Archive

Investment

Yesterday, yet another library in my Borough, the London Borough of Lambeth, was closed. Parents and toddlers coming for their weekly story-telling afternoon were turned away, doors were padlocked to keep both staff and customers out, shelves were cleared and removal vans were sent in to remove both furniture and assets. Today I am seeing pictures of packing crates in empty rooms and uniformed security guards patrolling the premises and hearing tragic tales of other local libraries nationwide being striped of their staff, their stock and their identity.

Why?

What is it about Libraries, their history, their function, their unique position in society, their unquestionable importance, that my local Council, and indeed, other Councils don’t seem to understand? Libraries were set up to be free, public repositories of knowledge not, as Lambeth seems to think, a simple bookshelf in a church hall, surgery or gym which is what they are proposing that we should have.  This wanton destruction of our precious facilities, our heritage, our children and grandchildren’s futures has to stop now, before it’s too late and the situation cannot be reversed.

The heart is being ripped out of our communities and it can’t be allowed to continue.

According to figures I have seen in the last couple of days regarding council spending, I understand that during the last financial year over £13million of our Council Tax in my area was spent on ‘Corporate Office Accommodation’, whatever that might be, whilst only a miserly £57,000 was invested in library provision Boroughwide. £57,000 invested in one of the greatest information resources we have in the area. £57,000 invested in our young people’s future. In a Borough with a total population of around 316,000 people that amounts to just £5.58 for each man, woman and child. Not even the price of your average cut-price paperback.

Well, forgive me, but that just doesn’t seem right.

I pay my taxes for services and facilities that will benefit everyone not just a select coterie at the top. Services that will benefit, not just me, but my children, my future grandchildren, my neighbours, my neighbours’ children and grandchildren and my entire community. I don’t pay my taxes for unused empty buildings and city centre office blocks. I want value for the many for my money, not perks for the few but that’s not what I’m getting.

And I can look at what’s happening from a different angle, through different eyes. I am not just a local resident and taxpayer, I am also a trained librarian so I can look at what is happening as a qualified professional, not just as a vociferous and angry service user. I have worked in public libraries, school libraries, university libraries and specialist libraries within national and multinational businesses and corporations.

When I studied for my BA(Hons) in Librarianship in the 1980s, I learnt about the beauty of both language and literature, the wonder of local and national history, the importance of all knowledge and I was taught everything I needed to know about high quality information provision for all. I learnt about storing, guarding, protecting and sharing information and helping others to access that information whenever they needed to. I was not taught how to pack it away and put it into storage, hidden from sight, which is what seems to be happening, not just in Lambeth, but throughout the country.

I’m pretty sure we were taught that what local communities wanted and needed and cherished was unfettered access to books and computers and information and space to study with properly qualified, fully committed, professional library staff who knew the local area and what other facilities were available for people to use should they want to. We were not taught to value corporate offices we were unlikely to ever use or see. We were trained to become Library staff who were prepared to invest time and effort in listening to our customer’s questions, finding the answers to those questions and showing people how to do their own research if they wanted to know more. I’m pretty certain we weren’t taught that what local communities wanted most for their money were posh offices with comfy chairs and shiny desks for transient local councillors and overpaid council executives.

How much longer will both Lambeth Council and other Councils continue to forget that local libraries are a valuable resource for everyone, maybe even the most valuable of all resources for so many people within the area?

Residents have been investing in their libraries for decades so please, don’t close them and take them from us. We have needed them in the past, we still need them now and we will continue to need them long into the future.

Don’t take away one of the greatest assets we all have. There must be other, less painful ways to save money. Leave us our libraries and try something else.

Advertisements

So. Today is voting day for the Referendum which means I have had to get up. I don’t do getting up every day but today is too important not to so I am now sitting in my wheelchair and I’m not entirely happy about it.

For those of you that don’t know me or my situation, let me explain.

I should start by saying that, for me, the wheelchair scenario is nothing new. I have been a full-time wheelchair user for nearly twenty years now so you’d think I should be used to it by now, and in most ways, I guess I am. But, over the past two years, things have changed dramatically. My impairment has deteriorated markedly and, because of this, I now spend most of my time in a hospital type bed in my living room. I get up a mere three or four times in a month to go out but bed is where you will normally find me. I would love to be able to get up more often, most of the time if I’m honest, but, thanks to my rotten, horrible, massively uncomfortable NHS wheelchair, I can’t.

