Sunday, 10 April 2016

'An imaginative solution': the axe falls - Barnet Tories vote to destroy our library service

Before the deed was done: protest outside the Town Hall

Leaving the Town Hall last Monday night, I noted, on the stairs just below me, the portly figure of Reuben Thompstone, the Tory councillor responsible for libraries, walking down with two very senior Barnet council officers. 

They briefly stood together, and smiled at each other: Tomorrow, whispered one of the officers, as they nodded discreetly, still smiling, then moving apart, towards the main door, and out into the night.

No reason why they shouldn't be pleased with themselves. 

They had, after all, all three of them, just seen the completion of their task. 

That is to say, the approval of proposals to cut our once magnificent library service to shreds, sack half of the library workforce, cull the book stock, and impose a system of unstaffed DIY, shrunken 'libraries', dependent on 'technology enabled' automatic entry - and a ban on all children under 15 years old from those soon to be dehumanised, hollowed out branches.

I felt appalled, as I watched them, to see such ill judged self-satisfaction. 

Do they know what they have done? 

Do they care what they have done? 

I wondered exactly what tomorrow meant. Would they be sending in the men with tape measures, straight away, ready to get the libraries cut down to nominal size, and install automatic doors and pin machines in the new, Capita run buildings?

Library cutter Councillor Reuben Thompstone

Preparations have already been made, of course. Of the sort favoured by those whose interests are best served by a rapid implementation of the destruction of our library service. 

Not the sort of preparations that properly assess the full risks, practically and financially, of going ahead with such mad proposals.

The book stock, which is to be mercilessly slashed, has already been in the process of 'rationalisation'. Moves to recruit volunteers to replace qualified staff have reportedly been underway for some time. Who knows what else is under wraps, waiting to be actioned, now that the axe has fallen? 

It is no exaggeration to say this is a dreadful, dreadful decision, for Barnet's residents: another benchmark in the relentless assault on our local services, actions claimed in the name of savings which never appear, but are really pursued through a motivation of hatred for the very ideal of public services on the part of the Tory administration, and promoted by a senior management team determined to turn Barnet into a marketplace of opportunity for more and more privatisation.

There was never any chance it would turn out differently, of course. 

The library committee referred the Tory cuts proposals to Full Council in order to deflect the blame on to the wider group, where their collective shame could be shared out, and - they hoped - ignored. 

Argument, reasoned debate or otherwise, is always a waste of time, with Barnet Tories. 

The future for Barnet libraries, courtesy of your Tory councillors: children barred from unstaffed 'libraries' ...

Claiming not to be whipped at CELS, they certainly were on Monday night, and none of them would ever have the courage act in response to the doubts we know that many of them secretly have about the imposition of unstaffed libraries, or indeed the whole set of proposals, in the light of the catastrophic IT crash.

Ah yes: the IT crash.

As mentioned in the previous post, Mrs Angry discovered at the end of last week, to her astonishment, and no little fury, that the Labour group was under the impression that the IT crisis was over, and the system back to normal. They had been told so by officers, she heard, and they did not challenge this assertion: believable, as the culture of deference to officers prevails amongst the opposition, as much as it does in the Tory group - often with fatal consequences.  

And the amendment that Labour submitted to Council was therefore based on this misapprehension, not raising as is should have, the need to delay the decision in the light of the continuing crisis, and unresolved problems, which was unfortunate, was it not? 

On Monday night Tory members also tried, with little success, to convince those present that there were no continuing issues raised by the IT crash, or implications that related to the proposals under consideration. 

Quite astounding to hear this, for the staff members present, half of whom lost their jobs that night, and are continuing to deal with the problems caused by the IT failure, which reportedly include a loss of two years worth of data such as stock listing, membership details, and borrowing histories. 

Ah: and then from all the confusion, it emerged that they were talking about the pilot scheme at Edgware being now back and running. Not the library system as a whole.

Were Labour members misled, or did they misunderstand?

The truth is that nothing would have made any difference to the outcome. 

Your Tory councillors, unanimously voting for library cuts

Not the extent of repercussions from the catastrophic IT failure.

No careful deconstruction of the myth, as we have seen, that unstaffed libraries are proven to be successful anywhere, in any context comparable to the one proposed here. 

No detailed analysis of the so called business plan, based on so many 'assumptions', and demanding a capital investment of £6 million, in order to make 'savings'. 

