Bringing forward a new Castlebrae School

The efforts of Save the Brae were rewarded at the Council meeting on 14th March. Persistent hard work and a refusal to ‘give up’ paid off.

Key to what happens next is the promised re-energisation of the Regeneration process. I believe that the Council should now bring forward plans for the building of a new school. There is a design and a site. Planning permission should be applied for now. In December I suggested that the Council could approach the Scottish Government to request that this project be considered for inclusion in the use of capital funding due to come to Scotland in terms of the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement. See more at http://bit.ly/YVU5rU.

It was argued that the project wasn’t ‘shovel ready’, although it is as prepped as much as many projects put forward from other local authorities. Residents now need a real statement of intent from the Council to make this project shovel ready by applying for planning permission, rather than delaying to 2017.

Bringing the new school forward would address many of the concerns there are about the pressures of sustaining a school with such a small number and a reduced curriculum. More broadly it would be the kind of construction project the Regeneration process, and the whole country, needs to bring jobs and local traineeships to an industry which is struggling.

Together with Kezia Dugdale MSP I have written a letter to the Council leader urging this course of action. You can see the here.

Bringing forward a new Castlebrae School – Joint letter from Sheila Gilmore MP and Kezia Dugdale MSP by David Raine

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Edinburgh East April update: Budget, Bedroom Tax approaches, Castlebrae campaign success, and where is spring?

Westminster Report

Those of us inside the ‘Westminster Bubble’  are sometimes accused of losing perspective on what really matters, but I think most people would agree that the week of March 18th was a big one in Parliamentary terms. The response to the Leveson Report came to a head on the Monday, preceded by some last minute cross party talks, with the Budget scheduled for the Wednesday.

Budget 2013

The Shadow Chancellor called this the ‘Groundhog Day’ budget because in this, Chancellor Osborne’s fourth budget, we had another repeat performance. Previous forecasts about borrowing, deficit reduction, economic growth and unemployment falling, have been downgraded each budget.  Regular statements are made about being ‘on track’, only to discover at the next again budget that the economy is well off track.  Again the Chancellor assured us that with ‘one more heave’ all will be well. In the budget debate one Tory backbencher referred to a pre-budget cartoon of Osborne as a soldier in a World War 1 trench digging in. Then it was always ‘one more push’ – and we know where that led!    I was surprised that the Tory speaker drew all our attention to that image!

Forecasting is a notoriously difficult thing, and it is true that there have been external factors at play, for example the Eurozone problems. However the Government’s austerity measures have been a factor as well, as the independent Office of Budget Responsibility (OBR) made it clear in a rebuke to the Prime Minister, after he made a speech claiming that austerity measures were not a contributory cause of low growth.  A recent article in the Financial Times pointed out that those Euro countries with the deepest austerity had the lowest growth.  Plummeting demand in these countries of course affects our exports, and so the UK recovery also.

Ed Miliband Budget day 2013

The last Labour Government put in stimulus measures to tackle the recession. Combined with low tax receipts caused by the recession, these measures did increase the ‘deficit’.  In June 2010 the newly established OBR published a Report just before the emergency budget forecasting the situation under the previous Labour Government’s policies, and the effect of that emergency budget. It is illuminating comparing these with more recent OBR forecasts.

OBR Growth

Below are figures for the amount forecast to be borrowed by the Government each year (Public Sector Net Borrowing)

OBR Deficit

The Chancellor now seems to accept that growth needs stimulation.

But his measures in this budget are extremely limited.  A small increase in capital spending of £3bn a year will come forward, but not until 2015. The chancellor committed stimulus to housing but the bulk of it for shared equity and mortgage guarantee schemes. These will stimulate construction indirectly, although some commentators fear they may cause a renewed price bubble rather than any real economic growth. I have written a longer piece on the housing aspects of the budget for my website http://www.sheilagilmore.co.uk/the-chancellors-housing-stimulus-the-wrong-answer-to-the-wrong-question/.

Here is what the National Institute for Economic and Social Research concluded on the budget:

“Despite the many policy announcements in the Budget the OBR’s judgement is that these measures, in aggregate, are fiscal neutral and will have no overall effect on growth this year and next. We agree; while we welcome the reduction in employers National Insurance Contributions, the cut to corporation tax, and the switch of some spending from current to capital, none of these rather small changes will have much impact on the overall economy. To generate a significant boost to growth would have required a boost to public investment, financed initially by borrowing, of the order of 1-2 percent of GDP, as suggested by NIESR (and elsewhere: for example The Economist, and in the IFS Green Budget). In that sense, the Budget represents (another) missed opportunity.” The full report is here: http://bit.ly/15TD8SR.

The Financial Times editorial had this to say:

“George Osborne’s Budget offered little – too little – to boost growth now. The Chancellor’s counter to his supporters’ worsening pain was to promise that in a few years’ time, they will be rewarded. This was a political budget that left the economic heavy lifting to others – and to the future.” Read the full excerpt at http://on.ft.com/15TCFA9

The Budget in Parliament

The Budget is still a big House of Commons event, although not as in the past when, ‘old hands’ relate, MPs would queue up in the early hours to get a good seat. With the expansion of autumn Statements into mini budgets, plus numerous media briefings there is little surprise left for budget day itself.

Budget speech

It is tradition that the Leader of the Opposition replies and that both he and the Chancellor are given the field without intervention. Not unlike other statements does the Chancellor face a Q and A session. Straight after these two speeches the Budget debate starts, and continues over the next three sitting days. Votes come on Day 4.  (Monday 25th March).

I spoke on Thursday 21st March.  It has become a bit of a joke between three or four of us ‘frequent speakers’ as to who is going to get the last backbench speaking slot.  This time it was my turn and the time limit was five minutes after some four and a half hours ‘sitting on the benches’.   It was only possible to say a fraction of what I would have liked to cover. The full debate can be read at http://bit.ly/ZY0ki4, with my speech from p62.

