The Conservative government and local councils have been quietly allowing the law to be broken for over six years, and nobody has seemed to notice. An obscure but crucial piece of legislation from the 1960s has been repeatedly ignored. But now, one group has publicly got the Tories to partly own up, possibly opening the floodgates for hundreds of actions. And it involves local libraries.
Repeatedly breaking the law
Since the Tories came to power in 2010, over 340 libraries have been closed and 8,000 staff members have been sacked. To save money, the number of unpaid staff has doubled and 58 libraries have been sold off to private companies. A further 111 closures are planned for the next 12 months. Just this week, two libraries in Birmingham closed, and the rest of the city’s facilities had their opening hours reduced. But this is not a new phenomenon.
Campaigners have been warning about the threat to libraries since 2009, when councils like Wirral were already planning to shut most of their library services, due to the financial crash. But Wirral was found to have broken the law, in respect of the 1964 Libraries and Museums Act. The council lost the legal case because it had failed to consult on the needs of local residents. Essentially, they needed and wanted a library, the council didn’t give them one, and therefore it was breaking the law. Wirral council was forced to keep the libraries open.
Now, the same piece of law is being used by campaigners in Lancashire. The council has confirmed it’s closing 21 libraries, blaming Tory cuts. But after two local MPs wrote to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, the government is going to investigate the matter. Campaigners say that the same law, broken in Wirral in 2009, may have been in this case. If a precedent is set in Lancashire, it may pave the way for other legal cases across hundreds of local authorities.
More than just books
There was a real anger in Lancashire, after the council said it was closing 21 libraries. Protests were held, and a petition signed by 4,000 people given to the council. One little boy even took to YouTube to express his frustration:
But research shows that libraries are about a lot more than just books. And that it’s often the poorest, and minority communities hit hardest by closures:
- Adults in the most deprived areas of the UK visit libraries more than in the least deprived (36.8%/31.5%)
- 49.3% of users are from British. Black, Asian, and minority ethnic communities, compared to 31.8% from white ethnic groups.
- Women visit libraries more (38.1%) than men (29.4%).
- 37.8% of “non-working adults” use libraries, versus 31.3% of working ones.
With the rise of the internet and ebooks, it may seem like libraries aren’t needed. But figures show demand could still be there. Since 2010, the number of visits to libraries has fallen by 12%, and the number of books lent by 20%. But crucially, this is in line with 12% of libraries closing since 2010, and funding for books being cut by 16%. Libraries also provide free internet access, and research shows not everyone has the web at home, nor has everyone even used it before.
Non-internet users include:
- 5.9 million people aged 16 or over in the UK.
- Nearly 3 million people aged 75 and over.
- 55% of those with no qualifications, versus 2% with a degree.
- 33% of people in semi-routine and routine work, versus 9% in managerial and professional jobs.
- 17% of those earning less than £20,700, versus 2% earning more than £41,600.
- Nearly 30% of people with disabilities.
And it’s not just the lending services or internet access libraries provide that are essential to communities. Numerous groups, organisations and charities use these free-to-hire buildings, and they are often a community hub.
The thin end of the wedge
Public services for minority communities and the vulnerable are already suffering in the UK. Home care services for the elderly are under increased pressure; children’s services are facing privatisation, and disabled people are under attack from the government. The closure of so many libraries is just another example of the effects of Tory austerity hitting the poor and marginalised the hardest.
But with a budget of less than £1bn per annum, or 0.06% of GDP, the attacks on libraries are nothing more than a cynical, penny-pinching exercise. For many people, libraries are an essential source of community interaction, giving them access to society which many of us often take for granted. But sadly, these social pillars are being ripped down around us. And once again, it’s all in the name of the Tories’ forceful ‘austerity’ agenda.
– Support a local “Save Our Libraries” campaign.
– Write to your MP about the attacks on libraries.
Featured image via Flickr
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