 20%. The scope for political decision makers to follow different paths is clear. I am not sure whether Gloucestershire was among those that responded to the survey, but if it was, we would have been at the very top of that league table. Politicians often trade statistics, but let me quote from a letter that John Holland, the previous assistant head of Gloucestershire’s libraries and information service, sent both to the leader of Gloucestershire county council, Councillor Mark Hawthorne, and to the Minister. He wrote:

“Whilst the need to make savings and reduce services is clear, the proposed cuts to the library service are damaging and disproportionate. The library service is a high profile cost-effective service representing only 1.45% of the county council budget, yet loans over 3.3 million books and other media and has nearly 3 million visits from users a year. The proposed cuts reduce the current library service budget by 43%, a far greater cut than the overall county council target of 28%.”

Even allowing for annual variations in the book fund, Gloucestershire is still at the very top end of the cuts being made by library authorities in England.

In Cheltenham, the suggestion was that Hesters Way library would close as a county library and that the community might take it over, with residual support of some £20,000 per annum from the county council. Hesters Way is also, for all the reasons that I have mentioned, an area in which volunteers are not as easy to come by as they are in more affluent areas. In practice, what was meant by “the community” was the local neighbourhood project, which was initiated and supported by Cheltenham borough council. The plan was far from ideal; it would have resulted in the loss of the library’s existing premises; and, most of all, it risked the loss of professional librarians—a nationwide issue highlighted by the institute. An issue that was never resolved was the risk that non-public libraries would not pay public lending rights, thus reducing the income to authors as well.

I pay tribute to all those who supported a tremendous campaign to save Hesters Way library as a public library, including the outstanding county councillor, Suzanne Williams, Councillors Charmian Shepherd and Mike Skinner, and Chris Pallet and Nancy Graham. Most of all, I pay tribute to a non-party political voluntary campaign group, Friends of Gloucestershire Libraries, which surpassed all our efforts in its dogged campaign to defend Gloucestershire’s library services, and gathered 13,000 petition signatures and took the battle all the way to the High Court.

Again and again, Friends of Gloucestershire Libraries highlighted the impact of the cuts, particularly the careless way in which the strategy seemed to have been put together. In its case to the High Court, it highlighted an issue that was particularly relevant to Hesters Way—that of equalities—which I had raised personally on a number of occasions with Councillor Hawthorne. On Wednesday

12 Sep 2012 : Column 394

16 November 2011, His Honour Judge McKenna ruled that Gloucestershire county council’s plans for our public library service were unlawful on equalities grounds, the council having failed to consider properly the impact of its proposals on disadvantaged groups—just as Friends of Gloucestershire Libraries and many others had pointed out.

Councillor Hawthorne, for whom I have a great deal of time in other respects, dismissed the ruling as being

“tripped up on a technical point”.

I have to disagree with his conclusion very, very profoundly. I think that it was a damning judgment that could have been avoided if the county council had been prepared to listen to dissenting voices.

To be kind to the county administration for a moment, the outcome in Hesters Way is good. The forced rethink has resulted in the library staying open in its current premises as part of the county network, albeit with reduced hours, which is a tremendous community victory. Friends of Gloucestershire Libraries, however, remains deeply concerned, and reports that under the redrawn plans, seven libraries still face closure. Public library services will be withdrawn from those areas, and local communities will be offered the chance to run and fund their own library facilities as volunteers. Those facilities will not be part of the statutory public library network.

Friends of Gloucestershire Libraries has raised with me, and with the Minister on a number of occasions, an issue that directly concerns him: the duty of the Secretary of State under the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964 to

“superintend, and promote the improvement of, the public library service provided by local authorities in England and Wales, and to secure the proper discharge by local authorities of the functions in relation to libraries conferred on them as authorities by or under this Act”.

Neil Carmichael (Stroud) (Con): I am grateful for the opportunity to point out that we have similar issues about libraries in my constituency of Stroud. For example, we have a very well run community library in Painswick, which is well supported and, indeed, has the support of the county council. It is a great success story, so will my hon. Friend join me in congratulating the people of Painswick on making such a successful effort?

Martin Horwood: I am not familiar with the situation in Painswick, so I had better not venture into that. I remind the hon. Gentleman of the provisions from the 1964 Act that I read out. It is the duty of the Secretary of State to

“superintend, and promote the improvement of, the public library service provided by local authorities in England and Wales, and to secure the proper discharge by local authorities of the functions in relation to libraries conferred on them as authorities by or under this Act”.

