Culture, Media and Sport CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by Friends of Lambeth Libraries (FOLL)

Our argument is simple:

We strongly believe that “comprehensive” must apply to the availability of the service, not just its content—in the 21st century as much as ever.

“Efficiency” therefore must be judged as efficiency in providing comprehensive service as defined above.

Library closures are by no means the only available way to make “efficiency” savings. They are often the very worst option.

Introduction

1. FOLL is an umbrella group of nine individual Friends groups for libraries in Lambeth, a relatively deprived inner-city borough. It was set up 12 years ago, when Lambeth launched a library “improvement” plan that would have closed ALL the local branches to create a very small number of “centres of excellence” in main town centres.

2. The plan was—as such plans almost invariably are—very unpopular. Lambeth—as all too often with local authorities—did not understand what it was doing, and adamantly refused to discuss any alternative.

3. Largely due to the resistance shown at that time, we can report a better situation in Lambeth today. The sheer size of the cuts now being imposed is very damaging. This is a serious worry. But at least we are not having to combat a determination to implement the discredited “centres of excellence” concept at all costs, nor a flat refusal to listen.

4. Many other boroughs have failed to learn these lessons. This is of great concern to us. We therefore welcome the Select Committee’s inquiry. You have had more messages about libraries than anything else in your remit.

5. The public library service has numerous problems, which have been repeatedly diagnosed for decades—largely caused by fragmented accountability, lack of a coherent national blueprint and lack of leadership from all relevant national bodies, including the government itself.

6. An excellent analysis was produced by your own predecessors in 2000. It was completely ignored. We hope this will not happen again.

7. Under the current Secretary of State and Minister, the situation is worse than ever. They have rebuffed every attempt by library users to get support—even when they have had to resort to law, in desperation.

8. Meanwhile, the select committee has correctly identified library closures as the key problem in the current emergency. Your first two questions can be taken together.

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

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

9. There is no great mystery about what a library service is. It is an accessible building, with space, stock and staff. Earnest research brings up the same commonsense answer again and again. Most members of the general public grasp the concept with ease.

10. This model is flexible enough to adapt to change: eg, universal internet access from around 15 years ago, and now e-books.

11. There is much to be said about developing quality within this model. A vast quantity of interesting work has been done and re-done (notably by individual services in isolation, and by The Reading Agency on a shoe-string). Inability to spread good practice is the single most shocking deficiency in the way the library service is currently run. The DCMS is currently more or less useless.

12. However, we propose to focus on the most urgent aspect of the committee’s remit: we strongly believe that “comprehensive” must apply to the availability of the service, not just its content—in the 21st century as much as ever.

13. “Comprehensive & efficient” sums up the basic requirements—for any public service—very well. It does not need re-phrasing. It is vital to maintain the statutory status of public libraries, and to ensure quality. There are local authorities eager to decimate their service, or abolish it altogether.

14. The core problem is that there is currently no accepted legal definition of “comprehensive & efficient”.

This problem has been remedied twice. Both times, accessible buildings were seen as key.

15. (a) Chris Smith introduced Public Library Standards precisely for this purpose in 2000–01 when he was Secretary of State. High on the list was a duty to provide a library building within a stated distance of all residents (eg, within a mile in inner cities). These Standards were extremely productive, and it is a great pity they were abandoned in 2008.

(b) The Charteris report has been widely praised—notably by the current libraries minister, who has incorporated its ideas into his letters to local authorities. [NB: I attended the Wirral inquiry throughout. I was struck by the scrupulousness with which Sue Charteris kept discussion at all times to the provisions of the 1964 Act.] Unfortunately, the government in 2009 ducked the opportunity to give its recommendations any formal status.

16. The Charteris report includes a practical, updated checklist for authorities planning changes. It takes into account relevant legislation passed since 1964 (eg, on equality). Especially valuable is its work in defining the duty under S 7(2)a of the 1964b Act that “a library authority shall in particular have regard to the desirability . . . of securing . . . facilities … to meet the general requirements and any special requirements both of adults and children”. The report’s recommendations made it clear that the most vulnerable people must be considered in this context.

17. Section 7a of The 1964 Act requires a comprehensive and efficient service to be available to: “all persons desiring to make use thereof [or at least] … those whose residence or place of work is within the library area of the authority or who are undergoing full-time education within that area” [including provision of] “such buildings … as may be requisite”.

Section 7b also specifies a duty of “encouraging both adults and children to make full use of the library service”.

