Edinburgh East April update: Budget, Bedroom Tax approaches, Castlebrae campaign success, and where is spring?

Westminster Report

Those of us inside the ‘Westminster Bubble’  are sometimes accused of losing perspective on what really matters, but I think most people would agree that the week of March 18th was a big one in Parliamentary terms. The response to the Leveson Report came to a head on the Monday, preceded by some last minute cross party talks, with the Budget scheduled for the Wednesday.

Budget 2013

The Shadow Chancellor called this the ‘Groundhog Day’ budget because in this, Chancellor Osborne’s fourth budget, we had another repeat performance. Previous forecasts about borrowing, deficit reduction, economic growth and unemployment falling, have been downgraded each budget.  Regular statements are made about being ‘on track’, only to discover at the next again budget that the economy is well off track.  Again the Chancellor assured us that with ‘one more heave’ all will be well. In the budget debate one Tory backbencher referred to a pre-budget cartoon of Osborne as a soldier in a World War 1 trench digging in. Then it was always ‘one more push’ – and we know where that led!    I was surprised that the Tory speaker drew all our attention to that image!

Forecasting is a notoriously difficult thing, and it is true that there have been external factors at play, for example the Eurozone problems. However the Government’s austerity measures have been a factor as well, as the independent Office of Budget Responsibility (OBR) made it clear in a rebuke to the Prime Minister, after he made a speech claiming that austerity measures were not a contributory cause of low growth.  A recent article in the Financial Times pointed out that those Euro countries with the deepest austerity had the lowest growth.  Plummeting demand in these countries of course affects our exports, and so the UK recovery also.

Ed Miliband Budget day 2013

The last Labour Government put in stimulus measures to tackle the recession. Combined with low tax receipts caused by the recession, these measures did increase the ‘deficit’.  In June 2010 the newly established OBR published a Report just before the emergency budget forecasting the situation under the previous Labour Government’s policies, and the effect of that emergency budget. It is illuminating comparing these with more recent OBR forecasts.

OBR Growth

Below are figures for the amount forecast to be borrowed by the Government each year (Public Sector Net Borrowing)

OBR Deficit

The Chancellor now seems to accept that growth needs stimulation.

But his measures in this budget are extremely limited.  A small increase in capital spending of £3bn a year will come forward, but not until 2015. The chancellor committed stimulus to housing but the bulk of it for shared equity and mortgage guarantee schemes. These will stimulate construction indirectly, although some commentators fear they may cause a renewed price bubble rather than any real economic growth. I have written a longer piece on the housing aspects of the budget for my website http://www.sheilagilmore.co.uk/the-chancellors-housing-stimulus-the-wrong-answer-to-the-wrong-question/.

Here is what the National Institute for Economic and Social Research concluded on the budget:

“Despite the many policy announcements in the Budget the OBR’s judgement is that these measures, in aggregate, are fiscal neutral and will have no overall effect on growth this year and next. We agree; while we welcome the reduction in employers National Insurance Contributions, the cut to corporation tax, and the switch of some spending from current to capital, none of these rather small changes will have much impact on the overall economy. To generate a significant boost to growth would have required a boost to public investment, financed initially by borrowing, of the order of 1-2 percent of GDP, as suggested by NIESR (and elsewhere: for example The Economist, and in the IFS Green Budget). In that sense, the Budget represents (another) missed opportunity.” The full report is here: http://bit.ly/15TD8SR.

The Financial Times editorial had this to say:

“George Osborne’s Budget offered little – too little – to boost growth now. The Chancellor’s counter to his supporters’ worsening pain was to promise that in a few years’ time, they will be rewarded. This was a political budget that left the economic heavy lifting to others – and to the future.” Read the full excerpt at http://on.ft.com/15TCFA9

The Budget in Parliament

The Budget is still a big House of Commons event, although not as in the past when, ‘old hands’ relate, MPs would queue up in the early hours to get a good seat. With the expansion of autumn Statements into mini budgets, plus numerous media briefings there is little surprise left for budget day itself.

Budget speech

It is tradition that the Leader of the Opposition replies and that both he and the Chancellor are given the field without intervention. Not unlike other statements does the Chancellor face a Q and A session. Straight after these two speeches the Budget debate starts, and continues over the next three sitting days. Votes come on Day 4.  (Monday 25th March).

I spoke on Thursday 21st March.  It has become a bit of a joke between three or four of us ‘frequent speakers’ as to who is going to get the last backbench speaking slot.  This time it was my turn and the time limit was five minutes after some four and a half hours ‘sitting on the benches’.   It was only possible to say a fraction of what I would have liked to cover. The full debate can be read at http://bit.ly/ZY0ki4, with my speech from p62.

Leveson & Press Regulation

The Leveson Report came out at the end of November.  It was clear from the outset that the Prime Minister was not keen to implement the proposals in full. Several weeks of cross party talks passed and frustration at the lack of progress led to various attempts in both Houses of Parliament to ‘amend in’ proposals on Leveson to other pieces of legislation. For example amendments to the Defamation Bill were passed in the House of Lords, and it appeared for a time that the Government was reluctant to make further progress with this Bill. I received a number of letters and emails from constituents concerned that that this could lead to these important reforms being lost. In March matters came to a head as further amendments were put down to the Crime & Courts Bill due to be debated on March 18th.  Cross Party talks were broken off by Cameron the previous Thursday and resumed over the weekend. It became clear that the Government was likely to be defeated if votes took place, and finally a ‘deal’ was done in the early hours of the morning on the 18th.  This lead to the Prime Minister having to seek an urgent short debate on the matter that afternoon.

The majority of constituents who have contacted me on this issue were in favour of the implementation of Leveson in full.

