Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Stamping out Human Trafficking in Reading

Back in October I attended a Conference organised by Lib Dem MEP for our area, Catherine Bearder, on the subject of human trafficking.

It included some truly shocking presentations about trafficking and the impact it is having on children and adults from countries around the world.

Before I attended the conference I'm happy to admit I did not have a good understanding of the issue of human trafficking nor the fact that it could be a serious issue in Reading.

For this reason I'm really grateful to Catherine for making me aware of the issue and for choosing to hold the conference in Reading.

If you are interested in finding out more I would suggest a good place to start would be the UK Human Trafficking Centre website.

The UHTC provides a useful working definition of human trafficking:
'In the simplest terms, human trafficking is the movement of a person from one place to another into conditions of exploitation, using deception, coercion, the abuse of power or the abuse of someone’s vulnerability. It is entirely possible to have been a victim of trafficking even if your consent has been given to being moved.

There are therefore three constituent elements:

The movement – recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons.

The control – threat, use of force, coercion, abduction, fraud, deception, abuse of power or vulnerability, or the giving of payments or benefits to a person in control of the victim.

The purpose – exploitation of a person, which includes prostitution and other sexual exploitation, forced labour, slavery or similar practices, and the removal of organs.

Although human trafficking often involves an international cross-border element, it is also possible to be a victim of human trafficking within your own country.'
According to Stop Trafficking UK:
'Human Trafficking is the fastest growing criminal activity in the world, with a turnover exceeding US$10 billion. Estimates suggest that the number of people trafficked annually is between 600,000 (US Government figure) and 3 million (International Labour Organisation figure).'
And according to the Home Office:
  • An average figure of the numbers of trafficked children taken from the last two years of CEOP assessments (2009 & 2010) provides an estimate of approximately 300 trafficked children identified in the UK per annum.
  • Estimating the numbers of adults and victims trafficked into the UK is difficult due to the hidden nature of this criminal activity, but according to figures published by the Association of Chief Police Officers (August 2010) at least 2,600 victims had been trafficked for sexual exploitation in 2009.
  • The UK’s multi-agency victim identification and support National Referral Mechanism data from 1st April 2009 - 31 December 2010 identified 1,254 potential victims, including 322 potential child trafficking victims (this is a cumulative figure). The list below shows the top five highest represented countries:
The Coalition Government launched a new anti-trafficking strategy in July 2011 in attempt to strengthen support for victims of human trafficking. Measures included:-
  • a review of the current legislation to ensure that traffickers receive appropriate penalties for their crimes
  • a targeted focus on the countries that are a major source of trafficking and raising of awareness among potential victims
  • extending the use of current powers to seize the profits of traffickers and make it less attractive
  • establishing closer relationships with overseas law enforcement agencies to carry out joint operations across borders
Anti-Trafficking Conference - Reading - October 2011.

At the conference organised by Catherine Bearder we heard from a range of anti-trafficking campaigners including - former Police officrs, charity workers, Baroness Hamwee (Lib Dem) and the founder of a local anti-trafficking group in Oxford.

The conference was organised by Women Liberal Democrats although it was free and open to everyone.

People from across our area attended including a number of Liberal Democrat activists from Reading.

Sadly no other political parties attended.

It was not a party political meeting as it is very important we seek to find common cause and a consensus that action needs to be taken by everyone on this issue.

Although no Labour, Conservative or Green party activists came to the conference I was really pleased when a couple of weeks later current Mayor of Reading Cllr Deborah Edwards highlighted Anti-Slavery Day at the start of our full Council meeting.

Everyone who spoke at the Reading conference agreed that raising public awareness is key to stopping trafficking.

The thinking behind the conference was to draw peoples attention to the scale of human trafficking in the UK and the South East in particular and also to encourage people to campaign for action to reduce trafficking in their area.

I found the issues highlighted in the Conference around the trafficking of women and children in the UK and across the South East including down the road in Slough very disturbing and as a result I was prompted to find out more about what is being done in our area.

Part of the conference was about exploring setting up local groups.

I joined a table of Reading-based activists - including people from local churches and charities.

I took as an action the task of finding out what was being done in our area to tackle trafficking.

What's being done to tackle trafficking in Reading?
Based on the presentations I heard and information that was presented about the sheer scale of human trafficking in the UK at Catherine Bearder's Conference I find it hard to believe that this issue is not an issue in Reading.
Afterwards I did some Internet research about trafficking in our area:-
And this is just the people that the Police have managed to identify.

With this in mind and keen to arm myself with as many facts as possible I wrote to the Chief Executive of Reading Borough Council asking him what action local agencies were taking to stamp out human-trafficking.

I waited nearly two months for a response but finally received it today.

I've attached it below.

Thames Valley Police Response
'We review each and every reported crime, seven days per week during our daily management meeting. Included in this meeting are representatives of our Protecting Vulnerable Persons Unit including Domestic Abuse, Child abuse Investigation and Intelligence staff. Additionally, the neighbourhood inspectors attend.

Any intelligence or evidence of human trafficking coming to our notice would be a) be responded to at the time with an appropriate grading and b) be discussed and picked up by the appropriate team.

In terms of the wider issue i.e. trafficking within the gambit of 'organised crime', this would be picked up a higher level than local policing agencies such as the Serious and Organised Crime Agency (SOCA) at a national level. The agency could work with local forces where appropriate.
As it stands, we have not been made aware of any human trafficking issues in Reading. This is not to say that it does not exist.'
What is the Council doing to tackle trafficking in Reading?
'The LCSB has already ensured there are procedures in place for vulnerable children. In particular Chapter 28: Trafficking & Exploitation (Revised June 2010).
These procedures include direct access to Home Office guidance and includes a link to the Tackling Trafficking Toolkit on the Criminal Justice System website. It was further revised in June 2010 to include a reference to the National Referral Mechanism.
We have no child to our recent knowledge referred directly in this circumstance, although have of course had a number of unaccompanied asylum seeking children/young people we are very minded about in relation to their vulnerability to trafficking.
We have also recently been informed to be extra vigilant in relation to the Olympics as the Met Police have told Windsor & Maidenhead they may be expecting an increase in activity - hence we have briefed team managers already.

In brief, we are aware and alert although the extent of known issues is tiny at the moment in Reading. We cannot of course report things that has as yet not come to the attention of ourselves or Police.'

Sex Workers Advisory Group:
'From a Sex Workers Advisory Group perspective, human trafficking and exploitation will be referred to in the emerging Sex Workers Strategy and we are looking at how we can identify the extend of the issue in Reading.
There will also be reference made to ensuring that staff beyond statutory agencies who may come into contact with individuals who are trafficked into the country, receive appropriate training.'
On the one hand I'm pleased to hear that as a local authority Reading Borough Council is reviewing its policies and procedures in relation to trafficked children.

Once it has been published I will be scrutinising the new Sex Workers Strategy to check it pledges action around reducing harm to trafficked women in Reading.

On the otherhand I was disappointed at the time it took the Council to respond to my request for basic information.

To my knowledge this information has not been widely shared amongst councillors before.

Maybe no-one else has asked for it?

Also, the response from the Police risks sounding complacent.

I would like to see Thames Valley Police raising public awareness in Reading about how they might be able to spot the telltale signs of trafficking in their area.

This is what is happening in Oxford where OXCAT - Oxford Community Against Trafficking is campaigning to raise awareness and encouraging reporting.

Their Open Your Eyes campaign suggests people should look out for the following:-
  • Foreign nationals who rarely come out of a house except with a guardian.
  • Frequent visitors to residential premises, often a stream of men arriving and leaving at unusual times.
  • Cars or minibuses picking up foreign nationals at unusual times.
  • Sex workers who offer ‘special services’ at a low price, who are advertised as having particular ethnicity, who appear underage or speak no or little English.
  • Teenage girls who seem unhappy, living with older, unrelated males, who drive them about.
  • Commercial premises (including restaurants) that survive despite an acute lack of regular business.
For much more detailed information, visit

If you see something suspicious the advice is to call Crimestoppers anonymously on 0800 555 111

So what happens next?

