Culture, Media and Sport CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by Friends of Gloucestershire Libraries (FoGL)

FoGL was set up in August 2010 to provide a voice for Gloucestershire library users. In November 2010 Gloucestershire County Council (GCC) announced severe cuts to the public library service which were opposed by FoGL. FoGL supported the 2011 Judicial Review against GCC, which ruled the library plans unlawful on 16 November 2011. At the time of writing we are awaiting the announcement of a revised library strategy by GCC.

Public libraries play a vital role in promoting a literate, informed and equitable society.

The 1964 Public Libraries and Museums Act must remain on the statute, and be strengthened and clarified in order to protect public libraries from irresponsible and short-termist cuts by local authorities, and to provide guidance to local authorities in formulating library strategies.

Library closures can have a devastating impact on local communities, particularly on more deprived communities or on the more vulnerable members of communities.

The Secretary of State and Minister must not be allowed to abrogate their responsibilities to superintend under the 1964 Act.

1. Public libraries play a vital role in a literate and informed society. They offer free (at the point of use) and equitable access to knowledge and learning. At their best, public libraries represent equality of opportunity. At a time where poor literacy levels amongst children and adults are of national concern, as for more and more people books and computers are an unaffordable luxury, and as unemployment rises, public libraries’ importance grows.

2. A comprehensive and efficient library service for the 21st century must be accessible to all who wish to use it, including the most vulnerable and disadvantaged members of our communities, and those for whom mobility is a challenge. The service must embrace technology whilst responding to the needs of those who are uncomfortable with gadgets or can not afford them. The service must meet the specific needs of the communities it serves, including adults and children, and people with particular needs or access issues, and must be proactive in promoting and encouraging usage from all sections of the community. It should have sufficient trained and qualified staff to support all users in accessing resources, and be appropriately funded to provide and deliver these resources. The service must ensure equality of access, and not be subject to ideological, religious, political or commercial pressures. It must be accountable to published ethics and values, and clear service standards such as the revised national Public Library Standards defined by DCMS in April 2006, and the 2010 IFLA (International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions) Public Library Service Guidelines. We suggest that the Select Committee does not limit itself to discussion of library closures, but also cuts to infrastructure (stock, staffing, outreach etc) which severely diminish the effectiveness of the service.

3. The 1964 Act is vague and ill-defined. It should remain on the statute and be strengthened. The current vagueness of the Act has resulted in local authorities viewing disproportionate and permanently damaging cuts to the public library service as acceptable, and seems to have persuaded the Secretary of State and the Culture Minister that they can disregard their responsibilities to superintend. The Charteris Report provides a model of good practice and could form the basis of strengthening the 1964 Act in a 21st century context. The report was cited by the Minister in his own written guidance to local authorities in December 2010.

4. In formulating its cuts package GCC failed to heed the lessons of the Charteris Report, and made many of the same mistakes as the council in the Wirral. GCC failed to make any assessment of local need, including the specific needs of older people, disabled people, children, the unemployed, and those living in deprived or isolated communities. It failed to provide an adequate plan for a comprehensive outreach service, or to show logic in its recommendations for individual libraries (busy libraries in deprived areas were to be closed, while less-used libraries were to have their opening hours increased). The entire mobile library fleet was to be scrapped without any adequate alternative, public library services were to be withdrawn from the county’s most deprived areas, and the stock fund was severely cut (continuing a trend of incremental cuts over several years). GCC disregarded overwhelmingly negative feedback received on the plans during public consultation,1 and ignored a 16,000 signature petition calling for a review of the plans. Repeated warnings, from January 2011, by library users, library professionals and opposition councillors that the plans were probably illegal were ignored, with these concerns vindicated by the November 2011 High Court ruling.

5. In March 2011, the Minister reportedly said that volunteers should not take the place of professionals in the library service. Under GCC’s plans public libraries were to be closed in 10 communities, including some of the most deprived in the county. The option was given to “replace” these services with “community libraries”, to be run entirely by volunteers with no supervision from trained or qualified council staff. These facilities were not to be considered part of the public library network or fall under the council’s statutory obligations, with a subsequent lack of accountability to users, no minimum service standards, and no “plan-B” if volunteers’ goodwill and enthusiasm waned and these facilities closed.

6. The impact of library closures on local communities can be devastating. Over the past 14 months of campaigning against the severe cuts proposed to the library service, FoGL has received countless correspondence from residents deeply concerned at the impact of library closures on their local community.

