Here we go again!

One of those ‘shouting at the radio’ moments today as Good Morning Scotland in its newspaper review covered the ‘news’ that it had been ‘revealed’ that more than 900,000 people had been receiving ‘sickness’ benefits for more than 10 years.

This seems to have been based on a Daily Mail article which in turn has been drawn from regular statistics published by the DWP.

People with disabilitiesBut even BBC Scotland in covering this used the word ‘Revealed’. Constant use of this word is one of my pet media hates. Reveal has a connotation of something becoming known which was hidden before. At a masked ball a mask will be taken off to ‘reveal’ the person behind. Journalists may be using the word as an alternative to simply saying that a report ‘says’ or ‘states’. However it immediately sets up a feeling in the reader or listener that someone (generally Government) has been hiding something.

There is nothing new or ‘news’ in the information. In the Sun on Sunday there was a similarly toned story about DLA. Despite the ‘exclusive’ tag in the Sun these are regularly produced statistics which were more or less at this level two years ago when the Coalition Government used them to argue for its planned reforms of Disability Living Allowance. So not some piece of investigative journalism by the Sun but a piece inspired by the DWP, who provided a quote from a ‘Whitehall source’:

It’s staggering the number of people receiving DLA payments continues to rise so rapidly.

Well not so ‘staggering’ given that the ‘old’ system the Government plans to change is still in existence. Even if you fully accept the Government’s interpretation of the problems with DLA, you can hardly expect change before the new system begins. Not a very ‘professional’ Whitehall opinion! The cross-party Work & Pensions Select Committee has criticised the DWP and Government Ministers several times for the tone of press releases and information provided. But they are clearly still at it. Turns out that the ‘shocking headlines’ were largely there to provide some background for a ‘My View’ piece from Iain Duncan Smith.

As ever with these articles exaggerated statements about people ‘never’ being re-assessed. This will come as a surprise to many of my constituents currently going through reassessments. Also repeated is a regular figure given by Ministers about £600m of the annual DLA bill being ‘overpaid’ each year. This estimate came from a 2005 Review of DLA (since when the number of reassessments has been increased) and the detail of the report makes it clear that these are people whose needs have changed so gradually that it would be ‘unreasonable’ to expect them to pay back because they could not know at what point they should have reported a change. The same report estimated that around £190m could be due to people whose conditions had worsened and were therefore underclaiming.

The Government likes to use these figures to imply that all they are trying to do is make sure that no-one gets benefit who shouldn’t. However in January 2012 Polly Curtis of the Guardian pointed out that even if the processes of the new benefit to replace PIP achieved a full saving of these sums there was still a large amount of saving to be achieved from people currently entitled to DLA. ‘If you assume net savings based on those 2005 estimates of overpayments because people haven’t been reassessed, which was £410m after underpayments are corrected, the government is still nearly £1bn short of the target savings for 2015-16.’

In other words the new benefit is going to be tougher.

Just another thought – were these newspaper reports rehashing old issues in any way related to the fact that apparently both tonight’s Panorama and Channel 4‘s Despatches are going to be critical of ATOS the company which carries out the Work Capability Assessment for the Employment & Support Allowance. It wouldn’t be the first time that Coalition Ministers get in negative ‘disability’ stories to counter critics. Happened this time last year when the Work and Pensions Select Committee published a critical report!

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Just work longer

A few weeks ago Iain Duncan Smith , Secretary of State for Work & Pensions, made a speech arguing that what people needed to do to get out of poverty was work more and then they wouldn’t be poor or need benefits. ‘If people just work a 35 hour week’ he said , all would be well.

In April working couples had the rules for tax credits changed, and lost all entitlement to tax credit if they worked between them less than 24 hours per week. This change was intended to bring savings to the Treasury – although actually if people do manage to increase their hours to 24 or more they would re-qualify for some tax credit assistance – so reducing the saving to the Treasury. However despite all David Cameron’s promises to ‘make work pay’ some people in this situation will be better off not working, and the savings to the Treasury would be reduced. For instance a a couple who work 16 hours on the minimum wage lost a net £3,120 per year in April 2012 after claiming all other possible support. But if they give up work, they will be £736 better off – £14 a week more. And they will cost the state £2,675 more.

The reality is that for many people finding those extra hours is going to be very difficult. A couple in my constituency both working for a prominent department store came to tell me about the contract changes being made by their employer. The wife had been working 9.30 to 2.30 five days a week, which fitted well with school hours. She was now being told she would have to become ‘fully flexible’ which could mean having a 6 hour shift one day and an evening shift the next. Or if she wasn’t willing or able to do that she could have a maximum of 12 hours work a week on fixed hours.

Such so-called ‘zero hours’ contracts are becoming increasingly common, especially in retail.

That’s the real world where even those who want to work won’t find it easy just to ‘work more’.

Many of the new jobs the Government talks about having been created ‘since the election’ have been part time. I’m all for the choice of part time work – but more and more people are reporting that they are working part time but really looking for full time work.