Catherine Bearder MEP has raised concerns about the impact the forthcoming Olympics could have on the problem of human trafficking - suggesting that it could lead to an increase in women being trafficked for sex in the South East. Catherine will contiue to challenge agencies at local and European level to act.

I will continue to ask questions of local agencies and to challenge them around their responsibilities to vulnerable children and adults.

You can add your name to the Human Trafficking Foundations' database of supporters.

I've written this blog post in part to raise awareness locally. Please do the same in your community.

We should not tolerate modern form of slavery in any of its forms.

Monday, 5 December 2011

Empty Homes Week 2011 - Reading Lib Dems' Campaign Continues

Apologies for the lack of updates, the previous few weeks have been incredibly busy, but productive.

I haven't had time to write many blog posts so if you want to keep up with my activities you might want to follow me on Twitter.

But I wanted to write a quick note about an important current issue and one that is close to my heart .

This week is National Empty Homes Week - the brainchild of my friend David Ireland, Chief Executive of the excellent campaigining charity Empty Homes.

David switched me on to the problem  in Reading when he phoned me out of the blue five years ago when I was first elected on to Reading Borough Council to tell me about the problem of empty homes and to draw my attention to the Council's shocking record on the issue.

The Council which was at that time controlled by Labour had no strategy, resources of focus ont the issue.

This was not as a result of lack powers available to tackle the problem but lack of will by councillors in control of the Council to do something about it.

I began campaigning on the issue locally and this led me at one point to have a meeting with a Labour housing minister who despite listening to what I had to say failed to take any action whatsoever to improve the situation.

Fast forward to today and we have a Council controlled once again by Labour councillors who are once again close to silent on the issue.

To to coincide with Empty Homes Week this morning I took part in a live discussion with BBC Radio Berkshire's Andrew Peach, David Ireland, and Hayley, a resident living in Buckinghamshire struggling to get access to housing she can afford.

According to statistics gathered by Radio Berkshire there are about 25,000 people on housing waiting lists across Berkshire and at about 8,000 in Reading alone.

By their reckoning the number of people stuck on waiting lists has risen by 60% since 2004.

In Reading, lack of access to affordable housing is a major problem for many families and all political parties should be focussed on finding solutions.

There is a particular shortage of family-sized housing to rent.

At the same as people are struggling to find housing in our area there are over 400 properties currently registered as empty in Reading alone (down on 500 last year).

Clearly, bringing empty homes back into use will not solve the housing shortage we are facing but it will go part way to addressing it whereas doing nothing about them will just make matters worse.

According to official figures from Reading Borough Council the total number of properties in Reading classed as 'long term empty' i.e. empty for 6 months or more breaks down as follows:
  • 281 owned by individuals
  • 67 owned by companies
  • 86 by housing associations
  • 3 by public bodies
Locally I've led the campaign to raise the profile of empty homes since 2006 and I'm glad that after years of campaigning to get action taken at both local and national government we have a government that actually believes in tackling the problem.

Action on empty homes in the Coalition Agreement and is being delivered now.

Last week in a debate on the issue, Lib Dem Minister Andrew Stunell said:
'I am appalled at the scandal that 250,000 properties are empty when millions of people are on waiting lists, anxiously looking for homes and unable to find them. As well as being eyesores and as well as easily falling into disrepair, empty homes are often an expensive menace to communities and public services, attracting antisocial behaviour, squatting and vandalism.'
So where are empty properties currently located in Reading? According to the latest RBC figures (September 2011) they are:-
Battle 78

Tilehurst 69

Abbey 43

Redlands 30

Minster 27

Katesgrove 27

Park 24

Caversham 24

Norcot 22

THames 18

Kentwood 14

Southcote 13

Church 9

Peppard 8

Mapledurham 2
Real Action on Empty Homes in Reading

Locally Lib Dems have been leading on the issue with other Parties virtually silent.
  • Since 2008, (after a campaign I led which shamed Labour councillors into action) Reading Borough Council has had an Empty Homes Strategy which sets out how the Council will address the problem of empty homes including ranking them by priority order.
  • When I was chair of the housing scrutiny committee I asked for updates on empty homes to be published every 6 months. That stopped after a Labour councillor took over the chair last year.
  • I have gone on regular 'empty homes' walkabouts with RBC officers to understand the problem and campaign for action
  • We have reported countless empty properties to the Council for action across Reading (including 1 Alexandra Road, pictured)
  • We have asked questions in Council meetings of councillors and officers
  • The Lib Dem - Conservative Coalition Administration that ran the Council between May 2010 and May 2011 protected the role of empty homes officer to ensure that despite budget pressures this important work could continue.
Lib Dems protected action on empty homes in this year's budget. The question is will Labour and the Greens?

Research has  shown there tend to be more empty properties in places with large private rented sector - which is what we have in Reading - our private rented sector is the same size as Manchester!

One of the reasons we have so many empty homes in Reading is that until now there have been little or no incentives for landowners or councils to bring empty homes back into use.

Lib Dems in Government are helping to change this.

The Government has taken a number of important steps, including introducing the New Homes Bonus, in response to the empty homes problem.

  • The New Homes Bonus means that for the first time councils are receiving cash not only for every new home they build but also every empty property they bring back into use
  • In Reading the Council has been awarded over £1.2 million pounds for building new homes and bringing empty properties back into use.
  • Government has allocated a £100 million budget so that housing associations, councils and community and voluntary groups could apply to bring empty homes back into use as affordable housing.
  • An additional £50 million of funding has been allocated to tackle some of the worst concentrations of empty homes.
  • Councils will have local discretion to introduce a council tax premium on homes in their areas that have been empty for more than two years, to provide a stronger incentive for empty-home owners to bring them back into use.
David Ireland, Chief Executive of the Empty Homes Agency said:
"The government has introduced some excellent measures to bring empty homes back into use set out in it's housing strategy. It is the first time that there has ever been a government empty homes strategy and we welcome it,
"I do think however, that there are a couple of areas where the government could do more. The first is in encouraging councils to dispose of their own abandoned property, and the second is in helping ordinary people create homes for themselves by bring property back into use."
What can you do to help reduce the number of empty homes?
  • Visit the Empty Homes website for more information on the issue and how you can take action.
  • Watch Channel Four's new series 'The Great Property Scandal' starting tonight at 8.30pm on 4.
  • People in Reading can help us tackle the problem of empty homes. Email me if you notice an empty property on your street and I will raise it with the Council for action.
We will continue to campaign on this important issue but we need your help to bring more empty homes back into use so get involved.

We owe it to the people stuck waiting for affordable housing to do everything we can to make the best use of existing housing as well as building new homes.

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Report Finds No Residents Adversely Affected by Changes to Adult Care

Earlier this year, when I was Lead Member for Adult Social Care I led changes to the Council's Eligibility Criteria for Adult Social Care to 'Substantial' and 'Critical'.

I did this to ensure that adult care would be available for people who need it now and in the future - putting social care in Reading on a sustainable footing.

These changes were approved by the Council in March. You can read the full background to this decision - which was far from easy - here.

As I said at the time:
"My priority from now on will be focussing on ensuring the implementation of these policies is carried out as  flexibly and sensitively as possible by the Council's Community Care team which I lead"
The previous Lib Dem-Conservative Coalition Cabinet of which I was a member delegated the implementation plan for these changes to the Director Housing and Community Care in consultation with the Lead Councillor responsible for Adult Care.

Labour attacked me for this approach at the time. I put my trust in experienced professionals. In my view ppoliticians should lead policy-making not meddle in the implementation of Council policies - particularly in areas where they lack professional expertise.

Labour councillors also accused me of cutting services from vulnerable people.

