‘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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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
On 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 firstname.lastname@example.org. 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
On 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.
When 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