Friday 25 December 2015

Mrs Angry's Christmas Card

Mrs Angry wishes all her readers, dear friends - far and near; comrades and fellow campaigners, a very happy Christmas - and a New Year just stuffed full of ... peace, mercy, goodwill, and above all: hope

Real hope, that is - not the version offered today in the much vaunted declaration of David Cameron's professed 'Christian' values.

Hope for a better world, and a new Britain, where every life is valued, and honoured, and dignified; where government is run by the people, for the people: for the many, not the few; where those in need are not vilified, or humiliated, or stigmatised, but are supported, and respected, and given help - not according to their ability to pay, or as an act of charity - but as their right.

Merry Xmas. 

Next post: 2015 - A Year in Broken Barnet ...

Sunday 6 December 2015

It does feel a bit meaningless: or - what is a library? - Another library nonsultation, in Broken Barnet

Updated Tuesday 8th December: 


We are pleased to present this new animated film, illustrating exactly what sort of awful fate your Tory councillors have in store for your local library service.

Please watch, and support our campaign to fight these terrible proposals.


Ps: Mrs Angry is now available for all other offers of voiceover work, for a reasonable fee ...

North Finchley Library

The Judicial Review, in 2013, of Barnet Council's 'One Barnet' agenda of mass outsourcing was won by the authority not on the strength of its arguments, but because the High Court found the legal challenge was out of time. 

The judgement in the case, however, expressed a condemnatory criticism: the authority had failed in its duty properly to consult with the residents and taxpayers of Broken Barnet over the plans for mass privatisation of council services.

Yet here we are now, in the last weeks of 2015, poised to have imposed on us once again a programme of immense significance: the virtual destruction of our local library service - after a process of consultation that has become, once more, and continues to be, nothing less than a travesty of the principle of significant engagement with the residents of this borough.

What else could you expect, at a time when the elected representatives of the residents of this borough themselves fail to engage with the process of democracy in the way their roles should demand? In a borough where now, by default, the unelected senior management of the council, and their unaccountable accomplices, the private consultants who leech on our financial resources, and work to turn our local services into a marketplace of opportunity for the private sector?

Fellow blogger Mr Reasonable recently wrote about two committee meetings at which it was painfully clear how large a vacuum in democratic oversight has been created in Barnet by the failure in scrutiny by elected members of the current contractual performance by Capita, and in the current library 'review', which is nothing less than an act of softening up yet another council service for outsourcing.

As he pointed out at the Performance and Contract Monitoring Committee, the committee simply isn't holding anyone to account, councillors appear only to rubber stamp the decisions made by officers - and no one seems to be questioning why, in the course of a contractual partnership agreed under the pretext of making savings, we are, this year, likely to pay Capita a whopping £80 million in fees, and extra 'gainshare' payments. At this meeting, an indulgent Chair, Tory councillor Anthony Finn, allowed proceedings to conclude with no discussion of the largest contract, CSG: simply farcical.

At the recent Children's Education and Library Committee (CELS) meeting, again the utter impotence of councillors in their role of scrutiny was apparent: mutely accepting the recommendations of officers pushing the process of outsourcing educational services, even though there was only bidder, and the members had not seen the financial details.

This failure in scrutiny is the result of deliberate strategy by senior management, and a combination of laziness, and stupidity, on the part of members, of course. The Tories are happy to hand over responsibility for anything looking like hard work to their officers - and frankly cannot be bothered to hold to account the officers, consultants, or the men from Crapita, even if they have some suspicion that things are not as they should be. And if things are indeed not as they should be, they do not want to admit it, for political reasons.

There is also a failure on behalf of the Labour opposition: a failure in leadership, and strategy, in challenging the status quo, and fighting the cynicism and inertia of their Tory colleagues, and the actions of the senior managers. There is a new leader of the group now, Barry Rawlings: will anything change? Let's see.

The way in which the library issue has been handled is yet another example of the broken process of government in this borough.

Proposals recently have been presented to both CELS, and then Full Council, and approved for further 'consultation' by members without having sight of the full range of necessary information, and indeed given information that is both inaccurate and inadequate.

