British Library Board (Power to Borrow) Bill DebateFull Debate: Read Full Debate
Baroness BlackstoneMain Page: Baroness Blackstone (Labour Independent - Life peer)
My Lords, I do not propose to detain your Lordships long. This is a very simple Bill that has been entrusted to me, which runs to the full extent of two clauses. Before I move to the Bill, I refer to my register of interests, including my work for the Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society.
This Bill has come from the other place, where it was ably stewarded by Bim Afolami MP. Without wishing to turn this into an Oscars speech, I briefly express my gratitude to Rob Field of the British Library for his help in preparing my remarks as well as to Cheryl Shorter and Mark Hicks at what we must now refer to at length as the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.
I am very much looking forward to the speeches from noble Lords, in particular from the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, who was for many years the chair of the British Library when I was a simple junior Minister sitting at her feet, and from my newly ennobled and very old noble friend Lord Hannan, who 30 years ago used to do my photocopying. I say to him that, if he does not have at least three quotes from Shakespeare referring to reading and libraries in his three-minute speech, I will be extremely disappointed.
As I said, this Bill is extremely uncontroversial. Its two clauses simply repeal a provision in the British Library Act 1972—the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, who is also due to speak, was there when it was going through Parliament—which prevents the British Library from borrowing. I am told by officials at DCMS that the reason why the provision was included in the 1972 Act is lost in the mists of time, despite their archaeological work—the noble Lord may be able to shed light on that.
This Bill will put the British Library in the same position as the rest of our national museums. I was lucky enough as Minister for Culture to push forward granting greater freedoms to our national museums. That included the power to borrow and to spend from their reserves and other flexibilities. I was certainly not around at the time—although, again, the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, will recall it—but it is hard to believe that 40 or 50 years ago our museums were treated as subsets of government departments, with huge restrictions. I am pleased to say that, whatever one’s view of different Governments, more and more freedoms have been granted to our museums and they have flourished as a result.
This simple Bill will allow the great British Library to have the same level of freedom as its counterparts. Once the Bill is passed, it will be able to borrow from a Treasury pot of £60 million that is made available annually and has so far been used by seven museums. It is important to stress—I do not think that any of your Lordships would take this view, but it was raised at Second Reading in the other place—that this is not a Trojan horse or some Machiavellian scheme by the Government to allow the British Library to borrow money so that they can cut its grant in future. It simply provides the flexibility and freedom enjoyed by all our other national museums.
I do not want to pre-empt any of the remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, but it is safe to say that the British Library is a jewel in our cultural crown. I am pleased to say that it still receives a generous grant from the Government of almost £100 million, but it also generates almost £20 million in commercial income. It provides free access for the public to its treasures gallery and free access for registered readers to its famous reading room. Its treasures go on tour around the country; I remember visiting the Lindisfarne Gospels in County Durham. They will be going on tour again to Newcastle next year and George Eliot’s Middlemarch is going to Coventry, our future capital of culture. It has 150 million physical items, which include 31 million books, almost a million titles, 350,000 manuscripts, almost 5 million maps and 1.5 million music scores. It adds 3 million more items every year; it has 625 kilometres of shelf space and adds 12 kilometres every year.
In this climate of levelling-up, it is also worth remembering that the British Library has a magnificent 42-acre site in Boston Spa in Yorkshire, which employs 550 people and where 70% of its collection is kept. Also, in this digital age, it is worth remembering that 5 million people a year look at items from the British Library online, 5 million people visit its website and 10 million teachers use its learning resources. When I was Culture Minister, I was very pleased to put through Parliament the non-print legal deposit regulations—an inelegant name for an important piece of legislation that has allowed the British Library to start collecting digital items. It now has 7.5 million e-books, 13 billion web items and 1.5 petabytes of data, which is apparently equivalent to 10 billion digital photos.
I am glad that the Government’s support for the British Library continues. In the last Budget, they awarded £13 million to the British Library to support its business and IP centres—again, this is a very important innovation which I think happened when the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, was chair of the British Library—which work with 20 regional and 90 local libraries to support businesses, and 12,000 businesses have taken advantage of this. The majority of those businesses are actually run by women; a third of them are run by people from BAME backgrounds and a fifth of them by people with disabilities. I was also delighted to learn that the National Lottery Heritage Fund has made £25 million available to the British Library to set up a new library in Leeds. The future of the British Library is bright indeed under the able leadership of Dame Carol Black and Roly Keating.
Since I have the Floor for just a few minutes, may I make two general policy points? I am obviously enjoying this moment of pretending that I am a Minister once again. First, I ask my noble friend who is in fact the Minister: could the Government look at the public lending right again? It seems to me such an easy win to increase the funding available for the public lending right. You can call me sad, but I was rereading my late father’s speeches in the House of Lords from when the public lending right was first introduced. We talk often in this place at the moment about freelancers. Authors are the ultimate freelancers, and for a very small amount of money the Government could make a great and dramatic impact on the lives of many authors.
Secondly, I also reveal to the House my complete obsession with museum storage. The Boston Spa site—already a fantastic resource for the British Library and the country—could be made even better if the Government leaned in with the British Library on the digitisation of print items, because that is the way the world is going. It could turn into a fantastic regional resource in Yorkshire with the right amount of investment and imagination.
With those two free hits afforded to me by being able to steward the Bill through this place, I make my points and beg to move.
My Lords, it is a very real privilege to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone. She was a very distinguished chairman of the British Library and did much to enhance it, and we are all in her debt.
I regard my noble friend Lord Vaizey with a degree of affectionate envy today, because I have the Bill that has languished at the top of the list from our ballot last year and is never going to be debated in this House unless I draw a high place in the next ballot. But he has done a service in bringing this Bill before us.
I am by nature against anomalies and for flexibility, and the Bill does away with a quite extraordinary anomaly. When you look at all our other great museums and galleries, it is right that this, one of the greatest institutions of its kind in the world—if not the greatest library in the world—should enjoy these simple benefits, not least because it is itself a marvellous lender. I speak with very real experience, because I was responsible for organising a couple of major exhibitions in Lincoln in 2015 to commemorate Magna Carta and in 2017 to commemorate the great Battle of Lincoln. We borrowed a number of our most significant things, including the Luttrell Psalter in the first exhibition. I had nothing but help from Claire Breay, who heads up medieval manuscripts, and her colleagues, and I pay tribute to them. Those who are lenders should be able to be borrowers too—and, of course, they do with their own exhibitions.
My noble friend is right that I was present when the original Act went through in another place. However, I am very sad that our noble friend Lord Eccles is not able to be here today. His father was very much the godfather of the British Library, and I know that our noble colleague is inordinately proud, and rightly so, of what his father achieved. I shall never forget the great opening ceremony and the series of other ceremonies that followed the opening of the library. Although there were views about its architecture, it has established itself as a quite marvellous institution, and it deserves every possible help from government.
When I look back on my nearly 51 years in Parliament, nothing from an Act of Parliament has been of greater benefit to the people of this country in the cultural sense than the British Library. I am very glad indeed that we have the opportunity to speed this Bill on its way this morning.