Official Report (Hansard)

Session: 2007/2008

Date: Thursday, 14 February 2008

Briefing from the Northern Ireland Public Service Alliance on the Belfast Education and Library Board public library service funding

14 February 2008

Members present for all or part of the proceedings:
Mr Barry McElduff (Chairperson)
Mr David McNarry (Deputy Chairperson)
Mr Dominic Bradley
Mr Francie Brolly
Lord Browne
Mr Kieran McCarthy
Mr Nelson McCausland
Mr Pat Ramsey
Mr Ken Robinson
Mr Jim Shannon

Witnesses:
Ms Maura Fenton ) Northern Ireland Public Service Alliance
Ms Alison Millar )
Ms Joanne McCloskey )

The Chairperson (Mr McElduff):
I welcome Alison Millar, Joanne McCloskey and Maura Fenton from the Northern Ireland Public Service Alliance (NIPSA). They will present a briefing on the Belfast Education and Library Board public library service funding. I refer members to NIPSA’s request to meet the Committee to discuss the budget for the Belfast Education and Library Board.

Ms Alison Millar ( Northern Ireland Public Service Alliance):
I thank the Committee for receiving the delegation from NIPSA to discuss what we see as the funding crisis in the Belfast library service. NIPSA is the largest trade union in Northern Ireland and represents almost 44,000 civil and public servants. It has approximately 800 members from the public library service across the five board areas. At the outset, I make it abundantly clear that NIPSA does not wish to adjust the assessment of relative need (ARNE) funding formula so that, in effect, the burden would be diverted to another area. We did not come here today to achieve that.

I will begin by dealing with issues that are specific to Belfast. On the 22 January 2007, the Committee received delegations from across the five education and library boards on particular funding issues. Although I am aware of some of the financial concerns across all the board areas, those worries are not of the same magnitude as those in the Belfast board area. The Committee will already have been provided with a paper from the board on the projected shortfall, which I understand is in the region of £750,000.

NIPSA has witnessed first-hand the constant decline in funding to the Library Service and the impact that has had over the past few years — year-on-year redundancies, particularly in board headquarters and at middle senior management levels. On many occasions, when vacancies in the Belfast board have arisen — even at the front-line level of library assistant — those posts have not been filled, and the service has limped along with minimal staffing. It is NIPSA’s current assessment that that decline is no longer sustainable and that if it continues, libraries will close. There will be more ad hoc closures of some libraries due to increased staffing shortages, which will lead to a further decline in the service, with staff morale continuing to sink even lower.

Members may be aware that Belfast Central Library is the main regional resource. Approximately two years ago, the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure (DCAL) commissioned a report on the future of Belfast Central Library. NIPSA welcomed many of the report’s recommendations, which included that of making the library’s vast historical collection more accessible to the public. Indeed, I know that some Committee members visited Belfast Central Library recently. I am sure that you were as amazed as I was by the vast hidden treasures and collection that should, and must, be unlocked for the benefit of Northern Ireland’s citizens.

However, that will never be a reality unless DCAL and the Assembly take the initiative and make adequate and proper funding available to support a service that is — and can become — a more vibrant place to visit, learn in and work in. NIPSA has been advised that the current projected shortfall of £750,000 will prove “disastrous” — that was the word that the chief librarian used when speaking to me. For example, the shortfall would mean that books could not be purchased, despite DCAL having set a target of £2 a head of population — a total of approximately £500,000 — to be spent on books in the incoming year.

In community libraries, newspapers and periodicals will cease to be provided. Many people use that service, particularly the old, the unemployed and the disadvantaged. It fulfils and addresses an important social need, making its benefits as a service immeasurable. For many, the library is a social meeting place and is the only place in which people who use it meet others every day.

In addition, books of a historic or cultural nature will not be purchased for Belfast Central Library. That will have an impact on the development of the collection, and local publications that have short print runs, will be lost for ever to Northern Ireland’s population.

