Sunday 8 March 2020

Tell Us Like It Is: Barnet Tories confronted with the impact of their library cuts.

Reuben Thompstone enjoys being Chair of the libraries committee. 

Or rather being the Chair of the committee that deals with libraries, as an afterthought - which is all they are and can ever be to the Tory councillors of Broken Barnet. 

He enjoys being Chair, and talking very fast, in his clipped antipodean tone, and telling people how it is, and not listening to other people saying no, it's actually not like that at all. 

But on Thursday night, in Committee Rooms One and Two, with the curse of Capita as usual working its dark magic on the process of communication with residents via the terrible sound system, and a total failure in live-streaming the meeting for those listening at home, Councillor Reuben Thompstone was obliged to keep quiet, and  hear a summary of the independent library review - as explained in the previous post here -  which, couched in tactful terms, informed him that everything residents and campaigners said would happen to our library service post cuts, has happened. 

Has happened with serious impact on residents, especially children, disabled residents, elderly residents, disadvantaged students needing study space, job seekers needing trained staff to help them, and so on, and so on.

You asked, said the consultant, Eric Bohl of the 'Activist Group' consultants which produced the review, cheerily, to the Tory members:  to Tell Us Like It Is, so we have. 

And so they did. 

And it really was a question of We Told You So, for the residents and campaigners sitting in the cheap seats, in the public gallery.

Poor Tombstone looked distinctly uncomfortable throughout this presentation, and swallowed hard, sitting there in a voluminous short sleeved shirt and a fair isle tank top, his little waxed moustache at half cock, sporting a lime green bow tie, and obviously trying to look 'interesting', but comically reminiscent of the way my long suffering boy cousins used to be dressed by my aunt for parties and family events, circa 1969. 

(NB Except their ties were on a piece of elastic, which I used to pull - twang -  and run away before they caught me. The old temptation arose, at several points in the meeting, and was only very narrowly avoided. A good example, I like to think, of how, in my twilight years, I am coming to grips with my ADHD).

As predicted, the Tory members - (only two Labour members were there, which is unfortunate, but as one of those is the redoubtable Sara Conway, no one else mattered) - the Tory members seized what they thought was a lifeline, dangling in a sea of shame, and picked up on the rather naive suggestion in the report that in the long term, the damage done by sacking library staff on such a disastrous scale, and leaving libraries unstaffed for so many hours, could be repaired, if not by paid staff, by 'volunteers'.

Ah yes. Volunteers. 

Awfully keen on those, our Tory members. Residents stepping up and doing their civic duty, to perform for free the jobs they already pay the council to do. Sweeping the streets, picking up litter, filling potholes in chain gangs, scrutinising the council's financial performance for them, all that sort of thing: no different to running a library, is it? 

Oh wait.

IT IS. It really is different.

Libraries are not simply places where books are stamped in and out, and people sit in silence calmly reading, as a clock slowly ticks the hours away - if they ever were. In case you don't know it, here is a poem supposedly written about Golders Green Library, (where I once worked, and where there were still polished tables, and linoleum) by the late Dannie Abse, who lived in the area, and thankfully would never have seen what Barnet's cultural assassin councillors have done to the place:

Who, in the public library, one evening after rain,
amongst the polished tables and linoleum,
stands bored under blank light to glance at these pages?
Whose absent mood, like neon glowing in the night,
is conversant with wet pavements, nothing to do?

Neutral, the clock-watching girl stamps out the date,
a forced celebration, a posthumous birthday,
her head buttered by the drizzling library lamps,
yet the accident of words, too, can light the semi-dark
should the reader lead them home, generously journey,
later to return, perhaps leaving a bus ticket as a bookmark.

Who wrote in margins hieroglyphic notations,
that obscenity, deleted this imperfect line?
Read by whose hostile eyes, in what bed-sitting room,

in which rainy, dejected railway stations?

Libraries still bear witness to the 'accident of words', and offer so much more: now hugely important community resources, one of the few remaining safe spaces, in an increasingly frantic, alienating or virtual world: they offer a place where people can find sanctuary, support, and information. 

