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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The Welfare Uprating debate – and what I would have said…

On the second day of ‘term’ after Christmas the Government scheduled the Second Reading of their Welfare Benefits Uprating Bill. This was the outcome of the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement on the Economy. He announced then that he was proposing to break the normal link between benefits uprating and inflation and impose three years of only 1% increase in many working age benefits. He also said then that he intended this to be put to an early vote. It was clear from the start that this was a political ploy , with Osborne sure he was setting a ‘trap’ for the opposition , convinced that public opinion would be in the side of yet another crackdown on benefits.

So on Tuesday 8 January the scene was set for the debate on what Andrew Rawnsley in the Observer dubbed the Welfare (Make Labour Look Like the Party for Skiving Fat Slobs ) Bill. The tone had been set by the Chancellor in his Autumn Statement in setting this firmly in the context of hard working people going out to work and seeing the curtains drawn in the next door house where no-one is working. This was followed by a set of adverts with images of a shiny hard working family contrasted with the overweight couch potato figure. During Tuesday’s debate some Tory and LibDem speakers tried to backpeddle from this language as if they hadn’t started by framing the debate in this way.

It quickly became clear that 60% of those affected would actually be people in work, mainly those in receipt of tax credits, but also maternity pay and statutory sick pay.

Geprge OsborneThis turned into one of those occasions when I put in to speak but didn’t get called, since even with speeches limited to 5 minutes there were more people wanting to contribute than time (although the Tories and Lib Dems ran out of speakers an hour before the end. So here are my notes on some of the things I would have said if I’d had the chance:

  1. We heard a lot from Tory speakers about the alleged faults of the ‘welfare system’. But this Bill isn’t about this. Reforming the Welfare system was what the Welfare Reform Act passed last year was supposed to be all about. We may disagree with the way the Government has set about those reforms, but today’s Bill isn’t about any of that. It is only necessary because the Government’s 2010 deficit reduction plan has failed, and further cuts are deemed necessary.
  2. Much of this debate has followed a typical approach from the Government. They assert an exaggerated ‘truth’, usually about the previous Government and then proceed to argue that this justifies whatever they are proposing. So Labour is accused of trapping people on benefits – the so called dependency culture. But spending on out of work benefits actually fell between 1997 and 2010.
  3. The Government is arguing that since benefits rose by 20% since 2007 while wages rose only 10% it is only fair to reduce rises in benefits. It’s only right , said the member of the Vale of Glamorgan, that benefits shouldn’t rise faster than wages. A colleague intervened on him to ask (rhetorically) whether the Labour Government had done anything to bring benefits in line with earnings. The answer to this is indeed ‘no’ but not in the way these Tories were implying. Until the recession from 1997 to 2008 benefits continued to fall relative to earnings. This fall had been going on for some considerable time – in 1979 Unemployment benefit was 21% of average earnings, but in 2010 it had fallen to 11% of average earnings. So the increases since 2008 were starting from a very low base. (Several of my colleagues who did speak pointed out that in cash terms the amounts involved are relatively low – Job Seekers Allowance has risen from £59 per week to £71 per week over this period. )
  4. Labour’s policies were in fact designed to get people into work, including 350,000 single parents. Prior to the last Labour Government the UK had a very low level of single parents in work, in part due to the lack of childcare and in part due to the structure of benefits. Tax credits helped with both these issues.
  5. Following the Autumn statement at the beginning of December it became increasingly clear how many people in work were being affected by this . Perhaps in response to all the criticism Iain Duncan Smith launched into a bizarre attack on tax credits last week, claiming that the system encouraged dependency,. He then used figures for spending on tax credits which have been demonstrated by Channel 4’s Fact Check to be wholly wrong. For instance he claimed that tax credit payments rose 58% ahead of the 2005 General Election. In fact the rise was only 8%. Just before Duncan Smith’s own article an apologist for him wrote a piece in the Telegraph claiming that IDS was embarrassed by the Chancellor’s language. So maybe the IDS article with all its exaggeration was actually ghost written by the Chancellor? But perhaps the most bizarre aspect of this attack on tax credits is that the Secretary of State’s flagship policy of Universal Credit is based on the same fundamental policy of making payments to low paid employees to encourage them into work and help ‘make work pay’. So the Secretary of State appears to be rubbishing his own policy. Yes there are differences of detail which may prove significant – for instance the taper determining when credit is lost is less generous. There is a debate to be had about why there is indeed a growing reliance on tax credits (and also housing benefit) . Tax credits have grown in part because of changes in the labour market. Some of these changes may be temporary but some may be permanent. For instance in retail where the 7 day a week and late opening culture means that busy times are much more scattered and staffing adjusted accordingly, creating a greater need for short hour jobs.
  6. For working families this proposal builds on what has already been a period of payments being frozen. Working Tax credits have been frozen for the last two years, as has child benefit. In addition childcare tax credits were cut from 80% to 70% of eligible costs and the taper increased from 39% to 41%. This last is an effective 2% cut for the low paid and cost families with one child up to £400 and 2 children up to £500 each year.
  7. The old joke that on being asked for directions the answer is ‘well I wouldn’t start from here’. We are being asked to vote on this narrow issue in isolation, with no option to make other choices. The Coalition has already made those choices, on tax rates for example, or on tax relief for pension contributions (also part of the Autumn Statement) or on stimulating investment in affordable housebuilding to create jobs.
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Press release: Labour to force vote on tax cut for millionaires

