October 2014 Newsletter

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Westminster Report

Devolution
In the aftermath of last month’s referendum I emphasised how important it was that the promises made by the three main parties of further devolution to the Scottish Parliament are kept. Since the House of Commons returned from the party conference recess there have been several developments that I think people should know about.

Gordon BrownI acknowledge that in his initial response to the referendum result, the Prime Minister indicated that decisions on whether Scottish MPs should be able to vote on English-only matters should be made ‘in tandem with, and at the same pace as’ the process for further devolution to Scotland. However during all of three occasions mentioned above, all the parties made it clear that the separate processes with respect to England and Scotland are not linked, that the vow was unconditional, and that new powers would be devolved. The Smith Commission has now started meeting and will produce a final report by the end of November.

I think it’s important that we start to focus on what more we can do with the Scottish Parliament’s existing powers, and those that are set to be devolved in future. For example my party has proposed devolving responsibility for Housing Benefit, and combined with new borrowing powers, this could allow us to both invest in affordable housing and reap the benefits as Housing Benefit expenditure falls. I raised this during the Secretary of State’s statement. I had hoped to have a chance to speak further on this during Tuesday’s debate, but time ran out before all those wanting to speak could be heard.

This is such an important issue to so many people – both Yes and No voters alike – and I’m more than happy to discuss any concerns or questions by email.

Israel and Palestine
UK’s approach to Palestine was debated on Monday 13 October. I voted for the UK to recognise Palestine as a state because I believe that this will encourage both sides to negotiate a long-term peace deal. Ian Lucas’s speech explains why my party also voted in favour.

Child Maintenance
When families split up parents who live away from their children should contribute financially to their upbringing. In the past the Government’s Child Support Agency ensured this would happen, but now Ministers are encouraging parents to sort out their own arrangements. They’re doing this by both charging for the CSA’s replacement (the Child Maintenance Service), and by their £20 million Help and Support for Separated Families Initiative. I’m concerned that this latter part of the process isn’t providing enough help to enough parents, and put my concerns to the Government in a debate on Tuesday 21 October. You can read a transcript of my speech, but for a more concise version, read my article of the same date on Politics Home.

Recall
In recent years lots of people have called for a system of recall to be introduced, whereby constituents could start a petition that, if it gained sufficient support, could result in their MP losing their job and a by-election being held. On Tuesday 21 October the Government’s Recall of MPs Bill was debated in the House of Commons, which puts in place this sort of system when an MP has been found guilty of misconduct or neglected his or her duties. As it stands the Bill needs to be strengthened and hopefully this will be done during the Committee stage of the Bill which started on 27th October.

However many constituents have sent emails asking me to back amendments to the bill that go further, and could see MPs recalled for expressing a particular view or voting in a certain way. I’m afraid I won’t be doing so because, as my colleague Frank Dobson MP said in an excellent article he wrote in the Guardian.

Much of the social and political progress we enjoy today sprang from the work of MPs who were attacked and vilified when they first campaigned for the laws and attitudes from which we now benefit. When such MPs argued against the conventional wisdom, the powerful reactionary forces ranged against them didn’t stop at attacking the reformers’ arguments; their opposition was often coupled with personal abuse and smears.

I accept that MPs must ultimately account to those they represent for their views and voting record, but this should be done at General Elections, when voters can take a more rounded view of their overall performance. So while my Labour colleagues and I helped pass the bill on Tuesday, we won’t be supporting the amendments I’ve talked about here.

Mohammad Asghar
Many Edinburgh residents are concerned about Mr Asghar who was shot while in prison in Pakistan. Mr Asghar was formerly my constituent and his family still stay in Edinburgh East. Last week I asked David Cameron what his Government are doing to ensure the safe return of Mr Asghar. I am now making enquiries regarding the comments the Prime Minister made in the chamber last week, as well as asking for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office for further details on the contact it is has made with the Pakistani authorities.

Bedroom Tax
Last month I reported on the Private Members Bill from Andrew George which would substantially reduce the impact of the Bedroom Tax. It passed its Second Reading on 5 September.

Bedroom TaxI have been made a member of the Committee which will go through the detail of the Bill. So far we have had only one meeting, and some of the Tories on the committee have shown that they will be continuing to fight it tooth & nail. I will keep you posted on progress! Labour has opposed the Bedroom Tax since it was first proposed in the Welfare Reform Bill in 2011, and is pledged to abolish it in government.

