Tuesday, 13 October 2015

Point me to the skies: in which Mrs Angry goes to a council meeting, and pays tribute to Margaret Thatcher

Bloggers Mr Reasonable, Mr Tichborne, Mrs Thatcher, and Cllr Devra Kay

Shine through the gloom and point me to the skies; 

Heav’n’s morning breaks, and earth’s vain shadows flee; 

In life, in death, O Lord, abide with me. 

Last night's library cuts meeting presented something of a challenge, for Mrs Angry. Or rather, more than one challenge. 

How to write, and then present, a three minute speech, in defence of our library service, and deconstructing the sham reports and weasel words of the case for the destruction of said library service, at the committee table, without laughing, surrounded as she was by squirming Tory councillors, and grinning senior officers, while outside the window, library campaigner Polly Napper and her brass band played a particularly mournful version of ... 'Abide With Me'? 

Oh, and - dressed in Tory blue, whilst singing the praises of Margaret Thatcher.

Yes, this is still Broken Barnet, written by swivel eyed Trot, and Domestic Extremist, Mrs Angry. 

There has, however, been a problem with our standards of service delivery, and it is true to say that we have failed to reach our Key Performance Indicators. 

This will in no way necessitate any mitigation, in terms of our (non compliant) contract with Barnet Council, however, and the usual £32 million annual fee will be expected, plus a gratuitous, gainshare payment for value added, gratuitous innuendo. 

Read on.

The tune, of course, as Mrs Angry gleefully reminded the Tory members, played on the Titanic, as it sank slowly into the icy waters, on that fateful night, so long ago.

Libdem councillor Jack Cohen, sitting with Mrs Angry and Barnet Eye blogger Roger Tichborne, between reading the Racing Times on his ipad, and discussing onesies on twitter, could not help, at this point, reviving the long standing argument he has, with Mrs Angry, as to ... whether or not it was a problem with being wrongly riveted, or screwed, that spelt disaster for the Titanic. 

Can't remember which way round it was, now, but - whichever way, of course, Mrs Angry was right, and Cllr Cohen wrong. 

Still, riveted or screwed, last night, were we, Mrs Angry, you are wondering? 

Neither, as it happens. After a meeting attended by a huge number of angry residents, staff and library lovers, it was clear that our quivering Tory councillors, pale with fear, just wanted the night over and done with, and the blame taken out of their hands, into the collective responsibility of approval at Full Council.

As blogger Mr Reasonable so perfectly describes here, the meeting was not a forum of debate, nor intended to be: the Tories had decided their strategy beforehand, and went through the motions of the committee as peremptorily and quickly as possible, guided by the usual dismissiveness of Tory Reuben Thompstone, whose style of chairmanship is best illustrated by what happened at a meeting attended by disabled children whose respite care funding had been slashed by Tories, shortly after their pre-election council tax stunt.

Before the meeting, Tombstone had gone around with a clipboard (of course) checking on those of us who intended to speak, or had put questions to the meeting. Mrs Angry admired his new handlebar moustache, with curling ends, and enquired, with great curiosity, as to whether or not he waxed it, on a regular basis. 

The moustache, that is.

Like similarly handlebar moustachioed octogenarian Tory councillor, and silver fox, John Hart, a great admirer of Mrs Angry, and indeed, her friend Mrs A. Fulbright. So is Reuben Thompstone, for that matter. Or they were, until April 1st.

Tombstone looked at Mrs Angry warily, and indicated that he did. Wax it. 

Salvador Dali, commented Mrs Angry, mindful of the surrealist circumstances of this somewhat unexpected dialogue, but trying to be helpful, used to use jam

Or was it marmalade? Or, she thought, luckily before she said it out loud, was it something else entirely? 

No, that was a scene from one of your favourite films, Mrs Angry, and best not repeated. Do try to stay focused.

Barbara Jacobson, from Barnet Alliance, was up first, with her three minutes, which you can see here:


As usual she tore through the reports put to councillors, and as usual, the Tories simply failed to listen, with any objectivity, to the reasoned arguments she made.

Councillor Thomas, obviously desperate for ideas, poor boy, asked for help from Mrs Jacobson in finding alternative methods of finding the money he has apparently lost down the back of the corporate sofa, meaning that he now cannot cough up the dough to keep our library service going. She did her best to oblige.

