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Archive for April, 2012

Surrey County Council has today announced that it “will take a decision on its libraries plans again, following a judicial review.”

We welcome this announcement – finally, some common sense. Mr Justice Wilkie ruled earlier this month that SCC’s plans were “unlawful” and that the plans fell “substantially short” of what was required by law. Despite SCC’s initial defiant reaction that it was “pleased” with the Judgment and that it intended to “carry on regardless” it has now recognised that its initial reaction was wrong and must now act within the law, with respect to the Judge’s detailed ruling and that it must reconsider its decision.

David Hodge said at today’s cabinet meeting that SCC’s lawyers were agreeing a High Court Order with the Claimant’s lawyers, although he did not say what that Order would contain, leaving the contents of the Order open to speculation.

One New Haw resident said today upon hearing the news:

“It sounds like the County Council has capitulated. Clearly they didn’t rate their chances at the next hearing and so they’ve thrown in the towel early.”

Whilst not necessarily and wholly concurring with that view we would say that SCC has come to the right decision in not committing more good taxpayers money after bad – Lord knows the Council has wasted enough money on its library policy already!

We wait to see what the Court Order says.

Council leader, Hodge, has said he will attempt to take the decision again at the Cabinet meeting on 19th June. We will be looking for evidence at this meeting that the Council has evaluated the benefits of paid staff to library users so that it can then understand the impact of losing them. Once it has understood this impact it can only then decide whether training of volunteers can mitigate the loss of paid staff, whether something other than training is required, or indeed whether the gap is too big to be filled by a rota of volunteers.

The only way to analyse the benefits of paid staff to library users is to ask the library users themselves, by way of a full and open-minded user consultation.  We would expect to see evidence and results of such a consultation presented to the Cabinet meeting on the 19th June.

Our view, as explained in this open letter, is that it would be extremely difficult to replace the benefits of paid staff with only volunteers but, if David Hodge is as insistent on the policy as he seems, then we expect to see “substantial” evidence at the Cabinet meeting to justify it.

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We have a new tab on our website called “Upcoming Events”. Please check here regularly as we have a number of events planned over the next few weeks.

The first two are:

SLAM Open meeting

Wednesday 18th April 2012 at 8pm

Byfleet Village Hall, Byfleet, Surrey

SLAM will discuss recent events, the legal challenge and the future.

All welcome.

———————-

Fundraiser

An Evening with Norman Willis

Monday 30th April 2012 at 8pm

St Mary’s Hall, Byfleet, Surrey – Doors 7.30pm

Norman Willis was the TUC General Secretary between 1984 and 1993, an interesting and controversial period in modern history during which he met and negotiated with most of Britain and Europe’s leading political protagonists.

Norman is an entertaining and engaging raconteur with a wide range of other interests, including being an authority on embroidery and is President of the Arthur Ransome Society.

Norman will speak on a variety on topics, followed by a question and answer session.

Want to know how Norman and Arthur Scargill got on? What happened when Norman first met Margaret Thatcher? The secrets to great embroidery? Come and find out!

Tickets: £10 to include Tea/Coffee and light refreshments. Contact nick.flux@virginmedia.com for tickets

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Things happening apace at the moment. Hot on the heels of our open letter to Surrey County Council, Ed Vaizey, Minister for Culture (including libraries), weighs into the debate in an interview with BBC Radio Surrey this morning.

BBC Radio Surrey was interviewing SLAM Chair, Mike Alsop, about SLAM’s open letter to the Council when the presenter, Mark Carter, suddenly introduced Ed Vaizey to the interview, to the surprise of SLAM’s Chair.

Ed Vaizey said that he would expect there to be a “discussion” when an authority attempts to reconfigure its library service, in direct contrast to SCC’s non-consultative approach.

He went on to say that he “fully supports” SLAM’s right to campaign against SCC and to change their mind over the library plans.

The most telling part of the interview, though, was this:

Mark Carter: “You are quite happy with the direction Surrey County Council is taking?”

Ed Vaizey: “Hold on. I don’t want to get too pedantic because I don’t think your listeners are interested in, sort of, me dancing on the head of a pin…”

Mark Carter: “But from what you’ve heard and what you’ve read, you are happy with the direction Surrey County Council is taking?”

Ed Vaizey: “If the local population and the local campaigners think that the County Council has taken a decision in the wrong way they are entitled to Judicially Review it, which is what SLAM has done to Surrey County Council. They won that Judicial Review and the County has been asked to look at the way it made its decision again… I can’t say whether I am happy with Surrey’s plans because I have to wait until I’ve seen the final shape of them before I make a decision about whether it’s appropriate or not to have an enquiry into whether or not they are providing a comprehensive library service.”

