Sunday, 12 March 2017

Barnet Libraries' 'Watergate': another privatised cock up?

Update Tuesday:

No further response from the Chief Executive, so I have now written to Tory leader, Councillor Richard Cornelius.

Updated Monday morning: 

Mrs Angry has written to the Chief Executive of the London Borough of Broken Barnet, to ask why he had wrongly claimed no legionella traces had been found in any Barnet Libraries. He has immediately replied that it was his 'team' - presumably his own senior officers, or Capita, or both -  who had told him that was the case:

I am looking into this now. I previously received assurances from my team that no traces of Legionella had been found in any of our libraries and from my perspective this assurance still stands.

I will investigate this immediately and get back to you as soon as possible.

In a couple of weeks time, the new model Barnet library service will begin - a once magnificent, beacon status, value for money service, one of the best in the UK, now slashed to pieces, battered and bruised by your Tory councillors, and left dying on the ground. 

In a few more years, the worst affected remains of the service - a handful of lucrative potential property developments - will be closed, due to lack of use, thanks to the new regime - and put up for sale, by Capita, on behalf of your council. Kerrching!

In the meanwhile, four libraries have been ruthlessly disposed of, and handed over to 'volunteer' enterprises to run. I say run: this will be a farcical replacement for a properly managed library, with a managers with no library qualifications, and an unknown quota of untrained, unpaid, and inexperienced volunteers attempting to take over the duties of professional librarians and skilled library staff, half of whom have lost their jobs. 

Already the cracks are showing: it seems one of these faux library enterprises, Childs Hill, will not be bothering to open up on Saturdays, for example.

The Tory councillors who are responsible for this act of corporate vandalism, are pretending they are listening to residents, and keeping open 14 libraries. That could only be true if you hammer out the meaning of what a library is to the shape of the utter travesty they are imposing on our service. 

Not only have we lost four professionally run branches to a bunch of amateur ventures using the idea of a library as some sort of outlet for their own purposes, the loss of staff now means much of the new library opening hours will now comprise only DIY access to unstaffed, empty rooms, watched over - when manned, by a CCTV camera - and barred to any children who may need to visit, either to borrow books, or use study space. Study space, of course, and the book stock have been ruthlessly cut, as well as staffing, and the buildings handed over to Capita to manage. 

Over recent years the physical condition of Barnet's library buildings - to any user familiar with the branches over a long period of time - has visibly deteriorated: the fabric of the buildings, and the internal decoration, fading, peeling, mouldering: the perfect metaphor for the state of public services, in our borough.

This of course is in line with the general policy of our Tory council's neglect of any service in which they see no value, (other than the potential value of development), and a neglect which will in itself help to deter residents from using that service. A strategy that makes it so much easier to produce evidence to support proposals to 'rationalise', outsource, or otherwise divest the authority of responsibility for what should be a core function of local government.

Years of decline in standards of management of ageing premises - and even some quite new - inevitably leads to problems. Problems which have the potential to pose a risk to those working on those premises: and to those visiting them.

Over the last few months, rather worryingly, some of us have been receiving reports about rumoured problems with the water supply in Barnet libraries. 

That these reports were from a number of different sources, and repeatedly, and persistently, over a sustained period of time lent a certain amount of credibility to them. And then there was worrying information, closer to home. 

Two family members work part time in Barnet Libraries, and one came home from work one day last month, rather upset, and concerned, as staff had been told not to use the water supply. 

No explanation, no alternative drinking water provided - and if you were worried about using the loo? Go across the road & use the ones at the supermarket. 

Oh, and there were rumours about  - legionella.

Mrs Angry, as you might imagine, was very Angry. And very worried, as another family member working at another branch, with equally antiquated plumbing, has a health condition which is vulnerable to any risk from any sort of water contamination - and staff had received no information, or guidance.