As he spoke the band outside, in a rather unfortunate choice of music was playing: 'Oh Come Let Us Adore Him' ... Well: let's see, Come Next May, shall we, how Adorable you are, Cllr Thomas?

Then it was Mrs Angry's turn.


Here is the three minute speech, for what it is worth.

"This report before you, and its recommendations, are based entirely on a foundation of false assumptions, projections, and flawed evidence.

‘Modelled data’ – made up data - false assertions about ‘open libraries’: all of it carefully crafted to promote the argument, clearly rejected by your constituents, for savage cuts, despite the horrible truth, hidden from you, even as you go through the motions of scrutiny, that the savings you’re promised, and the standard of performance, never appear.

Yet again you’re asked to approve, in the pursuit of savings, huge outlays of capital in preparation of further privatisation of local services. Now it’s £6 million to cover a budget cut, made out of political choice, rather than necessity, of only £2.85 million. 

It is simply madness.

Why are you so easily persuaded by your officers, and the legions of consultants whose fees you so happily endorse, that it’s necessary to destroy our library service?

Because that’s what you’ll be doing: handing over 14 buildings to Capita, to be used for commercial purposes, with only a nominal service retained, excluding reasonable access to the vast majority of current users.

With this flawed report, if you approve these recommendations, you will make the authority vulnerable to lengthy, and costly legal challenge.

Why are you all so easily persuaded to act against the very principles in which you, as Conservatives, claim to believe?

Sanctioning these draconian cuts, Councillor Thomas, will expose you and your Conservative colleagues to the real risk of electoral failure in next year’s elections. (Not all bad news then).

Councillor Cornelius: you and your husband became involved in local politics because of proposals to shut your library, in affluent Totteridge. Now you are about to sanction the removal of library services from so many less fortunate residents, who so badly depend on access to books, and help from librarians.

Councillor Hart: after the death of Margaret Thatcher, you stated you were proud to be known as an ‘unreconstructed Thatcherite’. Well, tonight, I think it is fair to say that I am the real Thatcherite, sitting at the table.

Margaret Thatcher was of course the champion of ‘aspiration’, that ideal to which you all subscribe. 

In her memoirs she revealed that, in the era when she became the ‘milk snatcher’, she refused to allow library charges to be introduced, preferring to cut welfare spending:

I knew from my experience in Grantham, she wrote, how vital it is to have access to books

Her father was an ‘avid reader’, a ‘self taught scholar’ and Chairman, Cllr Thompstone, of the local Library committee, who would borrow a ‘serious’ book from the library every week for himself – and his daughter.

As a result, she wrote, I found myself reading books which girls of my age would not generally read …’

You’ve resisted any real threat to your own library in Edgware, Councillor Hart - the branch I depended on, as a child, in a house without books: every word I write now, as it happens, was formed by the reading material I found on the bookshelves of that library.

The price of maintaining your library, however, is that the children of the poor, in East Finchley , for example - in Strawberry Vale, the worst area of social deprivation in Barnet, and one of the highest in the country - will lose all but token access to the vital support that a library brings. 

Is that fair?

What would Margaret think about that, I wonder, Councillors?"

Well, Mrs Angry felt quite pleased with herself, to have out-Thatchered an Unreconstructed Thatcherite, and there was much amusement in the public gallery, and applause, and it was clear that when directly addressed, and held to account, the named Tory members were ... deeply uncomfortable. 

Mrs Angry also felt uncomfortable, in truth, having had to appeal to the very thing she detests the most: the cult of Thatcherism, whose shrine is here, in Broken Barnet, amongst her heirs and successors, who stalk the corridors of the Town Hall, still living, in their minds, in the glorious era of her ascendancy.

It should be noted, readers, that in order to research the material for this speech, Mrs Angry was obliged to read the early chapters of several biographies, and the autobiography, of the young Margaret Roberts. 

Having sat down to pre-order these volumes at the British Library, and finding them already in use by some other deluded reader, Mrs Angry was very grateful to find them ... in her local library. Where else?

