Culture, Media and Sport CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by John Holland on behalf of former librarians of Gloucestershire Library

This evidence is submitted on behalf of senior librarians who formerly worked for Gloucestershire County Council’s Library Service, namely John Holland, Liz Dubber, Christiane Nicholson, Catherine Escott-Allen, Patrick Baker, Colin Campbell, Pat Bidston, John Hughes, Debs Duggan, Jane Watkis, Alison Lingham, Cathryn Webb, and also Geoff Dubber.

At the time of writing (January 2012), following the declaration of the council’s November 2010 library plans as unlawful. We are awaiting the announcement of a revised library strategy by Gloucestershire County Council.

Main Points

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.

The 1964 Act must be strengthened and clarified in order to protect public library services, and to provide guidance to local authorities reviewing services.

The Select Committee must not restrict itself only to the subject of library closures, as significant areas of library infrastructure and service such as book funds, outreach services and specialist services to disadvantaged users are also being cut irresponsibly.

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

The High Court Judge, who declared Gloucestershire and Somerset Council’s library, plans as being in breach of equalities legislation, explicitly defaulted to the Secretary of State’s responsibility to superintend the 1964 Act.

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

1. What constitutes a comprehensive and efficient library service for the 21st century?

1.1 A library service:

That provides equality of access, and serves everyone in the community, without being subject to any ideological, political, religious or commercial pressures and based on published ethical standards and values confirming its commitment to services accessible for all, and not directed to one or more groups to the exclusion of others.

Which supports the educational, information and personal development needs of its local population (as measured through levels of satisfaction and other local measures of impact).

That actively supports literacy through resources and programmes to support children’s reading development and the acquisition of literacy and communication skills (including IT) by children and adults.

That provides a focus for cultural and artistic development in the community.

That takes proactive steps to encourage use by all groups in the community.

That works in partnership with other organisations with similar objectives to meet community needs.

That analyses local needs and prioritises services according to community needs.

In which suitably qualified and trained staff are able to ensure that users have appropriate help to find and use resources relevant to their needs.

That provides an integrated network of provision to meet local needs and provide good access.

That contributes to regional and national library provision by such means as the comprehensiveness of book stocks, inter-lending between authorities, inter-availability of library membership and the sharing of best practice.

Which is available online for 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for 365 days of the year, offering reservations, inter-library loans, book renewals services and an online enquiry service.

Which plans strategically, reviewing its network, services, performance, impact and resource needs on a regular and continuing basis.

Which is innovatory and plans for the future, responding positively to changes in society and technology.

1.2 In a democratic society, libraries exist to underpin our right to knowledge, learning and information, based on a fundamental and democratic agreement of the need to support literacy and freedom of information. This fundamental role needs to be enshrined in revised legislation making access to a free, comprehensive and publicly-accountable library services a democratic right.

2. The extent to which planned library closures are compatible with the requirements of the Library & Museums Act 1964 and the Charteris Report

2.1 Although ill-defined, the contents and status of the 1964 Public Libraries & Museums Act are of the utmost importance in a free society and should remain on the statute books. It is, however, this very vagueness that has allowed some local authorities to believe that they can make disproportionate and irresponsible cuts to library services, and has also apparently persuaded both the Culture Minister and the Secretary of State to believe that they can ignore their responsibilities under the Act.

2.2 The Act clearly needs to be strengthened. I will return to this in section 3.

2.3 The Charteris Report on the Wirral Inquiry remains a model of good practice putting meat on the bones of the Act. It should be used as a mandatory template for authorities reviewing library services. The Culture Minister, Mr Vaizey, apparently agrees with this. He was a vociferous supporter of the inquiry into the Wirral when in opposition in 2009, and in his communication of the 3 December 2010 to local authorities widely quoted the Charteris Report in his advice to local authorities undertaking library reviews. For instance he recommended that authorities should:

“Provide a thorough analysis of local need, including the general and specific needs of adults and children, who live, work and study in the area.”