Labour will force a vote on Wednesday this week to block the Government’s decision to cut the taxes of the 1% of taxpayers earning over £150,000 a year.

The vote comes as ordinary families in places like Edinburgh face losing an average of £511 a year as a result of the decisions taken by this Government from this month.

Sheila Gilmore said;

The Tory-led Government used to say “we are all in this together”. Well, not any more.

The choices this Tory-led Government is making prove it is totally out of touch with what life is like for people in our country. When bills are going up for families on middle and low incomes – George Osborne has added to them all.

David Cameron and George Osborne could have used that money to cut fuel duty or reverse unfair and perverse cuts to tax credits – which means thousands of working parents are better off quitting work.

And at the very same time in the Budget they cut taxes for the 300,000 people earning over £150,000 – the richest 1% – and just 14,000 people earning £1million or more will get a tax cut of over £40,000 each year. How can this be the right priority now?

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April 2012 enewsletter | Edition 19

Are you registered to vote? Elections to the City of Edinburgh Council will be held on Thursday 3rd May 2012. If you still need to register, click here to download a form: http://bit.ly/GYjwpX. If you want to vote by post, click here to download a form: http://bit.ly/GYjEpk. All forms need to be sent in by 18th April 2012.

Westminster Report

Budget Time
The days when budgets were ‘top secret’ till the day have long gone.  The last Government was much criticised for all the ‘leaks’ and ‘advance notice’ but this Government is no better.   But just when we thought it was all out the ‘Granny Tax’ surprises everyone!

Child Benefit & Working Tax Credit
Two proposals rushed out by the Government in October 2010 were much debated in the period leading up to the budget.  The plan to take Child Benefit from higher rate tax payers was launched by the Chancellor at the Tory Conference in 2010.  At the time the Opposition pointed out that the proposal created huge anomalies, with a ‘cliff edge’ at the point where benefit was lost, and some two earner households retaining child benefit if both earned just below the 40% tax threshold with a joint income of around £80,000 while a single earner household would lose all Child Benefit once they earned around £43,000.  Some 16 months on people on the Government side seemed to wake up to the problems.  It appears that little work had been done in the intervening period to sort these anomalies, but the debate at this time was clearly trying to persuade the Chancellor to rethink – with reported differences of view between 10 & 11 Downing Street.

Changes to Working Tax Credit were announced in the October 2010 Spending Review and are due to come into effect this April. Couples will be required to work at least 24 hours between them to qualify instead of 16 as at present.  At first blush that might not seem too hard, but it can be difficult in the current economic climate to find additional hours.  Even those with disabilities or caring responsibilities would be affected.  The oddity of all this is that it contradicts everything the Government has been saying in its Welfare Reform proposals about ‘making work pay’.  The Government has made a particular virtue of saying that under its new Universal Credit (due to start in 2013) people will be encouraged to work very short hours without being worse off.

