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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Press release: Hugely disappointing that Government refuses to pay disabled benefits during appeals

Sheila Gilmore MP today said it was hugely disappointing that the Government have refused to pay sick and disabled people benefits while they appeal against incorrect ‘Fit for Work’ decisions. This was a key recommendation from a report by the Work and Pensions Select Committee, of which she is a member.

Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) provides support for people who cannot work due to a health condition or disability. Entitlement is determined by the controversial Work Capability Assessment (WCA). Previously claimants who were declared ‘Fit for Work’ and wished to challenge their decision were paid ESA at a reduced rate throughout the appeal process. However since October 2013 claimants have had to submit an informal appeal – known as a mandatory reconsideration – to a DWP civil servant, and only if they are still refused benefit can they take their case to a judge.

During mandatory reconsideration, a claimant’s only option is to claim Jobseekers Allowance, which entails applying for jobs and attending regular appointments. As a result many sick and disabled people have been refused JSA or sanctioned, leaving them stuck between benefits and without any income.

The Committee called for claimants to be paid ESA during the mandatory reconsideration process, but in the Government’s formal response to the committee published today, DWP Ministers have refused this request.

Sheila Gilmore said:

I regularly meet sick and disabled people who are unable to work but who have been declared fit to do so following a flawed ESA assessment.

Since last year people in this position have been forced to claim Jobseekers Allowance when they initially challenge an incorrect decision. Many are refused or quickly sanctioned, leaving them without money for periods of up to ten weeks.

In July the Work and Pensions Select Committee recommended that claimants are paid ESA throughout the application process. We noted that this shouldn’t cost any extra money, unless DWP are already factoring in sick and disabled people being unable to claim JSA.

Unfortunately we now learn that Iain Duncan Smith and his department have refused this request. In doing so they are deliberately leaving vulnerable people stuck between benefits – too fit for ESA but too sick or disabled for JSA. Conservative and Liberal Democrat Ministers should be ashamed.

Notes to Editors

The key paragraph of the Committee’s report reads:

However, DWP needs to set a reasonable timescale for the MR process, rather than this being left open-ended. The current illogical arrangement whereby claimants seeking MR are required to claim Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA) instead of ESA should be abolished. Official statistics showing the impact of MR on the number of appeals and on outcomes for claimants should be published as a matter of urgency.

See page 36 of the document for context: http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201415/cmselect/cmworpen/302/302.pdf

They key paragraph of the Government’s response reads:

When claimants are found fit for work, unless the decision is overturned, that decision is in law a final decision and there is no legal basis on which to continue to make any ESA payments.

See page 24 of the document for context: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/employment-and-support-allowance-and-work-capability-assessments-response-to-the-work-and-pensions-committee

For more information on these issues see Sheila Gilmore’s website:
http://www.sheilagilmore.co.uk/my-work-on-esa/reconsideration/

For more information please contact Matt Brennan, Parliamentary Assistant to Sheila Gilmore MP, on 020 7219 7062, 07742 986 513 or matthew.brennan@parliament.uk.

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Press release: Sheila Gilmore MP slams Government’s cruel plans to slash benefits for sick and disabled

Edinburgh East MP and Work and Pensions Select Committee member Sheila Gilmore today slammed the Government’s cruel plans to slash benefits for sick and disabled people.

Employment and Support Allowance is paid at one of two rates – £101.15 a week for those placed in the Work-related Activity Group, and £108.15 a week for those in the Support Group. The BBC are reporting that Ministers are considering cutting payments to those in the Work-Related Activity Group to £72.90 – 50p above the weekly payment to Jobseekers Allowance claimants.

Sheila Gilmore said:

When Labour created the Work-related Activity Group in 2008, the rationale was to ensure that sick and disabled people who couldn’t work in the short term but might be able to in the future weren’t simply written off. Those in this group would receive support from Jobcentres and be encouraged to do appropriate training.

However we were clear that up until their next reassessment – which would occur at least every two years – these people were still unable to work.

This is something Tory Ministers now seem keen to ignore. By cutting payments to those in the Work-related Activity Group by nearly £30 per week, Ian Duncan Smith is effectively saying that these people are only a hop, skip and a jump away from being a fully fit, able-bodied Jobseekers Allowance claimant.

This just isn’t the case in reality, as has many people who are placed in this group have serious mental health issues or are recovering from serious accidents.

