While the promoters for the Lady Boys of Bangkok have already started to sell tickets for their annual festival show, the area of the Meadows where the showground is based is still recovering from last August.
The City of Edinburgh Council has now sought urgent comments on proposals to hold the event in the same place this year. Events on the park have added to the variety and vibrancy of the festival season, but concerns remain about the health of the land and the damage following the event. I’ve submitted comments objecting to the application which you can see here.
In November I asked students from Castlebrae Community High School and children from the Castlebrae Family Centre to produce several festive designs for my 2012 Christmas card. They were all lovely, but I chose Liam Turner’s bauble design to feature on the card. The five runner-up designs are also displayed below.
Both Castlebrae School and Family Centre are currently under the threat of closure. The designs featured here provide a glimpse of the fantastic work pupils and staff in Craigmillar produce. As I have mentioned in previous reports, pupils and local residents feel this is the type of work that is ignored by the consultation process, which instead focusses on figures and statistics. To make sure this creativity is considered as part of the consultation, add your views at http://bit.ly/Trg3RL, before the 7th December deadline. I will be adding my contribution shortly.
This year the Kings Manor Hotel & Fountain Spa, and Asda Jewel generously sponsored the Christmas card, which will now be sent to 4000 households across Edinburgh East.
My Month in Westminster
Despite the lack of ‘big ticket’ items since the collapse of House of Lords Reform, November has been a busy time at Westminster. Oral questions happen every day from Monday to Thursday, with different Departments answering on different days. The Prime Minister responds every Wednesday of course. Getting a definite ‘slot’ depends on a ballot, and I didn’t have a lot of luck this month. Sometimes even when you do get a ‘slot’ the Speaker doesn’t get to you in the time available – that happened in this month’s Scottish Questions. I’m most interested in DWP and Treasury matters and although I was not selected, I managed to get a question in on both. I asked the Disability Minister how many people who had been placed in the Employment and Support Allowance ‘Work Related Activity Group’ and required to take part in the Work Programme had been found work. The answer was that figures would be published soon (they are due before the end of the month). See p3 http://bit.ly/V3rKQr.
At Treasury Questions I asked about the often quoted figure that there have been one million new private sector jobs created since the election. In fact half of these were in place within 8 months of the election, something that can be put down to the previous government’s economic stimulus package. See p13 http://bit.ly/V3rPDR.
High Speed Rail
There’s another type of ballot – for short debates in the second debating chamber, Westminster Hall. This month I secured time for a debate on extending High Speed Rail to Scotland and the implications that separation might have for such plans. You can see my press release about what I said on my website (http://bit.ly/V3s8OU) and the full speech in Hansard (from p87 http://bit.ly/V3rPDR).
Changing Disabled Living Allowance to Personal Independence Payment
I was also in Westminster Hall on Thursday 25th October when the Work & Pensions Select Committee report on the DLA changeover to PIP was debated. Many of those present were Select Committee members but it was also an opportunity to hear from the new Disability Minister Esther McVey who had to answer the debate. She had been challenged about some of the language used previously in the media, (which some believed had originated from the DWP & its Ministers), and she stated that ‘we need to be more careful about how we talk.’ The other main issue she responded to was the issue of the ‘cut’ in spending:
‘The actual sums that were paid out were £12.5 billion in 2010-11, and by 2014-15 the expected, real-terms spending will be £13.2 billion. The 20% cut that people talk about was the cut in the expected rise in the benefits, because they had risen exponentially by 40% in 10 years and everybody felt that that was unaffordable. Therefore, if we wanted to give the benefits people wanted, if we wanted to look after those who were most in need of support, but equally those with great needs as well as the greatest need, this is what had to be done to be sustainable.’
The impression the Minister is trying to convey is that this isn’t a real cut – but it is: the ‘expected rise’ is real benefits paid to real people. To reduce this expected rise has to mean that some of these people will have to lose benefit. Those already over pension age are not affected nor are children, so the ‘reduction’ is concentrated on those of working age.
