Mr Brown's visit comes just days after a visit to Reading by Home Secretary Alan Johnson. These visits don't change public perception of crime or public perception of the Labour government. This is because people in Reading are sick of spin from Labour politicians on crime and anti-social behaviour, and after years of rhetoric and countless pieces of ineffective criminal justice legislation they want to see is action and they want a better response when they report crime. It's not rocket science but after all these years Labour still haven't quite got the message on what local people want.
In 2008 when I was Lib Dem safer communities spokesperson I went to Reading Town Hall with a message on crime from the local community for Reading's top cops and members of the Home Affairs Select Committee (which included Reading West MP Martin Salter). My message was simple: why is the local community still not being listened to when they report anti-social behaviour? I was then and still am now campaigning for improvements to Thames Valley Police's Anti-Social Behaviour Hotline and a better response from Reading Borough Council. In January 2009 I led a group of residents from across Reading on a visit to TVP's call-centre in Kidlington to allow them to put their questions direct to the Police. Because I believe strongly in putting power back into the hands of local people. Sadly the Labour councillor responsible for tackling crime was too busy to join us. In October 2009 my Lib Dem colleagues and I successfully amended Labour's flawed anti-social behaviour strategy to include more support Neighbourhood Action Groups and better engagement by the Council and the Police with residents.
I've been asking searching questions about the authorities' response to these issues since my election to Reading Borough Council in 2006. Questions like:
- Why are there 2 numbers to report crime and anti-social behaviour in Reading?
- Why when residents report anti-social behaviour to the Police do the Council so often then say they have had 'no reports' on asb?
- Why doesn't the Council analyse more closely whether the money it is spending on local crime-reduction projects is value for money?
I keep on asking these questions not because I am obsessed by crime problems but because the response I get from residents about their experience of anti-social behaviour across Reading is so often overwhelmingly negative. I also ask these questions because councils have a duty to tackle anti-social behaviour. As part of my campaign for a better deal for Reading residents on crime and asb last week I asked the Council:
- How many reports of asb has the Council received from residents by ward and by type over the previous 12 months?
- How many calls have been received to RBC's hotline? reports to the websire
- How many asb reports have been received by ward?
Finally my questions also revealed that it is not currently possible for the Council's ASB teams to capture whether or not the report was received via the website. According to data provided to me by Reading Borough Council the four wards where residents reported the highest levels of anti-social behaviour in Reading are: Redlands (58), Norcot(54), Southcote (49) and Whitley (41). 3 out of 4 of these wards are in Reading West constituency - and the other one is my own ward where I know that asb is a big concern with my constituents. Answers to my questions revealed that overall n 2007 there were 408 reports of asb, 2008 (302) and 2009 (397). However, I don't think for a minute that these stats capture all the anti-social behaviour going on in the Borough over the past 3 years. I think the actual level is far higher but that people simply don't see the point of reporting it.
I was fascinated to see that in his speech today Gordon Brown pledged that a new single non-emergency number would be introduced. As the Guardian newspaper pointed out tonight this was something Labour pledged in their manifesto in 2005 but that was axed by the then Home Secretary John Reid. This is something the Lib Dems in Reading have been calling for, for years.In 2008 I tabled an amendment to the Council's ASB strategy which specifically called for: "to increase reporting of anti-social behaviour, members of the CDRP establish, promote, and jointly-fund a Reading-based telephone hotline line for residents to easily report anti-social behaviour". Gordon Brown also pledged to extend powers to residents to call for action on crime via online petitions to councils - this is all very well but in my experience it is the poorest people in Reading that suffer the most from crime and many of them do not have access to the internet. I don't see how this 'power' would help them.
Anyway, whilst Gordon Brown was busy pressing the flesh I was out campaigning in Southcote with local resident Susan Bicknell, a lifelong Labour member who recently joined the Lib Dems. Susan was a Labour member for 20 odd years. She joined us because she was fed up with Labour politicians non-response to issues in her area and because she is fed up with Labour's failure to deal with the problems that really matter to local people - including anti-social behaviour. We spent some time today talking to shopkeepers on Coronation Square. They told me about the serious anti-social behaviour problems they had faced in recent years and praised the work done by local PCSOs. It is clear that a visible presence from people in uniform (including Council neighbourhood wardens) has increased their confidence. They were less impressed by signs dotted around the presinct that pledge '24 hour CCTV' as it's not clear who is monitoring them and what action is being taken as a result. It's worth pointing out as Lib Dem Shadow Home Secretary Chris Huhne did earlier today that for all Brown's promises today only the Lib Dems are committed to putting more Police officers on the beat.