December 2013 and January 2014 Newsletter

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Westminster report

Autumn Statement
The political seasons seem to extend themselves these days. We have become used to the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement arriving in December.

The Statement itself was a particularly noisy affair. I know people have varying views on the question of ‘Commons Noise’ and to an extent lively banter across the Commons Chamber gives debate an energy and immediacy that polite silence would not. For example, there are times when there is genuine anger at proposals the ‘other side’ is coming up with, but the way in which Ed Balls was barracked when he replied to the Chancellor was, in my view unacceptable, not simply because he is of my party, but because it was a constant wall of noise. Some of my own colleagues do their share of shouting and heckling on such occasions, but generally it is a response to specific things being said. I found it difficult to hear what he was saying, even though I was sitting in the row behind the Shadow Chancellor.

Watching the TV reports later that evening I was struck by the grins and laughs of Cameron and Osborne. They had scant regard for the many people who are struggling with cuts in real wages and the millions still out of work (Unemployment is only a little lower than it was in 2010), not to mention those households hit by the bedroom tax.

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(POST SCRIPT: PMQs was a particularly quiet one the first week back after Christmas, partly because it was overshadowed by the death that day of a very popular and well respected MP, Paul Goggins. But the verdict of the sketch writers, was ‘boring’! – see Ann Treneman in The Times (paywall), and Michael White in the Guardian)

Nelson Mandela Tribute Debate
This took place on 9 December. Many, many MPs spoke, with some extremely good speeches, including those from Gordon Brown and Peter Hain. I didn’t put into speak not least as we had a long session that afternoon at the Work & Pensions Select Committee with Iain Duncan Smith. Had I done so it would have been to recall that the Anti Apartheid movement was one of the earliest political movements of which I became aware. It is humbling to recall that it was nearly 25 years after my first wearing of the iconic badge, Mandela was released from prison and apartheid crumbled. A long road indeed.

Food Banks Debate
The last Opposition Day debate of the year was on foodbanks. Speakers on our side far exceeded the time available by some considerable margin. But I think we had hit a raw nerve for the Government by choosing this topic, as Tory attendance in the Chamber was well above average, and emotions were running high. Speakers on the Government side were anxious to refute the idea that the expansion of food bank use had anything to do with their policies. Citizens’ Advice Scotland’s evidence obtained from its bureaux shows that 73% of the referrals they make are benefit related.

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Employment and Support Allowance
In December I kept up my work on Employment and Support Allowance – the main benefit for people who can’t work due to an illness or disability. Regular readers will know I’ve been concerned for some time that the assessment process for ESA is flawed. Thousands of applicants, who clearly cannot work, are being declared fit to do so and as a consequence they are refused benefit.

Earlier this year two claimants – supported by a number of charities – took legal action, arguing that when people with mental health conditions apply for ESA, the Government should take responsibility for collecting supporting evidence from appropriate professionals, such as their GPs. The court ruled in their favour in June, but the Government subsequently appealed. On 4 December the Court of Appeal rejected the Government’s arguments, and I posted my reaction on my website.

In a separate development I’ve become aware that the number of incorrect assessments could be far higher than previously thought, because the current figures appear to only count cases that go to formal appeal before a tribunal judge, not those resolved by civil servants. I wrote to the UK Statistics Authority about this just before Christmas, and you can my letter on my website.

Finally I released some comments following the publication of Government’s latest independent review of the ESA assessment on 12 December.

Lobbying Bill
I have received a lot of correspondence from constituents on this Bill. After three years of no action on lobbying the Government brought forward a Bill just before the summer last year which paid no attention to the extensive criticisms summed up by the Political & Constitutional Reform Select Committee, and then tacked on proposals which will inhibit campaigning by voluntary organisations and charities. After rushing it through the Commons, the Government agreed to a ‘pause’ in the Lords for further ‘consultation’. Considerable work was done by peers and representatives of the voluntary sector to suggest changes. Following this the Government made some concessions but not enough. The Bill suffered three defeats on amendments in the Lords, and these came back to us last week, with only four hours of debate allowed. The Minister spoke for 47 minutes of the two hours allowed on the amendment to the first part of the Bill!

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Despite some Tory and LibDem MPs voting to support the Lords Amendments they were defeated. When that happens the Bill goes back to the Lords who vote again on whether to insist on their amendments. At this stage some cross bench peers in particular take the view that the elected chamber should prevail – and the Government got its way, after a tied vote in one case.

Whatever one thinks of the substance of this Bill, the process has been a lesson in how not to produce ‘good’ legislation.

