Evening News column: Start debate on disability benefits

Earlier this week I wrote for the Edinburgh Evening News on the need to start discussing how we use the new powers Scotland will receive following the referendum. You can access the article here but I’ve also reproduced it in full below.

Following last year’s referendum the Smith Commission proposed giving the Scottish Parliament new powers over issues like tax and welfare.

Two weeks ago a draft law was published that all three main UK parties have committed to passing after the election to make this a reality. Now we need to start talking about how we’ll use these powers to build the fairer and more equal society that we all want to see.

One of the areas of welfare set to be devolved is supporting folk with the additional costs of living and working with a disability or chronic illness.

Since the 1990s people have been able to claim Disability Living Allowance, which is paid regardless of income, and for many is the difference between holding down a job and not. But back in 2010 the Conservatives and Liberal Democrat coalition announced it would replace DLA with a new benefit – Personal Independence Payment – to cut spending by 20 per cent.

While existing DLA claimants are set to start being reassessed for PIP later this year, I believe this should be delayed until control of these benefits passes to Holyrood. At that point we Scots will have a choice: do we want to press ahead with the switch to PIP or go back to DLA? Both options have their challenges.

If we go with PIP, many new claimants have complained of long waits to both get an appointment and receive their first payment. How would we address these delays? Should there be fewer face-to-face assessments? Should we continue to contract out this work to private companies?

Alternatively if we stick with DLA, where will we find the extra £200 million per year to pay for it? Do we ask people to pay more tax or cut spending elsewhere? And what of those who say that, once the delays are overcome, PIP is a big improvement for people with mental health conditions? Should we re-work DLA to take lessons from PIP into account? Can we develop a system that works better with care packages provided by councils?

Naturally, the focus of charities and campaigners over the last four years has been on helping individuals navigate the changing social security system, and campaigning against “reforms” based on savings rather than the needs of those affected. But we now need to think positively about what is needed.

I don’t pretend to have all the answers to these questions at present, but what I do know is that we need to start having this debate now so that we are ready to craft a benefit right for the needs of Scotland.

Scottish Labour has already proposed using new powers to freeze fracking in Scotland, bring Scotrail back into public ownership, and reintroduce a 50p tax on earnings over £150,000 – now we need to start talking about DLA and PIP.

After people were so engaged in discussing where power should lie during the referendum, it would be a tragedy if they weren’t involved in deciding how we use the new powers we will now have. For the sake of the people we all want to help, let’s have this debate now.

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Interview with Scottish Churches Parliamentary Office

This interview was first published by the Scottish Churches Parliamentary Office on 30 April 2013 under the title There have been changes, but you can’t take your foot off the pedal. I have reproduced it in full below.

Growing up in a family with a strong allegiance to the Labour party, Sheila Gilmore’s childhood was most definitely political. Her eventual involvement in student politics and the women’s movement (particularly the setting up of the Edinburgh Rape Crisis Centre in the early 1970s) merely cemented the “born and bred in the bones stuff” that comes with growing up having political discussions in the home, particularly with her father, a staunch Labour supporter. Nevertheless, Sheila and her father’s view on Labour policies were not necessarily always the same; when Sheila was a student, she was appalled that the Labour party was even considering supporting the war in Vietnam. However, in 2003, “we had a bit of a set-to when my dad was saying how dreadful it was that Blair had supported Bush in Iraq – it was quite an interesting turnaround, I don’t know what it is, when you’re actively involved you feel more obliged to perhaps defend the sometimes indefensible.”

As a Labour MP on the opposition benches in the UK Parliament, Sheila is not prepared to defend the Government’s actions on welfare reform. She is also frustrated at the way in which language is used to “fuel panic”. “I hate the word welfare; I try not to use it. In itself it should be a neutral word, but it’s attracted a meaning that’s not always seen in a good light. We used to talk about social security and I had someone come up to me recently who was quite angry, asking ‘why are our pensions being lumped in with ‘welfare’? We’ve paid for this’… He was, rightly I think, unhappy about the growing assumptions.” She is well aware that spending on benefits has risen in recent years, but the inclusion of pensions (including state pensions) in the Department for Work and Pensions’ welfare bill has been entirely “for political reasons… to make the point about DWP spending being out of control.” Sheila gives one example of a headline claiming: “900,000 people who had been on incapacity benefit had dropped their claim when they were asked to attend an assessment, and then the rest of the article goes on to suggest that people were ‘at it’ for years…”. Sheila then explains the various means by which people find themselves on Employment and Support Allowance, but the biggest explanation for new claims not getting to the assessment stage is that people are claiming for a short period of sickness and then are no longer eligible for the benefit as they have recovered. “Now I’ve taken probably about five minutes to explain that. How do you compete with a headline? What will have stuck in people’s heads is the headline, which is then repeated on the TV… Then you wonder why, when MORI goes out and asks people ‘do you think welfare should be cut back?’, people say yes.” This is something that obviously causes Sheila angst: “It’s more than just rhetoric. It’s misuse of statistics. It’s appalling and, unless you have experience of going through it, you probably have no notion of having to claim anything so don’t necessarily know…”

