Monday, 20 March 2017

He would say that, wouldn't he? Barnet's 'Watergate' continues, as our library service prepares for the end

Grahame Park Library, pic courtesy Modernism in Metroland blog

After writing to John Hooton, the Chief Executive of Barnet Council, on Monday, to complain about the false assurances he had previously given about the safety of the water supply in Barnet's libraries, he agreed to investigate the matter, but no further response or action emerged, despite a week of lobbying of councillors of both parties, and an urgent item brought up by Labour members at the Environment committee meeting. At this meeting, the Chair of the committee, Tory member Dean Cohen agreed that a response should be made the next day: but it was not.

Only after Labour's Councillor Devra Kay spoke to Richard Cornelius, the Tory leader, on Thursday evening, as well as his wife, who is a member of the Environment committee - was it agreed that an immediate response should be supplied, with no further delay. 

After a reminder on Friday, a response at last arrived from Mr Hooton:

Ms Musgrove,

Thank you for your email. Firstly, I apologise if the previous response misled you. While no positive legionella tests have been found in current operational libraries as part of our recent round of testing, there was a positive test in Grahame Park library last year.

The advice I have been given is that there were no test results that gave rise to particular concerns for users of the building. This is partly based on the low levels found, and also that the test found Serogroups 2-14 as opposed to Serogroup 1 - Serogroup 1 is the group that most commonly causes Legionnaires' disease when inhaled as an aerosol at elevated levels. In accordance with health and safety guidance, the system was isolated, remedial action taken and it was re-tested to confirm the contamination had been cleared.

You also mentioned your concerns about the levels of TVCs being detected. Microbiological contamination of potable water rarely poses any hazard to health through drinking the water but it can cause issues with palatability (taste and odour), which is why routine testing is carried out. Testing can show a rise in TVC numbers over time and if this is the case, it can indicate that a system is becoming contaminated and needs cleaning. Equally, coliforms can grow naturally in the environment and are also considered to be indicator organisms. If they are found therefore, they can suggest possible contamination. However, in the majority of cases where coliforms are detected in samples taken from a tap, the cause is a dirty tap and is easily remedied by cleaning.

The reason we carry out regular monitoring of water systems is that we take health and safety very seriously, and take action quickly when issues arise.

In terms of my assertion that no test results have given rise to particular concerns for users of the buildings, this is important because there is a question as to whether staff and the public should be informed as part of this testing cycle.

I am conscious that when I say testing did not give rise to particular concerns, you may say "I would say that wouldn't I". The honest response is that I want to ensure that no one is put at risk and I want to make sure our systems and processes are robust. I have therefore commissioned an independent audit into our water safety measures which will report back to the next Audit Committee in April.

I hope this goes some way to alleviating your understandable concern. If you have any further questions, please do not hesitate to contact me.

Kind regards

John Hooton
Chief Executive
London Borough of Barnet

Well, Mrs Angry did not hesitate to contact him, as this response was utterly unacceptable, and inadequate to the level of concern raised by the proven contamination, and what appears to be a failure properly to acknowledge the problem - or to be honest and transparent about the issue once challenged. Minimising the legionella results, ignoring the coliform contamination in South Friern, failing to address the provision of information and alternative drinking water to staff ... and a curious lack of interest in who allegedly informed him there had been no legionella trace at all, in four years. Staff, incidentally, were reportedly still being told that there had been no legionella found anywhere.

The reason we carry out regular monitoring of water systems is that we take health and safety very seriously, and take action quickly when issues arise.

Really? ... regular monitoring? How often? How widespread? How thorough? 

Where is the evidence of this that I asked for? 

Where are the missing test results for any testing done in the last twelve months in regard to six libraries missing from the Freedom of Information request?

We take health and safety seriously.

Do you seriously expect people to believe that now? 

...and take action quickly when issues arise ...

If you are not monitoring the situation adequately in the first place, you will not know when an issue has arisen, until after a prolonged risk to health and safety has been sustained - so no, action is not being taken quickly enough, and is reactive rather than pre-emptive of potential risk.