News in brief

Climate Change

Constituency Report

Engine Shed: supported employment works
It was very disappointing to hear that, despite last year’s decision to continue funding for at least 12 months, the Engine Shed has decided that it will have to close. In September it was announced the Engine Shed would lose 40 per cent of its income from City of Edinburgh Council. Last year the Council fundamentally changed how it seeks to provide employment support schemes but the Engine Shed decided not to be part of the consortium which said it would deliver the new services.

The model both Council and the Scottish Government have chosen to fund is one that prioritises finding people mainstream employment and providing support when they get work. The longer term training and support provided by an organisation like the Engine Shed does not fit this model. In espousing this approach the Council and Scottish Government is echoing the delivery mechanism adopted by the UK Government which has used exactly the same arguments to close many Remploy factories.

As a training facility the Engine Shed is first class and it remains to be seen whether the young people it trained are able to get these ‘real jobs’ and if the in-work support is really available and sustained. My article on the benefits of the Engine Shed model was in the Edinburgh Evening News this weekend.

Meadows Mural
Have you noticed the mural at the junction of Middle Meadow Walk and North Meadow Walk?

Meadows

Meadows 2

This was a project of the Friends of the Meadows and Bruntsfield links, with funding from the Scottish Power and the neighbourhood partnership. This is part of the excellent work this friends group does. If you want to know more their latest newsletter is online at fombl.org.uk/nl38.pdf and their next meeting takes place on 11th November at 7.30pm at the German Church I Chalmers Crescent.

Homebase Consultation
Consultation on the application to demolish Homebase and construct 579 student beds has now closed with an impressive 120 residents submitting their comments on the plans. My own submission responded to the Scottish Government reporter’s interpretation of the term ‘adjacency’ when considering the Council’s student accommodation policy, and highlighted that the development would lead to extremely high numbers of students in a locality outwith the University campus. Residents are also concerned about the consequent loss of a retail store which complements the offering of the Nicolson & Clerk Street Town Centre. The submission is on my website.

Baileyfield

Portobello Responds to Baileyfield Proposals
Portobello Community Council has carried out extensive local consultation on this application by accessing funds made available by the Council’s planning department. Residents were asked to respond using a comment form or an online survey. With the consultation closed and results in 50% responded in support of the proposal, 40% against, while 10% were neutral. Over 400 local residents gave their feedback which means that the Council now has a high quality sample of local opinion on all aspects of this application. Many residents, for or against, commented with caution noting concerns about the impact on school rolls, pressures on GPs surgeries and local transport infrastructure. My submission reflected these concerns and made clear that if the Council is in anyway minded to grant this application, it must have exhaustive comment from the council departments which will have to accommodate the impact of the development. The results of the Community Council consultation are being fully collated and will be available at portobellocc.org shortly.

Council Budget
Next year your Councillors will have to agree a package of budgetary cuts of £67m over 3 years. The Council has launched its ‘challenge’ to allow you decide where the cuts should fall. The interactive tool explains the consequences of your chosen level of cuts for all aspects of the Council services but prevents you from submitting your feedback until the books are balanced. We have already seen news reports that this may lead to increases in allotment charges and cuts to the Edinburgh Leisure subsidy. It is clear that the balancing act will be no easy task. Having tried the challenge it is clear your Councillors will need as much input as possible.

BudgetA number of constituents have raised their concern about the proposal, contained in the council’s pre-budget consultation paper, for a threefold increase in allotment fees. They point to the health and environmental benefits, something which all tiers of government say they support. Allotments are more popular than ever and I think there is still considerable scope for creating more. One very active project, Bridgend allotments, have an open day on 8 November from 12.00pm-3.30pm at the Bridgend Farmhouse & Allotments, 41 Old Dalkeith Road.

In recent years councils have been turning more often to fees and charges as a means of balancing the books. This is one consequence of seven years of council tax freeze. I welcome the council ‘s attempts to involve the public in discussing the budget, but we need to go beyond ‘moving the slider’ up and down and debate how we properly fund local government.

