Dear Mr Richardson (Head of Libraries at DDCMS),
Thank you for your email dated 13 October 2017, advising us of the progress made by the Department in assessing our complaint under s.10(1)(a) of the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964, made by letter dated 10 December 2016.
As Barnet Council (“Barnet”) has begun to carry out its planned changes to the library service in recent months, we are now able to see how some of the changes have been implemented in practice, and to observe their effects on users. We wish to bring these preliminary concerns to the Department’s attention, because we believe that they raise matters material to the Secretary of State’s decision.
First, we have observed that promises made by Barnet are not being kept. In particular:
- “Access measures such as easy read symbols to be used to ensure people with learning disabilities can use open libraries” [Equality Impact Assessment “EIA”, page 15 ]. We have seen no evidence of such information designed for people with learning disabilities – in particular the “User Manual” that is provided is incomplete and difficult to follow for these users and many others, including those with English as a second language, those with poor eyesight and those less confident with using technology. In fact, we ourselves have found difficulties using the printer system and the questions we had were not answered by the user manual.
- An “online enquiry service will be extended ….and facilitate online library users and users of unstaffed facilities making contact with trained staff who can help with information enquiries” [Para 1.13.5 Barnet’s Future Library Service, “BFLS”] We notice that there is no mention of such a service being provided in the User Manual at East Finchley library. We also note that when using the library computers, there is no information on the screen or near the computer about the availability of such a service. When we went online to check the catalogue, there was, again, no reference to any help service.
- “Volunteers will play a key role to develop facilitated opening hours with the use of new technology…” (page 6 EIA) “Technology enabled opening supported by volunteers will apply the same access criteria but will offer support to those who might have difficulty using the library or feel safer with volunteer support”. Opponents of the Barnet library plan at the time expressed scepticism about the volunteer hours described, suggesting that it was most unlikely that sufficient volunteers would be found, and that to set out volunteer hours in the plan was to give a misleading impression of staffed hours. In the event, we believe that the opponents have been proved right. In the actual implementation of the plan so far, the number of volunteer supported hours has been negligible – certainly, at East Finchley library we have seen evidence of one volunteer who came in for several days only during the “transition period” to assist people to access pin codes. It transpired that this volunteer was a member of council staff, though not on the libraries team and that he had received very little, if any training.
- Specifically, regarding use of the unstaffed libraries by people with disabilities, the EIA stated “Development of an enhanced volunteer offer should mitigate many issues” (page 16). As we have stated above, there is very little evidence of any volunteer support in unstaffed libraries – let alone an “enhanced volunteer offer”. In contrast, we have evidence that those with disabilities (and older people) are extremely reluctant to use the unstaffed libraries and many have not applied for a pin code on this basis. From conversations with senior library service staff during the “transition” phase at East Finchley library, we were informed that users with disabilities or additional needs who registered for a pin code would receive a more in-depth induction procedure regarding their safe use of the space. In at least one case that we are aware of, this has not been carried out.
- “The use of volunteers as part of the facilitated open library, training and information sessions about technology enabled libraries, use of the home and library service and the development of virtual enquiry will help mitigate the impact on [older people, people with disabilities and the unemployed]” (page 10 EIA). We refer again to the issues re volunteers and the lack of any discernible “virtual enquiry” system. We have also seen no evidence of “training and information sessions” beyond very basic induction received by everyone applying for a pin code. Certainly, no such sessions have been advertised at East Finchley library.
- “Provision of computers and free access to the internet will continue to be a core feature of all categories of library including partnership libraries” [Para 1.13.3 BFLS ] In relation to this point, we are concerned to hear that at Mill Hill ‘partnership’ library, run by an organisation called NW7 Hub, computer access is charged at a cost of £9 for a minimum four-hour slot.
- “All core libraries will continue to offer computer literacy sessions”. [Para 1.12.5 BFLS] The number of free computer classes at libraries has in fact been significantly reduced - there were previously free computer classes at most libraries in Barnet, now we understand that they are only offered at 3 locations. Regarding the reason for this reduction, please see attached appendix 1 – an email exchange between a library user and member of the library staff regarding the provision of free computer classes at East Finchley which apologies for the lack of classes and states “Remember we’ve lost half our staff and are desperately stretched. It’s important to be realistic about what’s achievable”.
- Barnet promised that technology-assisted opening would allow for extended opening hours – i.e. that libraries would be open earlier in the morning and later in the evening than previously. Whilst East Finchley is opening slightly earlier in the morning and on one additional day, there is no evening opening beyond the normal weekly session until 8pm which existed prior to the changes. We have been informed that there is as yet no planned date when this will take place, except at Edgware library where the pilot of the extended hours took place. We suspect that the delay in this extended opening across the borough is because Barnet does not have confidence in the safety and accessibility of unstaffed opening (see our further comments below).
