Bookseller Briefing 23/18 – week ending 8 June

The Bookseller

 

Eighty librarians condemn deal between Home Office and SCL

Eighty library professionals have signed an open letter condemning a deal between the Society of Chief Librarians (SCL) and UK Visas and Immigration that will see libraries provide biometric visa support services.

The new contract, delivered by IT consultancy Sopra Steria, will be rolled out across 56 library services in the UK and will enable visa applicants to submit biometric data and supporting documents. The role of library staff will be to support online access for applicants to submit their documents and biometric data, but they will not give visa or immigration advice, or know the results of visa applications.

The move has been condemned by members of the Radical Librarians Collective, who have issued a statementurging library workers to resist the scheme, signed by 80 people so far.

According to the collective, the contract will result in the “creeping normalisation and increased presence of Home Office divisions” in public libraries which will “actively work against” the creation of an inclusive and diverse public library service.

The statement criticised the Home Office, which it says has been “ruthless in its pursuit to effect ‘hostile environment’ policies”, for example, using charity data to deport homeless migrants. The librarians cited a Freedom of Information request by the BBC which last year highlighted an agreement between the Home Office, the Department of Health and the NHS digital which saw the sharing of confidential patient information collected by frontline services to help the Home Office locate and deport undocumented people.

The letter said: “SCL acquiescing to, and public libraries participating in, a softer but arguably more insidious form of gate-keeping following the Windrush scandal, which would allow Home Office divisions to take advantage of the largely open, inclusive and supportive role of public libraries, to attract undocumented or otherwise vulnerable people (and equally for users to be put off from using library services”.

The statement also said the firm contracted to deliver the service, Sopra Steria, had been linked to a “colossal” loss of patient data between 2011 and 2016.

The signatories expressed concern about the possibility of librarians being put under pressure to offer advice they are not qualified to give, and about library workers being seen as agents of the application process rather than offering independent help and support, thereby undermining the crucial role of libraries as trusted spaces for all.

“If we are serious about achieving a more inclusive and diverse public library service which actually cares about breaking the glass ceiling for minorities, asylum seekers, refugees, temporary residents and migrant workers in the UK, we need to start by protecting and restoring the foundations of our public library services in order meet our statutory obligations ‘to provide a comprehensive and efficient library service for all persons’,” the letter read.

“This includes taking the ‘radical’ step of adequately funding libraries to serve culturally diverse communities, ‘as an integral part of any library’s full range of library and information services, rather than an isolated or additional part’ and diversifying the library workforce so that library users can see themselves represented.”

In response to the letter, a spokesperson for SCL told The Bookseller the organisation believes the contract was an “important initiative” and that the Sopra Steria underwent the relevant checks by the Home Office before being awarded the contract.

“We believe this is an important initiative where libraries will provide accessible local service points for visa applicants”, the spokesperson said. “The Home Office ran a full procurement process before awarding the contract to Sopra Steria. Services will be delivered through libraries as part of this contract. Library staff will not be involved in any part of the decision making on applications, be required to give immigration advice or know the results of any applications.”

SCL chief executive Isobel Hunter also clarified that no volunteers would be involved in the services and that while they would receive payment for the service, libraries would not be charging visa applicants for their help.

A spokesperson for the Home Office said: “The new streamlined service will make the visa application process quicker and easier to access than ever, by increasing the use of digital services. We look forward to working with Sopra Steria to continue to deliver a world class and convenient service for UKVI customers.”

They added: “The term ‘hostile environment’ as a description of Home Office immigration policy is incorrect, unhelpful and does not represent our values as a country.”

Ian Anstice, librarian and editor of Public Libraries News, said that the contract shows how complicated expanding out into “such controversial things” is for libraries.

“The SCL has seen the need to push the use of libraries to various agencies and this deal will help the cause of public libraries in Whitehall. The extra money will be of great help too to cash strapped authorities,” he said. “On the other hand, it challenges the traditional role of libraries and can, if handled improperly, dent their neutrality. And that welcome-to-all image is over 150 years old and is there for a reason.

“As times change, libraries need to change but new opportunities can also be a minefield, as the SCL deal demonstrates. For Isobel Hunter, the new chief exec, it reveals early how hard things are going to be, almost from day one, despite the fact that this decision was made before she came on board.”

Explosive report slams Germany’s fixed book prices

Fixed book prices are the “sacred cow” of the German book industry. Anything threatening the law that secures retail price maintenance (r.p.m.) for books, both printed and (since 2016) e-books, has booksellers and publishers up in arms. Therefore it comes as no surprise that a critical report published by the Monopolies Commission (Monopolkommission) and demanding the abolishing of the r.p.m. is creating a stir.

The Monopolies Commission is an advisory council that assists the German government and parliament in any matters concerning competition policy and is known for its strong dislike of any market regulations. But while it has a long history of speaking out against fixed prices for books – in 2000 it called them a “first- class regulatory nuisance” – it still couldn’t prevent them from becoming law two years later.

In the 93-page report the commission does not mince words. “Fixed book prices strengthen competition for ancillary services, slow down structural change in the brick-and-mortar book trade and decelerate the emergence of booksellers with buyer power.” At the same time, it says, “they hinder the development of efficient trading structures and the attraction of new customer groups. They prevent cost advantages from being passed on to customers and impose a barrier to market entry.”

Remarkable about the report is the fact that it was not commissioned by any government source but was put together by the commission at its own discretion. And it seems unlikely that the ruling parties in Berlin will pick up the baton any time soon. Monika Grütters, Germany’s culture minister, has said in a statement that she was “stunned” by the document. That doesn’t make the content any less explosive, but takes some heat out of the debate, at least for now.

