Official Report (Hansard)

Session: 2007/2008

Date: Thursday, 20 September 2007

Libraries Bill

20 September 2007

Members present for all or part of the proceedings:

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 Adrienne Adair ) South Eastern Education and Library Board
Ms Joan Christie )
Mr Stanton Sloan )
Mr Barry Mulholland ) Western Education and Library Board
Ms Helen Osborn )
Mr Bill Reilly )
Mr David Cargo ) Belfast Education and Library Board
Mrs Rosemary Frawley )
Mr David Jess )
Mrs Marie Donnell ) Southern Education and Library Board
Mr Wilbert Mayne )
Ms Kathleen Ryan )

The Deputy Chairperson (Mr McNarry):

Good morning. On behalf of the Committee, I welcome the witnesses. You have been asked to provide a five-minute overview of your written submission. I am compelled to ask that you keep within those five minutes, after which Committee members will ask questions. For the record, I am also obliged to ask that you answer the questions succinctly; I am sure that you will do that. May we call you by your first names?

Ms Joan Christie (South Eastern Education and Library Board):

Please do.

Deputy Chairman, thank you for the invitation to attend this Committee meeting. We are grateful for the opportunity. In our submission, we outlined the background of the role of the South Eastern Education and Library Board (SEELB) in the Library Service. We are on a tight timetable, so I will avoid repeating that information. I will outline the six points that were highlighted in that submission.

First, our view is that a single library authority will provide a unique opportunity for the Library Service in the future. If it cannot be under the remit of the education and skills authority, we are happy that it will be a single, free-standing organisation; we support that concept. That said, libraries have always had, and should continue to have, a close relationship with education; that is a vital partnership that we wish to continue.

Secondly, the SEELB highlights the community planning and partnerships that the Library Service already has, which it hopes will be developed and will grow as the new authority develops. The Library Service provides a local service to local communities. There are several other bodies, including the new education and library bodies, the health boards and various other organisations, with which the library service should be coterminous.

Thirdly, the board is conscious that, at present, the setting up of the new library authority is less than six months away. The establishment of the education and skills authority has been deferred until 2009. That throws up particular difficulties for the Library Service in some areas. The board is anxious that any changes must be carried out smoothly and that staff should be the focus of attention.

Fourthly, the board has outlined its view on the free library service in its submission, and welcomes the opportunity to do so again. We consider a free library service to be vital. Recently, someone wondered whether the chap who created libraries, if he were alive today, would have been able to set up free libraries. The board, however, already has them and considers it vital to keep them.

Fifthly, I have already mentioned the relationship with the schools’ library service, which is vital. At present, the schools’ library service comes under the umbrella of libraries. The board understands that that will change under the new library authority. However, maintaining that relationship and working together with the schools’ library service is vital.

Finally, I have kept the most important point until the end, which is funding. The board supports the concept of the new library authority; it wants to be involved in it. However, we put our hands up and say that it must be funded properly — it must not be set up on a shoestring. The board strongly urges that the resources that the new library authority needs must be made available.

If there are any questions, I am inclined to point towards the two experts on either side of me. I apologise for not introducing them properly. Stanton Sloan is the new chief executive of the South Eastern Education and Library Board. He was appointed during the past month. Adrienne Adair is the assistant chief librarian. Unfortunately, the chief librarian is on holiday and is unable to be here. I am one of the commissioners. The chairman is also on holiday and, therefore, sends his apologies to the Committee for being unable to attend.

The Deputy Chairperson:

I congratulate Mr Sloan on his appointment. If my question is unfair, you do not have to answer it: your predecessor was seconded, so where does that leave the board? In my understanding, if someone is on secondment, it means that they can be returned to their previous post. However, you are now the chief executive.

Mr Stanton Sloan (South Eastern Education and Library Board):

I am also appointed on that basis. However, with the support and agreement of the commissioners, I will continue to act as the chief executive. If circumstances change, they will be dealt with as and when they arise. At present, however, there have been no significant effects on the board. Matters are progressing as usual.

The Deputy Chairperson:

OK. That is good to know. Thank you.

Mr McCarthy:

I thank the board for its presentation. Ms Christie mentioned a free library service. The Committee agrees with her on the need for that. Is the board content, therefore, that the wording of clause 6 of the Libraries Bill is strong enough to guarantee the continuation of a free library service?

Ms Christie:

In our submission, we suggested that stronger wording is necessary. I will ask Adrienne to deal with that.

Ms Adrienne Adair (South Eastern Education and Library Board):

The board would prefer that the wording of the legislation were much stronger in order to clarify that there will be a free library service at the point of use. There is concern that if budgets were to be reduced in the future, charges could be applied. The South Eastern Education and Library Board is keen to ensure that minimum charges are applied.

Mr McCarthy:

That is fine; thank you.

Mr Shannon:

You are very welcome, and congratulations, Stanton, on your new post.

In your submission to the Committee, you expressed some concern about the savings predicted for 2009-10 and through to 2011. You said that savings were unlikely to come from reducing management costs alone. First, what brought you to that point of view? Secondly, where do you think savings can be made?

Mr Sloan:

Perhaps I could turn that question around somewhat. The South Eastern Education and Library Board supports a single library authority, but is concerned that it is properly funded.

We have some specific concerns. For example, there will not be five chief librarians, so there will be redundancy costs. Recent reports from Deloitte examined estates management, human resources, IT and finance systems. Mr Shannon’s question is on the mark and would be better directed to the new authority. The SEELB would like to be convinced, and we simply want to know how all those factors have been taken into account, and we are asking the Department to ensure that, when the authority is set up, it delivers a high-quality service and is adequately funded. We want to be assured that all those factors have been taken into consideration.

Mr Shannon:

You are not convinced about how savings can be made. Do you feel that any savings can be made?

Mr Sloan:

The SEELB’s experience of other amalgamations, albeit of schools, is that the first and second years require investment to achieve savings in the longer term. Therefore, we suggest that there may need to be considerable investment in the first two years to ensure savings later on. We want to be assured — as will the Committee — that sufficient funds will be available for that investment.

The Deputy Chairperson:

Thank you, Jim. That was an important question and response.

Mr K Robinson:

My question about your submission is similar to Jim Shannon’s. You have asked the Department to clarify how the start-up costs and the estimated efficiencies have been calculated. What are your underlying concerns about that, and do you think that the Department has underestimated or overestimated the costs and savings?

