Following our vindication at the High Court, we at Friends of Gloucestershire Libraries are very angry that, even when there were concerns shared between officers within the MLA and DCMS and even after we had set out time and again the clear inadequacy of Gloucestershire County Council’s Library cuts, Ed Vaizey did nothing. Ed Vaizey and Secretary of State Jeremy Hunt failed in their duty to superintend the county council and allowed it to continue with “unlawful” library cuts. We have written to Mr Vaizey asking him why and asking him to act NOW.
Dear Mr Vaizey,
On 16th November 2011 the High Court ruled that Gloucestershire County Council’s library strategy was unlawful. They were guilty of a “substantive breach” of the public sector equality duty and “bad government”.
I will remind you how events reached this point:
1. Concerns raised by MLA
In November 2010, Gloucestershire County Council announced draconian cuts to our library service. Concerns about how the plans unfairly impacted on the vulnerable were raised by many library users in the county. The intensity of the concerns raised prompted a meeting between Museums Libraries and Archives council (MLA) and Gloucestershire County Council.
In an internal email exchange between MLA and Department of Culture Media and Sport (DCMS), officers of the MLA expressed similar concerns to those voiced by library users in the county (copies of these emails were obtained via a freedom of information request to MLA):
‘Although I don’t have the deprivation data, I suspect some of those mentioned as effectively being closed if the communities do not take them over are in the most deprived areas’.
‘I agree with you concerning the areas of deprivation. Most of the branch libraries they seem to be keeping open are in the wealthier parts of Cheltenham and the Cotswolds’.
In February 2011, Friends of Gloucestershire Libraries compiled an Indices of Deprivation report  which highlighted that areas worst hit by the cuts featured in the top 10% areas of deprivation in the county and top 25% in the country. Indeed, under Gloucestershire County Council’s plans, ALL Gloucestershire wards with LSOAs featuring in the top 25% of deprivation nationally, and who currently benefited from a public library service, stood to lose it.
The same series of email correspondence obtained through FOI revealed that in a meeting with Gloucestershire County Council, Jon Finch of the MLA planned to ask the authority to:
‘please outline your plans to meet the needs of the most vulnerable? What services will you provide? What will they be charged for?’
I include these exchanges in this letter, as it is clear that from the start both the MLA and your department were aware of these unlawful deficiencies in Gloucestershire County Council’s library strategy. Details of how these deficiencies were to be mitigated was never provided.
2. Correspondence between Gloucestershire library users and DCMS
On 19th November 2010, John Holland, former Assistant Head of Gloucestershire Library Service and four other senior ex-librarians wrote to you detailing the disproportionate nature of the library cuts, and how they would impact on the poorest areas of our county, on vulnerable young people and the elderly and disabled.
A number of Gloucestershire residents also wrote individually to DCMS stating similar concerns. In response to these many complaints and pleas for DCMS intervention, a standard ‘cut and paste’ letter was received that was identical to those sent to library users concerned about library cuts across the nation. None of the specific concerns were addressed, but the letters repeatedly stated that decisions would be taken on a case by case basis, that DCMS would not intervene when plans were being formulated and that;
“the Secretary of State takes this duty to superintend the delivery of library services by local authorities very seriously. His Officials are carefully monitoring developments concerning library services across England and I have shared your emails with them”
Meanwhile plans were due to be implemented imminently (the final Cabinet vote to approve the library strategy took place on 2nd February 2011, and the full council vote on 16th February 2011). Still DCMS did not intervene.
A follow up letter was sent to you by John Holland on 9th January 2011, which informed you that:
“There is no evidence that the authors of that document [the county council’s library strategy] gave any value or consideration to the social impact on individual communities of their proposals. There is certainly no information of this kind in the strategy itself. Indeed, were it given any credence it is difficult to imagine that EVERY disadvantaged areas of the county would be reduced to 3 hours a week “library link” or to community funded and run “library” to which the alternative is closure.
For those who know the county it would be obvious that the social impact on poorer areas like Hester’s Way in Cheltenham, Matson and Tuffley in Gloucester, Cinderford in the Forest of Dean, and Stonehouse near Stroud has not been considered. Nor has the effect on rural isolation of the complete withdrawal of the rural mobile library service. Add to this the axing of the Home Link service serving residential homes for elderly people and Share a Book serving children under 6 in disadvantaged areas. In our view no “consideration (at all) of the needs of these communities” has been made, or, as far as we can ascertain, is being made”.
To which, again, the same standard ‘cut and paste’ letter from DCMS was sent in reply.
A further letter was sent by John Holland on the 5th April 2011. Mr Holland again pointed out and evidenced, in the clearest possible terms, Gloucestershire County Council’s failure to consider deprivation data and the general and specific needs of service users in formulating its plans (plans which by this stage, had been agreed by cabinet and council, and were firmly set to be implemented).
3. Meeting between DCMS and Friends of Gloucestershire Libraries
In April 2011, following months of correspondence, Friends of Gloucestershire Libraries were finally invited to a meeting with DCMS officials. Again we set out our concerns in detail. We were told that contact would be made with us after the meeting, with a decision regarding intervention from the secretary of state. Gloucestershire County Council was also invited to present their library strategy to your officials, although we were not allowed to be party to any of the discussions between the county council and the department.
We have no idea what DCMS wanted to achieve from the meeting with Friends of Gloucestershire Libraries, as the county continued with their “unlawful plans”, and the DCMS subsequently would not communicate with us. In the months following the meeting, many requests for an update on the promised decision on intervention, were met with the standard reply that the department was monitoring the situation.
