Thursday, 3 February 2011

A New Letter to the CEO at Oxfordshire County Council Oxford

From: Emma Chamberlain, Barrister
11 Rawlinson Rd
0X2 6UE
Richard Stevens
County Hall

To: Joanna Simons
Chief Executive
Oxfordshire County Council
County Hall
Oxl 1ND

F.A.O.: Nick Graham New Road
Deputy Head of Law and Governance Oxford

Copies to:
Rt Hon Andrew Smith MP, Oxford East
Nicola Blackwood MP, Oxford West & 2 February 2011
Rt Hon David Cameron MP, Witney
John Howell MP, Henley
Ed Vaizey MP, Wantage
Tony Baldry MP, Banbury

Dear Ms Simons Chief Executive Oxfordshire County Council

Proposals in relation to Oxfordshire libraries: your letter dated 24 January 2011
We write in response to Nick Graham’s letter of 24 January. As you note, at this
stage we are indeed simply requesting clarification and information relating to the
Council’s decisions regarding library provision and the process that is being
undertaken in reaching those decisions. For the avoidance of doubt we write as
Oxfordshire residents. (Richard Stevens is also a County Councillor.)
You will no doubt be aware of the recent judgment handed down by the High Court in
January 2011 holding that certain London councils’ plans to cut funding for voluntary
sector organizations in London was unlawful due to the deeply flawed consultation
process. The High Court quashed all funding cut decisions. It is in everyone’s
interests to avoid a similar situation arising in Oxfordshire.
We are pleased that in addressing the question of library provision you accept that
the Council is bound to conduct a Wirral type assessment. We note your point that
the press release announcing possible library closures contained only “indicative
proposals” and that no decisions have yet been made. You specifically confirm in
point 2 of page 5 of your letter that a Wirral-type assessment of need is currently
being undertaken in accordance with the recommendations of the Wirral Report. We
are pleased that you accept in point 1 that,
local need and... consult fully on its strategic approach to library provision”.
In the light of this statement we find it somewhat surprising that so far only one option
has been proposed. This essentially assumes that it is desirable to have fewer but
larger central hubs in each major conurbation. This is certainly not the only option
and even if it were, naming specific libraries prejudges the assessment of local needs
that must necessarily take place when conducting a review. No doubt the Wirral-type
assessment you are currently engaged in will consider a number of different ways of
“... the Council must properly assess
satisfying local needs while still providing a comprehensive and efficient library
service. For example an alternative option is to retain the existing libraries but
introduce efficiency savings in each. We understand that a great deal of work has
been carried out by local residents on cost-cutting and revenue raising measures
appropriate to individual libraries.
In short, it will be necessary to consider a variety of options and then assess them in
the light of ‘Wirral” factors such as equality and disability impact and the effect on
children and vulnerable persons.
Potential problems
We do, however, have a number of concerns about the process as it is currently
being undertaken. Even if the proposed closure of 20 libraries is indeed
merely a
proposal not a decision, those libraries were named specifically before a proper
assessment of local needs had been made and the proposals consulted on. Indeed
it was stated that one of the library buildings concerned had already been earmarked
for an alternative use, a point that must suggest the issue has been pre-judged. No
alternative options of achieving funding cuts were offered. Both these factors must
seriously prejudice the outcome of any proper Wirral type assessment and raise at
least a prima face case that the process is legally flawed.
In the light of your letter we also find it puzzling that ClIr Keith Mitchell’s letter on
library closures in last week’s Oxford Times (“Challenging questions”, 27 January),
appears to state that the period of assessment and review is now over. He states
there that,
all library visits in Oxfordshire. I think that represents a comprehensive and efficient
seivice and satisfies the Mrral judgment [sic].” In other words, in the Leader of the
Council’s view, the decision has now been made.
“The 23 libraries we are able to continue to fund account for 82 per cent of
Legal advice
With regards to your comments on legal advice, legal advice of course is not as such
confidential. Some legal advice is privileged but as you will be aware, advice given
in-house and between departments is not privileged. The ECJ specifically confirmed
that in-house counsel have no right to professional legal privilege in the
Akzo Nobel
ruling issued in September 2010. The ECJ has confirmed that legal advice can only
be privileged where it is connected to the client’s rights of defence and where it
emanates from independent lawyers. In-house legal advice given by you and your
colleagues is not privileged. Advice you have sought from external sources could be
In the light of the above we should therefore be grateful if you could now provide us
with the following:
1. Copies of all in-house legal advice so far given in respect of library closures.
2. Details of other options now being considered and the specific advantages
and disadvantages of each in the light of the Wirral-type factors that need to
be considered.
3. Confirmation that ClIr Mitchell was wrong in his letter to the Oxford Times to
suggest that such an assessment has already occurred and the decision has
been made.
In order to avoid prejudging the issue and to put to rest any suggestion that any
decision could be “tainted” and therefore unlawful we also request that the Council
now withdraw the November press release proposing the closure of specific libraries
and in its place implement a consultation process offering a variety of different
options on library provision/library closures with a Wirral-type assessment of the pros
and cons of each option.
We look forward to hearing from you as a matter of urgency. As before we have
copied this letter to the Oxfordshire MPs and make it available as an open letter to
the wider public.
Yours sincerely
Emma Chamberlain
Richard Stevens

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