They are meant to be run by skilled staff, who have the appropriate training and qualifications, experience, knowledge needed to select book and media stock, advise readers on same, advise users on IT, fix IT problems, answer reference queries, study related enquiries, deal with sensitive personal matters like benefit applications, job seeking, mental health support, sexual issues; help children, read keep them safe, run parent and baby sessions, deal with anti-social behaviour, defuse potentially violent situations, offer first aid: build relationships with regular visitors who might be lonely, and need the reassurance of a familiar face behind the counter, perhaps the only person they have spoken to for days. 

This range of duties is not, cannot be, and should not be, the role of a volunteer. 

Do we offer them any incentives? was the only question asked by Tory Nelson Mandela impersonator Brian Gordon, who once told us his children spent most of their time in his local library, and who could blame them.

Incentives, for undertaking such a demanding and difficult post? How about a salary, training, and qualifications, Councillor? That's called 'A Job'.

Of course our Tory members struggle with the concept of volunteering, and what it might demand. 

Unlike their own former late colleague, the admirable (Tory) Cllr Leslie Sussman, who served the borough - out of nothing more than a sense of civic pride - for decades, without taking a penny in return, the current Tory group will not undertake their roles on a voluntary basis, but expect - hello: 'incentives' - a generous allowance, topped up, if they are lucky, and ingratiate themselves with the leader, with a whopping amount for being Chair of any committee - paid even, as we have mentioned previously, if that committee doesn't meet for many months. 

Plus they have other perks, like free parking permits, of course - which Labour members refuse to take. That's an incentive, isn't it?

As they sat there, plotting to fill the pothole of all potholes in the library staffing structure with the equivalent of the useless bucket of tarmac Capita chucks on any hole in the road these days, that is to say a few hapless volunteers, someone dropped a clanger. 

On the subject of volunteers, the senior library officer present let slip something no one had known: that no DBS checks are being made of volunteers who are used in staffed hours. 

We had to query this several times, before anyone could believe it. No DBS checks? For people volunteering to work in an apparent 'safe space' environment, with access to young children, and vulnerable adults?

They weren't 'allowed' to ask for DBS checks, it was claimed. And it wasn't considered necessary because they were supposed to be supervised by staff.

Libraries in Barnet now are barely functioning on a skeleton staffing basis - one that the report commented was not adequate. In fact there were more officers sitting at the committee table last night, than you would ever find in even the busiest Barnet library, on the rare times when you will find any staff in any library now. 

The idea that these staff members, praised by the consultants for working so hard and with such dedication under such pressure, have the time to train the volunteers who are taking their colleagues' jobs, let alone supervise them in a way that answers the demands of safeguarding, is absurd. Absurd and dangerous.

To use as volunteers people who have not been vetted via DBS is more than foolish - it is taking a massive risk. 

Years ago, when this blog first began, in the wake of the MetPro scandal, in which it emerged that Barnet's Tory councillors had been using an illegally operating security firm, with no contract, and amongst their duties had been the supervision of 'looked after' children - even though they were not DBS checked, or even licensed. Here we are, nearly a decade later, and by chance we find that they are still defying the basic demands of safeguarding in their own libraries.

Clearly most people who volunteer do so out of good will, and wanting to do something useful - but it is also true that any position, voluntary or not, that offers access to children attracts some individuals whose motivation is less worthy. 

There are known cases of individuals with a history of offences involving children trying to gain a position as a volunteer in a local library. When I worked in a branch, I remember vividly a male volunteer who had to be barred after inappropriate behaviour with children. This is unfortunately a recurring problem. Paedophiles will always continue to try to gain positions that enable them to groom or abuse children: the only mitigation of such a risk is a system of vetting that prevents their appointment to such posts.

For the sake of preventing the small number of those volunteers who would be in this category gaining access in this way it is unfortunately necessary to have stringent requirements on those who apply - as there would be in any other comparable situation.

