Eminent writers have condemned a Government decision to withdraw funding from a programme which provides free books to children to help encourage the love of reading.
Booktrust was told less than a week before Christmas that it was losing all of its £13 million Government funding for schemes in England from April.
The charity, operating since 1992 and Government-funded since 2004, aims to provide Bookstart packs to parents when their babies are first 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.
Chief executive Viv Bird said she was "immensely surprised and disappointed" to hear of the withdrawal of funding, which came shortly after the charity was told it was losing 20% of its state support. Booktrust is funded by the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and Ms Bird said it will be seeking other sources of support.
Children's author Philip Pullman described the cut as "wanton destruction", while the former poet laureate Sir Andrew Motion described the cut as "an act of gross cultural vandalism".
Pullman - renowned for the His Dark Materials trilogy - told The Observer: "Bookstart is one of the most imaginative and generous schemes ever conceived. To put a gift of books into the hands of new-born children and their parents is to help open the door into the great treasury of reading, which is the inheritance of every one of us, and the only road to improvement and development and intellectual delight in every field of life."
And Sir Andrew told the paper: "For the last 20-odd years the scheme has successfully introduced an enormous number of young people to both the pleasure and the necessity of reading and has been of tremendous benefit in the drive towards literacy. Very well organised, and very well run by Booktrust, it has become a national institution, and the envy of the world. The savings made by its abolition will be negligible; the damage done will be immense."
The announcement of the withdrawal of state funding from Booktrust came shortly after Education Secretary Michael Gove's U-turn on sports in schools, which saw him promise more than £100 million over the next three years to partially retain the School Sports Partnership scheme, which had been slated to close.
Labour leader Ed Miliband said state funding for Booktrust was "one of the programmes introduced by Labour of which I am most proud". "This Conservative-led Government knows the price of everything and the value of nothing," said Mr Miliband. "The abolition of Bookstart will deprive children of an early opportunity to discover the joy of reading. It was a gift from the Government to the next generation."
A statement issued earlier by the Department for Education said: "We believe homes should be places that inspire a love of books and reading. However, in these difficult economic times, ministers have to take tough decisions on spending and the particular fund managed by Booktrust will end at the end of this financial year. Booktrust can still apply for funding from different funding streams, such as the Department for Education's voluntary and community sector grant programme for children, young people and families."