Evening News column: Start debate on disability benefits

Earlier this week I wrote for the Edinburgh Evening News on the need to start discussing how we use the new powers Scotland will receive following the referendum. You can access the article here but I’ve also reproduced it in full below.

Following last year’s referendum the Smith Commission proposed giving the Scottish Parliament new powers over issues like tax and welfare.

Two weeks ago a draft law was published that all three main UK parties have committed to passing after the election to make this a reality. Now we need to start talking about how we’ll use these powers to build the fairer and more equal society that we all want to see.

One of the areas of welfare set to be devolved is supporting folk with the additional costs of living and working with a disability or chronic illness.

Since the 1990s people have been able to claim Disability Living Allowance, which is paid regardless of income, and for many is the difference between holding down a job and not. But back in 2010 the Conservatives and Liberal Democrat coalition announced it would replace DLA with a new benefit – Personal Independence Payment – to cut spending by 20 per cent.

While existing DLA claimants are set to start being reassessed for PIP later this year, I believe this should be delayed until control of these benefits passes to Holyrood. At that point we Scots will have a choice: do we want to press ahead with the switch to PIP or go back to DLA? Both options have their challenges.

If we go with PIP, many new claimants have complained of long waits to both get an appointment and receive their first payment. How would we address these delays? Should there be fewer face-to-face assessments? Should we continue to contract out this work to private companies?

Alternatively if we stick with DLA, where will we find the extra £200 million per year to pay for it? Do we ask people to pay more tax or cut spending elsewhere? And what of those who say that, once the delays are overcome, PIP is a big improvement for people with mental health conditions? Should we re-work DLA to take lessons from PIP into account? Can we develop a system that works better with care packages provided by councils?

Naturally, the focus of charities and campaigners over the last four years has been on helping individuals navigate the changing social security system, and campaigning against “reforms” based on savings rather than the needs of those affected. But we now need to think positively about what is needed.

I don’t pretend to have all the answers to these questions at present, but what I do know is that we need to start having this debate now so that we are ready to craft a benefit right for the needs of Scotland.

Scottish Labour has already proposed using new powers to freeze fracking in Scotland, bring Scotrail back into public ownership, and reintroduce a 50p tax on earnings over £150,000 – now we need to start talking about DLA and PIP.

After people were so engaged in discussing where power should lie during the referendum, it would be a tragedy if they weren’t involved in deciding how we use the new powers we will now have. For the sake of the people we all want to help, let’s have this debate now.

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November 2014 Newsletter

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Merry Christmas

Christmas CardFriday ClubWith the mild weather holding winter back later than usual, it seems quite early to be sending my Christmas wishes. I’d like to wish you a peaceful and joyous festive period when the break does come around. While we spend time with family, remember some friends and neighbours are less fortunate, so please remember to check on them over the festive season.

The festive artwork featured below was kindly produced by the members of the at Ripple Project ‘Friday Club’ and will appear on my Christmas card which will now be distributed to 5,000 Edinburgh East households.

The Friday Club is a social and activities club for residents who are 60+ in Restalrig, Lochend, Craigentinny and surrounding areas. The group meets on a Friday 1.30pm-3.30pm at the Restalrig Lochend Community Hub to enjoy music, films, games and a variety of entertainment from guests. A dedicated group of volunteers help the afternoon run smoothly and provide refreshments.
For more information about the club, how to join, as well as the details of other activities at the hub for friends and relatives over 60, call 0131 554 0422.

Westminster Report

Devolution
Smith CommissionThe Smith Commission’s report on further devolution to the Scottish Parliament has now been published. There was a further House of Commons debate on this issue on 20 November, and in my speech I argued that we should start to move on from debating what powers should or shouldn’t be devolved, to how the Scottish Parliament uses those powers it has to create a fairer and more equal society. For example the new tax-varying and borrowing powers that already guaranteed following the Scotland Act 2012 could be used to significantly increase investment in affordable housing or social care.

Disability benefits
As regular readers will know, I’ve long been concerned about the Work Capability Assessment for Employment and Support Allowance – the main benefit for people who believe they cannot work due to ill health or a disability – with at least one in ten decisions being overturned on appeal.

Atos Healthcare are set to walk away from their contract to carry out the face-to-face part of the WCA, and earlier this month the UK Government announced that this work would transfer to US outsourcing specialist Maximus. Unfortunately Ministers don’t appear to have taken the opportunity to reform the test so that the number of incorrect decisions is reduced – see this piece on my website. I also reacted angrily to reports that the Conservatives are considering cutting ESA payments for some claimants.

