DCMS Accounts 2009-10 and the Responsibilities of the Secretary of State Jeremy Hunt (Parliament TV – 12:01 to 12:06

The main points here are

  • Closures are OK if
    • It is the service (not necessarily the building) is protected by, for example,  extending hours in surviving libraries.
    • The Secretary of State sees buildings run by volunteers as an acceptable alternative to council-run service. 
    • Proper process is observed.

By far the most important point here is that Mr Hunt seems to be suggesting that the council is still following it’s statutory responsibility if it withdraws funding to certain branches and is successful in getting local people to run them instead. 

Addition (prompted by comment by Anonymous below): Please note that this view by Mr Hunt is not shared by many others, including in most cases the council’s themselves.  If this represents anything other than an attempt to evade the question by Mr Hunt – that is, if it represents evolving Government thinking – then it is very worrying indeed.

Full text (transcribed from transmission – official transcription not yet done) below

Q. We receive letters about many issues which your brief covers, as you will appreciate.  One of the ones that has generated the most concern at the moment is what is happening to local authorities in terms of library services (JH nods).  You have a responsibility … there is the 1964 Public Libraries and Museums Act which requires local authorities to provide a comprehensive and efficient library service which is something presumably that you judge as to whether or not that is happening.  Can you tell us what do you think is a comprehensive and efficient library service?

Jeremy Hunt. Well, um, the um [looks up to the right] the original definition of comprehensive and efficient came in I believe in something called the Roberts Review of 1959 which preceded the 1964 Public Libraries and Museums Act.  That was set up basically to say that comprehensive in that report was really about having a good selection of books at a time when books were more expensive and efficient was actually about reducing the number of library authorities um to reduce um administrative costs um.  We take our responsibilities under this Act very very seriously um we um Our basic position is modernisation yes vandalism no um and we have had extensive discussions and engagement with Brent, Lewisham, Somerset, Gloucestershire and the Isle of Wight about their programmes um and it’s probably not appropriate for me to comment in detail on the individual cases because a number of them are going through judicial review proceedings – I think we are going to hear about Somerset and Gloucestershire at the end of this month and I think we are going to hear from the Court of Appeal about Brent next month um The only thing I would say is that you know there are 151 library authorities and um you know around 140 of them are managing to modernise and deal with very difficult cuts in public expenditure without having to have large library closure programmes but by the same merit um what we are here to protect under the ’64 Act I am absolutely clear is not library buildings but library services and I think it is very important that we don’t stand in the way of sensible modernisation but we make sure that um the local authorities really are doing everything they can through their library plans um to see that they are able to maintain good library services. 

Q. Um Your website says the closure of one or even a small number of library branches does not necessarily breach the 1964 Act [JH nods] and that suggests that the closure of quite a large number almost certainly is.  I mean without wishing you to go into details of authorities, you’re aware that a number are making really quite substantial cuts in their library provision.  Do you that some without naming names are likely or will potentially breach the Act?

A.  Well, we are monitoring actually really very closely the whole time um but actually um they’re … you know … if I look at the five authorities that we’ve spoken to … The Isle of Wight looks like it has found um a way for the communities to continue running the five libraries that it has withdrawn funding from.  Lewisham, also, is in the process of finding a community-led alternative um and um Somerset and Gloucestershire are trying to do that um Brent has taken a different approach but they’re extending library opening at the weekends um to seven days in the six libraries that they are keeping open um I think it’s not actually about the number of buildings that are being closed.  It’s about the availability of the service um and it’s about -going through a proper process and thus satisfying ourselves that local authorities are taking a responsibility for their statutory responsibilities to provide a good library service but this is something that we’re monitoring very closely the whole time.

Q. And do you … For the time being at least do you still see the provision of a wide range of actual hard physical things called books a being important?  I mean there will come a point when you move as you mention – Ipad revolutionising so many aspects of life where it might become much easier to digitally distribute?

JH.  Well, I personally have a great emotion attachment to books.  I’m sure that all of us do because you know you’re brought up reading books um you  think they’re wonderful but um we … I think we have to um accept as the world changes our commitment must be to reading and to people exploring and enjoying literature in a broad sense and we probably will have um increasingly less commitment to an individual way of reading um but I think libraries and library services have a very important part to play in the new digital world as well so I don’t think that’s a reason for not having good libary services.