However, she thinks that the issue which has resonated with people is the ‘bedroom tax': the changes to housing benefit which lead to payments being cut for people deemed to be over-occupying properties based on the number of residents compared to the number of bedrooms. This, Sheila thinks, has “made people sit up and think.” While the legislation was going through, “the housing organisations tried very hard -it was they who coined the term ‘bedroom tax’- the Government say that it was the Labour party who coined the term but I have to say we can’t actually take credit for that!”, but Sheila thinks that it is only recently that this issue has really caught people’s attention. “It’s not addressing the correct problem. There is a problem that there has been a rise in housing benefit payments, which has doubled in ten years, and actually is expected to keep rising despite all of the reforms. My analysis is that it has had a lot to do with the huge expansion in the private rented sector over the past ten years.” The real issue, Sheila notes, is not that there are people claiming housing benefit for extravagant housing, and living beyond their means; it is that there is a lack of affordable housing to move into, and more and more people are being pushed into the private rented sector, which in turn is pushing the amount of housing benefit paid, up. Sheila observes that the total amount that the Government spends on housing, subsidising housing in one way or another, relative to national income, probably hasn’t changed that much in the last 30 or 40 years. However, she notes that the proportion of funding spent on investment in housing stock has fallen from around 80% to 20%, whilst the amount spent on “income subsidy”, assisting people to pay their rent, has shifted from around 20% to 80% of the total housing budget: “public spending hasn’t changed very much in real terms, but it looks as if the benefits side of it has spiralled uncontrollably, unsustainably. I think there is a strong argument for investing in the assets.” Sheila recently conducted some research of her own, looking into the number of one-bedroomed properties available in Edinburgh for rent (either from the council or housing associations) and found that there were 24 one bedroomed properties (5 of which were sheltered) available at the time. The system in Edinburgh allows prospective tenants to bid for properties that they are interested in, and one had received over 900 bids. “Those numbers are eye-boggling really. It makes it very real. … We do have a big issue with houses in short supply in Edinburgh. Not everyone who is applying for housing who doesn’t have a council house at the moment is homeless, in the sense of not having a roof over their head, but many are living in insecure properties.”

However, Sheila recognises that there is still a crucial issue which is often overlooked in this debate, which is not just how many bedrooms your house has; but what social ties you have in the area in which you currently live: “people want to stay in the area in which they have all their social networks, whatever that is, whether its friends, local church, if that’s your social network – people don’t want the upheaval of going somewhere else and starting again. It’s not good for people’s mental wellbeing.” This is something which has been somewhat lost in the panic regarding the need for people to downsize or find alternative accommodation or face a shortfall in rent every month. How people are covering the often unavoidable shortfalls is another area of concern for Sheila: “we’ve seen the growth of pay-day lending institutions as well. People seem to be managing to find rented accommodation even with the reduction in the amount of benefit to cover it, so they’re not literally out on the street, but you have to ask how they’re meeting that, and are they meeting it through cutting back on other things, or by repeatedly borrowing a bit more to keep going, but in the end that can be a very expensive way of meeting that.”

As a female MP at Westminster, Sheila is often asked whether it is still a boys’ club – to which she responds “I don’t think I’m being naïve in saying that, at least on our side of the House, I don’t feel it hugely so, but it may be just simply because the number of women has grown and that has had its own impact and effect, so it’s not as crass as it would have been. You know, when you read about someone like Shirley Williams when she became an MP and the type of atmosphere there was then was very different. So I think we are making progress, but slowly.” In the Labour Party at Westminster, around 31% of MPs are women, which Sheila admits is by no means ideal, but it is a situation that is improving. As someone who was very active in the women’s movement in the 1970s, when asked for her assessment of the progress made since then, Sheila is cautiously positive: “There has been a lot of progress and we mustn’t forget that, because sometimes you can get very despondent and think that nothing’s changed, and it was all for nothing. Even just the language that people use; people do behave differently. While there are some obstacles, the opportunities are greater. The expectations of young women coming out of school and college are different. Now, some of them sometimes find that the real world is not quite so welcoming as they have perhaps been educated to expect, and it comes as a bit of a rude shock when things aren’t quite in place. There have been changes, but you can’t take your foot off the pedal.”