Youth Budget event

Youth Budget 2013 A few days before the Budget I took part in an event at Westminster where groups of school students participated in debates about what they would prioritise in the budget.  They spent the morning at No 11 Downing Street and came into Parliament that afternoon. These sessions built on consultation with young people up and down the country over previous weeks. Results included: Youth Budget Some people might think that it is ‘easy enough’ for young people to propose more taxes but it was interesting to note the support for an unhealthy food tax which they undoubtedly would have to pay! In his closing remarks Treasury Minister David Gauke did say somewhat ruefully that selling such a policy might be easier said than done – clearly still smarting from last year’s ‘pasty tax’!

As so often at these events the enthusiasm and confidence of the young people was inspiring. You can read more about this here: http://bit.ly/YTKjq8.

Jobseekers (Back to Work) Bill

Sandwiched between these two events was a day of debate on this piece of emergency legislation. The Government passed regulations in 2011 that were meant to give the Department for Work and Pensions the power to impose sanctions on people who did not co-operate with one of their various work schemes. One of these – named simply Work Experience – was at the centre of a legal case where a young woman – Cait Reilly – took DWP to court after her Jobseekers Allowance payments were stopped following her refusal to work in Poundland. The Court of Appeal declared the regulations unlawful because jobseekers like Ms Reilly were not given enough information about what was involved and the consequences. However it’s important to emphasise that the Court did not say that schemes of this nature should not continue, and following the Court’s judgment, the Government immediately put down new regulations to allow this to happen.

The focus of the Jobseekers Bill was to prevent the Government having to pay out up to £130 million to claimants who had been sanctioned while the unlawful regulations were in force. I have had a number of constituents expressing a strong view that the Opposition should have voted against the Bill rather than abstaining. I have written more about this on my website at http://bit.ly/Xi8naY.

The debate is not over, and many of us will be reflecting on the policies around this. I have made my position clear on work experience and its place in employment programmes (see further pieces on my website here, here and here).

The wider picture is what Labour did in Government and the policies we are now developing. One example of the former is the Future Jobs Fund which provided six months of paid work for young unemployed people. This was abolished almost immediately after the Coalition came to power, with Ministers claiming that it was too expensive and had been unsuccessful. However a DWP evaluation published afterwards concluded that it had been very effective. Recently the party stated clearly that in Government it would reintroduce a similar type of scheme. This case in illustrates the genuinely distinct approach being taken by Labour compared to the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats.

Bedroom Tax

As implementation date looms, the main thrust of this regressive and unfair policy remains. The Government offered up some small concessions; exempting families with adult children in the armed services, some families with severely disabled children, and foster parents.  Among those left still affected are many people with disabilities or medical conditions, people in adapted homes and separated parents with shared care responsibilities. Nor should we just talk about these groups, because it is highly unfair for so many people who have lived in their homes for many years, who are now expected either to move or lose a sizeable part of their weekly income.  The Government has started to use is to say that the current position is ‘unfair’ to people who are in private rentals where housing benefit is paid subject to size of property restrictions. It is typical of this Government’s approach to play one group off against another and also to suggest that ‘fairness’ also means equalising downwards.  Interestingly there was no mention of this as a reason for the bedroom tax in all the debates when the Welfare Reform Bill was going through Parliament. Bedroom Tax Council and housing association homes are permanent tenancies and people quite reasonably invest in them to make them comfortable.  Generally private lets are short term and when the Local Housing Allowance (the name for housing benefit in the private rented sector) was introduced it applied as people entered into new leases. More people are spending longer in the private sector than they would like due to the poor supply of social housing. There are very real differences between the sectors.  Restrictions on the amount of housing benefit paid for private lets have always been in place, not least because landlords would up rents if there was a ‘blank cheque’. When the housing benefit system has been relatively generous on private rents a sudden increase in ‘DHSS welcome’ signs appear.  If we really want to see the Housing Benefit total spend reduced we need to tackle high rents in the sector, and increase supply.  One of the ironies of Government policy is that they are forcing councils and housing associations to build new homes at much higher rents to compensate for reduced subsidy.

Full details of my work regarding the Bedroom Tax are available on my website at http://bit.ly/ZXZIZY.

In Opposition we have been continuing to take lots of opportunities to press the Government on the bedroom tax, and I took part in a debate on this on 27th February. See p58-60 http://bit.ly/ZXZzWq.

Universal Credit

On 6th March the Commons debated the introduction of Universal Credit.  As often happens with debates on social security issues opposition speakers exceeded Government numbers. It is significant that on this occasion only the Minister replying to the debate showed any great confidence and enthusiasm. Most of the government backbenchers expressed concerns about various aspects of the new benefit, especially the heavy dependence on the IT system and online application systems. I spoke about the concerns arising from the pilots taking place where housing payments go via to claimants rather than direct to landlords, and also about the position of single parents. The Government is making in the way conditions are applied to jobseeking single parents, and the structure of the new benefit itself, have drawn much criticism from organisations representing these families. My speech is available from p42 http://bit.ly/ZXYBct.

Work and Pensions Select Committee

1.    Flat rate pension The Select Committee has been doing ‘pre legislative’ scrutiny of the Bill to introduce the proposed single tier pension.  The Bill is likely to be a key part of next session’s legislative programme.  It was heralded with some fanfare in the early days of this Government but has taken some time even to reach this stage.   What has struck me increasingly is that the proposals are much more evolution than revolution. The changes are less major than Ministers have claimed, and this makes both the expectations of those who move to the new system, the disappointment of those who feel they miss out, less significant than each group thinks. The Government has created this situation by the way it has trumpeted the change.

