Reply from Owen Smith

I was intriqued, like many library observers and campaigners, by the recent comments from Owen Smith, the Labour MP making a challenge for the party leadership against Jeremy Corbyn. Mr Smith has pledged that he will spend more on public libraries and re-open them if closed.

But as always the devil is in the detail so I wrote to Mr Smith asking him to clarify his comments and for his views on the following areas:

  • Library closures
  • Hollowing out of services
  • Replacement of staff with volunteers
  • Labour’s lack of policy on libraries

Labour has a very poor record on providing any meaningful answers to previous queries or for having any policy on libraries whatsoever. This latter point wasn’t addressed unfortunately or even acknowledged that one is needed. And while I fully agree that austerity is the driving force behind the cuts there was no recognition that Labour councils could be at the forefront of redesigning library services to mitigate against the cuts instead of emulating Tory practices.

Whether or not the reply below will give campaigners hope that a future Labour government would take the dismantling of the public library network seriously will depend on how it’s interpreted. Obviously, this would also depend on Owen Smith being the leader of that future government.

Dear Leon

Please find a reply from Owen below;
Thank you for taking the time to get in touch and for sharing your work on the important issue of libraries.
 
Public libraries offer each and every one of us a portal to the cumulative wisdom of the ages and the vast expanse of the human imagination. They do so for free and on the simple principle that, by sharing resources and building common institutions, we can all learn more and take greater pleasure than is possible when we act alone. There is nothing more democratic, nothing more socialist and nothing more Labour than a public library.
 
The vandalism inflicted upon our libraries by this rotten Tory Government is a national scandal. 343 libraries have closed, but that is only the thin end of the wedge. Opening hours and book funds have been slashed across the country.  8,000 jobs have disappeared and our libraries now rely upon volunteers, who do great work and deserve better than being used as a fig leaf for unsustainable cuts.  The sad truth is that the libraries that remain are offering a diminished service.
 
Labour Councils have been put in an impossible position by a Tory Government tying both hands behind their backs.  The only way that services will be restored and libraries re-opened is if austerity is ended and local governments are properly funded.
 
Not just do we need to end austerity, we also need to learn from the past 6 years if we are to safeguard our libraries in the future. Despite their statutory duty under the 1964 Act to “superintend and promote the improvement of the public library service”, Tory ministers have not provided any national leadership. I would work with councils to encourage greater collaboration and cooperation between the 151 library authorities in England, and give councils longer term funding settlements so that councils can better plan ahead and meet local needs. 
Under my leadership we would rebuild a democratic, socialist and Labour public library system fit for the challenges and opportunities of the 21st century.
 
Yours Sincerely
Owen Smith

 

 

Challenges and Opportunities

After some initial confusion it was finally announced that Rob Wilson was to be the new Minister for libraries. Given the government’s emphasis on localism it’s not surprising that libraries have been placed as part the civil society agenda. The minister immediately set out his stall by emphasising volunteering, community action, and developing new governance models including mutuals, trusts and co-operatives.

The departure of Ed Vaizey and appointment of Rob Wilson has also led to a delay in the publication of the Libraries Taskforce Ambitions report to allow him time to review the document, visit libraries and talk to colleagues. In all honesty I’m not sure this will make any substantial difference to the outcomes of the report. The direction of travel has always been clear: localism, devolution, community libraries, new governance, commercialisation etc.

So the trajectory will remain the same but what we will see, I suspect, is a more explicit statement on how this will be achieved. Equally, I don’t see Rob Wilson being any more interventionist than his predecessor except perhaps to encourage local authorities to go down the trust route.

Obviously, this will be bitterly disappointing to campaigners fighting to keep libraries as a public service directly accountable to elected members. As it will be for those fighting for a more national approach to libraries that is evident in other parts of the UK.

