Sunday, 20 October 2013

Hypothetical Oversight

The policy formulation and consultation of the library policy was a sham at Oxfordshire County Council. I know this, at least two Councillors have publicly admitted this, the prime minister admits to intervening yet the organisation despite many complaints from me and many others won't acknowledge this fact, you can read the details in my last post here. This is the same council that refused to listen to young girls in their care who were being used in the sex trade. My view is the the council and possibly the police turned a criminal blind eye to what was going on. Nobody has resigned over the horrendous things going on, I suspect there won't be any criminal prosecutions either because the local police have also been involved in those failings. This is obviously the worst example of the failure of the organisation and its culture. There have been many failings by OCC since I moved down to Oxfordshire in 2005, most of them costly to the taxpayer. The problem is, when you and others know the council has got it wrong what do you do? If its obviously a criminal thing you can go to the police (doesn't always help anyway), but if its not obviously criminal then what? You take your complaint to the Local Government Ombudsman. They exist to:

 "Our mission is to provide an independent means of redress to individuals for injustice caused by unfair treatment or service failure by local authorities, schools and care providers and use our learning to promote good public administration and service improvement."

Which sounds great, the problem as ever lies in the details. I made a complaint about the dodgy consultation, MP dictating policy and even councillors publicly admitting it was all a sham. I naively and honestly expected them to do something about it, unfortunately they refuse to act.They have been setup in such a way as to make them as useless as a marzipan hammer.

They have lots of rules that dictate if they can get involved or not. The one they used for my complaint to justify their inaction was:

"The Ombudsman will not start an investigation of Mr B’s (they keep the complaints anonymous)  complaint because he has not shown that he has suffered significant personal injustice as a result of what has happened."

So I could uncover lots of dodgy goings on (in fact I have) and because it doesn't represent a significant personal injustice they refuse to act! I obviously escalated this and got the response:

The Ombudsman has limited resources. Each year she (its just one person??) receives more complaints than she can investigate. She has therefore established a set of principles against which we assess complaints to see whether they should be investigated. This Assessment Code can be found in full on our website, but in summary we consider:
a) whether a complaint is within jurisdiction;
b) whether there is an alternative remedy available; 
c) whether there is a significant claimed injustice; 
d) whether there is any sign of fault by the Council ; and 
e) whether there is something the Ombudsman can achieve for the complainant through 
My task when reviewing your complaint is to see whether Ms XXX has properly assessed your 
complaint against these principles

Your complaint
You complained that there was fault in the way the Council reached a policy decision that local
community volunteers should work with it to maintain library services. He says 21 libraries will be 
My views
I have carefully reviewed the documentation Ms XXX used to assess this complaint, and her 
Decision Statement.In your request for review, you have said that you feel your MP and the Leader of the Council have made a decision without following proper democratic process. However, the Ombudsman’s role is not to consider allegations of this nature: her role is to look at actions and decisions of the Council that have unjustly affected an individual, who wants to complain about it. This is why Ms XXX decision is that we cannot consider your complaint as you have not suffered an individual injustice from the Council’s decision.
Ms XXX has concluded that we will not investigate your complaint Your disappointment is 
understandable, but having considered the information, I agree with her decision. I am sorry I 
could not be of more help on this occasion.

This concludes my review of Ms XXX"

So basically they have limited resources and they have plenty ways of getting out of doing anything, individuals who believe their council has acted un-democratically or improperly have no chance of getting past the criteria set down which the LGO use.

The politicians in parties are able to act behind doors however they see fit, regardless of if they were voted in to act on our behalf within that body, the council puts a veneer of pretend democracy on the decision making by ticking the right boxes at the right time but really the whole thing isn't democracy at all. Its a sham. Local government needs reform, the system has no checks and balances and the decisions are made in the wrong way and don't give the public a fair say. OCC will keep getting it wrong, expensive mistakes will be made, lives ruined and nobody, neither politician or public servant will be held to account.