Dates for Your Diary

BridgendFireworksArt Clubs

  • 1 November – Women 50:50 campaign planning event – 1.00pm-3.30pm – Tea, coffees and cake provided – register at bit.ly/11rJzld
  • 2 November – Protest Rally against ISIS militants – 3.00pm-5.00pm – Meet at the foot of the Mound
  • 6 November – Polmigration: a Polish Community event to discuss level of involvement with mainstream services – 10am till 4pm – Ukrainian Club, 14 Royal Terrace – register at goo.gl/5cMy1I
  • 8 November – Bridgend Farmhouse & Allotments Open Day – from 12.00pm-3.30pm – Bridgend Farmhouse & Allotments, 41 Old Dalkeith Road – There will be food, music, information about what’s happening with the farmhouse and tours of the site and building.
  • 10 November – Revised completion date for works to Duddingston Road West rail bridge works – for further information contact Keith Allison on 0131 529 3111 or by e-mail keith.allison@edinburgh.gov.uk
  • 11 November – Friends of the Meadows and Bruntsfield Links Autumn meeting – from 7:30 pm – German Church, 1 Chalmers Crescent – Dr Chris Wigglesworth will speak on the geology of the Meadows and Bruntsfield Links – autumn newsletter now available at http://www.fombl.org.uk/nl38.pdf
  • 18 November – Stanley Place Public Consultation Event – 4.00pm-7.00pm – Abbeyhill Primary School, Abbey Street – Fortis Developments has decided to submit a revised planning application for student residential accommodation. All residents welcome to attend.
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Sorting out separation

In advance of a debate I led on Tuesday, I wrote a piece for PoliticsHome on the support given to separated parents to ensure both make a contribution to their child’s upbringing. I’ve reproduced it in full below.

When families split up the Government clearly has a role in ensuring that parents who live away from their children contribute financially to their upbringing. In the past this function was administered by the Child Support Agency, which enforced payment agreements between nearly 2 million separated parents.

However earlier this year the Coalition started to wind down the CSA, with a view to encouraging parents to sort out their own arrangements following relationship breakdown.

Now all would be applicants to the CSA’s statutory replacement, the Child Maintenance Service, must first talk to the Child Maintenance Options Service; and parents who still wish to use the CMS have to pay a £20 charge, with additional collection charges kicking in if parents fail to pay maintenance between them.

Ministers also set up the £20 million Help and Support for Separated Families (HSSF) Programme to provide specialised help and support for parents come to their own agreements, but following research over the last year, I’m concerned that the programme simply hasn’t reached enough separated families.

For example the £400,000 Sorting Out Separation website was intended to signpost 260,000 parents per year to relevant help and support, but between November 2012 and January 2014 only 9,132 users clicked through to an external organisation (that’s a cost of over £45 per user).

A similarly story emerges when I looked at the HSSF Innovation Fund, which was meant “to learn what works best in helping separating and separated parents to collaborate and resolve conflict in order to support their children.” The first £6.5 million tranche of money was to fund projects that would reach over 280,000 parents, and yet as at 31st January, only 3,724 parents had participated.

Its findings like this that prompted me to secure a 90 minute Westminster Hall debate on Tuesday 21 October, where I’ll be pushing Ministers on both the use of HSSF Programme funding, and what arrangements will be put in place going forward.

As a former family lawyer I know how difficult it can be for many separated parents to behave collaboratively and in the best interests of their children. If the Government is really serious about parents sorting things out themselves, we need initiatives like the HSSF programme to succeed; and if they don’t, we need Ministers to re-double their efforts.

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Lib Dem opposition to welfare cuts is hollow

On Friday morning last week I read Edinburgh West Lib Dem MP Mike Crockart’s STV local piece bemoaning the Westminster Government’s changes to the welfare system. As an MP that takes a keen interest in this issue, I’m afraid I nearly choked on my cornflakes.

Mr Crockart was specifically referring to the cuts in Housing Benefit for people in housing association or local authority accommodation that is deemed to be too large for their needs. From April 2013, working-age tenants will experience a reduction in their entitlement for every spare room in their house. One in seven Scottish tenants will be left worse off. The Government’s defence is that this will encourage people to move to smaller housing.

Unfortunately Ministers have failed to account for places like Edinburgh where there is an acute shortage of one bedroom properties. Downsizing will be difficult if not impossible. The effect of the Government’s ‘bedroom tax’ will instead be to force hundreds of low income families to dig into savings or declare themselves homeless.

So what surprised me so much about Mr Crockart’s piece was his claim that:

I did not vote with the Government on under-occupancy.

I’m afraid to inform readers that this is not strictly true.

What is true is that Mr Crockart DID vote in favour of an amendment to the Welfare Reform Bill – the legislation that contained the policy – to remove the provisions for the bedroom tax. Unfortunately this didn’t extend to all his fellow Lib Dems, and despite Labour’s best efforts the amendment was defeated.

Where he is being somewhat misleading is that, prior to this defeat, he had voted in favour the bill as a whole both at second and third reading, with the provisions on the bedroom tax entirely intact.

