Sorting out separation

In advance of a debate I led on Tuesday, I wrote a piece for PoliticsHome on the support given to separated parents to ensure both make a contribution to their child’s upbringing. I’ve reproduced it in full below.

When families split up the Government clearly has a role in ensuring that parents who live away from their children contribute financially to their upbringing. In the past this function was administered by the Child Support Agency, which enforced payment agreements between nearly 2 million separated parents.

However earlier this year the Coalition started to wind down the CSA, with a view to encouraging parents to sort out their own arrangements following relationship breakdown.

Now all would be applicants to the CSA’s statutory replacement, the Child Maintenance Service, must first talk to the Child Maintenance Options Service; and parents who still wish to use the CMS have to pay a £20 charge, with additional collection charges kicking in if parents fail to pay maintenance between them.

Ministers also set up the £20 million Help and Support for Separated Families (HSSF) Programme to provide specialised help and support for parents come to their own agreements, but following research over the last year, I’m concerned that the programme simply hasn’t reached enough separated families.

For example the £400,000 Sorting Out Separation website was intended to signpost 260,000 parents per year to relevant help and support, but between November 2012 and January 2014 only 9,132 users clicked through to an external organisation (that’s a cost of over £45 per user).

A similarly story emerges when I looked at the HSSF Innovation Fund, which was meant “to learn what works best in helping separating and separated parents to collaborate and resolve conflict in order to support their children.” The first £6.5 million tranche of money was to fund projects that would reach over 280,000 parents, and yet as at 31st January, only 3,724 parents had participated.

Its findings like this that prompted me to secure a 90 minute Westminster Hall debate on Tuesday 21 October, where I’ll be pushing Ministers on both the use of HSSF Programme funding, and what arrangements will be put in place going forward.

As a former family lawyer I know how difficult it can be for many separated parents to behave collaboratively and in the best interests of their children. If the Government is really serious about parents sorting things out themselves, we need initiatives like the HSSF programme to succeed; and if they don’t, we need Ministers to re-double their efforts.

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Press Release: Sheila Gilmore MP meets those affected by climate change

Edinburgh East MP Sheila Gilmore met Christian Aid partners from the Philippines and Bolivia, to hear first-hand what it is like to live with the reality of climate change and how it is affecting the world’s poor most acutely.

Sheila Gilmore and Voltaire Alferez and Elizabeth Peredo in parliament.

Sheila Gilmore and Voltaire Alferez and Elizabeth Peredo in parliament.

Sheila Gilmore met Voltaire Alferez, who runs a group of organisations campaigning on climate change in the Philippines, and Elizabeth Peredo, Director of Fundación Solón which campaigns on climate change in Bolivia. The meetings were part of Christian Aid’s Hunger for Justice weekend, which will see hundreds of events around the country aimed at raising awareness of the need for action to tackle climate change.

Sheila Gilmore said:

Climate change is already affecting us in the UK, but it is the world’s poorest people who are set to suffer most in the long term.

Hearing from these people has only reinforced my view that we must do all we can to secure a global deal to cut carbon emissions.

To persuade other countries to sign up we must lead by example. That’s why I welcome Ed Miliband’s pledge that a future Labour Government would decarbonise the UK’s electricity supply by 2030.

Simon Kirkland, Christian Aid’s Parliamentary Adviser, said:

We were very glad that Sheila Gilmore took the time to meet Voltaire and Elizabeth. Climate change is a truly global problem with global causes and a global solution. In our ever more interconnected world it is important that our political leaders hear from the people that are affected by our actions.

Emissions of greenhouse gasses like carbon dioxide causes climate change and it was industrialised countries like those in Europe burning fossil fuels which has created much of the current problem. That’s why Christian Aid is calling for the UK to push the EU to commit to at least a 40 per cent reduction in carbon emissions by 2030 when Heads of State meet on October 24, and then to work to push this further towards 50%.

We’re also asking for the UK, following the Prime Minister’s speech at the UN Climate Summit in New York, to pledge its fair share to the Green Climate Fund of at least $1 billion before the next round of climate talks before Lima.

We would love to engage more people in the democratic process of engaging with their MPs. To find out how to get involved visit our website, at: http://www.christianaid.org.uk/getinvolved.

For more information please contact Matt Brennan, Parliamentary Assistant to Sheila Gilmore MP, on 020 7219 7062, 07742 986 513 or matthew.brennan@parliament.uk.

