Government U-turn over book scheme cuts

Gavin Cordon,Pa
Sunday 26 December 2010 17:40 GMT

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The Government said today it will continue funding a scheme providing free books for children to encourage a love of reading following a furious backlash from authors over plans to scrap state support.

Labour leader Ed Miliband, who has been pressing the Government to restore funding for Booktrust, tonight wrote to Prime Minister David Cameron urging him to make clear exactly how much the charity would receive.

"On school sport we saw a mean-minded decision made without consultation or regard for the consequences where you had to perform a partial U-turn. We are seeing that again here," he wrote.

"Today, the Department of Education appears to be starting to backtrack amid the outcry from parents, children and authors. But there is no clarity at all.

"It now falls to you to get a grip on this fiasco and provide some reassurance that a scheme on the lines of the current programme will be maintained, with a clear statement about the amount of investment that will be provided."

Leading children's author Philip Pullman and former poet laureate Sir Andrew Motion were among the writers to speak out after it was announced that the Booktrust was to lose its annual £13 million Government grant.

But in a joint statement, the Department for Education (DFE) and Booktrust said that the DFE would now continue to finance the programme which benefits 3.3 million children a year in England.

"The Department for Education and Booktrust are determined to ensure that reading for pleasure is a gift every child can enjoy. That is why the DFE will continue to fund Booktrust book-gifting programmes in the future," the statement said.

"Although the current contract will end in April the department is talking to Booktrust about how to develop a new programme which will ensure that every child can enjoy the gift of books at crucial moments in their lives while ensuring we develop an even more effective way of supporting the most disadvantaged families to read together.

"The department and Booktrust will be working together, with publishers, in order to ensure that we can make every possible saving in developing an enhanced programme."

The apparent U-turn comes hard on the heels of Education Secretary Michael Gove's hurried retreat over plans to axe funding for the School Sports Partnership scheme in England, which had been slated to close.

Earlier, Booktrust chief executive Viv Bird said she had been "immensely surprised and disappointed" to hear the charity was to lose all its state support, having previously been told it would be cut by 20%.

Sir Andrew described scrapping the grant as an "act of gross cultural vandalism" while Mr Pullman - the author of the His Dark Materials trilogy - accused the Government of "wanton destruction".

"Sheer stupid vandalism, like smashing Champagne bottles as a drunken undergraduate," Mr Pullman told The Observer. "If you miss the first years of a child's development, nothing can clear it up. It's gone. It won't happen. A whole generation will lose out."

Sir Andrew said that the Booktrust was "a national institution, and the envy of the world". While the savings made by its abolition would be "negligible", he said, the damage done would be "immense".

The charity, operating since 1992 and Government-funded since 2004, aims to provide Bookstart packs to parents when their babies are born and then further books at later stages in their development.

Its co-founder, Wendy Cooling, was awarded the MBE in 2008 for services to children's literacy.

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