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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Update on campaign against Forest sell-off

In 2011 hundreds of constituents wrote to me as part of a successful campaign against the UK Government’s plans to sell off Forestry Commission land in England. After my Labour colleagues in the Lords forced the Government to withdraw similar proposals earlier this month, I sent an update that I’ve reproduced in full below:

I am writing to you as you have previously contacted me about the Government’s plans to privatise England’s forests.

The Forestry Commission’s estate covers 18% of England’s wooded areas and 2% of land. It consists of over 1,000 woods covering over 250,000 hectares of land with around 250 million trees. You may remember that in 2011, the Government attempted to remove all safeguards which protect these vital natural assets, paving the way for the complete sell-off of the English Forestry Commission Estate.

In response, over half a million people signed a petition against these proposals. The Government was forced to back down, committing to keeping our forests in public hands. This was particularly good news for Edinburgh as a large number of Forestry Commission staff are based here.

However the Government’s Infrastructure Bill, which is currently going through the House of Lords, included a clause which could have resulted in the sell-off of parts of the Public Forest Estate for private development. The Government claimed that this clause was designed to bring disused public sector land back into productive economic use, however concerns were raised that this would result in the privatisation of England’s forests. This clause was debated at Report Stage in the House of Lords on 5 November, and in the preceding 24 hours, over 150,000 people signed a petition opposing the proposals, which was organised by the campaigning group 38 Degrees.

The Labour leader in the Lords, Baroness Janet Royall, carried the petition into the debate and tabled an amendment to the Bill seeking to exclude the Public Forest Estate from the Bill. Many Peers spoke out in favour of this, and in response, the Government agreed to bring their own amendment to the House of Lords at Third Reading that will seek to exempt forests from the proposed changes.

To read a transcript of the debate, please see here:
http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld201415/ldhansrd/text/141105-0002.htm#14110583000311

I will of course continue to monitor this vital issue as it progresses through the House of Lords and then goes to the House of Commons. You can follow the bill’s progress on the parliament website:
http://services.parliament.uk/bills/2014-15/infrastructure.html

It is important to note that this issue is devolved to the Scottish Parliament, and although the Scottish Government consulted a few years ago on proposals to sell off Scottish forests, my Labour colleagues in the Scottish Parliament opposed these plans and they were later withdrawn.

Yours sincerely

Sheila Gilmore
Edinburgh East

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Opposition works

Sometimes Opposition is a thankless task as you sit on those green benches hearing the result of yet another vote being read out where we are beaten by 80+ votes.  But this week have come a couple of Government announcements which demonstrate the importance of opposition both inside and outside of parliament:

  • The Coalition had announced an end to the funding of debt advisers in Citizens Advice Bureaux in England at the end of March. Today they have announced they have found some money to keep staff in post for the following few months until they introduce their ‘new system’ of providing debt advice.  Specialist debt advisers in CABx enhance the sterling work done by the volunteers.  Several of my fellow MPs had been raising this repeatedly at questions and in debates.  Local bureaux had been lobbying their own MPs hard.
  • Yesterday the Government announced it was putting ‘on hold’ its plans to sell 15% of forestry Commission land in England.  Originally this sale was going ahead separately from the ‘consultation’ currently taking place on disposal of the remaining 85% on ‘long leases’.  The proposals on forests had sparked a huge amount of opposition (one of the biggest email postbags most MPs have had since the election) and it was clear in the debate the Labour Party asked for last week that many Coalition backbenchers were very unhappy at the proposals – including a Tory MP for part of the New Forest who pointed out that overall the proposals weren’t even going to save much money.

ForestsWe’re not out of the woods yet (apologies – the Forestry debate must have had the highest pun rate of any debate I’ve heard).  The Government is still planning to replace face to face debt advice with some form of telephone/web based advice system, which won’t be nearly so good at dealing with the complex debt problems many people have.  I know my English colleagues will go on arguing the case but at least there won’t be a gap left between the old service ending and the new one beginning.  And the Forest sell-off is only on hold not abandoned.

But it does show that opposition can succeed. So I hope all you campaigners out there will keep up the good work.

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