Second, we are concerned that the loss of some specific library provision was not made explicit in the Barnet library plan, so that its effect was not fully explored or consulted on. In particular:
The “transition” phase when staff were available for extra hours to sign people up for pin codes was not advertised and did not last long enough. As a result, many people who intended to apply for pin codes failed to do so and as a result both their own and their children’s access to the library has been severely diminished if not entirely blocked. Recently published library statistics for Barnet show there were 187,165 borrowers in 2016-17, but as of the beginning of October 2017, only 15,000 had registered for a pin code (we take this figure from an interview with local MP Mike Freer, reported in the Ham & High newspaper on 4 October 2017; in fact, this may be a generous estimate because Councillor Reuben Thompstone in an interview on the same day for the Barnet Times gave the figure as 12,000). We note that this figure may also include those who had previously registered during the one-year pilot system at Edgware library. These figures show that, at best, only 12% of borrowers who are eligible for a pin code have so far applied for one. (We calculated this by deducting all children, teen and mobile library borrowers - even though the “teen” figure includes those up to 17 years old, some of whom would in fact be entitled to apply for a pin code). Clearly this represents a drastic reduction in library use.
Third, it is apparent that in implementing the service, Barnet has not had the same confidence in the safety and accessibility of libraries in unstaffed hours as it expressed when putting its plans forward, with the result that it is spending significant extra sums on the provision of security guards. So far, we have observed security guards at the new technology-assisted libraries throughout the unstaffed periods. From conversations with security guards, we understand that this arrangement will remain in place for an indefinite period. We make three points about this:
Plainly, it undermines the supposed savings of the Barnet library plan to have to employ a security guard at each location. And if (as opponents suggested all along) it proves necessary to have some staff presence at each location, it is a shameful and untenable solution to employ somebody who is not able to assist and advise library users in the provision of the library service. A number of occasions have been reported to us when members of the public have expressed their frustration and even anger at the security staff who are not able to let them into the library without a pin code and who cannot help them to access one. For those who have a pin code, we have witnessed the security staff attempting to assist users to operate the technology, though without having the necessary training – again a recipe for frustration. These scenarios illustrate the reason why trained library staff are necessary to facilitate use of the library at all times.
It is also a shameful irony that the presence of the security staff is not being publicised to library users, nor the fact that Barnet has decided to allow library toilets to remain open while security guards are on site. We are aware that a number of older people, those with disabilities and young children have not even attempted to register for a pin code as they feel unable to use the libraries during the unstaffed hours due to the lack of access to toilets. The presence of the security guard means that some of these people might in fact feel able to use the library during the unstaffed hours, had they known what system was actually in operation
Although security staff have been in attendance, unaccompanied children are still not allowed to enter the unstaffed libraries. Obviously, there are concerns about children relying for assistance on security staff who are not trained and may not be CRB checked – but we are extremely concerned that, despite recognising the necessity for a staff presence, no thought has apparently been given to mitigating access issues for children.
Fourth, much of the space supposedly freed for commercial use remains unlet. In an example that we believe is replicated elsewhere in the borough, the computer room and study hall at East Finchley lie empty and unlet. Meanwhile we are aware that previous licence holders, such as Kumon, were asked to leave the building in around December 2016 and the income from these groups has been lost. In some library buildings we understand that rental space is being occupied by Capita staff – calling into question how the planned income from external sources is to be achieved. In our complaint, we challenged Barnet’s over-optimistic assumptions about the income from commercial use of former library space; there is very little evidence so far to support Barnet’s optimism.
Fifth, since the date of our original complaint, we have learnt more about the total cost of the Barnet library plan. In our original letter, we complained that Barnet was planning to make a one-off expenditure of about £6.3m to implement the changes. We have now learnt that Barnet has in fact approved plans for one-off expenditure on libraries of more than £14m. (See Barnet’s Annual Procurement Plan for 2017/2018, items 17 to 25, which approved expenditure of more than £14m on library construction, adaptation, new kit, removals, consultants, etc.) We fail to see how it could possibly be described as a good housekeeping to spend £14m, in circumstances where budget savings supposedly demand a reduction in staff hours of approximately 70% and a cut in floor space of approximately 50%, with the aim of eventually making planned annual savings of £2.277m by 2019/20
We have been receiving comments by submissions on our web site from the public, who have been giving us their views on the new library services, as well as some handwritten submissions. The web site remains open for submissions and we expect to receive more. For the time being, we are sending you the 58 submissions we have received so far which come from users of all age groups, spread across 11 of the borough’s 14 libraries. These submissions raise a variety of serious concerns about how the new system is operating and the impact on protected groups. Amongst the concerns raised are:
We and many other Barnet residents are extremely concerned about the impact of these badly planned and implemented measures which are not even proving cost effective. The library service is a ghost its former self, unstaffed libraries are unwelcoming and unsafe and the promised benefits of extended opening are barely apparent. The fact that, at most, 9% of library users have registered for a pin code speaks volumes about the failures of these plans. At the same time, their full impact is not yet clear as the plans have not even yet been fully implemented in terms of loss of security staff, toilets and lifts.
We look forward to hearing further from the Minister in relation to our complaint. We understand that we can request copies of the material which Barnet Council is relying on to establish that the service is compliant with its duties – please can you provide us now with any information that is not already in the public domain.
Robert Strang and Emily Burnham,
Save Barnet Libraries
Save Barnet Libraries submitted a formal complaint to the Culture Minister under the Libraries and Museums Act 1964 in December 2016. After much delay, it was finally answered in July 2017 and registered as a formal complaint.
In October 2017, we updated the Minister with information about the drastic impact of the cuts to the service - See our letter below.
The next stage is for the Minister to decide if she is "minded to" intervene to hold a formal inquiry.
We have also written (again) to Reuben Thompstone, Chair of the CELS committee at Barnet Council to ask him to stop any further implementation of the cuts to the service while we wait for the Minister's decision.