Official Report (Hansard)
Date: 13 September 2007
13 September 2007
Members present for all or part of the proceedings:
Mr Barry McElduff (Chairperson)
Mr Dominic Bradley
Mr Francie Brolly
Mr Kieran McCarthy
Mr Nelson McCausland
Mr Pat Ramsey
Mr Ken Robinson
Mr Jim Shannon
Mrs Anne Connolly
Ms Katherine McCloskey Association of Chief Librarians
Ms Helen Osborn
Ms Elga Logue
Mr John McCormick Chartered Institute of Library Information Professionals Ireland
Dr Bob McKee
Mr John Gray Libraries and Information Services Council (Northern Ireland)
Mr Kirby Porter
The Chairperson (Mr McElduff):
I thank the Association of Chief Librarians for its attendance and I welcome Ms Katherine McCloskey, Ms Helen Osborn and Mrs Anne Connolly. They will be the first set of witnesses to give evidence to the Committee on the Libraries Bill today.
Mrs Anne Connolly (Association of Chief Librarians):
Good morning and thank you. I am the director of library and corporate services in the North Eastern Education and Library Board (NEELB). I am here in my capacity as chairperson of the Association of Chief Librarians (ACL). I am accompanied by my colleagues Helen Osborn, who is chief librarian of the Western Education and Library Board (WELB), and Katherine McCloskey, who is chief librarian of the Belfast Education and Library Board (BELB).
The association, which was established in 1973 by the chief executives, comprises the five education and library boards. As chief librarians, we are the senior officers who work on the steering group, and we are responsible for the development, management and delivery of library services to the public and to schools in Northern Ireland. At present, there are 113 static libraries and 28 mobile libraries, which deliver services to hard-to-reach areas and to people who are housebound. There are also 11 mobile libraries attached to the schools’ library service.
Over the past few years, one of the key objectives of the association has been to try to harmonise services across the education and library boards. One of the most successful outcomes has been the establishment of the electronic libraries service, which has provided a single network for all libraries in Northern Ireland. One example of how that has improved customer service is that each customer now has a single library card that they may use in any library in Northern Ireland to access books or use a computer. In addition, a library member may borrow a book from any Northern Ireland library and return it to any other library of their choice. That seamless service has already been established, and Northern Ireland was the first region to achieve it.
The Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure’s vision is for a flexible and responsive public library service that provides a dynamic focal point in the community and assists people to fulfil their potential. Obviously, the association concurs with that and believes that libraries in Northern Ireland are well on the way to achieving that vision.
At the outset, we wish to dispel the myth that libraries are just about issuing books, and we are concerned that, despite the wide range of activities in which libraries engage, the emphasis in measuring performance is still based on the number of books that are issued. We wish to draw the Committee’s attention to the fact that library services currently extend to: the provision of Internet and website-use classes; open-learning centres; study space and homework assistance; activities and support for ethnic minorities and disadvantaged groups; the staging of events and exhibitions, and reading initiatives for all age groups, including the famous Bookstart programme, which is a highly successful initiative that is run in conjunction with Sure Start.
Although most of those activities take place in libraries, some are delivered as outreach programmes by library staff in venues across Northern Ireland. We particularly wish to draw attention to the fact that library staff work in places other than libraries to deliver library services.
Each year, public libraries in Northern Ireland welcome more than seven million visitors; deal with approximately 1·5 million enquiries; lend approximately 10 million items, and provide access to 1,200 computers with broadband internet access.
In the past year, the association has worked closely with the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure to produce ‘Delivering Tomorrow’s Libraries’, the new policy for the development of public libraries in Northern Ireland. We believe that that policy sets the context for the delivery of a high-quality library service. It is the association’s view that quality of service should be the priority when it comes to establishing the structure for delivering library services in Northern Ireland.
To assure a high-quality service that best meets the needs of the customer, several key factors should be taken into account. We strongly feel that library services should be free at the point of delivery and that coterminosity with other service providers should be considered to facilitate community planning and successful partnership working. There should be a single-transfer system for all education and library board employees, and we are in favour of maintaining and developing links with the education sector.
Finally, we wish to emphasise that the continued delivery and further development of a high-quality service is dependent on the availability of adequate resources. In that regard, the affordability of a new structure is paramount to the decision-making process.
Thank you for your attention.
Thank you, Anne. Members may now ask questions.
