Tuesday, 25 July 2017
It makes us want to shout: Barnet's children, locked out of their own libraries, lobby the Minister for Culture, Media and Sport
Arriving at the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, with letters from Barnet children
One of Mrs Angry's many difficulties, as a result of being dyspraxic, and hopeless at negotiating journeys, and lacking any sense of orientation, is a tendency to get lost very easily, a particularly annoying habit at any time, but one which yesterday meant that she managed, with spectacular stupidity, to walk the length and breadth of Parliament Street (or was it Whitehall?) - both sides - looking in vain for the Department of Culture, Media and Sport.
This led to an unexpected, and in fact rather interesting detour, a tourist trail along the road, all the way to Trafalgar Square and back, past all the dour looking Ministry buildings, the grandeur of the Foreign Office, the solemnity of the Cenotaph, the nervous looking boys serving as Horseguards on sentry duty (seemed much older last time I was there, aged six) ... and even the tattiness of Downing Street, where armed police, brandishing tattoos and hipster beards, protect the be-scaffolded, hanging-basketed seat of government.
Was Mrs May at home? Who could tell? Does it make any difference, where she is, at any given time?
Was Karen Bradley, Minister for Culture, Media and Sport at home? Or at least, in her office, eventually located right at the beginning of the unnecessary cruise along Whitehall?
Or so we were told, standing with the children of Broken Barnet and their parents, outside the Ministry, which, in fact, was quite hard to spot, with a small sign on a building shared with Customs and Revenue: culture, of course, must go hand in hand with financial matters, in a Conservative government, and clearly is not of the highest priority - an attitude reflected and magnified by the Tory council in Barnet, in the extent of their indifference to any of the impact of the devastation being wrought - by their hands - to our once outstandingly good library service.
We were there to witness the delivery of hundreds of letters to the Minister from the children of Barnet, who bear the worst burden of these cuts in service, barred from their own libraries during the new unstaffed system, facing a huge cull in book stock, and the loss of vital study space, all a matter which had been the subject of a letter sent last December, but which had been totally ignored, until some sort of grudging acknowledgement arrived in reaction to the news of this visit.
Children stood outside the Ministry building with these letters in a box, holding placards and chanting:
Don't lock us out! It makes us want to shout!
The streams of passing tourists marvelled at this gathering of militant children.
British democracy in action, explained Mrs Angry, self appointed tour guide, waving cheerily to the fascinated passengers of an open topped bus. And more interesting than Madame Tussauds, one would imagine.
Security guards peered round the entrance to the Ministry with ill disguised tetchiness. One came down the steps and insisted the children move six inches to the left, for reasons of Health and Safety. And Security. Well, that last pretext didn't really work, being as they didn't fit the profile of the usual sort of threat, but still ...
If there's an evac situation, he warned grimly, ten thousand people will be coming out of this building ... and I wouldn't like to think what would happen to the children. Goodness. Mrs Angry thought that it must be an awfully big building, although, as an estate agent would put it, deceptively so.
Don't lock us out! It makes us want to shout!
Passers by were all very curious, and asked questions. The older children, including some from local secondary schools like Compton, the Archer school, and Fortismere, patiently explained the issues - Mrs Angry heard one of the boys tell a woman ... and you know when the unstaffed hours are in place, we aren't allowed in, and anyone who is allowed in isn't allowed to use the toilet ... The woman shook her head in disbelief.
Where will I study now? Year Eight boys at Barnet schools want an answer
To watch these children take such an active and informed role in lobbying politicians over an issue that affects their lives and their well being was inspiring, in fact. No need for adults to speak for them: their fury - and their articulacy - drove the event and made people stop, look, and listen.
After a while a burly security man came to speak to one of the parents. In private, he insisted. Why in private? He didn't really know why. What did they want? They wanted to speak to the Minister, or someone else, about the library situation in Barnet. Or at least hand in the letters. There is no one available, he claimed. Have you asked? inquired Mrs Angry. Ah. It appeared not. He said he would go and see: but he couldn't promise anything Oh. Ok.
The children carried on chanting.
The security man emerged and said 'someone' would come down.
'Someone' did come down: a man in sports gear, claiming to be working on 'libraries policy'. Clearly there is relaxed dress code, at DCMS, these days. Or perhaps he was working on the idea being promoted in some libraries where books are no longer in fashion and the buildings must be converted into gyms?
Clearly very nervous, this man said he could not explain why after six months the Minister had not responded to the very detailed letter sent to her, nor when a reply would come, but they were 'working on it'. Hmm. He listened for a bit, accepted the letters and disappeared inside.
Parent Emily Burnham talks to the man from DCMS
Clearly the people at DCMS are not used to demonstrations outside the building, or being lobbied by anyone, let alone children.
And equally clear is that it is time for every community dealing with the loss of library services to stand up, speak up, and make the politicians responsible account for what they are doing.
Do what the children of Barnet did yesterday: take it to the heart of government.
Don't let them hide behind their desks in Whitehall, letting local authorities take the flak for the policies they are covertly engineering, by allowing the massive assault on library provision go unsanctioned. And don't let your MPs get away with it either: all three Barnet MPs have backed their council colleagues' library cuts. Write and tell them how appalled you are - and don't vote them back at the next election, if you don't like what is happening.
The reason the Minister does not want to respond to the letter sent in December, to accusations that the newly assaulted libraries in Barnet fail the statutory requirements of a comprehensive service, and the requirement to address the needs of children and other protected groups is because that accusation is demonstrably true.
We are beginning to see the evidence now, as the newly 'refurbished' libraries re-open, even though the managers are still too scared to let them function as intended, unstaffed and unsupervised, with self service and automatic doors. It's too risky. Once the system does run with only a few CCTV cameras in place of staffing or security - it will be only a matter of time before a major incident involving a member of the public.
The impact on our children, and on elderly and disabled residents, on disadvantaged residents, of the newly cut service will be - is already - profound, and deeply damaging. This is both indefensible, and unsustainable.
It's time for the Minister to read those letters, acknowledge the problem, and compel those responsible in Barnet for such a catastrophic policy to think again.