Before things deteriorated I used to be pretty active. Not a bouncey, run-around, exercisey sort of active lifestyle of course, my MS didn’t let me do that, but a busy, non stop, very fulfilling, sort of active lifestyle nonetheless. What you would expect for a woman in their late forties, early fifties to be honest. I worked full time, went out with my friends a lot, traipsed off into town on shopping trips when I felt like it, went to the pictures and the theatre with my family occasionally, had fun, had a life. And to enable this life to happen, I had a pretty decent wheelchair which I obtained through a scheme called Access to Work. This is a Government funded scheme which allows disabled people to obtain the help and equipment they need to get on a level playing field with their non-disabled colleagues. My wheelchair didn’t do everything of course but it did all the things I needed it to do to allow me be comfortable and busy at the same time. I could recline the back, raise and lower my feet at the touch of a button, tilt the whole chair so I could relax when I wanted to and it had enough battery power to allow me to go where I wanted, when I wanted without the risk of grinding to an undignified halt. When I became too sick to work any more I had owned it for around five years and I had also owned a similar chair for about five years before that so I was used to it and what it did. There was one other thing I loved about it – it was easy to drive and so was so maneuverable that I could get on and off buses, or into cabs if I wanted to, without a problem. I was used to it, I loved it and I was happy and comfortable with the freedom it gave me. It was an integral part of me. But it was old and clunky and squeaky and bits were falling off it. It wa coming to the end of it’s active life and it needed to be replaced. That would have been fine if I had still been in work, I could have just got another chair through Access to Work, but I’d had to give up work when I got sicker so I was no longer eligible and I couldn’t afford to buy one privately. Decent wheelchairs are far too expensive. I now have to rely on the good old NHS for my equipment.

I fully understand that the NHS is publicly funded and so has to show it is value for money and not frittering public money away but does that have to mean that, whilst the equipment it provides for disabled people is functional, it is not what that disabled person really needs. It may have to be as inexpensive as possible, but that does not necessarily mean it is entirely fit for purpose. The cheapest option is not always the best, the most efficient or the most cost effective. Having a wheelchair that gets me around but which causes extreme discomfort and pain is not a great idea really. It means that I am more likely to need to see my GP o the District Nurse more often, that I need to have home care workers and support staff attend in my home more often and that I am reliant on other people for almost everything I want. And that has a cost too. With this, cheaper chair I am not getting to go out and about  as much as I once did. I’m not not able to volunteer at my local disability organisation any more, I’m not able to use local facilities like the library or neighbourhood shops as much as I once did. My quality of life has diminished. I can’t go to the doctor on my own or pick up prescriptions from the chemist if I need to, they have to come to me. I’m not able to even think about getting a part-time job to boost my meagre income and pay my taxes. I have become a drain on the system, I am unable to contribute.

Why can’t things be looked at in the round and not separately through their individual elements? Why can’t cause and effect be taken into account? Why is money and cost always the primary concern when looking at the needs of disabled people rather than what might be the most beneficial and cater for that person’s needs the best? Surely spending a little bit more now, if that would mean spending a lot less later would be more sensible. Maybe one day I will be able to have a wheelchair which will take into account all my needs rather than just giving me the one that is the least expensive. I want something that will allow me to be the real me again not just a shadow of the me I used to be because it’s cheaper. We only have one chance at life so give me, and all the other disabled people in the country having to use the cheapest option available, the tools we need to take that chance rather than always looking for a way to pennypinch and cut corners. The cheapest option is not always the best option and short-term pain will not always lead to long term gain. We all should have the right to live and not just exist and I would like to have the chance to have that right too.

I sometimes wonder how local Councils think they can get away with some of the things they do. Well, actually, I know exactly what they think they can get away with, pretty well anything they like because no-one seems to do anything about most of it.

So, I hear you asking, what is she talking about this time?

What has rattled her cage today?

Well, as always, it’s more stuff I have learnt from my favoured medium, Facebook. People have posted up links to stories that have made me really angry. Again.

As far as I can see, two London Councils, Barnet and Hammersmith and Fulham, have decided to axe their Meals on Wheels Service for older and disabled people. In the case of one of these Councils it has been suggested that the Service can be replaced by providing vulnerable people with frozen, Tesco Finest, ready meals which will need to be microwaved and, the other Council suggests, Foodbanks can take up the strain.

