Monday, 14 March 2011

Reading leads the way on tackling local health inequalities

On Saturday at Liberal Democrat Spring Conference I voted in support of an amendment put forward by Dr Evan Harris, Baroness Shirley Williams and other Liberal Democrats expressing concerns about the Health and Social Care Bill currently going through Parliament, championed by Andrew Lansley.The amendment was overwhelmingly carried by voting party members.

Before voting I reflected carefully on the issue. I voted the way I did  as I have some concerns about aspects in the Bill which open up the NHS to greater competition. However, I do support the proposals contained within Bill which aim to increase local accountability, clinical engagement, and the involvement of local authorities in improving public health. I voted for an amendment that aims to strengthen accountability mechanisms contained in the Bill which I think will be important. The devil is in the detail and I will be watching with interest to see what changes are made.

As I said yesterday, I am pleased that as a member of a democratic party I have the power to shape Party policy in this way and register my concerns with the Party leadership on this issue.

At Lib Dem Conference I attended a meeting with Lib Dem Minister Paul Burstow MP and other Lib Dem Councillors about the Government's health and social care reforms. Paul listened carefully to all the issues that were made and promised to investigate them further. I have taken part in several of these informal discussions in recent months and I welcome the opportunity to have an open dialogue with Lib Dem ministers in government.

This evening Reading Borough Council's Cabinet agreed plans for the creation of the first ever local Health and Wellbeing board. The Board will:
  • Play a leadership role in driving out health inequalities
  • Ensure the effective use of health and social care resources
  • Deliver a different 'offer' to the public that integrates health and social care for both adults
Reading Borough Council has been accepted as an "early implementer" by the Department of Health. This follows local GPs in our area who were recenly become pathfinders for GP Commissioning. 

We will be joining the first group of councils developing health and well-being boards in shadow form their area well over a year before they area formally set up.

Being involved from the start as plans develop at national level puts the Council in the driving seat to improve health services and health outcomes in our area rather than waiting for things to be done to us, and meaning we have the best possible chance to improve health outcomes for local residents.

For years the Council has lacked any real power to influence the decisions of health partners in our area. As I have commented many times health inequality in Reading is a major issue - with life expectancy and children's life chances varying widely between neighbourhoods.

Health inequality in Reading got worse under Labour - we must never forget that. So we must change the way we do things.

This is unacceptable so I welcome plans by the Coalition to democratise health and give locally-elected councils more say over health decisions.I also welcome plans for a dedicated public health budget calculated according to health need.

In Reading our health and wellbeing board will be lead by the Leader of the Council. The Lead Member for Health and the Leader Councillor for Education and Children's Services will also be members. On the officer side the Chief Executive will be joined on the board with senior officers from community care & housing, and education & children's service. To improve democratic oversight two shadow lead councillors can be appointed to the Board. The Board will also include a representative of the Local Healthwatch organisation, the director of public health for the Council, and a representative of each relevant GP commissioning consortium.

I have led a series of meetings over the past few months looking at how our HWB should be structured. The Health & Social Care Bill gave councils flexibility over how boards should be structured. I took the decision early on that we needed a board to cover Reading - not a wider area because I felt strongly that Reading has particular health issues and needs that need to be addressed by a board focussed on Reading.

I am glad the Coalition Government is giving us the freedom to decide what is right for our area. I will be working hard over the coming months to ensure that this new Board delivers better health services and health outcomes for residents in Reading.

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