In other social security news:

  • It has emerged that Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith knew his flagship welfare reform Universal Credit was late and over budget far earlier than he’s previously admitted – I gave my reaction to the Huffington Post.
  • After fellow DWP Minister Lord Freud had to apologise for suggesting disabled people could be paid less than the minimum wage, I highlighted his failure to address the concerns of my disabled constituent when I raised concerns on his behalf.
  • In the Guardian I argued that George Osborne’s new personal tax statement – which people should start receiving soon – fails to explain that most welfare spending goes on things that people support, such as disability benefits, housing costs, and tax credits for those in work.
  • I reviewed a new book – Good Times Bad Times: the welfare myths of them and us, by John Hills – for the think tank Progress.

East Coast
Over the last year and a half I’ve been campaigning against the UK Government’s plans to re-privatise intercity services on the East Coast Main Line, which have been run successfully by the UK public sector since 2009. On 24 November it was widely anticipated that the contract was set to be awarded to Eurostar and Keolis – and would stand to benefit French train passengers with profits being reinvested services there. My reaction was picked up in the Evening News and Herald amongst others. The Government has since announced that the franchise would in fact be awarded to Stagecoach and Virgin. Regardless of the fact the franchise has been awarded to British firms, it is highly disappointing profits will go to private companies, rather than to the exchequer, as happens at present. On Thursday morning the matter was the subject of an urgent question.

What did Labour do in the Scottish Parliament?
I spend time every week knocking on doors somewhere in the constituency and I recently had a conversation with someone who claimed Labour did nothing during our time in Government at Holyrood. Obviously I took a different view, and while it wouldn’t be appropriate to set this out here, I’ve reproduced my response on my website for other constituents to read.

National Health Service
This month I received a record 438 emails on the National Health Service (Amended Duties and Powers) Bill, which would ensure that a new EU-US trade deal cannot change the way the NHS in Scotland is run – something I raised with David Cameron on 17 November – and stop the gradual privatisation of NHS services in England.

NHSMy Labour colleagues and I voted in favour of the bill at its second reading debate on 21 November, and it was passed by 241 votes to 18 (although unfortunately there are lots of barriers to it becoming law before the next election). For more on this see the response I sent to constituents on my website.

Gordon’s Fightback campaign successes
It was great to see my constituent Gordon Aikman attend a reception with Samantha Cameron at Downing Street as part of his fight back against Motor Neurone Disease.

Gordon's FightbackAnd in the past week he has had further successes! At the Scottish Politician of the Year Awards, Gordon won a special judges award for the work he has done through his Fight back campaign. He then went on to secure agreement from First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, for a review of the care provided to those suffering MND. For more information on Gordon’s campaign see gordonsfightback.com/#takeaction.

News in brief

International Development BillCitizen's Advice

Constituency Report

Supporting Afghan Women
On Friday 14th November I attended a play at Summerhall performed by the St Mark’s Amnesty Group in my constituency, called ‘Even if we lose our lives’. To be honest, on a cold evening, with a head cold brewing I went out of a sense of duty, but came away stunned and humbled by the performance which brought together the real life stories of three Afghan women; a teacher, a doctor and a family mediator. What these women had been through to defend human rights and provide services was a stark reminder of the ongoing problems of their country. But the message from all was that they were not going to give up.

Afghan WomenMore recently I attended a session at Westminster run by Action Aid drawing attention to similar issues and calling in particular for women and women’s issues to be centre stage in the forthcoming London Conference on development in Afghanistan. For more information on Action Aid’s campaign go to action.org.uk.

Remembrance Sunday
On Sunday 9th November I attended the wreath laying service at the Prestonfield War Memorial. When the new residents of Prestonfield and Priestfield moved here during the 1930s many of the names on the memorial would be well remembered fathers, uncles, brothers and husbands. And within only a few years many families saw their sons, and daughters, going off to war again. One of them was my own Dad whose family had not long moved to Cameron House Avenue. He was one of the lucky ones who came back.