Barnet's Chief Executive John Hooton

Mrs Angry replied:

Dear Mr Hooton

It has taken me extensive effort, Freedom of Information requests, and continual lobbying via councillors of both parties in order to extricate a response from you on this very serious issue, and still you seem determined to minimise the significance of what has happened.

I was not 'misled' by your previous response.

I was given false assurances by the Chief Executive of this authority about a matter which is of vital importance to all members of staff in libraries, and library users, but especially (redacted) (those with) a range of conditions, or elderly or pregnant. Let us be clear about this: contracting e coli, or drinking any sort of contaminated water, in these circumstances, poses a grave and potentially fatal risk.

You knew this, yet you categorically denied, on the basis of no evidence, that there had been any legionella found and said there was no reason to be concerned.

That simply was not true.

I do not want to accuse you of deliberately hiding the truth, but then it must be the case that a member of your 'team' has 'misled' you. As I have said, you must bear responsibility at least for failing to ask to see any evidence before making the false assertions that you made to me.

An independent audit report will be a wise move, and will, one hopes, ensure a better standard of monitoring in the future, but in regard to what has happened, I would like the Monitoring Officer to investigate this matter as a formal complaint, and to investigate if there has been misconduct by any senior officer in regard to the testing of water supplies, or the suppression of information in regard to the results. I would also like to know if there has been failure in procedure as a result of what appears to be a clear conflict of interest between the roles played by Capita in being responsible both for the maintenance of library buildings, and enforcement of environmental health compliance.

In addition to this: please answer these questions:

1.Who told you there had been no legionella traces in any libraries?

2.You claim there is regular testing of the water supply. Regular is not an acceptable term: how often has this been done?

3.Why has the FOI request I made produced no results for six libraries within the last twelve months - if they exist, I want them forwarded as requested with no further delay. I had already asked for this, but no one has responded.

4.Has the contract for testing and routine cleaning of the water supply has changed since the Capita contracts began, and if this has led to a lack of adequate monitoring?

5.What proof there is that the monitoring of this issue has been compliant with statutory Health and Safety requirements?

He replied:

Thanks for your email. I will pass this to Mr Tatlow to review, in terms of your complaint.

On the additional points, I suggest these are part of the independent audit which comes back to the audit committee. On the FOI I will chase this up now.

Kind regards

John Hooton
Chief Executive
London Borough of Barnet

Mr Tatlow is, apparently, the latest Director of Assurance, and Monitoring Officer, (for some reason they never stay long, in this borough, possibly because there is little assurance to dispense, and too much to monitor). This information is not readily available on the council's website, however - and the last time Mrs Angry rang the council's Capita run switchboard to ask who held this post, they insisted there was no such post, and had no idea who it might be ...

An independent report to the Audit committee will be interesting: but if it finds for example, that there were failings in the standard of monitoring or enforcement by contractors, will there be any penalty? Or will it be like the library IT crash, merely waved away with the usual mutterings of 'lessons learned' and 'nothing to see here'?

I think we know the answer, don't you?

In the meanwhile, the buildings that have been left to moulder and decay in the years since our Tory councillors, their consultants, and their contractors, came up with the plan to destroy another public service are very nearly at the end of their lives as libraries.

No one who is a user of Barnet libraries will be fooled by the repetition of the council's spindoctors, and library cutter in chief, Tory councillor Reuben Thompstone, that they are retaining all fourteen of our libraries, as demanded by residents. 

Library cutter Tory councillor Reuben Thompstone

The consultation with residents made it abundantly clear that they wanted libraries left alone, thank you very much, in tact, properly resourced, and fully staffed.

Fourteen library buildings - neglected, crumbling, will remain: but they will not be libraries in any way recognisable as such. They will be a fraction of their former size, robbed of space in their own former buildings, which have been thrown over to the council's contractors, chewing away at the carcass of a once magnificent service.