Turning to the question of Scottish independence, which is at the forefront of all discussions about Scottish politics currently, Sheila is a firm supporter of devolution, a process which she feels “was never a closed book, and it is something that needs to keep evolving…” One example of this is the Scotland Act 2012, which passed through the UK Parliament last year, but which has left Sheila frustrated at the slow rate at which change will take place. She singles out the power for the Scottish Parliament to raise taxation, which won’t take effect until 2016: “Now why it takes so long to do that I don’t know, but broadly what it does is it gives the Scottish Parliament more borrowing powers, and an ability to raise taxes. … There’ll still be an element of grant coming from Westminster…but there’ll be an amount which the Scottish Parliament will be required to set and will be then dependent on collecting. So that’s coming. Now personally, I would much rather it was coming quicker because it seems to have disappeared from the public consciousness… hardly anyone is talking about the additional powers that are coming. Now maybe some people think that they are genuinely still not enough, that’s a point of view, but I think we should be clear that the path is already underway, and in fact the same Act that gives those extra powers enables further tax powers to be given to the Scottish Parliament without additional legislation… I think we’re already on the road and sometimes the debate is sometimes framed to suggest that either it is independence or the status quo as has been since 1999, and that is not the case – I think that shows that there is capacity to move further, but I am keen to see people to start discussing what they want to do with the powers and how they think it will enable or change Scotland.”

Discussion is obviously important to Sheila. She already has a relationship with some local church groups:” I meet quite regularly with a group in Portobello, a Peace and Justice group that several denominations are involved in”, and she recently spoke at Sacred Heart in Lauriston on welfare issues. However, Sheila notes that it does depend on the issue: she is honest in saying that “I’ve had disagreements with some churches and church people on things like same sex marriage of late, but I don’t think you should fall out with people because you disagree on certain issues but probably agree and can work together on others.” However, she recognises that with some people, “there are some points where there are genuine disagreements and that’s fair enough.”

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SNP silent on how to pay for post-independence promises: My letter to The Herald

On Tuesday 23 April The Herald published an article that suggested increasing Council Tax to compensate for the effects of the Bedroom Tax. I wrote a letter in response, which was published the next day. I’ve reproduced it below.

Academics have called on the Scottish Government to look at charging higher council tax as a means of easing the impact of the bedroom tax on vulnerable families (“SNP urged to increase council tax to fight cuts”, The Herald, April 23).

The SNP’s response is to say that this would mean “robbing Peter to pay Paul”. But if Peter is benefiting disproportionately from successive years of the freeze on council tax, and Paul is facing a loss of £12 a week from a Jobseeker’s Allowance payment of £71.70, might that not be described as redistribution?

The SNP is fond of telling us how committed it is to social democracy and the welfare state, but it seems to have a lopsided view of how we can achieve this. For the SNP it is all spend and nothing on the other side of the balance sheet: no change to council tax, no mansion tax, no changes to personal taxation.

In this article SNP MSP Jamie Hepburn tells people that only independence can deliver the welfare state people want. But as usual there is silence on how this will be funded. Oil revenues seem to be the magic money tree.

So not only are Scots affected by the bedroom tax being told by their Government that nothing much can be done to help them, there is a deafening silence about how these changes will be funded in the event of a vote for independence.

Sheila Gilmore,

MP for Edinburgh East and member of the Work and Pensions Select Committee,
84 Niddrie Mains Road,
Edinburgh.

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Press release: Nationalist currency plans in tatters

The only way to guarantee that we keep the UK pound is to vote to stay in the UK, Sheila Gilmore said today.

The MP for Edinburgh East was speaking after a new report made it clear that the rest of the UK would be ‘highly unlikely’ to enter into a new, Eurozone style currency union with Scotland if we vote to leave the UK.

The report, from the Treasury, leaves the nationalists currency plans in tatters. This leaves Scotland facing the prospect of either having to adopt the Euro or launch a new currency altogether if we separate from the UK.

The nationalists have now started arguing in public about what their currency plan should be. John Swinney continues to push the ‘highly unlikely’ option of a currency union with the country we would have just walked away from, while Yes Scotland board member Patrick Harvie has called for a new currency to be created.

Sheila Gilmore said:

The nationalists plans on currency are in absolute tatters. They have spent years chopping and changing what their policy would be and now every option open to them has either been ruled out or is much worse than what we have at present.

First of all they wanted the Euro, then they wanted us to join the ranks of countries such as Palau, the Marshall Islands and East Timor and not actually have a currency. Now they have asserted that the rest of the UK would be happy to enter into some kind of Eurozone style currency union with us, even although we had just told them that we didn’t want to be in the same country as them.

