Monday, 29 March 2010

Campaign Update

Sorry for the lack of updates - things have been really busy on the campaign trail. Last week I managed to squeeze in loads of different campaign-related thing and still fit in plenty of time to do my ward casework in Redlands. Here's just a brief summary of some of the things I got up to in Reading West last week.
Hustings at Denefield School
On Thursday I went to Denefield to attend a special hustings. This was my first hustings so far and it was great that it was held in a school. I have been campaigning for years to give young people more of a voice in Reading politics - representing thousands of students as a councillor. We need more meaningful ways to engage and listen to young people and as one girl pointed out we should visit schools all the time (not just at election time!) The event was set up by Josh Harsant - Deputy Head Boy of Denefield and hyper-active Member of Reading Youth Parliament. Josh is leading the campaign to give young people a voice in Reading and I think he is doing a great job. I first got really interested in politics when I studied AS Level Politics so it was great to speak to 6th Formers about the issues that mattered to them in the coming election. Judging by the questions that were posed by students and teachers at Denefield School - tuition fees, jobs, training and affordable housing are key concerns for many young people at the moment. The Reading Evening Post covered the event. I've been delighted to have some young people joining me on the campaign trail - knocking on doors, delivering leaflets etc This is how I got involved in 2005 and I am keen to inspire people to get involved in politics at a grassroots level. The average age of our politicians needs to come down!
Funeral of Corporal Richard Green
On Tuesday I joined local people outside Reading Minster to mourn the loss and remember the life of Corporal Richard Green from Tilehurst who was killed in action in Afghanistan. It was a very moving event.
Backing the Power 2010 Pledge
On Saturday I popped down to the Town Centre to show my support for the national campaign for political reform - and sign the Power 2010 pledge. Hundreds of thousands of people across the UK of all political persuasions have already backed this campaign - please join them. Speaking people online and on the doorstep disillusionment and feelings of disenfranchisement with our political system is widespread. This should worry everyone who cares about the state of our representative democracy in this country. As Nick Clegg said at PMQs last week - this Parliament will go down in history as one of the most corrupt ever and radical reform is needed now to restore trust and legitimacy to our democracy.This has always been there but talking to people just now I am finding that confidence in our democracy is at an all time low. People I have spoken to feel don't feel politicians listen to them and they don't believe what politicians say because so many promises have been broken by successive Tory and Labour governments .There is also huge anger about the way many MPs abused the expenses system which has damaged trust in all politicians. I understand why people are angry and I think it is important to demonstrate to people through my record of action that I am in politics for the right reasons - to help people and make Reading a better place. I work hard and I am not in it for the money! I am pleased that the Power 2010 campaign contains a call to bring in a fairer voting system. One of the reasons I am a Lib Dem is our party's strong commitment to electoral reform - every vote should count. At the last election only 1 in 5 registered voters voted for Labour and we have a government which does not enjoy majority support in the country. This is wrong and it is one of the reasons people often give me when they say they are not voting. It should not be about whether or not you live in a marginal constituency or a 'safe' seat. When it comes to political reform Labour and the Conservatives want to keep the status quo - only the Lib Dems are prepared to change our politics. Only the Lib Dems would give people the right to recall (sack) their MPs - for example.
Meeting residents across the constituency - listening to their concerns
I do my best to make myself as accessible as possible to residents in Reading West constituency and in my ward of Redlands. I think it's important to be visible so people know where to find me and to help people make their minds up about who they want to be their next MP. This is why I use blogs, Twitter and Facebook. I am featured in a new guide to social media as part of a national initiative called '21st Century Councillor' which was published last week. Sadly lots of politicians locally and nationally just don't get social media and for some reason my use of it gets right up their noses - I can't think why. But then I don't use social media for their benefit - I do it to communicate with ordinary people. A lot of politicians would like to keep things as they are in Reading with the same old people running the place. I don't. I also use more traditional forms of communication - writing to people, going round to see people in their homes, chatting to them on the phone etc in my campaigning. I use every type of medium to try to reach out to people and show them I am there for them. Everywhere I go in South and West Reading in the campaign I am finding widespread dissatisfaction with the Labour government and Labour council in Reading. If I was a Labour politician in Reading I would be really worried. That said, I am not finding much love for the Conservatives either. Plenty of people tell me they can't tell the difference between the two parties. People are not convinced by the glossy leaflets flooding through the door from Labour or the Conservatives in the area (many are going straight in the recycling bin!) and they are keen to listen to what the Lib Dems have to say. They say they would like to give the Lib Dems a chance. Many people I have spoken to have not met a politician like me and they say they welcome my 'hands on ' approach. I try to make time to go and see people face to face. I am keen to listen to them and in many cases they tell me I am the only one who has bothered to take their concerns seriously. This is a pity. It was the same when I first got elected as a councillor and people told me I was the only councillor ever to have returned their call (!) I'm delighted to say everywhere I go I am finding people keen to support our campaign and to get involved, which is great.
So what issues are coming up on the doorstep or in my inbox? Well, like it or not the residents I speak to day in day out are frequently raising housing matters- overcrowding is a huge issue with people as is frustration from residents who have been stuck on RBC's council housing waiting lists for months. Labour's service charges are still very unpopular with council tenants I have spoken to. I spoke to a woman last week who lost her home after her buy-to-let landlord couldn't keep up repayments on his mortgage. She had a really tough time and felt she got little or no support from Reading Borough Council or the current Labour MP. I became aware of this issue last year and I campaigned for help and support to be given to people who were affected - the only politician in Reading to do this. Long waits for routine operations is another issue people are raising with me. People contacting me are waiting more than 18 weeks (as promised by Labour) and they are often in a lot of pain. Norman Lamb, Lib Dem Healthspokesperson revealed last week that the number of NHS Managers rose 12% last year compared to nurses only by 2% - this balance seems wrong. Despite what some local Labour politicians are saying many people are continuing to report problems to me connected with the recession - youth unemployment being one of them. They tell me their teenagers are leaving school and not getting the support they need. Anyway, that's all I've got time for now. Catch you soon!