There are three very important points raised here by Ed Vaizey.

Firstly, he accepts that the claimants (supported by SLAM) won the Judicial Review. SCC has, absurdly, yet to accept this and has said it is “pleased” with the judgment and that the judge did not criticise its plans.

Secondly, Ed Vaizey says that the judge has asked the Council to look at the way it made its decision again. This is clearly the Minister’s expectation, too. Yet SCC has said that it intends to press on with its plans regardless of the High Court ruling and without reviewing its decision.

Thirdly, the Minster for Culture says that he “can’t say whether he is happy with Surrey’s plans because he hasn’t seen the final shape of them,” before deciding whether to hold an enquiry. It is very clear that Ed Vaizey expects the Council’s plans to change, which chimes with the Judge’s ruling that the plans fell “substantially short” of what is required by the law. The Minister also makes it clear that he is holding the threat of an enquiry over SCC’s head.

It can not be clearer that SCC needs to mend its ways and to fundamentally change its plans to run 10 libraries with volunteers only. Our letter sent this morning spells out how this process of change may be started.

The ball is firmly in the Council’s court. Will it defy Surrey residents, the High Court and, now, the Minister for Culture (risking a full-scale enquiry) or will it see the error of its ways?

We say the easiest way for SCC to get out of the tremendous mess it has made for itself is to drop its library plans and have a fundamental rethink. But if it really does “insist on this policy” then it has an awful lot of hard work and expense ahead of it.

Over to Surrey County Council.

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We were disappointed with Surrey County Council’s response that it is “pleased” with the judgment that it acted “unlawfully” and that it fell “substantially short” of what is required by the law.

We are also concerned that SCC wishes to dismiss the legal claim as a “technical” challenge. A local authority’s public sector equalities duty (PSED) should be central to its decision-making, not treated as a peripheral concern or considered as a technicality to be waved away.

We have, therefore, written an open letter to SCC’s CEO, David McNulty, spelling out SLAM’s position regarding Mr Justice Wilkie’s judgment and what actions we would expect SCC to take in order for it to show “due regard” to its equalities duty and  to make good its “substantial” shortcomings.

We attach the letter below

Letter_to_David_McNulty

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Despite Surrey County Council’s rushed and confused statements on the day of the Judgment, it is very clear that the Judgment is categorically in the Claimants’ favour. Para 130 of the Judgment states:

“Accordingly in my judgment the Claimants have succeeded in establishing that the decision of the 27th September 2011 was unlawful.”

And in para 129:

“I have reached that conclusion both by deciding what was required for “due regard” and on Wednesbury grounds.”

The Wednesbury grounds state that the decision was “so unreasonable that no reasonable authority would have taken it.” It does not get more definitive than that. That SCC have stated that they “are pleased” with the Judgment reflects poorly on them.

On the Council’s Public Sector Equality Duty 

The Judge states in para 108:

“In  my judgment the Claimants have succeeded in demonstrating that the Defendant, on the 27th September 2011, failed to comply with its duty under Section 149 to have due regard to the statutory equality duties identified in subsections 1(a)(b)(c).

SCC has dismissed this breach of its Public Sector Equality Duty as a “technicality” and has boldly asserted, in public and in internal memos, that they will carry on implementing the plan – they have stated in fact, with ideological zeal and seemingly with a will to ignore the Judgment, that “SCC is intent on this policy”.

We say that SCC’s responses so far have been ill-advised. To put their failings down to a “technicality” and to “carry on regardless” is an insult to the legal process and to the Judge that has put together this detailed and thoroughly considered judgment. We call on SCC to show some dignity, gravity and respect for the law in further responses and in their future actions.

Indeed, para 115 recognises that the policy represents a “a complex and radical change”. Serious thought and consideration should be given to this complicated library restructuring project, not more “bland assertions” and defiance by SCC.

On Equalities training, monitoring and appraisal

The judgment, in its detail, raises very significant difficulties to overcome if SCC really are “intent” on pressing ahead with the policy. Para 116 states:

“embedding equality issues in the culture of the Defendant involve[s] particular emphasis being placed on significant compulsory training of all members of management and staff, by having equality issues as individual appraisal targets for staff and by having training for managers and tailored training”

Further, the Judge recognises that

“The duty imposed on the public authority is non delegable. It remains on the public authority charged with it”

And further still, at para 123:

“a significant amount of material to report to the cabinet which would have put flesh on the bare bones of the asserted recognition, in February 2011, that a change of this magnitude, at the cutting edge of implementation of this important policy, would require significant training of the volunteers, particularly in respect of Equality issues

The above three excerpts imply that SCC must, itself, train volunteers to a “significant” level in equalities issues and how to overcome them, and also to set volunteers “individual appraisal targets” (i.e. performance appraisals). This is easy to do if you only have 2 or 3 staff members per library, but to do it for 60-100 volunteers per library, or 600-1000 over all 10 libraries? Nothing is impossible, of course, but this will be a very difficult task and, of course, a very costly one for Surrey taxpayers. It would be much simpler and cheaper to maintain a small number of staff in each library, supported by volunteers.