“Provide a detailed description of how the service will be delivered and how the plans will take fully into account both the demography and the different needs of adults and children in different areas (both in general and specific terms).”

2.4 In its November 2010 plans for its library service (now declared unlawful by the High Court), Gloucestershire County Council (GCC) failed completely to follow these guidelines. Remarkably, the Library Service review almost completely mirrored the unlawful methodology followed by the council in the Wirral as outlined in the Charteris Report.

For example, like the Wirral, GCC failed to:

Make any assessment of local needs.

Address specific needs and requirements for older people, disabled people, unemployed people and those living in deprived areas.

Demonstrate that it had due regard to the general requirements of children which is considered to be a breach of its statutory duty.

Consider the needs of isolated and deprived communities.

Provide an adequate plan for commitment to a comprehensive outreach service.

Show any reasonable logic in its recommendations for individual libraries, eg some less well used libraries with small communities (eg Stow on the Wold) were to have their opening hours doubled, whereas busy libraries in deprived areas (eg Hester’s Way in Cheltenham) were to close or be made to fund and run their own libraries.

2.5 Additionally, and in breach of the Act and the Charteris Report, GCC also:

Stated erroneously that “no library needs to close”, when in fact all its five Mobile Libraries were to be withdrawn with no alternative. There is no other shire county the size of Gloucestershire without a Mobile Library Service.

Targeted its poorest, most deprived areas for library closures or community funded libraries.

Failed entirely to consult with children.

Failed to take into consideration public transport factors.

Failed to take into consideration any projected increases in the population of individual communities due to proposed residential development.

Used misleading and partial data from a public consultation process to justify its plans.

Completely ignored the almost 100% negative feedback received at all the consultation drop in sessions, and a 16,000 signature petition submitted by the Friends of Gloucestershire Libraries.

2.6 Proposed cuts to Library Services in Gloucestershire are not restricted to the closure of libraries, and this Select Committee should consider more than just library closures. The 1964 Act clearly states that “in fulfilling its duty … the authority shall in particular have regard to the desirability of securing, by the keeping of adequate stocks. Sufficient in number, range and quality to meet the general requirements and any special requirements both of adults and children …” Gloucestershire’s annual stock (book) spend was for many years one of the lowest for any shire county on a head of population basis at around £1 million per year. However, from 2009–10 it has been cut to the bone, so in 2009–10 the spend was £409,130 and in 2010–11 £351,935 (GCC’s own figures). No rationale or justification has been provided for these cuts. Such inadequate annual spend on book stock for a population of nearly 600,000 people should certainly be seen as a breach of the 1964 Act.

2.7 On 1 March 2011 the Culture Minister, Mr Vaizey, was reported to have said that volunteers should not take the place of professionals and must work with them. He also said that libraries should be “staffed by a mix of professionals”.

Once again, GCC ignored this reasonable advice, proposing that 10 libraries would be run completely and exclusively by volunteers. The handing over of libraries to be run on a voluntary basis by local communities removes the democratic accountability for the service. It places the management in the hands of unaccountable local volunteers and removes any guarantee of the service being equally accessible to all without bias, or political, economic, social, religious, cultural, commercial or sectional pressure. Staffing by volunteers thereby undermines fundamental principles of a comprehensive and efficient service—the principles of equity, free access and a neutral unbiased service provided without fear of favour according to need.

Additionally, not a single post in the entire library service now has a job description which requires exclusively a professionally trained and chartered librarian. Unlike the other proposals for its service, the council has been allowed to implement this change.

2.8 The extent of the cuts to Gloucestershire Library Service has further been hidden from scrutiny by being undertaken across a number of years. It was the proposed 43% cut in the Library Services budget, announced in November 2010 that hit the headlines. In fact the budget had already been cut by 25–30% in the previous year (2009–10), the largest percentage cut of any council service for that year. The disproportionate nature of the total cuts was therefore camouflaged by being made over more than one year.