I thank the association for its presentation and congratulate it on what has been achieved to date. At the end of this exercise, we hope that that work will be enhanced.
You said that services should be free at the point of delivery. Clause 6 of the Libraries Bill deals with charges for certain library services. In your submission, you explained that you do not believe that the Bill, as currently drafted, provides enough protection for core library services to remain free of charge. Please explain what you perceive to be the potential problems of not clarifying in the Bill that core services will remain free of charge, and do you have a suggested form of wording that could be added to the Bill to guarantee the provision of free core services?
Ms Katherine McCloskey (Association of Chief Librarians):
We are concerned because the idea of a free library service is inherent in the public library service. It should be free at the point of delivery. However, clause 6 of the Libraries Bill states:
"(1) The Authority may not make any charges for any library services provided by it unless—
(a) the services in question are specified in a scheme of charges approved by the Department …
(2) The scheme of charges may make different provision for different cases including different provision in relation to different persons, circumstances or localities."
The existing legislation made it very clear that the library service would be free except for itemised lists of services that libraries could charge for. UK legislation provides for that sort of arrangement. The English legislation and the current Northern Ireland legislation address charges in that way. This Bill’s wording suggests that a broader potential for charging might be implemented, or might be specified, in the future. Existing legislation seems to cover the matter better. We are worried that there is potential to raise funding in the future by increasing library service charges, and that that might be used to augment other services if there was a budget shortfall, for example.
You have said that the number of people on the board of the proposed authority will not be sufficient to deal with the workload. The changes are being made for several reasons, and one of the advantages of those changes will be that it will maximise savings. At the same time, the continuation of the service is critical. How many members should there be on the board of the library authority and what evidence do you have to suggest that it may not be able to deliver services?
You also referred to the mobile library service. I think you mentioned that there are ten mobile libraries, is that correct?
There are 11 in schools.
The figure was 28.
We are also responsible for the schools’ library service, but under the new legislation that will not be the case.
I am keen to ask a question based on your experience, Mrs Connolly — and Ms Osborn may wish to answer also. If you could do one thing to improve the mobile library service, what would that be?
We have debated the size of the authority at length. However, our experience is based on dealing with library committees. Currently, the library committee within each education and library board comprises between 12 and 15 people. If the library authority is to recruit people who are interested in library services and would be interested in regularly attending meetings, such people might be very busy already and might have to drive long distances. The authority will therefore need to recruit around 20 members to get a quorum and ensure that local and regional interests are looked after.
There is also the view that being a board member — as some Committee members, being board members, will know — is not just about being on a steering group or governing body; it is also about assisting in other committees. The association expects that the library authority will have to have an audit committee and a finance committee. Therefore the smaller the number of people involved, the smaller the pool from which the authority can draw. It will be asking busy people to attend a lot of meetings.
Ms Helen Osborn (Association of Chief Librarians):
Mr Shannon is right to suspect that I would like to answer the question about mobile libraries. The mobile library service is extremely important in rural areas, but it is also important in city areas, particularly areas of targeting social need.
There are two ways in which the mobile library service could be improved. First, it could provide more outreach activities. Typically, a mobile library pulls up in a village or a housing estate and stays for an hour or two. During that time people come on board and borrow books, and, in some places, they also use the Internet. That mobile library would be staffed by one person. We would like to be able to provide the same outreach activities as branch libraries, such as playgroup visits, storytelling sessions, local history sessions, IT taster sessions — the full gamut of library services. However, additional staffing is required for that. The Western Education and Library Board has been fortunate to have had external funding to pilot such a service. Outreach activity is important if people are to experience the full benefits of a library service.
Secondly, there could be greater scope for partnership working. Recently, a scheme was piloted in a rural part of the Western Education and Library Board area in which post-office services were provided on the mobile library while a sub-post office was being rebuilt. It is important that such joined-up strategic partnerships are considered. That was a great pilot project, and it worked well for local people and for both services. However, the ideal scenario would be to have strategic partnerships with other organisations serving rural areas, using customised vehicles to meet the needs of the local community and provide the full range of services.
Mr D Bradley:
I share your concern about clause 6(2) of the Bill, which relates to charges. It seems to be granting power to vary charges according to locality and even according to individuals. That seems to partially defeat the aim of having a single authority. However, the explanatory and financial memorandum claims that the approach in clause 6:
"retains the approach of the Education and Libraries Order but simplifies the provisions."
