Published: 26th May, 2011
by DAN CARRIER
CULTURE minister Ed Vaizey refused to answer questions on the future of the library service when confronted by the New Journal yesterday (Wednesday).
The Conservative, whose portfolio in the government includes libraries, was at the British Museum in Bloomsbury to announce the launch of the annual Portable Antiquities and Treasure report – a document listing items of historical value dug up by metal detector-wielding enthusiasts, builders digging holes and farmers ploughing up fields.
But before he gave his speech, and as he pressed flesh with museum staff members and answered questions from journalists, he pointedly refused to discuss the possible closure of Camden’s 13 libraries or reduced opening hours.
Mr Vaizey turned to a government press officer and said: “I’m not sure what to do. Can I speak? You are here to protect me from things like this.”
The press officer then informed the New Journal the minister would not answer any questions on the subject and demanded any request for an interview be made in writing.
Mr Vaizey called himself the “library champion” soon after the last general election and vowed that libraries “had a home at the heart of the Big Society project”. But yesterday he fell silent and shuffled off on his own to look animatedly at the treasures of Sutton Hoo on display.
After the launch, he again refused to discuss his party’s policy on libraries and instead chatted with a treasure hunting “mud larker”, securing a promise of a guided trip to the tidal banks of the Thames with his five-year-old child.
Later on, after the New Journal twice put a question in writing to the minister’s press team, a response came back.
They said: “The government is a committed champion of public libraries and their value, not just in encouraging reading, but as the hub of local communities and giving access to other information and services. We continue to monitor and assess proposals and decisions being made about changes to library services.”
Camden’s leisure chief, Labour councillor Tulip Siddiq, who delivered a petition from Kentish Town library users to Mr Vaizey’s offices last week, said: “I’m not surprised Ed Vaizey had nothing to say to the New Journal about libraries. If my government was responsible for destroying local public services and annihilating community libraries, I would stay quiet too.”
Meanwhile, library users will be given a copy of Cllr Siddiq’s report on the future of the borough’s libraries on Friday. It is expected to call for greater use of volunteers, proposal criticised by the vice-chairman of the Camden Public Library Users Group, Nigel Steward.
He said: “It is easy to say volunteers can run libraries but in practice, few people will do so.
But Cllr Siddiq said she believed volunteers could help. She added: “At all the public meetings I have gone to there has been a clear demonstration of the commitment of library users to support the service. I have faith that in the face of government spending cuts people will co-operate and protect the library service.
“I do not expect volunteers just to step in and take over the running of libraries. I will work in partnership with them and give them as much support form the council as they need.”