I like to be as fair minded as possible towards my fellow parliamentarians, and I appreciate that some MPs will sometimes be persuaded by their party leaders to vote for things that they don’t themselves agree with.

However where I draw the line is when that same MP subsequently makes public claims about their position which bear no relation to what actually happened in reality.

I’m afraid Mr Crockart is guilty of that classic Lib Dem trait – political opportunism. He’s said one thing to please his constituents, but done another to please his party leader.

And what’s worse is that the negative impact of the Welfare Reform Bill (or Act as it is now) isn’t limited to the bedroom tax:

  • There’s the uprating of housing benefit in line with inflation as opposed to local rents;
  • There’s the 20% cut to the Disability Living Allowance budget;
  • There’s the means testing of sickness benefit Employment and Support Allowance after a year;
  • And there’s the introduction of charges for single parents to use the Child Support Agency.

I appreciate that savings have to be made to reduce the deficit. But these changes don’t hit benefits scroungers. They hit ordinary hard working families, the sick and disabled and children.

  • The housing benefit cuts will lead to a widening gap between benefit payments and what tenants have to pay, and will mean people in work won’t be able to pay their rent.
  • Slashing DLA will mean disabled people won’t be able to pay for care or mobility aids and will thus lose their independence.
  • Cuts to ESA will mean people who have both saved for their retirement and paid their taxes all their working lives could lose out if they fall ill.
  • Charging for the CSA will make it more difficult for parents to get child maintenance from former partners, and their children will lose out as a result.

It’s a shame Mr Crockart and his fellow Lib Dems didn’t join with me in voting against these measures when he had the chance.

An edited version of this article originally appeared on STV local.

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September enewsletter: Silly season?

Westminster Report
What should have been a ‘quiet’ political period was shattered by the riots in several English cities. Comments and theories abound, from those like Peter Hitchin blaming ‘liberal’ thinking since the 1960s, Michael Gove on Newsnight telling Harriet Harman that it was all due to the 13 years of Labour Government, a leftish commentator saying it was due to the State intervening too much in working class areas and no less a person than George Osborne saying the solution was to ‘do something’ for areas and people who had been ignored for too long.  Confused?  I certainly am.

What annoys the historian in me is the total lack of historical understanding shown by the media and far too many politicians.  I heard commentators comparing these riots with those of the early 1980s and suggesting that the latter had reasons rooted in social conditions and the current ones had not.  That’s not what was being said at the time!

In that context I saw a fascinating TV programme last week about riots in Llanelli in the ‘long hot summer’ of 1911 (pre-planned for the centenary but maybe screening accelerated timeously?). Railway strikers were supported by many others in trying to stop trains getting through Llanelli. The military were called in and two local young men shot dead by the army. This was followed by burning of sheds and trucks.  What was fascinating however were the newspaper headlines ‘Looters not strikers!’.  Shortly after school children ‘struck’ and marched around the town. This apparently was the first of several such ‘school strikes’ across the country – as far north as Glasgow. No facebook or twitter then – but the word still spread, albeit in days rather than hours!

There are no ‘simple’ explanations.  That isn’t to condone criminal acts, many of which will harm the rioters’ own communities more than anyone else.  But events like this don’t arrive in a vacuum.

Economic Crisis
The other back-drop to this is the ongoing financial crisis in the Eurozone and elsewhere.  Here unemployment is rising in the period to June which is before this year’s school, college and university leavers hit the market. What struck me during the exchanges between Osborne and Balls when the Chancellor made his statement to the recalled House of Commons this month was just how far apart they were.  Osborne is not for budging and fast deficit reduction remains his only plan.  He clearly takes great pleasure in saying that the US has now agreed with him – even if it is only because of the grip the Republicans now have in Congress. Does that make them all right?  The US under Hoover and the UK under McDonald & Baldwin sang from the same hymn sheet but history (at least until very recently?) judged them to have been wrong.

Constituency visits… part two
During the Recess I have been continuing to visit organisations working in our community.  Following my Westminster Hall debate in June I was particularly keen to meet Carers’ organisations to hear direct from them what they thought the main issues are and to hear about their work locally.  In July I met with Vocal & with Mecopp (the latter being the only BME specialist carers group in Scotland). While progress has been made in recent years in recognising the important role played by informal carers, the main message I took away from this was the need to move from ‘recognition’ to the creation of real rights for carers, both to be accepted as partners in the care of their relative or friend, and for such practical help as regular respite care.