Welfare Reform
January started with my Huffington Post article on the Government’s flagship welfare reform Universal Credit. While I acknowledge that UC isn’t a bad idea in principle, and that it could improve work incentives for some, any benefits won’t be felt for years due to IT overspends and poor project management. Meanwhile another element of the project – the heightened conditionality and increased use of benefit sanctions – is already in place and negatively impacting many claimants. Universal Credit, in my view, is presently ‘All Stick and No Carrot!’

It’s also worth highlighting a speech I made on the 13th of January – you can read a transcript here – in a debate on the impact of welfare policy on poverty. It’s often the same people who are affected by the Government’s various changes, and despite all the hardship caused, the Treasury isn’t making much in the way of savings.

East Coast
On 9 January I spoke in a debate on intercity rail investment, focussing on the Government’s decision to privatise the intercity services on the East Coast Main Line. You can read my speech here and I produced a summary of my arguments for the think-tank Progress.

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A week later the shortlist of bidders to take over the franchise in February 2015 was announced, and I circulated a press release which is available on my website.

High Speed Rail
On a related note I lead a 90 minute debate on High Speed Two in the Commons ante-chamber Westminster Hall. Focussing on the economic benefits of the project, I reminded colleagues the project will shave up to an hour off Edinburgh-London journey times, giving businesses in both cities a boost. Over 500 people who oppose the project emailed me in advance of the debate and thus had the opportunity to address their arguments on the day. It’s worth noting that many of those who contacted me live along the proposed route, but I am very clear that MPs whose cities stand to benefit from the project will robustly endorse it. You can read a transcript of the debate on 14 January here and a joint press release I issued with Edinburgh North and Leith MP Mark Lazarowicz here.

Constituency Report

The Real Cost of Homelessness
Lack of affordable housing brings many people to my office and surgeries. The Scottish Government claims Scotland has the best homelessness legislation in Europe, but that’s a hollow boast when there just aren’t the homes for people to move into. In December I wrote an article on these issues which is available on my website.

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Caltongate Disappointment
On Wednesday, permission was granted to redevelop the Caltongate site. This was the second such vote in as many weeks where developers were successful.

I agree that development at this site is much needed, but these plans have been waved through regardless of the fact it is within our World Heritage Site. Bland, square blocked offices and hotels with flat roofs (see above) will bear no likeness to the organic medieval architecture of the Canongate. Indeed the development could be any new build site, in any city across the country.

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It is without a doubt that the Old Town thrived when permanent residents, who formed stable communities, made it a vibrant and prosperous place to live and work. But plans for just 185 apartments over a 5 acre site means that any population growth here will be minimal. There is a danger the Caltongate will become a bland haven for office workers and tourists staying at budget hotels. Any bursts of vitality and civic life will be shortlived these visitors head off home.

I’m very disappointed the community spent months contributing to the consultation process and lobbying elected members, their views have not been properly taken into account. It certainly seems current planning policies are failing to serve local communities.

The Shape of Things to Come
Last week a cross party group of MPs and MSPs met to be briefed by city planners for an update on the Local Development Plan. The Scottish Government recently rejected the view from the south east Scotland group of local authorities that the sites designated for housing should be phased rather than all done upfront. Granted, there is going to be a growth in housing demand over the next 15 to 20 years, but if too many sites are designated for housing now, there are concerns (shared by all elected members present) that developers will cherry pick the ‘greenfield’ sites, while ‘brownfield’ remains undeveloped. The Council remains committed to seeing outstanding brownfield sites (such as Craigmillar in this constituency) developed as soon as possible, but that may prove more difficult than we had hoped. I simply do not see why sites could not be designated on a rolling phased basis so that development can be properly planned.

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To review the proposals for your area click here.

Newcraighall Residents Feel Ignored
In January the Council’s Development Management Sub-committee approved plans for developers to build 220 homes on greenfield land between Newcraighall and Gilberstoun. Needless to say the two communities, who have fought tirelessly against the plans, are devastated by the decision.

A former mining village, Newcraighall has just 150 households at present. Residents thought the matter was closed when permission for 160 homes was granted in 2012. However developers came back for more and succeeded in pushing up the number of houses at the site. David Hewitt of the Newcraighall Heritage and Community Association, and ward councillors Maureen Child and David Walker, made rousing speeches against the plans at a public hearing where the application was determined. My full report on the hearing is on my website.

Employment Plus Local
Just before Christmas I was invited to open the Salvation Army’s ‘Employment Plus Local’ at East Adam Street. With staff on hand jobseekers, homeless or not, can get help to improve skills and meet the requirements to spend several hours a week ‘job searching’ which is demanded by Job Centres. E-learning courses are also available making use of the computers provided at the centre.

