What did Labour do in the Scottish Parliament?

I spend time every week knocking on doors somewhere in the constituency and I had a conversation with someone who claimed Labour did nothing during our time in Government at Holyrood. Obviously I took a different view and I’ve reproduced my response in full below.

Thank you for talking to me when I was door knocking in your area recently. We will have to continue to ‘agree to disagree’ on whether independence is the best option for Scotland. However you stated that Labour had done ‘nothing’ in the Scottish Parliament, and I felt I could not let this go unchallenged.

Labour delivered on its devolution promise in 1997 and moved quickly to establish the Scottish Parliament. In the first eight years of the Labour/Liberal Democrat coalition a considerable amount of legislation was passed that led to positive social change. For example:

  • It was this administration that introduced Scotland-wide concessionary travel and free personal care.
  • The Housing Act of 2001 introduced a single secure tenancy across council and housing association tenancies, set in place the homelessness changes which led to the ending of the distinction between priority and non-priority need homeless applicants (a process complete by 2012), and substantially reduced Right to Buy discounts (resulting in sales dropping sharply).
  • The Housing Act of 2006 made important changes in communal repairs in flatted property particularly.
  • Land reform enabled community buy-outs in islands and rural areas.
  • The Tenement Act and Title Conditions Act modernised aspects of property ownership.
  • The Anti-Social Behaviour Act of 2004 tackled problems high on the agenda of many of my constituents, and introduced landlord registration.

Away from legislation the need for infrastructural investment was recognised and councils were invited to submit proposals for using additional investment funding to help grow the economy. These included the extension to the M74, the trams and the borders railway. Edinburgh saw, with Scottish Government support, its largest school building programme in decades.

Government support also made possible the demolition and rebuilding of substandard housing in Oxgangs and Moredun/Hyvots. Significantly the new housing was nearly all for social rent – unlike the later superficially similar developments at Gracemount and Sighthill, where only around one quarter of the replacement homes have been for social rent.

I have concentrated on the areas of policy which I know best, but there are many other examples. Whether you agree with all of the measures or not is another matter. Many people, for example, are in retrospect against the trams, or at least the implementation of that project, but the funding for a range of transport projects was a bold attempt to improve Scotland’s infrastructure. I have my own views on which measures have worked and which may now require further attention or change.

I would not seek to suggest that the SNP Scottish Government has done ‘nothing’ since 2007, although I might not agree with all their actions. I simply make the point that I cannot accept your proposition that Scottish Labour did nothing during its years in government.

Best wishes

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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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March 2013 enewsletter: One Billion Rising, February recess report, Lady Boys of Bangkok Meadows concerns and Old Town engagement

Sheila Gilmore MP Header

Westminster Report

Watching the Shard

The Shard; credit www.habitables.co.uk-tag-the-shard Sitting for several days this month in a Bill Committee I have had a wonderful view of London’s latest addition to the skyline.  The window opposite had the Shard in its centre. As with all new buildings this has been controversial but I have to admit I am a fan. The play of different light conditions has been fascinating; sometimes it looks opaque, in other lights almost transparent. Lights sparkle in it as daylight fades. Partly because of the way the Thames bends, the Shard looks remarkably close from a variety of places in the city. Pity though that the cost of going to the top has been set so high.

‘One Billion Rising’ and debating sexual violence in conflict.

One Billion Rising An innovation in Westminster Parliament procedure since 2010 is the Backbench Business Committee which has dedicated debating time made available for subjects chosen by backbenchers. Sometimes there are votes, although often not, but there is no direct impact on Government policy. It can put pressure on Government and raise the profile of issues which are hugely important but aren’t always in the front of any Government’s mind. A few months ago for instance there was a debate on mental health which many campaigning groups hailed as being an honest opening up of a subject often hidden away. On Thursday 14th February there was 5 hours of debate on two issues around violence against women. One marked the One Billion Rising Campaign which is an international coalition of campaigners speaking out for action to tackle violence against girls and women across the world. 160 countries and over 27,000 individuals have signed up.  Many events were taking place across the UK on this date. The second debate (in which I spoke) focused on the prevalence of violence in conflict zones.  This is an issue which the British Government has committed itself to acting on.  Significantly – I hope – William Hague and Douglas Alexander not only spoke but also stayed throughout the whole of the debate.   This is one of those issues where there is a high degree of cross party consensus – but whether that actually leads to effective progress remains to be seen.  See p67 http://bit.ly/WrtUJr.

