Jobcentre Plus debate

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

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

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

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to talk through a glass screen to somebody who was behind that glass screen in case someone became extremely angry—had been replaced by an attempt at a more informal atmosphere.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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Press release: Iain Duncan Smith’s department slammed again for use of statistics

  • Department for Work and Pensions official failed to follow procedure in quoting unpublished data on Work Programme
  • Latest in chain of ‘statistical foul play’ by Iain Duncan Smith’s department

Work and Pensions Select Committee member Sheila Gilmore has today revealed another letter from the UK Statistics Authority criticising the use of statistics by Ministers and officials at the Department for Work and Pensions.

In evidence to the DWP Select Committee on 20 November 2013, senior civil servant Neil Couling attempted to defend the Work Programme by quoting data that was not publically available at the time. Sheila Gilmore subsequently questioned this practice in a letter to the UK Statistics Authority on 21 January 2014.

In his reply of 21 February, UKSA Chair Sir Andrew Dilnot said that ‘published official statistics should be referred to in public statements’ and that alternative information should be used only in ‘exceptional circumstances’ and with proper explanation and the approval of the departmental Head of Profession for Statistics.

Sir Andrew went on to say (emphasis added):

On this occasion, no DWP analyst was involved in compiling or checking the information in respect of the number people completing two years on the Work Programme. DWP also confirmed that the advice of the Head of Profession for statistics was not sought or given on the Management Information contained in the answer given to the Work and Pensions Select Committee. It is a matter of regret that DWP’s usual practice, which would have ensured compliance with the National Statistician’s guidance, was not followed.

Sheila Gilmore MP said:

By quoting data that wasn’t publicly available at the time, DWP official Neil Couling made it impossible for my colleagues and I on the Work and Pensions Committee to hold him – and the Ministers to whom he reports – to account. This bad practice must not happen again.

Sheila Gilmore went on to say:

This is just the latest statistical foul play from Iain Duncan Smith’s department that I’ve helped to expose over the past year.

Earlier this month the UK Statistics Authority described data on sickness and disability benefit ESA as ‘potentially misleading’ and questioned its status as a ‘National Statistic’.

Following delays in producing this same data last year, the watchdog censured DWP in December for failing to fully explain problems they were experiencing and not drawing them to people’s attention sooner.

And last May Sir Andrew Dilnot rebuked Tory Chairman Grant Shapps after he mistakenly suggested 900,000 ESA applicants had dropped their claim rather than go through a ‘fit for work’ test – the real figure was a mere 19,700.

Taken together, these examples shows that Iain Duncan Smith and the Tories are more interested in generating policy-based evidence, than using evidence to guide policy.

ENDS

Notes to Editors:

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Edinburgh East June 2013 update: Shapps rebuked, Engine Shed closure? Duddingston nursery success, debating effectiveness of PSL, plus Canongate Venture ownership clarification

Westminster Report

Prorogation of Parliament

The second session of the current Parliament (the first was an unusually long two year session) ended on Thursday 25th April.  The Government sets the Parliamentary timetable, and as this session came to a close it felt very much like a Government that had run out of steam.  The big ticket item of the May 2012 Queens’s Speech was of course House of Lords Reform when this collapsed in summer 2012 it left a hole in the Government’s legislative programme.  There were some relatively small but important measures like the Groceries Code Adjudication Act which had all party support (and because of this was actually improved by amendment as it went through its various stages) but the session was a relatively ‘light’ one.   Prorogation Day was not pre-planned.  Half way through a committee session came the message ‘that’s it’ and committee adjourned.  As I had a bit of time in hand before catching my train (I hadn’t anticipated the mid-afternoon finish) I thought I would go into the chamber to see how it was done.  I knew Black Rod came along but thought he would just say something like ‘be off with you’ but found myself swept along to the House of Lords where several proclamations were read out, and royal consent given to some remaining bills.  Oh well that’s another ‘Parliamentary experience’ ticked off!

Queen’s Speech

Queens Speech

Twelve days later came the next bit of tradition with the Queens Speech itself.  I didn’t go in for it this year, but found myself in the wrong place, unable to cross the street, just as the carriages were leaving again.   Plenty of pomp and colour – but arguably more like a fairy tale than a 21st Century democracy.  Six days of debate followed on the Government’s programme on was in it and what wasn’t.  What was marked this year was a shortage of government backbench speakers on most days, showing the lack of enthusiasm for the actual programme.  On Day 2 (home affairs including immigration) there were 13 opposition speakers to 7 from the government; on Day 3 (jobs and growth) 8 opposition to 4 government speakers.  Government backbenchers were apparently more involved in planning an amendment to the Queen’s Speech deploring the lack of a Bill on a Referendum on Europe.  I spoke on the day devoted to cost of living issues, concentrating on affordable housing. See my speech p50 http://bit.ly/11azhSv.