The new single tier pension builds on much of what was put in place by previous governments, and indeed could not have been contemplated on its apparent ‘no extra cost ‘ basis if the foundations were not already laid

The basic State pension was supplemented by additional state provision initially through the Graduated Pension from the 1960s, and then through the State earnings Related Pension (SERPS) from 1978.  The Thatcher Government weakened SERPS by giving people the freedom to opt out. People were supposed to start private pensions instead but many ceased them after a bit and even those who persisted found that outcomes were poor.  In 2002 The Labour Government introduced a new form of second pension which was more generous than SERPS to those on lower to moderate earnings.  In 2006 the Government announced it would stop people opting out into personal pensions, which happened in 2012, and started a gradual transition to the Second State pension becoming flat rate.

In 1997 pensioner poverty was seen as an urgent issue, with women having especially low retirement earnings. Schemes like SERPS built up over a number of years so didn’t offer any help to the generation of poor pensioners at the time of introduction.  The Labour Government introduced Pension Credit, which currently ‘tops up’ income to £142.70 for a single person.  Respected organisations like the Joseph Rowntree Foundation have acknowledged that this substantially reduced pensioner poverty.  The downside is the fact that it is means tested and there are concerns that not everyone eligible claims (although the shortfall of people claiming applies mainly to the additional Savings Credit rather than the core Pension Credit). Critics suggest that it discourages saving for retirement.  That isn’t just a theoretical argument because I meet a good number of constituents who feel that, while they are not worse off than people on pension credit, they see little benefit from their efforts to save or make pension contributions. These savings were made at a time in their lives when money was tight while bringing up their families.

Copyright: Getty/Mirror

The pros and cons of this approach will continue to be debated, but in the context of the Coalition proposals, the existence of pension credit means that there is already a substantial slice of government expenditure which will be ‘rolled over’ into the new single tier.

At present people coming to retirement have a number of different sources of pension:

  • Some have only the basic State Pension (£107.45 pw for a single person), perhaps because they were out of work for a long time or were unwell, or had caring responsibilities. (Some people have even less than this because they didn’t build up enough contributions and credits)
  • Some have basic State Pension plus additional State Pension (graduated pension, SERPS or the post 2002 S2P) of varying amounts.  This may already be more than the suggested £144 Single Tier Pension the government proposes.
  • Some have basic state pension plus an occupational and/or personal pension, and while they were contributing to this paid less NI contributions than those in the additional State Pension scheme.

The new scheme says that everyone retiring after the start date will eventually receive £144 per week State Pension plus any occupational or personal pension they build.  Some people retiring at the start date will already get that or more from previous contributions. Those who have paid less NI contributions because they were contracted out will not immediately receive the full £144 because they have been paying the lower NI contributions.

It is going to be complicated and contrary to the spin it does not mean that from day one of the new scheme everyone retiring gets £144pw in addition to their existing private or occupational system.

The main gainers are going to be people who didn’t have the chance previously to save for an additional State Pension or private scheme, and the self employed.  This will mean that fewer of them will have to apply for the means tested pension credit (which doesn’t disappear immediately but fewer people will be requiring it).

Eventually the new scheme is forecast to cost Government less than the predicted expenditure under the current arrangements.

In the Budget the Chancellor announced that the start date was being brought forward to 2016 from 2017.  Cynical commentators have suggested that this may have had as much to do with bringing income to the Treasury (because contracting out ends and both employers and employees pay higher NI) as with generosity to those nearing retirement.

Part of the additional income to the Treasury is being used for the ‘employment allowance’ announced by the Chancellor in the budget (which is a reduction in NI to encourage employers to take on staff).

I would be interested to hear what people think, and try to answer what questions I can.  The Committee Report will be published shortly.

2.    Private Pensions We have also been working on a Report on private pensions which have come under much criticism for their poor outcomes.  These pensions will be increasingly important in the future because in some respects the Single Tier pension will be a ceiling on state provision (as well as a ‘floor’ on which to build) and auto enrolment will mean many more low paid people being covered with separate arrangements, like many better paid workers.

3.    The Work Programme Our other major investigation has been into the Work Programme, the Government’s flagship ‘back to work’ scheme, which was launched in June 2011 as the biggest, best and cheapest such programme ever. At the ‘top’ level performance has not met expectations, and at local level many MPs are picking up disturbing examples of poor delivery.  Our enquiry is looking at whether the financial structure of the scheme is working, and in particular how it is faring for people facing particular barriers to being employed.  I am still interested in hearing from people who have personal or professional experience of how this is working.  The Report will be out in the next few months.

Constituency Report

Castlebrae Community High School Success

The efforts of Save the Brae were rewarded at the Council meeting on 14th March. Persistent hard work and a refusal to ‘give up’ paid off. Well done Save the Brae I know many people were cynical at the outset about the whole consultation process, but I think this shows that there is a political (not necessarily ‘party political’) process which runs in parallel with the ‘council official’ role.  These officers have an important role to play in the way any council works providing a professional input and expertise which has to be taken into account. However, as some of us said at the outset, the issue of Castlebrae High School went beyond that of just one department and narrow budget savings.

This was the wording for the Motion the Council passed. Council Motion From this point on the ongoing process must be open and genuinely seek the input of students, parents and the local community.

Key to what happens next is the promised re-energisation of the Regeneration process. I believe that the Council should now bring forward plans for the building of a new school. There is a design and a site. Planning permission should be applied for now.  In December I suggested that the Council could approach the Scottish Government to request that this project be considered for inclusion in the use of capital funding due to come to Scotland in terms of the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement. See more at http://bit.ly/YVU5rU.

It was argued that the project wasn’t ‘shovel ready’, although it is as prepped as much as many projects put forward from other local authorities. Residents now need a real statement of intent from the Council to make this project shovel ready by applying for planning permission, rather than delaying to 2017.

Bringing the new school forward would address many of the concerns there are about the pressures of sustaining a school with such a small number and a reduced curriculum.  More broadly it would be the kind of construction project the Regeneration process, and the whole country, needs to bring jobs and local traineeships to an industry which is struggling.