Common Repairs and Statutory Notices
A big problem in the constituency is getting common repairs done. Despite the well-known problems of the Council’s previous system of dealing with Statutory Notices, many people support the retention of some method of council intervention when it proves impossible to get agreement among owners. Recently the Council has restricted its interventions to emergency work only. New proposals, for a service which would step in, but only after information and advice had been given with a view to assisting owners to agree among themselves, are now being considered. In some circumstances the council would be able in future, due to new legislation, to pay a ‘missing share’ where an owner refuses to co-operate. After looking at a number of ways of providing a service when agreement proves impossible, the Council has decided that an in house model will be used. I broadly welcome the recommendations; I had said previously that I thought something of this kind must be reintroduced. The report makes clear the importance of good communication with owners throughout the process, which was one of the flaws before. The new system won’t be fully up and running until autumn next year. For more information read the full report on the Council’s website.

HMOs – does Edinburgh need an over-provision policy?
This is a subject which provokes much lively debate in many parts of the city. HMO licensing has done a lot to improve the quality of the properties for rent and clamp down on gross overcrowding. But the unresolved issue is whether it is right to control the quantity of HMOs in certain areas. The Scottish Parliament gave councils the power to adopt an ‘over provision’ strategy in 2011, a matter which was discussed at a recent meeting of the Regulatory Committee, and was covered in a piece in the Edinburgh Evening News. Over the next few months Edinburgh Council will be consulting local groups and community councils to establish whether Edinburgh should adopt such a policy. I wrote an article for the Evening News on this subject which called for the consultation to be thorough and learn from the experiences in other Scottish cities. Let me know what you think, and look out for details of the consultation.

Canongate Youth project secures People’s Millions funding
I am delighted the Canongate Youth Project will receive a £38,000 grant from the People’s Millions fund for their Old School Cafe project after securing enough votes in a telephone poll held on Tuesday. The project will create a new city centre cafe in the South Bridge Resource Centre to improve the employment prospects of 25 unemployed young people providing on the job training and experience. Well done to all involved!

Edinburgh East’s new Crown Post Office
In November I opened the new Edinburgh City Post Office, located in Princes Mall. The Crown Post Office is now located in a new modern branch has nine staffed counters and longer opening hours (the ubiquitous self-service machine has also been introduced!).

Post Office

The branch move has come well in advance of St James Centre closing its doors next year; hopefully the new premises will be become familiar in advance of this big change for shoppers.

Planning update

Meadow Lane application – submit your comments now
The University of Edinburgh has now submitted its ‘full’ application for purpose built student accommodation at Meadow Lane. The university propose demolishing the 18th century coach houses and to build accommodation for 267 students. While this application is undeniably very close to the University area it is in addition to a proposal to return Buccleuch Place to residential use for students. The proposed density has angered Buccleuch Street residents who will feel swamped. When I attended the pre-application exhibition earlier in the year many said they were concerned about the distinctly modern design and height of the building, in this part of the Southside Conservation Area.

I will be submitting my own objections before the 12th December deadline. To review the plans and submit your own comments, use reference numbers 14/04674/FUL and 14/04682/CON on the Planning Portal.

Baileyfield decision due this month
Last month, I included details of my submission on the Baileyfield application, along with details of the Portobello Community Council consultation on the plans. I have now been informed that the application is due to be determined at the Development Management Sub-Committee on 17th December which will hold a ‘Hearing’ where local groups can make deputations.

Stanley Place application
Next month the developer proposing student accommodation intends to come back with a revised application to build student accommodation on a very narrow site next to the East Coast Main Line on Stanley Place. Residents have had the opportunity to meet with developers at an exhibition of the plans in November, but many report they are underwhelmed the plans have not changed enough. I have been provided with a copy of the boards displayed, please let me know if you would like a copy of these.

Billboard on Cairntows Park refused
In August JCDecaux submitted a number of plans for LED lit advertising hoardings at various sites across the city. This included on the Peffermill Road edge of Cairntows Park. As Southside residents have learnt previously, neighbouring properties are not notified of these applications, thus the Community Neighbourhood Alliance and I swung into action to object to this proposal, knowing that if approved this would not promote the amenity many campaigned for when they saved the park from development.

Inchview Terrace care home proposal
Last year, the Council refused an application for a Lidl store at the former Stratstone Land Rover premises at Inchview Terrace. New developers have now submitted a proposal for a 60 bed care home. You can view the plans on the Planning Portal using reference number 14/04780/FUL. Please get I touch if you have comments on this new proposal.

