Ministers accused of free book funding 'partial U-turn'

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The government has been accused of performing a partial U-turn over funding for a charity that gives free books to children.

Booktrust had been told it would lose all £13m funding for its bookgifting programmes in England, but ministers now say funding will continue.

Labour leader Ed Miliband accused the government of presiding over a "fiasco" and called for clarification.

Some writers were angered by fears that the charity may be unable to continue.

Children's writer Philip Pullman said that would be an "unforgivable disgrace", while ex-poet laureate Sir Andrew Motion warned of "an act of gross cultural vandalism".

Mr Miliband wrote to Prime Minister David Cameron after a joint statement issued by the Department for Education (DfE) and Booktrust suggested funding would continue.

In his letter, the Labour leader wrote: "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.

"The Booktrust were simply told a week ago that 100% of their £13m funding was being cut without any explanation.

"Today, the Department of Education appears to be starting to backtrack amid the outcry from parents, children and authors."

Mr Miliband said there was "no clarity at all" on the situation.

He urged the prime minister to "get a grip on this fiasco".

Mr Pullman said he was "relieved" after it emerged that funding would not be cut completely, saying programmes that provide free books for children deserve to be kept in perpetuity.

He said: "This is something that should be universal...everybody should be able to benefit from it.

"This is an important national responsibility. It is as important as health and it is as important as education - it is part of both, actually. We jointly - as a people, as a nation - ought to support this."

The charity provides packs of books to parents when their babies are first born, and again at later stages in their development.

The project started in 1992 and has received money from the government since 2004.

It is funded separately by the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

'Every possible saving'

Last week Booktrust was told by the Department for Education that funding for bookgifting programmes in England - Bookstart, Booktime and Booked Up - would be cut by 100% from 1 April 2011.

But Booktrust chief executive Viv Bird told BBC News that, in a conversation on Sunday morning, Education Secretary Michael Gove had "committed his support for Booktrust book-gifting programmes so that every child will continue to have access to the gift of a book".

She said that the charity would hold talks with the government in the new year about the level of continued public funding.

A joint statement from the DfE and Booktrust said the department would "continue to fund Booktrust book-gifting programmes in the future".

It said: "Although the current contract will end in April, the department are 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 book-gifting schemes have previously been universal, including families that can afford to buy books, because the charity says targeted programmes struggle to reach all families most in need.

Booktrust says that, through support by publishing companies, it has been able to generate another £4 for every £1 of government money.

Charity co-founder Wendy Cooling was made an MBE in 2008 for services to children's literacy.

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