Sunday, 9 January 2011

Some Legal Questions Against Library Closures

The legal basis of local authority library services in England is the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964, which says that, "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".

The Act goes on to list some of the considerations which local authorities need to consider when satisfying themselves that their provision is "comprehensive and efficient". One of these is "encouraging both adults and children to make full use of the library service". This in itself is a significant objection to the Conservatives' proposals. As with many other proposed cuts (like the cuts to Oxfordshire's youth service), the withdrawal of substantial library provision will unfairly affect children and young people. Children don't have independent access to transport. (And, of course, they can't vote, which might explain why children and young people have been disproportionately targeted by the Coalition's spending review.) It will become much more difficult for young people in, say, Blackbird Leys, Headington or Summertown to make full use of the library service if local facilities are shut.

The fundamental question is how the Conservatives can claim that cutting almost half the libraries in Oxfordshire will leave the county with a "comprehensive" service. Culture minister (and Oxfordshire MP) Ed Vaizey has placed the emphasis on an "efficient" rather than a "comprehensive" library service in a letter to author and campaigner Alan Gibbons: "When the funding available decreases it is inevitable that to stay efficient authorities will need to make changes to their library service," he wrote.

This is a telling interpretation, equating as it does "efficiency" with "cost". It is also, I think, wrong. Read in the context of the Act as a whole, "efficient" arguably refers not simply to the cost of the service, but to the usefulness and ease of accessing the resources of a library. It also rather pre-judges the issue and it remains to be seen whether Ed Vaizey's comments (as they have been reported) are entirely consistent with the application of the 1964 Act.

Cllr Richard Stevens
Leys & Lye Division
Oxfordshire County Council

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