Those local authority duties include the provision of a

“comprehensive and efficient library service for all persons desiring to make use thereof”.

The Minister is familiar with those powers, as he drew attention to them in the case of the Wirral in 2009, when we were both in opposition.

Richard Graham (Gloucester) (Con): Will my hon. Friend give way?

12 Sep 2012 : Column 395

Martin Horwood: I shall give way to another neighbour, from Gloucester.

Richard Graham: My hon. Friend raises concerns that libraries may be closed, but my understanding is that no library in Gloucestershire has closed, and that they will all continue. That is certainly the case in my constituency of Gloucester, and I welcome the proposal for greater flexibility in the provision of library services which I hope in due course, in the ward of Matson, which is similar to Hesters Way in many respects, will result in opportunities for the community to be more involved through voluntary work, work experience for the young and the greater provision of other facilities alongside the library.

Martin Horwood: The hon. Gentleman refers to Matson, which is interesting because it seems to be a parallel case to that of Hesters Way. It is an area of deprivation, as he obviously well knows. In the case of Hesters Way, the offer of a community takeover resulted in a neighbourhood project supported by the district council, which is Liberal Democrat-led Cheltenham borough council. I am not sure exactly what the situation is in Matson, but I understand that the library is also staying open as a public library. If Friends of Gloucestershire Libraries is correct, there are still threats of outstanding closures to public libraries, and the question of whether invitations to communities, neighbourhood projects or other institutions to take them over will succeed is still outstanding.

Richard Graham: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Martin Horwood: No, I am sorry. I have given way twice, which is stretching the courtesy of the House in an Adjournment debate at the best of times, so I will press on.

Friends of Gloucestershire Libraries has raised the Secretary of State’s responsibilities and the possibility of his intervention in Gloucestershire on a number of occasions, but decision came there none—not even a reply to some of its communications until yesterday, less than 24 hours before this debate. The Minister probably owes some eagle-eyed official in his Department a drink for having spotted that potential little embarrassment. The letter to Johanna Anderson, one of Friends of Gloucestershire Libraries’ most uncompromising supporters, rather surprisingly implies that intervention by the Secretary of State in the form of a public inquiry is still possible. It says that the Department has been in the process of gathering evidence since April 2011 and offers the excuse that

“the council’s plans have been subject to considerable change over a sustained period of time”—

but not as much change as many campaigners in Gloucestershire would like. I suggest that the Secretary of State had better get a move on, or all the decisions will have been taken and implemented before he has finished gathering the evidence.

The powers of the Secretary of State in the 1964 Act are serious ones that are not to be used lightly, but in a county where the decisions of the council and the processes by which they have reached them have generated such opposition, and even been ruled unlawful, I would have thought that they could and should be exercised.

12 Sep 2012 : Column 396

This is not a request for the Secretary of State to run Gloucestershire’s libraries for us, or even to take all the decisions that need to be taken locally; it is a request for him to make inquiries and, in the words of the Act, to

“superintend, and promote the improvement of”

public library services. It is not at all clear to me that this duty is currently being fulfilled in the manner that the authors of the Act might have expected. We all wish that these decisions could be taken in a time of expanding budgets and generous local government settlements, but sadly, as we all know, that is not the case, and there may still be more pain ahead. However, as the institute has pointed out, different and more careful approaches are possible.

As Julia Donaldson made so clear in her recent public statement, libraries are a precious local and national resource that need to be celebrated and defended with as much courage and resourcefulness as the tiny snail on the tail of a whale so that future generations, whatever their personal circumstances, can be given a space to discover, to read and learn, and to enjoy stories like hers.

7.28 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport (Mr Edward Vaizey): I am grateful for the opportunity to respond to this important debate and the points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood). I understand the concerns that are being raised, and will no doubt continue to be raised, in several quarters.

My hon. Friend made some effective points about the importance of libraries and prayed in aid the children’s laureate, Julia Donaldson. He and I have something in common in that we are both regular readers of Ms Donaldson’s wonderful literature. I think that all Members of this House agree with the sentiments that she has expressed about the importance of libraries, reading and literature. I respectfully disagree, however, with Ms Donaldson’s analysis of the state of the public library service in England, for which I am responsible. It is worth making it clear that I am not responsible for superintending the library service in Scotland or, indeed, in Wales or Northern Ireland. Those powers have rightly been devolved.