Foreign fictions titles will not be purchased, and that will have a negative impact on migrant-worker populations and on those students who use the collections. I understand that the Committee wants to address that particular need by, perhaps, seeking funding from other areas, but I am unsure of the current position on that.

The chief librarian has informed me that currently, the average annual number of staff vacancies is approximately six. That might not sound like a lot to the Committee, but it must bear in mind that the staffing levels have been reduced year on year. That has meant that staffing has become a significant issue. As a result of that minimal staffing, sometimes some libraries will not be able to open. Staff will be required to move from library to library just to keep them open across the network. That is not conducive to good staff morale, as staff will not feel valued — they will be like pawns on a chess board and will feel threatened as they are moved from pillar to post. That is not a satisfactory arrangement, and it will lead to a further downward spiral. The Library Service’s focus will switch from delivering a high-class quality service to simply getting the doors of the library open at any cost. I do not believe that the Committee would think that that is acceptable by anyone’s standards.

Another impact will be that fewer staff will be available to provide other services. As I am sure the Committee is well aware, libraries are not just about books. They provide reading groups and one-to-one help to children, the elderly and migrant workers. If libraries are unable to deliver that one-to-one contact, those people will be less likely to visit hem. Again, that will lead to a further decline in the service.

Schools also use libraries very extensively, and many class visits are organised. However, I understand that, in the incoming year, staff shortages will mean that the number of such visits will have to be reduced or scheduled visits will have to be cancelled altogether. That will obviously have a negative impact on children, who are just entering the learning environment.

What is NIPSA asking the Committee to do? I appreciate fully that the Committee does not have a magic wand and simply cannot make additional resources available at a click of its fingers. However, if the Committee is to ensure that the Belfast library service is to survive — and I emphasise survive — this year, additional resources must be found. It would be a shame if, in the run-up to the establishment of the library authority, parts of the service were totally starved of funding. However, it must be asked whether that is part of some bigger political plan. I am sure that the Committee could use its significant influence to ensure that the public library service in Belfast — and for that matter, the remainder of the service across Northern Ireland — is funded adequately. After all, the biggest proportion of the Department’s budget goes to libraries.

I would like to leave the Committee with a suggestion on how to address the real crisis that is looming. Every year, in-year funding becomes available late in the financial year. Libraries, like other organisations in the public sector, go mad at that stage trying to spend that money. Otherwise, they will lose it. If they do not spend it by the end of March, they must hand it back. In many cases, it is just not physically possible to get the money spent in those two or three months before the end of the year. That cannot be a good use of resources.

Looking back at the in-year funding allocations for the Belfast library service over the past few years, it is clear that that money would have been of more help if it had been spread out over the year as part of the proper budgeting process. For example, I understand that this year £140,000 was set aside for books, plus some additional money for maintenance, the Bookstart programme and so on. If that money had been provided earlier in the year, perhaps we would not be in the situation that we are in now.

I know that the senior library management in the Belfast Education and Library Board — just like management in other board areas, I am sure — is frustrated by a process that does not enable it to hold even a little money in reserve that could be moved from the end of one financial year into the next. Two or three weeks ago, I attended a meeting about this matter at Belfast Central Library, and some library members whom I met on the stairs asked me where all the money was coming from, and they told me that the management of those resources seemed terrible. Those people were critical of senior management because they do not understand that that sudden influx of money comes in a rush in December and January and that there is a mad flurry of activity to spend it on books. It is not a case of going to Waterstone’s and simply buying books off the shelf; a process exists that must be adhered to. My understanding is that the board is extremely concerned that it cannot spend all that £140,000 on books, which it badly needs to do, by 31 March 2008.

Having heard of the dire proposals and stringent cuts that will have to be implemented if the board does not get additional funding, I hope that the Committee is as concerned as I am about the future of library provision, particularly in the Belfast area. I urge you to use whatever means are at your disposal to seek proper funding for the service.

The Chairperson:
Thank you. Members may wish to ask questions about or make comments on that presentation.

