Why won’t Kent release library meeting minutes?

During a meeting earlier this year, proposals were put before the 73 Conservative members of Kent County Council regarding the future of libraries across the county.  It is alleged that these proposals included the potential closure of a substantial number of libraries across the county.  The Kent Messenger’s political editor, Paul Francis, wrote at the time:

“Precise figures are hard to come by but at least one source has mentioned over 40.”

There are presently over 100 libraries across the county, meaning that the proposals suggested the closure of nearly half of all the libraries in Kent.

Interestingly, not all the councillors were enthusiastic about the proposals:

“Sources say that many county councillors were aghast at the proposals, not least because some of those identified for closure were in Kent’s Conservative heartlands. Others pointed out that they had made various election commitments that local libraries in their areas would be safeguarded.”

Perhaps recognising the strength of many campaigns across the country, one councillor allegedly remarked:

“You can do more or less what you like to any other service and not many will care, but not to libraries.”

The potential for libraries to be taken over by parish councils or volunteers was also raised during the meeting.  It appears, however, that a revolt by councillors has meant that these proposals have been shelved.  Or have they?

Since we were made aware of the proposals put before the council, Voices for the Library submitted a Freedom of Information request regarding the detail of the meeting.  As these proposals were quashed and the public were aware of the fact that this meeting took place, there seemed little reason to suppose the request would be rejected.  But it has.

The council refused to provide the information requested on the grounds that:

“KCC is currently exploring and considering the future of the library service. If the information is disclosed at this time, the effectiveness of that important process could be compromised. The provision of advice and exchange of views by KCC members and officers is likely to be more reticent and circumscribed rather than the necessary full and open discussion to allow us to fully explore relevant options.

“Given that exploring options for the future of the library service is an ongoing piece of work and that no conclusions or clear proposals have yet been reached, and taking into account that we are committed to working closely with local communities to develop our ideas once we have decided upon an overall approach, we strongly feel that releasing the requested information at this time would inhibit the decision making process.”

County Hall , Maidstone , Kent

County Hall , Maidstone , Kent (c) john47kent / Flickr

It is difficult to see how, as Paul Francis also commented, that their disclosure would inhibit the future decision making process if these plans have been shelved.  Furthermore, given that the fact that a meeting took place has been made public, it is hard to understand how further disclosure would cause any further harm to the council’s procedures.  Indeed, given that there is now some confusion and concern amongst library users in Kent, full disclosure and assurances that these proposals have been abandoned would be broadly welcomed.  Needless to say, we appealed against this decision.

Towards the end of last week, we discovered that the council has once more refused our request for information.  Again this raises more questions.  The appeal was rejected under Section 36 of the Freedom of Information Act on the following grounds:

“The nature of the information is such that she [the Managing Director] concurs that its release would undeniably prohibit the free and frank exchange of views and discussion of ideas in the future which is essential to the effective conduct of business within the County Council before matters come into the public domain. It would also cause unnecessary public concern over a number of ideas that were discussed that may not come to fruition and have not yet appeared within any blog or in the public domain.”

And yet Section 36 makes no reference to information being prohibited, rather about whether it would inhibit the ability of public bodies to discuss such proposals.  It is also the case that some of the detail from the meeting has already made it into the public domain.

Consequently, we feel that this judgement is flawed.  The release of the minutes will simply allow the concerns of library users to be addressed, with regard to the implications this would have upon libraries across the county.  Furthermore, it is difficult to see how the disclosure of this information could possibly inhibit future discussions if they have been shelved by the council.

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