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Green Homes Cashback pays off
A constituent recently received some much needed news which will see her family through the chilly winter months. Weeks after having to replace her boiler she found out grants from the Energy Saving Trust were available under the Green Homes Cashback scheme. The scheme offers grants for anyone looking to install a new boiler and insulation to improve the energy efficiency – regardless of your income, and whether you are an owner, tenant or landlord.

My constituent submitted her request after the installation had taken place and was refused at first. Being on Working Tax Credits she would have been eligible for a replacement boiler and increased insulation. However, I contacted the Trust which reconsidered her position and made a retrospective payment. The family now has a much warmer home and reduced heating bills – for free. Whether you receive benefits, work and get Tax Credits, or are a higher rate taxpayer, owner or tenant, head to www.energysavingtrust.org.uk to see what you are eligible for.

Council Finally Cracks Party Flats
Just last week the Council reported on the progress it has made in dealing with ‘party flats’. Thanks to a great deal of hard work from Councillor Karen Doran and her colleagues, plus a legislative change at Holyrood thanks to the efforts of Sarah Boyack MSP, officials are now able to deal with this problem on two fronts: taking over problem flats under a ‘Management Control Order’ and requiring future party flat landlords to seek planning permission. Taking over as landlord for two flats the Council reported it was able cancel bookings for ‘stag’ and ‘hen’ parties, inspect the properties for Health and Safety concerns, and start to manage future rental more closely. The MCO was the first issued in Scotland and local residents agree there has been a real change. Properties in Holyrood Road, Lothian Road and Old Tolbooth Wynd, all in Edinburgh East, are also under investigation.

Carer Support Payments
Carers across our communities and around the UK do great work assisting loved ones, for little pay and without much recognition. It is one of my priorities to ensure that carers receive support to do that work. That’s why I am pleased the City of Edinburgh Council has reopened its scheme to award one-off carer’s support payments of £250 to those who provide unpaid care for a friend or relative who lives in Edinburgh.

If you are an unpaid carer, providing substantial and regular care for a partner, relative or friend who is over 16 and receives DLA (Care), PIP (Daily Living) or Attendance allowance you may be eligible and should head to www.edinburgh.gov.uk/carersupportpayment for further information. Funds are limited and you must apply by the end of February.

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Effect of welfare changes on poverty

Yesterday evening I spoke in a debate on the effect of welfare changes on poverty. This is an important issue, so I’ve reproduced my speech in full below.

Sheila Gilmore (Edinburgh East) (Lab): Like all other speakers, I am grateful to those who lobbied for this debate.

There is a need for some good research into what is going on—research that would very much form part of a commission. I want to give an example of research started by the previous Government that is not being conducted by this Government—in this case, research into the employment and support allowance and the work capability assessment. The last Government commissioned research into what happened to people who had been found fit for work. After three months, 22% were back in employment and 41% were on another benefit. There were still some missing people, but there was no explanation of where they were. After a year, only 23%—there was hardly any increase—were back in employment. However, 43% of those people were neither in employment nor on any other out-of-work benefits. Now 43% is an awful lot of individuals, but this research stopped so we do not know what has been going on since; we do not know whether the pattern has been consistent over the last few years. If it is the case, there are a lot of unexplained outcomes in respect of people living in great poverty.

This issue is not just about people who have somehow been benefit dependent for all their lives. Professor Fothergill of Sheffield Hallam university recently gave evidence to the Work and Pensions Select Committee, and he pointed out that some of those most affected are couples in their 50s. Typically, people will be affected most by becoming ill at that stage in their lives, when illness really does begin to rack up and benefits for illness are most likely to be received. What happens if, say, a couple has one and a half incomes and has been comfortably off with the children grown up and a reasonable income coming in, but the main earner falls ill? There will be an immediate big loss of income because of the illness in itself. After a year, if that individual goes into the work related activities group, which many do, they will lose even their employment and support allowance. At that stage, another £91 is lopped off their household income—and all this at a time when the costs are probably increasing because they are likely to be at home longer and have more heating bills to pay.

If this couple are council or housing association tenants, they might well have a spare room and will also be hit by the bedroom tax. The second means test applied by many councils for discretionary housing payments will probably mean that, because there is still an earner in the household—albeit probably a part-time earner—they will not qualify for discretionary housing payment. They will be deemed to have sufficient income over the absolute basic amount for them to have this extra payment. After working for 35, 40 or perhaps even more years, this couple will have experienced a huge tumble from being comfortable to being in really straitened circumstances. If they have made any savings over their working period towards their retirement, the chances are that when they reach pension age, they will have been entirely eroded, creating further problems for the future.

