Row over public libraries forces Tory action: Minister's speech threatened charges on book borrowing. Donald Macintyre and David Lister report

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The Independent Online
PETER BROOKE, the Secretary of State for National Heritage, has been forced to take action to damp down a row over a speech by a junior minister implying that the public might have to pay to borrow library books.

Mr Brooke is writing to the Library Association to reassure them that the Government has no plans to end a free 'core public library service' as part of a fundamental review of library provision.

The move comes amid signs of government embarrassment over a speech by Iain Sproat, National Heritage minister, who infuriated public librarians by asking whether books should continue to be available free.

Mr Sproat said that a number of 'fundamental questions' needed to be addressed by the review - including: 'Is there still something sufficiently distinctive about reading as a recreation, to justify its being made publicly available without charge?'

In an unnoticed passage in the speech to the Public Libraries Conference on 30 September, Mr Sproat also announced that he was referring the Net Book Agreement, which fixes minimum book prices, to the Director General of Fair Trading. Some MPs believe that the NBA could be outlawed to offset the possible imposition of VAT on books.

But it is Mr Sproat's apparent questioning of a free reading service has provoked angry protests from librarians' leaders and the Opposition.

Ann Clwyd, Labour spokeswoman on national heritage, said yesterday that she would be tabling questions in the House of Commons when it returns next week, and that Mr Sproat's remarks were a 'disgrace'. She said that libraries were in the 'literacy front line' and were already being forced to cut their opening hours.

To Mr Brooke's embarrassment, his junior minister's speech will become the focus of National Library Week which starts on 1 November. This was to be a largely unpolitical event stressing all the services offered by libraries. Now it will stress the threat of charges for borrowing books, and could be a week of anti-government speeches.

Ross Shimmon, chief executive of the Libraries Association, said last night: 'Mr Sproat's remarks cannot just be dismissed as those of a maverick minister. He was speaking as a minister in the Department of National Heritage to the annual conference of the Library Association . . . He said he was asking a 'neutral question'. But the way he phrased it was hardly neutral.'