A considerable amount of my time in the last month has been spent working on social security issues. While the debate about the need for fairness of ‘welfare reform’ continues to rage in the media and in Parliament, what is increasingly clear is the incompetence of the Department of Work and Pensions in the pursuit of its agenda is causing both financial loss and distress to individuals.
Personal Independence Payment
On 18th February I blogged for the Huffington Post about Personal Independence Payment, the benefit the government introduced following their abolition of Disability Living Allowance.
PIP – and DLA before it – is intended to help people with the extra costs they face as a result of living with disabilities. Ministers predicted that the assessment process for PIP would take between 12 and 15 weeks, but since the new benefit went live in June, many claimants have been left waiting for more than twice as long. This has had the effect of pushing many vulnerable people into financial difficulties.
In my blog I argued that this could have been avoided if the Department for Work and Pensions had properly piloted the assessment process in advance and ensured that its private sector contractors – Atos and Capita – had adequate staff and training to deliver the required number of assessments. By choosing to press on regardless, the Secretary of State Iain Duncan Smith is effectively using disabled people as guinea pigs – a conclusion reinforced by a highly critical National Audit Office report published on 27 February.
Employment and Support Allowance
Since being elected in 2010 I’ve been concerned that too many people who apply for Employment and Support Allowance – the main benefit for people who can’t work due to an illness or disability – have been incorrectly found ‘Fit for Work’.
Quarterly statistics published by the Department for Work and Pensions suggested that they were getting about one in ten decisions wrong, but on 24 February I received a letter from the UK Statistics Authority confirming my suspicions that this is an underestimate. The Authority’s chair Sir Andrew Dilnot described the publication as ‘potentially misleading’ and questioned the figures’ status as ‘national statistics’.
On the same day it then emerged that the process of periodically reassessing existing ESA claimants had been suspended by DWP Ministers because of concerns over capacity of the contractor ATOS to cope with the numbers. I’ve always argued that the present arrangements mean people are called back too regularly, so this suspension is in some sense a welcome development. However as I emphasised in the Independent, this has come about as a result of incompetence on the part of Ministers, rather than an enlightened change of policy.
Bedroom Tax Loophole Closed
Just before Christmas the DWP had to admit that people who had been both tenants and housing benefit recipients since 1996 shouldn’t have been affected by the Bedroom Tax. The numbers involved were estimated at only 5000 by the DWP but local authorities thought the numbers would be more like 20,000. The Government laid regulations before the House to close this loophole. The Opposition called for a debate and vote on this on Wednesday 26th February. Being the last speaker I had just 3 minutes to make my points.
A Cumulative Impact Assessment of the Impact of Government Policies on the Disabled
The WOW (War on Welfare Reform) campaign got over 100,000 signatures on its petition calling for a cumulative impact assessment. A debate on this took place on Thursday 27th.
In 1980 £16 of every £20 the Government spent on helping those on low incomes secure housing went on building homes, while only £4 went on subsidising rents. Last year only £1 of every £20 went on new homes and £19 on housing benefit. I used a comment piece in the Daily Mirror on 26 February to make the case for moving the balance back.
Scotland’s Place in the UK
One of the disadvantages of being a frequent speaker in the Chamber is being at the end of the backbench speakers’ list. When we had a well subscribed debate on Scotland at the beginning of February I was left with the last 2 minutes to speak!
Cost of Living
Recent figures show that the number of people who feel insecure at work has nearly doubled from 6.5 million to 12 million since 2010. There are a number of factors at play here, including the increasing use of zero hours contracts, people having to accept part time hours in place of full time work, the declining value of the minimum wage, and changes to the law that have made it easier to fire people. I used a comment piece in the Edinburgh Evening News to set out how Labour would tackle these issues.
The closure of coal mines following the 84/85 miners’ strike had a devastating impact on communities across Scotland. In January cabinet papers from the time were released revealing the scale of intent on the part of Margaret Thatcher and her Ministers to close pits and manipulate the police. As a consequence I wrote to the Minister for the Cabinet Office Francis Maude to ask for a formal apology from the current Government.
