Prorogation of Parliament
The second session of the current Parliament (the first was an unusually long two year session) ended on Thursday 25th April. The Government sets the Parliamentary timetable, and as this session came to a close it felt very much like a Government that had run out of steam. The big ticket item of the May 2012 Queens’s Speech was of course House of Lords Reform when this collapsed in summer 2012 it left a hole in the Government’s legislative programme. There were some relatively small but important measures like the Groceries Code Adjudication Act which had all party support (and because of this was actually improved by amendment as it went through its various stages) but the session was a relatively ‘light’ one. Prorogation Day was not pre-planned. Half way through a committee session came the message ‘that’s it’ and committee adjourned. As I had a bit of time in hand before catching my train (I hadn’t anticipated the mid-afternoon finish) I thought I would go into the chamber to see how it was done. I knew Black Rod came along but thought he would just say something like ‘be off with you’ but found myself swept along to the House of Lords where several proclamations were read out, and royal consent given to some remaining bills. Oh well that’s another ‘Parliamentary experience’ ticked off!
Twelve days later came the next bit of tradition with the Queens Speech itself. I didn’t go in for it this year, but found myself in the wrong place, unable to cross the street, just as the carriages were leaving again. Plenty of pomp and colour – but arguably more like a fairy tale than a 21st Century democracy. Six days of debate followed on the Government’s programme on was in it and what wasn’t. What was marked this year was a shortage of government backbench speakers on most days, showing the lack of enthusiasm for the actual programme. On Day 2 (home affairs including immigration) there were 13 opposition speakers to 7 from the government; on Day 3 (jobs and growth) 8 opposition to 4 government speakers. Government backbenchers were apparently more involved in planning an amendment to the Queen’s Speech deploring the lack of a Bill on a Referendum on Europe. I spoke on the day devoted to cost of living issues, concentrating on affordable housing. See my speech p50 http://bit.ly/11azhSv.
Private members ballot
The ballot for private members’ bills takes place just after the Queen’s speech. Sadly no luck again, and only 3 out of 20 successful members were Labour. Quite often people have a run of luck, with Sheryll Murray (Conservative) being drawn this year and last, and John McDonnell (Labour) coming top two sessions running. With so many Tories in the draw they were spoiled for choice for someone to take on a Bill for a Euro referendum. Piloting a private members bill into law is extremely difficult normally. This one however will have tacit support and encouragement from at least one part of the Coalition. One of the ironies is that nearly all of the small group of Tory backbenchers who usually enjoy ‘talking out’ other people’s private members’ bills are ardent Euro-sceptics. Will they find the tables being turned?
In recent months I’ve become increasingly concerned about the use of statistics on benefits claimed by disabled people, both by Ministers and the press.
I complained to the Sunday Telegraph last month when they ran a story http://bit.ly/11dMCJO suggesting 900,000 people on Incapacity Benefit had dropped their claim rather than undergo a medical assessment for the new Employment and Support Allowance. The article was peppered with quotes from Tory Chairman Grant Shapps. The true figure was a mere 19,000. For more detail see my article for Total Politics here: http://bit.ly/11dMyd9.
I wrote to the UK Statistics Authority about this and I received a response yesterday; http://bit.ly/11dMt9c. This confirms that Grant Shapps and the newspaper deliberately misused statistics on disability benefits.
While this is welcome, it won’t stop the continual stream of stories that appear in the right wing press. Just this week we had Iain Duncan Smith in the Mail and the Express referring to one million workshy benefit claimants, when in reality, one third have been certified as medically unable to work for the time being and another third are single parents looking after children of school age.
This letter is yet more evidence that my colleagues on the Work and Pensions Select Committee and I can use when we question DWP Ministers on this issue in the coming months. Hopefully then this practice of deliberately misusing benefit statistics will stop.
That’s why I decided to call for the Work and Pensions select committee – of which I am a member – to hold an inquiry into this issue. Persuading the Tories on my committee wasn’t easy.
For a start the Government that they support relies on this practice of misusing statistics to give it political cover. In its attempts to reduce the deficit, cutting welfare is seen as more of a priority than taxing the richest. That’s why at the same time that disabled people are being hit by the Bedroom Tax, 13,000 millionaires are getting a tax cut of over £100,000.
Secondly Conservative Central Office have clearly decided that, as the Government has failed so spectacularly on the economy, welfare is now their only hope of getting the public back on side.
