Harlow libraries: Volunteers may not be properly equipped to handle serious cases of criminal threats.

Volunteers may not be properly equipped to handle serious cases of criminal threats.

By Local Democracy Reporter
Piers Meyler

This is the warning from those campaigning against Essex County Council (ECC) changing some libraries to a volunteer-run model.

At a call-in meeting on Thursday, August 9, councillors were told of one case where a volunteer was told “I’m going to kill you, I’m going to vomit in your face”.

ECC voted to press on with its plans to remodel libraries, but not before concerns over how it will work in practice – including how suitability of volunteers will be achieved – were raised.

It followed ECC’s decision to sign off a five-year strategy for its loan service last month.

But campaigners say they are still no clearer on how this plan will operate.

Jean Quinn, a primary school teacher of 40 years, raised a number of concerns about the libraries strategy.

She said: “Although it’s desirable to have all your volunteers DBS checked so we don’t get sex offenders, it’s not mandatory and there’s evidence elsewhere in the country this has happened.

“This issue of safety has not been through or scrutinised.

“I have mentioned DBS checks in terms of keeping public safe, but what about keeping volunteers safe?

“Currently we have professionally trained staff.

“If you speak to any librarian over course of a year they will receive aggressive abuse, some have been sworn at, some have been spat at.

“I want to tell you a true story about a librarian faced with a member of the public who came in and said ‘I’m going to kill you I’m going to vomit in your face’.

“How would a volunteer handle a situation like that?

“This just hasn’t been thought through.”

ECC wanted to close 25 libraries last year, with 19 more relying heavily on volunteers.

But after a local campaign, which saw authors Michael Rosen and David Walliams offer their support, the Conservative-run council performed a U-turn.

Last month, leader David Finch announced there would be no closures, pledging an additional £3m for libraries over the next five years.

On July 21, the council confirmed it was still seeking volunteers to keep the small branches open.

But opposition councillors say the council has failed to give assurances over several aspects of the service, including on how suitability of volunteers will be achieved.

They also say the council has failed to provide a scheme for the professional development of permanent staff and library assistants.

They add the council has failed to address the need to have at least one permanent member of staff during opening times at all service points.

Juliet Pirez, head of libraries, said: “The strategy commits ECC to supporting community-run libraries so they can recruit and train suitable volunteers.

“The cabinet report commits the council to expect community-run libraries to provide an inclusive and high quality service.

“In our operational planning we will set out how community-run libraries will be required to ensure that they volunteers are suitable.”

Suzanna Shaw, ECC director of customer services, said the council would only transfer a library if a group provided a viable and sustainable business plan.

She said: “All libraries will remain open and continue to be council-run unless we agree suitable proposals for them to be community-run.

“We will only consider a transfer to a community-run library if a group provides a viable and sustainable business plan.”

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