Mr P Ramsey:
What is so annoying about being a member of this Committee is that the budget for every subject that we discuss, whether it is for arts, sports, museums or library provision, is in deficit. In real terms, no investment is made. NIPSA’s approach has been consistent in that it told the Committee early on of its concerns about a single library authority. That library authority is now coming to fruition; indeed, the Bill to establish it is going through the Assembly.

I welcome NIPSA’s point about the ARNE formula, and, although not all members agree with it, everyone has signed off on that process. I share your concerns about staff. The Committee heard from DCAL officials about the creation of centres of excellence for education and that they were going to deal with the fact that one in four people has literacy and numeracy problems. The officials said that the Department would deal with access for youngsters, adults, disabled people and migrant workers. However, for the past six months, all that I have heard about are redundancies in every board area, closures, reductions in opening hours and in mobile services, and an inability to buy books. I am careful in my language, but I feel misinformed by the Department in what it was hoping to achieve by creating a single library authority. It was supposed to work with other sectors, including education, in providing a different medium, such as an after-hours or a weekend-opening service for people who work. I feel let down by the Department.

The Chairperson:
Do you have any questions, Pat?

Mr P Ramsey:
The Committee does not have the gift of being able to put money on the table. We must have an informed discussion, and the only person with whom we can have that is the Minister. We cannot have that discussion with departmental officials. We need to outline our concerns to him, and those concerns are not only about Belfast. However, Belfast is having a bad time, and what is happening is probably worse than a crisis. We cannot afford the staff to be undervalued, demotivated and demoralised; it is our duty to protect them.

The Chairperson:
Pat, you are making supportive comments, more than anything, and that is fine.

Mr P Ramsey:
We need the Minister to be here, and we need to meet the departmental officials who told us that there would be a different service under a single library authority. The current provision is an abysmal, reduced service that I cannot be proud of.

The Chairperson:
After the discussion, we will consider an action to advance the sentiments that have been expressed.

Lord Browne:
I accept fully that libraries provide an important service. The people that provide that are the staff, whom NIPSA represents. The shortfall of £750,000 has had an impact on the morale of your members, and it has been suggested that opening hours could be affected. I know how flexible your members would be to opening hours.

What is the throughput of the libraries, and what is the subsidy for each person who goes to a library in Belfast? What is your policy on incorporating libraries into centres, such as the new Grove Wellbeing Centre in Belfast, or shopping centres? Would that have a serious effect on your staff?

Ms Millar:
Around a year ago, we went through detailed discussions with the management side on longer opening hours, particularly of Belfast Central Library, which is now open four evenings a week. That extended opening was achieved with eight fewer staff working at the library than when it was open for only two nights a week. Staff have been very flexible in trying to accommodate that in order to keep the service as vibrant as possible.

I do not have information on the subsidy and usage of libraries, but I can get that for the Committee.

We accept that some libraries — not just those in Belfast, but further afield — are in a very poor state, and we would welcome any improvement of the library estate. We therefore have no fundamental objections to libraries moving into shopping centres.

I understand that the shortfall of £750,000 for next year will mean that it will not be possible to go ahead with incorporating library facilities into the Grove Wellbeing Centre. Staff in the Library Service have worked hard to achieve that, but the project may now fall on its face.

Mr McCausland:
That is an important point to note.

The Chairperson:
It may be appropriate for you to declare an interest at this point.

Mr McCausland:
I am sorry; I should have declared an interest as chairperson of the library committee of the Belfast Education and Library Board.

The current situation is that there will be a new facility at the Grove Wellbeing Centre, but that the Library Service may not be able to staff it. I want to raise two points. First, if we set aside the ARNE formula, about which I will not argue this morning, the current situation is that Belfast Central Library gets a subsidy of about £500,000 as part of the current arrangements. That means that out of its own core budget, the board puts £1 million into Belfast Central Library, even though it is a regional facility. Would you be sympathetic to the concept of DCAL being approached on the basis that as that library is a regional facility, it should be treated almost outside the formula? I checked with DCAL staff yesterday and discovered that it cannot produce one bit of paper or any shred of evidence to justify that 35% going to Belfast Central Library. Nobody knows where that figure came from, and I find that bizarre.