As my Select Committee colleagues were under pressure not to give ground, we were only able to agree to a more limited look at the issue in the context of our regular examination of the DWP’s annual report and accounts http://bit.ly/11dMnhS. However this should allow us to speak to both the UK Statistics Authority and DWP ministers. And once an initial assessment of the problem has been made, this might prompt a broader piece of work.
Work & Pensions Select Committee
The Select Committee published three reports this month. One was the result of a short scrutiny of the draft Pensions Bill which propose to introduce flat rate pensions. Although most of our witnesses welcomed the proposals in principle, there are concerns about whether some people will gain little or even be worse off as a result. Women who have recently experienced acceleration of the rise in pension age are particularly concerned about the timing of the new system. You can read the report here http://bit.ly/13ZcdHx. The Pensions Bill was included in the Queen’s Speech.
One of the aims of the flat rate State Pension is to encourage saving, and with the decline in ‘defined benefit’ occupational pension schemes (where a pension is linked to years of contribution and outcomes known in advance). Many people are now enrolled in ‘defined contribution’ schemes where you build up a fund which at retirement is converted into an annuity. In recent years many people have been disappointed with the pension they receive from such schemes. I response the Select Committee issued a Report called ‘Improving Governance and Best Practice in Workplace Pensions’ on 25th April. http://bit.ly/11aBPQB. One recommendation to ban consultancy charges in auto-enrolled schemes has already been accepted by Government and will be included in the Pensions Bill. Ministers have also agreed to start a consultation on capping charges more generally. High charges, which are not always made clear to savers, can substantially reduce the pension eventually received.
The latest publication is ‘Can the Work Programme work for all user groups?’ to which the Committee’s unanimous answer is ‘not without many changes’. The full report is available at http://bit.ly/11aBtJD.
The Work Programme is the Government’s programme to help people find work. It is a payment by results scheme contracted out mainly to large ‘public services’ companies such as Ingeus, G4S etc, who in turn subcontract part of the work to others. Most of the payment they receive comes only when someone is sustained in a job for at least 6 months. Clients who are harder to place attract a higher payment, but of course only if they are found long-term employment. The funding structure was intended to ensure that the companies did not simply concentrate on those for whom it is easier to find work. A key finding of our Report is that this system does not seem to be working. With payment only coming in to the companies with ‘success’ they were meant to front fund the help people needed from their own resources. We found that this doesn’t seem to be happening enough so that many advisers are working with very large caseloads. Local feedback I get from constituents reflects many of these problems. I am still very interested to hear of local experiences, both good and bad, so please let me know if you have had a similar experience.
East Coast Campaign Update
As I explained in the previous newsletter I’m campaigning against the Government’s plans to re-privatise services on the East Coast Main Line. Since then I’ve written for the think tank Progress on why keeping East Coast public will improve services and save taxpayers money http://bit.ly/11dN7Ub.
I’ve also been focussing on securing a debate in the House of Commons on this issue. This has involved encouraging Labour colleagues to submit applications for debates in Westminster Hall (in effect the Commons ante-chamber). Fortunately Andy McDonald from Middlesborough did so and was successful in the ballot. His 90 minute debate will take place on Wednesday 5 June at 2.30pm and I hope to speak.
After that I intend to apply for a second debate, this time through the Backbench Business Committee (http://www.parliament.uk/bbcom). Successful applications require cross party support, so I’ve spent some time speaking to Tory, Lib Dem, SNP and Green MPs. Finally I’ve met with Labour’s Shadow Transport Team, who are backing this campaign all the way.
If you want to help stop the privatisation of East Coast, sign my petition here at www.sheilagilmore.co.uk/eastcoastmainline Constituency Report
Bongo Club Lives!
‘MP goes clubbing’ may be an unusual headline for me, but I was pleased to be invited to the launch of the Bongo Club in its new Cowgate premises. But this is no ordinary nightclub. In its own words:
“Truly independent, we’re owned by local arts charity Out Of The Blue, which has an established track record as a catalyst for creativity in Edinburgh. This allows us to put the sounds of the underground and imaginative aspirations before the mighty dollar, encouraging the community to get involved and use our space to do their own thing.”
Last year it looked as if the Bongo Club was going to be homeless when they had to leave their premises at Holyrood Road. But after inspired partnership between Out of the Blue, the University and the Council it has risen again in the Cowgate. There is a pleasing partnership knowing the Club is ensconced at the foot of the building better known as Central Library, a real cultural miscellany.
Student Accommodation – Better than HMOs?