Another month, another Bill Committee – this time the Public Services Pensions Bill. I spoke in the Second Reading debate on 29th October (see p67 http://bit.ly/V3tt8z) and then asked to serve on the Committee. Many of the changes already made or forthcoming in public sector pensions aren’t actually in the Bill but have been negotiated by the unions. Our position at second reading was that the Bill should be amended, although I’m afraid our amendments were not successful. Rather more worrying was the ‘sub text’ coming not from the Minister, but from Tory backbenchers on the committee, who constantly repeated the point that even with these changes, public sector workers will have far better pensions than most private sector employees – true, but only because pension provision in the private sector is so poor. Many people in the private sector have no pension cover. Even with auto-enrolment coming in over the next few years, a private pension is generally of the ‘defined contribution’ type. This means there is no guaranteed size of pension at retirement age. Instead the employee builds up a ‘fund’ which at retirement is converted into an annuity. In recent years these funds have performed badly (because interest rates and investment returns are low) and so have the annuities. The real problem is not ‘too good’ public sector pensions, but poor private sector ones.
Usefully the Work & Pensions Select Committee has just started a piece of work on private sector pensions. In our first evidence session on Wednesday 21st November we heard about the way in which charges levied can substantially reduce the amount of the eventual pension – what can seem like a small difference in annual charges adds up to a huge difference in outcome. The more I hear the more convinced I am of the need for a radical overhaul of the pensions industry. Next week though we have industry representatives speaking to us who will no doubt try to persuade us otherwise!
The Royal Society MP Pairing Scheme 2012
For a week this month I was ‘shadowed’ by a scientist from Edinburgh University as part of a scheme trying to bring greater understanding between science and politics. Early next year it will be my turn to see something of my pair’s work. I think what struck her most of all was the lack of an evidence base for much of what is done by government and legislation. Sitting in on a Select Committee meeting where we heard from the DWP Permanent Secretary (top civil servant), her comment (without necessarily being up to speed on the subject matter) was how ‘smooth’ he was, not intended as a compliment, except I suppose to his excellent ‘Sir Humphrey’ style training!
“Universal Credit will simplify the benefits system by bringing together a range of working-age benefits into a single streamlined payment.”
Universal Credit is Iain Duncan Smith’s ‘flagship’ policy. Anyone who has struggled with the form filling of benefits applications will welcome simplification. However it is easier to declare ‘there will be a single benefit’ than to achieve it. Several benefits remain outside Universal Credit (contributions based JSA & ESA; council tax benefit; DLA and its replacement Personal Independence Payment), but even inside Universal Credit there are going to be various arms and legs, each ‘bit’ with its different conditions.
Universal Credit will start for new applicants in parts of the north of England from April 2013. In the last few weeks a number of important reports have been produced – all of which might be described as ‘constructively critical’. Whether the DWP will heed them remains to be seen. When Iain Duncan Smith and David Freud (one of the Ministers) appeared before the Work and Pensions Select Committee in September they seemed full of confidence that all was going ‘swimmingly’.
The Centre for Social & Economic Inclusion (supported by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation) in ‘Implementing Universal Credit’ asked the question ‘Will Universal Credit (UC) improve the service user’s experience of the social security system by addressing complexity and will benefit reform be supported by quality employment support? ‘This Report raises similar concerns to those I reported on last month in the ‘Sink or Swim ‘Report, about the move to monthly payments made to one member of the household, and the ‘all digital’ delivery mechanism. However it also is sceptical about the ‘work will always pay’ promise, not just because of the ‘localisation’ of council tax benefit but also because, while the structure of the new benefit incentivises working short hours, it has less impact for people working longer hours and for second earners in a household.
Select Committee Report
My Work & Pensions Select Committee has also been looking at the implementation of Universal Credit. Our cross party committee published its Report on 22nd November, warning that ‘significant concerns remain about the potential impact of the changes on some of the most vulnerable benefit claimants.’ You can get the whole report at http://bit.ly/TvndXZ.
While single parents working very short hours may be better off, the government’s plans could create a situation where working longer hours doesn’t pay.