4. Judicial Review proceedings
Having fruitlessly exhausted the democratic avenues open to us at county level, and in the face of ongoing silence from DCMS, library users in Gloucestershire reluctantly launched judicial review proceedings against the county council. Still DCMS did nothing. Instead you chose to be deferential to the High Court. As you now know, on 16 November 2011 the High Court ruled that Gloucestershire County Council’s library strategy was unlawful on equalities grounds, and quashed their plans entirely.
In his summing up, the judge also stated that his decision should be a warning to other authorities reviewing library services.
Judge McKenna also made it clear that it is your responsibility, Mr Vaizey, and not his, to superintend the 1964 Public Libraries Act. He said this in his judgement-
“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 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”.
5. DCMS monitoring of Gloucestershire County Council’s library strategy
Over the last year Mr Vaizey, you sent letters to library authorities (including Gloucestershire County Council) with the following advice which specifically highlighted factors for consideration from the Wirral report.
In your letter dated 3 December 2010, you recommended that authorities should:
“Provide a thorough analysis of local needs, including the general and specific needs of adults and children who live, work and study in Gloucestershire.”
“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)”
You also quoted the Charteris report to DCMS on the breach of statutory responsibilities by the council in the Wirral. This included the following-
“The Secretary of State (should) require the Council to evidence how it will meet the needs of all groups and communities (in all cases).”
“The Council (should give) due regard to the general requirements of children.”
The council should demonstrate “a clear understanding of the extent and range of services currently being provided in the libraries, including those which are ‘core’ to the service and those which are ancillary.”
The Council should demonstrate “an adequate plan for and commitment to a comprehensive outreach service.”
The council should demonstrate its commitment “to adults and children with specific needs in line with the most recent equalities legislation e.g. older people, children, people with disabilities, unemployed people, people in residential homes, and housebound people.”
Mr Vaizey, Gloucestershire County Council has demonstrably failed to give regard to any of your direct recommendations or those you support from the Charteris Inquiry. Yet you do nothing. What exactly does a local authority have to do before you even consider stepping in?
Throughout the Spring and Summer of 2011, the plans that you were ‘carefully monitoring’ continued apace. Decisions were taken by Gloucestershire County Council including:
- Cabinet Decision of 2 February 2011Full Council decision of 16 February 2011 (as it related to libraries)
- Cabinet Member decision of 12 April 2011
These decisions (and any other decisions taken as a consequence of those decisions i.e. any libraries decisions subsequent to 2 February 2011) were entirely quashed by the High Court on the 16th November 2011.
The breach of the statutory equalities duties identified by the Court was a serious one, which it condemned as “bad government”. The Court identified these equalities duties as imposing “important and onerous burdens” (paragraph 118), which must be complied with “in substance” (paragraph 118) i.e. not as a merely technical, box-ticking exercise. The Council relied on a number of Equalities Impact Assessments (“EIAs”) in the case, but these documents were not enough to convince the Court that the Council had due regard to these important duties. Moreover the Court found that the duties must be exercised “as part of the decision making process” (paragraph 121). It found that as part of that process Gloucestershire County Council did not “undertake…a sufficiently thorough information gathering exercise and then properly analyse…that information” (paragraph 131).
6. Gloucestershire’s libraries going forward.
Since Gloucestershire County Council announced its plans for our public library service in November 2010, it has been clear to county residents that these plans were insufficient and unfair. As evidence by the November 2011 ruling, it was clear to a High Court judge that the plans were insufficient and unfair.
Correspondence from your department promised us time and again that you “take your duty to superintend the delivery of library services by local authorities very seriously” and that you were “carefully monitoring developments concerning library services”. How, therefore, did you fail to see this insufficiency and unfairness, and why did you allow Gloucestershire County Council to continue down this destructive and unlawful path? You have failed the people of Gloucestershire by your reluctance to intervene.
Following the High Court ruling, Gloucestershire County Council must go back to the drawing board and start again in developing an improved, fair and lawful library strategy.
What reassurances can you give the people of Gloucestershire that they will be properly supervised by you this time? What advice have you given them regarding their new plans? How can people across the country facing similar unfair and draconian cuts to their services be reassured that you are not going to let them down in the same way you have let down the people of Gloucestershire?
The silence from yourself and DCMS since the High Court ruling was announced has been deafening. We do not understand how the county council’s plans, which were ruled unlawful as they did not gather enough information about the needs of communities nor consider and mitigate the impact on the vulnerable, could, at the same time, be considered by you to be “comprehensive and efficient”. You oversaw “bad government” and illegal plans. Please tell us why.
Since the ruling the Gloucestershire County Council administration and senior library service officers have refused to attend an open public meeting about the future of our libraries, and will not talk to library users until after they have drawn up new plans behind closed doors. The short time scale involved (these plans are due to be unveiled on the 20th January 2012 – barely a month away and including the festive holiday period) suggest that we again risk a rushed and ill-thought out strategy, with little detailed consideration of deprivation factors or general and specific user needs. How will you ensure that library users are listened to and the same mistakes are not made again?
Please do not instruct one of your officers to send us another ‘cut and paste’ letter. Please answer us personally and in full, and address the issues and direct questions raised in section 6 of this letter.
on behalf of Friends of Gloucestershire Libraries
Friends of Gloucestershire Libraries (2011) Indices of deprivation and GCC’s library strategyavailable at : https://foclibrary.wordpress.com/2011/03/18/indices-of-deprivation-and-gccs-library-strategy/