Votes at 16
At the last General Election, only 44% of those aged 18-24 voted. We need to take action to address this, not least so that political parties of all hues listen to young people and their concerns. That’s why I welcomed Ed Miliband’s pledge that the next Labour Government will legislate to allow 16 and 17 year olds to vote at General Elections. Schools will be able to encourage young people to vote for the first time, meaning that they’re more likely to continue to do so in the future. On Wednesday 12 February I attended a lobby of parliament by the campaign group Votes at 16.
More Student Housing for the Southside?
Southsiders have worked tirelessly to oppose plans for student accommodation at Lutton Court and officers have now recommended that the application should be refused. The officer’s report recommends refusal on the basis of the effect a high student population could have on the local area. For this reason the plans are also deemed unsympathetic to the existing setting, within the Southside Conservation Area. It is Development Management Sub-committee members who will make the final decision at a hearing on Wednesday 12th March. I hope that members agree with the recommendations and that this application is refused. Members must take the opportunity to recognise the strength of opposition voiced by local residents.
In February student accommodation specialist Unite announced plans to refurbish the Homebase store on St Leonards Street and build a five story block of flats on top. I formally objected to the proposal at Lutton Court and I pledged likewise in the Edinburgh Evening News should any St Leonards Street application be submitted.
When the former editor of the Evening News John McLellan then questioned my motives for doing so, I got the chance to set out in detail why I believe we must avoid over-concentrations of students in any part of our city. Further debate has followed, with contributions from members of the public.
Cabaret Night at Portobello High School
This month I had a relaxing and enjoyable evening at Portobello High School’s Cabaret Night. The quality and confidence of the young people taking part was impressive. ‘Eat your heart out’ Michael Gove, no shortage of talent and educational quality here. Now what could a school like Portobello achieve if it had the spend per head that many private schools have!
Holyrood Road Billboard
In December I congratulated Southsiders for their hard work and persistence in asking the Council to seek to remove a billboard wrongly erected on Council land. While we are waiting for that board to be removed, last month Development Management Sub-committee members voted to refuse an application for another board. That board does not have permission to be there, as it is larger than has previously been permitted. While local residents are cautious that Forrest Media may appeal the decision, or erect a smaller board, it’s another small success which should again be congratulated.
LIDL Easter Road Proposal
Lidl Scotland has now circulated its proposals for a new store at the site of the former B&Q store on Easter Road, which has remained empty since November 2012. No planning application for the superstore has been submitted to the City of Edinburgh Council, however permission would be required to make modifications to the building and to remove a ‘non-food’ usage condition currently in place on the site. Lidl has stated in its own literature that formal plans will be submitted by late summer and has begun the process of engaging with local residents. You can view the plans as they currently stand at www.lidleasterroad.co.uk/the-proposed-development.
If you have any comments on the general principle of the development, or if you would like me to make a submission on this issue email me on email@example.com.
Guide Dogs Scotland Blindfold Walk
Since being elected I have supported campaigns for more ‘talking buses’, and to protect Guide Dogs from attacks by other dogs. But this month I was taken on a blindfold walk, first with a long cane, and then with a dog. For my constituents who are registered blind Guide Dogs are an invaluable asset allowing them to get out and about and enjoy a real sense of mobility. Being out on the blindfold walk made me appreciate just how complicated junctions and poor pavements can impede mobility for those with limited vision. It really brought home how difficult many of our roads and pavements can be and how important it is that planners take this into account.
Bridgend Farmhouse Bid
In early February, the Bridgend Inspiring Growth committee submitted its bid to purchase Bridgend Farmhouse from City of Edinburgh Council. Working to this point for over three years, the committee has put in an incredible effort to this stage. The charity promotes sustainable living practices and outdoor learning for the local community. The charity is now looking to establish itself as a community benefit society and is proceeding with a share issue to co-operatively own and run the farmhouse. More details about what a community benefit society is available on their website at bridgendfarmhse.blogspot.co.uk. For those interested and willing to become a co-owner of the farmhouse the details and necessary paperwork is available at this website.