Getting People into Work
Behind Universal Credit is the desire to ‘get people into work’. Crucial to this is the role of Job Centre Plus advisers in helping people into training and jobs. In theory less paper shuffling in applications should release staff time for this work, but at the same time an increasingly punitive ‘sanctions’ regime is in force (since October the minimum sanction for failing to do things like attend for an appointment on the right date is 4 weeks loss of benefit). There is a tension here between advising and policing, which may make it difficult for staff to give the help needed.
In Work Conditionality
Under current rules people working 16 hours (for a single person or single parent), or 24 hours (as a couple between them), can receive tax credits (including childcare tax credits) if their income is beneath the cut off point. Under UC someone will be able to work less than 16 hours (indeed the Government is keen to encourage ‘mini jobs’ of as few as 4 or 6 hours a week) and claim credit.
The question is whether people will be stuck in low paid, short hours jobs, forcing more families below the poverty line.
The Government believes that one way of preventing this is to apply ‘conditions’ to people in work claiming benefit in a way that has never been done before. Anyone earning less than the equivalent of working 35 hours (at minimum wage) will be expected to look for more hours of work/a different job and to ‘prove’ they are doing this. (There will be exceptions e.g. one parent of children aged 5-12 will only have to look for work during school hours). Generally details of exactly how UC would work are sparse at the moment.
The bit that’s ‘missing’ is where these jobs are to be found, especially at a time when so many firms are only offering short hour jobs to fit their business needs. According to the most recent employment figures:
Taking a slightly longer period here is the trend:
‘Did Nick Clegg Sell out in Vain?’, the Independent asked on the 25th October on the back of a report suggesting that the Government’s fees reform could end up costing almost as much as the old system.
This is for three reasons:
1. The government initially said that only a few universities would charge anywhere near the maximum of £9000. In calculating the cost of the policy the Government assumed that the average fee would be £7500. In fact the average is £8300. This means that students have to borrow more and the government’s outlay is therefore higher.
2. The report concludes that the government has been overoptimistic about the amount graduates will earn and therefore that less will be paid back than previously assumed.
3. The report calculates that the fees regime will add 0.2percentage points to the Consumer Price Index so increasing the cost of pensions (and other benefits) unless the government changes the rules on this.
During the debates on fees the Opposition repeatedly raised the issue of whether the Government’s sums were wrong. Ministers dismissed this.
The reason Clegg gave for his change of mind was the need to deal with the deficit. We pointed out that if the Government was right in saying that the deficit would be eliminated by 2015 then this was not a deficit reduction measure. (Of course Osborne now has had to say that the deficit won’t be eliminated in that timescale.)
But if the Report is right the new policy hasn’t shifted the burden away from the taxpayer. While still leaving graduates with both the worry and the reality of large student debts, then it leaves the LibDems having indeed sold themselves for a ‘mess of pottage. ‘.
The SNP government might want to pat themselves on the back for sticking to free tuition. But it has come at a price, namely the squeeze on further education colleges. Independence won’t solve this problem without finding more revenue (and not just for education of course.) In the last few weeks the Scottish Media has finally started to show some interest in the problems the colleges are facing.
Cycling, Poppies & Industry
I was honoured to be invited to lay a wreath on Remembrance Sunday at Portobello Old Parish Church. In less than two years we will be ‘commemorating’ the start of World War 1, a war whose images – photographic and literary – still resonate. Reading all the family names on a World War 1 memorial, whether here or in France brings home the huge impact it had. Perhaps it is the contrast between the cheerful naivety of that war’s beginning and its reality which makes it so poignant. No generation since has probably been quite so unprepared. And yet ‘lest we forget’ has not stopped conflict, with people dying in Afghanistan, in Syria, in the Congo, in Gaza even while we laid our wreaths.
