Pay attention at the back of the class. Especially you, Pollard and Ottaway: GENE BRODIE has a lesson for you on the law and libraries
If nothing else, Croydon Council’s libraries consultation – or to give it the council’s catchy official title, “Library building network options Consultation” – has been a bit of an education for residents borough-wide, as well as some of our elected representatives.
It might – we can but hope – have even enlightened the dullards running the council. Such has been the response to the divisive consultation that on Monday night, Sara “Book Token” Bashford was forced to announce that the result of the consultation will not be published at the end of this month, but postponed until July (presumably in the hope that everyone will have forgotten, given up, or gone away on holiday).
Perhaps by then Croydon South’s absentee MP, Richard Ottaway, might have learned of the statutory nature of libraries provision and the duty of our council to provide an efficient and comprehensive library service under the Public Museums and Libraries Act, 1964.
The ignorance of Ottaway is nothing short of astonishing, particularly if you consider that he, along with every other MP in England, received this helpful piece of guidance from the Chartered Institute of Librarians (click here).
Ottaway, it is worth remembering, is a man who has in the past exhibited a great fondness for books, as long as they were books of receipts that he could use to claim his MP’s expenses on his two homes – neither of which are within his constituency.
During the council’s library consultation process, Croydon’s most senior Member of Parliament wrote to one constituent:
“Unfortunately non-statutory services such as libraries are vulnerable during tough economic times because, unlike those services which the Council must deliver since they are protected by law, discretionary services are where cuts will have to be made.”
Is this an isolated case of ignorance of the law? Or is it deliberate misinformation?
Deputy Leader of the Council Tim Pollard wrote to residents stating that, “Because some services are protected by law, this inevitably means that the cuts will have to fall on discretionary services like libraries, cultural activities and the youth service…” (our italics for emphasis).
Pollard goes on: “Whilst councils do have a statutory duty to provide an accessible library service, it is not laid down in law how big or small this service will be, which is why we include it in our list of discretionary services.”
So let’s get this right: the law says the council must provide a library service. But Pollard’s council ignores this because they decide that they don’t know how many or what size.
We think Pollard has been misled about the law. The law states: “It shall be the duty of every library authority to provide a comprehensive and efficient Library Service for all persons desiring to make use thereof…” (again, our italics).
In a large borough, such as Croydon, that’s a fairly large and demanding requirement. There is certainly no discretionary aspect written in to the law for Pollard and his mates to pick and choose which part of their responsibilities they fulfil.
The damage Pollard’s misleading statements may have had in the consultation cannot be underestimated. It is clearly easier to “sell” a cut in something discretionary than it is to tell residents that you are withdrawing funding from a service residents are entitled to by law.
“Tricky Dicky” Ottaway has had his error pointed out to him and been asked to correct publicly his misinformation. Ottaway has ignored this (as well as the law).
Jon Rouse, Croydon’s £198,000 per year, plus expenses, chief exec, has also been asked to correct misinformation coming from the council. His answer? An acknowledgement of being “made aware of some confusion regarding the statutory nature of library services”.
“Some confusion”? How convenient.
The council always complies by the absolute letter of the law when it suits its own ends, such as response times to Freedom of Information requests. “We are considering your request under the terms of the Freedom of Information Act 2000, and hope to respond within the statutory 20 working days,” is their stock answer.
And so statistics used to inform the library consultation process, requested under a FOI, were finally received by a Croydon resident just days before the consultation period ended.
While “Book Tokens” Bashford had informed residents at a public meeting that six years of figures were used to inform the process, it soon became evident that in fact the December Cabinet meeting had been given library usage figures restricted to a two-year period selctively chosen from the six-year span.
Why, or how, would Bashford manage to make such a fundamental mistake?
This sloppy use of the figures has allowed Gavin Barwell, the MP for Croydon Central, to point to an apparent increase in usage at Shirley Library, presumably having not been privy to the full figures and therefore working on the assumption that the figures in the Cabinet paper would be full and representative.
In fact the 0.9 per cent increase in “usage” to which Barwell referred related only to “visits” to Shirley Library. What the Cabinet paper failed to include are the figures for Shirley for the same period on “active users” (-12.4 per cent) and “issues” (-8.8 per cent).
The consultation process has set the residents of Shirley against, say, the people of Bradmore Green, as each seek to make a case for the survival of their local branch library over those of the other five threatened with closure.
By withholding full and accurate usage figures for the libraries, the council has – perhaps unwittingly – simply caused further confusion around the subject.
The chairman of the Friends of Croydon Library, John Ingman, wrongly pointed out in a recent article that, “visits at Sanderstead, Shirley and Bradmore Green had fallen significantly in the past few years, although the latter saw a 1.7 per cent increase in usage between 2008/09 and 2009/10”. The usage to which Ingman refers is the visits figure. Ingman failed to point out that Sanderstead has shown an increase of 3.5 per cent for that period, well in excess of the 1.7 per cent increase he chose to highlight for Bradmore Green.
Barwell and Ingman are just two examples of people who have trusted in the data produced by the council, but have been misled.
It will be interesting , eventually, to discover how much Bashford’s ill-considered library consultation will cost us all.
It is worth considering that, even if all six libraries were to close, Croydon would realise a saving of just 0.69 per cent of the total £90 million cuts they are looking to achieve.
Meanwhile, the council goes ahead building its £450 million swanky new “Hub” headquarters building. Shame that by the time it is finished, they may have hardly any staff left to work inside it.