In the previous post you will have read about the risk assessment of the 'open library' model, which proves beyond a doubt exactly what a foolish, untested and deeply unsatisfactory excuse for a library service such a system would deliver. 

You have read it: your councillors did not read it, before cheerfully sending the current proposals forward through the process for approval. 

They did not read it, because it was not presented to them. And to be fair, it would seem they did not ask for it.

It was a member of the public who made sure the information was put in the public domain, through a Freedom of Information Act - but of course published too late to influence the two meetings described.

In the reports which did go to councillors, it was claimed that the open library approach was 'standard approach' in Scandinavia. This was, as Mrs Angry has pointed out, not true. It has not been corrected, however, and so councillors will have accepted it as fact. How convenient.

The many questions offered by members of the public, in the absence of any robust scrutiny from members, elicited the interesting fact that the so called business case for much of the financial arguments for the proposals are simply non existent: based on supposition, and assumptions. But this was good enough for our Tory councillors, whose entire belief system, and raison d'etre, is based on a creaking but happily untested mechanism of supposition, and assumption.

Following on from the risk assessment, Mrs Angry decided to make another FOI request, this time to put the assessment in the proper context of probability of risk - or likelihood, if you like, in audit terms.

This request was as follows:

In the last two years, how many entries have been noted in the Incident Books for each Barnet Library?

Please give each library's individual entries, in terms of figures, and types of incident eg theft, assault, accident etc.

The response was most interesting. Not all incidents are logged, of course - and there is variation between branches as to how likely an incident is to be reported in this way -  but here is an indication of the sort of behaviour and events that can and do happen in public libraries, until now addressed by trained, professional staff present on the premises. For example:

12 libraries have reported accidents. 

In addition, there were 8 injuries logged.

Incidents - (a definition which covers a range of possiblities): 28

Theft - 14 (not including stock, it would appear, which despite denials does go missing on a regular basis, according to staff reports)

Verbal abuse - 33 

Harassment - including sexual harassment of both users and staff - 11 reported

Other - including drunken behaviour, and disturbance outside libraries: 32

Library staff are trained in dealing with issues relating to safeguarding, health and safety, first aid, and in handling aggression at work. This is a necessity, as many users of libraries are vulnerable in some way: the role of a library within a community is - or was - includes the function of providing support for such people, and as a welcoming space for those who need it - a truth overlooked by our councillors and their officers, literally, as Mrs Angry was to note earlier this week, at another so-called 'consultation' event in one of the libraries under threat.

This event was not by any definition at all exactly that, more of a non-event: another nonsultation. Not so much paying lip service to the idea of consultation as baring the lips in a grimace of deathly irony, you might say.

In the previous round of 'engagement' with library users, a series of meetings in branches were organised, well attended by angry residents who made clear their absolute opposition to the library cuts proposals.

Because these meetings were well attended by angry residents who made clear their absolute opposition to the library cuts proposals, in this second, more important act of nonsultation, such events, brimming with risk factors on a catastrophic level, from the point of view of the would be library assassins lurking in North London Business Park, have to be avoided, at all costs.

They tried to spin the outcome of the previous public engagements, the yell of protest over the proposed cuts in service, by pretending to have listened to what the public said. In other words, they deliberately threw in some proposals so awful, that anything less offered in Round Two would seem comparatively sane. Hence the threat of closed libraries, and libraries shrunk to the size of a postage stamp.

The options now on offer - no, no, Mrs Angry, not on offer ... you must adopt an evangelical expression, like all senior Barnet/Crapita officers, and breathlessly refer to: the new library 'offer', which isn't an offer at all, but a bare faced threat in which all libraries will be retained, in theory, albeit on a nominal basis, ie they will become buildings run by Crapita for commercial exploitation, with the name Library outside, and a few books inside, and the space not at all the size of a postage stamp, but ... the size of two postage stamps.

Unless you live in an important Tory ward like Chipping Barnet, or Edgware, of course.