Mr Sloan:

That follows on from Mr Shannon’s question. I received and read the Deloitte reports only in the last few days. On the basis of those, the library authority will have to address certain things. There is potential for savings. For example, the SEELB is close to Belfast and has a library at Cregagh, which is close to another library further down the Cregagh road.

To return to the point, the Department is underestimating the costs and overestimating the savings. We pointed that out in our submission. We are simply asking the Department, if it is going ahead with its plan, to give us the details, so that we can be assured that the service is properly funded. That is our simple intention: to ensure that there is proper funding and that the level of funding is clear and transparent.

Mr K Robinson:

You think that the Department has overestimated one sector and underestimated the other?

Mr Sloan:

The initial estimate of savings is probably too high, and the start-up costs may be underestimated. However, we are simply asking the questions. The answers must come from a more detailed response from the Department.

Mr P Ramsey:

There are several areas of concern, which your presentation clearly highlighted. What is your current budget for library provision in the SEELB? Can you tell us what the costs for staffing are and what revenue there is?

I have raised literacy and numeracy problems in Northern Ireland, because one-in-four people have such difficulties. The Department of Education provides money for numeracy and literacy education and for early-years programmes. Will that money be lost, or do you see the early-years programmes and help for those less skilled in numeracy and literacy continuing?

Ms Adair:

Our budget this year is £5·235 million, and approximately 68% of that goes towards the staff costs that are required to run our library services — we have 24 static libraries. We work closely with Bookstart and Sure Start to deliver books and services to young children. Professional librarians work across groups of libraries to deliver those programmes. Those librarians devise content, and our staff on the ground deliver programmes to improve literacy, numeracy and computer literacy. As Mr Sloan has said, the SEELB does not know what the budget and structures of the new service will be, so the board does not know whether it will deliver those programmes in the future. However, the board currently delivers those programmes.

Mr P Ramsey:

Are there indications from the Department of Education that the process will lead to links between the Department and the library authority?

Ms Adair:

We hope that formal structures will be set up so that we can link closely with education, as the education and library boards do currently. We also run the schools’ library service, which runs programmes for literacy, reading and reading exploitation. However, we need formal structures.

Mr P Ramsey:

That point should be noted for future reference.

The Deputy Chairperson:

That is a good point. You said that you do not know what the budget for the library authority will be.

Ms Adair:

We know that the budget will be £30 million for the entire Northern Ireland library authority, but we do not know what the structures will be or how the new service will be delivered.

The Deputy Chairperson:

You do not know what the carve-up will be — that is important.

Mr D Bradley:

My question concerns the link between the education and skills authority, and the library authority. I notice from the Department of Education’s policy papers on the review of public administration (RPA) that it envisages a service-level agreement between the library authority and the education and skills authority. What do you see that agreement encompassing?

Mr Sloan:

That relates to Mr Ramsey’s question. Libraries play a significant part, as do youth services, in the areas of literacy and numeracy. New literacy and numeracy strategies will shortly be launched, and there is every indication that the early-years programmes will continue. The schools’ library and education service will work closely on that; the SEELB has recently received an additional allocation from the Department, and it is working, through its education and library sides, to develop those initiatives. Support for those initiatives will be available through the schools’ library service, and that will be part of the education and skills authority.

Literacy problems do not only affect children up to the age of 16 or 19. Mr Ramsey mentioned adult literacy, and we need to ask bodies such as libraries and education associations, and the people who work in them, what we need to do in that area.

Any service-level agreement that the library authority will have will probably relate to areas where cover is needed — for example, estates management. Estates will transfer over to libraries, but libraries do not have an estates branch, so who will look after them? I have met Irene Knox, the chief executive designate of the library authority, and we have discussed the need for service-level agreements on areas such as that.

The Deputy Chairperson:

I need to remind you that time is pressing on. I apologise to our guests that we have to push ahead, and although the Committee may hear the same points being made by the other boards, it is important that we hear from those boards.

I remind members that the Committee has asked the Department for a report on the start-up costs of the library authority, and the spread and make-up of those costs. Perhaps it is an indication of joined-up government, but that report is not expected until tomorrow. We will have to deal with that report at our next meeting.

Lord Browne:

You referred to the fact that the education and library boards will now be in place until March 2009. The library authority is due to be in place by April 2008 — do you feel that there are any risks to the SEELB if it is not in place by then?

You said that you foresaw difficulties with the changeover, especially with your staffing. If the library authority is not established by April 2008, do you foresee that being a difficulty? Do you feel that a later start would help with the difficulties in synchronisation?

Ms Christie:

It is difficult to see how the single library authority will be up and running by April 2008. We are less than six months away from that date, and there is a question over whether that deadline can be met.

On the other hand, my understanding is that the commitment has been made to having a single library authority, and one wonders if there will ever be a time when everything is absolutely ready. Therefore, should we not proceed with the target of April 2008, with all the potential problems involved, and deal with those as they occur?

The issue of staff morale concerns me deeply. It is already in difficulty and will continue to be so. Irene Knox, previously of the South Eastern Education and Library Board, and now the chief executive designate for the library authority, will be recruiting staff from RPA-affected bodies, which means that our staff will be recruited. The SEELB, while sorry to lose Irene, is happy with its new executive, Stanton Sloan, but the problem remains that other jobs are going to be filled by people from our board.

A key issue for us and our staff is that we do not know where the new library headquarters are going to be located, and that presents a real problem. The SEELB has quite a percentage of female staff with commitments, and they cannot necessarily move to, for example, Omagh. I am not saying that the headquarters are going to be in Omagh, or that there is anything wrong with that as a potential location, being a Castlederg native myself. However, the new headquarters could be in a place that renders it impossible for current staff to apply for jobs, and that presents an equality issue.

Mr McCausland:

Would it make more sense if the library authority and the education and skills authority were established in sync, as regards the organisational aspect of the transition? Are there advantages in having the two in sync?

Mr Sloan:

There are certainly advantages to that. To expand on what Ms Christie said, the problem is that the staff who work in education and library boards cannot be classified as either library staff or education staff, and they cannot be treated separately — they comprise one set of staff, and should be treated accordingly.

The board supports the establishment of the new bodies. There should be sufficient time to ensure that that is done properly, but it should not cause undue delay. We think that it is only when the organisations are up and running that we will see benefits. When single procedures are in place, the organisations may well start their work at different times, but I agree that the closer together those dates are, the better.

