Home truths for new First Minister

In today’s Edinburgh Evening News I’ve called on Nicola Sturgeon to use the Scottish Government’s new borrowing powers to boost investment in building affordable housing. The article is available on the paper’s website but I’ve reproduced it in full below.

Scotland’s Housing Crisis should be Nicola Sturgeon’s top priority.

When people hear the phrase housing crisis, they often think of beggars and rough sleeping. However the reality is often less dramatic but much more long-lasting.

Take my constituent John. In his 50s, he’s lived in the private rented sector since his marriage broke down ten years ago. He has neither central heating nor double glazing. His flat was built by the council but was sold off under the right to buy. After changing hands several times, the current landlord now charges double the rent of a similar flat in the same block that remains in council hands.

John’s wages from short-term agency work in the construction industry don’t cover his rent, so he depends on Housing Benefit to make up the shortfall.

He knows he could pay his own way in a council or housing association let but he has next to no chance of being awarded one as he already has a tenancy.

Across Edinburgh, this is an increasingly common problem. Vacancies in the council and housing association sector have halved over the last year or two. Since the summer there have been fewer than 50 available most weeks. And while the council and housing associations completed 1,285 units last year, half were mid-market rent – where a 2-bed property would cost around £600 per month compared with council rent of £400 – and a further quarter low-cost home ownership.

By attempting to get the most out of much-reduced Scottish Government funding, Edinburgh has ended up building affordable housing that, for many, simply isn’t affordable. As a result, waiting times for those who need low-rent homes are growing.

Tackling this issue should be Nicola Sturgeon’s top priority.

The Scottish Government will gain more borrowing and tax-varying powers as a result of the Scotland Act 2012, and these are set to be enhanced once the recommendations of the Smith Commission are put into law after the next General Election.

If these were used to channel extra funds into low-rent affordable house building, this would put downward pressure on rents and push down the Housing Benefit bill.

Unfortunately there was not a mention of this issue in Nicola Sturgeon’s programme for government. And there was next to no increase for affordable housing in John Swinney’s pre-budget statement for 2015/16 – the first year the new borrowing powers could be used.

During the referendum the SNP argued that they needed independence to create a fairer and more equal society. Now that Scottish voters have rejected this option, they should now use the powers of a strengthened Scottish Parliament to invest in affordable housing, so that people like John can pay their own way while living in decent quality homes.

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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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Tories and SNP both to blame for rising Housing Benefit bill

The Tories talk tough about reducing the benefits bill but the truth is they’ve failed to get to grips with the problem. In fact, their cost-of-living crisis has now left hundreds of working people in Edinburgh relying on housing benefit to help pay their bills.

598tenementsSince David Cameron became Prime Minister, the number of working people claiming housing benefit has increased by 60 per cent nationally, costing ordinary British taxpayers an extra £6 billion. In Edinburgh alone, the number of working people now claiming housing benefit has increased from 5,870 in 2010 to 8,074 last year – a staggering 38% per cent rise.

Part of the reason for this rise is the cost of living crisis, with working people now on average £1600 a year worse off as wages have fallen while prices have soared. Many people in work can’t get the hours they need while low-paid and insecure work is forcing more people to rely on housing benefit.

However another factor is rising rents, which will only be brought down by building new affordable housing. Unfortunately the house-building record of the SNP Scottish Government is poor, and so they must also take their share of the blame.

A Labour Government in 2015 would take immediate action by freezing gas and electricity bills until 2017. And we would make work pay by introducing a lower 10p starting rate of tax, raising the national minimum wage and ending the abuse of zero-hours contracts.

Only Labour has the policies and the determination to stand up and make a real difference for hardworking people in Edinburgh.

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May 2014 Newsletter

Sheila Gilmore MP Header

Westminster report

Suffragettes

‘Unusual number of women in Parliament’
Read a headline in one newspaper recently, commenting on the shooting of a film called ‘Suffragette’ which was taking place in the Palace of Westminster itself. One hundred years on the issue remains controversial. With only 3 full members of his Cabinet now women, David Cameron has been criticised for not fulfilling his promises. This in large part dates back to his failure in his first ‘reshuffle’ to increase significantly the number of women in junior ministerial positions, leaving several ministerial teams ‘women free zones’. Without such an increase there is limited chance of seeing change at Cabinet level.