Ms Millar:
You would be more knowledgeable than I on the specifics of the formula. I have known that around 30% to 35% from all the boards went towards Belfast Central Library. Provided that it does not have an impact outside the Belfast Education and Library Board, we would support additional funding being secured for the regional resource of Belfast Central Library and the ring-fencing of that money to be used only in that way. That may have staffing implications, because at the minute staff are flexible and move between Belfast Central Library and community libraries.

Mr McCausland:
What is your estimate of the impact of the current financial situation? It has been suggested to us that effectively half the libraries in Belfast would have to close. Even if that were done, there would still be a shortfall of somewhere in the regional of £500,000, with a saving of only around £250,000. What is your estimate of what the actual impact would be? It is not a matter of cutting hours here and there to balance the books; there would be massive closures across the city.

Ms Millar:
That is also my understanding. I have had meetings with senior management, and I understand that it is not just a matter of adjusting a few hours across the network to save money. The buildings, heating and lighting, etc, all have to be taken into account. I believe that there will be a significant closure of libraries and a withdrawal of mobile libraries just to survive until the single library authority is established.

Mr D Bradley:
I see a glaring contradiction: on the one hand, the chief executive designate of the new library authority appeared before the Committee and told us what an effective, dynamic and efficient service we will have under that authority; and, on the other hand, we are hearing about a service that is just limping along and that has been starved of resources. If a librarian in a small library in the South Eastern Education and Library Board is sick, that library has to close. Imagine what would happen if that were a school and a teacher were sick, and a substitute teacher could not be brought in and the children had to be sent home.

What sort of a service are we running at the moment? The chief executive of the new authority will not be handed a service that is fit for purpose or that can be built on if we keep starving the present service of resources.

Alison, you asked us what we can do. Our options are limited, but your suggestion is probably the best. We can lobby for any money that we can garner from in-year monitoring rounds to be invested in the library service in Belfast in particular, because of all the boards, the Belfast board has been the hardest hit.

Mr K Robinson:
My concern is about education. The library is central to the educational development of our young people, particularly those in Belfast, which has so many areas of social need and major problems with literacy. There has always been a good relationship between the schools and the libraries, whether it was librarians going into the schools or schools taking the pupils into the libraries. The habit of reading was developed in that way.

We have talked about major cuts this morning. The flexibility of staff is almost at breaking point. Although the Education Committee is trying to enhance school resources, the good relationship between schools and libraries complements that work and make it an enjoyable experience. When children enter a library, they are introduced to a whole new facet of life. It is fun, the children are developing skills, and they do not realise that they are learning. If that link is being stretched to breaking point, the money that we are investing in education is being wasted. It is the old silo mentality again — the left hand and the right hand.

I think back to former times when the likes of Liz Weir came into schools or went to libraries, talked to children and brought print to life. One cannot put a monetary value on that, but if it is lost, it is lost for a generation, and the impact on society will be tremendous. I support what the NIPSA is trying to do in this respect, but I have worked in the education and library board system. I see a gentleman in the public gallery today who served behind the mast with me for many years on another library board. He and I know what it is like. People have been telling us what it will be like in the libraries. The more that I serve on Committees the more cynical I become; we are all reaching that point.

The Chairperson:
I suggest that you stop being cynical now. Do you have a question, or are you making supportive comments?

Mr K Robinson:
I am being supportive, but I have a question. What do we do if that link is stretched to breaking point? How do we even attempt to compensate for that or bring it to the attention of the Minister?