Monday, 22 March 2010

Backing Save The Children's 'Poverty Kills Childhood' campaign

Today I signed up to Save The Children's campaign to get action to reduce child poverty on the political agenda at the coming general election, entitled 'Poverty Kills Childhood'. Save The Children have highlighted the shocking fact that the number of children living in severe poverty in the UK has shot up to 1.7 million - up 200,000 since 2004. The number of children who quality for free school meals also increased last year. This, after Tony Blair pledged to abolish child poverty by 2020. I agree that this issue has to be a top priority for the next government and for MPs and I'm delighted to support their campaign.
I have spoken out extensively about the real impact poverty and deprivation is having on families and individuals in parts of Reading. It's one of the issues that gets me out of bed and out campaigning as it affects every area of community life - health, housing and quality of life. As Nick Clegg has said repeatedly bright children from the poorest families are also being overtaken before they even reach ten years old by children from wealthier backgrounds. This is grossly unfair. I am concerned that too often this issue has been hidden from view or overlooked as it not something that is visible when people visit the centre of Reading or when they read about Reading as a 'boom town' in the national and local media. Obviously many parts of Reading's economy are incredibly successful. However, there are pockets of real poverty all over Reading. All the evidence I have seen both in official reports and on the doorstep is that the recession has increased the number of families living in poverty in our area - the number of families where more than one state benefit is claimed being the usual indicator used. Young people have also been disproportionately affected by the recession and the Labour government has not done enough to help them. As a councillor I have campaigned to get this issue more attention from politicians, the media and officers of the Borough Council and the PCT. There is some great work going on locally to help children from some of the poorest families in Reading do better in life. I visited a SureStart Centre in Whitley last week to see what staff there are doing to improve health outcomes of local children and I was really impressed by what I saw. But more needs to be done at a national level to make sure more children are not left behind and to support people who can help families out of the poverty trap. Despite 13 years of a Labour government and economic success in some areas of the Town he gap between rich and poor and Reading is rising and this is really bad news - for all of us, not just children and their families. We heard in a Council scrutiny meeting last week that the latest figures show that the percentage of children living in poverty in Reading was 22.3% (of all Reading's children under 19) and 23.3% of all those under 16 are classified as in poverty (at last count). The Council has developed an extensive anti-poverty action plan but it is very dependent on national policy and a commitment from politicians to see it delivered - there is only so much local bodies can do. Locally all the evidence I have seen is that poverty is having a terrible impact on children's health and their wider life chances, including education in Reading. This is why I was one of the councillors that successfully called for a scrutiny review on children's health & deprivation to look at ways that the Council and the PCT can work together to help more children in Reading's poorest communities live healthier lives. But we need more action at a national level to make a real difference to children. I'm pleased that Nick Clegg has identified tackling child poverty and improving equality of opportunity for those children as one of his top 4 priorities under the banner 'giving children a fair start. This is key issue for us because Liberal Democrats believe that everyone, regardless of background, should have the same chance to make the most of their life. So how would the Lib Dems help reduce child poverty and help children?
1. We will continue to support the Child Poverty Bill currently making its way through Parliament. This Bill includes a duty on local authorities and agencies to reduce inequality int their areas. We believe the Bill needs strengthening because it may not pick up the poverty suffered by certain families, for example when a member of the family is disabled or they live in an area where accommodation is very expensive. Steve Webb MP has been leading our campaign to get a better Bill.
2.Lib Dems believe that education is vital if we are to reduce child poverty in the long term. Therefore we will introduce a pupil premium giving £2.5 billion to schools taking on children from deprived backgrounds. This will increase the funding for each child on free school meals by £2,500 on average, to the same level as money spent on children in private schools. The pupil premium will cut class sizes, to ensure every child gets the individual attention they need.
3.The Labour government has relied on complex means-tested benefits for dealing with poverty, but the rise in child poverty since 2005 shows the system is not working. As a more effective way of easing the financial strain on the most vulnerable, we would concentrate tax credits on low income families and people would pay no tax on the first £10,000 they earn. We would also reintroduce fixed tax credits awards, so that families are freed from the financial rollercoaster of underpayments and overpayments of tax credits which can then be reclaimed years later.
4.The Lib Dems support the concept of a global financial transaction tax and it is something which we would be happy to pursue on a multilateral basis. Any action would require agreement from the US, European and Swiss governments but the proceeds from such a tax could provide a source of revenue to be used to fight international issues such as poverty and climate change.
And what about on international child poverty?
- The Liberal Democrats are committed to achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Despite progress in many areas, the MDGs on infant and maternal mortality have seen little progress. We want the MDG review summit this autumn to focus on these areas and to ensure urgent progress is made.We remain committed to achieving the UN target of spending 0.7% of GNI on aid by 2013, and would ensure that measures to tackle malaria and dehydration (two of the biggest killers of children) are adequately funded and prioritised.
I will continue to do all I can to keep this issue on the local political agenda. If elected MP for Reading West I pledge that reducing the number of local children living in poverty and campaigning to ensure every child in our area gets a fair start in life will be one of my top priorities.