I have heard some concerns that any plan to bring the new school forward would be to the detriment of a new Portobello High School. This is not the case and the Council must make it plain that the funding for Portobello is safeguarded.

Together with Kezia Dugdale MSP I have written a letter to the Council leader urging this course of action. You can see the letter on my website after the Easter weekend at http://www.sheilagilmore.co.uk/bringing-forward-a-new-castlebrae-school/.

Portobello High School

The City Council agreed on 14th March to go ahead with lodging a Private Bill in the Scottish Parliament that seeks consent to the building of the new school in Portobello Park.  The Process for Private Bills can be found here http://bit.ly/ZXWCoF.

New Portobello High School

The response to the consultation was substantial and 70% of the responses favoured this course of action. Hopefully the whole community can now move forward, and real progress can be made after ten years of debate and consultation.

Shared Repairs Service

Many constituents have contacted me about problems they have encountered with the statutory notice system, but on the whole most people support the continuation of council involvement via enforcement.  This came through loud and clear in the consultation which took place last year. We do need major reforms in the procedures and management, and much more involvement of owners at all stages of repairs to improve the system. The very real difficulties which exist in trying to secure agreement and payment from neighbours mean that people value the service the council provided. The historic fabric of our tenemental city needs to be protected.

I was concerned that the consultation document did not include retention of statutory notices as an option, nor did the Report scheduled for discussion on 14th March.

I contacted councillors with my concerns prior to the meeting with the email here: http://bit.ly/Xi77oh.

I was pleased that councillors voted to retain the statutory power and to ask for a further report by the summer of this year on how the new service can be widened beyond just emergency repairs and the giving of advice and information. See http://bit.ly/ZXXGZJ.

Review of Neighbourhood partnerships

The new City of Edinburgh Council administration has set out its plans to strengthen Neighbourhood Partnerships, and Convener of the Communities and Neighbourhoods Committee is looking for your views to help shape NPs to deliver better results for residents. NPs were established in 2007 as Advisory Committees to plan local priorities as well as organising and community events, projects and initiatives such as clean up campaigns. It is now time to develop the model by looking at previous successes and thinking of ways to involve more people. If you want to provide feedback make sure you complete the survey as soon as possible at http://svy.mk/13QYgNf.

Dumbiedykes Bus update

In March residents attended the Transport and Environment Committee to discuss the possibility of a bus service returning to the Dumbiedykes area. Committee agreed to proceed with the plans, asking officials to look at the options and analyse the demographics of the area. Officials are due to bring their full report to the June Transport Committee where a decision whether or not to introduce a bus service will be made.

Craigmillar Urban Design Framework Review

In 2011 the City of Edinburgh Council announced plans to review the Craigmillar Urban Design Framework – the masterplan designed to guide the regeneration of the area. The original plan was agreed in 2005 setting ambitious plans to reconstruct much of Greater Craigmillar, bringing mixed ownership homes, a state of the art High School at the heart of the community and plans to fuel the local economy. After the financial crash of 2008, and the reduction in funding from the Scottish Government and local council, many of the plans were put on ice, or cancelled.

This review aims to look at the progress of regeneration, analyse the development so far and set the tone to complete the process. The City of Edinburgh Council Labour-led coalition has now committed to build a new Castlebrae High School before 2020, and this refreshed review will establish how all development in Craigmillar will look over the next decade.

As Member of Parliament for Edinburgh East, including Greater Craigmillar, I have submitted my own comments to the planning authority, following lengthy discussion with local residents and community activists. What is clear is that the planning department must bring forward new commitments to protect Cairntows Park for future generations, construct a new school as soon as possible and reconsider the type, makeup and format of the housing in the area. The council cannot get this plan wrong, or make a botched job of this process. It is crucial a new Craigmillar fosters a good community spirit, built on a base of families attracted to the area.  You can read the submission here: http://www.sheilagilmore.co.uk/final-submission-craigmillar-urban-design-framework-review/

Garden sharing

I think we’re all wondering where spring is. As gardens jump back into life, constituents across Edinburgh East contact me asking for help keeping their gardens tidy and preened. With changes to Garden Aid and increases in service charges many household have started to look for help with gardens, while at the same time an increasing amount of more able families want allotments. Edinburgh Garden Partners has come up with a scheme to facilitate garden sharing which joins up people who have a garden (but can’t tend to it) with those who want some Greenspace. For further details, or if you want to participate head to: http://www.edinburghgardenpartners.org.uk/

Young People’s Taster Sessions and Consultation Event

Last month I mentioned that a session was taking place at Meadowbank to canvass the views of young people on what activities should be provided locally.  I went along to see how it went. There was a good attendance and it was a bit like ‘speed dating’ with small groups circulating around tables with different themes e.g. activities, use of open space, where you feel safe (or not). That was followed by instant voting which shows results right away on a screen.  One question asked was whether those attending thought this event would make any difference, and there was a considerable degree of cynicism about that.  So it is over to the Council now to listen and act!

Dates for your diary

Tuesday, 2nd April – Southside Association: special meeting to discuss plans for the Odeon – from 7pm – Southside Association, 117 Nicolson Street Friday, 26th April – SPACE Green Day – 12pm to 5pm – 11 Harewood Road – Clothes recycling, crafts, tombola and music – entry £1 Saturday, 27th April – Craigmillar Books for Babies 15th Birthday Celebration – 11am-12pm – Craigmillar Library, Niddrie Mains Road Tuesday, 30th April – Abbeyhill Student Accommodation PAN exhibition – 2pm-7pm – Chatham Honda Garage, Abbeyhill – Planning reference number 13/00726/PAN

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Jobseekers (Back to Work Schemes) Bill

A number of constituents have contacted me in recent days regarding the Jobseekers (Back to Work Schemes) Bill, which went through all its stages in the House of Commons on Tuesday. I abstained in the vote on the bill and, given the interest, I have decided to set out my reasons for doing so below.

