Saturday, 16 February 2013

A tax is the best form of defence

Dave and George those two intellectual super powers running the country keep going on about this “global race” we are in. It’s a very odd way to win this race when our competition the emerging economies are investing their vast resources into schools and libraries. At the same time we are cutting our libraries hard or passing them to the unwilling volunteers or the “Big Society” as it’s called.  Yes we are going through difficult times but there is no way we are going to compete against the rest of the world when increasingly our natural resources are drying up and we are cutting the one thing that according to the OECD research “reading for pleasure was a more important indicator of future success than any socio-economic factors.” So if a young child, denied access to books because of poverty or because the child’s parents are lacking vision then that child isn’t going to raise up the ladder in life, pay lots of tax, create wealth and help us win this so called “global race”. They will not fulfil their potiential in life being a burden on the state and in old age ending up in the adult social care system. You could argue that the chain of events described above is a thin argument, it’s entirely plausible because if I didn’t have access to books growning up I word be in a dead end job and when I’m older would be relying on the state. In Swindon they are slashing library hours to save 99k, in Oxon supposedly 313k. How many kids growing up need to be denied access to books for those “savings” to not be savings at all in the long term? Currently local authorities pay about £500 a week for an old person’s residential care if they cannot pay for it themselves. Two grand a month, per person or 24k a year, for one person. So in Swindon based on today’s figures if the library cuts denied four children access to books, harming their life chances so the council has to end up paying their care in 60 years then they are not making efficiencies at all, they are actually making poor short term cuts that are going to hurt them a lot more later on.

The opponents of libraries trot out that old "books are over" or  "give them a kindle" or "books are really cheap on Amazon". There are a few problems with that:

1.     Kindles may be coming down in cost but the e-books are not free
2.     Libraries also provide space for children to study away from home (very important for some kids sadly)
3.     Books, both paper and electronic are still very expensive to buy.

I had a look on amazon and got the prices for the top ten kids books, both in kindle and paper book format. Below is the books and the figures:

For a poor single parent family or family on benefits I think they would struggle to find £500 quid a year if their two kids were getting through a book a week. It’s probably not a lot of money to most people but if the household is on a low income £20 a week for paper books or £17 for the kindle versions is going to be hard money to find. And getting the kids to actually enjoy reading in the first place is always going to be easier if you put them in a library full of books and letting them browse.

Of course children’s reading is only one aspect of how libraries could help us win the “global race” the job seekers using the Internet to apply for jobs or ordering books for self-study to get a better one, the elderly person whose visits to the library help them to keep active and keep their minds ticking over keeping them out of the 24k a year care system is another saving and will help us win the “global race”
I accept that libraries have to change, paper books are not going to be here forever but the PLR stats show that with children’s reading (despite the cuts so far) on the up, cutting libraries isn’t going to help us win anything, we are just going to be losers.
Back closer to home, Oxfordshire County Council are planning a 1.99% council tax increase. Considering the inflation rate last year was between 5 and 2.3 percent then it isn’t really an increase at all.  I would imagine the council is under massive pressure from Pickles, Cameron and Osborne to not have this “increase” If the extra revenue is ploughed back into services that help educate the minds of children or help keep people out of the expensive care system both now and in the future then it’s something most people I think would support. Labour didn’t put any amendments to the proposed budget, they resolved to write a letter to the government to complain about the cuts, a complete waste of time, what are they there for exactly apart from pontificating?

If the government want to save money and win "the global race" they should #savelibraries. If they want us to be stuck in a stagnant economy with no hope of growth and a ever increasing welfare bill then don't.

The Labour budget "amendment"


Thursday, 14 February 2013

You can be open or you can have government

I was getting very cross with Terry Deary's comments so I decided to email him to try and understand where he is coming from. The complete exchange is below. He did give his permission for me to put this up:

This bit is my initial email :
"Dear Terry,

We don't know each other but I come from the East End of Sunderland, next to Hendon where I understand you are from, growing up it was as you no doubt know a utter shit hole. I didn't do that well at school and my home life wasn't great but the one thing that helped me better myself in life was libraries. I know you have strong views and I'm sure the PLR money isn't fair but libraries are something that are of massive benefit to society. How can anything that provides information and knowledge to anyone without any prejudice be a bad thing? If I was growing up today a kindle would be as much use as a door stop because I wouldn't be able to afford the e-books and libraries offered the space away from home and the bullies at school to learn.