Given the speculation that the Prime Minister might be keen to help families affected by the child benefit withdrawal anomalies, I took the opportunity of having a ‘PMQ’ on Wednesday 7th March to ask him if he did persuade his Chancellor to agree to child benefit modification would he then help the low income families about to lose up to £3000 in tax credits. See http://bit.ly/GTXv95.

So what happened in the Budget? – as predicted some modification was made to the withdrawal of Child Benefit with no reduction until £50,000 and a tapering after that with full withdrawal only at £60,000. The two earner issues remain and the complex administration may still cause problems in practice.

In contrast to this, almost no change for the couples on working tax credit due to lose up to £3000 a year. The only modification was a last minute decision to exclude carers.  Remember too these are people for whom the rise in the Income Tax threshold is irrelevant because they are already below it.  In the last few days I asked both Vince Cable (p32 http://bit.ly/HkgG97) and Danny Alexander (p66 http://bit.ly/HkgSp8) whether they fought the corner of this group.  Fairly clear for all their professed concern for the low paid that they did not.

Employment & Support Allowance – treatment of mental health and learning difficulties MPs can apply for ‘short’ debates called ‘Westminster Hall’ debates (although the room they are held in is properly called the ‘Grand Committee Room’ but that’s straightforward compared with some parts of Westminster-speak – like the Early day Motions which are anything but ‘early’) .  I was successful in bidding for one recently on a relatively technical aspect of the way in which people are assessed for the Employment and Support Allowance.  Short debates like this (only 30 minutes) are good for raising such issues and getting a Ministerial response.  You can watch the whole debate here http://bit.ly/GTXOAQ.

Work Experience
Another issue which received a lot of recent coverage is work experience for the unemployed. I wrote a piece on this in my blog called ‘Too Posh to Shelve?’ http://bit.ly/GNwAdB and also spoke in a Westminster Hall debate on this topic; you can see the debate here:  http://bit.ly/GZuohp.

DWP Select Committee
We had a session with Employment Minister Chris Grayling on Monday 19th March, again covering Work Experience but also the Work Programme.  The Work Programme was launched last summer with great fanfare to provide training and work search help for the unemployed, mainly those out of work for a year (9 months for under 25s) but also for some people on Employment & Support Allowance who are expected to be ‘fit for work’ within a period of 3-6 months. There are a number of private companies providing this programme, with payment mainly if those referred not just find a job but stay in one for an extended period.  There are concerns about the quality of these schemes and about the viability of the providers – especially for some of the specialist voluntary organisations who don’t seem to be getting much of the work.  You can watch our session here http://bit.ly/GNwKSa.

The Work and Pensions Select Committee has recently published a report on the scheme for people to be ‘Auto- Enrolled’ in pensions.  Pensions may not seem the most exciting of subjects but this scheme could bring many low paid people into pension provision for the first time.  http://bit.ly/GNwZMZ.

Public Bill Committee
I spent much of March on the public bill committee for the Financial Services Bill.  Very important if highly technical – important because it sets up the new regulatory system for financial services.

Long hours in this committee relieved one morning when a fellow member arriving in a rush after a travel problem started to eat a pot of porridge. As he poured in some honey the Chair suddenly announced he was using a ‘banned substance’.  He had the presence of mind to apologise aloud for eating porridge in case anyone came across a reference to a ‘banned substance’ in Hansard!

Welfare Reform Bill
The Welfare Reform Bill passed its final stage on 29th February. With some exceptions (most notably the Government backing down on removing mobility allowance from people in residential care) the Government has delivered its Welfare Reform Agenda. The Government is confident that on this Bill – unlike their NHS reforms – they have public opinion on their side. In part this is due to a ‘framing’ of the issue as being one about ‘scroungers’ and people enjoying a ‘benefits lifestyle’ .However this view would not resonate so much if people did not feel it matched with some of their own experiences. Not altogether surprising when there are indeed many more people who are ‘economically inactive’ not least because under the last Tory government there was a relentless sidelining of people off the unemployment register onto incapacity benefits. However that doesn’t mean that the current re-assessment process is running well or fairly.   (See for instance my Westminster Hall Debate above).

