In praise of Westminster Libraries staff

As I’ve watched the campaign against library cuts grow, I’ve been inspired by the passion of those involved. Community sit-ins in Barnet, high profile celebrity engagement online and varied use of social media. But yesterday, on a public libraries forum, a member of Westminster Libraries staff shared this open letter, written and published by colleagues addressed to their local councillors.

It is thought provoking and powerful and I hope staff working for charities in a similar position might be inspired by what they say.

To the Councillors of Westminster,

Westminster Libraries currently uses less than 1% of the council’s overall budget. We have 11 libraries, an archives service, a reference library, a music library, a home library service and the largest online database of any public library service in the UK.

We provide books, DVDs & CDs, internet access, CV building workshops, under 5s sessions, class visits, language and computer courses, community groups and workshops, and engage teenagers through projects like Fast Forward, which has taken over from the Connexions career services. We promote health, community and citizenship and provide a free space to work, socialise and study for residents and visitors.

 We now have parking, council tax, Rescard, housing and OneStop services incorporated into our day-to-day duties with no additional funding as a service or as employees. In fact, we’ve provided all these services at this low cost while going through 5 years of cuts that have already closed libraries, reduced our budget and decimated our staff levels each and every year.

 When employment goes down our workload goes up, and as homelessness increases and incomes plummet our footfall increases. Year-on-year we’ve risen to the challenge of providing all these services for that ever shrinking less than 1% of the council’s budget.

 In 2011, Westminster Council hired two new department directors at the rate it cost to run St James’s library, which they were closing at the same time.

In that same year, Westminster councillors refused a 5% reduction to wages above £100,000 to save £3.5m because the saving would be too insignificant to justify; but library staff have been asked to bear double that cut for only 10% of that saving.

 The solution to unemployment cannot be to fire people, and the solution to debt is not to cut income generating, job creating, and crime preventing services.

Not only is it a statutory requirement to provide this service, it is our moral obligation to do so. With new challenges, we need new ideas, not old mistakes; and any further cuts to our library service budget would be a drop in the ocean compared to almost any other department in a council that has often stood in the spotlight on the international stage.

We ask that this race to the bottom is brought to an end; and that Westminster council commits to investment rather than cuts so we can continue the good work that we do for the small budget we have.

 The staff of Westminster Libraries

  • Ivor Sutton

    Thanks Leon.

    Firstly, I must say that, amid the CEO’s and directors who have posts of this forum, you are the ONLY person who has had the enthusiasm and will to ‘reach back’ – which is a ‘breath of fresh air’ for someone like myself who is constantly ‘reaching out’ with the aim of achieving goals.

    As someone who stems from private sector management, and who ambitiously and successfully crossed-over into the public and third sectors, one can imagine how frustrating it can be to still be seeking employment goals amid the proactive job-seeking on a daily basis.

    Though, I also understand that, amid a failed Work Programme, constantly ‘reaching out’ for opportunities is a fundamental skill to maintain as a proactive job-seeker – as there remains a failure by these Work Programme contractors to engage their clients with other job-seekers and to encourage team-working, and the possibility of developing new and refreshing ideas and opportunities as a team. Sadly, such policy ideas are not being developed by the minds of those already in the influential positions they hold.

    I will email you soon.

    All the best!

    • Olly

      The problem at the moment is the over supply of labour, caused in part by a lack of demand across all sectors. As there are fewer jobs and young people are encouraged to become more employment-ready through volunteering and internships, the number of young people looking for such opportunities increases.

      Organisations then have to introduce barriers to entry to reduce the number of people applying for these opportunities. If the barriers to entry were lowered there is no more likelihood you’d get an internship, simply the organisation would need to select out of 400 applications, rather than 40. That is inefficient for the organisation, with not much benefit for the individual.

      So whilst I totally agree that charities have a moral obligation to pay interns to ensure equality of access, I’m not sure that solves the problem you have highlighted.

      • Leon Ward

        Good point Olly.

        It’s a bit of a catch 22 situation. But, as the sector continues to grow I think organisations who cannot afford to pay can instead, offer better, more valuable and properly structured/managed volunteering opportunities. If this happens, then lots of people can gain significant skill sets from shorter-term placements. Also, I think I balanced a bit too heavily on national organisations but my above points do actually apply to local organisations too. I do think Government has a role to play too. Parliament/Whitehall is an extremely exclusive club for internships; so the problem is widespread. Lastly, I think organisations could arrange for external awards for volunteers/interns like the V awards so people gain *actual* recognition for the work that they do.

        Thanks for commenting and sharing!

        Ivor, I look forward to your email and hope we can thrash this out some more!


  • Leon Ward

    This is a fantastic reply. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and experiences.

  • Liz Dyer

    Really enjoyed this blog Leon, and have heard great reviews of your contribution to the parliamentary inquiry this week.

    I was mulling over some of the above issues yesterday whilst reading Debra Allcock Tyler’s latest piece on charity Chief Executive pay: http://www.thirdsector.co.uk/news/1178333/Debra-Allcock-Tyler-need-people-inspired-cause—not-attracted-large-salary/. Whilst I agree that the charity sector needs passionate people inspired by the cause not just the salary, but it would be a shame if this served to exclude young people from the charity sector.

    As you’ve rightly pointed out, volunteering brings great value to the volunteer and charity and I would urge any students to gain office-based volunteering experience or a more formal internship whilst studying, if they can. But if unpaid positions become the only entry point to the sector it will be deprived of a vast range of young talent.

  • Leon Ward

    Thanks Liz and great comment. I agree, which is why I called for entry/trainee schemes so we can allow people (not just graduates) to enter the Sector with some salary support; it’s tough at there as it is, expecting to people to gain several years of experience without any funds make it near impossible for many people.