An update report on access to adult social care services, requested by Labour councillors which went to Cabinet last night and which has been widely trailed in the local media proves that the approach we took was the right one and Labour got it wrong.

The report describes the individual reviews that have been undertaken to determine eligibility of people in receipt of care packages with 'Greater Moderate needs'.

The report provides evidence for Cabinet to satisfy itself about the safe implementation of the change in eligibility criteria, namely that it:
  • is fair and equitable
  • is not having a major or adverse impact on people who have had their needs assessed at being a greater moderate level
  • provides appropriate advice, help and support to those people who have lower level needs but would benefit from continuing help and support
  • meets the legal tests set in the Birmingham judgement
The report clearly shows that these tests have been met.

The key paragraph is this one:
'The majority of clients who have now received a personal review to reassess their level of need have continued to receive services as a result of their recorded needs having been revised into a higher banding.'
I've read the report and nowhere does it suggest that any resident currently receiving care has been adversely affected. This is welcome, important news.

When I launched the changes earlier this year I said it would be absolutely vital that reviews were carried out carefully to ensure that no-one lost out.

This report shows that the modelling officers did of the changes were accurate. In many cases residents who were in the 'Moderate' category have moved up a band and are receiving in more care rather than less.

The impact of the Council's highly-successful Reablement programme continues to deliver astonishing results - with many people with a range of support needs being reabled to live independently in their own homes without needing to rely on formal care.

This is a great outcome for those individuals and it helps ensure public money goes further - focussing on those people who can't cope without help and support from the Council or other care providers.

The report goes into great detail about the outcomes of reviews.

As a keen supporter of greater transparency, If I were lead member I would be more than happy to publish this information.

However, the difference between me and my Coalition colleagues last year is that we were prepared to front up and take tough decisions.

On evidence of the past few years there is no way that Labour councillors would have taken the decisions that needed to be taken on adult care.

The best they can do is monitor the decisions taken by others braver than them.

Making these changes will lead to savings of around £250,000 from the Council's budget.

This is important.

Why? because the Council is currently facing £2 million pounds worth of in-year pressures linked to rising demand for adult care.

This is about reforming our community care policies so they are fit for purpose and so we can help people not just now but in the future.

How would Labour deal with these pressures? Cut spending on other Council services?

Introduce demand management?

We'll never know.

One thing is clear Labour would always rather hide behind officers and other politicial parties when it comes to making difficult decisions such as these.

Politicians aside, it's people who matter and last night I thanked the outstanding team working in adult social care on Reading Borough Council - from social workers to senior management who have managed these changes safely and effectively.

I also thanked the residents and their families who have been so patient during this process.

Monday, 31 October 2011

Labour councillors have questions to answer on bus lane fines

This evening at a meeting of Reading Borough Council's Cabinet I posed some questions to Labour's Transport Chief, Cllr Tony Page:
"The aim of bus lane fines is to deter people from driving in bus lanes.
Given the sharp rise in fines– an extra 6,000 since you took over rising 3,000 per month ever since (apart from August)
What are you doing to address this and reduce the number of vehicles abusing bus lanes?

Or have you become so financially dependent on this income stream that you no don’t care if people drive in bus lanes?"
I asked these questions because of these striking figures in this month's budget monitoring figures:

Bus Lane Enforcement PCN Activity Data (2010 figures in brackets)

April 2011 - 2,282 (2,713)
May 2011 - 8,289 (1,901)
June 2011 - 11,942 (2,075)
July 2011 -  11,413 (2,310)
August 2011 - 8,473 (3,661)
September 2011 - 11,930 (5,149)

The same report says:

Bus Lane Enforcement – if the current trend of infringements continue as they have for the past 3 months then we forecast the revenue to increase to £575k although we should note this income is not guaranteed. In addition there are other income pressures within Transport that are being assessed.

Cllr Page decided to launch into a series of bizarre personal attacks.

Did I hit a raw nerve, perhaps?

You know when a politician plays the man not the ball [sic] they are in trouble
However, he acknowledged there have been a sharp rise in fines since the Town centre changes were introduced.

Despite this he was unrepentant rounding on residents and visitors who 'knowingly drive in bus lanes'.

The signs in the Town Centre are not at fault, apparently.

Then, in an apparent u-turn he said: "we will not build next year's budget on bus lane fine income".

That's odd as this appears to be exactly the way Labour councillors have chosen to do since taking over control of the Council in May this year.

Then again, Reading Labour Party's relationship with the motorist has been far from a happy one in recent years*

Reading residents, take note.

*See the Shinfield Road and One Way IDR debacles for details.

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Local, Social, Digital

Earlier this year I was invited by Lucy Watt, former Lib Dem Councillor from innovative consultancy FuturGov to  take part in a fringe event about how politicians can use social media to engage.
I was chuffed to be invited to speak at the event alongside such luminaries as Lib Dem Voice's Mark Pack and Julian Huppert MP (Cambridge).
Lucy has kindly uploaded my personal take on using social media which you can watch below. I spoke about using Facebook and Twitter alongside blogging to get my message across and get feedback from residents.

Friday, 21 October 2011

Labour U-Turn on Landlord Accreditation Scheme

Interesting to note today that the Labour administration has dropped it's previous opposition to our plans to introduce a new, more cost-effective landlord accreditation scheme in conjunction with the National Landlord Assocation  to improve standards in Reading's large private rented sector.

I launched this scheme last year, when I was Lead Member for Housing and was attacked by Labour's then housing spokesperson for 'abandoning' Reading tenants - when of course I was doing nothing of the sort.

The Council has announced that a further training session for landlords of rented properties in Reading is to be held on October 27th in The Avenue School in Tilehurst - details can be found here.

I have led calls for an effective landlord accreditation scheme in Reading since 2008 when I chaired the first ever scrutiny review into Reading's private rented housing sector.

Until then, Labour councillors had ignored calls from Reading Students Union for more to be done to offer reassurance to students others looking to rent properties in Reading.

A scheme Labour had operated stalled a few years back until we called for a review.

When I was lead member for housing I was charged with responding to the review led by officers into the Council's old inhouse landlord accreditation scheme (LAS) which had been operated under the previous Labour administration.

The review found that 'while LAS is a useful tool to stakeholders, the re-launch of Reading’s current LAS would not deliver outcomes in the most cost-effective way.'

The review also found:

'The (previous)scheme did not drive up house conditions significantly because landlords attracted to LAS are generally those with property in good order already. The soft outcomes of running the scheme are outweighed by the fact that the scheme had contact with only 2.3% of Reading’s rental market despite vigorous promotion and a cost of circa £34k per annum.'

As I blogged last November:
'In line with our local Coalition Agreement with the Conservatives to deliver better, value for money services to our residents we agreed not to revive the scheme in it's current form but instead sign up to a National Landlord Accreditation Scheme. The scheme is run by the National Landlord Association and offers landlords and tenants a range of benefits, whilst enabling the Council to focus more effectively on it's core duties of ensuring that the most poorly-maintained and hazardous properties in the sector are identified and appropriate action is taken against landlords.'

And how did Labour respond to our plans at the time? Back to my blog entry in November 2010:
'Locally, Labour's response to all this has been interesting. For one thing they appear to be a lot more interested in housing and the private rented sector in opposition than they ever were when they ran the Council. This would be welcome were it not that they appear to driven by a desire to score political points, rather than campaign for better housing.

For example, when I announced our plans to join a national accreditation scheme they didn't support it, arguing we were abandoning tenants - when it was Labour who suspended the Landlord Accreditation Scheme (LAS) in the first place!

At full Council last month, Cllr Paul Gittings attacked me for failing to implement 'a proper landlord accreditation scheme' whatever that means, suggesting that things like fire safety would be put at risk by our decision not to resurrect an in-house landlord accreditation scheme.