Mr Brolly:

I see a weakness in clause 6 as regards library services being free at point of delivery, particularly as the SEELB is concerned about savings being overestimated and costs being underestimated. Is it possible — and this is a bit of a conspiracy theory — that the clause may be a loophole, and that any losses incurred could be supplemented by charging in some subtle way?

Mr Sloan:

I do not believe that to be the case.

Mr Brolly:

It is something that should be watched.

Mr Sloan:

That may be prudent.

Mr Brolly:

Do you have a view on how the new library authority should engage with other local structures apart from those in education — the local councils, for example?

Mr Sloan:

Although there will be a central library authority, library services will be delivered locally. Therefore, we must take account of other subregional structures that may be set up, including what may transpire as a result of the establishment of the education and skills authority. We have to take account of what happens in the health sector, and members will have already heard about provisions for literacy and numeracy, early years, and the Sure Start initiatives that are in place. I am not a politician, but I would say that, as far as joined-up government is concerned, it will be important to consider subregional structures throughout Northern Ireland and ensure that they are co-ordinated and include a wide range of services.

The Deputy Chairperson:

Thank you. Contrary to public perception, politicians do listen to good advice.

Mr Sloan:

It was not my suggestion that they do not listen.

The Deputy Chairperson:

I know. I merely wanted to make the point.

Mr Sloan:

I apologise if the Committee took that inference from my remarks.

The Deputy Chairperson:

Thank you. Your presentation and timeous replies set a good standard for the witnesses who will follow. If you feel that you have missed anything, or wish to add something, please contact our officials, because this is a major issue. The Committee welcomes such information — we are only too aware of time constraints.

I welcome Ms Helen Osborn, Mr Bill Reilly and Mr Barry Mulholland from the Western Education and Library Board (WELB). I understand that Rev Robert Herron is unable to attend today. You will have five minutes for your presentation, and the Committee would appreciate it if you would keep to that time. Members will ask succinct questions so that you can give succinct answers. I am sorry to press you for time. The previous presentation set the standard, so please do not let us down.

Mr Bill Reilly (Western Education and Library Board):

I am chairperson of the library committee of the Western Education and Library Board (WELB). The board is the local authority that is charged with the provision of education, library and youth services in the west of the Province, covering 289,000 people. The public library service and the schools’ library service are integral parts of the board’s activities, and we are particularly proud of four areas of our activities in library service provision. First, we work in partnership with the statutory, community, voluntary and private sectors to improve customer services.

Secondly, we are proud of the way in which the public library service and the schools’ library service work closely together to address education priorities and initiatives. Current examples include the revised curriculum, extended schools, the One Book project and the Children’s Books Ireland festival.

Thirdly, we take pride in our early-years provision activities, which is particularly important now that the Department of Education is responsible for early-years education provision. The board has seven play and learn centres in its libraries; it supports 113 preschool groups; operates the Bookstart scheme, and holds weekly rhymetimes in most libraries for children under three. Finally, our local history collections are popular and deserve to be made more accessible to everyone.

I wish to briefly highlight seven points from our submission. First, core library services should be free at the point of delivery. Secondly, there should be a single transfer process for the establishment of the Northern Ireland library authority and the education and skills authority, and the subregional structure that will be developed for the library authority should mirror that being developed for the education and skills authority. Thirdly, there should be close working relationships between the education and skills authority, and the library authority. Fourthly, we are concerned about the proposed size of the board of the library authority; we are unsure whether it will be sufficient to provide the breadth of expertise required for what will be a considerable workload. Fifthly, we have serious reservations about the figures provided on projected financial savings and about the limited budget for start-up costs. Sixthly, the cost of support services, which is currently provided for in WELB’s budget, also concerns us.

Finally, the current funding allocation to each board for public libraries is based on a formula that relates to population and takes account of social need and rurality. That provides a level of transparency and equality, and we would like an assurance that it will be maintained, when the Northern Ireland library authority is set up, so that the west will not be disadvantaged.

That is a synopsis of what our very hard-working staff in the Western Education and Library Board are doing, and we are very proud of them. We hope that when the library authority is established, services in the west will not be disadvantaged and that they will be at least as good if not better.

The Deputy Chairperson:

I apologise to members for not giving them an opportunity to let me know if they want to ask questions. I will sort that out before the next session. I have a note that Mr McCarthy wants to ask the first question, then Mr Shannon and Mr K Robinson. Would those who have not signalled to me please follow on from the next three questions?

Mr McCarthy:

You have said that you would like the wording in clause 6 to be strengthened. What do you see as the potential problems if the words "free service" are not included in the Bill?

Ms Helen Osborn (Western Education and Library Board);

Our belief is that without an explicit commitment in the Bill to provide core services free at the point of delivery, there is a danger that charges will be levied to address budget shortfalls, which would clearly undermine the purpose and ethos of the public library service.

Mr Shannon:

In your written submission, you referred to what will probably be the biggest single UK library authority. You also said, and I quote:

"the level of savings referred to in the financial memorandum is a matter of grave concern."

Your concerns are very clearly to do with savings that may, or may not, happen. The Committee has received indications that some of the savings could be achieved from reducing management costs. Do you agree? I suspect that you do not, going by your submission. Do you feel that any savings can be made?

Mr Reilly:

Ms Osborn is probably the best person to answer that as she has had experience in the Welsh and English library services.

Ms Osborn:

We do not know how the figures for savings were arrived at as we have not seen the calculations. There will be some scope for streamlining management structures, etc. However, in the Western Board, only 6·6% of our budget, some £200,000, is spent on senior management and their administrative support staff. It is difficult to see how the level of savings indicated in the explanatory and financial memorandum could be achieved with that level of expenditure.

As regards specialist staff and being the biggest library authority in the UK, and possibly in Europe, an authority of that size needs certain specialist staff in order to have a vibrant, dynamic, community focus and be at the forefront of library developments.

Mr Reilly mentioned local history. The new library authority will need to be at the forefront of digitization in order to make material accessible. It will also need to have expertise in other areas, for example, an external funding officer. The service currently benefits from having external funding officers within each board area. The new authority will have to have those types of specialists if it is to be effective and efficient.

Mr Shannon:

Do you feel that savings can be made in the long term?

Ms Osborn:

There will be significant initial costs in setting up the library authority, and substantial funds will be required to finance redundancies. Thereafter, there may be some potential for savings, but without seeing the calculations and knowing the proposed structure and how support services will be delivered, it is difficult to say what those savings will be.