It is not encouraging if the nearest library becomes a bus ride (or two) away. Also, if it is a large, shiny “centre of excellence” it is likely to be intimidating. Offering a “better” service in a remote building does not meet the needs of all residents.

18. The DCMS website in 2008 (ie immediately after the abolition of official Public Library Standards) said: “The closure of one or even a small number of library branches is not necessarily a breach of the 1964 Act. Sometimes a local authority will close a library to ensure a better, more efficient service across its whole area. We judge such cases on the basis of the authority’s overall provision.” “We would be concerned if libraries were closed, or their services disproportionately reduced, just to save money.”

19. Those who need a library most are the least likely to be able to travel to a more distant branch. Numerous real-life examples are quoted in the Charteris report. The Charteris report specifically rejected Wirral’s argument that providing a service in far fewer buildings would be “efficient”—since this would really consist simply of transferring time and costs to vulnerable people denied their local service.

20. To repeat: a library service cannot be comprehensive if it is more or less unavailable to some residents. Nor is this “efficient” in any acceptable sense. NB: The current trend to “save” some libraries by reducing services and/or turning them over to volunteers creates a two-tier service, which is similarly unacceptable under the Act.

The impact library closures have on local communities

21. Children and young families are very heavy users of public libraries, as are the elderly, the unemployed, and many other people who cannot access quiet study space, or find or buy all the books they could benefit from, or acquire the infrastructure and expertise needed to use the internet.

22. Fares are expensive (and rising). It is absurd to expect elderly or disabled people, or mothers with push-chairs, to travel to a distant library, or a school to take classes to visit a library miles away, or children to head off in the dark to find a homework space after school. (In a borough like Lambeth, the study spaces are packed.)

23. Public libraries are already being used much more as recession, poverty and unemployment loom. The current government aims to make 80% of benefits available only online. The needs of the most vulnerable are obviously set to increase.

24. Many people still can’t afford broadband, or any e-connection at all. Even if they could, they would be unable to use it without the help of the staff—whom they can fully trust as they cannot (in other places) trust sales staff or public service “official” types.

25. Similarly, properly trained staff at the library are a gateway to all kinds of information, and to online resources in general, that people need (or would enjoy) but don’t know how to find. This guidance cannot be given remotely to everyone. Least of all to those who most need help.

26. Trained staff can also inculcate the badly-neglected skills of “information literacy”—sorting out the good information from the dangerous rubbish. Government needs to focus more on this, instead of being preoccupied with the distribution of hardware.

27. It is ironic, then, that some local authorities are trying to close accessible local buildings just when the internet enables each one of them to offer a vast range of information and entertainment—and certainly everything that is available online at the large central libraries.

28. There is more. As we learned with the disastrous Beeching cuts, small local outposts are feeders to the larger centres. Those who take the first step at a familiar, convenient local building will be encouraged to seek wider cultural and educational experiences of all kinds. The first step should be made easier, not more difficult.

29. This is especially relevant as the UK slips further down the international literacy tables—with reading for pleasure identified as a key route to literacy, and one in which the UK is particularly deficient. Public libraries do excellent work in this area with pre-schoolers, schoolchildren and—especially—adults.

30. They are a safe, quiet, sociable place for people whose homes do not offer such luxuries. As they attract all ages, classes, races, they provide a unique space to experience other kinds of people, and indeed to practise the basic rules of negotiating and sharing resources, sharing space.

31. Current research also underlines the fact that public services are more than just a means to deliver goods to the individual, isolated consumer. They embody sharing, civic qualities that we badly need to reinforce to build social capital, mutual respect, community engagement, citizenship, social cohesion, co-operation, personal responsibility. In many areas the public library is the last public building left.

32. To a great extent—a library service is a building. (Obviously some rationalisation may be desirable, but closures must be the last resort, not the first).

33. It is not difficult, then, to imagine the effects of closing a local community library.

34. Yet these smaller libraries are, properly viewed, a resource of huge potential. Excessive closures have already damaged this potential—but there is still (just) a huge network of easily-reached local drop-in centres that can be of use to any agency. (When the NHS launched Patient Choice, they were going to build a network of local kiosks—until somebody pointed out the whole thing is already set up in libraries. Extrapolate that principle and see the possibilities …).

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

35. The powers of the Secretary of State are adequate in themselves. It is his refusal to carry out any of his duties that is the problem.

36. We should like the select committee also to consider S 1 of the 1964 Act, which requires the Secretary of State to “superintend, and promote the improvement of, the public library service provided by local authorities in England and Wales, and to secure the proper discharge by local authorities of the functions in relation to libraries conferred on them as library authorities by or under this Act”.