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September 2014 Newsletter

portcullisbanner_Copy.2.1.1The Referendum Outcome
The referendum has been such an important part of my life, and the whole of Scotland’s, not just for the last two months, but for the last two years, that I want to start this newsletter with some reflections on the campaign and the aftermath.

Reconciliation ServiceThe exceptionally high turnout – 84% in Edinburgh, but hitting 91% in East Dunbartonshire – makes the outcome particularly significant. Hopefully we will see much of this renewed interest in voters having their say replicated in the General Election next year, the Scottish Parliament Election in 2016 (where turnout has generally been about 10% lower than in General Elections) and the 2017 local elections (where turnout is lowest, despite the issues the Council are responsible for being amongst the most frequently raised on the doorstep).

The debate generated a great deal of interest and involvement. Heated discussion was taking place in places where politics is rarely a topic. However the campaign has been divisive in some ways. This was above all a debate among Scots as to the best way to achieve the best for Scotland. It was a debate about means as much as ends.

However on occasion there was a conflation of voting Yes with voting ‘For Scotland’, with its converse that somehow to vote No was unpatriotic. Campaigning teams I was out with experienced taunts of ‘traitor’, ‘go back to your own country’ and anti-English abuse. I know this didn’t reflect the behaviour of the majority but it did happen. We need to recognise that the 2.1m No voters also have a patriotic voice.

And we need to recognise the disappointment of those who voted Yes and find a way forward that involves us all. I have written more about my thoughts on the way forward, and especially on the timetable for further devolution, on my website. Strengthening the Scottish Parliament and using its powers to create a fairer and more equal society are aims we can all share, no matter how we voted in the Referendum.

I was struck by the words of our Edinburgh Makar, Christine de Luca:

The morning after
Scotland, 19th September 2014

Let none wake despondent: one way
or another we have talked plainly,
tested ourselves, weighed up the sum
of our knowing, ta’en tent o scholars,
checked the balance sheet of risk and
fearlessness, of wisdom and of folly.

The morning after was read on September the 11th at the Glasgow Hydro as part of The Big, Big Debate, available to watch on BBC iPlayer. You can read the poem on the Edinburgh City of Literature website.

Finally, the Smith Commission website has now gone online. Here you find out how you can contribute before 31 October, and details of the the ‘Have Your Say’ site which is due to launch next Monday.

Westminster Report

Iraq Recall
Parliament was recalled on Friday 26th September to debate a motion authorising airstrikes on ISIL forces in Iraq.

I know that the appalling brutality of ISIL – including taking British aid workers hostage and their campaign of atrocities against people of all religions and nationalities – will have shocked many people in our constituency and across the UK.

After considerable debate, wrestling with my own conscience, talking with others and reading the views of many more, I decided that I would support the motion which was being put forward on this occasion.

I am clear that in doing so I am not giving support to any open ended or wider action. It is also important to emphasise that there is a clear legal basis for this action following the request by the Iraqi Government for the UK to join what is a broad international coalition. There is also no question of British ground forces being committed. The motion does not propose British involvement in air strikes against ISIL in Syria. The Leader of the Opposition has been very clear that this would require a further motion in the House of Commons and has urged that a Resolution on this should be brought before the UN Security Council.

I believe that military action must be accompanied by a wider political and diplomatic strategy in the region – in particular providing ongoing support for an inclusive and democratic Iraqi Government that can combat ISIL and restore stability and security.

I should explain that, although due to extensive constituency commitments I took the decision not to return to Westminster for the debate, this was not some form of abstention from taking a decision and, as I say, had I voted I would have supported the motion.

I know that there are strongly held opinions on this issue but I hope that this response sets out my position clearly. I would also be happy to discuss this issue with anyone by email or at my monthly surgeries.

Bedroom Tax Bill
674713db-156e-4382-a1dd-6419bd8b94b4Friday debates on Private Members Bills are generally quiet affairs. The whole process of dealing with such Bills needs reformed as all too often a few Tory backbenchers try to talk them out so they cannot progress.

However on Friday 5th September Andrew George MP introduced a bill that would exempt many disabled people from the Bedroom Tax, and limit its application to situations where people refused reasonable offers of alternative housing. Many of Mr George’s Liberal Democrat colleagues were to be seen in the voting lobbies supporting his bill. Had they supported Labour’s similar amendments three years ago (when the Bill was going through Parliament) many people would have been spared a lot of anxiety and financial hardship.

