Culture, Media and Sport CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by UNISON

Inquiry into library closures

UNISON welcomes the opportunity to submit evidence to the Culture Media and Sport Select Committee Inquiry into library closures. As the biggest union in the UK for the library and culture service we represent the majority of the 27,000 library staff employed as librarians, library assistants and managers in all library authorities in England, Scotland and Wales.

Executive Summary

UNISON recognises the value of professionally qualified librarians and trained library staff as an essential part of the services libraries provide to the community. However our members are under attack from those who think that librarianship is little more than a hobby. Whilst UNISON feels that there is a place for volunteering in libraries, we argue that this should not be at the expense of directly employed, paid, professional staff.

UNISON has a long-running campaign which aims to highlight threats to the public libraries and calls for local authorities to protect and invest in services. Since the launch of the campaign, UNISON has been dismayed to witness the growing threat to local services posed by the cuts to local government funding.

The latest figures from the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy show a drop in paid staff numbers of over 4%, whilst the number of volunteers within libraries has increased by 22% since 2010.1 Urgent action needs to be taken to halt the continuing fragmentation and decline of the library service, including the de-skilling of experienced library staff. UNISON argues that:

Library services should be publicly provided via an in-house service model.

Services should be regularly reviewed in conjunction with staff and users.

A service improvement plan must form the basis for any change to the service.

The current cuts and closures programme amounts to the dismantling of the network of public library services.

Libraries should remain the responsibility of the library authority and not fall outside of this remit through transfer to the community.

Local users and taxpayers should not be expected to volunteer to run their library service.

Volunteers should not be used to undermine the position of paid, trained staff within library services.

It is disappointing that none of the questions posed by the Select Committee relate to the experience of staff in the current climate, nor make explicit reference to the impact that other cuts, which stop short of outright closures, are having upon library services. Our members report a catalogue of cuts to staffing and services which have a detrimental impact on local users and communities, yet which often fall under the radar if the council can assert to the public that no library has closed. This effective “hollowing out” of services is particularly worrying to UNISON members, as our responses to the following questions seek to highlight.

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

1.0 The wording contained within the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964 (the Act) is broad enough to allow a range of interpretations. Whilst this kind of freedom enables forward-thinking local authorities to provide excellent public library services which meet the changing needs of their communities, for others the ambiguity surrounding the definition of “comprehensive and efficient” provides justification for poorly planned and resourced services.

1.1 Critics of the Act point to its reference to the provision of gramophone records as evidence that it is outdated, and indeed by default imply that the public library in general is an outmoded institution. Whilst the provision of books and printed material remains a core function, modern library services are about more than just books. Access to the internet, literacy initiatives for families and children, adult education, work with schools and colleges, outreach for vulnerable members of the community, hosting local groups and organisations and a range of information and advice provision form the basis of a “typical” day in a modern library.

1.2 UNISON strongly opposes the current trend towards alternative models of service delivery, including moves to hand libraries over to the community. We are clear in our view that this approach effectively holds users to ransom over the fate of their local services. Anecdotal evidence from a number of different areas where this has happened suggests that local user groups want a publicly funded, professionally staffed and resourced facility. It is only when this is withdrawn that local people feel they have no other choice than to step in to try and keep some form of provision available. For the government to try and suggest that local communities want to run their own services under the notion of the “big society” is simply false.

1.3 UNISON is of the view that only a publicly provided library service can ensure quality provision, value for money, democratic accountability and equality of access. The spectre of privatisation has hung over the public library service for many years. But whereas in years past the option has been rejected, the current climate of austerity means that many local authorities are considering turning to the market in order to “save” services and slash costs. We believe this to be a false economy and that the idea of turning libraries over to private profit-making companies to be anathema to the founding principles of libraries as public institutions.

1.4 Whilst privatisation of UK libraries is still a rarity, several local authorities are seeking to go down this route, which may signal the beginning of a worrying trend. UNISON remains opposed to privatisation as a form of service delivery, as experience shows that service quality suffers and the majority of savings are made through worsening the terms and conditions of the workforce. Furthermore we remain unconvinced of the benefits of other alternative models such as leisure trusts, which are often questionable in terms of democratic accountability.

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

2.0 UNISON believes it is right that the provision of a public library service is a statutory duty on local authorities with central government oversight. Our view is that the legislation does not need to be updated but, guidance should be put in place about its practical application for the 21st century library, linked to a new set of standards for public libraries which local authorities should adhere to and be benchmarked against.

2.1 Following the much reduced local government settlement under the Coalition Government’s 2010 Comprehensive Spending Review, proposals for large scale cuts and closures of libraries have become commonplace. Despite having lobbied vociferously for intervention by the then Secretary of State, Andy Burnham, now in office Jeremy Hunt has made no such moves for any level of intervention, repeatedly stating that officials are “monitoring” the situation. In two high profile legal cases campaigners in three local authority areas have now been forced to take action against closures via the courts, such was their frustration at the Secretary of State’s unwillingness to intervene.

