Opinion: time to close the book on Booktrust

The Government should have stuck to its guns, and ended its relationship with Booktrust.

There was never any withdrawal of funding or cut as far as I can tell. The last government signed a time-limited deal with the charity to dish out books to children of various ages. That contract is due to come to an end next April, and the Coalition has always had every intention of honouring that contract.

From the media coverage and the reaction of some, you might imagine that instead of not renewing a contract, the Coalition had instead decided to indulge in human sacrifice. Take the comments of former poet laureate Sir Andrew Motion; he called it “an act of gross cultural vandalism”, making it sound like education secretary Michael Gove had decided to use the Rosetta Stone as a doorstop in his ministerial office.

Not to be outdone his successor as poet laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, called it behaviour like “Scrooge at his worst”. Scrooge, you will remember from your Dickens, says he would be happy for the poor to die in order to reduce the surplus population; the Booktrust decision is a clear moral equivalent, I am sure you will agree.

What all those jumping up and down about this decision seem to have forgotten is that there are places where children – indeed, everyone – can go and access books free of charge. They are called libraries.

In fact I would go as far as to say that this idea of handing out books to children might even undermine the sustainability of libraries. It makes people think of books as things you own, not things you borrow. With the number of people visiting libraries on the decline, this is something we need to combat.

What is more, could not the job of loving literature be something that teachers could try to instill into our children? Children will, after all, come into contact with teachers for hours every day for years; Booktrust pops up, I think, three times during a childhood to hand out a book or two. And remember: the schools budget has been protected from the cuts needed to bring down the budget deficit.

And it is because of that deficit and the debt it has caused that the millions that would have been saved by not renewing the Booktrust contract were worth saving. Right now, this country is paying £120m every day just in the interest on the debt we already owe; that is not paying down the debt, that is just the interest we are paying to service the debt we have already built up. Whilst some in politics bury their heads in the sand, others have to show the maturity to realise that cuts have to be made.

Booktrust is quoted in the media as saying that for every £1 it gets from the Government, it gets £4 from other sponsors, such as publishers. The motivation of the publishers is obvious, and I cannot imagine it would be impossible to convince them to stump up the remaining £1 for every £4 they put in. After all, reading the half-year results of Penguin Group, the publishers, they boast of “record” profits [PDF]; the performance of the children’s section of the publishers is described as “excellent” and “stellar”, with “significant sales growth” in the UK. Surely a few extra bob to encourage the readers of tomorrow would be money well spent for them.

According to reports, the taxpayer only stepped in with contributions to Booktrust in 2004, yet the scheme started in 1992. I am sure therefore that if every publisher whose books are handed out as part of the scheme contributed a little more we could return to the days when Booktrust operated without the need for taxpayers’ cash.

Stuart Bonar was the Lib Dem candidate at the General Election in the seat of Plymouth Moor View.

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24 Comments

  • Stuart – am eminently sensible article. You echo the thoughts I had on Libraries when I first read this. And I wasn’t aware of the contractual nature of the arrangement, either.

    However – I feel duty-bound to point out that you did not use the words “sell-out”, “betrayal”, “right-wing cabal”, or “orange-book tendency”, so your article doesn’t count.

  • So you’ll oppose any Library closures as a result of the coalition reducing money available to local councils? You’ll also be campaigning for more libraries to be built in deprived areas, because lower income families are the greates beneficiaries of Booktrust?

    If not, why not?

  • @Tabman: thanks for that… makes a nice change to get a comment on here that doesn’t toe the anti-Lib Dem line.

    @g: I absolutely oppose library closures; indeed, back in May I wrote a piece for a local, south Devon website (read it here, http://goo.gl/yWYOt) making that very point. The reason why I am arguing against spending public money on things like Booktrust is that when taxpayers’ money is spent wisely and properly, there’s enough to spend on the things the Government should be investing in, like libraries. When the Government just sprays money at everything (like the last one), that’s when things go wrong.

  • Oops; that URL should have been http://goo.gl/yWYOt

  • @Stuart

    Appreciate your commitment to libraries, but just put ‘library closures’ into google news for the latest headlines. It’s all very well arguing that they shouldn’t close, but they are, and the withdrawal of funds to Booktrust means that even more children will struggle to find books.

    You have to deal with situations as they are, not how you would wish them to be.