I have maintained a number of concerns regarding the Government’s work experience schemes for some time now. I have written several posts on this issue for my website which you can read here, here and here.

The most recent post followed the recent legal victory of Cate Reilly over the Department for Work and Pensions on 12 February 2013. The Judge ruled that the regulations that allowed DWP to sanction Ms Reilly’s JSA were unlawful. This reflects incompetence on the Government’s part. This has had two consequences.

Firstly the Government was no longer able to sanction claimants who refused to participate in not just their work experience schemes but also the broader Work Programme. DWP Ministers immediately laid new regulations before parliament that amended the law with a view to preventing similar legal challenges in the future. I felt these regulations should receive full parliamentary scrutiny and be put to a vote. I thus signed Early Day Motion 1072. Please see my signature here. Unfortunately the EDM did not attract sufficient support and these new regulations came into force on the day of the court case concluding.

Secondly taxpayers became liable to pay back Jobseekers Allowance to all the people who had been sanctioned following their refusal to participate in various work experience schemes. This would have come to £130 million. I chose to abstain because I did not think it reasonable to expect the taxpayer to have to foot the bill for the Government’s incompetence.

The Parliamentary arithmetic is such that that, as this was a matter on which there were no disagreements between the coalition parties, this Bill was going to be passed. Furthermore even if it had been defeated, this would not have had any impact whatsoever on the continuation or otherwise of the Government’s various work experience schemes or its Work Programme. These were secured by the aforementioned regulations that, as I said earlier, I believed should have been debated and voted upon.

I also wish to draw attention to the two concessions that my colleague the Shadow Secretary of State Liam Byrne secured from the Government in order to make the bill fairer. The first will ensure that those people who have good cause for not participating in work schemes are still able to claim their JSA back. This will guarantee that their appeal rights are protected. The second will ensure that the Government will now also launch an independent review into the sanctions regime, with an urgent report to Parliament.

I made a number of these points when I spoke in the debate yesterday. A transcript of my speech and the rest of the debate is available here. I appreciate that this response may still be disappointing for many constituents. I would be happy to discuss this issue further  at one of my regular surgeries. Please see here for details.

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Too posh to shelve – Round Two

Last year I wrote a piece about the Government’s use of unpaid work experience. The DWP has been using this in a number of different ways, sometimes for young job seekers, but also for people they consider to have been unemployed for a long time. For the latter group it has been made compulsory, although a research study suggested that it was having little impact in finding these people sustained real jobs afterwards. The work experience for young people was claimed to be ‘voluntary’ and the DWP responded to the initial criticisms by claiming that young people could refuse to take part but might lose benefits if they agreed to start and then failed to turn up. However Cait Reilly, the young woman who took the DWP to court was clear that she had been told she had to attend or lose benefit, although she was already doing voluntary work. In addition to these forms of unpaid work experience organised directly by the DWP, people on the ‘Work Programme’ (those out of work for a year, with shorter periods for young people and some other groups) can be required to do unpaid work experience.

Jobcentre PlusOn 12th February the Court of Appeal ruled in favour of the young woman who had brought the case, on the legal ground that the DWP regulations did not give them the power to impose these conditions because there had not been any detail put before Parliament. The response of the Government was to lay down new regulations that very night which they claim ‘cure’ the legal issue. At the time of writing I haven’t yet seen these.

This doesn’t answer the basic questions about what work experience is for, and how it should be structured. In a good employment programme work experience could be useful. The point Cait was making was that a short period of doing a type of job of which she already had experience was not moving her on or improving her skills. Useful work experience should reflect the needs of the individual. Someone who has never worked has different needs from someone who has previous experience but perhaps needs retraining in a new skill.

I am writing this listening to Mark Hoban on Newsnight saying that people should ‘accept the help offered to get back into work.’ The crucial question though is whether this type of ‘help’ is actually helping. Mark Hoban also repeated a frequent claim that these work experience schemes have been very successful in getting young people into work, but this seems to be based on an initial pilot project and I haven’t seen any updated figures.

My select committee is investigating the experience of people on the Work Programme at the moment. Watch this space!

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Giving Work Experience a Bad Name

Work experience can be very useful to help people back into employment if it is done properly. But mandating people who are not yet fit for work to take part in poor quality work experience under the threat of reducing benefits if they do not go is not the right way to go about it.

Work experience must be tailored to the needs of the individual, but all placements must move people forward towards being successful in applying for jobs. For example for a young person who has never worked the proper sort of ‘experience’ might be a fairly general introduction to a workplace and the rhythms of work. For others it will be a chance to practice the skills they have been undertaking training for. This may be relevant for some people who have been out of work for a period due to illness or accident – for instance if they have needed to retrain for different, perhaps less physical, work.

I recently visited a local social enterprise which has lots of experience in helping people, move back into employment after a period of mental illness. And yes as part of their programme they offer work experience which can be a big boost to confidence for those who have been through a period of such an illness. But it must be agreed with the individual and be part of a wider programme. This particular organisation has a pretty good success rate.

New Government proposals aren’t like this. The group of people they are targeting are those who having been through an assessment for Employment and Support Allowance have been deened unable to work at the moment but likely to be able to do so at some time in the future. There are many criticisms of the decisions that are made placing people in this category – called the Work Related Activity Group (WRAG) – with for example some people with serious degenerative illnesses such as Parkinson’s being placed in it. But assuming that the ‘placement’ is broadly right and return to work fitness is a reasonable expectation, at the time of assessment a ‘prognosis’ is given of when someone is likely to be ready. That can be 3, 6, 12 months or even longer.