The Nationalists are trying to do on membership of the pound what they did on membership of the EU or NATO – asserting that everything would be ok, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

Alex Salmond is asking us to take a huge gamble with our money. The only way to guarantee that we keep the UK pound is to vote to stay in the UK.

Notes to Editors:

  • The full UK Treasury report can be found here.
  • 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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February 2013 enewsletter: community petition success, Portobello Park consultation, scivers and strivers, and Bedroom Tax starts to hit home

Sheila Gilmore MP Header

Westminster Report

Happy New Year! With Christmas and New Year it has been a while since my last Report at the end of November.

Unusually this week even Central London saw some fairly thick snow, prompting Mayor Boris to cast doubt on climate change theories. To be fair, he still voiced support for measures such as insulation on fuel economy grounds, but he does not seem to have understood the difference between ‘climate’ and ‘weather’.

Snowy London

This month we have had a lot of talk about referenda on Scotland and Europe. January was also the month when the Chancellor hoped he had sprung a trap for the opposition on benefits and tax credits uprating. More on both below.

The quirks of questions

Sometimes you spend a long time trying to craft the perfect question to a Minister in one of the Departmental question sessions, only to find you are not called, and even if called , that no-one takes any notice. On Wednesday 18th December I stayed in the Chamber after PMQs to hear the Defence Secretary’s Statement on Afghanistan. Defence and foreign affairs are not areas I have chosen to specialise in, and while they are extremely important it is sensible to focus one’s energies at Westminster. However being there, I decided to ask a question, about womens’ and girls’ rights and education. Being a statement, if you ‘stick it out’, exercising by jumping up and down between each question and answer, you generally get taken – last on our side in this case. But my more spur of the moment question featured in the Independent’s report of the session!

I seem to have had a very ‘dry’ spell in terms of getting questions in the various ‘ballots’ for Oral Questions in the last few weeks, not for want of trying. But I’ve had a bit of success in ‘bobbing’ (the ‘technical’ term for trying to ‘catch the speaker’s eye even if you haven’t been drawn for a question). Here’s some I have had:

1. I had my first PMQ in several months on 5th December asking the Prime Minister a question about tax relief on pension contributions.

“Q11. [131423] Sheila Gilmore (Edinburgh East) (Lab): Whatever announcements the Chancellor makes on pension tax relief shortly, is it not a fact that when this Government came to power, they made changes to pension tax relief that gave a tax cut of £1.6 billion to people earning more than £150,000? [Interruption] I see that the Chancellor has to give the Prime Minister his crib sheet.

The Prime Minister: I am afraid the Hon. Lady is wrong. We inherited a plan to raise £4 billion in taxes from the wealthiest people, and we raised that further. My Right Hon. Friend the Chancellor will make some further announcements in a moment.”

The point behind this question is that when Labour introduced the 50p tax rate, they made a change to pension tax relief so that people paying that higher rate of tax did not also automatically get 50p tax relief on every pound put away in a pension. On taking office, the Coalition Government changed this so that ‘full’ relief was given to higher rate tax payers. As so often happens at PMQs the Chancellor had to lean over to whisper an answer to the PM (hence the comment about crib sheets). See p11 http://bit.ly/WdlAAz.

PMQs 5th December

2. 5th December was a particularly busy day as I had a Select Committee meeting in the morning, met with a constituent who had been on a tour for a rather brisk cup of tea, then asked my PMQ. I also had been drawn for a short debate in Westminster Hall on ESA issues (see below) and in between was the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement, where I asked the Chancellor a question about figures the Government keeps quoting for job creation (more on jobs figures later). See p35 http://bit.ly/WdlAAz.

3. On 6th December I had a question to the Department of the Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA) on low energy lighting – a most unsatisfactory response. (more later on this issue) http://bit.ly/Wdp3Pi and the same morning DWP minister Steve Webb made a formal statement on benefit uprating where I had a chance to put a question to him (see p32 http://bit.ly/Wdp3Pi)

4. Monday 10th December was the day for DWP questions. I wasn’t drawn but I was called on a question about the Work Programme which is the Government’s flagship employability scheme. The first published statistics had been published about 10 days before this, and showed that the scheme had not met the targets the Government had set for its first year. For nearly 18 months we had been told that no information could be given about outcomes until the first results had been statistically verified. However, the Government didn’t like its own statistics they accompanied them with unverified reports from some of the programme operators stating that actually some 200,000 people had ‘started’ jobs. My question was about this. See p13 http://bit.ly/WdpeKF.

Following this session, the Disability Minister (Esther McVey) was called to answer an Urgent Question about further redundancies at Remploy Factories. After the initial question and answer other people have an opportunity to ask questions, and I asked the Minister to stop the process given that most of the people in the first round of redundancies hadn’t been found jobs. See p32 http://bit.ly/WdpeKF.

