Queens Speech – Mark 2
The ‘Class of 2010’ celebrated our second anniversary on May 6th, but this was only our second Queen’s Speech since the ‘first session’ of this Parliament lasted an unusually long two year period. And what a difference 2 years makes – from the media’s excitement over the Coalition to the verdict this time of the Times Parliamentary sketch writer Ann Treneman:
‘The Queen’s Speech, the actual words, were beyond underwhelming, more of a shopping list, an email, a series of glorified bullet points’.
More importantly the content hasn’t met with much approval either – the CBI said that David Cameron’s plans to help British business are light on detail and may not work. Or the headline in the Daily Telegraph: ‘Why was there no plan for growth?’.
In the days following the Speech there are general debates on variety of themes related to the Government’s legislative programme. In 2010 many of us ‘newbies’ took the opportunity to make our ‘maiden speeches’ which traditionally concentrate on talking about your predecessor and about the constituency. Good for finding your feet but rather bland politics.
An MP’s week at Westminster
The week beginning 21st May was one that I expected to be quietly busy with several more sessions of the committee on the Finance Bill. But it turned out to be much more eventful than expected.
Monday morning is ‘travel down’ time and on the train I discovered that I had been drawn for the second ‘topical’ question at Home Office questions starting at 2.30. ‘Topical’ questions are ones where you don’t supply a subject in advance. Usually I check for such events online but the list hadn’t been updated. Thanks to texts and emails on the move I was able to work on a suitable question. Train was 31 minutes late – but in time for Questions.
My Question was on the application of the Government’s target to reduce net migration. If this proves to be more difficult than thought (which it could be for instance because it depends on how many people leave the country) there is a concern that cuts would be made in the number of international students. This could bring loss of both income and talent to universities like Edinburgh. (p11 http://bit.ly/JsnAuB)
Next up in the Chamber was an Urgent Question from Shadow Business Secretary Chukka Umunna asking about the Beecroft Report. Urgent Questions are apparently much more frequently granted by Speaker Bercow than previously, and they add to the topicality of Commons Business. Business Secretary Vince Cable was on a visit out of London so a junior minister answered. After the two principals anyone who wants to put a further question to the Minister stands up – and then stands up and sits down in between each question and answer until called. The Beecroft Report has been kicking around the Government for several months with varied reports of whether they were going to act on it or not. In much of the discussion recently about the budget and the economy generally many Tories have been pushing for reductions in employment regulation as the answer to lack of jobs. Labour’s position is that lack of demand in the economy is a much greater problem. After much ‘bobbing’ I got a question in (p21 http://bit.ly/JsnAuB).
That was it for the Chamber on Monday for me as the main business after 4.30 was the final stages of the Local Government Finance Bill which primarily affects England. So on to a meeting about preparations for Cabinet Office questions which are due to take place after the Whit recess but one of my jobs this week as PPS to the Shadow Minister was to encourage colleagues to put in questions before Thursday’s deadlines. About an hour in my office to catch up with my researcher and emails before the weekly meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party addressed by Ed Miliband this week. One more meeting after that – a pre meeting for the Labour members of the Finance Bill Committee to prepare for this week’s sessions.
Votes at around 7.45 and 10pm rounded off the day.
Tuesday started with going to a Westminster Hall Debate on the impending changes to Child Benefit. Went in to give support but ended up making a short speech (http://bit.ly/JsoaIF). Had to leave before the end to get to Finance Bill Committee on time. The morning session runs from 10.30 to 1pm but I had to leave early to get back to Westminster Hall because I had secured a 30 minute debate on the health impacts of low energy light bulbs. These short debates are something you enter a ‘ballot’ for and get about 5 days notice of having secured a slot. The issue is one I’ve been working on for some time having been approached by a constituent who suffers migraines from exposure to these bulbs. These short debates basically just give time for the MP to set out the case in about 15 minutes, but you get 15 minutes of a Minister responding. What I was looking for is an exemption to the ban on incandescent bulbs for those people who are suffering because of them. I didn’t get a promise of action from the Minister but it was another step in the campaign to keep the pressure up on Ministers. The full debate is here (http://bit.ly/Jso4Rh).
