Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Big Fat Fibs and the Big Fat Fibbers Who Tell Them* - John Dougherty

It’s going to be an unashamedly political post today, folks; but before I begin here are a few pictures from my recent visit to Delhi for the Bookaroo festival:

Big thanks to Jo Williams and the Bookaroo team for inviting me and for organising such a great festival, and to the British School in Delhi for sponsoring my events!

But while I was having such a terrific time in India, hanging out with the 2 Steves and making some lovely new international author friends, events were moving on apace with the campaigns to save our libraries.

Campaigners on Judgement Day
As you may know, on 16th November Mr Justice McKenna ruled in the High Court that Gloucestershire and Somerset County Councils’ plans to drastically cut our library services were unlawful on equalities grounds. “Hurrah!” we all said, as the judge quashed the plans, and told the councils they had to go back to the beginning and start again.

So, what’s the problem? Well, here in Gloucestershire the council’s statements about the High Court judgement have been somewhat austeritical with the truth.

On the day of the judgement, council leader Mark Hawthorne told Channel 4 news that the judge had ruled that the council had not breached its duties under the 1964 Libraries Act - an assertion he repeated on BBC local radio the next day. He has also been widely quoted as saying that “the most important thing here is that the judge said that there is nothing wrong with our plans to transfer some libraries over to communities”.

Nice for the council if it were true. In fact, as explained here, this is based on a misreading. All the judge was saying was (a) it’s for the Secretary of State, not him, to decide whether the council’s plans comply with the act, and (b) since community libraries fall outside statutory provision, they’re not relevant to the act. You can have 100 libraries handed over to communities, or none: the question is, do the council’s own libraries meet the requirements?

Okay; but we can see how that mistake might be made, yeah? I mean, it’s not as if Gloucestershire County Council has its own expensive lawyers to advise them on what the judge meant… Oh, it does? Well… well, maybe they were busy, or at lunch, or at A&E after banging their heads against a wall following the judgement, or something. It’s still a bit harsh, even as a matter of hyperbole, to use the word ‘fibs’ - isn’t it?

No, I don’t think so. You see, in the same interviews, Councillor Hawthorne also claimed that the council had lost only because it had been tripped up on a very small technical point. I’ll repeat that, in his own words: “What we’ve been tripped up on here is a very small technical point.” You can see it around 2 minutes 10 seconds into the Channel 4 video.

Let’s compare that with the judge’s words, as quoted in The Guardian:  the breach of equalities duties was "substantive, not merely a technical or procedural defect".

Hmm… Judge McKenna: “substantive, not merely a technical or procedural defect.”
Cllr Hawthorne: “a very small technical point”.

Who’s telling the truth here, reader?

Here’s a clue: the judge also described the council’s plans as both unlawful and “bad government”, said it was “important to the rule of law” that they be quashed, struck out those plans, refused the council permission to appeal, and awarded full costs against the council.

Councillor Hawthorne may not have been deliberately lying; but he certainly wasn’t telling the truth. And there’s no evidence that he’s retracted his assertions - in fact, all the public statements I've seen from the council suggest to me that they see the High Court judgement as a minor inconvenience, a “small technical point” to be worked around.

So the question I’ve been asking is: is this man really fit to be in charge of our public services?

I have no problem with someone making a mistake. I can forgive someone who makes a huge mistake and then sets about putting it right. But our public servants should respect the rule of law. And the evidence suggests to me that Councillor Hawthorne does not.

*We don’t have a legal team here on An Awfully Big Blog Adventure, but if we did I’m sure they’d want me to make clear that today’s title is (a) hyperbole for comic effect, and (b) a whimsical and extremely tenuous reference to Al Franken’s book about something completely different. For the record, I’d like to state that I have no evidence that anyone associated with Gloucestershire County Council is either big or fat. Oh, and I acknowledge that it’s quite possible that they actually believe all of their statements, even those which are demonstrably untrue.

As per our disclaimer, all opinions expressed in this post are mine alone, and do not necessarily reflect those of any other member of the team, including the site owner.

John's website is at
He's also now on twitter as @JohnDougherty8, and consequently will probably never do any work ever again.

His latest books include:

Finn MacCool and the Giant's Causeway - a retelling for the Oxford Reading Tree
Bansi O'Hara and the Edges of Hallowe'en
Zeus Sorts It Out - "A sizzling comedy... a blast for 7+" , and one of The Times' Children's Books of 2011, as chosen by Amanda Craig


Catherine Butler said...

And besides, as we all know, "fib" is just an acronym for "Forgotten the Importance of Books".

You're just telling it like it is, John!

John Dougherty said...

Good point, Cathy!

Lynne Garner said...

I do sometimes wonder who these public servants think they are serving. Us or themselves? Cathy just love the acromyn for 'fib.'

Leslie Wilson said...

It just gets worse and worse, doesn't it? And yet these are probably the same people who were furious with the rioters and shouted about 'the rule of law.' Trashing a library is equivalent vandalism anyway. Well done for telling us about this anyway, John, however depressing. But in a country where cancer patients who haven't got better soon enough are to be told they are fit to work..if they weren't layabouts, they WOULD be better, after all. Ha! They could be sent to staff the community libraries.

Lucy Coats said...

Brilliant acronym, Cathy. And brilliant piece, John. The trouble is the majority of the good citizens of Gloucestershire are probably reading/listening to Cllr Hawthorne, and not this blogpost. 'Lies, damn lies and [political spin]' comes to mind (pace Stephen Jay Gould).