What has many in the industry worried is the timing. The commission has made it abundantly clear that to publish the damning report now was anything but incidental. According to the commission, the report was prompted by a judgment from 2016 in which the European Union’s Court of Justice ruled that fixed prices for medicinal products in Germany were incompatible with the free movement of goods within the EU. The question is when – and if – Brussels’ anti-regulatory forces will move from pills to books. To counteract any such move early on, the Börsenverein has therefore commissioned its own report to argue why r.p.m. is vital for the German book industry.

Waterstones sale to Elliott completes

The purchase of Waterstones by Elliott Advisors has now completed.

It was revealed in April the European private equity arm of the American hedge fund had bought a majority stake in the retailer, with previous owner Russian oligarch Alexander Mamut’s Lynwood Investments retaining a minority stake, although the percentage of the business each will own has not been disclosed.

James Daunt, who remains chief executive of the retailer, told The Bookseller: “We announced in April the acquisition of a majority interest in Waterstones by Elliott Advisors. The purchase has now completed. We have a new owner then, signed, sealed and the keys handed over. We are very pleased to welcome them.”

The terms of the deal have not been disclosed, but Elliott provided all the financing for the transaction, including the consideration and ongoing operational finance.

It was also revealed that Daunt’s key leadership team will also remain in place at Waterstones following the deal.

At the time the sale was announced, Daunt said: “This is a very happy outcome for Waterstones. Our booksellers can be immensely proud to have proved through good, old-fashioned bookselling, the enduring appeal and worth of real bookshops. I thank Lynwood Investments for their invaluable support through this turnaround, and we enter new ownership looking forward with great optimism to the next chapter in the development of Waterstones”, adding “a new ownership does bring a different energy to the company right from the beginning and this owner has deep pockets.”

The bookselling chief also spoke of his hopes that the chain would expand under the new ownership and open stores at a faster rate. “We’re very much in expansion mode, we’re opening up new shops,” he said.

Paul Best, head of European Private Equity at Elliott confirmed the firm planned to grow the business when the sale was first announced.

“As the leading physical book retailer in the UK, Waterstones is a mainstay of UK high streets and has a huge and loyal customer base.  We look forward to supporting James Daunt and his entire team over the long-term as they continue to build and grow the business,” he said.

Publishers, agents and authors have welcomed the fact that Daunt has been retained by the new owners, along with his management team. The firm is expected to appoint a new board, though.

Waterstones’ sales stood at £403.8m in the 52 weeks to 29th April 2017, down 1.3% (2016: £409.1m). Pre-tax profit meanwhile was up 80% to £18m (2016: £9.9m), and operating profit jumped 28% to £26.6m (2016:20.8m), although profit after tax fell to £16.1m, an 8.5% fall from £17.6m a year earlier.

‘Ethical guidelines’ created following Home Office deal with libraries

The Society of Chief Librarians has agreed to partner with CILIP, the library and information association, to develop an ethical framework regarding commercial partnerships following the fallout from its controversial deal with the Home Office.

The SCL recently secured a contract with Home Office division UK Visas and Immigration to deliver biometric visa support services in 56 libraries across England, Scotland and Wales. However, the contract was condemned by library professionals, with 80 signing an open letter calling for workers to resist the scheme arguing that the “creeping normalisation and increased presence of Home Office divisions” in public libraries would “actively work against” the creation of an inclusive and diverse public library service.

CILIP said it had been contacted by “a number of parties” raising concerns about the new contract.

Among them were worries about the appropriateness of associating public libraries with visa and immigration processing and the risk this may present to the perceived neutrality and trust in public libraries, as well as the lack of prior engagement with CILIP before the announcement, given the potential reputational and ethical risks. CILIP also said that library staff had been in touch to express their discomfort about being asked to be involved in the service.

The organisation said that the trusted status of public libraries depended on the ethics of professional librarians, who “promote an ethos of public service, neutrality and respect for civil liberties including the right to privacy”. It added that while it recognised that the “intense financial pressures” affecting many library authorities created an “impetus to diversify funding sources in order to maintain service provision”, it was important to ensure that the extension of public library services to new activities was “informed by a clear commitment to the ethics of [the] profession and do not unintentionally undermine public trust or deter current or potential users from accessing the library”.

“In CILIP’s view, there is a risk that by associating UK public libraries with visa and immigration services, particularly at a time of heightened public concern, this may cause reputational issues for the sector as a whole”, said the body.

To address the concerns, CILIP and the SCL have agreed to partner on the development of a guidance note on commercial partnerships, which will include guidelines on ethics-based decision-making and negotiation, and to establish an ongoing dialogue between the two organisations concerning forthcoming contracts to ensure that “actual and perceived ethical risks have been taken into account and that the implications are discussed openly and transparently with affected staff”.

The organisation has further encouraged the SCL to monitor the arrangement with service provider Sopra Steria and any reputational issues arising from it, and in the event that it is seen to be impacting either on usage or perceptions of the library service, take action to mitigate these. CILIP has also urged the SCL to liaise with library staff to allay concerns about potential ethical conflicts.

SCL chief executive Isobel Hunter said: “It is important to us that our members are supported and informed whenever we begin a new service in libraries. It has been really fruitful to discuss these complex issues with CILIP and we are pleased that we now intend to work together to develop a shared set of commercial principles to guide future work.”

CILIP members working in public libraries may raise any concerns about this or related matters with the organisation by emailing chief executive Nick Poole at nick.poole@cilip.org.uk.