I seemed to be having a bit of a run of success with ‘draws’ this week and was on the list for Questions to the Deputy Prime Minister starting at 2.30 but as I was very far down on the list I thought the chance of actually being called was low. Luckily I still worked out a question in my head (on social mobility) because unusually the Speaker got right down to my number. (p9 http://bit.ly/JsnL94)
Back to Finance Bill Committee at 4.30. The main chamber business was the Report Stage of the Financial Services Bill & having served on that committee a couple of months back I would have liked to be there for the final stages but I haven’t yet found a way of being in two places at once.
Last vote at 8pm – so early home (with laptop).
Wednesday – the highlight of Wednesdays is Prime Minister’s Questions. I’d found out on Monday that I’d been drawn for a question so had been turning around a number of alternatives in my head. I needed to get in early for a good seat but at least when you are on the list you don’t have to keep jumping up and down. My question was about jobs. In an earlier answer the Prime Minister had reiterated an often repeated claim that his Government had created 600,000 new private sector jobs since the election. But in early 2011 he was claiming 500,000 jobs in the first 6 months – so if both numbers are right the rate of growth of new jobs has slowed up. Our argument is that the bulk of these jobs came about as a result of the economic stimulus put in place by the outgoing Labour Government. My question was called right after the uproar caused by Cameron calling Ed Balls a ‘muttering idiot ‘ so getting started was a bit tricky. (p12 http://bit.ly/JsoeIx)
Immediately after PMQs the PM stayed to give a statement on the G8 meeting at Camp David and NATO at Chicago. Normally I’d have stayed for this, but I had two sets of constituents visiting over the next hour. The upside was being able to take them for coffee on the Terrace on what was a sunny warm day – otherwise the whole day would have been spent inside!
Next stop the Parliamentary Committee, an internal Labour Party body where backbenchers meet with the leader to raise issues. (Later in the day I was delighted to hear that I’d been re-elected by fellow backbenchers to serve on this Committee for a further year – a real privilege).
I’d put my name down to speak on the main debate which was the second reading of a new Bill which will introduce ‘Individual voter registration’. I’ve been serving on the Political & Constitutional Reform Select Committee and we’d produced a report on the draft bill. The Government had made some changes in response but there are still worries that the new system will mean even fewer people being able to vote. Managed to get called but only very near the end – so about 4 hours in the Chamber to get to speak for around 9 minutes. See (p6 http://bit.ly/JsoeIx).
Being a Wednesday business finished with votes at 7pm and 7.15pm.
Thursday - two more sessions of the Finance Bill Committee (9am – 10.25 & 1pm to 4pm) Went into questions to the Business Secretary – who was again not present in person . Managed to get called for the last question although not on the list. See p13 http://bit.ly/M3A5mS.
Short walk to the BBC studio at Millbank to do a short interview on my light bulbs debate for You & Yours. They had also secured a very good interview from one of the people who have been very badly affected, and I was really pleased that by getting the Debate I was able to generate this media interest.
Normally I’d have been heading for the 6pm or 7pm train but this week I’ve been moving flat (the landlord of the previous one having raised rents by 10% two years running) so had to get unpacked before coming north on the sleeper. Emerged on Friday morning into thick damp Edinburgh haar – but the sun did break through later.
So not a ‘typical’ week – although there are few such at Westminster!
Work & Pensions Select Committee
On 18th May the Government published its response to the Report the Select Committee did on the move from DLA to the new ‘Personal Independence Payment’. You can view the full response here (http://bit.ly/Jspknx). The Chair Anne Begg’s response was: ‘Although the Government has provided a response to the recommendations in our report, a number of significant concerns which were raised remain unresolved.’
One of the fundamental problems I find with all of this is that the language used by the DWP in reports like this (and the language used by the Minister at many meetings I’ve been at) is hard to reconcile with the Treasury imperatives of savings. Indeed one of my colleagues in a debate recently referred to the ‘1984-type language’ of the DWP.
Here’s an example:
‘The face-to-face consultation, as part of the Personal Independence Payment assessment, is fully intended to be a two-way conversation between the claimant and the health professional, allowing a detailed exploration of how the claimant’s condition or disabilities affect their day to day lives. The discussion at the consultations should not be mechanistic and should be tailored to individuals. This is being clearly expressed to potential providers as part of the tendering process for PIP assessment contracts and will be set out in detail in the supporting guidance for providers and their staff.