Leveson & Press Regulation

The Leveson Report came out at the end of November.  It was clear from the outset that the Prime Minister was not keen to implement the proposals in full. Several weeks of cross party talks passed and frustration at the lack of progress led to various attempts in both Houses of Parliament to ‘amend in’ proposals on Leveson to other pieces of legislation. For example amendments to the Defamation Bill were passed in the House of Lords, and it appeared for a time that the Government was reluctant to make further progress with this Bill. I received a number of letters and emails from constituents concerned that that this could lead to these important reforms being lost. In March matters came to a head as further amendments were put down to the Crime & Courts Bill due to be debated on March 18th.  Cross Party talks were broken off by Cameron the previous Thursday and resumed over the weekend. It became clear that the Government was likely to be defeated if votes took place, and finally a ‘deal’ was done in the early hours of the morning on the 18th.  This lead to the Prime Minister having to seek an urgent short debate on the matter that afternoon.

The majority of constituents who have contacted me on this issue were in favour of the implementation of Leveson in full.

Youth Budget event

Youth Budget 2013 A few days before the Budget I took part in an event at Westminster where groups of school students participated in debates about what they would prioritise in the budget.  They spent the morning at No 11 Downing Street and came into Parliament that afternoon. These sessions built on consultation with young people up and down the country over previous weeks. Results included: Youth Budget Some people might think that it is ‘easy enough’ for young people to propose more taxes but it was interesting to note the support for an unhealthy food tax which they undoubtedly would have to pay! In his closing remarks Treasury Minister David Gauke did say somewhat ruefully that selling such a policy might be easier said than done – clearly still smarting from last year’s ‘pasty tax’!

As so often at these events the enthusiasm and confidence of the young people was inspiring. You can read more about this here: http://bit.ly/YTKjq8.

Jobseekers (Back to Work) Bill

Sandwiched between these two events was a day of debate on this piece of emergency legislation. The Government passed regulations in 2011 that were meant to give the Department for Work and Pensions the power to impose sanctions on people who did not co-operate with one of their various work schemes. One of these – named simply Work Experience – was at the centre of a legal case where a young woman – Cait Reilly – took DWP to court after her Jobseekers Allowance payments were stopped following her refusal to work in Poundland. The Court of Appeal declared the regulations unlawful because jobseekers like Ms Reilly were not given enough information about what was involved and the consequences. However it’s important to emphasise that the Court did not say that schemes of this nature should not continue, and following the Court’s judgment, the Government immediately put down new regulations to allow this to happen.

The focus of the Jobseekers Bill was to prevent the Government having to pay out up to £130 million to claimants who had been sanctioned while the unlawful regulations were in force. I have had a number of constituents expressing a strong view that the Opposition should have voted against the Bill rather than abstaining. I have written more about this on my website at http://bit.ly/Xi8naY.

The debate is not over, and many of us will be reflecting on the policies around this. I have made my position clear on work experience and its place in employment programmes (see further pieces on my website here, here and here).

The wider picture is what Labour did in Government and the policies we are now developing. One example of the former is the Future Jobs Fund which provided six months of paid work for young unemployed people. This was abolished almost immediately after the Coalition came to power, with Ministers claiming that it was too expensive and had been unsuccessful. However a DWP evaluation published afterwards concluded that it had been very effective. Recently the party stated clearly that in Government it would reintroduce a similar type of scheme. This case in illustrates the genuinely distinct approach being taken by Labour compared to the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats.

Bedroom Tax

As implementation date looms, the main thrust of this regressive and unfair policy remains. The Government offered up some small concessions; exempting families with adult children in the armed services, some families with severely disabled children, and foster parents.  Among those left still affected are many people with disabilities or medical conditions, people in adapted homes and separated parents with shared care responsibilities. Nor should we just talk about these groups, because it is highly unfair for so many people who have lived in their homes for many years, who are now expected either to move or lose a sizeable part of their weekly income.  The Government has started to use is to say that the current position is ‘unfair’ to people who are in private rentals where housing benefit is paid subject to size of property restrictions. It is typical of this Government’s approach to play one group off against another and also to suggest that ‘fairness’ also means equalising downwards.  Interestingly there was no mention of this as a reason for the bedroom tax in all the debates when the Welfare Reform Bill was going through Parliament. Bedroom Tax Council and housing association homes are permanent tenancies and people quite reasonably invest in them to make them comfortable.  Generally private lets are short term and when the Local Housing Allowance (the name for housing benefit in the private rented sector) was introduced it applied as people entered into new leases. More people are spending longer in the private sector than they would like due to the poor supply of social housing. There are very real differences between the sectors.  Restrictions on the amount of housing benefit paid for private lets have always been in place, not least because landlords would up rents if there was a ‘blank cheque’. When the housing benefit system has been relatively generous on private rents a sudden increase in ‘DHSS welcome’ signs appear.  If we really want to see the Housing Benefit total spend reduced we need to tackle high rents in the sector, and increase supply.  One of the ironies of Government policy is that they are forcing councils and housing associations to build new homes at much higher rents to compensate for reduced subsidy.

Full details of my work regarding the Bedroom Tax are available on my website at http://bit.ly/ZXZIZY.

In Opposition we have been continuing to take lots of opportunities to press the Government on the bedroom tax, and I took part in a debate on this on 27th February. See p58-60 http://bit.ly/ZXZzWq.

Universal Credit

On 6th March the Commons debated the introduction of Universal Credit.  As often happens with debates on social security issues opposition speakers exceeded Government numbers. It is significant that on this occasion only the Minister replying to the debate showed any great confidence and enthusiasm. Most of the government backbenchers expressed concerns about various aspects of the new benefit, especially the heavy dependence on the IT system and online application systems. I spoke about the concerns arising from the pilots taking place where housing payments go via to claimants rather than direct to landlords, and also about the position of single parents. The Government is making in the way conditions are applied to jobseeking single parents, and the structure of the new benefit itself, have drawn much criticism from organisations representing these families. My speech is available from p42 http://bit.ly/ZXYBct.

