When deciding what changes to make to public libraries, local authorities are legally obliged to abide by the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964. This Law means that public libraries are a statutory service; councils have a legal duty to provide them. Councils must ensure that the service they provide is “comprehensive and efficient”. They also have a duty to promote the service and to encourage people to use it. The Law also makes it clear that councils cannot charge people for library facilities that make up part of their statutory provision.
On a local level, a number of councils including are facing legal challenges because they appear to be in breach of the Public Libraries and Museums Act, as well as other laws including the Equality Act 2010. Gloucestershire County Council is the first council in the UK to have been issued with a High Court injunction preventing them from implementing any service reductions until the lawfulness of their planned cuts have been reviewed by the Court. Judicial Reviews will now take place to investigate Gloucestershire County Council and Brent’s plans to cut their library services. Isle of Wight Council also face a legal challenge. Our update about legal challenges from 7th July 2011 is here.
Councils have a responsibility to properly consider the changes they wish to make to their library services and must ensure that the review process is conducted appropriately. Voices for the Library member Lauren Smith recently made a Freedom of Information request to the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council, a body which works to promote best practice in the UK’s museums, libraries and archives. The MLA will be abolished by March 2012 and responsibility for libraries will be transferred to Arts Council England (ACE) and its budget for libraries will be cut from £13 millon to £3 million. Lauren is part of the Save Doncaster Libraries campaign, which is opposing the council’s proposals to cease funding or close 14 out of the borough’s 26 libraries. The MLA have been advising Doncaster Metropolitan Borough Council. Please see the ‘Comprehensive and Efficient’ Checklist that the MLA recommended to DMBC.
If it looks like a council seeks to make changes to the library service that may be illegal, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, Jeremy Hunt, has a duty to intervene. Many people around the country have made requests for him to do so, but as yet, he has not stepped in. As a result, Alan Gibbons, an author and library campaigner who runs the Campaign for the Book, has launched a national legal challenge because he believes that national government have failed in their duty. Voices for the Library are helping to collect information for the case.
Review of Statutory Duties
The government have identified 1294 statutory duties that central government currently places on local authorities, the majority of which arise from primary legislation – and we are aware that at this stage it is not a complete list. They are inviting the public to comment on the duties and “to challenge government on those which you feel are burdensome or no longer needed”. Three of these duties relate to libraries. It is important for people to take part in the “informal consultation exercise”, which will remain open for six weeks, closing 25 April 2011. The link to the questionnaire is here. You will be asked to refer to reference numbers relating to specific duties. The duties relating to libraries are:
Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964 Section 1(2)
Duty: To provide information and facilities for the inspection of library premises, stocks, records, as the Secretary of State requires.
Function: Necessary for Secretary of State to fulfil (requirement) to superintend library service (see s1 of PLAMA 1964)
Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964 Section 7
Duty: To provide a comprehensive and efficient library service. In fulfilling this duty, must have particular regard to the matters in s7(2)
Function: Secure provision of local library services
Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964 Section 11
Duty: Supplemental provisions as to transfers of officers, assets and liabilities
Function: Provisions provide, for example, continuity of employment for transferring employees. This secures consistency across library transfers etc and in line with other local authority employment legislation
The government has only conducted a formal public inquiry into a local council’s plans for library closures twice – once in Derbyshire in 1991, and in the Wirral in 2009.
The role of the inquiry was to:
Gather information and provide advice in order for the Secretary of State to assess whether, in taking the decision to implement the proposed changes to their library service, The Wirral is in default of their statutory duties under the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964, including the provision of a comprehensive and efficient library service. (DCMS)
It was found that if Wirral Metropolitan Borough Council went ahead with its proposals to close 11 of its libraries, it would be in breach of the Public Libraries and Museums Act and the council withdrew its proposals. You can read the final report from the DCMS here.