5. The following day I got in another question about the Work Programme, this time at Treasury Questions. See p6 http://bit.ly/WdpeKF.

6. I don’t often ask questions on local government (because it is devolved) but housing remains a passion of mine and I asked a Christmas themed question on 17th December:

Sheila Gilmore (Edinburgh East) (Lab):
There are 2,000 households with children in bed and breakfasts, 880 for more than six weeks. There is room at the inn, but no cooking facilities for Christmas, and the price is an increase in housing benefit. What do the Minister’s colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions say about that?

Mr Foster:
The Hon. Lady fails to acknowledge the significant reduction in the number of children in those circumstances under this Government. I nevertheless accept it is important that we do everything we possibly can to assist these families. That is why we are taking action with the relevant council and why we are making £390 million available to assist with the changes in welfare benefit, which her Government never did.

(The point of course, is that the £390m – called Discretionary Housing payments – is only necessary because of the cuts being made and will in no way make the ends meet. The Labour Government didn’t need discretionary payments because it wasn’t making such cuts in the first place. The trouble with oral questions like this is that you don’t get in for another bite at the cherry even when you believe the Minister to be wrong! See p5 http://bit.ly/Wdmv3G.

7. On 8th January I asked the Deputy Prime Minister whether he would support the 60,000 people who have signed ‘Pat’s Petition’ asking for a ‘cumulative impact assessment’ to be carried out of the effects of all the various welfare reform measures on disabled people. His response was to repeat the DWP line ‘when did the Labour Government carry out such an assessment’ – but the real issue is that at no time did the Labour Government carry out such a raft of changes over a limited period. See p9 http://bit.ly/WdmcpH.

The Wintry Autumn Statement

The Chancellor’s Autumn Statement slipped back to 5th December this year. It wasn’t only the weather that was cold by then, so was the economy. Growth has been much slower than predicted in 2010 when the Coalition announced its Emergency Budget and Comprehensive Spending Review (June and October 2010 respectively).There are conflicting views as to why this happened, nevertheless it is a fact the economy is flatlining. The Office of Budget Responsibility report of the Pre-budget predicted growth would be 2.5% in 2011 and 2.75% in 2012, (based on the policy initiatives of the previous Government).

Economic growth since 2007

The Government has made a lot of the ‘deficit’ having been reduced by a quarter but this has to be viewed in the context of their original plan to eliminate the deficit by 2015. To achieve this, the reduction by now would have had to be closer to one half. The target has now been pushed back to 2017.

As a result of this, government borrowing is rising faster than predicted. In the run up to the Autumn Statement many commentators pointed to a big hole opening up in Government finances which could involve drastic further spending cuts. (For anyone wanting to follow up on these arguments a report called Fiscal Fallout published in November 2011 by the Social Market Foundation and the Royal Society of Arts is a good place to start).

In the event, the Chancellor deliberately put off a decision about further departmental spending cuts to the next spending review, but he found savings by limiting the uprating of benefits and tax credits by 1% over the next three years.

Since the autumn statement prospects haven’t improved much. Just this week we have the news that GDP fell by 0.3% in the last three months of 2012.

Employment Figures and the Work Programme

When criticised on the economy the Government points to the fact that unemployment has been falling and that ‘1 million’ new private sector jobs have been created since the General Election. One of their justifications for cutting back the public sector was that this would ‘free up’ the private sector to grow. These figures are causing considerable comment among economists and business commentators, since usually a recession and low growth is accompanied by reduced employment.

Workfare isn't working

I have been pursuing this issue with both the Prime Minister and other Ministers at question sessions and in debates over the last year. By the beginning of 2011 the Prime Minister claimed 500,000 new private sector jobs had been created since the election. Arguably many of these were the result of the stimulus measures of the Labour Government. The 1.2 million quoted towards the end of 2012 include that earlier 500,000 which suggests growth in jobs has actually slowed up. ONS statistics show that around 170,000 of these result from a reclassification of FE college jobs as private rather than public sector. Given the increase in tendering out of public sector functions to the private sector, it is possible that there are other jobs like this. More recently, the Guardian newspaper published an analysis which showed that of the 500,000 new private sector jobs appearing in the statistics for the year to November 2012, at least one fifth appeared to be unpaid work experience placements. See The Guardian data blog: http://bit.ly/XG7NOy.

