Interview with West Berkshire Councillor Joanne Stewart

Joanne Stewart is the one of West Berkshire Council’s two ward members for Tilehurst Birch Copse. She is also the portfolio-holder for Adult Social Care, which accounts for nearly 40% of WBC’s expenditure. We caught up with her between meetings, Zoom calls and site visits to ask her a few questions about these responsibilities, her previous jobs, the role of a councillor, female representation in politics and, as ever, the all-important questions of what song, book and luxury object she’d want to have with her on a desert island. Speaking of which, that’s the seagull music I can hear playing – so off we go…

When did you first get elected to WBC?

May 2019.

What made you want to become a councillor?

I’ve always been interested in community and volunteering, both in my personal and professional life. I started off as a governor for the primary school which my daughter attended and moved through to being a Parish Councillor in Holybrook for a number of years. I saw standing as a District Councillor the next step, although I was still quite shocked when I actually got elected…

How would you define what a district councillor does?

Until I became involved in parish council life, I hadn’t appreciated there were several layers of government. A District Councillor represents the ward and the residents of that ward for which they were elected. This means helping residents with issues and getting answers to their queries. We act as a conduit between the council officers and the community, often called ‘case work’. We attend meetings where topics are debated and help to make decisions so that the council gets the direction it needs for the district.

All politicians want to have a “legacy”, or so we’re often told. What achievement as a WBC would you most like to be remembered for (this can be something you feel you’ve accomplished already or something you still aspire to)?

As I’m the Adult Social Care portfolio holder, right now what I’m focussed on are the coming reforms for Health and Social Care. I see this as being a challenging time, where I need to make sure we steer the right course for West Berkshire so our residents get the high quality services they deserve. If I can achieve that then I will be pleased.

Also, as Mental Health Champion I’m pleased that I have been able to play an active part in the Surviving to Thriving Fund, providing funding to local community groups which are tackling mental health issues as a result of Covid. I’m also an active member of the Mental Health Action Group which works to improve connections between agencies in the district to improve mental health. This group will provide change as part of the Joint Health and Wellbeing Strategy for West Berkshire.

What other jobs did you have (or still do have)?

Currently I work for the Berkshire-based charity Daisy’s Dream. This supports children and young people who have been bereaved or where there is a life-limiting illness in the family. Our therapeutic practitioners might work directly with the child or young person, with the parents, with the school and with medical professionals. I am the Community Fundraiser which means I work to raise awareness in the community and of course raise funds too, so that our service team can continue to support the children and families who need them. Prior to that I worked for many years at Prudential (now M&G) and also at Cancer Research UK.

You’re currently the portfolio holder for adult social care: what other portfolios or responsibilities have you held at WBC?

My first portfolio was Internal Governance which, as you might expect, included areas such as risk management, performance planning, human resources and ICT services. It gave me a great grounding in how the council runs and gave me a good network to build from in terms of knowing and developing relationships with officers.

Adult social care is by far the biggest single area of expenditure for WBC (and I imagine most councils). What are the main services that this provides?

Adult Social Care certainly is indeed the largest: so you’d expect (quite rightly) that there are many aspects to the service in West Berkshire. There are too many to list here, but I’ve highlighted some of them below to give a flavour.

  • Adult Social Care is not just about care homes, although we do currently run three ourselves. Our services focus on helping people to stay at home rather than going into a long-term service or hospital. We assess the needs of the individual and their family and work with them to identify the services to suit those needs: day packages of domiciliary care, for instance,which will help them to live a comfortable and fulfilling life in their own home.
  • Another option could be using the Shared Lives Team, where people can choose to live with a family who help them to live independently and stay well, which is often well suited to adults with learning difficulties.
  • If you suspect a vulnerable adult is being abused or neglected then our Adult Safeguarding Team can be contacted with an online safeguarding alert.
  • We support those who have a caring role for a family member or friend, often known as ‘unpaid carers’. This could be with respite care, or help them to apply for benefits they could be entitled to.
  • In addition, we run three day centres with activities for older people, those who are isolated, those with disabilities or those who have learning difficulties. Somewhere they can come to socialise with others as well as have a hot meal, play games and do crafting activities. And many of these people even get picked up and dropped off by our minibuses too.

I would encourage anyone who wants to know more about Adult Social Care in West Berkshire, to visit the the West Berkshire Directory which has details of all the services and partners we work with for Adult Social Care

To some extent WBC is acting as an agent for the government in this respect. Does this mean that your hands are tied more than those of other portfolio holders as regards what changes you can make?

