Kate, Craigmillar has a proud community, you should look deeper and listen a lot harder.

Yesterday Kate Higgins posted her 100 day pledge as part of the Independence Referendum campaign build up.  In that post she referred to a discussion with an elderly Craigmillar resident and described the area.  I disagree with the disingenuous image she has portrayed.  Here is my response:

In your blog piece Kate you do a disservice to the community of Craigmillar by presenting not just a partial picture but in several respects an inaccurate picture of what is happening and the changes that have been made to the area with the community and the council working together.

Yes there is a new council office building which also houses the highly successful and vibrant new library. But did you take a real look around at the change that has happened? I would urge you to go there on any day of the week, but especially on the packed out ‘books for babies ‘ days, or weekday evenings when children play outside their new library. Then there is the White House, recently returned to its 1930s glories, but even more important being run as a community facility, including a cafe, by a locally based Community Development Trust. Love them or hate them, Tesco opened a brand new express store here two years ago, which they wouldn’t have done if they didn’t see a good business prospect by opening up in the area. And sorry Kate it is busy seven days a week, so the image you conjure up of the post office being the only busy shop is just not the reality. A new Deli has opened in the premises once occupied by Luca’s. In fact there aren’t a huge number of closed and boarded up shops, both a Barbers and a Hair & Beauty Salon recently opened, and they are packed with local residents who aren’t as down at heel you make out. Some of those shuttered in daytime are actually being evening opening takeaways. The biggest empty stretch is the building vacated by the council for its new offices, and certainly getting a good new use for this is essential.

There are two new primary schools in great buildings, and which are getting good inspection reports. The pace of building replacement housing has been slower than we hoped, but there are three new developments ready or virtually ready for occupation as I write. Previous phases of development are popular and high quality. Plans for further development in the centre of the area are being exhibited at the Whitehouse tomorrow – these include proposals for more retail, colony homes and a state of the art high school to replace the aging Castlebrae building.

Kate you will see all this if you indeed get out knocking on doors as I do all the year round. You will find that contrary to the stereotype many people won’t be home because they are working. There are still too many people having to juggle several jobs, and zero hour contracts, but that isn’t something only to be found in Craigmillar.

Craigmillar has a proud community spirit and it is wrong to see residents here as having practised the ‘effort of shrinkage’. The people I do speak to are pleased to see a politician at their door and are engaged with the campaign. Many are confidently making a positive decision to vote No.

It’s not that there are no remaining challenges, but it doesn’t help us to complete the task of regeneration to give the impression that nothing has been done and nothing has changed. It might suit the advocates of a Yes vote to present a dismal picture to try to boost their case, but it isn’t a picture residents would recognise. The recession slowed development, but the reduction of investment in affordable housing by the Scottish government in the last few years is not helping.

Regeneration was started with the powers and resources of devolution, and I look forward to it continuing even more rapidly with the devolution of housing benefit, proposed by my party, which will bring together all the current sources of funding for affordable housing locally. We don’t need independence to make progress.

Life shouldn’t be on hold waiting for the referendum and its aftermath, neither for Craigmillar nor for the rest of Scotland.

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Press Release: Housing plans show we can change Scotland for better as part of UK

Edinburgh East MP Sheila Gilmore today welcomed Scottish Labour’s plans to reform the private rented sector to protect tenants across Scotland.

Sheila Gilmore said:

I welcome Scottish Labour’s plans to limit increases in rent and encourage longer tenancies – changes that can be made using powers the Scottish Parliament already has.

This demonstrates that we can change Scotland for the better while retaining all the benefits of the United Kingdom, and without the need for independence.

ENDS

Notes to Editors:

  • Scottish Labour’s Shadow Cabinet Secretary for Infrastructure, Investment and Cities Strategy, James Kelly MSP, will lodge amendments to the Housing (Scotland) Bill to end unfair rises in rent and offer greater security to tenants.
  • Under Scottish Labour plans, Ministers will have until 1 January 2015 to bring forward regulations to limit rent reviews to once a year and to cap rent increases. The party is also demanding that 3 year tenancies become the market standard in Scotland.
  • For more information please contact Matt Brennan, Parliamentary Assistant to Sheila Gilmore MP, on 020 7219 7062, 07742 986 513 or matthew.brennan@parliament.uk.
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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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The Independence Referendum: why I’m voting ‘No’

“So no, it is not as good as it gets: it is up to us to make it better—within the United Kingdom.”

These were my words in a debate on the future for Scotland which took place at Westminster in February. They were a response to an assertion from an SNP member that supporting a ‘no’ vote in September was a vote for ‘no change’, a vote for ‘this is it then, as good as it gets’.

Many of us on both sides of the Referendum debate want the same ends – greater social justice, less inequality, more quality jobs, and a stronger economy. It’s the best means to that end that we disagree on.
BillboardNow I am well aware that in posting some of my thoughts on this subject I will be in disagreement with some of those who read my newsletter and articles on my website. However this is such an important issue for all of us here in Scotland that I feel it is right to state my views clearly.

