July enewsletter: Community campaigns pay off

Edition eleven – July 2011
Westminster Report
Much of my time has still been taken up with the Welfare Reform Bill.  Committee sessions ended at the end of May, but the Report Stage and Third Reading came on June 13th & 15th.  These stages were very disappointing because of the lack of time given. While this is not unique to this legislation (or to this government) this is a very lengthy piece of legislation which will be extensively recasting the Welfare State. I spoke in the Report stage http://goo.gl/Yz3nb.Not all the amendments we had tabled at Report Stage were even discussed due to shortage of time and the Third Reading was only 30 minutes with only the Secretary of State and his shadow having an opportunity to speak in this part of the debate.The Government has sought to present this Bill as being about the work shy and scroungers.  I agree that for many people work is the best way out of poverty, and that people should not be left stranded on out of work benefits for years. The last Government reduced the number of people on incapacity benefits but the process is not an easy one – as I suspect this government will soon discover!Threaded through the Bill are a number of provisions which will affect the very ‘hard working’ people the government claims it wants to protect. One example is the one which Ed Miliband raised at Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday 15th June.  The Bill includes a restriction to one year for receiving contributory Employment Support Allowance (which will replace Incapacity Benefit) for people deemed able to return to work eventually, called the ‘work related activity group’.  So if you fall ill – but are expected to be able to return to work at some point – you could end up having to spend most of your savings before you are ready to get back to work. Already on a smaller income than when you were working you will only get contributory ESA for a year. After that you won’t get it if your partner earns more than £7500 a year, or if you have savings over £16,000. You may h ave been working regularly for years, paid your tax and national insurance and been saving for your retirement. Too bad – if you can’t get back to work within the year you’ll have to start using up those savings. This will include people with a wide variety of illnesses, including people recovering from cancer.  The PM showed he knew nothing about this proposal, obviously accepting his own propaganda as to what this Bill is about. See http://goo.gl/Rw2x3. This is only one of many ways in which this Bill will impact on ordinary households. If you want more information, or have personal experiences or concerns please let me know.Carers – Actions not Words
I was successful in securing a 90 minute debate in Westminster Hall during Carers Week (Westminster hall debates are short in-depth debates, which give MPs the chance to tease some answers and commitments from Ministers present at the debate.) MPs of all parties like to use Carers Week to praise carers, to have their photographs taken and to issue a suitable press release to their local paper, but we need to do much more than that.  At present carers are very worried about proposed changes to benefits which could impact on carers, and about cuts to local government spending which are reducing hours of care or limiting eligibility, which increase burdens on family and friend carers. See http://goo.gl/Yz3nb.

Newcraighall Housing – on hold – for now
Last month’s sigh of relief was short lived for residents in Newcraighall and Gilberstoun after the council said it would press ahead and consider applications to build 420 homes near to the villages. Spirits were crushed even further when council officials proposed granting the applications, contrary to the Edinburgh Local Plan, and demands from residents to refuse (Read more: http://bit.ly/lcGOKF). The Council said it is obliged to consider a submitted and paid-for application, but did not make clear under what terms the application would be heard. The Council’s own monitoring officials have decided to look at the procedures before any further steps are taken. The process has now been suspended, but this does not mean things are at an end either way. Read more: http://bit.ly/m5OGXI & http://bit.ly/jBDRSR.

Cairntows Park
What a difference a month makes! Only a matter of weeks ago, the ‘Save Cairntows Park’ residents’ group was gearing up for a tense meeting with developers who had proposed building over the Craigmillar Park. Just two days before the meeting the developers, New City Vision, cancelled the meeting and the plans, admitting they could not press ahead in the face of a fierce community campaign. I am pleased to hear how overjoyed local residents are, and I look forward to seeing New City Vision’s plans for the Niddrie Mill School conversion. Read more: http://bit.ly/lJratV.

Send my Sister to School
Send my sister to schoolThree schools in the constituency have recently presented me with hundreds of pieces artwork to promote the need for better female education in less developed countries. Across the world, 39m teenage girls are out of school and many have caring responsibilities from an early age. Providing girls with a full education helps them to grow up supporting their families, communities and future generations. I am hoping to display the works in the House of Commons in the next session of Parliament. Read more: http://goo.gl/IBbRI

PEDAL & Greener Leith wind turbine
Local groups PEDAL Porty and Greener Leith have unveiled an exciting new proposal to erect a community owned wind turbine on the Seafield coast. Utilising the strong winds we are very much used to, the turbine aims to generate energy to be sold on to the national gri d and in turn help fund future sustainable projects. As this project requires a large amount of initial funding the groups are bidding for an energyshare grant to get the project off the ground; I have backed the campaign, and also ask you to sign up – the more supporters the group gets the better chance we have of bringing community owned power to Edinburgh. To sign up click here http://bit.ly/kRat8b – it only takes two clicks if you have facebook.