Get It Sorted Together
Do you have a project in mind that could enhance your local environment? The Edinburgh Evening News and the City of Edinburgh Council are looking for inspired residents and community groups to put forward their ideas for help with funding and resources to get your project going. Examples projects might include: Painting a community centre, planting bulbs on a community backgreen, tidying up a derelict piece of land, commissioning a piece of graffiti artwork for a wall. For further details head to goo.gl/B2XK3W.
Housing Bill Submission
The Scottish Government has recently introduced a housing bill, while fairly limited in scope I hope Parliament takes the opportunity to make more wide ranging changes. Most attention has been paid to the proposal to end Right to Buy but this is a less radical change than it appears. First it won’t come in till 2017. Second reduction in the discounts available dating back to 2002 have in fact slashed the rate of sales already. In 2012/13 in Edinburgh only 75 houses were sold (compared with over 600 a year before discounts changed.) If this small number had not been sold they might not have become available for sale for many years to come as the tenants would probably have stayed put. So stopping it altogether will only contribute a tiny amount to increasing the supply of affordable housing. This proposal offers much less than it appears. There are some modest changes in the way anti social behaviour can be dealt with (a big bit of my surgery caseload) and in housing allocations.
I’ve put in a submission to the Committee of the Parliament which is looking at the Bill. In it I’ve highlighted in particular the fact that I see increasing problems with private landlords failing to maintain buildings and gardens. I am suggesting that we look at ways of using the registration process to deal with this.
Raised beds at White House
Interested in growing vegetables, herbs and fruit? I’ve written before about the Community Trust which is running the White House as a community resource. Recently they have involved young people from Castlebrae and Holyrood High schools who are gaining work experience in building skills in constructing raised beds for the area at the back of the White House. What is grown here will be used in the cafe which is already up and running inside. More volunteers to help with this are needed – if you are interested in getting involved contact James Donald on 0131 661 1282 for more details.
Old Town and Northfield Willowbrae Community Councils
Efforts to reconstitute the Old Town Community Council are now underway. The Council’s Election Team has agreed to act as Returning Officer during the nomination period from 3 – 24 March. At the end of the nomination period, if there are more nominations than vacancies for elected members (11) an election will be held on 24 April 2014. Nominees must be over 16 years of age and on the electoral roll for the community council area. Forms to nominate yourself are available on the Council’s website.
The same principles apply for the Northfield Willowbrae Community Council; however nomination papers must be in by Monday 10th March.
Events in Parks
Edinburgh’s parks are a much loved asset by everyone across the city and serve as great venues for summer events. Naturally there are some concerns that excessive use means damage lasts much longer than the events themselves. Last year I wrote about local concerns regarding the use of the Meadows so I was pleased to see the Council has launched a survey about park usage on a city-wide basis. The Friends of the Meadows and Bruntsfield Links are keen to encourage a healthy response from interested residents.
Dates for your Diary
- Friday 7 March – Leith Links Residents Association ‘Quiz and Banter’ Evening – from 7.00pm – Leith Franklin Cricket Club
- Wednesday 12 March – Lutton Court student accommodation planning application Hearing – 10.00am – City Chambers, High Street
- Monday 10 March – Deadline for nominations for Old Town Community Council – details at goo.gl/ANb4ws
- Monday 24 March – Deadline for nominations for Old Town Community Council – details at goo.gl/7FWosE
Movies and Shakers: films which can help change the world
All at White Horse bar, 266 Canongate EH8 8AA and Circus Café, 8 St Mary’s St, Edinburgh EH1 1SU
- Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room -Monday 10 March 2014, 7.30 pm, White Horse
- Economics of Happiness – Monday 17 March 2014, 7.30 pm, White Horse
- Shock Doctrine – Monday 24 March 2014, 7.30 pm, White Horse
- 97% Owned – Monday 31 March 2014, 7.30 pm, Circus Cafe
- Stealing Africa – Monday 7 April 2014, 7.30 pm, Circus Cafe
More information: Anna: firstname.lastname@example.org; Neil: email@example.com; or MatthewMatthewCrighton@gmail.com