Jobcentre Plus debate

On 28 January 2014 the Work and Pensions Select Committee – of which I’m a member – published a report on the performance of Jobcentre Plus. On 10 July 2014 I spoke in a House of Commons debate on our report, and I’ve reproduced my speech in full below.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Amess, and to speak on this very important matter.

One thing that has come out of this report, and has been clear in speeches from across the Chamber, is a recognition that in fact on the whole jobcentres are doing a good job and should be retained for the purposes that they have. A few years ago there was some uncertainty about that. I know that the coming of the Work programme and the change of Government meant that some people—particularly people working in jobcentres—were concerned that the jobcentre’s role could be ended.

Things had already changed substantially in jobcentres. The bad old days—going into a grim office with rows of chairs that were firmly battened down to the ground so that they could not be lifted, to talk through a glass screen to somebody who was behind that glass screen in case someone became extremely angry—had been replaced by an attempt at a more informal atmosphere. People were sitting at a table with their adviser rather than the adviser being on one side and the person using the service on the other, which had felt quite hostile. In some quarters there is concern that taking a heavy approach, through some of the things that I suggest have been happening, could bring that sort of atmosphere back. That would be regrettable. I very much want us not to go back to those days.

Despite some of the remarks that get thrown about in other debates—particularly when we are in the main Chamber—I think we all share the aim of wanting as many people as possible to have the opportunity of employment; we also want to avoid a situation in which people are having long spells of unemployment. It has never been my party’s policy to want people to be unemployed or to think that that is in any way a good thing. Indeed, I have campaigned and argued—and marched, in the past—precisely because we see it as a bad thing. We know it is bad for people’s income, and therefore for their well-being in lots of ways. It is also bad for their mental health and well-being, and their feeling of being a valued part of society. There are a whole host of reasons why we want to see low unemployment.

My party recognises—and again, I hope it might be a shared recognition—that employment is a necessary but not always a sufficient way to get a decent standard of living. That has been one of the differences. It is a simple argument that if people get into employment, all will be well, but, as we have seen of late, that is not necessarily the case with very low-income work and the problems that come with that.

Where we differ sometimes is on the means of achieving the end. That perhaps arises partly from the different perspective there sometimes seems to be about why people are unemployed and their attitude towards employment. Neither the hon. Member for Newton Abbot (Anne Marie Morris) nor the hon. Member for Amber Valley (Nigel Mills) made this sort of comment, but sometimes there is a feeling that the assumption is that there are plenty of jobs out there—in many areas, there are not—and if only people would get a bit of backbone, which we can give them by whipping them into line, they would no longer be unemployed.

I would argue that that is not the case. An interesting piece of research has been published on universal credit. There was a very early survey of two groups of people: one of people who were about to be claimants of universal credit—it was in its very early days—and one of claimants of jobseeker’s allowance. They were matched for similar areas, ages and experience, and they showed remarkably similar attitudes. There were asked whether it was better to be employed than not employed and so on. I do not think there is a fundamental difference of opinion.

The Select Committee’s report is a serious attempt to find ways of improving performance. In its initial response, the Government seemed to be less than sympathetic to some parts of it, but I hope that as we move forward there may be an opportunity to take such matters into account.

The Chair of the Select Committee spoke at length about what the performance targets should be, and the measure of performance being off benefit. We know and I think the DWP knows that only some of those who leave benefit go into employment. There is a whole host of reasons why people may leave benefit without going into employment. A few retire because they reach retirement age. Some lose their entitlement to benefit but do not necessarily become employed. After 26 weeks on contributory JSA, people cease to be entitled to it if they do not qualify for income-related JSA. Many people will not qualify for income-related JSA because they are living with someone who is in employment, even if it is only part-time employment. If there is a source of income in the household they will cease to be entitled to benefit. They may be off benefit, but they will not necessarily have progressed into work.

It is significant that the unemployment figures produced by the Office for National Statistics and the figures for claimant count are moving quite widely apart. Of those who are unemployed on the unemployment count, 47% are not in receipt of an out-of-work benefit. We are talking about almost 1 million people because the number who are unemployed is still over 2 million—2.1 million people are still unemployed according to the general definition of unemployment.

It is tempting for people to say that the claimant count is down in their area, and for Ministers to say that the claimant count is down in someone else’s area, but there is a serious issue with people who are not being counted. Not only are they not being counted, they are not being helped. We should deal with the serious issue of why the gap is growing. There are other reasons. Some people on employment and support allowance lose that allowance after a year if they are in the work-related activity group. They may be off benefit, but not receiving assistance towards resuming employment.