Many of the new jobs are part time jobs. I have always been a great advocate of part time and flexible working but there appears to be increasing numbers of people who are not choosing this, rather it is a necessity. Part of the explanation may be down to structural changes in business and the labour market which may not change anytime soon. Retail has moved from the old 5 and a half day opening to a seven day week with extended hours. The amount of ‘footfall’ does not increase in line with the hours, so the workforce gets spread over the time, with ‘flexible’ hours matching busy times. One result of this increase in part time work is more workers must claim tax credits and housing benefit, so explaining the ‘shocking rise’ the Government made much of in the Uprating Debate (see more below).

When asked what it is doing about unemployment the Government refers to its ‘flagship’ employability service, the Work Programme. This was to bring together all previous types of employment support into one for those unemployed for 12 months or more (less for young people and those coming off Incapacity Benefit). This we were told would be the biggest, the cheapest and the best such programme ever. For the first 18 months DWP Ministers refused to give any interim outcome data on the ground that it had to be properly verified first (and forbade the providers from doing so either). Shortly before Christmas results revealed the first year target had not been met after 14 months of ‘outcomes’. Early days, said Ministers, and anyway there had been some 200,000 job starts, conveniently announced by the ‘trade association’ for the providers. But why should we now suddenly be expected to believe such unverified data when we were told before how misleading that could be?
Employability programmes of course do not create jobs and in many sectors of the economy there isn’t increased demand for more staff. The Government is very keen to talk about how cheap its employability programme is, but that is the underlying problem. This may seem an odd thing to say given that the programme overall is a huge ‘spend’, but the amount being paid per person (and that only after a job is sustained) is actually relatively low. The Work & Pensions Select Committee is carrying out an investigation into what actually is happening with these programmes. We were promised these would be highly personalised and intensive, but this seems far from the experience of some constituents I have spoken to. If anyone has experience of the Work Programme or knows someone who has, I would be pleased to hear from them.

Referenda

Or is it ‘referendums’? Apparently the latter is now accepted as correct, just as these have now moved from ‘rare’ in our constitution to fairly frequent. This month the Westminster Parliament debated and passed the order necessary to pass referendum holding powers to the Scottish Parliament on the basis of the ‘Edinburgh Agreement’.

On Wednesday 23 January David Cameron was welcomed into PMQs by cheering and Tories waving order papers, following his much trailed Europe Speech promising a Referendum, probably in 2017 if the Tories win the 2015 election. However the cheers were more muted whenever Cameron indicated that he was hoping to be able to campaign for a ‘staying in’ vote. If the Prime Minister hoped his speech could ‘park’ the issue for a while, that is certainly not the case.

Welfare Reform Debates

I have taken part in several debates on this subject over the last couple of months. The biggest was the Welfare Uprating (Make Labour Look like the Party for Skiving Fat Slobs) Bill (Andrew Rawnsley’s words in the Observer). This was announced by the Chancellor in the Autumn Statement now infamously, introduced by another reference to people heading off to work watching their non-working neighbours with the blinds drawn. The Chancellor, as well as saving money, saw this as a trap for Labour. The big justification was that ‘benefits’ had risen 20% since 2007 while wages had risen only 11%. Over a longer timescale, a different picture emerges with unemployment benefit having fallen from 21% of average earnings in 1979 to under 11% now. Two thirds of those affected turned out to be people in work (through the impact on tax credits, housing benefit, maternity pay and statutory sick pay). Nor had those on tax credits benefited from the 5.2% benefit increase last year (based of course on very high inflation that year) because for the last two years they haven’t been increased in line with inflation. Despite all the talk of making work pay tax credits had already been squeezed. Clearly stung by the criticism that the 1% uprating was hitting people in work, Iain Duncan Smith launched an attack on the whole idea of tax credits (despite the fact that his Universal Credit will be doing a similar thing, if less generously) and quoted figures for increases in spend which were shown to be wholly wrong by Channel 4’s FactCheck. Despite this, Ministers went on quoting these wrong figures throughout the debate.

Actually in my case, it was less a matter of taking part in the debate as ‘waiting to speak but not being called’. Numbers wanting to speak on this exceeded time on both days given for debate. I posted my notes for the speech I would have made on my website: http://www.sheilagilmore.co.uk/the-welfare-uprating-debate-and-what-i-would-have-said/.

ESA Reassessments – Westminster Hall – 5 December

I had secured a half hour debate on the frequency of people being reassessed for Employment & Support Allowance. These short debates are basically 15 minutes to put a case and then 15 minutes for the Minister to respond. They are good for making a more detailed critique of a particular issue, which is very difficult in the bigger ‘set piece’ debates in the main Chamber. Sometimes – although not on this occasion – you can even extract a promise of change or at least investigation on the part of a Minister. See from p99 http://bit.ly/WdlAAz.