But underlying even this is some disturbing evidence from the British Social Attitudes Survey that there is a long term reduction in support for benefits spending. See http://bit.ly/HkmGij

Some commentators have concluded that this demonstrates that we have become a more individualistic – even selfish- society. Others suggest that this is a sign that benefits have indeed become too high and too easy to get. However I wonder if there is another partial explanation. Since 1997 benefits have improved with things like tax credits, pensioner minimum income guarantee, winter fuel allowance etc. So perhaps people are seeing less need for extra spending. It may be interesting to see if this changes in the next few years as benefits are lowered and more people are experiencing unemployment.

One of our lines of criticism is that some of the ‘savings’ may not turn out to be savings at all. Last April the rules for Housing Benefit changed for people in the private rented sector. The maximum allowed was reduced to the 30th percentile of local rents instead of half. One of the government’s arguments was that Housing Benefit was so dominant in the sector that it in itself was dragging rents upwards and that rents should now begin to fall. Here in Edinburgh the benefit allowed for a 1 bed flat fell from £115 in March 2011 to £ 109 in April but since then has risen steadily to £114 in February 2012. This is still at the 30th percentile level but average rents have risen. This appears to be happening in many parts of the country. So at best the Government will have slowed the rise in the housing benefit total spend but in cash terms there may be little if any saving. In the meantime some recipients who find it difficult to get a let within the new limits will be having to top up their rents from incomes already low (since otherwise they would not qualify for benefit)

The government convinced itself that housing benefit was driving rents up. We argued housing benefit payments were rising because rents were rising. So far it looks as if the second argument was more accurate.

 

Constituency report

Cairntows Park

You will recall that last year residents living near to Cairntows Park successfully fought off plans to develop the park for mixed use housing, preserving this greenspace for future generations. Residents have again contacted me to ask that further protection is sought for the Park. Residents have asked that the park is put forward for Fields in Trust Royal Charter protection, as part of this year’s Diamond Jubilee Celebrations. It is important that this park is defended from development and its recreational use is secured for future generations. I have now written to the Council asking that the Park is included in the list of parks submitted for protection. I will keep you updated on the progress of this request.

 

Allotments Consultation
Across the city, hundreds of residents keep an allotment to grow fruit and vegetables and get some physical exercise. Demand for allotment spaces has grown as people increasingly want to grow their own fresh food locally and cheaply. Two years ago the City of Edinburgh Council agreed to allocate more space for allotments as the waiting list had grown so long people were told they would have to wait eight years. In Edinburgh East the Council proposed four sites: Craigentinny Avenue North, Lochend Park, Joppa Quarry Park, and Baronscourt Park, which is now being consulted on. The plans require that 50% of plots go to local residents. To mitigate anti-social behaviour concerns, sheds are not permitted at the Baronscourt site, and keepers are not permitted to burn leaves or weeds. Residents near to the park are concerned the plans do not include a new access road. I am in touch with Edinburgh and Lothians Greenspace Trust who have said they are now working to reassure residents and communicate the plans more effectively.


The Big Switch

Last month I mentioned the British Gas £50 deal to help people get their homes insulated, this month however, I have backed a campaign calling on the markets offer deals who want to ‘collectively’ switch between energy providers. Launched last month by Which? and 38 Degrees, The Big Switch is a new way for people to buy their energy. This will be the first time in the UK that a very large number of people will join together as a group to negotiate a deal with energy companies. I would encourage constituents to join the 200,000-strong group who have already signed up to The Big Switch, and to use their collective power to try to cut their energy bills and help shake up the market. I have said before that the market as a whole needs major reform, but this is one of the many ideas that could help bring down bills, and change the way the ‘big 6’ sell energy. I have already signed the EDM, but if you want to show your support, and use your collective bargaining power, go to www.whichbigswitch.co.uk.

