March 2015 Newsletter

portcullisbanner_Copy.2.1.1

Westminster Report

Smith Commission: New powers over Disability Benefits
After last year’s referendum the Smith Commission recommended that significant new powers should be devolved to the Scottish Parliament. At the beginning of last month I wrote for the Edinburgh Evening News about the need to start discussing how we use these new powers, and in particular what we will do about Disability Living Allowance.

Smith CommissionAs part of the current Government’s attempts to cut public spending, DLA is being phased out and replaced with Personal Independence Payment, with the assessment set to ensure thousands of Scots that currently get DLA won’t get PIP. But if we want to stop this from happening, We need to start discussing now what we in Scotland would do differently. Here is our chance to shape our own system. Should it be one completely different, or do we revert to DLA as it was before?

Winding Down
The first ever fixed five year parliament is stumbling to a close. The date for the general election has been known for the last four years, and some people argue that all it has done is lead to the ‘longest ever’ election campaign. The last few weeks will see some pieces of legislation completed, such as the Modern Slavery Bill which is nearly finished its stages in the House of Lords. Several Select Committee reports have been recently published, or are about to be completed, including one from the Public Accounts Committee on the Government’s flagship ‘universal credit’. The Committee remains very critical of the pace and cost of this.

Tax Avoidance
Tax avoidance has been in the headlines following the revelations over HSBC’s Swiss bank and David Cameron’s decision to make the firm’s then Chief Executive a Government Minister in 2011. I told the Huffington Post that ‘The revolving door between David Cameron’s government and HSBC casts new light on this Government’s failure to act over alleged wrongdoing.’

Then a clip of George Osborne from several years ago re-emerged, in which he encourages people to avoid tax. I reacted by saying ‘this shows the Tories really do believe that everyone does it’, referring to the remarks of Tory Treasurer Lord Fink.

Prior to this a series of business people had voiced concerns about the prospect of Labour Government, but I suggested to the Huffington Post that they might not be entirely objective in their analysis, highlighting their connections to the Conservative Party.

Arms exports
Constituents regularly contact me with concern about arms sales to regimes with poor human rights records. The Government claim they don’t permit sales where they have evidence that the weapons in question will be used for internal repression or external aggression. However on 20 January I used Foreign Office Questions in the House of Commons to argue that Ministers should go further. Following a discussion with a constituent, I argued that Minister should use restrictions on arms exports to encourage regimes to respect human rights, even where there is no evidence that the specific arms will be used improperly. You can read my exchange with the Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond here, but I thought this was a good example of how writing to your MP can lead to your views being put directly to senior people in Government. Keep the letters and emails coming!

News in brief
I popped into the Labour Campaign for Mental Health reception to celebrate Time to Talk Day, which highlights the importance of battling mental health stigma.

Mental HealthI’ve also agreed to become an Arthritis Champion. Musculoskeletal conditions like arthritis affect a huge number of people and are a significant cause of disability in the UK. There is much work to do to prevent and cure these conditions, and we need to improve the services available to those living with them now.

Constituency Report

Legal Highs
Legal Highs ShopLast month I was frustrated and concerned to see that yet another ‘legal high’ shop had opened in Edinburgh East. A number have sprung up in the Southside, with the latest appearing on Easter Road. I told the Evening News that ‘These legal dealers are making money while destroying users’ health and causing havoc for local residents.’ The shop assistant who responded appeared to show a blatant disregard for public health and ignores the fact that trade of these substances is impacting residents across the city, as they put up with the impact locally, but also because public services are being stretched dealing with the disruption. Unfortunately banning specific substances is difficult because of the sheer number of new ones becoming available each week – instead the council need to use its planning powers to stop further stores opening up, and investigate banning their use in public spaces, which could act to dent demand. Earlier this month Lincoln became the first place in the UK to do this, and I wrote to council leader Andrew Burns urging him to consider following suit.

Old Royal High School
Old Royal High SchoolAlthough just outside my constituency, a number of people have contacted me worried about the proposed redevelopment of the old Royal High School on Regent Road into a luxury hotel. Initial plans can be found online. No formal planning application has yet been lodged so there is time to make sure that there is a wide debate and information is disseminated. This is an important building for the city and I will keep a close eye on developments and will be speaking to council colleagues about it.