After the Wednesday a few weeks ago when an all male front bench was fielded, Government Whips have been careful to ensure no repeat, even if this means placing junior ministers and whips on the ‘front bench’ at PMQs, against ‘tradition’ which reserves these places for members of the Cabinet.

There are still only 22% women MPs at Westminster across all parties (31% of Labour MPs). Holyrood fares better at 34% overall, but largely because of the high number of Labour women MSPs. (18 out of 38). The majority party has only 18 out of 65 (including the Presiding Officer elected as an SNP member). The Conservatives have 6 women in their MSP team of 15.

The Referendum
Ballot
I spend time every weekend knocking on doors somewhere in the constituency, and I have been out every day during the Easter Parliamentary break. There is no doubt that the referendum is becoming a big talking point. There is an appreciation that this is not a decision to be taken lightly. People want to know where Labour stands, and why we are campaigning for a ‘No’ vote. I’ve written a piece with some of my thoughts on my website and I am always happy to discuss further.

I know that some of you will disagree with me; indeed the referendum is an issue where families and friendship groups often have very different views. But to ignore in my newsletter what is the biggest political issue facing us here in Scotland would be odd indeed.

Employment and Support Allowance
In early April I secured not one but two debates on Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) – the benefit people are meant to receive if a health condition or disability prevents them from working. As many of you will know, I’ve long been concerned that too many people are being incorrectly assessed as ‘Fit for Work’.

In my first debate on Thursday 3 April I argued that, despite all the incorrect assessments plus the stress and financial hardship placed on applicants, the total number of claimants hasn’t fallen by anywhere near the levels expected because of the limited support to get people declared Fit for Work into jobs.

In my second debate on Wednesday 9 April I set out my concern that Government statistics underestimate the number of incorrect Fit for Work decisions. I also took the rather unusual step of publishing my speech in advance, to encourage the Minister to provide an informed response.

My argument was that although many people have been calling for reform of the assessment process for some time, if the true extent of its failings were known, the case for change would be impossible to ignore. While the Minister implied that further statistics might be published in the future, he made the rather odd argument that it wasn’t for Ministers to decide which statistics should and shouldn’t be published. I intend to keep up the pressure.

Finally it was revealed towards the end of last month that the company the Government outsource the bulk of the ESA assessment process to – Atos Healthcare – are set to walk away from their contract before it is due to end in August 2015. While Atos have done themselves no favours – I often hear stories of disengaged and unprofessional staff – ultimate responsibility for this issue rests with the Government. I’ve called on Ministers to ensure improvements are put in place before a new contractor is brought in.

Bedroom Tax
At the start of this month the Work and Pensions Select Committee – of which I’m a member – published a report on the Bedroom Tax. As you will know, the policy involves council and housing association tenants with a spare bedroom having their Housing Benefit cut by around £14 per week. Normally Select Committees try to proceed on the basis of consensus, but given how unfair this policy is towards individuals and how ineffective it is at saving money for the Government (see various articles on this here), I proposed an amendment to our report that would have seen it call for the policy to be ended. Unfortunately I was outvoted and we instead emphasised the distress it was causing to people with disabilities. This was covered on the ITV News, the Daily Record and the Huffington Post.

Social Security Spending Cap
Towards the end of March I voted in favour of the Government’s overall cap on social security spending. This measure has understandably provoked strong feelings from many quarters, so I’ve written up a brief piece on the Huffington Post setting out what the cap does (and doesn’t) do, and why I supported this measure. The key points to emphasise are that this won’t lead to automatic cuts to people’s benefits, but it could provide a platform to make the case for tackling the root causes of rising benefits spending – things like low wages and the lack of affordable housing.

Gagging law
Chamber.1
One of the issues I have received more emails on that any other is the Government’s so called ‘Gagging law’. This was introduced after a series of scandals led to calls for greater regulation of the lobbying industry. However in reality the bill only covers a tiny minority of the lobbying industry, doesn’t stop commercial lobbyists influencing Government policy, but potentially hinders the work of charities and civil society groups. Ed Miliband has thus pledged that, should Labour win the next election, we would repeal this law.

