Vaizey accused of 'offloading responsibility' on libraries

Vaizey accused of 'offloading responsibility' on libraries

A parliamentary debate on libraries descended into "personal attacks" between libraries minister Ed Vaizey and shadow communities and local government minister Lyn Brown.

Speaking at a Westminster Hall debate on public libraries yesterday (19th December), Brown, a Labour MP for West Ham, questioned Vaizey's lack of intervention into local councils' plans to close multiple libraries across the UK.

Addressing Vaizey's claims that "five times as many libraries have been closed by Labour councils as by Conservative ones", Brown said: "What astounds me about the minister's contribution is that he does not seem to think that he has any responsibility in this debate. He wants to offload the responsibility on to councils, but he has offered very little leadership to enable those councils to take decisions collectively to make the best of their resources. I do not understand how the minister has the brass neck."

Brown said Public Libraries News had estimated that closer to 500 libraries had closed across England in recent years, far more than the 100 figure Vaizey said the government had calculated.

Brown said: "I thought that the facts that the minister cited at the beginning of the debate were a bit dodgy, and the sad fact is that we are unlikely to see any new money for libraries."

Brown also brought up Vaizey's lack of intervention into any local authority attempting to close libraries, despite having urged previous libraries minister, Labour's Andy Burnham, to intervene in the Wirral. Vaziey responded that Brown was "issuing a personal attack", and urged her to give way and allow him to respond.

Vaizey then said that Labour had never called for him to intervene in any local authority decision, and that the power had only ever been used once by any previous libraries minister.

Brown then advocated the creation of a dedicated library development agency, while shadow culture minister Helen Goodman said: "We might need to update the 1964 act which is so brief that it lacks the teeth necessary for a proper library service."

Vaizey said: "If someone made it back in Philae from the comet that is spinning hundreds of millions of miles away from us and landed in this debate, they would think that everything was perfect both under Labour authorities and under the previous Labour government. It may surprise people to learn that libraries did close under the last government, and that many Labour local authorities have closed libraries over the past four years."

He added that despite the closure of an advisory council on libraries, he had "a team of officials who have a great deal of experience of working with the library sector… the previous government did not, as a matter of course, investigate library closures. I changed the policy when I became a minister to ensure that we investigate every council that is closing libraries."

Brown said the thrust of her argument was that "the government has failed to take leadership on the crisis in our libraries and our communities." Vaizey responded: "I reject that accusation", and listed developments such as new libraries in Birmingham and Liverpool as examples of positive steps.

"What can one do from the centre?" Vaizey said. "I cannot and do not want to run 151 library authorities, not only because it is physically impossible for me to do so, but because I believe local authorities should run their library services. I can encourage them and work with them."

Saying he hoped that the new Sieghart report would be released "in the next few weeks", he said: "I feel I can hold my head up high, in terms of being a proactive campaigner for the library sector."