28 Jan 2011

Lib Dem Minister in library row


Exclusive: A Liberal Democrat Minister is in hot water after telling her constituents to remove all the books out of her local library to prevent its closure, writes Cathy Newman.

Sarah Teather MP (Reuters)

Protesters could halt library closures by clearing the shelves of books, a Government Minister has suggested, in comments denounced tonight as “grossly irresponsible” and “hypocritical”.

Channel 4 News has learnt that the Children and Families Minister Sarah Teather told a meeting in her constituency last night that people campaigning against council cuts to library services could resort to direct action.

A local resident who attended the gathering to save Kensal Rise library said people were “stunned” to hear her encourage such tactics.

Philip Jones said: “She did seem a little bit embarrassed about being there when everyone was talking about saving the library because of the cuts, and she suggested that people take all the books out of the library and clear the library of books.

“She suggested that people take all the books out of the library and clear the library of books.” Constituent Philip Jones

“She said the council couldn’t or wouldn’t want to close the library if the books weren’t there so I presume maybe they’re the assets and so it wouldn’t be worth anything without the books. And I think we were all a bit stunned really because she is a member of the Government and it seemed opposed to the policies of the Government.”

Ann John, the leader of Labour-run Brent Council, told Channel 4 News: “I think it’s so hypocritical for a Government Minister who participated in the vote that said ‘take £100 million off that council’s budget over 4 years’, to come down here and pretend you can save a library by removing all the books.

“I think that’s grossly irresponsible. I’ve lost a great deal of respect for her over this. We have co-operated with her over other things and I expected a bit more from her frankly.”

“I think that’s grossly irresponsible.” Labour council leader Ann John

The council says Sarah Teather’s Government has imposed spending cuts of 19 per cent over the next two years – so it has no choice but to close the library in Kensal Rise and up to five others.

In a statement to Channel 4 News this evening, Sarah Teather said: “I told a light-hearted story to highlight the ridiculous position campaigners in my constituency are in. If that hasn’t come across, I’m sorry, but let’s not pretend it’s more than it is.

“At least one local community group has expressed interest in taking over the running of the library, but the Labour-run council isn’t even giving them the time to put a business case together. I want the library to stay open and so do many of my constituents.”

More than 400 libraries across the UK are now threatened with closure, triggering widespread protests. But this is the first time a Government Minister has spoken out against the cuts.

Brent Lib Dem councillor Paul Lorber denied her comments were irresponsible. “People would be lending and borrowing from libraries, not with the intention of stealing them but just to make a political point that they value their local library,” he said.

“I told a light-hearted story to highlight the ridiculous position campaigners in my constituency are in.” Lib Dem Minister Sarah Teather

Earlier this month, campaigners in Milton Keynes and the Isle of Wight cleared the shelves of books. The demonstration was both symbolic and practical, as protesters believe if they borrow all the books en masse and renew them week after week online, councils won’t want to close libraries while the shelves remain empty.

More than 100 people attended the meeting in a scout hut in Kensal Rise last night, including novelist Maggie Gee. She said: “This matters to all of us. It matters to children, it matters to mothers, it matters to teenagers and it matters to old people. it’s the one free space where we can all come and be together. We love that library and we’re absolutely determined to keep it open.”

The library was opened more than a century ago by the American writer Mark Twain, who educated himself in public libraries. Its supporters – and there are many – say it’s a lynch pin of the community.