The irony in all this is that many of the measures introduced—I would hope that the research would cover this issue—are not actually making any great savings. We have heard a lot about the bedroom tax not making much in savings, but it is not the only thing. Housing benefit payments are due to increase, which the Office for Budget Responsibility has factored into its assessment. Why? Because half the expected increase—a substantial increase—is due to people in employment who will qualify for the benefit. Fewer people may be receiving jobseeker’s allowance at one end of the system, but further along the system, more will receive housing benefit. For one set of savings, there is a comparable set of costs. We have to look at that.

We are not making the savings we think we are, and I believe the same is true of the employment and support allowance. There is a big mystery here. The number of people in receipt of that sort of benefit has gone down by far fewer than the number of people who have been found fit for work. What on earth is going on? I suspect that many people have simply come around through the system again. They were not well; they had to apply for benefit again. We are putting people through a lot of trauma and stress for very little saving.

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Press Release: Sheila Gilmore MP backs campaign to give voice to people supported by benefits

Edinburgh East MP Sheila Gilmore has given her support to a campaign which aims to give a voice to the millions of people supported by benefits at some point in their lives.

Polling by the campaign, Who Benefits?, has revealed overwhelming public support for the principle that benefits should be there for those who need them. 81 percent agree that ‘benefits are an important safety net to support people when they need help’, while two-thirds (64 percent) agree that ‘we all benefit as a society when support from benefits is available for those that need it’.

Sheila Gilmore MP at the Who Benefits? Parliamentary Launch

Sheila Gilmore MP at the Who Benefits? Parliamentary Launch

But despite widespread public support, more than a quarter (27 percent) of those who currently claim benefits say they have hidden this because of what people will think. This rises to half (47 percent) of 16-24 year olds who have been supported by benefits. And more than half (51 percent) of all those who had never been supported by benefits said they would feel embarrassed to claim.

Who Benefits? argues that the overwhelming majority of those on benefits really need the support, yet too often their voices are ignored, misrepresented or at worst they are blamed for their situation.  The campaign has been launched by more than 70 charities and community groups brought together by The Children’s Society, Crisis, Gingerbread, Macmillan Cancer Support and Mind.

Sheila Gilmore MP, who attended the launch of the campaign in Westminster, said:

None of us know what lies around the corner.

At the launch of this campaign I met a woman in her fifties, who had never had to claim social security benefits in her life until she was diagnosed with cancer. She had to give up the small business she had been running. The benefits she has been able to claim have been a lifeline.

Although she found the process of being tested and retested for eligibility stressful, she is now recovering. However even though she lives in an area of relatively low unemployment, because of her age and health she is struggling to find work.

Her story is an important reminder of why we need a system of social security.

Who Benefits? is asking people to share their stories through whobenefits.org.uk.  A thousand people who have been supported by benefits have already shared their stories through the website and through social media with the hashtag #WeAllBenefit.

Matthew Reed, Chief Executive of The Children’s Society, said:

Life is full of ups and downs, it can be unpredictable. But no one should go hungry because they lose their job or go into debt because they are on such a low wage. And it is reassuring to see that the public support this view.

At a time when families up and down the country are feeling the squeeze, it is important – now more than ever – that society supports those in need. The overwhelming majority of people who get benefits really need them; whether they are working, looking for work or unable to work.

Leslie Morphy, Chief Executive of Crisis, said:

At Crisis we see every day how support from benefits lifts people out of homelessness, or prevents them from ending up on the streets in the first place. With this support we see people moving into work and on to a better life. Yet all too often the realities of people’s lives and situations are just ignored. That’s why we want people to get involved with Who Benefits? – to ensure real voices are heard.

Fiona Weir, Chief Executive of Gingerbread, said:

None of us know what is around the corner for our family, which is why it can come as a huge blow to someone who’s already having a tough time to be labelled or stereotyped. It is great to see that the vast majority of the British public are behind giving support to those who need it, and we hope that our campaign will encourage more people to come forward to share their stories of how benefits have supported them.

Paul Farmer, Chief Executive of Mind, said:

Support from benefits makes a huge difference to the lives of many people with mental health problems, allowing people to stay well and retain their independence; or help with the additional costs that come from having a disability.

Lots of individuals with mental health problems face stigma and discrimination, as their condition is less visible than a physical disability. These new statistics suggest those who claim benefits experience double the stigma.