Bedroom Tax

The campaign against the ‘bedroom tax’ has gained momentum this month.  This is only one relatively small part of the Government’s Welfare Reforms, but is very significant for the individuals involved.  In cash terms people in Edinburgh affected are typically being asked to find around £50 per month towards rent payments (if they have one ‘spare’ bedroom).  Ed Miliband focussed on this at one PMQs session this month, the matter featured heavily in DWP questions on 28th January, and at Scottish Questions on 13th February. I used housing availability figures for Edinburgh to illustrate the problem and asked Michael Moore to revere these plans.  Read Hansard from p5 http://bit.ly/15ixonn, or watch the session at http://bit.ly/WhGW1t. I expanded on this in a press release: http://bit.ly/V9NcH1. Scottish Questions The other day I heard a good example of the way this is affecting constituents when I met a couple who, after six years of waiting in unsuitable accommodation for a wheelchair accessible house, had finally been able to move to a two bedroomed ground floor flat which met their needs.  The wife is able to get in and out of the property fairly easily and the space makes it possible not just to move around but store equipment – but they are required to pay more to make up the difference in Housing Benefit. I hope that they stand a reasonable chance of securing a ‘discretionary housing payment’ to help them meet the rent, since the Council has said people with chronic disabilities and illness will be among those prioritised for these payments.  Edinburgh Council has also agreed to put additional money towards such payments to ‘top up’ what is coming from the DWP. Judging rightly that if they don’t do this, extra costs are likely to be incurred in chasing up rent arrears if people can’t meet the shortfall.  But in terms of ‘saving the public purse’ this in fact simply shifts costs from central to local government – not really a saving at all. There were some signs last week that Iain Duncan Smith might be looking again at the position for disabled people – almost as if he had just not realised there might be a problem until now, although all of this was argued over in the original debates. Responsible local authorities are taking steps to mitigate the impact over and above the discretionary payments. Although there is a very real shortage of smaller properties, council and housing association landlords can adapt allocation policies to give priority to people wanting to move – on the other hand this could simply make it even slower for people waiting to get a tenancy. One of the main reasons why Edinburgh council lets 2 bedroom properties to single people was the mismatch between applicants (the majority of whom are singles) and the available property sizes (the majority of which having 2 bedrooms). Building or buying more properties would also help, but to make rents affordable there has to be subsidy and the level of funding to councils and housing associations from the Scottish Government has fallen in the last couple of years.  New builds in Scotland dropped from 7900 a year two years ago to 3400 now – and some of these are fairly expensive ‘mid market’ rents – which bar applications from tenants who claim Housing Benefit.

Another small success on Personal Independence Payment regulations

I reported last month that on 21st January the Work and Pensions Select Committee had a session with the Disability Minister on the implementation of Personal Independence Payment (PIP). One of the issues the Minister was pressed on was the fact that the final draft regulations did not include a reference to whether someone could carry out an activity ‘safely, reliably, repeatedly and in a reasonable time period’.  The Government initially wanted to put this in guidance only, not in regulations, but announced a change of heart earlier this month. This will now be included in regulations. This will help a lot of people who can sometimes manage to do things like ‘move 50 metres’ but at other times are exhausted part way and have to stop.  This phrase will apply to all activities, not just mobility.  The Government has not made any decision to change the distance for ‘higher rate mobility’ under PIP to 20 metres from the 50 mentioned in the original drafts, but still it shows that campaigning does work!

The Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill

The second reading of this Bill took place on 5th February. There are some consequential issues applying in Scotland but primarily this legislation applies to England and Wales. The Scottish Government has indicated an intention to legislate on this subject but has not actually done so to date.  All parties had a free vote.  This has been a controversial issue and I received correspondence from constituents on both sides of the debate.  I voted in favour of the Bill.  I know that some constituents have very strong contrary views, and are concerned that this legislation will have profound social consequences.  I know there is no consensus on this, but that is an aspect of democratic debate.

What are the big policy issues this month?

Every month I receive hundreds of emails and letters from constituents about a wide range of policy issues. The top three issues over the last month have been the Energy Bill, the Justice and Security Bill and the If Campaign on international development.

Energy Bill

The previous Labour Government set ambitious targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050. To meet this target we will have to completely decarbonise our electricity generation, and the Government’s Energy Bill – introduced to parliament late last year – presented an opportunity to put this commitment into law. Unfortunately, Ministers have deferred a decision until after the next election, in effect kicking the issue into the long grass. This uncertainty means investment in renewable energy will continue to drop. The UK will miss out on green jobs and growth as a result. Labour has tabled an amendment to the bill that would reinsert this decarbonisation commitment. I can assure constituents that I will be voting in favour of it when the bill returns to the House of Commons at report stage. You can keep up to date with progress at http://bit.ly/15itWZK.

Justice and Security Bill

This bill will allow for greater use of what are called Closed Material Proceedings (CMPs) where evidence used is sensitive or would pose a threat to public safety if it were heard in open court. While I acknowledge that openness and transparency must remain a central tenet of our justice system, I accept that there are certain limited circumstances where these principles should be deviated from. However my Labour colleagues and I believe that the bill as it stands does not contain sufficient safeguards to ensure CMPs are only used as a means of last resort. My Labour colleagues in the Lords amended the bill to provide for such safeguards but these changes were overturned when the bill passed through its committee stage in the commons. A similar amendment has been re-tabled for commons report stage and I can assure you that I will be voting in support of it. Again you can keep up to date http://bit.ly/15itY3S.
Sheila Gilmore MP

If campaign

There has been real progress in recent years in addressing global poverty under the framework of the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). I am proud that the previous Labour Government played its part by trebling aid spending so as to work towards the international standard of spending 0.7% of Gross National Income (GNI) on aid. However there needs to be renewed international efforts to build on the achievements of the MDGs and make progress on areas like gender equality, maternal health, climate change and food security. The UK has a real opportunity to pursue this as President of the G8 in 2013 and the If campaign – currently supported by over 100 charities – has called for the Government to do precisely this. I also support the campaign’s calls for more action on tax avoidance by multinational companies so that developing countries can build their own tax base and move away from a dependency on aid. Next month I will meet with pupils at Preston Street Primary School to speak to them about the campaign. I’ll collect artwork and written letters they have produced and present them to the Government in due course.

Scots Together

ScotsTogether, part of UKTogether Scots Together, a collective energy switching initiative aims to get a better deal on energy prices for people living in Scotland by buying energy together, launched on 18 February and runs until 17 March. Collective switching involves getting people together to review their electricity and gas tariffs to ensure they are on the best deal they can get. While Scots Together will primarily be promoted in the South East Scotland area, it is open to everyone living in Scotland. Anyone who pays a household electricity and/or gas bill in Scotland can join Scots Together. The biggest saving in the UK so far is a jaw-dropping £786 a year for one member in Edinburgh! Householders will be offered up to three options through the switch, meaning a bespoke service for each individual. The options cover: ·         The price obtained through the collective switch auction (there’s an offer for prepayment meters too) ·         A comparison of the whole market provided by uSwitch ·         A greener tariff. Full details can be found at http://www.scotstogether.com/how-it-works/

February Recess

‘Half term’ at Westminster is an opportunity to catch up with visits and events in the Constituency. 

Prince’s Trust

One visit I made was to see something of the work being done by the Prince’s  Trust to help young people get ready for employment.  Throughout 2011/12 the Trust supported over 5,000 disadvantaged young people in Scotland, with almost 4,000 achieving and sustaining positive outcomes such as education, training, employment or self-employment. Particularly impressive were the Young Ambassadors and Job Ambassadors who use their experience to pass on to others – they provide ‘peer education’ rather than hearing from adults whose lives may seem totally different.