Work and Pensions Select Committee

1.    Flat rate pension The Select Committee has been doing ‘pre legislative’ scrutiny of the Bill to introduce the proposed single tier pension.  The Bill is likely to be a key part of next session’s legislative programme.  It was heralded with some fanfare in the early days of this Government but has taken some time even to reach this stage.   What has struck me increasingly is that the proposals are much more evolution than revolution. The changes are less major than Ministers have claimed, and this makes both the expectations of those who move to the new system, the disappointment of those who feel they miss out, less significant than each group thinks. The Government has created this situation by the way it has trumpeted the change.

The new single tier pension builds on much of what was put in place by previous governments, and indeed could not have been contemplated on its apparent ‘no extra cost ‘ basis if the foundations were not already laid

The basic State pension was supplemented by additional state provision initially through the Graduated Pension from the 1960s, and then through the State earnings Related Pension (SERPS) from 1978.  The Thatcher Government weakened SERPS by giving people the freedom to opt out. People were supposed to start private pensions instead but many ceased them after a bit and even those who persisted found that outcomes were poor.  In 2002 The Labour Government introduced a new form of second pension which was more generous than SERPS to those on lower to moderate earnings.  In 2006 the Government announced it would stop people opting out into personal pensions, which happened in 2012, and started a gradual transition to the Second State pension becoming flat rate.

In 1997 pensioner poverty was seen as an urgent issue, with women having especially low retirement earnings. Schemes like SERPS built up over a number of years so didn’t offer any help to the generation of poor pensioners at the time of introduction.  The Labour Government introduced Pension Credit, which currently ‘tops up’ income to £142.70 for a single person.  Respected organisations like the Joseph Rowntree Foundation have acknowledged that this substantially reduced pensioner poverty.  The downside is the fact that it is means tested and there are concerns that not everyone eligible claims (although the shortfall of people claiming applies mainly to the additional Savings Credit rather than the core Pension Credit). Critics suggest that it discourages saving for retirement.  That isn’t just a theoretical argument because I meet a good number of constituents who feel that, while they are not worse off than people on pension credit, they see little benefit from their efforts to save or make pension contributions. These savings were made at a time in their lives when money was tight while bringing up their families.

Copyright: Getty/Mirror

The pros and cons of this approach will continue to be debated, but in the context of the Coalition proposals, the existence of pension credit means that there is already a substantial slice of government expenditure which will be ‘rolled over’ into the new single tier.

At present people coming to retirement have a number of different sources of pension:

  • Some have only the basic State Pension (£107.45 pw for a single person), perhaps because they were out of work for a long time or were unwell, or had caring responsibilities. (Some people have even less than this because they didn’t build up enough contributions and credits)
  • Some have basic State Pension plus additional State Pension (graduated pension, SERPS or the post 2002 S2P) of varying amounts.  This may already be more than the suggested £144 Single Tier Pension the government proposes.
  • Some have basic state pension plus an occupational and/or personal pension, and while they were contributing to this paid less NI contributions than those in the additional State Pension scheme.

The new scheme says that everyone retiring after the start date will eventually receive £144 per week State Pension plus any occupational or personal pension they build.  Some people retiring at the start date will already get that or more from previous contributions. Those who have paid less NI contributions because they were contracted out will not immediately receive the full £144 because they have been paying the lower NI contributions.

It is going to be complicated and contrary to the spin it does not mean that from day one of the new scheme everyone retiring gets £144pw in addition to their existing private or occupational system.

The main gainers are going to be people who didn’t have the chance previously to save for an additional State Pension or private scheme, and the self employed.  This will mean that fewer of them will have to apply for the means tested pension credit (which doesn’t disappear immediately but fewer people will be requiring it).

Eventually the new scheme is forecast to cost Government less than the predicted expenditure under the current arrangements.

In the Budget the Chancellor announced that the start date was being brought forward to 2016 from 2017.  Cynical commentators have suggested that this may have had as much to do with bringing income to the Treasury (because contracting out ends and both employers and employees pay higher NI) as with generosity to those nearing retirement.

Part of the additional income to the Treasury is being used for the ‘employment allowance’ announced by the Chancellor in the budget (which is a reduction in NI to encourage employers to take on staff).

I would be interested to hear what people think, and try to answer what questions I can.  The Committee Report will be published shortly.

2.    Private Pensions We have also been working on a Report on private pensions which have come under much criticism for their poor outcomes.  These pensions will be increasingly important in the future because in some respects the Single Tier pension will be a ceiling on state provision (as well as a ‘floor’ on which to build) and auto enrolment will mean many more low paid people being covered with separate arrangements, like many better paid workers.

3.    The Work Programme Our other major investigation has been into the Work Programme, the Government’s flagship ‘back to work’ scheme, which was launched in June 2011 as the biggest, best and cheapest such programme ever. At the ‘top’ level performance has not met expectations, and at local level many MPs are picking up disturbing examples of poor delivery.  Our enquiry is looking at whether the financial structure of the scheme is working, and in particular how it is faring for people facing particular barriers to being employed.  I am still interested in hearing from people who have personal or professional experience of how this is working.  The Report will be out in the next few months.

Constituency Report

Castlebrae Community High School Success

The efforts of Save the Brae were rewarded at the Council meeting on 14th March. Persistent hard work and a refusal to ‘give up’ paid off. Well done Save the Brae I know many people were cynical at the outset about the whole consultation process, but I think this shows that there is a political (not necessarily ‘party political’) process which runs in parallel with the ‘council official’ role.  These officers have an important role to play in the way any council works providing a professional input and expertise which has to be taken into account. However, as some of us said at the outset, the issue of Castlebrae High School went beyond that of just one department and narrow budget savings.

This was the wording for the Motion the Council passed. Council Motion From this point on the ongoing process must be open and genuinely seek the input of students, parents and the local community.

Key to what happens next is the promised re-energisation of the Regeneration process. I believe that the Council should now bring forward plans for the building of a new school. There is a design and a site. Planning permission should be applied for now.  In December I suggested that the Council could approach the Scottish Government to request that this project be considered for inclusion in the use of capital funding due to come to Scotland in terms of the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement. See more at http://bit.ly/YVU5rU.

