December 2013 and January 2014 Newsletter

Sheila Gilmore MP Header

Westminster report

Autumn Statement
The political seasons seem to extend themselves these days. We have become used to the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement arriving in December.

The Statement itself was a particularly noisy affair. I know people have varying views on the question of ‘Commons Noise’ and to an extent lively banter across the Commons Chamber gives debate an energy and immediacy that polite silence would not. For example, there are times when there is genuine anger at proposals the ‘other side’ is coming up with, but the way in which Ed Balls was barracked when he replied to the Chancellor was, in my view unacceptable, not simply because he is of my party, but because it was a constant wall of noise. Some of my own colleagues do their share of shouting and heckling on such occasions, but generally it is a response to specific things being said. I found it difficult to hear what he was saying, even though I was sitting in the row behind the Shadow Chancellor.

Watching the TV reports later that evening I was struck by the grins and laughs of Cameron and Osborne. They had scant regard for the many people who are struggling with cuts in real wages and the millions still out of work (Unemployment is only a little lower than it was in 2010), not to mention those households hit by the bedroom tax.

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(POST SCRIPT: PMQs was a particularly quiet one the first week back after Christmas, partly because it was overshadowed by the death that day of a very popular and well respected MP, Paul Goggins. But the verdict of the sketch writers, was ‘boring’! – see Ann Treneman in The Times (paywall), and Michael White in the Guardian)

Nelson Mandela Tribute Debate
This took place on 9 December. Many, many MPs spoke, with some extremely good speeches, including those from Gordon Brown and Peter Hain. I didn’t put into speak not least as we had a long session that afternoon at the Work & Pensions Select Committee with Iain Duncan Smith. Had I done so it would have been to recall that the Anti Apartheid movement was one of the earliest political movements of which I became aware. It is humbling to recall that it was nearly 25 years after my first wearing of the iconic badge, Mandela was released from prison and apartheid crumbled. A long road indeed.

Food Banks Debate
The last Opposition Day debate of the year was on foodbanks. Speakers on our side far exceeded the time available by some considerable margin. But I think we had hit a raw nerve for the Government by choosing this topic, as Tory attendance in the Chamber was well above average, and emotions were running high. Speakers on the Government side were anxious to refute the idea that the expansion of food bank use had anything to do with their policies. Citizens’ Advice Scotland’s evidence obtained from its bureaux shows that 73% of the referrals they make are benefit related.

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Employment and Support Allowance
In December I kept up my work on Employment and Support Allowance – the main benefit for people who can’t work due to an illness or disability. Regular readers will know I’ve been concerned for some time that the assessment process for ESA is flawed. Thousands of applicants, who clearly cannot work, are being declared fit to do so and as a consequence they are refused benefit.

Earlier this year two claimants – supported by a number of charities – took legal action, arguing that when people with mental health conditions apply for ESA, the Government should take responsibility for collecting supporting evidence from appropriate professionals, such as their GPs. The court ruled in their favour in June, but the Government subsequently appealed. On 4 December the Court of Appeal rejected the Government’s arguments, and I posted my reaction on my website.

In a separate development I’ve become aware that the number of incorrect assessments could be far higher than previously thought, because the current figures appear to only count cases that go to formal appeal before a tribunal judge, not those resolved by civil servants. I wrote to the UK Statistics Authority about this just before Christmas, and you can my letter on my website.

Finally I released some comments following the publication of Government’s latest independent review of the ESA assessment on 12 December.

Lobbying Bill
I have received a lot of correspondence from constituents on this Bill. After three years of no action on lobbying the Government brought forward a Bill just before the summer last year which paid no attention to the extensive criticisms summed up by the Political & Constitutional Reform Select Committee, and then tacked on proposals which will inhibit campaigning by voluntary organisations and charities. After rushing it through the Commons, the Government agreed to a ‘pause’ in the Lords for further ‘consultation’. Considerable work was done by peers and representatives of the voluntary sector to suggest changes. Following this the Government made some concessions but not enough. The Bill suffered three defeats on amendments in the Lords, and these came back to us last week, with only four hours of debate allowed. The Minister spoke for 47 minutes of the two hours allowed on the amendment to the first part of the Bill!

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Despite some Tory and LibDem MPs voting to support the Lords Amendments they were defeated. When that happens the Bill goes back to the Lords who vote again on whether to insist on their amendments. At this stage some cross bench peers in particular take the view that the elected chamber should prevail – and the Government got its way, after a tied vote in one case.

Whatever one thinks of the substance of this Bill, the process has been a lesson in how not to produce ‘good’ legislation.

Welfare Reform
January started with my Huffington Post article on the Government’s flagship welfare reform Universal Credit. While I acknowledge that UC isn’t a bad idea in principle, and that it could improve work incentives for some, any benefits won’t be felt for years due to IT overspends and poor project management. Meanwhile another element of the project – the heightened conditionality and increased use of benefit sanctions – is already in place and negatively impacting many claimants. Universal Credit, in my view, is presently ‘All Stick and No Carrot!’

It’s also worth highlighting a speech I made on the 13th of January – you can read a transcript here – in a debate on the impact of welfare policy on poverty. It’s often the same people who are affected by the Government’s various changes, and despite all the hardship caused, the Treasury isn’t making much in the way of savings.

East Coast
On 9 January I spoke in a debate on intercity rail investment, focussing on the Government’s decision to privatise the intercity services on the East Coast Main Line. You can read my speech here and I produced a summary of my arguments for the think-tank Progress.

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A week later the shortlist of bidders to take over the franchise in February 2015 was announced, and I circulated a press release which is available on my website.

High Speed Rail
On a related note I lead a 90 minute debate on High Speed Two in the Commons ante-chamber Westminster Hall. Focussing on the economic benefits of the project, I reminded colleagues the project will shave up to an hour off Edinburgh-London journey times, giving businesses in both cities a boost. Over 500 people who oppose the project emailed me in advance of the debate and thus had the opportunity to address their arguments on the day. It’s worth noting that many of those who contacted me live along the proposed route, but I am very clear that MPs whose cities stand to benefit from the project will robustly endorse it. You can read a transcript of the debate on 14 January here and a joint press release I issued with Edinburgh North and Leith MP Mark Lazarowicz here.

Constituency Report

The Real Cost of Homelessness
Lack of affordable housing brings many people to my office and surgeries. The Scottish Government claims Scotland has the best homelessness legislation in Europe, but that’s a hollow boast when there just aren’t the homes for people to move into. In December I wrote an article on these issues which is available on my website.

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Caltongate Disappointment
On Wednesday, permission was granted to redevelop the Caltongate site. This was the second such vote in as many weeks where developers were successful.

I agree that development at this site is much needed, but these plans have been waved through regardless of the fact it is within our World Heritage Site. Bland, square blocked offices and hotels with flat roofs (see above) will bear no likeness to the organic medieval architecture of the Canongate. Indeed the development could be any new build site, in any city across the country.

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It is without a doubt that the Old Town thrived when permanent residents, who formed stable communities, made it a vibrant and prosperous place to live and work. But plans for just 185 apartments over a 5 acre site means that any population growth here will be minimal. There is a danger the Caltongate will become a bland haven for office workers and tourists staying at budget hotels. Any bursts of vitality and civic life will be shortlived these visitors head off home.

I’m very disappointed the community spent months contributing to the consultation process and lobbying elected members, their views have not been properly taken into account. It certainly seems current planning policies are failing to serve local communities.

The Shape of Things to Come
Last week a cross party group of MPs and MSPs met to be briefed by city planners for an update on the Local Development Plan. The Scottish Government recently rejected the view from the south east Scotland group of local authorities that the sites designated for housing should be phased rather than all done upfront. Granted, there is going to be a growth in housing demand over the next 15 to 20 years, but if too many sites are designated for housing now, there are concerns (shared by all elected members present) that developers will cherry pick the ‘greenfield’ sites, while ‘brownfield’ remains undeveloped. The Council remains committed to seeing outstanding brownfield sites (such as Craigmillar in this constituency) developed as soon as possible, but that may prove more difficult than we had hoped. I simply do not see why sites could not be designated on a rolling phased basis so that development can be properly planned.

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To review the proposals for your area click here.

Newcraighall Residents Feel Ignored
In January the Council’s Development Management Sub-committee approved plans for developers to build 220 homes on greenfield land between Newcraighall and Gilberstoun. Needless to say the two communities, who have fought tirelessly against the plans, are devastated by the decision.

A former mining village, Newcraighall has just 150 households at present. Residents thought the matter was closed when permission for 160 homes was granted in 2012. However developers came back for more and succeeded in pushing up the number of houses at the site. David Hewitt of the Newcraighall Heritage and Community Association, and ward councillors Maureen Child and David Walker, made rousing speeches against the plans at a public hearing where the application was determined. My full report on the hearing is on my website.

Employment Plus Local
Just before Christmas I was invited to open the Salvation Army’s ‘Employment Plus Local’ at East Adam Street. With staff on hand jobseekers, homeless or not, can get help to improve skills and meet the requirements to spend several hours a week ‘job searching’ which is demanded by Job Centres. E-learning courses are also available making use of the computers provided at the centre.

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Green Homes Cashback pays off
A constituent recently received some much needed news which will see her family through the chilly winter months. Weeks after having to replace her boiler she found out grants from the Energy Saving Trust were available under the Green Homes Cashback scheme. The scheme offers grants for anyone looking to install a new boiler and insulation to improve the energy efficiency – regardless of your income, and whether you are an owner, tenant or landlord.

My constituent submitted her request after the installation had taken place and was refused at first. Being on Working Tax Credits she would have been eligible for a replacement boiler and increased insulation. However, I contacted the Trust which reconsidered her position and made a retrospective payment. The family now has a much warmer home and reduced heating bills – for free. Whether you receive benefits, work and get Tax Credits, or are a higher rate taxpayer, owner or tenant, head to www.energysavingtrust.org.uk to see what you are eligible for.

Council Finally Cracks Party Flats
Just last week the Council reported on the progress it has made in dealing with ‘party flats’. Thanks to a great deal of hard work from Councillor Karen Doran and her colleagues, plus a legislative change at Holyrood thanks to the efforts of Sarah Boyack MSP, officials are now able to deal with this problem on two fronts: taking over problem flats under a ‘Management Control Order’ and requiring future party flat landlords to seek planning permission. Taking over as landlord for two flats the Council reported it was able cancel bookings for ‘stag’ and ‘hen’ parties, inspect the properties for Health and Safety concerns, and start to manage future rental more closely. The MCO was the first issued in Scotland and local residents agree there has been a real change. Properties in Holyrood Road, Lothian Road and Old Tolbooth Wynd, all in Edinburgh East, are also under investigation.

Carer Support Payments
Carers across our communities and around the UK do great work assisting loved ones, for little pay and without much recognition. It is one of my priorities to ensure that carers receive support to do that work. That’s why I am pleased the City of Edinburgh Council has reopened its scheme to award one-off carer’s support payments of £250 to those who provide unpaid care for a friend or relative who lives in Edinburgh.

If you are an unpaid carer, providing substantial and regular care for a partner, relative or friend who is over 16 and receives DLA (Care), PIP (Daily Living) or Attendance allowance you may be eligible and should head to www.edinburgh.gov.uk/carersupportpayment for further information. Funds are limited and you must apply by the end of February.

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Press Release: Sheila Gilmore MP slams East Coast privatisation plans as bidder shortlist announced

Edinburgh East MP Sheila Gilmore today slammed the UK Government as they announced the three private companies – Virgin, First and Eurostar/Keolis – set to bid to run intercity services on the East Coast Main Line from 2015.

Sheila Gilmore said:

Passengers recognise the improvements to services that East Coast have made under public ownership over the last four years. They also appreciate that at present, all profits are retained for public benefit, rather than lost to shareholders.

As a result my Labour colleagues and I have been calling for the service to remain publicly operated in the long term.

The decision to privatise East Coast just before the next General Election in May 2015 is a cynical attempt by Tory Ministers to wreck this plan.

This shows that the David Cameron and his Ministers put ideology before the needs of passengers and taxpayers.

To sign my petition against these plans, go to www.sheilagilmore.co.uk/EastCoastMainLine.

Notes to Editors:

  • The UK Government’s announcement can be found here: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/shortlist-for-new-intercity-east-coast-rail-services
  • Please see following links for photos of Sheila Gilmore MP campaigning on this issue earlier this year:
  • With Mark Lazarowicz MP and Sarah Boyack MSP: http://www.sheilagilmore.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/Sarah-Boyack-Mark-Lazarowicz-and-Sheila-Gilmore-East-Coast.jpg
  • With Mark Lazarowicz MP: http://www.sheilagilmore.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/photo-e1376384706403.jpg
  • With Mark Lazaworicz MP, Ian Murray MP and campaigners: http://www.sheilagilmore.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/20130719_115423.jpg
  • After privatisation intercity services on the East Coast Main Line were run by GNER from 1996 to 2007, and then by National Express until they broke their contract in 2009.
  • Since then services have been run by East Coast, a subsidiary of Directly Operated Railways (DOR), a train operating company wholly owned by the Department for Transport.
  • As with operators of other profitable franchises, East Coast is expected to make premium payments to the Treasury, and it will have returned over £800 million by the end of the current financial year.
  • In addition all profits – totalling over £40 million over four years – are reinvested in the service rather than paid out in dividends to shareholders.
  • In 2011 East Coast introduced a new timetable involving: 19 additional services each day, some to new destinations including Lincoln and Harrogate, equating to an extra 3 million more seats per year; Faster journeys, with a daily 4 hour service between Edinburgh and London; A revamped First Class service;
  • In late 2012 East Coast achieved the best punctuality on the line since records began in 1999 with 93.3% of trains arriving within 10 minutes of their scheduled arrival time.
  • For more information please contact Matt Brennan, Parliamentary Assistant to Sheila Gilmore MP, on 07742 986 513 or matthew.brennan@parliament.uk.
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Newcraighall Residents Feel Ignored

On Wednesday the City of Edinburgh Council Development Management Sub-committee approved plans for developers to build 220 homes on greenfield land between Newcraighall and Gilberstoun.

Newcraighall, a former mining village with just 150 households at present, has been rocked by this application, which came after plans for 160 homes were granted in 2012.  We thought that was the final decision on an issue which has seen many twist and turns since sites in Newcraighall were included in the ‘Edinburgh City Local Plan’ before 2010.

Readers of this blog will be well aware of the representations I have made to preserve the character and heritage of Newcraighall since I was elected in 2010.

The hearing on Wednesday was an opportunity to draw a line under “the question of numbers” for the sake of residents but granting permission for yet more homes has not done this.  This latest permission has hurt morale in the former mining village because residents feel ignored and sidelined.  There is a sense that developers are being allowed to chip away at the village, with concerns that there is now an eye on land at Newhailes House.

Developers now know they are able come back to overturn previous decisions, in spite of local concern and extensive debate which has already taken place. Nothing objectively has changed since the Planning Committee reached its decision two years ago.

Local communities across Edinburgh can have little confidence that a planning decision once made is the end of the matter.  The Newcraighall community remains vulnerable and fearful of the next application.

 

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Press release: Edinburgh Labour MPs speak out in support of HS2

Two Edinburgh Labour MPs today spoke out in support of High Speed 2.

In a debate in parliament, Edinburgh East MP Sheila Gilmore emphasised the journey time savings from high speed trains running to Edinburgh and Glasgow on conventional lines, while Edinburgh North and Leith MP Mark Lazarowicz called for high speed tracks to be extended all the way to Scotland.

Sheila Gilmore said:

Today I spoke out in support of HS2 because of the journey time savings and the economic benefits it will bring.