One of the few growth sectors in construction in the last few years is purpose built student housing. Here in Edinburgh East we already have examples in Lauriston, at Chalmers Street, and on the site of the former Deaconness Hospital. A very large development is already planned at Holyrood Road and this month two further proposals for student accommodation have been announced, one at Abbeyhill (on the current Chatham’s garage site) and the other at Lutton Place. An exhibition of plans for Lutton Place is being held at Lutton Court on Thursday 27 June, from 3pm-7.30pm (details correct at time of writing, but may change according to developers).
For many years there have been concerns about the growth of HMOs (houses in multiple occupation) in our city centre tenements. Would be owner occupiers have been priced out due to the demand from landlords able to get rents from 3, 4 or even 5 tenants in one property. High turnover and lack of care by tenants and landlords, noise and parties have led to long term residents moving out. Consequently, tenement living as family living has all but disappeared in many areas. When Community Councils campaigned for limits on the number of HMOs to restore balance to local communities, much of the opposition came from students’ organisations, and the universities, arguing that any such limits would be detrimental to students finding accommodation potentially discouraging them coming to study in Edinburgh. One suggestion made by Community Councils was that more purpose built student accommodation should be available. This is now happening and with 24 hour management on site these new developments appear to be less problematic for neighbours. If so (and let me know if your experience is different) perhaps the time has come to revisit the policy on limiting the number of HMOs given the expansion of purpose built accommodation? At the very least the council should be assessing the impact of the building of so much student accommodation.
Portobello Indoor Bowling
I have been contacted by a number of constituents upset at the announcement that Portobello Indoor Bowling Centre is to close at the end of June, and that the building will in future be used as a centre for soft play and other family activities. Many have pointed out that there is no similar facility within reasonable travelling distance, while there is a number of other nearby centres which offer facilities for families, such as soft play. Portobello Indoor Bowling is a ‘turn up and play’ facility whereas alternatives (in Gorgie and East Lothian) are not. Regulars stress the facility is important not just for the elderly, but to encourage youngsters to learn the game, and it is used by disabled bowlers. In response, Edinburgh Leisure point to declining numbers, and their overall reduction in funding. Users of the centre feel that at the very least there should have been proper consultation, with an opportunity given for them to suggest ways of overcoming the problems. Here is part of what I have said in a letter to the Chair of the Board of Edinburgh Leisure:
“I appreciate that finances are tight and that Edinburgh Leisure’s grant from the City of Edinburgh Council has been reduced. In turn doubtless they would state that their funding from the Scottish Government has been reduced and the Scottish Government would doubtless ‘blame’ Westminster. However at all levels choices are made as to where to reduce spending. This will also be true for Edinburgh Leisure and the question my constituents have is why this facility has been particularly affected. They understand that other venues also are loss making (although without publication of figures they have no means of judging if the bowling centre is loss making).”
The full letter is available at http://bit.ly/114nYHp. At the time of writing I am still awaiting a reply.
Something of an Edinburgh institution, many people have enjoyed lunch or a coffee at the Engine Shed cafe. It is well known for providing good value and quality in addition to the invaluable training for young people with learning disabilities. So it was not perhaps surprising that within 5 days of a newspaper report saying the Engine Shed might have to close more than 5000 people had signed a petition against closure. Over 7000 people have now signed the petition which can be found at http://chn.ge/13ZdYEu.
It is understood that the Economy Committee of the City Council is planning to make changes in the way it helps people with illnesses and disabilities get into employment. Recommendations from the Scottish Government state that service providers should concentrate more on getting people into mainstream employment and give them ongoing support to stay in such employment. It would appear that a variety of organisations will be invited to tender for this work, and this would include current providers such as the Engine Shed. With all such tendering processes a lot depends on the specification of the service being asked for, and until this is available it is difficult to know how easy it would be for the Engine Shed to bid for this work.
There is due to be a report providing the full details which should be discussed at the next Economy Committee meeting on Tuesday 25 June 2013 and the papers usually become available one week before at www.edinburgh.gov.uk/cpol.
I was worried when I saw the newspaper report and especially some of the comments attributed to the council, because it sounded very similar to the approach being taken by the Coalition Government in relation to the Remploy factories, many of which are earmarked for closure. One of the Government’s main arguments for this was that it would be better for disabled people to be in mainstream employment rather than in ‘segregated’ or ‘sheltered’ workplaces. This has led to a considerable debate both about the principle (is segregated or sheltered employment always bad for instance?) and the practicalities especially at a time of when jobs are generally scarce. There are concerns that many Remploy workers may end up unemployed.
