Ed Vaizey is a Minister of State at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.
Today is national libraries day – a chance to celebrate how important libraries are in our communities. Contrary to what you might have been led to believe, in the digital age libraries still matter and libraries are still popular. Last year, more than 3000 public libraries in England lent almost 200 million books and received well over 200 million visits. Libraries remain safe, trusted places where people can go: not just to borrow books, important though that is, but to get access to a whole range of services.
While libraries have always been funded – and run – by local councils, nationally Government has a role to play. We have partnered with the British Library, to open up new business and IP centres in libraries. We have overseen a huge increase in e-lending and increased the public lending right rate for authors. And we have put wi-fi in more than a thousand libraries, meaning that almost every library in England is now digitally-enabled.
When I first became a Minister, we abolished the libraries quango and moved responsibility to the Arts Council. We wanted to join up our cultural strategy with libraries. This decision has been thoroughly vindicated. The Arts Council has made £6 million of new Lottery funding available to libraries to host cultural events and realise their role as important community spaces. Yesterday, they announced a further investment of more than £1.5 pounds, which will help library authorities work better together, and will support a range of national initiatives covering reading, digital literacy and health.
Last year, we set up the Libraries Taskforce with the Local Government Association. It’s helping to reinvigorate the public library service in England by sharing best practice, and increasing access to digital services and e-lending.
Most of the debate on libraries focus – understandably – on library closures. In reality, far fewer have closed than you may have been led to believe. And the vast majority that have closed have been shut down by Labour councils – 79 in all, compared to just 11 closed by Conservative councils. Maybe that’s why there has never been an opposition-led debate on libraries in the almost six years I have been a Minister. But then it wouldn’t help Labour to hold one.
Councils have a legal obligation to provide comprehensive and efficient library services, and must consult with the local population on plans. We are the first Government to review every closure. Central government can and will intervene if a council is planning dramatic cuts.
So it is simply untrue that Conservatives do not back libraries. The truth is that Labour are using libraries as a tool for their campaign about public finances.
This is a great shame, because libraries are often a lifeline for a community. While around 234 million people visit libraries each year to borrow books, they also want to access parent/toddler groups, to do their homework, to complete job applications – and much more. They also want to access wi-fi – which is why it is so important that, by this spring, more than 99 per cent of public libraries in England will have wi-fi, driven by £2.7 million of Government funding.
So libraries offer limitless possibilities for learning. And don’t let people tell you that the days of libraries are over. There are heaps of good stuff going on in libraries throughout England.