ENDS

Media enquiries

  • For more information on Who Benefits?, to arrange an interview or for details of case studies, please contact The Children’s Society on 020 7841 4422 or media@childrenssociety.org.uk
  • For more information on Sheila Gilmore MP please contact Matt Brennan, Parliamentary Assistant to Sheila Gilmore MP, on 020 7219 7062, 07742 986 513 or matthew.brennan@parliament.uk.

Notes to editor

  • The Who Benefits? campaign is giving a voice to people who have been supported by benefits at some point in their lives. It uses real stories to show the reality of who needs help, why they need it and the difference it makes. It was brought together by The Children’s Society, Crisis, Gingerbread, Macmillan Cancer Support and Mind. In addition, 75 charities, faith groups and community groups support the campaign.
  • To find our more about the campaign or to tell your own story please visit www.whobenefits.org.uk or follow us on Twitter @WeAllBenefit
  • All figures, unless otherwise stated, are from YouGov Plc.  Total sample size was 1,955 adults. Fieldwork was undertaken between 18th – 19th September 2013.  The survey was carried out online. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all GB adults (aged 18+).
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Universal Credit – an empty bookcase?

Universal credit was the centrepiece of the Coalition Government’s claim to be ‘reforming’ welfare, not just cutting it. On 5 September the National Audit Office issued a highly critical progress report, stating for example:

It is unlikely that Universal Credit will be as simple or cheap to administer as originally intended. Delays to roll-out will reduce the expected benefits of reform.

When questioned on this in the House of Commons on 5 October the Secretary of State was eager to claim Labour support for the idea of Universal credit. In a way Universal Credit is the ‘holy grail’ of social security reform, offering simplification of application and administration and most importantly providing seamless a transition from being out of work to in work, and back again. However as Alistair Darling pointed out to Iain Duncan Smith, when he was Social Security Minister he had looked into just such a scheme and had been advised it would be too expensive to introduce.

Jobcentre PlusBut from the start IDS was convinced that he, and he alone, had found the magic formula. He was bullish too in answers to Labour Shadow Secretary of State Liam Byrne, and remains adamant that, despite the NAO describing the difficulties thus far as a ‘significant setback’, roll out would be complete by the originally stated date of 2017.

For months now the DWP had been making a virtue of a necessity in rolling out the scheme through very limited pilots (both geographically and in terms of claimant types). There is nothing wrong with careful testing, but an air of unreality hangs over the assertion that the overall timetable can remain in place. This was the thrust of my question to IDS last week.

When faced with the realisation that critics of the timescale for rolling out another Government welfare change – replacing Disability Living Allowanec with Personal Independence Payment – had a point, the DWP extended the timescale to 2017, with ‘migration’ of existing DLA claimants not happening until after the General Election in 2015. But IDS is unwilling to compromise on Universal Credit, despite the fact that according to the NAO the IT – as currently configured – could not support a national roll out and won’t be able to cope with with overpayments or detect fraud.

The Work and Pensions Select Committee visited Ashton Under Lyme Job Centre, the first pilot area, in June. Most claimants in the pilot were successfully making the initial claim online, but after that first stage it was clear that there was not a seamless system in place. Like all pilots staffing was enhanced. For instance we saw 3 staff helping 4 people on computer terminals, not a ratio it would be easy to sustain with reduced staffing levels in DWP overall .

Our support for the concept of Universal Credit was tempered by our doubts over the implementation, which have proved right, but also by the fact that what will really matter in the end is how Universal Credit works in practice. Crucial for example is the level of the ‘taper’ – the rate at which benefit is withdrawn as earnings increase – and what level of income is disregarded before the tapering starts. UC is significantly less generous in these aspects than tax credits have been.

When we were debating the Bill in Committee – over two years ago now – on ‘our’ side we were concerned about all the talk of mini jobs. Tory members of the committee argued that UC would make it much easier to do small hour jobs (as little as 6 or 8 hours a week) without being worse off, and that this would help people get the first foothold into employment, providing very important experience. We pointed out that this ran the risk of simply creating a new trap for people to be stuck in low paid work and still be poor. In the light of all the recent publicity around zero hours contracts, we were right to have concerns. One of the impacts of UC will be that the ‘gainers’ (or is it ‘stand stillers’?) at the lower end of the earnings range are balanced by the ‘losers ‘ slightly further up the earnings/hours of work range because of the effect of disregards and tapers and treatment of second earners in a household.