Disabled people and carers – Westminster Hall – 18 December

This was again a much oversubscribed debate, on the Opposition side anyway. This was a 90 minute debate, but speeches of backbenchers (other than the MP who had obtained the debate) were limited to 4 minutes, with only two Government backbench speakers. This debate covered a wide range of issues around the changes being made to benefits for disabled people and for carers. See from p99 http://bit.ly/Wdln0c.

Atos Work Capability Assessments

On Thursday 17th January a three hour ‘backbench chosen’ debate took place on the assessments for Employment & Support Allowance. This is an issue which I have been doing a lot of work on. Not a voting or decision making debate but one which I think demonstrated the wide range of concerns there are about a system which is placing too many people in the wrong category. Significantly those Government backbenchers who spoke were critical too. Only the Minister defended the process. Speeches again were severely time limited but at least I got my few minutes worth. See p37 http://bit.ly/WdjTTy.

Bedroom Tax – 23rd January

Bedroom Tax 23rd January

Yet another heavily subscribed 90 minute debate. This time not a single Government backbencher came in to listen or speak. Most speakers could have spoken for far longer than we had the chance to do (another 4 minute limit). Although this change was considerably debated a year ago, it is only recently that it has become ‘real’ to those affected as letters are now being sent by council and housing association landlords to affected tenants. Most MPs are getting a lot of constituent enquiries about this, and most are astonished that even people with adapted houses or disabilities aren’t exempted. But as I said over a year ago, it’s not just such extreme cases that need attention; why should a spare room be seen as an unreasonable luxury? The amount many constituents will lose puts the 1% uprating in the shade (although virtually all will be affected by that as well!) One constituent I’ve spoken to with a second ‘single’ bedroom will be losing £50 a month. Even if a move could be found, moving itself is a costly business. I think, perhaps more than any other measure, this one is bringing it home to people that the Government’s welfare ‘reforms’ are hitting lots of ordinary people. Read my speech from p99 http://bit.ly/WdhvMy.

Personal Independence Payment Regulations

Work & Pensions Committee

In December the Government announced the final draft Regulations for the new benefit which will be replacing DLA. The Minister also announced a slowing of the move for existing claimants. Originally scheduled to start in spring 2014 the majority of current DLA claimants will not be assessed for PIP until after October 2015. Around 500,000 existing claimants will be reassessed before that date, for instance if their renewal date falls in this period, or their circumstances change. The Government’s own figures show that 170,000 people are expected to lose benefit by 2015 and 450,000 by 2018. The Minister was in front of the Select Committee on 21st January for over two hours talking about the regulations, and confusingly told us we should ignore the projections for after 2015 because they were ‘speculation’ – despite having been published by her Department. You can view the session at http://bit.ly/Wz4CZB and I have put more information about PIP on my website http://www.sheilagilmore.co.uk/welfare-reform-and-its-impact-on-disabled-people-and-carers/.

Pensions

January also saw the publication of the delayed White Paper on proposals for a new flat rate state pension to start from 2017 (this could be a busy year!). The Work & Pensions Select Committee will be scrutinising the draft Bill next month, so I will report more then. One big question is whether the Pensions Minister has managed to ‘square the circle’ of producing a fairer system within the current spending projections (as the Treasury apparently demanded). If you have questions or views on this please get in touch.

Last week I did a video for Pensions Week on the government’s proposals for private pensions. In particular I talked about why its risk-sharing scheme design would need its own legal framework and how that might affect employers. To watch the video go to http://bit.ly/Wdtlq2.

Pensions Week

Low Energy Lightbulbs

Sadly the constituent who originally brought this issue to my attention died suddenly just after Christmas. My condolences go to her husband, family and friends who will miss her terribly. The best tribute I can pay is to continue the campaign, and ensure that her calls are answered.

Constituency Report

Dumbiedykes Petition

On 22 January the City of Edinburgh Council’s new Petitions Committee heard its second petition from Dumbiedykes residents calling for a public transport link from the area to the Southside. In November I met with residents to discuss the absence of a suitable service and suggested that they establish the petition which has now been heard. Due to the steep gradient out of the ‘Holyrood Valley’ residents in the area face a 45 minute journey via George Street to get to the Southside to visit the doctor’s surgery, pick up some messages, or access community facilities. Needless to say this causes great difficulty for the elderly, people with mobility problems and parents with small children. Many families in the area maintain strong links with the Southside, having moved from the area when Dumbiedykes was built.

Social isolation has increased since the area lost its direct link a few years ago. Councillors also heard that new student accommodation is being built in the area increasing the need for a connection to the south of the city.

The Dumbiedykes community organised a strong campaign and worked tirelessly to get this matter heard. Their hard work has paid off with Councillors calling on officials to explore all options and produce a series of reports due before the next two meetings of the Transport and Environment Committee. Officials must now think creatively (and economically) to provide a service – either by establishing a new route altogether, or work with Lothian buses to divert existing services.