Homebase appeal, petition, and Student Planning Guidance consultation begins
With the Lutton Court statutory appeal just days away, residents have been notified of Unite’s appeal submission to the Scottish Government, following the City of Edinburgh Council’s recent refusal of the application. Residents have now set up a petition calling on Homebase to stay in the Southside. In my objection to the initial application I highlighted how valued the store is locally. If you use the store, sign the petition!

91351206-8ae4-4171-a747-4a2a13b1f867At the same time the Council has begun to consult on both planning and HMO licensing policy in the city. While the schedules and meetings should run together the consultations are officially separate, and details of the HMO consultation are not fully clear at the time of writing. Running from Monday, 16th March until 24 April 2015 the student accomodation planning guidance consultation will be placed on the Council’s Consultation Hub at https://consultationhub.edinburgh.gov.uk/. The process, I am told, should include workshops with groups including the Southside Association and Living Southside but will also the Edinburgh universities, and student housing providers. Watch out for details of a Living Southside meeting all residents are invited to attend to discuss the group’s response.

Potterow
I was also concerned to learn that the Estates Department has only shortlisted student accommodation developers who have bid as part of a sell-off council-owned land at Potterow. Meaning another application for student accommodation is likely to come forward. This will only make it harder to prevent an over-concentration of student accommodation in the area – a key issue these reports have focused on over the past two years or so. Instead of focusing on one off profits, the council should have a longer term outlook and listen to residents who would like to see the land passed to an affordable housing provider so that we can retain the balanced, vibrant community that currently exists in the area.

Cameron House Community Centre
Following the Council agreeing its latest budget, money from the Community Learning and Development budget has been transferred to Heath and Social Care to help with the ‘delayed discharge’ crisis in the NHS. I know a number of constituents were concerned that Cameron House Community Centre might close as a result. I have received assurances that the Council is committed to keeping Cameron House open and is currently looking at ways to maintain the present level of service provision. This is a much-valued community facility – and one which opened less than 10 years ago – and I will be carefully monitoring this situation.

Third Age Computer Fun
Third Age Computer FunLast month I reported the sad news that Third Age Computing Club, which organised computing classes for 50+ communities across Edinburgh East and the central belt, was to be dissolved. However I’m pleased to report that all 12 individual clubs are set to remain open under a new organisation so that classes can continue. The clubs in Edinburgh East that will remain open are in Craigmillar, Restalrig, Tollcross and the Southside. See here for more information.

Dumbiedykes bus
Dumbiedykes BusLast year the council started funding the new Number 60 bus service between Dumbiedykes and the Southside. This is a vital link for many elderly residents who do their shopping on Nicolson Street and Clerk Street, but who struggle to make it up the hill on foot. Unfortunately new figures show the service is only carrying between 25 and 32 passengers per day, meaning it is currently very costly to run. The criteria for assessing supported buses is due to change to take account of issues such as the lonlieness caused by being unable to get about, but it is clear that we need to ensure that the bus has enough passengers. I’m encouraging local residents, and businesses such as the Parliament and Rockstar Games, to get people using the service more often, so it can be maintained for those who really need it. If you live in the area – hop on!

Dates for your diary

  • Wednesday 18 March – Budget DayLive online from 12.30pm
  • Thursday 26 March – Spokes’ Spring Public Meeting: The bicycle in the City Centre, with Lesley Hinds, Council Transport Convenor, and other experts – Augustine United Church, 41 George IV Bridge – 7.30pm (doors at 6.45pm)
  • Monday 30 March – Dissolution of UK Parliament
facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

November 2014 Newsletter

portcullisbanner_Copy.2.1.1

Merry Christmas

Christmas CardFriday ClubWith the mild weather holding winter back later than usual, it seems quite early to be sending my Christmas wishes. I’d like to wish you a peaceful and joyous festive period when the break does come around. While we spend time with family, remember some friends and neighbours are less fortunate, so please remember to check on them over the festive season.

The festive artwork featured below was kindly produced by the members of the at Ripple Project ‘Friday Club’ and will appear on my Christmas card which will now be distributed to 5,000 Edinburgh East households.