2.9 In March 2011, Culture Minister Ed Vaizey said “the statutory duty remains a very important safety net for the provision of libraries”. Both the Culture Minister and the Secretary of State were made aware of all the above potentially unlawful issues in Gloucestershire. I and many others wrote to DCMS on a number of occasions highlighting these issues. The response was always that the situation “is being monitored”. This “monitoring” apparently continues even now, some nine months after the council made its final decision to implement its plans, and two months after a High Court Judge declared the plans unlawful but explicitly defaulted to the Secretary of State on the 1964 Act. We find it extraordinary that GCC, in ignoring the contents and spirit of the 1964 Act, the contents of the Charteris Report and the direct written advice from Mr Vaizey, has not been the subject of an official Inquiry.

3. The effectiveness of the Secretary of State’s powers of intervention under the Public Libraries & Museums Act 1964

3.1 Under the 1964 Act it is the Secretary of State’s responsibility to superintend public libraries. In September 2009, using those powers, the then Secretary of State in the last government launched an official Inquiry into proposed cuts in the Wirral. As a result of the subsequent Charteris report the Wirral council rescinded its proposed cuts.

3.2 In so doing, what the Secretary of State in the last government found positive and useful, the current Secretary of State has found impossible to use. This seems to us to be more about the current political context than the clarity or effectiveness of the 1964 Act. There is no doubt that the Act is vague, and without the excellent Charteris report it would have been more difficult for the Secretary of State in the last government to form a view.

3.3 We believe, therefore, that the Act needs to be strengthened. The former national Public Library Standards should be revisited and reinstated so that there will be objective measures of both the spend and effectiveness of the local management of public libraries eg a minimum spend per head of population on the service overall and the annual book fund. The Secretary of State should then be able to take measures against any recalcitrant authorities to ensure that libraries are appropriately managed and funded.

3.4 Of particular importance would be a standard on the distance (measured in time) for library users to travel to their nearest library. In their library plans GCC only considered this in relation to car travel time. But not everyone has a car. When one compares Sport England’s standard of 10–15 minutes walk time to a formal sport/leisure facility (as used in Area Action Plans), it is obvious that such a standard for public libraries should be considered.

3.5 The other option for strengthening the Act is for part of the government’s grant to local authorities to be ring-fenced for the provision of library services.

3.6 During 2011, library users in Gloucestershire and Somerset wrote to both the Culture Minister and Secretary of State informing them of the plans by their local authorities to cut services in ways which seemed to be in breach of the 1964 Act, the Charteris report and Ed Vaizey’s own advice to local authorities. Despite DCMS officers clearly stating, in a meeting with the Friends of Gloucestershire Libraries in April 2011, that a decision on whether to hold an Inquiry would be made AND announced, no such decision has been made despite the length of time which has elapsed. DCMS continued instead, in its own words, “to monitor” the situation.

3.7 Because of GCC’s lack of response to the 16,000 signature petition, and thousands of emails and letters of complaint, together with the Secretary of State’s complete failure to engage with the issues relating to the Council’s breach of the Act, library users felt they had no option but to pursue a legal challenge.

3.8 On 16 November 2011 Judge McKenna found Gloucestershire and Somerset Councils’ plans to be in breach of Equalities legislation. He chose not to find them in breach of the 1964 Act, but instead explicitly defaulted to the Secretary of State, and stated in his Judgment that, “parliament has then seen fit to leave detailed oversight of the content of those target duties to the Secretary of State, not to the Court” and that “it is a matter for the Secretary of State under Section 10 of the 1964 Act. This is not in my judgment an abdication of the responsibility by the Court but recognition of the Court’s more limited role in the light of the Secretary of State’s default powers”. The judge could not have been clearer in stating that it is the Secretary of State’s responsibility, and not the High Court’s, to superintend the 1964 Act.

3.9 Moreover, had the Secretary of State exercised this responsibility it would have saved GCC a figure they estimate to be £100,000 for the court case, as well as the necessity for the Friends of Gloucestershire Libraries to raise £11,000 for the case.