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, and not one which can be reversed after 4 or 5 years like electing a government.

For many people there is still a lack of ‘answers’ to the questions raised. The currency is a good example. Surprisingly perhaps for a political party which has always wanted independence, the SNP has not come up with a clear answer on this. A few years ago their favoured answer was for an independent Scotland to join the Euro. Recent experience in the Eurozone has made this a less attractive option. Perhaps in response to this, and also to try to reassure people that they could vote for independence with ‘little changing’, the suggested option is using the £ in a currency union with the rest of the UK. I believe that this would create many of the problems currently experienced by Eurozone countries, and an ‘independent’ Scotland would be in the position of having policies on such things as exchange rates and interest rates set from elsewhere, without having the political involvement in decision making. There are some who support a ‘Yes’ vote who agree that such an arrangement is not really ‘independence’. If not a currency union then what?

On this as on many other issues I am often asked how this would work. I have opinions, but I think it is up to those advocating independence to explain what they are proposing. I believe we are better off staying in the UK where we have the advantage of both a currency union and a social and political union.

Some people have asked why a ‘more powers for the Scottish Parliament’ (aka ‘devo-max’ or ‘devo-plus’) isn’t on the ballot paper. I think that would still have left the independence questions unanswered. If, as some predicted, a majority of Scots favoured ‘more devolution’ where does that leave the issue of whether or not Scots want independence? As someone who campaigned for a Scottish Assembly in the 1979 referendum, I am well aware that some people worry that promises of ‘more powers’ may be forgotten in the event of a ‘No’ vote in September. They recall that back then some Conservatives in particular said ‘vote against this proposal and we will come back with a better one’, which of course didn’t then happen in the 1980s. But much has changed since then. Labour’s manifesto in 1997 promised a referendum on a Scottish Parliament and one took place within 5 months of the General Election. The Parliament was up and running by 1999.

Additional powers to vary income tax rates and borrowing powers for investment aren’t just promised but are already legislated for in the Scotland Act 2012, with an implementation date of 2016. The Scottish Labour Party at our recent conference agreed plans for further tax rate variation and also for the devolution of aspects of social security spending which can create real and practical change. One example is the devolution of the money currently spent on housing benefit so that councils in Scotland can have both the existing grant funding towards building affordable homes and the money spent on subsidising rents under their control. In every £20 of public spending going on helping people who need affordable homes, £19 currently goes on housing benefit (much of it to private landlords) and £1 goes on building homes. At present the Scottish Government controls the £1, but devolution of housing benefit would give all £20 to the Scottish Government and from it to local councils. This is what we mean by ‘powers for a purpose’, something which can bring real change. (I’ve written more about this in a recent essay for the Scottish Fabians: A Pragmatic Vision for a Progressive Scotland)

Many promises are made by the Scottish Government that independence can bring a lower pension age than the rest of the UK, better pensions, improved social security benefits, high quality educational and health services, while at the same time saying that income tax would not rise. The comparison is often made to the ‘Nordic’ countries. The missing element of these comparisons is the ‘T’ word which is ‘tax’. Countries like Norway and Sweden have considerably higher levels of personal taxation within a political and civic culture which accepts the social contract that in return there are high quality public services. Much is also made of the Oil Fund set up by the Norwegian Government for investment. In the UK oil revenues have been used to fund ongoing services (and thus assist in keeping tax rates down). While an Oil Fund may be a good idea, we shouldn’t ignore the fact that using oil revenues for a Fund would have an impact on spending on public services, unless taxes rise.

In practice we have already seen some of the results of ignoring the debate about how we as a society pay for the services we need, as well as those we would like in addition. Since 1999 no administration in Scotland has used the existing tax varying powers. From 1999 to 2007 funding to the Scottish Government increased substantially so the need for additional funding was not so pressing. But even in these more straightened times there has been no attempt to ask the people of Scotland whether they would like this power to be used. For example it could be used to raise funds to improve social care. Many elderly people and their families discover that the ‘free personal care’ on offer consists of 15 minute visits, doing ‘personal care’ only such as washing, dressing, and some food preparation. Long gone are the ‘home helps’ who assisted with shopping and housework and got to know those they ‘helped’ (unless you pay for a private service). Councils, faced with the council tax freeze, and increased demand for social care, have had to restrict eligibility and attempt to cut costs by tendering services out to private firms who are ‘cheaper’ because they offer poorer terms and conditions. That isn’t an argument for ending ‘free personal care’ but it is an argument for having a proper debate about what the real cost of providing care is in an ageing society.

Given that these are issues we face now I don’t think it is good enough simply to assert that by voting for independence, all these problems are solved.

These are just some of the issues people are bringing up when I meet them. I’m happy to discuss these or any other issues further in person or by email or letter.
UKOK
I’m voting ‘No’ because I believe Scotland benefits from the pooling and sharing of resources in the UK. When politicians say what their findings are from the doorstep there is sometimes a cynical response of ‘well they would say that’. But I find my views are shared by many of those to whom I speak.

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