Libraries remain a statutory service, and it is worth putting on record that this Government have no intention of changing that. That is a very important safeguard for the future of libraries in England. It is worth pointing out, when one considers the history of public library provision in this country, that libraries have always been supported and paid for either by councils or by philanthropic endeavour. In fact, the growth of the public library service in this country initially started with the grant so generously provided by Andrew Carnegie, and continued with Parliament’s enabling of councils to raise rates in order to pay for the service. Nobody should be in any doubt about the importance of the public library service in promoting literature and education, because in the 19th century many councils opposed building public libraries in case there was too much education in their area. Public libraries are, therefore, a local authority service, and it is important for central Government to recognise that and to be cautious about when they intervene.

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The thrust of my hon. Friend’s remarks was that he wants a public inquiry into Gloucestershire county council’s decision. He is right to say that we are still looking at and gathering evidence about the changes being made by the council, so it is worth putting on record that it would be wrong for me to comment on the particular changes that are being made until the Department reaches a decision, but I will enlighten my hon. Friend on how it goes about making those kinds of decisions.

Richard Graham: The critical point raised by the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) was the scare that libraries in the county will be closed, but my clear understanding from the county council—this is certainly true in my constituency and, I believe, in that of my neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Neil Carmichael)—is that no libraries will be closed. There is a danger—I do not know whether the Minister has spotted this—that this is an artful and early kick-off to a Lib Dem county council election campaign, with scares about libraries being closed when the reality is that none will be closed. What would the Minister say to that?

Mr Vaizey: As I have said, libraries are a local service, and county council elections are local elections. I hear what my hon. Friend has said, as have the electors of Gloucester no doubt. I look forward to observing—perhaps from a distance—the vigorous election campaign that will be conducted in Gloucestershire in the weeks and months to come.

Martin Horwood: I want to put on record my absolute rejection that this is in some way the launch of a Lib Dem election campaign. I wish we could recruit 13,000 petitioners and the High Court to our cause, but I do not think that that is credible. However, if the electors of Gloucestershire wish to try a different approach, they will know which way to vote in May 2013.

Richard Graham rose

Mr Vaizey: If my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) will forgive me, I will not give way. The election campaign seems to be beginning in the middle of this debate; I want to get back to the issues at stake.

Let me be clear: it is genuinely the case that the position in Gloucestershire has been uncertain for some time. As my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham pointed out, Gloucestershire county council made its final decision in April 2012, but that was then called in for scrutiny by the Liberal Democrat opposition and, after that scrutiny was rejected, there was further consultation. As I understand it, the final decision about the shape of Gloucestershire county council’s library service was made only this month—September 2012—so I respectfully suggest to my hon. Friend that it would be difficult for the Government to call a public inquiry when the position of the public library service is changing.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham rightly said that these are serious powers not to be used lightly. When one reads debates about the future of library

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services and calls for inquiries, one assumes that an inquiry is called every minute. In fact, the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964 has been on the statute book for almost half a century, and in that time only one inquiry has ever been called, and that was the inquiry to which he referred—the Wirral inquiry. I hope that he will understand, therefore, that one cannot simply call an inquiry will-nilly.

Since being honoured to take up this position in the coalition Government, I have always taken the independent advice of my officials about whether there is a prima facie case that a particular council has breached the requirements to provide a comprehensive and efficient library service. I will take their advice on Gloucestershire in the fullness of time, now that its provisions have become clearer.

Mr Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con): The Minister might not yet be aware of the library in Tewkesbury linking up with the Roses theatre next door in order to expand and provide a centre of cultural excellence. It will seek additional funding for that. Are there not opportunities for libraries to go beyond what they do already?

Mr Vaizey: My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. Without wishing to comment on the specific issues in Gloucestershire, it is worth pointing out that there are great examples of innovation in the public library service up and down the country.

It is my job to tell the good news about public libraries in this country, because the press are interested only in publishing the bad news. As my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Neil Carmichael) pointed out, Painswick, which was closed under the previous Government—I do not remember calls for an inquiry then—has reopened as a volunteer library. So there are many positives.

In fact, at a time of economic difficulty, when, as the hon. Member for Cheltenham pointed out, people have to look at their budgets—whichever party was in power, there would have been cuts to public expenditure—the public library service is funded by local authorities to the tune of £900 million a year, and more than 3,300 libraries are still open and serving the public across the country. When the news is all about whether a library is closing, the libraries that are opening or being refurbished are rarely reported. The Society of Chief Librarians estimated that, at the end of last year, 40 new or significantly refurbished libraries would open in 2012, and that has already been achieved. Libraries are opening as well as closing.