Friday, 12 March 2010

Working hard for better health and housing for residents

I love my role as councillor and the opportunities it gives me to help local people and improve their quality of life - not just in my ward but right across Reading. I particularly enjoy my role as chair of scrutiny as it enables me to get a better understanding of issues Borough-wide and to hear from other councillors and other bodies not just the Council in relation to a number of key local issues. In scrutiny we have no budget or decision-making power as such but we can recommend action to the executive and external agencies - including health bodies on matters of public interest or concern. Last night in HHCC Scrutiny Panel (which I chair) I got cross-party support for recommendations I drafted which aim to improve children's health in the poorest parts of the Borough. This follows an in-depth Scrutiny Review into the issue last year. I will link to the recc's here when they are available online. To me these issues and what lies behind them - pockets of real poverty and deprivation in our town - are so important that they should be above party politics. Commitment from politicians is needed to make a difference to communities in the longterm. Sadly not everyone shares my view and lately some politicians have descended into playing politics rather then working to improve life for residents. I try to avoid playing the man, not the ball - others don't and I think it damages our politics in Reading. There are no easy solutions to improving children's health tackling child poverty and many of them lie at a national level and require fundamental changes like a fairer tax system to deliver change. However, I am campaigning to ensure that child poverty and poor health stay at the top of the local political agenda in Reading to focus the minds of politicians and key partners - i.e. the PCT. The recommendations will go to to the Labour Cabinet meeting in April (hopefully) for a response. We must not accept the status quo - children only get one chance at life and in 2010 everyone should be able to enjoy equal life chances wherever they live in Reading.
The review I requested of the impact of the NHS Walk In Centre revealed it to have been a huge success - with around 15,000 visits from patients since it opened. This is great but access to healthcare must be better in other parts of town - notably Whitley and Battle (Oxford Road area). We heard that the long promised Battle Health & Wellbeing has not progressed as a direct result of the recession. This is a concern giving health inequality in our area has worsened during that time.On overcrowding, something I've been campaigning on for months now, I was really pleased to secure cross-party support for a greater focus on helping support tenants who are over-crowded but also investigate ways to make more housing stock available. The 30% increase in the number of people on the Council's housing register (up to 6,000) is putting real pressure on stock. Lots of ideas were discussed and a full review and potentially scope for policy change will be put forward in October. It will need to include a combination of solutions - including making better use of existing stock and the private rented sector. 186 families are suffering living in overcrowded housing and I will not rest until that number has reduced significantly.
Housing repairs to council houses is something I have regularly received complaints about from residents over the years. This is doubtless the same for many other councillors - so I got the issue on the scrutiny agenda. Last night we discussed what could be done to reduce the number of 'avoidable calls'. Housing repairs relate to 47% of all contacts from residents to the Council - around 41 thousand calls! This is bad for tenants and a bad use of time and money for the Council. An action is being developed and HHCC Scrutiny Panel will be monitoring delivery closely.
Following the CQC inspection of Older People's Services a few months ago I had requested an update to scrutiny as to what is being done to improve areas where areas of concern had been identified by inspectors. There is no doubt that this more in-depth scrutiny of key services over the past 2 years since I've been chairing HHCC Scrutiny Panel has delivered improvements in key areas faster, as well introducing more accountability for members and local people.
This is just a brief snapshot of some of the issues we discussed last night - all of them really important. Being involved in scrutiny is one of the more hidden aspects of a councillors' work but I am hopeful we can make a real impact on housing, health and social care for residents in Reading. We had 20 items on the scrutiny panel agenda last night - not too bad given when I took over in May 2008 there were something like 32 on an average HHCC agenda.I still think we need to consider setting up a separate health scrutiny committee in Reading just to be able to do justice to all the health issues that come up. But overall it was a good, productive meeting and I'm pleased to say pointless party political bickering was kept to a minimum!

