Thursday 5 November 2015

At Risk: or - Welcome to the Open Library: a Survival Guide

Take Mrs Angry's hand: come with her now, in the dark, dank gloom of an autumnal afternoon in Finchley, down (or is it up?) the garden path, right to the very end of the garden, to her ramshackle old shed ...

Now pull open the creaking door, climb over the broken lawnmowers, and rusty spades, and nests of mice, and half used tins of paint … and close your eyes. 

A certain Libdem councillor is now beside himself with pleasurable, shed centred thoughts, aren't you, Jack? Fifty sheds of grey?

Hard luck. Wake up.

In fact, gentlemen of Broken Barnet, and beyond: this is no ordinary shed, but - well, yes - a portal of unlimited opportunity, in its way, not so much for the hoarding of useless garden implements, or hand holding with Mrs Angry, but more interestingly, in the tradition of magic realism, now to be revealed as nothing less than Mrs Angry's Time Machine,  courtesy of which, if you keep your eyes shut, and think awfully hard about Kansas, or Aunty Em, or Toto, we should be empowered to take us far from Broken Barnet, far, far away, into the future: landing with a thump in a future shaped, easycouncilled paradise, where everything has its price, and - yes again - where our corporate masters know the cost of everything, and the value of ... nothing.

And just look around: in the Brave New world of Broken Barnet, sadly, there are no public services, as such. 

There are few services at all, in fact, and those that remain are delivered by private companies, at vast expense, while our elected representatives sit back in their chairs in the council chamber, clawing still at the public purse, relieved of all responsibility - and any tiresome duties on our behalf.

One of the public services we will surely miss more than any other, perhaps, in this new world, are our public libraries. 

Because in that futureshaped Barnet, libraries, as we know them, will no longer exist. 

And that future, readers, is not light years away, in another era of time, but about to arrive here, in our borough, within months – if we allow it to happen.

Barnet Tories are closing their eyes too, and wishing awfully hard, hoping that their electorate will be fooled by the spin they are creating around the destruction of our library service, claiming that their masterful plan will not only provide the £2.85 million in savings they claim to need, but that no libraries will close, as a result of their proposals.

As often as they keep perpetuating this myth, we must tell the truth. 

The library buildings are going to be handed over to Capita, as part of their licence to make profit from our services for their shareholders. They will manage the buildings, and be paid extra fees for doing so. The buildings will no longer be dedicated as libraries, but become council properties used for commercial purposes (safe in the sweaty hands of Crapita) in which a nominal service is run, so as to pay lip service to the statutory requirement for a library service. 

They boast of increasing opening hours: but they fail to explain that although some ‘libraries’ will indeed be open for long periods of time, for those with access via pin number entry, or a smart card, these ‘open libraries’ will be nothing more than a token collection of books, & dvds, squeezed into a corner of an empty building, with no staff present. No one at all. 

Barnet’s Tory councillors have just voted to sack 46% of all library staff, which is why these pretend libraries will be unattended. 

Can you imagine what that will be like?

Children under 16 will not be allowed in these unstaffed libraries, and anyone who might need the help of any member of staff, let alone a professional librarian, will find simply that there is no one there.No professional librarians, no trained staff, no one to offer support, or guide you to the right information, or even to supervise the building.

But what if there is any sort of problem, or emergency, you are probably thinking? We're stuffed, aren't we?

You are probably thinking that, but your Tory councillors, directed by libraries lead member Reuben Thompstone, (above) gave it no thought at all, when they voted – twice, once in committee, and once in Full Council, to approve these plans. 

As proof of that, Mrs Angry can offer you evidence in the form of a risk assessment for the open library scheme, which the council was obliged to publish, belatedly, two days ago, in response to a Freedom of Information request. 

To make it clear, this information was withheld from the public domain until now, and it is not clear if any councillors saw it before Tory members forced through the plans’ approval. If they did, that means they knowingly approved a scheme with potentially disastrous risks, not just financial or reputational risk, but in terms of danger to those who might use such a 'service'.

There is no real comparable data to put these dangerous proposals into context: although some risks need no context, as you will see. The much vaunted pilot scheme in Edgware has not been running long enough to provide any real test: and has not been subject to any independent assessment, of course.

This risk assessment is shocking, frankly: the level of risk, and the type of risk it details, makes it abundantly clear that the open library system, on such a scale, in the context of a heavily populated, urban area of a major capital city, represents not only a virtual parody of the idea of a public library, but will seriously compromise the personal safety of any resident who may seek access in this way.

Look at the detail. Ah. Well, you can't, at the moment, because, as the council admits, the link, for some reason, and how conveniently, does not work. 

Mrs Angry will add the link, if Crapita IT ever sort it out. Don't hold your breath. 

But here is an idea of what there is to see:

A list of risks, rated from level 1 to level 5: in terms of likelihood, and impact. There is no key, but there is a standard format for risk levels.

The scale of likelihood ranges from rare to almost certain, and impact from negligible to … catastrophic.