Do you agree?
Secondly, what linkages should there be between the Northern Ireland library authority and the education and skills authority? How would those be reflected in service delivery?
Members of the association are nervous that the previous legislation stated that libraries would be free at the point of delivery, except for certain services that were listed. Why remove that provision? It was clear which services would be charged for. If libraries are to be free at the point of delivery, and there is no intention to raise or to make extra charges, why change the legislation? It has worked well for many years. Such a provision is not in the UK legislation, and we, as an association, are nervous that it may open the door to further charges.
Mr D Bradley:
Would an itemised list of charges be helpful?
It would probably make association members happier if potential charges were clearly listed.
Mr D Bradley:
Can you give us examples?
If a library provides items, such as a photocopies or book lists, which then become the properties of a person, that person would be charged for the items. In the previous legislation, there was a list, which specified the items and services that could be charged for. I would be very nervous if such a list were not included in the Bill. The phrasing could be taken from UK legislation or it could be just as it was in the previous legislation — why change it?
Mr D Bradley:
What form of linkage do you think there should be between the Northern Ireland library authority and the education and skills authority, and how should that be reflected in service delivery?
We believe that there are three key areas in which it will be important for public libraries and education to work together. One is the schools’ library service. Currently, we manage both the public library service and the schools’ library service, which has a number of benefits, one of which is financial. We share premises, IT systems, members of staff, stock contracts, and so on. More importantly, the arrangement enables us to provide a holistic service to children and young people whether at home or at school, and the two services work closely together on extended schools information, literacy, the revised curriculum; all of the key education agendas.
Early years education is another important area, and public libraries have always done a great deal with pre-school children using programmes such as Bookstart. Early years education is now the responsibility of the Department of Education, which makes it even more important that libraries and education work together in that area.
Public libraries have a great deal to contribute to literacy and lifelong learning. It will be important that the linkages between the education and skills authority and the library authority will be in place at the strategic and operational levels. Our concern is that organisations, during periods of change, or when they are being created, tend to be internally focused. Therefore, it will be extremely important that the links are maintained. It will also be important that all subregional structures in the new library authority will be reflected in the education and skills authority and in the councils so that community planning becomes another device for joined-up working.
Mrs Connolly, would you give a composite answer to the next questions, which will be from Mr McCausland and Mr Ramsey?
There are two points on which I require clarification. What potential difficulties are there for the transfer of staff, particularly if the single library authority does not start at the same time as the single education authority? Secondly, and you have raised questions about this matter; do you think that the Department is overestimating the savings that can be made?
Mr P Ramsey:
I would like to acknowledge the contribution that the association is making to lifelong learning. Given that the Minister said during the last Committee meeting that efficiency savings on pay have been projected at almost £1·5 million, how will you be able to provide an enhanced service in lifelong learning in educational centres of excellence with reduced resources? You are saying that you need additional resources. How will you be able to provide the same level of service, given that in Northern Ireland, one in four adults has low levels of literacy and numeracy? How will you effect change?
I will answer Mr McCausland’s question first. Many of our staff work across public libraries and school libraries, and currently all of them are education and library board staff. Our concern is that if public library services move first, we will have to determine who our public library staff are and get a transfer scheme in place for them in advance of the creation of the education and skills authority. More importantly, opportunities for them to apply for other posts, to which they are entitled as education and library board staff, would be removed because they would no longer be part of the RPA-affected group.
Staff are already quite stressed and worried about their jobs. We would prefer the organisations to move together. At present, we are managing people in both sections. We believe that there should be a clean break. People would then be able to see the various opportunities and apply for the jobs that suit their future needs. It is a people issue.
Katherine McCloskey will answer the question on funding.
The question was on what we believe the savings will be. Paragraph 13 of the explanatory and financial memorandum states:
"Unifying five separate library services will, in time, lead to efficiency savings".
The memorandum goes on to quote savings of £600,000 in 2009-10, rising to £1·2 million. There is no specific indication as to where those savings will be made, apart from unifying the services and reducing staff. We do know the current budget for the five library services. Over the past few years, my colleagues and I have been working to reduce our staffing levels because of reductions in funding for the Library Service. Indications are that the new library authority will have a budget of £30 million, which is not a lot more than what we are running the service on at present — and we are struggling. The Belfast Education and Library Board will face a shortfall of £750,000 next year. We do not feel confident that savings will be made without swingeing cuts.