No report from Unison, nor protest from residents: nothing. 

Nothing stands in the way of privatisation, in Broken Barnet. 

And be in no doubt: the splurging of £6 million in capital on the 'modification' of our libraries, the shrinkage of space, the fitting up of self entry technology, was done on the pretext of making 'savings', but is just a step in the process of preparing the management of libraries to be dropped by the council, and handed over to some other concern, as they have done with so many other services.

The 'debate' about the library proposals at the meeting itself was of course not a debate at all, and disregarded all the serious questions that should have been addressed, not just the plans as they were, but in the light of the continuing IT crisis, and the unanswered questions which this crash presents. 

The Tories' ploy was to say smoothly that this, as far as the pilot scheme was concerned, was fine now, so there were no other implications for the proposals. Really? Let's see. More of this in the next post.

Labour had by now caught up with the truth, and realised the system itself was still in trouble, and tried suggesting verbally, if not in their amendment, that the plans be (oh dear) 'shelved', at least until the IT crisis had been resolved. 

Library spokeswoman Anne Hutton tried reasoning with the unreasonable, as deputy Tory leader and Assembly candidate Dan Thomas sat yawning. 

Tory deputy leader Dan Thomas, in praise of library cuts

In the public gallery, resident Bob Jacobson held up a poster recommending the election of  'Dan Thomas for Dog Catcher'. 

The concern with which Tories regarded the library vote was illustrated by the full turnout of Conservative councillors. Tory leader, Richard Cornelius, had attended the meeting even though, very sadly, his elderly father had died earlier that day. 

As he told us now that the plans his administration wanted to impose were 'an imaginative solution', it was hard not to recall the interesting fact that he had originally entered local politics because of his fury over the closure of his own local library in the affluent Tory stronghold of Totteridge.

But then, as Labour's Kath McGuirk pointed out, the Tories in Barnet have always been the party of library closures, and former Labour leader Alison Moore reminded us all of their attempts, ten years ago, before the concept of 'austerity' had been even the smallest twinkle in the eye of any Tory chancellor, to shut all but SEVEN of the borough's libraries.

Tory veteran John Marshall, who lost his seat in Westminster to Labour's Andrew Dismore, now local Assembly Member, represents the Tories' most favoured ward of Hampstead Garden Suburb, with residents who number some of the wealthiest people in the UK: including billionaires, press barons, porn barons, arms dealers, exiled dictators ... 

Veteran Tory John Marshall

Hampstead Garden Suburb, declared Marshall, piping up in his peevish, pseudo-parliamentary drawl, as the public gallery jeered, had the most vibrant community library ...

Utter tosh: the tiny, twee little library in a shop which still exists in the Suburb, caught in a moment of time, circa 1939, (daringly modern, for Cllr Marshall) was always top of the list for closure, but the truth was that the Tories never dared do this, because of the political damage it would cause them. 

And so whereas the poorest children in this borough must now be refused entry to their local library, for much of the time, the toy town faux library in the Suburb, staffed by a handful of retired magistrates and local dowagers volunteering their time for good works, will continue, generously subsidised by the tax payers of Broken Barnet, the parents of those children barred from library access, whose own branches must be radically cut, losing their professional staff, and seeing them replaced by DIY branches, shrunken to the size of ... in some cases, not much bigger than HGS.

Libdem Jack Cohen, whose library in Childs Hill is badly affected by the new plans, noted with contempt the 'concession' latterly made to upgrade the CCTV replacement for librarians in the unstaffed libraries from one of recorded filming, to that of (sometimes, at least) live monitoring - from a distance.

West Hendon Lab cllr Devra Kay and Childs Hill Libdem cllr Jack Cohen

Why is that, he wondered? Are libraries going to be dangerous places? Are they no longer going to be a public space, but a place of surveillance?

The vote? 

The Tories approved the library plans, of course, as we knew they would. 

Libraries are a matter of total indifference to these craven Tory members, masquerading as representatives of their local community. None of them are regular library users, and very few indeed show any interest in reading, or cultural activities of any sort. Where is the profit in that? 

Councillor John Hart, who fondly imagines himself to be a man of letters, and an intellectual, informed Mrs Angry in an argument outside the chamber, in the break, that children could simply access reading through 'digital libraries'. My children read books, and visited libraries, as I did, when I was a child, was the response: children need books ... Good, he said, good. What he meant was - yes, for people 'like us', books are the thing. For the rest: who cares?