For the profession there will be both challenges and opportunities and far from the uniform service that has traditionally been offered the new landscape will be a dizzying mosaic of local provision. Over the next few years what I expect to see is a growth of:

  • Hub and spoke model: a central library or small number of libraries providing a core offer, supported by community libraries or alternative provision such as book collections
  • Greater involvement by parish/town council’s in running or funding local libraries
  • Increased commercialisation with more paid for and traded services
  • Relocation, co-location, and core library space given over to other council services or commercial opportunities
  • Reliance on open access technology and volunteers to replace staffed hours and/or extend opening hours

Last but not least a change in how libraries are run. There has been a marked reluctance amongst most authorities to fully embrace the trust route or share services with other councils. Perhaps the new Minister will provide the impetus for this to become the norm, not the exception. None of the above is new and exists in various forms to a lesser or greater degree across the country already. What will happen is an increase in the pace of change.

For those of us in the profession the challenge will be how to manage and adapt to these changes while still providing a core service that reflects the Libraries and Museums Act, and taking advantage of new opportunities for partnership working and income generation.

For some the whole idea will be anathema. But until there is a change in administration, an ideological move away from austerity, and a commitment to plug the funding gap in council budgets then I genuinely don’t see the landscape changing for a long time to come. For campaigners the next few years will be ones of damage limitation and compromise rather than outright victory.

An unintended effect of such changes will impact on the SCL, which until now has offered a safe space at regional meetings for heads of service to support each other. Whether such trust can be maintained around a table where some heads will be eyeing up their neighbours as potential expansion opportunities remains to be seen?

Personally, I would like to think that as a mainly supportive and friendly profession trust and collaboration will continue despite changes to governance models.

Another impact will be the skills needed by senior librarians and heads of service, with less emphasis on traditional skills, and more on managerial and leadership competencies, plus the ability to build partnerships across a wide variety of public, third sector, and commercial bodies.

Whether or not this brave new world is an opportunity or challenge will depend on your viewpoint and politics. But like it or not, it is the new reality to which those of us in the  profession will have to adapt.

 

 

 

 

My Way

So it’s finally happened. Ed Vaizey, the longest serving Minister for Culture has finally left the building, or at least been asked to leave as part of the new Cabinet reshuffle. It would be unfair to blame Vaizey for the all the problems of the public library sector over the last six years. The overriding factor has been one of ideology; from austerity, to localism, to devolution. But the ex-minister was certainly a strong advocate for these policies and ensured that libraries became a poster-boy for DIY community services.

It would also be unfair to lay the blame at the feet of just Tory local authorities. Councillors of all hues have been keen to support and adopt both localism and devolution, sometimes as a pragmatic solution to budget cuts, but equally as a means of distributing power from central government. And Let’s not forget that Labour and LibDem councils have been just as quick to reduce library services and hand over to volunteers as their conservative counterparts. Equally, it could be argued that the profession had grown complacent with comfortable funding and cosy political links so was ill-prepared to respond to the severity of the public spending cuts agenda.

So how should we judge Ed Vaizey’s time in office? Certainly the SCL appears to have regarded him as a positive force for championing libraries as the following tweet shows:

I have to say my own view is not so charitable. This was a minister who refused to intervene in any library reductions whatsoever, and who despite having the resources of the DCMS at his disposal preferred to rely on desktop research to assess library closures. The government figure touted was totally at odds with both CIPFA, independent BBC research, and what the public could see happening to their local libraries. Incompetence or deliberate spin? Take your pick.

According to the BBC the last six years have seen:

  • 343 libraries closed. Of those, 132 were mobile services, while 207 were based in buildings (and there were four others, such as home delivery services)
  • The number of closures in England is higher than the government’s official estimate of 110 buildings shut
  • The number of paid staff in libraries fell from 31,977 in 2010 to 24,044 now, a drop of 7,933 (25%) for the 182 library authorities that provided comparable data
  • A further 174 libraries have been transferred to community groups, while 50 have been handed to external organisations to run. In some areas, such as Lincolnshire and Surrey, the move has led to legal challenges and protests from residents.

