Thursday, 30 December 2010

An unexpected accolade

Thanks to Simon McGrath, Lib Dem member and the man behind the 'Vote Clegg, Get Clegg' Facebook page who has today awarded me 'Grassroots Campaigner Of The Year' in his Lib Dem Awards 2010. He writes:
'The winner here is someone I have mentioned before Daisy Benson. She was the candidate in Reading West at the election where she increase the vote by 4.3%. Reading West was one of the constituencies the papers were saying we might take at the height of Cleggmania and if you are candidate however much you know it won’t happen you always have a bit of hope. Despite the disappointment she has carried on as a local councillor and is Lead Member for Housing, Health and Community Care on Reading Borough Council. She just keeps on working for her constituents and for Liberalism.'
I don't know Simon well but it is really nice to know I have supporters not just in Reading but elsewhere. Speaking personally 2010 was an amazing year for me politically and not one I'll forget in a hurry. I loved standing for Parliament as Lib Dem candidate for Reading West and I was delighted to be re-elected as a councillor on the same day with an increased majority.
Becoming a Lead Councillor has been a fascinating, engrossing, and at times stressful experience but I will never take the support local people have given me for granted. I will continue to strive every day to do my best by the them. It has been great to have a break over Christmas after a very hectic few months but I am really looking forward to getting back on the campaign trail.

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Construction of first new Council homes in Reading for 20 years begins

Earlier this month I visited the site of the first new Council-owned and Council-managed housing in Reading for 20 years. This is quite an achievement given the pitifully small number of new council homes built by the previous Labour government.  This development of 'extra care' flats will provide excellent new homes for the over - 55s in Reading. When completed the development, on the former Avenue School site on Basingstoke Road in Katesgrove will consist of 27 one-bedroom flats and 13 two-bedroom flats for rent. The new homes are expected to be complete in spring 2012. The brand new accommodation will include communal areas with a restaurant, hobby rooms and a spa treatment area providing podiatry, hairdressing and other therapeutic services.

These facilities and a range of activities will be available to residents and older people living in the community.  The development will include private areas for residents only, including lounges, a roof terrace and a garden at the southern end of the scheme, where keen gardeners can practise their skills. Older people, including residents in sheltered housing and day centre clients were involved in choosing the design of the scheme. Their suggestions included a BBQ area and raised flower/vegetable beds in the garden. Future consultation will take place to allow choices to be made on colour options, furniture and fittings. All of the flats will be self-contained with their own kitchen, bedroom, bathroom, lounge and dining area. The building will be wheelchair accessible and all residents will have access to on-site 24-hour care staff, but not everyone will need this service. The site is close to local amenities and accessible by public transport, making it easy for residents to get out and about I'm pleased their ideas will be Incorporated into the scheme.
I am delighted that the Coalition Administration of Reading Borough Council succeeded in securing financial backing from the Homes and Communities Agency for this important development. The progress of the scheme had been threatened as a result of the dire state of the public finances left by the previous Labour government. I was actively involved in lobbying both Reading MPs and through them the Housing Minister Grant Shapps to help us win funding for the scheme. Rob Wilson, MP for Reading East was very supportive, as was neighbouring MP for Reading West, Alok Sharma MP.
I am pleased the HCA agreed with us that this project represents an excellent example of investing to save. It will help Reading Borough Council support more local people to live independently in their own homes for longer - this is much needed as the number of frail elderly people in our area is on the rise.  I will continue to campaign for more new housing to be built to meet local housing need and sincerely hope the Coalition Government is more successful in this regard than the Labour government was.