Ms Millar:
NIPSA has grave concerns about all those issues. Our first priority is the staff, who tell us that they are being treated like widgets. They are told to go here and there, get the doors open and get the people in. That is OK for a short period, but after that, people do not see the point. These are not, by and large, highly paid staff. Library assistants earn between £10,000 and £13,000 a year, and they go from library to library just to keep the doors open. Sometimes, they just want to say, “I am not doing this anymore”. That leads to increased sick absence and stress on the staff.

You referred to the value of libraries. They provide many services, but I have always said that they are not well marketed, because those members of the general public who do not use libraries do not know what is on offer. It is a chicken-and-egg situation. There is limited money for marketing, yet, if the service were marketed, the people at the top of the organisation and some further down would say that if more people came in, they would not be able to cope because they do not have enough staff.

NIPSA supports the establishment of a single library authority for Northern Ireland that is properly resourced in order that it can deliver. You have heard from the chief executive designate, who wants it to work and wants it to be a vibrant organisation. That can happen only if there is real investment in the service. Even the funding for librarianship has been cut to the bone over the past number of years.

Mr Brolly:
I appreciate that the Central and Linenhall Libraries in particular are very important regionally, but other regional libraries exist.

I know that you have been approached by Belfast Education and Library Board members, but have representatives of the Western Education and Library Board told you their sad story? I am particularly concerned that a new library was earmarked for my hometown of Dungiven, and it is —

Mr Shannon:
I can tell you about others.

The Chairperson:
Do not start, Jim, please — stay out of it. [Laughter.]

Mr Brolly:
The sweeping cuts mean that we are not now going to get a new library. The library is currently working out of a building that you might sell vegetables out of.

The Chairperson:
I thank Jim for biting his lip; I know that he is concerned about a village or two. [Laughter.]

Mr Shannon:
No, just a town.

The Chairperson:
Have you received representation from the Western Education and Library Board, which is based in Omagh?

Ms Millar:
Yes. NIPSA has quite an active library committee, and its members are all aware that we were coming here today. One of the issues that we debated was the ARNE formula, so I have a clear message from members that this is not about robbing Peter to pay Paul. I think that the Committee accepts that position.

The Chairperson:
I will bring this part of the meeting to a formal conclusion and thank Alison, Joanne and Maura for coming along to help us understand the crisis in library provision and funding.

Ms Millar:
I hope that you can find a deep pocket somewhere. [Laughter.]

Mr Shannon:
If you find it, would you let us know?

The Chairperson:
The phrase “money can be found” used to intrigue me — was it down the side of the sofa?

Mr Shannon:
Money trees at the bottom of the garden.

The Chairperson:
Members, do you have any suggested actions arising from NIPSA’s presentation?

Mr K Robinson:
I suggest that we write urgently to the Minister expressing our extreme concern about the situation with the library service in Belfast. I know that other folk here are closer to it than me, but the regional service is also affected, and it is obvious what is happening when you go into a library. When you go into a shop that is about to close, you can see how rundown it becomes, and after a while the customers stop coming. The situation with the libraries is self-defeating.

The Chairperson:
Do you think that we should write to the Minister?

Mr K Robinson:
We should write to the Minister and express the Committee’s extreme concern about the current funding difficulties that the Library Service in general is experiencing, and, in particular, the difficulties that the service in Belfast is encountering. If you want to mention Omagh, I am quite happy with that. I am not so sure about Dungiven, but we should mention Omagh. [Laughter.]

Mr McNarry:
We could get into the position whereby the Library Service says this and the Department says that, and we will end up with a game of ping-pong.

Can the Department elaborate on whether there are any major problems with the ongoing supply of books, about which I am concerned? Is that indicative the situation in all other boards? I suspect that it is. We have heard about Belfast, but we need a broader view.

Mr Brolly:
I am interested to know about the system of purchasing books, given that it seems that it precludes libraries from spending their money by 31 March. That must be a very ponderous system.

Mr McNarry:
It is the same as the Roads Service. You cannot get near here. No money is spent, then all of a sudden there is lots to be spent, and all the roads around Dundonald and Comber are dug up and it takes an hour to get to Stormont, when it used to take only 20 minutes.