2.2 The Secretary of State has made it clear that individual closures alone do not necessarily breach the Act. Similarly UNISON believe that limited closures undertaken as part of well-planned process involving staff and communities can in fact improve library services, reflect changing needs in the local area and enable the provision of a more comprehensive and efficient service. Our concern lies in the fact that many of the current round of closures are taking place solely as a cost-cutting exercise, have little strategic direction and are being undertaken in a hurried fashion with scant regard for the long term consequences and impact on local communities. Ironically the Secretary of State’s department has previously stated that closures which are undertaken on financial grounds alone are unacceptable.2

2.3 In a 2011 blog piece, Francis Bennion (the civil servant who drafted the original Act), said that in his opinion any library closure would breach the Act as it could only be assumed that local authorities were currently providing a comprehensive and efficient service.3 In his view any less would be a clear diminution of the duty. It is well known that library services have suffered from decades of underinvestment and neglect. Yet too many library services are being branded “not fit for purpose” after years of neglect and this is simply not acceptable. UNISON advocates any change to services to be precipitated by a thorough review, culminating in a staff-led service improvement plan.

2.4 UNISON locally was central to the campaign in the Wirral which led to the Charteris report following the proposed closure of half of the local authority’s libraries in 2009. In December 2011 Wirral Council approved their Libraries Strategy, which was drawn up in conjunction with the (now disbanded) Museums Libraries and Archives Council (MLA) as a direct recommendation of the Charteris Report. The Strategy sets out a vision for libraries in Wirral and details the planned work and investment that is taking place in order to sustain the library service into the future (central to this is the proposal to merge with the Council’s network of One Stop Shops). It also crucially places libraries within the context of other strategic council priorities including the Corporate Plan objectives concerning children and young people and adult social services, as well as linking with the authority’s Customer Access Strategy.

2.5 This kind of long-term strategic consideration of the development of libraries within a local authority has too often been lacking. Many UNISON branches report the library service moving between various departments down the years, losing experienced heads of service and effectively existing in isolation from main council business, with staff affected by a lack of leadership, recruitment freezes and unable to access good quality training and development opportunities.

2.6 Yet despite the recommendations arising from the Charteris Report, many councils are still failing to base changes to library services on a thorough assessment of the needs of the local area. UNISON members report that thorough and meaningful consultation with both staff and users is the exception rather than the norm (this is further evidenced by the number of legal cases which have been brought by local campaigners citing poor consultation as one of the areas for challenge). Too often councils devise a “solution” without adequate consideration of local needs and then attempt to fit their findings to whichever model is proposed. Despite the experience in the Wirral, many local authorities’ closure proposals fail to adequately assess needs from an equalities perspective, particularly in relation to areas of socio-economic deprivation, disabled and older people, as well as the needs of young people, schools and children’s centres. Indeed the recent legal challenge to planned closures in Gloucestershire and Somerset was successful on equalities grounds.

3. The impact library closures have on local communities

3.0 The level of public outcry to library closure plans has shown the level of public support for library services. Too often campaigners are dismissed as “the middle classes” who adhere to the founding principles of public libraries but do not actually use them. UNISON argues that in an era of unprecedented austerity and public spending cuts, libraries are in fact more vital than ever.

3.1 In many places libraries are often the only remaining public open space, offering a vital lifeline to many people both young and old in the community. Outright loss of a library has a detrimental impact on all users, but particularly those who may not have the means to easily access other services such as older and disabled people, parents with young children and local schools. An equality impact assessment should always be undertaken in the case of major service or policy change, which would allow local authorities to assess the impact of their proposals against all protected equalities characteristics in advance, in order to inform decision making.

3.2 In the case of outright closure of a facility it is vital that local authorities put in place measures to mitigate against negative impacts and to offer alternative means of access, which could be undertaken via an equality impact assessment. However it is UNISON’s experience that this kind of thorough and considered approach is often lacking. Our members working in libraries report having to inform users of the loss of the service themselves—for example to those who use home library services who can often be amongst the most isolated and vulnerable members of the community.

3.3 Campaigners in the inner London borough of Lewisham have sought to highlight the impact on services of the Council’s decision to hand five libraries over to the community (three to a social enterprise, one to a charity and one being kept open by local people). Early figures suggest a sharp decline in lending figures, vastly reduced book stock and loss of professional input into the service. The local UNISON branch argues that these transfers are effectively as bad as outright closure and come at an exceptionally high cost to the Council and local community. However, despite this, local authorities who choose this route can still make the claim that no libraries have closed (although local people in Lewisham argue that a “two tier” library service now exists).

