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. 

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