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Overcrowding in Reading damaging lives of families

I got a phonecall out of the blue earlier this week from a woman living with her a family in West Reading. They are overcrowded. Three children are currently sharing one bedroom. I get calls like this pretty regularly but that doesn't mean that individual cases are not heartrending. I asked the female caller what impact the current housing situation is having on family life.She told me that her children - three girls and one boy - have no personal space and nowhere to do homework in peace. It affects their social life as they cannot invite friends round. "I want to move somewhere larger so that my children can have room to breathe" she told me. It's calls like this which spur me to campaign for a better quality of life for local people. They are the basic reason I stood for election as a local councillor and why I would like to be a Member of Parliament. I am not content to shrug my shoulders -I want to work to help local people, particularly those in need.

Overcrowding - a Reading-wide issue
As a local councillor I have been contacted countless times in recent years by families in the same predicament as the women who called me earlier this week. I have long been concerned that the people contacting me in my ward are the tip of the iceberg so last October I tabled some written questions about about this issue which revealed the true extent of the problem faced by hundreds of families. With this in mind I have been campaigning for more family-sized houses to be built in Reading in the coming years to meet local need. I was keen to dig deeper to get more information about this isue and get more attention from politicians and officers in Reading on this issue so via my role as Chair of Scrutiny I asked officers to prepare a focussed piece of work on the issue of overcrowding. We are due to discuss that report on Thursday evening in a meeting of the HHCC Scrutiny Panel. The facts contained within the report I commissioned are worth highlighting:

  • The number of people on Reading on the Council's 'housng register' has risen from 4,400 (April 2008) to around 6000 in February 2010 - an increase of 30%
  • This increase is partly due to the impact of the recession but one of the most common reasons given is overcrowding
  • In February 2010 there were around 186 families in Reading registered with RBC as needing a propertywith 4 or more bedrooms
  • Data is not available for overcrowding in privately-rented housing -which could also be a signficant figure

The supply of larger family homes either housing association or Council-owned is in short supply and the local authority in Reading is simply unable able to meet demand. Too few affordable homes are being built each year in Reading. Under successive Labour governments councils have been prevented from building the number of council houses that local communities need to replace the loss of thousands of council houses which were sold off via the disastrous Right to Buy policies introduced by the Conservatives. Officers in the local authority are doing everything they can but their hands have been tied by government which has dicated housing policies to councils far too much. Currently the pressure is greatest on properties that are 4 or more bedrooms.

  • The Council currently owns 133 x 4 bedroom properties and 3 x 5 bedroom properties
  • RSL (housing assocation) partners built 28 x 4 bed and 2 x 5 bed properties in the last 2 years
  • 22 x 4 bed and 1 x 5 bed houses are planned by 2013

I'll leave you to do the math...!

