Wokingham Liberal Democrats are pleased that the issue of poverty is finally on the Council's agenda. Cllr Sarah Kerr, Liberal Democrat member for Evendons Ward said "for too long the issue of poverty and the inequalities associated with it have gone under the radar in Wokingham Borough. The narrative being pushed out there is that Wokingham is one of the least deprived authorities in the country and levels of poverty are relatively low. What this says to me is, 'we're doing OK,' but the truth is we're not. Wokingham Borough Council is benchmarking against other authorities in a country where poverty levels are increasing and social mobility is decreasing, and this was pre-Covid. How can over 7,000 children in this Borough be living in poverty and 3,500 households in fuel poverty be seen as 'we're doing OK?' This is why the Liberal Democrats requested this pressing issue is brought to the forefront and meaningful strategies and actions to effectively tackle poverty in our Borough discussed."
The Liberal Democrat team made 3 proposals during the council's Overview & Scrutiny Management Committee meeting report on poverty on Wednesday 21st October, all of which were adopted as recommendations to go to the WBC Executive.
- This committee recommends to the Executive that this Council will limit use of comparative data and benchmarking narrative, such as being ranked the least deprived upper tier authority, when talking about poverty except when making specific reference to reduction in poverty.
- This committee recommends to the Executive that this Council will co-produce an anti-poverty strategy.
- In view of the multi-dimensional nature of 'poverty', that all discussions, data, policy and actions focus on all who are suffering different types of rising and significant hardship.
Cllr Paul Fishwick, Liberal Democrat member for Winnersh ward said "we're pleased that this committee not only recognises the need for an anti-poverty strategy, but that it needs to be co-produced with partner organisations and the voluntary sector. This is something that any Council would struggle to tackle on its own, but can be achieved locally with some real partnership working. I strongly urge the Council's Executive to approve this and get the ball rolling."
Cllr Rachelle Shepherd-Dubey, Liberal Democrat member for Winnersh ward added that "what we saw in tonight's report, in addition to the alarming data on poverty in the area, was the support that the council and it's partners are currently providing. There is much that needs to be done in this area, and most of the current support is in effect a sticking plaster to treat the symptoms rather than the cause. We need to address the drivers of poverty and hope that we've started to take a step forward in doing so."
Two other recommendations were made during the meeting. The first was that "The Executive urgently re-examine the issue of 21-25 year old care leavers paying Council Tax for the rest of this Financial Year." Cllr Andrew Mickleburgh, Liberal Democrat member for Hawkedon ward said "we are equally pleased that this recommendation was approved. It is our duty to ensure that all children in care in Wokingham Borough always receive the same support that we would give to our own children. As they move into adulthood, we continue to support them up to the age of 25. Currently, the Council has removed the requirement to pay council tax up to the age of 21, but this request is to extend that to the age of 25. This would help provide the stability required to do well in life for the young people in our care."
Council officers have confirmed that the budget approved for the council tax exemption for care leavers scheme up to the age of 21 has enough money left in it now to extend it to care leavers up to the age of 25 without needing to request any further budget. Cllr Sarah Kerr added "whilst we're pleased that this recommendation was approved, it was very disappointing that all but one of the Conservative councillors voted against giving this much needed stability to our care leavers."
One recommendation made in the meeting, was rejected by all Conservative councillors and therefore fell. The recommendation that didn't get approved was "the Executive instruct officers to urgently engage with poverty facing charities to formalise communications and support offered by WBC to charities." Cllr Kerr said "I struggle to understand why this couldn't be approved, given everything we heard from the charities about what was required. We thought we were getting through to the Conservative administration that there is a very real poverty issue that needs addressing, but when they vote down a recommendation like this, it feels like we're taking a step backwards. We just pray that for the sake of our many residents who are facing real, growing and significant hardship, that the Conservatives quickly revisit this issue."