Opinion

Paul McNamee: Late library books can wait

As local authorities aggressively implement cuts and outsource their services, the human toll is ever clearer

A sign that appeared in a Lincolnshire library last week raises an interesting question.

How’s that for an opening line!

The sign, posted on social media by a library campaigner, said that from April 1 library fines across Lincolnshire County Council, above £20 and for more than 70 days, would be passed to a debt collection agency. There would be associated costs too, increasing the debt.

Should we automatically be up in arms? After all, as our literacy campaign keeps illustrating, libraries need money. Huge numbers of people use them. If we want to keep them open, we all need to pay the bits we can – like for overdue books.

Actually, who am I kidding? This is outrageous. The idea of throwing people to the mercy of debt collection agencies, the courts and a shocking acceleration of debt over a library book is beyond reason.

Who hasn’t forgotten a library book from time to  time?! Yet, here is a council suggesting a massively draconian over-reaction.

What message is this?

Older folk – feeling lonely? Never feel lonely again! We’ll send people round to your house to make you worried beyond belief, and enter you into a judicial system that you may be very unfamiliar with, increasing the debt and the fears and allowing no means of escape!

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It’s part of a bigger picture that has taken us to the cover story in The Big Issue this week. We reveal the rabbit hole that missed payment of council tax is increasingly leading down.

Part of the core problem here is a lack of human interaction. As local authorities implement cuts, they look for ways to slice costly wage bills and bring through automated responses. And these responses frequently then go to outsourced companies – so the overheads for councils are cut – but a request for a human within the council to act with clemency or just common sense doesn’t fly. Computer, as Little Britain put it in one of their most telling scenes, says no.

This aggressive cost-cutting and subsequent human toll is playing out in ever-clearer sight.

Last week it was revealed that a quarter of the UK’s 2,500 home care providers were at risk of insolvency. Ninety five councils – 95! – had contracts cancelled by private companies struggling to deliver on the funding offered.

Social enterprises spot what is needed, work to that and reinvest profit to keep helping

Are these shocking figures set to continue? Are there ways to find an adequate solution, one that doesn’t involve councils who need pounds but who are fighting to raise pennies from ludicrous library fines?

I’ve pointed before to social enterprises and I do it again now. If private companies who need to deliver profit to keep shareholders happy can’t make it, then organisations who genuinely put people first can. Social enterprises, and some charities, spot what is needed, work to that and reinvest profit to keep helping.

Big Issue Invest several years ago invested in Sandwell Community Caring Trust to help them provide residential community care for dementia sufferers in the West Midlands. It was a big success and neatly illustrated a third-way solution when government agencies fail. Big Issue Invest has grown and become a shining light around this way forward.

As budgets collapse, it’s time to stop footering around the edges. Radical thinking on new approaches, like those led by Big Issue Invest, is essential.

Criminalising people who forget library books is not going to work.

If you have any comments please email me at paul.mcnamee@bigissue.com, tweet @pauldmcnamee, or send a letter to The Big Issue, 43 Bath Street, Glasgow, G2 1HW

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