By Bob Whitehead
Introducing the Labour manifesto for the Birmingham local elections in 2014 Albert Bore said many things, but nothing about the Library of Birmingham or the wider library service. There was a strong commitment to jobs, including jobs for women, and the importance of skills, echoed throughout the manifesto document. This is deeply ironic, considering the recent cuts at the LoB.
Referring to the funding crisis, Labour’s manifesto said they could not make “empty promises to give blanket protection to local services”, but would “protect the services that support the most vulnerable”. Labour received 43% of the vote on a turnout of about one in three of the city’s electorate in May 2014.
So, it cannot be claimed that there was a solid electoral mandate for slashing the number of hours and jobs at the Library of Birmingham. There was no mention of the threat to this flagship institution, that had only opened in September 2013.
What did “protect the services that support the most vulnerable” mean? It could mean the fundamental right of young people to education, for which a well-stocked and accessible library, with plentiful trained and properly paid staff, is vital. Instead, it seems to imply that improving the dire situation in children’s safeguarding services is the big priority. And that has been the excuse wheeled out by cabinet members for their decision to drastically cut the Library of Birmingham.
But, the consultation exercise with the public came up with completely different priorities. And as the phrase about the “most vulnerable”, is ambiguous, the results of the consultation exercise would then surely take on a very significant importance.
The OECD defines consultation: “. . . participation, involving interest groups in the drafting of policy or legislation”.
1) Responses for the Libraries, Museums, Arts and Heritage sector made up 50% of the total, compared to 29% for adult social care in second place (page 22). It was by far the area of most concern.
2) The highest proportion for all the service groupings covered who opposed the savings proposals was also for this sector, at 78% (page 54). Adult social care came second at 50%.
Clearly there is still no mandate for the attack on the library.
The only statistic in the Council’s defence is that of the 5 most important services the council should provide, people thought that Children and Young People came top at 57%, and Libraries, museums, Arts and Heritage came second at 54% (page 32). But that is not a ringing endorsement for the Council’s actions.
We should stress here that we are not interested in playing off one service against another. We are just making the point that there is no democratic mandate for what the Council is doing to the Library of Birmingham.
We ran an extensive and well supported campaign throughout the consultation process that won all the arguments about the importance of the Library of Birmingham and the wider library service. We also contributed a detailed written submission to that consultation.
But, despite having no mandate, and having conceded all our arguments about the importance of the library service and the LoB in particular, the Council is carrying on with huge cuts to hours and staffing. The closure on a Sunday has just been announced.
We are fully justified in continuing our campaign, and will oppose the deeper cuts threatened for next year.