December 2013 and January 2014 Newsletter

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Westminster report

Autumn Statement
The political seasons seem to extend themselves these days. We have become used to the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement arriving in December.

The Statement itself was a particularly noisy affair. I know people have varying views on the question of ‘Commons Noise’ and to an extent lively banter across the Commons Chamber gives debate an energy and immediacy that polite silence would not. For example, there are times when there is genuine anger at proposals the ‘other side’ is coming up with, but the way in which Ed Balls was barracked when he replied to the Chancellor was, in my view unacceptable, not simply because he is of my party, but because it was a constant wall of noise. Some of my own colleagues do their share of shouting and heckling on such occasions, but generally it is a response to specific things being said. I found it difficult to hear what he was saying, even though I was sitting in the row behind the Shadow Chancellor.

Watching the TV reports later that evening I was struck by the grins and laughs of Cameron and Osborne. They had scant regard for the many people who are struggling with cuts in real wages and the millions still out of work (Unemployment is only a little lower than it was in 2010), not to mention those households hit by the bedroom tax.

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(POST SCRIPT: PMQs was a particularly quiet one the first week back after Christmas, partly because it was overshadowed by the death that day of a very popular and well respected MP, Paul Goggins. But the verdict of the sketch writers, was ‘boring’! – see Ann Treneman in The Times (paywall), and Michael White in the Guardian)

Nelson Mandela Tribute Debate
This took place on 9 December. Many, many MPs spoke, with some extremely good speeches, including those from Gordon Brown and Peter Hain. I didn’t put into speak not least as we had a long session that afternoon at the Work & Pensions Select Committee with Iain Duncan Smith. Had I done so it would have been to recall that the Anti Apartheid movement was one of the earliest political movements of which I became aware. It is humbling to recall that it was nearly 25 years after my first wearing of the iconic badge, Mandela was released from prison and apartheid crumbled. A long road indeed.

Food Banks Debate
The last Opposition Day debate of the year was on foodbanks. Speakers on our side far exceeded the time available by some considerable margin. But I think we had hit a raw nerve for the Government by choosing this topic, as Tory attendance in the Chamber was well above average, and emotions were running high. Speakers on the Government side were anxious to refute the idea that the expansion of food bank use had anything to do with their policies. Citizens’ Advice Scotland’s evidence obtained from its bureaux shows that 73% of the referrals they make are benefit related.

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Employment and Support Allowance
In December I kept up my work on Employment and Support Allowance – the main benefit for people who can’t work due to an illness or disability. Regular readers will know I’ve been concerned for some time that the assessment process for ESA is flawed. Thousands of applicants, who clearly cannot work, are being declared fit to do so and as a consequence they are refused benefit.

Earlier this year two claimants – supported by a number of charities – took legal action, arguing that when people with mental health conditions apply for ESA, the Government should take responsibility for collecting supporting evidence from appropriate professionals, such as their GPs. The court ruled in their favour in June, but the Government subsequently appealed. On 4 December the Court of Appeal rejected the Government’s arguments, and I posted my reaction on my website.

In a separate development I’ve become aware that the number of incorrect assessments could be far higher than previously thought, because the current figures appear to only count cases that go to formal appeal before a tribunal judge, not those resolved by civil servants. I wrote to the UK Statistics Authority about this just before Christmas, and you can my letter on my website.

Finally I released some comments following the publication of Government’s latest independent review of the ESA assessment on 12 December.

Lobbying Bill
I have received a lot of correspondence from constituents on this Bill. After three years of no action on lobbying the Government brought forward a Bill just before the summer last year which paid no attention to the extensive criticisms summed up by the Political & Constitutional Reform Select Committee, and then tacked on proposals which will inhibit campaigning by voluntary organisations and charities. After rushing it through the Commons, the Government agreed to a ‘pause’ in the Lords for further ‘consultation’. Considerable work was done by peers and representatives of the voluntary sector to suggest changes. Following this the Government made some concessions but not enough. The Bill suffered three defeats on amendments in the Lords, and these came back to us last week, with only four hours of debate allowed. The Minister spoke for 47 minutes of the two hours allowed on the amendment to the first part of the Bill!

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Despite some Tory and LibDem MPs voting to support the Lords Amendments they were defeated. When that happens the Bill goes back to the Lords who vote again on whether to insist on their amendments. At this stage some cross bench peers in particular take the view that the elected chamber should prevail – and the Government got its way, after a tied vote in one case.

Whatever one thinks of the substance of this Bill, the process has been a lesson in how not to produce ‘good’ legislation.

Welfare Reform
January started with my Huffington Post article on the Government’s flagship welfare reform Universal Credit. While I acknowledge that UC isn’t a bad idea in principle, and that it could improve work incentives for some, any benefits won’t be felt for years due to IT overspends and poor project management. Meanwhile another element of the project – the heightened conditionality and increased use of benefit sanctions – is already in place and negatively impacting many claimants. Universal Credit, in my view, is presently ‘All Stick and No Carrot!’

It’s also worth highlighting a speech I made on the 13th of January – you can read a transcript here – in a debate on the impact of welfare policy on poverty. It’s often the same people who are affected by the Government’s various changes, and despite all the hardship caused, the Treasury isn’t making much in the way of savings.

East Coast
On 9 January I spoke in a debate on intercity rail investment, focussing on the Government’s decision to privatise the intercity services on the East Coast Main Line. You can read my speech here and I produced a summary of my arguments for the think-tank Progress.

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A week later the shortlist of bidders to take over the franchise in February 2015 was announced, and I circulated a press release which is available on my website.

