October 2014 Newsletter

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Westminster Report

Devolution
In the aftermath of last month’s referendum I emphasised how important it was that the promises made by the three main parties of further devolution to the Scottish Parliament are kept. Since the House of Commons returned from the party conference recess there have been several developments that I think people should know about.

Gordon BrownI acknowledge that in his initial response to the referendum result, the Prime Minister indicated that decisions on whether Scottish MPs should be able to vote on English-only matters should be made ‘in tandem with, and at the same pace as’ the process for further devolution to Scotland. However during all of three occasions mentioned above, all the parties made it clear that the separate processes with respect to England and Scotland are not linked, that the vow was unconditional, and that new powers would be devolved. The Smith Commission has now started meeting and will produce a final report by the end of November.

I think it’s important that we start to focus on what more we can do with the Scottish Parliament’s existing powers, and those that are set to be devolved in future. For example my party has proposed devolving responsibility for Housing Benefit, and combined with new borrowing powers, this could allow us to both invest in affordable housing and reap the benefits as Housing Benefit expenditure falls. I raised this during the Secretary of State’s statement. I had hoped to have a chance to speak further on this during Tuesday’s debate, but time ran out before all those wanting to speak could be heard.

This is such an important issue to so many people – both Yes and No voters alike – and I’m more than happy to discuss any concerns or questions by email.

Israel and Palestine
UK’s approach to Palestine was debated on Monday 13 October. I voted for the UK to recognise Palestine as a state because I believe that this will encourage both sides to negotiate a long-term peace deal. Ian Lucas’s speech explains why my party also voted in favour.

Child Maintenance
When families split up parents who live away from their children should contribute financially to their upbringing. In the past the Government’s Child Support Agency ensured this would happen, but now Ministers are encouraging parents to sort out their own arrangements. They’re doing this by both charging for the CSA’s replacement (the Child Maintenance Service), and by their £20 million Help and Support for Separated Families Initiative. I’m concerned that this latter part of the process isn’t providing enough help to enough parents, and put my concerns to the Government in a debate on Tuesday 21 October. You can read a transcript of my speech, but for a more concise version, read my article of the same date on Politics Home.

Recall
In recent years lots of people have called for a system of recall to be introduced, whereby constituents could start a petition that, if it gained sufficient support, could result in their MP losing their job and a by-election being held. On Tuesday 21 October the Government’s Recall of MPs Bill was debated in the House of Commons, which puts in place this sort of system when an MP has been found guilty of misconduct or neglected his or her duties. As it stands the Bill needs to be strengthened and hopefully this will be done during the Committee stage of the Bill which started on 27th October.

However many constituents have sent emails asking me to back amendments to the bill that go further, and could see MPs recalled for expressing a particular view or voting in a certain way. I’m afraid I won’t be doing so because, as my colleague Frank Dobson MP said in an excellent article he wrote in the Guardian.

Much of the social and political progress we enjoy today sprang from the work of MPs who were attacked and vilified when they first campaigned for the laws and attitudes from which we now benefit. When such MPs argued against the conventional wisdom, the powerful reactionary forces ranged against them didn’t stop at attacking the reformers’ arguments; their opposition was often coupled with personal abuse and smears.

I accept that MPs must ultimately account to those they represent for their views and voting record, but this should be done at General Elections, when voters can take a more rounded view of their overall performance. So while my Labour colleagues and I helped pass the bill on Tuesday, we won’t be supporting the amendments I’ve talked about here.

Mohammad Asghar
Many Edinburgh residents are concerned about Mr Asghar who was shot while in prison in Pakistan. Mr Asghar was formerly my constituent and his family still stay in Edinburgh East. Last week I asked David Cameron what his Government are doing to ensure the safe return of Mr Asghar. I am now making enquiries regarding the comments the Prime Minister made in the chamber last week, as well as asking for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office for further details on the contact it is has made with the Pakistani authorities.

Bedroom Tax
Last month I reported on the Private Members Bill from Andrew George which would substantially reduce the impact of the Bedroom Tax. It passed its Second Reading on 5 September.

Bedroom TaxI have been made a member of the Committee which will go through the detail of the Bill. So far we have had only one meeting, and some of the Tories on the committee have shown that they will be continuing to fight it tooth & nail. I will keep you posted on progress! Labour has opposed the Bedroom Tax since it was first proposed in the Welfare Reform Bill in 2011, and is pledged to abolish it in government.

News in brief

Climate Change

Constituency Report

Engine Shed: supported employment works
It was very disappointing to hear that, despite last year’s decision to continue funding for at least 12 months, the Engine Shed has decided that it will have to close. In September it was announced the Engine Shed would lose 40 per cent of its income from City of Edinburgh Council. Last year the Council fundamentally changed how it seeks to provide employment support schemes but the Engine Shed decided not to be part of the consortium which said it would deliver the new services.

The model both Council and the Scottish Government have chosen to fund is one that prioritises finding people mainstream employment and providing support when they get work. The longer term training and support provided by an organisation like the Engine Shed does not fit this model. In espousing this approach the Council and Scottish Government is echoing the delivery mechanism adopted by the UK Government which has used exactly the same arguments to close many Remploy factories.

As a training facility the Engine Shed is first class and it remains to be seen whether the young people it trained are able to get these ‘real jobs’ and if the in-work support is really available and sustained. My article on the benefits of the Engine Shed model was in the Edinburgh Evening News this weekend.

Meadows Mural
Have you noticed the mural at the junction of Middle Meadow Walk and North Meadow Walk?

Meadows

Meadows 2

This was a project of the Friends of the Meadows and Bruntsfield links, with funding from the Scottish Power and the neighbourhood partnership. This is part of the excellent work this friends group does. If you want to know more their latest newsletter is online at fombl.org.uk/nl38.pdf and their next meeting takes place on 11th November at 7.30pm at the German Church I Chalmers Crescent.