Of 28 risks that were identified, ranging from the misuse of computers to access 'inappropriate' material, hacking of the library network, vandalism, unauthorised entry by members of the public, theft etc, FIVE others were rated at the top level in terms of potential impact, ie ‘catastrophic’, with three of those considered, under ‘likelihood’, as ‘possible’, and two as ‘likely’

The first three of these top scoring risks, considered ‘possible’ are as follows:

No 8: An incident that requires the evacuation of the building during a non staffed period.

No 7: A building fault or maintenance issue renders the library or part of the library unsafe.

No 6: A customer has an accident during an unstaffed period.

Then there are two risks considered to be ‘likely’:

No 2: The safeguarding of vulnerable adults is compromised

No 3: The safeguarding of children and young people is compromised.

Now then. How does Barnet Council propose to mitigate these risks? 

Well …

No 8: If any unstaffed ‘library’ needs to be evacuated? 

Don’t panic.

Or rather - no: do panic. 

And standing as we are now, lost in the future landscape of Broken Barnet, where these libraries are the norm, please arm yourself with a copy of Mrs Angry's Survival Guide. 

You'll need it.

Your easycouncil’s response, in the case of the need to evacuate an unstaffed library, is to ... erm, provide 'user education' - a poster on a wall, presumably) and … fire evacuation signs. 

And, just to spoil you, yes, there will be fire alarms, and even the odd fire extinguisher. 

In True Blue Tory Barnet, see, we not only expect you to volunteer to run your local library: we will now be expecting you to act as firefighters too. 

That some ‘users’ might be tempted to become firestarters appears not to have created a risk that interests the council.

Should you fail to beat back the flames, trapped in your unstaffed library, having failed to read the self help user education manual for fire management, you will find emergency numbers and a phone provided somewhere, we are told. 

And no, I am not making this up.

No 7: If the building is unsafe? 

In response to this, the assessment rather cryptically comments that during the pilot scheme in Edgware, the toilets were closed

Mrs Angry imagines this is to mitigate the clearly deep rooted and possibly Freudian aversion that Councillor Helena Hart has to the (possible, level 3) risk of ‘unpleasantness’ left on the toilet floor, in an act of contempt by an unknown ‘customer’.

But not to worry. If the building is unsafe – say, some wires are sticking out of a plug, or water flooding through the roof, or a wall collapses: not only will those emergency numbers be available, you will also be provided with … feedback cards. 

While holding up the wobbly wall, or replastering the ceiling, or encountering any sort of maintenance problem or fault, please write down on these cards any observations you may have, such as: 

FYII have just electrocuted myself, when unplugging the pc, or:  

Please help me: I am buried under a pile of bricks in the crime fiction section ...

Customer satisfaction level? Level 1. Negligible

No 6: If a customer has an accident*, in an unstaffed library? 

*(Not the sort that worries Councillor Helena Hart, which would be intentional, and therefore an incident, rather than an accident.)

Note this only applies to ‘customers’, not users. Presumably only premium library members who have paid, easycouncil style, for a superior service will be assisted. Well, you will not be assisted, as such. In truth, you will be well and truly f*cked. 

In space, and in an unstaffed, open library, readers, no one can hear you scream. 

No mention of a feedback card, either, which is the final insult, isn’t it? 

To be serious: as anyone who has ever worked in a library will tell you, with a fairly elderly user membership, it is vital to have trained staff, including a first aider present in a library. There cannot be any branch in the borough in which there has not been someone taken ill, with a heart attack, a stroke, an epileptic fit or other medical emergency. And of course immediate assistance in these circumstances frequently makes the difference, quite literally, between life and death.

It should also be mentioned here that there are, in all public libraries, even when staffed, thefts of stock, books and dvds, and continually attempted thefts of bags, purses etc, as well as, reportedly, incidents of drug use. There are also, of course, in all public libraries, many incidents involving users with mental health problems, which require careful intervention by trained staff.

And that is in libraries that are staffed, if in Barnet now, on minimum levels, after previous job cuts.

For an accident, however … the mitigation is: 'user education': probably a helpful leaflet: where to find books on, say:  

I am alone in a public library, and I tripped over and broke my leg’ … 

Again, your caring council has thought of everything: in mitigation of this risk ... an emergency first aid kit will be available!

No, really. Or rather, no, not definitely: an emergency first aid kit is to be considered… don’t want to mollycoddle you, do we? 

Can’t you make your own splints, and hobble down to A&E? 

What: closed, is it? Ah well. 

No 2: The safeguarding of vulnerable adults.

I promise you this is really what they propose, to address this risk.

Easy-read versions of ‘user education’, and ‘consent forms’.

Easy-read user education: wtf is that? Have they any idea of the wide range of needs of a vulnerable adult?

Quite how that vulnerable adult, perhaps with a profound learning disability, can properly give consent, via a form, without assistance, is one thing. How on earth could such a process, even if appropriate – or legal -be safeguarded, with no trained staff to help and support them?

And yes, more feedback cards, and this time we are offered the reassurance of CCTV cameras. 

What help are they, in regard to protecting vulnerable adults? 

None whatever, of course, because these cameras will not be monitored at all, and will only record. 