The BBC also estimated that a further 111 closures were planned, but since the research was published, I suspect the number is now far higher. This is alongside a funding reduction of £180 million since 2010.

Matt Hancock has replaced Ed Vaizey so it remains to be seen what stance he will take particularly in the light of a new Prime Minister and Cabinet. Will he continue a non-interventionist approach or actually engage to slow down the rate of attrition?

Anyway, I shall end with a personal tribute to Ed (with apologies to Old Blue Eyes!)

(Click to enlarge)

Ed Vaizey

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

That Was Then…

untitledI published my first post in October 2013 outlining the Cilip AGM of that year. The context to my beginning this blog was almost utter disillusionment with Cilip: it’s lack of campaigning for public libraries, the continuous increase in subscriptions, and the constant navel gazing culminating in the ill-advised proposal to change the body’s name (‘ILPUKe’ or ‘I’ll Puke’ anyone!). It was hemorrhaging members by the hundreds and seemed lacking any relevance to the battles being fought daily by campaigners and library staff on the ground.

Thankfully, the name change was defeated and the one positive outcome of the AGM was a vote of no confidence in Ed Vaizey. I think if the name change had gone through and the vote of no confidence failed I and many other members would have voted with our feet. More battles followed and I make no apologies for being a staunch critic of Cilip in several areas, particularly membership fees.

In 2015 I gave a cautious welcome to the appointment of Nick Poole as the new CEO but within a few short months I could detect a sea-change in the organisation; a willingness to listen and engage, advocate for the membership, and address the difficult issues and decisions facing the profession. Quickly Nick began to raise the body’s profile during a round of radio and TV interviews talking about library closures and advocating for the profession.

The fact that Cilip seemed to be turning a corner was illustrated in an interview with Kathy Settle, discussing the November spending review, in which Nick stated:

“My biggest concern is that we allow services to be hollowed-out in the name of keeping up appearances, keeping the doors open while reducing the range and quality of services offered by skilled and qualified staff.

We can’t afford to focus on the short-term situation while allowing library services to be systematically under-funded. We need to fight the battles ahead while remaining focused on the real aim – which is to deliver the modern and comprehensive library network that the public need and have a right to expect.”

The AGM in September 2015 brought another surprise when the Cilip Board fully supported the motion opposing the amateurisation of public libraries. Not everything was rosy however and I continued to oppose increasing membership fees. That said, the campaigning and advocacy aspects were improving dramatically.

It appeared that at long last Cilip was evolving into the professional body its members needed it to be. This has included a growing list of positive initiatives:

Not bad for a CEO who has only been in post for 12 months. Credit should also go to the dedication of the Cilip Board Members and staff. As President Dawn Finch is a straight talking proponent for libraries, the Board appears to address the more contentious issues head on, and this is underpinned by hard working staff that make proposals and policies a reality. Long may it continue.

As part of the Fit for the Future proposals there is a short survey for both members and non-members to express an opinion. I encourage everyone to do so. The idea of a leaders network is also intriquing so I look forward to more details being made available about the scheme.

It is also gratifying to see the proposed reduction in subscriptions fees and free student membership abolished. I voted against free membership in 2013 on the basis that what students really needed was for a professional body to be relevant rather than free.

Now I understand and sympathise that for some campaigners Cilip is not as radical or political as they would like it to be. But I would argue that it is still early days and more has been done to change and improve Cilip in the past 12 months than in many years previously. Cilip is also a broad church so has to strike a balance between the different aspects and sectors it represents.

That said, Cilip still has work to do, particularly in it’s relationship with the Libraries Taskforce. Many disagreements still exist between government policy and aspirations that Cilip and individual members have expressed for public libraries. Whether or not these differences will be ironed out and a consensus reached through the Taskforce’s Ambitions document remains to be seen.