If it is true that volunteers cannot be obliged to be subject to DBS checks, it should follow that they should not be used in public libraries. 

The truth is not many do volunteer for library work in Barnet: as the report explained, many feel it is the wrong thing to do, to help take someone else's livelihood, and dismantle the very service which they admire. 

Volunteer run enterprises anyway are unreliable as a source of substitute staffing simply because there is no obligation on those involved to comply with the needs of the service. 

If Tory members want safe spaces for children, and for all vulnerable users, then they need to do as the review suggests, and as they used to do, and employ more trained staff.

In any service they valued, this would be an automatic requirement - but it is a sign of the deep lack of cultural understanding by the majority of councillors as to the purpose and many benefits of libraries, from the opportunities for less advantaged residents to the preventative role they play in terms of social issues like exclusion, and support for mental health, all at the heart of a community. 

As the consultant remarked, our Tory members seem not to appreciate the great asset they have, in what was once one of the best performing - and best value - library services in the UK.

On another level, however, there was recognition by Tory members - or some of them - of the enormous risk that non-vetted volunteers present. 

Let's hope the shock they clearly felt at this revelation at the meeting translates into action, and a better future for Barnet Libraries emerges from this review: with investment in properly trained and paid staff, and a commitment to provide all the resources libraries need, in order to serve the people of Barnet in the way that they deserve. 

Wednesday 4 March 2020

Saving Barnet Libraries: the last battle

The 'refurbishment' of Barnet libraries ... remember that? 

This was the interesting claim that was written on banners and hung outside library buildings across the borough, two weeks before the general election of 2017, trying to persuade local voters that nothing was happening to this vital community service, other than a few new carpets and a change in upholstery. In one case, seen below, at North Finchley, the banner was hung outside a library being used as a polling station, the paint hardly dry after its beautiful, purpose built children's library had been hollowed out and oh: 'refurbished' - to no purpose whatsoever.

North Finchley library on polling day, 2017

What was happening, in truth, was that Barnet's Tory councillors were spending £14 million on hacking the library service to pieces: sacking staff, chucking out books by the skipload, carving up the library buildings, so as to empty most of the space of any library function, and then installing 'open access' equipment, so that staffed library hours were reduced to a nominal level of coverage. Unaccompanied children under 16 were banned from entry, and study space cut back to a fraction of the former provision.

And for what reason? Ostensibly to 'save money'. Yes: spending £14 million to ... make savings. 

The only 'savings' that emerged from this were in terms of staffing costs: paying off the staff who were sacked. Except: oh dear, as predicted, the risks to library users of unstaffed libraries, as campaigners against the cuts warned, meant that the council ended up paying a fortune every month on security guards - and has done ever since.

The story given that the massive reduction in library space within the former library buildings was so as to generate income from commercial renting soon turned out to be ... just that: a story. 

There never was any serious intention to let the space in this way, as was admitted at the time of nonsultation: senior officers admitted they had done no market testing, and said it didn't really matter. 

Golders Green children's library, after Barnet Tories destroyed it - and above right, the replacement they shoved into the adult library.

It didn't matter, because the long term plan, as many believe, is merely to run the service down to the point where the authority and Capita can find a reason to divest the council of more assets, and sell some of the buildings for development, on the basis of insufficient footfall as a library.

The result, however, is that the income which was part of the original business plan has not materialised, and as things stand, the £14 million 'investment' in the 'refurbishment' of the service will see no proportionate return.

In short, the libraries' fiasco, even if judged only on its financial case, has been a failure. This is the only outcome which will worry some Barnet Tories: but it is not the only, or the most important, consequence, of course. 

Having written to the government minister responsible for libraries to complain about the devastating cuts to our library service, Save Barnet Libraries campaigners pushed for a review of the impact of these cuts, and a report by an independent company of consultants 'Activist Group" has now been published. 

Save Barnet Libraries campaigners, with letters in support of East Finchley library, by local children.