Pensions Bill
A number of constituents have contacted me with their concerns about Government proposals to accelerate the equalisation of men’s and women’s pension ages. One group of women, those currently aged 56 and 57, are particularly badly affected. 500,000 women will have to wait more than a year to get their pension under these plans. 33,000 of them will have t o wait 2 years. Without adequate time to plan, this is an unacceptable change to force upon a specific group so quickly.

Despite a huge campaign from women from a wide range of backgrounds and some hints that the Government might be changing its mind, at the Second Reading of the Bill on 20th June Government ministers indicated that they would not be changing course.  The Government has had ample time to reconsider its position given that the campaign has been ongoing for several months and the Bill has been through the House of Lords.  However Ministers did appear to have put out some tantalising hints that they might ‘compromise’ or put in place ‘transitional’ measures in order to head off a revolt by their own backbenchers.  In my speech I called for the Minister in winding up to say what these changes might be, if they were real, but he failed to do so. http://goo.gl/JivMd.

Odeon: saved, again
Residents are again celebrating the preservation of the Edinburgh Odeon, after an application to demolish part of the historic B-listed building was refused in early June. The application, submitted by Duddingston House Properties, was the third such bid to demolish since the firm bought the former cinema eight years ago. Councillors decided that the cinema was not beyond repair, but campaigners are now pressing for the council to force repairs on the building and are trying to get the building upgraded to an A-listing. However, DHP has until December to appeal the decision. Read more http://bit.ly/isWgVD.

The luxury of a spare room
In June the Welfare Reform Bill had its second reading in the House of Commons. As the proposed changes to sickness and disability benefits progress, proposals to change Housing Benefit may also start to affect families in the downturn. I recently wrote about the difficulties families will face if they have a spare room and have to apply for assistance with their rent.(read more: http://bit.ly/lPWuoD). Housing Benefit will no longer be paid if a family has a spare room. Locally there are very real practical objections to this proposal, primarily because there is such a lack of suitable housing alternatives in Edinburgh, and it can also take a long time to move, especially if tenants are classed as ‘adequately housed’. Of course certain tenants require alterations and adaptations specific to their needs – it is costly to make additional alterations in a new property and a spare room is often needed for carers or equipment. For families where the earner loses their job through redundancy or illness, and have to claim housing benefit to cover their costs, they may find themselves unable to stretch under new proposals.

Craigmillar Community Alliance Trust – Greenhouse launch
Over the past few months amazing work has been done to get the Trust up and running, just months in the ‘Greenhouse’ – just a few doors down from the Whitehouse – is opening up to provide free information and advice to save money on energy and promote greener lifestyles. There will be a special launch open day on Sat 9th July 1200-1600 at the office on 64 Niddrie Mains Road. I am told that there will be kids entertainment, tips and talks on energy saving and growing your own fruit and veg, as well as free energy saving goodies to help cut your bills. More info can be found at http://www.communityalliancetrust.org.uk/.

Bingham Place Making Community Workshop
Last year the Council announced plans to open a respite centre on the site of the old Lismore Primary School. Local residents have expressed their concerns that there is still a lack of local amenities in the Bingham area and many are not sure that this proposal is the right one for rejuvenating the local area. The Place Making Workshop is another chance to discuss the plans and will be held on Thursday 30th June 2011 at 6.30pm to 8.30pm.

Digital Switchover
Scotland is officially a digital TV nation now that analogue signals have been switched off for good. I know that the process has been somewhat confusing for some constituents, especially the elderly, as channels seemed to drop off and come up every couple of days (I’ve had to retune three times). If you know anyone who is elderly or disabled and who still needs help with the switchover, the Switchover Help Scheme is open until 22 July 2011. Help can be provided with set-top boxes and retuning. Call my office below for more information.

Finally if please pass on this news to those who may be interested. Anyone can sign-up by sending me an email to sheila.gilmore.mp@parliament.uk with ‘SUBSCRIBE’ in the subject line.

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Is a spare room a luxury?

Apparently the answer is yes according to Government Minister Lord Freud, talking on Radio 4 on Monday – or at least if you are a ‘social housing tenant’.

(I try not to use the ‘social housing’ tag. What started as shorthand for ‘council and housing association’ has helped to encourage the increasing view that this is only housing for the poorest)

Tenants of working age living in houses that are too big for them should move to help solve the acute shortage of affordable housing. And if they don’t or can’t and they need housing benefit to help pay the rent then their benefit will be cut – £11 pw on average for those with one ‘spare’ room.