The Friday Club is a social and activities club for residents who are 60+ in Restalrig, Lochend, Craigentinny and surrounding areas. The group meets on a Friday 1.30pm-3.30pm at the Restalrig Lochend Community Hub to enjoy music, films, games and a variety of entertainment from guests. A dedicated group of volunteers help the afternoon run smoothly and provide refreshments.
For more information about the club, how to join, as well as the details of other activities at the hub for friends and relatives over 60, call 0131 554 0422.

Westminster Report

Devolution
Smith CommissionThe Smith Commission’s report on further devolution to the Scottish Parliament has now been published. There was a further House of Commons debate on this issue on 20 November, and in my speech I argued that we should start to move on from debating what powers should or shouldn’t be devolved, to how the Scottish Parliament uses those powers it has to create a fairer and more equal society. For example the new tax-varying and borrowing powers that already guaranteed following the Scotland Act 2012 could be used to significantly increase investment in affordable housing or social care.

Disability benefits
As regular readers will know, I’ve long been concerned about the Work Capability Assessment for Employment and Support Allowance – the main benefit for people who believe they cannot work due to ill health or a disability – with at least one in ten decisions being overturned on appeal.

Atos Healthcare are set to walk away from their contract to carry out the face-to-face part of the WCA, and earlier this month the UK Government announced that this work would transfer to US outsourcing specialist Maximus. Unfortunately Ministers don’t appear to have taken the opportunity to reform the test so that the number of incorrect decisions is reduced – see this piece on my website. I also reacted angrily to reports that the Conservatives are considering cutting ESA payments for some claimants.

In other social security news:

  • It has emerged that Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith knew his flagship welfare reform Universal Credit was late and over budget far earlier than he’s previously admitted – I gave my reaction to the Huffington Post.
  • After fellow DWP Minister Lord Freud had to apologise for suggesting disabled people could be paid less than the minimum wage, I highlighted his failure to address the concerns of my disabled constituent when I raised concerns on his behalf.
  • In the Guardian I argued that George Osborne’s new personal tax statement – which people should start receiving soon – fails to explain that most welfare spending goes on things that people support, such as disability benefits, housing costs, and tax credits for those in work.
  • I reviewed a new book – Good Times Bad Times: the welfare myths of them and us, by John Hills – for the think tank Progress.

East Coast
Over the last year and a half I’ve been campaigning against the UK Government’s plans to re-privatise intercity services on the East Coast Main Line, which have been run successfully by the UK public sector since 2009. On 24 November it was widely anticipated that the contract was set to be awarded to Eurostar and Keolis – and would stand to benefit French train passengers with profits being reinvested services there. My reaction was picked up in the Evening News and Herald amongst others. The Government has since announced that the franchise would in fact be awarded to Stagecoach and Virgin. Regardless of the fact the franchise has been awarded to British firms, it is highly disappointing profits will go to private companies, rather than to the exchequer, as happens at present. On Thursday morning the matter was the subject of an urgent question.

What did Labour do in the Scottish Parliament?
I spend time every week knocking on doors somewhere in the constituency and I recently had a conversation with someone who claimed Labour did nothing during our time in Government at Holyrood. Obviously I took a different view, and while it wouldn’t be appropriate to set this out here, I’ve reproduced my response on my website for other constituents to read.

National Health Service
This month I received a record 438 emails on the National Health Service (Amended Duties and Powers) Bill, which would ensure that a new EU-US trade deal cannot change the way the NHS in Scotland is run – something I raised with David Cameron on 17 November – and stop the gradual privatisation of NHS services in England.

NHSMy Labour colleagues and I voted in favour of the bill at its second reading debate on 21 November, and it was passed by 241 votes to 18 (although unfortunately there are lots of barriers to it becoming law before the next election). For more on this see the response I sent to constituents on my website.

Gordon’s Fightback campaign successes
It was great to see my constituent Gordon Aikman attend a reception with Samantha Cameron at Downing Street as part of his fight back against Motor Neurone Disease.

Gordon's FightbackAnd in the past week he has had further successes! At the Scottish Politician of the Year Awards, Gordon won a special judges award for the work he has done through his Fight back campaign. He then went on to secure agreement from First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, for a review of the care provided to those suffering MND. For more information on Gordon’s campaign see gordonsfightback.com/#takeaction.