High Speed Rail
On a related note I lead a 90 minute debate on High Speed Two in the Commons ante-chamber Westminster Hall. Focussing on the economic benefits of the project, I reminded colleagues the project will shave up to an hour off Edinburgh-London journey times, giving businesses in both cities a boost. Over 500 people who oppose the project emailed me in advance of the debate and thus had the opportunity to address their arguments on the day. It’s worth noting that many of those who contacted me live along the proposed route, but I am very clear that MPs whose cities stand to benefit from the project will robustly endorse it. You can read a transcript of the debate on 14 January here and a joint press release I issued with Edinburgh North and Leith MP Mark Lazarowicz here.

Constituency Report

The Real Cost of Homelessness
Lack of affordable housing brings many people to my office and surgeries. The Scottish Government claims Scotland has the best homelessness legislation in Europe, but that’s a hollow boast when there just aren’t the homes for people to move into. In December I wrote an article on these issues which is available on my website.

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Caltongate Disappointment
On Wednesday, permission was granted to redevelop the Caltongate site. This was the second such vote in as many weeks where developers were successful.

I agree that development at this site is much needed, but these plans have been waved through regardless of the fact it is within our World Heritage Site. Bland, square blocked offices and hotels with flat roofs (see above) will bear no likeness to the organic medieval architecture of the Canongate. Indeed the development could be any new build site, in any city across the country.

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It is without a doubt that the Old Town thrived when permanent residents, who formed stable communities, made it a vibrant and prosperous place to live and work. But plans for just 185 apartments over a 5 acre site means that any population growth here will be minimal. There is a danger the Caltongate will become a bland haven for office workers and tourists staying at budget hotels. Any bursts of vitality and civic life will be shortlived these visitors head off home.

I’m very disappointed the community spent months contributing to the consultation process and lobbying elected members, their views have not been properly taken into account. It certainly seems current planning policies are failing to serve local communities.

The Shape of Things to Come
Last week a cross party group of MPs and MSPs met to be briefed by city planners for an update on the Local Development Plan. The Scottish Government recently rejected the view from the south east Scotland group of local authorities that the sites designated for housing should be phased rather than all done upfront. Granted, there is going to be a growth in housing demand over the next 15 to 20 years, but if too many sites are designated for housing now, there are concerns (shared by all elected members present) that developers will cherry pick the ‘greenfield’ sites, while ‘brownfield’ remains undeveloped. The Council remains committed to seeing outstanding brownfield sites (such as Craigmillar in this constituency) developed as soon as possible, but that may prove more difficult than we had hoped. I simply do not see why sites could not be designated on a rolling phased basis so that development can be properly planned.

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To review the proposals for your area click here.

Newcraighall Residents Feel Ignored
In January the Council’s Development Management Sub-committee approved plans for developers to build 220 homes on greenfield land between Newcraighall and Gilberstoun. Needless to say the two communities, who have fought tirelessly against the plans, are devastated by the decision.

A former mining village, Newcraighall has just 150 households at present. Residents thought the matter was closed when permission for 160 homes was granted in 2012. However developers came back for more and succeeded in pushing up the number of houses at the site. David Hewitt of the Newcraighall Heritage and Community Association, and ward councillors Maureen Child and David Walker, made rousing speeches against the plans at a public hearing where the application was determined. My full report on the hearing is on my website.

Employment Plus Local
Just before Christmas I was invited to open the Salvation Army’s ‘Employment Plus Local’ at East Adam Street. With staff on hand jobseekers, homeless or not, can get help to improve skills and meet the requirements to spend several hours a week ‘job searching’ which is demanded by Job Centres. E-learning courses are also available making use of the computers provided at the centre.

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Green Homes Cashback pays off
A constituent recently received some much needed news which will see her family through the chilly winter months. Weeks after having to replace her boiler she found out grants from the Energy Saving Trust were available under the Green Homes Cashback scheme. The scheme offers grants for anyone looking to install a new boiler and insulation to improve the energy efficiency – regardless of your income, and whether you are an owner, tenant or landlord.

My constituent submitted her request after the installation had taken place and was refused at first. Being on Working Tax Credits she would have been eligible for a replacement boiler and increased insulation. However, I contacted the Trust which reconsidered her position and made a retrospective payment. The family now has a much warmer home and reduced heating bills – for free. Whether you receive benefits, work and get Tax Credits, or are a higher rate taxpayer, owner or tenant, head to www.energysavingtrust.org.uk to see what you are eligible for.

Council Finally Cracks Party Flats
Just last week the Council reported on the progress it has made in dealing with ‘party flats’. Thanks to a great deal of hard work from Councillor Karen Doran and her colleagues, plus a legislative change at Holyrood thanks to the efforts of Sarah Boyack MSP, officials are now able to deal with this problem on two fronts: taking over problem flats under a ‘Management Control Order’ and requiring future party flat landlords to seek planning permission. Taking over as landlord for two flats the Council reported it was able cancel bookings for ‘stag’ and ‘hen’ parties, inspect the properties for Health and Safety concerns, and start to manage future rental more closely. The MCO was the first issued in Scotland and local residents agree there has been a real change. Properties in Holyrood Road, Lothian Road and Old Tolbooth Wynd, all in Edinburgh East, are also under investigation.

Carer Support Payments
Carers across our communities and around the UK do great work assisting loved ones, for little pay and without much recognition. It is one of my priorities to ensure that carers receive support to do that work. That’s why I am pleased the City of Edinburgh Council has reopened its scheme to award one-off carer’s support payments of £250 to those who provide unpaid care for a friend or relative who lives in Edinburgh.

If you are an unpaid carer, providing substantial and regular care for a partner, relative or friend who is over 16 and receives DLA (Care), PIP (Daily Living) or Attendance allowance you may be eligible and should head to www.edinburgh.gov.uk/carersupportpayment for further information. Funds are limited and you must apply by the end of February.

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