Are you registered to vote? Elections to the City of Edinburgh Council will be held on Thursday 3rd May 2012. If you still need to register, click here to download a form: http://bit.ly/GYjwpX. If you want to vote by post, click here to download a form: http://bit.ly/GYjEpk. All forms need to be sent in by 18th April 2012.
The days when budgets were ‘top secret’ till the day have long gone. The last Government was much criticised for all the ‘leaks’ and ‘advance notice’ but this Government is no better. But just when we thought it was all out the ‘Granny Tax’ surprises everyone!
Child Benefit & Working Tax Credit
Two proposals rushed out by the Government in October 2010 were much debated in the period leading up to the budget. The plan to take Child Benefit from higher rate tax payers was launched by the Chancellor at the Tory Conference in 2010. At the time the Opposition pointed out that the proposal created huge anomalies, with a ‘cliff edge’ at the point where benefit was lost, and some two earner households retaining child benefit if both earned just below the 40% tax threshold with a joint income of around £80,000 while a single earner household would lose all Child Benefit once they earned around £43,000. Some 16 months on people on the Government side seemed to wake up to the problems. It appears that little work had been done in the intervening period to sort these anomalies, but the debate at this time was clearly trying to persuade the Chancellor to rethink – with reported differences of view between 10 & 11 Downing Street.
Changes to Working Tax Credit were announced in the October 2010 Spending Review and are due to come into effect this April. Couples will be required to work at least 24 hours between them to qualify instead of 16 as at present. At first blush that might not seem too hard, but it can be difficult in the current economic climate to find additional hours. Even those with disabilities or caring responsibilities would be affected. The oddity of all this is that it contradicts everything the Government has been saying in its Welfare Reform proposals about ‘making work pay’. The Government has made a particular virtue of saying that under its new Universal Credit (due to start in 2013) people will be encouraged to work very short hours without being worse off.
Given the speculation that the Prime Minister might be keen to help families affected by the child benefit withdrawal anomalies, I took the opportunity of having a ‘PMQ’ on Wednesday 7th March to ask him if he did persuade his Chancellor to agree to child benefit modification would he then help the low income families about to lose up to £3000 in tax credits. See http://bit.ly/GTXv95.
So what happened in the Budget? – as predicted some modification was made to the withdrawal of Child Benefit with no reduction until £50,000 and a tapering after that with full withdrawal only at £60,000. The two earner issues remain and the complex administration may still cause problems in practice.
In contrast to this, almost no change for the couples on working tax credit due to lose up to £3000 a year. The only modification was a last minute decision to exclude carers. Remember too these are people for whom the rise in the Income Tax threshold is irrelevant because they are already below it. In the last few days I asked both Vince Cable (p32 http://bit.ly/HkgG97) and Danny Alexander (p66 http://bit.ly/HkgSp8) whether they fought the corner of this group. Fairly clear for all their professed concern for the low paid that they did not.
Employment & Support Allowance – treatment of mental health and learning difficulties MPs can apply for ‘short’ debates called ‘Westminster Hall’ debates (although the room they are held in is properly called the ‘Grand Committee Room’ but that’s straightforward compared with some parts of Westminster-speak – like the Early day Motions which are anything but ‘early’) . I was successful in bidding for one recently on a relatively technical aspect of the way in which people are assessed for the Employment and Support Allowance. Short debates like this (only 30 minutes) are good for raising such issues and getting a Ministerial response. You can watch the whole debate here http://bit.ly/GTXOAQ.
Another issue which received a lot of recent coverage is work experience for the unemployed. I wrote a piece on this in my blog called ‘Too Posh to Shelve?’ http://bit.ly/GNwAdB and also spoke in a Westminster Hall debate on this topic; you can see the debate here: http://bit.ly/GZuohp.
