Conclusions and recommendations |
1. The Public Library Service Standards shared the flaws of those imposed elsewhere in the public sector, in that they concentrated on the measurable rather than giving a rounded indication of the quality of servicelet alone its responsiveness to changing customer needs and demands. It is noteworthy that most of our witnesses wanted a broader and more permissive approach on the interpretation of 'comprehensive and efficient'.
2. Local authorities are having to take decisions now about the funding and shape of the library service but a number appear insufficiently aware of the available guidance on the definition of 'comprehensive and efficient'. They also appear to lack information about the requirements emerging from multiple judicial reviews. It is not cost-effective for policy to be made by judicial review and it undermines democratic accountability. While we are firmly of the view that decisions ultimately are for local authorities in the light of local needs, the provision of public libraries is mandatory and local authorities should be assisted to understand what is expected of them under the Act and subsequent guidance. We recommend that the Secretary of State provide all local library authorities with the guidance arising from the Arts Council's consultation exercise as swiftly as possible, and to take that opportunity again to remind local authorities of the recommendations of the Charteris Report.
3. It may not be possible or even desirable to retain every existing library building, but wholesale closures are unlikely to facilitate an appropriate level of service. The key to ensuring that an adequateand preferably a good library service is available to the whole local population appears to be the retention of a distributed service, in accessible locations, but with flexibility over whether the service is provided in dedicated library buildings, in other locations, via mobile libraries, or in any other way that best fits local needs.
4. Staff costs are a significant and have been an increasing proportion of library costs and, if the service is losing up to 35% of its budget,
some staff cuts are inevitable. As with other cuts, however, local authorities need to give careful consideration to how to do least damage to the service provided to the public now and for the future. They must ensure that they retain enough experienced and/or professionally qualified staff to develop the services on offer to the public to reflect changing needs, and to support the growing number of volunteers both within their core library service and in any community libraries that may be established locally.
5. Some very good models of co-operation between library authorities already exist. Local authorities must ensure that they maintain and improve co-operation, both across boundaries and nationally, as this will free money for front-line library services. It is short-sighted to reduce co-operation at this time of financial constraint.
6. Volunteers have long been a valuable and valued part of the library service, and there are places where their work may help the local community to retain at least some ability to borrow books and access reference material. It will require considerable dedication by the volunteers and, as the Isle of Wight example shows, the financial costs may be high, even if buildings are made available at a nominal rent. It is not clear how sustainable some of these community libraries may be, nor what impact the change will have on some of the outreach work conducted by libraries, particularly in relation to children and reading. It is clear, however, that community libraries will fail unless given at least some support by the local authority in terms of access to stock (including new stock), retaining computer equipment and IT support, and access to the advice and assistance of professional library staff. It would be very helpful to councils to receive some guidance from the DCMS on best practice in the provision of support. Councils which have transferred the running of libraries to community volunteers must above all, however, continue to give them the necessary support, otherwise they may wither on the vine and therefore be viewed as closures by stealth.
7. There may be many other potential models for providing library services than those discussed in this report. We urge the DCMS, Arts Council and Local Government Association to evaluate the effectiveness of the different models being developed round the country and to produce an analysis for councils by the end of 2013.
8. We very much welcome the commitment given to us by the Minister to produce a report by the end of 2014 on the cumulative effect on library services of the reduction in local-authority provision and the growth of alternatives such as community libraries.
We look forward to receiving that report. Enthusiasm over the scope for volunteer involvement, and for new models of provision, is fine, butgiven the importance of library servicesa systematic look at the impact of funding cuts and organisation changes is needed to assess the durability of new approaches over time.
9. there is an argument for retaining an element of national oversight. The current situation, however, where the Secretary of State has considerable reserve powers but is unwilling at present to use them, satisfies no one.
We note that the Arts Council's libraries team is based in all the regions and is intended to advise on best practice. This team could also be used to feed information on potential problem areas back to the DCMS. This system of advice backed up by intelligence should both help councils to adapt their approach to reductions in the library servicewhich may serve to reduce the recourse to judicial reviewand enable the Secretary of State to give a swifter and clearer response to any complaints or judicial referrals. Section 10 of the 1964 Act then really would be a final resort.
10. We are attracted by Sue Charteris's outline of a modern approach to the Secretary of State's supervisory duty, with its emphasis on developing the service, promoting best practice and supporting the service through intervention at a national level in areas where there are potential efficiencies of scale. This leaves responsibility for both determining and meeting local needs to the local authorities, where it should rest. It alsoas we discuss belowfits the stance taken by the Arts Council in respect of its advisory role for libraries. We do not think that adopting this approach would require any amendment to legislation, as the Secretary of State already has the duty of 'promoting the improvement' of library services.
11. We note one suggestion of a small but significant change to the current procedures and practices relating to the Secretary of State's powers to call a local inquiry into the actions of a library authority. Sue Charteris argued forcefully that the Public Libraries (Inquiries Procedure) Rules 1992 were virtually unworkable and so adversarial that they hindered, rather than helped, to solve the underlying problem. She believed that they should be changed.
We concur. (Paragraph 94)
12. We have no doubt that the Arts Council will fulfil its duties in respect of libraries efficiently and with enthusiasm. Its decision immediately to start a major consultation on how libraries should look in the future bodes well. However, rightly or wrongly, the demise of the Museums, Libraries and Archives Counciland the transfer of libraries to a much larger body with a more circumscribed responsibility for the service and a very low direct budget allocation for itcontributes to an impression that the library service in general is being afforded a lower priority than in the past. In the current climate, it is inevitable that library services will be asked to bear their share of local authority cuts and in some areas be rationalised, even though others have committed to keeping all libraries open. We believe, however, that all those involved in providing this service to the publiclocal authorities, Arts Council and the Secretary of Stateneed to work harder to demonstrate that it is still much-valued and has a promising future.