Ealing Council Overview and Scrutiny Committee
Decisions on the libraries, and changes to the taxicard scheme
The main purpose of this Committee is to review and scrutinise decisions made or actions taken in connection by the Council.
On Tuesday the Committee met to discuss the Libraries strategy as well as cuts to the Taxicard service.
The first issue was Ealing's Library Strategy.
Ranjit Dheer (Lab) presented the report as portfolio holder. Ranjit said, "we bow to the wishes of the Borough's residents and keep the libraries open" but that we need to look at how to deliver this in the longer term in the context of the cuts. He floated the possibility of setting up a charitable trust and pointed out that the fact that the nearly 1,000 potential volunteers that have come forward "fits in well with the Big Society agenda".
He confirmed that staff will be cut from 119 to 99 full-time equivalent.
David Millican (Con Opposition Leader) then spoke followed by 9 residents, whose concerns included lack of clarity in the strategy, cuts in opening hours and details of the proposed staff restructuring. Then discussion was opened up to the committee.
I asked a number of questions including:
Is it appropriate for the proceeds of the sale of the 'Birth of Eve' painting to be used for purposes that aren't arts related such as installing wi-fi and new Apple Macs?
Answer from Cllr Dheer - Libraries are "cultural facilities" which was what Jason (Stacey) promised the 'Birth of Eve' money would be earmarked for.
If a reduction in opening hours only saves £53,000 but will prevent some people from using the libraries alltogether, is it a false economy?
Can we have clarification on the role of volunteers? Are they additional too or replacements for professional librarians.
Answer from Cllr Dheer: "volunteers will not be replacing staff", they will "supplement the work of paid staff"
Why are some posts being upgraded in the restructuring?
Ranjit Dheer then summed up stressing that the strategy is a broad vision rather than a detailed action plan as this course of actoipn was only decided 2 weeks ago and promised to set up a library user group to continue getting input from users. He admitted to being a Philistine who has never read a book in his life but recognises the importance of libraries!
OSC then decided on a series of recommendations. Some uncontroversial ones noting the points made were passed without a vote but the following potential recommendations were defeated by the Labour councillors present:
The 'Birth of Eve' money should remain earmarked for the arts and shouldn't be spent on libraries - rejected by 9 Lab votes to 6 Con & LD votes.
We should delay closing the mobile library service - rejected by 9 Lab votes to 6 Con & LD votes
We should not cut opening hours - rejected by 9 Lab votes to 4 Con & LD votes with 2 Cons abstaining
We should not install Wifi & Macs in libraries - rejected by 10 Lab & LD votes to 5 Con votes
We should look at single manning of the smaller libraries as an alternative to cutting hours - rejected by 9 Lab votes to 6 Con & LD votes
There was then a discussion on the cuts to the Taxicard scheme called in by both the Lib Dems and the Conservatives. The root of the problem is that Boris (London Mayor) has cut the amount of TfL money that Ealing will receive for the Taxicard scheme.
Ealing's administration have decided not to make good this shortfall but instead to make a series of cuts to the scheme including reducing the subsidy of each trip, increasing the resident's contribution to each trip and reducing the number of trips a year allowed. A large number of service users raised specific concerns about how the cuts would effect them. Many of them were wheelchair users who cannot use any other form of transport.
Gary Malcolm (Lib Dem) referred to the impact this would have on the vulnerable people who use the service.
I asked questions:
Is it right to remove the recipt of Higer Rate Attendence Allowance as an automatic qualifying criteria, thus requiring extra form-filling?
Has the effect of reducing the subsidy and increasing the contributions on the number of trips users can afford to make been modelled?
Is it in accordance with natural justice to place people into bands initially based on the number of trips they took in previous years without any assessment of their medical conditions? What about people with deteriorating conditions?
Answer from Cllr Bassam Mafhouz (Labour) : People with degenerative conditions can reapply for a higher banding
The motion to refer this decision back to Cabinet was rejected by 9 Labour votes to 6 Conservative and LD votes.
OSC then discussed Discretionary relief for charities, which was not pushed to a vote and finally the Council's budget strategy for 2012-13, where the issue was how the total size of Ealing's savings targets (£85m) relates to Ealing's reduction in government funding (£43m). This was also not pushed to a vote. The meeting ended at 5 to 11.
Cllr Jon Ball
30th July 2011