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John Bird slams absence of library funding in autumn statement

The Big Issue founder John Bird has attacked the short-term thinking of Theresa May’s government, after the autumn statement ignored the House of Lords’ appeal to provide libraries with emergency funding.

“We called for emergency funding to stop closures [in October] and there was nothing about libraries in the autumn statement,” Lord Bird told the Guardian. “More than 300 libraries have closed and 8,000 librarian jobs are gone. We have this problem with just-in-time-ism, where the government is only doing just what it has to and not doing any deep, probing work that will bear fruit over 10, 20, 30 years.”

In October, crossbench peer Bird warned the House of Lords that cuts to the UK library service would result in “disorder, crime, problems for schools and the fact that children will not be able to get a job because they will not have the skills and abilities”. His views were echoed by other members, including Labour peer and chair of Penguin Random House Gail Rebuck and crossbencher Nicholas Trench.

While Bird called Hammond’s job “unenviable” in the wake of the statement, he said the funding allocated to address poverty was focused on short-term solutions, and that more work needed to be done to fix long-term problems such as literacy and crime.

“Our teenagers are at the bottom of the literacy levels of all the advanced countries. Libraries are being closed, school libraries are to some extent nonexistent, and we have literacy problems,” he said, citing a 2016 OECD report that found the UK ranks 23rd out of 23 developed nations for teenage literacy.

“The reason a lot of people get low-wage jobs is because they don’t have the literacy and social literacy that goes with higher education, apprenticeships and universities. Theresa May says she is very interested in the Just About Managings – she’s got to stop producing them,” he said.

“I’d rather they spent the money [that is] going to the HS2 railway on dismantling poverty.”

Hammond announced on Wednesday that a new National Productivity Investment fund – part of which will go towards the completion of HS2 – would spend £23bn on innovation and infrastructure over the next five years.

The Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (Cilip), has asked the government to act. With 343 libraries in the UK closing and the number of qualified librarians reduced by a quarter since 2010, the organisation has suggested that further library closures could be against the law.

Nick Poole, chief executive of Cilip said: “The Autumn Statement was a missed opportunity to invest in innovation and growth through the library network. To deliver the chancellor’s aim of increasing the UK’s long-term global competitiveness, addressing the country’s literacy and skills crisis is essential.””

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