Anti-Social Behaviour throughout Edinburgh East
As the nights grow longer and warmer it is regrettable that anti-social behaviour increases throughout the City. Last month a 12-year-old girl was the victim of an attack by a group of youths because of the colour of her skin. I was appalled to hear about the attack which took place in Piershill. I had been in the area that week discussing the problems in the square with a number of residents. The residents I spoke to are concerned about the groups of youths that collect there in the evenings, but also want to see drug dealers evicted and CCTV installed. If the council is serious about tackling this behaviour it needs to look at its attitude to the problem as well as how it uses the resources that are available. The Council has pledged to prioritise action in Piershill and a handful of areas which have also seen an increase in anti-social behaviour.  Read my blog on this issue here http://bit.ly/GN2uu9.

Save the Independent Living Fund
A couple of months ago I mentioned a petition calling on the Government to halt the planned closure of the Independent Living Fund in 2015. For over 21 years the ILF has made payments to disabled people to purchase the services of Personal Assistants or a care agency to give them personal care and domestic assistance. The coalition plans to close the scheme in 2015, but it has still not said what will happen after this date; many fear that the care responsibilities will be passed to cash-strapped local authorities. Many people in Edinburgh have used the ILF to ensure that they can arrange their own care which is right for them. I previously urged you to sign the e-petition, and the Lothian Centre for inclusive Living have again asked that as many people as possible sign it. If you have already signed it, make sure you are asking others to do so too. To sign the petition, go to: http://bit.ly/Agwttd.

Big Things on The Beach manifesto launch
Last month BTOTB launched their manifesto which calls on Edinburgh’s next City Council to invest in the City Promenade and Beach at Portobello. You will be aware that elections to the City of Edinburgh Council will take place on May 3rd and BTOTB want the Councillors elected to commit to improve Porty Promenade. Since 2008 plans for the prom have been in place, but local residents feel that progress has slowed. When the plans were first revealed, the City Council said it would create an ‘Edinburgh Promenade’ from Granton to Joppa, to signal the city’s desire to establish Edinburgh as a world class Waterfront City, incorporating Portobello Promenade. The Council’s plan includes the creation of a ‘Portobello Piazza’ by 2013. BTOTB have a petition open until the 3rd May, which is of course polling day. For more details, see http://bit.ly/H4If9i.

Cyrenians Closure
Cyrenians, the employment and support service for people living in the ‘East neighbourhood’ will be closing at the end of the month. I have previously visited the project which works out of the Hays Business Centre to help support individuals into work, education or training. All of the staff at Cyrenians deserve a huge thank you after putting in a great deal of time and energy into this local service, which many had thought was very successful. The project has had some particular successes getting local people into construction, retail and care positions. The service also held out reach sessions in Portobello Library and at Magdalene and Bingham Community Centres. Following a decision by the Council to centralise employment services, a consortium which includes Jewel and Esk and Stevenson College will now deliver the assistance Cyrenians offered. While the consortium has said that it will deliver specialised services to specific areas where there is greater need, It is not yet clear exactly how this will be done.

2012: International Year of Cooperatives
Last year Portobello’s Just World Shop announced plans to seek Fair Trade status for the town, supported by the Community Council. Portobello has long campaigned for more Fairtrade goods to be on sale to help promote better conditions for farmers and faming cooperatives across the world. I recently attended an event held by the Co-operative Party which has also promoted the uptake of fair-trade products nationally. I met with Taysir and Riziq who produce Palestinian Olive Oil and are part the Fairtrade scheme – it’s certainly a new product that I will be looking out for.

