Last week in Westminster

Last week was a busy week in Westminster. The Government finally gave out details of the Strategic Defence Review and the Comprehensive Spending Review.

Personally I spoke on matters relating to the use of medical evidence in benefits reviews (http://bit.ly/aeF00e p6) and social mobility (http://bit.ly/aeF00e p18).

In keeping with my commitments to reform the voting system and my role on the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee I voted on several amendments to the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill (http://bit.ly/aeF00e). On Wednesday I spoke on the Bill during its committee stage. The Bill removes the requirement for public enquiries when changing constituency boundaries which I fear will give Ministers power to create meaningless constituencies and reduces participation in democracy (http://bit.ly/diPSoK p49).

Last week also saw the return of Private Members Bills. I stayed down to support the Lawful Industrial Action (Minor Errors) Bill which reduces the regulatory burden on Trade Unions in relation to the balloting and notice requirements for lawful industrial action. Unfortunately the Bill did not pass as delaying tactics from the Tories meant that there was not enough MPs to carry the bill to the next stage (http://bit.ly/bnNhxh).

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Punchdrunk with cuts?

Closures and cutbacks seem to be coming thick and fast at present. So much so that there is a danger that communities feel there is so much happening that it’s difficult to know where to start.

Nurseries have taken a ‘hit’ with two proposed for closure in Edinburgh East – High School Yards in the city centre and Princess Elizabeth in Prestonfield.  And now a third nursery in the west of the city is also to close, ‘officially’ on health and safety grounds but as my colleague Andrew Burns, leader of the Labour Group on the council has pointed out, the Lib Dem/SNP Council administration included savings amounting to closure of 3 nurseries in their budget in February 2010.  It seems highly convenient that a nursery like Westfield Court which has been running for 60 years is now deemed ‘unsafe’ because it is where it has always been – on the top floor of a block of flats.

Westfield Court is one of the very few ‘multi storey’ blocks in Britain which actually included a facility like this. Many of the early proponents of multi storey living had the vision that these buildings would be more than just houses and would have this sort of community facility. It’s sad to see it go on the ground of ‘health and safety’.

I noticed in the newspapers that some of the Westfield Court parents were alleging that the number of places had been ‘run down’ recently.  One type of place that seems to be going is full day (9 – 3) places.  One constituent of mine very recently contacted me because she had (after a period of several months in temporary accommodation following relationship breakdown) finally been offered a house, but one which was quite far away from the nursery where her child had been given a full day place to provide the mother with assistance with health issues.  Asking whether there could be a similar place found nearer the new home she was told there were none. As it happens the ‘new home’ was just around the corner from Westfield Court and I had suggested to her (before last week’s announcement) that she should ask about this as a possibility.

High School Yards nursery

High School Yards nursery

I suspect this running down of places is also affecting High School Yards and Princess Elizabeth making it easier to ‘justify’ closure.  Before the summer holidays I was approached by parents from St Leonard’s nursery school because places were being cut there, including both ‘free’ and ‘paid for’ full time places.

I have a special affection for High School Yards because two of my children attended there. I know it has received praise in inspections and has flourished despite its ‘city centre’ location. Hints of Westfield Court came in the announcement about High School Yards also with the Council saying that the ‘internal layout’ was unsuitable – despite having served generations of children very well.

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Reform in haste – repent at leisure

Tory conference announcements on benefit reform show all the signs of policy being made on the hoof.  I suspect that the decision to take child benefit away from high rate tax payers was at least in part intended to wrong foot Labour. Instead their own people – including their ‘own’ newspapers – have turned on them. So suddenly another rushed announcement – a promise to introduce a married couples’ tax relief!

David CameronOne of Ian Duncan Smith’s themes has been ‘simplification’ of the benefit system. Now who can be against that?  Anyone who has claimed benefits or helped anyone claiming benefits or helped anyone claiming benefits will know how complicated some can be.  But the child benefit proposal illustrates the pitfalls of ‘simplicity’. In the anxiety to avoid the ‘complexities’ of means testing, the Coalition Government went for a ‘simple’ cut off at a household with an earner in the higher tax band.  But ‘simple’ changes like this cause big anomalies e.g. a household with one earner just into the higher rate tax loses the benefit but one with two earners both just below that tax rate does not.

And if ‘simple’ causes such problems in this instance just wait till ‘simplification’ is applied to all benefits.  A simple ‘universal credit’ is promised by Duncan-Smith. Sounds attractive at first blush – but can ‘one size fits all’ ever be ‘fair’?

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