Private members ballot

The ballot for private members’ bills takes place just after the Queen’s speech.  Sadly no luck again, and only 3 out of 20 successful members were Labour.  Quite often people have a run of luck, with Sheryll Murray (Conservative) being drawn this year and last, and John McDonnell (Labour) coming top two sessions running.  With so many Tories in the draw they were spoiled for choice for someone to take on a Bill for a Euro referendum. Piloting a private members bill into law is extremely difficult normally. This one however will have tacit support and encouragement from at least one part of the Coalition.  One of the ironies is that nearly all of the small group of Tory backbenchers who usually enjoy ‘talking out’ other people’s private members’ bills are ardent Euro-sceptics.  Will they find the tables being turned?

Statistics

In recent months I’ve become increasingly concerned about the use of statistics on benefits claimed by disabled people, both by Ministers and the press.

I complained to the Sunday Telegraph last month when they ran a story http://bit.ly/11dMCJO  suggesting 900,000 people on Incapacity Benefit had dropped their claim rather than undergo a medical assessment for the new Employment and Support Allowance. The article was peppered with quotes from Tory Chairman Grant Shapps. The true figure was a mere 19,000. For more detail see my article for Total Politics here: http://bit.ly/11dMyd9.

I wrote to the UK Statistics Authority about this and I received a response yesterday; http://bit.ly/11dMt9c.  This confirms that Grant Shapps and the newspaper deliberately misused statistics on disability benefits.

While this is welcome, it won’t stop the continual stream of stories that appear in the right wing press. Just this week we had Iain Duncan Smith in the Mail and the Express referring to one million workshy benefit claimants, when in reality, one third have been certified as medically unable to work for the time being and another third are single parents looking after children of school age.

This letter is yet more evidence that my colleagues on the Work and Pensions Select Committee and I can use when we question DWP Ministers on this issue in the coming months. Hopefully then this practice of deliberately misusing benefit statistics will stop.

That’s why I decided to call for the Work and Pensions select committee – of which I am a member – to hold an inquiry into this issue.  Persuading the Tories on my committee wasn’t easy.

For a start the Government that they support relies on this practice of misusing statistics to give it political cover.  In its attempts to reduce the deficit, cutting welfare is seen as more of a priority than taxing the richest.  That’s why at the same time that disabled people are being hit by the Bedroom Tax, 13,000 millionaires are getting a tax cut of over £100,000.

Secondly Conservative Central Office have clearly decided that, as the Government has failed so spectacularly on the economy, welfare is now their only hope of getting the public back on side.

As my Select Committee colleagues were under pressure not to give ground, we were only able to agree to a more limited look at the issue in the context of our regular examination of the DWP’s annual report and accounts http://bit.ly/11dMnhS.  However this should allow us to speak to both the UK Statistics Authority and DWP ministers. And once an initial assessment of the problem has been made, this might prompt a broader piece of work.

Work & Pensions Select Committee

The Select Committee published three reports this month. One was the result of a short scrutiny of the draft Pensions Bill which propose to introduce flat rate pensions.  Although most of our witnesses welcomed the proposals in principle, there are concerns about whether some people will gain little or even be worse off as a result.  Women who have recently experienced acceleration of the rise in pension age are particularly concerned about the timing of the new system.  You can read the report here http://bit.ly/13ZcdHx.  The Pensions Bill was included in the Queen’s Speech.

Work and Pensions Select Committee

One of the aims of the flat rate State Pension is to encourage saving, and with the decline in ‘defined benefit’ occupational pension schemes (where a pension is linked to years of contribution and outcomes known in advance). Many people are now enrolled in ‘defined contribution’ schemes where you build up a fund which at retirement is converted into an annuity.  In recent years many people have been disappointed with the pension they receive from such schemes.  I response the Select Committee issued a Report called ‘Improving Governance and Best Practice in Workplace Pensions’ on 25th April. http://bit.ly/11aBPQB.   One recommendation to ban consultancy charges in auto-enrolled schemes has already been accepted by Government and will be included in the Pensions Bill. Ministers have also agreed to start a consultation on capping charges more generally. High charges, which are not always made clear to savers, can substantially reduce the pension eventually received.