Mr K Robinson:

My colleague has fully explored the financial aspects, so I will move on. Mr Reilly, you expressed concern that the proposed library authority board will be too small to provide the necessary expertise, and that it should reflect the geographical spread of Northern Ireland. How many board members would be required to cover committees, subcommittees, and so forth? How should the geographical spread be reflected in the board?

Mr Reilly:

The board should comprise between 20 and 25 members. The current education and library boards each have 35 members, but that could probably be pruned back a little. One way to solve the geographical question would be to hold all meetings at the board’s headquarters in Omagh — where I live. That would be very convenient. [Laughter.]

I have probably annoyed everyone else in the Province now.

We must ensure that the composition of the board represents a good geographical spread and expertise in various fields such as financial control, staffing and local councils, as well as those who have an interest in the running of libraries. One must remember that all members will not be able to attend all meetings, and if the board comprises as few as 12 members, we will run the risk of meetings being inquorate. Furthermore, the committees and subcommittees will be almost be incestuous if there are only 12 board members, because the same people will be appearing all the time. A board comprising 12 members will not be sufficient to achieve a spread of expertise and allow for members to miss meetings for such reasons as holidays and sickness. Mr Mulholland has experience of running a board.

Mr Barry Mulholland (Western Education and Library Board):

I agree with Mr Reilly. Our board enjoys a good level of public-representative membership — 40% of the board comes from local government.

Mr K Robinson:

You have anticipated my next question. I was going to ask whether the involvement of public representatives in a board is the solution to the incestuous relationship that was referred to.

Mr Mulholland:

It is an advantage in our board because it ensures a level of public accountability and that communities in the five district council areas coterminous with our board area — Limavady, Derry city, Strabane, Omagh and Fermanagh — are well represented.

Mr K Robinson:

I am glad that you said that. Several of us had concerns about that.

Mr Reilly:

Expertise is also important — that does not mean that we do not get that from local representatives — and there is a double whammy in that respect. If we proceed with a small committee, everyone must bring a degree of expertise with them. A bigger committee will mean that more people can be accommodated.

Mr P Ramsey:

Paragraph 15 of your written submission refers to the overall costs for the single library authority. What are the overall costs of the Western Education and Library Board’s library provision, excluding staff costs and revenue?

Ms Osborn:

The overall recurrent budgets of public libraries in the western board area is £4·3 million, of which £3·1 million is spent on staff, because — as members will appreciate — public library provision is a staff-intensive service. Staff must be present in the branches to provide front-line services.

Mr P Ramsey:

I know that, but another import matter is that the establishment of a single library authority will mean that library services will not have the benefits of the regional support they currently enjoy. Therefore, I wonder about those costs being taken on board at some stage.

Paragraphs 9 and 10 of your written submission state that the schools’ library service and the public library service share buildings, resources and IT facilities, and provide a holistic approach to the education of children.

How will that work? Will you be able to ensure that you continue to provide the same excellent service to both youngsters and adults?

Mr Mulholland:

The questions are excellent, and similar enquiries have exercised our board members. A single library authority for the whole of Northern Ireland was not the Western Education and Library Board’s preferred option, and our board colleagues share that view. Given that schools’ library services are very much integrated, we believe that library services should remain an integral part of education. For that reason, and for those already outlined, library services have a critical role to play in all levels of learning.

The difficulties that the new library authority will experience are clear. The Western Education and Library Board operates what is almost a shared-service facility in which human resources, finance, procurement, property services, and management of assets for library, youth and educational facilities are run centrally. Therefore, the budget will have to be disaggregated to ensure that the new library authority has the proper baseline funds to cover all those areas. The Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure is carrying out that exercise.

The change will present a challenge. The new education and skills authority’s chief executive designate and the chief executive designate of the library authority will have to work together extremely closely.

Mr Reilly:

The schools’ library service is critical, particularly for primary schools, as it provides valued support to teachers in those schools. It is becoming more obvious that getting children as young as three years old accustomed to going to libraries, reading books, and enjoying reading is important to their later educational development. Therefore we must ensure that the schools’ library service does not suffer and result in an inferior service to people who are too young to complain for themselves.

The Deputy Chairperson:

I am conscious of time, and I do not want to curtail either the later questioners or the relevant answers.

Mr McCausland:

Would there be merit in having the new library authority and the education and skills authority established at the same time, so that the two processes could run in sync? What would be the practical implications if that were not to happen?

Mr Mulholland:

It is crucial that the processes that will bring about the transition from the education and library boards to the education and skills authority and the library authority are aligned. That would reduce the duplication of effort needed. More importantly, it is crucial that we continue to deliver high-quality services to the public. It will not be an effective or efficient use of staff time for us to have to break away from delivering those services in order to consider the human resource, transfer, property and financial services of the two services — in the first instance for an early set up of the library authority, and then again for the slightly later establishment of the education and skills authority. That will create many difficulties. However, if the processes were aligned to ensure that we work effectively once they are complete, the education and library service could be established in April 2009 and the library service could be established in January 2009. The starting dates could be agreed if the processes could be aligned.

Mr Brolly:

Until the new library authority is established, the Western Education and Library Board will be in charge of the provision of all things associated with libraries. Does that include proposals for new build? I am concerned that the proposed new library for Dungiven might be handed over and would have to wait until the library authority is in place.

Mr Mulholland:

The Western Education and Library Board will continue with its plans for the development of new libraries and the refurbishment of old libraries until such times as the new library authority is created. However, the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure will be aware of what we are doing, and approve of our work, as it always has.

Mr Brolly:

When do you think that Dungiven library might be ready?

Ms Osborn:

I will answer that. We understand that planning permission has been granted; however the board has not yet been officially notified. Assuming the traditional route for building, it will take approximately 12 months thereafter.

Lord Browne:

Further to Mr McCausland’s questions, what risks do you anticipate, particularly concerning staffing, if the library authority is not established by April 2008?

Mr Mulholland:

I do not envisage any difficulty if there is a delay — far from it: a delay will allow more time to ensure that the transfer is as seamless as possible. Morale issues, which have been referred to, will be greater if people believe that a difficult timescale for establishing the new authority is being forced on them for the sake of hitting a particular date. People would prefer that it were done properly.

Mr D Bradley:

The Department of Education’s policy papers on the review of public administration stated that there would be a service-level agreement between the library authority and education and skills authority. What should be encompassed by such an agreement?

Mr Mulholland:

That is a question for the chief executives designate of the new authorities. We consider it crucial that the Library Service continues to work closely with the Department of Education concerning school libraries.