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My speech on social care

Just before the summer recess the Government published a white paper and draft bill on social care. There was then a debate in the House of Commons for which I diligently drafted up a speech. Unfortunately due to a lack of time I didn’t get called by the Speaker, but as this is such an important issue I’ve reproduced what I would have said below.

The Civil Servants who wrote White Papers of 30 years ago would hardly recognise this document as a ‘White Paper’. I am sure that Ministers expect us to admire the ‘accessibility’ of this document with its graphics and colour photographs. Mind you am I the only one to be irritated by the faux-chumminess of the tone? It is full of statements like this:

I am supported to maintain my independence for as long as possible.

I am in control of my own care and support.

Is there not more than a touch of being patronised in this? This is the Government speaking for goodness sake, not some form of life coach.

All of this presentational veneer masks the vacuum at the heart of the White Paper – the vacuum where the real role of Government should lie. Much of it seems better suited to a manual of good practice . Do we really need a Government White Paper to tell us (in two columns with a chatty example) that it’s a good thing for young people to visit care homes to bridge the generation gap and create greater understanding – something that happens regularly in most areas already.

There then the endless ‘management speak’ (something to be fair all government & local government has become too enthralled with in recent years ). For example we are constantly to be ‘driving up standards’ as if the very use of such an active verb guarantees action. There are so many such words and phrases that it is hard to pick out any in particular, but I rather enjoyed this paragraph:

We will also create a Care and Support Implementation Board which will have ownership of the implementation plan, with members of the Board assuring on the delivery of specific milestones.

The few concrete proposals are either fairly limited in scope or set up inevitable tensions as duties are piled on local councils without the funding to fulfil them. For example setting minimum care standards is an important step forward – but what happens when a cash strapped council cannot meet the demand?

Or let’s take the proposal on housing – a promise of £200m over 5 years to support the development of specialised housing for older and disabled people. That’s £50m a year for the whole of England. That’s not going to stretch far.

Much emphasis is placed on giving better information. Nothing wrong with the giving of more information but we do see a lot of the ‘new magic’ – the development of web based information to aid choice – a bit like ‘trip adviser’ for care homes – but hopefully more reliable!

What though I also want to consider is what our two countries, Scotland and England, can learn from one another. I’ve quite often had people say to me ‘You’ve sorted it in Scotland with free personal care’ . But free personal care turns out to be a fairly narrow slice of most people’s care needs. There is a great deal which doesn’t get covered. So I was quite interested in Dilnot because it seemed to me that it was seeking to address a much wider range of provision and looking at how it all could be paid for. However it too failed , as the Scottish solution does as well, to go beyond the ‘who pays’ question – how the cost should be distributed between the individual and the State.

Free personal care in Scotland shifted the balance to all taxpayers from those who previously paid for the care – so was of no benefit to those already entitled to free care. There is an argument for doing this – after all it’s what we do with other services like health and education. But it put no additional money into the care system at a time when coverage was already inadequate and demand is continuing to rise. One result is the raising of eligibility thresholds – in my city to obtain an adaptation like a walk in shower one has to be incontinent or in a wheelchair. This means that quite often adaptations are too late – just last week I was told of one constituent who died while in respite provided while his shower was being installed. The preventative aspect is lost – so another 93 old constituent was refused because she wasn’t ill enough – but without either a relative or carer (which otherwise she didn’t need) she either couldn’t bathe or risked an accident – at what cost is that both personally and financially?

In Scotland the cost of all those services which can still be charged for has also been steadily rising, and the quality is diminishing. Councils can only meet rising demand by looking for efficiencies – so tendering has become widespread. Edinburgh Council has tendered out two thirds of home care, and boasted of the ‘savings’ to the council as a result – but at what cost? Lower wages – one constituent described the process – called to a meeting: Good news we have a four year contract, bad news we are reducing wages by 50p per hour. Clearly the company was underbidding to win contracts. Home visits are often 15 minutes or shorter. I know this White Paper says it wants to end this in England – but it’s another example of willing the ends but not the means. Carers are often required to use their own cars (if they have them) and have to pay such things as parking charges themselves. They don’t get paid for travel time. The White Paper mentions ‘concerns’ about carers not being paid the minimum wage , asking itself the question ‘why’? However not being paid for travel time is one of the important ‘whys’.

There are not magical ways of funding important social services. The spectrum runs from individuals meeting their own costs (the pre welfare state model) to the State meeting the costs and therefore all of us through taxation (the NHS model) . And there are plenty of stopping places in between. We need to have that debate publicly and honestly. Make a decision and move forward. But don’t pretend that either north or south of Hadrian’s Wall have we yet solved the problem.

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Lib Dem opposition to welfare cuts is hollow

On Friday morning last week I read Edinburgh West Lib Dem MP Mike Crockart’s STV local piece bemoaning the Westminster Government’s changes to the welfare system. As an MP that takes a keen interest in this issue, I’m afraid I nearly choked on my cornflakes.