This is utter hogwash. All the housing regulations that exist to protect tenants will continue to exist. The decision to adopt an LAS is entirely up to individual councils i.e. it is non-statutory.

Let's be clear: all the Council's statutory functions to ensure housing standards are maintained will continue. All that we have done is ensure that taxpayer's money will not be wasted on something that does not work. And once again Labour councillors find themselves arguing for the continuation of schemes that are ineffective and are not value for money. So much for constructive opposition.

The last Labour government proposed setting up a national landlord register and a number of other regulations. These plans were reviewed by independent experts and the Coalition Government and were found to be ineffective, burdensome and expensive so were not carried forward. And yet at a recent Council meeting I was challenged by a Labour activists to support these regulations. Bizarre.'

Since Cllr Rachel Eden has taken over the housing brief from her colleague Cllr Deborah Edwards Labour's housing policy seems to have been slightly more progressive although there still are major problems with Labour's approach to housing. For example, Cllr Eden's plan to increase support for homeless people in Reading,  is welcome. However, her planned cuts to Sheltered Housing, are not.

Back to the private rented sector, we learn today that Cllr Eden has dropped Labour's previous opposition to the scheme, declaring in an RBC press release today:
"This initiative is one example of the Council working with landlords and other agencies to increase the availability of good quality, private rented accommodation for Reading's residents. Accreditation is a mark of commitment by landlords to delivering decent accommodation."

I'm pleased Cllr Eden has seen for herself the benefit of the scheme we launched last year and has belatedly given it her backing publicly.

Whether or not her colleagues have now dropped their thoughtless opposition to it, remains to be seen.

For the sake of Reading tenants, landlords and taxpayers this successful scheme should stay.

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

When it comes to health, Reading Labour would always rather play politics

Last night at full Council Cllr Bet Tickner, Labour Lead Councillor Health tabled the following motion:

“This Council notes that:

  • Through the Health and Social Care Bill, the Government is currently pushing through the biggest and most disruptive reorganisation in the history of the NHS, at a cost of £2bn.
  • The Bill removes the fundamental responsibility of the Secretary of State for Health to provide a health service free at the point of need. 
  •  Despite the “listening exercise” over this last summer the bill will still put decisions about the future of the NHS in the hands of EU competition lawyers and allow private healthcare companies to make major inroads into NHS provision.
  • The Bill is designed to produce a postcode lottery of care, with potentially two commissioning consortia operating within Reading Borough, and would allow NHS trusts to treat as many private patients as they wish, so long waiting times would be back for very many Reading patients.
  • The messy reorganisation set out in the bill is not only costly, but will cause massive anxiety among all dedicated NHS staff over a prolonged period, in addition to the job losses, cuts in pay and projected costs in pensions which are being implemented at the Royal Berkshire Hospital and elsewhere in the NHS locally.
  • The Bill creates more quangos with unclear roles, meaning more money spent on bureaucracy, not less.
  • The NHS was cut in real terms by £800m in 2010-11, despite the Government’s promise to give the NHS a real rise in funding every year of this Parliament, and to stop top-down reorganisations of the NHS.
In view of the detrimental affect of the above on Reading residents, this Council resolves:
  • To write directly to the Prime Minister and the Health Secretary urging them to scrap the Health and Social Care Bill.
  • To urge Members of the House of Lords who oppose this Bill to seek to amend radically those provisions which directly threaten the very foundations of the NHS.
We voted against this motion. Below is the speech I gave in response.
'It is with dismay that once again Labour councillors are using valuable time in the Council Chamber to make a party political broadcast.

How does this debate help the people of Reading we are supposed to represent?

If we are to believe Labour genuinely care about our NHS

Where were the motions attacking the previous Labour government’s marketization of the health service – which enabled private providers to be paid more than those from the public sector,

Where were the motions attacking the target-driven culture which grew up under Labour and which led to failings in basic care such Mid Staffordshire?

Where were the motions attacking the £20 billion-pound of taxpayers money Labour wasted on a failed NHS IT system ?

Where were the motions attacking the 66% rise in the number of NHS managers – six times as fast as the number of Nurses – under a Labour Government?

There are no shortage of health issues where it would be helpful if the Labour councillors supposedly running this Council took a lead

Reading is a town with massive health inequalities

Children from poorer backgrounds have worse health than those in other areas

And people in poorer areas die younger

People in Reading suffer more early deaths from heart disease and Stroke

There are more teenage pregnancies

These should be the issues occupying us as councillors

And yet we have a lead member for health who spends more time politicking then getting down to work to improve health outcomes for all our residents

This motion says more about Labour’s political priorities than it does the real issues facing residents

 It was a liberal, working in a Coalition, who first imagined the NHS and its values of healthcare available to all, free at point of delivery, based on clinical need, not ability to pay.

 And so we on this have more faith in Dame Shirley Williams and her colleagues in the House of Lords doing whatever is necessary to safeguard the NHS both and in the future than we do in Reading Labour Party. '

We must keep fighting to support Reading's Carers

Last night the Council agreed two important motions calling for justice and action to support two vulnerable groups in our community: Lesbian, Bisexual, Gay and Transgender people and Reading Gurkhas and their families.

I was delighted to support both.

In the same meeting I spoke up for another group of unsung heroes: carers.

Over the past couple of years I have actively campaigned to raise the profile of issues facing carers and improve the lives of carers in Reading.

The carers I have met here have been some of the most selfless people I have ever encountered. I am grateful to them for sharing their struggles with me so I can better understand the challenges they face.

My Grandfather cared for my Grandmother in the last years of her life and I honour his memory in part by standing up for others who give up their time to care for their loved ones.

We are lucky that in Government we have a Liberal Democrat Minister in Paul Burstow standing up for carers. When he visited Reading in April I took him to meet a couple who had benefited from direct payments for carers - something he is pushing to extend to more people.

Last night I tabled a question asking for an estimate of the total number of carers in Reading and to outline the steps the administration is taking to identify carers and ensure they get access to services  of the total population.

I did this because I want to ensure that carers in Reading remain at the top of the political agenda regardless of which political party or parties are running the Council.

The answer I got confirmed that at the last count (2011 Census) 10,854 people in Reading were carers - 7.6% of the total population. Reading's total population has grown since 2001 and currently estimated to be around 154,000. This suggests there are between 11,873 and 16,972 carers in Reading.

We await the results of the 2011 Census but it is highly likely that the actual number of carers in Reading is even higher.
  • In 2010, nearly 1,599 carers benefited from receiving an assessment or review of their needs through Adult Social Care. This puts Reading in the top 25 % per cent of similar local authorities.
  • RBC has 307 identified young carers in Reading receiving support from our youth team - a 46% increase on the number identified in 2010.
  • The number of carers benefiting from a Direct Payment to meet their own support needs has quadrupled in the three years to 2010/11 through the Council's Carers' Breaks and Opportunities Fund.
In my supplementary question I pointed out that last year in response to demand I agreed an increase of £50,000 over above the agreed budget of the Carer's Breaks and Opportunities Fund to ensure that carers got the breaks they need in response to increases and in many cases previously unmet need.

A survey of Reading carers in 2010 found that the number one priority for local carers is supporting carers to get breaks.

When I was Lead Member or Adult Social Care I placed support for carers at the heart of our policies. I asked the Lead Member if he would undertake to do the same when he sets next year's budget.

I was pleased to hear the current Labour lead councillor Cllr Orton confirm that I did indeed increase the budget and that he would seek to maintain spending carers breaks at current levels.

Thursday, 29 September 2011

Stop Labour's Stealthy Cuts to Reading's Sheltered Housing

This week without a fanfare - no press release - Reading Council's Labour administration launched a consultation on sheltered housing.

It is available here on the Council's website.

The Sheltered Housing Services Consultation asks for views on the current service and the proposed changes at 10 of the Council's sheltered housing schemes.