7. Under GCC’s plans, local public library services were to be withdrawn from Hesters Way in Cheltenham and Matson in Gloucester, as well as eight other communities. Hesters Way and its neighbouring library catchment areas of St Marks and Springbank, and Matson and Robinswood are amongst the most disadvantaged wards in the county of Gloucestershire based on the Indices of Multiple Deprivation (IMDs). The catchments areas for Hesters Way and Matson Libraries contain multiple Lower Super Output Areas (LSOAs) which rank amongst the 10% most deprived in England on the basis of income, employment, income deprivation affecting children, income deprivation affecting older people, and education, skills and training. Another library scheduled for closure was Tuffley in Gloucester, whose catchment area also ranks within the top 10% of deprivation nationally in education, skills and training.2

8. In areas like these the public library is a vital resource. Recent research by the National Literacy Trust finds that three out of 10 children live in households without any books, and that this is most likely amongst poorer children.3 In these communities, the local public library offers many children their only access to books and reading (particularly given the closure and decline in funding of many school libraries),4 as well as a safe and quiet space to do homework. The large number of children independently visiting Hesters Way and Matson Libraries after school is testament to this. We have received correspondence from children concerned at the impact the closure of their local library will have on their educational attainment, as well as from teachers and parents. We have met adults who left school without literacy skills, and who have been able to develop these skills through the resources available at their local public library. This opportunity would be removed with the loss of these libraries. Travelling into city or town centres to use a “Main Library”, as proposed for these residents by GCC, is impractical for children using the library independently, and difficult for those without cars or for whom bus fares are an unaffordable expense, or for people with mobility issues. This suggestion is also impractical in rural areas where public transport links are often poor. One elderly library user told us that when her local branch library closed she would have a six hour round trip to visit her next closest public library, due to the erratic timings and routes of rural bus services.

9. Research conducted in 2010 by the Citizens Advice Bureau found that four in 10 people in Gloucestershire do not have internet access.5 In poorer communities, computer ownership and internet connection can be an unaffordable luxury. All Gloucestershire libraries contain computer terminals offering free access to Microsoft Office packages and the internet, and inexpensive printing. In Hesters Way, Matson and other libraries, these computers are often at capacity, and are particularly valuable to job seekers searching and applying for vacancies online. The internet access offered in libraries is increasingly important as more and more services move online—Hesters Way Library for instance, is opposite the offices of a local social housing provider, and staff send clients to the library to fill in online housing forms. Library staff also provide support to users who are inexperienced in using computers and the internet, contributing to government objectives to close the “digital divide”.

10. Under GCC’s plans the public libraries to be withdrawn from 10 communities would be “replaced” with “community libraries”. The expectation was that these facilities would be run and funded by volunteers. They would not be part of the public library network or statutory service provision and would have the legal status of private clubs (confirmed by DCMS). It was plain to us, and many other local residents, that to expect the most deprived areas of the county to run and fund their own library facility devoid of any statutory culpability on the part of the county council was unrealistic and unsustainable. GCC’s continued comparison of their plans for deprived areas like Hesters Way, Matson and Tuffley with existing volunteer-run libraries in affluent parts of Buckinghamshire betrayed a gross misunderstanding of the challenges and needs in these communities. In deprived areas in particular, the essential service provided by the public library must be placed on a much firmer footing than volunteers’ goodwill.

11. As well as this concern with the impact of library closures on our county’s more deprived areas, we were also deeply concerned at the impact on vulnerable people (in both deprived and more affluent areas). Many of FoGL’s supporters are older people. Speaking to elderly library users around the county it became clear that public libraries play a vital role in assuaging social isolation. Many elderly library users commented that their local public library was one of the only public spaces they could go to where they didn’t feel as though they were rushed, pressured into buying something, or treated as a nuisance. Many looked forward to speaking to the library staff and other users in what may well be their only social interaction of the day, and some low-income elderly people told us that they sat in the library in winter to avoid the crippling expense of heating their home. In the autumn of 2010, Gloucestershire Older Person’s Association (an independent advocacy body) conducted a survey of older people in Gloucestershire. Although public libraries were not specifically highlighted in the questionnaire, they emerged strongly in the “free comments” section as important to older peoples’ quality of life. A typical comment reads; “The only time I get out and meet people is at the housebound library club. I dread it ending. If my daughter moves away and the library closes, I will have nothing.”6 The housebound clubs offered by some Gloucestershire libraries provide a lifeline to people who would otherwise be stuck alone at home.