Cycle safety tagging and marking events
Next week Lothian and Borders Police will be holding three cycle safety sessions across Edinburgh East. The Cycle Safety campaign has been set up to help prevent bike crime. Officers will register, UV mark and electronically tag your bike at these events. A limited number of bikes will be tagged for free according to promotional material (see http://bit.ly/GVJjiJ) otherwise, registration and UV marking is £5, and registration, marking and tagging is £16. Details of the events are as follows:

  • Mon 2nd      April – 11am-2pm – Waverley Court, East Market Street
  • Tues 3rd      April – 11am-2pm – Bristo Square, Edinburgh Uni
  • Wed 4th      April – 11am-2pm – The Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh
  • Thurs 5th      April – 11am-2pm – King’s Buildings, Edinburgh Uni


Big Lottery Young Start Fund
Big Lottery Fund, the organisation which allocates Lottery grants has launched a Young Start fund, to help children and young people work alongside old people in their community. Funding is available to deliver projects which encourage young people to become more confident, healthy and connected with older people in their community. Funds are also available to tackle youth unemployment by preparing young people to start work or set up a business. Young Start will provide grants of between £10,000 and £50,000 for up to two years for projects that provide services for young people aged 8 to 24. It can fund a range of youth activities including sports facilities, creative arts, information and communication skills, as well as setting up work experience schemes with local employers. Details are on facebook: www.facebook.com/youngstartfund.
New Surgery Schedule

Starting this month, my surgery schedule will be changing. I will now hold all of my surgeries on the second Friday of each month in three locations across Edinburgh East, which will free up more time for constituents who want individual appointments. For reference, the new surgery schedule is below:

Surgeries are held on the second Friday of each month

Central Library (George IV Bridge) – Between 10.00am – 11.00am. Served by buses: 2, 41, 42, 45, 67.

Restalrig Lochend Community Hub (198 Restalrig Road) – Between 11.30am – 12.30pm. Served by buses: 19, 21, 25, 34, 49.

Portobello Library (off Portobello High Street) – Between 14.00pm – 15.00pm. Served by buses: 15, 21, 26, 42, 49, 69.

Dates for your diary
02 April 2012 to 06 April 2012 – Lothian and Borders Cycle safety registration and tagging sessions – various locations, see http://bit.ly/GVJjiJ for full details.
12 April 2012 – ‘Living with Labels’ – a film about what it’s like to live with a label of mental illness – film launch – 1800-2000 – The Filmhouse. Anyone wishing to attend MUST register on 0131 538 7177

18 April 2012 – Last day to register to vote or vote by post – forms are available here: http://bit.ly/GYjEpk & http://bit.ly/GYjwpX

03 May 2012 – Big Things on the Beach petition closes – sign the petition here: http://bit.ly/H4If9i.

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

 

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Press release: One rule for the rich, another for the poor

Edinburgh East MP Sheila Gilmore has slammed the Tory-led Government’s budget and the way it has one rule for the rich, another for the poor.

Sheila Gilmore was speaking after a budget debate in the House of Commons. She compared the decision to cut the 50p rate of tax for those earning over £150,000 to the cuts in Working Tax Credits that take effect from the end of the month.

Sheila Gilmore said:

On the one hand the Chancellor has justified scrapping the 50p tax by claiming it wasn’t bringing in money due to high earners fiddling their finances. While this claim is doubtful – HMRC estimate the tax would bring in £3 billion next year – this shows the Government are willing to pander to the rich.

On the other hand the Chancellor’s cuts to working tax credits mean that couples who at present have to work at least 16 hours per week to qualify will now have to work 24. If families can’t get the extra hours, they stand to lose up to £3,000 a year. Faced with this change some may judge that they would be better of not working at all. The Government would then no doubt call them scroungers and workshy.

So on the one hand the Government carefully adapt policy to discourage the rich from tax avoidance – and are very polite in the process – but are happy to plough on regardless when their decisions will encourage people to give up work – vilifying anyone who does.

This follows a speech in the House of Commons on 22 March 2012. Sheila Gilmore said:

Clearly, the Government see tax planning as a perfectly rational and sensible reaction to tax changes. However, if a working couple who are about to lose £3,000 in tax credits make a sensible and rational decision to stop work because that will make them better off, will they be seen as merely making a sensible and rational decision, or will they be seen as lazy, as scroungers, and as people who prefer to watch daytime television than hold down a job? If they make that decision, which is rational for them, the outcome will be wholly irrational for the Government, because it will cost the Government more if that family stop work.

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