Caring for carers in Reading

A couple of weeks ago I was privileged to attend the launch of the new Action Plan for carers in Reading, as part of national Carer's Rights Day. This plan details real commitments to carers made by Reading Borough Council, NHS Berkshire West, the Princess Royal Trust Carers' Service, Crossroads and JobCentrePlus. It has been developed by members of the Reading Carers Steering Group which includes local carers and it is an excellent example of co-production.  It calls on local agencies to do more to support carers and help carers live happier, healthier lives.
I never cease to be amazed by the work done by thousands of selfless carers in our community.
The Council estimates there are around 11,000 carers in Reading - across all age ranges and backgrounds.The Council recently surveyed local carers. The survey revealed that more than 2,000 people spend more than 50 hours a week caring for someone close to them. More than 900 carers responded to the consultation and told the Council about their priorities. They said they wanted short respite breaks, access to on-call emergency assistance, advice in looking after their own health and general well-being, and to ensure new and existing carers had access to information and guidance on support and services.
 It is now up to the Council and other local agencies to listen to local carers and do more to ensure the support they need is available in the community. As I explained a couple of weeks ago our plans to transform community care in Reading (currently out to public consultation) include plans to improve the support available carers, as well as promoting the independence of carers via  direct payments and personal budgets.
We really do owe our local carers a debt of gratitude for the work they do week in, week out, which is why I am pleased that nationally the Coalition has placed carers at the heart of it's plans to improve social care services. I am particularly pleased that the Lib Dem manifesto commitment to provide guaranteed respite care for carers is now being implemented in government by Lib Dem Minister, Paul Burstow MP. This commitment to providing more support to carers was underlined recently when the Coalition published it's Vision for Social Care.
If you or a member of your family live in Reading and have caring responsibilities please visit the dedicated carers page on the Council's website which sets out the services which are there to help support you.
Finally, don't take my word for it - watch this video clip to see Paul Burstow MP talking about his committment to carers:

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Labour in Reading:a responsibility free zone

The Evening Post reports that more than one in five children in Reading are raised in poverty.
Senior Labour Councillor Mike Orton  is described in the same article as being 'horrified' by the figures and keen to challenge the current administration of the Council to tackle poverty in future.
I agree with Mike - these statistics are shocking and they highlight the scale of the task we face to try and make Reading a fairer, healthier, more successful Town for all residents. I am keen to make the Council focus more closely on what we can do to reduce child poverty although clearly responsibility does not lie entirely with the Council but other agencies too.
Sadly this issue is not news to me - in fact it was the basis for the cross-party scrutiny review I led with Cllr Mark Ralph (Conservative)  earlier this year which challenged the complacent attitudes of the then Labour administration towards health inequality, and called for a concerted effort across local agencies to break the cycle of poverty in Reading. How depressing that the response of Labour councillors at the time was characterised by repeated attempts to rubbish me rather than take the issue seriously - hence when the review reported to Cabinet I was forced to argue that child poverty was too important an issue to be reduced to a political football.
Indeed had Cllr Ralph and I not raised serious concerns child poverty would not even have been discussed by councillors last Tuesday (one of our agreed recommendations was regular update reports to councillors to enable them to more effectively challenge the Council).
So with this in mind, my colleagues and I in the Coalition Administration are grateful for Cllr Orton's backing in our efforts to reduce poverty where high-spending Labour councillors and a Labour government, has so comprehensively failed the poorest children in our communities.
But let's make one thing clear: this shocking picture of thousands of children living in real poverty did not develop overnight as the result of Coalition policies. The figures quoted in the article and the scrutiny panel meeting which relate to child poverty are based on statistics collected only a few months ago when Reading was still ruled by a Labour-run Council, and a Labour government.
All of which begs the question what was Cllr Orton doing to during that time to challenge Labour members and officers? I cannot for the life of me recall him or other Labour councillors making impassioned speeches about the need for action on child poverty. Those speeches were left to opposition members to make.
It is a mystery. What is widely known is that Cllr Orton  has been a Whitley councillor since 1975 (one of the most deprived wards in Reading), and is both a former Leader of the Council and former Lead Member for Community Care. Someone who has been well placed to lead change locally and not someone who has lacked power or influence over Labour policy locally or nationally.
However, sadly in this area like so many others the Labour Party in Reading has increasingly become a responsibility free zone, and in my view the people of Reading deserve better.

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Reading GPs lead the way

This evening I was invited to a meeting of members of the South Reading GP Consortium - local GPs and practice staff from 18 practices across South and West Reading who between them serve nearly 100,000 patients. The Consortium of practices was set up in 2006 and is led by dynamic local GP Elizabeth Johnston, who I was delighted to meet. Under the Coalition Government's plans local GPs will have more power as PCTs and SHAs are to be abolished.
Today the Department of Health announced that the South Reading Consortium is one of 52 groups of practices chosen to be 'pathfinders' - this means they will be among the first group of GPs in England to take on and develop commissioning responsibilities.
The Health White Paper Equity and Excellence published in the Summer set out plans to devolve commissioning decisions and health budgets to GPs. This has been highly controversial but I hope that greater clinical involvement in decision-making will lead to better care for patients.
The fact that South Reading Consortium was selected for this programme is testament to the hard work done by  thesel local health leaders and it was a privilege to meet them. Between them these GPs represent some of the most deprived communities in our town so it is vital the Council and other local partners work with them to achieve the best possible health outcomes for all residents in the Reading area.