There is some indication that we have a large number of senior and middle managers. I have 25 staff, classified as professional librarians and managers, for all of Belfast, covering 20 branch libraries, the schools’ library service and the central reference library. We are not awash with staff. The indications are that the new library authority will struggle to provide even the level of service provided at present with the stated budget. We cannot understand where the savings will come from, and that is worrying. Northern Ireland deserves a quality library service. I have spent my life in the library service. Northern Ireland has an excellent library service and the people of Northern Ireland deserve a high-quality, well-funded service that will provide not just excellent community libraries and mobile libraries, but will be able to fund reference and research collections and support the wonderful local studies and collections that exist throughout Northern Ireland.
Have Mr Ramsey’s questions been answered?
You may have picked up some of the answers. We are wholly behind ‘Delivering Tomorrow’s Libraries’, which is the Department’s vision for the future of library services. However, as has been rightly said, there is much more to libraries than issuing books. Many areas need to be developed, and we are not convinced that the money is available to do that. We have all been in difficult positions, as members will know. In making cuts in our board area, some of our learning centres have fallen by the wayside, as we cannot afford to fund them.
Mr P Ramsey:
Do you believe that cutbacks are imminent? That will entail more than job losses.
Who knows? The North Eastern Education and Library Board has already offered premature retirement to as many people who want it, and it does not have many more people to let go. The funding issue and the development of services are major concerns. In the past, we have asked the Department of Education and the Department for Employment and Learning to fund areas that we believed fell under their umbrella. The money that we get from Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure is for the core library service. However, we have not had any success in getting funding from other Departments.
Thank you, Anne, Katherine and Helen, for coming along this morning.
The next witnesses to come before the Committee are from the Chartered Institute of Library Information Professionals (CILIP). Following CILIP’s five-minute overview of its written submission, members will have a chance to ask questions. I will try to give preference to members who did not question the first set of witnesses. Dr Bob McKee will lead the presentation. Witnesses, you are all welcome, and the Committee is looking forward to hearing your evidence.
Dr Bob McKee (Chartered Institute of Library Information Professionals Ireland):
Good morning. My colleagues, Elga Logue, John McCormick and I represent CILIP. In my allotted five minutes, I want to cover three areas: some background information on CILIP, our position on the proposals on the way forward for public libraries in Northern Ireland, and comments on the draft legislation.
CILIP was formerly known as the Library Association, and some members may know it by that name. It was established about 130 years ago and received the royal charter in 1898. It is long-established as the professional and regulatory body for the library information sector across the UK.
We are responsible for maintaining the register of qualified practitioners for all parts of the library and information spectrum across the UK, not only public libraries. We provide opportunities for networking, professional development and advocacy on professional issues. It is worth saying that, in Northern Ireland, we have consistently worked across all divides for more than 30 years. A North/South liaison committee has held an annual conference for 30-plus years, without fail. That commendable record is due more to my two colleagues than to me.
We form a community of about 35,000 people who are engaged in library and information work across the UK, of whom about 12,500 are on the register of qualified practitioners, and, of those, about 3,200 work in public libraries. Therefore, we can speak from an authoritative base. We have been involved throughout the current sequence of initiatives on public library policy in Northern Ireland.
I was involved in the work that led to the original ‘Tomorrow’s Libraries’ report in 2002. Recently, I was a member of the appointments panel that recruited a chief executive designate for the new library authority. We have submitted evidence at every stage of the consultation process and have provided assistance to DCAL officials, both in their work on policy development and in their early preparations for the new authority.
We strongly agree with the role and vision of public libraries that is outlined in the ‘Delivering Tomorrow’s Libraries’ report. We welcome the introduction of a published set of standards, which is in the annex to the report. We welcome the commitment to the equitable distribution of resources and the consequent commitment to equity in library provision across Northern Ireland. We welcome the establishment of a new library authority, which provides an opportunity to strengthen the Library Service in Northern Ireland by building on the collaborative work that has already been carried out across the current five education and library boards. The Committee heard reference to that during the previous submission.
It seems highly appropriate that the new political Administration in Northern Ireland should, as one of its first acts, enact legislation to strengthen the Library Service, because libraries have a role to play in any civilised society in relation to opportunity, equity, democracy, and human rights. For that reason, we are glad to be here.