Please re-consider your views on this, libraries aren't finished and are still vitally important. Councillors and politicians are going to jump on your words and use them as justification for closing libraries. There will be lots of kids from the rough parts of Sunderland that libraries will offer a way out to. It did for me. 

With best wishes,

Trevor Craig.

p.s. I am very angry about this and I hope you will take up the offers of a public debate so I can at least understand better what it is that informs your views"

Too which he kindly replied:

"Hello Trevor

I am not sure exactly what you have read of my views – the media distorts and edits mercilessly. What I have been trying to say is that I want all people of all ages to have access to literature. A book is filled with an author’s ideas and its purpose is to entertain and communicate with a reader. A library is just a building. I want to know if libraries (buildings) are still the best way to enable writers and readers to come together. I am asking a question, not proposing a solution. If librarians feel threatened by that question then you should not. If they are doing a wonderful job that justifies every penny of taxpayer’s money you have NOTHING to worry about.

If you are arguing that socially deprived children from places like Hendon need access to books then I agree wholeheartedly (as you can imagine). But the answer is to find the BEST way to ensure EVERY Hendon kid has the BEST access. Many children (like me) found libraries intimidating places full of old stock with old attitudes, wholly inappropriate to children growing up in the 1950s. But just because they were useful in the past doesn’t mean they have a God-given right to exist forever. The world is changing at an ever-increasing pace. I’m not advocating the closure of libraries – I am saying that, when there are so many social and economic problems, the libraries have to work much harder to justify their existence and demonstrate they are fit-for-purpose (sorry, horrible phrase) in 2013 and beyond. YES, they were great in the past and, yes, they helped people like yourself. Can they still do the same today? Can they do better? That’s all I’m asking.

A public debate? Sorry I am not a fan of debates. I can air my views and someone can argue against me but will a “debate” change a single thing? I’m not convinced. And you would not believe the amount of vile abuse I’ve received for daring to challenge the orthodoxy. Do I really want to stand up to be shot down? It is very tiring at my age to be on the receiving end of so much spite and bitterness. On which note I must sincerely thank you for your considered and courteous message … I would never have guessed you were angry until your footnote said so. I wish everyone were as restrained and intelligent.

All the best


There was a couple of further brief bits but they are not worth putting up, its fair to say Terry has similar views to the political classes as I do but it adds nothing to the libraries debate that is going on. There has been a lot of stuff flying round on this now, included stuff by me on various comments boards. He is right to say the media edit and distort peoples views and take things out of context. I am going to have a re-read of all the stuff written on this and try and reconcile it to the view he has given above.

Sunday, 10 February 2013

Opposition is the enemy in exile

Democracy should be for the voters about choice, when there is no difference between the two main parties in a council or in Westminster then where is the choice for voters? There is an old saying about Westminster politics that if both side of the house agree on something then it’s probably the wrong idea. This equally applies to local politics, if the party seeking office intends to do exactly the same as those that are in power then what is the point? Dan Jarvis MP has been making all the right noises on libraries, yet when he travels to Newcastle to speak to one of the worst councils for proposed libraries cuts he has not a single negative think to say about the council and their clearly dodgy statistics. Some people seem to be of the view (myself included) that it’s just a tactic anyway to raise the profile of the ambitious leader to help him in his next attempt to secure a safe seat. Dan has nothing to say about the dodgy stats or the leader’s ambition, it’s the evil Tory cuts to blame, nothing else. These are the same cuts that Labour in Government would have made, despite what they say now. The banker’s bonus tax cannot pay for everything.
Closer to home in Swindon, the Conservatives are slashing the opening hours of libraries, sacking the low paid library managers and assistants, and protecting the bloated back office and service support and decimating the library service all to save a measly 99k.  You would think the Labour party would have at least a few different ideas, sadly not. They are planning on doing exactly the same thing as the email below shows from a Labour spokesman to a local campaigner:

“I've spoken with Jim Grant and he's asked me to forward on the following information to you:
The cuts to the library services are as a result of the cuts being made by the Coalition government centrally which are supported by the Tory and Liberal Democrats locally.
Were Labour in power nationally or locally it is hoped we wouldn't have to make these cuts. However, because of the financial constraints being imposed by central government local government has to make very hard choices about how we spend what little money we have.
Labour will be amending the overall budget by finding additional savings in non essential spending in order to preserve services which have a direct affect on the lives of the vulnerable people of the town. This will not include opposing the cuts to library services.
Labour's long term plan for the library service is to ensure that libraries are contained within community hubs, similar to the Old Town library moving into the Arts centre. Unless this path is followed the future cuts to local government, supported by the Tories and the Liberal Democrats, will inevitably mean permanent closure of libraries in Swindon”

So the Swindon Labour position is: It’s the Tories fault, along with the Lib Dems, if we were in power we hope we wouldn’t have to make these cuts but since we have to we plan on making the same cuts to libraries as the party in power and if we don't co-locate and make savings, libraries will close.

The Borough does however have a chief exec of a small borough council on a basic salary of £161k a year, more that the prime minister who is on 142k, for  more like for like comparison Sir Jeremy Heywood , who is responsible for every civil servant in the country is on 200k. Even after the cuts (and they have made some) they still have 115 staff on over 50k a year, getting rid of two of the 115 staff would save the libraries from cuts, two back office officers are worth more than the library service it seems. Considering nearly all council services are outsourced it seems odd they need so many well paid people when the services have been contracted out. These are the people who the councillors ask to make the cuts, they are hardly going to suggest chopping themselves.

I’m sure if I looked at the >500 spending data there will be plenty of stuff in there where efficiencies could be made. The sad thing is the “opposition” don’t appear to be trying, they just want to have the power, blame the other side and take no responsibility. They libraries don't have a direct affect on the vulnerable, they are wrong. Cut the libraries and what is lost to society won’t appear on the annual balance sheet but when their power to transform lives, raise aspirations and open up minds is lost then you will certainly see it in years to come when more people don’t realise their potential and have to rely on the state for their pensions and social care. All parties bang on about aspiration and closing the gap between the rich and the poor, sadly they don’t have the vision to see that libraries are one of the best ways of doing this. And when it comes to choice, at the ballot box in Swindon, it seems we don’t have any.

Friday, 8 February 2013

The Law of Inverse Relevance

The Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964 is supposed to set out the framework in which the minister superintends and promotes the library service to ensure it is comprehensive and efficient for all that desire to use it. The minister is only ever one person so within the act a framework exists so the minister has a body to advise him/her on library matters including if any of the authorities are breaching their duties to provide the service under the act. The body that was setup was called the Advisory Council on Libraries, they fulfilled the role under the act to:
“advise the Secretary of State upon such matters connected with the provision or use of library facilities whether under this Act or otherwise as they think fit, and upon any questions referred to them by him”
The problem is when the current government came into power they had a “bonfire of the quangos” and decided to abolish the ACL.
Vaizey has cast about trying to find some other group or body to take over this role as his eyes and ears but the MLA (also no abolished) and the arts council (which has been savagely cut) both have categorically said that this wasn’t/isn’t their role. In the government response to the select committee on libraries they had another go and suggested that the 5 regional relationship managers could feed back to the department and minister to presumably make the government act within the law again in relationship to the act. Considering there is only going to be five of these relationship managers they cannot conceivably superintend 30.2 library authorities each to ensure their compliance with the act, even if ACE agreed to go along with it.
The reason I am going on about all this is I put in a FOI to the DCMS about information on when the last met, the meeting notes and current members.  They released the meeting notes, the last of which was on the 4/Feb/2010 before the current government even came into power. The last advice issued from the body to the minister was on 07/Dec/09! There are according to the FOI still two current members of the body who I intend to contact but a body in this sense cannot consist of two people. Their terms end on the 11/Feb/2013 and 02/Aug/2013. I intend to contact both of these individuals and ask them why they are not advising the minister. The ACL if it still existed would be hamstrung because the minister refuses to define what the act actually means. But the minister has been without the statutory body to provide him with advice for over three years:

Not only does the minister break the law by not intervening when the destruction of the library service is ongoing, the minister has no idea what is going on because there is no one to advice as it clearly states in the act. See no evil, hear no evil and say a lot of half-truths, spun stats on closures and piffle seems to be what the library service is getting from the government.

Below is the link to the FOI, many thanks to Shirley for suggesting it.