It was argued that the project wasn’t ‘shovel ready’, although it is as prepped as much as many projects put forward from other local authorities. Residents now need a real statement of intent from the Council to make this project shovel ready by applying for planning permission, rather than delaying to 2017.

Bringing the new school forward would address many of the concerns there are about the pressures of sustaining a school with such a small number and a reduced curriculum.  More broadly it would be the kind of construction project the Regeneration process, and the whole country, needs to bring jobs and local traineeships to an industry which is struggling.

I have heard some concerns that any plan to bring the new school forward would be to the detriment of a new Portobello High School. This is not the case and the Council must make it plain that the funding for Portobello is safeguarded.

Together with Kezia Dugdale MSP I have written a letter to the Council leader urging this course of action. You can see the letter on my website after the Easter weekend at http://www.sheilagilmore.co.uk/bringing-forward-a-new-castlebrae-school/.

Portobello High School

The City Council agreed on 14th March to go ahead with lodging a Private Bill in the Scottish Parliament that seeks consent to the building of the new school in Portobello Park.  The Process for Private Bills can be found here http://bit.ly/ZXWCoF.

New Portobello High School

The response to the consultation was substantial and 70% of the responses favoured this course of action. Hopefully the whole community can now move forward, and real progress can be made after ten years of debate and consultation.

Shared Repairs Service

Many constituents have contacted me about problems they have encountered with the statutory notice system, but on the whole most people support the continuation of council involvement via enforcement.  This came through loud and clear in the consultation which took place last year. We do need major reforms in the procedures and management, and much more involvement of owners at all stages of repairs to improve the system. The very real difficulties which exist in trying to secure agreement and payment from neighbours mean that people value the service the council provided. The historic fabric of our tenemental city needs to be protected.

I was concerned that the consultation document did not include retention of statutory notices as an option, nor did the Report scheduled for discussion on 14th March.

I contacted councillors with my concerns prior to the meeting with the email here: http://bit.ly/Xi77oh.

I was pleased that councillors voted to retain the statutory power and to ask for a further report by the summer of this year on how the new service can be widened beyond just emergency repairs and the giving of advice and information. See http://bit.ly/ZXXGZJ.

Review of Neighbourhood partnerships

The new City of Edinburgh Council administration has set out its plans to strengthen Neighbourhood Partnerships, and Convener of the Communities and Neighbourhoods Committee is looking for your views to help shape NPs to deliver better results for residents. NPs were established in 2007 as Advisory Committees to plan local priorities as well as organising and community events, projects and initiatives such as clean up campaigns. It is now time to develop the model by looking at previous successes and thinking of ways to involve more people. If you want to provide feedback make sure you complete the survey as soon as possible at http://svy.mk/13QYgNf.

Dumbiedykes Bus update

In March residents attended the Transport and Environment Committee to discuss the possibility of a bus service returning to the Dumbiedykes area. Committee agreed to proceed with the plans, asking officials to look at the options and analyse the demographics of the area. Officials are due to bring their full report to the June Transport Committee where a decision whether or not to introduce a bus service will be made.

Craigmillar Urban Design Framework Review

In 2011 the City of Edinburgh Council announced plans to review the Craigmillar Urban Design Framework – the masterplan designed to guide the regeneration of the area. The original plan was agreed in 2005 setting ambitious plans to reconstruct much of Greater Craigmillar, bringing mixed ownership homes, a state of the art High School at the heart of the community and plans to fuel the local economy. After the financial crash of 2008, and the reduction in funding from the Scottish Government and local council, many of the plans were put on ice, or cancelled.

This review aims to look at the progress of regeneration, analyse the development so far and set the tone to complete the process. The City of Edinburgh Council Labour-led coalition has now committed to build a new Castlebrae High School before 2020, and this refreshed review will establish how all development in Craigmillar will look over the next decade.

As Member of Parliament for Edinburgh East, including Greater Craigmillar, I have submitted my own comments to the planning authority, following lengthy discussion with local residents and community activists. What is clear is that the planning department must bring forward new commitments to protect Cairntows Park for future generations, construct a new school as soon as possible and reconsider the type, makeup and format of the housing in the area. The council cannot get this plan wrong, or make a botched job of this process. It is crucial a new Craigmillar fosters a good community spirit, built on a base of families attracted to the area.  You can read the submission here: http://www.sheilagilmore.co.uk/final-submission-craigmillar-urban-design-framework-review/

Garden sharing

I think we’re all wondering where spring is. As gardens jump back into life, constituents across Edinburgh East contact me asking for help keeping their gardens tidy and preened. With changes to Garden Aid and increases in service charges many household have started to look for help with gardens, while at the same time an increasing amount of more able families want allotments. Edinburgh Garden Partners has come up with a scheme to facilitate garden sharing which joins up people who have a garden (but can’t tend to it) with those who want some Greenspace. For further details, or if you want to participate head to: http://www.edinburghgardenpartners.org.uk/

Young People’s Taster Sessions and Consultation Event

Last month I mentioned that a session was taking place at Meadowbank to canvass the views of young people on what activities should be provided locally.  I went along to see how it went. There was a good attendance and it was a bit like ‘speed dating’ with small groups circulating around tables with different themes e.g. activities, use of open space, where you feel safe (or not). That was followed by instant voting which shows results right away on a screen.  One question asked was whether those attending thought this event would make any difference, and there was a considerable degree of cynicism about that.  So it is over to the Council now to listen and act!

Dates for your diary

Tuesday, 2nd April – Southside Association: special meeting to discuss plans for the Odeon – from 7pm – Southside Association, 117 Nicolson Street Friday, 26th April – SPACE Green Day – 12pm to 5pm – 11 Harewood Road – Clothes recycling, crafts, tombola and music – entry £1 Saturday, 27th April – Craigmillar Books for Babies 15th Birthday Celebration – 11am-12pm – Craigmillar Library, Niddrie Mains Road Tuesday, 30th April – Abbeyhill Student Accommodation PAN exhibition – 2pm-7pm – Chatham Honda Garage, Abbeyhill – Planning reference number 13/00726/PAN

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February 2013 enewsletter: community petition success, Portobello Park consultation, scivers and strivers, and Bedroom Tax starts to hit home

Sheila Gilmore MP Header

Westminster Report

Happy New Year! With Christmas and New Year it has been a while since my last Report at the end of November.