Most of the points that we want to make on the legislation are contained in our written submission, but I want to highlight just a few. The duty of the new library authority that is set out in the Bill should refer explicitly to the set of standards of provision that citizens can expect. The principle of the Library Service being free at the point of use, which is safeguarded in the Bill, should be strengthened by making it clear that the scheme of charges cannot include charging for any core elements of the service. That requires definition.
We doubt the validity of the specific levels of efficiency savings and start-up costs that are set out in the explanatory and financial memorandum. There is a real danger that a declaration of such efficiencies will cause the new authority to be born into a negative climate of cutbacks, rather than a positive climate of service development.
Although the memorandum refers to start-up costs, there is no explicit reference to transition costs, such as the inevitable costs of redundancies. There must be more clarity about where those figures come from and what they mean.
My next point has already been made by the previous witnesses. The present link with education provides a close collaboration between libraries and schools. That must not be lost. A framework agreement between the new library and education authorities will be necessary.
I wish to draw the Committee’s attention to a point that is not included in our submission, which concerns the provision of advice to the Northern Ireland library authority. Legislation across the water makes provision for a body that used to be called the Library Advisory Council; its name has now been changed, intelligently, to the Advisory Council on Libraries. There might be some value in the Committee considering whether a similar advisory role should be enshrined in Northern Ireland legislation. That has been very helpful across the water.
That concludes our introductory comments.
CILIP’s submission states that it is concerned that the start-up allocation of £670,000 may not be sufficient. Please explain why.
We have seen the figure, but not how it was worked out. I mentioned in the submission that we need to know whether that figure includes transition costs and the inevitable costs of the transfer of undertakings and redundancies.
The Committee understands that the new education and skills authority will not be in place until March 2009. Will there be any risks for CILIP if the new library authority is not established by April 2008?
There is no threat to CILIP, because it is an independent body. However, we act in the public interest, which is why we are registered as a charity. There would be damage to the public interest if there were to be continuing uncertainty about the future of libraries in Northern Ireland. What is in the public interest is the orderly transition from the present situation to the new arrangement. We need clarity about that transition and its timetable.
Mr K Robinson:
I thank the witness for his precise and concise opening remarks. In your submission, Dr McKee, you stated that there needs to be a clearer explanation in clause 4(8) as to what constitutes commercial activities. What are the problems with the way commercial activities are defined in the Bill? Is the definition that is contained in the Bill too broad or too narrow?
We discussed that question immediately prior to the meeting. Clause 4(4) contains a helpful safeguard, namely that commercial activities are permitted so long as they do not interfere with the primary duties of the authority. The subsection that you referred to relates to specific types of commercial activities — the provision of services, and so on — and there is nothing wrong with that. Our problem is with the culture that that may create. Will success be judged using commercial, entrepreneurial, income-generating criteria, or, on social and educational criteria, as it ought to be?
Mr K Robinson:
I see the danger of the "burger and a book" syndrome creeping in. Is that what you mean?
Ms Elga Logue (Chartered Institute of Library Information Professionals Ireland):
We asked whether a library that is situated in a highly populated area and that runs many activities might be judged on profit-making, as opposed to the quality of service it offered.
Mr K Robinson:
Compared with a library in a rural situation?
Exactly. We would not want to see a situation in which profit-making jeopardises other libraries, which may be doing tremendous work, but may not be making the same profits because of their location, perhaps in marginalised areas. That, however, does not mean that they are not good libraries — they may be doing wonderful work. The question is whether one assesses quality on the basis of issue figures, or on user satisfaction.
Mr K Robinson:
I shall play devil’s advocate for a moment. In answer to Wallace’s question a moment ago, you said that the allocation for start-up costs would not cover those costs. However, if the opportunity of commercial input arises, the question becomes whether you would sell your soul to keep the system afloat, or keep the system pure because of the end benefits that we all want the library system to produce for us.
There is no reason why we cannot have both. Commercial activity for libraries per se is not wrong. Everyone wants to generate some money. We worry that libraries would be expected to become profit-making operations. That would be very difficult to do in many ways.
Mr K Robinson:
For geographical and other reasons?
You made an issue of the absence of the words "efficient and effective" and "comprehensive and efficient". How important is that wording? Surely the efficiency and effectiveness of the Library Service will be down to those people who will eventually be given the job of running the libraries?