Homebase Consultation
Consultation on the application to demolish Homebase and construct 579 student beds has now closed with an impressive 120 residents submitting their comments on the plans. My own submission responded to the Scottish Government reporter’s interpretation of the term ‘adjacency’ when considering the Council’s student accommodation policy, and highlighted that the development would lead to extremely high numbers of students in a locality outwith the University campus. Residents are also concerned about the consequent loss of a retail store which complements the offering of the Nicolson & Clerk Street Town Centre. The submission is on my website.

Baileyfield

Portobello Responds to Baileyfield Proposals
Portobello Community Council has carried out extensive local consultation on this application by accessing funds made available by the Council’s planning department. Residents were asked to respond using a comment form or an online survey. With the consultation closed and results in 50% responded in support of the proposal, 40% against, while 10% were neutral. Over 400 local residents gave their feedback which means that the Council now has a high quality sample of local opinion on all aspects of this application. Many residents, for or against, commented with caution noting concerns about the impact on school rolls, pressures on GPs surgeries and local transport infrastructure. My submission reflected these concerns and made clear that if the Council is in anyway minded to grant this application, it must have exhaustive comment from the council departments which will have to accommodate the impact of the development. The results of the Community Council consultation are being fully collated and will be available at portobellocc.org shortly.

Council Budget
Next year your Councillors will have to agree a package of budgetary cuts of £67m over 3 years. The Council has launched its ‘challenge’ to allow you decide where the cuts should fall. The interactive tool explains the consequences of your chosen level of cuts for all aspects of the Council services but prevents you from submitting your feedback until the books are balanced. We have already seen news reports that this may lead to increases in allotment charges and cuts to the Edinburgh Leisure subsidy. It is clear that the balancing act will be no easy task. Having tried the challenge it is clear your Councillors will need as much input as possible.

BudgetA number of constituents have raised their concern about the proposal, contained in the council’s pre-budget consultation paper, for a threefold increase in allotment fees. They point to the health and environmental benefits, something which all tiers of government say they support. Allotments are more popular than ever and I think there is still considerable scope for creating more. One very active project, Bridgend allotments, have an open day on 8 November from 12.00pm-3.30pm at the Bridgend Farmhouse & Allotments, 41 Old Dalkeith Road.

In recent years councils have been turning more often to fees and charges as a means of balancing the books. This is one consequence of seven years of council tax freeze. I welcome the council ‘s attempts to involve the public in discussing the budget, but we need to go beyond ‘moving the slider’ up and down and debate how we properly fund local government.

Dates for Your Diary

BridgendFireworksArt Clubs

  • 1 November – Women 50:50 campaign planning event – 1.00pm-3.30pm – Tea, coffees and cake provided – register at bit.ly/11rJzld
  • 2 November – Protest Rally against ISIS militants – 3.00pm-5.00pm – Meet at the foot of the Mound
  • 6 November – Polmigration: a Polish Community event to discuss level of involvement with mainstream services – 10am till 4pm – Ukrainian Club, 14 Royal Terrace – register at goo.gl/5cMy1I
  • 8 November – Bridgend Farmhouse & Allotments Open Day – from 12.00pm-3.30pm – Bridgend Farmhouse & Allotments, 41 Old Dalkeith Road – There will be food, music, information about what’s happening with the farmhouse and tours of the site and building.
  • 10 November – Revised completion date for works to Duddingston Road West rail bridge works – for further information contact Keith Allison on 0131 529 3111 or by e-mail keith.allison@edinburgh.gov.uk
  • 11 November – Friends of the Meadows and Bruntsfield Links Autumn meeting – from 7:30 pm – German Church, 1 Chalmers Crescent – Dr Chris Wigglesworth will speak on the geology of the Meadows and Bruntsfield Links – autumn newsletter now available at http://www.fombl.org.uk/nl38.pdf
  • 18 November – Stanley Place Public Consultation Event – 4.00pm-7.00pm – Abbeyhill Primary School, Abbey Street – Fortis Developments has decided to submit a revised planning application for student residential accommodation. All residents welcome to attend.
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Supported employment works

Today I’ve written about the closure of the Engine Shed and supported employment more generally for the Edinburgh Evening News. You can find my article here but I’ve also reproduced it in full below.

Last month I was saddened to learn that the Engine Shed, a well-respected social enterprise based in the Southside, is set to close. It specialised in providing training and employment to young people with learning disabilities, who would work in its cafe and bakery.

This follows on from the closure of both Blindcraft (pictured below) in 2011 – which provided jobs for people with visual impairments, and produced good quality beds and mattresses – and of 33 Remploy factories across the UK in 2012 – which employed disabled people to make various products ranging from air filters to school furniture.

As a result of government cutting funding for organisations such as this – commonly referred to as supported employment – people with disabilities are increasingly expected to take up mainstream jobs. I have two concerns about how this shift in policy is working in practice.

The support disabled people need to stay in work often isn’t there – the UK government’s Work Programme has badly let down disabled people over the last four years. I think for some more severely disabled people, it will be very hard for them to get a regular job in the first place. This problem is often exacerbated by the fashion for ‘payment by results’ contracts, where those who are easiest to help are cherry-picked by contractors, and those who need more support left behind.

I accept that places such as Blindcraft and Remploy needed public money. But I fear that much of the savings realised by closing these factories is used on benefits to former employees, many of whom have struggled to find work.

It’s important to emphasise that this isn’t just a UK government issue – Scottish Government guidance requires councils to withdraw funding from those that provide a slower, supportive ‘training first’ approach, preferring a ‘jobs first’ view instead. This is what led to Edinburgh Council withdrawing funding from the Engine Shed.

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