Government will deliver on commitment to extend "Talking Therapies"

On Monday, in a speech Lib Dem Care Services Minister Paul Burstow announced plans to make psychological therapies available to more people suffering mental health problems via the NHS. This is very welcome news indeed - particularly when we know that one in six people are likely to suffer from a mental illness and an estimated one in four people out of work claiming incapacity benefit are experiencing mental health problems. In his speech, Paul Burstow referred to his recent visit to an innovative "Talking Therapies" service at Shinfield Health Centre, within our local PCT area, Berkshire West, earlier this year .

Mr Burstow said:

"I had the pleasure of meeting some of your professional colleagues at a centre in Reading a few months ago.

I spoke to the service users, learnt about how these therapies had changed their lives, transformed their confidence, their outlook, their aspirations for the future.
There was a time when diagnosis of a mental health problem was the end as far as work goes. IAPT is changing that. Everyone I met there had had their lives turned round by the services they received.
One lady had suffered a serious physical illness and had to leave her job. Going in and out of hospital, and then being stuck at home, she became depressed and withdrawn.
And so when she’d recovered her physical health, she was paralysed with fear and anxiety and couldn’t return to work.
Therapy made all the difference. She regained her confidence, she eased herself back to work, she got back to her normal self.'

We are very lucky in Reading to have such an innovative service so close by.  And the results achieved for patients at the Shinfield Health Centre speak for themselves.  The Berkshire West plan was by March 2011 to get 106 people off benefits and back to work (either returning from sickness or into new employment). The service has surpassed this plan and, to date, has enabled 140 to move off sick pay and benefits since January 2009.  Leaving aside the benefits to them financially the benefits to their quality of life is hard to quantify but even more important.

The service has also exceeded planned numbers of people entering therapy and puts Berkshire West Talking Therapies among the top national IAPT services.
Last December, as the then Chair of the Reading's Health Scrutiny Panel I requested a report on this innovative programme being carried out in our area. The Panel noted that, as well as the obvious benefits to patients’ health and wellbeing, the service could also have benefits to the economy if it kept people in work. We recommended that the programme (which was being piloted by the then Labour government) be continued and extended.

I'm delighted that nationally the services being carried out by health professionals in the Reading area are being recognised and am hopeful they will be extended to enable more local people to benefit from them.

So what will the government do now to ensure this excellent work continues and more people benefit? Back to Paul Burstow's speech:

"First, we need to complete the existing training programme.

Two-thirds of the country already covered.

By the end of this financial year, 3,700 newly trained staff will be on board.

We will then go much further.

The funding we’re releasing from the Spending Review will mean that by 2015, every patient in the country should be able to get timely access to proven psychological therapies.
And, wherever possible, they should have real choice of approved therapies.
At the moment, IAPT is a little too much like Henry Ford’s business philosophy … you can have any therapy as long as it’s CBT.
To be fair, it wasn’t a bad model to get us on the road. But we do need to diversify. To open the door for other, equally effective therapies to help people with different needs.
So we’ll invest the money and work with the local NHS to upskill staff across four other NICE-approved therapies:-
- In counselling
- interpersonal therapy
- brief dynamic therapy; and
- couples therapy
Something the last government promised 12 months ago. We’ll actually deliver it."

You can read Paul Burstow's excellent speech in full here.

The government's strategy on mental health is expected in coming weeks. I am very encouraged by other public comments Paul Burstow has made on this issue so far which suggests that treating poor mental health will finally be seen as important as tackling other forms of ill-health.
As I blogged in April I am fully commited to doing everything I can to campaign for more support for people with mental health problems in Reading. This was a key plank of the Lib Dem general election manifesto in 2010 and included in the Coalition Agreement signed by Lib Dems and Conservatives.
I am very pleased to see the Coalition Government sticking to promises it has made in this regard and putting it's money where it's mouth is in relation to mental health.