News in brief

International Development BillCitizen's Advice

Constituency Report

Supporting Afghan Women
On Friday 14th November I attended a play at Summerhall performed by the St Mark’s Amnesty Group in my constituency, called ‘Even if we lose our lives’. To be honest, on a cold evening, with a head cold brewing I went out of a sense of duty, but came away stunned and humbled by the performance which brought together the real life stories of three Afghan women; a teacher, a doctor and a family mediator. What these women had been through to defend human rights and provide services was a stark reminder of the ongoing problems of their country. But the message from all was that they were not going to give up.

Afghan WomenMore recently I attended a session at Westminster run by Action Aid drawing attention to similar issues and calling in particular for women and women’s issues to be centre stage in the forthcoming London Conference on development in Afghanistan. For more information on Action Aid’s campaign go to action.org.uk.

Remembrance Sunday
On Sunday 9th November I attended the wreath laying service at the Prestonfield War Memorial. When the new residents of Prestonfield and Priestfield moved here during the 1930s many of the names on the memorial would be well remembered fathers, uncles, brothers and husbands. And within only a few years many families saw their sons, and daughters, going off to war again. One of them was my own Dad whose family had not long moved to Cameron House Avenue. He was one of the lucky ones who came back.

Common Repairs and Statutory Notices
A big problem in the constituency is getting common repairs done. Despite the well-known problems of the Council’s previous system of dealing with Statutory Notices, many people support the retention of some method of council intervention when it proves impossible to get agreement among owners. Recently the Council has restricted its interventions to emergency work only. New proposals, for a service which would step in, but only after information and advice had been given with a view to assisting owners to agree among themselves, are now being considered. In some circumstances the council would be able in future, due to new legislation, to pay a ‘missing share’ where an owner refuses to co-operate. After looking at a number of ways of providing a service when agreement proves impossible, the Council has decided that an in house model will be used. I broadly welcome the recommendations; I had said previously that I thought something of this kind must be reintroduced. The report makes clear the importance of good communication with owners throughout the process, which was one of the flaws before. The new system won’t be fully up and running until autumn next year. For more information read the full report on the Council’s website.

HMOs – does Edinburgh need an over-provision policy?
This is a subject which provokes much lively debate in many parts of the city. HMO licensing has done a lot to improve the quality of the properties for rent and clamp down on gross overcrowding. But the unresolved issue is whether it is right to control the quantity of HMOs in certain areas. The Scottish Parliament gave councils the power to adopt an ‘over provision’ strategy in 2011, a matter which was discussed at a recent meeting of the Regulatory Committee, and was covered in a piece in the Edinburgh Evening News. Over the next few months Edinburgh Council will be consulting local groups and community councils to establish whether Edinburgh should adopt such a policy. I wrote an article for the Evening News on this subject which called for the consultation to be thorough and learn from the experiences in other Scottish cities. Let me know what you think, and look out for details of the consultation.

Canongate Youth project secures People’s Millions funding
I am delighted the Canongate Youth Project will receive a £38,000 grant from the People’s Millions fund for their Old School Cafe project after securing enough votes in a telephone poll held on Tuesday. The project will create a new city centre cafe in the South Bridge Resource Centre to improve the employment prospects of 25 unemployed young people providing on the job training and experience. Well done to all involved!

Edinburgh East’s new Crown Post Office
In November I opened the new Edinburgh City Post Office, located in Princes Mall. The Crown Post Office is now located in a new modern branch has nine staffed counters and longer opening hours (the ubiquitous self-service machine has also been introduced!).

Post Office

The branch move has come well in advance of St James Centre closing its doors next year; hopefully the new premises will be become familiar in advance of this big change for shoppers.

Planning update

Meadow Lane application – submit your comments now
The University of Edinburgh has now submitted its ‘full’ application for purpose built student accommodation at Meadow Lane. The university propose demolishing the 18th century coach houses and to build accommodation for 267 students. While this application is undeniably very close to the University area it is in addition to a proposal to return Buccleuch Place to residential use for students. The proposed density has angered Buccleuch Street residents who will feel swamped. When I attended the pre-application exhibition earlier in the year many said they were concerned about the distinctly modern design and height of the building, in this part of the Southside Conservation Area.

