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. “
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”
“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.
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.