Maria Miller
Following the expenses scandal of 2009, a new independent system was introduced. The new system is strict but rightly fair. Last year a complaint was made about the expenses claims of the Culture Secretary Maria Miller between 2005 and 2009. As these were made under the old system, the old system of investigation was invoked, with the Standards Committee of MPs passing judgement following a report by an independent Parliamentary Commissioner.

Miller

The Committee cleared Ms Miller of deliberately over-claiming but asked her to apologise to the Commons for obstructing the Commissioner’s investigation. Although she did so, many felt that her apology wasn’t sincere (it lasted a mere 37 seconds!). This prompted me to raise this in a letter to the Chair of the Standards Committee on 7 April, and this received coverage in The Herald, The Guardian and ITV News. Ms Miller resigned on Wednesday 9 April.

Ryan Coetzee
The Times reported that Nick Clegg’s Special Advisor, South African Ryan Coetzee, has been undertaking political work for the Liberal Democrats. I’ve written to the Cabinet Secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood to ask whether this breaches the code of conduct for Special Advisors. This was picked up in The Herald, the New Statesman, the Mail and another Times – the South African one!

Constituency Report

Community Councils Reformed
This month I was pleased to attend the inaugural meeting of two community councils in the Constituency — Northfield and Willowbrae & Old Town – which have now been reformed. Both have a good mix of new and more experienced members and will shortly have their websites and community notice boards up and running. Meetings are open to the public and you can get further details about meetings in your area at www.edinburghnp.org.uk/community-councils.

Meadow Lane Student Accommodation
Meadow_LaneOn 23rd April I attended the public exhibition of the University of Edinburgh’s proposals for student accommodation on the land between the back of the Georgian tenements on Buccleuch Place and Meadow Lane. New build is proposed for ground which is largely carparking and garages, and the tenement buildings are also to be refurbished for student accommodation. This site falls within an area close to one of the main University campus areas, and within council planning policy guidelines use for student housing is deemed more acceptable than if it were elsewhere. Several local residents viewing these proposals when I was at the exhibition were clearly worried about the density, the height and the possible loss of light to residential blocks. As far as design is concerned the new build is proposed to be ‘modern’ (possibly like the student housing at Archer’s Hall nearby) which apparently city planners favour (to those holding the exhibition told us). If you have a view you can respond to this consultation by contacting edin@jmarchitects.net. There will be further opportunity to object when a formal application is made.

Stanley Place Student Accommodation
Last month I wrote about plans for student accommodation along the East Coast Main Line in the Abbeyhill area. Following feedback from local residents I wrote objecting to the application. In the two weeks after the plans were published I received many letters of objection from local residents, and it is fair to say the local community is very much opposed to the proposal. The most recent application for residential dwellings, determined in 2009, was refused by the planning authority because the scale and mass of the proposal would fill virtually the whole site and my objection again reflects these concerns.

I have also written to Council colleagues to ask that the licensing and planning departments look at policies surrounding application for HMOs and student accommodation so that such development is more evenly spread across the city.

Launch of the UK’s first City Car Club Electric Vehicle
ECCIOn Tuesday 22nd April Councillor Lesley Hinds & I attended the launch of the City Car Club’s first electric car which is available to car club members just outside the University of Edinburgh’s Centre for Carbon Innovation (ECCI) at High School Yards. As a car club member myself I am looking forward to trying it out – or at least I was until I was told it was an ‘automatic’ which I haven’t yet mastered! The Car Club is expanding in Edinburgh and is a great option in a city like this citycarclub.co.uk.

Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh Public Transport Link Survey
Earlier in April Edinburgh Coach Lines announced it would no longer run service 328/329 along the Royal Infirmary Public Transport Link via Greendykes Road. That service ran on a circuitous route serving Musselburgh, Tranent, Elphinstone and Dalkeith.

328When the road was first planned it was hoped buses would use the link to serve the new hospital via a regenerated Craigmillar. I’ve written to Lothian Buses asking them to extend the existing 14 and 21 services along the road to the hospital, but to date they have said the route wouldn’t make commercial sense. I’m therefore keen to hear your thoughts on the matter to gauge demand for a service from Edinburgh East residents. If you have views on the use of this road I’d be delighted if you would complete my survey.

Dates for your Diary
Saturday 10th May – Portobello Pottery Kiln Celebration Day – from 2.00pm – Bridge Street – music and stalls, with the chance for children to make their own brick. If you haven’t yet seen the outstanding brickwork of the kiln, please make this your opportunity to view it.