12. FoGL also heard from full-time carers for whom the library fulfilled a respite role. The public library is a safe and welcoming space, where cared-for loved ones can sit comfortably with a book or newspaper while their carer picks up shopping or attends an appointment. These are the kinds of services provided by public libraries which are not captured in footfall or issue statistics, but which are central to the well-being of many of the most vulnerable people in our communities. The public library service delivers these benefits very cheaply (in Gloucestershire the whole of the service—pre-cuts proposals—represented just 1.5% of the council’s overall annual budget), and cuts which remove these benefits would likely pass costs onto more expensive interventionary services.

13. Under GCC’s plans the entire mobile library service was to be scrapped. In a large rural county mobile libraries are a valuable resource, particularly given that rural public transport links are often poor. Thirty-one LSOAs within Gloucestershire register within the top 10% of deprivation nationally based on the domain “barriers to housing and services”, with the vast majority of these LSOAs in rural areas. A key indicator within this domain is “transport barriers”, so it is fair to assume that poor scores are partly due to limited public transport and the difficulties faced by those without access to a car (most likely young people, the elderly and the low-income). This underscores the importance of the mobile service for access to library resources in these communities, particularly if small rural branch libraries face closure.

14. Libraries in Gloucestershire receive around 3 million user visits a year—a third of these by children. GCC report falling library usage over the past year, but this must be viewed in the context of minimal stock investment and uncertainty over libraries’ status and opening hours as a result of the proposed cuts package and its suspension during the Judicial Review proceedings. The strength of feeling against library closures was illustrated by the fierce opposition to the council’s plans. In the space of three weeks (including the Christmas and New Year holiday period and severe winter weather) 16,000 Gloucestershire residents signed a petition calling for an independent review of the library plans. We were informed by a county MP that this was the second largest petition the county has ever seen. This petition was submitted to GCC in January 2011, but did not influence decision makers. A number of petitions were also submitted to GCC by groups of residents concerned at the closure of their particular local library or mobile service, and protests were held around the county.

15. Over the past 14 months, FoGL have kept the Secretary of State and Minister informed of events in Gloucestershire, and requested intervention as per their powers under the 1964 Act. The Minster and DCMS has been made well aware of the inadequacies in GCC’s library strategy. Correspondence between the MLA and DCMS (obtained by FoGL through FOI) shows MLA officers highlighting the disproportionate impact of the planned library cuts on the county’s poorest communities, and shortcomings in meeting the needs of the most vulnerable.7 Details of how these noted deficiencies in the plans were mitigated to the satisfaction of the MLA were never provided, despite repeated requests for this information.

16. A letter was sent to the Minister by the recently retired Assistant Head of the Gloucestershire Library Service, John Holland, and four other ex-senior librarians in November 2010, highlighting the disproportionate impact of the planned library cuts on deprived communities and vulnerable residents. Mr Holland received a reply from a DCMS official, stating that “the Secretary of State takes his duty to superintend the delivery of library services by local authorities very seriously” and that events were being monitored. Two further letters were sent by Mr Holland et al in January and April 2011, reiterating these points, and explicitly pointing out the deficiencies in GCC’s decision-making process against the standards set by the Charteris Report and the Minister’s own written guidance to local authorities. Again, Mr Holland was told that the situation was being monitored. Bear in mind that in February 2011 the plans for the library service were approved by the GCC Cabinet and set for implementation. Many other Gloucestershire residents and FoGL wrote to the Minister in similar terms and received the same response.

17. In April 2011 representatives of FoGL met with DCMS policy officials. The concerns addressed in multiple letters to the Minister were explained in detail, with specific reference to the Charteris Report and the Minister’s own written guidance to local authorities. We were told we would soon be informed of a decision regarding intervention from the Secretary of State. GCC was also invited to meet with officials, although we were not allowed to be party to any of these discussions. We have no idea what DCMS wished to achieve from the meeting with FoGL, as GCC continued with their plans and DCMS subsequently would not communicate with us. Requests for an update on the promised decision on intervention were met with the reply that the department was monitoring the situation, even as plans were implemented.

18. In August 2011, the Minister, speaking at “The Future of Library Services in the Big Society” conference, said he had not exercised his power to intervene because there was currently a “fluid situation”.8 He said this knowing that library cuts in Gloucestershire were due to have been implemented a month before. The situation was not “fluid” but final, and implementation was only halted by a High Court injunction following the granting of permission for Judicial Review.