I also remain critical of the small cadre of Taskforce members making decisions on behalf of public libraries around commercial sponsorship without wider discussions in the sector. In a recent Twitter exchange I, Nick Poole and other campaigners discussed the development of an ethical policy to help inform such partnerships, which is something I hope the Taskforce will take on board.

So, from my first post to this one I see the beginnings of real change in Cilip and as an individual member feel more positive about my professional body than I have done for a long time.

Labouring the point

Well, after 53 days, 1 letter, 3 emails, and several or more tweets I finally received a reply from Maria Eagle, Shadow Culture Minister. The lesson being I suppose is that social media is not the preferred method of communication for MPs but rather good old fashioned letter writing.

I won’t say that the letter was disappointing because my expectations of Labour are pretty low nowadays. The letter is full of the well worn platitudes and unimaginative thinking that has characterised Labour’s stance on libraries for a number of years (see my previous post) and hardly differs from the current administration’s view.

This was illustrated by two incidents recently. The first is Barclays apparent bid to supplant libraries as the digital trainer of choice through the Eagle Labs programme. Chi Onwurah, MP for Newcastle Central, commended Barclays for having such an initiative and stated “If we don’t have everyone involved in a digital age, with the skills they need, we will lose out as a region, so the Digital Eagles programme is fantastic.” followed by the wonderfully ironic “Some people might argue Barclays has a self-interest…”

Actually, there’s no ‘might’ about it. Barclays definitely has a self-interest and it’s naive to think otherwise. A factor the SCL and Libraries Taskforce might want to consider before committing the sector to more partnership working with  financial organisations mired in scandal and allegations of ‘systematic fraud’.

She concluded “…the important part I would say is we need to invest in libraries and other public spaces, but given the cuts I do think it’s great that they are taking the time and investment to support getting people online.”

So here’s one Labour MP who’s happy to support the commercial sector taking over aspects of library work.

Sending a more traditional Labour message John McDonnel pledged support for striking Library staff in Barnet in the continuing dispute over the council’s plans to outsource library services across the borough. In a rousing statement Mr McDonnell said:

“I want to pay tribute and send solidarity greetings to Barnet Unison library workers. They have been fighting an inspirational workplace and community campaign and I would like to thank them for their sterling efforts to expose and prevent the proposed widespread decimation of their library service…Barnet Unison has been a fine example of how trade unions and their community can work together in fighting austerity policies which are destroying local public services up and down the country, they have my 100 per cent support.”

All well and good until you consider the same sort of decimation taking place in Lambeth, which Labour MPs, and the new London Mayor, Sadiq Kahn, have been notoriously silent about. If John McDonnel really wanted to offer his ‘100% support’ to library campaigns he would encourage the Labour Party to adopt a substantially different policy and approach to the one it has now.

Which brings us back to the reply from the Shadow Culture Minister, which can be summed as:

  • Labour councils are hit harder than tory ones
  • The tory government is to blame
  • Labour councils are delivering innovative models of library provision and offering positive solutions
  • She will continue to listen to campaign groups and local authorities to try to develop a set of policies for libraries for the next election

And that was it! It would be interesting to know which campaign groups she has been talking to and the advice given. If you are one of those groups please do get in touch. Also, why it is going to take four years to ‘try’ and develop a policy for libraries? A working group of interested parties could easily formulate a policy in a fraction of that time as can be seen by the Ambition consultation, especially as Unison has done so much work on libraries, which could readily feed into a policy document.

It would also appear that unlike her shadow cabinet colleague, Maria Eagle would consider the solution on offer in Barnet as being both innovative and positive. It’s certainly no worse than the ones delivered in Sheffield or suggested for Lambeth and, in the main, Tory councils are under as much financial pressure as Labour one’s.

So, to labour the point, there really does appear to be no difference between the two main parties regarding libraries. Any campaigner who thinks that Labour will ride to the rescue of libraries is likely to be disappointed, as it is patently clear they are bereft of both ideas and inclination.

