Libraries, social services and others

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The Independent Online

Libraries are being destroyed as they turn into 'centres of fun'

Libraries are being destroyed as they turn into 'centres of fun'

Sir: The public library service has always been the poor relation of local government, something desirable, but not essential, and therefore ripe for cutting when financial pressures begin to bite. Hence the crippling countrywide erosion of opening hours ("A minute's silence, please, for the late public library", 28 April).

Equally damaging, though, is the erosion of posts for trained staff, and of what we were always taught was the purpose of a public library - the provision of knowledge and the opening up of that knowledge to those who needed it.

Of course that knowledge can be provided in all sorts of ways and through all sorts of media, and it is simple common sense to make libraries as welcoming and easy to enter and use as possible. But to suggest, as it would seem the Libri report does, that less time should be given to activities like cataloguing and classification is surely to betray the whole purpose of a library. A book by itself is paper and ink, a shelf-filler; a book given a location and context by an experienced librarian is something very different.

It doesn't matter if it is the provision of the latest Tom Clancy thriller to an exhausted steelworker, a copy of the latest British Standard on cisterns to a plumber, or information on coal mining in Pontrhydyfen for a school project; these are all in their own way routes to freedom, and that, in the end, is what librarianship is about.

Port Talbot

Sir: Janet Street-Porter (29 April) doesn't seem to grasp that the massive reduction in the number of people visiting libraries to borrow books is precisely a response to lack of investment in new stock and the ruthless purging of existing holdings in order to make way for money-making DVD, video and games rentals, and computer terminals.

In the name of "lifelong learning" public libraries now actively discourage users seeking titles which are outside a narrow populist mainstream. As my local council has put it in a mission statement published this month, "We want our libraries to be centres of fun and enjoyment and to provide everyone with the chance to relax and have access to creative experiences."

I've been going to centres like that all my life. They're called pubs.

London E17

Toni-Ann's father has been demonised

Sir: I acted for Bertram Byfield in Toni-Ann's case (report, 30 April). The authors of the inquiry into her death did not take up my offer to speak to them.

It appears to be open season to portray Mr Byfield in the worst possible light. That he had a bad past is not in doubt. However, I see no reference to the fact that for many months he travelled every week from London to Birmingham to see Toni-Ann in foster care. Initially this was for just a couple of hours, later extended to longer. This was all that he was permitted by social services.

Sadly, it is probably a minority of absent fathers who make such a commitment. This was a factor in social services giving consideration to his request to care for her. Has this been excluded from reporting the case because it does not fit in with the demonisation of Mr Byfield which has been apparent since the tragedy of the double deaths?

Social workers are rightly criticised for their failures in this case. In my experience there is an endemic failure of child protection in every authority with which I have dealings. There is totally inadequate support and monitoring not only of children who remain with their families but also those in the care system.

The public should be told that responsibility lies in the first instance with the Government to provide a massive increase in resources. Without that, the situation will continue to get worse. Senior management in social services should be blaming their political masters not their frontline services. Margaret Hodge should be telling us how she is going to get Gordon Brown to put in the money.

Powell Spencer & Partners
London NW6

Sir: "It would be simplistic and wrong to vilify all social workers over the Toni-Ann case" (leading article, 30 April). I agree. And yet you totally negate this with your front page headline "...a system that has failed for 30 years".

When they see headlines like this, is it any wonder that people think more than twice before embarking on a career in social services? Or that social workers become even more demoralised and leave the profession? Or that the public are reluctant to contact social services with concerns about children, believing the system to be flawed?

Toni-Ann's case was a tragic one, and Victoria Climbie's and others equally so, and lessons must and will be learned by those responsible for the protection of children. But thousands of children "at risk" are being protected effectively, either in foster care or through monitoring and support at home, helping inadequate parents become better ones.

I have worked with vulnerable families, taken part in case conference and seen quiet and effective work done by social workers alongside the police, other professionals and voluntary organisations. Correct the abuses, yes. Fill the gaps (staffing and otherwise) in this safety net but don't damn the whole system because of a handful of failures.

Llanwrtyd Wells, Powys

Sir: I have been a health visitor for over 30 years and in that time I have worked closely with many social workers. I have found almost all of them to be hardworking, dedicated people who try to do their very best for the families they work with.

The range of people they deal with is truely awesome. It spans the extremes from straightforward needy cases who require lots of support, encouragement and guidance, to those who are malignant, manipulative, deceitful and violent.

Working day to day, social workers need a combination of the wisdom of Solomon and the patience of Job, along with the powers of mystic Meg to make the difficult decisions they must face each day. While it is right and proper that each death should be properly investigated and lessons learned where possible, it is unjust to judge a profession solely by the things that go wrong.

Until the protection of our children is seen as the responsibility of each one of us rather than "someone else's problem", we will continue to have cases of child abuse. As long as social workers are overworked and exhausted, they will continue to make occasional errors of judgement.Using them as a scapegoat is unlikely to improve the situation.