Unusually this week even Central London saw some fairly thick snow, prompting Mayor Boris to cast doubt on climate change theories. To be fair, he still voiced support for measures such as insulation on fuel economy grounds, but he does not seem to have understood the difference between ‘climate’ and ‘weather’.

Snowy London

This month we have had a lot of talk about referenda on Scotland and Europe. January was also the month when the Chancellor hoped he had sprung a trap for the opposition on benefits and tax credits uprating. More on both below.

The quirks of questions

Sometimes you spend a long time trying to craft the perfect question to a Minister in one of the Departmental question sessions, only to find you are not called, and even if called , that no-one takes any notice. On Wednesday 18th December I stayed in the Chamber after PMQs to hear the Defence Secretary’s Statement on Afghanistan. Defence and foreign affairs are not areas I have chosen to specialise in, and while they are extremely important it is sensible to focus one’s energies at Westminster. However being there, I decided to ask a question, about womens’ and girls’ rights and education. Being a statement, if you ‘stick it out’, exercising by jumping up and down between each question and answer, you generally get taken – last on our side in this case. But my more spur of the moment question featured in the Independent’s report of the session!

I seem to have had a very ‘dry’ spell in terms of getting questions in the various ‘ballots’ for Oral Questions in the last few weeks, not for want of trying. But I’ve had a bit of success in ‘bobbing’ (the ‘technical’ term for trying to ‘catch the speaker’s eye even if you haven’t been drawn for a question). Here’s some I have had:

1. I had my first PMQ in several months on 5th December asking the Prime Minister a question about tax relief on pension contributions.

“Q11. [131423] Sheila Gilmore (Edinburgh East) (Lab): Whatever announcements the Chancellor makes on pension tax relief shortly, is it not a fact that when this Government came to power, they made changes to pension tax relief that gave a tax cut of £1.6 billion to people earning more than £150,000? [Interruption] I see that the Chancellor has to give the Prime Minister his crib sheet.

The Prime Minister: I am afraid the Hon. Lady is wrong. We inherited a plan to raise £4 billion in taxes from the wealthiest people, and we raised that further. My Right Hon. Friend the Chancellor will make some further announcements in a moment.”

The point behind this question is that when Labour introduced the 50p tax rate, they made a change to pension tax relief so that people paying that higher rate of tax did not also automatically get 50p tax relief on every pound put away in a pension. On taking office, the Coalition Government changed this so that ‘full’ relief was given to higher rate tax payers. As so often happens at PMQs the Chancellor had to lean over to whisper an answer to the PM (hence the comment about crib sheets). See p11 http://bit.ly/WdlAAz.

PMQs 5th December

2. 5th December was a particularly busy day as I had a Select Committee meeting in the morning, met with a constituent who had been on a tour for a rather brisk cup of tea, then asked my PMQ. I also had been drawn for a short debate in Westminster Hall on ESA issues (see below) and in between was the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement, where I asked the Chancellor a question about figures the Government keeps quoting for job creation (more on jobs figures later). See p35 http://bit.ly/WdlAAz.

3. On 6th December I had a question to the Department of the Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA) on low energy lighting – a most unsatisfactory response. (more later on this issue) http://bit.ly/Wdp3Pi and the same morning DWP minister Steve Webb made a formal statement on benefit uprating where I had a chance to put a question to him (see p32 http://bit.ly/Wdp3Pi)

4. Monday 10th December was the day for DWP questions. I wasn’t drawn but I was called on a question about the Work Programme which is the Government’s flagship employability scheme. The first published statistics had been published about 10 days before this, and showed that the scheme had not met the targets the Government had set for its first year. For nearly 18 months we had been told that no information could be given about outcomes until the first results had been statistically verified. However, the Government didn’t like its own statistics they accompanied them with unverified reports from some of the programme operators stating that actually some 200,000 people had ‘started’ jobs. My question was about this. See p13 http://bit.ly/WdpeKF.

Following this session, the Disability Minister (Esther McVey) was called to answer an Urgent Question about further redundancies at Remploy Factories. After the initial question and answer other people have an opportunity to ask questions, and I asked the Minister to stop the process given that most of the people in the first round of redundancies hadn’t been found jobs. See p32 http://bit.ly/WdpeKF.

5. The following day I got in another question about the Work Programme, this time at Treasury Questions. See p6 http://bit.ly/WdpeKF.

6. I don’t often ask questions on local government (because it is devolved) but housing remains a passion of mine and I asked a Christmas themed question on 17th December:

Sheila Gilmore (Edinburgh East) (Lab):
There are 2,000 households with children in bed and breakfasts, 880 for more than six weeks. There is room at the inn, but no cooking facilities for Christmas, and the price is an increase in housing benefit. What do the Minister’s colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions say about that?

Mr Foster:
The Hon. Lady fails to acknowledge the significant reduction in the number of children in those circumstances under this Government. I nevertheless accept it is important that we do everything we possibly can to assist these families. That is why we are taking action with the relevant council and why we are making £390 million available to assist with the changes in welfare benefit, which her Government never did.

(The point of course, is that the £390m – called Discretionary Housing payments – is only necessary because of the cuts being made and will in no way make the ends meet. The Labour Government didn’t need discretionary payments because it wasn’t making such cuts in the first place. The trouble with oral questions like this is that you don’t get in for another bite at the cherry even when you believe the Minister to be wrong! See p5 http://bit.ly/Wdmv3G.

7. On 8th January I asked the Deputy Prime Minister whether he would support the 60,000 people who have signed ‘Pat’s Petition’ asking for a ‘cumulative impact assessment’ to be carried out of the effects of all the various welfare reform measures on disabled people. His response was to repeat the DWP line ‘when did the Labour Government carry out such an assessment’ – but the real issue is that at no time did the Labour Government carry out such a raft of changes over a limited period. See p9 http://bit.ly/WdmcpH.

