Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for March, 2012

It now looks very much like the Judgment from the Judicial Review is going to be handed down next week. The result may be clear; it may be nuanced.  Whatever the result, the detail and justification of the Review is likely to be as important and instructive, not just for the Surrey campaign and Council but for the broader crisis in the national library service and other campaigners and Councils throughout the country.  We await the judgment with eager anticipation!

Some news about funding and fundraising. Observant visitors to this website have noticed that the target on the fundraising thermometer has come down but that the “amount raised” has remained stuck for a few days. This will now be explained. There is good and bad news…

First, the good news. The Claimants’ lawyers, Public Interest Lawyers, have raised with the Legal Services Commission the issue that this case has been very fast moving and there has therefore been limited time to fundraise. We are now working towards a figure of 12k rather than 18k.

And now the bad news. We had thought that the money we paid for the pre-action protocol letter counted towards our legal costs. Unfortunately, this is not actually the case and it does not count towards the £12,000 we now need to raise. The £8,000 shown on the right of this page includes the money paid for that letter and, therefore, must be reduced. We have kept the £8,000 stable until we had this news confirmed and will shortly be amending it downwards.

The overall impact of both these pieces of financial news is positive, though. We have had a reduction of £6,000 in the amount to be raised and the total raised has not fallen back anywhere near that amount.

Please keep giving generously. There is light at the end of the tunnel and we’re confident it’s not a train coming the other way!

Read Full Post »

[Due to the need to get this post published a.s.a.p.  it has not gone through the usual review process. It will therefore be published in the author’s own name as a first draft, subject to change]

In order to make a profit, many (especially large) private businesses will focus on selling products or services to those in the broad centre: those with a reasonable amount of disposable income, with predictable requirements and without onerous barriers in place to provide them with the product or service. This is why, when a private company engages in provision of public services, it signs up to rigorous checks to ensure it is serving all members of the community.

The public sector ethos is quite different, containing at its core the principle, “from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs.” A progressive taxation system is in place, both nationally and locally, to ensure the first part of the principle is adhered to, as imperfect as that system is. To ensure the second part, a sense of public duty in “civil servants” is in part relied on but, recognising that this can never be enough, legislation is put in place to ensure that the needs of all members of the community (and especially the vulnerable and those with “protected characteristics”) are met.

The Equalities Act 2010 is one such Act, which puts in to law further stringent demands on local authorities to ensure all community members’ needs are met in the provision of public services. The Equalities Act 2010 should not be seen as a “technicality” on which to be tripped, but should be put front and centre in the consideration of public service provision. The Public Sector Equality Duty (PSED) must be at the heart of decision making, not a peripheral concern.

The legal challenge of SCC’s decision to force volunteers to run and manage 10 libraries in Surrey is founded upon this PSED, as laid out in the Equalities Act 2010. (The implicit broader issue highlighted by this case, that of an increased use of the “third sector” in public sector provision, is recognised.)

This author would question, although not part of the legal challenge, whether it is fair to ask unsalaried volunteers to be burdened with such stringent demands as laid out in the Act, whether the volunteers are fully aware of the extent of their to-be legal obligations in this regard and, indeed, whether the duties imposed may become too arduous for well-meaning volunteers to shoulder for any extended period. Moreover, the cost of ensuring regular training for a large number of volunteers in their duties under the Act – especially given that any volunteer can walk away with no notice at any point – must be significant and must be subtracted from any hoped for savings.

The Claimant’s case in short is that, whereas SCC may have carried out an Equalities assessment of closing libraries, it did not carry out a similar assessment, or any mitigation exercise, based on setting up Community Partnered Libraries. Also, that concerns and adverse feedback about the libraries policy from Disability Empowerment Boards were not brought to the attention of decision makers. And that the answer of, “training will be given to volunteers”, is not enough to show “due regard” to the Council’s Public Sector Equalities Duty, and that the non-specified training is not enough to show that any adversed impacts on Equalities groups are mitigated.

It is the Claimant’s argument, therefore, that SCC is in breach of section 149 of the Equalities Act 2010: in breach of its Public Sector Equalities Duty.

In response, the Defendant (SCC) claims that an embedded framework of Equalities “awareness” is evidence that “due regard” is generally given. Also, that the introduction of CPLs means that the worse impact on Equalities groups of outright closure is avoided. And that “training and support” of volunteers will be enough to mitigate most adverse impacts of volunteer managed and delivered libraries.

