Time's up, Mr Vaizey

For months it has become increasingly obvious that Ed Vaizey is out of depth as the minister responsible for libraries—a suspicion that has now become a certainty. Called before the DCMS Select Committee last week, he flunked his big moment, failing to offer any coherent vision as to how to save libraries from death by a thousand cuts. The best he could come up with was a promise to meet with CILIP (Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals) and look at protecting staffing levels.

Vaizey is young, inexperienced and, although a good communicator, he has nothing to say. No vision, no plan, no urgency. He is ultimately in charge of enforcing the 1964 Act, under which local councils are obligated to provide a “comprehensive and efficient” library service. Last June he vowed he would not “shy away” from intervening, yet that is precisely what he has done. Between 400 and 600 libraries either have shut or will shut, and still Vaizey sits on his hands.

His Labour shadow Dan Jarvis woundingly describes Vaizey as the Dr Beeching of the libraries, which is a trifle unfair—at least Beeching got things done, however mistakenly. It is encouraging to see the Opposition finally engaging with the issue on a national level, but the unfortunate fact remains that Labour councils (in the shape of Brent and Lewisham) have been among the most enthusiastic cutters. Mr Jarvis should address his own mini-Beechings first.

Nor have the Lib Dems—instinctively the most pro-library party of all—covered themselves in glory. As coalition partners they have allowed the Conservatives to implement an anti-library agenda without any dissent. Their parliamentary spokesman, Don Foster, has been notable by his absence.

The failure of the political class has been matched only by the energy of the local campaigners who have kept the issue alive. Every library is a showroom for books, where readers can discover genres and authors; a place where children can be enthused into the joy of reading; and a purchaser of new books from publishers—and every library lost is an act of incalculable cultural vandalism.

So what next? Vaizey needs to be consigned to the back benches and a more vigorous replacement brought in. Publishers need to resolve the e-book lending impasse. The Arts Council needs to lose its post-MLA library responsibilities, and a national supervisory body set up instead. Libraries are too important to be sidelined.