Thursday 27 October 2016

I, Mrs Angry: a night at the pictures, the 'reshaping' of a library, and - the Forum uncut: a question of morality

I am not a client, a customer, nor a service user.
I am not a shirker, a scrounger, a beggar, nor a thief.
I am not a national insurance number, nor a blip on a screen.
I paid my dues, never a penny short and proud to do so.
I don't tug the forelock, but look my neighbour in the eye.
I don't accept or seek charity.

My name is Daniel Blake, I am a man, not a dog.
As such, I demand my rights. I demand you treat me with respect.

I, Daniel Blake, am a citizen, nothing more, nothing less. Thank you.

On Monday night Miss Angry and I went to our local cinema, the Phoenix, in East Finchley, to see the new Ken Loach film. 

It's not your average sort of cinema, the Phoenix: an independent venue, and proud of its history, more than a hundred years old. 

This cinema has also seen some special screenings, in recent years, such as the locally shot 'Tale of Two Barnets', with an introduction by Ken Loach, a short film which highlighted the impact on ordinary residents of the local Tory council's obsession with outsourced local services. 

And recently we also attended a fundraising showing of 'Pride', with Jeremy Corbyn - and with the original members of LGSM, whose story is told in the film, and whose banner, now such a potent symbol of resistance, and unity, had been brought on the library march last year, along with that of the  Durham Miners Association, carried with equal pride by the late Davey Hopper, and taken to stand outside Margaret Thatcher House, the local Tory HQ, and former office of the enemy without.

A fitting venue, the Phoenix, then, to watch 'I, Daniel Blake'. With some trepidation, it must be said, having read of people leaving in tears at the end - in fact people were visibly upset, and increasingly so, all the way through. As the credits rolled, there was a silence: and then a slow, angry handclap. 

Yes, it was a mostly elderly, reasonably affluent middle class audience - the sort Camilla Long so nastily dismissed as enjoying a 'povo safari'. 

Well, frankly, for her to set herself aside so easily from those who are capable of compassion when moved by the representation of suffering, and injustice, is something that she should contemplate, and worry about. 

If we lack the ability to empathise with the distress of others, we might at least try to imagine how we would feel, if we find ourselves in the same situation - and yes, even the middle classes are not safe from the risk of becoming Daniel Blake. The loss of a job, and then a home: the break up of a marriage, an abusive partner: all of these events might lead you to find yourself penniless, homeless, dependent on support; caught in the perpetual cycle of hell that is the benefit system now, created by a 'povo' taunting Tory government.

Daniel Blake is a manual worker without the skills to navigate his way through the labyrinthine nightmare of the digitalised benefits system. He is forced to apply for jobs his health does not allow him to take, or lose all support: he must prove he has applied for the jobs he cannot do, online. He has no pc. He does not know how to use one. What can he do? He goes to his local library. Ah. 

Mrs Angry went to her own local library, in North Finchley, the very next morning, as it happens. Not to use a pc, which was just as well, as they were all booked, as usual, by some of the many residents in Finchley who do not have access at home to the internet. She was there to attend an 'information session' held by council staff as part of their 'consultation' - another nonsultation - in regard to what they call a 'reshaping' of Barnet Libraries. 

'Reshaping' libraries - or: carving them up and pimping them to the private rental sector

Arriving at this library, there were outside the entrance a pair of very intimidating men, drinking at ten in the morning, who proceeded to make comments to her and another woman - one of these individuals later came in and was later identified as one of the people who have been causing so much trouble for staff and library users. One member of staff, for example, has been involved in three incidents in the last few weeks with one of these men, involving aggressive behaviour, being sworn at, and racist abuse. In another incident, a man shattered a mirror in one of the toilets. Police were called: the man returned later. 

Senior library management appear to have been far too slow to deal with this increasing problem effectively. One might ask why. These incidents, of course, which are sadly all too common, serve to underline the real risks for any users of the new unstaffed hours: most of these individuals have tickets and will have access to library when no one is there to intervene should anything happen. The council does not want you to know about these risks.

But back to the library 'reshaping'.

