THE Culture Secretary has intervened in a row over the closure of half of a local authority's libraries as the equality watchdog said only a court can rule on the matter.

Opposition SNP councillors on Moray Council and others had reported the Conservative/Independent administration to the Equalities and Human Rights Commission following its decision last month to close seven of the 15 libraries.

The move was agreed despite a 150-page Equalities Impact Assessment from council officials which recommended three be saved because of the impact on the elderly, disabled and families with young children.

Fiona Hyslop, culture secretary, said: "I am very concerned that Moray Council cannot see the value in continuing to provide library services in these rural areas and that the council does not see, in these times of austerity, how much of a lifeline these services can be to the elderly; people with disabilities; those looking for work and families on low incomes where a £10 round trip to the library is not feasible or where the journey on public transport is not practical."

The commission, meanwhile, said court decisions in England had indicated that decision makers "must consider the question of equality 'with rigour and an open mind'". But it said the question of "whether an authority has acted reasonably in its decision making is a matter for the courts".

But council convener Stewart Cree said: "I am reassured that the Equality and Human Rights Commission recognises the comprehensive nature of the Equalities Impact Assessment that was undertaken by the Moray Council in relation to the decision to close a number of library services."