In December 2010, Culture Minister Ed Vaizey sent a letter to all councils, reminding them of their statutory duties to provide “comprehensive and efficient” library services. You can read the letter here. In the letter, Vaizey says:
“I want to emphasise the importance I place on compliance with the statutory duty to provide a ‘comprehensive and efficient’ service uner the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964. As you know, the Secretary of State last exercised his statutory power to intervene in April 2009, by commencing a local inquiry into Wirral Metropolitan Borough Council’s compliance with its duties. The inquiry determined that the ‘comprehensive and efficient’ service that local authorities are required to provide is a balance between meeting local needs within available resources in a way which is appropriate to the needs of the community.”
He also lists key considerations for councils and says that the council should provide:
- A statement of what the service is trying to achieve
- A description of local needs, including the general and specific needs of adults and children who live, work and study in the area
- A detailed description of how the service will be delivered and how the plans will fully take into account the demography of the area and the different needs of adults and children in different areas (both in general and specific terms)
- The resources available for the service, including an annual budget
Vaizey goes on to suggest some areas to look at: “transferring control of some library services to communities to run, merging services provided by two different authorities into one cross-boundary authority and locating library services in retail stores.”
On 1st March 2011, Campaign for the Book launched a legal challenge to the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport’s failure to comply with his duties under the 1964 Public Libraries and Museums Act, which are as follows:
1 Secretary of State to superintend library service.
(1) From the commencement of this Act it shall be the duty of the Secretary of State to superintend, and promote the improvement of, the public library service provided by local authorities in England and Wales, and to secure the proper discharge by local authorities of the functions in relation to libraries conferred on them as library authorities by or under this Act.
(2) Every library authority shall furnish such information, and provide such facilities for the inspection of library premises, stocks and records, as the Secretary of State may require for carrying out his duty under this section.
The Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) responded with a letter to law firm Leigh Day & co., the firm taking Campaign for the Book’s case. In it, the DCMS argue that through the Future Libraries Programme, the Secretary of State is helping library authorities with the “development and modernisation of library services”. You can read more about the Future Libraries Programme here. They also claim that “More generally, the Secretary of State has in place arrangements to ensure that he retains oversight of library authorities”, which includes working with the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council (MLA) to monitor and help library services (The MLA is to be abolished by March 2012 and responsibility for libraries will pass to Arts Council England (ACE), with severe funding cuts for support to libraries).
The DCMS also argue that because the Secretary of State has sent three letters to councils communicating that the Future Libraries Programme exists on 19th August 2010 and reminding councils of their statutory duties on 3rd December and 24th February 2011 (annex to 24th Feb letter is here), he has been properly fulfilling his duties under Section 1 of the Act.
Campaigners have a lot of questions about the response from DCMS. Alan Gibbons writes: “Here’s a question. If a council rejects some or all of the suggestions in the annex, will it be failing in its duty to provide a ‘comprehensive and efficient’ service? In that case, if the Culture Minister fails to intervene, will he have failed to superintend the service?”
The Campaign for the Book is currently preparing its response to the Secretary of State with its lawyers, more details about which will be posted shortly.