The corporate language of Broken Barnet has now evolved to its ultimate level: to the point of complete inversion of the truth. The truth, in Broken Barnet, must as a matter of course be inverted, broken down, and buried under a cover of lies, for fear of risk to the advance of profit, or political advantage. 

Hence we must call these plans a 'reshaping' of a public library, not an all out assault. We may not make any acknowledgement of loss, according to the rules of this new language: the loss of space, the loss of a children's library, the loss of access for those children when there is no staff: the loss of qualified staff, the loss of jobs, the loss of study space, the loss of books. The emptying out of a library; the destruction of a public library service. 

Attending this event, apart from a number of disgruntled residents, were representatives of the council: the libraries manager, Hannah Richens, Val White - the 'Programme Director for Education and Learning', (we like education and learning, in Broken Barnet, as long as you are not a child trying to access a library, or a student looking for study space in a - ahem - 'reshaped' library ...) and two gloomy looking men in suits, with no ID, but whose demeanour, as Mrs Angry pointed out to one, to his dismay, instantly marked them out as senior officers of the London Borough of Broken Dreams. 

One was Duncan Tessier, Assistant Director for Children's Services, the other James Wills-Fleming, who, according to Linkedin, rejoices in the title of: 'Director of Corporate Programmes at Capita's Strategic Partnership with the London Borough of Barnet'. What does that mean? F*ck knows. 

Also, according to Linkedin, before he was at Capita, he was previously at - go on, guess - yes, our favourite consultants, Agilisys, and before that - go on, guess again - the London Borough of Barnet. Goodness me. And before that, Mrs Angry? Erm, let's see. Oh: Argos. Probably a Christmas job, bringing up all those hairdryers from the stockroom.

What were these two doing at this curious, stand up, move around the library when the conversation became awkward style of event? Apart from avoiding eye contact with stroppy library users? Not much. Just brought their suits to the library, and stood there, like a holographic representation of a hollowed out council: silent, but marking out the territory. 

This is theirs, now: the libraries have been handed over to Capita to manage. Kerrching: more fees for that, no doubt. Renting out space? Kerrching: more fees, if they manage to find any punters, in a borough with surplus, ready built office space. Kerrching again probably even if they don't, just for the process of trying: who knows? Not our Tory councillors, who look the other way, now that they realise what is going on.

When asked what was happening to the front of North Finchley library, in the 'reshaping', it emerged they did want to alter the front, but had to back off: they still are considering getting rid of the lovely, original, curved oak framed windows, of the present children's library, about to be closed, and rented out to unknown businesses - if they can find any that want the space. It will be an absolute scandal, and an act of mindless vandalism if they do removed these windows - but then the entire library cuts programme is in itself exactly that.

They claim that, once they have emptied both sides of the children's library, they will rent out these tiny rooms. Where is your business plan? There isn't one. 

But it doesn't matter, if they don't make any money from it: that won't affect the library budget. 

Well, yes; sorry: it does matter, to us, if you rob us of a children's library, in this way. 

It is the theft of a public building dedicated as a repository of books, education, information, and support. It is meant to be a place for local people to visit, for elderly people to come to - for children to feel safe, and have access to reading, and study space. Well: it was. It won't be soon, because those children will lose their library, and lose their access to the building, as they will be barred when there are no staff there, and only adults may enter the new DIY branch, through a keypad entry system.

And disabled users, I asked: what happens if they have problems getting through those doors, on their own, with no staff to help? Or if they have problems once inside?

They can report it. How - there will be no staff. There will be CCTV. So they must speak to the CCTV? Yes. And if say, someone with autism, or another less visible disability is unable to use the library, or has a problem? Do they also have to speak to the CCTV operator (in Swansea)? Yes.

Had any of them been to see 'I, Daniel Blake'? No. What was that? Well, part of the story concerns a man who relies on his local library and staff to help him access vital online applications. What were the Daniel Blakes in this area going to do, in an unstaffed library: teach themselves IT skills, in an empty room?

Perhaps the CCTV operator can help with that, too.