When we were debating the Bill there was a huge amount of detail that still wasn’t available . How, for instance, would housing costs be administered? Or how would free school meals be provided for? What about childcare costs? Over two years on many of these questions remain unanswered. The then Minister for employment Chris Grayling (now Justice Minister who had his own bit of climbing down to do this week over criminal legal aid in England) was very fond of likening the Bill to a bookcase whose shelves would be filled as regulations and guidance developed. The trouble now is that not only have not all the books materialised, but even the shelves seem to have fallen off!

Update – 11 September 2013: the Prime Minister gave evidence to the Liason Committee yesterday (made up of the Chairs of the various Select Committees) and said he was ‘not religious’ about the timetable for introducing Universal Credit. This concession stands in stark contrast to what Iain Duncan Smith said last week.

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August update: the foodbank dilemma, Univeral Credit still faltering, sheep visits the hub and pavement parking issues, plus more Stop the East Coast Privatisation

Sheila Gilmore MP Header

Westminster Report

Parliament ‘rose’ for the summer recess on July 18th, after a couple of very hot weeks the Chamber itself was an oasis of coolness.  Tradition still decrees that men wear jacket and tie in the Chamber and several commented that we women have it lucky. Some men however welcomed the summer in quite an array of coloured suits.  The prize perhaps should go to Gerald Kaufman (MP for Manchester Gorton).  He may be in his 80s but was sporting a very dashing flower patterned suit in this warm weather.  Maybe it was the heat but certainly the last few PMQs of the ‘term’ were very heated.  It has been far from the ‘silly season’  with very serious issues being debated throughout July, including the economy, the English NHS,  plain cigarette packaging and alcohol pricing.
Spending review
Towards the end of June the Chancellor announced his spending review for the year 2015/16.  This did not cover several years as in 2010, either because he had to acknowledge there could be a change of government by then, or because, as some commentators more cynically suggested because he did not want to ‘frighten the electorate.’  (If you are interested in finding out more about this see a report called ‘Fiscal Fallout: The challenge ahead for public spending and public services’ from the Royal Society of Arts and the Social Market Foundation at http://bit.ly/16tCnB7.