When ESA was introduced, the previous Government commissioned an ongoing survey of those found fit for work. It looked at a group of people after three months and after a year. The significant finding was that 43% of those who had been found fit for work after a year were neither in employment nor on an out-of-work benefit. I do not know whether things have got better or worse. I do not know where those people are now and whether they eventually got fit and found work, or found themselves back on ESA—I suspect that that was the case for many of them—and DWP does not know either. That research did not go further than that and was not recommissioned. If we do not have such information, we have no way of telling whether policies are helping or working.

As I said during a debate I had on employment and support allowance, I suspect that quite a lot of people are not getting better and their health is not improving, and that they reclaim ESA sooner or later. That may be an explanation for the fact that the total number of those on that benefit has not fallen as much as the fit-for-work decisions. There is a mismatch there.

That ties in with some of the other things we have said here about jobcentres and DWP’s attitude to following through what happens to people, and we should look at that. Even if it becomes easier in future to track people in employment through things such as real-time information and, as the hon. Member for Amber Valley (Nigel Mills) said, some of those who now go off benefit stay on benefit with the universal credit, those who come off benefit for other reasons are simply lost in the system.

That brings me to sanctions and pressure on people. It is not necessary to exaggerate the position because this is really happening to people and we all have examples. The fact that so often when people ask for a decision to be reconsidered, especially if they ask through their MP or an advice agency, that decision is often overturned, and overturned quite quickly, suggesting that something was wrong with the initial decision making. That must give pause for concern because if the initial decision making was right, that would not be happening. In the meantime, people are finding themselves without income. Their housing benefit, if they had it, will be suspended at the very least and they will have to contact that department to get it sorted out

What worries me is the people who do not come to us or to an advice agency. What happens to them? Many of them will not be aware of sources of help. I had a constituent who eventually came for help, but he had been sanctioned for six months. He had a learning disability that was not fully acknowledged by his family. He was not a young man—he was in his late 30s or early 40s—and he had just given up. He was not signing on. He would not have been receiving any money anyway, but he was no longer part of the system, and that is a worry. He had family. His pensioner parents were supporting him from their own limited income. He was not destitute or on the streets, so there was not that sort of high drama, but the family were struggling to support him. He had fallen out of the system because of his learning disability. That is why he had not done what he should have done and co-operated. Somehow, that was not picked up. We need to know how many such people there are.

Many people would be concerned that the pressure to get people off benefit also applies to people on ESA. We thought that eligibility for ESA was tested for. We all know about the issues surrounding the work capability assessment, but people who have gone through that, been awarded ESA and been placed in the work-related activity group are not, by definition, fit for work at the present time. They do not need to be hounded back into work because the system has said that they are not ready to go back into work. So why are so many of them being sanctioned?

The number of people on ESA who are being sanctioned is rising. The latest available figures are for December 2012 to December 2013 when there was a fourfold rise in the number of people in that position being sanctioned. The number rose from 1,102 a month to 4,789 a month, but that was not because there had been a similar increase in the number of people in that group, so we cannot just say it is the same number. The number of people in the work-related activity group had gone up by considerably less than that. Many of these people were sanctioned for failing to co-operate with the Work programme, and the number of people on ESA being referred to the Work programme seems to have been going down during the same period in which the number of sanctions have gone up. That is a matter of considerable concern, especially if these people are the least likely to get help and to be able to reinstate their benefit position and will be counted as some kind of success for a jobcentre. They are likely to be people with mental health problems or learning disabilities.

There are what are often regarded as scare stories, in some respects. Yesterday, an article in The Guardian had yet another apparent whistleblower from among Jobcentre Plus employees saying that their performance was indeed measured by the proportion of people they got off benefit, and that included people on ESA. This is not just a JSA matter. It may not be a specific target that is stuck up on a wall, but it is about the performance of that employee, and they are expected to get people off benefit, including people who, by definition and by test—who have already been through the work capability assessment—are not regarded as being fit for work, and I think that is a matter of considerable concern.

I hope that the Minister tells us that the Oakley report will be published shortly. We have been waiting for it now for some time and I understand that it has been completed. It was recognised that that report’s terms of reference were relatively limited, which is why the Select Committee asked for a more far-reaching report to look at such things as whether the sanctions actually work. Are they having the desired effect? If they are not, they become particularly pointless.

It is interesting that a report, called “Smarter Sanctions”, was published earlier this year by the Policy Exchange. The Policy Exchange is not known as a particularly left-wing or radical think-tank—at least in the left-wing sense; it is radical in other senses—and it, too, felt that there were real problems with the sanctioning system. I would not necessarily agree with some of its recommendations and conclusions, but it was clear that too many people were getting low-level sanctions—those might be just for one month, but one month, as my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams)said, is considerable when someone is on a very low income—and that they were being given inappropriate sanctions and wrong decisions were being made. Despite the fact that we are still waiting for the Government-commissioned report to come through, it is significant that that organisation has given voice to some concerns that people have. I hope that the fact it comes from that source would give it considerable weight.