Under the rules that have been operating until now those with a prognosis of less than six months could be required to join the Work Programme. The emphasis here is on the word ‘required’ . Failure to co-operate leads to benefit sanctions. Failure to co-operate can be not turning up for an appointment, or not making sufficient effort to apply for enough jobs. The new twist is that Work Programme providers can now ‘mandate’ that people go on work experience and failure to do so will also lead to sanctions. The DWP ‘s memo on this says that such work experience will be suited to they person’s capabilities but given previous experience there are concerns about this.

On top off this the DWP has recently announced that it will start mandating people into the Work Programme who are in the WRAG if they have a prognosis of being able to return to work within a year. So the combination of these two changes is that those who have been assessed as not likely to be fit for work for a year can be required to go on work experience.

The work experience is meant to be of ‘community benefit’ but can be with a private company or with a voluntary organisation.

The trouble with all this is that it stems from the fact that the Government has now convinced itself of its own propaganda that the problem of unemployment and the problem of there being too many children being brought up in ‘workless’ households is down to people being either unwilling to work or so unskilled that they are unlikely to be employed. But the real problem is the lack of jobs, worse in some parts of the country than others.

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April 2012 enewsletter | Edition 19

Are you registered to vote? Elections to the City of Edinburgh Council will be held on Thursday 3rd May 2012. If you still need to register, click here to download a form: http://bit.ly/GYjwpX. If you want to vote by post, click here to download a form: http://bit.ly/GYjEpk. All forms need to be sent in by 18th April 2012.

Westminster Report

Budget Time
The days when budgets were ‘top secret’ till the day have long gone.  The last Government was much criticised for all the ‘leaks’ and ‘advance notice’ but this Government is no better.   But just when we thought it was all out the ‘Granny Tax’ surprises everyone!

Child Benefit & Working Tax Credit
Two proposals rushed out by the Government in October 2010 were much debated in the period leading up to the budget.  The plan to take Child Benefit from higher rate tax payers was launched by the Chancellor at the Tory Conference in 2010.  At the time the Opposition pointed out that the proposal created huge anomalies, with a ‘cliff edge’ at the point where benefit was lost, and some two earner households retaining child benefit if both earned just below the 40% tax threshold with a joint income of around £80,000 while a single earner household would lose all Child Benefit once they earned around £43,000.  Some 16 months on people on the Government side seemed to wake up to the problems.  It appears that little work had been done in the intervening period to sort these anomalies, but the debate at this time was clearly trying to persuade the Chancellor to rethink – with reported differences of view between 10 & 11 Downing Street.

Changes to Working Tax Credit were announced in the October 2010 Spending Review and are due to come into effect this April. Couples will be required to work at least 24 hours between them to qualify instead of 16 as at present.  At first blush that might not seem too hard, but it can be difficult in the current economic climate to find additional hours.  Even those with disabilities or caring responsibilities would be affected.  The oddity of all this is that it contradicts everything the Government has been saying in its Welfare Reform proposals about ‘making work pay’.  The Government has made a particular virtue of saying that under its new Universal Credit (due to start in 2013) people will be encouraged to work very short hours without being worse off.

Given the speculation that the Prime Minister might be keen to help families affected by the child benefit withdrawal anomalies, I took the opportunity of having a ‘PMQ’ on Wednesday 7th March to ask him if he did persuade his Chancellor to agree to child benefit modification would he then help the low income families about to lose up to £3000 in tax credits. See http://bit.ly/GTXv95.

So what happened in the Budget? – as predicted some modification was made to the withdrawal of Child Benefit with no reduction until £50,000 and a tapering after that with full withdrawal only at £60,000. The two earner issues remain and the complex administration may still cause problems in practice.

In contrast to this, almost no change for the couples on working tax credit due to lose up to £3000 a year. The only modification was a last minute decision to exclude carers.  Remember too these are people for whom the rise in the Income Tax threshold is irrelevant because they are already below it.  In the last few days I asked both Vince Cable (p32 http://bit.ly/HkgG97) and Danny Alexander (p66 http://bit.ly/HkgSp8) whether they fought the corner of this group.  Fairly clear for all their professed concern for the low paid that they did not.

Employment & Support Allowance – treatment of mental health and learning difficulties MPs can apply for ‘short’ debates called ‘Westminster Hall’ debates (although the room they are held in is properly called the ‘Grand Committee Room’ but that’s straightforward compared with some parts of Westminster-speak – like the Early day Motions which are anything but ‘early’) .  I was successful in bidding for one recently on a relatively technical aspect of the way in which people are assessed for the Employment and Support Allowance.  Short debates like this (only 30 minutes) are good for raising such issues and getting a Ministerial response.  You can watch the whole debate here http://bit.ly/GTXOAQ.

Work Experience
Another issue which received a lot of recent coverage is work experience for the unemployed. I wrote a piece on this in my blog called ‘Too Posh to Shelve?’ http://bit.ly/GNwAdB and also spoke in a Westminster Hall debate on this topic; you can see the debate here:  http://bit.ly/GZuohp.

DWP Select Committee
We had a session with Employment Minister Chris Grayling on Monday 19th March, again covering Work Experience but also the Work Programme.  The Work Programme was launched last summer with great fanfare to provide training and work search help for the unemployed, mainly those out of work for a year (9 months for under 25s) but also for some people on Employment & Support Allowance who are expected to be ‘fit for work’ within a period of 3-6 months. There are a number of private companies providing this programme, with payment mainly if those referred not just find a job but stay in one for an extended period.  There are concerns about the quality of these schemes and about the viability of the providers – especially for some of the specialist voluntary organisations who don’t seem to be getting much of the work.  You can watch our session here http://bit.ly/GNwKSa.

The Work and Pensions Select Committee has recently published a report on the scheme for people to be ‘Auto- Enrolled’ in pensions.  Pensions may not seem the most exciting of subjects but this scheme could bring many low paid people into pension provision for the first time.  http://bit.ly/GNwZMZ.