(Mrs Angry is also fairly well acquainted with the risks of Legionnaires, having been tested for it a few years ago, on her gp's gloomy insistence, on developing pneumonia after a stay in a hotel during the Labour conference ... )

First thing on Monday morning, she sent an urgent email to a library manager, which was ignored, so was then redirected to the Chief Executive, John Hooton, asking what was going on, and to demand action. A number of questions were put:

1. Is it true that there have been checks for legionella in any Barnet libraries?

2. If so, when?

3. If so, what are the results?

4. Is it true that members of staff have had to be tested for Legionnaires disease?

5. If so, were any tests positive?

6. Can you confirm that there have been no concerns about legionella at Burnt Oak, Edgware, and Grahame Park libraries?

7. Why are staff not able to use the water at North Finchley?

8. Have North Finchley, Church End, East Finchley and Hendon libraries had their water supply systems checked recently? Are my family members safe working there?

9. Do you have a risk assessment scheme for legionella? Who is responsible for its implementation? 

10. How often have the appropriate checks and preventative actions been taken over the last five years?

In the course of a series of emails, some responses were given to some of these questions: and some of those responses now, after making Freedom of Information requests, would appear to be ... untrue.

Despite assurances to the contrary, legionella was detected in at least one library (now closed to the public), and there were not only raised TVC levels in some branches (including the one where one family member worked) - another branch had a bacterial contamination.

If any staff were informed of these results, it was done in secret, and the wider group of staffed not told, or screened for those who might be at higher risk, an action a responsible employer might be expected to undertake. 

In the FOI responses, six libraries appear to have had no test results. This apparent omission was immediately queried, but - no reply yet.

So: either Capita has failed to provide them for the FOI response, by error, or withheld them on purpose - or there were no tests for those other libraries, in the last twelve months. 

And odd, isn't it, that two of the libraries tested (though no proof of North Finchley) had this done around the time of closure, due to the cuts, (for 'modification', in the case of NF) rather than when open and used by staff - and the public?

Barnet's new Chief Executive, John Hooton, left of Tory leader Richard Cornelius

Let's see what the Chief Executive had to say: here is some of the latter correspondence: redacted to remove personal details: (my emphasis in red).

Mr Hooton:

I have still not received a proper response to the questions I put to you and Ms X in regard to the water supply in libraries ...

If the council refuses to give immediate reassurance about the safety of the water supply in library buildings, and for its employees, frankly that is deplorable. 

If I don't receive the information I asked for without any further delay, I will be obliged to take appropriate action elsewhere.

Hooton, John 
Feb 9


I apologise for the delay in responding to you on this. I would like to reassure you around the risk of contracting Legionnaires disease and the concerns that you have raised in respect of libraries.

To begin with, it is important to note that to be at risk of contracting Legionnaires disease, staff and others would need to be exposed to high counts of the legionella bacteria in a mist form and inhaled into the lungs (for example from air conditioning units), and that you cannot contract legionnaires disease from drinking water or washing hands. No such risks have been identified in our libraries as part of our testing. However, I will explain what testing has taken place.

We carry out regular checks on all water services in all Council owned and controlled buildings in Barnet in line with legislation and codes of practice. This is referred to as the Normal Cyclical Maintenance regime. Once a year samples are taken from the water services systems and the samples are then assessed in laboratory conditions.  Should there be any concerns raised then more frequent tests and sampling are undertaken along with immediate remedial works in line with the codes of practice. There is on-going monitoring and testing of the water system services throughout the year.

There are no positive legionella results in any of our libraries. When tested, a small number of outlets (taps) showed some slightly elevated Total Viable Counts (TVC).  A TVC is a generic name for material such as bacteria (excluding Legionella), yeast, or mould. Any measures taken are strictly preventative only; at no point have any staff or visitors to the library been at risk.

When a positive sample is received, recommendations and arrangements are made with the respective site in line with the latest regulations and codes of practice. This includes taking the affected outlets out of service and cleaned in line with recommended codes of practice, then retested. If elevated TVC counts are still recorded after the preventative measures are introduced then the system would be cleaned, descaled and disinfected.

At North Finchley specifically, staff can use the water in all but one of the outlets, which was taken out of service as a precautionary measure while it was cleaned. Resampling is being undertaken before bringing it back into use.