Transforming Adult Social Care - Have your say

Following my post last week about our ambitious plans to transform adult social care in Reading, Cabinet has agreed to go out to public consultation on the proposals. This consultation will last for 3 months ending on 27 February 2011.
The Council is keen to hear from as many residents as possible - including people who currently receive services and carers before making future decisions on adult social care.
Reading residents can take part in the consultation online at or call (0118) 937 3747 to requests copies of the consultation. Officers will also be consulting on the plans at the following meetings:-

  • Physical Disability & Sensory Needs Network meeting, Civic Centre, 15th December 1.40pm-4pm
  • Reading Resource Centre drop-in, Resource Centre, Oxford Road, 12th January 2pm-4pm
  • Reading Carers Steering Group, Civic Centre, 26th January 2pm-4pm 
  •  Reading Older People's Partnership open meeting, Greyfriars Church Hall, Friar Street, 1st February 10.30am-12.45pm
  • Learning Disability Carers Forum, Civic Centre, 16th February 11am-1pm
I look forward to finding out what local people have to say on this important subject.

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Coalition Council targets housing tenancy fraud

In March 2009 I asked the then Labour-run Council in Reading three questions about illegal subletting in properties managed by the Council - something which at that point had been identified as a big issue nationally. I have copied the questions I posed then, below:

Experts estimate that 5% of social housing properties in inner city areas could be being unlawfully sub-let.

a) How many Council properties is the Lead Member aware are currently unlawfully occupied within the Borough?

b) What investigations have been carried out by the Council into the extent of the problem of illegal sub-letting of Council properties ?

c) How many properties has the Council successfully recovered from unlawful occupancy in the past 12 months?
I was keen to raise these issues after nationally the Audit Commission found that 1,600 properties across 60 councils were recovered from unlawful tenants in 2009/10. The Audit Commission published a report: "Protecting the Public Purse 2010" which suggested that unlawful subletting could represent around 1% of all tenancies in metropolitan areas. This could mean up to 70 tenancies in Reading.

The response I received to my questions didn't say much at all. It suggested very little fraud took place. This indicated to me that that much more could be done and should be done to proactively identify potential housing fraud to protect Council tenants and taxpayers.
One year later, in March 2010, the Annual Fraud Report presented to CCEA Scrutiny Panel (which I was then Vice Chair) identified a  need for greater targetting of Council resources to proactively identify fraud. One of the areas identified for further investigation was Housing Tenancy Fraud.
In my role at that time as Chair of the Housing, Health and Community Care Scrutiny Panel I requested a report be brought forward outlining progress so far and planned action for dealing with Housing Tenancy fraud in the Council's own stock.
Several months on, as Lead Councillor for Housing I was pleased to see report I requested all those months ago tabled at tonight's meeting of the Community Care, Housing and Health Scrutiny Panel.
This report revealed my close scrutiny of this subject has borne results, and an improved approach - exactly what scrutiny should do.

Key findings of the report included-
  •  A Housing Fraud Panel was set up in April 2010 to proactively manage cases of tenancy fraud. This approach ensures "a more joined-up and efficicent process for tackling individuals cases.
  • As a result of this closer working the team have looked at 21 cases of possible illegal subletting or non residency of RBC properties.
  • Of the 21 cases referred for further investigation a total of 5 (24%) of properties have been returned to RBC ownership or re-let.
  • The Council estimates that re-letting these properties to families temporary accomodation approximately £55k could be saved to date.
More work is planned by officers to increase awareness and knowledge of Tenancy fraud both with Council staff and the Council's tenants. We will also be investigating the use of civil proceedings to recover unlawful profits - something other housing providers have pursued successfully.

I fully support this work as Council houses are valuable  public assets in high demand. Any fraudulent tenancies represent an abuse of the public purse and damage the chances of people in housing need by putting increased pressure on waiting lists.
I am pleased that the questions I raised over a year ago led to this more proactive, robust approach. This approach was fully supported by all members (cross-party) of HHCC Scrutiny Panel this evening - including Labour councillors. I will be recommending to my coalition colleagues that we continue in this vein, as well as urging officers leave no stone unturned in identifiying potential housing tenancy fraud. This is in marked contrast to the complacent approach taken by my Labour predecessors which in failing to identify potential fraud failed tenants and taxpayers.