Saturday 24th May & Sunday 25th May – Duddingston Village Festival – Duddingston Village – see the programme at duddingstonfestival.weebly.com

For a list of events in Holyrood Park until the end of June, and any restricted access arrangements, head to goo.gl/aWoqvE

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April 2014 Newsletter

Sheila Gilmore MP HeaderWestminster report

Spring in St James' ParkSpring is here and politicians’ minds turn to…… Elections! Normally at this stage of the political cycle we would be in a middle of a ‘will he/won’t he’ media frenzy about a possible General Election. The introduction of a five year fixed term Parliament has put paid to that. The downside is that it already feels that Parliament is becalmed, with much Parliamentary time taken up either with relatively uncontroversial legislation or with ‘general’ debates. Last year’s Queen’s Speech was thin in content, and the assumption is that the same will happen this June, not least because it will be followed by a short Parliamentary session ending around this time next year. That, of course, should not be mistaken for Government not governing, because there is plenty of government action going on, and plenty for Select Committees to monitor.

We’ve All Got Budgets George
BudgetIn recent years Chancellors have been criticised for ‘leaking’ so much of the Budget that the main event is a bit of a bore.  This year Osborne promised a ‘rabbit’ out of his red box.  This proved to be proposals on pensions .  So much of a rabbit some are worried that an almost throwaway proposal in a Budget, sketched out on the back of the proverbial envelope, may have unintended consequences for pensions, savings and pensioner incomes long into the future.  Others have hailed the freedom the proposals give to people to spend ‘their own money’.  It will take some time to find who is right.  I can’t help but remember that the last Government which ‘freed up’ people in the pensions field was in the 1980s.   Then people were given the freedom to opt out of the state earning related pension scheme (SERPS)  and encouraged to take up private pensions instead.  I think it is agreed by most observers that this led to considerable pensions mis-selling, and many people not paying into a pension at all.  I would be interested to hear your views.

Following the Budget there are four days of budget debates and I spoke on the first day this year.

Dodgy Jobs Statistics
At the start of the month the UK Statistics Authority upheld yet another complaint from me regarding the use of statistics by the Department for Work and Pensions – the fourth in the last year. This followed a Work and Pensions Select Committee hearing in November 2013 during which senior civil servant Neil Couling quoted unpublished data to defend the Government’s Work Programme. Without prior access to the data, it was difficult for my committee colleagues and I to hold Mr Couling – and the Ministers to whom he reports – to account, something the chair of UKSA Sir Andrew Dilnot described as ‘a matter of regret’. This story was picked up by the Huffington Post.

Dodgy Jobs Websites
C4newsI then appeared on Channel 4 News to discuss claims that more than 11,000 positions currently advertised on the Government’s Universal Jobmatch website may be bogus. On top of that Channel 4 had shown that as many as one third of the jobs advertised were duplicates or in ‘self employed’ opportunities such as catalogue distribution where the first thing you have to do is pay £150 up front to get started. In a debate last year I likened this to the unemployed in the 1930s going on the road as brush sellers. My colleagues and I have been flagging this up for some time but it was good to get Channel 4 highlighting this.

In preparation for the rollout of Universal Credit, existing Jobseekers Allowance claimants have been required to use the site since March 2013, or face having their benefits stopped. I made the point that people shouldn’t have to waste their time applying for jobs that don’t exist, and that DWP must get better at identifying and deleting suspicious adverts. The trouble is that the contract they entered into didn’t include this kind of regular monitoring.

Personal Independence Payment
On 18 March the DWP Select Committee published a report on Personal Independence Payment, which replaces Disability Living Allowance for people of working age, and is intended to help with the additional costs of living with a disability. The main issue our report highlighted is the long delays – sometimes up to six months – people are facing before they are given a decision on whether or not they qualify for support. This is driving vulnerable people to real financial and emotional hardship, something I emphasised in an article for Progress. Our committee also criticised Iain Duncan Smith and Tory Chairman Grant Shapps for using statistics to promote ‘negative views’ of disabled people, something that was picked up by Political Scrapbook.