Cutting the benefits of sick and disabled people who are unable to work through no fault of their own is cruel – Ian Duncan Smith and his Tory Ministers should be ashamed.

ENDS

Notes to Editors:

For more information please contact Matt Brennan, Parliamentary Assistant to Sheila Gilmore MP, on 020 7219 7062, 07742 986 513 or matthew.brennan@parliament.uk.

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New ‘fit for work’ contract will not be fit for purpose

Today I’ve written about the news that US firm Maximus are set to take over administering Work Capability Assessments for Progress. My article is available here but I’ve reproduced it in full below.

Today the government announced that American firm Maximus have been awarded the contract to carry out medical assessments to determine whether people who claim they are unable to work due to ill health or disability should be entitled to benefits.

When this work was first outsourced to the French firm Atos Healthcare in 1998, this decision seemed relatively uncontroversial. However, in 2008 Labour replaced the old incapacity benefit with employment and support allowance, and alongside this came a new test – the work capability assessment.

We did this with the right intentions. With the decline of heavy industry, the number of incapacity benefit claimants had more than doubled from 1.2 million in 1979 to 2.6 million in 1997. Although this figure then stabilised, Labour ministers realised that some of these people might be able to work and that this would benefit their health in the long term.

However, by the general election in May 2010, it was becoming clear that the WCA was getting too many decisions wrong. Unfortunately, the new Conservative-led government was so unmoved by these failings that Iain Duncan Smith ordered that the number of assessments be increased. So while assessments had previously been restricted to new applications for ESA, in November 2010 Atos started to put all 2.2 million existing incapacity benefit claimants through the WCA.

Unsurprisingly things did not improve – many people who were genuinely unable to work were still being declared as fit to do so, and there is now a backlog of more than 700,000 claimants awaiting an assessment. These delays not only cause financial hardship – they also often exacerbate people’s existing physical and mental health conditions.

Although they initially defended Atos, by summer 2013 ministers had decided to use the firm as a lightning rod for discontent. This led to Atos announcing that it would negotiate an early exit from its contract earlier this year, and as a consequence responsibility for WCAs will now pass to Maximus.

I am clear that Atos did not cover themselves in glory. Although many of their staff are decent, hardworking people, I regularly heard stories about others being unprofessional, insensitive and rude.

But critics should resist the temptation to channel all their anger towards Atos or Maximus – ultimately the WCA is government policy, and whichever contractor is in place, they will simply be doing ministers’ bidding.

A whole series of changes need to be made to the WCA. At a minimum:

  • Assessor training needs to take account of fluctuating and progressive conditions
  • Evidence from GPs and other experts needs to be given more weight
  • Informal targets need to be lifted
  • The frequency of reassessments needs to be reduced

The easiest (and cheapest) way to make these changes would be through a new contract but I fear that the government will have missed this opportunity in their deal with Maximus. In June the minister who was then responsible for this issue, Mike Penning, said ‘I just do not have time to negotiate a brand spanking new all-singing all-dancing contract.’

This highlights the flaws in outsourcing such a controversial and flawed process. If the government had been brave enough to take the process back in-house, even if just for a temporary period, it would be far easier to sort these problems out. Instead by simply changing the provider but not the test, thousands of sick and disabled people could be incorrectly assessed as fit for work for years to come.

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My submission to independent review of the Work Capability Assessment

Today I’ve made a submission to the fifth independent review of the Work Capability Assessment – the controversial test that determines whether people receive Employment and Support Allowance, which is the main benefit for people who can’t work due to ill health or a disability.

You can find a copy of my submission here, but the main points I make are:

  • Despite the work done as part of the previous four reviews, the Government have failed to properly reform the WCA and, as a result, there are still far too many people being incorrectly assessed as Fit for Work.
  • The letters sent to claimants are often confusing and can lead to real hardship if, for example, people don’t appeal incorrect decisions within the relevant time limit.
  • To improve the accuracy of the assessment process better use should be made of written medical evidence from professionals such as GPs, and Ministers should drop targets that require assessors to declare a fixed number of claimants Fit for Work.
  • To reduce the current backlog of over 700,000 outstanding assessments, Ministers should pause the reassessment of incapacity benefit claimants and ensure existing ESA claimants aren’t reassessed to regularly.
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