The ‘model’ the Scottish Government recommends (which it appears the council is adopting) is one where organisations help disabled people search for jobs, and work with employers to encourage them to employ people they might not otherwise consider (e.g. by guiding them to funding sources for workplace adjustments). The work done by the Engine Shed is rather different giving people longer term training opportunities in their social enterprise, and is not clear how the other model would allow that to continue.
So the issue is a bit more complex than simply a ‘cut in grant’ and we will have to watch this space when committee meets in June. The petition is still open for signature at http://chn.ge/13ZdYEu and I know many people have also contacted their local councillors to express their views.
The campaign by the Parents’ Council for a replacement building for the nursery at Duddingston Primary School was rewarded with the decision by the City Council in May to fund a new permanent building, which also provides the opportunity to expand. Instead of taking 40 children each morning and afternoon session the nursery will be able to take 60 children each session. This will be welcome news to many families in the area. This year will see the initial planning work with build taking place in the 2014/15 financial year.
Private Sector Leasing Scheme – boon or trap?
One of the reasons I spend a great deal of my time knocking on doors and visiting people all over the Constituency is that there is no better way of finding out the real impact of policies of local and national government on people’s lives. In the last few weeks I have met several constituents who have found themselves ‘stuck’ and unable to move on with their lives as a result of a policy which was well intended but has had some perverse consequences. Talking to these constituents has reinforced my view that there need to be changes, some which can be delivered locally, while other national changes are needed.
Faced with mounting applications for housing roughly eight years ago, the Council started a scheme whereby it leased flats from landlords for up to 5 years to use as temporary accommodation. This was called the Private Sector Leasing scheme (PSL). The scheme worked financially for the council provided tenants were entitled to receive housing benefit. The council was able to fund a substantial expansion of temporary accommodation (around 1500 flats) with the costs met by national government (through housing benefit). Now – I have to hold my hands up and say that I was Council’s executive member for housing when this scheme was introduced. It helped resolve a crisis, for individuals and the council. The alternative was placing families in B&B accommodation which came about due to the lack of homes available. Like many well-intended plans it was never designed to be long term. The scheme costs us all as taxpayers, but just as important it can trap people.
For one constituent I met, the offer of a PSL flat when she was going through a difficult separation was a relief, giving her a chance to get the life and that of her children back to stability. Now she is ready to move on and is looking for work but is worried about ‘making work pay’. If she works 35 hours at minimum wage she would have pay £487 of her £957 rent. In contrast a council rent for this size of house would be £424. While she can again make a homeless application she would be no better placed to get a permanent council tenancy than someone who first became homeless this week, despite having been in a form of temporary accommodation for two years.
Talking to her and others in this situation has set me thinking what practical steps can be taken to change the system. I have written more about these ideas on my website: http://bit.ly/13Zfs1K.
Anne Frank Exhibition – Leith Academy
This month second year pupils at Leith Academy presented an exhibition about Anne Frank, telling the story with extracts and illustrations, to fellow pupils, to parents and to other visitors. They were clearly moved by the fact that this was a story of a girl who was their own age when she and her family had to go into hiding, a girl who worried about her appearance, who wasn’t always sweetly patient – and who so very nearly survived. It’s a story which we need to remember even if it never fails to move me to tears. Well done to pupils and staff.
Pedal on Parliament
I was pleased to be part of the second Pedal on Parliament which took place on Sunday 19th May. Cyclists gathered at the Meadows, but many had ridden there from much further afield. (I confess that living a stone’s throw away from Meadows as I do my ride there was pretty short!) From there the riders made their way down to the Scottish Parliament (which meant the ride back was uphill for nearly everyone). The gathering was bigger than last year, and as several speakers pointed out there was a great diversity of riders, from the lycra clad sporty types to those of us who just like to go about our daily business by bike. Lots of families were there too.
The main message remains that so much can be done to make cycling easier and safer for at are relatively small cost compared with the overall transport budget. Three Edinburgh MPs were cycling (Ian Murray, Mark Lazarowicz and myself), three MSPs came along with their bikes (Sarah Boyack, Kez Dugdale & Alison Johnstone) and so did at least one of Edinburgh’s regular councillor-cyclists (Cameron Rose) so it was a full cross party event. The afternoon was very well attended.
At a meeting of the Council’s Education, Children & Families Committee on 21st May the Council reaffirmed its commitment to keeping Castlebrae Community High School open until a new school is built. A Working Group of councillors, council officers and community representatives (3 from the Parents Council, 2 from the wider community) has been set up and will also work with a panel of external experts to come up with proposals for improving the school. There will be a Report to the Council in December but in the meantime steps will be taken to boost the school’s intake and to encourage other activities in and around the school.