The proposals include:

  • changes to the amount of support time provided.
  • changes to the Sheltered Housing Officer's working week
  • the promotion of activities across all the schemes
  • opening up some of the schemes to people under the retirement age who need specialist housing support
  • views on the current night service
This may sound like a consultation about how to improve the service.

It isn't.

It's a precursor to planned cuts in services.

However, perusal of the documentation reveals the main driver: saving money:
"We have taken into account that we spend a large amount of money on support for older people in sheltered housing.  Currently £721,860 is spent on support for 635 tenants in 21 sheltered housing schemes across Reading.  However, sheltered housing tenants represent only 3.5% of the total population of older people in Reading."
People who live in sheletered housing tend to be 60 or over.

Many of them are on low incomes.

In short these are some of Reading's most vulnerable citizens.

Labour made no mention of this in their election literature or their manifesto.

Four months into running the Council they are planning to slash services to Council tenants and in particular older Council tenants.

Were the Greens aware this is what they signed up to when they let Labour back in?

People often say you can judge a society by the way it treats its elderly..

This cut is wrong and not one Liberal Democrat councillors would have made.

Only we have pledged to protect the most vulnerable children and adults in Reading.

We got the Council to agree to this at the last meeting.

How quickly Labour councillors have forgotten.

I have launched this petition - please sign it here.

Monday, 18 July 2011

Action overdue to combat child poverty and health inequality in Reading

Get Reading today carries an article based on this year's Annual Health Profile which shows that public health in Reading continues to be significantly worse than other parts of the UK and health inequality continues to be a major issue.

This is not news but the fact that health inequality is still such a major issue should concern all of us.

Locally I have led calls for action by both Reading Borough Council and local health partners to close the gap - and in particular do more to reduce the impact poverty is having on children's health.

Two years ago I co-chaired a cross-party scrutiny review into this issue with Cllr Mark Ralph (Conservative) which made a series of recommendations to Labour councillors.

Our review reported just ahead of the General Election and disgracefully some Labour councillors
tried to use it as a political football - no doubt in an attempt to deflect attention from their failings in office.

The new Labour Lead Councillor, Cllr Tickner is pledging to take a hard look at the issue - which is very welcome.

Sadly, the new Labour administration has already signalled that tackling child poverty is not a priority and Cllr Tickner herself led plans to divert funding away from helping charities support children in poverty to community cohesion.

I really hope that as they become more familiar with the facts about the reality of child poverty in Reading  Labour councillors will change their minds and resolve to take action.

The Coalition Government is restoring powers and responsibility for improving public health back to councils - a move not seen since the Victorian era.

For the first time councils will receive funding to improve public health in their area - according to level of health need.

So far Labour councillors have spoken out against every aspect of proposed health reforms.

When it comes to something as important as  public health I really hope Cllr Tickner and her colleagues will feel able to put politics to one side and use new powers and new funding to fight poverty and the impact it has on health of children and adults across Reading.

Sunday, 17 July 2011

Reading Labour's Political Priorities

Labour councillors were keen to point out to those of us in attendance at Cabinet on Monday that they had different, superior, priorities from the previous Lib Dem - Conservative Coalition administration of the Council.

We were given a steer about Labour's priorities at the June Cabinet meeting but Monday evening's meeting was where the rubber hit the road, so to speak and smoke began to clear about what Labour priorities will really mean for residents.

And, as laudable and popular as many Labour priorities may seem - and some of them we are very happy to support - the reality is that for the residents of  Reading the effects of reorganising the Council's budget to reflect some of them are far from benign.

On Monday, the phrase that fo me defined the evening came from the Deputy Leader of the Council, Cllr Tony Page:
"We won, you lost!"
He repeated this at least three times in the evening.

So much for an and to Punch and Judy politics signalled by the Leader of the Council, Cllr Lovelock at the last meeting.

But why is Cllr Page's outburst important?

Because it tells you all you need to know about the thinking behind all Labour's decisions in power.

For Labour, regardless of the subject under discussion - whether it is community cohesion, free schools, social care -  everything is political.

For Readng Labour Party every decision boils down to satisfying particular interest groups or groups of voters.

Ensuring that these groups or individuals are not disadvantaged by any decisions lies behind every decision Labour councillors take.

And if you are not in Labour's list by virtue of your background, location or voting habits you will not benefit.

To give Labour credit this is a highly effective politicial strategy.

But what it is not  is a recipe for good, ethical government.

And it is in fact very bad news for taxpayers and everyone who relies on Council services.

Turning to Cabinet, what did we learn from Monday evening's exchanges about Labour's real political priorities?

1. Reducing child poverty is not a priority for a Labour administration

Read documents about Labour's priorities for the year and you will not see child poverty identified anywhere as an issue that needs to be addressed.

On Monday Labour councillors did not bat an eye lid when public money previously ear marked for tackling child poverty was 'reallocated' towards funding Reading Council for Racial Equality and a vague notion improving community cohesion.

Improving community cohesion and promoting equality is one thing but why do other areas of Council activity have to suffer in order to deliver it?

The fact is the number of children living in poverty rising to one quarter when Reading had a Labour government and a Labour Council.

Last December, one of Reading Borough Council's longest-serving Labour councillors Cllr Mike Orton, who represents one of the most deprived wards in Reading said he was horrified at the levels of child poverty in our area.

And yet, he along with his Labour Cabinet colleagues agreed to this dreadful cut.

I questioned this decision and was roundly attacked by Labour councillors in the meeting.

This latest decision however follows a clear pattern of spending by Labour.

They have a long history of spending large amounts of public money on projects and areas where spending is not tied to any particular outcomes or objectives.

Lack of transparency over decision-making in the Council before has made this hard to question but recent development led by Liberal Democrat and Conservative councillors have made Labour's ability to avoid public scrutiny much more difficult.

Furthermore, Labour may have got away with throwing good money after bad in in the past but at a time when all public spending is being reduced their approach looks reckless.

Nationally, the Coalition Government has signalled that cutting child poverty is a priority with the publication of a Child Poverty Strategy, increased early intervention and improvements to years education, and the launch of the Pupil Premimum which will see spending on the poorest children in Reading rise significantly.

2. Labour councillors are in favour redistribution of wealth: from those on low or middle incomes to those on high incomes:

Labour's Cabinet approved plans for Council Taxpayers to foot 70% of the bill for people with savings over the minimum threshold to attend day centres. I am aware of at least one case of someone with in excess of £100,000 savings who will benefit from this - part of Labour's pre-election bribes.

This generous move (who wouldn't want to introduce it?) will set the Council back £123k adding more pressure to the Social Care budget which is already facing in-year demand pressures of just under £400k through demand pressures alone.

Labour councillors also agreed to scrap Green Waste charges and revert to a situation where thousands of people with no gardens will subsidise residents who do. This move will add £180k to this year's budget.

Labour councillors rejected a proposal put forward by officers whereby people on low incomes should get concessions on the charge preferring to introduce a scheme whereby some of Reading's wealthiest residents will be subsidised to get free collections by some of the town's poorest Council Tax payers on low and fixed incomes.

3. Arts , Parks and Planning are not priorities for the Labour administration:

On Monday we learned that Labour's free green waste election pledge will be funded by:
  • 70k from Cultural Head of Service staffing budget
  • £40k from restructure of Cultural Services
  • £30k from Parks and ground maintenance efficiencies and seasonal maintenance
  • £30k from Planning Delivery Grant
  • £10k from Joint Strategic Planning Unit
These cuts were tabled at short notice at Cabinet making detailed pre-scrutiny by opposition councillors impossible.

To suggest these cuts will not affect front-line services is laughable given we know they involve job losses and reductions in services.

4. Labour have no plans to bring back their 'gold standard' concessionary fares scheme.

Labour councillors pledged to reinstate concessionary fares only for people with Access Passes (5,000 residents) - funded through a one off £65k windfall to the Council's coffers via Bus Lane fines, something we are happy to support and something we would have done had the money been available.