4. The impact library closures have on local communities

4.1 Libraries are not a luxury, and are central to all aspects of community and personal well-being. They play a vital role in providing information, learning and leisure, completely free of charge at point of use to local residents. The local library is the only safe, welcoming and neutral space, with no retail pressure, for people of every age and background to use both as a resource centre and social centre. In times of economic recession public libraries are even more vital.

4.2 The cuts which have already taken place (ie the slashing of the book fund and reduced staffing levels), which preceded the proposed cuts found by the judge to be unlawful, have seen levels of use in Gloucestershire fall by over 324,000 loans/issues (nearly 10%) from 2009–10 to 2010–11.

4.3 The loss or downgrading of local libraries has a particular impact on people who are less mobile ie children, elderly people, people with disabilities and unwaged people. If there is an alternative to a local library or mobile library stop for others, there is usually no alternative for these groups.

4.4 When libraries close, people have to travel long distances to reach those libraries remaining open. This can be impossible, depending on sparse public transport services especially in rural areas. In not considering either walk time or public transport availability, but only car travel time, GCC exemplified its misunderstanding of the way libraries are used, particularly by vulnerable people in local communities.

4.5 There is ample evidence of the impact of the early use of libraries by children on levels of literacy. 38% of the 3,000,000 books loaned from Gloucestershire Libraries in 2010–11 were children’s books. Those communities which lose their local library or mobile library stop will lose the activities and events which promote books and libraries, particularly to children. Main amongst these is the annual Summer Reading Challenge, a national promotional programme, which is loved by children, and which national evidence demonstrates is important for the maintenance and improvement of reading and literacy levels during the school summer break. Cuts affecting libraries in Gloucestershire, such as the redundancy of 66 staff mostly professional librarians, the slashed book fund, reduced opening hours and ad hoc library closures, badly affected children’s use of the Summer Reading challenge in 2011. Take up was 14% down on 2010, whilst there was a 24% reduction in children completing the challenge, and a 27% cut in children joining the library compared with 2010. Closure of libraries will affect use even more severely.

4.6 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. 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), as well as a safe and quiet space to do homework. Libraries contribute to a multiplicity of society’s aims including raised standards of reading and learning, stronger and more cohesive and tolerant communities, improved skills and employability, and better health and wellbeing.1 OFSTED has acknowledged this in its report on reading from 2004: “Pupils with positive attitudes almost always spoke with enthusiasm about reading at home, buying books regularly and visiting the local library.”2

4.7 Public libraries play a vital role in helping parents support their children’s reading. Research shows that children who read together with their parents have a head start in school (Wade & Moore, 2000), parents supporting children’s reading is more important than wealth or social class (OECD 2002; Flouri & Buchanan, 2004) and the earlier parents read with children, the greater and stronger the benefits (Mullis, Mullis, Cornille et al, 2004).

4.8 Libraries offer computers and internet access and inexpensive printing. When withdrawn or closed, the loss of these services particularly disadvantages those people who have no computer access at home (four out of 10 people in Gloucestershire, according to research carried out by the Citizens Advice Bureau in 2010) cutting them off from important resources which are particularly valuable to job seekers and those seeking learning development.

4.9 The council’s plans also included the complete scrapping of its services to residential homes for the elderly and to children in disadvantaged areas, as well as all rural mobile library services which combat social isolation.

4.10 Thousands of people wrote to GCC about the essential nature of their local libraries and the personal impact of the loss of services. Similarly, such testimonies were received by the Friends of Gloucestershire Libraries. GCC took no heed of this information. Those testimonies are all on record.

January 2012

1 Studies with evidence to support these impacts include:
Reading a difference, (2006), Devon CC;
A whole Book World, (2007) Bristol City Council;
Baumann, J F & Duffy, A M (1997). Engaged reading for pleasure and learning: A report from the National Reading Research Center. Athens, GA: NRRC;
Confidence All Round, (2005) The Reading Agency;
The Effective Provision of Pre-School Education (EPPE) Project (2003) The Institute of Education, University of London;
The right to read (2008) Paul Hamlyn Foundation.

2 OFSTED, Reading for purpose and pleasure, (2004).

Prepared 5th November 2012