With the support of my Labour colleagues and I, the bill passed its first stage in the Commons and will now be scrutinised by a Committee. Although there is only a slim chance of it becoming law in time for the next election, its worth highlighting Labour’s pledge to abolish the Bedroom Tax in its entirety should we form the next Government.

Constituency Report

Save Our Southside
A meeting was held on 10th September, with all four local councillors being present as well as the Chair of the Regulatory Committee, Councillor Gavin Barry. Councillor Ian Perry was present both as local councillor and Chair of the Planning Committee.

The discussion ranged widely, but there was considerable attention given to the Lutton Court application following the outcome of the Appeal in favour of the developers. Councillor Perry reported that the Council Solicitor had advised against the council making a further appeal. At this meeting he agreed to seek a further QC opinion. This has since been done, but the official council position remains one of not proceeding with an appeal. The conclusion of the QC had been:

‘There is a stateable ground of appeal that the Reporter has erred in application of the Supplementary Guidance by regarding the site as lying ‘adjacent’ to a University campus. However I think the prospects of success if an appeal were lodged are poor and certainly significantly less than 50%’.

It is disappointing that the Council has decided not to appeal to defend what was their own policy position, but some residents have decided to lodge their own appeal.

Councillor Perry also confirmed to the group since the meeting that the Planning Committee would be reviewing the regulations relating to student accommodation ‘to assess if they want to continue with the present policy and if they do how it can be strengthened to avoid the problems encountered with the Lutton Court application.’ It is very important that the local community is fully involved in this Review.

Following the meeting on 10th September a smaller group met a week later and is proposing that the Save Our Southside group be renamed ‘Living Southside’ with the tagline of ‘Working for a Balanced and Sustainable Community’. It suggests operating at arm’s length from, but under the umbrella of the Southside Association.

As a matter of urgency (deadline is 3 October) the Group will be making a submission to the current consultation on the ‘Local Development Plan’, which covers the whole city, but has sections relevant to the Southside.

Homebase Application
91351206-8ae4-4171-a747-4a2a13b1f867The formal application for this site has now been lodged. You can submit your comments using the Council’s Planning Portal before the deadline of 17th October. I am finalising my own objection and will circulate this in my next newsletter. In keeping with my objection on the Lutton Court application, I will refer to the Council’s specific policy on student accommodation ‘Hou 10’ which states the concentrations of student numbers should not exceed an excessive amount in any one area – while that policy is to be the subject of a review it is still very important that the application is determined against the policy as it currently stands. Residents have also raised concerns that this development will impact on the provision of local services and I share their concerns that the loss of this DIY retail store in the Southside will further affect the vitality and amenity of the area. Regardless of the recent Lutton Court appeal decision the Planning Committee members must refuse the application.

A local resident has put together an information sheet providing full details on how to make an objection and you can view this online. If you have any questions or queries you want to ask before submitting your comments, please email me.

Brunstane Public Meeting
A packed public meeting of more than 200 people took place on Thursday 25th September to discuss the proposal, (in the current consultation on the ‘Second Proposed Local Development Plan’) to take a large area of land, immediately south of the Brunstane Burn and north of Newcraighall, between Brunstane House and Newhailes House, out of the Green Belt for housing development. Without the Green Belt designation, it is far more likely that any planning application to build houses on this land would be successful. The Brunstane site, which would accommodate up to 1330 housing units, would be accessed from the north by a new road off Milton Road East, beside the cemetery, with new bridges built over the Brunstane Burn and the main East Coast railway line. Residents groups and Community Council representatives from both Portobello and Craigmillar have got together to coordinate objections to the removal of Green Belt designation, which currently is a strong protection against development. Full details on the Local Development Plan, including an interactive map of all proposals, are available on the Council website.

Community groups had asked for the extremely short consultation period to be extended, but this was turned down. Objections and comments had to be made by 3 October. The campaign group were able to provide all those attending the meeting with details of how to comment and advice on doing so, and the local councillors have also been passing on this information to concerned residents.

My own response to the consultation on the Local Development Plan can be found on my website.

Baileyfield Aldi & Housing Application
It really is all go on the planning front this month. This site was the subject of a pre planning exhibition and consultation earlier this year, and the formal application has now been lodged.