I will be submitting my own objections before the 12th December deadline. To review the plans and submit your own comments, use reference numbers 14/04674/FUL and 14/04682/CON on the Planning Portal.

Baileyfield decision due this month
Last month, I included details of my submission on the Baileyfield application, along with details of the Portobello Community Council consultation on the plans. I have now been informed that the application is due to be determined at the Development Management Sub-Committee on 17th December which will hold a ‘Hearing’ where local groups can make deputations.

Stanley Place application
Next month the developer proposing student accommodation intends to come back with a revised application to build student accommodation on a very narrow site next to the East Coast Main Line on Stanley Place. Residents have had the opportunity to meet with developers at an exhibition of the plans in November, but many report they are underwhelmed the plans have not changed enough. I have been provided with a copy of the boards displayed, please let me know if you would like a copy of these.

Billboard on Cairntows Park refused
In August JCDecaux submitted a number of plans for LED lit advertising hoardings at various sites across the city. This included on the Peffermill Road edge of Cairntows Park. As Southside residents have learnt previously, neighbouring properties are not notified of these applications, thus the Community Neighbourhood Alliance and I swung into action to object to this proposal, knowing that if approved this would not promote the amenity many campaigned for when they saved the park from development.

Inchview Terrace care home proposal
Last year, the Council refused an application for a Lidl store at the former Stratstone Land Rover premises at Inchview Terrace. New developers have now submitted a proposal for a 60 bed care home. You can view the plans on the Planning Portal using reference number 14/04780/FUL. Please get I touch if you have comments on this new proposal.

Dates for your Diary
White House2nd December – One World Shop Christmas Shopping Event and Website Launch – 5.00pm-7.00pm – St John’s Church, West End of Princes Street – All shoppers will get 10% off their purchases on the night, mulled wine and Christmas biscuits, and have the chance to enter into the raffle to win vouchers to spend online.

facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

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.

facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Universal Credit debate

On 7 July 2014 I spoke in a House of Commons debate on Universal Credit, and I’ve reproduced my speech in full below:

Some social security commentators have described a universal credit-type proposal as the holy grail of social security thinking. It is certainly true that the idea is nothing new. It was not invented by the current Government; it has been debated and investigated by previous Governments. In an earlier debate on the subject—I think it was an urgent question —my right hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh South West (Mr Darling) made it quite clear that when he was Secretary of State for Social Security, he looked at the project and concluded that without very significant time and money being invested, it would be too difficult to deliver.

There has obviously been a learning curve to which, for whatever reason, the current Government seem to have decided to pay no attention. If we sometimes seem quite cynical and sceptical about the whole process, it is because of a lot of what we have heard over the past four years. There was total confidence that UC would be the answer to all sorts of questions, and would be relatively easy. I do not think that many people present, except my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms), were on the Welfare Reform Bill Committee in 2011. The then Minister of State for Employment, the right hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling), who responded to most of the debates in Committee, was prone to describing his proposals as an empty bookcase. The Bill was the architecture; a lot of other things would come along later. I think he spoke more truly than he thought he did, because clearly it was a rather empty bookcase; a lot of the issues had not been fully bottomed-out and talked about in the way that they should have been.

One example of that—I will come on to others—is free school meals. We discussed the issue in the Bill Committee in 2011. Various people made written submissions and proposals, and there were discussions, about how that might or might not work as part of the project. We learn now that the Department still does not know how it will deal with free school meals in the further roll-out of universal credit. Three years later, we have not made much progress on something quite important and basic.

Dame Anne Begg: Does my hon. Friend agree that anyone building a bookcase has to know the size of the books that will be displayed on it before they can get the architecture right? Perhaps that was a lesson that the Minister forgot.

Sheila Gilmore: That is a very good analogy for how we have arrived in this position. The trouble is that it is not some sort of blunder: my hon. Friends have referred to some of the other big changes going through the DWP, and the same pattern has been seen with disability living allowance and the personal independence payment. First, a straw man was erected: there was a statement about certain things in the previous system, some of which were not entirely accurate, being really bad and having to be changed. There was then a brief initial consultation period before the Department went ahead with the change, which was not properly piloted. As a result, every new PIP applicant since June 2013 is part of the testing process. That is not a pilot, unless it is a pilot on a gigantic scale. Many people who are anxious and worried while they wait for their PIP payments to come through, are being treated as guinea pigs, after a failure to analyse the problem, implement the scheme or test the proposals. The pattern is not unique to universal credit.