The new unstaffed, DIY library service, that Tory councillors pretend demonstrate an improvement of library opening hours, will go live at the beginning of April, leaving residents to access the completely unstaffed buildings by a pin number and electronic doors, safeguarded - to a limited extent only - by nothing more than a remote CCTV camera. If you are present in the library when the staff must leave, you will be told to leave as well, and stand outside, and wait, and then re-enter by self service pin code, to open the doors.

Will you be safe? 

Will you feel safe? 

If you need help, who will be there? No one.

If you are being harrassed by someone, or become unwell, who will come to your assistance? No one. Will anyone know? Only if the camera is operational, and is able to see where you are in the building.

Children under the age of fifteen - even secondary school pupils needing to study - will be banned from these branches, without a 'responsible adult'. Of course no one will question if the adult accompanying a child is 'responsible', and even if the secondary school students were allowed into these branches, the study space has been drastically reduced, and there would probably be no room. Already in the newly emasculated library in East Barnet, fellow blogger Mr Reasonable reports seeing the remaining three study desks occupied and a tall teenage student obliged to sit in a chair meant for a toddler in order to - well, study. 

Mr Reasonable has also pointed out one aspect of the new arrangement, which fits neatly into the favoured way of doing things in this borough, as he tweeted on Sunday:

Mr Reasonable‏ @ReasonableNB  

Yet more evidence of two tier Barnet. Church End Library (Tory ward) staffed 60hrs/wk. East Barnet Library (Labour ward) volunteers 15hrs/wk

This attempt at mollifying Tory areas will not work: is already not working, as residents begin to wake up to the reality of what their elected representatives have done. Areas like Hendon, and Golders Green, for example, where the libraries are so well used by local families, especially in the charedi Jewish communities, where children borrow an enormous volume of books, and there is much demand for activities for young children, as well as study space.

So much destruction is planned for Hendon library, once the flagship branch of the service, where pioneering children's librarian Eileen Colwell worked, that it will soon be closed until September, in order to gut it, removed the upstairs section, the cafe, and shrink it in size. Complaints to staff are now increasingly made in all libraries, as users realise the terrible changes that are coming. 

In the run up to next years local elections, this is a huge mistake by the Tory administration: many votes were lost at the last General Election, a cause for alarm by all three Tory MPs. Next May, this will again be a massive issue.

If the children do manage to make it to a library, under the new child-hating regime, they will find that if they are late returning their books, as they may be, with the virtual impossibility in the future of being able to visit one that is accessible, then - they will be fined, in order to deter them from reading, borrowing books, and delaying the time awaited by the council when use of the pretend libraries has declined so much that they may then close branches permanently, and flog the properties to developers, for a handsome return.

Some of our libraries have been handed over to so called community groups, who claim they can take over a professionally run service, and provide the same facility to residents by using volunteers in the place of the  50% of library staff who have lost their jobs as a result of the cuts. Apart from the most obvious lack of library qualifications or training, there are serious questions left unresolved:

Who are these volunteers? How are they chosen to do this work? Who decides their suitability? Are they DBS checked, or is such screening only for a few nominated supervisors? 

Are you safe, in an environment run by amateur enterprises, and volunteers?

Are they experienced in dealing with the users with mental health issues, trained in first aid, and fire safety?

Who will maintain the buildings to the appropriate standards? In ageing buildings, where years of neglect have left them vulnerable to maintenance problems such as water contamination, and rodent infestation, electrical failure, IT problems: can the managers of these ventures cope? What responsibility will Capita have in ensuring they are compliant with health and safety requirements, if their own systems are found to have failed?

The truth is that this idiotic new regime is both ill conceived, and unprecedented in scale, context, and level of risk.

No one knows for sure what is going to happen now: except that, in line with the finest traditions of Broken Barnet, it is likely to be much, much worse than we could have possibly imagined.

1 comment:

C.A.Read said...

Thank you so much for your blogs which express exactly how I feel about the rotten borough of Barnet,