In fact, as Mrs Angry reminded Andrew and the library manager, unless a sudden avalanche of volunteers suddenly appears, and of course at the moment Barnet has a woeful shortage of such people, prepared to do the jobs, unpaid, of professional librarians facing the dole queue - unless they miraculously turn up, those four libraries planned to function with their use will close. Three in opposition held wards, funnily enough: Childs Hill, East Barnet and South Friern, and one in Mill Hill, where the local Tory councillors don't give a damn, and think they can get the local residents to play libraries instead of paid staff.

But the latest plans pretend that this faux library service is what residents asked for, demanding that no libraries shut. Of course they opposed not only the shutting of libraries, but clearly demanded that the service be left as it is, and not destroyed in the pretext of 'savings', but that does not suit the agenda of the outsourcerers, and has been conveniently overlooked.

The new 'offer' relies heavily on what, with becoming modesty, our council's officers and consultants refer to as 'technology enabled libraries'. Yes, I know: sounds like a good idea, doesn't it? As if we still needed to move on from the age of Browne issue libraries - (not as scatalogically focused as it sounds, and yet a system Crapita might well be interested in, you would think), when we all had card tickets, kept in those lovely long, narrow wooden boxes, fingered lovingly by well manicured lady librarians in horn rimmed spectacles ...

But no, technology arrived in libraries, senior officers, consultants and Tory councillors, well: about fifty years ago, even in Broken Barnet, and the self service use which is meant for readers is largely avoided by them, because the older residents don't like it: and because most library users actually prefer to interact with other human beings, at the counter.

East Finchley library

But anyway, what you really mean by the term 'technology enabled' is 'unstaffed libraries', isn't it, the library system that dares not speak its name?

A system which creates libraries which are not so much technologically 'enabled', in the sense of being improved by the support of it, but which you can only access by the means of technology; a library that is not a library, in fact, but a token gesture: an empty room, in an empty building, waiting for the revenue that will never materialise from a market already saturated with vacant office space: an empty building, devoid of the very thing that makes a library what it is - not a collection of books, or dvds, or computers, or information, or tables and chairs, but human beings, in front of and behind the counter, talking to each other, engaging in dialogue, supporting a sense of community.

The horrible reality of the latest library proposals cannot be spun in the same giddy manner as the previous version. The dangers of close engagement, and an informed response, that must be documented, are too much of a gamble. Hence the low key arrangements this time round.

Unless you already knew, you would not know there is any consultation on the future of the library service, in fact.

So you may not have realised there is a library cuts consultation form you can complete, behind the counter of your local library, or online: see here.

You really should take part in this process and complete a form, one way or the other, but before you do, please read this advice from Barnet Alliance, to avoid the pitfalls carefully laid for you, so as to mitigate the risk of more data demonstrating even more resistance to their knavish plans.

You might also wanted to have take part in one of the four 'drop in' sessions that were held, apparently under the restrictions of a superinjunction forbidding disclosure of anything that might alert library users to the very existence of said drop in sessions, in four libraries, in order to allow the council to pretend it had held public meetings about the latest proposals.

If you did want to attend these sessions: hard luck. You missed them. What do you mean, you didn't know they were taking place? What's the matter with you? Don't you scour the backpages of the council website everyday, looking for secret council policies and covert announcements, just in case someone somewhere might be trying to slip something past you? No? Then you are not a Barnet blogger, and have retained full control of your faculties. Congratulations. What are you doing, living in this borough?

Anyway. No need to panic. Because Mrs Angry DID attend one of these sessions, on your behalf, last Tuesday, in North Finchley. Read on.

A previous event of this nature had taken place in Chipping Barnet, attended by only three residents. Two of those, Barbara and Bob Jacobson, from Barnet Alliance, had only gone because Mrs Angry had alerted them to the opportunity, having found out herself only by chance that these sessions were due to take place. Barbara had reported that they had turned up to find Val White, the senior officer always wheeled out to defend the library cuts, some guy called Andrew who claimed to be involved in the proposals, and someone from library management. Nothing happened, there was no planned discussion, just three people prepared to engage in answering a few questions about the proposals.