The Man from Crapita aims his suit at a resident at the latest library nonsultation

Last night saw a meeting of the local Residents Forum, in what was once called Avenue House, but has been 'rebranded' as 'Stephens House', in honour of Inky Stephens, the Victorian ink manufacturer and philanthropist. His portrait gazed down on the room, looming with irony over the Tory councillors who are busy undoing all his work, flogging off Victoria Park, which he and other local, civic minded businessmen gave to the people of Finchley, as well as his former home and grounds.

Mrs Angry had spent most of the week demanding they stop unlawfully censoring the questions put to this Forum: battle won, after a complaint to the Monitoring Officer (there is one, sort of, still, now that Davina Fiore has gone on another 'journey', but with a one way ticket - but don't ask the Capita switchboard who it is, because they don't know). 

Many of the other questions were about the black stuff ... tarmac. The residents do not like the new sort, provided by our beloved contractors. They are middle class residents who make their views known. The Tories looked worried. Labour looked worried because the Tory chair pointed out that, as is usually the case, they had voted for the change they were now complaining about. The same old story: they never learn, and the Tories never stop exploiting Labour's lack of effective opposition.

One of the questions that had not originally been censored was put in as a test by Mrs Angry - who is telling you this now in case you think she has developed an unlikely interest in pot holes. Yes. A pot hole, outside Tescos, in Finchley Central, one which, in its modest way, could be seen as a metaphor for life in Broken Barnet.

By the bus stop*, the busiest in Finchley, there is a large hole that has been there for years now, locked in an infinite cycle of self perpetuation, aided by your local council, at your expense. It fills with rain, which means every time a heavy vehicle passes by, all those waiting at the stop get covered in filthy water. Every now and then, it gets filled with a mysterious substance that is supposed to be tarmac, but looks like, and is about as useless as, black marshmallow: something baked in the kitchen of a satanic Mary Berry, perhaps. 

* Note for Tory councillors - a place where buses**stop.

** Note for Tory councillors: a 'bus' is a form of public transport used by those who are not Tory councillors in receipt of a self awarded, free parking permit. Also used by those disabled residents whose free travel passes you unlawfully cancelled, without warning.

It is not levelled out: a workman told Mrs Angry they don't bother now, leaving it to the weight of traffic to do that over time. Over time, as a result, more deep holes are created in the marshmallow. They fill with dirty ditchwater. People get soaked again. Someone reports it. They come out and fill it again. And again and again, for ever and ever, Amen: and so it shall be, until the end of time. They no longer even repaint the yellow line - and they LOVE yellow lines, in this borough - that's how bad things are.

Well, the response was that the council's direct labour organisation was to blame. Really? 
No: not really. It emerged, after further questioning, that the DLO lot only fill it temporarily, and oh, hello - the contractors are meant to come along and finish the job properly. Aha! Well, as Mrs Angry pointed out, they don't, it keeps happening, and no doubt all the while they are charging fees for unsatisfactory delivery of service. Kerrching again. 

One of the more serious questions which our Tory councillors had not wanted to allow was the following, on the subject of ... the library cuts:

Q: Tory councillors insist that the 60% cuts in library budget are necessary
because of the demands of 'austerity', which means £2.85m will be
culled from the Libraries service total of £4.8m, in itself a modest
amount for a service that was already independently assessed as
representing good value for money. Of course at the same time they
are spending £6 million on gutting libraries, shrinking the space, and
preparing them for a DIY, staffless service.

The impact on the well being of residents, especially children who will
be barred from the new unstaffed libraries, is incalculable and will
affect the most disadvantaged residents.

At the same time as cutting this vital service, Tory councillors are
happy to sanction the eye wateringly high level of expenditure - of £18

million in the last year alone - on private consultants and agency fees.

How is that morally or economically justifiable?

