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Posts Tagged ‘consultation’

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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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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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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