The Wintry Autumn Statement

The Chancellor’s Autumn Statement slipped back to 5th December this year. It wasn’t only the weather that was cold by then, so was the economy. Growth has been much slower than predicted in 2010 when the Coalition announced its Emergency Budget and Comprehensive Spending Review (June and October 2010 respectively).There are conflicting views as to why this happened, nevertheless it is a fact the economy is flatlining. The Office of Budget Responsibility report of the Pre-budget predicted growth would be 2.5% in 2011 and 2.75% in 2012, (based on the policy initiatives of the previous Government).

Economic growth since 2007

The Government has made a lot of the ‘deficit’ having been reduced by a quarter but this has to be viewed in the context of their original plan to eliminate the deficit by 2015. To achieve this, the reduction by now would have had to be closer to one half. The target has now been pushed back to 2017.

As a result of this, government borrowing is rising faster than predicted. In the run up to the Autumn Statement many commentators pointed to a big hole opening up in Government finances which could involve drastic further spending cuts. (For anyone wanting to follow up on these arguments a report called Fiscal Fallout published in November 2011 by the Social Market Foundation and the Royal Society of Arts is a good place to start).

In the event, the Chancellor deliberately put off a decision about further departmental spending cuts to the next spending review, but he found savings by limiting the uprating of benefits and tax credits by 1% over the next three years.

Since the autumn statement prospects haven’t improved much. Just this week we have the news that GDP fell by 0.3% in the last three months of 2012.

Employment Figures and the Work Programme

When criticised on the economy the Government points to the fact that unemployment has been falling and that ‘1 million’ new private sector jobs have been created since the General Election. One of their justifications for cutting back the public sector was that this would ‘free up’ the private sector to grow. These figures are causing considerable comment among economists and business commentators, since usually a recession and low growth is accompanied by reduced employment.

Workfare isn't working

I have been pursuing this issue with both the Prime Minister and other Ministers at question sessions and in debates over the last year. By the beginning of 2011 the Prime Minister claimed 500,000 new private sector jobs had been created since the election. Arguably many of these were the result of the stimulus measures of the Labour Government. The 1.2 million quoted towards the end of 2012 include that earlier 500,000 which suggests growth in jobs has actually slowed up. ONS statistics show that around 170,000 of these result from a reclassification of FE college jobs as private rather than public sector. Given the increase in tendering out of public sector functions to the private sector, it is possible that there are other jobs like this. More recently, the Guardian newspaper published an analysis which showed that of the 500,000 new private sector jobs appearing in the statistics for the year to November 2012, at least one fifth appeared to be unpaid work experience placements. See The Guardian data blog: http://bit.ly/XG7NOy.

Many of the new jobs are part time jobs. I have always been a great advocate of part time and flexible working but there appears to be increasing numbers of people who are not choosing this, rather it is a necessity. Part of the explanation may be down to structural changes in business and the labour market which may not change anytime soon. Retail has moved from the old 5 and a half day opening to a seven day week with extended hours. The amount of ‘footfall’ does not increase in line with the hours, so the workforce gets spread over the time, with ‘flexible’ hours matching busy times. One result of this increase in part time work is more workers must claim tax credits and housing benefit, so explaining the ‘shocking rise’ the Government made much of in the Uprating Debate (see more below).

When asked what it is doing about unemployment the Government refers to its ‘flagship’ employability service, the Work Programme. This was to bring together all previous types of employment support into one for those unemployed for 12 months or more (less for young people and those coming off Incapacity Benefit). This we were told would be the biggest, the cheapest and the best such programme ever. For the first 18 months DWP Ministers refused to give any interim outcome data on the ground that it had to be properly verified first (and forbade the providers from doing so either). Shortly before Christmas results revealed the first year target had not been met after 14 months of ‘outcomes’. Early days, said Ministers, and anyway there had been some 200,000 job starts, conveniently announced by the ‘trade association’ for the providers. But why should we now suddenly be expected to believe such unverified data when we were told before how misleading that could be?
Employability programmes of course do not create jobs and in many sectors of the economy there isn’t increased demand for more staff. The Government is very keen to talk about how cheap its employability programme is, but that is the underlying problem. This may seem an odd thing to say given that the programme overall is a huge ‘spend’, but the amount being paid per person (and that only after a job is sustained) is actually relatively low. The Work & Pensions Select Committee is carrying out an investigation into what actually is happening with these programmes. We were promised these would be highly personalised and intensive, but this seems far from the experience of some constituents I have spoken to. If anyone has experience of the Work Programme or knows someone who has, I would be pleased to hear from them.

Referenda

Or is it ‘referendums’? Apparently the latter is now accepted as correct, just as these have now moved from ‘rare’ in our constitution to fairly frequent. This month the Westminster Parliament debated and passed the order necessary to pass referendum holding powers to the Scottish Parliament on the basis of the ‘Edinburgh Agreement’.

On Wednesday 23 January David Cameron was welcomed into PMQs by cheering and Tories waving order papers, following his much trailed Europe Speech promising a Referendum, probably in 2017 if the Tories win the 2015 election. However the cheers were more muted whenever Cameron indicated that he was hoping to be able to campaign for a ‘staying in’ vote. If the Prime Minister hoped his speech could ‘park’ the issue for a while, that is certainly not the case.

Welfare Reform Debates

I have taken part in several debates on this subject over the last couple of months. The biggest was the Welfare Uprating (Make Labour Look like the Party for Skiving Fat Slobs) Bill (Andrew Rawnsley’s words in the Observer). This was announced by the Chancellor in the Autumn Statement now infamously, introduced by another reference to people heading off to work watching their non-working neighbours with the blinds drawn. The Chancellor, as well as saving money, saw this as a trap for Labour. The big justification was that ‘benefits’ had risen 20% since 2007 while wages had risen only 11%. Over a longer timescale, a different picture emerges with unemployment benefit having fallen from 21% of average earnings in 1979 to under 11% now. Two thirds of those affected turned out to be people in work (through the impact on tax credits, housing benefit, maternity pay and statutory sick pay). Nor had those on tax credits benefited from the 5.2% benefit increase last year (based of course on very high inflation that year) because for the last two years they haven’t been increased in line with inflation. Despite all the talk of making work pay tax credits had already been squeezed. Clearly stung by the criticism that the 1% uprating was hitting people in work, Iain Duncan Smith launched an attack on the whole idea of tax credits (despite the fact that his Universal Credit will be doing a similar thing, if less generously) and quoted figures for increases in spend which were shown to be wholly wrong by Channel 4’s FactCheck. Despite this, Ministers went on quoting these wrong figures throughout the debate.