Public Bill Committee
I spent much of March on the public bill committee for the Financial Services Bill.  Very important if highly technical – important because it sets up the new regulatory system for financial services.

Long hours in this committee relieved one morning when a fellow member arriving in a rush after a travel problem started to eat a pot of porridge. As he poured in some honey the Chair suddenly announced he was using a ‘banned substance’.  He had the presence of mind to apologise aloud for eating porridge in case anyone came across a reference to a ‘banned substance’ in Hansard!

Welfare Reform Bill
The Welfare Reform Bill passed its final stage on 29th February. With some exceptions (most notably the Government backing down on removing mobility allowance from people in residential care) the Government has delivered its Welfare Reform Agenda. The Government is confident that on this Bill – unlike their NHS reforms – they have public opinion on their side. In part this is due to a ‘framing’ of the issue as being one about ‘scroungers’ and people enjoying a ‘benefits lifestyle’ .However this view would not resonate so much if people did not feel it matched with some of their own experiences. Not altogether surprising when there are indeed many more people who are ‘economically inactive’ not least because under the last Tory government there was a relentless sidelining of people off the unemployment register onto incapacity benefits. However that doesn’t mean that the current re-assessment process is running well or fairly.   (See for instance my Westminster Hall Debate above).

But underlying even this is some disturbing evidence from the British Social Attitudes Survey that there is a long term reduction in support for benefits spending. See http://bit.ly/HkmGij

Some commentators have concluded that this demonstrates that we have become a more individualistic – even selfish- society. Others suggest that this is a sign that benefits have indeed become too high and too easy to get. However I wonder if there is another partial explanation. Since 1997 benefits have improved with things like tax credits, pensioner minimum income guarantee, winter fuel allowance etc. So perhaps people are seeing less need for extra spending. It may be interesting to see if this changes in the next few years as benefits are lowered and more people are experiencing unemployment.

One of our lines of criticism is that some of the ‘savings’ may not turn out to be savings at all. Last April the rules for Housing Benefit changed for people in the private rented sector. The maximum allowed was reduced to the 30th percentile of local rents instead of half. One of the government’s arguments was that Housing Benefit was so dominant in the sector that it in itself was dragging rents upwards and that rents should now begin to fall. Here in Edinburgh the benefit allowed for a 1 bed flat fell from £115 in March 2011 to £ 109 in April but since then has risen steadily to £114 in February 2012. This is still at the 30th percentile level but average rents have risen. This appears to be happening in many parts of the country. So at best the Government will have slowed the rise in the housing benefit total spend but in cash terms there may be little if any saving. In the meantime some recipients who find it difficult to get a let within the new limits will be having to top up their rents from incomes already low (since otherwise they would not qualify for benefit)

The government convinced itself that housing benefit was driving rents up. We argued housing benefit payments were rising because rents were rising. So far it looks as if the second argument was more accurate.

 

Constituency report

Cairntows Park

You will recall that last year residents living near to Cairntows Park successfully fought off plans to develop the park for mixed use housing, preserving this greenspace for future generations. Residents have again contacted me to ask that further protection is sought for the Park. Residents have asked that the park is put forward for Fields in Trust Royal Charter protection, as part of this year’s Diamond Jubilee Celebrations. It is important that this park is defended from development and its recreational use is secured for future generations. I have now written to the Council asking that the Park is included in the list of parks submitted for protection. I will keep you updated on the progress of this request.

 

Allotments Consultation
Across the city, hundreds of residents keep an allotment to grow fruit and vegetables and get some physical exercise. Demand for allotment spaces has grown as people increasingly want to grow their own fresh food locally and cheaply. Two years ago the City of Edinburgh Council agreed to allocate more space for allotments as the waiting list had grown so long people were told they would have to wait eight years. In Edinburgh East the Council proposed four sites: Craigentinny Avenue North, Lochend Park, Joppa Quarry Park, and Baronscourt Park, which is now being consulted on. The plans require that 50% of plots go to local residents. To mitigate anti-social behaviour concerns, sheds are not permitted at the Baronscourt site, and keepers are not permitted to burn leaves or weeds. Residents near to the park are concerned the plans do not include a new access road. I am in touch with Edinburgh and Lothians Greenspace Trust who have said they are now working to reassure residents and communicate the plans more effectively.


The Big Switch

Last month I mentioned the British Gas £50 deal to help people get their homes insulated, this month however, I have backed a campaign calling on the markets offer deals who want to ‘collectively’ switch between energy providers. Launched last month by Which? and 38 Degrees, The Big Switch is a new way for people to buy their energy. This will be the first time in the UK that a very large number of people will join together as a group to negotiate a deal with energy companies. I would encourage constituents to join the 200,000-strong group who have already signed up to The Big Switch, and to use their collective power to try to cut their energy bills and help shake up the market. I have said before that the market as a whole needs major reform, but this is one of the many ideas that could help bring down bills, and change the way the ‘big 6’ sell energy. I have already signed the EDM, but if you want to show your support, and use your collective bargaining power, go to www.whichbigswitch.co.uk.

Anti-Social Behaviour throughout Edinburgh East
As the nights grow longer and warmer it is regrettable that anti-social behaviour increases throughout the City. Last month a 12-year-old girl was the victim of an attack by a group of youths because of the colour of her skin. I was appalled to hear about the attack which took place in Piershill. I had been in the area that week discussing the problems in the square with a number of residents. The residents I spoke to are concerned about the groups of youths that collect there in the evenings, but also want to see drug dealers evicted and CCTV installed. If the council is serious about tackling this behaviour it needs to look at its attitude to the problem as well as how it uses the resources that are available. The Council has pledged to prioritise action in Piershill and a handful of areas which have also seen an increase in anti-social behaviour.  Read my blog on this issue here http://bit.ly/GN2uu9.