Royal Society MP Pairing

Last autumn I wrote about the Royal Society scheme where MPs and scientists were ‘paired’. My ‘pair’ came to Westminster in October and during this recess we did the ‘return match’.  I had the opportunity to hear from a number of researchers, largely in the Nursing Studies department of the University.  Nurse education is a hot potato at the moment with some people suggesting that the move to degree level training for nurses has been a mistake.  We discussed that issue ,  but I also heard about some of the research being done.  One example was a project to encourage mothers of young children to reduce ‘secondary smoke ‘ in the home – something I hope will get taken up across the country.   Another important piece of work was looking at the follow on care for people who have had a period in the Intensive Care Unit, the medium to long term consequences of which are not well understood. Hopefully this will lead to improvements in practice based on evidence.

Dumbiedykes & Prestonfield

Visits to groups in these areas share some of the practical consequences of the much debated ‘challenges of an ageing population’.  I was in Dumbiedykes to talk with residents who are campaigning for the restoration of a direct bus route to the Southside.  The ‘old’ Dumbiedykes was an integral part of the Southside, and Dumbiedykes Road ran all the way up to join St Leonard’s Hill.  The road link was cut with the redevelopment in the 1960s, but for many people their social networks remain in that direction, hence the need for a bus. Many older residents find the hills are a real barrier. In the picture here the building directly behind the pram is now the Braidwood Centre where we met. Dumbiedykes Road There’s another link between Dumbiedykes and Prestonfield, besides both having a high proportion of older residents. Many of the people rehoused to the new Prestonfield estate in the 1930s came from the Southside/Dumbiedykes area. The specific issue I was in Prestonfield to talk about with the Neighbourhood Centre as well as the Tenants’ and Residents’ Group was the difficulty many of their older people have in qualifying for showers. Despite the lip service paid to the importance of ‘prevention’ and enabling people to stay in their own homes, the eligibility criteria for help with getting a shower has been raised substantially in recent years.  This is an illustration of the pressures faced by councils in trying to provide social care which I have written about previously. My response to Alex Neil’s comments in The Herald: http://bit.ly/Wrr5Im; and a previous blog post http://bit.ly/HjSYtl discuss the issue. Even where tenants were getting a whole new bathroom as part of the council’s modernisation programme, the Council has insisted that wet floor showers (which the council prefers to shower cabinets) could only be installed if the tenant were assessed and met the very high level of need under the criteria.  A concession was finally made about 18 months ago that showers would be given if requested by tenants in sheltered housing. In somewhere like Prestonfield, however, there are many very elderly tenants who are just as much in need who do not live in sheltered housing. As the area is due to be included in the bathroom modernisation programme in the coming year, we thought this was an appropriate time to raise this issue yet again, bearing in mind that there is a new council administration. One lady I met who lives in a ground floor flat was 85,  had multiple health problems and had been a council tenant for 60 years, but had been advised that ‘modernisation’ would only provide an overbath shower despite her being unable to climb in. We also agreed to approach the Council about the need to review the eligibility criteria more generally, and the lack of any proper appeal structure when people are refused adaptations.

Around the Constituency

‘New Blueprint for the Royal Mile’

The Council’s planning department has produced a draft ‘Royal Mile Action Plan’. In it are suggestions such as reducing ‘tartan tat’, making more of the street traffic free, and banning double decker buses (both tourist and ordinary services).  What about the needs and opinions of the many local residents?  How are they being involved in this? Not enough says the Old Town Community Council! There’s an opportunity to make your voice heard on this and other Old Town issues as the Old Town Community Council is hosting an event to encourage greater community participation and constructive debate. The OTCC wants to gather views and develop ideas about how to improve the area. The previous meeting proved to be both informative and useful for all who attended in identifying problems and developing solutions. If you want to attend head along to Augustine United Church Hall, George IV Bridge, on Monday March 11th from 7pm – 9.30pm (doors open 6.30pm) Further public exhibitions on the Caltongate plans are due to be held on Thursday 14th March between 11am and 8pm and Saturday 16th March between 10am and 12.30pm at the Canongate Venture building.

