Statement of Save Barnet Libraries in response to the Minister for Culture’s decision not to order an inquiry – April 2019
We believe the Minister for Culture has acted improperly by failing to order an inquiry into library provision in Barnet and thereby hold the Council to account, particularly for its unparalled discrimination against young people and others unable to access unstaffed libraries.
NO INTEREST IN ACTUAL EVIDENCE
The Minister has ignored the evidence and concerns raised by schools and residents from across the borough, including the voice of the Council’s own Youth Assembly. The Minister’s decision states that he received 25 representations about the impact of the cuts. In fact, he received postcards expressing their dismay from more than one hundred primary school children, over 80 statements from residents across the borough, including young people, older people and those with disabilities, and 14 letters from teachers, head teachers and school governors were provided via Save Barnet Libraries, as evidence of the impact of the cuts.
The Minister has chosen to issue his decision prior to the Council’s planned review of the impact of the cuts on library users. In fact the review was deliberately postponed by the Council. This is extremely worrying: after an investigation lasting over two years, why did the Minister not want to wait to hear the evidence and the outcome of the Council’s review?
DRASTIC FALLS IN USAGE IGNORED BY DCMS
The decision fails to engage with evidence about library use although we know that the Council collects significant amounts of data. Only one figure is quoted – that 36,964 people have now registered for pin codes to access unstaffed libraries. This apparently represents over two thirds of active library users from 2017-18 (the year that the branches were closed to implement the cuts). There is no comparison with actual library use before the cuts and no exploration of why more of the 187,000 plus library card holders are not registered for pin codes.
We are shocked that the Minister does not raise any concern that almost a third of even the most active current users are not able to access unstaffed libraries. He also completely fails to acknowledge figures that we presented showing the drastic falls in visitors of between 41%-59% at six out of fourteen libraries, based on the Council’s figures for 2017-18 compared to 2016-17. (These figures exclude periods of branch closure by comparing month by month data for each year.) He also ignores the troubling fact that the Council has stopped collecting any visitor figures at three branches (Hendon, East Finchley and Chipping Barnet). In our view, this fall in use of libraries since the cuts were implemented, completely undermines the Minister’s conclusion that the Council has managed “to strike an appropriate balance between the provision of staffed and self-service library services to deliver a comprehensive and efficient service overall”.
NO CONSIDERATION OF ‘EQUALITIES’ DUTIES
The Minister fails to consider the actual impact of the cuts on vulnerable groups even while acknowledging the Council’s failure to implement key measures designed to reduce exclusion. This includes the failure to recruit volunteers for unstaffed periods, a key measure designed to “provide reassurance” to older people and those with disabilities. We are troubled by the Minister’s assertion, without any evidence to back it up, that this measure is now irrelevant.
WHY PAY FOR SECURITY GUARDS INSTEAD OF STAFF?
In a similar vein, the Minister ignores the important questions that arise from the unplanned-for reliance on security guards in unstaffed libraries. Clearly, the Council now shares residents’ concerns about the safety of completely unstaffed libraries. Although the Council has tried to hide the cost of providing guards, we estimated from the figures available that about £1m was spent during the first year, a significant additional spend compared to an intended saving of £2.277m by 2019/20. Why could such money not be spent on library staff instead? The ongoing costs, though reduced, still raise this serious issue, with the crucial point that staff (but not guards) enable the independent access of young people under 15, as well as providing trained assistance, the lack of which prevents so many users accessing unstaffed libraries.
LACK OF TRANSPARENCY SUBVERTS PUBLIC ACCOUNTABILITY
This blinkered approach is sustained by both the Minister’s and the Council’s refusal to disclose their correspondence over the past year, so denying public accountability both about the impact of the cuts and the level of investigation actually carried out by the Minister. Earlier correspondence was released but proved embarrassing to the Council when it contradicted information provided to Theresa Villiers MP and we can only presume this is why the more recent disclosure has been refused.
UNPRECEDENTED ABDICATION FROM LEGAL DUTY OF OVERSIGHT
The result of this long-drawn-out, inadequate and biased investigation is that the Minister has chosen to let Barnet’s Conservative-run council avoid the embarrassment of a government-ordered inquiry. He is failing in his duty to the young people and other vulnerable library users who have suffered a two-thirds drop in their library access under the guise of technological advance and modernisation. The refusal to order an inquiry into this radical destruction of a truly “public” service sustains and enables the hostile environment that libraries and their users face across the country. It sets a dangerous precedent.
Unable to completely dismiss the concerns raised, the Minister relies on the Council’s planned “formal and independent review”, on the grounds that “it is for BC [Barnet Council] as the democratically accountable body of local representatives, to ensure that it has in place appropriate processes and governance structures to enable robust and well-considered decisions to be taken, including in accordance with its obligations under the Equalities Act 2010.”
Let us put the Minister’s statement to the test: we and library supporters throughout the borough will be watching the Council’s review process carefully. We will renew our complaint if the review does not engage properly with the public and lead to a serious and thorough response to the concerns that residents continue to raise about their entitlement to a properly resourced and truly accessible library service.
 Childs Hill 50%, East Barnet 59%, Golders Green 56%, Mill Hill 50%, North Finchley 51%, South Friern 47%.
 For details see Save Barnet Libraries letter to DCMS 20 February 2019