Save the Independent Living Fund
A couple of months ago I mentioned a petition calling on the Government to halt the planned closure of the Independent Living Fund in 2015. For over 21 years the ILF has made payments to disabled people to purchase the services of Personal Assistants or a care agency to give them personal care and domestic assistance. The coalition plans to close the scheme in 2015, but it has still not said what will happen after this date; many fear that the care responsibilities will be passed to cash-strapped local authorities. Many people in Edinburgh have used the ILF to ensure that they can arrange their own care which is right for them. I previously urged you to sign the e-petition, and the Lothian Centre for inclusive Living have again asked that as many people as possible sign it. If you have already signed it, make sure you are asking others to do so too. To sign the petition, go to: http://bit.ly/Agwttd.

Big Things on The Beach manifesto launch
Last month BTOTB launched their manifesto which calls on Edinburgh’s next City Council to invest in the City Promenade and Beach at Portobello. You will be aware that elections to the City of Edinburgh Council will take place on May 3rd and BTOTB want the Councillors elected to commit to improve Porty Promenade. Since 2008 plans for the prom have been in place, but local residents feel that progress has slowed. When the plans were first revealed, the City Council said it would create an ‘Edinburgh Promenade’ from Granton to Joppa, to signal the city’s desire to establish Edinburgh as a world class Waterfront City, incorporating Portobello Promenade. The Council’s plan includes the creation of a ‘Portobello Piazza’ by 2013. BTOTB have a petition open until the 3rd May, which is of course polling day. For more details, see http://bit.ly/H4If9i.

Cyrenians Closure
Cyrenians, the employment and support service for people living in the ‘East neighbourhood’ will be closing at the end of the month. I have previously visited the project which works out of the Hays Business Centre to help support individuals into work, education or training. All of the staff at Cyrenians deserve a huge thank you after putting in a great deal of time and energy into this local service, which many had thought was very successful. The project has had some particular successes getting local people into construction, retail and care positions. The service also held out reach sessions in Portobello Library and at Magdalene and Bingham Community Centres. Following a decision by the Council to centralise employment services, a consortium which includes Jewel and Esk and Stevenson College will now deliver the assistance Cyrenians offered. While the consortium has said that it will deliver specialised services to specific areas where there is greater need, It is not yet clear exactly how this will be done.

2012: International Year of Cooperatives
Last year Portobello’s Just World Shop announced plans to seek Fair Trade status for the town, supported by the Community Council. Portobello has long campaigned for more Fairtrade goods to be on sale to help promote better conditions for farmers and faming cooperatives across the world. I recently attended an event held by the Co-operative Party which has also promoted the uptake of fair-trade products nationally. I met with Taysir and Riziq who produce Palestinian Olive Oil and are part the Fairtrade scheme – it’s certainly a new product that I will be looking out for.

Cycle safety tagging and marking events
Next week Lothian and Borders Police will be holding three cycle safety sessions across Edinburgh East. The Cycle Safety campaign has been set up to help prevent bike crime. Officers will register, UV mark and electronically tag your bike at these events. A limited number of bikes will be tagged for free according to promotional material (see http://bit.ly/GVJjiJ) otherwise, registration and UV marking is £5, and registration, marking and tagging is £16. Details of the events are as follows:

  • Mon 2nd      April – 11am-2pm – Waverley Court, East Market Street
  • Tues 3rd      April – 11am-2pm – Bristo Square, Edinburgh Uni
  • Wed 4th      April – 11am-2pm – The Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh
  • Thurs 5th      April – 11am-2pm – King’s Buildings, Edinburgh Uni


Big Lottery Young Start Fund
Big Lottery Fund, the organisation which allocates Lottery grants has launched a Young Start fund, to help children and young people work alongside old people in their community. Funding is available to deliver projects which encourage young people to become more confident, healthy and connected with older people in their community. Funds are also available to tackle youth unemployment by preparing young people to start work or set up a business. Young Start will provide grants of between £10,000 and £50,000 for up to two years for projects that provide services for young people aged 8 to 24. It can fund a range of youth activities including sports facilities, creative arts, information and communication skills, as well as setting up work experience schemes with local employers. Details are on facebook: www.facebook.com/youngstartfund.
New Surgery Schedule

Starting this month, my surgery schedule will be changing. I will now hold all of my surgeries on the second Friday of each month in three locations across Edinburgh East, which will free up more time for constituents who want individual appointments. For reference, the new surgery schedule is below:

Surgeries are held on the second Friday of each month

Central Library (George IV Bridge) – Between 10.00am – 11.00am. Served by buses: 2, 41, 42, 45, 67.

Restalrig Lochend Community Hub (198 Restalrig Road) – Between 11.30am – 12.30pm. Served by buses: 19, 21, 25, 34, 49.

Portobello Library (off Portobello High Street) – Between 14.00pm – 15.00pm. Served by buses: 15, 21, 26, 42, 49, 69.

Dates for your diary
02 April 2012 to 06 April 2012 – Lothian and Borders Cycle safety registration and tagging sessions – various locations, see http://bit.ly/GVJjiJ for full details.
12 April 2012 – ‘Living with Labels’ – a film about what it’s like to live with a label of mental illness – film launch – 1800-2000 – The Filmhouse. Anyone wishing to attend MUST register on 0131 538 7177

18 April 2012 – Last day to register to vote or vote by post – forms are available here: http://bit.ly/GYjEpk & http://bit.ly/GYjwpX

03 May 2012 – Big Things on the Beach petition closes – sign the petition here: http://bit.ly/H4If9i.

Please pass on this enewsletter to anyone who may be interested. Anyone can sign-up by sending an email to david.raine@parliament.uk with ‘SUBSCRIBE’ in the subject line.

 

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