Mrs Angry was being rather optimistic, of course, in expecting a response addressing a question of morality, from a Barnet Tory councillor, but they made an attempt to answer the economic issue, by the usual tactic of pulling some totally arbitrary figures out of nowhere, and forcing them into the shape of a suitable answer:

A: The proposals agreed will keep all of the borough’s libraries open
in a climate where many neighbouring councils are closing them.
At the same time they will save £2.85m annually from the council’s
revenue budget. Over ten years, for example, this would therefore
be a total saving of £28.5m. There are capital (one-off) costs
associated with the changes, but these are far outweighed by the
ongoing savings and enable features of the new service, such as
technology enabled opening that will see overall opening hours
increase by over 40% across the network.
If spending £18m allows us to achieve a further £80m in annual
savings by 2020, whilst delivering on the £105m we have been
forced to save from our budget since 2010, then it is totally 


And the next question: 

Half of the library staff who currently help members of the public when
they visit their local libraries are about to lose their jobs, supposedly
because of the need to save money.
Please explain, therefore, why those same Tory councillors have just
handed half a million pounds, ie a substantial amount of the 'savings'
they claim we need from the library budget, to the RAF Museum, a
national and well funded museum - especially when they shut our own
local museum, again on the pretext of economy. Also explain why
another £800,000 has been spent on creating additional posts on the
council's PR team, specifically to 'manage the council's reputation', as
we head towards the next local elections.

Their response:

A: One-off financial support of £500k has been granted to RAF
Hendon, contingent on it being able to raise £6.1m in further
funding. This follows consideration of the community benefits of its
redevelopment. This £500k cannot be hypothetically used to offset
an annual and ongoing revenue saving. The communications restructure
saw a centralisation of existing spend.
The council is embarking on a significant programme of
transformation needed to improve services, while saving £61.5
million between now and 2020. We are also delivering £565million
of capital investment in the borough. Therefore it is important that
residents are kept informed of what the council is doing as well as
also involved and engaged.
Many of the posts in the new communications model are temporary
and the additional funding for the restructure has been identified 
from existing budgets.

Ignoring the nonsense about 'savings', which will be - are already - completely dwarfed by the total level of expenditure on the Capita contracts - taking the two questions together, then: please answer the point - how is this morally justifiable?

Shimon Ryde is now the Chair of the Forum, thankfully taking the place of the ineffable Reuben Thompstone, who had enjoyed the post so much in the days (pre High Court judgement) when censorship of the Forum had actually been written into the Council's constitution ... 

(Thompstone was entirely silent, last night, in fact - the wider his waxed moustache grows, the deeper the level of his silence: curious).

Morally justifiable? 

A woman in the audience asked Cllr Ryde to reply. He struggled. 

What do you mean?

I mean, how can you justify spending money on extra Pr posts, so as to 'manage the council's reputation', when you are claiming there is no money for library staff?

Oh, you know, we have to communicate with the public. 

No, you are using money for political purposes, on more spin doctors for the Tory administration while denying access to libraries for the borough's children.

Cllr Ryde stammered. And floundered. And then he did what Tory councillors always do, when in dire straits: he referred the matter to an officer. Oh dear, look: here again was Mr Tessier, who had brought his suit out for another pointless airing, at another public meeting. It was quite clear he had not been expected to be there in order to save Tory councillors from questions of moral probity, and he looked both alarmed, and displaying the sort of expression which suggested he had not even heard the question, being absorbed in an exercise of mindfulness, taking him into another zone, far far away from the irritating interruptions of what passes for the democratic process, in this borough.

Another member of the public shouted at the Chair: YOU answer the question, don't pass it on to an officer! Mr Tessier burbled some corporate nonsense, which made no sense to anyone, including, no doubt, to himself. He thought they had done awfully well, saving all our libraries. You haven't, said Mrs Angry: you've kept the buildings, but a library without staff, without librarians - is not a library. There will be some staff, he said. How many librarians? No reply. He didn't know. Or care.

The Chair, Cllr Ryde, Cllr Thompstone & moustache, Director of Pot Holes, and a Man in a Suit

The reaction from residents was indignant, and telling. Many have not realised yet what is happening to their local libraries. After Christmas, when half the staff will receive the sack, the 'reshaping' will begin, libraries closing for weeks at a turn as they are gutted, never to be the same again. Then we will see what the Tory voters make of that: there will be hell to pay.

