Guidance issued for councils on library service duty as anger grows over cuts

The Department for Culture, Media & Sport has published guidance on the legal duty on local authorities to provide a ‘comprehensive and efficient’ library service under the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964.

The guidance, which can be viewed here, covers libraries as a statutory service, and provides examples of a decision made by the Secretary of State. (The latter includes a letter from DCMS Minister of State Ed Vaizey earlier this year stating that the Department had decided not to direct a local inquiry into library provision in Sheffield)

It also includes a sector perspective on creating a comprehensive library. This covers:

  • Legal obligations to be considered;
  • Views on comprehensive and efficient from Lord Justice Ouseley (in the Brent case);
  • ‘Comprehensive and efficient’ in a county setting (quoting Mr Justice Collins in theLincolnshire case);
  • The Equality Act 2010;
  • The Equality Duty;
  • Opinions on how to consult;
  • Judicial reviews;
  • Applying the learning from judicial reviews;
  • Practical steps: learning from experience.

The guidance notes: “This text SHOULD NOT in any way be taken as formal legal advice or be used as the basis for formal council decisions. All local authorities should seek independent legal advice on any proposed changes they wish to make to their library service.” (emphasis in original)

The DCMS guidance is intended to accompany the Libraries Shaping the Future Toolkit produced by the Leadership for Libraries Taskforce.

The Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals meanwhile this weeklaunched a campaign aimed at championing the public’s right to libraries.

“Public libraries received more than 265 million visits in 2014-15 but despite this many library services are being put at risk through a combination of neglect, short-term thinking and the failure of HM Government to carry out their legal duty to the public,” it claimed.

The Chartered Institute said the public’s rights to quality public library services were not widely understood and “for too long the statutory nature of library services has been ignored”.

It obtained legal advice from Eric Metcalfe of Monckton Chambers ahead of its campaign.

Nick Poole, CILIP Chief Executive, commented, “Public libraries are not a luxury. Their provision is not discretionary – local councils have a statutory duty. For millions of people every year library services are a lifeline. That is why the statutory right to a quality public library service was established under the 1964 Public Libraries and Museums Act.

“Through My Library By Right we will hold the Government to account for these legal duties, including working with the Secretary of State to provide a clear and meaningful statement of the characteristics of a ‘comprehensive and efficient’ service for local authorities to follow.

“We urge all authorities currently considering or implementing changes to their library services without statutory guidance to put these plans on hold pending the outcome of these discussions with DCMS. Changes made to library services without reference to an appropriate statutory guideline may not be lawful, not only under the 1964 Act, but also in respect of the requirements of the 2010 Equality Act.”

Martyn Wade, chair of the CILIP Board, added that its investigations and the legal advice the Chartered Institute had obtained highlighted “a disturbing lack of legally-compliant guidance, in the absence of which many local authorities have taken discretionary decisions about the services which risk flouting the law”.

There have been a series of court cases in recent years over councils’ proposed changes to library services. Local authorities involved include Lincolnshire County Council (twice), Vale of Glamorgan Council, Surrey County Council, Rhonda Cynon Taf County Borough Council, the London Borough of Brent, Somerset County Council and Gloucestershire County Council.

Campaigners seeking to challenge Barnet Council’s proposals are currently using crowdfunding in a bid to pay for legal action.

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