Every month I produce an enewsletter with details of my work in Westminster and Edinburgh East. You can find my most recent newsletter below.
Immediately after the Easter recess Parliament started the process of debating the Finance Bill following on the Chancellor’s Budget Statement at the end of March. Not everything announced by the Chancellor appears in the Finance Bill. Some changes can be made through regulations and other announcements are of ‘future intent’.
In the week beginning 16th April we had the Second Reading Debate on the Finance Bill during which I spoke about the absence of any real measures which would promote growth, pointing to the fact that the Office of Budget Responsibility (set up by the Coalition to provide independent commentary on their budgets) was predicting little increased business investment in the next 2/3 years, even taking into account the reductions in Corporation Tax. (p25 http://bit.ly/JfewrE)
Normally after the second reading bills go straight into detailed scrutiny at committee but in the case of the Finance Bill there were 2 days of amendments to some of the most controversial issues being taken in the Chamber, thus giving all MPs the opportunity to take part. This covered the 50p tax rate, the changes to the age related tax allowance, and the withdrawal of child benefit for higher rate tax payers. The Child Benefit issue ran out of time and this may come back to haunt the Government; speakers from all parties tried to point out the complexities of the system being adopted are likely to cause considerable difficulties and cost.
This was also the opportunity for the more ‘colourful’ debates – at least in the eyes of the media: the ‘pasty tax’, the ‘church’ tax (charging VAT on conversions of listed buildings) and the ‘caravan’ tax. The last one was criticised widely, especially from MPs with caravan manufacturers in their constituencies. What was announced as a ‘tidying up’ exercise demonstrated the pitfalls of not working through the consequences since many people pointed out that the projected tax take could be largely outweighed if it affected both the manufacture of caravans and the holiday business. Although the change was passed it was only with a majority of 25, so it could still be something which could be rethought before the Bill passes into law. (Wednesday:http://bit.ly/JfedNw & Thursday: http://bit.ly/Jfe7Fq)
Bad News Week
I was all ready to try to ask the Prime Minister a question on April 25th but didn’t get called – here is the question I would have asked:
‘Double dip recession , a widow being asked by her council to move from London to Walsall for a house –does the Prime Minister not see that he could tackle both problems by making an urgent investment in building affordable homes?’
The story about the widow came from an interview on the Today programme that morning. The previous day there had been a press story about Newham Council looking for homes for would be tenants as far afield as Stoke. DWP ministers claimed that Newham Council was playing politics. So hearing this woman from a different London council recount her experience the very next day showed this to be part of a growing pattern.
Councils say they are having to do this because there are not enough council and housing association homes in London, and private lets are well above the rates which will be paid through Housing Benefit (paid to low paid in work as well as those not in work) following Coalition reforms.
There is no doubt that the Housing Benefit total bill is too high, but increasing levels of private rents in the last few years have been a major factor. The best way of reducing the Housing benefit bill is creating more affordable homes. at the same time creating business for construction firms and jobs for construction workers. Hence my potential question.
Once more on BSkyB
Compared with the state of the economy the story about Hunt and News International might seem a bit ‘Westminster villagey’. However it does raise some very important issues. When the issue of the possible takeover of BSkyB first came up I received many letters and emails from constituents opposing the bid. When Vince Cable was removed from the job of making the decision, many constituents expressed their concern that it was being passed over to Jeremy Hunt who was believed to be too sympathetic to News International. At the time of writing this, it appears that these concerns were not misplaced. Worth remembering too how close the bid came to being approved – only the serious allegations relating to the hacking of Milly Dowler’s phone brought it to an end.
There was a long session of questions to the Culture Secretary on Wednesday 25th – you can see my question here: (p23 http://bit.ly/Jrk5rf).
Although not directly applicable in Scotland, many constituents contacted me with their concerns over the Government’s Legal Aid Bill. The House of Lords passed 11 amendments seeking to protect legal aid for victims of domestic violence pursuing or defending family law cases such as disputes over children or money, for industrial injury cases and for those making social security appeals. Once again the Government’s disdain for the lengthy debates in the Lords showed in the very short time allowed for debate on the amendments – only 5 hours interspersed with votes (each of which takes the best part of 15 minutes) and the Justice Minister, Ken Clarke, spoke for a full hour on one set of amendments, A few concessions were made in the end , including making legal aid available for points of law at a second stage social security tribunal, and expanding the types of evidence to be accepted as proving domestic violence. However in the Commons the nearest the Government came to defeat was 36 votes (bearing in mind that generally the Coalition can command a majority of around 80). See 23rd April here http://bit.ly/JMuDAY.