Learning Mandarin at Leith Academy

Sadaf Ashraf, Ereen Florendo, Karolina Olszewska, Mihaela Dolbinska, and Michelle Whitelaw I had the chance to meet a group of Leith Academy pupils who had won a place in the finals of a schools Mandarin speaking competition held at the British Museum in London.  Although they didn’t win, getting to the finals was a tremendous achievement. The girls (they were all girls as it happened) were a credit to their school.  In the photo above the group were ready for a joint performance. Immaculate Kahembwe also took part in the individual category of the competition.

A Street Audit in Craigentinny

On Saturday 26th January I went out with Councillor Alex Lunn and a group of local residents to ‘walk the streets’ around Craigentinny Town Centre.  This was organised by the Craigentinny/Duddingston Neighbourhood Partnership and supported by an organisation called ‘Living Streets’. The group came up with priority recommendations for actions: Short term: 1.    Implement an effective litter management regime including strategies to tackle dog fouling and fly-tipping. 2.    Implement an effective weed management regime, including timing spraying to achieve the maximum effect and following this up with weed removal. 3.    Cut back overgrown vegetation to ensure that pedestrian passage is safe and unimpeded. Street Audit in Craigentinny Longer term: 1.    Repair the disintegrating wall around Craigentinny Primary School. 2.    Increase street light provision on Loaning Road. 3.    Develop an effective strategy and action plan that will resolve the problem of pavement and double parking, particularly on Loganlea Gardens. There were other recommendations too & now the Report goes to the City Council. Whether this was all worthwhile depends on what action is actually taken by those who have the power to do it.

A Lidl in Portobello? 

The site of the former Land Rover garage at the corner of Wakefield Avenue has been lying empty for a while now. The Lidl chain is proposing to build a store here.  This is currently at the ‘pre application consultation’ stage but I am currently gathering comments for a submission. The main concerns being increased traffic given the proximity of the busy Seafield Junction. Send your views to me on sheila.gilmore.mp@parliament.uk. Full details are available at www.lidlcraigentinny.co.uk.

Protecting the Meadows – are there too many events?

The annual application by the ‘Lady boys of Bangkok’ to use the Meadows during the Festival has gone in. While the promoters have already started to sell tickets for their annual festival show, the area of the Meadows where the showground is based is still recovering from last August. The City of Edinburgh Council has now sought urgent comments on proposals to hold the event in the same place this year. Events on the park have added to the variety and vibrancy of the festival season, but concerns remain about the health of the land and the damage following the event. You can see my objection on my website at http://www.sheilagilmore.co.uk/protecting-the-meadows-are-there-too-many-events/. Meadows If you live around the Meadows and would like to get involved with the ‘Friends of the Meadows’ there is going to be a public meeting on the use of barbecues on Monday 18th March (7.30pm)  at the Pillar Hall, Barclay Viewforth Church. Read their newsletter http://www.fombl.org.uk/nl33.pdf.

Review of the Craigmillar Urban Regeneration Framework

The Council is undertaking a review of the Craigmillar Urban Design Framework. A review document has been prepared on the basis of feedback received at a drop-in day held in October 2012. The review sets out options for change which residents are entitled to contribute to.  I’ve prepared a draft of my comments; please request a copy if you would like to see the themes I will discuss. The deadline for comments is 5pm on Friday 29th March 2013 before which I will publish my final response at http://www.sheilagilmore.co.uk/craigmillar-urban-design-framework-review/.

Young People’s Taster Sessions and Consultation Event

CLD are linking up with Edinburgh Leisure, CLD’s Open All Hours provision and the Craigentinny and Duddingston Neighbourhood Partnership, to offer a free activities based evening with the opportunity for young people to have a say about issues that affect them, using voting pads.
A group of young people have helped to organise this event with CLD staff and hope to produce a presentation of the results for the Craigentinny and Duddingston Neighbourhood Partnership.  If you want to go along, doors open from 6.30pm on Friday 8th March.