 

Every Little Helps..!

publiclibrary.jpg2There has been disquiet for a long time in the library field over commercial sponsorship such as Tesco with the Summer Reading Challenge in Scotland or Barclays Bank sponsoring wifi in public libraries in England. However, this brave new world of commercialisation and entrepreneurial one-upmanship chimes perfectly with the government’s neo-liberal economics, plans for a smaller state, and self-funding – or at the very least income generating – public services.

This is an approached accepted by both the Libraries Taskforce and SCL. For some it is seen as a pragmatic solution to fund projects and services that might otherwise not happen and there is no denying there is validity to this argument.

But equally commercial sponsorship is fraught with difficulties and ethical dilemmas for libraries and it’s wrong to consider those who raise such concerns as naive or un-realistic. The fundamental nature of public library provision and who funds it is at issue.

This is because much is made of libraries as safe, trusted, and neutral places. But in this context what does ‘neutral’ actually mean? Does it mean neutrality in terms of the endorsement of a product ? Do users ‘trust’ us not to promote the interest of one commercial company over another or indeed promote them at all?

An interesting and informative blog by Ian Clark, Barclays and the library marketing opportunity, highlights the difficulty regarding the use of Barclays Digital Eagles within libraries:

“BUT signing them up for a Google account, and visiting the Barclays Internet Help pages in the same session will significantly increase the chances of the individual in question receiving targeted ads in their inbox promoting various services Barclays delivers. In short then, Digital Eagles in libraries is a great opportunity for the bank to deliver direct advertising to individuals who are not currently online, who lack digital skills and, potentially, are not existing customers of Barclays (their Internet Help page also promotes their online banking services).”

The post ends on a very telling point about the future of library services if we hand over the responsibility for digital literacy:

“The skills and knowledge we have around using the internet effectively we are not passing onto the general public, we are asking providers of financial services to do it for us. How did we get into this mess? Is it a question of leadership? Is it the hollowing out of public services by central government? Is it the decline in professional ethics? For me it’s all these things and more. One thing is for certain, the future is bleak if we continue to believe that others can do it better than us.”

So, by encouraging and accepting commercial sponsorship and external help does the profession relinquish the right to claim libraries as safe and trusted spaces? Even more so, are we inadvertently allowing our users to be targeted for specific commercial interests? In which case, the claim for trustworthiness rings hollow.

Advocates for sponsorship would argue that this is a small price to pay for the continuation or development of library services.

However, the potential for reputational damage to such a trusted brand is high. Certainly, if we are to learn from the commercial sector then this is a valuable lesson to consider. After all, companies are quick to react over scandals that might impact on brand reputation, cases in point being the withdrawal of sponsorship over scandals affecting Fifa and the IAAF.

Barclays is a bank that has been beset by financial scandal resulting in a staggering £20 billion in fines and taxes imposed in recent years (imagine how little of that money could fund a well resourced and genuinely national library service). This includes Barclays being handed the biggest bank fine in UK history over manipulating the foreign exchange markets.

The Royal Bank of Scotland, Lloyds and HSBC have all faced fines for similar misdemeanours. In fact Britain’s biggest four banks have racked up almost £50billion in charges to cover fines and lawsuits since the financial crisis, with HSBC admitting to money laundering and then last year paying a huge fine over allegations its Swiss private bank helped rich clients avoid taxes.

And it’s not just banks. Tesco is the largest retailer in the UK, third largest in the world, and through its banking arm sponsors the Tesco Bank Summer Reading Challenge Scotland.

All fairly innocuous and philanthropic it might be assumed. However, Tesco itself is not free from scandal. It has been under investigation by the Serious Fraud Office and faces a £500 million fine for accounting irregularities. This is in relation to a shortfall in the retailers 2014 accounts and rigging its financial results to cover falling sales.

In addition, the Groceries Code Adjudicator, Christine Tacon, stated that Tesco “knowingly delayed paying money to suppliers in order to improve its own financial position”, and said the supermarket had seriously breached the industry’s code of conduct. She found extensive evidence that Tesco had acted unreasonably when delaying payments to suppliers.

