Don't throw out the ACL

<p>The rush to resolve the leadership crisis in the public library service has brought demands that the statutory Advisory Council on Libraries (ACL) should be disbanded and its role subsumed by either the MLA or a new library development agency. This would not benefit library users or the profession. It would also prevent Ministers and Parliament receiving independent advice about the issues facing the public library service. To bin the ACL would simply re-enforce the hold of bureaucrats and quangocrats who have so impeded improvements to our public library service.<br />
<br />
The ACL was established under the 1964 Public Libraries Act to provide independent advice to Ministers. The decision of Parliament to make it a statutory body recognised the importance of providing Ministers with independent and transparent advice in &quot;superintending&quot; the 149 separately managed library authorities. Alas, recent Ministers have allowed the ACL to become a &quot;talking shop&quot; for a few chosen advisors, carefully selected by civil servants and probably considered to be &quot;on message&quot;. As if sprung from an Ealing script, the ACL failed to meet for almost two years until officials realised that its existence was enshrined in the 1964 Act. What&rsquo;s more, a decision was taken to no longer publish its minutes and the advice submitted to Ministers. The statutory advisory body has been allowed to disappear from public sight.<br />
&nbsp;<br />
To add to the ACL's problems, the MLA has in the past tried to snaffle its responsibilities even though this would create a conflict between the MLA's role as effectively an arm of Government and the statutory requirement to provide independent advice to Ministers. The MLA has shown itself to be remarkably defensive and its now-famous minute 53/029 recorded that it was concerned not&nbsp; to provide a platform to those it regarded as &quot;self appointed critics&quot;. The concepts of independence, transparency and a range of views and experience may not sit comfortably with officials who are anxious to retain the ear of Ministers.</p>
<p>A strong, independent and transparent ACL with a wide range of views and experience, including those of library user groups, is essential to building an improving, comprehensive and efficient public library service. The ACL should be required to submit an annual report to Ministers and to Parliament assessing the state of our public libraries and providing advice about areas for improvements; these might be through better management, the sharing of resources, the improved use of technology and much greater focus on the needs of those who need and use&nbsp; public libraries. Ministers should be encouraged to engage fully with the ACL and, whenever possible, attend their meetings.</p>
<p>It may well happen that the MLA will be broken up following the current reviews of public libraries by the DCMS and the All Party Parliamentary Group. Its remit is too wide and it has failed to provide effective leadership and to build a shared vision for a vibrant public library service. Several want to see a library development agency arise from the ashes of the MLA . This would have greater focus upon the provision of practical support, ideas and research to help individual authorities. A new agency will need people with the vision, the experience and the drive to change and improve a public service which, as so many resisdents&rsquo; campaiagns have made clear, is something which can significantly enhance our lives.<br />
&nbsp;<br />
However, we must be careful not to also throw out the ACL with the murky bathwater. Ministers, Parliament and the public will continue to need the statutory Advisory Council on Libraries to provide an annual independent assessment of the state of the public service and to provide Ministers with a range of inputs and views. The ACL's&nbsp; advice and minutes should be published to ensure transparency, and an annual report should be submitted to Parliament. We can then hold everyone responsible for managing and superintending the service to account.</p>