  • I am a Lib Dem and Town Councillor in Somerset. The Conservative County Council has proposed the closure of 20 of our 34 Libraries, including the Library in our town. I called a meeting of “Friends of the Library” this week that was well attended. There was unanimous support for a £10 council tax rise to keep our Library open. There were also great suggestions about how the service could be improved through using volunteers to engage families in the Library. The town council is meeting next week to set its budget. Proposing a 38% council tax rise in an election year will be great fun on the doorsteps!

    Good Libraries lead to high literacy rates, improved creativity and a strong knowledge base in an information age – surely that must be good for getting us out of a recession.

    “Fighting Ignorance, Poverty and Conformity” – you bet!

  • Stuart, I kind of get the feeling that if the Government proposed to paint the first born child of every family blue – the Lib Dems would find a way to agree and claim it’ll help lower the deficit.

    Seriously – Booktrust is a great scheme.

  • Tony Greaves 6th Jan '11 - 11:58pm

    The kind of article we can well do without.

    Tony Greaves

  • Another article that charts the progress of the Lib Dems to Clegg’s preferred destination on the centre right. Even so I am slightly surpised to a. see an article arguing for a cut to what is very widely accpeted as a very effective scheme and b. the amount of support for the orginal article. How times change. This article would not have appeared a year ago.

  • @Neil Bradbury: It sounds like you’re doing really valuable work there. Big personal debts are incredibly crippling and without services like yours I imagine a great many you help would fall victim to some pretty nasty people.
    @Steve Cooke & @Andrew Tennant: Thanks!
    @g: I guess the answer is to take the kind of very commendable action that @Bill is taking in Somerset. If the money isn’t coming from London then take the case out onto the doorstep and try to get a C-Tax rise endorsed; not easy, but we’re not in the easiest of places right now.
    @Cuse: And, correspondingly, I imagine that if we unearthed a scheme brought in by the last government that civil servants had to use £50 notes to test every shredder in Whitehall every morning, you’d argue that cancelling it to save money would somehow hit the poorest hardest.
    @Tony Greaves: Thanks, Your Lordship, for taking the time to comment. All I can say is that, as a good Liberal, I am very pleased to have irritated a member of the unelected House.
    @AlexKN: Supporting libraries & the work of teachers, celebrating the protection of the schools’ budget, and simply wanting profitable publishing companies to pay for their own books to be given away does not make me right-wing.

  • Stuart, I work with young people in inner-city London who would not have a single quality piece of fiction in their home if it was not for the excellent work of Booktrust. Your point on Libraries is completely invalid as a key element of the Booktrust programme is organising events and activities designing to get young people whose families don’t access libraries to use them. This is why Booktrust’s biggest supporters aren’t publishers or authors but librarians because far from undermining the credibility of libraries as you claim it is because of Booktrust that so many young people have visited their local library for the first time and plan to do so again in the future, again this is why librarians led the campaign to stop your party shutting down the book gifting policy.

    People didn’t vote for the Lib Dems for things like this to be happening to our children and our communities. Sort it out.

  • @Dave: And taking children to libraries couldn’t be organised by teachers and librarians we already employ because…? And Booktrust couldn’t be funded entirely by profitable publishers because…?

    Dave, we had a 13-year experiment in government pulling out the cheque book and the fountain pen at the drop of a hat, and this is where it has got us to – spending £120,000,000 every day just on the interest on the debt we have already built up; that’s £120,000,000 every day that we cannot spend on school textbooks, on equipment for operating theatres, on employing police officers, on refurbishing forces’ homes faster, or cutting taxes on the poorest working people more quickly than we want. Seriously, wake up.

  • The government is resigned to UK banks paying out billions of pounds in bonuses this year, despite its calls to curb the payments, the BBC has learned.

    The best the coalition can hope for is a declaration from the banks that they will pay out less than they would have without government intervention, said BBC business editor Robert Peston.

    Puts in into perspective a bit doesn’t it……

  • @Peter: So, a bad poll rating means reality disappears down a plughole? Somehow being down in the polls means that all that money we owe, we suddenly don’t owe? That £120,000,000 we pay every single day just in interest on the debt Labour built up is somehow not due for payment today, or tomorrow, or the next day, or the day after that?

    By being in government we are able to play our role in sorting that out, but at the same time, we’re able to ensure that income tax is abolished for the poorest working people and we’re able to re-establish the link between the state pension and earnings. I am glad we are in there achieving those things, even if, for now, our poll ratings are down, rather than sitting idly on the sidelines entering our seventh decade of powerlessness.