And by the way: one of the very first speeches Margaret made in Finchley, you know, in February 1959, was in ... North Finchley Library. 

Oh, and Mrs Angry did some 'volunteer' shelving, while she was in her own local library, in Church End, just to show willing.

Back to the meeting. 

The aspirational Dan Thomas was clearly wishing he was not taking part in the proceedings, and was uncharacteristically quiet all evening: when Mrs Angry pointed out the impact that the Tory library cuts would have on his attempt to take the GLA seat from Labour's Andrew Dismore. 

The look on his face said it all: he knows it, and not even his half hearted comment, sotto voce to her at the table, you said that last year, was expressed with any conviction. 

He knows the truth, that although in the end the Tory MPs were returned in the last election, the library issue lost them many thousands of votes, caused them to panic, in the run up to polling day, and indeed, in the public gallery last night, and even outside in the demonstration, there were, quite astonishingly, perhaps, numbers of Conservative voting residents who not only objected to the library cuts but for the first time had come to a library meeting to witness their elected representatives in action - and taken part in a protest.

After Mrs Angry's speech, Tory chair Reuben Thompstone put the same question he had put to Barbara Jacobson, in boorish manner, demanding to know ... if we were going to volunteer at our local library. Outside, the band reverted to the beginning of its musical medley:

When other helpers fail and comforts flee,
Help of the helpless, oh, abide with me ...

It demonstrated, with perfect clarity, that he simply does not understand the objection to volunteer run libraries: that he and his colleagues have no grasp of the professional skills needed to run a library service, of their vital role in supporting the needs of users, and that no one with any decency wants to play their part in turning library staff out of their jobs, into a desperate future of unemployment and loss of livelihood.

Barbara responded in no uncertain terms, taken aback by such an aggressive and misjudged question: Mrs Angry, forewarned, suggested immediately that Reuben Thompstone might like to consider performing his role as councillor and chair of the committee on a voluntary basis, rather than raking in the massive allowances he enjoys, reminding him of one of his Tory predecessors, the widely respected Councillor Sussman, who gave years of service to the borough, seeing it as a civic duty - but never claimed a single penny in allowance.

And further, Mrs Angry, who, unlike Reuben Thompstone, has worked in public libraries and knows exactly what a difficult, but rewarding job it is, reminded him, she did enough voluntary work by the means of producing this blog, with all the lovingly chronicled reports of incompetence within the ranks of the current Tory administration. Reuben appeared to be less than grateful for this example of Big Society enterprise in action, it must be said.

Two questions from Labour councillors: what did Mrs Angry know about the claims made in the report regarding Scandinavian libraries, and the open model it describes, falsely, as being the 'standard approach' there. Mrs Angry pointed out that only one country in Scandinavia used this model, that is to say Denmark, and out of 500 libraries, only around 180 are of this type - and only in isolated rural communities. Nowhere comparable to the scheme proposed by this report, in terms of the context of an urban environment, or on such a scale, has ever been attempted - for good reason.

Another Labour councillor's question asked if she thought the earlier proposal to shrink libraries to 540 square feet had really been a serious consideration. Mrs Angry replied that it was quite obviously a scare tactic, meant to make the current almost equally bad shrinkage appear more acceptable - which of course it is not.

There was little time to put supplementary questions, to 134 written submissions, but we tried. Despite desperate attempts at evasion, it emerged that - yes, Crapita are in line to boost their profits from the already burdened taxpayers of Broken Barnet, by getting gainshare payments on top of their contractual fees, for managing the former library buildings, when they get their sweaty little hands on them. Kerrching! As for the new idea, by our warm hearted council, to make the children of Broken Barnet pay daily fines on overdue books, they hoped to make as much as £25, 000, in the next financial period. 

Marvellous: and how, asked Mrs Angry, will you enforce this? Will you annexe their pocket money, should they refuse to cough up? Or send round the Capita bailiffs? And what if there are not enough naughty children in Broken Barnet, keeping their books out too long, and you fail to squeeze enough cash out of them? What is the risk assessment in terms of such failure, seeing as your revenue projections depend on such certainties?

