Shadow culture minister Kevin Brennan has criticised the government for not undertaking robust research into library closures, while vowing to hold ministers to account over the widespread axing of services.
Speaking exclusively to The Bookseller, Brennan, who was appointed shadow culture minister with responsibility for libraries last month, said he was "extremely aware" of the importance of libraries in the community and holds his advice surgeries in his local library. He emphasised that the party will "hold the government to account" and "press the case" for "proper" library provision.
"What we need, as an opposition, as far as libraries are concerned, is to hold the government to account", Brennan said. "[The government is] very reluctant to reveal the true number of closures that are going on and very reluctant to reveal the number of hours that libraries are remaining open. We know that there’s increasing reliance on volunteers, as there’s been a huge number in the cuts of actual professional library staff. Probably by a quarter, since 2010 in the numbers, while volunteers have more than doubled in that time. There’s nothing essentially wrong with there being a voluntary element to providing a community library service, but ultimately you won't get a proper professional library service if you solely rely on volunteers."
He added: "So we’ll be holding the government to account about that and also pressing the case for proper provision and proper funding for councils."
Brennan spoke of the "dispute" between the government and independent analysts concerning the numbers of actual closures that have taken place since the Conservatives came into power in 2010. A BBC investigation that took place in March found that a total of 343 libraries have closed in England since 2010, higher than the government’s official estimate of 110. The closures have resulted in the loss of almost 8,000 jobs in the last six years, the report found.
"We already know from [various strands of research] that there’s been a huge decrease in the number of library staff, and there’s been a big reduction in the number of hours that libs are open," Brennan said. "There has been a dispute between the government and independent analysts as to the numbers of actual closures that there has been, but there’s no doubt at all that there’s been a significant number of closures around the country.
"We’ll continue to scrutinise and press the government - which should really be producing these figures and this information itself without having to be forced into doing so through freedom of information requests or through people having to go through hundreds of different local councils in order to get that information."
He added: "It’s typical of this government that it cuts off the statistics that you need to be able to hold it to account whilst at the same time cutting the resources that deliver the service and then it will turn around and blame the local councils for what’s happening, and I’m afraid that people can see right through that – particularly people who are interested in libraries. [They] will easily see through the essential deceit that lies at the root of that kind of approach."
Brennan said he intends to build on the research that his predecessor Chi Onwurah did into library closures and provide a "stable period" in the role of shadow culture minister following the relection of Jeremy Corbyn as the Labour Party's leader.
“As you probably know there was some turbulence in the Labour party in recent months but I’d like to tell readers of The Bookseller that Tom Watson [shadow secretary of state for culture media and sport and deputy Labour leader] and myself are very keen that we should provide a stable period now in this particular role, and we intend to provide some stability this role," Brennan said. "In particular, we will be following up on the kind of research that has been done by people like Chi and the BBC and so on, through freedom of information requests and so on, into understanding the extent of what’s happening [to the public library service] in the country."
Brennan called for the Ambition library document to be published because "we absolutely should be having ambitions about our public library service and we do need some more vision from the government as to what it sees as the future of our libraries". He added: "We need more clarity from the government over what its vision is for the library service and what it’s going to do to enable local authorities to be able to meet their statutory obligations”.
In response, a department for culture, media and sport spokesperson said: “The Libraries Taskforce are producing a new vision for public libraries that will give local authorities practical and innovative options to improve and develop services across the country. It will be published shortly.”