Dates for your Diary
White House2nd December – One World Shop Christmas Shopping Event and Website Launch – 5.00pm-7.00pm – St John’s Church, West End of Princes Street – All shoppers will get 10% off their purchases on the night, mulled wine and Christmas biscuits, and have the chance to enter into the raffle to win vouchers to spend online.

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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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August 2014 Newsletter

portcullisbanner_Copy.2.1.1Westminster Report

Bad IschlDomestic UK politics may have been winding down in July (except here in Scotland, of course) but internationally there has been an alarming spiral of violence. During July I was listening to Radio 4’s five minute daily slot ‘counting down’ from the Sarajevo assassination to the outbreak of World War 1. With our historical knowledge, the counterpoint of the events following the assassination at Sarajevo with ordinary news items such as suffragette demonstrations, concerts and sporting events, and Irish problems bubbling up, is poignant. But there are also frightening parallels 100 years on when so many people are facing the horrors of conflict. Many constituents have been in contact with me appalled by the grossly disproportionate response of the Israel incursion into Gaza. The killing continues in Syria and Iraq, while Ukraine remains fragile.

I recently visited the summer villa of Emperor Franz Joseph in Bad Ischl, where he signed the declaration of war on Serbia. If he, or indeed other world leaders, had known what would follow would they have made different decisions? Part of my holiday reading has been a new book on the run up to WWI by Margaret McMillan. ‘The War that Ended Peace’ and what struck me was the confidence of many political leaders that they would be able to resolve matters diplomatically as they had in previous crises. But instead they fell off a cliff. (To avoid sounding like the class swot, I had lots of lighter holiday reading also!)

‘Office time’ on Employment and Support Allowance
As I mentioned last month, people often ask why the MPs aren’t in the Commons chamber all the time to listen to and speak in debates. Although I’m one of the most active MPs in this regard – I spoke in three separate debates on social security and welfare reform over the last month (see here, here and here) – I still think it’s important that we have ‘office time’ to do research on policies that we want to see changed. One of my main focuses is Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) – the main benefit for those who can’t work as a result of ill health or a disability – and the results of my office time were highlighted on three separate occasions last month.

My main concern with ESA is that too many claimants are being incorrectly assessed as ‘Fit for Work’ and refused benefit. Last month the Minister who was then responsible for this policy, Mike Penning (who has since been reshuffled to the Home Office), admitted that over 700,000 applicants were waiting for an assessment. At the time he tried to suggest this had been an issue under the last Labour Government, but when I looked into this, I discovered that the backlog was a mere 28,300 when the current Coalition Government took over in May 2010! I highlighted this in a letter to him on 3 July, and when I receive a response from his successor Mark Harper I’ll post it on my website.

I’ve also used my office time to write to the UK Statistics Authority over the figures the Department for Work and Pensions publish on ESA. I believe the number of incorrect decisions is being artificially supressed as only statistics on the number of successful appeals to judges are published – overturn figures for informal appeals (officially referred to as ‘reconsiderations’) to civil servants are not. Last month I secured a commitment from the Department that they will start to publish this information by the end of this year, and I issued a press release on 9 July, which was picked up by Third Force News.

Finally I followed up a debate I led on the support given to ESA applicants during the reconsideration process last month with a further letter to Mike Penning on 7 July. While people are entitled to claim ESA at a reduced ‘assessment rate’ when they initially apply, their only option during the reconsideration period – which claimants have to go through if they want to appeal – is to claim Jobseekers Allowance. In the debate the Minister claimed that Jobcentre Staff should relax requirements placed on those challenging ESA refusals so that sick and disabled people aren’t sanctioned for not looking for work. However I’ve had a lot of evidence that this isn’t happening on the ground, leaving vulnerable people without any income for periods between seven and ten weeks. I’ll post any reply I receive on my website.

News in Brief
Guide Dogs receptionOn 2 July I lent my support for a campaign by the charity Guide Dogs to make sure all new buses have audio visual (AV) next stop announcements, which are vital for blind and partially sighted bus travellers.

Later that day I met up with my constituent Julie Rattray, who is a Cancer Research UK ambassador. CRUK are campaigning to beat cancer sooner, so that in 20 years’ time three quarters of people who are diagnosed survive.