Into the breach stepped veteran Tory councillor John Marshall, still sulking because Mrs Angry greeted Libdem councillor Jack Cohen at the beginning of the meeting with a warm embrace, which - understandably - drove him wild with jealousy, and induced him to announce very loudly I HAVE NEVER HAD THE PRIVILEGE OF BEING KISSED BY MRS ANGRY to the assembled crowd of puzzled residents. Stand at the back of the (admittedly rather short) queue, Cllr Marshall. 

He now thought Mrs Angry should know that Hampstead Garden Library was staffed by volunteers and was the best library in the borough and was much better than before. 

This library in a listed shop in the the fabulously wealthy Suburb, populated by more billionaires, despotic overseas rulers, porn merchants and arms dealers than you can shake a stick at, is still subsidised by Barnet tax payers and will never close, even though it has always been a total drain on resources, for one reason: that would be politically unacceptable, and the Tory party would risk even more trouble from their cossetted constituents and members than that provoked by the noisy leafblower scandal of 2015.

In fact, Mrs Angry has worked in this branch, many moons ago. It is a faux library: a fantasy. It is the Suburbanistas' version of Marie Antoinette's model farm at Versailles, with perfumed sheep, and courtiers dressed up as peasants: in this case a handful of retired judges and headmistresses playing libraries, stamping books and organising displays of books on beekeeping: an indulgence, no more and no less.

But - oh dear. Suddenly, from the side of the room came a quietly furious, well spoken voice of an elderly woman:

Hampstead Garden Suburb Library, she said, is most certainly NOT better than it was. I should know, because I am a professional librarian ... and I used to work there.

Silence. And then a round of applause from incensed residents.

Marshall is one of three Tory councillors in the Suburb. The others are someone whose name I always forget, and doesn't do or say much, and the other is Gabriel Rozenberg. During the week our Gabriel decided to welcome one of his new constituents, via the medium of twitter:

Hey @justinbieber, welcome to Barnet. Your local councillors are John Marshall, @RohitGroverHGS and me. DM us if we can help with anything.

Yep: that Justin Bieber. He's just moved in to The Bishops Avenue. Can you beliebe it? Personal services, deliverooed to your gated door, courtesy of your Tory councillor

Beyond parody, you might think: but this is how things are, in Tory Barnet. Fawning over the rich, or any celeb. The poor are not welcome: driven out of West Hendon, and any other estate with social housing, like Sweets Way, that is in the way of private development, and private profit. We want only the well off in Barnet, as Cllr Tom Davis famously declared.

Watching Loach's film the other night, yes, fighting back furious tears, like everyone else, I thought about our Garden Suburb councillors, our Tory councillors, who live lives of such self satisfaction, insulated from the cold clear air of reality, safe from the reach - or so they imagine - of poverty, illness, humiliation - dependence on support. 

There is something in the Conservative psyche, a genetic flaw, that creates a fatal lack of empathy, and leaves them unable to feel the distress of others less fortunate. 

Here in easycouncil Barnet, the cradle and the shrine of Thatcherism, what else could you expect, but a war without cease on the very structure that supports those they so despise?

So they will shut the library Daniel Blake needs, and take away his access to a pc, and take away the people that can help him, because they never use libraries; they will take away meals on wheels from vulnerable residents, because they don't imagine they will ever be in need of such a service; they will take away vital travel passes from disabled residents, until someone shames them into giving them back; they will take away respite care from disabled children in order to make a few pennies' cut in council tax, because the principle of low taxation is more important than the exhaustion of their parents - and they will spend money on even more spin doctors because they worry more about their electoral chances, and retaining their own seats, than they do about the public services whose care has been entrusted to them. 

They don't see you as a person, let alone a person in need: they don't see you - you are a client, a customer - a service user. 

If you are in need, you are a shirker, a scrounger, a beggar, or a thief. You may be a citizen, but they will never treat you with respect.

This is Broken Barnet, this is Broken Britain - and you are Daniel Blake.

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