Once we are at the stage of dealing with Lords amendments we are looking at relatively small parts of the whole Bill (important though these are) and it is easy to lose sight of what the whole ‘reform’ says about the Coalition’s views on access to justice. Justice Ministers waxed almost lyrical about the need to use ‘alternative’ means of resolving disputes e.g. mediation, and state that the availability of legal aid increases ‘litigiousness’. I have to declare an interest here as a former family lawyer, but good legal advice can and does lead to early settlement. Few cases actually go to court hearings.
And they say finally that no one is stopped from going to court. This disingenuously ignores the fact that cost is itself a ‘barrier’ to access. So those who can afford it can still litigate – others can’t. Good quality ‘alternatives to court’ also have a cost which isn’t fully recognised, or funded.
Portobello High School
Plans for a new Portobello High School have been at the top of everyone’s agenda in Portobello in April. Earlier last month Portobello Park Action Group (PPAG) lodged an appeal after Judge Lady Dorrian confirmed that the City of Edinburgh Council did have the power to appropriate “inalienable common good land”. The Court of Session will now hold a hearing on 23 May to decide if this judgement should be reviewed, however if the appeal is progressed a judgement will not be made for several months. Portobello for a New School (PFANS) believe that the Council does have the right to build on Portobello Park, as the school will benefit local families and future generations. PFANS has organised events to protest against the delays the appeal will cause, and launched a poster campaign seen here.
At the last full Council meeting before the local elections, the City of Edinburgh Council voted to approve a plan to commence works at the park as soon as any legal action is complete. An emergency meeting of the Portobello Community Council was being arranged to discuss the plans. Further afield the plans have caused wider concern. At Craigmillar Community Council residents spoke of the need to replace Castlebrae High School, and pointed out that there is land available in Craigmillar. Some residents were concerned that delays with the construction of this school will impact the finance available for other schools across the city. Read more here: http://bit.ly/Iedkep.
Craigmillar Timebanking I recently attended the launch of the Craigmillar Timebanking project at a special lunch held by the Thistle Foundation. Set up by the Foundation, Edinburgh Volunteer Centre, Places for People, Community Renewal and Craigmillar Ability Network (CAN), the Time Bank allows participants to share their skills, knowledge and experience to help someone in their neighbourhood while strengthening community spirit,
Volunteers and residents in the area are encourage to give an hour of their time to perform their chosen skill – from painting a fence to taking a dog for a walk – to help local people who need assistance and odd jobs completed. Volunteers will receive credits which they can then use to ‘buy’ other peoples’ skills. I’ll keep you posted with further details when I get them.
Unfortunately the Craigmillar Greenhouse has closed its doors for now. The project was a great success for the people of greater Craigmillar and the Craigmillar Alliance Trust – through its work it made a real difference to hundreds of people in the community. By promoting greener living and helping hundreds of households get a cheaper deal on their energy bills it saved local people money in tough times. Some owner occupiers were also helped to insulate their home and reduce their bills (and energy consumption). The shop on Niddrie Mains Road and its outreach work was funded by the Climate Challenge Fund between April 2011 and March 2012 and was the Community Alliance Trust’s first major project. While the greenhouse may be closing (for now) the Craigmillar Alliance Trust is due to reopen the Whitehouse very shortly. For details of the Greenhouse’s successes and the plans for the Whitehouse, click here: http://bit.ly/JEzg1L.
Portobello and Leith Community Wind Turbine
Late last month Pedal Porty and Greener Leith announced that they had hit a stumbling block in developing their plans to construct a wind turbine at Seafield, to fund community projects. One year into developing the plans, Scottish Water has told the groups that the Seafield Waste Water Treatment Works PFI contractor has required that Scottish Water accept liability for any accidents involving the proposed turbine on the site. Pedal Portobello and Greener Leith state that they would be willing to insure against this risk; unfortunately Scottish Water are still to proceed with this offer.