Ah: risk assessment ... for some reason, officers were markedly reluctant to answer any questions, no matter how many times you repeated the question, about this subject. It then emerged that the full risk register would now have to be made public because someone had FOI'd it. Good. Because really, it should have been part of the report, shouldn't it, so councillors could judge the case for the proposals.

Oh dear. A thought, readers: how awful it would be, if the reason the risk assessment was not made available was because ... the risks are ... sshhh ...  TOO HIGH!

The other glaring omission was anything other than a draft EIA, ie Equalities Impact Assessment. Whether this was deliberate, as clearly would be very useful, in getting the proposals past a committee, or just incompetence, is hard to say: more likely, this being Broken Barnet, to be sheer indifference.  

The greatest flaw in the report lies here, however, and for whatever reason. The impact of the proposals, especially the open library nonsense, will, without question, make a profound impact on the groups to which the Equalities Act extends a duty of protection. Young, old, sick, disabled, poor, or just different in some way: your rights to access to a library service are about to be stolen from you, courtesy of your Tory councillors. 

Some councillors are not fazed by the potential risks posed by open libraries, however. Dan Thomas dared to venture a point, not very strongly, as he was trying hard not to put his head above the parapet, that student libraries that are open for use when not staffed were ok, and therefore an unstaffed library in an urban part of London, late at night, was comparable. 

Councillor Helena Hart, however, having, as Mrs Angry pointed out in her speech, made sure her own library in Edgware was going to be just fine, was keen to try to present the open system as perfectly acceptable. Edgware, in a nice leafy suburb, had piloted a scheme of this sort: it has only run for three months, has had a pathetically low uptake, and yet was offered as proof of satisfaction.

Although there was some dissatisfaction expressed by the senior officer, regarding the exclusion of children from the open libraries, and some handwringing about perhaps it might be possible, in some future proposal, to address this; the safety aspects were dismissed by Councillor Hart, by implication, and on no good reason. That there have been no incidents yet is hardly evidence that bears relying upon - and residents in the room were furious. 

What will happen, if there is anti-social behaviour, or some sort of assault, or medical emergency: and there will be, as anyone who works in a library can testify?

How can lone women feel safe in such an environment, especially at night?

Who will help, should there be any sort of trouble?

There is CCTV, we were told - well, yes, but not live, shouted residents.

Councillor Hart did agree, somewhat primly,that it was unfortunate that there would be no toilets available in the new open libraries. 

But she wanted to make the point that Even Before the pilot scheme had been in place, the toilet had often been out of order because ... because ... and here she prepared herself for an immersion in vulgarity, like a staff nurse putting on rubber gloves, to clean out a bedpan ... because of ... Misuse.

Councillor Hart's face indicated, in no uncertain terms, that this ... misuse ... amounted to some unmentionable horror, possibly worse than, say ... the toilet seat left standing. 

Perhaps  ... an act of contempt, left on the floor, as a souvenir, in time honoured fashion?

Still, thought Mrs Angry: if so, a perfect metaphor, in its way, for what the Tories want to do to our library service, is it not?

They never shit on their own doorsteps, after all, but prefer to leave the dirty stuff dumped on those whose opinions count for nothing, in this borough.

(Mrs Angry was educated by nuns, you know. Almost made a full recovery, as you can see).

If the Tories think that, by referring the library report to Full Council, the matter will be at an end, however: they are mistaken. 

As Mr Reasonable put it: 

Barnet is a great place to live because of the people who live here, the people who care, the people who are passionate about their community ...

These are the people I love:  the ones who stand up, and speak out, when they see injustice, and inequality, and a democratic process held hostage by commerce, and self interest; who see elected representatives who betray them, betray us, and our best interests, rather than protect us, and the things we need, just to get by, to live, not according to our worth, our status, but as families, individuals, friends, comrades: old and young, straight, gay, able bodied, disabled, rich or poor, citizens of the world, residents of Broken Barnet.

It's no wonder they want to shut the libraries, and hand the buildings over to Capita, as part of its failing empire: a last trophy, perhaps, for the outsourcerers.

But this fight, over our library service, is about so much more than that. 

And that fight continues.


Richard Logue said...

And what was Cllr Thompstone's answer to my supplementary question asking him to volunteer and forsake his allowance for chairing the committee?

Mrs Angry said...

Remind us, Richard, please ...