Actually in my case, it was less a matter of taking part in the debate as ‘waiting to speak but not being called’. Numbers wanting to speak on this exceeded time on both days given for debate. I posted my notes for the speech I would have made on my website: http://www.sheilagilmore.co.uk/the-welfare-uprating-debate-and-what-i-would-have-said/.

ESA Reassessments – Westminster Hall – 5 December

I had secured a half hour debate on the frequency of people being reassessed for Employment & Support Allowance. These short debates are basically 15 minutes to put a case and then 15 minutes for the Minister to respond. They are good for making a more detailed critique of a particular issue, which is very difficult in the bigger ‘set piece’ debates in the main Chamber. Sometimes – although not on this occasion – you can even extract a promise of change or at least investigation on the part of a Minister. See from p99 http://bit.ly/WdlAAz.

Disabled people and carers – Westminster Hall – 18 December

This was again a much oversubscribed debate, on the Opposition side anyway. This was a 90 minute debate, but speeches of backbenchers (other than the MP who had obtained the debate) were limited to 4 minutes, with only two Government backbench speakers. This debate covered a wide range of issues around the changes being made to benefits for disabled people and for carers. See from p99 http://bit.ly/Wdln0c.

Atos Work Capability Assessments

On Thursday 17th January a three hour ‘backbench chosen’ debate took place on the assessments for Employment & Support Allowance. This is an issue which I have been doing a lot of work on. Not a voting or decision making debate but one which I think demonstrated the wide range of concerns there are about a system which is placing too many people in the wrong category. Significantly those Government backbenchers who spoke were critical too. Only the Minister defended the process. Speeches again were severely time limited but at least I got my few minutes worth. See p37 http://bit.ly/WdjTTy.

Bedroom Tax – 23rd January

Bedroom Tax 23rd January

Yet another heavily subscribed 90 minute debate. This time not a single Government backbencher came in to listen or speak. Most speakers could have spoken for far longer than we had the chance to do (another 4 minute limit). Although this change was considerably debated a year ago, it is only recently that it has become ‘real’ to those affected as letters are now being sent by council and housing association landlords to affected tenants. Most MPs are getting a lot of constituent enquiries about this, and most are astonished that even people with adapted houses or disabilities aren’t exempted. But as I said over a year ago, it’s not just such extreme cases that need attention; why should a spare room be seen as an unreasonable luxury? The amount many constituents will lose puts the 1% uprating in the shade (although virtually all will be affected by that as well!) One constituent I’ve spoken to with a second ‘single’ bedroom will be losing £50 a month. Even if a move could be found, moving itself is a costly business. I think, perhaps more than any other measure, this one is bringing it home to people that the Government’s welfare ‘reforms’ are hitting lots of ordinary people. Read my speech from p99 http://bit.ly/WdhvMy.

Personal Independence Payment Regulations

Work & Pensions Committee

In December the Government announced the final draft Regulations for the new benefit which will be replacing DLA. The Minister also announced a slowing of the move for existing claimants. Originally scheduled to start in spring 2014 the majority of current DLA claimants will not be assessed for PIP until after October 2015. Around 500,000 existing claimants will be reassessed before that date, for instance if their renewal date falls in this period, or their circumstances change. The Government’s own figures show that 170,000 people are expected to lose benefit by 2015 and 450,000 by 2018. The Minister was in front of the Select Committee on 21st January for over two hours talking about the regulations, and confusingly told us we should ignore the projections for after 2015 because they were ‘speculation’ – despite having been published by her Department. You can view the session at http://bit.ly/Wz4CZB and I have put more information about PIP on my website http://www.sheilagilmore.co.uk/welfare-reform-and-its-impact-on-disabled-people-and-carers/.

Pensions

January also saw the publication of the delayed White Paper on proposals for a new flat rate state pension to start from 2017 (this could be a busy year!). The Work & Pensions Select Committee will be scrutinising the draft Bill next month, so I will report more then. One big question is whether the Pensions Minister has managed to ‘square the circle’ of producing a fairer system within the current spending projections (as the Treasury apparently demanded). If you have questions or views on this please get in touch.

Last week I did a video for Pensions Week on the government’s proposals for private pensions. In particular I talked about why its risk-sharing scheme design would need its own legal framework and how that might affect employers. To watch the video go to http://bit.ly/Wdtlq2.

Pensions Week

Low Energy Lightbulbs

Sadly the constituent who originally brought this issue to my attention died suddenly just after Christmas. My condolences go to her husband, family and friends who will miss her terribly. The best tribute I can pay is to continue the campaign, and ensure that her calls are answered.

Constituency Report

Dumbiedykes Petition

On 22 January the City of Edinburgh Council’s new Petitions Committee heard its second petition from Dumbiedykes residents calling for a public transport link from the area to the Southside. In November I met with residents to discuss the absence of a suitable service and suggested that they establish the petition which has now been heard. Due to the steep gradient out of the ‘Holyrood Valley’ residents in the area face a 45 minute journey via George Street to get to the Southside to visit the doctor’s surgery, pick up some messages, or access community facilities. Needless to say this causes great difficulty for the elderly, people with mobility problems and parents with small children. Many families in the area maintain strong links with the Southside, having moved from the area when Dumbiedykes was built.

Social isolation has increased since the area lost its direct link a few years ago. Councillors also heard that new student accommodation is being built in the area increasing the need for a connection to the south of the city.