There are opportunities for service-level agreements in areas such as, human resources, finance, property services, asset management etc. However, any arrangement would have to be a consequence of agreement between the chief executives designate of the new organisations.

Mr D Bradley:

Do you think that that might be a means to achieve savings for both bodies?

Mr Mulholland:

It would be an efficient use of resources.

The Deputy Chairperson:

How is your staff coping with the goings-on?

Mr Reilly:

The board is worried about staff insecurity. Education board employees, more so than those in the Library Service, are looking for jobs in other areas. The problem with library staff is that they are highly specialised.

The Deputy Chairperson:

Please stick to discussing library staff.

Mr Reilly:

We are not losing as many library staff. Where else could they get a job?

Ms Osborn:

Library staff have many skills and are employable in several sectors. Staff morale is fairly high; however, certainty about a date is needed. The possibility of an alteration to the timescale would be welcomed by most staff members, some of whom have many years’ service. For someone who has worked for the board for 20 or 30 years, it would be difficult if the board were to continue without libraries being a part of it. However, those staff members would appreciate knowing with certainty whether changes are to take place in January 2009 or April 2009 or whenever.

The Deputy Chairperson:

If you have the opportunity, please pass on the Committee’s regards to your staff for the future, and assure them that their good intentions are behind our deliberations.

I apologise for the speed of these sessions; however, more comes from them than you think. Thank you for your presentation and for answering our questions. Please contact our officials to advise them of any additional matters that might come to mind after today. Thank you and safe home.

Good morning to the delegation from the Belfast Education and Library Board (BELB), and thank you for coming to address the Committee. The standard so far has been excellent, and I am sure that you will not let us down.

I remind you that there is a limit of five minutes for your presentation; Committee members have been instructed to make their questions succinct, and I ask that you be as succinct as possible in your responses. I apologise that this is not a calming exercise, but — given the time restraint — that is the way that things have to be done. We will force the time and the issues with you.

Mrs Rosemary Frawley (Belfast Education and Library Board):

I thank the Committee for giving us the opportunity to speak at this meeting. My colleagues are David Cargo, chief executive of BELB, and David Jess, assistant chief librarian for Belfast public libraries. I am a member of BELB and vice-chairperson of the library committee. I also have a long association with the public library service; I worked there for 36 years, spending the latter years as a member of the electronic libraries project team.

As the Committee has our written submission, I will not go through it now. I will simply highlight several issues that members may wish to explore further.

Belfast’s public library service operates in what has been, effectively, a divided city for the past 30 years with a large urban population. That has had, and continues to have, serious resource implications for effective service delivery. Furthermore, some 70% of the community libraries are located in areas of high social deprivation. At a time when outreach activities are extremely important to address the challenge of improving literacy, numeracy, employability and economic prosperity, those libraries are severely constrained by staff and resource shortages.

Belfast’s public library service is unique in the Northern Ireland Library Service. It operates a large central library and reference facility whose role is to conserve, preserve and exploit historical and contemporary resources for in-depth study and research. Many of the collections are of national and international importance, and we are concerned that the legislation does not adequately reflect the custodial role of the new library authority. Developing those collections and employing specialist staff means that it costs the Belfast Education and Library Board much more than other boards to maintain that resource. Perhaps the Committee will consider the case for separate, ring-fenced funding for a provincial reference library service to include the extremely valuable collections that are located throughout the other board areas in Northern Ireland, which have a major role to play in the cultural capital of the Province.

We emphasise the fact that a quality library service is the overriding priority and that a few fundamental factors are imperative to its delivery. It should be free at the point of service, and there should be coterminosity with other service providers to facilitate community planning and productive partnership working. The strong links with education should remain, so that we provide a seamless service to children and young people in the city. There should be a single transfer system for education and library board employees.

Finally, we have concerns about the affordability of the new library authority.

The Deputy Chairperson:

Thank you very much for your clear presentation.

Lord Browne:

In your written submission, you stated that the draft Libraries Bill should not proceed until the results of the review of public administration are known. Why have you taken that position? In your original response to the consultation on the draft Libraries Bill, you did not oppose the creation of a single library authority. Is that still your position, or has it changed? Should libraries, perhaps, become part of local government?

Mr David Cargo (Belfast Education and Library Board):

I will deal with your questions in the context of our submission. When it was first mooted that a reform of public administration was needed, the board had two distinct views on the future of libraries. Our preferred option was to view libraries in the context of lifelong learning. Therefore, we felt that there should be a close relationship, in any regional body, between education, youth and the Library Service, because we have all spent the past 30 years trying to embed and conjoin those services in that context.

Should that not be possible, the board’s view was that the Library Service needed to maintain close links with its users, so our second preference was for libraries to move towards council control, because that would ensure a close relationship between libraries and the public.

There are two issues at the core of the debate. Rationalisation can bring structural efficiencies: one of something is probably better than five of something.

However, the downside of that is that the effectiveness of services can also suffer. The Library Service is dependent upon the close proximity of the library to its community and to its users. We are all struggling with a tension: where, on the continuum, does the crossover between structural efficiency and customer effectiveness meet?

Therefore, we are not opposed to a single body. Our preference is for a single body with democratic input, which is close to its users so that there would be a strong subregional structure that would ensure effective community use.

The Deputy Chairperson:

That is pretty clear. I think that everyone is happy with that response.

Mr D Bradley:

In its submission, the BELB stated that the Bill does not adequately address the potential for libraries to be community hubs. Could you outline for the Committee how the Bill should address that?

Mrs Frawley:

I cannot identify that statement in our submission. However, our view is that libraries, as community hubs, constitute a vital part of the future development and prosperity of library services. We view partnership working as critical to successful strategic and resource planning.

We are already involved in that process — for example, in the Grove project, which is the result of a partnership among the Library Service, Belfast City Council leisure services, and Belfast Health and Social Care Trust. I will not go into the details of that project, but I assure the Committee that we have a lot of documentation and reports on it that we would be happy to submit. We will send the Committee any information on any of our services that members require.

Mr D Bradley:

Do you think that the role of libraries needs to be more clearly spelt out in the Bill?

Mrs Frawley:

We feel that the generic description of services should be strengthened. Inclusion of the word "comprehensive" would help, because, without some recognition of the breadth and depth of services, there is danger of dumbing down all services.

We also feel strongly that the research and study role of the Belfast reference libraries and their unique collections, as well as the specialist collections held in other boards, should be part of the role and responsibility of the new library authority. They are a part of our cultural capital and their continued development is important, not just for the libraries themselves but for the Province as a whole.