Kind regards

John Hooton
Chief Executive
London Borough of Barnet

Feb 10

to John Hooton

Thank you for your reply, but I am afraid it does not fully address the concerns raised.

Legionnaires Disease may theoretically be contracted from any form of water vapour: in other words wherever hot water is available for use. I note that for example in 2015, a driving test centre was closed after Legionella was found in the water supply - clearly the same type of use of water posing similar risk to staff and the public as any library workplace.

You say 'there are no positive results': does that mean that there never have been?

But this is not just about the risk of legionella: to have bacterial contamination found in at least three libraries, and for staff not to have been informed is simply not acceptable ... The council has a duty of care to identify any risk to staff health and safety. At no time have staff been told of the reason for the taps now being taped off: this is grossly irresponsible, especially when staff may have health problems, or be pregnant.

You refer to 'cyclical testing'. 

Why was such testing only done at NF library immediately before its closure for 'modification', rather than earlier when staff were exposed to risk? 

Please confirm that Church End, East Finchley and Hendon libraries have also been recently tested, and supply the dates on which this was done, so that we can be sure my family members are not working in an environment where the water supply may pose a risk to their health.

Hooton, John 
Feb 10


To come back on these points:

Firstly around water vapour, legionella doesn't survive in temperatures over 60 degrees, and water boils at 100 degrees, so I am assured that any vapour from water will not have any risk of legionella. As I mentioned, risk can exist for things like air conditioning units, but this is not the situation here.

There are no recorded cases of positive tests for legionella. The team has reviewed records over the past four years.

In terms of the risk to staff and staff being informed. Occasionally low levels of bacteria will be found in water testing. I am assured that the levels found pose no risk to the health of staff and the public. We would only notify staff where a risk exists.

In terms of testing at Church End, Hendon and East Finchley, I can confirm that these were all tested 6 weeks ago with no issues arising.

First of all to note that Mr Hooton's comments on water vapour are interesting, but I think somewhat questionable. If legionella traces in water taps are not any danger to health, why is it necessary to test for such, and take action if found? And it was found, in Grahame Park, in June, and then again later.

Mrs Angry decided to carry out her own sampling process, comparing the level of accuracy in responses from Chief Executives to that of Capita officers, testing undertaken on the same day, and delivered, via the Freedom of Information Act, to her laboratory for analysis.

Q: Please give me full details of all tests of water supply and plumbing systems
in Barnet Libraries during the last twelve months.

Response: Please see the attached copies of water sampling certificates. The dates of sampling
are contained on the certificates. The tests are for Legionella, E Coli, Coliforms and
Total Viable Counts. The tests were undertaken by HSL and conducted by an
independent laboratory. The tests were taken on behalf of Capita CSG Building
Services Team.

Q: Please tell me if any members of staff or public have reported illness related
to library buildings, or have reported as testing positive for Legionnaires
disease. You may of course redact personal names, or details covered by

Response: There have been no positive tests for Legionnaires disease amongst staff members

or the public and no evidence of any illness connected to our library buildings

No positive tests. Were there any tests? Negative ones? If so, how widely were staff members screened? And why?

The results returned, with alarming evidence of corporate contamination, over and beyond the level of credibility acceptable to Mrs Angry: with some libraries mysteriously missing, and an alarming contradiction of the assurance given by the Chief Executive regarding legionella:

The microbiology results in red, says a discreet warning note at the bottom of the page 'appear to be out of specification. ACTION MAY BE REQUIRED'.

Another test in September:

Whether or not legionella traces pose a risk to health, at any given temperature, leaves the question, unanswered, about bacterial contamination of water, which most certainly can cause serious problems to anyone, let alone someone elderly, in poor health, with low immunity, or pregnant - and in this case the positive count was in a women's WC.

TVC/aerobic colony counts - 'total viable counts' of live bacteria - indicate a level of potential for risk to health from poor water hygiene - there are no statutory limits but there is guidance - and regular testing is meant to be used as a warning system to prevent serious contamination of water supplies.