Castlebrae Community High School

The response of the Council’s Children & Families Department to the consultation on the proposed closure of the school was published on Thursday 21st February. The report is available at http://bit.ly/15QeOnT. Castlebrae Community High School The report responds to the various points submitted by parents and local residents. I regret the report still reaches a conclusion to recommend closure. The Councillors will meet to make a final decision on this on March 14th. The Council is still looking at the school in isolation from the wider issues of economic and housing regeneration in Craigmillar. There is a welcome commitment to re-energise the regeneration process, but this should be a chance to look at education in this context rather than taking decisions which will have long term consequences in the future. I have prepared some initial comments which I have now passed to Council colleagues. You can see this on my website at http://www.sheilagilmore.co.uk/castlebrae-consultation-outcome-report/.

Dates for your Diary

Friday 8th March – Young People’s Taster Sessions and Consultation Event – Meadowbank Stadium – from 6.30pm til 9.00pm Monday, 11th March – Old Town Community Council Community Engagement event – Augustine United Church Hall, George IV Bridge, – from 7pm – 9.30pm (doors open 6.30pm) Thursday, 14th March – Caltongate exhibition – 11.00am to 8.00pm – Canongate Venture, New Street Thursday 14th March – City of Edinburgh Council Full Meeting including decision on Castlebrae Community High School – from 10am – watch live at http://www.edinburgh.public-i.tv/core/ Saturday, 16th March – Caltongate exhibition – 10.00am to 12.30pm – Canongate Venture building. Sunday 17th March – Deadline to take part in ScotsTogether – further details in main body and at www.scotstogether.com Monday 18th March – Friends of the Meadows and Bruntsfield Links monthly meeting – from 7.30pm – Barclay Viewforth Church

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‘Johann was right – and social care must be at the top of her agenda’

This piece originally appeared on LabourHame on 17 October 2012.

A constituent told me today about his problems in securing adequate care for his wife who suffered from early onset Alzheimers. After several years of coping on his own he sought help from the council and she began to receive her “free personal care”. It began badly with the carer arriving one and a half hours after the agreed time for helping to bath and dress. Difficult experience had long taught my constituent that sticking to a careful routine was essential to the smooth running of the day so he had just dealt with it as usual. When they were on time the carers only came for fifteen minutes. And it was rarely the same carer. The longest came for three days, was just getting to know the household routine, but didn’t come back after that. Alzheimer’s sufferers in particular benefit from continuity of routine and carer.

Eventually my constituent phoned up and cancelled the service. About a year after this, he could no longer cope and his wife was found a place in residential care. However he feels strongly that had quality home care been available his wife could well have been able to stay at home for longer which he would have preferred (he now feels bereft of part of his life) and the cost to the council would have been much less.

Tales of the short time carers spend with clients and of frequent changes of carer are commonplace. The story in the local newspaper in Edinburgh this week of the brother and sister living neglected and in squalor when supposedly having carers come in for four short spells daily, while fortunately not commonplace, is nonetheless shocking. It is easy to see this particular case as a failure of management by the company providing the care and of monitoring of such contracts by the council. But I would argue this is a failure of a system that is in crisis.

“Free personal care” is hailed as one of the “jewels in the crown” of the Scottish way of doing things. But the reality of the last few years is that the quality of care has fallen and it is harder to qualify for a service.

The introduction of free personal care (by the Labour/LibDem coalition originally but carried forward by the SNP Government) did not in itself add a single penny into care of the elderly and disabled. What it did was shift responsibility for payment from those who previously had to pay (the least well off had free care before this) to the state – in other words to all of us as taxpayers. So it added to the amount of the Scottish budget needed for ‘care’ without adding anything to the quality or quantity of care. As numbers needing care grow (mainly because of the growth in the numbers of people aged 80+) the amount required just to stand still has increased.