DWP Select Committee
We had a session with Employment Minister Chris Grayling on Monday 19th March, again covering Work Experience but also the Work Programme. The Work Programme was launched last summer with great fanfare to provide training and work search help for the unemployed, mainly those out of work for a year (9 months for under 25s) but also for some people on Employment & Support Allowance who are expected to be ‘fit for work’ within a period of 3-6 months. There are a number of private companies providing this programme, with payment mainly if those referred not just find a job but stay in one for an extended period. There are concerns about the quality of these schemes and about the viability of the providers – especially for some of the specialist voluntary organisations who don’t seem to be getting much of the work. You can watch our session here http://bit.ly/GNwKSa.
The Work and Pensions Select Committee has recently published a report on the scheme for people to be ‘Auto- Enrolled’ in pensions. Pensions may not seem the most exciting of subjects but this scheme could bring many low paid people into pension provision for the first time. http://bit.ly/GNwZMZ.
Public Bill Committee
I spent much of March on the public bill committee for the Financial Services Bill. Very important if highly technical – important because it sets up the new regulatory system for financial services.
Long hours in this committee relieved one morning when a fellow member arriving in a rush after a travel problem started to eat a pot of porridge. As he poured in some honey the Chair suddenly announced he was using a ‘banned substance’. He had the presence of mind to apologise aloud for eating porridge in case anyone came across a reference to a ‘banned substance’ in Hansard!
Welfare Reform Bill
The Welfare Reform Bill passed its final stage on 29th February. With some exceptions (most notably the Government backing down on removing mobility allowance from people in residential care) the Government has delivered its Welfare Reform Agenda. The Government is confident that on this Bill – unlike their NHS reforms – they have public opinion on their side. In part this is due to a ‘framing’ of the issue as being one about ‘scroungers’ and people enjoying a ‘benefits lifestyle’ .However this view would not resonate so much if people did not feel it matched with some of their own experiences. Not altogether surprising when there are indeed many more people who are ‘economically inactive’ not least because under the last Tory government there was a relentless sidelining of people off the unemployment register onto incapacity benefits. However that doesn’t mean that the current re-assessment process is running well or fairly. (See for instance my Westminster Hall Debate above).
But underlying even this is some disturbing evidence from the British Social Attitudes Survey that there is a long term reduction in support for benefits spending. See http://bit.ly/HkmGij
Some commentators have concluded that this demonstrates that we have become a more individualistic – even selfish- society. Others suggest that this is a sign that benefits have indeed become too high and too easy to get. However I wonder if there is another partial explanation. Since 1997 benefits have improved with things like tax credits, pensioner minimum income guarantee, winter fuel allowance etc. So perhaps people are seeing less need for extra spending. It may be interesting to see if this changes in the next few years as benefits are lowered and more people are experiencing unemployment.
One of our lines of criticism is that some of the ‘savings’ may not turn out to be savings at all. Last April the rules for Housing Benefit changed for people in the private rented sector. The maximum allowed was reduced to the 30th percentile of local rents instead of half. One of the government’s arguments was that Housing Benefit was so dominant in the sector that it in itself was dragging rents upwards and that rents should now begin to fall. Here in Edinburgh the benefit allowed for a 1 bed flat fell from £115 in March 2011 to £ 109 in April but since then has risen steadily to £114 in February 2012. This is still at the 30th percentile level but average rents have risen. This appears to be happening in many parts of the country. So at best the Government will have slowed the rise in the housing benefit total spend but in cash terms there may be little if any saving. In the meantime some recipients who find it difficult to get a let within the new limits will be having to top up their rents from incomes already low (since otherwise they would not qualify for benefit)
The government convinced itself that housing benefit was driving rents up. We argued housing benefit payments were rising because rents were rising. So far it looks as if the second argument was more accurate.
You will recall that last year residents living near to Cairntows Park successfully fought off plans to develop the park for mixed use housing, preserving this greenspace for future generations. Residents have again contacted me to ask that further protection is sought for the Park. Residents have asked that the park is put forward for Fields in Trust Royal Charter protection, as part of this year’s Diamond Jubilee Celebrations. It is important that this park is defended from development and its recreational use is secured for future generations. I have now written to the Council asking that the Park is included in the list of parks submitted for protection. I will keep you updated on the progress of this request.
