The British Library Board (Power to Borrow) Bill was introduced in the House of Commons by Bim Afolami (Conservative MP for Hitchin and Harpenden). Mr Afolami has described the purpose of the bill as increasing the types of funding available to the British Library. He has said this will give it greater freedom to increase public access to its resources and to provide new services.

What services does the British Library currently provide?

The British Library is the UK’s national library. It currently has two main sites: one in St Pancras, London, and another in Boston Spa, Yorkshire. On 25 March 2019, the British Library announced plans for a new British Library North, based in Leeds. In his 2020 budget, Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, announced the Government would be providing additional funding for the development of this site.

The British Library also provides access to its resources through other libraries around the UK. This includes through its business and intellectual property centre national network. This network provides small and medium sized enterprises with access to training and resources. In his 2020 budget, Mr Sunak announced £13 million of funding would be allocated to the British Library to enable it to expand this service.

What is the legislation currently governing the British Library?

The British Library was established as the UK’s national library by the British Library Act 1972. This act states the British Library’s governing body, the British Library board, is unable to borrow money. Currently, most of the British Library’s funding comes from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) in the form of grants in aid.

In 2013, the then Government announced it would establish a pilot scheme to enable national museums and galleries to change the ways in which they operated. This included allowing them to borrow money. These changes were made permanent in 2015. However, the British Library remained unable to borrow money because of the 1972 Act. In November 2017, the Strategic Review of DCMS-Sponsored Museums argued this was at odds with the Government’s overall policy and recommended that the DCMS and the British Library should consider how to amend the 1972 Act. Later that month, the British Library board agreed to support a change in the law to enable it to borrow money.

What would the bill do?

The British Library Board (Power to Borrow) Bill is a short bill, containing two clauses:

  • Clause 1 would amend paragraph 11(1) of the schedule to the British Library Act 1972, removing the restriction preventing the British Library board from borrowing money on behalf of the British Library.
  • Clause 2 establishes that the bill’s provisions extend across the whole of the UK. It also establishes the bill would come into force two months after receiving royal assent.

The explanatory notes for the bill, prepared by DCMS, say the bill would enable the British Library to access loans from central Government in addition to its current grants in aid funding.

Passage of the bill through the House of Commons

Both the Government and the Opposition supported the bill in the House of Commons. Although some amendments were tabled at third reading, no amendments were made to the bill before it reached the House of Lords.

Second reading

Second reading took place in the House of Commons on 13 March 2020. Mr Afolami argued that the bill would enable the British Library to expand the services it provides, including its business and intellectual property centres. He told the House:

Business and intellectual property centres are growing hugely in popularity in the British Library in London and all over the country, and the British Library can help to sponsor the exporting of that model in the country to give many more people the opportunity to set up a business and have the right advice when doing so.

He also said:

Having the ability to borrow will give the British Library the freedom to innovate much more than it does today, and that will enable it to show more of its collections to the public.

Tracy Brabin, the Shadow Minister for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, also spoke in support of the bill. However, she argued the Government needed to ensure existing forms of funding continued. She said:

We must ensure that the borrowing is not viewed as a substitute for its grant in aid, which is currently worth more than £96 million a year. It cannot be: ‘Well, you’ve borrowed, so we’re going to reduce your grant’, it must be supplementary to expand and celebrate the brilliant work the library is doing around the country. It must be an additional funding tool, not a replacement.

Responding on behalf of the Government, Caroline Dinenage, the Minister for Digital and Culture, said the Government also supported the bill. She said:

The Government’s view is that an institution as important as the British Library should have the same choices and opportunities as its great cultural peers. This bill will remove the legislative barrier that denies the library the freedom to borrow that its fellow national museums and galleries enjoy.

Committee stage

Committee stage took place in the House of Commons on 30 September 2020. No amendments were made to the bill at this stage. During the proceedings, Ms Dinenage argued that the bill would ensure the British Library had the option of using borrowing to support its recovery from the long-term economic impact of Covid-19. Kevin Brennan (Labour MP for Cardiff West) asked whether the bill would enable the British Library to borrow privately or only from the state. Ms Dinenage confirmed the bill would enable the British Library to borrow commercially. However, she said borrowing from the Government would be better value for money in most cases.

Report stage

Report stage took place in the House of Commons on 12 March 2021.

Sir Christopher Chope (Conservative MP for Christchurch) tabled two amendments to the bill:

  • New clause 1 would have meant the bill would expire after 5 years. Sir Christopher argued this would ensure an assessment was made of this impact of these new powers at the end of this five-year period.
  • Amendment 1 would have limited the amount of money the British Library was able to borrow to £1 million per year. Sir Christopher argued this would ensure that Parliament retained control over the amount being borrowed.

During his speech, Sir Christopher also raised concerns that enabling the British Library to borrow might be used by the Government as a justification for cutting its grant in aid funding.

Responding to Sir Christopher, Mr Afolami argued the amendments were unnecessary. He said it was important the bill granted the same powers to the British Library that had already been given to other national museums and galleries.

Matt Warman, the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, argued against adding an expiry date to the bill. He said it risked taking up further parliamentary time, as it would require Parliament to pass the same legislation again after 5 years. He said introducing restrictions on borrowing by the British Library where none existed for other similar bodies would be unfair. He also told the House that he was unaware of any plans from HM Treasury to reduce the amount of grant in aid funding the British Library received. Following this debate, Sir Christopher withdrew new clause 1 and amendment 1.

Third reading

Immediately after report stage, the bill received third reading. It was passed following a short debate in which Mr Afolami thanked MPs and the Government for their support.

House of Lords stages

First reading in the House of Lords took place on 12 March 2021. The bill’s sponsor in the House of Lords is Lord Vaizey of Didcot (Conservative). The bill is scheduled to receive its second reading in the Lords on 19 March 2021.

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Cover image by CGP Grey—CGP Grey’s Photography.