It is very dangerous for things to be implicit in legislation and not explicit. The inclusion in the Bill of the words "comprehensive and efficient" would serve two purposes: it would align the Bill with legislation across the rest of the UK — and there is a value in that — and it would make explicit two requirements that you might think are implicit, but, hey, people change. The inclusion of the word "comprehensive" means that the service has to be inclusive of everyone — people with disabilities, people living in rural areas, and so on. That could get lost if the word is not in legislation for people to see. The word "efficient" is all about public service reform. Again, one would expect efficiency — that is understood — but it would be nice for it to be required in legislation.
Mr D Bradley:
You mentioned the importance of the continuing close collaboration between libraries and schools. How do you think that the schools’ library service should be delivered in the new emerging context?
That is a difficult one for me, because we are looking at this matter as a professional body, not in terms of the local operational detail. However, I listened as you asked the same question to the previous group of witnesses. It seems that there is a very clear understanding of what a schools’ library service is, and of the public libraries’ role and the schools’ role in that service. It would not, therefore, be impossible to construct a framework agreement between the two new authorities that would enshrine that. That framework could then be delivered among individual libraries and schools.
Should a specific or stronger form of words be included in clause 6 so that the authority cannot charge for core services?
Yes. Membership of public libraries has always been free. All the wonderful activities that go on in the library every day — storytelling, book clubs, and so on — are never charged for. In many ways, that is what makes a library service a quality service that reaches out to all groups — one that promotes social inclusion. The Bill should clearly define the core services that will remain free.
One could extract a list of core services and write it down — I did that on the plane this morning. If a scheme of charges can be written down, a list of core services can too.
I will allow Members to ask one other question, if anyone wants to take this opportunity to do so.
Mr K Robinson:
The previous presentation touched on the issue that I wish to raise, and the Committee discussed it last week as well. In this new, wonderful world in which everything will be streamlined and reorganised and money will be saved, and so forth, individuals with tremendous experience may well find themselves in a position whereby they want to leave the service — or it may be advantageous to the service to see them leave. How do you cope with that experience gap? How do you fill it so that the service and delivery are not diluted?
That is a central issue for us as the professional body, given that our job is professional development. I mentioned a figure of 12,500 qualified practitioners earlier, and less than 100 of them work in Northern Ireland. Thus, the gap already exists here. That workforce developmental issue has to be addressed at some level, and I do not think that the authority could address it unaided.
I thank the CILIP team, Dr McKee, John and Elga for their contribution.
We now welcome Kirby Porter and John Gray from the Libraries and Information Services Council (Northern Ireland) (LISC (NI)). They will give a five-minute overview of their written submission and then they will take questions from members.
Mr Kirby Porter (Libraries and Information Services Council (Northern Ireland))
I thank the Committee for inviting us here today.
LISC (NI) is a membership organisation that represents the main library providers in Northern Ireland. Members include public libraries, university and college libraries, and even libraries in the voluntary sector. Its two basic roles are to advise the Department of Culture Arts and Leisure on matters pertaining to libraries, and to engage in co-operative activities throughout the library world in Northern Ireland in order to advance libraries in all forms.
Three projects in which you may be interested will give you a flavour of the work that LISC does. One is that it is the Northern Ireland partner for Newsplan, which is a project to collect, preserve and make available newspapers throughout the United Kingdom and Ireland.
The second is Inspire NI, which is a project to widen access to all libraries, on a managed basis, to anyone in the Province. There are several other similar projects, including the Northern Ireland Publications Resource (NIPR), the funding for which comes through LISC. That project’s aim is to collect all material published in Northern Ireland and publications that relate to Northern Ireland.
As an organisation, LISC broadly welcomes the decision to create a single, strategic, library authority. However, our submission includes caveats which are, basically, the same as the concerns that have been raised today. They relate to the service’s comprehensiveness, charging, and the costs relating to its start-up and continuing functioning. In broad terms, the creation of a single library authority is a useful step forward for libraries and one that should be commended.
I will offer Committee members the chance to ask questions — unless John has anything to add.
Mr John Gray (Libraries and Information Services Council (Northern Ireland)):
I have nothing to add. Kirby has said everything that I would wish to say.
You indicated your support for the single library service. In paragraph 3(d) of LISC’s written submission, it is stated that a single library authority:
"should ensure the development of specialist services and expertise not currently within the scope of five separate education and library boards"
"could enable more effective marketing of the service."
In the final sentence of the same paragraph it is stated that a single library authority could:
"afford greater capacity to attract significant levels of external funding."