Among the FOI results, which appear edited, there is a 'Warning and /or Out of Specification Report' for the staff kitchen, in regard to 'coliforms', from a test at the beginning of February.

Other tests show positive results - although presumably at a level that did not require informing staff:

In January, the men's WC cold water test at Edgware library showed a level of 29 under Total Coliforms, 94 for TVC at 37 degrees C, and 25, at 22 degrees. 

East Finchley's second floor kitchenette in January had a TVC level of 202 - for some reason no results given for the staff WC levels.

Golders Green staff kitchen in January also had TVC levels of 37 (37 degrees) and 14 (22 degrees).

Hendon had a test, it seems, in January, possibly, from a sample submission form - but no results disclosed. And we don't know the results from five other library premises.

To put these results into some sort of perspective, here is an explanation from one water testing company, my emphasis in red -

There is no standard acceptable value for TVC. Guidelines say that on-going testing should
indicate a rise in numbers and should indicate that a system is becoming contaminated /
needs cleaning. The food industry uses the following values as acceptable for TVC and
these can be used by other industries as a basic guideline to acceptable levels. TVC 22°C -
less than 1000 /ml, TVC 37oC - less than 100 / ml.

Coliforms: Coliforms are a group of environmental bacteria that have originated from the
intestines of animals. They can generally grow in the environment also and are known as
indicator organisms ie they are used as a guideline of possible contamination. In the majority of cases when coliforms are picked up in water samples taken from a tap the cause is the fact that the tap needs cleaning. Acceptable levels - not detected in 100ml.

Edgware's Total Coliform count, therefore, would appear to breach the safe level, and the 37 degrees result is only just under the guideline level.

'We would only notify staff where a risk exists', said the Chief Executive: who defines that risk?

Were all members of staff who had worked at Grahame Park notified, and tested? 

What about South Friern? And Edgware?

What are the results for the missing libraries?

Why were staff in libraries with TVC traces, where taps were taped off, not informed of the reason, and given alternative drinking water? 

Why did the authority not seek to identify any members of staff who might be at higher risk from exposure to any contaminated water, especially drinking water?

Why, as soon as legionella traces were found, and then coliform contamination, were not all libraries immediately shut and the water supply tested, and cleaned?

As the TVC tests have shown raised levels, is there a continuing system of regular checks in every library, to make sure that the count is not rising above the acceptable levels?

What is Capita's role in all this? Did they act correctly in the management of this problem? Did they, on taking over responsibility for maintenance of buildings in 2013, provide and maintain an adequate system of monitoring? 

Or was it, as in the case of the library IT crash, due to a failure by the privatised service contractors to have in place an adequate system of management?

Ironic, really: not so long ago, Capita removed access to drinking water at all council meetings. 

Maybe that was a wise precaution, in the circumstances ...

But now that libraries are entirely managed by Capita, and four of them handed over to private groups to run, can we feel assured as to the standard of maintenance, and that the health and safety of staff, volunteers and library users will not be at risk?

How many other council properties are now managed by Capita, and have their water supply systems been tested?

There is another aspect to all this. 

Six years ago, legionella was found in three Barnet care homes, and the outbreak blamed on poor maintenance by council contractors: you can read more about that here and here. The homes were run by Catalyst, for Barnet, but in turn the management was subcontracted to Fremantle. As is often the case, a privatised service led to a lowering of standards in this case with potentially fatal consequences. At the time, the authority's environmental health team was obliged to issue health and safety improvement notices to the council's contractors, as well as demand the provision of risk assessments for each water supply system.

What about now, in this case, in 2017, where Capita is responsible for both maintenance of the library buildings, and environmental health enforcement? Quite clearly there is a major conflict of interest. 

What steps were taken, in regard to the results from the library water supply systems? 

Did Capita issue itself with a health and safety improvement notice, and demand individual risk assessments? Did it receive them?

Mrs Angry will be asking Mr Hooton tomorrow to explain the statement he made, not once, but twice, that there had been no legionella traces in any Barnet library, and will update this post accordingly.


Anonymous said...