Or as the mitigation describes it, they will offer ‘event recording’, which has an ominous echo of the ‘offer’ in regard to potential new business opportunities at the Capita run ‘Easycrem’ post-life facility, up the road in Hendon. At least the Crapitorium intends to sell live streamed funerals, rather than only recorded events. 

Still, what a comfort it will be, if you are a woman who has been sexually assaulted in an unstaffed library, or an elderly resident who has been mugged, or any user robbed of their laptop, or phone, to know that the ‘event’ will have been recorded for posterity. 

And there are always the feedback cards, of course.

No 1: the risk to children, and young people

The mitigation for this is given as ‘restricted access’. 

In other words, because of the likely risk of some catastrophic incident involving children in an unstaffed library, children will not be allowed in an unstaffed library. 

Er, except ... in the plans that were approved, in fact, children were to be allowed in with a parent or ‘adult friend’, which is a puzzling contradiction, is it not? 

Easy solution to all risk: entirely avoid any impact on the identified group, by excluding them, rather than provide a solution – the only real solution, that is to say, not to have unstaffed libraries in the first place. 

The FOI response has also given an insight into the wider implications of the library plan. If you recall, the pretext for these devastating cuts in service is one of cost, a lie that is revealed by the £6 million that is being thrown at the preparation of the libraries for the new scheme. 

The truth here is that the service has been prepared, like every other council function that might provide a profit to private contractors, for outsourcing, and the capital investment is in order to make the service more appealing to potential bidders.

Now we know more about the ‘soft market testing’ exercise that has been carried out by Barnet with a number of selected partners: this is what it is really all about: not savings, or austerity, or budgets, or council tax. This is about the plundering of public service, for private profit. But in what form? If Barnet are not going to run their own libraries anymore, who will, and how?

A dialogue has taken place with the following potential bidders:

Redbridge Culture and Leisure

LSSI is the largest library outsourcing company in the US. GLL is of course Greenwich Leisure. Carillion is the company that faced accusations of blacklisting, which it strenuously denies. Civica is yet another outsourcing giant, Canadian owned - and Redbridge? 

Dear me. God knows why they were asked, apart from being a former Tory backwater authority, (and the home of Mrs Angry's blushing, true blue twitter admirers, Mr Roger Evans, who claims to be deputy Mayor of London, or something, and his dark nemesis, Mr Morris Hickey). 

Oh hang on: it seems Redbridge has some sort of visionary cultural enterprise, which includes ... an Owls Play Centre. Reuben Thompstone, at least, will approve of that. 

Culture and Libraries, in Redbridge come way down the list, after the owls, and even after the 'exercise by referral' scheme: second but last, in fact. The only way, in Essex: gyms and spas, rather than book clubs. Not so much of a surprise, perhaps.

There was a ‘discussion’ with all these contenders, anyway, earlier in the year - (although LSSI dropped out after a certain point), in which Barnet breathlessly welcomed the participants to ‘an opportunity to have a conversation’ …

We don’t know much more than this because Barnet is refusing to publish any further details, on the grounds of, ha ha - ‘confidentiality’, and, of course, that favourite excuse, ‘commercial sensitivity’.

What we do know is that the process has come to a halt, as the potential bidders did not want to make proposals in regard to a service that has not yet been properly realised – and who could blame them? As one seasoned observer has remarked to Mrs Angry, they clearly failed to see where the profit lies.

Yet our Tory councillors have approved the destruction of our current service, on the basis of required savings, while spending £6 million on the ‘modification’ of that service – only to try to palm it off on some other company or enterprise. They have obediently done so, at the behest of their senior officers, and the help of those legions of private consultants who feast off our outsourcing projects – look: here are old friends from iMPOWER, running the soft marketing exercise … 

They did this, not caring about the risks involved, nor with the benefit of any credible business plan. Or rather, there was a business plan, with no plan. A crapitorial fantasy, based on ‘assumptions’ and imaginary revenue returns, just as the excuse for an Equalities Impact Assessment was based on modelled, that is to say made up, data. 

Not that the lack of a ‘robust’ business plan has ever stopped them before, our Tory councillors, in launching an unworkable model for some cockeyed scheme, viz the truly catastrophic business model for Your Choice Barnet, which has had to be bailed out by us, to prevent collapse.

And after all, in that not too distant future, somewhere just over the rainbow, if all goes wrong, it won’t be our elected representatives who bear the financial risk, will it? It will be us, the taxpayers and residents of Broken Barnet.

They may consider themselves to be relieved of the financial consequences, of course, but Mrs Angry’s own risk assessment, in regard to the political impact of failure to listen to the building voice of protest from residents who object to this assault on our library service, is that there will be no mitigation, in the end, for our Tory councillors, and candidates, on the way to the ballot box, next year in May, and at the next local elections. 

1 comment:

Unknown said...

There are few services at all, in fact, and those that remain are delivered by private companies, at vast expense, while our elected representatives sit back in their chairs in the council chamber, clawing still at the public purse, relieved of all responsibility - and any tiresome duties on our behalf.

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