Labour made clear they have no plans to reinstate concessionary fares for the 30,000 or so pensioners.

This would cost the Council £300k.

5. Labour's idea of consultation: agree consultation behind closed doors first

The Lead Councillor described as 'politically neutral' a letter that was circulated by a Labour councillor to residents before Cabinet had even met to agree a public consultation should take place on the issue.

Is this what Labour councillors mean by 'a fair, open and transparent process' to consultation as set out in their Priorities for the year at June Cabinet meeting?

6. Labour councillors have no idea how much their pre-election pledges on changes to Residents Parking will cost.

When we took control of the Council last May, Labour's Residents Parking Scheme was running a deficit of £300k.

Labour are reviewing the new scheme but made no promises about delivering any changes.

A report will be brought forward to September Cabinet about the financial impact of Labour's planned changes to the scheme.

7. Labour's approach to promoting community cohesion and equality under the microscope

Despite an independent review of their own community cohesion policies  in 2007 which identified a number of flaws in the Council's approach to promoting equality (including LGBT equality) Labour councillors are only now getting round to promoting the full range of equalities.

Labour councillors have agreed to fund RCRE by a further £45,000 on 'a defined piece of work to be agreed with the Head of Policy, Performance and Community but failed to restore RCRE's  core funding grant as according to the Cabinet report on the issue the service outlined in the service level agreement  'was limited to race equality, where a wider equalities perspective is now envisaged'.

Labour councillors have agreed to set up a new equalities body which will...scrutinise the Council among other public bodies (despite being dependent on the Council for all it's funding).

8. Absent Friends

Finally, it's easy in the discussion of Labour's priorities to forget the two councillors that helped make all the above happen: the Greens.

Their two councillors didn't turn up to Cabinet on Monday and once again where absent during discussions about the Council's Budget.

It's possible to draw several conclusions from this and I'm afraid none of them are positive.

At the moment, Reading's Labour councillors are tweaking this year's budget.

The budget we successfully set without closing a single library, sure start centre or leisure service.

For Labour this is the easy part.

But as we speak, officers are preparing options for next years budget.

As I explained last month this will involve needing to find at least £9 million pounds worth of savings or potentially more if they don't stick to our budget.

Behind the scenes Labour councillors are already preparing the ground to make massive cuts to key services in Reading.

The time to start worrying about the future of  those areas we have highlighted which are clearly not priorities to Reading Labour' Party's Town Hall bosses is now.

Saturday, 16 July 2011

Reading Labour play politics with Welfare - again

It's disappointing to see that less than two months into the job Labour's new Lead Member for Housing, Cllr Eden, seeking to make political capital out of Welfare in Get Reading this week, a tried and tested tactic of her Party.
A lead councillor in Reading is calling on the town’s two MPs to oppose plans to put a cap on housing benefit.

Councillor Rachel Eden, lead member for housing and neighbourhoods, said Government welfare reforms could make 40,000 families homeless and put a huge burden on council finances.

The reforms cap the level of housing benefit which would mean in expensive areas, the benefit may no long meet the actual cost of rent.

Cllr Eden said: “Here in Reading we’ve known for months that the Government’s proposals would be likely to strain the council’s resources, while causing problems for many residents. I am calling on Reading’s MPs to meet with us and to withdraw their support for these proposals .”
The issue of changes to Welfare is an important one and we should be concerned about.

I and many other Liberal Democrats have real concerns about the impact some of the changes to welfare policies families and vulnerable people.

I and others have raised these issues with our MPs and Ministers and they are well aware of the need to get them right.

Labour councillors and MPs, on the other hand need to face facts: they went into the last General Election planning to cut welfare and pledging specifically, to cut housing benefit.

The way to address genuine concerns about these changes is to engage properly with MPs and to champion these issues in Parliament as a number of Lib Dem MPs such as Jenny Willott and John Leech have continued to do.

The way not to do as Cllr Eden has done is via cheap newspaper headlines which seek to spread concern amongst some of the poorest people in our community.

When I was Lead Member I worked hard to build good relationships with both Reading MPs because I felt strongly, and still do, that the the needs of residents should come ahead of party politics.

The approach I and other Lib Dem councillors took led to increased funding for a number of key housing projects including the regeneration of Dee Park and building of much needed extra-care homes on the former Avenue School site in Katesgrove.

Cllr Eden, in her failure to articulate a) her Party's real position and b) accept her Party's responsibility for the financial crisis that has led to a need to reduce public debt so dramatically does nothing to to move the debate forward or help those who may be affected.

I'm sure this is a well intentioned error by Cllr Eden who is new at her role and as such does not shoulder the entire blame for this mistaken position.

Hers is simply the latest in a long line of hypocritical attacks by Reading Labour politicians.

Last November, when I wasLead Member for the same area and proposed reforms to housing benefit were announced Cllr Pete Ruhemann, the Labour Group's longstanding 'official press spokesperson' took to the airwaves claiming that London Boroughs were already block-booking rooms in Reading as a result of people being forced to move out of London due to benefits changes.

He did not have the imagination to think up this line it was being spun by the Labour Party nationally too: I was rung up by the Daily Mail on the back of this story and when I investigated with officers at the Council it proved to be whollywithout foundation.

All Cllr Ruhemann's comments did was to increase fears amongst people living on some of the lowest incomes in Reading.

Which is just what Cllr Eden is doing.


Let's be clear, these attitudes are expounded by councillors from a political party that was committed to making £44 billion pounds worth of cuts going into the last general election.

Ex Welfare Minister James Purnell admitted Labour planned to make cuts to Welfare and he wished he had gone further.

And both Cllr Eden and Cllr Ruheman come from a Party which fought the last General Election on a platform of pledging to cap housing benefit.

So, in future, when it comes to Welfare a bit more honesty, a bit less piety and a lot less politicking from our Labour councillors would make a nice change

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Lib Dems in Government invest in greener Reading

Good to see the announcement by Norman Baker MP, Lib Dem transport minister earlier today that Reading is set to benefit from government cash to develop greener solutions to transport issues via the Local Sustainable Transport Fund.

Devolving transport decisions to councils has long been a Lib Dem policy priority. As has been investing in low-carbon transport solutions.

The thinking behind the LSTF was included in the transport section of the Coalition Agreement:
"We will support sustainable travel initiatives, including the promotion of cycling and walking, and will encourage joint working between bus operators and local authorities."
Reading Borough Council when under Coalition control submitted an ambitious, forward-thinking bid to the fund and has been successful to the tune of just under £5 million pounds of additional investment in transport solutions in our area.

This will go towards developing a new bike hire scheme for Reading, which could eventually include around 1,000 bicycles available for hire at 100 - 150 docking locations across the town.

Other key elements of Reading's successful bid were:
  •  Better and more effective 'real time' passenger information by linking transport databases
  • Packages to encourage walking and cycling through improved street lighting, speed limit reviews, dropped kerbs and cycle training
  • Making travelling around Reading easier for people by extending 'smart ticketing' to include car parking and bicycle hire, all on the one smartcard
  • More discounts and incentives, route extensions and expanded park and ride opportunities.
Commenting, Norman Baker MP said:
“I am delighted to be able to fund these excellent projects.
“All the winning schemes have one thing in common – they will help build strong local economies while addressing the urgent challenge of climate change.

“We have empowered local authorities to create packages of sustainable initiatives that are tailored for their local areas, and this is only the beginning – even more funding will be announced next summer following a second round of bids.”
We will be pushing the Labour administration of the Council to use this investment innovatively and wisely to help deliver a greener Reading for residents and visitors.

Saturday, 2 July 2011

7,922 Reasons for Action on Affordable Housing in Reading

Earlier this week I tabled the following question to the Labour Lead Councillor for Housing:
“What steps does the Lead Councillor plan to take to address housing need in the Borough after 24 years of failure by Labour to new Council homes in Reading?”
I was attacked by Labour activists for 'bringing my political campaigning agenda' into the Council.