No, no and no!

What is it about Meals on Wheels that these Councils are failing to grasp? This is a service that is for older and disabled people who are unable to prepare a decent meal and cook for themselves or use a microwave to ensure that they get to eat one nutritious, balanced, hot meal every day. They are not a luxury for the lazy who can’t be bothered to cook, they are a necessity for people who would otherwise be resorting to soup and sandwiches, if they are to get anything much to eat at all. Ready Meals are not, as far as I can tell, the most wonderful things you can buy to eat. Even the so-called ‘Finest’ range seem to have excess sugar, salt and preservatives in them. The ingredients cannot be described as ‘fresh’ having been mainly frozen or dried and they have not been lovingly prepared by trained cooks or chefs for the consumer’s delectation. They are fine for a one off, emergency meal, but not every day and certainly not for older and disabled people who need good, healthy meals which include all the right amounts of the recommended food groups to stay as fit as possible. Ready meals are not the solution, they are merely an emergency or stop-gap measure which should be the exception and not the rule. It may be cheaper in the short-term to provide ready meals for everyone who needs them but, in the long-term, all you are likely to end up with is more admissions in hospitals for malnutrition or diabetes or people with raised blood pressure or heart problems due to an overload of sodium in their diet.

Then there is the other idea. That Foodbanks can take up the slack. Apart from anything else, this shows a complete lack of understanding of the role and purpose of a foodbank. The food that people get from them is not a cooked meal, it is uncooked food which the recipients need to be able to prepare and cook themselves. On their own. Without help. Why do people who have Meals on Wheels use the service? Because they are unable to prepare and cook a meal for themselves. Giving vulnerable people the ingredients is not going to help, however nice they if they are, if these people are unable to do anything with them. What people need is a fully prepared, cooked  meal, not a new household decoration. It makes no sense. Just because someone has the raw ingredients for a meal it does not mean they have had anything to eat. Not only that but Foodbanks don’t have the staff to to cook and prepare meals. They don’t have the vans or the drivers to deliver them. And, they don’t have any kitchens either.

It’s time Local Councils nationwide stop trying to always take the cheapest option but actually think about what they are doing. Saving money in the short-term is all very well and good but, if that saving creates even more problems, is it a saving at all? Stop taking a seemingly easy option without considering the consequences. Spending a little more now could save so much further on down the line. Look at the reason a service is being provided before cutting it to the quick. Short-term solutions rarely work in the long term.

Very interesting. Facebook today, has as usual, got me thinking and given me somethig to write about.

The little gem I have just been reading a fascinating article on ‘Minimum Income Guarantee’ (MIG). A scheme that is going to be trialled in Utrecht in the Netherlands, in Finland as a whole and is now being proposed for Switzerland too. It’s something I first heard about a couple of years ago and, having read up on the subject and talked about it with people with a lot more understanding of the issue than me and given it a fair bit of consideration, I think we should have a proper discussions about trying it in the UK as well.

So, if we’re going to do that, what is MIG anyway?
Well, I am no politician or Economics guru but I think I understand the principles at any rate. As far as I can make out, with MIG all the adults in the country would receive a minimum income that is JUST enough to live on and all children would receive a smaller amount until they reach maturity. But, and here’s the important bit, there would be no other Welfare Benefits at all, just MIG. People who were able to and wanted to would be welcome to get a job to ‘top up’ their income but, whatever they earned would be taxed, from £1 upwards, and taxed at a higher rate than at present. I think that’s it.

No way, I hear you say, that sounds expensive and there are no incentives there to encourage anyone to go out and get a job at all. People would be able to just sit on their idle backsides all day and do nothing. What about that?

Well. Costs first. I don’t know if I’ve got this completely right but, as far as I can make out, if there are no other benefits available that’s a whole load of money saved straight away. The money that is used for the admin and implementation of the multitudinous number of benefits we currently have in this country would all be available for MIG instead. If everyone got it, without any form of means testing, the cost would be negligible. The State would, of course, need to do something to ensure that older and disabled people would be able to access the support and equipment they may need at no additional cost but how that would function is something that would need to be investigated and worked out before any form of MIG could be implemented.

