I wish to raise a very important issue that will affect every county in due course. It concerns an initiative by the Department of Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government called the Open Library service. Essentially, the Department is providing funding to local authorities for opening libraries in cities and towns throughout the country on the basis that there would be no staff in those libraries during certain hours.
On the face of it, the Department is saying it is a good initiative because the openings hours are late in the evening or early in the morning, thereby affording some people an opportunity to get to a library who might not otherwise have one. Pilot schemes were carried out in Offaly and Sligo. The pilot scheme has been reviewed and it is now intended to roll out the service throughout the country. It was to commence in a number of counties between now and Christmas.
The elected members of Laois County Council voted unanimously last Monday, two days ago, to postpone or reject the initiative, which was intended to be commenced in Portarlington in the next couple of weeks. It has been postponed.
Library users and staff whom I met stated the pilot report is deeply flawed. It is important that people know this. To use a phrase, there is a bit of bribery involved on the part of the Department and local authority senior staff to have the system rolled out. There is €2.3 million available for it. A recommendation of the scheme is that all newly developed and refurbished libraries under the library capital investment programme should be required to incorporate Open Library capability and should be required to provide the Open Library services from first opening or reopening of a refurbished building, as appropriate. In other words, if one is not willing to go this route, one will get no money for a new library or an upgraded library. This is a scandalous approach by central Government to democratically elected county councils throughout the country. People will be shocked to know that this is written into the conditions.
A number of people have concerns about libraries being open after hours when there are no staff available. The first point that obviously springs to everybody's mind is that of anti-social behaviour. It is not that there would be a lot of it but there is a fear of it. The programme has already commenced in countries such as Denmark and the United Kingdom as part of cost-cutting and staff-reduction measures. In those areas, it has been noticed that 90% of users after hours are men. What woman wants to go into a locked library at 9.30 p.m. on a winter's night not knowing who is coming in the door behind her? While there might be CCTV cameras, there is no live monitoring. If an incident happened, one could look at the CCTV footage the next day, but that would be a little too late.
Furthermore, the survey showed that the majority of people in other countries who attended the out-of-hours service with no staff were between 18 and 35. I refer to the younger, enabled people who are good with IT and know how to work the computer systems in the library. Older people, many women and many others would not want to go. There are many factors that should be taken into account before this programme is rolled out. They have not been addressed at all in the review of the pilot projects. The pilot projects review is flawed and it is not a basis for rolling out the programme any further.
It goes without saying that it is the thin edge of the wedge for staff. The initiative will lead to staff not being replaced in due course. There are no staff reductions as part of this problem today but it means that one will be told in a rural area that while the library will be open, there will be no staff present in the afternoon. On it will go. We are now in a set of circumstances in which the local authorities will be another set of faceless institutions, such as the banks. One will do one's business with a machine and go out the door, with nobody wanting to talk to you. We have had cutbacks in post offices, Garda stations, banks and the councils. The Department should not be making cuts affecting our libraries.