I make no apologies for that - after all as an opposition councillor that is what I'm there for!

I will continue to fight to get this issue on the Labour Council's agenda because lack of affordable housing is a real problem for thousands of people who live in our area.

I was pleased to hear the Lead Councillor agree to look at 'all options' to increase the supply of affordable housing although disappointed she failed to set any target for increasing the supply of Council properties.

We will be holding her and the Labour administration to account to ensure they deliver for thousands of people waiting for housing.

Officers have confirmed that there are currently just under 8,000 people stuck on the housing register in Reading.

And people who are on the list face a very long wait:

  • There are currently 238 x3 bed homes available to rent – average waiting time 1 and half years
  • The are 44 x4 bed homes currently available to rent – average wait – 21 months
I have been raising the the problem we face of lack of family-sized homes for social rent for several years now.

Many families are living in seriously overcrowded homes and so far I've been the only politician in Reading to raise this issue and force councillors and officers to look at the issue of under-occupancy.

This problem was exacerbated by the Right to Buy policy introduced under the Conservative government and continue by the previous Labour government which saw thousands of family-sized council homes sold off and not replaced.

In Reading in recent years the majority of new homes that have been built have been executive flats in the town centre - failing to address the need for larger affordable properties for families.

Finally, some facts:

Last year the Coalition Administration of the Council brought about the construction of Reading's first new Council Homes for twenty years.
Labour's original scheme was for this development to be owned and managed by a housing association.
In government Labour’s total net increase in social housing stock was less than 20,000 – and waiting lists rose by 800,000 because they sold off more Council homes than they built

The Coalition Government has pledged to increase social housing supply by more each year than Labour achieved in thirteen years added together.

Friday, 1 July 2011

Campaigning for better facilities for residents in Southcote

This afternoon I popped down to Coronation Square in Southcote to support a campaign being led by local Lib Dem campaigner Dave Warren to get the Council to ensure developers include delivery of new community facility as part of the redevelopment of the former Happy Prospect pub site.

It was great to catch up with Dave who along with local shopkeepers and residents is collecting signatures for a petition to Reading Borough Council to be presented later this year.

Clearly it is important to provide more housing on the site but given the loss of a pub is also the loss of a local community facility there also should be some compensation for residents who live in the area.

Hard copies of the petition are being circulated but you can also sign it online here.

Dave is a great community activist who lives in the heart of Southcote and cares deeply about his area.

I was shocked the way that Cllr Pete Ruhemann, local Labour councillor for the area tried to misepresent the campaign at the full Council meeting.

This was totally uncalled for and not what I would expect from someone who is both a ward councillor for the area and Chair of the Planning Applications Committee.

Doing this hardly encourages residents to get involved in improving their neighbourhoods.

I hope going forward Labour councillors can put politics aside and support Dave's campaign

Anyway, it was good to speak to local shopkeepers in the area today and hear of their support for what we are doing.

This is the latest in a series of things local Lib Dems have have done to improve Southcote for residents.

In fact, Lib Dems have led improvements in Southcote in recent times via the Council's innovative Decent Neighbourhoods Fund, including:
  • Funding of a water supply to enable an allotments project to proceed in Southcote (part of the ‘Surf and Turf’ initiative)
  • Delivering a new outdoor gym specifically aimed at older people. Improvements to the nearby children’s play area are an additional part of this project.
  • Additional street lighting
We also supported the local GrowAllot Campaign for a community allotment and it was great to see this win funding for the project from the Big Lottery Fund.

We'd love to hear from residents who would like to get involved in our campaigns to improve Southcote after years of neglect by Labour councillors for the area.

Please join us on Facebook or contact me.

Gurkha Justice Campaign

This morning I was privileged to be invited to the launch of the British Gurkhas Ex-Serviceman Assocation campaign for justice held at the Wycliffe Church in East Reading.

I have been involved with Reading Gurkhas through my colleague Tilehurst Lib Dem Cllr Peter Beard who helped set up the Forgotten British Gurkha charity.

Although Gurkhas were granted indefinite leave to remain following the campaign led by Joanna Lumley and supported by Nick Clegg they currently do not have full British citizenship and associated rights i.e. pension rights.

We heard at the meeting that on a visit to Reading David Cameron pledged to act but that since then he has done nothing.

I was asked to say a few words at the meeting and I  promised to take up the matter with Nick Harvey MP, Lib Dem Armed Services Minister and Nick Clegg MP.

The Association launched a nationwide petition today that I have signed. The launch was attended by former Conservative councillor Tom Steele and Cllr Rob White, leader of the Green Party.

I did not see any local Labour councillors at the meeting although Cllr Bet Tickner (Lead Councillor, Communities) was invited by the organisers.

Perhaps it was not one of her 'favourite' community groups.

This is a pity as the Nepalese community in Reading, comprising many ex-servicemen and their families is large and growing.

In recognition of this the Coalition administration of Reading Borough Council awarded grant funding to the Nepalese Community as part of the Council's grants to the voluntary sector. The first of it's kind.

I have requested that the issue of how we respond to the needs of migrant communities is added to the Council['s Internal Scrutiny Commission's list of issues to investigate.

Saturday, 25 June 2011

Backing carers - Reading's hidden heroes

Today an elderly constituent  I've known for many years and who I have assisted with various local issues came to visit me at our ward surgery.

We talked about the issue she had come to raise (relating to planning) and after a few minutes it transpired that she had recently become a full-time carer to her husband.

I had no idea about this and as I asked her about what support she was getting at home.

 It soon became clear that not only was she not getting any support but that she didn't realise that she was entitled to any.

I asked her when the last time was she had a day off.

She told me she couldn't remember.

When I probed a bit further she said she had been forced to rearrange the house so they could both sleep downstairs as due to disability her husband couldn't get up the stairs anymore.

They have a bath but a shower would be more convenient.
Her neighbour was able to help her with a few things including getting the shopping.

I immediately made a note of her needs and said I would ask the Council's social services team to contact her to see what support she could be given.

It struck me that had I not digged deeper I might never have found out that my constituent was a carer.

It is not something that people will always bring up in conversation in the street or on the doorstep.

That is why I make a point of saying to people that I am here to help them whenever I am out and about in the ward.

But it is not possible for me as a councillor to speak to every single resident.

This is a major challenge for the Council: how to respond to the needs of a resident who is not 'in the system' who they are not aware of.

It got me thinking about the numbers of residents who carer for family, friends and neighbours in Reading, soldiering on in often difficult circumstances and what we can do to support them better.

Talking to my constituent it became obvious that it had not occured to her to ask me or the Council for help.

This was partly because she didn't think she needed it (she felt as a wife of 30 years plus it was just something she had to do) and partly because she didn't know help was available.

This is evidence of the work that still needs to be done to publicise support for carers and to do more to encourage carers to come forward.

When I was Lead Member for Social Care I placed support for carers at the heart of our approach.

Our agenda was not simply about supporting carers in their role but helping them live their own lives.

What did this mean in practice?

Answer -  supporting people to get breaks by giving them access to funded respite care and a personal budget to spend on things that help them live their lives.

I have met carers who have benefited from this approach - many of whom carried on in silence for years because they didn't know support was out there for them.

This made me feel even more strongly that we must not overlook people who care for others in their own homes.

And with an ageing population the number of people who do this is set to increase.
I have personal experience of family members who have been carers and their selflessness has made a big impact on me.
In March I wrote on my blog:
"As an administration we are committed to placing support for carers at the heart of all our policies and at the top of our local agenda for transforming community care."
I said this because despite the fact Labour councillors regularly congratulate themselves on their social care record the reality is (backed up by the Council's own research) was that Council policies failed to meet the needs of carers.

When I led this portfolio I increased support for carers while other councils were cutting it.