Arriving at North Finchley, the assistant on the desk didn't even know there was any sort of consultation event planned. Then two people suddenly emerged from the staffroom behind here and greeted Mrs Angry, who was somewhat perplexed, as clearly they knew who she was, judging by their amused expressions, but she hadn't a clue who they were.

We've met before, of course, said Andrew, nodding, and - was he winking? Had we? Oh dear. Mrs Angry felt rather disconcerted, and rather ashamed, like some bar crawling cougar, presented with a forgotten face, the morning after the night before. Of course she spends a lot of time winding up officers of the London Borough of Broken Barnet, and Crapita, and assorted consultants, at meetings, and then instantly forgetting them as, to be frank, readers, they all seem the same after a while - that look of conspiracy, you know - and the smell of fear ...

And what do you do? asked Mrs Angry, in her default queen mum mode, as refined for the purpose of greeting corporate drones. Well, Andrew wasn't keen to be specific, but then, poor man, he may not be entirely sure himself.

Never mind, Andrew: Mrs Angry looked you up, when she got home. Impressive career, as listed in Linkedin.

Used to have a one-stop-shop Wedding Service operating in Hertfordshire and surrounding counties. Not a service likely to appeal to Mrs Angry, but since then he has moved on:

A "trouble-shooter" with extensive experience of managing a portfolio of projects designed to reduce costs and enhance resource efficiency, improve performance, increase competitiveness, boost customer satisfaction and take advantage of new opportunities through proactive implementation of strong leadership, risk management, stakeholder engagement and cultural alignment.

Cultural alignment. Good. And ... he has an 'end to end' portfolio, you know. Mrs Angry likes the sound of that. Entrepreneur, Business Angel, Gap Manager. Or is that, manager of Gap? When does the pre-xmas sale begin, Andrew? Need to buy some unwanted jumpers for male relatives.

Anyway, not sure how or why he fetched up in Broken Barnet, but now he is in charge of the library 'review', with apparently lots of experience in, well, filling gaps and being an angel and stuff, but no expertise in public libraries. So: ideal for the job. A dark angel, perhaps.

Also present was a library manager, to spare whose blushes, in line with the Broken Barnet policy in not punishing less senior officers for the policy decisions of their bosses, Mrs Angry will leave unnamed.

This manager was in the invidious position of having to defend a set of proposals which had been created in line with a political agenda, and by the senior management of the council, but no senior officer was there. Val White, they thought, was 'otherwise engaged', and no one else was replacing her. Hmm. So the manager and the mysterious Andrew were left to go through the motions with the only person who had a. found out about the event and b. could turn up, at two o'clock on a weekday afternoon.

The drop in session was actually a stand up arrangement: not just in terms of amusement, but literally: we stood in the middle of the library, by a table with a board pinned with a poster on it about the library nonsultation, while all around us the users carried on, choosing books, reading, using the PCs, unaware that the library itself was under threat.

At that point, thank God, the familiar figure of fellow blogger Mr Reasonable approached the table, and some time afterwards, the somewhat unrepresentative consultation process with two local bloggers was made even more atypical by the addition of Angela, a local children's author.

Until Mr Reasonable had turned up, Mrs Angry had been about to make an exit, as clearly the lack of participants made the exercise entirely meaningless. But now some questions ...

What is the point of this, asked Mrs Angry, and why, she wanted to know, had these events not been properly advertised? This was a question raised by the Jacobsons, at the previous session, and received the same complacent response. Oh, but it is on the website, and ... other places.

(Your views will be noted, and used in consultation, we were told later - How, when you haven't taken any notes, asked Mrs Angry? Would you like a copy of mine?

Here you go, then, Andrew: please feel free to download this, and Manage the Gap with Mrs Angry's lovingly transcribed account ...)

Who is likely to spot any reference to this meeting, hidden away on some obscure page of the council website, asked Mrs Angry?

It was also on "social media", they thought. Mmm, yes: a corporate tweet, likely to have been missed by 99.9% of the borough's residents.

