Dear Rishi Sunak

The Library Campaign is asking you to pay local councils what is owed them for vital lockdown services, such as public libraries.

As Chancellor, your first responsibility is to fund essential services – and ensure that provision is good value. 

According to public services union Unison, English councils have been short-changed by at least £10bn – despite government promises to cover their full costs. 

Yet hundreds of billions have gone to businesses, many of which failed to deliver. Privately-run test and trace alone has largely wasted £12bn. 

During England’s first lockdown, libraries improvised massive new online services to keep people entertained, informed and connected – as well as helping other council services with their people and information skills, to support vulnerable locals.

Yet the government contributed just £1,000 per library authority to buy extra e-books – a drop in the ocean. Nothing else. And the promise to supply laptops to schoolkids remains far short of fulfilment. 

Most library services rapidly created online versions of: daily story and rhyme sessions for small children, book groups, clubs and activities for older children, author events, quizzes and discussions, material for schools, help for benefits claimants – even festival events such as Pride.    For many people, these were a lifeline. 

National organisation Libraries Connected negotiated deals with publishers to waive their charges for extra online content, such as family history tracing.

Everything was done at almost zero extra cost.

All this on top of libraries’ normal provision of online books and audiobooks, newspapers, magazines, films, training courses, business and reference resources, academic papers and more.

Demand for these has doubled or trebled – and showed no sign of reducing even when buildings re-opened. 

This extra demand must somehow be funded, while services must also spend heavily on making safe their much-missed buildings and print books. 

Councils meanwhile were a main frontline lockdown service, providing food parcels, telephone support, volunteer teams, advice on Covid-19, information on local infection rates, guidance on confusing lockdown rules – and, increasingly, tracing of contacts missed by the government’s disastrous privately-run test and trace system.

Reports are now coming in of councils planning to make huge cuts to library services, or dump them on volunteers. Yet they have proved their worth as never before. And they are needed more than ever. 

Libraries will also be badly needed to aid eventual recovery.

Education, internet access (with help), social support, business support – local libraries are the key access point for all of these. 

Plus, of course, free books and DVDs to make fun and relaxation available to everyone…

Libraries have long been used to fill the gaps in many other public services. 

It is time they were funded to do it. They cannot go on making bricks without straw indefinitely. 

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