Cutting support for carers was not something me or other members of the Lib Dem - Conservative Coalition Administration were prepared to do.

Whilst councils rightly focus on people who receive formal social care they must not ignore those people who currently fall outside the system.

A survey of 900 carers by the Council in 2010 (when it was controlled by Labour) identified the following key areas for action:
  • Supporting carers to get breaks
  • Promoting the take-up of Direct Payments from the Carers
  • Offering back up support for carers in an emergency
  • Helping new and existing carers access information and guidance on support and services.
Work I kicked off this year to respond to identified needs of local carers includes:

  • Continuing the Carers Steering Group to ensure local agencies continue to collaborate for the benefit of carers
  • Making a positive contribution by ensuring carers are including in service development
  • Improved quality of life through raising awareness of services available and to engage with other providers to negotiate better access to services for carers
  • Encouraging take up from underrepresented groups, RBC has funded an additional BME carer support group to complement existing ones offered by PRT
  • Working with JobCentre Plus to make sure employers in Reading are aware of flexible working rights for carers
  • Community development work alongside the Thriving Neighbourhoods Programme to ensure carers are identified
  • A series of events in 2011 to link in with national events and promote carer rights, support available to them and how to access this.
At national level, Lib Dem Minister Paul Burstow has led this agenda helping to put Lib Dem values and policies around supporting carers into action.

I know Paul quite well and I know he is personally very committed to increasing support for carers which goes to the core of Lib Dem values around valuing the individual and reciprocity.
The Coalition Government’s Agreement sets out that the Government will look to provide increased support to carers particularly through:
  • Extending the roll-out of personal budgets to give people and their carers more control and purchasing power;
  • Using Direct Payments to carers and better community based provision to improve access to respite care;
  • Extending the right to request flexible working to all employees, consulting with business on how best to do so; and
  • Establishing a commission for long-term care which will consider how to ensure responsible and sustainable funding for long-term care.
In 2010 the Council estimated that there are around 11,000 carers in Reading

My guess is the actual number is even higher.

I am pleased I was able to identify a carer in my ward today and hope I will be able to play my part in helping her to have a better quality of life.

I will be challenging the Labour administration to continue to the work I led which placed carers at the heart of social care policies as I feel strongly we owe it to residents who care for others to do the best by them.

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Local Stroke Services - Chair of Berkshire West PCT Responds

Today I have received a response from Penny Henrion, the Chair of Berkshire West PCT, five months after my original letter raising concerns about local Stroke Services in Reading which had been heavily criticised by the independent Care Quality Commission.

In it she claims that her office never received it which is possible so I am prepared to give them the benefit of the doubt although I have a copy of the letter that was sent out by Cllr services at the Council.

Penny Henrion writes:
"The CQC report was published in January 2011 and was based on data relating to April 2009-March 2010. It therefore accurately reflects the situation during that period. However, ealy in 2010 the PCT itself undertook an analysis of local stroke services which identified the gaps in the service and led us to initiate several work streams to deal with these gaps in provision.'
The she goes on to point out 3 key projects that started by the PCT in 2010 to address deficiencies with the service:-
  • Stroke Patient Information Project - completed in March 2011 and delivered through consultation with stroke survivors and their carers, a comprehensive range of accessible information about stroke and the services and the resources available to improve quality of life.
  • The PCT has produced a simple guide for stroke survivors and their families, which is also available on the PCT's new website:
  • South Central Cardiovascular Network Stroke Project - this project due to complete in March 2012 is aimed at enhancing patient and public involvement in shaping all aspects of stroke care.
  • The Network which the PCT is part of, is aiming to establish at least one patient/carer user group for each Acute Hospital Trust in the region to create a forum for patients and carers to influence the provision of stroke services in their area.
  • Stroke Reviews: work is underway to identify the appropriate local service model for the provision of reviews for stroke survivors in the community.
Ms Henrion finishes the letter by stating her commitment to 'continued joint working to improve health and welbeing in Berkshire West' and offering a meeting.

This is very welcome.

I am really pleased to that the PCT are taking a series of steps to improve services for local residents who are victims of Stroke.

However, I make no apology for raising concerns both in January and again this month.

I believe it is vital that unelected PCTs are held to account for the health services they provide.

Friday, 17 June 2011

Wake up call on housing and mental health

Shelter have published worrying statistics on the link between housing and mental health.

  • The YouGov survey found 18 million people (38 per cent) in Britain believe housing costs cause stress and depression in their family.

  • This is a rise of seven million people (15 per cent) since 2009. 

  • Shelter commissioned YouGov to investigate how the risk of repossession and rent rises are affecting people.

  • The survey also found that:

  • More than 13 million people (28 per cent) said they keep up with their rent or mortgage without any difficulty, a drop from 19 million people (41 per cent) in 2009.

  • 12 million people (26 per cent) have reduced the amount they spend on food to help pay their housing costs.

  • These stats are terrible but they do not surprise me, in fact they  back up 100 % what I am finding in my mailbag and on the doorstep.

    Lack of access to cheap housing is a major cause of stress to local families.
    I have tabled a question to the next Council meeting asking the Lead Member for Housing, Rachel Eden what she is going to do to increase the supply of affordable housing in Reading.
    With around 8,000 people waiting for access to housing on the Council's housing register the Council must do everything it can to increase housing supply.

    As I blogged earlier in the week, Ed Miliband has no policies to take this.

    This is not a new problem - for 13 years Labour failed to tackle it.

    The Coalition has set ambitious targets to increase the supply of new homes - we will be campaigning to ensure they deliver on this.

    Wednesday, 15 June 2011

    A Green Deal for Reading: but will Labour flunk it?

    Andrew Stunell MP, Lib Dem Minister for Local Government who visited Reading a couple of month ago was right to highlight the fact that 40% of carbon emissions each year are generated by existing buildings.

    The Government's Green Deal - a key plank of the Lib Dem General Election Manifesto of 2010 is the first major step towards tackling fuel poverty and cutting harmful carbon emissions in housing across all sectors by improving energy by any British government and no amount of carping by Labour politicians makes up for their abysmal lack of action in this area.

    I find it deeply depressing that, less than a month into her new job, that the new Labour Lead Member for Housing is already preparing excuses as to why things can't happen (to cover up her own inaction) rather than leading on this agenda.

    No scheme of this scale is likely to be 100% perfect but rather than whingeing it is up to councillors and councils to make the best of what is available and champion opportunities for local residents and businesses presented by the Green Deal , not sit back and wait for government handouts.

    When we ran the Council we led the agenda and didn't delegate thinking about solutions to Council officers.

    Visitors to the Council tell me that the new administration lacks ambition in this area. This is very bad news for residents.

    Those of us keen to do something about carbon emissions and housing waited 13 years for the last Labour government to make progress on this agenda and they comprehensively failed.

    Somehow I do not think this project would have survived Alistair Darling's planned cuts to public spending (£40bn) given we know that Ed Balls and others failed to commit to carbon reduction targets during the Coalition negotiations.

    Enough about politics - what is the Green Deal?
    • The Green Deal will become available in 2012 will help householders improve the energy efficiency of their homes at no upfront cost.
    • By allowing them to pay for green home improvements over time rather than upfront, through the savings in energy bills, it will remove one of the biggest barriers they currently face to retrofitting - being able to afford the initial investment.
    • Feed-in Tariffs are available to support homes in generating their own renewable electricity, and support for renewable heat will be available for homes.
    • Looking to the future, the Government's policy on Zero Carbon means that from 2016, new homes will need to be built to a zero carbon standard (and all non-domestic buildings from 2019).
    The Coalition administration of Reading Borough Council set out a ambitious vision on the green agenda including in relation to housing.

    From what I hear Labour's silo mentality has already kicked in with officers firmly back in the driving seat.

    We made it clear tackling climate change was everybody's business in the Council and we will continue to campaign for residents in Reading to realise the full benefits of all the Green Deal has to offer.