Thursday, 13 June 2019

There's a rat in the library, what am I gonna do? Barnet Tories forced to agree a wider review of their savage cuts in service

There was a meeting, on Tuesday night, at Hendon Town Hall, of the committee that now deals with what is left of Barnet's library service. 

I can't remember the name, without looking it up: hang on. 

Ah. 'Community Leadership and Libraries'. 

In other words, two things Barnet Tories don't care about, shoved together, in the hope no one will bother to turn up and ask questions. 

(Residents at the meeting might have thought that some Labour members don't care much about it either, as two of them didn't turn up, and nor did the two substitutes - with no explanation. This must not be repeated at any other meeting where issues of such importance to residents are being discussed).

Thankfully the two that did attend, that is to say Sara Conway and Reema Patel, more than made up for any absences by their skilful handling of the engagement with the many library campaigners present to demand a full review of (what is left of) the library service, post cuts - and then Sara Conway (who is the Labour PPC for Finchley and Golders Green) engineered the adoption of a motion that widened the proposed scope of said review.

'Kids need independence ... and books' says Labour's Sara Conway. Unison's John Burgess back right looking on

That this was agreed by Tories as well was due to several reasons: the reasonable, and impassioned arguments to do so from library supporters and Labour members; the need for Barnet to demonstrate to DCMS that the review idea cooked up by both of them in response to a complaint to the Minister about the nearly annihilated service was going to be apparently above board; and because most of the Tory members present didn't have a clue what was going on. 

On the Tory end of the committee table was stalwart councillor and Nelson Mandela tribute act Brian Gordon, who quite likes libraries - or at least his children do, and he is on record as saying they spend hours studying in their local one, or rather they did, but these days, of course, anyone under 15 isn't allowed in the unstaffed library without an adult. 

Gordon, tutting at the sight of People's Mayor Mr Shepherd ostentatiously reading the Morning Star in the front row, instead of listening to his words of wisdom, (in fact Mr Shepherd listens to everything from behind his paper, and makes perfectly timed and pithy observations of varying degrees of impertinence on the issues under discussion) took issue with veteran library campaigner Keith Martin, (pictured above) for daring to suggest that the loss of a library committee, and the gradual downgrading of the service to a mere adjunct to another committee represented the contempt Barnet Tories had for the idea of public libraries. 

Cllr Gordon thought Keith was being 'a bit trivial'. In truth, this is exactly representative of the Barnet Tory attitude: they cannot understand the value residents place on their library service - they are unthinking materialists, who see no point in anything that is not a commercial enterprise, and cannot, or will not, understand the importance of libraries, reading, literacy, and social interaction to the community they were elected to represent. 

Communities, as the committee title implies, are to be led, not engaged with, and people moaning about library cuts and the impact on their community must keep quiet and listen to the wishes of their Tory masters, who know what is best for them. 

The rest of the new Tory members sat looking on, without comment, throughout the entire meeting: clearly at a loss to know what all the fuss was about. 

One of them, Roberto Weedon Sanz, who thinks he looks like Justin Trudeau (you don't), and was almost President of the Oxford Union, reckons he is going to be the next GLA member, in place of Andrew Dismore. (You won't).

The Barnet Tory approach to this election consists of choosing a fresh faced young man, or Dan Thomas, who can carry off the blazer and pocket handkerchief look, keep his mouth shut, and look the part. Well, it didn't work with Dan Thomas, and it won't work with Roberto. 

Dan Thomas, of course, having been rejected by voters (twice) in Neil Kinnock's old constituency, and then at the GLA, has managed to stand (unopposed) for the Leadership of Barnet Tory group - and at last (unopposed) he won an election. Congratulations. To those who had the sense not to stand. Commiserations to Dan Thomas.

He had no competition for the role because no Barnet Tory with any sense wants the poisoned chalice this represents, in the midst of the wreckage of the Capita contracts.  

Thomas, of course, is the last standing defender of those contracts, because he was such an enthusiastic supporter of them, and now cannot backtrack without admitting he was wrong, despite the majority of his colleagues now privately admitting this - and the newer intake of members being appalled by the mess they have inherited from former Tory administrations.

Last year, after the Capita fraud was exposed, as well as the catastrophic absence of adequate financial controls; as services continued to decline, and contractual fees increase, for one brief shining moment it seemed as if many services, if not all, would be brought back in house. 

Not now. Despite everything, including further revelations such as the almighty cock up of the administration of Barnet's Pension scheme (including my benefits, in regard to which I've submitted a complaint to the Pensions Ombudsman) - guess what? We learn that our Tory chums now intend to Carry On Regardless. Even Highways are now not going to be returned, despite the plague of potholes and broken pavements all over Broken Barnet. 

The gross stupidity of this is beyond belief: or it would be, anywhere else.

Back to the meeting. 

Reuben Thompstone, as Chair of any meeting, favours the approach of speaking like an automaton, as if he were alone in the universe, with no one listening, passing out instruction to a thankless, Godless world in his inimitable, brutally clipped, antipodean tones. 

Time 'allowed' for residents to take part in any council meeting is of course strictly limited, as they don't want to encourage That Sort of Thing, and the council's constitution is constantly being tinkered with in order to make it more and more difficult for residents to hold members to account: time limits, limits on issues which may be discussed, limits on the meetings which may be questioned. Other tactics are deployed to prevent effective challenge from residents, including meetings held with almost no publicity, questions batted off with evasive responses, or promises of written responses which cannot be challenged, FOI questions constantly obstructed or delayed for no good reason, or redacted to the point of absurdity - etc etc.

