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Posts Tagged ‘Conservative’

Surrey County Council decided yesterday to proceed with its volunteer-run library plans – plans that will see paid, professional staff removed from 10 libraries across Surrey and replaced with volunteers.

Conservative councillors at yesterday’s cabinet meeting lined up to expound the virtues of volunteers running libraries and, by implication, denigrate the profession of library and information professionals.

Let’s make this clear. Surrey County Council has freely admitted that removing paid staff  and replacing them with volunteers will save no money. So given the free choice, SCC has decided that volunteers working one or two hours every other week will provide a better service than paid professionals with years of experience, training and knowledge.

Sensible, credible and cost-saving proposals put forward by Surrey residents to mix paid staff with volunteers were not even considered.

The decision taken yesterday would not stand up to the scrutiny of any reasonable person so let us make another thing very clear. This is a decision that was motivated solely by an ideology that says that all public sector workers are bad, therefore anybody or any policy that removes them must be good, no matter what damage is done to the service in the process. Normally this ideology is carried out under the cloak of “cost savings” but on this occasion the dogma is laid bare for all to see.

David Hodge knows that this policy does not stand up to rational scrutiny. That is why he blocked a debate on the libraries policy at last week’s full council meeting and also why he refused to allow residents’ questions to be answered at yesterday’s cabinet meeting (despite the answering of public questions being standard procedure at cabinet meetings). Avoiding debate and scrutiny is the last hiding place of a man who knows he can’t win the arguments in the sunlight of open debate. This should be a worry to all Surrey residents, not just those interested in the library service.

This irrational decision, and the preceding shambolic decision-making process, has re-stoked the anger of Surrey residents and library users that has been bubbling under the surface throughout.

Yesterday’s decision will not be the last word on the matter!

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Over the past eighteen months we have become used to Surrey County Council ignoring residents and refusing to listen to genuine concerns but even we were shocked by the draconian behaviour of council leader, David Hodge, at Tuesday’s (17th July) full Council meeting.

Cllr Eber Kington (Epsom and Ewell North) had tabled the following motion:

The Council calls upon the Cabinet to review its current Community Partnership Library policy so as to develop a more widely supported alternative.’

Council Leader Hodge stood up before the motion could even be put and stated that debating the motion would be “inappropriate” because cabinet members were present and it would not be right for them to be influenced by the debate.  Many councillors raised their eyebrows or shook their heads in surprise, even on Hodge’s own Conservative side of the chamber.

Council chair, Conservative Cllr Lavinia Sealy, asked David Hodge what he wanted to do and after repeating what he’d previously said, Hodge said he did not want the motion debated.

Pressing Hodge further, the Chair told Mr Hodge that he could not just bar the debate – he could either let the motion be debated or refer the debate to a committee. In the end, a reluctant Mr Hodge said that he would be “happy” for the motion to be “debated” at the cabinet meeting where, sadly, compliancy and sycophancy are the rule and scrutiny the rare exception.

And that was that. The debate was barred before it even started, democracy snuffed out at a stroke. Cllr Kington argued that the council had not debated the issue in a long time and a lot of important and pertinent things had happened since, like the High Court ruling the plans “unlawful”, the admission that the library plans would save no money and the “shambolic” equalities consultation. Cllr Kington further argued that councillors for the affected communities had not had their chance to put the case for their communities and that, at 244 pages long, the submission to cabinet in support of the libraries proposals clearly required scrutiny and debate.

But no. There was to be no debate on the issue. Councillors would not be given the chance to represent their constituents.

We should add that we have had no response to our letter offering a compromise and asking to meet David Hodge to discuss a way forward. There will be no meetings, no listening, no compromise.

In the short time that he has been council leader, David Hodge has made it very clear that he intends to administer a draconian, un-listening regime – one in which dissent, alternative views or debate will not be tolerated. David Hodge has stamped his iron fist on the table and, presumably, we are all now supposed to bow down and accept his will.

David Hodge should know that one of the key drivers behind SCC being taken to the High Court was that residents felt let down by the lack of a democratic process, that residents had been ignored and that genuine concerns had simply been swept aside.

After our efforts at conciliation, SLAM supporters are beginning to feel that another injustice is about to be committed!

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SLAM is an open organisation and is always happy to discuss issues surrounding the provision of a comprehensive library service. We therefore welcome two recent articles that have appeared in local newspapers over the past week and would like to contribute to this debate.

The articles are posted below:
http://www.thisissurreytoday.co.uk/Library-volunteers-want-campaigners-drop-county/story-15146642-detail/story.html

http://www.getsurrey.co.uk/news/s/2107893_library_volunteers_thwarted_at_every_turn

The Judicial Review is being taken by two individuals who are supported by SLAM. Both articles report criticism that the Judicial Review was taken too late. Beryl Marlow, ex-Conservative Cllr, said, for instance: “I’m really very angry at the moment that at this late stage they have chosen to go to the courts. They have had since February.” The other article had very similar wording.

We greatly appreciate and understand people who have felt forced to volunteer to stop their library from closing, but the view stated above has previously been dealt with by  the High Court. Judge Thornton QC considered this point on 3rd February, commenting that if the request (for Judicial Review) had been made earlier than it had, then it would certainly have been dismissed as being “premature”. The Judge was satisfied that the claim had been made promptly and within three months of the relevant, challengeable decision.

Both articles then talk about the benefits of volunteering and how SLAM is anti-volunteers. The truth is that SLAM has always been pro-volunteers. Indeed, most SLAM supporters are library volunteers, but they want to support SCC by volunteering alongside paid staff, not in place of, and certainly do not want to take legal responsibility for the running of their libraries, an unusual demand to make of an unpaid volunteer.

Librarians respected and “much loved”

It is SLAM’s understanding, having consulted with many residents in the affected communities, that the paid library staff were greatly respected for their skill, knowledge and experience, very much appreciated, and that they were “much loved”. If the Judicial Review is successful, and paid staff are brought back into the libraries, we would hope that the volunteers that have been recruited would agree to work alongside the paid staff, extending opening hours, providing additional services and the like.

We think that this would be a very good model to promote and improve the affected libraries and ensure they are sustainable into the future. We would urge SCC to consider this suggestion very seriously, maintaining the Council’s statutory duty for these libraries, and would hope that most volunteers would agree with this outcome.

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Those attending today’s Cabinet meeting at County Hall would be forgiven for thinking that all is tickety-boo with the library plans. But as sycophantic Cabinet members fawned over each other in a nauseating display of self-ingratiation, local libraries were being badly let down.

For what this back-slapping hides is a major slippage in the library plans. According to the Council’s schedule, all of the volunteering groups should have signed contracts and be well on the way to setting up their “Community Partnered Libraries” by now. Today’s Cabinet meeting was due to discuss progress and to make a decision on closing libraries whose volunteers had not made sufficient progress.

As of today, however, not one group of volunteers has signed the contract. The Council has now given many of them until June 2012 to do so – a six month slippage in a project that is only three months old!

The project over-run will incur more costs, of course, adding to the hundreds of thousands of pounds already wasted on the folly, and now easily out-stripping the money that was supposed to be saved by creating the volunteer-run libraries.

The local groups, who have only agreed to volunteer in a last-ditch attempt to save their local libraries, deserve better. It’s time for the Council to cut its losses on the Community Partnership experiment and keep the libraries and library staff exactly where they are.

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