King's Lynn, Norfolk

Sir: Of the 12 cases of child murder on your front page today 11 where cases where the parents still had custody. It is obvious to me that where a parent lets his/her girlfriend/boyfriend batter or starve their child to death, sends his/her child miles away from home, is more worried about getting high than knowing where his/her child is, the parent is responsible. We live in a world of weak, self-gratifying individuals.

London E13

Caesarean births

Sir: I am a qualified natural health consultant and a mother of five children, all of whom were born naturally, including twins, in my mid forties. I am delighted to see that the NHS is trying to discourage Caesarean births.

Whilst I agree with your leader (28 April) that women should have the choice of today's technology, Caesarean birth is often chosen due to fear and lack of understanding of the advantages that natural birth gives, both in the short and long term to the mother and the baby. Women need more information and confidence to trust that their bodies can function as nature intended and to realise there are in- built hormones to counter the pain.

Natural childbirth can be one of the greatest experiences of a woman's life, giving a feeling of empowerment. According to research by Michel Odent, a leading expert in the field, adults born naturally have not only better health, but a greater capacity to love.

Fawley, Oxfordshire

Unreliable ID checks

Sir: One can only hope that the proposed scanning of irises to determine a person's identity (report, 27 April) is more reliable than the system of fingerprinting as currently used by the police.

My son was arrested along with many others at the arms fair in Docklands last year. When he was questioned he gave his correct name, address and date of birth, showing his bank card and provisional driving licence as confirmation of his identity.

However, when his fingerprints were taken they matched those of someone with a different name held on the police national fingerprint register and he was detained in custody for giving false details to the police.

My son asked to see a duty solicitor who was able to secure his release after several hours - had he not been under 18 at the time I suspect he would have spent the night in custody.

Either we do not each possess unique fingerprints or the technology used by the police for matching prints is unreliable.


Sir: Fifteen years ago we celebrated the demise of regimes which had maintained power through use of indefinite detention without trial and by closely monitoring the behaviour of their citizens. How we shuddered when we heard of people being bundled into police cars in Moscow never to be seen again; how we recoiled when, after the Wall fell, the full extent of the Stasi's files was revealed.

Yet here we are, in 2004, listening to David Blunkett proposing changes to the law aimed at ensuring suspects held without trial are unable to escape indefinite detention. Here we are, in Great Britain, being encouraged to accept a national ID card reliant on a database which will allow the state to monitor us with an ease the Stasi could have only dreamt of.

Whitton, Middlesex

Darfur disaster

Sir: Johann Hari's claim (Opinion, 23 April) that "we", the British, contributed to the present disaster in Darfur, western Sudan, has no foundation in historical fact.

There were no "warring tribes" at independence in the mid-1950s; the whole country, notably including the south, had a settled existence. The national boundary was essentially the same as had obtained for 135 years. Differences and divisions indeed existed, but were expressed in political terms, through the general election of November 1953.

The west, where the present unrest and brutality are happening, had been particularly stable and at ease with the British-dominated administration. It played a full part in the elections, returning mainly opposition representatives. Darfur province has since been peaceful, until the current crisis began.

Ilkley, West Yorkshire

Mum's the word

Sir: Of the 52 senior diplomats openly criticising Mr Blair's Iraq and Middle East policy (Letters, 28 April), only two are women. Are the women pro-Blair? Is Mum the word? Or is the Foreign Office glass ceiling particularly low?

London E4

Choral concert

Sir: I refer to the article "A glimpse into the dark recesses of Middle England" by Paul Vallely (27 April). While I am delighted that Altrincham Choral Society's next concert ("Trial by Jury" and popular choruses by Gilbert & Sullivan) was mentioned in the article, it is unfortunate that the wrong date was given. The concert will be on Saturday 10 July 2004 at 7.30 pm at the Royal Northern College of Music.

Altrincham Choral Society
Altrincham, Cheshire

IMF hijacking

Sir: Johann Hari (28 April) writes that the International Monetary Fund was hijacked by market fundamentalists associated with Thatcher and Reagan in the 1980s.

Surely the hijack took place earlier than this. The IMF loan to Britain in the late 1970s was conditional on the Callaghan government's implementing monetarist policies - ie, big cuts in public spending.

Rishton, Lancashire

Take no notice

Sir: Whenever we visit my aunt at Kew we remember the notice at the Tube station which read "Bear left outside station" and wonder whether this was ever reported to the RSPCA.


Sir: "Beware the creosote" was painted on a gate near us. Our kids grew up believing in this wild and scary creature.

Topsham, Devon

Sir: In the Falkland Islands the roadsign "Slow Minefield" never fails to get the attention of the most distracted driver on the slippery, gravel roads.

Newbury, Berkshire