The Dumbiedykes community organised a strong campaign and worked tirelessly to get this matter heard. Their hard work has paid off with Councillors calling on officials to explore all options and produce a series of reports due before the next two meetings of the Transport and Environment Committee. Officials must now think creatively (and economically) to provide a service – either by establishing a new route altogether, or work with Lothian buses to divert existing services.

Santa Comes to Craigmillar Books for Babies

On the Saturday before Christmas I popped in to the new Craigmillar Library to see the Christmas Books for Babies event. It was packed with babies & toddlers and mums & dads. Santa came with his sack – full of books of course! This was the third such event in the week which were all packed out! (Future school planners please note there seems to be no lack of babies in the area!)

East Neighbourhood OfficeIf you haven’t been to the new Library it is well worth a visit. The library is equipped with plenty of computers, a fantastic collection of books and audio books for all ages. The addition of a new cafe and comfy public seating area means that you can take a moment to enjoy a quick break. Buses 2, 14, 21, and 30 stop just outside so the new library is easy to get to whether you’re coming from Newcraighall, or Prestonfield. The 42 stops nearby providing connections from Duddingston and Northfield.

East Neighbourhood Centre map

I was rather impressed to be told that registrations were up 20% in the first three weeks of opening the library. Details of the library can be found at http://bit.ly/Wz43z6.

Basketball Festival

City of Edinburgh BasketballClub

On Saturday 5th January I was delighted to meet the City of Edinburgh Basketball Club and watch their senior men’s match against Glasgow Rocks. The team is based in Portobello. Along with MSP Kez Dugdale, Councillor Maureen Child, Council Leader Andrew Burns, and Portobello High Head Teacher Peigi McArthur, we saw an exciting match where the local team ran the Glasgow professional team very close (61-72). The match was the culmination of a one day ‘Basketball Festival’. The Club has a whole range of activities from the ‘Sunday Hoops’ (8-10 years) upwards. To join in, or find out about future matches go to http://www.cityofedinburghbasketball.net.

Swap Starbucks for Serenity

Serenity Cafe

Boycotting Starbucks for their tax and employment practices? Likely to be near the Canongate? I strongly suggest you try the Serenity Cafe in Jackson’s Entry, running between the Canongate and Holyrood Road (near the Tun). Serenity Cafe is a social enterprise set up as part of a project for people recovering from addictions. As well as the cafe it’s a base for a large number of drug and alcohol free activities, including music and art. If you are looking for a place for a relaxing coffee or snack give it a try – and know you are helping a small bit of the real ‘big society’.

http://www.serenitycafe.co.uk

Castlebrae High School

The formal consultation on the closure proposal ended on 7th December and you can see my submission on my website at http://www.sheilagilmore.co.uk/castlebrae-community-high-school-consultation-response/.

The Council meeting which will make a decision on this takes place in March and the campaign is far from over. Save the Brae have been meeting with Councillors, several of whom, from all parties, have been on visits in the last few weeks. The campaign also sent a very good presentation to all Councillors which clearly showed the important links between the regeneration of Craigmillar and the need for a school.

Portobello High School

The consultation on whether the Council should take a ‘private bill’ to the Scottish Parliament to allow the new school to be built on a part of Portobello Park closes on 31st January. There have been several exhibitions, and two large public meetings of over 300 people each, showing the strong interest there is in the issue. If you haven’t yet made your voice heard, depending when you are reading this, there may still be time to respond, whatever your view is. If you haven’t completed the survey, please do so before 5pm on Thursday, 31st January.

http://bit.ly/VPCfIi. You can see my submission on my website at http://www.sheilagilmore.co.uk/portobello-high-school-private-bill-the-school-must-be-built-on-the-park/

Planning Update

Caltongate

Canongate Venture

The new developers have stated that they will be responding to the consultation which took place before Christmas, and will be bringing forward their new proposals for the southern part of the site in March – so watch this space.

Eastern General

Hillcrest Housing Association held a public exhibition/consultation on their plans for part of the former Eastern General hospital site. Developing this site has been slower than anticipated and current plans differ in layout from those previously granted consent. I went along to see the plans on Thursday 24th January. There will be a small number of properties for sale, but most will be for rent (the balance between ‘low’ and ‘mid market’ rent is still to be agreed) My initial view is that there are too many flats, but that is possibly not a material planning consideration, and is driven largely by the cost issue in a climate where the amount of money coming from the Scottish Government to housing associations has reduced. I will be making some comments and will post my letter on my website when I do so.

Dates for your Diary

5pm, Thursday 31st January – deadline to submit comments to the City of Edinburgh Council proposal to take a Private Bill to the Scottish Parliament – complete the survey at http://bit.ly/VPCfIi.

From Wednesday 6th February – Bridgend Growing Communities: An introduction to growing your own food – for full details contact Hollie on 0131 664 0555 or hollie@health-in-mind.org.uk

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Portobello High School Private Bill: the school must be built on the park

The City of Edinburgh Council is currently conducting a consultation to take a Private Bill to the Scottish Parliament in early 2013 to address the legal issue that currently prevents the use of Portobello Park as the site for the new Portobello High School. This Private Bill would apply only to the specific site allocated for the school in Portobello Park. It would not change the status of any other Common Good land, either in Edinburgh or the rest of Scotland.

I firmly support the Council’s proposals to build a new Portobello High School on Portobello Park, and to take a Private Bill to the Scottish Parliament.

My full submission is available here.

If you’re still to support the Private Bill, make sure you complete the online survery by 5.00pm on Thursday, 31st January at: https://www.edinburgh.gov.uk/forms/form/172/en/portobello_school_private_bill__public_opinion_questionnaire

Portobello High School – Portobello Park Private Bill Consultation by

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Castlebrae Community High School consultation response

The consultation on the proposed closure of Castlebrae Community High School ends today, Friday, 7th December 2012.

The regeneration of Craigmillar is instrinsically linked with the progress of its young people and the need for a local High School, at the heart of the community. In my consultation I have called on the City of Edinburgh Council to withdraw its plans to close the school. The Council must now work with the Scottish Government to ensure that the school stays open while a new one is built, and the local regeneration is completed.

You can read a copy of my submission here:
Castlebrae High Schoo1-FINAL

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