Mr D Bradley:

Do you think that the Bill should go as far as to specify exactly what libraries should be used for?

Mrs Frawley:

We do not think it necessary for the Bill to identify every role and activity. We are more concerned that the legislation might proscribe the libraries from doing certain things. We would not want to be limited in expanding current services, in introducing innovative new services or in any options along those lines.

Mr K Robinson:

I thank the board for the presentation. Mrs Frawley has highlighted an important factor, namely the archives held by the library boards. I know from bitter experience what can happen. A member of a library board, on his way to shred an archive, just happened to know that I had an interest in that particular area, and I was able to save that archive. Is that a danger? With reorganisation, do we need to list and protect those archives before they are transferred? That is a point that the Committee needs to highlight.

Now, I will ask my question, which is a simple one.

The Deputy Chairperson:

Hear, hear.

Mr K Robinson:

What, if any, are the specific risks to your organisation if the new library authority is not established on 1 April 2008?

Mr Cargo:

Such matters are never risk free; however, our service currently operates through the Belfast Education and Library Board. If the new library authority is not established on that date, the service will continue to run. The risk to the service is minimal, because the board will continue to provide that service.

Mr K Robinson:

You have a plan B in place.

The Deputy Chairperson:

Perhaps the officials will take note of Ken’s point about archives, and the Committee could return to that. It is a valid point.

Mr P Ramsey:

Rosemary, you and your team are most welcome.

I have read your formal submission; you obviously take great pride in the outreach work that you do in library provision. However, you are very straight in challenging Government on monetary value, set-up costs, and so forth.

Are you happy with the proposals? The Belfast Education and Library Board is concerned that the costs for a stand-alone service have not been identified. We share that concern. The board’s submission states that:

"Projected budgetary forecasts indicate that overall funding for libraries looks set to decrease."

It also points out that access to library services in rural areas may be reduced, which is a fundamental concern for the Committee.

The Deputy Chairperson:

What about a question now, Pat?

Mr P Ramsey:

I am leading up to it.

There is clear criticism of the proposed single library authority. Can you provide us with any information or evidence us other than that which you have already provided? We do not have any costs for start-up, only projected costs. I asked the previous witnesses about the attempts to reduce literacy problems in Northern Ireland — one-in-four adults has such problems. How can you ensure that the collaborations among library services, the Department of Education, and the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure continue to adopt a holistic approach to children’s and adults’ education?

Mr David Jess (Belfast Education and Library Board):

The question of cost is a vexed one. The start-up costs for this year will probably cover what is required in this financial year, and that is fine. However, we are concerned that there are no figures for start-up costs for next year and the succeeding years. We assume that, for the first two or three years, there will be further significant start-up costs.

There will also be a figure for the infrastructure costs for those parts of the service that are currently provided by the boards. Figures that we have just received from consultants estimate that those costs will be around £900,000. Those costs will have to be factored in, and additional funds will have to be found from within the libraries’ budget. We have not yet had time to fully analyse those figures.

Turning to the savings that are required; referring to our experience in Belfast, the library budget in 2003 was £6 million. This year, that was reduced to £5·2 million, and next year it goes down to £4·7 million. In order to live within budget, we have, in the last three years, shed, or not replaced approximately 30 staff, which makes it has become very difficult to maintain current levels of service, and we are now at risk of ad-hoc closures.

Another problem to note is that when staff numbers are reduced, it becomes much more difficult to carry out the important one-to-one library activities, such as those involving, for example, literacy and special needs. Some of those activities produce low statistics, but they are labour-intensive. Therefore, having fewer staff means that there is less capacity to do the jobs that involve one-to-one services.

The explanatory and financial memorandum suggests that there will be nearly £2 million in savings — £600,000 in 2009-10, and £1·2 million in 2010-11. From a budget of £30 million, that is quite a considerable saving, and we cannot envisage where that level of saving will come from. From the current Belfast example, with reduced staff numbers, we will still face a potential £700,000 shortfall next year. As costs increase, reducing staff numbers may not produce sufficient savings. We are concerned about where those savings will come from, and we believe that they cannot be achieved without the wholesale closure of libraries and the consequent paying-off of staff. Closing buildings saves a little, but the big savings are in reducing staff numbers. We are very concerned that that is how the savings may have to be achieved.

Mr P Ramsey:

David, you said that the overall Belfast library budget for this year was £5·2 million. How much of that is for staff costs?

Mr Jess:

Approximately 70%.

Mr K Robinson:

We have come to a key point. Staff numbers have been reduced, including face-to-face staff. Is the suggestion that front-line staff will be sacrificed in the new system, as opposed to middle or senior management, as was suggested?

Mr Jess:

The redundancies have been of senior staff, by and large. Front-line staff have gone mainly through natural wastage, if I can use that term. We have also moved a lot of staff around to try to keep service points running.

We have also transferred a number of staff from what were traditionally back-room jobs to the front line. Staffing has reached a critical level whereby everyone is manning the fort.

Mr Cargo:

We have already been part of an efficiency programme, as have all boards, in the past few years. Any back-room staff are now front-office staff. If more staff are lost, there will be library closures.

The Deputy Chairperson:

Thank you for that. That provides a clear picture.

Mr McCausland:

Do you think that the new library authority and the education and skills authority should be established in sync? Would there be any disadvantages, with respect to staff and buildings, if that did not happen?

Mr Cargo:

There is a danger that one becomes fixated by dates. Dates are useful for targets that everyone can work towards. An important point, both for this Committee and the Committee for Education, is that, if there is going to be change — and none of us is opposed to change — it should be done right, rather than by a certain date.

Another point to consider is that the board does not have education staff, youth staff and library staff. Rather, it has Belfast Education and Library Board staff. If those staff go to different organisations, there should be a single scheme of transfer. There should not be a scheme of transfer for libraries staff, one for youth staff, and another for school staff. Therefore, there is a major piece of work that must be done in respect of the reorganisation and redeployment of those staff in the new organisation. That needs to happen in a co-ordinated, planned way — to use your phrase, Nelson, in sync.

I would find it extremely difficult, as chief executive, to manage or hive off a group of staff on one set of terms and conditions, and another group of staff on slightly different terms and conditions. There are also practical issues involved in moving to new organisations, such as signage, rebadging of vehicles and uniforms, and the like. We want a one-off exercise.