Tomorrow (Thursday 5th March) the report, which you can read here, will be considered by the Community Leadership and Libraries committee (you can see that Barnet Tories have so little interest in the library service they have attached it randomly, as an afterthought, to this committee, rather than allow it, as was once the case, its own committee, or include it, as it should be, with education and leisure).

What does the report say?

It says that everything we as residents and campaigners said would happen, has happened. 

That the current plan for libraries does not deliver the expectations of the council's own stated local policies.

That even if you accept that their intentions in pursuing the cuts were valid, their objectives have not been met, and their strategy has failed to deliver the results they demanded. 

That "the reduction in staffed opening hours has gone too far ..." 

That: "Students no longer have sufficient study space at many branches ..."

It is noted that reduction in book stock can have a detrimental impact on user visits (deliberately so, of course, in Barnet) - although the report perhaps does not fully explore the particularly poor provision of stock for children, especially at libraries such as Hendon, and Golders Green. (see pics below)

Library users who were surveyed, moreover, referred to the range of books in their top priorities for improvement: first priority, unsurprisingly, is the availability of staff:

The impact on children and young people, especially those from backgrounds of social deprivation is made clear in this report:

Prosperity, child poverty and attainment


The borough is relatively prosperous and has high levels of educational attainment. However, Barnet contains pockets of deprivation which are concentrated, but not exclusively, in the West of the borough.

This is reflected in turn by the third of children who live in poverty. These inequalities are reflected in educational attainment. The implications for the library strategy are:

• The relative prosperity of the borough means that a substantial proportion of the borough may choose not to borrow books or use free computer terminals.
• While generally prosperous, there are areas with high levels of deprivation which need adequate resources.
• Study spaces for young people are particularly important for those living in the most deprived areas.
• Self-service opening currently excludes, and possibly disadvantages, young people below the age of 15 from accessing quiet study areas.

The report highlights one crucial aspect of the failed 'transformation' of the library service: Barnet was one of the first authorities to implement the so called 'open access', unstaffed libraries - but they tried to use the technology in a way that no one else had used it: in order to reduce staffed hours. This is why it has been such a disaster, and has seen the permanent deployment and high cost of security staff. The adoption of open access libraries, incidentally, was based on a lie - reports to committee claiming that such libraries were 'standard' use in 'Scandinavia'. They weren't, and the few that were in existence were used in a completely different context.

Security staff cannot replace the removal of trained library staff, nor can the Big Brother eye of CCTV, which is supposed to monitor these spaces in lieu of staff on the ground. 

The report takes up the issue of 'volunteers': Barnet Tory councillors, some of whom expect generous allowances for little or no work by themselves (for example in the case of one very well paid Chair whose committee did not meet for more than seven months), in their eagerness to make residents work for free - doing work that their council tax has already paid for - thought that they could sack their own trained library staff, and replace them, if necessary, with 'volunteers'. 

The report points out that this did not happen. It didn't happen, as we warned it would not, (and is touched upon in the report) because by and large people do not want to take away the livelihoods of library workers and anyway are not capable of doing the work of professional librarians or trained library staff. 

There is a fundamental failure to grasp, both in the culture of the Barnet Tory 'vision' for public services, and to some extent in this report, the reason why volunteers cannot and should not be asked to run libraries. 

The idea that well meaning residents can take the place of library staff is wrong: the duties of library workers are complex, and require a wide range of skills, including management of safeguarding issues, dealing with users presenting challenging behaviour due to mental health problems, guiding users needing help with benefit or job applications, those in need of social service support - as well as an understanding of data protection issues. That is in addition to having a wide experience in IT and information provision - not just finding you an instant result on google, but finding you the right sort of answer for your needs. This level of qualification and skill is not, and should never be, demanded of volunteers in any form of service, but particularly in a work environment used by vulnerable residents and children.

Part of East Finchley library - as it was

The physical absence of library staff means that library users feel at risk, lack skilled support, and for many users at risk of social isolation, or with mental health issues, for children and elderly users, as we hear from users quoted in this report, there is every reason now not even to attempt to visit their local library, or, as the report points out, even to try to guess when it is open - or where it is.

