The government has defended its attitude towards the widespread closure of libraries in England during a debate in the House of Lords, with Lord Ashton asserting that he does “recognise the value of the service to local communities”. He also added that the government was currently investigating closures in four local authority areas.
At the same time, parliamentary undersecretary for culture Lord Ashton also sought to assure booksellers of his support for brick and mortar shops, saying the government was not “avoiding the elephant in the room” and expected Amazon to pay its fair share of taxes in the UK.
The debate in the House of Lords yesterday (13th October) on future of bookshops and libraries was brought by Lord John Bird, founder of The Big Issue magazine, who was illiterate until he was taught to read and write in prison.
During his speech, Bird called for emergency relief funding to “stop local authorities philistining our local libraries” and argued that to close libraries and lay off librarians would create a problem elsewhere in society which would require more funding.
“Make sure every school in the country has a library,” he urged. “There are many schools which don’t have libraries. If we make a saving here, there will be loss elsewhere. I would beg us all before we allow another librarian to be laid off, think seriously, would this be a saving?”
Several speakers championed the great benefits of libraries for the local community, such as providing a safe space for children and those with learning difficulties to learn and socialise, along with benefits for mental health and potential partnership with career advise services.
Many lords also questioned how the current wide scale closures of libraries by local authorities hit by funding cuts could comply with the law, which says that a comprehensive library service is a statutory requirement.
Lord Raymond Collins of Highbury took the government to task over failing to intervene in any closures since 2010 under the Labour government.
He also accused former Culture Minister Ed Vaizey of failing to properly investigate any closures and “relying on desktop research” when it came understanding the scale of the crisis and the number of closures.
“Vaizey had no strategic direction, no guidance for local authorities and no idea what might be the minimum acceptable outcome,” Lord Collins said.
He also pressed the government for a date for when the Libraries Ambition report would be published.
Speaking for the government on libraries, Lord Ashton said: “I can confirm that the government does indeed recognise the value of libraries in providing for communities.” He said that the most common reason people gave for no longer attending libraries was a lack of time. “Libraries are right to embrace technology and alternative book formats,” he said, adding that both libraries and bookshops needed to "evolve".
He also defended the government’s record on intervening in libraries, although conceded the last time this happened was in 2010 before austerity measures under the Labour government. “The department of culture, media and sport has investigated 11 complaints raised in respect to libraries and local authorities,” he said, adding that it had decided not to intervene.
However, he also confirmed the government was currently investigating closures in four more areas – Harrow, Southampton, Lambeth and Lancashire. He said complaints were assessed on an individual basis, but added: “If there is serious doubt a library service fails to offer a comprehensive local service this government will not hesitate to order an enquiry.”
He also moved to assure the house that the Libraries Taskforce’s Ambition document would not “sit gathering dust” but would be released “shortly” and include “an action plan” - although he stopped short of giving a date when it would be published.
Speaking of the importance of bookshops, Lord Bird highlighted the gulf between the business rates Waterstones Bedford paid at £850 per sq meter, in comparison to Amazon’s warehouse a few miles away, which pays just £50 per square metre.
“Before Waterstones Bedford has sold one book, the ground is uneven,” Lord Bird said. “If someone down the road can sell a book for much less, that is not fair competition.”
He also said he would like to see evidence that Amazon does not employ workers on zero-hours contracts.
"Amazon warehouses are run militarily,” Lord Bird said. “They have denied they don’t run zero hours contracts… I would like to see the evidence for this. That its staff are not run ragged…but what you get is another advantage, because it opens warehouses in areas of unemployment, where it can hire cheap labour.”
He added: “I believe bookshops are an essential part of the community. If we are going to do anything about them then we are going to have to look upon them as cultural resources. We are going to have to look upon them as precious...Let us defend the bookshops. Lets make them work. Lets reverse the process. Lets not allow the situation where a beamoth has grown among us. Amazon takes 90% of all our e-books. If Amazon would have been a newspaper it would have been a monopoly situation and we in both houses would have been all over it.”
Baroness Gail Rebuck, chair of Penguin Random House, also spoke passionately about protecting both bookshops and libraries during the session. “We have a stark choice, if we lose bookshops and library we will lose our nations literacy and the next generation of authors… this cannot be allowed to happen,” she said.
Speaking for the government, Lord Ashton said the UK Competition and Markets Authority understood that the European Commission is investigating many of the issues and concerns raised by book trade representatives, that the government expects Amazon to pay its proper share of taxation and to be a “good corporate citizen”.
Tim Godfray, c.e.o of the Booksellers Association, welcomed the debate and thanked Lord Bird for timetabling it.
“What has been said this afternoon by many members of the House of Lords has been experienced first-hand by booksellers in the UK for some time,” Godfray said. “Booksellers do not want special treatment. Rather, they want a proper recognition from the government of their role in our national life, and a commitment from the government to listen to their concerns and to take action.”
He added: “We are pleased that the government has made clear its support for books and bookshops, that it expects Amazon to pay its fair share of taxation and to be a good corporate citizen…. Now that these issues have been aired in the House of Lords, I hope we can really begin to take action and ensure that the booksellers of the future, with all the societal good they bring, and the fiscal contributions they make to UK plc, will be able to operate on a fairer playing field. This will be good not just for booksellers, but for the whole United Kingdom, as a fair competitive book market, is good for the consumer, good for booksellers, and good for the nation.”