Recently Tesco was also accused of inventing fictional farm brands that misled customers into thinking they were buying British produce, when in fact the produce was often sourced abroad.

So the question becomes, does the profession’s alliance with scandal riven banks and retailers undermine the very trust and neutrality we so often boast of?

But then again perhaps such ethical considerations are secondary to attracting funding, not just to conform with government expectations, but in order to ensure libraries continue to operate and offer much needed services. Perhaps, even, the public don’t actually care who funds wifi or literacy in libraries.

After all, every little helps..!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mythomania

Despite the constant misinformation from the government such as only 110 libraries have closed since 2010 we at least know what to expect from this administration as in practice public services and therefore libraries have never been under greater threat. This is down to ideology and dogma, and the rigid adherence to the economically dubious austerity agenda.

I came across the wonderful term ‘mythomania’ recently. Apparently it refers to the behaviour of habitual or compulsive lying…or in other words, spin! The mythomania developed by the government around libraries is almost admirable in its simplicity and effectiveness. Even the Prime Minister has got in on the act recently by claiming that library closures are due to ‘technological change’, whilst totally ignoring the massive reduction in funding.

2498lambeth1If Conservatives hold a totally skewed view of libraries you would reasonably expect Labour to have an opposing narrative. Unfortunately not! The Labour view of libraries is rather conspicuous by its absence. This is compounded by major figures such as the new London Mayor. During the mayoral election race, the now successful Sadiq Khan, failed to respond in any meaningful way to campaigners request for support, no doubt cautious over criticising the incompetent debacle unfolding in Labour controlled Lambeth.

The equally silent Maria Eagle, Shadow Minister for Culture, Media & Sport seems to have no apparent opinion – or should that be knowledge – of the library crisis, certainly if her Twitter feed is anything to go by. I’ve tried to contact Miss Eagle a number of times by email and Twitter but have, as yet, received no reply.

The last time a shadow minister tried to formulate an opinion around libraries was early 2014 under Helen Goodman. Unfortunately, she was a blink-and-miss-them appointment. Followed by the equally blink-and miss-them,  and ‘I don’t want this role’, Chris Bryant, whose approach to libraries was so akin to Ed Vaizey’s that you couldn’t wedge a piece of paper between them. When challenged Chris’ mantra was ‘silence is golden’, refusing to engage with campaigners or support a fight against closures in his own constituency. Again by a Labour controlled authority.

Labour’s last attempt at writing a policy resulted in the risible Libraries: Innovation, Co-location and Partnership, which again was so akin to the Tories you could be forgiven for thinking they had been written by the same team. And herein lies the problem: the current government has no difficulty with libraries being cut, closed, hollowed-out, or out-sourced. We can disagree with and oppose this approach all we want but at least it’s a clear stance.

Labour on the other hand lack any sort of vision, policy or inclination around libraries and seem supremely unwilling to engage with campaigners to develop one. Unfortunately, for a party committed to public services under Corbynism this presents a conundrum as Labour controlled councils – stand up Sheffield – are just as likely to close and cut local libraries as Tory authorities.

Where there should be a stronger commitment to public services, we get the right of the Labour Party espousing the same free market terminology and localism mantra as the current government. On the other hand the left of the party seem willing to sacrifice valuable local services in order to indulge in petty point scoring against Tory austerity. Added to this mix are senior leaders who refuse to be drawn on the whole issue of the library crisis.

Many have an high expectation of Labour rolling back the devastating damages done to public services and libraries. Given the sheer lack of interest by the previous and current shadow minister in the issue, campaigners are unlikely to see a viable alternative to Tory policy developed anytime soon. In fact given how quickly culture shadow ministers come and go it’s unlikely any will have time to develop a proper response.

But then again perhaps the perception that Labour will restore public services to previous levels is in itself a form of unintentional mythomania!