Lastly, I do not want to get to a situation in which I am going around with little bits of paper that state that we are now the Belfast education board, rather than the library board. The work needs to be done properly, in a co-ordinated fashion, and at one time, on whatever date that may be.

Mr Brolly:

Fundamentally, my understanding of your submission is that you are worried that the new library authority will provide something which is very clinical, almost like a banking service. You have mentioned the services that your organisation has provided as an education and library board, in particular the disabled, and your association with schools. All of those services are very local and produce a sense of warmth, so to speak, from the Library Service. Do you have a view as to how the new library authority can engage with all those local structures, including the local council, to make sure that that engagement is not lost?

Mrs Frawley:

The most effective way to engage with the local population is through local people and/or their local representatives. As a member of the board and the library committee, I have seen that working in practice — it has facilitated many joint exercises between education and libraries, and between libraries and the city council. My view is that there should be more public representation on the new library authority.

Mr D Bradley:

Excuse me, Mr Deputy Chairman. I need to leave the room for a few minutes. Please excuse me.

The Deputy Chairman:

Are you coming back?

Mr D Bradley:

I will be back.

The Deputy Chairman:

I have heard that before. [Laughter.]

Witnesses, thank you for your presentation. You kept the standard up. I am not going to say whether it was better or worse than the previous witnesses. Take with you the best regards of the Committee to your staff.

There may be another meeting in the near future, and, if so, our officials will bring it to your attention. Please keep in contact, as this matter is ongoing. We are under pressure and time, as you have acknowledged.

I wish you all the best, and perhaps we will see you again. Thank you very much.

Mrs Frawley:

Before we go, I would like invite the Committee to view the collections in Belfast Central Library.

Mr P Ramsey:

That would not be a bad idea.

The Deputy Chairperson:

Is lunch any better there than it is elsewhere?

Mr K Robinson:

Are you still operating an amnesty? I might have an overdue book tucked away somewhere.

Mr Cargo:

We will have an amnesty arranged for you.

The Deputy Chairperson:

The next set of witnesses is from the Southern Education and Library Board (SELB). You are very welcome. We are formally informal here, so if I may, I will address you as Marie, Kathleen and Wilbert; I hope that you are not offended. I am Mr McNarry. [Laughter.]

I know that you have been apprised that you should make a five-minute presentation. Up to now, the presentations have been bang on time, and I apologise for pushing you on that, but time is tight for all the matters on which the Committee is working. Nevertheless, I am sure that that will not detract from what you have to say to us. Please proceed, and we will be ready with our questions.

Ms Kathleen Ryan (Southern Education and Library Board):

I shall begin by making the introductions. Marie Donnell has been chairperson of the Southern Education and Library Board since 2006 and has been a library interest member of the board since 2001. She is a retired head teacher and has worked in schools in England and Northern Ireland. Mr Wilbert Mayne has been vice-chairperson of the libraries committee since 2005. He is currently a library interest member of the board, and he has been a board and library committee member since 1999. I am Kathleen Ryan. I have been chief librarian of the Southern Education and Library Board for the past five years. Prior to that, since I left school I have worked in public libraries in England.

Mr Wilbert Mayne (Southern Education and Library Board):

Good morning. With your permission, I will give a short description of the location that is serviced by the SELB library service. In giving our responses to the Committee and to the consultation on the new library authority that will replace the five boards, we emphasise that our concerns are based on our widespread knowledge and experience of the SELB area and its needs.

The current population of the SELB area is approximately 364,000. The board area stretches from Ballyronan on the western shores of Lough Neagh, near Cookstown — the most northerly point — to Newry and Kilkeel in the south, and as far west as Fivemiletown. It encompasses all County Armagh and parts of County Down and County Tyrone. The area has a mixture of isolated rural communities and large urban areas such as Banbridge, Dungannon, Lurgan and Portadown.

A wide spectrum of economic circumstances is represented in the board area. That includes deprived wards in the council areas of Cookstown, Craigavon and Newry — in which average earnings are below the Northern Ireland mean — and a small number of affluent areas.

For many years, we have had the largest population of migrant workers and their families in Northern Ireland, particularly in the Southern Education and Library Board council areas of Dungannon and Cookstown. Many migrant workers make heavy use of the library services; for example, they use the computer facilities to keep in regular contact with their families, perhaps in eastern European countries.

The concerns that we would like to discuss include proposals not to guarantee a free service to users, the geographical spread of members of the new library authority, and the proposed start-up costs.

Mr P Ramsey:

You are very welcome. What are your specific concerns about the predicted savings mentioned in your submission? Do you believe that the holistic approach currently used by libraries for the provision of early-years literacy, outreach work and rural work can be achieved by a single library authority?

Ms Ryan:

We have serious concerns about the savings that have been identified, because we are not sure how they have been identified, or whether account has been taken of the fact that savings are bound to lead to redundancy costs, as a large percentage of our budget comprises staffing costs. There can be savings in the long term; however, we are not sure that they can be made in the first two years, as proposed.

We hope that having a single library authority will enable the same quality of services across the board for early-years provision, outreach and rural services. Some boards have developed expertise in certain areas, and a single library authority will enable that expertise to be spread across the whole.

Mr P Ramsey:

What is your current expenditure for the provision of staff and library services in the Southern Education and Library Board?

Ms Ryan:

The total provision is between £5·2 and £5·5 million, depending on whether the figure is net or gross.

Mr Ramsey:

What part of that is staff costs?

Ms Ryan:

Staff costs represent around 80% of that figure.

Mr Mayne:

That figure reflects the rurality of the area, the number of small libraries, and the staffing issues that that entails. A large number of large libraries would be more efficient to run than the rural system.

The Deputy Chairperson:

We appreciate that, Mr Mayne. Thank you.

Mr Brolly:

What is your opinion on how a new library authority could keep in touch with the local structures that are so essential to the ethos of the library service?

Mr Mayne:

The make-up of the new authority must reflect all sections and areas of society. As I come from a rural area, I have an interest in ensuring that the new authority reflects rural issues. There must be a mechanism of selection built into the appointment of members that reflects the needs of rural areas, as well as the principles that we have already mentioned. Unlike the Belfast Education and Library Board, or other boards that are nearly all urban, we are very rural. Therefore, the needs of those west of the Bann must be represented by individuals who live and work there and who service those needs.

Mr Brolly:

Do you think, therefore, that the maximum number of 14 for membership of the library authority board is much too small?

Mr Mayne:

I do not think that it is too small, as long as the appointment process is carried out correctly, and the membership is a true reflection of everybody in the Province.

