May 2012 enewsletter | edition 20

Every month I produce an enewsletter with details of my work in Westminster and Edinburgh East. You can find my most recent newsletter below.

Westminster report

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

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: & Thursday:

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

Legal Aid

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

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.

Constituency report

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:

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.

Greenhouse closure… Whitehouse opening

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:

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 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 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:

Crags reopening
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:

Southside news

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 ( and look at the website (

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

Starting next month I will send this enewsletter using the Mailchimp newsletter mailing service. This means that your email address will be migrated to a secure Mailchimp address book. If you do not want your email address added to my Mailchimp distribution list, please send an email to with ‘UNSUBSCRIBE’ in the subject line. You will still be able to read my enewsletter at For full details of the Mailchimp privacy policy, please go to: .

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)

Please pass on this enewsletter to anyone who may be interested. Anyone can sign-up by sending an email to with ‘SUBSCRIBE’ in the subject line.


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 I have also written to John Swinney MSP requesting that he ask Scottish Water to look at this matter again. My letter to Mr Swinney is below.


July enewsletter: Community campaigns pay off

Edition eleven – July 2011
Westminster Report
Much of my time has still been taken up with the Welfare Reform Bill.  Committee sessions ended at the end of May, but the Report Stage and Third Reading came on June 13th & 15th.  These stages were very disappointing because of the lack of time given. While this is not unique to this legislation (or to this government) this is a very lengthy piece of legislation which will be extensively recasting the Welfare State. I spoke in the Report stage all the amendments we had tabled at Report Stage were even discussed due to shortage of time and the Third Reading was only 30 minutes with only the Secretary of State and his shadow having an opportunity to speak in this part of the debate.The Government has sought to present this Bill as being about the work shy and scroungers.  I agree that for many people work is the best way out of poverty, and that people should not be left stranded on out of work benefits for years. The last Government reduced the number of people on incapacity benefits but the process is not an easy one – as I suspect this government will soon discover!Threaded through the Bill are a number of provisions which will affect the very ‘hard working’ people the government claims it wants to protect. One example is the one which Ed Miliband raised at Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday 15th June.  The Bill includes a restriction to one year for receiving contributory Employment Support Allowance (which will replace Incapacity Benefit) for people deemed able to return to work eventually, called the ‘work related activity group’.  So if you fall ill – but are expected to be able to return to work at some point – you could end up having to spend most of your savings before you are ready to get back to work. Already on a smaller income than when you were working you will only get contributory ESA for a year. After that you won’t get it if your partner earns more than £7500 a year, or if you have savings over £16,000. You may h ave been working regularly for years, paid your tax and national insurance and been saving for your retirement. Too bad – if you can’t get back to work within the year you’ll have to start using up those savings. This will include people with a wide variety of illnesses, including people recovering from cancer.  The PM showed he knew nothing about this proposal, obviously accepting his own propaganda as to what this Bill is about. See This is only one of many ways in which this Bill will impact on ordinary households. If you want more information, or have personal experiences or concerns please let me know.Carers – Actions not Words
I was successful in securing a 90 minute debate in Westminster Hall during Carers Week (Westminster hall debates are short in-depth debates, which give MPs the chance to tease some answers and commitments from Ministers present at the debate.) MPs of all parties like to use Carers Week to praise carers, to have their photographs taken and to issue a suitable press release to their local paper, but we need to do much more than that.  At present carers are very worried about proposed changes to benefits which could impact on carers, and about cuts to local government spending which are reducing hours of care or limiting eligibility, which increase burdens on family and friend carers. See

Newcraighall Housing – on hold – for now
Last month’s sigh of relief was short lived for residents in Newcraighall and Gilberstoun after the council said it would press ahead and consider applications to build 420 homes near to the villages. Spirits were crushed even further when council officials proposed granting the applications, contrary to the Edinburgh Local Plan, and demands from residents to refuse (Read more: The Council said it is obliged to consider a submitted and paid-for application, but did not make clear under what terms the application would be heard. The Council’s own monitoring officials have decided to look at the procedures before any further steps are taken. The process has now been suspended, but this does not mean things are at an end either way. Read more: &

Cairntows Park
What a difference a month makes! Only a matter of weeks ago, the ‘Save Cairntows Park’ residents’ group was gearing up for a tense meeting with developers who had proposed building over the Craigmillar Park. Just two days before the meeting the developers, New City Vision, cancelled the meeting and the plans, admitting they could not press ahead in the face of a fierce community campaign. I am pleased to hear how overjoyed local residents are, and I look forward to seeing New City Vision’s plans for the Niddrie Mill School conversion. Read more:

Send my Sister to School
Send my sister to schoolThree schools in the constituency have recently presented me with hundreds of pieces artwork to promote the need for better female education in less developed countries. Across the world, 39m teenage girls are out of school and many have caring responsibilities from an early age. Providing girls with a full education helps them to grow up supporting their families, communities and future generations. I am hoping to display the works in the House of Commons in the next session of Parliament. Read more:

PEDAL & Greener Leith wind turbine
Local groups PEDAL Porty and Greener Leith have unveiled an exciting new proposal to erect a community owned wind turbine on the Seafield coast. Utilising the strong winds we are very much used to, the turbine aims to generate energy to be sold on to the national gri d and in turn help fund future sustainable projects. As this project requires a large amount of initial funding the groups are bidding for an energyshare grant to get the project off the ground; I have backed the campaign, and also ask you to sign up – the more supporters the group gets the better chance we have of bringing community owned power to Edinburgh. To sign up click here – it only takes two clicks if you have facebook.

Pensions Bill
A number of constituents have contacted me with their concerns about Government proposals to accelerate the equalisation of men’s and women’s pension ages. One group of women, those currently aged 56 and 57, are particularly badly affected. 500,000 women will have to wait more than a year to get their pension under these plans. 33,000 of them will have t o wait 2 years. Without adequate time to plan, this is an unacceptable change to force upon a specific group so quickly.

Despite a huge campaign from women from a wide range of backgrounds and some hints that the Government might be changing its mind, at the Second Reading of the Bill on 20th June Government ministers indicated that they would not be changing course.  The Government has had ample time to reconsider its position given that the campaign has been ongoing for several months and the Bill has been through the House of Lords.  However Ministers did appear to have put out some tantalising hints that they might ‘compromise’ or put in place ‘transitional’ measures in order to head off a revolt by their own backbenchers.  In my speech I called for the Minister in winding up to say what these changes might be, if they were real, but he failed to do so.

Odeon: saved, again
Residents are again celebrating the preservation of the Edinburgh Odeon, after an application to demolish part of the historic B-listed building was refused in early June. The application, submitted by Duddingston House Properties, was the third such bid to demolish since the firm bought the former cinema eight years ago. Councillors decided that the cinema was not beyond repair, but campaigners are now pressing for the council to force repairs on the building and are trying to get the building upgraded to an A-listing. However, DHP has until December to appeal the decision. Read more

The luxury of a spare room
In June the Welfare Reform Bill had its second reading in the House of Commons. As the proposed changes to sickness and disability benefits progress, proposals to change Housing Benefit may also start to affect families in the downturn. I recently wrote about the difficulties families will face if they have a spare room and have to apply for assistance with their rent.(read more: Housing Benefit will no longer be paid if a family has a spare room. Locally there are very real practical objections to this proposal, primarily because there is such a lack of suitable housing alternatives in Edinburgh, and it can also take a long time to move, especially if tenants are classed as ‘adequately housed’. Of course certain tenants require alterations and adaptations specific to their needs – it is costly to make additional alterations in a new property and a spare room is often needed for carers or equipment. For families where the earner loses their job through redundancy or illness, and have to claim housing benefit to cover their costs, they may find themselves unable to stretch under new proposals.

Craigmillar Community Alliance Trust – Greenhouse launch
Over the past few months amazing work has been done to get the Trust up and running, just months in the ‘Greenhouse’ – just a few doors down from the Whitehouse – is opening up to provide free information and advice to save money on energy and promote greener lifestyles. There will be a special launch open day on Sat 9th July 1200-1600 at the office on 64 Niddrie Mains Road. I am told that there will be kids entertainment, tips and talks on energy saving and growing your own fruit and veg, as well as free energy saving goodies to help cut your bills. More info can be found at

Bingham Place Making Community Workshop
Last year the Council announced plans to open a respite centre on the site of the old Lismore Primary School. Local residents have expressed their concerns that there is still a lack of local amenities in the Bingham area and many are not sure that this proposal is the right one for rejuvenating the local area. The Place Making Workshop is another chance to discuss the plans and will be held on Thursday 30th June 2011 at 6.30pm to 8.30pm.

Digital Switchover
Scotland is officially a digital TV nation now that analogue signals have been switched off for good. I know that the process has been somewhat confusing for some constituents, especially the elderly, as channels seemed to drop off and come up every couple of days (I’ve had to retune three times). If you know anyone who is elderly or disabled and who still needs help with the switchover, the Switchover Help Scheme is open until 22 July 2011. Help can be provided with set-top boxes and retuning. Call my office below for more information.

Finally if please pass on this news to those who may be interested. Anyone can sign-up by sending me an email to with ‘SUBSCRIBE’ in the subject line.