Together with Kezia Dugdale MSP I visited One Parent Families Scotland to talk about the implications of the substantial changes the Coalition Government is making to the Child Maintenance system.  The Government hopes that many more people will make voluntary arrangements in the future (and using the statutory system is going to be made more difficult and costly to the parents) but this depends on there being a great deal of support and assistance being available. Although the change is coming from Westminster, the responsibility for funding such services as mediation and relationship counselling lies with the Scottish Government.  This is a good example of the need for MPs and MSPs to work together.  Kezia is putting down parliamentary questions to find out what exactly is being funded at present by the Scottish Government and One Parent Scotland is gathering information about the reality on the ground. From Parliamentary Questions at Westminster I have discovered that there are no plans at present for money to come from Westminster to Scotland to help boost provision.

Another visit was to the Craigmillar Business Incubator, based at the Castlebrae Business Centre to hear about the help they can give to people trying to set up their own business. For more details call 0131 661 8888 or click here http://goo.gl/2ESXE.

Craigmillar’s New Library and East Neighbourhood Office
I was delighted to be present at the ‘turf cutting’ ceremony for the new Council Office and Library being built in Craigmillar – despite the appalling rain on the day!  Public investment like this provides a huge boost to the local economy. It gives work to the private construction industry which has been struggling in the last few years. It provides jobs for construction workers and the Cyrenians project is working with the building company to secure work placements and job opportunities for local people who have been unemployed.

But the economic stimulus doesn’t stop when the building work does. The council office will house around 300 staff (over 3 times the number in the current neighbourhood office) who will bring business to local shops. Just opposite Scottish Government funding has refurbished a classic 1930s roadhouse – ‘The White House’ – and one of the local hopes for its future use is to provide a café. What better place for a lunchtime coffee?

This is a small scale example of what Government should be doing to help the country grow out of recession.  The Tory/LibDem Coalitions at Westminster wants us to believe that ‘public’ spending is bad and ‘private’ good, that public spending ‘squeezes out’ private business and that we don’t need to worry about public spending cuts because the private sector will spring into life to replace the jobs and services lost.

But the truth is that the public and private sectors are inextricably linked; that many private businesses – like construction – flourish when there is ‘public’ investment.  Businesses need customers. That’s true whether you are a small shop or a large multinational company. More people out of work mean less customers.  See more: http://goo.gl/Vi8hz.

New Enterprise Allowance
From 01 August 2011, the Government may give extra help to unemployed people who want to start their own business, through the New Enterprise Allowance. The allowance is available to Jobseekers Allowance claimants that have been on JSA for over 26 weeks. Mentoring and support is provided to develop a business plan and get through the first few months of trading. All applicants need to submit a proposal which has future growth prosepts. A total package of support can be worth up to £2274 for anyone that wants to start their own business. Further information can be found here http://goo.gl/W3XJT.

Greenhouse events: FREE Allotment Visits and Workshops
Run by Craigmillar’s Community Alliance Trust, the Greenhouse is giving you the chance to see what other people are growing, learn some new skills and make some new friends! Each workshop will include a tour of the allotment site and a chance to see polytunnels, willow growing and a plastic bottle greenhouse in action. There are several events over the next four weekends being held at Greendykes, Hays and Hunters Hall. If you want to attend, visit http://goo.gl/mFvGk for more information.

Macmillan Coffee Morning – 30th September 1000-1300
I was unable to take part in the world’s biggest coffee morning in 2010 as my constituency office was still in the process of being setup – this year I wanted to make sure we played our part. So many people are helped by the work of Macmillan and we are looking forward to meeting local residents, and raising funds for the charity. It’s not the most comfortable of offices but there will be plenty of fairtrade coffee and homebaked cakes on sale to raise funds. We will be giving away free homegrown fruit as one member of staff is expecting a bumper crop of apples and pears this year. If you have never been to the office before, or would like some free apples or pears, please pop in on 30 September.

Dates for you diary

  • Edinburgh Mela Festival – 2nd – 4th September – Leith Links. For more details see http://goo.gl/VfpuE.
  • No Women No Peace Workshop – 10th September – Quaker Meeting House, Victoria Terrace Edinburgh – register by the 5th September by emailing scottishwilpf@peaceandjustice.org.uk.
  • Moving Planet march/cycle and rally in Edinburgh to mark the Global Day of Climate Action – 24th September 2011 – Assemble outside City Chambers, High Street/Royal Mile. See http://goo.gl/DBV2m.
  • Edinburgh Annual Volunteer Recruitment Fair – 28th September 1100-1900 – St Paul’s and St George’s Church on York Place. See http://goo.gl/QThXW.

 

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