3.4 Within the debate around community run services, particularly worrying for UNISON is the implication that librarianship can be undertaken by anyone willing to give up a few hours of their time to shelve and stamp out books. This kind of view demonstrates a startling ignorance of the role and function of a modern library and its staff. Librarians and library staff are multi-skilled and professional individuals who have a unique insight into the needs of their users and local communities. In many areas they are held in high regard by their local communities and seen as the representatives of the local authority in the locality.

3.5 There are genuine concerns over how the “big society” approach will play out in those communities which are deprived or lacking in sufficient “social capital”. Whilst many cite the experience of Little Chalfont library in Buckinghamshire as evidence community-run libraries can work, the founder of the library has stated that he believes a similar service would be difficult to sustain in another area. Jim Brooks, who established the library in 2007, states the initiative has been successful due to a number of unique factors, including the relative affluence of local people and the existence of business skills amongst volunteers.4 UNISON believes the reliance on such a model as a “solution” for public library services is dangerous and is unlikely to be sustainable in the long-term in the vast majority of areas, including those within deprived inner cities and isolated rural areas alike.

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

4.0 UNISON believes intervention by the Secretary of State should be a last resort and it should be for local authorities to determine the best way to ensure a comprehensive and efficient service for their area. Nevertheless some safeguards and form of sanction clearly need to be in place to ensure local authorities comply with their duty. UNISON would like to see a set of common standards for public libraries and a framework for their application to be in place to signal greater political commitment to libraries and the vital services they provide.

4.1 To date the only experience of intervention taking place has been in the Wirral in 2009. The local UNISON branch take the view that intervention would not have been necessary had the local authority sought to consult the branch, staff and community on the plans as part of the review process. The Charteris Report took the view that the planned closures were made “without a clear understanding of the extent and range of services currently being provided in the libraries” and that the Council displayed “a lack of logic around why some facilities were recommended for closure”.5

4.2 At that time the Wirral case, with its proposal to close 13 libraries, was an exceptional one. Now similarly swingeing proposals are happening around the UK and are drawing little if no comment from the Secretary of State, whose duty it is to superintend the service. Whilst UNISON accepts that local authorities who provide the service should be charged with determining what level of provision constitutes “comprehensive and efficient” there should always be some form of sanction against those authorities who are deemed to be deficient in meeting the requirements of that duty. Intervention should be the last resort, but the prospect should remain.

4.3 The experience of UNISON in the Wirral since the Charteris report demonstrates that there are both positive and negative aspects to intervention. Whilst the action meant all libraries remained open, many feel that the service has been delivered on a “shoestring” budget for the last two years, with little marketing or promotion of the library service. Many of the libraries earmarked for closure were uncertain of their future until the very last minute, causing some to be emptied of much of their stock in preparation for being boarded up. Despite being granted a reprieve, many libraries reported a drop in visitor numbers amongst those unaware of the success of the campaign in averting closures. Conversely, staff have reported an increase in community support for libraries and staff, which continues to be unwavering.

4.4 At a very basic level one of the key criticisms in the Charteris Report was that the Council had taken decisions without a clear understanding of the range of services provided by staff working in the library service. Before any decisions are made about the future of a library service, UNISON is clear that staff must be given the opportunity to input into the review process and work towards a staff-led service improvement plan. The input of experienced staff, who have many years of working on the frontline of their local communities, is invaluable to this process, but our experience is that this is seldom the way in which local authorities opt to conduct service reviews, which we believe is a missed opportunity. Reports from many of our branches suggest that library services which have suffered from years of underinvestment and neglect are being hastily branded as “not fit for purpose” in an attempt to justify what UNISON believes are unwarranted cuts and closures.

4.5 Rather than reach the stage where intervention is necessary, and damage already inflicted on the service and staff morale, we would like to see a new set of library standards in place alongside practical guidance for local councils to guide them in seeking to make changes to their library services. As opposed to a knee-jerk reaction to the need to make spending cuts, UNISON would rather see the value of libraries recognised and councils required to strategically plan for sustainable service delivery.

January 2012

1 CIPFA annual statistics charting library usage in the UK for 2011:
www.cipfa.org.uk/press/press_show.cfm?news_id=61555

2 “We would be concerned if libraries were closed, or their services disproportionately reduced, just to save money”
www.culture.gov.uk/what_we_do/libraries/3416.aspx

3 “Drafting the 1964 Public Libraries and Museums Act”
www.voicesforthelibrary.org.uk/wordpress/?s=francis+bennion

4 We want to help them but want to make a key point that although Chalfont Community Library is a very big success it doesn't always fit other models in the UK.”
www.bucksfreepress.co.uk/news/localnews/amersham/8809037.Library_in_the_spotlight_as_successful_community_model/

5 A local inquiry into the Public Library Service provided by Wirral Metropolitan Borough Council led by Sue Charteris, September 2009.

Prepared 5th November 2012