Gordon AikmanAnd on 9 July I met up with another campaigning constituent – Gordon Aikman. As I mentioned in my last newsletter, Gordon has been diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease. He’s already raised more than £40,000 for MND Scotland – a charity that funds and promotes research into the disease and provides support to people affected (you can donate here). He’s now campaigning for more Government money for research and support, and you can back his campaign at gordonsfightback.com.

Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Bill
DRIP BillOn 10 July the Government announced that it was bringing forward a new law to require companies like mobile phone and internet firms to retain data on when, where and with whom people communicate for between six months and two years. This sort of data is used by the police and intelligence agencies to investigate organised crime, terrorism and online child abuse.

In April the European Court of Justice declared that the EU Data Retention Directive was too widely drawn. As a result the UK regulations that permitted data retention in the UK were also struck down, despite the fact that they were much narrower and more proportionate than the Directive itself. The so-called DRIP Bill will reintroduce these requirements.

The Government announcement came such a short time before the summer recess that the bill was rushed through over just three days. This did however allow my party to secure a series of concessions, including an independent review of the legal framework governing data access and interception, extra checks and balances, and a ‘sunset clause’ that means this new law will expire in 2016.

Over 130 constituents asked me to oppose this new law, but I concluded that it is appropriate to take steps to reinstate the limited powers which were being already being exercised. This wasn’t a decision I reached lightly, and I am more than happy to discuss this in writing or in person with any constituents who remain concerned.

Sanctions Report Finally Published
Last year the DWP commissioned a report into the operation of sanctions on people receiving Job Seekers Allowance and taking part in the Work Programme. This has been long awaited but was only published on the very last day of the parliamentary ‘term’. The remit was restricted and it was not a thorough review of the sanctioning process, as called for by many including the Work & Pensions Select Committee. One of its conclusions was that some claimants lacked understanding of the process and reasons for sanctioning. This was particularly true for more vulnerable groups and those with ‘specific barriers to work.’ The DWP has accepted the recommendation for improving communications, rewriting letters etc., so hopefully they will get on with this. Some of the recommendations are only accepted ‘in principle’ which is worrying.

While better communications will help, there remains a serious concern about the circumstances in which some people are receiving sanctions, the increasing numbers being sanctioned and the financial and health impact on those affected.

Personal Independence Payment assessment review
Personal Independence Payment is gradually replacing Disability Living Allowance as the main benefit to help people with the additional costs of living with a disability. PIP was introduced for new claimants in April 2013 and existing DLA claimants will begin to be reassessed in October 2015. Eventually the Government expect 170,000 people to lose all support and 160,000 to be awarded PIP at a lower level to DLA. My party and I voted against these plans when they were proposed by the current Government, but unfortunately they were pushed through.

Ministers have now launched an independent review of the PIP assessment process and anyone can submit evidence up to 5 September. I will focus on the delays people are facing before they are given a decision on whether they qualify for support, which is driving vulnerable people to real hardship. However I’d be keen to hear from constituents about their experience of the assessment process – please email me at sheila.gilmore.mp@parliament.uk.

Constituency Report

Baileyfield: Modern ‘colonies’ for Portobello?
I had the opportunity to see the proposals coming forward from Aldi and Crudens for the former Scottish Power site at Baileyfield. As many people will know, there have been a number of planning applications for this site. Initially there was a proposal for a very large supermarket against which there was a vigorous community campaign , which was successful not just at the Council’s Planning Committee but also at appeal (given that apparently most of the big supermarket chains are moving away from very large stores, Portobello was clearly ahead of the curve here). Next came an application for over 700 flats which was also refused. A third iteration with slightly fewer flats and slightly reduced height, got to the stage of a public exhibition but went no further. It featured a now fairly standard layout of large flatted blocks set amidst car parking and sterile landscaping. I remember saying at the exhibition how good it would be if the developers would look around at some examples of Edinburgh style building, like the traditional ‘colonies’ which combine density with individuality. I’ve written about colonies before, so I was pleased to see that the latest proposals are for only around 250 housing units, of which half would be flats and half ‘modern colonies’. There is of also a plan for an ALDI store fronting on the High Street (beside the Kwikfit). On the whole I think this is a lot more promising than what went before, but I realise that as with all planning issues there will be different views. The formal application has not yet been submitted.