These legal arguments should not be viewed in isolation, but in addition to the very many concerns as to the merits and wisdom of the libraries policy raised by SLAM and supporters over the course of the long campaign, not least of which is the relatively tiny amount of claimed savings of the project (just 1/10,000th of the Council’s net budget).

Due to the complexity of the case, judgement has been deferred, with the decision being handed down next week. We are hoping that the decision to force volunteers to run 10 libraries will be quashed, and that SCC will then consult with residents, library users AND volunteers – and will consequently devise a long term vision for the library service that is sustainable, inclusive, and that recognises the value of well resourced and staffed libraries to local communities (and yes, that includes the use of volunteers).

We hope…

Lee Godfrey

Read Full Post »

The long wait for Surrey County Council’s library plans to be held up to scrutiny is coming to an end. The campaign to halt the Council’s controversial plans to force “volunteers” to take over statutory library service provision in 10 Surrey communities is over a year old.

The Council has given an ultimatum to local residents: “volunteer” to run your library or we will close it! The Council has not consulted local residents or library users over what they refer to themselves as a “radical” plan. SCC has not listened to sensible alternatives that will actually save money AND improve the service. Instead, they have ploughed on regardless with a policy that is unwanted, diminishes a service that consistently ranks the highest in satisfaction surveys of all Council provided services, and has cost more money to implement than it claims to save.

And let us not forget that the claimed savings amount to just 1/10,000th of the Council’s Budget in any case (and yes, I have counted the zeros properly). That’s like a person on a salary of £25,000 needing to save the price of a cup of coffee from their annual spending.  You really have to ask whether it was worth the Council letting this go all the way to the High Court, with its attendant cost and effort, rather than just drop the plan or make suitable and sensible adjustments.

It is regrettable that the only way that Surrey residents can hold their Council to account and have a say on the library plans is through the High Court. If only the Council had consulted with residents and library users, and done so in an open-minded and collaborative way, then all this may have been avoided.

The Judicial Review will take place on Monday and Tuesday at the Royal Courts of Justice on The Strand in London. The case will be put before Mr Justice Wilkie in Court 19 starting at 10.30am. All are welcome to attend.

Read Full Post »

SLAM campaigners attended a rally and lobby of Parliament yesterday, organised by the national campaigning group, Speak Up For Libraries – a group set up by library campaigners, Elizabeth Ash of Croydon and Mar Dixon from Shropshire (www.speakupforlibraries.org).

SLAM joined other campaigners from across the country in highlighting the withering away of the nation’s library service while the Minister for Culture (including libraries), Ed Vaizey, stands idly by. (SLAM has previously written to the Minister for Culture asking him to intervene over Surrey County Council’s library plans – see prior blog).

High-profile authors and campaigners spoke to the rally, including Elizabeth Ash, Mar Dixon, Kate Mosse, Alan Gibbons, Phillip Ardagh, Dave Prentis (Gen Sec – Unison) and Dan Jarvis MP.

SLAM caught up with shadow culture minster, Dan Jarvis MP, after the rally to inform him of the situation in Surrey and the upcoming Judicial Review. Labour MP Dan Jarvis was critical of Ed Vaizey, saying:

He has left it to campaigners to do his job, by taking library authorities to court at great expense and effort.

How can it be credible that an authority can break the law [referring to another library legal challenge  – Ed] without in his view triggering his legal duty to oversee and promote the library service?

And if a local authority can be in breach of equalities legislation without him thinking it fit to act, just what WOULD it take?

SLAM also contributed to a lobby, organised by Elizabeth and Mar, with Conservative MP, Justin Tomlinson (Chairman of the parliamentary all-party libraries group). This was an extensive meeting which was both useful and constructive, during which many ideas for the future of the library service were shared. The lobbying group and Justin Tomlinson found common ground on a number of different library issues, including on the use of volunteers. Justin Tomlinson has since posted this interesting and thoughtful piece on the future of the library service which is well worth a read (http://www.justintomlinson.com/news/379/).

SLAM then tried to lobby Surrey MP and Defence Secretary, Phillip Hammond, but he was giving a statement to the House on the Nigerian hostage situation so was unavailable.

We think the rally and lobby were well timed – given the current economic climate, and the recent report issued by OFSTED detailing declining reading and literacy levels in British children, the need for a well resourced and well staffed library service is more pertinent than ever. Local administrations should be investing in libraries, not closing them or getting rid of library staff, and the Minister for Culture must become the “champion” of the service he claims to be – now is the time for him to be acting, not sitting on the sidelines!

