The final term of Parliament
A bit of parliamentary jargon to start with this month. The five year period between General Elections is described as a ‘parliament’, and each parliament is split into ‘sessions’. These start with all the fanfare of the ‘Queen’s Speech’, generally last a year, and end almost by stealth with a rather obscure ceremony called ‘prorogation’.
It had been an open secret for weeks that the 2013/14 session would prorogue on 14 May, but there is a strange coyness about announcing this officially. Partly this is because it depends on whether and to what extent the House of Lords makes one final attempt to amend bills which have nearly completed all their parliamentary stages. But it leads to a strange last couple of days with MPs asking each other ‘do YOU know when we’ll be finishing up?’
The next session will be a short one, as parliament will be dissolved at the start of April 2015 – around a month in advance of the General Election. The Queen’s Speech happened on 4th June with its contents being much as anticipated a bill on the recall of MPs (with a campaign already building on its inadequacy), one on pensions following the announcements in the March budget, and a bill on modern slavery.
Although housing policy is largely devolved to the Scottish Parliament, I still take a keen interest following my time as Housing Convenor for Edinburgh council, and of course it is hugely important for many constituents. Last year the SNP introduced the Housing (Scotland) Bill 2013, which makes a series of changes to the law in this area. I’ve written about this before.
One of these changes was to allow councils to rent some properties to people in specific age groups – an approach that helped Edinburgh turn around high-rise blocks previously plagued by anti-social behaviour. Unfortunately Housing Minister Margaret Burgess announced that she would seek to remove this from the bill following a campaign by Shelter suggested this would disadvantage younger and vulnerable people. While I’ve been a strong supporter of Shelter’s work for many years, I’m afraid their claims aren’t backed up by the facts. In a column for the Edinburgh Evening News I called for MSPs from all parties to vote for flexible renting of this type.
I was also pleased that Scottish Labour proposed a series of amendments to the bill that would limit increases in rent and encourage longer tenancies. These follow similar proposals put forward for England by my colleagues in Westminster, and show that we can change Scotland for the better using the powers the Scottish Parliament already has. Unfortunately the SNP voted down these changes, in my view because they are afraid to admit that independence isn’t the answer to everything. I issued a couple of press release on this here and here, and Scottish Labour’s James Kelly MSP has written for LabourList.
Zero-hours contracts and Universal Credit.
Zero-hours contracts and Jobseekers Allowance
Under Jobseekers Allowance, claimants are able to refuse job offers involving zero-hours contracts and avoid being sanctioned. However in March I received a letter from Tory Employment Minister Esther McVey confirming that this will change under Universal Credit (which will wrap six existing benefits including JSA into one monthly payment). I published this on my website and, following official figures that showed 1.4 million people are employed on zero-hours contract in the UK, this research was picked up by the Guardian and pretty much everyone else, including The Independent, Evening Standard, Huffington Post, BBC and ITV.
Despite my staff and I doing in-depth research into these sort of issues every day, it can be hard to get it recognised, so I strongly welcomed this interest. I am concerned about this policy change because of failings of the current sanctions regime and the abuse of zero hours contracts. I’ve spoken out about the former and just last month Ed Miliband set out a series of changes a future Labour Government would make to zero-hours contracts.
Universal Credit and… Universal Credit!
I also wrote for the think tank Progress on the ever-slowing roll-out of Universal Credit and its dysfunctional IT. Then came a report from the Government’s Major Projects Authority that explained how Universal Credit had now been ‘reset’ and was effectively a new project.
The response of DWP Secretary Iain Duncan Smith was that this was old news and all was now back on course, but this is exactly what the DWP said a year previously when there were similar issues. The Work and Pensions Select Committee – of which I’m a member – criticised Ministers for the way they keep brushing aside problems as ‘old ones and now solved’ in our April 2014 report. There is still little sign that they realise how complex a project this is, and even less that they are willing to be open about the problems.
Amnesty International are calling for MPs and MSPs to commit to defending human rights both at home and abroad after the independence referendum in September – regardless of the result. I was pleased to welcome Amnesty Campaigners to one of my monthly surgeries and give my backing to the campaign!
Parental Passport Campaign
The Parental Passport Campaign is calling for parents and legal guardians to be able to list their names in their children’s passports, to help prevent distress and delays at border control for families who do not share the same surname. At present, both parents and children can be subject to intense questioning when crossing borders to prove they are related. This is understandably distressing for all involved. As an increasing number of parents do not share the same name as their children, this type of scenario is expected to rise. On 14 May I pledged my support to the Parental Passport Campaign who are calling for a system where the names of parents and legal guardians are listed on children’s passports. If this sounds a good idea to you, please sign the campaign petition!
High Speed Two
At the end of April the House of Commons debated and voted in favour of the High Speed Rail (London – West Midlands) Bill. If the bill becomes law, it will give the Government the power to construct the first phase of HS2 – the stretch from London to Birmingham. The bill isn’t expected to complete its progress through parliament until after the next General Election in May 2015, so this was only the start a very long process. I spoke in support of the bill, highlighting the economic benefits of the project for Scotland.
Salmond’s ‘admiration’ for Putin
Many of us will have been understandably concerned by Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its attempts to stir up unrest in eastern Ukraine, so I was shocked to hear Scotland’s First Minister talk of his ‘admiration’ for President Vladimir Putin. I raised this at Prime Minister’s Questions and this was subsequently covered on the BBC.