Cycling, Poppies & Industry sounds a bit like one of those quiz questions from Radio 4’s ‘Round Britain Quiz ‘where the contestants are asked what links seemingly unrelated items. I was taking a – brief! – turn on the exercise bike as part of a fundraiser organised by the Industry and Parliament Trust. This was a 24 hour charity cycle ‘ride’ in the Houses of Parliament to raise money for The Poppy Factory.
The Industry and Parliament Trust is a registered charity dedicated to promoting mutual understanding between Parliament, business, industry and commerce for the public benefit. MPs are encouraged to do a ‘fellowship’ with the Trust to learn more about business and industry. I’ve chosen the financial services sector, partly because of its importance to Edinburgh, and because I’m trying to increase my understanding of Treasury issues. I’ve been on visits to Lloyds/Scottish Widows and Standard Life with visits to HSBC to come soon. So it seemed appropriate to ‘do my bit’ on their bike.
Payday loans – Westminster
As the sale of credit remains a Westminster responsibility my East Lothian colleague Fiona O’Donnell MP and I are supporting a new effort launched by Citizens’ Advice Scotland to ensure that payday lenders are signing up to the new industry-wide Good Practice Charter. The charter requires pay day lenders to reign in some of their practices and lending to reduce the difficulties many customers encounter. CAS Scotland still needs to establish whether or not the firms are compliant and improving the way they do business, thus they have set up a survey to feed in any information, or concerns, people may have. The survey can be found www.cas.org.uk/paydayloans. In the Scottish Parliament, Kezia Dugdale MSP is calling on the Scottish Government to improve the way pay day loan type debt advice is provided when problems occur.
One of the meetings I had this month was a ‘catch up’ at Forth Sector, a social enterprise, which runs three businesses – St Jude’s Laundry, Edinburgh Embroidery Services and The Scottish Soapworks.
Their other main work is providing employability support to aid the recovery of people with mental health problems. In part this is linked to the businesses, as people may be offered work placements or permanent jobs within these businesses, but many are also helped to secure employment elsewhere in the city. Some of the referrals come as a subcontractor in the Government’s Work Programme, but organisations like this who work with those who need the most help only receive part of the payment even if successful.
The organisation has just started work at Duddingston Yards where new buildings are going to house all three of the businesses and the employability work. When I was there demolition was just starting.
Meeting with Community Renewal
I also met with Community Renewal who provide employability services in East Edinburgh under a contract with the City Council. They are working with people who are not (yet) involved with the Government’s Work Programme. This includes many young people.
Meeting with Crisis
During a meeting with Crisis, a national homelessness charity, to discuss various policy issues, it was suggested that I see some of the work they are doing in my constituency. So on Friday 23rd November I met with a couple of participants in one of their outreach support projects working with people in the Salvation Army hostel in the Pleasance. One of the things they are working on is their own newsletter and they wanted to interview me on various aspects of ‘welfare reform’. The interviewers were very well prepared and we could have gone on for far longer than the allocated hour. I look forward to seeing the results!
Castlebrae & Portobello
During November there have been a number of both formal and informal consultation meetings about the proposal to close Castlebrae High School. These were well attended and the Council representatives present were asked very searching questions. The consultation closes on 7th December. I shall be making a submission but would urge others to do so too, if you have not already done so. Full details on the consultation can be found at http://bit.ly/Trg3RL.
Portobello High School was again on the agenda of the Council meeting on 22nd November. The main recommendations are to go ahead with the proposal to seek a Private Bill in the Scottish Parliament to allow use of the site in Portobello Park, and to put in a bid for the purchase of the former Scottish Power site at Baileyfield. The outcome will probably not be known until late January.
Consultation on the Private Bill process is to be undertaken as soon as is practicable in December 2012 and running through to 31 January 2013. Allowing sufficient time for the assessment and analysis of the responses and the production of the other accompanying documents, it is intended that the proposed Private Bill would be taken to Council for consideration on 14 March 2013 and, if approved, lodged with the Parliament as soon as possible thereafter. However it could be as late as January 2014 before that process is concluded according to this month’s report.
The details of the consultation will be published soon but there will be a ‘roadshow’ travelling around various community venues, two public meetings, exhibitions at local libraries etc.