At this meeting there had been lots of questions submitted, and several people had asked to speak. This is normally done before any supplementary questions. Keith Martin and Barbara Jacobson and others spoke - (largely unheard as the Chair kept his mike on and theirs was not working). 

A little girl called Sia also spoke, very quietly, but determinedly, about the impact the library cuts had on her. Her mother is a nurse, and works long hours. Sia can no longer visit the library after school, or when there are any staff there to help her. She is one of thousands of children in this borough similarly affected: this is clearly going to have a direct impact on their lives and educational achievement.

The Chair then wasted much of the remaining time by insisting on reading out endless lists of people who had put in questions but were not there to ask follow ups. Emily Burnham, who coordinates the Save Barnet Libraries campaign, continually explained there was no need to do this as they knew who was going to speak: he ignored her and carried on, using up the time. This meant that Mary Beer, who had been going to speak, was told she could not do so. She had already provided committee members with documents that related to her brilliant exposure of the fictional 'savings' that had supposedly been the purpose of the cuts. But she was silenced. 

She sat at the table anyway, and despite all the commands from Thompstone to be quiet and sit down, read her speech, drowning out his bleated orders, until he shut up.

He had interrupted a distressing statement read by Jennifer, written by a disabled user of a library who has MS, and was unable to attend the meeting in person - in fact, as she explained, she can no longer visit her local library, unstaffed, with no toilet access*, and no one to help her: the Chair suddenly interrupted and asked why this needed to be read it out. It was grossly insensitive, and represented the attitude of Barnet Tories to all those affected by the cuts in service, in staffed hours and in the reduction of space: disabled residents, disadvantaged residents: the elderly, and children. Members of the public protested that they wanted to hear the statement, and he gave up.

* One mother, when access to the same library toilet was refused, was forced to take her child to urinate in the library car park.

People's Mayor Mr Shepherd

Labour's library lead Sara Conway raised concerns about the disproportionate impact on these groups - as well as worries about safeguarding, after the recent incident posted on social media of a man openly watching porn on a PC at an unstaffed Church End library, filmed by a passer by, and the revelation that nothing had been done since the cuts to ensure the necessary filters were in place. This is not an isolated incident, but action was only taken after this example was reported - and a reporter from the Standard asked questions. Oh, and Sara mentioned that her local library in Burnt Oak was not cleaned for a period of a month, and that a dead rat had been found in one of the shelves ... 

After all the comments by members of the public, and the issues raised by Labour members, Cllr Conway proposed her motion to toughen up what would otherwise be a nominal review into the current library service. And for once an opposition was not automatically rejected. This is a big step forward: but now we have to see that this review is independent, fair, and inclusive - not another Barnet nonsultation, not merely lip service to the obligation to hold a review, but an exercise that answers truthfully the question of impact of the devastating cuts. 

After the meeting, Mary Beer stood on the stairs of the Town Hall and again read out the points she was prevented from making in the meeting. The text is here: easy to see why they didn't want her to read it out in the committee room:

Mary Beer

You responded to my question by claiming:

"The library service budget has reduced by £1.61m p.a. Commercial spaces are currently let within East Finchley, Edgware, Golders Green, and Hendon libraries. Current rentals total £188,000 p.a with a further circa £60,000 under lease negotiation."

But let’s look at your first example, East Finchley for a minute:

Here is the sign from 2017 when you removed the ground floor study space claiming it would be converted to ’lettable space'

Here’s what it looked like before, and it was well-used.

Here’s the contract in which you agreed to pay a contractor, SW Bruce, the sum of £271,961 on 4th April, 2017 to remove this space.  

This space has remained empty and inaccessible since 2017. 

Your claim, therefore, that across four libraries a total of £188,000 has been earned in revenue cannot offset even one library’s ‘reconfiguration’, even if you include ‘under negotiations'.  

Surely, the truth of the matter is that this expensive removal of study space and diminishment of much needed public service has yielded absolutely no profit whatsoever.

Indeed, if you look at the removal of space in Edgware library’s reconfiguration, which cost £311,688 paid to Mulalley and Company Ltd on 11th May, 2017 and the cost of removing space from Chipping Barnet the sum of which was £462,541 paid to Carmelcrest Ltd on 1st June, 2016, you have spent £1,046,190 on removing public space for just 3 libraries.  

How can you claim that a total of £188k per year in the last two years has offset over one million pounds in the cost of removing this space?  

How can you truthfully claim the removal of East Finchley’s ground floor study space to turn it into ‘lettable space’, when the space has sat empty for two years, represents any kind of cost savings?  

When you consider the 2017/2018 procurement contract, it shows the costs of diminishing Barnet’s library service to be about £14m (per your own document)?  

Yet this doesn’t include the failure to realise any additional rental income to offset the space removed from public use nor the additional costs of security guards to keep people out of the library.  

Therefore, surely your claims of ‘savings’ are disingenuous at best? 

In fact Mary has highlighted here the essential deception not only of the library cuts, but of the greater part of the 'Easynomics' financial strategy of Barnet Tory policy - an assault on public services in the name of 'savings', that ends in not in net gain, but loss: this is what has happened with the Capita contracts, and in almost every venture they set in motion. 

All we can do now is to continue to assert our right to scrutinise what they do, and hold them to account. 

Even if they refuse to listen now, sooner, rather than later, they are going to face the consequences of their own folly.

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