Culture, Media and Sport CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by Share the Vision (STV)

1. Summary

1.1 STV wishes to submit evidence from the perspective of the three million print disabled people whose interests we represent.

1.2 STV believes that the fundamental aims and values underpinning public library services, as set out in the 1964 Act, remain valid for the 21st century digitally networked world to which public libraries have already adapted.

1.3 The basic requirements in order to provide a comprehensive and efficient service apply equally to print disabled people. However, library services need to make appropriate adjustments to remove the barriers which prevent print disabled people making use of the service.

1.4 The issue is not just library closures but all budget reductions in library services and their specific impact on print disabled people.

1.5 We are also concerned that the proposed attempts to hand over governance to local communities will undermine the equality requirements which have been a feature of library services and upon which disabled people depend for equal access.

1.6 The closure of a library is the loss of a major community asset which has a disproportionate effect on the most disadvantaged members of society.

1.7 In 2011–12 councils have made disproportionate cuts to cultural budgets and this will have damaging effect on overall community well being.

1.8 The Secretary of State’s powers of intervention are appropriate and adequate but underused.

2. Background

2.1 Share the Vision welcomes the initiative of the Culture, Media and Sports Committee in holding this timely inquiry and wishes to submit its views.

2.2 Founded in 1989, STV is a UK-wide partnership of the main voluntary sector organisations that produce and lend reading materials in accessible formats for print disabled people and the main bodies for publicly funded libraries. There are three million print disabled people in the UK including people with sight loss, dyslexia and other reading impairments.

2.3 STV’s objective is to improve access to library and information services for print disabled people through co-operative working within and between the two sectors. As a member of the Right to Read Alliance, STV campaigns and contributes to debates at local, regional, national, European and international levels to ensure that the needs and interests of print disabled people are taken into account.

2.4 It is from this perspective that STV wishes to contribute to the Committee’s consideration of the important issue of library closures and the four questions raised by the Committee.

2.5 This response is endorsed by the Right to Read Alliance.

3. What constitutes a comprehensive and efficient library service for the 21st Century?

3.1 We believe that the fundamental aims and values underpinning public library services, as set out in the 1964 Act, remain valid for the 21st century digitally networked world to which public libraries have already adapted. To be comprehensive and efficient they need to offer the following features to the citizens they serve.

3.1.1 Accessible services, whether building or otherwise based, which permit all members of society to access them conveniently.

3.1.2 An appropriate range of reading and information materials which people can borrow or study in the library for leisure, cultural, educational, occupational or other personal purposes.

3.1.3 In the modern age, this range clearly has to incorporate digital content which the user can access on site via devices provided within the library or at a distance via their own ICT.

3.1.4 A range of additional facilities and activities which contribute to local community life such as meeting rooms, exhibition facilities, story hours for local children, reading groups, ICT familiarisation classes for older people, etc.

3.1.5 A core of professionally qualified staff who can ensure that the needs of local communities are identified and then organise appropriate resources to assist local people to avail themselves of services and activities which are relevant to their personal needs and interests.

3.2 These basic requirements are the same for print disabled people as for sighted people. Additionally, libraries need to make some fundamental adjustments to ensure that print disabled people have equal opportunity to access services. Buildings have to designed to be fully accessible with appropriate lighting, colour contrast, signage etc; alternative service delivery methods have to be provided for those people who cannot travel to library buildings; reading materials have to be provided in accessible formats for those who cannot read standard print materials; assistive technology has to be provided for those who cannot use basic ICT equipment; the new digital formats have to be designed with inbuilt accessibility features which are not disabled by suppliers; and, most importantly, library staff need to be aware of the needs of print disabled people and how they can best be met. These are the basic requirements for a comprehensive and efficient library service for print disabled people.

4. The extent to which the planned closures are compatible with the requirements of the 1964 Act and the Charteris Report

4.1 Whilst we share the Committee’s concern about the potential effects of library closures, we believe that the real issue is not just closures but the extent of the budget reductions being made by public library authorities this year and in subsequent years; the effects that these reductions will have on the fundamentals outlined above; and how public library authorities in England propose to organise and manage their remaining library services, taking into account the different models outlined in the Future Libraries Programme, sponsored by DCMS and carried out by the former Museums, Libraries and Archives Council and the Local Government Association.