I am keen to learn from where you might attract that external funding. Is it from independent business? Is it from other Departments? Why do you refer to the greater capacity to attract significant levels of external funding? If you can attract significant levels of external funding, we will be very keen to learn how you can do that, as, I am sure, will the Executive. However, I digress. I just want to get your opinion on the matter of external funding.
I shall answer that question. It is not provable in advance, but a single library authority, with a higher profile and a high level of focused leadership, is more likely to achieve major strategic partnerships with other bodies that can, essentially, bring funding to the table. Those could include anything from public-private partnerships to such bodies as the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Big Lottery Fund, or other service providers. I suspect that smaller services have less strategic capacity to engage in that type of work.
You mentioned partnerships, as did one of the previous deputations. Partnerships are all very well, but have initial discussions taken place with any potential partners? I am keeping a note — I realise that you said that it is not provable.
The question that you ask is a more of a commentary on the difficulties of the current environment than the possibilities of a single library authority.
LISC (NI) is one example of the possibilities that exist for co-operation on a Province-wide basis, in that the five education and library boards, which provide library services, and all the other library-interested parties in Northern Ireland co-operate in partnership on a range of beneficial projects. Those projects have been taken forward at a little extra public cost, but they deliver more than the sum of the parts of the organisations concerned.
In your submission, you state that the number of board members in the library authority — a maximum of 14 — may not be sufficient to deal with the workload or be able to reflect the broad range of library users. Would you elaborate on that?
LISC (NI) is aware of the need for caution to avoid unwieldy bodies, but is also concerned that library services are spread widely across Northern Ireland and that the board will have to have specific strategic expertise available in a range of fields. The board will also have to provide for adequate representation of age and gender spectrums and issues such as the rural/urban divide. That tends to suggest that a board comprising 14 or 15 members may be a bit tight. One option would be to consider the possibility of giving the board the provision to appoint an advisory council. There is no provision in the legislation for that, but it might help. Our thinking, without being dogmatic about the matter, is that the board should have more than 14 or 15 members.
LISC (NI) is particularly concerned that, during the first years of the new library authority, when a lot of strategic work will have to be done, a board comprising 14 members may not be sufficient to provide the required expertise. Currently, between 50 and 60 people are involved in the library committees of the education and library boards, so having a board with 14 members would be a considerable reduction. As John Gray says, LISC (NI) is not suggesting a board of 30 or 40 people; we are asking for a modest reconsideration to ensure that the balance is correct.
Mr K Robinson:
In a corporate and individual sense, local government has been excluded from this process, presumably due to the fear that councillors may burn or eat books. Given that councillors can accurately reflect the feeling of communities, is there is a place for a local government presence on an extended board? If larger local authorities are created, the role of councillors will become more apparent.
The difficulty is that it the number of local authorities under the review of public administration is unclear. If I am right, there will be a minimum of eight councils, but there are likely to be more. If that is so, it will not be possible for every local authority to be represented on the new library authority; there will have to be another mechanism. Local government representation may have to be organised through the Northern Ireland Local Government Association. However, adoption of the idea for an advisory council would provide scope for more local input.
Mr D Bradley:
Could, and should, the Northern Ireland library authority deliver schools’ library services?
There is no doubt that, given how the schools’ library service is delivered, a partnership arrangement — at the very least — with the public library service is required. However, should the public library service, rather than the education and skills authority, deliver the schools’ library service? It would be difficult for school libraries to realise their full potential were they not part of the educational framework.
The Libraries and Information Services Council (Northern Ireland) has done a great deal of work to try to improve school libraries’ efficiency. However, the standard of that efficiency varies, and depends on the level of support that a head teacher gives to his or her library. If school libraries were seen to be removed further from the education service, they would lack the necessary credibility to make progress. Therefore, it is probably best that school libraries remain within the ambit of the education service.
Do you believe that clause 6 should include a specific form of words that would not permit the library authority to charge for services?
Undoubtedly, it is essential that core services are protected in legislation to prevent that from happening in future.
Kieran, you seek stronger wording in that clause.
I have undoubtedly made that point this morning.
Where possible, the tendency is to charge for services. The temptation in future will be that, if something can be charged for, at some stage that issue will be raised, and charges will be introduced. By definition, that is the way in which things work — if a charge can be levied, it eventually will be.
I thank Kirby and John for coming along this morning, and for sharing their wisdom with the Committee.