Ten years ago, Craigmillar Community Arts was established to support and explore the creative side of greater Craigmillar. Over the years the organisation has encouraged residents to explore their artistic talents – whether it be sculpture, painting or photography – the organisation has had many successes. One of the most recent programmes, the ‘Bus Stop Lottery Photography Project’, has taken parents and children across the city on Saturdays to photograph different views and images of Edinburgh. What could be more enjoyable than hopping on a bus and getting creative? Once this latest project concludes, an exhibition will be held at the CCA centre on Newcraighall Road. If you want to get involved, or you would like to see the full programme, go to http://www.craigmillarcommunityarts.org.uk/1.html.
Probably the oldest housing estate in Scotland
Craigmillar, Niddrie and Greendykes are to be included in the Heritage Lottery Fund’s All Our Stories project to encourage local residents to find out more about their local history. The original All Our Stories project was run in conjunction with the BBC Two series, The Great British Story – A People’s History, and was seen as a great success. This time round, the ‘oldest housing estate in Scotland’ will be run by Caring in Craigmillar. Elderly residents will be asked to document and research the changes in the area over the past century, as well as learning how to read historical maps, utilise online resources and create a ‘community tree’. Bearing in mind this is where Mary Queen of Scots lived for a time, the area had thriving brewing and coal industries throughout the 20th Century, and is now undergoing further regeneration, there will be plenty to be documented.
East Neighbourhood Centre and Library
My staff and I have watched this building go up with great interest, as it is situated directly opposite my constituency office. Residents in East Edinburgh can now access a whole host of services at the centre. The new Library is a fantastic resource and has had a state of the art upgrade for the whole community to enjoy. Various offices from across East Edinburgh have also been moved into this one building to help improve the coordination of Housing, Social Work and Community Safety services.
Dates for your diary
Wednesday 5th December – One Parent Families Scotland: a living wage for carers? – from 5.30pm – 13 Gayfield Square – call 0131 556 3899 to reserve a place
Friday 7th December – Deadline for submissions on the proposed closure of Castlebrae Community High School - details at http://bit.ly/Trg3RL
Wednesday 12th December - Age Scotland & Edinburgh City Policing Community Event – Portobello Town Hall 7pm-9pm
Wednesday 19th December – Craigmillar Writer’s Club Christmas Party – from 7pm – Jewel Miners Club
Tuesday 15th January - Age Scotland & Edinburgh City Policing Community Event – City Chambers Business Centre – 7pm-9pm
Saturday 22nd December – Craigmillar Books for Babies Christmas Party – 10.30am-11.30am – East Edinburgh Neighbourhood Centre, 101 Niddrie Mains Road
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As we were preparing the tables for the public meeting about Portobello High School on Friday evening we could hear the rising buzz of conversation from the foyer – it felt a bit like it must feel inside a shop as the doors open for ‘The Sales’!
Three hundred people packed into the Town Hall which demonstrates the strength of feeling on the subject. This was deliberately not a night for speeches, neither by party politicians, nor by ‘supporters’ of particular campaigning positions on how to achieve a new school. The format was chosen to enable as many people as possible to contribute their views, and the buzz and engagement was very plain to see. Some present feel ‘deja vue’ because they have been round the consultation loop before, others were new to the debate.
A few have voiced an opinion that the format was biased in a ‘pro school in the park’ direction, but I spoke to people at some of the ‘tables’ who felt that it was unreasonable to be being asked to look at alternative sites yet again. That suggests to me that rather than being biased in one direction or the other, the evening was genuinely open to the widest of contributions.
We will now transcribe all the written comments, from sheets of paper, written on the paper tablecloths or on post-it notes. Some people who couldn’t come have sent in comments and we will include these. Then the comments will be ‘marshalled’ into headings so that a ‘sense’ of what was said can be gained. Both the full transcript and the marshalled comment will be circulated to those attending and sent to the Council. Just please bear with us as it will take us a little while to do this!
A very big thank you to those who came and contributed so much.