4.2 We believe that these issues have considerable implications for the rights of the three million print disabled people in the UK to have access to a comprehensive and efficient library service on an equal basis to sighted people. The following factors need to be taken into account.

4.2.1 In order to be able to read, print disabled people need access to reading material in accessible formats such as braille, large print, giant print, audio and e-books. Recent research from the Library and Information Statistics Unit (LISU) at Loughborough University found that only 7% of the print output of UK publishers between 2006 and 2010 eventually became available in any accessible format. While this represents a welcome increase from the 5% found available in an earlier LISU survey, 2004, it remains the case that 93% of printed books published in the UK are not accessible to three million people.

4.2.2 Because of the extra production costs, large print and audio books are more expensive than print versions of the same title. Audio books also incur VAT unlike print books. Print disabled people, who are for the most part poorer than sighted people, are therefore more dependent on libraries to provide for their needs. However, because these formats are much more expensive than hardbacks, and especially paperbacks, libraries are naturally increasingly tempted to reduce the amount of large print and audio books they purchase in order to maintain the greatest stock for the greatest number of (sighted) people, to the detriment of some of the neediest members of society.

4.2.3 This can be further demonstrated by the extent to which local authorities are cutting funding for subscriptions to the RNIB’s Talking Book Service which is designed for people who have the most specialist accessibility needs. Local authority funded subscriptions to the service declined by 8% between November 2010 and November 2011.

4.2.4 In order to be included in the digital society, print disabled people need access to assistive technology which is much more expensive than standard ICT equipment. RaceOnline set a target in 2010 to greatly reduce the 10 million non-digital users in the UK by 2012. According to the latest Office for National Statistics Internet Access Quarterly Update, published on 16 November 2011, the total number of non-digital users has reduced to 8.3 million but over half of them, 4.25 million, are disabled people. Research by the Government’s e-Accessibility Forum’s Consumer Expert Group in 2009 identified that the main barrier to their uptake of ICT is the affordability of assistive technology. Accessible communal provision is an obvious solution and the local public library, as part of the People’s Network, is a key contributor to meeting the Government’s aim. A closed library, or even an open library lacking the necessary equipment on the grounds of cost, will not provide a solution for digitally excluded people.

4.2.5 A further concern is that library authorities are also reducing or withdrawing their mobile and housebound library services. This is a particular issue for print disabled people, especially in rural areas where transport services are also being reduced. For such people who are not digitally enabled, access to large print and audio books will be removed.

4.2.6 Another method of reducing costs which is becoming more popular with local authorities is to introduce self issuing systems and reduce staffing. This has two immediate effects on print disabled people. Firstly, even if they are aware of where the equipment is located, touch screen technology is not usually accessible to people with sight loss. In any event their use of many library services is dependent on the assistance and advice of trained library staff, including staff with specialist roles serving disabled people.

4.2.7 This has recently been reinforced by research conducted by the RNIB National Library Service in June 2011. They interviewed 55 members of their Focus Group about their experience of using e-book services provided by their local public libraries. Downloading of e-books was very difficult but, once achieved, worked well with their assistive technology. However, even blind people who are computer literate found it difficult to get started without the help of library staff. They identified personal assistance as a key requirement to get started.

4.3 All of these might be designated as equal opportunity issues and it is notable that the Charteris Inquiry found that Wirral Borough Council would fail its duties primarily because it had not addressed the needs of disadvantaged groups, including older and disabled people, in its restructuring proposals to reduce total library costs. The importance of equality considerations has recently been reinforced by the High Court judgement in the case brought against Gloucestershire and Somerset County Councils which planned to close numerous local libraries and/or hand them over to local communities to run. The judge found against the councils for breaching their statutory equality duties.