Santa Comes to Craigmillar Books for Babies

On the Saturday before Christmas I popped in to the new Craigmillar Library to see the Christmas Books for Babies event. It was packed with babies & toddlers and mums & dads. Santa came with his sack – full of books of course! This was the third such event in the week which were all packed out! (Future school planners please note there seems to be no lack of babies in the area!)

East Neighbourhood OfficeIf you haven’t been to the new Library it is well worth a visit. The library is equipped with plenty of computers, a fantastic collection of books and audio books for all ages. The addition of a new cafe and comfy public seating area means that you can take a moment to enjoy a quick break. Buses 2, 14, 21, and 30 stop just outside so the new library is easy to get to whether you’re coming from Newcraighall, or Prestonfield. The 42 stops nearby providing connections from Duddingston and Northfield.

East Neighbourhood Centre map

I was rather impressed to be told that registrations were up 20% in the first three weeks of opening the library. Details of the library can be found at http://bit.ly/Wz43z6.

Basketball Festival

City of Edinburgh BasketballClub

On Saturday 5th January I was delighted to meet the City of Edinburgh Basketball Club and watch their senior men’s match against Glasgow Rocks. The team is based in Portobello. Along with MSP Kez Dugdale, Councillor Maureen Child, Council Leader Andrew Burns, and Portobello High Head Teacher Peigi McArthur, we saw an exciting match where the local team ran the Glasgow professional team very close (61-72). The match was the culmination of a one day ‘Basketball Festival’. The Club has a whole range of activities from the ‘Sunday Hoops’ (8-10 years) upwards. To join in, or find out about future matches go to http://www.cityofedinburghbasketball.net.

Swap Starbucks for Serenity

Serenity Cafe

Boycotting Starbucks for their tax and employment practices? Likely to be near the Canongate? I strongly suggest you try the Serenity Cafe in Jackson’s Entry, running between the Canongate and Holyrood Road (near the Tun). Serenity Cafe is a social enterprise set up as part of a project for people recovering from addictions. As well as the cafe it’s a base for a large number of drug and alcohol free activities, including music and art. If you are looking for a place for a relaxing coffee or snack give it a try – and know you are helping a small bit of the real ‘big society’.

http://www.serenitycafe.co.uk

Castlebrae High School

The formal consultation on the closure proposal ended on 7th December and you can see my submission on my website at http://www.sheilagilmore.co.uk/castlebrae-community-high-school-consultation-response/.

The Council meeting which will make a decision on this takes place in March and the campaign is far from over. Save the Brae have been meeting with Councillors, several of whom, from all parties, have been on visits in the last few weeks. The campaign also sent a very good presentation to all Councillors which clearly showed the important links between the regeneration of Craigmillar and the need for a school.

Portobello High School

The consultation on whether the Council should take a ‘private bill’ to the Scottish Parliament to allow the new school to be built on a part of Portobello Park closes on 31st January. There have been several exhibitions, and two large public meetings of over 300 people each, showing the strong interest there is in the issue. If you haven’t yet made your voice heard, depending when you are reading this, there may still be time to respond, whatever your view is. If you haven’t completed the survey, please do so before 5pm on Thursday, 31st January.

http://bit.ly/VPCfIi. You can see my submission on my website at http://www.sheilagilmore.co.uk/portobello-high-school-private-bill-the-school-must-be-built-on-the-park/

Planning Update

Caltongate

Canongate Venture

The new developers have stated that they will be responding to the consultation which took place before Christmas, and will be bringing forward their new proposals for the southern part of the site in March – so watch this space.

Eastern General

Hillcrest Housing Association held a public exhibition/consultation on their plans for part of the former Eastern General hospital site. Developing this site has been slower than anticipated and current plans differ in layout from those previously granted consent. I went along to see the plans on Thursday 24th January. There will be a small number of properties for sale, but most will be for rent (the balance between ‘low’ and ‘mid market’ rent is still to be agreed) My initial view is that there are too many flats, but that is possibly not a material planning consideration, and is driven largely by the cost issue in a climate where the amount of money coming from the Scottish Government to housing associations has reduced. I will be making some comments and will post my letter on my website when I do so.

Dates for your Diary

5pm, Thursday 31st January – deadline to submit comments to the City of Edinburgh Council proposal to take a Private Bill to the Scottish Parliament – complete the survey at http://bit.ly/VPCfIi.

From Wednesday 6th February – Bridgend Growing Communities: An introduction to growing your own food – for full details contact Hollie on 0131 664 0555 or hollie@health-in-mind.org.uk

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