Spending Round 2013
One comment on the spending review from the Institute of Fiscal Studies acknowledged:
‘Despite the hype, net capital spending is not set to rise for 2015/16 (IFS). In 2010 capital was cut back substantially and has done a bit better this time as Coalition is edging towards accepting there needs to be capital spending… a lot of damage has been done in the meantime.’
In 2010 the Coalition promised the split between spending cuts and tax rises would be 80/20. This review moves it to 85/15.
On jobs – nearly 300,000 public sector jobs have been lost since 2010 already with another 300,000 reductions scheduled for the next two years.  This Review suggests a further 144,000 reductions in 2015/16 will be made.
The Chancellor constantly points out that new jobs in the private sector have more than offset public sector job losses.  The IFS states that this is true in every region but that there is no clear correlation between public sector job losses and private job creation. In regions like London, where public job losses have been relatively limited, there has also been a big increase in private sector employment.
Work and Pensions Select Committee
In late June select committee members went on a visit to Job Centres in Oldham and Ashton Under Lyme as part of our current enquiry into the work of Jobcentre Plus .  This is the area where the new Universal Credit system is being piloted.  Although our visits were highly ‘sanitised’ (which I am sure happens under any Government) we could see that even with very limited numbers covered by the pilot there were difficulties with the computer system.  At this stage only single unemployed people with no children or sickness issues, and no existing claims are included in the pilot.  A couple of weeks later we had Iain Duncan Smith and Lord Freud at the committee for an update session on Universal Credit.
We were told that the next stage of the rollout to further Jobcentres across the UK would begin in October although this programme would only apply to simplest categories of applicants.  There is no doubt that the rollout process is considerably delayed over the original intentions. The government is seeking to make a virtue out of a necessity by saying how important it is to test the system properly before full implementation.  Colleagues with experience in such matters knew it would never be easy to make major changes quickly and said so; originally these claims were dismissed well before implementation started.
Cumulative Impact Assessment of Welfare Reform Changes on Disabled People
For some considerable time disability organisations and campaigners have been asking for the Government to carry out a study of the cumulative effect of their various changes on disabled people.  The Opposition held a debate on this on 10th July. The Government continued to resist this saying variously: that it would be too difficult; it was too early to tell; and that they would be monitoring impacts of various changes on an ongoing basis.  The trouble with the latter argument is that it rather misses the point that people wanted them to look at the way the changes interact.  They also riposte that the last Government wasn’t in the business of performing a cumulative impact assessment either, but then the current Government constantly tells us that they are carrying out the biggest revolution in welfare provision since the establishment of the modern welfare state. Surely that needs a cumulative impact assessment!
Liam Byrne, Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary
I spoke in the debate (see p52 http://bit.ly/15qVTPY) as did many of my colleagues. The speech by Liam Byrne, shadow Secretary of State, outlined his thinking on alternative approaches (p31 http://bit.ly/15qVTPY).
Food Banks – the Big Society in Action? 
Over the weekend of 5th to 7th July Tesco ran a national food collection in their stores in partnership with the Trussell Trust and FareShare (www.trusselltrust.org/foodbank-projects, www.fareshare.org.uk/). I went along to Tesco at Nicolson Street to see how staff were doing. Customers were being leafleted as they entered the store and regular announcements were made over the tannoy.  Collections made at Tesco stores in Edinburgh were being divided between a number of different local organisations.
Great work by staff and strong support from customers made this a very successful event.  This is the first period in my lifetime when so many people have become in need of food banks.  Families in modern Scotland should not have to rely on food banks to eat, but regrettably there is a real need for this type of service.  My office has had to refer families to foodbanks because they simply have nowhere else to turn.  This is a sign not simply of recession but of the impact of government policies.
The Trussell Trust, which is one of the largest providers, but by no means the only provider, has this year published the following statistics for households accessing a minimum of 3 days food help in a year:
Trussel Trust
The Government’s reaction is to applaud all of this as a sign of the Big Society in practice. The Prime Minister’s favourite riposte is to say ‘the number of foodbanks went up tenfold under Labour’.  He doesn’t quote a source but it may well be based on data from Trussell Trust itself because it only started up in 2000. A tenfold increase could be from or 2 to 20!  Trussell Trust now has 345 foodbanks in the UK and it opens three centres each week.
More recently the DWP minister in the House of Lords being questioned on the rise in foodbank use said that this was because foodbanks were advertising themselves better and that as it was a ‘free good’ people were bound to gravitate towards it. The implication presumably being that people didn’t really ‘need’ the help.  Unfortunately, the help is limited and the foodbanks do have to scrutinise a request for help; any suggestion that families are choosing to rely on the foodbanks is disingenuous.  Is Lord Freud trying to suggest that people should stop offering foodbanks because Cameron’s Big Society is having perverse consequences?  I think it is evident Lord Freud did not want to admit that government policy was in any way responsible.
According to Trussell Trust statistics 30% of people were being referred because of benefit delays; 18% due to low income and 15% due to benefit changes. People have to be referred by other organisations, contrary to Lord Freud’s belief that people are making a choice to obtain food from the banks rather than shop at the supermarket.
The shortage of affordable housing
In recent weeks I’ve written a couple of articles on housing policy.  One was on Labour Hame (see http://bit.ly/15qW3Xr, and on my website http://www.sheilagilmore.co.uk/bedroom-tax-snp-should-stop-blaming-westminster-and-come-up-with-solutions/) highlighting the substantial reduction there has been in the construction of new homes in Scotland.
Social Housing