Richard Graham: For the Minister’s benefit, may I put it on record that, as far as I know, not a single library in Gloucestershire will close? Given that this debate is about Gloucestershire libraries, we should have clarity on that point. My hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham has been unable to name a single library that will close. It was simply a scare that some might close. I have been told by the county council that that is not the case.

Mr Vaizey: I hear what my hon. Friend says. Not only are libraries purported to be closing not actually closing across the country, but new libraries are opening, including, for example, the Hive in Worcester, which is the first

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ever joint public and academic library in the country—as well as the renovation of the Passmore Edwards centre in Newton Abbot. In 2013, the city of Birmingham will open Europe’s largest public library, costing more than £100 million, and the refurbishment of the Liverpool central library will be completed. Three quarters of children in England and 40% of adults still regularly use our public libraries.

We are doing all we can to support libraries. The first speech I made as a Minister was about libraries and the first action I took was to write to every local authority to remind them of their statutory duty to provide a comprehensive and efficient library service; to point them to the Charteris review, which was the inquiry conducted by Sue Charteris into the Wirral closures; to guide them on how they should approach any review of libraries; and to make it clear that every council thinking of reorganising its library service should do so only after a thorough review.

We handed responsibility for libraries to Arts Council England—a bigger organisation than the Museum, Libraries and Archive Council that was previously responsible. We have united under one roof the provision of culture and of libraries, to provide a more joined-up and effective service. At the end of the month, the Arts Council’s new grants for the arts fund will open for applications—£6 million for libraries to work with artists and cultural organisations on arts and cultural activities. In June 2012 the Government announced a series of pilots to test automatic library memberships for schoolchildren.

Martin Horwood: Perhaps I can emulate the hon. Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) and try to draw the Minister back to Gloucestershire. The hon. Member for Gloucester made the confident assertion that no libraries in Gloucestershire will close, yet Friends of Gloucestershire Libraries lists seven that are still at risk of closure, at least as public libraries, if not completely.

Richard Graham: Which ones?

Martin Horwood: The libraries are listed on the Friends of Gloucestershire Libraries website. They are all outside my constituency so I will not list them. Has the Minister received any assurance from the county council that there will be no library closures in Gloucestershire?

Mr Vaizey: In a sense, my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester makes my point for me. There is a dispute in the Chamber between two Gloucestershire Members about whether libraries in Gloucestershire will close. I will take advice from my officials on whether Gloucestershire is providing a comprehensive and efficient service, once it is clear what that service is. I have been reluctant to talk specifically about Gloucestershire precisely

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because of that point, but I understand that there are ongoing negotiations about transferring to community groups the libraries that are disputed by my two hon. Friends.

Mr Robertson: The hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) referred to Friends of Gloucestershire Libraries, which lists Brockworth library as one facing closure. Brockworth is in my constituency, and the library has been handed over to the community which is doing an excellent job at keeping it going and linking it with other community groups. I have every hope for that library and do not accept that it will close as suggested by Friends of Gloucestershire Libraries.

Mr Vaizey: I hear my hon. Friend; sometimes the headlines belie what is happening on the ground.

Richard Graham: I suggest that the easy way to resolve this issue is for the Minister to come and see what is happening in Gloucestershire. He could admire the renovation of the central library in Brunswick road in Gloucester, which has been magnificently restored and improved by the county council. He could see what has happened in Painswick where the library has reopened, and the community library in Brockworth mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson). He could see the efforts being made in Hesters Way, and review the situation for himself. He would be welcome in Gloucestershire to see our magnificent libraries.

Mr Vaizey: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, but I am running out of time.

In conclusion, my Department reviews all proposals for library reorganisation put forward by councils. We will review Gloucestershire’s proposals and issue a decision on whether to hold a public inquiry in the fullness of time once those proposals are clear. A £6 million fund has been provided by the Arts Council, which is now responsible for superintending and promoting the library service. Yesterday, the Cabinet Office announced an initiative to promote volunteering by young people in libraries, and we are piloting automatic membership of libraries for schoolchildren. We are publishing data by the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy publicly so that members of the public, MPs and councillors can compare their library services with similar services across the country. To echo some the remarks made by my hon. Friends, I make no apology for the increase in volunteers in libraries. They make an enormous difference to the provision of library services.

7.44 pm

House adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 9(7)).