Overcrowding is a problem across Reading, but there are some wards where the problem is particularly acute. Based on figures about percentages of tenant transfer requests these are - Caversham (20.5%), Minster (14,8%), Battle (10.3%) followed by Katesgrove and Southcote (8.3%), Redlands (8.2%) and Abbey and Church (8.1%).

Finding solutions

In Reading and many parts of the South-East the affordability of housing is a major issue. A recent national survey showed that only 23% of families under 40 living in the South East can afford to get on the housing ladder. More council homes must be built in Reading to meet the needs of our growing population. Larger affordable homes for families are urgently needed and thanks to pressure from the Lib Dems on the Borough Council the Council's Housing Strategy 2009 -2014 the blueprint for future housing in the Town includes plans to alter the housing mix towards more family-sized housing. There are very few large sites in Reading and the outskirts of the Town where large-scale new housing can be developed so we need to get better at getting more out of our exisiting housing stock. Long-term empty properties being brought back into use must also be part of the solution which I have actively supported. RBC is looking at ways of getting the most out of existing council stock - including extending some properties and encouraging some tenants who are technically 'under-occupying' council homes to move into smaller properties. As you can imagine, persuading people to downsize is not easy. A report on this is due in the autumn.The private rented sector has a key role to play - hence the need to raise standards in the sector - since 2008 600 households have been placed by RBC's housing team into the private sector via the increasingly-popular Deposit Guarantee Scheme. On a national level I am grateful to Shelter for pointing out the terrible impact that overcrowding is having on children and families. I will continue to campaign to get action taken to help families affected here in Reading.

Empty homes Campaign - March Update

Since 2006 I've led the local campaign for action to reduce the number of long-term empty homes in Reading. After my Lib Dem colleagues and I successfully persauded Labour's ruling administration to revive the long-dead empty homes strategy in 2008 I've pressed for regular updates on progress to ensure that the strategy delivers. Tomorrow afternoon, in my capacity as Chair of the HHCC Scrutiny Panel I will be going on a tour of Reading's empty homes to get a better understanding of the issue and what officers are doing to tackle the problem.
Latest facts and figures from RBC on empty homes in Reading, via the report to Scrutiny this Thursday:

  • On February 9 2010 there were 489 private sector homes in Reading that had been empty for 6 months or longer

  • This is a reduction of 28 homes since October 2009

  • The majority - 38% of empty homes in Reading have been empty for 1 year

  • 26% have been empty for 2-3 years and 2% have been empty for 5 years

  • Empty home numbers have increased in 4 wards and dropped in 11 wards

  • Wards with the highest numbers of empty homes are: Southcote (82), Battle (70), Abbey (68)

  • There have been increases in my ward of Redlands - up from 30 to 36, and a big increase in Park ward - up from 31 to 43

  • There have been falls in Katesgrove (down from 39 to 27) Whitley (from 20 to 18) and Minister (32 down from 40).

Officers have a range of tools and powers open to them to bring empty homes back into use. During this period a 'multi-enforcement team' approach has been applied to 3 empty homes and 2 homes in Battle ward have been returned to use using 'economic and legal powers of persuasion.' I have nothing but praise for the dedicated team of officers who are involved in this painstaking work. They do a very important job in my view. It's also great to see the Council linking up with local charities to try and find homes for people that need them via empty homes. I will continue to campaign to ensure that empty homes work done by RBC officers continues, after the issue was ignored for years by the Labour administration. Nationally, the Lib Dems are committed to bringing in legislation to return thousands of empty private sector homes to use as social homes to help address the huge need for affordable housing in the UK. In contrast the Conservatives have said they would scrap powers Councils have to tackle empty homes.