Saturday, 12 October 2013

The Democracy Delusion 3.0

Its now clear that Oxfordshire County Council will hold the line and continue with their policy of library cuts that save no money and damage the small rural and branch libraries in the mainly Tory divisions.  I wanted to write a post showing how we got to this point and also to put some stuff online that I hadn't before because I had been pushing hard to make the current council leadership see sense and also, part of what I'm putting online was recorded in a public meeting but without the knowledge of the people I was recording. I only made the recording to take notes from and thought the councillor was on our side and I forgot about the recording until recently. What I am putting online is edited to cut the other people out but I think its in the public interest to put what the deputy leader of Oxfordshire County Council said about the library consultation. The prime minister is also involved and waded in to create this mess and its important to show what David Cameron's idea of localism really is. The pieces I have pulled together show that most undemocratically, David Cameron, the leader of the conservative party and MP for Witney, intervened and the council back tracked on their first plan for cuts and came back with another flawed analysis of the data that suggested other libraries would be cut and would be ran by his widely discredited big society. The problem is Dave hasn't done anything in his life outside of politics or PR so he has no idea what libraries do, he piled in, without a mandate and prescribed a policy that doesn't save money, doesn't save libraries and he has left the mess for others who have refused to clean it up because of the shitbox that is politics. Nobody in Oxfordshire voted for Dave to represent them on Oxfordshire County Council. He admits intervening to bring about a change in policy, the Tory group weren't allowed a vote on this and the then leader of the council announced it to the media before telling even his party colleagues. The scrutiny committee made up mostly of Tories waved it through and the recording I have which I am putting on this post has the deputy leader admitting the consultation was a sham. There are a couple of the library friends groups who were previously in the position that their library would be closed and now will receive some staffing so obviously they were more than happy to volunteer to keep their library going, I wish them well. And I'm sure the council will very soon be using them as publicity stooges to sell their non-money saving nonsense as a success. I however won't give my valuable free time for something so badly and undemocratically formulated without evidence, that doesn't save money and damages one of the things I value and that has enabled me to make something of my life.

In October 2010 OCC (Oxfordshire County Council) put forward a plan to close 20 libraries based on their usage. There was outrage at the harsh cuts,  Keith Mitchell the leader of OCC was criticized by many for his insensitive handling of the cuts and for insulting authors and campaigners. Phillip Pullman gave that amazing speed to the council in January 2011.  Then in March 2011 that plan was torn up and OCC said they would think again.

The then leader of the council Keith Mitchell and the MP for Witney (Pic from Oxford Mail)

The policy u-turn was because David Cameron intervened, the big society would ride to the rescue and they would used a quantitative analysis based on indicators from the DCMS (where people live, work study etc) to rank the libraries and then draw a arbitrary line and those that fell under the line would have their staffing cut and have to rely on the volunteers to survive. The methodology they used was deeply flawed and seemed designed to favour libraries in built up areas, regardless of how close together or inefficient they are. The small rural and branch libraries with low paid, non-professtional staffing were hit. Only one of the 21 cut libraries was in the City, the rest were rural and 16 of the 21 were in Tory divisions.

Best picture I could find to fit the story

I know Dave intervened because I have been told by three difference councillors that he did, he also admits it so its common knowledge in Oxon:

"Did intervene to put the arguments"

"I  Met with OCC members to bring about changes"

Again, Dave is the MP for Witney, one of five members in Oxfordshire. He has no business dictating policy to the county council. The hypocrisy of the man who talks about localism and pushing the decision making down to communities is breathtaking. Anyway he intervened because he thinks with his fantastic experience of the world that consists of politics and getting a job at a TV company through his girlfriends mother he knows better than everyone else. But because he is PM and party leader his intervention faced no opposition in Oxfordshire from the local party publically, in fact the Tory group on the council didn't even get to vote on the proposal behind closed doors. Again I know this because I have been told, its common public knowledge, when Keith Mitchell stepped down one of the leadership candidates Pete Handley said in the Oxford Mail:

Councillor that believes in democracy, a rare thing it seems (Pic from Oxford Mail)

“I want all policy decisions to pass through the group before being made public, not as with the library fiasco where one person was making the decisions, talking to the press and then expecting the group to agree with what had been announced.
“This has happened several times over recent years.”
Keith Mitchell  the then leader is the person referred to above, when Dave intervened when he should have he was even ringing Keith at home on Sunday nights to talk about libraries. The Tories who are democratically elected to represent us didn't get a say and the policy was bounced through the scrutiny committee and nobody in cabinet opposed it. Why would they? The leader of a council can kick them out without any notice and if they have a mortgage or other outgoings they're stuffed.

Again I have blogged on this stuff above before. This final bit just confirms what a shambolic, undemocratic fudge the whole thing was. My councillor Rodney Rose, came to a public meeting in 2011 when the consultation started and to his credit spelled it all out to the people who were at the meeting. Below are some key quotes, I the transcript and recording are below, the recording and transcript are below.

