Open letter to Jeremy Hunt. We await his courteous reply.

It’s been a difficult few weeks for Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt.  Jeremy Hunt at Leveson

Last week, he endured six straight hours of questioning by Robert Jay QC at the Leveson Enquiry set up to investigate the phone hacking scandal:

Mr Jay asks whether Mr Hunt feels comfortable with the series of texts between himself and James Murdoch. Mr Hunt says his interpretation was that in his quasi-judicial role a “courteous reply to a text message was fine”.

So Murdoch’s acolytes get immediate replies to messages out of courtesy, while tens of thousands of library campaigners are ignored. Hmm.

His department ignored us for a year, then rushed a meeting in April 2012. Meanwhile they have been in close contact with Brent for 10 months.

Despite all our evidence, we are still being ignored. Read on (it’s worth it):

I am writing to register some concerns regarding the dcms assessment of whether the Brent Council Library “Transformation” plan is likely to deliver an “efficient and comprehensive” service as per the 1964 Act.

I do not wish to repeat all the flaws in the Brent case but simply to ensure that you are aware of these concerns, keeping reference to specifics at a high level.  It is my contention that it is simply not credible for the Secretary of State to claim that he is satisfied on the above criteria, however broadly they are defined.  I have listed my concerns in bullet form.

  1. Almost every argument presented by Brent has been challenged with supporting evidence.  We are not aware of any errors in our challenges; certainly the dcms has brought none to our attention.

2      In the 10 months or so up to our meeting on April 12, the dcms had received only two letters from Brent.  These letters did not refute our challenges and they contained information that we have subsequently challenged.  Yet the “minded to” letter précised the Brent argument and ignored everything that we had submitted.

  1. Although the dcms had met with Council officers, it refused to meet representatives of the library campaigners until after the “minded to” letter and Mr Vaizey’s appearance before the Select Committee.  I am, of course, pleased that you did meet us eventually.

I would point out that I made contact with the dcms in April 2011, initially via Abigail Smith and offered to submit a briefing note.   The dcms has never instigated any data collection from those opposing Brent.  Natural justice would seem to require more.

  1. It is clear from the Wirral Report and the Select Committee investigation that the assessment of whether a strategy is likely to provide an efficient and comprehensive service cannot be reduced to a single factor.  It requires, inter alia, consideration of cost per issue, cost per square metre, cost per hour, etc. as well as cost per visit.  The Brent case is argued on the basis of cost per visit alone and yet (up to April 12) this limitation had not been identified as inadequate or even queried.  And, of course, Brent has never calculated Visits correctly, as per previous dcms guidelines.

5     In my correspondence with Abigail Smith I asked if the dcms would require Brent to take no action until the Secretary of State had pronounced.  I was informed that this was not dcms practice but that Councils could be relied upon to wait given the potential expense if they were required to restore a service they had removed.  I believe I expressed doubt as to whether this would be sufficient to restrain Brent and so it has turned out.  Brent has not only closed six libraries, it has now removed all the content, two libraries have reverted to All Souls, Neasden is being leased and Preston is to be used as emergency classrooms for two years.   So Brent has shown no respect for the (as yet undetermined) decision of the Secretary of State.

This raises at least three questions.  i)  Is Brent living dangerously or have they been given a nod and a wink by, if not the dcms, an advisor?  ii)  When Brent closed the libraries, did the dcms write to Brent putting them on notice that they might have to reverse these actions?  iii)  Are Brent residents receiving the protection and justice to which they are entitled via the Secretary of State, as per the 1964 Act?

  1. There is now six months actual experience since the libraries were closed.  You have received data showing that Issues and Visits are down on a pretty much pro rata basis with no trend showing migration.

In this regard, please be aware that Cllr Powney has declared that Willesden residents cannot be expected to travel to Neasden yet he expects Neasden residents to travel to Willesden and many other residents e.g. at Preston and Barham to travel similar distances.  The inconsistency of his argument is hardly persuasive.

7    In the library transition plan of January 2011, the estimated cost of repairs to Willesden Green over 20 years was given as £219,950.  We are now told that urgent repairs are needed costing £657,000 and this is apparently based on a survey undertaken in 2009.  So the data in the Library Transition plan was selective and redefined to support the intended action, not a serious basis for consultation.

May I mention here that the Wirral report specifically states that “an intention to act” is not a strategy.  Are Brent residents to receive less protection than those of the Wirral?

The criteria the Secretary of State is required to consider are clearly specified if not precisely defined.  They are “efficiency” and “comprehensive” and these characteristics refer to a library service, not to a library building.   It seems clear that the Brent case does not meet these criteria.  Perhaps – although I doubt it – someone less involved than me might be less dogmatic and prefer to say that they are “not convinced”.  But it does not seem possible that anyone could actually claim that they have negated all the challenges and are fully convinced by the Brent case.  So it would seem that an investigation is called for.

Yet that has not yet happened and the Brent library service is being decimated awhile.
This raises concerns in my mind.  Does the Secretary of State have information from Brent that has not been shared with us?  Is he applying criteria that are outwith those specified by the 1964 Act?

I have heard it said that he might be concerned by the possibility of legal action by Brent.  But surely he would not be at risk if he were able to show that the Brent case, as presented, was not persuasive and that an investigation is, therefore, compulsory.  And, in any case, that should not be a factor in exercising his quasi-legal role.