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

Scrutiny of Reading's new NHS "Walk In" Centre

As Chair of Reading Borough Council's main health overview & scrutiny committee - the Housing, Health and Community Care Scrutiny Panel since 2008 I have taken a keen interest in improving public access to good quality health services. Poor health in Reading is closely linked to real poverty and sadly many people lack health facilities on their doorstep and families find it difficult to get appointments to see GPs etc at times that suit them without going a long distance. I have been campaigning for a couple of years now on the need to get action taken to reduce health inequality in Reading - which was recently revealed to be the worst in Berkshire by independent inspectors. All the evidence shows that improving health outcomes is closely linked to improving access to free healthcare and good quality medical advice.
Residents in my ward in Redlands are lucky as most of them live quite close to the excellent Royal Berkshire Hospital. However, I have been concerned for some time about residents who live in parts of South and West Reading who are not so lucky.
The NHS Walk In Centre which was set up last year in Broad Street Mall in the Town Centre was set up in an attempt to address this gap in provision. The idea is simple - you don't need to be registered or to have an appointment to get treatment or advice. It sounds great as a concept but I have to admit I was a bit sceptical when the idea was first mooted as I was concerned it would be a 'polyclinic' and could post a threat to existing GP services. However, the feedback I have received from the PCT so far has been very positive. As Chair of the HHCC Panel I requested a report be presented to councillors on Thursday 11 March to review the impact of Reading's NHS Walk In Centre . We will be quizzing Berkshire West PCT, commissioners of the new service to find out whether or not the new service is doing what it was set up to do: improve access to NHS services to the highly-mobile population of residents living, working and shopping (!) in the Town Centre and improve public health.
Have you used this new service? If so, we'd love to hear from you about your experience. Please drop me an email The meeting is kicking off at 6.30pm in the Kennet Room at the Civic Centre. The meeting is open the the public and if you would like to ask a question to the PCT about the service you can please get in touch.
Sadly two other health projects that could help improve access to services have still not come to fruition - in Whitley and Battle. The PCT has long identified other parts of Reading including Whitley need additional services to meet growing demand in the community. Residents living in and around Oxford Road are still waiting for the new Battle Health Centre to be developed - something Reading West Martin Salter MP and Battle councillor Tony Jones campaigned for all those years ago. It was supposed to be built in 2009. Back in 2004, Martin Salter said:"Local doctors' surgeries are pretty full around here and there is a need for more NHS dentists as well as a range of specialist services that can be delivered locally without people having to trek across town to the Royal Berks," he said. "It is great news that Reading PCT has identified the Battle site for a local centre." I agree with Martin - delivering services locally is what's needed - it reduces the need to travel and ensures everyone gets fair access to those services. The major fly on the ointment as far as this scheme is concerned is that it can only be built when the housing on the former Battle Hospital site is sold. The recession is basically to blame. This is a great shame. A lot of local residents must be feeling very disappointed about this after all the promises from Labour both locally and nationally. It must be disappointing for Martin Salter too that the Centre won't be built during his time in Parliament as Member for Reading West after his campaigning on this issue. I will continue to campaign for better access to healthcare for all Reading residents irrespective of where they live, and continue to press the PCT and the Council at every opportunity to speed things up on the ground.


The PCT has supplied us with a written report on the NHS Walk In centre which we will be discussing at the scrutiny panel on Thursday. Some interesting facts from the report:
  • Between August 2009 and February 2010 13,778 patients had consultations at the new centre
  • 59% of those patients live within Reading
  • Patients attending are mainly indicating convenience is the reason they visited the centre
  • The top four medical issues presenting are: upper respiratory infection, medication and skin infections and contraception
  • 78% of patients attending are aged between 16 and 65
  • 95% of patients are seen within 30 minutes
  • 90% of patients are reporting satisfaction with the service

Monday, 1 March 2010

Brown backs Lib Dem calls for Reading asb hotline

Somehow Gordon Brown found time in his busy schedule to visit Reading today. Lucky Reading!This wasn't a social call, however. The Prime Minister was launching his government's 'Safe and Confident Neighbourhoods strategy' - why? because after 13 years of a Labour government millions of people are still highly fearful about crime and anti-social behaviour (especially here in Reading, where fear of crime is higher than the national and South East average). And also because the Labour government is fearful that thousands of former supporters have turned their back on them in places like Reading.
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?
Bearing in mind 80% of crimes are not reported it is vitally important that the calls the Council receives are handled effectively. My questions prompted some revealing answers. Firstly, the Labour Lead Member for Safer Communities suggested that providing the answers to my question might not be a good use of officer time (!) Secondly, officers confirmed that at present there is no dedicated anti-social behaviour hotline for Reading. Officers reported that 5 years ago a national reporting line was established by the Home Office and was promoted as "It's Your Call". Calls to this number were diverted to the relevant local authority. However, details of callers were not passed on to RBC to enable them to analyse calls: "Officers from the Community Safety Team have previously asked the Home Office for a breakdown of the reports made to '"It's Your Call", however this was a timely process and results not provided quickly.
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.