In support of this the school is holding a Vocational Extravaganza on Wednesday 12th June from 6.00pm till 7.30pm – make sure you head along!
The developers seem to be circling again at Newcraighall. Many village residents were very disappointed when consents were given last year for housing on both the Newcraighall North and East sites. Nothing has happened on the ground yet but it seems that the would-be developers are again trying to increase the numbers of houses which can be built. A specific application is about to come forward to increase numbers on the Newcraighall North site from 160 to 200 and the developer interested is now Barretts. There is to be a consultation event 19th June at Newcraighall Primary School between 4.30pm and 8.30pm.
This is all taking place against a background where the Council is under pressure to make more land available for housing. I’ve written in more detail about this on my website at http://www.sheilagilmore.co.uk/too-many-houses-newcraighall-again/. One early result of this pressure is that the latest version of the draft Local Plan (LDP) has now upped the number of houses which are thought to be viable on these two sites. This would create a presumption in favour of more units if finalised in this form. You can comment on the LDP by 5pm on Friday 14 June 2013. They can be submitted electronically to: firstname.lastname@example.org or by post to Local Development Plan Team, City of Edinburgh Council, Business Centre G.3, Waverley Court, 4 East Market Street, Edinburgh EH8 8BG. The Newcraighall Residents Association is helping people to submit comments. They are planning to go round doors but if you miss them, and would like to get help with commenting email me and I’ll pass your details to David Hewitt, Newcraighall Heritage and Residents Association.
The Thistle Foundation is planning a series of events for Older Adults this summer, and all local residents are welcome.
Starting in July staff will be running a Lifestyle Management and an Exercise Based Lifestyle Management course specifically for adults over 60 years of age; this is in addition to classes in T’ai Chi at the Thistle dependent on demand. The current classes are led by trained volunteers who are proving to be popular.
If you’re interested and would like to learn more the Foundation is holding an informal coffee and chat session at Wighton House on 27th June from 10am to 12 noon to introduce you to the classes. If you have any further queries please give Emma a call on 0131 656 7343.
Do You Have A Southside Story?
The Causey Development Trust and local professional photographer Peter Dibdin are looking for people who live, work, or have a specific connection to the Southside to participate in an exciting photography project funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund ‘All our Stories’ programme, and Foundation Scotland.
‘Southsiders: Portrait of a Community’ aims to use photography to help celebrate and discuss perceptions of the Southsider identity through portraits, and by gathering stories and memories about the area and community. More info – email@example.com.
Residents are still concerned that planning permissions were extended on all the sites. This was agreed by a majority of the planning committee. While Artisan has committed to submit new applications for the southern sites, residents point out that if Artisan back out before the Caltongate is redeveloped then the sites they hold – and the options – could be sold on with planning permission. While these concerns are very much hypothetical, and Artisan have said they are very much committed to the site, any new owner is at liberty not to pursue the Artisan line.
We must now wait for the next set of applications from Artisan, which will cover the redevelopment of these southern sites. I still feel it is important to clarify the legal position in respect of the ownership of the Market Street arches and the Canongate Venture. I wrote to Sue Bruce, City of Edinburgh Council Chief Executive about this and I have now received the following response confirming the Council currently retains ownership: http://bit.ly/11CrIpy.
Last month the renovated and resurfaced Restalrig bike path was reopened. To ensure that the path was looking tip-top for users heading back to the path, I was pleased to take part in the a community cleanup along with Cllr Joan Griffiths, and Cllrs McVey and Tymkewycz, along with many local residents pleased to see the improvement works complete. The path links Seafield with Easter Road.
Dates for your Diary
Saturday & Sunday 1st & 2nd June – Meadows Festival – Music, stalls, children’s entertainment, football and Taylor’s funfair – all the details can be found at http://www.meadowsfestival.org/
Wednesday 12th June – Castlebrae Vocational Extravaganza – Castlebrae Community High School, Greendykes Road – 6.00pm-7.30pm
Wednesday 19th June – Newcraighall North PAN exhibition – Newcraighall Primary – 4.30pm-8.30pm – use reference 13/00562/PAN at https://citydev-portal.edinburgh.gov.uk
Thursday 27th June – Thistle Foundation informal coffee morning on activities and classes – Wighton House – 10.00am-12.00pm
Thursday 27th June – Lutton Place Student Accommodation PAN – Lutton Court – from 3.00pm-7.30pm – use reference 13/01513/PAN at https://citydev-portal.edinburgh.gov.uk