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Archive for May, 2012

For 16 months Surrey County Council has justified its removal of paid staff from ten libraries across Surrey on the basis of cost savings. The Council has argued that the reason it needed volunteers to manage and deliver library services in the ten communities was that it was the only way to reduce costs and for them to stay open. We have argued all along that the cost savings argument doesn’t stack up. We have argued, most recently in yesterday’s open letter, that maintaining professional staff in the libraries is the cheaper and simpler option.

Today, Surrey County Council admitted that we have been right all along: that there is no cost justification in its Community Partnered Library (CPL) policy. In a statement to the SCC cabinet meeting today Helyn Clack, cabinet member for community services, said:

There are no expected financial savings in 2012 – 2013 in the Library Service as a result of Community Partnered Libraries proposals and there are no expected annual savings as a result of the Community Partnered Libraries proposals.

This is an astonishing admission as it removes the central plank around which the library policy was built. There is nowhere left for this policy to go. A policy without justification is no policy at all.

What about the workers?

The past 16 months has been a very stressful period for the staff in the affected libraries. Some have already been moved on, others live in daily fear for their job. We have found, nonetheless, that they have maintained the highest of professional standards throughout. They are a credit to their profession.

SCC has insulted its employees and their profession by claiming that any willing volunteer can provide a better service than trained, highly knowledgable and experienced  staff. And now, without the justification that savings need to be made, SCC’s attempt to dismiss its “much-loved” professional staff is unfair and unjust.

And what about the volunteers?

SCC made it very clear indeed that if volunteers did not come forward to run their libraries, the council would likely close them. SCC convinced volunteers that them running the library was the only way to save enough money so that the library could stay open. Time and time again, David Hodge, Helyn Clack and other Conservative councillors said to the media, to council meetings and to anyone that would listen, that their intention was to keep all 52 libraries open, and that the volunteer library policy was the only way to do it.

The council has hoodwinked volunteers that have come forward in good faith to save their local library. But they have been fed a despicable lie by SCC. Their libraries were never under threat. There was never any cost savings basis for making volunteers run their own library. SCC has caused considerable stress for very many Surrey residents on all sides of the argument, and it has spent an inordinate amount of money on a policy with no justification.

SCC should now apologise to Surrey residents for its illegality, its irrationality, and for wasting taxpayers money. But above all, it should now swallow its pride and find the decency to abandon its unjustifiable library plans.

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They say that if you tell yourself something enough, you will eventually believe it to be true. This is the hole that Surrey County Council has dug itself into.

SCC has convinced itself, by mantra, that it lost the judicial review on a technicality. This, despite the judge not saying anywhere in his 10,000 word judgment that his was a technical ruling. This group-think denial by SCC is leading it into further trouble.

In an attempt to shore up its unlawful decision, the council is engaging in a quick box-ticking exercise. Hurrying to retake its library decision, it is attempting to consult with too few people and on too narrow grounds.

The council’s consultation asks some library users narrowly what equalities training should be given to volunteers (see previous blogs for details). In its haste it addressed most of the envelopes incorrectly. Recognising its error, it has put back its decision to a later cabinet meeting (24th July) and has sent out further consultation documents, confusing those that received and sent back the first set.

We now know that many have sent in two consultation returns, many have not sent in any, and others have not received either set of documents. Further, SCC has requested that Community Partnership steering group members send in two sets of consultation returns each, perhaps to bump up the numbers and perhaps to increase the number of favourable responses. Who knows?

Quite what SCC is hoping to learn from such a shambolic process is not clear. The information does not seem to be that important to SCC in any case. Helyn Clack, SCC Cabinet member responsible for libraries, gave this response in an interview about the library plans with the Surrey Mirror:

 

Can you envisage being persuaded by further consultation?

Helyn Clack: Probably not.

If that’s the case, why is the council wasting everyone’s time…and money?

Open letters

Mrs Carole Deakins, Chair of New Haw Library Community Partnership Steering Group,  sent an open letter to SCC CEO David McNulty  last week, updating him on progress, but also criticising SLAM for “challenging the decisions of our democratically elected representatives.”

We drafted this open response to Mrs Deakins, congratulating her on her progress and spelling out why we felt it necessary to challenge our democratically elected representatives.

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It looks like Surrey County Council has sent out as many consultation documents as its going to.

Many people have been baffled by the questions in the documents and many have said they won’t send in responses – not out of apathy but because they genuinely have no idea how to provide appropriate answers. We agree that the questions are most peculiar and difficult to answer but, although this may look like we’re trying to help the council, we do think it is important to respond.

We can’t tell people how to respond – that has to be up to you – but many people have told us they have emphasised the importance of paid staff in their responses. One gentleman that kindly shared his response with us, agreed to let us post it here. We have removed his name and library by request.

Questions 2 – In order to offer an inclusive service to all, what training do you think volunteers need? Are there any particular needs of people with protected characteristics as set out in the letter that you think the training should take account of?