Where it is? Yes. One important point well covered in the report is the lack of basic signage: a telling absence which reflects the fact that the council would really rather you didn't turn up and use the service. 

My local library is a good example of this: the new Church End branch does not even have a sign outside informing you that it is a library. If you didn't already know, you would never know at all. 

Why is this? 

If you look around you, you will see none of the fixtures are permanent: the space could be emptied of books and stripped back within a short time, with no structural changes. And that is because the space belongs to the development in which it is placed, given planning permission on the basis of offering us a new library we didn't need: there was one across the road - with a sign saying 'library' on the front - which simply required some ... what is the word? Refurbishment ... 

Once the new library fails to be considered to be performing adequately, it will face closure, and the lease returned to the freeholders. Other libraries face closure on the grounds of self generated decline in use - and will no doubt provide an asset ripe for sale - and yet another opportunity for development for the vultures circling what is left of our built heritage and community centres. 

The closure of libraries, in Barnet, is and always has been a very sensitive political issue: it causes alarm among Tory voters, and letters to our MPs: they don't want this, so the cuts were designed so as to leave the library buildings nominally as libraries, but effectively in a state that would make future closures less controversial. 

In terms of impact, these truly devastating cuts to the library service have caused real hardship for many dependent and vulnerable users. Their statements may be found in the report: take for example these comments on unstaffed hours, when entry is only possible with a card and pin number, and there may not even be a security guard on the premises: 

These are all issues we warned would happen - but were ignored by the Tory members and senior officers who wanted to adopt this system. 

People simply do not want libraries to be unstaffed: they don't feel safe, there is no one to ask for help, should there be a problem - but most of all, no one is available should they need advice, guidance, or complex information. 

One of the issues given particular attention is that of toilets: the removal of staff has had the consequence that branches are often left with no access at all, leaving many users, especially those who are disabled, elderly, pregnant, or with children, feeling unable to continue to visit their local libraries. 

Another of the issues probably not given as much attention as it should, but beyond the remit of this review in terms of future outcome, was the impact of such reduced access to libraries on the literacy and educational achievement of the borough's children, especially those in less advantaged families: an outcome whose that will only be seen in the years to come. 

Other forms of impact are not quantifiable: the impact in terms of loneliness and social exclusion. 

What can be measured has largely been avoided: as the report notes, libraries have been left without any system of assessing the level of use, since the cuts were implemented. Now why might that be, do you suppose?

As the report observes, all of this is so short sighted, in failing to accept how libraries can be used in a 'preventative' role, "improving people’s life chances and helping to reduce spending on health and welfare".

But then in Broken Barnet, long term gain is never seen as more useful than short term measures, or political gestures. 

So what is to be done? 

The report is quite clear. It recommends replacing lost staffing hours - at least until the day that will never come, when the mythical volunteer army is ready to take over: but most importantly of all, investing in the library service - yes, investing, not cutting, a difficult concept for Barnet Tories but one - are you keeping up, councillors? - one which in the long term will be more cost effective, in terms of its preventative role, as already noted. 

There is of course the benefit in terms of social value, but that might require some difficult thinking, for some members, being a commodity that cannot be measured, weighed, or quantified in material terms.

Tomorrow is also World Book Day, and an appropriate day in which to make a plea, by the children of the borough, to their elected representatives that evening, to secure their right to a better future, and a future for their local libraries.

One of the comments made by the consultants at Activist was in reaction to the strength of feeling among the hundreds of residents and library users they spoke to:

We have been struck by the passionate commitment shown by the people who use
Barnet’s libraries and by the staff who serve them. 

This is what is at the heart of this battle, and it has been a battle, between residents and the Tory group on Barnet council: they misjudged the extent to which what was once a beacon standard, money for value library service, matters to the people who live in this borough, and those who work in this service, and what is stands for: community, culture, heritage, education, and the joy of reading, the vital role of reading, and learning to see the world from a view point different to your own - a quality some might say is lacking in the ethos of the present council administration.

Over to you, now, councillors. 

Don't let us down.