The latest publication is ‘Can the Work Programme work for all user groups?’ to which the Committee’s unanimous answer is ‘not without many changes’. The full report is available at http://bit.ly/11aBtJD.

The Work Programme is the Government’s programme to help people find work.  It is a payment by results scheme contracted out mainly to large ‘public services’ companies such as Ingeus, G4S etc, who in turn subcontract part of the work to others. Most of the payment they receive comes only when someone is sustained in a job for at least 6 months.  Clients who are harder to place attract a higher payment, but of course only if they are found long-term employment.  The funding structure was intended to ensure that the companies did not simply concentrate on those for whom it is easier to find work. A key finding of our Report is that this system does not seem to be working. With payment only coming in to the companies with ‘success’ they were meant to front fund the help people needed from their own resources.  We found that this doesn’t seem to be happening enough so that many advisers are working with very large caseloads.  Local feedback I get from constituents reflects many of these problems.  I am still very interested to hear of local experiences, both good and bad, so please let me know if you have had a similar experience.

East Coast Campaign Update

Stop the East Coast Privatisation As I explained in the previous newsletter I’m campaigning against the Government’s plans to re-privatise services on the East Coast Main Line. Since then I’ve written for the think tank Progress on why keeping East Coast public will improve services and save taxpayers money http://bit.ly/11dN7Ub.

I’ve also been focussing on securing a debate in the House of Commons on this issue. This has involved encouraging Labour colleagues to submit applications for debates in Westminster Hall (in effect the Commons ante-chamber). Fortunately Andy McDonald from Middlesborough did so and was successful in the ballot. His 90 minute debate will take place on Wednesday 5 June at 2.30pm and I hope to speak.

After that I intend to apply for a second debate, this time through the Backbench Business Committee (http://www.parliament.uk/bbcom). Successful applications require cross party support, so I’ve spent some time speaking to Tory, Lib Dem, SNP and Green MPs. Finally I’ve met with Labour’s Shadow Transport Team, who are backing this campaign all the way.

If you want to help stop the privatisation of East Coast, sign my petition here at www.sheilagilmore.co.uk/eastcoastmainline Constituency Report

Bongo Club Lives!

‘MP goes clubbing’ may be an unusual headline for me, but I was pleased to be invited to the launch of the Bongo Club in its new Cowgate premises. But this is no ordinary nightclub. In its own words:

“Truly independent, we’re owned by local arts charity Out Of The Blue, which has an established track record as a catalyst for creativity in Edinburgh. This allows us to put the sounds of the underground and imaginative aspirations before the mighty dollar, encouraging the community to get involved and use our space to do their own thing.”

Bongo Lives

Last year it looked as if the Bongo Club was going to be homeless when they had to leave their premises at Holyrood Road.  But after inspired partnership between Out of the Blue, the University and the Council it has risen again in the Cowgate.  There is a pleasing partnership knowing the Club is ensconced at the foot of the building better known as Central Library, a real cultural miscellany.

Student Accommodation – Better than HMOs?

One of the few growth sectors in construction in the last few years is purpose built student housing.   Here in Edinburgh East we already have examples in Lauriston, at Chalmers Street, and on the site of the former Deaconness Hospital. A very large development is already planned at Holyrood Road and this month two further proposals for student accommodation have been announced, one at Abbeyhill (on the current Chatham’s garage site) and the other at Lutton Place. An exhibition of plans for Lutton Place is being held at Lutton Court on Thursday 27 June, from 3pm-7.30pm (details correct at time of writing, but may change according to developers).

For many years there have been concerns about the growth of HMOs (houses in multiple occupation) in our city centre tenements.  Would be owner occupiers have been priced out due to the demand from landlords able to get rents from 3, 4 or even 5 tenants in one property.  High turnover and lack of care by tenants and landlords, noise and parties have led to long term residents moving out.  Consequently, tenement living as family living has all but disappeared in many areas.  When Community Councils campaigned for limits on the number of HMOs to restore balance to local communities, much of the opposition came from students’ organisations, and the universities, arguing that any such limits would be detrimental to students finding accommodation potentially discouraging them coming to study in Edinburgh.  One suggestion made by Community Councils was that more purpose built student accommodation should be available.  This is now happening and with 24 hour management on site these new developments appear to be less problematic for neighbours. If so (and let me know if your experience is different) perhaps the time has come to revisit the policy on limiting the number of HMOs given the expansion of purpose built accommodation?  At the very least the council should be assessing the impact of the building of so much student accommodation.