We are indebted to Elizabeth Ash and Mar Dixon for forming Speak Up For Libraries and organising the event, providing a national focus for the crisis currently affecting the library service. We hope they have provided a platform upon which a vision for the future of the library service can be formulated. We call on the Minister for Culture to consult with library users, campaigners and local authorities to begin putting such a vision together. Come on Ed Vaizey – Speak up for Libraries!

Fundraising

The Judicial Review is just a few days away now and we still need your help in reaching our Community Contribution target to enable the Review to go ahead.

Please see our Legal Action tab for ways to pay. And please donate generously!

Read Full Post »

On Monday and Tuesday of this week, SLAM’s Mike Alsop and Lee Godfrey conducted a tour of as many of the affected libraries as possible, and also some libraries that may be in the second tranche of CPLs. The object was to consult with as many of the Friends Groups as possible, listening and learning, and also to ask for help with fund-raising. We got around to 9 libraries in total but, to save embarrassment and prejudice, we will not mention them by name. The groups will know who they are.

We feel that we received a very broad perspective of what is happening at the potential CPLs, having spoken to local Mayors and Councillors, Chairmen of Parish Councils, library users, librarians, library volunteers and volunteering steering groups, local businesses and residents, members of the local clergy plus many more.

Here’s what we learned:

1. It’s always the same people who volunteer and get involved! We found, almost universally, that those that are involved in the libraries campaign/volunteering effort also seem to be involved in other community and/or volunteering activities. We, very unscientifically, concluded that there must be a “community spirit gene”: people coming to the aid of their local library are not “new” to community involvement but are drawn from existing ranks of volunteers in other areas. There are exceptions, of course…

2. All of the libraries are unique, and all of the communities they serve are demonstrably different in character, with varying needs and requirements of their local library. Each of the groups we talked to raised separate concerns and issues specifically related to their community and their library. To make a point here, we do still feel that, had SCC consulted over their library plans, they would have found all this out and could have worked with each of the communities to find a model that suited each of the communities’ circumstances. There is nothing stopping SCC carrying out a consultation even now, and we would encourage them to do so.

3. All volunteering groups came forward because they were led to believe by the Council that if they didn’t, then their library would most likely be closed by the Council.

4. All groups and individuals believe that the service would be better if volunteers worked alongside permanent paid staff rather than in their place. All further understood that volunteering to help the library is very different from taking over the Council’s statutory duty for library service provision in their community.

5. There was a broad agreement amongst groups, based on their own scheduling analysis (which has apparently been confirmed with SCC), that it will take a consistent body of 60-100 volunteers per library for each of the libraries to take over current provision.

6. No communities were consulted over the library changes – and all of the groups, volunteers, local residents and businesses had a lot to say! Our two-day “consultation” was unscientific but it did reveal, if nothing else, that a full consultation by SCC would have been highly appropriate.

7. The self-service machines, which will be solely responsible for book issues and returns, break down frequently (and on one occasion, took down all of the electronics in one library). One library we visited said that the machine had already broken down twice on the day we visited. And there is not a satisfactory substitute process in place when the break-downs happen, due to staff terminals being removed.

8. The manual process replacing the staff terminals is unacceptable. The process for searching for a book and reserving it from another library, for instance, used to be done directly on a staff terminal. The new process involves a series of phone calls and faxes to “buddy” libraries, asking them to use their staff terminals. Busy times in the CPLs are, of course, the same as busy times in larger libraries, and volunteers and staff have been subject to long waits on the end of a phone; and, we were told, one of the “buddy” libraries had all but stopped taking CPL calls because they were receiving so many of them that it was distracting the” buddy” library from serving its own users. “The process is a throw-back to the 80s,” was a common complaint, “and a significant diminishing of the service the library provides.” And CPLs haven’t even launched properly yet.

There was much more discussed, of course, and a lot of issues raised that were specific to particular communities and libraries, but the themes above did crop up again and again and we believe they do fairly represent what we were told.

On a final point, I love all public libraries but the one at Lingfield has to be the most beautiful public library I have ever had the pleasure to visit. It was built in 1474 and has its original features, both inside and out, including its stained-glass windows. It is an inspiring place to visit and read a book in. If you’re in the area, it is well worth a visit.

Read Full Post »