Pedal and Greener Leith’s ‘rapid response team’ gathered together tens of residents from the area to demo against the problem on Saturday 28th (see http://bit.ly/IsOU0N). I have also written to John Swinney MSP requesting that he ask Scottish Water to look at this matter again. To read my letter, click here:
Kitchens and Bathrooms update
Some months ago I wrote a piece about my campaign to install ‘walk in’ showers for elderly tenants. I had discovered that the ‘threshold’ of need had been raised substantially and that many people were being told they did not meet this threshold. One example from spring 2011 was a lady in sheltered housing who was suffering from osteoporosis and leukaemia. I was told that she did not qualify because her need was not ‘critical’ enough. The Council did start to acknowledge this issue last year, and began to say ‘wet floor showers are always the first option in bathroom renovations in sheltered housing’. (Report to Health, Social Care and Housing Committee. August 2011. See http://bit.ly/HheDGL). So I was astonished to hear the story of a 90 year old constituent who has just had her kitchen and bathroom replaced as part of the council’s multi million modernisation programme for council properties. Her ground floor ‘pensioner’ flat is one of those with full alarm system and is considered part of the council’s sheltered provision. When she was approached about the modernisation she and her family asked for a shower instead of a bath.A brand new bathroom has been installed – but with bath and a shower over the bath. This property is the type which will be re-let in the future to someone with similar needs, so in making the adaptation while the modernisation work was going on makes sense. Read my full blog post here: http://bit.ly/HjSYtl.
Shortly after becoming MP for Edinburgh East, I learnt that Edinburgh Leisure had announced its plans to close the Crags, so it was great news to hear that the Sports Centre would be reopened to the Southside community. I visited the Crags on the recent open day and I was pleased to see it back in use. The local community worked so hard for many years to retain this centre and it was a big blow when it closed down. Focusing on Basketball training, the centre has been opened by a new charity, led by Boroughmuir Blaze Basketball Club, basketballscotland and Castle Rock Edinvar Housing Association. I’m sure everyone in the Southside will join me in congratulating all those involved in the ‘rebirth’! For information about the centre, and details of the activity schedule, see the website: www.cragssports.com.
Residents in the Southside will have already welcomed the news that the Edinburgh Odeon has had its listed status upgraded to ‘A’ category. Last summer, the former Southside Community Council submitted an application to Historic Scotland requesting the status upgrade in view of the cinema’s local and national architectural importance. The application to protect the historic building was one of the Community Council’s last acts before it was dissolved in November.
I have also been in contact with Lothian Buses after Southside Association members pointed out that the number 2 service has been re-routed without any consultation. The service has been redirected via East Preston Street, with the 14 now using East Richmond Street route. The St Leonard’s area has a large residential population, including a substantial proportion of elderly people who were frequent users of the number 2 service. This service connects places which they would find it difficult to reach otherwise and also manages to cut out a lot of travel time through the city centre. Many users already had a walk from their homes to St Leonard’s Street and they are now faced with a considerable walk either to St Patrick Square or into the corner of Nicolson Square to catch this bus. I will keep you posted on the response I receive.
Pedal on Parliament
At the time of writing, hundreds of cyclists across Edinburgh were preparing for the Pedal on Parliament ‘flash’ bike ride on Holyrood (and a fun family day out). The cyclists will be heading to the Scottish Parliament to make a serious point about making cycling safer and easier in Edinburgh and Scotland. Cycling is the greenest, cheapest and most efficient way to get around out beautiful capital city and I am supporting everyone who was able to attend. If you were not able to attend, remember to sign the petition (http://chn.ge/I72oOS) and look at the website (www.pedalonparliament.org)
Sikh New Year
Last month I had the pleasure of attending the celebrations for the Sikh New Year at the Sikh Temple in Leith. This was the first time I had been invited to attend and I was delighted to be able to gain an insight into the culture of the Edinburgh Sikh community.
Important notice: Migration of mailing list to Mailchimp
Dates for your diary Lecture: Chronic Kidney failure epidemic linked to biofuel production – Tuesday 1st May – 1700-1900 – Medical School Teviot Place
Carr Gomm Garden Party – Saturday 12th May – 1200-1800 – Lochend Secret Garden (entrance between 6 & 8 Lochend Quadrant)
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