Portobello Indoor Bowling

I have been contacted by a number of constituents upset at the announcement that Portobello Indoor Bowling Centre is to close at the end of June, and that the building will in future be used as a centre for soft play and other family activities.  Many have pointed out that there is no similar facility within reasonable travelling distance, while there is a number of other nearby centres which offer facilities for families, such as soft play. Portobello Indoor Bowling is a ‘turn up and play’ facility whereas alternatives (in Gorgie and East Lothian) are not.  Regulars stress the facility is important not just for the elderly, but to encourage youngsters to learn the game, and it is used by disabled bowlers.  In response, Edinburgh Leisure point to declining numbers, and their overall reduction in funding.  Users of the centre feel that at the very least there should have been proper consultation, with an opportunity given for them to suggest ways of overcoming the problems.  Here is part of what I have said in a letter to the Chair of the Board of Edinburgh Leisure:

“I appreciate that finances are tight and that Edinburgh Leisure’s grant from the City of Edinburgh Council has been reduced. In turn doubtless they would state that their funding from the Scottish Government has been reduced and the Scottish Government would doubtless ‘blame’ Westminster. However at all levels choices are made as to where to reduce spending. This will also be true for Edinburgh Leisure and the question my constituents have is why this facility has been particularly affected. They understand that other venues also are loss making (although without publication of figures they have no means of judging if the bowling centre is loss making).”

The full letter is available at http://bit.ly/114nYHp.  At the time of writing I am still awaiting a reply.

Engine Shed

The Engine Shed

Something of an Edinburgh institution, many people have enjoyed lunch or a coffee at the Engine Shed cafe.  It is well known for providing good value and quality in addition to the invaluable training for young people with learning disabilities.  So it was not perhaps surprising that within 5 days of a newspaper report saying the Engine Shed might have to close more than 5000 people had signed a petition against closure.  Over 7000 people have now signed the petition which can be found at http://chn.ge/13ZdYEu.

It is understood that the Economy Committee of the City Council is planning to make changes in the way it helps people with illnesses and disabilities get into employment.  Recommendations from the Scottish Government state that service providers should concentrate more on getting people into mainstream employment and give them ongoing support to stay in such employment.  It would appear that a variety of organisations will be invited to tender for this work, and this would include current providers such as the Engine Shed.  With all such tendering processes a lot depends on the specification of the service being asked for, and until this is available it is difficult to know how easy it would be for the Engine Shed to bid for this work.

There is due to be a report providing the full details which should be discussed at the next Economy Committee meeting on Tuesday 25 June 2013 and the papers usually become available one week before at www.edinburgh.gov.uk/cpol.

I was worried when I saw the newspaper report and especially some of the comments attributed to the council, because it sounded very similar to the approach being taken by the Coalition Government in relation to the Remploy factories, many of which are earmarked for closure.  One of the Government’s main arguments for this was that it would be better for disabled people to be in mainstream employment rather than in ‘segregated’ or ‘sheltered’ workplaces. This has led to a considerable debate both about the principle (is segregated or sheltered employment always bad for instance?) and the practicalities especially at a time of when jobs are generally scarce.  There are concerns that many Remploy workers may end up unemployed.

The ‘model’ the Scottish Government recommends (which it appears the council is adopting) is one where organisations help disabled people search for jobs, and work with employers to encourage them to employ people they might not otherwise consider (e.g. by guiding them to funding sources for workplace adjustments).   The work done by the Engine Shed is rather different giving people longer term training opportunities in their social enterprise, and is not clear how the other model would  allow that to continue.

So the issue is a bit more complex than simply a ‘cut in grant’ and we will have to watch this space when committee meets in June.  The petition is still open for signature at http://chn.ge/13ZdYEu and I know many people have also contacted their local councillors to express their views.

Duddingston Nursery

Duddingston Nursery The campaign by the Parents’ Council for a replacement building for the nursery at Duddingston Primary School was rewarded with the decision by the City Council in May to fund a new permanent building, which also provides the opportunity to expand. Instead of taking 40 children each morning and afternoon session the nursery will be able to take 60 children each session.  This will be welcome news to many families in the area.  This year will see the initial planning work with build taking place in the 2014/15 financial year.

Private Sector Leasing Scheme – boon or trap?

One of the reasons I spend a great deal of my time knocking on doors and visiting people all over the Constituency is that there is no better way of finding out the real impact of policies of local and national government on people’s lives.  In the last few weeks I have met several constituents who have found themselves ‘stuck’ and unable to move on with their lives as a result of a policy which was well  intended but has had some perverse consequences. Talking to these constituents has reinforced my view that there need to be changes, some which can be delivered locally, while other national changes are needed.

PSL - has it worked?

Faced with mounting applications for housing roughly eight years ago, the Council started a scheme whereby it leased flats from landlords for up to 5 years to use as temporary accommodation.  This was called the Private Sector Leasing scheme (PSL).  The scheme worked financially for the council provided tenants were entitled to receive housing benefit. The council was able to fund a substantial expansion of temporary accommodation (around 1500 flats) with the costs met by national government (through housing benefit).  Now – I have to hold my hands up and say that I was Council’s executive member for housing when this scheme was introduced.  It helped resolve a crisis, for individuals and the council.  The alternative was placing families in B&B accommodation which came about due to the lack of homes available.  Like many well-intended plans it was never designed to be long term.  The scheme costs us all as taxpayers, but just as important it can trap people.

For one constituent I met, the offer of a PSL flat when she was going through a difficult separation was a relief, giving her a chance to get the life and that of her children back to stability. Now she is ready to move on and is looking for work but is worried about ‘making work pay’. If she works 35 hours at minimum wage she would have pay £487 of her £957 rent.   In contrast a council rent for this size of house would be £424.  While she can again make a homeless application she would be no better placed to get a permanent council tenancy than someone who first became homeless this week, despite having been in a form of temporary accommodation for two years.

Talking to her and others in this situation has set me thinking what practical steps can be taken to change the system. I have written more about these ideas on my website: http://bit.ly/13Zfs1K.

Anne Frank Exhibition – Leith Academy

This month second year pupils at Leith Academy presented an exhibition about Anne Frank, telling the story with extracts and illustrations, to fellow pupils, to parents and to other visitors.  They were clearly moved by the fact that this was a story of a girl who was their own age when she and her family had to go into hiding, a girl who worried about her appearance, who wasn’t always sweetly patient – and who so very nearly survived.  It’s a story which we need to remember even if it never fails to move me to tears. Well done to pupils and staff.

Pedal on Parliament

I was pleased to be part of the second Pedal on Parliament which took place on Sunday 19th May. Cyclists gathered at the Meadows, but many had ridden there from much further afield. (I confess that living a stone’s throw away from Meadows as I do my ride there was pretty short!) From there the riders made their way down to the Scottish Parliament (which meant the ride back was uphill for nearly everyone). The gathering was bigger than last year, and as several speakers pointed out there was a great diversity of riders, from the lycra clad sporty types to those of us who just like to go about our daily business by bike. Lots of families were there too.

Pedal on Parliament

The main message remains that so much can be done to make cycling easier and safer for at are relatively small cost compared with the overall transport budget.  Three Edinburgh MPs were cycling (Ian Murray, Mark Lazarowicz and myself),  three MSPs came along with their bikes (Sarah Boyack, Kez Dugdale & Alison Johnstone) and so did at least one of Edinburgh’s regular councillor-cyclists (Cameron Rose) so it was a full cross party event.  The afternoon was very well attended.

Castlebrae Update

At a meeting of the Council’s Education, Children & Families Committee on 21st May the Council reaffirmed its commitment to keeping Castlebrae Community  High School open until a new school is built.  A Working Group of councillors, council officers and community representatives (3 from the Parents Council, 2 from the wider community) has been set up and will also work with a panel of external experts to come up with proposals for improving the school.  There will be a Report to the Council in December but in the meantime steps will be taken to boost the school’s intake and to encourage other activities in and around the school.

In support of this the school is holding a Vocational Extravaganza on Wednesday 12th June from 6.00pm till 7.30pm – make sure you head along!

Castlebrae Extravaganza

Newcraighall

The developers seem to be circling again at Newcraighall.  Many village residents were very disappointed when consents were given last year for housing on both the Newcraighall North and East sites.  Nothing has happened on the ground yet but it seems that the would-be developers are again trying to increase the numbers of houses which can be built.  A specific application is about to come forward to increase numbers on the Newcraighall North site from 160 to 200 and the developer interested is now Barretts.  There is to be a consultation event 19th June at Newcraighall Primary School between 4.30pm and 8.30pm.