Local authorities who provide the “free personal care” have in these years faced reduced budgets and no ability to increase their income by raising the council tax. Councils have faced this problem in a number of ways:

  • By raising the ‘threshold’ for eligibility for care. Most only give help if people meet needs which are deemed substantial or critical. Help for ‘moderate’ needs (often that all important ‘preventative’ help) has disappeared.
  • By raising charges for services which fall outwith the ‘free personal care’ definition e.g. housework services, alarm services.
  • By trying to reduce costs by tendering of services. Here in Edinburgh the last administration (a LibDem/SNP coalition) took the decision to tender out two thirds of its home care services. It quickly announced that it had made substantial savings by so doing. Companies bid low to get the contract. So what gives? Hourly rates of pay, paid travel time for the carers between clients, and training. Caring has never been a well paid job, but it has become increasingly precarious. Not surprising perhaps that turnover is high and job commitment and satisfaction low. This helps to explain the experience of those where the carer is always changing and the standard of understanding of the client’s condition in poor.

All of this would be very familiar to anyone in social care or local government south of the border. The reality in Scotland is very little different despite our patting ourselves on the back that we have somehow solved the problem through “free personal care”.

This clearly demonstrates the fiction at the heart of the SNP Government. We aren’t living in a care nirvana and the screw is tightening further every year.

This lies at the heart of what Johann Lamont said in herrecent speech. Social care is just one of the policy areas where the reality on the ground is very different from the rhetoric.

But there isn’t one simple answer. The SNP have leapt on this with glee and announced that Labour will end free personal care (free bus passes, free prescriptions or whatever) and so harm “ordinary” people in Scotland. But people are being harmed by the system we have.

We have choices. We can keep “free personal care” but stop pretending it has solved the problem, and genuinely debate how we can restore the quality of service people need. That either means reducing spending somewhere else, or increasing taxation to pay for it. In 1997 the Scottish people didn’t just vote “Yes”; they voted “YES/YES”, the second “yes” being for tax varying powers. Since 1999 no Scottish administration has used this, and it appears that by inaction the current Scottish Government may have made it difficult to use this power. Having discovered the technical problem they have done nothing, it would appear, to rectify it. Would the Scottish people pay a penny on income tax to improve the quality of social care? I don’t know – but we need to start asking the question.

Similarly local authorities might want to put to their population the idea of raising council tax by a small amount to help improve care in their area. Council tax is a far from perfect tax (and there is a case for introducing a new higher band to make it more progressive) but that applies to the impact of the freeze as well as to the tax itself. Those eligible for council tax benefit gain nothing from the freeze, which is worth more to those in the higher rate bands than in the lower.

Alternatively we could end free personal care and restore means testing of this element of care services (remembering that much else – especially much residential care – is still means tested). This would free up some of the Scottish block grant to invest in improving the quality of services. A word of caution though: this wouldn’t be enough in itself to pay for all the improvement needed.

These are all choices. It doesn’t help the argument to frame it purely in terms of “Labour wants to cut your freebies”. For my constituent whose wife is now in residential care, and the old man in the newspaper story who has now died, it is far too serious to do that.

Nor does it help simply to assert that “all will be well in the best possible of all worlds” if Scotland had independence. Sorry, but these issues will still need to be faced. Moreover these problems are being faced by people daily now, by people who shouldn’t be having to wait until the Government eventually holds its referendum (and even with a “yes” vote, wait after that for all to be disentangled). They deserve a Government which is opening up the debate and taking steps to tackle the problems now!

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My speech on social care

Just before the summer recess the Government published a white paper and draft bill on social care. There was then a debate in the House of Commons for which I diligently drafted up a speech. Unfortunately due to a lack of time I didn’t get called by the Speaker, but as this is such an important issue I’ve reproduced what I would have said below.

The Civil Servants who wrote White Papers of 30 years ago would hardly recognise this document as a ‘White Paper’. I am sure that Ministers expect us to admire the ‘accessibility’ of this document with its graphics and colour photographs. Mind you am I the only one to be irritated by the faux-chumminess of the tone? It is full of statements like this:

I am supported to maintain my independence for as long as possible.