Across the city, hundreds of residents keep an allotment to grow fruit and vegetables and get some physical exercise. Demand for allotment spaces has grown as people increasingly want to grow their own fresh food locally and cheaply. Two years ago the City of Edinburgh Council agreed to allocate more space for allotments as the waiting list had grown so long people were told they would have to wait eight years. In Edinburgh East the Council proposed four sites: Craigentinny Avenue North, Lochend Park, Joppa Quarry Park, and Baronscourt Park, which is now being consulted on. The plans require that 50% of plots go to local residents. To mitigate anti-social behaviour concerns, sheds are not permitted at the Baronscourt site, and keepers are not permitted to burn leaves or weeds. Residents near to the park are concerned the plans do not include a new access road. I am in touch with Edinburgh and Lothians Greenspace Trust who have said they are now working to reassure residents and communicate the plans more effectively.
The Big Switch
Last month I mentioned the British Gas £50 deal to help people get their homes insulated, this month however, I have backed a campaign calling on the markets offer deals who want to ‘collectively’ switch between energy providers. Launched last month by Which? and 38 Degrees, The Big Switch is a new way for people to buy their energy. This will be the first time in the UK that a very large number of people will join together as a group to negotiate a deal with energy companies. I would encourage constituents to join the 200,000-strong group who have already signed up to The Big Switch, and to use their collective power to try to cut their energy bills and help shake up the market. I have said before that the market as a whole needs major reform, but this is one of the many ideas that could help bring down bills, and change the way the ‘big 6’ sell energy. I have already signed the EDM, but if you want to show your support, and use your collective bargaining power, go to www.whichbigswitch.co.uk.
Anti-Social Behaviour throughout Edinburgh East
As the nights grow longer and warmer it is regrettable that anti-social behaviour increases throughout the City. Last month a 12-year-old girl was the victim of an attack by a group of youths because of the colour of her skin. I was appalled to hear about the attack which took place in Piershill. I had been in the area that week discussing the problems in the square with a number of residents. The residents I spoke to are concerned about the groups of youths that collect there in the evenings, but also want to see drug dealers evicted and CCTV installed. If the council is serious about tackling this behaviour it needs to look at its attitude to the problem as well as how it uses the resources that are available. The Council has pledged to prioritise action in Piershill and a handful of areas which have also seen an increase in anti-social behaviour. Read my blog on this issue here http://bit.ly/GN2uu9.
Save the Independent Living Fund
A couple of months ago I mentioned a petition calling on the Government to halt the planned closure of the Independent Living Fund in 2015. For over 21 years the ILF has made payments to disabled people to purchase the services of Personal Assistants or a care agency to give them personal care and domestic assistance. The coalition plans to close the scheme in 2015, but it has still not said what will happen after this date; many fear that the care responsibilities will be passed to cash-strapped local authorities. Many people in Edinburgh have used the ILF to ensure that they can arrange their own care which is right for them. I previously urged you to sign the e-petition, and the Lothian Centre for inclusive Living have again asked that as many people as possible sign it. If you have already signed it, make sure you are asking others to do so too. To sign the petition, go to: http://bit.ly/Agwttd.
Big Things on The Beach manifesto launch
Last month BTOTB launched their manifesto which calls on Edinburgh’s next City Council to invest in the City Promenade and Beach at Portobello. You will be aware that elections to the City of Edinburgh Council will take place on May 3rd and BTOTB want the Councillors elected to commit to improve Porty Promenade. Since 2008 plans for the prom have been in place, but local residents feel that progress has slowed. When the plans were first revealed, the City Council said it would create an ‘Edinburgh Promenade’ from Granton to Joppa, to signal the city’s desire to establish Edinburgh as a world class Waterfront City, incorporating Portobello Promenade. The Council’s plan includes the creation of a ‘Portobello Piazza’ by 2013. BTOTB have a petition open until the 3rd May, which is of course polling day. For more details, see http://bit.ly/H4If9i.