Lochend Secret Garden
Lochend GardenThis month I had the delight of attending the AGM and Open Day of the Lochend Secret Garden, now in its third season. The range of flowers and produce was impressive. This success is all down to the hard work of the Steering committee and all the people who are gardening here. Not content with the original garden the group is extending its activities into new challenges. A strip of grass in Lochend Quadrant is being turned into ‘The Orchard’ – from plain grass (picture) to this (second picture). If you are inspired by this example, why not contact the Council to ask about doing something similar, or contact one of your local councillors?

Save our Southside meeting report
On Sunday 20th July, over 70 Southsiders attended a meeting organised by myself, the Southside Association and Sarah Boyack MSP to discuss a community response to the flurry of applications for student accommodation in the area. The purpose of the meeting was not to discuss each application but to get residents thinking about the Southside they would like to see developed. Residents overwhelmingly said they want to live side by side students, but numbers need to be rebalanced with more affordable family housing being developed. Notes from the meeting have been circulated to those in attendance, and are available on my website.

After the initial meeting many residents said they are keen to form a working group to further discuss their response, and think about how they communicate it to planners, the University and developers. Residents are due to meet again on Wednesday 20th August from 7.00pm in the Grey Room, Nelson Hall.

Lutton Court Appeal Allowed
On Wednesday morning the Scottish Government Reporter with responsibility for determining the Lutton Court appeal published his report and decision, allowing the appeal developers submitted after the Council refused the application. Residents in the area are devastated and I am hugely disappointed. This was a key test of the Council’s policy which has failed, having massive consequences for the Southside. The appeal process was conducted on paper which gives the developer much greater opportunity to make its case, while residents are unable to ensure their concerns are truly heard by the Scottish Government reporter. More could have been done to involve them, starting with having an accompanied site visit. I would like to see Planning Officials urgently review its policy and guidance on student accommodation so it can better manage the flurry of applications recently submitted.

Dumbiedykes Bus: “Use it or lose it”
Bus service 60I am delighted to announce that a new bus service, 60, serving the Dumbiedykes and Southside, will start on Monday 25th August. The service will run throughout the day Monday to Friday on a half hourly basis. After years of campaigning, residents will finally see the return of a service, which will be a real boon for the elderly and those who struggle to get up the Pleasance. The service was cut several years ago because there was insufficient usage, however community leaders are spreading the “use it or lose it” message to make sure that the service cannot be cut in the future. Those over 60 can use their concessionary card but must make sure they are ‘beeped’ onto the bus so that numbers are recorded.

Events in Parks Decision Due Soon
On 26 August the Council’s Transport and Environment Committee, will make a decision whether or not to charge market rents to commercial enterprises who use public parks, and seek to limit the length of time events can be held in a park, including the Meadows. Friends of the Meadows & Bruntsfield Links has been running a petition for much of the summer which will be submitted in advance of the meeting. As I reported last month, I share residents concern the intensive use of the park is damaging the Meadows which struggles to recover every year. FOMBL are calling for events to be limited to a maximum 15 days so that they can continue to go ahead but the park has time to regenerate. To sign the petition, head to www.ipetitions.com/petition/fombl.

Post Referendum BBC Radio 4 ‘Any Questions’ Invitations
I’ve received a bundle of invitations from Greyfriars Kirk to hand to constituents who are keen to attend the recording of Any Questions on Friday, 19th September, the day after the referendum. Doors open from 6.30pm and you can turn up on the day to see if you can get a seat at the recording, however if you would like an invitation, please email me your details.

Local Development Plan consultation begins
As I mentioned in my previous newsletter the City of Edinburgh Council recently approved the Second Development Plan. The new Development Plan Scheme is available to view online or in Council libraries. You can make written representations on the Second Proposed Plan from 22 August to 3 October 2014. For more information head to edinburgh.gov.uk/localdevelopmentplan.

Edmonstone Development
Several applications to develop the Edmonstone estate have now been to committee to be determined. Developers propose building on this land which is in the ‘greenbelt’ and is currently dangerously unstable due to the underground mine workings. One application, for residential dwellings, was refused at committee on 30 July, while proposals for a cemetery and crematorium were granted on Wednesday. I fear that the application may have been a Trojan horse to allow further development on this part of the Greenbelt.

Revised Waste and Recycling
I have received a number of enquiries about how the revisions to waste recycling service will affect them. To encourage more recycling and to make the chore simpler, most recyclables will soon go straight into your green wheelie, with a new grey wheelie being provided for domestic waste. Full details of the rollout, and the streets affected are on the Council’s website.