I am in control of my own care and support.

Is there not more than a touch of being patronised in this? This is the Government speaking for goodness sake, not some form of life coach.

All of this presentational veneer masks the vacuum at the heart of the White Paper – the vacuum where the real role of Government should lie. Much of it seems better suited to a manual of good practice . Do we really need a Government White Paper to tell us (in two columns with a chatty example) that it’s a good thing for young people to visit care homes to bridge the generation gap and create greater understanding – something that happens regularly in most areas already.

There then the endless ‘management speak’ (something to be fair all government & local government has become too enthralled with in recent years ). For example we are constantly to be ‘driving up standards’ as if the very use of such an active verb guarantees action. There are so many such words and phrases that it is hard to pick out any in particular, but I rather enjoyed this paragraph:

We will also create a Care and Support Implementation Board which will have ownership of the implementation plan, with members of the Board assuring on the delivery of specific milestones.

The few concrete proposals are either fairly limited in scope or set up inevitable tensions as duties are piled on local councils without the funding to fulfil them. For example setting minimum care standards is an important step forward – but what happens when a cash strapped council cannot meet the demand?

Or let’s take the proposal on housing – a promise of £200m over 5 years to support the development of specialised housing for older and disabled people. That’s £50m a year for the whole of England. That’s not going to stretch far.

Much emphasis is placed on giving better information. Nothing wrong with the giving of more information but we do see a lot of the ‘new magic’ – the development of web based information to aid choice – a bit like ‘trip adviser’ for care homes – but hopefully more reliable!

What though I also want to consider is what our two countries, Scotland and England, can learn from one another. I’ve quite often had people say to me ‘You’ve sorted it in Scotland with free personal care’ . But free personal care turns out to be a fairly narrow slice of most people’s care needs. There is a great deal which doesn’t get covered. So I was quite interested in Dilnot because it seemed to me that it was seeking to address a much wider range of provision and looking at how it all could be paid for. However it too failed , as the Scottish solution does as well, to go beyond the ‘who pays’ question – how the cost should be distributed between the individual and the State.

Free personal care in Scotland shifted the balance to all taxpayers from those who previously paid for the care – so was of no benefit to those already entitled to free care. There is an argument for doing this – after all it’s what we do with other services like health and education. But it put no additional money into the care system at a time when coverage was already inadequate and demand is continuing to rise. One result is the raising of eligibility thresholds – in my city to obtain an adaptation like a walk in shower one has to be incontinent or in a wheelchair. This means that quite often adaptations are too late – just last week I was told of one constituent who died while in respite provided while his shower was being installed. The preventative aspect is lost – so another 93 old constituent was refused because she wasn’t ill enough – but without either a relative or carer (which otherwise she didn’t need) she either couldn’t bathe or risked an accident – at what cost is that both personally and financially?

In Scotland the cost of all those services which can still be charged for has also been steadily rising, and the quality is diminishing. Councils can only meet rising demand by looking for efficiencies – so tendering has become widespread. Edinburgh Council has tendered out two thirds of home care, and boasted of the ‘savings’ to the council as a result – but at what cost? Lower wages – one constituent described the process – called to a meeting: Good news we have a four year contract, bad news we are reducing wages by 50p per hour. Clearly the company was underbidding to win contracts. Home visits are often 15 minutes or shorter. I know this White Paper says it wants to end this in England – but it’s another example of willing the ends but not the means. Carers are often required to use their own cars (if they have them) and have to pay such things as parking charges themselves. They don’t get paid for travel time. The White Paper mentions ‘concerns’ about carers not being paid the minimum wage , asking itself the question ‘why’? However not being paid for travel time is one of the important ‘whys’.

There are not magical ways of funding important social services. The spectrum runs from individuals meeting their own costs (the pre welfare state model) to the State meeting the costs and therefore all of us through taxation (the NHS model) . And there are plenty of stopping places in between. We need to have that debate publicly and honestly. Make a decision and move forward. But don’t pretend that either north or south of Hadrian’s Wall have we yet solved the problem.

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