Wouldn’t it be more difficult and expensive to train very many volunteers than it would be to train 2 or 3 paid and permanent members of staff? Has this been thought about?

I think training is not as much the issue. It is about permanent staff being in consistent and regular contact with library users over an extended period of time. I’m not sure that volunteers working just a handful of hours every other week could replace that.

I have a difficulty in using the library. It took me a few visits to the library to properly explain to the staff. After that, the librarians treated me with a lot of respect and gave me the service I need without any fuss. I don’t need to ask anymore and it makes everything a lot easier.

It would be embarrassing to explain my needs every single time I went in to the library to a different person each time. It is much better for me if I can tell staff once and then they know and can be discreet each time I come in to the library.

As I say, I don’t think the problems in serving people with “protected characteristics”, or whatever you want to call it, can be solved just by training of volunteers.

Questions 3 – Please could you give any other comments you may wish to make about how the Community Partnered Library proposal might impact on people with protected characteristics.

As I said above, one of the benefits I find most valuable of having paid, permanent staff is that they get to know me through consistent contact.

It’s like when I call up the phone company and have to talk to a different person every time. I tell them that I told their colleague before what the problem is but I have to go through the whole process all over again with a different person every time. It’s infuriating.

This will be the same with the library. I want to deal with one or two people, not a different person every time. It would be embarrassing having to go through my needs every time I go in the library. I use the library a lot and it is important part of my life. I am accepted there. I worry that if I have to explain myself every time I go in, I’ll probably stop using the library, and that will be a real negative in my life.

We think this response perfectly illustrates what we have said for a very long time now, and also reflects the findings of the judicial review. The “equalities” problems with CPLs can not be dismissed as a technicality, as SCC have tried to do. They are real and genuine issues and can not simply be addressed by a bit of training here and there.

Local residents should be able to use their library whilst maintaining their self-respect and dignity. Volunteers have gallantly come forward to stop their library from closing, with the noblest of motives. We encourage the use of volunteers but there are genuine problems with only volunteers taking over the managing and delivery of the library service. SCC need to take them seriously.

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Mr Justice Wilkie passed his final Order in the Judicial Review on 1st May, quashing SCC’s decision to proceed with setting up Community Partnered Libraries in ten communities across Surrey. The final Order is here (Final JR Order).

In response, SCC has announced its intention to retake the decision at a cabinet meeting on the 19th June 2012. Ahead of that date, and to inform the cabinet, SCC also announced that it will be consulting with library users over its CPL proposals.

SCC’s decision to consult with library users is welcome news. We have campaigned for such a consultation for a long time. A proper consultation with library users is entirely appropriate given the serious nature of what is being proposed: the removal of all paid staff and making volunteers take over the management and delivery of a vital public service. Even the Council admits this is a “radical” proposal.

The Council has already begun its consultation. The first batch of consultation documents landed on some library users’ doormats last week. We attach here the documents – these sent to parents of children in the affected areas, but all consultation documents are very similar (Cover letterConsultation documentEqualities/Diversity form).

So we should be pleased, yes? No. Consultation is good, of course, but only if done properly, comprehensively and in an open-minded way.

We looked up HM Government’s “Code of Practice on Consultation”. It has seven consultation criteria. It is worth checking SCC’s attempt at consultation against these criteria to see how the Council matches up. Criteria quoted verbatim below:

Criteria 1 – When to consult

Formal consultation should take place at a stage when there is scope to influence the policy outcome

How does SCC match up?

It is clear from the consultation documents that SCC has already made up its mind and that these documents are being sent out solely to shore up its previous unlawful and quashed decision.

Indeed, Cabinet Minister in charge of libraries, Helyn Clack, was recently interviewed by David Farbrother of the Surrey Mirror newspaper (Helyn Clack interview with Surrey Mirror), and gave this response:

DF: Can you envisage being persuaded by further consultation?

HC: Probably not

Criteria 2 – Duration of consultation exercises

Consultations should normally last for at least 12 weeks with consideration given to longer timescales where feasible and sensible

How does SCC match up?

The first batch of consultation letters started to arrive last week and users have been asked to return forms by 6th June. Many library users have still not received their documents. Let’s be generous and say the consultation began on 1st May. That’s a 5 weeks consultation period. Woefully short of what would be considered good practice.

Even if SCC dismiss the Government’s code of practice, it is still fanciful to suppose that it can properly consult, consider and analyse the results, and then present them to the Cabinet by 19th June.

Criteria 3 – Clarity of scope and content

Consultation documents should be clear about the consultation process, what is being proposed, the scope to influence and the expected costs and benefits of the proposal.

How does SCC match up?

Helyn Clack has already said she will “probably not” be influenced by the consultation. So why bother consulting at all? The answer can only be that SCC are simply trying to tick the right boxes.