Awards for All Scotland Reopens for Applications
Awards for All Scotland reopened to applications on 4th August 2014. The BIG Lottery Fund in Scotland took the decision to pause Awards for All Scotland to new applications from 9th May until 4th August to focus on assessing and administering grants related to building a legacy from the Commonwealth Games.

Awards will be prioritised for projects where beneficiaries are mainly BME, disabled, LGBT, older or carers. For details on the scheme, head to biglotteryfund.org.uk/awardsforallscotland.

Dates for Your Diary

Be Arty Be HealthyWednesday, 20th August – St Margarets House (151 London Road) Redevelopment Pre-application Exhibition – from 4-8 pm – Piershill Library – for more information enter 14/02137/PAN at bit.ly/10KV9iP

Wednesday 20th August – Save Our Southside: working group meeting – from 7.00pm – Grey Room, Nelson Hall

Tuesday, 2nd September – deadline to register to vote in the referendum – details and forms available at www.lothian-vjb.gov.uk

Wednesday, 3rd September – deadline to register to vote by post in the referendum – details and forms available at www.lothian-vjb.gov.uk

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Universal Credit debate

On 7 July 2014 I spoke in a House of Commons debate on Universal Credit, and I’ve reproduced my speech in full below:

Some social security commentators have described a universal credit-type proposal as the holy grail of social security thinking. It is certainly true that the idea is nothing new. It was not invented by the current Government; it has been debated and investigated by previous Governments. In an earlier debate on the subject—I think it was an urgent question —my right hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh South West (Mr Darling) made it quite clear that when he was Secretary of State for Social Security, he looked at the project and concluded that without very significant time and money being invested, it would be too difficult to deliver.

There has obviously been a learning curve to which, for whatever reason, the current Government seem to have decided to pay no attention. If we sometimes seem quite cynical and sceptical about the whole process, it is because of a lot of what we have heard over the past four years. There was total confidence that UC would be the answer to all sorts of questions, and would be relatively easy. I do not think that many people present, except my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms), were on the Welfare Reform Bill Committee in 2011. The then Minister of State for Employment, the right hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling), who responded to most of the debates in Committee, was prone to describing his proposals as an empty bookcase. The Bill was the architecture; a lot of other things would come along later. I think he spoke more truly than he thought he did, because clearly it was a rather empty bookcase; a lot of the issues had not been fully bottomed-out and talked about in the way that they should have been.

One example of that—I will come on to others—is free school meals. We discussed the issue in the Bill Committee in 2011. Various people made written submissions and proposals, and there were discussions, about how that might or might not work as part of the project. We learn now that the Department still does not know how it will deal with free school meals in the further roll-out of universal credit. Three years later, we have not made much progress on something quite important and basic.

Dame Anne Begg: Does my hon. Friend agree that anyone building a bookcase has to know the size of the books that will be displayed on it before they can get the architecture right? Perhaps that was a lesson that the Minister forgot.

Sheila Gilmore: That is a very good analogy for how we have arrived in this position. The trouble is that it is not some sort of blunder: my hon. Friends have referred to some of the other big changes going through the DWP, and the same pattern has been seen with disability living allowance and the personal independence payment. First, a straw man was erected: there was a statement about certain things in the previous system, some of which were not entirely accurate, being really bad and having to be changed. There was then a brief initial consultation period before the Department went ahead with the change, which was not properly piloted. As a result, every new PIP applicant since June 2013 is part of the testing process. That is not a pilot, unless it is a pilot on a gigantic scale. Many people who are anxious and worried while they wait for their PIP payments to come through, are being treated as guinea pigs, after a failure to analyse the problem, implement the scheme or test the proposals. The pattern is not unique to universal credit.

Had we been told from the outset that there would be a slow roll-out because of the need for testing, we might not be standing here now debating whether the glass is half full, but we have been told so often that the glass is full and everything is going well. When the Select Committee prepared a report in November 2012, we concentrated on vulnerable claimants. At that time we were told that all the implementation plans were on track for 2013, which was not the case. By February 2013, the Major Projects Authority told the DWP to reset the entire project—that was an internal, private report of which Members had no knowledge at the time. That information did not come out clearly until July 2013, when the Secretary of State told the Select Committee that there were major changes to the roll-out. The NAO reported in September 2013, and the Secretary of State’s response was, “Oh, I knew about all those problems all along.” Perhaps he did know about the problems all along, but he did not tell many people about them. There were further changes in December 2013.