 Pic from Oxford Mail
Rodney Rose: "The consultation is telling you what you're going to end up with"

  • "The feeling I have got is the consultation’s a sham, if it is a consultation. It’s stating what is going to happen on the 30 September"
  • "I mean the figures that we were first quoted when libraries were originally going to be closing was that libraries that were staffed with volunteers failed within four years the cabinet was told. Now all of a sudden they are going to last forever."
  • "My guess is that with further cuts come down the line, you know with Greece and other things happening to upset the euro who knows then it will be the community libraries that have gone to volunteers keeping them open to oh well they’re the least important so they’re the ones that will close."
  • "It’s not achievable at the moment, what was told to me point blank was what category you’re in, you’re stopping in end of story and they’ve all been told that. Now that also makes a nonsense of consultation should be able to have some impact on that."
  • "The consultation is telling you what you’re going to end up with."
  • "I’m arguing against myself and I’m part of that cabinet and it’s very difficult for me but the whole thing just smacks of erm we want to close or diminish those libraries we don’t care if they close and we make up a quantitative analysis to suit the end result we need."
Rodney was and still is the deputy leader of the council, if the deputy leader thinks the consultation is a sham then its a sham. I feel bad about putting the above online as Rodney was open and honest about what was going on and I wish all councillors put people before party but I'm not sure many do.

Democracy at Oxfordshire County Council has failed. 
  • Dave intervened to change the policy
  • The local tories didn't get a vote on the policy
  • The consultation was a sham
You except party political people to do dodgy little deals and make up policy on the hoof behind closed doors but what saddens me the most about is there is supposed to be checks and balances in politics to stop things like this happening. But they happen time and time again, not just locally but nationally, the parties poison democracy but thankfully their powers are almost spent. There has been a lot of other bad things not to do with libraries gone on at OCC in the past few years, some a lot more important than libraries, the council who is supposed to serve the people not the parties needs to up its game.

I don't know where we go from here, I will continue to oppose the replacing of library staff with volunteers and all the other stupid ideas that involve sacking low paid staff to save money. Our political system is a complete failure, local councils are in urgent need of reform but they won't, they're happy to get at least half of the 30% ish turn out and the rest of us can bugger off. David Cameron's idea of localism and democracy is to wade in and make decisions, give the local people who it affects no say and then swan off to create his next mess for others to clean up and defend.

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Questions to Swindon Borough Council on Libraries

I have written about Walcot Library quite a lot in the past, looking at the data, giving my own views and putting up the views of the volunteers who run the library. I thought it would be a good idea to get the view of Swindon Borough Council whose decided to staff the library with volunteers and merge it with the charity shop. They kindly agreed to answer my questions which are in full and unedited below.

  1. Is Walcot Library still part of your statutory provision?


  1. If no, have you done an analysis of need as per guidance from the DCMS taking into account the findings of the Wirral report?

  1. Mr Mallinson, a former councillor, volunteer and one of the people behind the charity shop running the library has twice suggested he is going to close the library, has also suggested he is going to remove all the books.  Can he do this? Is there a written agreement between the council and the volunteers on what they can and cannot do?

There is no written agreement. However, the Library Service retains responsibility for Walcot library and provides IT, stock and staffing. Any changes to the library would require consultation with the Library Service and ultimately it would be our decision to agree to and implement any changes including removing stock. Currently, the Library service has no plans to remove the book stock.

  1. The book issues are massively down while there is a slight rise on average in the other libraries, does the Council consider the library since its handover to volunteers a success?

Although, we had considered suitable alternatives when discussing Walcot’s closure one of the Ward Councillors at the time, was keen that the library and community shop continued in their current location and took on responsibility for staffing the premises. This has meant that a library presence has been able to continue in the Walcot area.

Since that time the Library Service has also reintroduced 10 paid staffed hours per week.

The fall in library issues is due to many factors. For instance, the library mostly opens mornings so there are fewer schoolchildren using the library. The issues also previously included loans to home library users and we transferred these to another library. Thus, the loans are no longer counted in the Walcot statistics.

  1. If yes do you have any data (PLUS survey’s etc) that demonstrate this is a successful model of library provision?

There is no current PLUS data available for Swindon’s libraries.

  1. The volunteers in the library have spoken to me about generational illiteracy, with parents and their children in Walcot both not being able to read. What is the council doing to help with this?

The library service delivers the summer reading challenge in all libraries, including Walcot, providing staff to promote the scheme and train volunteers. There are also 10 staffed hours per week to assist with structured activities for all library users.

Initiatives, such as the Six Book challenge are run by a central team of outreach staff who work with all users and directly with Colleges offering basic skills courses.

  1. What other ways of making savings/models of service provision, rather than volunteers replacing the low paid front line staff has Swindon looked at and why were they not pursued instead?

Library staff are paid in line with national guidelines and practice. Therefore, we do not consider staff to be low paid. 

At the time of the proposed closure the alternative offered was for library users to go to the new Central Library and the refurbished, extended Park Library, both of which are close to Walcot. Library users unable to travel to those libraries were offered the home library service.

We still consider this to be a viable alternative but equally were happy to work with the community shop in Walcot in order to retain a library presence there.