And to sum up on the requirement for training, para 127 has this to say:

“In my judgment, the reliance by the Defendant on the same bland assertions that training would be required and monitored, as had been contained in the February report, fell substantially short of enabling the cabinet members to give due regard to this obvious equality issue at the stage the process had reached in September. “

On consultation

Para 118 states that

“The November 2010 EIA explicitly warned that residents … had not yet been consulted and that such consultation would be important to inform the proposals”

and that 

“no final decision would be taken by cabinet until that consultation had been completed and the results analyzed.”

The fact that SCC did not consult residents or library users at all over this policy has now been raised by the Mr Justice Wilkie. Before any further action is taken by SCC we would expect to see this consultation of library users and residents to take place.

In conclusion

Mr Justice Wilkie’s judgment presents vast difficulties for SCC which can not be ignored, must be given weighty consideration, and can not be overcome by “bland assertions” that training will be provided or that “we can press ahead anyway”.

The costs of implementing the volunteer-run library policy had already outstripped the meagre amount of savings claimed (claimed savings were just 1/10,000th of the Council’s net budget) before SCC started fighting this expensive legal case.

The effort and cost of the significant amount of ongoing training required, and monitoring of that training, will be considerable.

We say it would be far simpler and cheaper to keep a few paid staff in place in each library, return the Library Management System to each library, and keep the 10 libraries within the managed network. And if volunteers can add additional value and services, then all well and good.

SCC should not press on with its ill-thought and ill-judged policy, and should now find the dignity to abandon it.

We will shortly be writing to Surrey County Council, setting out SLAM’s position.

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The judgement that Surrey County Council acted unlawfully in forcing “volunteers” to take over the managing and delivery of a public service as important as the library service is being digested and understood. The far reaching implications are being considered.

Here are a some quotes from Mr Justice Wilkie’s judgement:

“In my judgment, the reliance by the Defendant [SCC] on the same bland assertions that training would be required and monitored, as had been contained in the February report, fell substantially short of enabling the cabinet members to give due regard to this obvious equality issue at the stage the process had reached in September.”

“[a]ccordingly in my judgment the claimants have succeeded in establishing that the decision of the 27th September 2011 was unlawful.”

And a couple of quotes from the brave claimants that withstood personal challenges and slights throughout the process:

“I am delighted with the result and I hope that it reminds senior county councillors that they should not forget that we employ them to provide efficient services and, as importantly, represent us the electorate. It is a great disappointment that the council has wasted thousands of pounds of taxpayer’s money trying to ignore and ride roughshod over public criticism and outrage, defending the indefensible. ”

– Nick Dorrington

“I am absolutely over the moon with the result. Libraries are such an important part of local communities and for Surrey County Council to remove funding for library staff would have had a terrible impact on the local area. Everyone is painfully aware that cuts needs to be made at the moment, but I hope that councils across the country will think twice before trying to implement them in sectors that are so vital not only to community groups, but also integral to education, promoting literacy and the joy of reading.”

– Lucy Williams.

And Phil Shiner, Solicitor, of Public Interest lawyers, said:

This is a fantastic result for the Claimants as well as a sharp reminder to local authorities up and down the country that a need for budget cuts is not an excuse for cutting local services without careful consideration of how such cuts will impact upon vulnerable groups. In this case, it was clearly unlawful for Surrey County Council to remove all paid staff from 10 libraries whilst dismissing the impact of such a change with vacuous assertions that all problems will be cured by training for volunteers.

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GUILTY

We just wanted to publish a quick post, ahead of a more considered post later, to let you know that the Claimant’s in the Judicial Review over SCC’s decision to force “volunteers” to run 10 libraries in Surrey has been successful.

Judge Wilkie handed down his judgement in the High Court this morning and concluded that Surrey County Council acted unlawfully in taking its library decision.

The full hearing was due to be held this week to further decide on whether the decision should be quashed but, due to the lack of availability of the relevant lawyers, that hearing has been put back to May sometime.

Needless to say, given that the judge has found that the decision was unlawful we are confident that the decision will be quashed.

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