'Hugely disappointing' government response to libraries petition

Supporters including JK Rowling and Neil Gaiman add their names to a campaign calling for library funding to be ringfenced

The government’s response to a call from tens of thousands of library lovers, including JK Rowling and Philip Pullman, for libraries funding to be ringfenced is “hugely disappointing”, say campaigners.

Library supporter Frances Belbin started a petition on the government’s website in October, calling for funding to be ringfenced in order to keep branches open. Pointing out that “libraries across the country are being closed, cut back and/or outsourced to volunteers as a result of government cuts to local authority budgets”, Belbin’s petition has since been signed by almost 30,000 people, and backed by authors including Malorie Blackman, Frank Cottrell Boyce, Neil Gaiman and Joanne Harris. Rowling called on her millions of Twitter followers to join her in signing the petition, writing: “We need more signatures to protect government funding for libraries.”

The government must respond to a petition once it reaches 10,000 signatures. When a petition attracts 100,000, it is considered for debate in parliament.

While it said that it was committed to supporting a sustainable long-term future for libraries, the government said in its response that councils would retain flexibility over funding decisions “so libraries can be resilient and equipped to meet local need”.

“The government’s position is that local government funding should be non-ringfenced. This has been a long-established government principle based on the premise that giving greater funding flexibility to local authorities supports them to make spending decisions based on their local needs and priorities,” it said. “Ultimately, decisions about resource prioritisation for libraries sit with local authorities.”

Librarian Ian Anstice, who tracks library closures around the UK at his website Public Libraries News, called the response “cut-and-paste”. “This is standard practice for the current hands-off administration who have been keen to pass on all responsibility to local councils, while at the same time greatly cutting the budget of the same councils. Their ‘What, me, guv?’ act of innocence was believed by few when they first tried it in 2010 and is believed by no one, even one suspects themselves, now,” he said.

But Anstice said he hoped that the response might encourage even more people to sign it.

“Every new name shows the minister that someone else cares about libraries and refuses to fall for the idle, disastrous and uninterested current national approach,” he said.

Belbin’s MP Gill Furniss urged library lovers to sign the petition in order to get it debated in parliament. “The government’s response to the libraries funding petition is hugely disappointing, they are not listening to what libraries need,” she wrote on Twitter.

“If the government really ‘takes seriously the statutory duty to superintend and promote the improvement of library services in England’, as it claims, it would be prioritising libraries and librarians, as well as teachers and schools, ensuring that they receive all the resources they need to do their work,” said author SF Said. “It would not stand by as cuts and closures decimate services that were once the envy of the world.

“The public response to the petition shows how important libraries remain to so many of us. I would encourage all who care about future generations to keep signing and sharing the petition, because this is an issue that affects many more than 28,000 people. It affects us all.”

At librarian body Cilip, chief executive Nick Poole said that while librarians wholeheartedly support the government’s desire for libraries to thrive, “we should set our sights higher and be more ambitious”.

“We need investment to accelerate the modernisation of library services, not toolkits and masterclasses,” said Poole, referring to the government’s mention of its libraries taskforce in its response. The taskforce, intended to investigate the state of UK libraries until 2021, was described in the government’s response as “encouraging good practice and innovation”, while providing toolkits and free masterclasses for library services.


Alison Flood

The GuardianTramp

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