Full details of the application can be found on the City of Edinburgh Council’s planning portal where you can also submit any comments you have on the plans. I have previously reported that the developer plans to build new colony housing at the site and Aldi want to construct a supermarket too. Last year the Council refused an application for a Lidl store on Portobello Road referring to a Scottish Government reporter’s opinion that the Baileyfield site would be ‘sequentially preferable’. At Monday’s Community Council meeting, members agreed to write to as many residents as possible in order to ask for their views which will form the basis of the Community Council’s formal response. A handful of constituents have contacted me with comments in support of the housing proposals, along with some concerns about capacity at Towerbank Primary School, and the suitability of another superstore proposal in Portobello. If you have any comments on the application, please email me on sheila.gilmore.mp@parliament.uk. The deadline for any comments is 24 October 2014 (extended from the advised 9th October).

Open Doors at Newington cemetery
2dd8cb19-d9d9-4feb-a95b-98400c94d947Not some form of ghost walk, but an opportunity to see a fascinating piece of Edinburgh history. Although just outside my constituency, I was aware that a number of constituents were involved with the group which has been formed to improve and protect this cemetery. They had prepared ten information points, picking out some graves of particular interest, and had done an excellent job. The cemetery had become hugely overgrown (much of it still is) but the group has been working with the council to uncover some of its long lost grave stones and monuments. I had no idea that there were 139 war graves here, 53 in one plot. So many stories lie behind so many of these memorials, for instance the family of missionaries in China whose memorial records four children dying in infancy and buried in China, and the family who lost not only a daughter in infancy, and two sons in WW1, but also a grandson killed as a pilot in WW2 while the mother and grandmother lived on into her eighties in the 1950s. A common tale of the last century but no doubt a powerful individual family story as well. Nor is this a gloomy place but a tranquil green space in the city, where you can walk all year round. If you want more information or to get involved with the group contact Janet.sidaway@gp-cc.org.uk.

Keep Scotland Beautiful success at Restalrig & Lochend House
629341e6-7c91-4b34-be3d-f1036cc7c3c4Efforts to brighten the Restalrig area have been rewarded with the presentation of ‘gold’ certificates to residents in Restalrig & Lochend House at an annual awards ceremony held by Keep Scotland Beautiful. The news is fantastic and very well deserved for residents in the Houses who work hard year after year to improve the grounds at Restalrig Gardens! Well done!

Grow Wild Community Project Fund
Regular readers will be aware I am keen to report the efforts of communities Edinburgh East who are doing work to improve their local environment through gardening and growing projects like those in Restalrig Gardens and at the Lochend Secret Garden. Grow Wild is awarding funding between £1,000 to £4,000 groups that want to transform a communal space by sowing and growing UK native plants. If your group has an inspiring idea to transform a plot, head to the Grow Wild website for details of the funding available.

Meadows to Union Canal Path
A number of constituents have previously been in touch with me about the Innocent Tunnel to Meadows cycle path improvements and the Council has now announced it is looking to work on the link from the Meadows to the Union Canal, along with the carriageway and footways on Home Street being resurfaced. To comment, request changes and provide suggestions for improvement, complete the online survey which runs until 24 October.

Ripple Club Lunch Club Bus funding
a2147713-44b4-47e5-aad6-152cfca5fb75Every month I hold one of my surgeries at the Restalrig Lochend Community Hub, where the Ripple Project lunch club takes place at the same time. The project is a finalist to win up to £3000 from the Bank of Scotland’s ‘Community Fund’ and they are looking for your votes. Funding will go towards the transport costs to help the club lunchers to and from the Hub. You can vote online, by text and in some of the Banks branches but for more details head to the Community Fund website.

Dates for Your Diary

  • Holyrood Park events and road closures: October to December timetable
  • 1-31 October 2014 – Scottish Mental Health Arts & Film Festival – at various locations across the city including Summerhall, High Riggs and Portobello Library – full details of events at www.mhfestival.com
  • 18 October 2014 – STUC March & Rally: A Just Scotland – Decent work, dignified lives – Glasgow Green – from 10.30am
  • 31 October 2014 – Deadline for comments to the Smith Commissionfurther details
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Press release: Scotrail contract award – SNP miss chance to use powers for benefit of passengers

Reacting to the news that the Scottish Government have awarded the Scotrail contract to Abellio, Edinburgh East MP Sheila Gilmore said:

For the last five years trains between Edinburgh and London on the East Coast Main Line have been publicly run, with more services and profits retained for public benefit. I’ve been campaigning against David Cameron’s plans to re-privatise the line in February next year.

