OPPOSITION SNP councillors on Moray have today written to Scotland’s equalities watchdog, challenging the administration’s decision to press ahead with controversial plans to axe almost half the area’s libraries.
At a meeting in Elgin on Tuesday the ruling Independent and Tory coalition rejected recommendations by senior council officials to reprieve three of the seven libraries targeted for closure and voted to close the facilities at Rothes, Dufftown, Portknockie, Findochty, Cullen, Burghead, Hopeman.
Councillors were warned by council officers at the meeting that a decision to close seven of the area’s 15 libraries could result in a legal challenge.
And it was confirmed today that Moray Council’s SNP Group have now written to Kaliani Lyle, the Scottish Commissioner of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission, and Fiona Hyslop, the Scottish Government Minister for Culture, questioning the council’s decision.
In the letters Councillor Mike Shand, the SNP Group’s education spokesman, has expressed the SNP’s “serious concerns” that the decision is both incompetent and potentially illegal in terms of the Equalities Act 2010.
Councillor Shand said: “The SNP has very grave concerns that the decision forced through by the Conservative/Independent administration is illegal in terms of the Equalities Act and could leave the council open to legal challenge. This would have a significant cost implication for the council, negating any of the savings they hope to achieve, never mind the hugely detrimental impact on our local communities in Moray.”
He continued: “The idea of closing seven libraries out of fifteen and leaving an adequate service is frankly ludicrous. Renowned science fiction author Isaac Asimov once said: ‘When I read about the way in which library funds are being cut and cut, I can only think that….society has found one more way to destroy itself.’ The Independents and Tories in Moray Council would have done well to remember that sentiment.”
Councillor Pearl Paul, the leader of the SNP Group, said: “In all my years in local government I have never seen such a blatant disregard for legal advice given in the interest of the council and the Council Tax payers of Moray.”
She claimed: “There has been an extensive consultation during the Equalities Impact Assessment on proposed library closures and the cavalier fashion with which the public’s views and the hard work of officers in presenting those views was dismissed by the council’s Administration will sap the confidence of the people of Moray on any future council consultations under the current regime.”
Alistair Campbell, the council’s libraries and museums manager, told councillors that an extensive Equalities Impact Assessment had shown that the closures would have an adverse effect on the elderly and people with a disabilities.
And he warned: “Given the impacts, for the proposals to go ahead there will need to be an objective justification. This requires the council to demonstrate that the proposals constitute proportionate means to achieving a legitimate aim.
“There are therefore concerns that the council could be at risk of falling short of its statutory duty to secure adequate library provision and would thereby be exposed to legal challenge by way of judicial review. The cost and time implications of a judicial review challenge would be significant.”
He continued: “ In the event of any legal challenge being upheld, the council could be required to increase its library service provisions, and where any of the library facilities being considered for closure are closed, the council may be asked to reinstate all or some of those library facilities. Further, should any challenge be upheld, it is likely that the council’s reputation would be damaged increasing the likelihood of further public challenges and complaints in relation to reviews of other council services.”
But Councillor Allan Wright, the leader of the council, told the meeting that the council had no choice but to press ahead with the closure of seven of the council’s 15 libraries in the face of “frightening budget pressures.”