[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).