The department is not placing targets on the time required for face-to-face consultations and is making clear to potential providers that consultations will need to be as long as necessary to reach evidence- based conclusions on individual cases.’
This all sounds great but if it is really to happen the ‘through-put’ of assessments is going to be relatively slow. That’s not a bad thing, but will require either the employment of fairly large numbers of ‘health care professionals’ (which has a cost to be set against ‘savings’ ) or will mean that the whole process of moving people off DLA onto the new benefit is going to take longer than originally estimated (which also has implications for government spending). If providers are being required to keep contract prices down then it is hard to see how they are going to manage to do the ‘in depth conversations’ the Government claims it wants.
The Select Committee has started an investigation into the Government’s ‘Youth Contract’. This brings together a number of existing initiatives with a new plan for wage subsidies to employers who take on young unemployed people.
· 160,000 wage incentives (£2,275) for employers who recruit an 18-24 year old from the Work Programme (these will be people 9 months unemployed or more).
· an extra 250,000 work experience places over 3 years
· 20,000 extra apprenticeship grants
· more flexible support through Jobcentre advisers
· a new payment-by-results initiative focusing on 16-17 year olds with no qualifications .
· There is some scepticism about how effective this will be. For instance will the wage incentives work better than similar schemes have in the past? If young people are taken on in this way does it simply mean another job seeker left jobless i.e. will this generate any extra jobs? Even if no extra jobs are created is there still a strong case for prioritising young people?
I’ll keep you posted as the inquiry progresses.
One-time hoodie hugger, David Cameron, has now launched one of his key policies to tackle ‘problem families’ in England. The Prime Minister has said the Government will start handing out vouchers in Boots stores, which can be exchanged for parenting classes. On the one hand it would seem that the Government is flirting with universalism (remember Child Benefit became means tested in April), and on the other there are real concerns about the private-public firms who will deliver these classes. Read more on my blog: sheilagilmore.co.uk/some-vouchers-with-your-calpol/.
Southside Association 40th Anniversary
On 1st May I attended an event to celebrate the 40th Anniversary of the Southside Association. Sarah Boyack MSP spoke about some of the history of those years. The Association was formed at a time when ‘demolish and build anew’ was the mantra. Now there were some very poor quality (even dangerous) buildings in some parts of the Southside which had to be replaced. But by the 1970s the ‘modernisers’ were starting to cast their plans way beyond the worst of slums. And sad to say the University was one of the worst offenders buying up properties with a view to redevelopment. The Council though was not far behind – I came across the artist’s impression dating from 1952 of the proposed redevelopment of the Dumbiedykes area. There was a serious proposal for five 25 storey blocks here! Luckily common sense prevailed and only two blocks half that height were built, and the ‘low rise’ flats at least created a ‘roofscape’ which fitted better with the history. It wasn’t perfect – a bit too ‘hard and concrete’ for my taste – but when you think what we might have had! The full size image is available at http://bit.ly/K90AGK.
Dumbiedykes redevelopment predated the Association but its hard fight for refurbishment not demolition, for improvement grants and Housing Action Areas to help make that happen, turned the tide. They couldn’t stop everything but the present shape of the area owes a lot to those campaigners. One story Sarah didn’t tell on the night was the one about a young Councillor Bob Cairns (later to become a much respected Chair of Planning) protesting about some demolition in the Council Chamber. He refused to leave when asked and was eventually carried out – chair and all – by the city officers.
Carr Gomm Lochend Secret Garden
On Saturday 12th May I was delighted to attend the Open Day at the Lochend ‘secret garden’ with newly elected councillors Joan Griffiths and Alex Lunn. The charity Carr Gomm has been working with the local community to transform a piece of waste ground into a community garden, equipped with raised beds, a magnificent shed and a seating area. After several cold wet days the sun was shining which should be a good omen for the project. Hopefully such an imaginative and practical use of what was a bit of a ‘problem area’ can be copied elsewhere in the constituency. For lots more details see the website at http://lrcommunitygrowing.ning.com/.
Since April the City of Edinburgh Council has enforced restrictions on a number of bus lanes, otherwise known as greenways, throughout the city. While I support the enforcement of the greenways to improve bus punctuality, there have been some real problems with the new system. In Edinburgh East we have three cameras – one at Jock’s Lodge and two on Willowbrae Road.