Previous governments can be criticised for not building enough, although In the late 90s/early 2000s one of the big issues under discussion in the world of council and housing association housing  was ‘low demand’ in many areas of the country.  Even in Edinburgh where there has always been a shortage, there were some definite ‘difficult to let’ areas at that time – not anymore!  The second article, in the Edinburgh Evening News, (see http://bit.ly/15qYN7l) was about the Scottish Government’s announcement of the end to right to buy.  I argue that the impact of this in terms of supply is extremely limited because sales have already dropped to a low level, and, a ‘sale foregone’ does not turn into a house to let in the short term, because the tenant won’t be moving on.  The real way to deal with supply problems is to simply to build more housing.
Westminster Report Pavement Parking
Pavement ParkingEvery now and then there seems to be a regular theme to the enquiries I receive in my constituency office, one issue which is regularly cropping up at the moment is pavement and double parking in residential areas.  This problem is always an inconvenience for pedestrians, especially those who have mobility issues, but worse, it can prevent emergency services getting to the address they have been called to.  Currently it is only the police who have the power to take action if a motor vehicle is parked in this way.  A private members bill, the Proposed Responsible Parking Bill (Scotland) (2) has been lodged in the Scottish Parliament to tackle this issue.  The bill calls for powers to be passed to local councils, so that parking attendants can take action.  The bill has gained substantial cross-party support and I’m encouraging residents who raise these issues with me to ask their MSPs to support the bill. Further details of the bill can be found at http://bit.ly/17tiNEm.  To find out who your MSPs are – and how to contact them about this issue, go to www.scottish.parliament.uk/msps.aspx.
Housing Co-op Consulation
A few newsletters ago I mentioned that the City of Edinburgh Council has been consulting on how it can encourage the development of cooperative housing so that local residents can help deliver their own micro housing projects and have more say over a key service they rely on.  The city’s three existing Housing Co-ops are very successful and very popular.  They could be expanded through new build but do not currently have the capacity to carry out development themselves and would have to do it in partnership with one if the city’s ‘developing’ housing associations.  That said, a co-operative or social enterprise model could be very helpful in dealing with common repairs, because of the lack of a factoring history in Edinburgh (other than more recently in new developments).  While the consultation has now closed, my response to the consultation is available on my website at http://www.sheilagilmore.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/Housing-Co-ops.pdf.
Lister Housing Co-op
Further details on the scope of the consultation can be located at: http://bit.ly/11H4jSx.
East Coast update – Edinburgh MPs petition Waverley passengers
Waverley - 19th July
Last month my colleagues, Mark Lazarowicz and Ian Murray, joined me and trade unionists from across Edinburgh to petition Waverley passengers to support the campaign to stop the East Coast Privatisation.  On a sunny Friday we set up stall at Waverley steps to speak to passengers and shoppers on Princes Street. The response we received was overwhelmingly positive, with members of the public agreeing that the profits should be retained to improve services and passed back to the treasury, rather than to shareholders. In just one hour we added tens of signatories to our joint petition. We also took the opportunity to speak to East Coast staff about the improvements to services that East Coast has made under public ownership over the last four years.
To sign the petition head to www.sheilagilmore.co.uk/eastcoastmainline.
Craigmillar Town Centre Master Plan
The ‘town centre master plan’ is the plan for the area around Niddrie Mains Road where it is intended there will be shops, a new school and other community facilities.  There had been much talk of this work being carried out by PARC in partnership with a private sector investor, but it has now been decided that PARC will be doing this itself.  Fresh local consultation on the Plan will be taking place in the autumn.
The wider plan for Craigmillar, the urban design framework, has now been revised and is due to be approved at next week’s Planning Committee, on Thursday 8th August.  Finally, officers have removed plans to develop Cairntows Park, after a hard fought campaign from local residents pointed out the absurdity of building on a park when brownfield land is awaiting development across Craigmillar! Hopefully Councillors will approve the plans as they are proposed without a hitch.  To view the full papers head to http://bit.ly/17oMNkX.
Craigmillar Fun Day & Portobello/ Northfield Fun day
Both these community events took place on Saturday 29th June and were fortunate with the weather, with lots of sunshine, attracting plenty of people to both events.
Another Visitor for the Hub
Just a wee visitor to the Hub
Last month Restalrig Lochend Community Hub had a royal visitor. This month while I was enjoying some lunch at the HubGrub café in walked this sheep.  The sheep and other animals were visiting from Gorgie City Farm. At first I thought maybe the sheep was there for the very busy knitters group who were also meeting there that day.  As ever so much goes on at the Hub thanks to its enthusiast staff and volunteers.
Engine Shed update
Over the past few months the Engine Shed has received overwhelming support from all sections of the community in response to the uncertainties regarding funding for the training they offer.  Parents and trainees organised a sponsored walk to raise money for the Lothian Special Olympics.  A number of their trainees are actively involved with this organisation which also supports and encourages young people with learning disabilities to achieve their personal best.  For further updates on the work of the Engine Shed, see their newsletter which I’ve uploaded to my website at http://bit.ly/17oOAX7.
LGBT 50+ Community Survey
LGBT Health and Wellbeing have been running LGBT Age, a groundbreaking project which currently provides a befriending service and social opportunities for lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) people over 50 in Edinburgh and Lothians.
LGBT Age is carrying out a Community Survey to obtain a better understanding of the needs of LGBT people across Scotland. The findings will be used to develop the future work the LGBT Age project and are wider work to promote the health, wellbeing and equality of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in Scotland.
If you are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender and 50+ the survey will take just 10 minutes to complete and can be found at https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/lgbtage Dates for your Diary
Wednesday, 7th August – Wauchope Summer Community BBQ – 4pm to 7pm – Wauchope Community Garden and Allotments (Niddrie Mains Terrace and Wauchope Terrace)
Friday, 9th August – Final Fling Summer Bash – from 1pm to 4pm – Jack Kane Centre in Craigmillar – Activities include bungee trampolines and horse riding and much more
Tuesday 27th August – Dumbiedykes Bus Decision @ Transport and Environment Committee – from 9.30am – City Chambers, High Street – papers available from www.edinburgh.gov.uk/cpol one week in advance of the meeting

 

 

 

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