As is traditional in Broken Barnet, the Full Council meeting began with an address by the Mayor's Chaplain, an office currently held by Dayan Abrahams, who made a heartfelt, sincere and eloquent plea, as almost every chaplain ever has, while the campaigners' brass band outside played a eulogy for Barnet libraries, for mutual respect in debate, and that we should see the common ground, and work constructively for the common good. 

Chaplain Dayan Abrahams, watched by Mayor Mark Shooter

Never let us see the weaknesses of others, he urged, but only their strengths.

He slipped out, and who could blame him, before the heckling began, and the howls of protest, not just from residents campaigning in defence of their libraries, but those suffering the indignity and injustice of the Council's destruction of their homes, and their community, in West Hendon.

If people have no respect, Dayan Abrahams, in the public gallery of their local Town Hall, for their elected representatives, sadly, it is because their elected representatives have demonstrated, over and over again, that they have no respect for the opinions, or the best interests, of the residents of this borough. 

From a position of unassailable strength, they exploit the weaknesses of others, and glory in their triumph.

Jasmin Parsons objects to dismissive comments about the West Hendon 'regeneration', by Tory councillor and aspiring AM Dan Thomas, standing at the back

To watch Jasmin Parsons surrounded by security staff, for daring to voice her fury at the casual indifference, or blatant ridicule of Tory councillors to the loss of her home, and the betrayal of the people of West Hendon, while deputy leader and Tory Assembly candidate Dan Thomas, declares she and her evicted neighbours should be grateful because the new residents that displace them will be given a 'new school and a new church', and as he complains about his portrayal in the BBC documentary about that development, is to understand, or should be, the depth of hurt that these people feel. 

Being obliged to observe Reuben Thompstone turn his back to the residents of this borough, and speak to the Mayor in self congratulatory manner of his plans to destroy our library service, in denial of all the deficiencies in the case put before members, and in clear defiance of the enormous opposition from residents, expressed in months of consultation, is to understand, if you have eyes to see, and ears to listen, why there is not, as the Mayor's chaplain so much wants to believe, a 'wonderful democracy' enacted in the chamber of this Town Hall, but a failure of the democratic purpose: an inversion of the very principles of democracy, where the interests of profit and political dogma take precedence over respect for public service, truth, equality, justice - and community.

There is no mutual 'respect' in relationships of inequality, only an abuse of power.

This is Broken Barnet, and that was the week where your Tory councillors took an axe to your library service.

Next month you have a chance to thank them at the ballot box, and remember, when the Tory candidate for Barnet and Camden asks for your vote, what he did with his, last Monday.

Labour Assembly member Andrew Dismore, supporting Barnet libraries, residents, and staff.


Anonymous said...

It's interesting that you refer to 'lost' data. I know a member of the library staff and she tells me they have been instructed to refer to 'corrupted' data rather than 'lost'. As I mused whether I would prefer to be corrupted or lost I wondered why a distinction is being made. My best guess is that corrupted data is allowed under the Data Protection Act whereas the Council have had a few issues about lost data in the past.

Mrs Angry said...

A very good point, Anon. Will be covering this and other issues in the next post.

Stephen de Souza said...

I can't comment on the machinations of the Council. However, I agree that the IT problems are ongoing, as any regular visitor to the libraries would know. There is presumably no credible rescue plan in place, or staff are not briefed about it, as they have been saying the problems will be resolved in a "few" or "two" weeks for some time. This makes it impossible to renew books from home, impossible to check from home or in the library what you, or more importantly your children, have on loan, means staff have to ring round to get reservations and means no collection of overdue fines. How this squares with Government policies on literacy is beyond me.

Mrs Angry said...

Stephen: I could not agree more: I think the impact, in terms of standards of literacy, in particular, on children in the borough will be literally incalculable. And the worst affected will be children from the least advantaged backgrounds, who simply will not have access to libraries and reading, and study space, or help from librarians, for much of the time.

At almost every council meeting the Tory councillors spend time patting their own backs for something which is in effect very little to do with them, that is to say the high level of performance at many - but not all - the borough's schools.

Here they had a chance to do something that really would benefit children's educational attainment, by protecting their right of access to libraries and they flunked it. Utterly shameful.