Bedroom Tax
As part of a feature for the House Magazine I participated in an email exchange with Tory MP Stephen Mosley on the Bedroom Tax. This policy reduces a claimant’s Housing Benefit award by around £14 for every spare room they have. Stephen argued that this simply mirrored changes made by the previous Labour Government to Housing Benefit in private rented sector, but he failed to acknowledge that this only applied to new tenancies – it wasn’t applied retrospectively as the Bedroom Tax is. In response I emphasised that even if tenants wanted to downsize, they can’t due to the lack of affordable housing, and the policy could well end up costing more overall than it saves.

Housing
The Scottish Fabians have published a pamphlet called ‘A Pragmatic Vision for a Progressive Scotland’, which contains a series of essays from Scottish Labour MPs on what a new offer from our party might look like.

598tenementsI took the opportunity to highlight the current shortage of affordable housing, which is forcing people on low incomes into the private rented sector, where rents are expensive, and can only be paid for with help from Housing Benefit. As a result only £1 of every £20 spent by Government on housing goes on actually building homes, while £19 goes on subsidising rents. I set out various ideas about how we might redress the balance, using Edinburgh as an example.

High Speed Two
On 17 March the new Chairman of HS2, Sir David Higgins, published his review of the project. HS2 offers the prospect of faster journeys between Edinburgh and England’s big cities, which would make our city a more attractive place to do business and create jobs. In the long term it could also allow rail to compete with air travel, reducing the number of short-haul flights and carbon emissions as a result. The first phase of the line to Birmingham is due to open in 2026, with trains then travelling at conventional speeds to Scotland. I welcomed Sir David’s report as it suggests extending the line to Crewe by 2027, and completing the whole project by 2030 – three years earlier than previously planned.

Social Care
Social Care is devolved to the Scottish Parliament and so I don’t normally get involved in debates on the issue at Westminster (although the issues the rest of the UK face are very similar to those in Scotland). However I have for some time been campaigning for a change in the law so people in one country of the UK can freely move to another, safe in the knowledge that any care package they receive from their current local authority will move with them – something that isn’t guaranteed at present. Earlier this month the Care Bill went through its Report Stage in the House of Commons and I proposed an amendment to address this problem – you can read my speech here. Although the Government rejected this, the Minister committed to bring forward a set of principles by November that would deal with this issue.

Youth Jobs Guarantee
Too many young people in Scotland are struggling to find work and are not seeing any economic recovery at all, something parents in Edinburgh East know all too well. The number of young people in the UK aged 18-24 claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance for over a year has doubled from 28,300 in May 2010 to 56,100 today. Being out of work is demoralising for anyone, but when you can’t get your first step into the working world the effect on young people can be very harmful.

JobsGuaranteeI’d like to see the next government build on the success of the Future Jobs Fund and work with the private and voluntary sectors to ensure that young jobseekers, who have been on benefit for 12 months or more, get a chance to work. My colleagues and I would ensure adults aged 25 or over claiming benefits for more than 24 months would also be included in the scheme. Government could cover a portion of training and admin costs in addition to wages and employee’s national insurance. See more on my website.

Badger Cull
Badger598A large number of constituents have contacted me about the Badger Cull. There is now considerable evidence that it has not actually worked – leaving aside the cruelty involved in the process. Another debate on this took place on Thursday 13th March in the House of Commons. There was strong cross party support for ending the cull and looking more energetically at the alternative of vaccination. Despite the overwhelming vote for this (albeit Government ministers and many of their backbenchers were ‘not present’ it seems the Government is again going to ignore this and are likely to be going ahead with more culling in the near future.

Constituency Report

Student accommodation
Southside residents and I are relieved Development Management Sub-committee members agreed with officers and refused the application for student accommodation at Lutton Court. With plans for further student accommodation in this area this application has been a much needed test of the Council’s own policies in relation to student numbers.

Local residents made an excellent address to members explaining the impact high student numbers can have on local communities. They appealed to planners and the University to manage the concentration of the student population in this part of the city. Recognising the vitality and economic benefit students bring to our city, residents called for planners to ensure student populations revitalise parts of Edinburgh where the council regeneration is ongoing.

We must now see Lutton Court put to good use. I’d like to see the council work with partners to encourage different buyers to come forward. Residents have their own ideas about future use and said they would welcome mews type homes to satisfy demand for family housing in the Southside.

