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Council breached equality duty with library cuts

10 April 2012

Surrey County Council breached its public sector equality duty by voting through a plan to replace professional librarians with volunteers, the High Court has ruled.

Mr Justice Wilkie acknowledged that the council, like others, was under “intense pressure” to reduce spending and had to make £59.3m savings this financial year despite an increasing demand for its services.

He said the council decided to concentrate resources on its core network, while considering 11 of the county’s 52 branch libraries for conversion to community partnered libraries (CPLs).

The claimants, two local residents, argued that the council’s cabinet failed to give “due regard” under section 149 of the Equality Act 2010 to the equality implications of adopting CPLs.

In particular they claimed the cabinet failed to have regard to the “obvious equality issue of the need for training for volunteers, other than by means of broad and obvious statements of the need to provide ongoing support”.

Ruling in Williams and Dorrington v Surrey County Council [2012] EWHC 867 (QB), Wilkie J said witnesses supporting the claimants were particularly concerned that volunteers would not be sensitive to the needs of the elderly and disabled.

He said some were worried “about the lack of continuity where a large number of volunteers are rostered to work in libraries in place of regular staff who know their regular customers and their requirements”.

Wilkie J said that once the decision was taken to proceed with CPLs rather than investigate their feasibility, the thinking about the training needs of volunteers must have “developed substantially”. If not, this should have been explained to the council.

Mr Justice Wilkie concluded that due regard to the “obvious” equality issue of volunteer training required, at the least, a “rigorous consideration by the cabinet of the officers’ thinking on that issue”.

He said the council’s reliance on “the same bland assertions” that training would be required and monitored fell “substantially short” of enabling council officers to give due regard.

“As has been indicated in the authorities, it is not necessary for a local authority to consider such issues to the nth degree of detail or ad infinitum, but a summary of what, it was now anticipated, the training needs would be and how they might be met was, in my judgment, an irreducible minimum to enable the cabinet to give this issue due regard at that stage.”

Wilkie J ruled that the council’s decision was unlawful.

A spokesman for Surrey County Council argued that the ruling “simply said the cabinet should have had more information in front of it about the work the council had already done to develop equalities training for volunteers, when it made its decision in September.

“The court will reconvene in May when the judge will decide what should happen next.”

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Local government