Many readers will already know of the confusion and controversy the new cameras have caused. Many residents have been ‘caught’ using the lanes and issued fines when they have driven in and out of their streets in the Willowbrae area. Before the election all Parties agreed to implement the new cameras, however I am quite sure none of the Councillors had expected such difficulties! I am pleased that the new administration has decided to waive most of the Willowbrae tickets, and is reviewing how future tickets will be issued. Further details on the review can be found here: http://bit.ly/LaougE.
Lottery Awards in Edinburgh East
It has been a good month for organisations based in Edinburgh East, who have been granted funding worth £66,644 from the Big Lottery Fund. I have included a summary of the awards below, but the grants will help finance activities with young people, carers, as well as Edinburgh’s LGBT football team. Congratulations to the organisations which have that received an award!
· Care In Restalrig Craigentinny and Lochend Edinburgh- £6374 to fund a range of activities for adults with learning disabilities who live in the area
· WEA Lothian Local Association, Old Town – £5800 funding for 50+ computing lessons
· Niddrie Community Youth Group, Niddrie – £9,965 funding for musical tutoring, musical instruments, concerts entrance fees, bike tutor, bike equipment and activities.
· Caring In Craigmillar, Craigmillar – £10,000 towards a new minibus
· Hotscots FC, Edinburgh wide – £2550 funding for additional training and playing opportunities thereby increasing skills levels and the fitness of participants.
· Parents Like Us, Leith Links – £7500 to fund a three day play festival which will include a range of activities specifically for local children with additional support needs
· Carr Gomm, Craigmillar - £6985 will support a healthy kitchen scheme for people with mental health issues
· Visualise Scotland, Easter Road - £3870 will help fund the refurbishment of theday service rooms in their centre for multi-disabled visually impaired adults and young people
Insulation for private tenants and home owners
PEDAL have asked me to point out another insulation deal being offered by the City of Edinburgh Council. The Council is offering free cavity wall and loft insulation to households regardless of their income. This offer is open to all homeowners and tenants of private landlords. The only requirement is that your home can take cavity and/or loft insulation. It will also cover measures to enable the work to happen, such asproviding scaffolding or enlargement of loft hatches.
To access this offer phone 0800 512 012, or text ‘Warm’ to 81025, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Measures will be allocated on a first come, first served basis, so you are encouraged to apply quickly.
I am also looking into insulation for mixed tenure tenements. Many people come to me as they experience difficulties when they apply for these schemes, only to be told that they cannot proceed because there is a mixture of ownership in the stair. I am looking into this with the new Council administration and have asked what coordination can be done to help those in this predicament.
For nearly 10 days last week, summer was certainly upon us – hopefully it is an indicator for things to come over the next few months. For residents in the Seafield, Craigentinny and Restalrig areas, summer always brings the concern that the air quality will be affected by the Seafield Waste Water Treatment Works. Over the past couple of years, Scottish Water and Veolia have invested in the site and have begun testing their ‘Odour Improvement Plan’, however residents will know that the firms were caught out in March when we had a short period of warm weather. The City of Edinburgh Council, which now has the powers to take enforcement action, is increasing monitoring at the site for the summer months, with near 24 hour checks. Officials will also be based in the area to ensure that any complaints can be followed up quickly. Residents will have already received guidance to report any odour incidents. The number for complaints is 0845 601 8855.
Dates for your Diary
Friday 08 June – The Causey – FiveUP: a celebration!– 1730-1900 – Join residents at The Causey (where West Crosscauseway meets Buccleuch Street) to celebrate the 5th anniversary of the creation of the elegant tropical island which inspired our work towards transforming The Causey into a permanent and beautiful place for people.
Thursday 14 June – Olympic Torch due in City Centre – 0708 start from Festival Square – For the route and torchbearers information, see http://l2012.cm/JrJvBY.
Thursday 14 June – Olympic Torch due in Duddingston Village– 0815 start from the end of Old Church Lane. For the route and torchbearers information, see http://l2012.cm/JrJ76y.
Tuesday 19 June – Craigentinny Duddingston Neighbourhood Partnership Older Peoples Day of Action– 1400-1600 – Northfield Willowbrae Community Centre.
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