Monday, 12 April 2010

Working together to improve children's health

Earlier this evening I attended a meeting of the Council's Cabinet to present detailed recommendations from a joint review into children's health carried out by the Housing, Community Care and Scrutiny Panel (which I chair) and the Education and Children's Services Scrutiny Panel. Follow the link above to read our recommendations. This is something I've been working on with other councillors and officers for some time - in addition to my role as a ward councillor, a PPC and alongside a full-time job. There is no dedicated health scrutiny panel in Reading and very little resources dedicated to support scrutiny councillors - so a few of us had to work to make this review happen. A few ill-informed people have criticised me personally for taking a long time over the review - a rather pointless, short-sighted attack it turned out. This is a massive, complex issue so it was important to take the time to understand the factors at play - get our facts straight before jumping to conclusions. There are no quick political fixes - tackling longstanding health inequalities is something that will take years to address. It's a vitally important issue which requires commitment from politicians and Labour and Lib Dem councillors who spoke at the meeting tonight agreed with me that it is one of the biggest issues facing us in Reading today. Poor child health in Reading is closely linked to deprivation and as a result of the recession the number of children living in poverty* went up last year by 12% to over 8,000 (up from 6500 in 2006). On all the key health indicators from teenage pregnancy, to obesity, to tooth decay children and young people's health is less good than other parts of the South East. If we want to live in a happier, healthier and more successful society in Reading we have to do more to close the gap between healthy and unhealthy in our area. With the passing into law of the Child Poverty Act recently there will soon be a duty on all councils to tackle health inequality which I think is a good thing. But councils cannot do it alone. It should be everyone's responsibility - health bodies , schools and businesses too.
I have strived throughout this lengthy review to ensure that discussions about these issues stay above the political fray. It has taken a lot of hard work from a small number of councillors and officers to get this far. Thankfully many people working in this area - unsung heroes in my view - want to make a real difference to our community and it has been a pleasure to work alongside them. I believe strongly that children's health should not be used as a political football. It does the Council no good in the eyes of the public to be seen to be descending into the gutter when we should be working together as servants of the people to improve the lives of all in our community. The way some councillors have sought to use this scrutiny review to score political points could do real damage to children's health in our town as it causes people to focus on politics and politicians when they should be focussing on improving the health of children. Thankfully there was no repeat of this thoughtless behaviour tonight. The recommendations I presented did not represent a personal polemic from me but sought to capture the views of councillors of all parties who participated in the scrutiny review backed up by detailed data from officers. I'm pleased to say the report was received very positively by Labour members of the Cabinet as well as the Leader of the Council this evening. All party support will be needed if we are going to lobby health bodies and other partners for a better deal for Reading's children. We await a detailed response from the administration later this year but in the meantime it has been agreed that the Council should actively engage members of the Local Strategic Partnership including the PCT and make tackling child poverty and therefore improving children's health, everyone's priority. With pressure on local budgets likely to increase in the coming years it's vital that children's health is not allowed to detioriate and I am determined not to let this happen.

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