Had we been told from the outset that there would be a slow roll-out because of the need for testing, we might not be standing here now debating whether the glass is half full, but we have been told so often that the glass is full and everything is going well. When the Select Committee prepared a report in November 2012, we concentrated on vulnerable claimants. At that time we were told that all the implementation plans were on track for 2013, which was not the case. By February 2013, the Major Projects Authority told the DWP to reset the entire project—that was an internal, private report of which Members had no knowledge at the time. That information did not come out clearly until July 2013, when the Secretary of State told the Select Committee that there were major changes to the roll-out. The NAO reported in September 2013, and the Secretary of State’s response was, “Oh, I knew about all those problems all along.” Perhaps he did know about the problems all along, but he did not tell many people about them. There were further changes in December 2013.

Some speakers, in trying to support universal credit, suggested that at least we have some people on it. There are 6,000 people on universal credit, and it will be rolled out to more jobcentres, but those are the very simplest cases. In essence, for those claimants universal credit is little different from jobseeker’s allowance. There is little to say that universal credit is a big breakthrough to a different form of benefit, because until now claimants have been single people. Apparently, we are now able to roll out universal credit to some couples, but the claimants so far have been single people. Some 70% of claimants are relatively young. They are new benefit claimants who do not have complications, basically. If universal credit is to bring together various benefits successfully, the difficult cases will be the real test, not the straightforward ones.

One bit of universal credit thinking that has been rolled out is the claimant commitment, which has been rolled out to JSA claimants, not merely those who are technically in receipt of JSA-style universal credit. The Government have rolled out the stick without rolling out the carrot. One of the problems with the claimant commitment is not necessarily getting people to agree what they will do to find work but that minor breaches of that agreement can lead to loss of benefits. The carrot—the bit that is meant to help people not only to find work but to make work pay—has not yet been introduced because the vast majority of people are nowhere near being on universal credit.

Since our original debates on the Welfare Reform Act 2012, we have experienced obfuscation through the use of computerese. MPs, like many lay people, are not IT experts. Initially, concerns were raised about the size of the IT project—various Governments have run into trouble with IT in the past—and people asked, “How do we know this will be different?” Any concerns were simply brushed aside because the Government had a new “agile” way of doing things that meant everything was going to be fine. About 18 months later we learned that that way of doing things had been abandoned, so clearly everything was not fine, but that is what we were told.

Other things that were “fine” included security, establishing people’s identity and the difficulties with online transactions. Those concerns were raised from the outset. I recall an informal briefing at which the Minister, Lord Freud, was asked questions by people who were expert, such as people who had served on housing associations. They asked, “What about the verification of people’s housing claims? How is that actually going to be done?” At the moment, those claims are done fairly intensively with people having to produce information, although housing associations have been allowed to verify that information because they have seen the lease, and so on. Lord Freud simply ignored all that and said, “No, universal credit will have far less fraud and error, and it will all be fine.” But of course it has not been fine, and it is now recognised that the notion that everything could be done online has not only been delayed but will never happen. One reason why that will not happen is that security has been recognised as a major issue. The same Ministers who told us that security was not a problem have now told us that it is a problem. When a Department is paying out substantial sums of money to millions of individuals, doing it fully online is not practical. After Ministers initially enthused about how everything would be straightforward, and after having been told different things at different times—even when the reality was that something else was going on—we are somewhat sceptical.

As other speakers have said, we were told that a certain type of IT is being used for the very small number of current claimants but that, at the same time, the Department was working on what in February 2014 was called the end-state, open-source, web-based solution. [Laughter.] Exactly. I know the meaning of each individual word, but I have never been clear about what the phrase means. We were told that it was a digital solution—it therefore seems to be an important aspect of the whole programme—and that it would be ready to be tested on 100 claimants by November 2014. As the Select Committee report found, the system is still a long way from being viable. There is a huge difference between operating something like that for a small group of 100 claimants and operating it for far more people.