Panicked Parent’s Passport Problems
Preparing for a break can ironically be a hectic process what with packing, finishing up at work and making sure travel arrangements go to plan. Since mid-April I’ve seen a real surge in problems with passport applications adding to this list of pre-break tasks. Panicked parents have been in touch because their child’s first passport hasn’t arrived with very just days to go before their first family holiday abroad. Based on the enquiries I’ve received, it appears there are problems processing first passports (for adults and children), and renewals submitted abroad. The Government’s own website still advises that most applications will be turned around within 3 weeks, but in most of the cases I’ve dealt with parents who have been waiting for upwards of two months. Thankfully, all but one constituent have been able to travel.
The first three months of the year I had zero enquiries relating to passports so I intend to raise this issue in Parliament this week. If you are struggling to receive a response from the Passport Office and your departure date is fast approaching, please get in touch and I will ask for the application to be expedited.
Southside Planning Issues
In recent months I’ve kept you up to date with the news that the Lutton Court student accommodation plans were refused, but there was also news that similar proposals in Meadow Lane and Homebase were just around the corner. In the last couple of weeks there has been a deluge of planning developments across the Southside, including:
I have submitted my further comments on the Lutton Court appeal and these are now available on my website. If you have comments relating to the advertising hoarding appeal you must submit these to Christopher.Kennedy@scot.gov.uk no later than Sunday, 22 June 2014. For full details of the appeal click here.
For details of the Wetherspoon ‘super-pub’ application head to the Planning Portal and enter reference 14/01864/FUL before Friday 13th June. Finally, full details of the exhibition on the Unite/Homebase plans can be viewed at the Public exhibition at St Margaret’s & St Leonard’s Catholic Church, 110 St Leonards Street, 3.00pm-7.00pm on Wednesday 25th & Thursday 26th June.
Support Craigmillar Books for Babies at the Place to Eat cafe in John Lewis
Craigmillar Books for Babies has been selected as one of 3 projects to receive support from John Lewis through its Community Matters Scheme. Over the next coming weeks there will be a collection point in the Place to Eat café in John Lewis where customers can give tokens to the project and show their support. The donation received will be used to produce a booklet of nursery rhymes which will be gifted to every family with a child under the age of 4 living in Craigmillar, Niddrie, Magdalene and Bingham. If you’re in town and visiting the Place to Eat café please support the excellent work Books for Babies does!
And – the organisation’s parent body, the Craigmillar Literacy Trust, is also looking for board members. If you are interested, please see full details here.
Portobello Supermarket Plans Return
A short while ago Aldi was named as the successful bidder for the former Scottish Power site at Baileyfield. A few months later and the supermarket chain has now submitted its plans for a store and residential development (with Cruden homes) at the site. Some time has passed since the Tesco proposal was refused, but I am keen to hear your views on this latest proposal. If you have chance to pop along, the plans will be exhibited at Portobello Town Hall on Wednesday, 18th June between 12.00pm and 7.00pm.
Norton Park Post Office Move
The Post Office has published its proposals to move the Norton Park Post Office to Easter Road. In addition to being located in new premises, they propose extending opening hours until 6.00pm Monday-Saturday. Let me know if you have any views on this change.
Events in Park Manifesto Delay
In March I made my submission to the Events in Parks Manifesto consultation calling for changes to the frequent and intensive use of the Meadows. Residents and I had expected a report to be heard at last week’s Transport and Environment Committee, but unfortunately this has now been pushed back to August. While this is disappointing, I have been told that all events for 2014 have been given permission under the existing Manifesto. If approved the new Manifesto will be applied to 2015 event applications. I will let you know when the report does come to committee, however the delay allows residents to get in any further concerns they may want to raise, which can be built into the final report. The Friends of the Meadows and Bruntsfield Links are likely to discuss the issue at its upcoming AGM on 26th June.
Bridgend Inspiring Growth Success
A huge congratulations goes out to Bridgend Inspiring Growth. After years of hard work creating a shared vision to transform Bridgend Farmhouse into a community owned and run Centre for Learning, the City of Edinburgh Council have formally agreed to lease the building to BIG for a 12 month period. The Council also authorised the sale of the property if BIG are successful in securing stage 2 lottery funding. Should the next stage go to plan, BIG aim to start renovations on the site at the end of the 12 month lease.
Dates for your Diary
Wednesday, 11th June – Craigmillar Town Centre PAN exhibition – The White House, 70 Niddrie Mains Road – 3.00pm-7.00pm.
Saturday 14th June – Leith Festival Gala Day – Leith Links – for the full festival programme head to www.leithfestival.com
Sunday 15th June – Castlegreen Care Home Summer Fete – 2.00pm-4.00pm – 160 Greendykes Road – Tombola, raffle. home baking – all welcome
Wednesday, 18th June – Aldi PAN Exhibition – 12.00pm and 7.00pm – Portobello Town Hall
Wednesday, 18th June – SPOKES Bike Breakfast – 7.45-9.45am – City Chambers Quadrangle, High Street, Edinburgh – full details listed here
Sunday 22nd June – Friends of Figgate Park for a Bug Walk (led by an expert from Bug Life) – from 1.00pm – see more details here
Wednesday, 25th June – Co-operatives Fortnight 2014 Third Sector Question Time – 6.30-8.00pm – Serenity Café – Public Affairs Co-op, Scotland’s first public affairs workers’ co-operative are organising the free Question Time style event for representatives of the third sector, social enterprises and co-ops on the independence referendum. Tickets are available to book now free of charge on Eventbrite.
Wednesday & Thursday 25th & 26th June – Unite/Hombase Student Accommodation PAN – 3.00pm-7.00pm – Margaret’s & St Leonard’s Catholic Church, 110 St Leonards Street
Thursday 26th June – FOMBL AGM – Croquet from 6.30pm, AGM from 7.30pm – Croquet Club, Leven Terrace