It’s therefore hugely disappointing that the SNP have followed the Tories’ lead by insisting that the Scotrail franchise should remain in the private sector.

With the ability to delay the contract award already devolved to the Scottish Parliament and the ability to introduce a public sector operator set to follow, Keith Brown had a real opportunity to use this combination of powers for the benefit of passengers. Today’s award shows that he’s only interested in powers for powers’ sake.

Notes to Editors:

  • Details of Sheila Gilmore’s campaign against the privatisation of East Coast can be found here:

    http://www.sheilagilmore.co.uk/eastcoastmainline/

  • For more information please contact Matt Brennan, Parliamentary Assistant to Sheila Gilmore MP, on 020 7219 7062, 07742 986 513 or matthew.brennan@parliament.uk
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After the referendum: further devolution and a fairer society

Last Thursday Scotland voted to remain part of the United Kingdom. To the question ‘Should Scotland be an independent country’, 1,617,989 people – 45 per cent – voted Yes and 2,001,926 people – 55 per cent – voted No. There was a record turnout of 85 per cent.

Ultimately this was a decisive result. Some people voted No because they are proud to be British, while others did so because they feel a great deal of empathy for people in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. It’s fair to say that many were concerned about the consequences of separation with respect to things like their wages and savings, the price of goods, their state pension, and the provision of public services. I know that some Yes campaigners have suggested that these concerns were unfounded, but I feel that they were very much grounded in reality.

Further devolution
It’s important to be clear that the three main UK parties will deliver on our promises of further devolution of powers to the Scottish Parliament. Gordon Brown set out a timetable for this on 8 September:

  • 19 September: publish a motion of the House of Commons setting out this timetable and mandating the Government to lay a Command Paper setting out the parties proposals for further devolution. This will be voted on at the first opportunity.
  • 31 October: Command Paper will be published.
  • November: A month of consultation with Scottish civic society and the Scottish Parliament.
  • 30 November: Heads of Agreement on a new Scotland Bill published.
    December and January: Consultation continues.
  • 25 January 2015: Draft legislation published.
  • Immediately post-election: Second Reading of the new Scotland Act

The motion was published as promised on 19 September and can be found here.

I acknowledge that in his initial response to the referendum result, the Prime Minister indicated that decisions on whether Scottish MPs should be able to vote on English-only matters should be made ‘in tandem with, and at the same pace as’ the process for further devolution to Scotland. However, since then all three parties have restated their commitment to the proposed timetable and made it clear that the separate processes with respect to England and Scotland are not contingent on each other. Although a minority of Conservative backbenchers have indicated they will vote against further devolution to Scotland, these proposals will have sufficient support to progress.

A fairer and more equal society
I know that many people who voted Yes did so because they want to see a fairer and more equal society. I share this desire but, like many who voted No, I remain convinced that separation would have made this harder – not easier – to achieve. We should now move on from debating which set of constitutional arrangements might give us the best chance of this change, and focus on working within the constitution we have to actually deliver it.

For a start we should reflect on whether the Scottish Government are using their existing powers to best effect. Action could be taken now to build more affordable homes or to reinstate some of the 140,000 college places cut since 2011, both of which would benefit the poorest in our society.

Then we should think about the 2015 General Election. Just this week Labour has set out a series of policies that will sit at the heart of our manifesto:

  • Increase the minimum wage to over £8 an hour by 2020 and ban exploitative zero-hours contracts.
  • Spend an extra £2.5 billion on the NHS per year, which could pay for 3,600 extra doctors, nurses, midwifes and carers in Scotland.
  • Increase the top rate of tax from 45p to 50p and introduce a mansion tax on homes worth more than £2 million.
  • Introduce a jobs guarantee for those under 25 and out of work for a year.
  • Abolish the Bedroom Tax and reform the Work Capability Assessment.
  • Legislate so we always spend 0.7 per cent of our national income on international development.
  • Decarbonise our electricity supply by 2030.
  • Stay in the European Union.
  • Allow 16 and 17 year olds to vote in all elections.

I know that some are suggesting that those who support independence should vote for one of the parties that campaigned for a Yes vote – the SNP, Greens or socialists – but if Labour MPs lose their seats as a result, this would not make another referendum or independence any more likely.

All it would achieve would be to reduce the total number of Labour MPs and boost the chances of the Conservatives being given the first option to form another Government. This would be a step backwards for all of us – Yes and No voters alike – who wish to see a fairer and more equal society in Scotland and across the UK.

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