Mr Brolly:

Are you concerned about the geographic spread?

Mr Mayne:

Yes; that is our concern.

Lord Browne:

In your submission, you state that you are extremely concerned that the Libraries Bill does not contain any provision for the strategic advice system for the new library board that is available in England, Scotland and Wales. How do you receive advice? Do you feel that we need to set up a body in Northern Ireland to provide you with advice? How would such a body be useful to you?

Ms Ryan:

There is no form of strategic advice to public library services in Northern Ireland, as there is in the other three home countries.

We want to see a body in Northern Ireland similar to that which exists in the other three home countries; however, the cost would be prohibitive. One way around that might be to have a formal buy-in to one of the other bodies — a formal arrangement between the relevant Government Departments in two jurisdictions.

The biggest of the bodies is the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council in England, which carries out a huge amount of research on public libraries, on training schemes, and so on. It welcomes us, informally, to make use of its website and publications. However, when pieces of research are being commissioned, there are no samples from Northern Ireland. It recently conducted a big training scheme for senior library staff, but it was available only to its members. Owing to the scale of running such a scheme in Northern Ireland, if we did it alone, would be very costly.

Mr K Robinson:

Thank you for your presentation. As a former employee of the Southern Education and Library Board — three decades ago — I know exactly the problems that you face, with the geography west of the Bann, and the provisions that have to be made for rural schools and rural communities. You have stressed that some mechanism needs to be found to make sure that there is a geographical spread, and a spread of expertise in the board. Will you elaborate on that? If you had the opportunity to do so, what sort of mechanism would you write into the Bill?

Ms Ryan:

We have discussed that issue quite a lot. We want the new library authority to engage with local structures. We would like there to be local consultative forums that would have representation from the various education sectors — from pre-school through to higher education — health, adult education, the youth sector, the voluntary sector, the citizens advice bureaux, and so on. Those consultative bodies should exist in every council area.

Mr K Robinson:

If such a mechanism existed, would you write into the legislation that a consultative body should be set up, and then allow the individual communities to respond to that?

Ms Ryan:

Personally, I would not write that into the legislation, but I am not a legislative expert. However, if I were chief executive of the new body, that is what I would seek to do.

Mr K Robinson:

That would be a strategic aim of yours?

Ms Ryan:

Yes.

The Deputy Chairperson:

Marie, I am not sure whether questions are falling into your area of specialty, but feel free to chip in. We have two questions left, and if they are not in your area of specialty, I will allow you 30 seconds at the end.

Mr Mayne:

To answer Mr Robinson’s point, I have had experience of rural development issues and local strategic partnerships. Local strategic partnerships include a mechanism whereby the statutory bodies, the voluntary and community sector and the business sector work together. They have 50:50 representation of folk from the statutory sector, and from social partners, who know how to operate through local councils. Therefore, that might be an option of how to include the community and voluntary sector. Like Kathleen, I am not a legislative expert, but I know how those sectors can work when they are brought together. In my experience, when that happens, it works very well.

Mr K Robinson:

The local strategic partnerships are a good model.

Mr D Bradley:

Your submission states that you want to see the establishment of a public library advisory forum. What do you think should be the functions of that forum?

Ms Ryan:

In the other parts of the UK, such forums advise the relevant Minister. In the Republic of Ireland, it does the same, and it is also a strategic advisory body and a grant-making body. The forums in Scotland and Wales have the same role.

We have talked further about that issue since we made our submission, and we feel that the local consultation bodies are even more important than the forums.

Mr McCausland:

Do you envisage any advantages or disadvantages with two processes — the transfer to a single library authority, and the transfer to the education and skills authority — running in sync with each other, with respect to staffing issues, buildings, and so on?

Mrs Marie Donnell (Southern Education and Library Board):

Our major concern is that parallel processes and equivalent schemes be put in place for both the Northern Ireland library authority and the education and skills authority. It is important that, whatever happens — whether it happens at the same time or at different times; whether the timescale is identical or not — the best outcome for both bodies is ensured.

Mr McCausland:

Will there be any practical difficulties if the two do not run in sync with regard to transfer schemes, and so on?

Ms Ryan:

The transfer scheme must be the same. I cannot envisage any practical difficulty whether the scheme applies to 10% of people now or 90% of people in six months’ time. However, the Committee may need legal advice on that.

I have concerns about the delay. It is already difficult to maintain staff morale. The board is having considerable difficulty in recruiting staff. It is also difficult to plan in a strategic, long-term manner. The longer that continues, the more difficult it will get. At present, it is difficult for the board to make strategic, long-term decisions on future planning, buildings and major changes in service delivery when it does not know whether it must plan for a discrete area or for the entirety. That is the risk of delay, which applies to both the education side and the library side.

Mr Mayne:

Ms Ryan has mentioned staff morale. The current recruitment process must be trawled internally as the board is not permitted to recruit from outside. That has a knock-on effect on libraries —their opening hours, and so on. Recently, there have been cases in which libraries have had to close because of staffing problems. That reflects back to the general public, who cannot get access to library services, and the number of books that are in usage is reduced. It has a snowball effect throughout the service. That must be managed carefully.

The Deputy Chairperson:

Welcome back, Mr McCarthy.

Mr McCarthy:

Deputy Chairman, was clause 6 mentioned in my absence? The board has pointed out — and the Committee agrees — that clause 6 does not guarantee the statutory provision of a free library service. What wording would the board propose in order to guarantee that provision?

Mrs Donnell:

The precise wording would need to be detailed on the advice of a parliamentary draftsman. However, the single greatest concern of the Southern Education and Library Board is that the legislation does not guarantee in statute the provision of a public library service that is free at the point of delivery. Making changes to a scheme of charges will require no input from the Assembly, only a decision by the board of the new body in consultation with the Department.

The board is concerned that, in the future, financial hard times could mean that changes are introduced. The board feels strongly that, in a democratic society, the legislative body should make provision to allow its citizens to have free access to books and information, and that decisions on any changes to that provision should be taken at Assembly level. The proposed legislation would make Northern Ireland the only area in the UK where citizens do not have a statutory right to free library services.

The Deputy Chairperson:

Thank you very much for your time, attention, presentation, dedication and answers, which were excellent. I apologise again for the tight schedule. Please take with you the Committee’s best wishes to all your staff. We wish them well for the future. If there are any additional matters that arise or evolve from today’s meeting, feel free to contact the Committee staff, if you feel that that might be helpful. Safe home.

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