Mrs Angry is someone who clearly knows very little about Legionella, TVCs, E coli & coliforms etc.

I suggest you read HSG274 Part 2, it might improve your understanding of the subject.

Anonymous said...

Oh dear,
I do hope that the voluntary organisations who have taken on the role of putting professionals out of a job are aware of these issues. Many of their volunteers will have compromised immune systems and/or serious health issues.
Let's hope that these organisations have taken out comprehensive insurance policies. But I doubt if they have done so as they do not have a clue what running a public library entails. They just want the money and to score Brownie points with Barnet Council.

Mrs Angry said...

Anonymous 09.16: Mrs Angry has in fact taken the trouble to inform herself extensively on the subject, having a family member who has been working in an environment where the contamination of water supplies has the potential to compromise their health, so please don't waste your time patronising her, from what you think is the safety of an anonymous comment.

Although the risk of contracting legionella is low, in any responsibly run council premise, the trace of any such contaminant would be dealt with efficiently. But there are other issues here, in regard to bacterial contamination of water, which most certainly pose a risk to staff members through drinking or handwashing.

Mrs Angry said...

Commenter No 2: a very good point. If health and safety standards cannot be maintained by the council and contractors, what are the prospects when some of our former libraries are handed over to these amateur enterprises?

Jimbokav said...

I will be honest here and admit that I don't have any experience with regards to legionella but I'm always interested in learning about things that I don't know about and the internet is a wonderful thing.

I have discovered a few things that might be of interest to Mr Hooton.

It's not a question of water needing to reach 100 degrees and boiling, (a very simplistic idea in itself). It's not about evaporation, it's about the fact that that water in these systems will be stored in a pressurised system and it's this "pressure" that allows water systems such as taps to work.

The definition of aerosol is "a substance enclosed under pressure and released as a fine spray by means of a propellant gas". So to clarify, the water can still be in liquid form for the risk to exist. It just has to be under pressure, (and it is). "Fine spray" you say? What, such as a leak in old and poorly maintained pipework?

This is an extract of a procedure used in the above instance elsewhere.

Legionella count between 102
and 103
cfu/litre. The Responsible Person must
be immediately informed and the system re-sampled, if a similar count is
found again, a review of the control and risk assessment carried must be out
to identify any remedial actions necessary. If two or more counts are at 100
cfu the system may be colonised albeit at low level. Disinfection of the system
should be considered but an immediate review of the control measures and
risk assessment must be carried out to identify any other remedial action

When I started looking at this, my assumption is that it would eventually turn out that this is general Barnet/Crapita incompetence with little actual risk to anyone. This would not seem to be the case and rather than just Barnet/Crapita screwing up again and not being called to account, this is actually a serious risk that they seem to be attempting to even deny exists.

It is specifically mentioned that legionella thrives between 20 and 60 degrees, (and hot water should be dispensed below 60 degrees), so rather than this meaning that everything is ok, it actually highlights an area of concern.

This is what an expert in the field states.

Legionella is normally the main concern when treating a hot and cold water system. The types of outlet that are typically attached to this type of system, such as taps and in particular showers, pose a significant legionella risk as they all release a water aerosol when used - inhaling water aerosols is the only way humans can catch Legionnaires’ disease. As a result these systems account for a significant number of legionnaires cases.

How can someone responsible for this be so uneducated if I can find this out in 10 minutes?

Mrs Angry said...

It is true to say that more risk is from showers - when I was tested for it after being stricken with a certain type of pneumonia, it worried me that I had had to have the shower in my hotel bathroom dismantled & replaced because it was broken. And the gp said hotel plumbing systems present a higher risk due to the complicated plumbing systems.

That said, it is theoretically possible to create vapour in other ways. And that, presumably, is why there are requirements for testing taps. The test in this instance was quite clear, and was repeated until I think January, from June.

Were staff still working there? Were all staff who worked there before and after the testing informed and their health screened?

Where are the missing test results from six libraries?

And let's not forget the other contaminants and indicators: what sort of follow up testing was there - is there?