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This publication is available at https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/guidance-on-libraries-as-a-statutory-service/libraries-as-a-statutory-service
This guidance accompanies the Libraries Shaping the Future Toolkit, produced by the Libraries Taskforce.
The information contained in this guidance is not a statement of government policy but is provided to help guide local authorities and others. This text should not in any way be taken as formal legal advice or be used as the basis for formal council decisions. All local authorities should seek independent legal advice on any proposed changes they wish to make to their library service.
Library authorities considering changing their library service are asked to inform the DCMS Libraries Team about their proposals prior to public engagement. This will assist the Secretary of State in their statutory superintendence role. Details about such proposals, and any queries about this guidance, should be emailed to email@example.com
1. Libraries as a statutory service
Local authorities have a statutory duty under the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964 ‘to provide a comprehensive and efficient library service for all persons’ in the area that want to make use of it (section 7). Local authorities have the power to offer wider library services beyond the statutory service to other user groups, and the Act allows for joint working between library authorities.
In considering how best to deliver the statutory duty each library authority is responsible for determining, through consultation, the local needs and to deliver a modern and efficient library service that meets the requirements of their communities within available resources.
In providing this service, local authorities must, among other things:
- have regard to encouraging both adults and children to make full use of the library service (section 7(2)(b))
- lend books and other printed material free of charge for those who live, work or study in the area (section 8(3)(b))
It is the statutory duty of the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport to:
- superintend, and promote the improvement of, the public library service provided by local authorities in England (section 1(1))
- secure the proper discharge by local authorities of the functions in relation to libraries conferred on them as library authorities
The Secretary of State has the power to make a remedial order against a library authority following a local inquiry. Such an inquiry can be commenced either on receipt of a complaint that a local library authority is failing to carry out its statutory duties or of the Secretary of State’s own motion (section 10).
Before deciding whether to order an inquiry the Secretary of State will carefully consider a local authority’s compliance with the duties of the 1964 Act. However, the Secretary of State will not hesitate to use the power where, having regard to the duties on him and the local authority, there is good reason in all the circumstances for him to direct an inquiry at the present time.
In determining whether to order an inquiry, the Secretary of State gives consideration to a number of factors, including:
- whether there is any serious doubt or uncertainty as to whether the local authority is (or may cease to be) complying with its legal obligation to provide a comprehensive and efficient library service
- whether the local authority appears to be acting in a careless or unreasonable way
- whether the decision is or may be outside the proper bounds of the local authority’s discretion, such as a capricious decision to stop serving a particularly vulnerable group in the local community
- whether the local authority appears to have failed to consult affected individuals or to carry out significant research into the effects of its proposals
- whether the local authority has failed to explain, analyse or properly justify its proposals
- whether the local proposals are likely to lead to a breach of national library policy
- the advantages of local decision making by expert and democratically accountable local representatives
- whether there is any further good reason why a local inquiry should be ordered
These factors are set out in decision letters in relation to complaints made to the Secretary of State that a local library authority is failing to carry out its statutory duties. Such decision letters are published on GOV.UK.
This power to order a local inquiry has been utilised on only one occasion since 1964, with a public inquiry in Wirral in 2009.
To assist the Secretary of State in carrying out their statutory duty, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) carefully monitors and assesses developments concerning library services across England. Library authorities are also required to provide the Secretary of State with such information as he/she may require for carrying out their duties.
We want library authorities considering changing their library service to inform the DCMS Libraries Team about their proposals prior to public engagement to assist the Secretary of State in the superintendence role. In providing this information, library authorities are asked to demonstrate:
- plans to consult with local communities alongside an assessment of their needs;
- consideration of a range of options (including alternative financing, governance or delivery models) to sustain library service provision in their area
- a rigorous analysis and assessment of the potential impact of their proposals
Details about such proposals, and any queries about this guidance, should be emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org
2. Example of a decision made by the Secretary of State
The decision letters noted the views of Mr Justice Collins in the High Court case of Draper v Lincolnshire County Council in 2014 EWHC 2388 (Admin).
I should consider what is required to provide a comprehensive and efficient service within the meaning of s 7 of the 1964 Act. I can, I think, do no better than cite the following observations of Ouseley J in Bailey v London Borough of Brent  EWHC 2572 (Admin):
A comprehensive service cannot mean that every resident lives close to a library. This has never been the case. Comprehensive has therefore been taken to mean delivering a service that is accessible to all residents using reasonable means, including digital technologies. An efficient service must make the best use of the assets available in order to meet its core objectives and vision, recognising the constraints on council resources. Decisions about the Service must be embedded within a clear strategic framework which draws upon evidence about needs and aspirations across the diverse communities of the borough.
The Secretary of State also noted that, as confirmed by the High Court in R (Green) v Gloucestershire City Council  EWHC 2687 (Admin):
the availability of resources is highly material to the question of what constitutes a comprehensive and efficient library service. The section 7 duty cannot be exempt or divorced from resource issues and cannot in law escape the reductions which have been rendered inevitable in the light of the financial crisis engulfing the country.