And how about the terminally lazy? People could, of course, sit on their sofas all day if that was what they wanted to do but they may not be able to afford their super special satellite TVs, their xboxes in games consoles. No more annual holidays to the Spanish costas, just the sofa. They wouldn’t be able to apply for extra money from anywhere else to supplement their income, they would have MIG and that’s all. Same goes for the people who want to spend their money on tobacco, alcohol and recreational drugs. It’s their choice. If that’s what they want to do then that’s their choice out they would have nothing else. That would be it. If people wanted anything else they would need to work to get that income top-up they need for all those little luxuries. The one thing that would be certain though, is that there should be more need for food banks and no more children going without. Everyone should have enough for the basics even if they had nothing else.

All in all I believe that MIG for the UK is something that should be seriously considered. I really am of the opinion it could work. Let’s give it some serious thought, if nothing else. Sure, there would be some hiccups, we couldn’t expect perfection right from day one, but I reckon, MIG could work in this country. I will be watching all the experimental schemes with interest and, if they work out the way I hope they will, I will be lobbying for a referendum for the same thing for the UK too.

Last night, one of my female Muslim carers made an interesting comment. She echoed the words spoken by a Muslim woman who was on the evening news at the time, ‘Why just Muslim women?’

The report they were both commenting on was a story about David Cameron proposal that the government should spend £20m on providing English lessons for Muslim women? Both my carer and the woman on the TV said the same thing, practically in unison.

Why just women and why just Muslims?

Why not both men AND women of any nationality OR religion who don’t speak English?

The government have really cut ESOL (English as a Second or Other Language) provision since they first came to power, why not put the £20m into funding for everyone who needs it? It’s not just Muslims and it’s not just women who need help, many other recent arrivals could benefit.

We recently had some building and improvement work done in our house. The Housing Association awarded the contract to a local building company who subcontracted some of the work to other, smaller builders in the area. The guys who came to my house were very nice but barely spoke English at all which made things more than a little difficult.  It would have been very helpful if they could have had the opportunity to attend English improvement lessons before they started working in people’s houses but they never had the chance. And they still wouldn’t have had the chance even if this new £20m initiative had been in place.

Why?

Because they were not women.

They were Eastern European men.

They may have been Muslim, there was no way of telling and I didn’t ask but they were definitely men.

Thanks to the cuts Mr Cameron has previously made to ESOL provision in this country, there are now few lessons they could attend. There is ever decreasing help available for new arrivals who need to learn our language. What are people supposed to do, learn by osmosis? As far as I can see, it would appear so. Our local college in Lambeth has had to halve it’s ESOL provision over the last few years and this appears to be a story which is the same at colleges nationwide. Demand is there, provision is not.

In 2008 the Government spent £230 million on ESOL provision in the UK. By 2013 this figure had been reduced to £130 million and is set to fall by a further £90 million after the cuts that were made last summer.As a result ESOL participation has fallen by 22%. The demand is still there, some courses have waiting lists of over a thousand people, it’s money and investment that is lacking.

So will this new promise of £20 million help? Probably. A bit anyway. Some women will get a chance, as long as they are Muslim, but men and non-Muslims will have to go on suffering in silence because they don’t speak English..

And that seems, to me, to be discriminatory.

I don’t often say that a policy appears to discriminate against men, it’s usually women, but in this instance men seem to be losing out. As for the Muslim thing, what about other faiths? Or people of no faith at all? Don’t they need to be able to speak English too? According to Mr Cameron It would appear not and that is very unfair. Give everyone who needs it a chance, not just one gender and one specific belief system.

If we want immigrants to be able to contribute their skills and taxes into the national pot then we need to let them be on a level playing field with other workers. Cutting ESOL provision is a short term saving that will backfire in the long term and to focus exclusively on one gender and one faith is wrong and discriminatory to everyone else who could benefit who doesn’t fit the narrow criteria for help. Have some classes that are for women only if that is what people want and what makes them most comfortable but make sure the money is properly distributed so that as many people as possible can be helped. Current plans do not make sense and seem to have been badly thought out. Go back to the drawing board Mr Cameron and try again. You could do so much better. Stop playing with our money and invest it where it will benefit the most number of new arrivals of both genders and all faiths. If you do this properly it will, ultimately, benefit the whole country as well.