19. Having exhausted democratic avenues at county level, and in the face of ongoing silence from the Secretary of State and Minster, library users in Gloucestershire reluctantly launched Judicial Review proceedings. Still DCMS did nothing, opting instead for deference to the courts. On 16 November 2011 the High Court ruled GCC’s library strategy unlawful on equalities grounds, and quashed the plans entirely. Judge McKenna made it clear that it was not the court’s responsibility to superintend the 1964 Act. He said in his judgement; “It is a matter for the Secretary of State under Section 10 of the 1964 Act. This is not in my judgement an abdication of responsibility by the Court but a recognition of the Court’s more limited role in the light of the Secretary of State’s default powers”.9

20. Since the High Court ruling, FoGL have written to the Minister, requesting an explanation for the decision not to intervene in Gloucestershire and reassurances that the Secretary of State and Minster will properly execute their duties in relation to the new library strategy now due for release by GCC.10 The MP for Cheltenham, Rt Hon Martin Horwood, has also written to the Secretary of State on this issue. FoGL have additionally coordinated an open letter to the Minister, expressing dissatisfaction at his inaction on library closures nationwide. In the space of five days this letter attracted over 450 signatures from library user groups and individual library users across the country, authors and broadcasters, elected representatives and professional bodies, and drew national media attention. The letter, and more than 300 comments left on the blog post where the letter was hosted have been sent to the Minster.11 At the time of writing a response is awaited to each of these letters.

21. In December 2011, in response to news of the open letter, a DCMS spokesperson told the press; “Use of statutory powers, including intervention, will be exercised on a case by case basis only when other avenues of dialogue have been exhausted.”12 In Gloucestershire, local democratic procedures and “other avenues of dialogue” had long since been exhausted, hence the involvement of the High Court. Yet the approach of DCMS and the Minister does not appear to have changed. In Gloucestershire, residents looked to the Minster and Secretary of State to exercise their powers, or provide an explanation as to why they had elected not to do so. Despite being well aware of the concerns in Gloucestershire the Secretary of State and Minister did neither, forcing Gloucestershire library users to pursue a Judicial Review claim against GCC. This was a difficult, stressful and costly process (residents were required by the Legal Services Commission to raise over £11,000 towards the cost of the case), which was wholly avoidable had the Minister and Secretary of State fulfilled their duties to superintend. Since Gloucestershire and Somerset library users’ victory at the High Court in November 2011 several other legal proceedings have been launched or are being considered by library users around the country.

22. In short, our complaint is not with the effectiveness of the Secretary of State’s powers of intervention per se (although we believe these should be strengthened under a general strengthening of the 1964 Act), but with the current Secretary of State’s and Minster’s seeming unwillingness to exercise these powers. In opposition the Minister was a vocal opponent of library closures, and called in strong terms for his then opposite number, Rt Hon Andy Burnham, to intervene in the Wirral in 2009. Yet now, in office, and in the face of library closures of an unprecedented scale nationwide, the Minister is inactive and silent. FoGL and other library user groups across the country have been repeatedly told that the Minister and his department are “monitoring”, even as councils vote through and implement decisions, and as library staff are made redundant and libraries made ready to be closed or sold. It is unacceptable that the Secretary of State and Minister are allowed to abrogate their responsibilities in this way.

January 2012

1 Full consultation feedback (obtained by FoGL through FOI) can be viewed at
http://foclibrary.wordpress.com/2011/06/15/gcc-library-consultation-feedback-obtained-through-foi/

2 A full report on the Indices of Multiple Deprivation and GCC’s planned library strategy can be viewed at http://foclibrary.wordpress.com/2011/03/18/indices-of-deprivation-and-gccs-library-strategy/

3 www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-16031370

4 www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-13468317

5 http://news.bbc.co.uk/local/gloucestershire/hi/tv_and_radio/newsid_9067000/9067481.stm

6 A more detailed account of the GOPA survey results can be viewed at
http://foclibrary.wordpress.com/2011/01/27/libraries-improve-quality-of-life-for-older-people/

7 A full report on the MLA documentation relating to Gloucestershire obtained though FOI by FoGL can be viewed at http://foclibrary.wordpress.com/2011/03/24/mla-concerns-over-gcc-library-plans/

8 www.thebookseller.com/news/vaizey-no-case-yet-libraries-intervention.html

9 www.judiciary.gov.uk/media/judgments/2011/kirsty-green-v-gloucestershire-county-council-others-judgment-16112011

10 A copy of the letter to the Minster is viewable at
http://foclibrary.wordpress.com/2011/12/13/mr-vaizey-you-knew-you-did-nothing-now-what-friends-of-gloucestershire-libraries/

11 The letter, list of signatories and comments can be viewed at
http://foclibrary.wordpress.com/2011/12/12/joint-open-letter-to-ed-vaizey-from-library-user-groups-please-consider-signing-and-circulating/

12 www.thisisgloucestershire.co.uk/Library-campaigners-letter-minister-backed/story-14142700-detail/story.html

Prepared 5th November 2012