The letters also noted the view that:
- a wide range of approaches are open to the local authority when deciding how to provide a comprehensive and efficient library service
- the Secretary of State does not seek to proscribe how local authorities discharge their primary duty
The final decision letter states
that the question which the Secretary of State must consider is whether the library service provision being delivered by a local authority remains comprehensive and efficient. His approach in deciding whether he is minded to intervene to direct an inquiry has been to ask himself whether, having regard to the duties on him and the local authority, there is good reason in all the circumstances for him to direct an inquiry at that time.
3. A sector perspective on creating a comprehensive library service
Sue Charteris, who carried out the public inquiry of Wirral in 2009 for the government, has indicated that to gain an understanding on how local authorities might interpret ‘comprehensive and efficient”, it may be helpful for authorities to note previous judicial reviews. In a recent presentation, Creating a comprehensive library service - getting the equality duty right, Sue Charteris set out a number of points.
3.1 Legal obligations
There are a number of legal obligations to consider including:
- Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964
- Equality Act 2010 and section 149: Public Sector Equality Duty
- Best Value Duty 2011 guidance
- Localism Act 2011
- Judicial Reviews
Courts understand council’s obligations to make savings. However getting the balance between the equality duty and best value duties is key.
3.2 Views on comprehensive and efficient from Lord Justice Ousely, Brent (2011)
A comprehensive service cannot mean that every resident lives next to a library. This has never been the case. Comprehensive… means a service accessible to all residents using reasonable means, including digital technologies…
An efficient service must make the best use of assets available… to meet its core objectives and vision, recognising the constraints on council resources. Decisions about the service need to be embedded within a clear strategic framework which draws upon evidence about needs and aspirations across the diverse communities of the borough.
3.3 ‘Comprehensive and efficient’ in a county setting
Mr Justice Collins (Simon Draper and Lincolnshire County Council July 2014) drew on all previous judicial reviews and elaborated on comprehensive and efficient in a county setting.
The key is reasonable ability to access the service by all residents of the county. This means that distances and time taken to reach a library must be reasonable and any particular problems, whether physical disabilities, or created by age or family considerations, must be capable of being met.
Budgetary constraints are a material consideration.
3.4 The Equality Act 2010
There are 9 protected characteristics in the Equality Act 2010. These are:
- gender reassignment
- marriage and civil partnership
- pregnancy and maternity
- religion and belief
- sexual orientation
3.5 The Equality Duty
The Equality Duty is in section 149 of the Equality Act 2010. It ensures that public bodies consider the needs of all individuals in their day to day work – in shaping policy, in delivering services, and in relation to their own employees.
In assessing the needs of local communities, councils can provide evidence on usage analysed by protected groups, by ward and catchment area. They can also provide s a comparative analysis of needs to understand the implications of any relocation of library facilities on vulnerable communities.
In applying the Equality Duty, possible data sets could include:
- GCSE attainment
- indices of multiple deprivation such as heath domain data which is aggregated to ward level and crime data
- perception data including satisfaction with the local area as a place to live and percentage of people getting on well with one another
- unemployment rates at ward level
- free school meals
- accessibility of the ward - analysed by public transport
In making an assessment of local need, key factors will vary according to the type of locality (urban compared to rural areas) but could include:
- rural isolation
- distance from services and implications for service spread and cost
- broadband coverage
- access to transport
- pockets of socio-economic inequality
In all cases, it is useful to consider methods for mitigating adverse impact.
3.6 Opinions on how to consult
Consultation proposals must be at a formative stage as stated in Brent v Gunning, (1985).
Lord Singh in Barnet v Partingdale (2003) also said, “however that is what it must be, a proposal and not something that has already been decided”.
3.7 Judicial reviews
During a judicial review:
- the courts will examine the process that has been gone through including equality impact assessments
- clearly document all factors in considerations
- the Equality Duty needs to be addressed throughout, and embedded in the process
3.8 Applying the learning from judicial reviews
It is good practice to do a thorough analysis of local need - do not ‘assume’.
Best value principles state that a consultation needs to:
- occur when proposals are still at an early stage
- provide sufficient reasons for any proposal to enable intelligent consideration and response
- give adequate time for consideration and response
- take into account its results when finalising any proposal
- factor in the time taken for the different stages
3.9 Practical steps: learning from experience
Library strategies should include a clear vision for the library service, outlining what the service should achieve and deliver. Points to consider include:
- how well the strategy meets local needs, now and in the future, drawing on documented evidence held locally, as well as members and officers’ local knowledge
- assessing the equality impact on all ‘protected groups’ as specified in the Equality Act 2010
- carefully considering the feedback received before making a definitive decision and demonstrating how steps have been taken to mitigate the impact
- openness to new options
- consulting again before implementing changes
- investing in working with communities and other partners to put new solutions in place, drawing on learning from elsewhere
This guidance accompanies the Libraries Shaping the Future Toolkit, produced by the Leadership for Libraries Taskforce. The information contained in this guidance is not a statement of government policy but is provided to help guide local authorities and others.