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YOUR VIEWS: Libraries in the Highlands and council's £863k overspend on former employees

By Gregor White

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Research suggests public libraries are very much valued by local communities.
Research suggests public libraries are very much valued by local communities.

Libraries have a vital place in the community

It’s no secret that Scotland’s libraries, along with the rest of our world-class culture sector, are currently embroiled in a perfect storm: budget pressures, reduced income generation, and rising costs have created a potent force for our services to contend with.

That’s why we’ve written to councillors across the Highlands, ahead of final decisions being taken on 2024/25 public spending, to not only remind them of the vast benefits a thriving public library service can provide, but to highlight those who stand to lose the most if our services are cut even further - communities across the Highlands.

The Scottish Library and Information Council (SLIC) is the advocacy body for Scotland’s network of over 500 public libraries – celebrating the creativity, commitment, and value that libraries offer the communities they serve. A lifeline of support for so many.

Our latest research, Scotland’s Public Library Survey, helps to demonstrate the immense value, trust, and appreciation that people across the Highlands place in their library service. With over 93 per cent of respondents agreeing that using the library improves their quality of life, the pivotal role they play is clear. This is best evidenced by: Closing the attainment gap by supporting children’s development, education and improving literacy through adulthood; Combating social isolation and helping those struggling with mental health; Bridging the digital divide through free e-learning opportunities; Connecting rural and remote communities through mobile library provision; and providing free IT equipment, employability sessions and activities to alleviate the impact of the ongoing cost-of-living crisis.

This is supported by the poignant feedback shared by library users across the Highlands. When asked about the positive impact library use had had on their life, one Inverness Library user commented: “It was massive for me when I was diagnosed with cancer, all the way through to my (recent) recovery period. The staff in Inverness are amazing. I love seeing all the different age groups who use the library, from babies in prams with their parents all through the age groups to the elderly. It’s a brilliant and invaluable facility to all who use it. It’s not just books - it’s lifelong learning.”

This sentiment is common and is underpinned by a strong economic case: for every £1 invested into our libraries, there’s a return on investment of £6.95 for the local economy. And it is to the credit of our public libraries that this is the case, despite budgets having been hollowed out over the past 14 years which has resulted in reduced opening hours and staffing levels.

Indeed, Scotland’s libraries remained the most frequently visited cultural places in 2022, and also enjoy the highest customer satisfaction rate of any local authority cultural service, at 89 per cent.

Now is the time for Highland Council’s elected members to give libraries the financial backing that they need – that they deserve - to continue delivering the public services which have become vital to communities across the country.

This is more than a bid for culture funding – it’s a plea to prioritise community wellbeing. We hope that all elected members will consider both the financial and social cost of not maintaining these essential services and use the upcoming budget period to protect the services that matter most to their constituents by ensuring continued investment in our libraries.

Pamela Tulloch

Chief executive officer

Scottish Library and Information Council (SLIC)

Highland Council made a big loss after failing to keep proper track of its employees.
Highland Council made a big loss after failing to keep proper track of its employees.

Council makes £863k wage overpayments

Highland Council made 602 over-payments to a total of 593 individuals after they left the organisation racking-up a whopping £863,000 because the local authority is not checking “to confirm the existence of its staff”. The revelations – described by one MSP as “beyond belief” – emerged in an auditors’ report after talking to staff for the council’s 2022/23 accounts.

“Surely it is not beyond the competence of Highland Council to reclaim the overpayments from the employees who received them? The council must know who the former employees are and presumably these employees, or at least some of them, must know that they were overpaid. Is this so difficult?” – David MacFarquhar, Forres

“I read the article with horror, as a manager of people in a commercial organisation, I am required to confirm the people in my team each month and that their attendance and sickness has been decided correctly. As for paying out cheques to people, why does that new employee not have a bank account? If employment checks are being carried out on new employees and references sought, this gives the new employee time to open a bank account. If a new employee commences mid month, why are they being paid by cheque and not waiting until the next payroll date? Start dates could be amended to support the person if they have limited funds or a conversation re. start dates and pay timings with a DWP job coach if the new employee is on benefits. Paying leavers on the usual payroll date and not by cheque should also be part of the council’s process.” – Halinka Rands

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