4.4 We would contend that, for the most part, public libraries have been at the vanguard of providing equal opportunities and that the 1964 Act predated the equality legislation that followed. However, we are concerned that the move to hand over control of library services to local community groups could undermine the role of libraries in addressing equal opportunities. We appreciate that it is possible for a local authority to specify equality requirements in a contract awarded to a private sector company, trust or other library authority to operate its library services. The report Future libraries: change, options and how to get there published by the MLA and LGA in August 2011 was about learning the lessons of phase one of the programme. It cast serious doubt about the community governance model, asking how does it “reflect the fact that the statutory requirement to provide a library service rests with the council? What is a core library service? How will the council guard against, and respond to, service failure, or if local people no longer want to run the library?” We would be extremely concerned if responsibility for addressing equality matters and the needs of print disabled people were to be passed from experienced and trained library staff to volunteers who might have no knowledge or interest in such matters and would not be subject to the same redress as a local authority run service. That would be an extremely retrograde step and, in our opinion, would not be compatible with the 1964 Act, the Charteris report’s findings or statutory duties under the Equality Act 2010.

5. The impact library closures have on local communities

5.1 Whatever the logic for proposing to close a local library, there will always be community resistance for the simple reason that people do not want to lose an important community asset that serves so many different purposes and meets so many needs. The simple reality is that most people, including non-users, appreciate the availability of a public space which is freely available to all-comers when more and more of the public realm has become privatised or chargeable. In many communities, both urban and rural, the public library is the only community building freely available to all and it is natural that, whatever the economic reality, people are resistant to its closure. Therefore it is for local communities and local politicians to determine the balance between competing needs for local services, the financial resources available and the general community wellbeing provided by the local library. However, a library closure is ultimately a community loss which cannot be entirely and adequately replaced by an alternative or substitute service.

5.2 The loss of the community asset is most keenly felt by those members of the local community who are least able to fend for themselves and find substitute access to the services they need, namely: the young, the old, the unemployed, the disabled and the poorer members of society. They are least able to travel to a library service further away or to purchase what they would previously have borrowed from the library. This is particularly the case for print disabled people as many find it difficult to travel outside their local area and most certainly do not have the resources to purchase large print and audio books.

5.3 It is increasingly suggested that library closures can be avoided by handing over responsibility to the local community. Whatever the merits and demerits of this approach, it is almost certainly the case that this is more likely to happen in wealthier communities than in poorer communities. In which case the poorer communities will be further disadvantaged in terms of their access to basic services which they are least able to provide for themselves.

5.4 Given the small proportion of the total local authority budget devoted to library services, typically 1% to 1.5%, it is pertinent to note the findings of the Tough times report published by the Audit Commission on 17 November 2011. This looked at how councils were coping with their budget reductions and found that the overall reduction in service spending in public library authorities in 2011–12 was 6.5% but cultural services spending had been cut by 13%. Not surprisingly, the Audit Commission does not believe that such an approach to protecting other services such as social services is sustainable in the years up to 2014–15. It seems reasonable to ask whether the disproportionate amount of reductions taken from cultural budgets by public library authorities in 2010–11 will have a drastically disproportionate effect on overall community wellbeing.

5.5 It is likely that the effects of these cuts will be masked in the short term but will have a serious detrimental impact on the range of services in the longer term. This will be exacerbated if an increasing number of libraries cease to be managed as part of a network but become individual stand-alone libraries without trained staff and shared specialist resources.

6. The effectiveness of the Secretary of State’s powers of intervention under the 1964 Act

6.1 In our opinion there is nothing untoward with these powers, the problem has been the reluctance of successive Secretaries of State to utilise them in the public interest when justified. The abolition of the former Public Library Standards and the requirement for English public library authorities to submit an annual library plan to the Secretary of State mean that there are no longer any criteria against which the Secretary of State can form a judgement. On the rare occasions the powers have been used, in Derbyshire and Wirral, they have had the required effect of achieving change and improvement.

7. Notes

7.1 STV would welcome the opportunity to provide oral evidence to the Committee’s inquiry and is content for this written submission to be made publicly available.

January 2012

Prepared 5th November 2012