Nowhere in the consultation documents does it explain the costs of the proposals. It is understandable that SCC does not want to reveal these costs, of course, because they are considerable and have by far outstripped any hoped for financial benefit.

Criteria 4 – Accessibility of consultation exercises

Consultation exercises should be designed to be accessible to, and clearly targeted at, those people the exercise is intended to reach.

How does SCC match up?

We believe that, of the documents sent out so far, most (yes, most) have been sent to the wrong recipients or to the wrong address. We are collecting envelopes as evidence and are finding more examples than not that have been sent to non-existent people.

We also have an example of a letter that was sent to a real person but at the wrong address. It just so happens that the person that received the letter knew the person that it was supposed to be sent to so could send it on. We have no idea how many other letters were sent to the wrong address in this way, but it is likely to be many.

Criteria 5 – The burden of consultation

Keeping the burden of consultation to a minimum is essential if consultations are to be effective and if consultees’ buy-in to the process is to be obtained

How does SCC match up?

The questions in the consultation document imply that the survey-taker has not only a full understanding of the Equalities Act 2010 and the Council’s specific obligations under its Public Sector Equalities Duty, but also that the survey-taker is experienced and highly knowledgable in assessing training needs and devising training programmes.

We are sure that the occasional Surrey resident will have this knowledge and these skills but to expect all residents to respond in a meaningful way to these questions is unrealistic and over-burdensome.

Criteria 6 – Responsiveness of consultation exercise

Consultation responses should be analysed carefully and clear feedback should be provided to participants following the consultation

How does SCC match up?

As stated earlier, we fail to understand how SCC can receive the replies, analyse and consider them properly in order to present a coherent report to the Cabinet by 19th June.

Criteria 7 – Capacity to consult

Officials running consultations should seek guidance in how to run an effective consultation exercise and share what they have learned from the experience

How does SCC match up?

If officials did seek guidance on how to run an effective consultation, we would be very interested to know where they looked. We found the Government’s “Code of Practice on Consultation” by doing a simple online search. We think that, as an absolute minimum, SCC officials could have done the same.

Conclusion

There is a final sentence underneath the criteria in the “Code of Practice on Consultation”. It reads, “These criteria should be reproduced in consultation documents”.  The criteria are not reproduced in SCC’s consultation documents.

SCC was taken to the High Court by Surrey library users and residents, and was found to have acted not only “unlawfully” but “significantly short” of what is required by the law. It would be reasonable to think that, given another go, SCC would make every effort to get it right this time around.

Not content with the hash it made of its first attempt at passing its CPL plans, it seems, if anything, to be doing an even worse job on its second attempt. It is perfectly obvious to any reasonable person that the Cabinet will not have sufficient information in front of it to make a decision on June 19th. If it attempts to make that decision in spite of the serious shortcomings of the current consultation attempt, it will be seriously misguided.

More and more Surrey residents are now saying enough is enough. The Council has already spent too much money on this library policy and it continues to burn money on it – far more money than it ever hoped to save. Common sense must now prevail.

Kenny Rogers sang in his song, The Gambler, “you’ve got to know when to hold ’em, and know when to fold ’em.” For Surrey County Council, it’s time to fold.

In our next blog – how people are  emphasising the benefits of paid staff in their consultation returns

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PRESS RELEASE –

The High Court has today handed down its final Order in the volunteer-run library case, declaring that the Council is guilty of a full breach of its Public Sector Equalities Duty and ordering a quashing of the decision to make 10 libraries across Surrey volunteer-run.

This latest Order is a crushing blow to Surrey County Council which has until now tried to claim that it lost the Court case on a technicality and that it could continue with its plans. But now the issue has been put beyond doubt – the Judge has ordered that SCC is in full and substantive breach of the law and cannot implement the decision to proceed with volunteer-run libraries taken in September 2011.

The Council must now revert the libraries to the way they were prior to September 2011, including a return of all paid staff, a return of the Library Management System and the return of staff counters. All ten libraries are once again part of the Core Managed Library Network.

The Council recently announced that it hoped to retake the decision in June and carry on regardless, but this latest Order means that a simple retaking of the decision would not be enough.

Lee Godfrey, spokesman for SLAM, said: “The County Council put a gun to the head of local people over this policy: ‘run your library for free or we will close it.’ It is good news that the High Court has finally put a stop to that nonsense.

Surrey County Council has been sent a very clear and strong message. Its library plans were ill-judged, unwanted and illegal. The Council had a good run over its library plans but it’s now over.

We wait to hear from SCC after this latest Court Order, but any attempt to continue with the policy would be an affront to decency and the law. The Council has spent a fortune on these library plans for no benefit – it’s now to time to cut its losses and not waste any more taxpayers’ money on the folly.”

The lawyers representing the Claimants have also issued a PRESS RELEASE here 20120502- Surrey Libraries Press Statement

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