17 December 2013

S4M-08484 Moray Library Closures

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Elaine Smith): The final item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S4M-08484, in the name of Stewart Stevenson, on Moray library closures. The debate will be concluded without any questions being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament condemns Moray Council’s decision to remove a mobile library from service and close the libraries in Findochty, Hopeman, Portknockie and Rothes; believes that the decision to close four of its 15 libraries could have an adverse impact on families with young children and both older and disabled people; believes that libraries play a valuable role in communities and that the proposed closures would have a detrimental impact on education and learning and restrict access in rural communities to information technology services; further believes that this is particularly concerning as, it understands, the UK Government is increasingly making access to many services online only; notes that the Scottish Library and Information Council has commissioned a review of the Public Library Quality Improvement Matrix, which examines the quality of such services, and recognises the work of the Save our Libraries Moray campaign and others, which aims to bring together the communities affected by the council’s decision.


Stewart Stevenson (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP):

It is thought that the oldest library in the world was that at Ebla in Syria and that it was founded more than 4,500 years ago. It was based in what was then and is again a turbulent area of the world. After its destruction it remained unknown until the discovery of the text of an international treaty, inscribed on a clay tablet, in what people later realised was a library. Today it is a derelict archaeological site.

Today’s changes for libraries in Moray are less dramatic, but the effects of closure can be profound for the communities of Findochty, Hopeman, Portknockie and Rothes. Closure removes a source of knowledge, diminishes opportunities for learning and reduces access to vital infrastructure such as the internet.

The initial proposals, which were passed by the Tory and independent councillors who run Moray Council, were to be even more draconian and were in clear breach of equalities legislation. Thankfully, some sense was restored when the legal consequences became more obvious to administration councillors. A vigorous community-led campaign, represented in the public gallery this evening by members of the save our libraries Moray campaign, showed just how disconnected the council had become from some of the communities that it must serve.

Lord Wellington, a Tory Prime Minister until he lost office over reform in 1830, was strongly opposed to education for all as he feared the consequences of knowledge. I absolutely do not suggest that today’s Tories hold his views, but the effects of their cuts carry the risk of a journey to increased ignorance—just, perhaps, what Wellington might have wished.

For a party of business there are also practical effects to deplore. In rural Scotland, access to broadband can be limited or absent. For businesses big enough to pay VAT, and now required to submit their accounts online, loss of access to the internet via their local library is more than a mere inconvenience. When they have to travel further to access a terminal in a library, it takes time out of running a business, increases costs and risks default on tight HM Revenue & Customs rules.

For the unemployed, access to the internet is vital to get access to the benefits to which they are entitled. Of course, the unemployed are much less likely to have access to the internet in their own home. Moray Council itself relies on the internet: people who want to get a council house use that means of accessing that council service in increasing numbers. Libraries are not simply about books.

In my constituency, the communities of Findochty and Portknockie now have no library. My colleague Richard Lochhead, who is in Brussels tonight, texted me to share his similar concern about the communities of Hopeman and Rothes in the area that he represents.

The closures are driven by the need to manage the council’s costs. When the Opposition in this place demands more money to mitigate the effects of cuts from the Tory-Lib Dem Westminster Government, we on the Government benches always ask from where that money should come. I will avoid the trap of proposing more expenditure without proposing from where it should come.

The council has proposals for a link road in Moray. Not to proceed with that would be an easy cut for the council to make. It would save much more than is needed to keep the libraries open and it would open for the council a wide range of other options that their current spending plans deny it. It would respond to genuine and significant public concern about the proposed route for the new road, and cancellation would protect important parts of the local environment.

Richard Lochhead and I joined road and library campaigners on the march and rally in Elgin on 12 October. It was abundantly clear that the council’s current choices are not popular with a significant part of the Moray community.

For the cabinet secretary who will respond to tonight’s debate, it is easier than it sometimes is, because it is not for her to direct Moray Council’s policy on libraries. I do not expect to hear that she will change her approach to that. However, it might be useful to hear what value and benefits the Scottish Government thinks are delivered by libraries.

Is it not appropriate that we are having this debate on a day when, in our Parliament, we have an exhibition concerning a person who might be the patron saint of libraries, Andrew Carnegie, who, of course, was responsible for many libraries across Scotland?

On independence day, 4 July 1962, John F Kennedy said:

“to govern is to choose.”

The responsibilities and opportunities of Moray Council are, of course, substantially less than those of JFK, but the council’s politicians share with him a duty to serve. Making the right decision can enhance the lustre and reputation of those who make it—even though, in this case, doing the right thing will make it even more difficult for me to challenge my political opponents in future.

In governing, I suggest to Moray Council that it is time to choose libraries rather than roads.


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