The Chairperson:
Do you have any references to west of the Bann to make, David? [Laughter.]

Mr McCausland:
It is possible to spend £100,000 to £150,000 very quickly on books. The problem is that all the new books are not published in the space of three months; they are published throughout the year. Some crucial books need to be bought, and the run of periodicals that have been collected for perhaps up to 40 years could be broken. Belfast Central Library provides that service, but it is for the whole of Northern Ireland. You cannot have a run of certain periodicals, books and volumes being collected in 10 different places, including Belfast and Omagh. DCAL has failed to grasp the regional significance. In the rest of the UK, the British Library and others are of national and regional importance. They are almost outside the system. DCAL has never understood that.

The Chairperson:
I have always sought Mick O’Dwyer’s autobiography in Omagh library, but I cannot find it. However, that is another subject.

Mr D Bradley:
Micky Harte has it on long-term loan.

The Chairperson:
I will move on. The actions are detailed therein, including your comments, Mr McCausland, which must be captured in the letter that will be sent to the Department. Mr Bradley made good points about in-year monitoring opportunities. As Committee members and MLAs, we are duty-bound to pursue that individually and collectively.

Mr D Bradley:
I was going to make the point that the possibility of prioritising the Library Service and getting more resources through that mechanism should be included in our letter to the Minister.

The Chairperson:
That is realistic. It is the route that should be taken; that is where money can be found.

Mr McNarry:
The matter will be bounced back. We know what response we will get unless the Minister is asked whether he is aware of that and if so, what he is doing about it. The Committee is sitting in the middle.

Mr D Bradley:
At the end of the day, that is only a short-term solution. If, as we discussed earlier, the chief executive designate of the new authority is to fashion the type of service that Alison described to us, there will need to be more long-term investment in libraries.

Mr McCausland:
To pick up on the point about in-year money, the difficulty with the particular situation that NIPSA described is that because of the time that it would take to close a library, the process must start now: it cannot wait until money might become available eventually. Even if half the libraries were closed, the books still cannot be balanced. That cannot work in 2008.

The Chairperson:
I want to return to my hobby horse, which is that we ask the Minister for Culture, Arts and Leisure to discuss with the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister the vital role that libraries play in dealing with the needs of migrant workers and people from ethnic-minority backgrounds. I have mentioned that personally to OFMDFM, I know that the Committee has written to that Department. Some creative thinking needs to be brought into the equation. OFMDFM has a responsibility to deliver racial equality. Libraries are essential for migrant workers. If you visit any library, the staff will be pleased to tell you that they are proud of the service that they provide for migrant workers and how the libraries are a lifeline for those people. The Committee must restate that fact and encourage Edwin Poots to speak to OFMDFM on the matter.

Mr McNarry:
I do not want to cut across you, Chairman, but the situation of migrant workers is a relatively new interest. The libraries have been going down the tubes for some considerable time. Bearing that in mind, I do not know whether the opposite of migrant is indigenous.

The Chairperson:
I am trying to create a rationale in order to attract new funding.

Mr McNarry:
I understand that. However, I do not want funding to be diverted for the purpose that you talk about, Chairman, to the disadvantage of indigenous people.

The Chairperson:
There is no suggestion of that. Any money that would come into the equation for that purpose would be additional: it would not be substituted.

Mr McNarry:
If enough money cannot be found, I do not know from where additional money will come.

The Chairperson:
It will come from another Department’s taking responsibility or interest.

Mr K Robinson:
I want to make an observation. The Committee heard briefly about a brand new scheme that is going on at the Grove Wellbeing Centre, where all the facets are coming together in order to provide joined-up services for the community. Suddenly, however, one of the gems in the crown looks as though it will not arrive if the library does not play its part. That is a serious matter.

The Chairperson:
Absolutely. It is hoped that all that is captured and will be reflected in the letter that we write to the Minister. Thank you very much, members.

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