From: Benedicte Page – Guardian, Tuesday 1 March 2011
Pressure is building on culture secretary Jeremy Hunt over library closures, with the mounting of two new legal challenges.
Campaign for the Book, the pro-library campaign body run by author Alan Gibbons, has launched a judicial review case through solicitors, arguing that the culture secretary has failed to comply with his legal duty to superintend local authorities in their provision of proper library services to their residents.
Campaign for the Book is challenging the culture secretary’s response to library closures on a national basis, in the light of his duty under the 1964 Public Libraries Act.
“The 1964 Act requires the secretary of state to ‘superintend and promote the improvement of the public library service provided by local authorities’. It requires each local authority to ‘provide a comprehensive and efficient library service for all persons’ and places a duty on the secretary of state to ensure that such provision is maintained,'” the Campaign stated. “The current, widespread proposals to close a vast number of public libraries across the UK, demonstrate the secretary of state’s failure to comply with this duty.”
The letter, sent to Jeremy Hunt via solicitors Leigh Day & Co, also argues that the guidance issued by him to local authorities is “inaccurate and misleading”.
Meanwhile two Lewisham residents have sent the culture secretary a formal request demanding that he intervene over the five libraries set for closure there on 28 May. In a 21-page letter drafted by solicitors, Patricia and Peter Richardson claimed that the borough has failed in its statutory duty to provide a “comprehensive and efficient” library service in relation to the five libraries.
The Richardsons argued that the consultation exercise conducted by the London Borough of Lewisham before deciding to shut the libraries had been fundamentally flawed because its outcome was predetermined and “was not based on an assessment of need but exclusively on financial considerations, that is cost savings.” They also claimed that the council had failed to provide proper information about its proposals, with some relevant material only coming to light after the consultation had already ended.
The culture secretary can order an investigation into a local authority’s decision to close libraries if there is evidence to suggest a council isn’t fulfilling its legal duty. The last intervention made was in the Wirral, where a council decision to close 11 libraries was eventually revoked in 2009 after an inquiry ordered by Labour culture secretary Andy Burnham.
Angry library-lovers have been writing to Hunt and culture minister Ed Vaizey for months, asking for them to prevent local councils closing libraries in their areas. In January Vaizey said he was “monitoring very closely” what was happening across England and would “consider the use of statutory powers on a case-by-case basis.” But he added: “Local authorities have clear legal obligations, but library services must be looked at as a whole, including provision beyond the walls of library buildings.”