Mr Reasonable was fuming over the plight of his local library, East Barnet: depended on by so many residents, but especially local schools and students who have no other place to study. He fumed, they shrugged: what is there to say?  Other than repeat the line about the need to make savings.

Why then, asked Mrs Angry, if there are such restraints on budget, are you spending £6 million in order to implement the library 'modifications', and prepare the service for outsourcing?

Oh no, they said: libraries aren't being outsourced. No, no, no ... there are no plans to do that ... Erm, yes,  we retorted: that is the next stage - and of course we know they have already conducted a market testing exercise with potential bidders. Oh, but even if we did go down that route, they thought, there might well be an in-house option for consideration.

Yeah, right.

Mrs Angry asked about the infamous risk assessment of the open library proposal, as outed in the previous post.

Why did councillors not see this report before approving the reports put to them proposing the scheme?

- Didn't they?

No, they didn't.

- Well, you know, the pilot scheme was a work in progress ...

And one, commented Mrs Angry which could have been updated as late as the day of the CELS meeting, or Full Council.

And why does the report contain inaccuracies, such as the false statement that open libraries are 'the standard approach' in Scandinavia?

- Well, it is used in Scandinavia. And ...erm ... Peterborough ...

It is used to an extent, in one country in Scandinavia, replied Mrs Angry, ie Denmark, in a rural context utterly unlike the proposed use here, and therefore that claim would give councillors a completely misleading idea of the appropriateness, or safety, of the scheme.

(And have you ever been to Peterborough, thought Mrs Angry, having a horrible flashback, involving a view of the Fens, a bleak and empty landscape, a sense of doom and a loss of all hope?)

Mrs Angry then, having lost concentration, as usual, looked around at the library, musing about the significance of this venue, the place where in February 1959 a young prospective parliamentary candidate by the name of Margaret Thatcher made a speech to the Whetstone Tories' AGM - where the meeting was told, with barely concealed horror:

 "In the local Ward elections there would be a Liberal candidate this time as well as the Socialist. This would serve as a spur to the committee ..."

And again, in 1970, Margaret Thatcher had addressed the annual meeting of Friern Barnet Conservatives, and while Nelson Mandela lay in his cell in Robben Island, criticised anti-apartheid protests that might disturb a planned South African cricket tour.

(Good to read, however, that the meeting also heard that Mr Leonard Juniper - and his wife Edna - "had organised a number of enjoyable social functions, and as a result had contributed £155 to ward funds ...").

As mentioned at the CELS meeting, Margaret was in fact a keen supporter of public libraries.

What would she make of the proposals her constituency councillors were forcing through now - or indeed the state of decline to which the library service has deliberately been allowed to reach, in order to justify cuts and privatisation?

Mrs Angry mentioned the horrifying decrease in volume and quality of stock, since her far distant time working in libraries.  Frankly it was a struggle to find anything to borrow. Apart from this, of course ... (Not as good as "Beth and the Barbarian", Julia ...)

Denied by the library manager: but she cannot have known what the library was like, when it was supported and invested in by the council, and valued as a vital service. Now the neglected buildings are deteriorating, even the wonderful listed branch at East Finchley, above whose door there is a municipal coat of arms, and a motto:

Regnant Quis Serviunt  

(Mrs Angry stood outside, yesterday, peering above the doorway, and trying to put her somewhat limited schoolgirl Latin to use.  Something about serving and ruling? She thought she might ask her best friend from school, who was the class swot, you know, whereas Mrs Angry was the pupil most likely to be sent to stand in the corridor, especially in Miss Cory-Wright's Latin lessons.

Best friend from school, class swot, but not half as smart as she thinks she is, was stumped, then said she thought it might mean 'May they rule, who serve'. Mrs Angry's racing correspondent, Mr Tom Roper, who is a classicist, you know, as well as a militant librarian, thought it meant 'They serve, who rule'. Either way, sounds like our Tory councillors haven't quite grasped the meaning either, have they?)