This is in fact primarily a cost saving exercise dressed up as something which would be ‘fair’ to overcrowded families and a way to ‘solve’ a housing crisis. The Government expects to make this saving (it’s in its financial projections) so it clearly expects people to take the financial hit rather than move. If people do manage to move there will be no financial saving assuming most incoming tenants also need housing benefit.

Housing

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This proposal is objectionable on several grounds, over and above leaving people worse off.

On a human level these are people’s homes. A spare room means that couples with health problems can sleep apart, that grandchildren can sleep over, that relatives can visit, that a son or daughter splitting up from a partner can be accommodated for a while. Such proposals coming from people who probably have several spare rooms (maybe even a ‘spare house’) is particularly unacceptable. It’s just tough luck if you happen to be ‘poor’ whether in or out of work.

There are very real practical objections to this idea too. There are tenants who want to downsize (although those over retirement age are not affected by this proposal, which is good, but also it shows hat this isn’t a serious attempt to tackle the underoccupancy issue).  However most people want to stay in the area where they have friends and social networks, family or work. Finding the right match of smaller housing is hard even if you want to move, in many areas of Edinburgh the highest turnover of one bedroomed houses is either in sheltered housing (normally for those over working age) or in flats, especially high rise blocks. The latter are often not people’s first choice, especially for those who may previously have ‘got out’ of such housing.

Those who are made redundant and forced to claim for the first time will have to decide whether to love or hang in there hoping for a new job soon, meanwhile maybe incurring debt.

And what about those in adapted homes or whose disability means they need space for equipment or an occasional stay by a carer?  Those approaching retirement might question the wisdom of moving from accessible property to a flat with several flights of stairs. On the Welfare Reform Bill Committee recently Labour members asked that these groups be exempted but the Minister gave no commitment.

This proposal like many others in the Government’s welfare reform proposals demonstrates very clearly their attitude to ‘welfare’. It is to become something for the very poorest and most vulnerable, not a ‘social contract’ between citizen and state. If you are unlucky enough to lose your job through redundancy or illness not only is your income to be reduced but so are your ‘rights’ such as the right to a secure home.

The Government likes to paint its welfare reforms as just being about benefit scroungers or fraudsters. There are such people and yes, it’s frustrating to those who are struggling to make ends meet to see such people. But many of these ‘reforms’ will also hit those ‘hard working families’ the Government claims to want to help. Just don’t lose you job or be in a minimum wage job which leaves you needing to claim housing benefit – or Government Ministers may take away your luxury of a spare room!

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Out of committee

From March till the end of May much of my time at Westminster has been spent on the Committee looking clause by clause at the Welfare Reform Bill. This is the third ‘Public Bill Committee’ I’ve been on in my first year at Westminster, and simultaneously the most satisfying and the most frustrating, as well as being the longest. Satisfying because it’s a subject I know a reasonable amount about and felt therefore I could contribute effectively – frustrating because the Coalition majority on the committee (including two LibDems) ensured that nothing we proposed got accepted!

One of the advantages of being in opposition is that as a backbencher you are positively encouraged to speak. I’ve been told stories of what it was like in Government by some old hands. One MP elected in 2005 described how she was busy studying the paperwork for her first committee and the whip asked her what she was doing – ‘you don’t need to do all that’ she was told – her job was to be there not talk!

Some of the Government backbenchers did speak and make interventions – sometimes I think we ‘wound them up’ to doing it (not sure if that pleased their Whip whose task it is to get through the business as ‘efficiently’ as possible). What this showed – and indeed came through from the speeches of the Government Front bench as well – was that there are some profound differences in view about the role of ‘welfare’ in our society.

Committee Corridor in House of Commons

Committee Corridor in House of Commons

At Westminster, Bill Committees are set up on an ‘ad hoc’ basis and sit very intensively over a relatively short timescale – two sessions each Tuesday and Thursday. Our longest session ran from 4pm to 11.30pm (on top of a morning session that day of two and a half hours. )!

So if nothing gets changed is there any point? We have raised the key arguments – and will certainly come back later to say ‘we told you so’. The Minister kept saying the Bill was like a ‘bookcase’ ie just a framework and the detail (‘the books’) would come later in regulations. However we did get Ministers to place certain undertakings on record which we’ll definitely be returning to. And although the response at Committee stage has been to turn down our amendments there is still hope that the Government may – if enough pressure is applied – come back with some changes itself at Report stage or in the House of Lords. For example the cancer charity Macmillan (with other groups in the field) is still active with its campaign called ‘Put the Fair into Welfare’ pushing on a couple of issues in particular. The Coalition Government has proved willing to concede on other issues. I hope these may be a couple of others.

For more infor on the work of the full committee http://goo.gl/Vhco8.

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