  • Honestly Stuart I don’t think individual schools and libraries could organise such programmes as effectively as Booktrust, especially when we consider the real term cuts primary schools are facing and the decimation of our library service which the Lib Dems are overseeing.

    We need to cut the deficit, but doing it at this pace and in this way will be far more detrimental in the long term.

  • @Dave: If that is the case then profitable publishers like Penguin need to be encouraged to top up their current donations to meet the shortfall; they, after all, presumably do well out of this. The answer is not always more state support.

  • Excellent article Stuart. Labour did some wonderful things for the poorest in our society; but it was by pulling out the chequebook. That may have seemed acceptable in a time of economic prosperity but in these stringent times, we need to understand that, for the time being at least, we are going to have to aid social mobility in other ways, such as more efficient use of existing resources like you suggested.

  • On a slightly tangental issue – whilst class visits to libraries are really important, I understand reseach shows that by the time children get to primary school their achievement pattern is pretty much set. Indeed, literacy depends on early communication and language acquisition – from rhymes (either at a library rhymetime or at home), being read stories, etc. I believe this is why Booktrust focus on babies and very young children. Literacy, in turn, is the key to success, happiness, achievement and aspiration (see the National Literacy Trust’s “Literacy Changes Lives” report if you’re particularly interested in the relationship with crime, health, jobs, voting etc).

    I’m not trying to make a political point (ultimately we’ll all differ over what we think the chequebook should be pulled out for) but starting very early and encouraging parents to do this would appear to be essential.

  • IF the money to be dropped from Bookstart was being given to libraries then maybe what you are saying would be true. As we sit today, children are faced with losing bookstart and also losing their local library. Schools having devolved budgets also mean that they no longer have to spend a certain amount on the school library – so kids will lose this too! But then literacy is perhaps not as important to UK as I had been led to believe by Governments of all political colours.

    In reality, the cuts to libraries that we are seeing are only the beginning. There are many services who are considering alternative provision for their libraries – this could include putting them out to trust. Once the services are out of council control then the trust can shut the libraries they choose, reduce hours, make them volunteer run and then the council can deny responsibility.

    In the service I work in the decision is no where near being made – cuts are being identified as an alternative and then a decision will be made whether to take the cuts or proceed with a trust. The full implication of the trust option will not be known until at least April 2012 when the Trust (if chosen) will take over! I know for a fact that many other services will be progressing along this timescale.

    Unfortunately, our service is one of the most cost efficient in the country – this means that there is no “fat” to cut – any cuts will not be achieved easily. Sometimes it pays to be inefficient as a few years ago we would have been able to make at least 80% of the cuts required with much less pain than we will incur now!

    Perhaps some of the banks would like to hold onto a small percentage of their bonuses and offer these for the running of council services – including libraries. This would raise the opinion of them in the communities eyes and keep our services running!

    Well thats my tuppence worth (hmmmmm make that a penny!!!) – for what good it will do.

  • Library Detective 16th Jan '11 - 8:32pm

    I don’t have a massive attachment to Booktrust specifically but I would agree with posters pointing out it’s very effective at starting children on a journey to being literate members of society. Libraries work in partnership with Booktrust and it helps librarians to reach the children they really need to before their behaviour is too set in stone. Later on in their lives (because these things are well on the way already) they will find that their nursery/primary school won’t take classes out to libraries so much anymore due to the huge amount of paperwork and numbers of staff needed to walk some kids down the road. Once they are at school their school library will be either non-existent or have a dwindling number of resources – no trained librarian, and the school has probably cut the money previously used to pay the public library to provide a schools library service. Librarians from the public service that used to do outreach to the kids won’t be coming anymore since most of them will have been cut from the service in the current round of job cuts in favour of untrained volunteers. I realise this sounds a very negative picture but not, I believe, one that is too far away from whe we are heading. I would like to see the government removing some of the excess costs from all these areas, caused by the mushrooming of beaurocracy over recent years – such as CRB checking everybody whether they have any actual contact with children or vulnerable people or not and refusing access to IT systems unless someone is officially employed and has completed a 4hr course in data security first (these just happen to be the examples i thought of first, there are hundreds more). Cutting some of this waste which is based on edicts from previous central governments would free people running services to do their jobs and provide better value for money for taxpayers. It would also free up money to spend more directly on frontline services that make a real difference. As for Booktrust, whatever decision has to be taken with a holistic view of the other services it’s linked to and the way they use the scheme to increase outcomes.

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