Meadow_Lane

And more blocks could be in the pipeline –
Last month I wrote of plans from Unite at the Homebase site. While I hope it is clear that plans for further student accommodation in this area will not be welcome, details of three more blocks have been published in the Council’s weekly lists:

  • Meadow Lane (14/00884/PAN). This application is at the ‘PAN’ stage which is a 12 week consultation conducted by the developer. A public exhibition will be held 4.30pm-7.30pm on 23rd & 24th April at David Hume Tower Conference Room.
  • Lothian Street (14/00731/FUL). A much smaller development opposite Potterrow, this proposed conversion of a care home is for 11 studios. Submit comments by 4th April using reference number 14/00731/FUL on the Council’s planning portal.
  • Stanley Place (14/00877/FUL). Proposed demolition of garages and construction of 100 studios next to the East Coast Main Line. Residential proposals at this site were refused at site in 2009. Submit comments by 12th April using reference number 14/00877/FUL on the Council’s planning portal.

Craigmillar Town Centre regeneration consultation begins
CraigmillarTCconsultationParc has now started its consultation on plans for Craigmillar Town Centre. With plans for a new high school, retail superstore and affordable housing to be fine tuned, now is the time for residents to have their say. An exhibition on the plans was held today (Thursday, 27th March) but the plans and details of how to respond are available on Parc’s website. Let me know your thoughts as I’d be keen to incorporate these into my own response.

Craigmillar Police Station stays open… for now
SaveOurStationsIn autumn 2013 Police Scotland announced plans to close front desks at ten stations across Edinburgh and cut opening hours at seven more as part of its £4.2 million cost-cutting plan. Portobello has seen its hours cut and Craigmillar residents were told that services would move to the new East Neighbourhood Centre. With most of the closures taking place on 3rd March a bit of a mystery remains about the situation in Craigmillar. As I told the Evening News I’m relieved Craigmillar station is still open (for now). However, I have not been told when the promised move to the new East Neighbourhood Hub will take place with plans still being discussed. Local officers work really hard to get the best results for Craigmillar and I can imagine it is difficult working with such uncertainty.

Events in Parks Response
Last month I provided details of the Events in Parks Manifesto consultation. You can now read my submission on my website.

Meadows to Innocent Railway cycle route
In my December update I gave details of the consultation to improve the Meadows-Innocent Railway cycle link to enhance the safety of this key part of the National Cycle Network. It is expected that the proposals will be made available to the public the week beginning 7 April here.

50th Craigmillar Festival: Volunteers Needed
Volunteers are needed to help organise the Craigmillar Fun Day on 28th June. If you can help make this 50th fun day one to remember please head along to the volunteer meeting on Thursday 3rd April at 6.30pm at The White House. Help is required making costumes, flags & musical instruments for the parade, as well as running activities on the day. If you can’t make it, get in touch on 0780 400 6357 or CFFDC@hotmail.com.

Dates for your Diary
Thursday 3 April 2014 – Understanding Leith Public Meeting: Census 2011 Results Information and Discussion – Bun-sgoil Taobh na Pairce (Parkside Primary School) 139B Bonnington Road – Tour of the School at 6.15 pm, Sign-in and refreshments from 6.45pm

Wednesday 23rd & Thursday 24th April – Meadow Lane Student Accommodation PAN – 4.30pm-7.30pm – David Hume Tower Conference Room

Pedal on Parliament – Saturday the 26th April 2014
Last year I joined 4000 cyclists who pedalled on the Scottish Parliament calling for a more cycle-friendly Scotland. POPers will maintain their momentum and meet again for the third time on 26th April.

The main ride gathers at the Meadows from 11:30am for a 12 noon start. The route will be no more than 1.5 miles and the pace will be slow enough for even the littlest legs, ending at the Scottish Parliament building for speeches. You can see the route on the POP website. Feeder rides are also being planned, including one starting in Portobello from 10.00am at Portobello Swimming Baths.

Craigmillar Books for Babies
Saturday Rhymetimes at Craigmillar Library:

  • Saturday 26th April – How Does Your Garden Grow? – 11.00am-12.00pm
  • Saturday 31st May – 16th Birthday Celebration-Songs, stories and birthday cake. Gift book for every child! For mums, dads, carers and children under 4 – 11.00am-12.00pm
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