Angela, the children's author, was very worried about the impact of the library cuts, specifically on the standards of literacy amongst children: an impact which, as she pointed out, will take years to identify, and cause untold damage in the meanwhile. And she questioned the point of the 'drop in' session, as an exercise in consultation ... "It does feel a bit meaningless, " she suggested, tentatively, in tactful understatement.

Mr Reasonable again raised the issue of children and students being unable to use libraries under the new system, unable to visit the library unaccompanied after school, accusing the perpetrators of this new scheme of living in a world of middle class fantasy, where all parents were free to take children to the library, or could provide studying space and guidance at home.

What they proposed to offer, in place of what there was now, what was it? What is a library, he asked?

Oh, well: the open library pilot scheme was all part of the current 'review'. Footprints were being studied, you know. Yes: footprints. Mrs Angry looked down guiltily at her shoes, having walked over the grass verge from Sainsbury's. Bit muddy, to be fair.

To the right of us was a small room, with a printed notice on it, soon to be redundant: This room is for use by 12-18 year olds only ...

As we spoke, standing ridiculously in the middle of the library, in front of eight members of the public with no access to IT of their own, using PCs to search for jobs, or find information, or answer emails, while we were furiously criticising the plot to put an end of libraries as we know it, and attempted to debate the unquantifiable social value they hold, and the risk of impact on the most vulnerable members of our community, someone came and joined us, unnoticed.

Every library in the borough, probably every branch in the country, has regular visitors who spend hours there, especially in winter, because there is nowhere else for them to go.

Some of these visitors are lonely, and struggling with the painful consequences of profound social isolation; some are homeless, or have mental health problems.

One of the men who travels around the libraries in Finchley, and has done so for years,  was there on Tuesday, sitting down, watching the discussion from a distance, listening, and fixing us with an unblinking stare.

He got up and walked over, and stood between the two Barnet officers, right between them, inches away, staring into their faces.

They neither commented, nor acknowledged his presence.

Eventually he moved away, back to his seat, without speaking.

Where will he go, when the libraries are closed, or made for the exclusive use of card carrying readers, on a secured entry system?

He'll do what he does the rest of the time, and sit out in the cold, lying on a bench by the bus stop, and eventually disappear, another invisible, undocumented and unlamented victim of the age of austerity.

Just around the corner from North Finchley Library, outside Sainsbury's, incongruously placed at an angle, plonked in the middle of the pavement that runs along the Great North Road, that fault line that causes so much disturbance, here in Broken Barnet, there is another library: a model library, not a library model, and not so much an open library, as a library out in the open: a miniature version, like a road shrine, honoured in tribute, but safely within the footprint of the supermarket's embrace, a demonstration of the triumph of commerce, and private profit, over the ethos of public service.

Yes: this is Broken Barnet, in December 2015.

Move along: nothing to see here, except - the last moments of our public libraries, dying slowly, and about to see their lives ended in penury, bondage, and exploitation.

Except: this is not the end of the story, exactly.

The final library cuts proposals go to council for approval, with most unfortunate timing, just before the GLA and Mayoral elections. Blue eyed boy, and True Blue Tory hopeful Councillor Dan Thomas, who is a member of the CELS committee that will have to endorse these awful plans, is going to have the library issue pursuing him all the way to the ballot box.

Oh, and something else.

This: the raising of funds for a legal challenge ...

Within hours of launching an appeal, to the amazement of all concerned, the crowdsourced money flooded in, and there was enough to begin the process.

Did they think we would just sit back and take this?

They were wrong, if so.

The initial stage is underway, but to begin the expensive process of a Judicial Review would of course be difficult, and expensive. But this is an option that is possible, with funding.

If this process continues, campaigners will need to raise an awful lot of money - if you really do care about the future of your library service, please help by considering a generous donation: details will be published as and when necessary.

In the meanwhile, there is a seasonal fundraising event arranged by the magnificent library campaigner Polly Napper, which you might like to attend: a carol service, with the fabulous brass band, London Metropolitan Brass ... oh and a version of 'In the Bleak Midwinter', in which the lovely lyrics of Christina Rossetti have been recklessly rewritten by Mrs Angry, in defence of our library service. Do join us, come along, and donate to the library campaign: