Update talks to Gill Furniss, shadow business minister and chair of the Libraries All Party Parliamentary Group about what her experience of working with communities and her new cross-party role speaking up for libraries.
THE hottest June day since 1976; the Day of Rage demonstrations sizzling to an end in the heat haze of Parliament Square. A policeman with a submachine gun signals that Portcullis House is shut until the demonstration has passed, but the doors open anyway. Nothing seems normal.
But normal would be a luxury for Gill Furniss, MP for Sheffield Brightside and Hillsborough since May 2016, when she won the seat in a by-election. ‘I’ve only been here a year,’ she says, ‘but it’s a year that has included Brexit, a Labour “coup” and a general election.’ The former librarian, now shadow business minister (steel, consumer affairs, post offices and pubs), is also Chair of the Libraries All Party Parliamentary Group.
Gill will be working alongside Lord Graham Tope, the APPG’s Vice Chair, and said: ‘I’m very much looking to him for guidance’ adding ‘we don’t want it to be just about public libraries or about being in a room talking. I want to get out and about and see what people are doing. I haven’t worked as a librarian for nearly 20 years, so there’s a big gap in my education.’ But as a politician she is aware that decisions, even opinions, can stir emotions. She cites controversy over plans to turn Sheffield central library into a hotel and build a new library: ‘It’s a huge bone of contention. But you have to at least look at that offer because the building needs millions spending on it.’
She faced similar controversies as a councillor in charge of Sheffield’s libraries. ‘When it came to the difficult budget savings, I clearly spoke up about public libraries and we never actually closed one. We were aware that once you’ve closed a library, opening one up again is nigh on impossible. We went down the volunteer route, not something we liked. I have every respect for volunteers but it is devaluing the profession. But it was the only way we could make sure that our communities still had the same access to the buildings. May be not in terms of opening hours but most certainly in terms of there being some service available to them.’
Difficult times forced some innovations. ‘I’m particularly proud of Southey Library in my constituency which has gone into partnership with Southey Development Forum which runs the building and coordinates the volunteers. They did a lot of adult learning that’s encompassed the way that they use that library and the way that users can be diverted onto learning opportunities – it’s in an area of high unemployment so that service, to me, is something that is being quite innovative’.
‘In areas like Sheffield, we know that we have a skills shortage among many sections of our population and I believe libraries are a way forward. I’m talking about public libraries but you can’t underestimate the further education sector. It’s been cut badly but they have fantastic services and the public are often not aware that they are allowed in and sometimes FE institutions don’t welcome them. I would be looking for more cooperation between further education and public libraries to try and address that. I know there are challenges but you have to find an equitable solution. It is about having local control so that you’re not told from the centre that you can have eight libraries and they have got to look like this.’
Not top down
Decisions, particularly difficult ones ‘should be left to the community and those who represent communities’ according to Gill. ‘If we hadn’t been able to do that in Sheffield we would probably have had to close libraries. I’m certain that if that had come from on high it would all have been top sliced without thinking about the sensitivities of specific areas. As councillors we’ve worked with people we knew already – I knew the board of Southey Development Forum and could say “what do you think” and then things happen.’
She points out there are huge differences in needs within local areas. Southey is white working class area while nearby Firth Park has a big immigrant population. ‘I think you have to look at individual circumstances; a rural setting will be different to an urban setting and that’s why I think it’s so good that local government runs library services because you know your patch. One size does not fit all.’
But she doesn’t rule out cooperation between authorities, especially over cost saving and adds: ‘We have opportunities with technology that we don’t even know about yet. And our history in public libraries (using barcodes and CD roms before many others) shows that we are good at harnessing technology and making sure that particularly disadvantaged communities have opportunities too.’
Gill thinks that the link with community has been unnecessarily blurred by governments. Some people were wary of moving public libraries into a Civil Society brief under Rob Wilson, the previous Libraries Minister. Their concerns were calmed when he lost his seat in the General Election and a recent reshuffle saw John Glen replace him and libraries back in a more traditional arts-focused portfolio.
Gill has a different take: ‘I am a bit disappointed. I did think public libraries fitted better in Civil Society. To me they are community assets and don’t go terribly well with arts, museums and culture. I see public libraries serving communities’ information needs and that they should be very much placed within a community and be valued by the community.’
She also believes the arts label comes at a cost. ‘It makes libraries seem very grand when you’re talking about arts and museums. We’ve got to get away from grand. We’ve got to be there with our sleeves rolled up in communities. I’d put it with housing and neighbourhoods.’
This view isn’t just about the label. Gill’s experience as a local councillor made her aware of the problems that arts portfolios face: ‘That’s one of the reasons I don’t want libraries in there. Because when it comes to funding the arts are looked at by the funding people as an elite area and if you slide libraries in there it immediately gives them an excuse to give it less funding.’
As a shadow minister herself, she is aware that her colleague Kevin Brennan, shadow library minister, will be working on Labour’s policy in the area (see April Update, pp. 22). She sees no conflict and points to the Steel APPG whose report she has gratefully received and which she regards as a document that is a good starting point in policy development. ‘I expect any Libraries APPG documents to be treated by Labour or Conservatives with the respect they deserve. It shouldn’t be party political. It’s in the name – All Party Parliamentary Group.
‘And that’s what I would envisage this being. Very much an advisory role if you like, looking at how we can do things. So no, I don’t see it as opposition. But I will always speak up for libraries anyway. So that doesn’t prevent me, if we had a libraries debate, from saying what I think. But in terms of the process, I’m not the opposition. Kevin has his role and I have mine.’
This article was originally published in CILIP Update Magazine, July/August 2017.
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