Mr Crockart was specifically referring to the cuts in Housing Benefit for people in housing association or local authority accommodation that is deemed to be too large for their needs. From April 2013, working-age tenants will experience a reduction in their entitlement for every spare room in their house. One in seven Scottish tenants will be left worse off. The Government’s defence is that this will encourage people to move to smaller housing.

Unfortunately Ministers have failed to account for places like Edinburgh where there is an acute shortage of one bedroom properties. Downsizing will be difficult if not impossible. The effect of the Government’s ‘bedroom tax’ will instead be to force hundreds of low income families to dig into savings or declare themselves homeless.

So what surprised me so much about Mr Crockart’s piece was his claim that:

I did not vote with the Government on under-occupancy.

I’m afraid to inform readers that this is not strictly true.

What is true is that Mr Crockart DID vote in favour of an amendment to the Welfare Reform Bill – the legislation that contained the policy – to remove the provisions for the bedroom tax. Unfortunately this didn’t extend to all his fellow Lib Dems, and despite Labour’s best efforts the amendment was defeated.

Where he is being somewhat misleading is that, prior to this defeat, he had voted in favour the bill as a whole both at second and third reading, with the provisions on the bedroom tax entirely intact.

I like to be as fair minded as possible towards my fellow parliamentarians, and I appreciate that some MPs will sometimes be persuaded by their party leaders to vote for things that they don’t themselves agree with.

However where I draw the line is when that same MP subsequently makes public claims about their position which bear no relation to what actually happened in reality.

I’m afraid Mr Crockart is guilty of that classic Lib Dem trait – political opportunism. He’s said one thing to please his constituents, but done another to please his party leader.

And what’s worse is that the negative impact of the Welfare Reform Bill (or Act as it is now) isn’t limited to the bedroom tax:

  • There’s the uprating of housing benefit in line with inflation as opposed to local rents;
  • There’s the 20% cut to the Disability Living Allowance budget;
  • There’s the means testing of sickness benefit Employment and Support Allowance after a year;
  • And there’s the introduction of charges for single parents to use the Child Support Agency.

I appreciate that savings have to be made to reduce the deficit. But these changes don’t hit benefits scroungers. They hit ordinary hard working families, the sick and disabled and children.

  • The housing benefit cuts will lead to a widening gap between benefit payments and what tenants have to pay, and will mean people in work won’t be able to pay their rent.
  • Slashing DLA will mean disabled people won’t be able to pay for care or mobility aids and will thus lose their independence.
  • Cuts to ESA will mean people who have both saved for their retirement and paid their taxes all their working lives could lose out if they fall ill.
  • Charging for the CSA will make it more difficult for parents to get child maintenance from former partners, and their children will lose out as a result.

It’s a shame Mr Crockart and his fellow Lib Dems didn’t join with me in voting against these measures when he had the chance.

An edited version of this article originally appeared on STV local.

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Press release: Edinburgh Labour MPs call on public to back High Speed Rail

Edinburgh Labour MPs Sheila Gilmore, Mark Lazarowicz and Ian Murray have today called on residents to show their support for high speed rail.

Sheila Gilmore, Mark Lazarowicz and Ian Murray back High Speed RailThis follows a report in The Spectator that predicted the Government was set to make a U-turn on its commitment to build HS2. It asserted that there was ‘a lack of enthusiasm among the people it was supposed to impress: northerners, Midlanders and business.’

Under the Government’s current plans an initial line from London to the West Midlands will be up and running by 2026. This will be extended to Leeds and Manchester by 2033/34. Trains will travel at speeds of up to 225mph.

Passengers in Scotland will benefit immediately as the high speed network will be linked to existing lines, meaning trains will continue up to Edinburgh and Glasgow at conventional speeds. Once the second phase is complete, the Edinburgh to London journey will be cut by an hour to 3 hours 30 minutes.

Sheila Gilmore, Mark Lazarowicz and Ian Murray back High Speed RailSheila Gilmore said:

Recent media reports have suggested that the Government is set to make a U-turn on its commitment to build HS2 because there is ‘a lack of enthusiasm among the people it was supposed to impress’.

This is completely untrue.

Passengers in Scotland support high speed rail because of the journey time savings and the economic benefits it will bring.

Mark Lazarowicz said:

Scottish Labour MPs have been calling on the Government to build the second phase beyond Leeds and Manchester and on to Edinburgh and Glasgow. While it would be disappointing if the Government fails to do so, it would be a disaster if the project were dropped altogether.

From my discussions with businesses, council representatives, and individual constituents, I can say with confidence that support for HS2 and its early extension to Scotland is as strong as ever.

Ian Murray said:

HS2 will benefit Scotland from the outset, and those benefits will be boosted if the project is extended to Edinburgh Glasgow.

Following these false and inaccurate media reports, people in places that stand to gain from high speed rail need to send a clear signal to Government that they back the project.

That’s why today we are encouraging Edinburgh residents to show their support by going to www.campaignforhsr.com/signup.

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