Some speakers, in trying to support universal credit, suggested that at least we have some people on it. There are 6,000 people on universal credit, and it will be rolled out to more jobcentres, but those are the very simplest cases. In essence, for those claimants universal credit is little different from jobseeker’s allowance. There is little to say that universal credit is a big breakthrough to a different form of benefit, because until now claimants have been single people. Apparently, we are now able to roll out universal credit to some couples, but the claimants so far have been single people. Some 70% of claimants are relatively young. They are new benefit claimants who do not have complications, basically. If universal credit is to bring together various benefits successfully, the difficult cases will be the real test, not the straightforward ones.

One bit of universal credit thinking that has been rolled out is the claimant commitment, which has been rolled out to JSA claimants, not merely those who are technically in receipt of JSA-style universal credit. The Government have rolled out the stick without rolling out the carrot. One of the problems with the claimant commitment is not necessarily getting people to agree what they will do to find work but that minor breaches of that agreement can lead to loss of benefits. The carrot—the bit that is meant to help people not only to find work but to make work pay—has not yet been introduced because the vast majority of people are nowhere near being on universal credit.

Since our original debates on the Welfare Reform Act 2012, we have experienced obfuscation through the use of computerese. MPs, like many lay people, are not IT experts. Initially, concerns were raised about the size of the IT project—various Governments have run into trouble with IT in the past—and people asked, “How do we know this will be different?” Any concerns were simply brushed aside because the Government had a new “agile” way of doing things that meant everything was going to be fine. About 18 months later we learned that that way of doing things had been abandoned, so clearly everything was not fine, but that is what we were told.

Other things that were “fine” included security, establishing people’s identity and the difficulties with online transactions. Those concerns were raised from the outset. I recall an informal briefing at which the Minister, Lord Freud, was asked questions by people who were expert, such as people who had served on housing associations. They asked, “What about the verification of people’s housing claims? How is that actually going to be done?” At the moment, those claims are done fairly intensively with people having to produce information, although housing associations have been allowed to verify that information because they have seen the lease, and so on. Lord Freud simply ignored all that and said, “No, universal credit will have far less fraud and error, and it will all be fine.” But of course it has not been fine, and it is now recognised that the notion that everything could be done online has not only been delayed but will never happen. One reason why that will not happen is that security has been recognised as a major issue. The same Ministers who told us that security was not a problem have now told us that it is a problem. When a Department is paying out substantial sums of money to millions of individuals, doing it fully online is not practical. After Ministers initially enthused about how everything would be straightforward, and after having been told different things at different times—even when the reality was that something else was going on—we are somewhat sceptical.

As other speakers have said, we were told that a certain type of IT is being used for the very small number of current claimants but that, at the same time, the Department was working on what in February 2014 was called the end-state, open-source, web-based solution. [Laughter.] Exactly. I know the meaning of each individual word, but I have never been clear about what the phrase means. We were told that it was a digital solution—it therefore seems to be an important aspect of the whole programme—and that it would be ready to be tested on 100 claimants by November 2014. As the Select Committee report found, the system is still a long way from being viable. There is a huge difference between operating something like that for a small group of 100 claimants and operating it for far more people.

The Select Committee thought that what we were being told about was a different and digital way of doing things, and we specifically asked for more detail. The Government’s response to the Select Committee report evaded the question, and it is all there. First, the response talked about the claimant commitment, which I have already mentioned and did not have anything to do with the digital solution. Secondly, the response talked about a

“more challenging and supportive relationship between claimants and coaches.”

“Coaches” is the new name for jobcentre advisers. Again, that does not really tell us anything about the digital solution. There are concerns about how scalable those intensive relationships will be. Thirdly, we were told that there will be more online services, but many JSA claims are already made online, so again it is unclear whether that has anything to do with the end-state or digital solution.

Therefore, having gone around the houses about the claimant commitment, the things that are already happening online and the more supportive relationship, all that we have been told is that the digital solution is

“a multi-channel service that makes greater use of modern technology”—

I am glad that it makes use of modern technology, rather than ancient technology—

“to ensure the system is as effective, simple and transparent as possible.”

Those are all worthy aims, but they tell us nothing about what the end-state solution actually is, what it does, how much progress has been made towards it, how many people are working on it, what it will cost or what the interface will be between claimants and the system. It is nothing more than an aspiration.

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