37. There is no sign that this duty is being carried out. (The sole “help” offered, the irrelevant Future Libraries Programme and the dangerously vague idea of “community-managed libraries”, is outside your strict remit, but I would be happy to comment on its uselessness if required.)

38. This puts into focus his failure to use his powers of intervention, although repeatedly asked to do so. Some persistent campaigners have succeeded in getting a meeting with DCMS civil servants (never the minister). They listen carefully. There invariably follow weeks of silence, while the situation complained of deteriorates, then a brief standard letter, the same for everyone, making no reference to the matter discussed but saying the DCMS is monitoring the situation.

39. Given that the powers given to the Secretary of State are quite draconian, it is not possible to believe that the Act contemplated this kind of passivity. He is not pro-active or even responsive.

40. This is particularly sad in cases (not rare) when a local council has been approached via the full range of its democratic processes, from mass petitions to presentations at council meetings. Campaigners have asked for dialogue, asked questions, analysed with expert advice the proposed plans, proposed their own plans to make equal savings—all rejected out of hand by councils. Wirral, Swindon and—currently—Brent, Surrey, Doncaster, Lewisham, Somerset and Gloucester, are particularly notorious examples.

41. The failure of the Secretary of State to act as a back-stop in cases like this can thus be seen as an extra dereliction of his original (S 1) duty to “superintend, and promote the improvement of, the public library service... and to secure the proper discharge by local authorities of the functions in relation to libraries conferred on them”.

42. Indeed, in the original judgement (13 October 2011)* in the judicial review of Brent council’s decision to close half its libraries (to “improve” the service), the decision on evaluating “comprehensive and efficient” for Brent is specifically referred on to the Secretary of State. He, as always, has done absolutely nothing about it.

43. We query where he gets his library advice from. He sidelined and then disbanded the statutory Advisory Council on Libraries. The MLA was noticeable for its refusal to involve (or even inform) library users. The Arts Council has few resources, and is not well placed to encompass the vital social and information roles of public libraries alongside their cultural role. None have built-in processes for obtaining users’ views.

44. Library users, then, emerge as by far the most committed advocates for the public library service as a local, accessible resource comprehensively available. Yet they are left without any support from the minister with clear responsibility for the matter—no matter how desperately (and expensively) they try to get his help.

45. Libraries are a low-cost resource, already in place and paid for, convenient, known and trusted, accessible to all, non-threatening, free to use, a uniquely flexible way to deliver core services plus whatever is most locally appropriate, from crime prevention to health. A comprehensive and efficient library service can reach the whole population, creating local identity and cohesion, as well as delivering council priorities. All this, however, depends on the library being accessible, ie LOCAL.

46. Libraries have been seen as a soft option for cuts for years. The number of branches has already been reduced, year after year. Further mass closures would be the tipping point—finally wrecking all chance of making the most of this unique service.

* Footnote:

Text from relevant section of the Brent judgement:

It is the Claimants’ contention that the Libraries Transformation Plan involves a breach of s 7 on its merits, regardless of the information gathered by the Council. That contest is not before me, and it will be for the Secretary of State to decide what to do under ss1 and 10 about the complaints made by the Claimants and others in that respect.

Before me, their allegation is a more limited one concerning the way in which the Council obtained information and then analysed it when carrying out its assessment of needs . . . [Brent council] also submits that, since the Secretary of State has the duty of superintendence of the performance by authorities of their s 7 duties with the advice of advisory councils, and in s 10 a default power, with scope for a full factual inquiry by an independent person, as happened in response to complaints about the library service in the Wirral, this court ought to intervene only in a clear case: a complete failure by a library authority to assess need, or an irrational approach to its assessment. The Claimants have in reality accepted just such an approach in relation to the question of whether [Brent] breaches s 7 on its merits, which they are content to leave to the Secretary of State. I accept that submission: I would put it on the basis that if the Claimants can show that something has gone seriously or obviously wrong in law in the information gathering or analysis process, they should have their remedy in this court. Otherwise, it should be left to the Secretary of State.

This alternative course of action, invoked through complaints, can examine not just whether the proposed library service and closures breach s 7, but it can also examine whether the information gathering processes of the Council, and its analysis of what information it did gather, enabled it to reach a lawful conclusion on whether its proposals met s 7. So there is an alternative remedy, and one rather better suited to the sort of debate which underlies the Claimants’ arguments than the process of judicial review.

January 2012

Prepared 5th November 2012