FIONA Hyslop, the Scottish Culture Secretary, is poised to intervene in the controversial decision by Moray Council to axe almost half the area’s libraries.
She has told opposition SNP councillors in Moray that she is considering the implications of the closure plan for library services in the rest of Scotland.
And it was revealed today that Ms Hyslop has now written to the council, urging the administration to think again about their decision to close seven of the area’s 15 “lifeline” libraries.
Ms Hyslop said: “There has been widespread and well founded concern for the people of Moray around the closure of these libraries, with implications for the community as a whole and, as reported, specially for disadvantaged members of the community.
“I am very concerned that Moray Council cannot see the value in continuing to provide library services in these rural areas and that the council does not see, in these times of austerity, how much of a lifeline these services can be to the elderly; people with disabilities; those looking for work and families on low incomes where a £10 round trip to the library is not feasible or where the journey on public transport is not practical.
“The potential equality issues are grave.”
She continued: “I am disappointed and dismayed over the decision and call for the council to reconsider. It is vital that adequate library services are provided for the good of communities across Scotland, and most local authorities share that belief. Moray’s decision stands in stark contrast. I have also asked that, should the decision not be reconsidered, Moray Council work with the Scottish Library and Information Council to allow them to review the remaining service to ascertain whether it meets the needs of the area.”
Ms Hyslop states in her letter to the SNP Group on Moray Council: “I intend to write to Moray Council about the decision and assure you that I am considering the implications further as regards the message it sends to the rest of Scotland about the value of library services.”
A Scottish Government spokesman said: “
The Cabinet Secretary for Culture and External Affairs co-chairs the COSLA Sport, Art and Culture Working Group which is attended by elected members from local authorities across Scotland.
“Public libraries are the responsibility of local authorities in Scotland. The group is keen to consider whether a libraries strategy for Scotland would be useful and COSLA and the Scottish Libraries and Information Council are considering how best to take this forward. The Scottish Government will continue to work with COSLA and SLIC to ensure the importance of libraries is recognised across the country.”
Today, in a separate development, Scotland’s equalities watchdog has told campaigners, fighting to overturn the closure decision, that it will be for the courts to rule whether the council’s decision to close the seven libraries has breached the Equalities Act.
The SNP Group on Moray Council had written last month to Kaliani Lyle, the Scottish Commissioner of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission, expressing their “serious concerns” that the closure decision was both incompetent and potentially illegal in terms of the Equalities Act 2010.
But in a statement, issued today, the commission has failed to rule whether the council’s decision to axe the libraries was consistent with equality legislation.
A Commission spokesman said it would be open to those opposed to the closure plan to challenge the decision in court through a judicial review.
He said: “In respect of Moray Council’s decision to close library services, council officials have produced an apparently comprehensive equality impact assessment and councillors are obliged to take account of this in their decision making. Court decisions in England - which are not binding in Scotland but are persuasive - have indicated that decision makers must consider the question of equality ‘with rigour and an open mind.’
“The Commission, however, is not in a position to judge individual budget decisions made by public authorities; whether an authority has acted reasonably in its decision making is a matter for the courts rather than the Commission. Should those affected by this council decision have concerns that equality was insufficiently considered or that the council acted unreasonably, it is open to them to challenge the decision in court through Judicial Review.”
Councillor Stewart Cree, the convener of Moray Council, said: “I am reassured that the Equality and Human Rights Commission recognises the comprehensive nature of the Equalities Impact Assessment that was undertaken by the Moray Council in relation to the decision to close a number of library services.
“As the Commission indicates, it is the councillors’ joint duty to have regard to such assessments in their decision making and I am satisfied that they had sufficient information before them to make this difficult decision.”
Councillor Mike Shand, the SNP’s education spokesman on Moray Council, said: “The high level intervention by Culture Secretary Fiona Hyslop is very welcome and underlines the serious concerns held by many, many people about the decision to close seven libraries.
“In the meantime I know that the campaigners against the closures have been seeking legal opinion and the response we have now received from the Equalities and Human Rights Commission is very helpful in setting out what the court would have to consider in relation to the Council’s equality duty and its decision making process.”
He added: “The SNP remains fully behind the efforts being made to prevent these closures, which we believe is a fundamentally flawed decision from an Independent/Tory coalition that is making the wrong choices with little regard for the consequences.”
Richard Lochhead, the SNP MSP for Moray, said: “The Moray Council’s Independent and Tory Councillors are facing fierce criticism from both local communities in Moray and from people across the country - from well known authors like Allan Bissett and Janice Galloway to the Cabinet Secretary for Culture, who has roundly condemned this decision.
“It is time The Moray Council’s administration reconsidered this decision and responded positively to the concerns and priorities of people across Moray.”
Alistair Jeffs, the chairman of the Save our Libraries Moray campaign, warned: “Should Moray go ahead with these closures then it could be the start of a stampede towards closing vital community services in other local authority areas around Scotland.
“Our argument from the outset has been that this is much more than a local issue. Libraries remain as valid and essential to local communities as they have always been - they are under attack in England and now the Tory/Independent administration in Moray seem determined to make them a target in Scotland.”
He continued: “The Equalities and Human Rights Commission has said that only the Court of Session can decide if Moray Council has taken proper account of their legal responsibilities. We find it abhorrent that the only way our elected representatives can be brought to account over this decision is through the courts rather than their taking heed of the will of the people they were elected to serve.
“However, should our legal advisors confirm that as being the only way we can overturn this decision then that is the road we will follow.”