Cyrenians, the employment and support service for people living in the ‘East neighbourhood’ will be closing at the end of the month. I have previously visited the project which works out of the Hays Business Centre to help support individuals into work, education or training. All of the staff at Cyrenians deserve a huge thank you after putting in a great deal of time and energy into this local service, which many had thought was very successful. The project has had some particular successes getting local people into construction, retail and care positions. The service also held out reach sessions in Portobello Library and at Magdalene and Bingham Community Centres. Following a decision by the Council to centralise employment services, a consortium which includes Jewel and Esk and Stevenson College will now deliver the assistance Cyrenians offered. While the consortium has said that it will deliver specialised services to specific areas where there is greater need, It is not yet clear exactly how this will be done.
2012: International Year of Cooperatives
Last year Portobello’s Just World Shop announced plans to seek Fair Trade status for the town, supported by the Community Council. Portobello has long campaigned for more Fairtrade goods to be on sale to help promote better conditions for farmers and faming cooperatives across the world. I recently attended an event held by the Co-operative Party which has also promoted the uptake of fair-trade products nationally. I met with Taysir and Riziq who produce Palestinian Olive Oil and are part the Fairtrade scheme – it’s certainly a new product that I will be looking out for.
Cycle safety tagging and marking events
Next week Lothian and Borders Police will be holding three cycle safety sessions across Edinburgh East. The Cycle Safety campaign has been set up to help prevent bike crime. Officers will register, UV mark and electronically tag your bike at these events. A limited number of bikes will be tagged for free according to promotional material (see http://bit.ly/GVJjiJ) otherwise, registration and UV marking is £5, and registration, marking and tagging is £16. Details of the events are as follows:
- Mon 2nd April – 11am-2pm – Waverley Court, East Market Street
- Tues 3rd April – 11am-2pm – Bristo Square, Edinburgh Uni
- Wed 4th April – 11am-2pm – The Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh
- Thurs 5th April – 11am-2pm – King’s Buildings, Edinburgh Uni
Big Lottery Young Start Fund
Big Lottery Fund, the organisation which allocates Lottery grants has launched a Young Start fund, to help children and young people work alongside old people in their community. Funding is available to deliver projects which encourage young people to become more confident, healthy and connected with older people in their community. Funds are also available to tackle youth unemployment by preparing young people to start work or set up a business. Young Start will provide grants of between £10,000 and £50,000 for up to two years for projects that provide services for young people aged 8 to 24. It can fund a range of youth activities including sports facilities, creative arts, information and communication skills, as well as setting up work experience schemes with local employers. Details are on facebook: www.facebook.com/youngstartfund.
New Surgery Schedule
Starting this month, my surgery schedule will be changing. I will now hold all of my surgeries on the second Friday of each month in three locations across Edinburgh East, which will free up more time for constituents who want individual appointments. For reference, the new surgery schedule is below:
Surgeries are held on the second Friday of each month
Central Library (George IV Bridge) – Between 10.00am – 11.00am. Served by buses: 2, 41, 42, 45, 67.
Restalrig Lochend Community Hub (198 Restalrig Road) – Between 11.30am – 12.30pm. Served by buses: 19, 21, 25, 34, 49.
Portobello Library (off Portobello High Street) – Between 14.00pm – 15.00pm. Served by buses: 15, 21, 26, 42, 49, 69.
Dates for your diary
02 April 2012 to 06 April 2012 – Lothian and Borders Cycle safety registration and tagging sessions – various locations, see http://bit.ly/GVJjiJ for full details.
12 April 2012 – ‘Living with Labels’ – a film about what it’s like to live with a label of mental illness – film launch – 1800-2000 – The Filmhouse. Anyone wishing to attend MUST register on 0131 538 7177
03 May 2012 – Big Things on the Beach petition closes – sign the petition here: http://bit.ly/H4If9i.
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