LDP plans

This is all taking place against a background where the Council is under pressure to make more land available for housing.  I’ve written in more detail about this on my website at http://www.sheilagilmore.co.uk/too-many-houses-newcraighall-again/.  One early result of this pressure is that the latest version of the draft Local Plan (LDP) has now upped the number of houses which are thought to be viable on these two sites. This would create a presumption in favour of more units if finalised in this form.  You can comment on the LDP by 5pm on Friday 14 June 2013. They can be submitted electronically to: localdevelopmentplan@edinburgh.gov.uk or by post to Local Development Plan Team, City of Edinburgh Council, Business Centre G.3, Waverley Court, 4 East Market Street, Edinburgh EH8 8BG.  The Newcraighall Residents Association is helping people to submit comments. They are planning to go round doors but if you miss them, and would like to get help with commenting email me and I’ll pass your details to David Hewitt, Newcraighall Heritage and Residents Association.

Thistle Foundation

The Thistle Foundation is planning a series of events for Older Adults this summer, and all local residents are welcome.

Thistle Foundation

Starting in July staff will be running a Lifestyle Management and an Exercise Based Lifestyle Management course specifically for adults over 60 years of age; this is in addition to classes in T’ai Chi at the Thistle dependent on demand.   The current classes are led by trained volunteers who are proving to be popular.

If you’re interested and would like to learn more the Foundation is holding an informal coffee and chat session at Wighton House on 27th June from 10am to 12 noon to introduce you to the classes. If you have any further queries please give Emma a call on 0131 656 7343.

Do You Have A Southside Story?

The Causey Development Trust and local professional photographer Peter Dibdin are looking for people who live, work, or have a specific connection to the Southside to participate in an exciting photography project funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund ‘All our Stories’ programme, and Foundation Scotland.

‘Southsiders: Portrait of a Community’ aims to use photography to help celebrate and discuss perceptions of the Southsider identity through portraits, and by gathering stories and memories about the area and community.   More info – edinburghsouthsiders@gmail.com.

Caltongate update

Residents are still concerned that planning permissions were extended on all the sites. This was agreed by a majority of the planning committee. While Artisan has committed to submit new applications for the southern sites, residents point out that if Artisan back out before the Caltongate is redeveloped then the sites they hold – and the options – could be sold on with planning permission.  While these concerns are very much hypothetical, and Artisan have said they are very much committed to the site, any new owner is at liberty not to pursue the Artisan line.

We must now wait for the next set of applications from Artisan, which will cover the redevelopment of these southern sites.  I still feel it is important to clarify the legal position in respect of the ownership of the Market Street arches and the Canongate Venture.  I wrote to Sue Bruce, City of Edinburgh Council Chief Executive about this and I have now received the following response confirming the Council currently retains ownership: http://bit.ly/11CrIpy.

Community cleanup

Community Cleanup

Last month the renovated and resurfaced Restalrig bike path was reopened.  To ensure that the path was looking tip-top for users heading back to the path, I was pleased to take part in the a community cleanup along with Cllr Joan Griffiths, and Cllrs McVey and Tymkewycz, along with many local residents pleased to see the improvement works complete.  The path links Seafield with Easter Road.

Dates for your Diary

Saturday & Sunday 1st & 2nd June – Meadows Festival – Music, stalls, children’s entertainment, football and Taylor’s funfair – all the details can be found at http://www.meadowsfestival.org/

Wednesday 12th June – Castlebrae Vocational Extravaganza – Castlebrae Community High School, Greendykes Road – 6.00pm-7.30pm

Friday 14th June – 5pm deadline for all comments on the Local Development Plan – full details at  http://bit.ly/ZgA4Rc comments via localdevelopmentplan@edinburgh.gov.uk

Wednesday 19th June – Newcraighall North PAN exhibition – Newcraighall Primary – 4.30pm-8.30pm – use reference 13/00562/PAN at https://citydev-portal.edinburgh.gov.uk

Thursday 27th June – Thistle Foundation informal coffee morning on activities and classes – Wighton House – 10.00am-12.00pm

Thursday 27th June – Lutton Place Student Accommodation PAN – Lutton Court – from 3.00pm-7.30pm – use reference 13/01513/PAN at https://citydev-portal.edinburgh.gov.uk

Event details

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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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