The Select Committee recommended—and these Select Committee recommendations are unanimous—that the

“DWP take urgent steps to monitor the extent of financial hardship caused by benefit sanctions, including by collecting, collating and publishing data on the number of claimants ‘signposted’ to food aid by Jobcentres and the reasons”

for that. The Minister has to give a real explanation why that comparatively modest recommendation was rejected.

If the Government are right that, as they said in their response to our report:

“The use of food banks is not exclusive to benefit claimants”—

which it probably is not—and that it somehow has nothing whatever to do with welfare reform changes or sanctions, surely co-operating with the request to publish that kind of information might answer those points, so I would argue that doing so is in their interests as well.

Earlier speakers spoke about an issue that the Committee thought was important, which was the mismatch of aspiration and ability to deliver. A good proposal will often be made, such as that people, when they are first unemployed, should be given longer with an adviser. We all know that sometimes appointments with advisers are very short and they become routine—it is a matter of ticking the boxes and asking, “Have you done the right number of applications?”, without going into any real depth. Longer meetings sound very good, but there is a severe doubt whether they are feasible. The last speaker touched on that in relation to the arrangements that had been made when people come back from the Work programme. The sort of intensive help that is promised may not be feasible. If people are going to be asked to sign on every day, for example, how does that affect the rest of the jobcentre’s work? Will it be about someone just coming in, signing their name, and then going away again—in which case, how will it help? How will it improve the situation, unless it is intended to make people get fed up and give up? It is all very well to come up with these ideas, but we need to make them work, which may need a greater resource.

It is a sign of the failure of some of what we have been doing to date that so many people are coming off the Work programme and are still very far, it would appear, from employment. I think the employment Minister herself said, during one debate we had on the issue, that there were people in that situation who still had poor rates of literacy and numeracy, and one thing her Department wanted to do was to help those people overcome those obstacles. That is all well and good, but what has the Work programme been doing for two years, and indeed, what may well not have been happening before that?

It is a criticism of the Work programme that it really is not delivering what we were promised it would deliver. The criticisms made by many of my constituents have not necessarily been that they have been hounded. In some cases, it is almost the opposite: that it was very light touch, that they were not given much help and assistance, and that the idea of specialist help—I remember it was said that people would get help with health problems, debt problems, educational problems and skills problems—just is not happening. People are not able to get skills training and they are being told, “There isn’t the money to do that. We can’t afford to put you on that course. We can’t afford to pay for child care to let you go on that course and improve your chances of getting employed.”

The return of so many people, out of the Work programme, apparently still very far from being employable, is a very serious issue. As a Select Committee, we are looking at issues relating to people who have disabilities and long-term conditions and illnesses, and at what other things we could put in place for them. There is a concern that at jobcentre level, there are not enough specialists to help, and that the number of disability advisers is just not sufficient to help people at an early stage and not wait until very much later.

As I said, I hope that we will see further progress on many of the report’s recommendations, because if we share the same end, as I think we do, we have to will the means and the resources to make it happen.

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Press release: Jobs figures show Tories and SNP are letting down Edinburgh

Responding to today’s unemployment figures, Sheila Gilmore said:

Here in Edinburgh, 2200 people have been unemployed for a year or more, with 245 of these being aged under 25. Both the Conservative and SNP Governments are still letting down our city.

Furthermore, thousands of people in work are struggling to make ends meet because inflation is rising faster than pay.

Labour would combat this by restoring the value of the national minimum wage, getting more employers to pay a living wage, extending free childcare provision, freezing gas and electricity bills and getting the next generation into work with apprenticeships and a compulsory jobs guarantee.

ENDS

Notes to editors:

Here are the unemployment figures by constituency:

Constituency                                     Long-term unemployment          Long-term youth unemployment

Edinburgh East                                  550                                                         60

Edinburgh North and Leith                605                                                         60

Edinburgh South                               265                                                         25

Edinburgh South West                     455                                                         55

Edinburgh West                                325                                                         45

Total                                                      2,200                                                     245

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Press release: job figures show Tories and SNP letting down Edinburgh

Sheila Gilmore said:

Here in Edinburgh 2270 people have been unemployed for a year or more, with 240 of these being aged under 25. Both the Conservative and SNP Governments are still letting down our city.