I would say yes and no. Of course we are obliged to work within statutory regulations, which are there for a reason – to protect people and make sure they receive good quality care across every authority. However, one of the constant challenges we find is with multiple agencies we need to work with to provide care for an individual – working with NHS and CCG services, for example, to establish where funding is available to give the level of care needed by that individual. Sometimes the connectivity between partners in the process, and their systems, can make the process over complicated and getting things done can be challenging for people. I really hope that the health and social-care reforms might address some of that.

It’s widely known that one of the biggest problems for social care of all kinds is the recruitment and retention of staff. How much of a problem is this in West Berkshire?

We do have quite a number of vacancies at the moment in our ASC services. Partly I would say this is because of the generally good employment situation within West Berkshire – we are competing with many employers for those in the recruitment pool. Unfortunately it often means as a contingency we are reliant on agency staff, which also come at a higher cost.

What steps are being taken to address this?

Several steps and, we believe, in the right direction. We’re creating apprenticeships and a clear career path for anyone seeking a role in social care. We created the We Care West Berkshire Facebook group to raise the profile of social care roles and which advertises all of the vacancies in West Berks ASC. We are also creating a recruitment microsite, which will allow a better view of the jobs available for people to apply for. I think it’s also important to say that we focus on ‘values-based recruitment’ in ASC, which focuses more on the character of candidates rather than qualifications or experience.

What do think is the biggest challenge that West Berkshire faces over the next few years?

I think we will be recovering from the effects of the pandemic for several years. Mental health has been affected for so many and many children have missed out on important socialising opportunities in their early years. Education and helping our young people overcome the years where schools and learning were so impacted is going to be a challenge for everyone involved. The changing face of adult social care and the health and social care reforms mean there could be many, many changes we need to get to grips with. Funding will be a really key question.

If you could change one aspect of how local government works (with regard to your portfolio or otherwise) what would this be?

I sometimes feel the length of time to get things done could be improved. A local authority is a huge tanker which sometimes isn’t so easy to turn and this can be quite frustrating.

There are 43 WBC councillors and only six are female. Why do you think this is and what do you think can be done about it?

In any election, we can only put forward the candidates who wish to stand and we cannot, of course, determine how the population will vote. Attracting more women to stand is an issue we have been working on, in a cross-party way, for a while now. My own feeling is that I have a duty as one of those female councillors to act as role model to others, as well as be very open and honest and to tell my story and what drives me – thank you to Penny Post for this opportunity!

I started my journey in Holybrook Parish Council where both the Chair and the Vice Chair were women. This gave me a chance to see what could be achieved as a local parish councillor in my own community. That led me to want to do even more and get involved in decision-making at a district-wide level. I still am honoured and proud to have been elected to do that.

I would imagine that, for some women, what they see and read in the media about the way some council business is conducted can be a deterrent (I won’t deny that I sometimes find this difficult myself). But I’m learning to be resilient. Robust debate is one thing, but sometimes it can veer into comments that appear to be of a personal nature. When that happens, I feel uncomfortable and would imagine anyone viewing our meetings may well feel the same. I make sure my own comments are factual and my tone of voice respectful. If you need to raise your voice to get your point heard then something is not right. The best advice I can give is “don’t read the comments” on, for example, social media. Everyone will have a view and it won’t necessarily be the same as yours: it’s just that some people choose to make their comments personal.

I’m also pleased to say that WBC is hosting a Women in Politics webinar at 7pm on 1 June 2022 for women to come and listen to people like myself and the other female councillors, to hear our stories and to ask questions. I really hope that this will encourage anyone thinking about getting involved in local politics to find out more. (You must register in advance for this online). 

Imagine, if you can, that I’m Lauren Laverne and that this is Desert Island Discs. What would be the one piece of music that you’d have to have?

My all-time favourite artist has to be Elvis Presley so I would probably choose American Trilogy (Aloha from Hawaii, Live in Honolulu, 1973) It still gives me goose bumps and I love the gospel background that Elvis brought to a lot of his music throughout his life.

Technically three songs but I’ll let you have it. And the book?

Something that I’ve never read before and always meant to – Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. I don’t know why I’ve never got round to it: in fact I’m slightly embarrassed that I haven’t! But I know it has strong female characters and I can’t help but think I would love reading it over and over.

You may well have the time for that. And the luxury object?

A decent pillow. I can cope with lying on sand (I think) but I need a very supportive pillow for my neck. Boring, I know…

That you can have as long as you don’t use it to try to escape (I can’t imagine how you would). Thanks for answering the questions and enjoy your time on the island.

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