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.

Mark Lazarowicz said:

Today I called for both the UK and Scottish Governments to work together to make sure that High Speed trains AND track will continue from the north of England to Scotland. This would further cut the journey from Edinburgh to London to between two and three hours, allowing Scotland to take advantage of the economic strength of the South East.

Support for HS2 and its early extension to Scotland is as strong as ever – including cross party support, backing from business and trade unions, and from the City councils of Edinburgh and Glasgow.

Notes to Editors:

  • Sheila Gilmore and Mark Lazarowicz were speaking in a 90 minute debate in the Commons ante-chamber Westminster Hall.
  • A transcript of the debate will be available here on 14 January and here from 15 January onwards.
  • 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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Effect of welfare changes on poverty

Yesterday evening I spoke in a debate on the effect of welfare changes on poverty. This is an important issue, so I’ve reproduced my speech in full below.

Sheila Gilmore (Edinburgh East) (Lab): Like all other speakers, I am grateful to those who lobbied for this debate.

There is a need for some good research into what is going on—research that would very much form part of a commission. I want to give an example of research started by the previous Government that is not being conducted by this Government—in this case, research into the employment and support allowance and the work capability assessment. The last Government commissioned research into what happened to people who had been found fit for work. After three months, 22% were back in employment and 41% were on another benefit. There were still some missing people, but there was no explanation of where they were. After a year, only 23%—there was hardly any increase—were back in employment. However, 43% of those people were neither in employment nor on any other out-of-work benefits. Now 43% is an awful lot of individuals, but this research stopped so we do not know what has been going on since; we do not know whether the pattern has been consistent over the last few years. If it is the case, there are a lot of unexplained outcomes in respect of people living in great poverty.

This issue is not just about people who have somehow been benefit dependent for all their lives. Professor Fothergill of Sheffield Hallam university recently gave evidence to the Work and Pensions Select Committee, and he pointed out that some of those most affected are couples in their 50s. Typically, people will be affected most by becoming ill at that stage in their lives, when illness really does begin to rack up and benefits for illness are most likely to be received. What happens if, say, a couple has one and a half incomes and has been comfortably off with the children grown up and a reasonable income coming in, but the main earner falls ill? There will be an immediate big loss of income because of the illness in itself. After a year, if that individual goes into the work related activities group, which many do, they will lose even their employment and support allowance. At that stage, another £91 is lopped off their household income—and all this at a time when the costs are probably increasing because they are likely to be at home longer and have more heating bills to pay.

If this couple are council or housing association tenants, they might well have a spare room and will also be hit by the bedroom tax. The second means test applied by many councils for discretionary housing payments will probably mean that, because there is still an earner in the household—albeit probably a part-time earner—they will not qualify for discretionary housing payment. They will be deemed to have sufficient income over the absolute basic amount for them to have this extra payment. After working for 35, 40 or perhaps even more years, this couple will have experienced a huge tumble from being comfortable to being in really straitened circumstances. If they have made any savings over their working period towards their retirement, the chances are that when they reach pension age, they will have been entirely eroded, creating further problems for the future.

The irony in all this is that many of the measures introduced—I would hope that the research would cover this issue—are not actually making any great savings. We have heard a lot about the bedroom tax not making much in savings, but it is not the only thing. Housing benefit payments are due to increase, which the Office for Budget Responsibility has factored into its assessment. Why? Because half the expected increase—a substantial increase—is due to people in employment who will qualify for the benefit. Fewer people may be receiving jobseeker’s allowance at one end of the system, but further along the system, more will receive housing benefit. For one set of savings, there is a comparable set of costs. We have to look at that.

We are not making the savings we think we are, and I believe the same is true of the employment and support allowance. There is a big mystery here. The number of people in receipt of that sort of benefit has gone down by far fewer than the number of people who have been found fit for work. What on earth is going on? I suspect that many people have simply come around through the system again. They were not well; they had to apply for benefit again. We are putting people through a lot of trauma and stress for very little saving.

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