We urgently need action to get local people into work. This is why Labour is calling for a compulsory jobs guarantee, which will get any adult out of work for more than two years, or young person out of work for a year, into a job – one they would be required to take.

ENDS

Notes to Editors:

  • Here are the unemployment figures by constituency:
Constituency Long-term unemployment Long-term youth unemployment
Edinburgh East 575 55
Edinburgh North and Leith 620 65
Edinburgh South 280 25
Edinburgh South West 460 50
Edinburgh West 335 45
Total 2,270 240

 

  • 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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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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My speech in the budget debate – cost of living, unemployment, childcare and taxes

Yesterday I spoke in the first day of debate following the budget. You can read the full debate here, but I’ve reproduced my speech in full below.

In June 2010, the Chancellor led his band of merry men, straw men and tin men on the yellow brick road towards his emerald city: the elimination of the deficit by 2015, the cutting of public sector net borrowing to £60 billion in this financial year—in fact, it will be £108 billion—and growth of about 2.5% every year during this Parliament. The trouble was that he fell off his yellow brick road fairly quickly and started wandering around in the wilderness of low growth and higher borrowing. Suddenly, after four years, he seems to have found himself back on his road, albeit not as far down it as he expected. Like all expeditionary leaders, he is quick to tell us that he always knew where he was, and where he was going, and that it was all part of his long-term plan, despite the fact that he has not gone as far as he expected.

Does all that matter? It does, for a number of reasons. We are being asked to believe that someone who gave us that fantasy journey can still give us something credible. It also matters very much to the people who had to accept the austerity measures that we were told were essential to get us down the road as quickly as possible. People have suffered, and to find out four years on that we have not actually made much progress is bitter gall for many.

What about the people left behind? The cost of living crisis is real. People’s real earnings have fallen. All the Treasury and Institute for Fiscal Studies figures show, slightly differently, that the people who have lost out most are those at the bottom and the top of the earnings scale. However, for someone to lose 5% when they are earning £3,000 or £4,000 a week is very different from losing 5% when earnings are £150 or £200 a week. The impact on everyday life in the latter case is far greater, because the issue is not about having to cut out a few little extra luxuries—perhaps not go out for a meal as often as one might otherwise have done—but about basic foodstuffs, heating the house and buying clothes for the children. It is not good enough to say that the situation is all right because the people at the very top have also seen an income drop, which makes it fair; in the real world, that is not fair.

The other group that the Budget has rather lost sight of is the unemployed. People often say that unemployment has dropped by such and such a percentage, but the number is still very high. In April to June 2010, 2.46 million people were unemployed; according to today’s figures, the number is 2.33 million. I make that only 130,000 fewer than in 2010. Unemployment, of course, went up between 2010 and now and has come down again, and that doubtless explains some of the percentage drops that people are talking about. However, 130,000 fewer unemployed people, although better than before, is quite marginal.

What are we doing for the 2.3 million unemployed people? There are still 700,000 more people unemployed than before the recession. Where are the measures to get those people into work and to help the young people about whom my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) spoke so eloquently? There are very few such measures. Talking about percentages going up and down as if we have solved the problem is no answer to people struggling on very low incomes who, in many areas, cannot find jobs no matter how hard they try.

On the child care proposals, at least one Government Member made a lot of the fact that child care costs for those on universal credit are now to be met by up to 85%. We have now had, or will have had, at least five years of this Government cutting help with child care costs from 80% to 70% for people on tax credits—the predecessor of universal credit. So for each of these five years, those people will have found things much more difficult. It is not clear when families in this situation will even be on universal credit, given how that is going at the moment. Will this provision start when the tax relief starts, or will it start only when these families finally get on to universal credit, if that happens? We have not been told.

Moreover, the proposal is to be paid for not by people who are better-off but by another group of people on universal credit. We do not know which group of people because we have not yet been told; apparently, we will know in the autumn. The change will be financed entirely out of the universal credit budget, so some families with children on universal credit will get a little bit more, but somebody else is going to get a certain amount less.

We always make choices in policies, and that is why debates about matters such as raising the tax threshold are exceptionally important for all of us. The 5 million people who are already below the tax threshold will get nothing out of this move. Some 10% of the total cost, which has already been about £10 billion, goes towards lifting people out of tax; 15% of it goes to people on median earnings of up to £26,000; and three quarters of it goes to people earning above the median. That choice has been made, but it could have been made differently. The money could have been used, and could still be used, to help people on lower earnings. If we want to help low-earning families, there are number of other measures that we might want to use, but we are not using them. This is a choice that the Government are making. Constantly portraying it as something that is there only to help low-earning families does a disservice to those families. They know the situation; they know that they do indeed have a cost of living crisis that is not being resolved by today’s Budget.

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