The Select Committee thought that what we were being told about was a different and digital way of doing things, and we specifically asked for more detail. The Government’s response to the Select Committee report evaded the question, and it is all there. First, the response talked about the claimant commitment, which I have already mentioned and did not have anything to do with the digital solution. Secondly, the response talked about a

“more challenging and supportive relationship between claimants and coaches.”

“Coaches” is the new name for jobcentre advisers. Again, that does not really tell us anything about the digital solution. There are concerns about how scalable those intensive relationships will be. Thirdly, we were told that there will be more online services, but many JSA claims are already made online, so again it is unclear whether that has anything to do with the end-state or digital solution.

Therefore, having gone around the houses about the claimant commitment, the things that are already happening online and the more supportive relationship, all that we have been told is that the digital solution is

“a multi-channel service that makes greater use of modern technology”—

I am glad that it makes use of modern technology, rather than ancient technology—

“to ensure the system is as effective, simple and transparent as possible.”

Those are all worthy aims, but they tell us nothing about what the end-state solution actually is, what it does, how much progress has been made towards it, how many people are working on it, what it will cost or what the interface will be between claimants and the system. It is nothing more than an aspiration.

facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Universal credit – stand by for the next rollout delay

Today I’ve written for the think-tank Progress on the next Universal Credit roll-out delay. I’ve reproduced my piece in full below.

There is a bit of a theme when the work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith and his minister David Freud appear before the Department for Work and Pensions select committee to talk about universal credit. They admit there have been ‘problems’, announce that the ‘rollout’ is slowing down, but claim that all is now under control. Next time around it turns out that despite these reassurances, all has not gone as expected.

In early 2013 DWP was still stating that universal credit – which combines jobseeker’s allowance, income support, employment and support allowance, housing benefit and tax credits into one monthly payment – would launch for all new claimants in October of last year.

Major changes to the implementation programme were announced in July and again in December, so that by the end of last year there were only 3,780 people on the new benefit. And these were limited to the ‘easiest’ to handle – those who would otherwise have been on JSA, under 25, and without partners, children or homes to pay for.

In April 2014 it was announced that from June there would be a further rollout starting in jobcentres in the north-west, and from ‘summer’ claims from couples would be started (but still only those who would previously have been on JSA). In the select committee’s April report, we concluded ‘due to the very slow pace of the rollout to date, it is difficult to envisage how the volumes required to meet the most recent timetable are to be achieved’.

The information technology processes for universal credit remain shrouded in mist. At the outset, ministers claimed they had a process that would deliver in a way that no previous government IT projects had, but clearly they did not. Now the promise is of an ‘open source web based end state digital solution’. It is one of those sentences where you know the meaning of the individual words but as a whole. This is to be ready to test on 100 – yes one hundred – claimants by November 2014.

The select committee has asked that future reports and updates use clear, plain English explanations of the plans and outcomes, so that we can judge whether they are working. We need to know how much this new ‘solution’ is going to cost, and when we will know whether it will work for the large and varied number of claimants universal credit is meant to cover.

The previous mantra of ‘digital by default’ has been dropped. Freud said that they had decided that this approach was not sufficiently secure where large sums of money were being paid out. It seems that little thought was given at the outset to issues of verifying identity, and early concerns of commentators were initially brushed aside.

While the move away from digital by default is not altogether a bad thing, as many people were concerned at how this would work for those who do not have easy access to the internet, some of the administrative savings were to come from the fact that so much was to be done online; this must be having some impact on overall costs.

There is also a worrying vagueness about what it really means to be ‘on universal credit’ if your circumstances change. We asked what is happening when the ‘simple’ cases become complex – for example when someone falls sick or acquires a partner with a child. We did not get a clear answer and were left with the impression that all such changes were being done manually. In that case how does it differ from what happens at present?

Bringing benefits together into a ‘single system’ is not a new idea but the incoming coalition might well have asked itself why such a seemingly sensible idea of simplifying and streamlining benefits had not been introduced before. In reality it is a hugely complex undertaking but there is still little sign that ministers realise this, and even less that they are willing to be open about the problems. Stand by for the next rollout delay?

facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail