Home truths for new First Minister

In today’s Edinburgh Evening News I’ve called on Nicola Sturgeon to use the Scottish Government’s new borrowing powers to boost investment in building affordable housing. The article is available on the paper’s website but I’ve reproduced it in full below.

Scotland’s Housing Crisis should be Nicola Sturgeon’s top priority.

When people hear the phrase housing crisis, they often think of beggars and rough sleeping. However the reality is often less dramatic but much more long-lasting.

Take my constituent John. In his 50s, he’s lived in the private rented sector since his marriage broke down ten years ago. He has neither central heating nor double glazing. His flat was built by the council but was sold off under the right to buy. After changing hands several times, the current landlord now charges double the rent of a similar flat in the same block that remains in council hands.

John’s wages from short-term agency work in the construction industry don’t cover his rent, so he depends on Housing Benefit to make up the shortfall.

He knows he could pay his own way in a council or housing association let but he has next to no chance of being awarded one as he already has a tenancy.

Across Edinburgh, this is an increasingly common problem. Vacancies in the council and housing association sector have halved over the last year or two. Since the summer there have been fewer than 50 available most weeks. And while the council and housing associations completed 1,285 units last year, half were mid-market rent – where a 2-bed property would cost around £600 per month compared with council rent of £400 – and a further quarter low-cost home ownership.

By attempting to get the most out of much-reduced Scottish Government funding, Edinburgh has ended up building affordable housing that, for many, simply isn’t affordable. As a result, waiting times for those who need low-rent homes are growing.

Tackling this issue should be Nicola Sturgeon’s top priority.

The Scottish Government will gain more borrowing and tax-varying powers as a result of the Scotland Act 2012, and these are set to be enhanced once the recommendations of the Smith Commission are put into law after the next General Election.

If these were used to channel extra funds into low-rent affordable house building, this would put downward pressure on rents and push down the Housing Benefit bill.

Unfortunately there was not a mention of this issue in Nicola Sturgeon’s programme for government. And there was next to no increase for affordable housing in John Swinney’s pre-budget statement for 2015/16 – the first year the new borrowing powers could be used.

During the referendum the SNP argued that they needed independence to create a fairer and more equal society. Now that Scottish voters have rejected this option, they should now use the powers of a strengthened Scottish Parliament to invest in affordable housing, so that people like John can pay their own way while living in decent quality homes.

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Universal credit – stand by for the next rollout delay

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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May 2014 Newsletter

Sheila Gilmore MP Header

Westminster report

Suffragettes

‘Unusual number of women in Parliament’
Read a headline in one newspaper recently, commenting on the shooting of a film called ‘Suffragette’ which was taking place in the Palace of Westminster itself. One hundred years on the issue remains controversial. With only 3 full members of his Cabinet now women, David Cameron has been criticised for not fulfilling his promises. This in large part dates back to his failure in his first ‘reshuffle’ to increase significantly the number of women in junior ministerial positions, leaving several ministerial teams ‘women free zones’. Without such an increase there is limited chance of seeing change at Cabinet level.

After the Wednesday a few weeks ago when an all male front bench was fielded, Government Whips have been careful to ensure no repeat, even if this means placing junior ministers and whips on the ‘front bench’ at PMQs, against ‘tradition’ which reserves these places for members of the Cabinet.

There are still only 22% women MPs at Westminster across all parties (31% of Labour MPs). Holyrood fares better at 34% overall, but largely because of the high number of Labour women MSPs. (18 out of 38). The majority party has only 18 out of 65 (including the Presiding Officer elected as an SNP member). The Conservatives have 6 women in their MSP team of 15.

The Referendum
Ballot
I spend time every weekend knocking on doors somewhere in the constituency, and I have been out every day during the Easter Parliamentary break. There is no doubt that the referendum is becoming a big talking point. There is an appreciation that this is not a decision to be taken lightly. People want to know where Labour stands, and why we are campaigning for a ‘No’ vote. I’ve written a piece with some of my thoughts on my website and I am always happy to discuss further.

I know that some of you will disagree with me; indeed the referendum is an issue where families and friendship groups often have very different views. But to ignore in my newsletter what is the biggest political issue facing us here in Scotland would be odd indeed.

Employment and Support Allowance
In early April I secured not one but two debates on Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) – the benefit people are meant to receive if a health condition or disability prevents them from working. As many of you will know, I’ve long been concerned that too many people are being incorrectly assessed as ‘Fit for Work’.

In my first debate on Thursday 3 April I argued that, despite all the incorrect assessments plus the stress and financial hardship placed on applicants, the total number of claimants hasn’t fallen by anywhere near the levels expected because of the limited support to get people declared Fit for Work into jobs.

In my second debate on Wednesday 9 April I set out my concern that Government statistics underestimate the number of incorrect Fit for Work decisions. I also took the rather unusual step of publishing my speech in advance, to encourage the Minister to provide an informed response.

My argument was that although many people have been calling for reform of the assessment process for some time, if the true extent of its failings were known, the case for change would be impossible to ignore. While the Minister implied that further statistics might be published in the future, he made the rather odd argument that it wasn’t for Ministers to decide which statistics should and shouldn’t be published. I intend to keep up the pressure.

Finally it was revealed towards the end of last month that the company the Government outsource the bulk of the ESA assessment process to – Atos Healthcare – are set to walk away from their contract before it is due to end in August 2015. While Atos have done themselves no favours – I often hear stories of disengaged and unprofessional staff – ultimate responsibility for this issue rests with the Government. I’ve called on Ministers to ensure improvements are put in place before a new contractor is brought in.

Bedroom Tax
At the start of this month the Work and Pensions Select Committee – of which I’m a member – published a report on the Bedroom Tax. As you will know, the policy involves council and housing association tenants with a spare bedroom having their Housing Benefit cut by around £14 per week. Normally Select Committees try to proceed on the basis of consensus, but given how unfair this policy is towards individuals and how ineffective it is at saving money for the Government (see various articles on this here), I proposed an amendment to our report that would have seen it call for the policy to be ended. Unfortunately I was outvoted and we instead emphasised the distress it was causing to people with disabilities. This was covered on the ITV News, the Daily Record and the Huffington Post.

Social Security Spending Cap
Towards the end of March I voted in favour of the Government’s overall cap on social security spending. This measure has understandably provoked strong feelings from many quarters, so I’ve written up a brief piece on the Huffington Post setting out what the cap does (and doesn’t) do, and why I supported this measure. The key points to emphasise are that this won’t lead to automatic cuts to people’s benefits, but it could provide a platform to make the case for tackling the root causes of rising benefits spending – things like low wages and the lack of affordable housing.

Gagging law
Chamber.1
One of the issues I have received more emails on that any other is the Government’s so called ‘Gagging law’. This was introduced after a series of scandals led to calls for greater regulation of the lobbying industry. However in reality the bill only covers a tiny minority of the lobbying industry, doesn’t stop commercial lobbyists influencing Government policy, but potentially hinders the work of charities and civil society groups. Ed Miliband has thus pledged that, should Labour win the next election, we would repeal this law.

Maria Miller
Following the expenses scandal of 2009, a new independent system was introduced. The new system is strict but rightly fair. Last year a complaint was made about the expenses claims of the Culture Secretary Maria Miller between 2005 and 2009. As these were made under the old system, the old system of investigation was invoked, with the Standards Committee of MPs passing judgement following a report by an independent Parliamentary Commissioner.

Miller

The Committee cleared Ms Miller of deliberately over-claiming but asked her to apologise to the Commons for obstructing the Commissioner’s investigation. Although she did so, many felt that her apology wasn’t sincere (it lasted a mere 37 seconds!). This prompted me to raise this in a letter to the Chair of the Standards Committee on 7 April, and this received coverage in The Herald, The Guardian and ITV News. Ms Miller resigned on Wednesday 9 April.

Ryan Coetzee
The Times reported that Nick Clegg’s Special Advisor, South African Ryan Coetzee, has been undertaking political work for the Liberal Democrats. I’ve written to the Cabinet Secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood to ask whether this breaches the code of conduct for Special Advisors. This was picked up in The Herald, the New Statesman, the Mail and another Times – the South African one!

Constituency Report

Community Councils Reformed
This month I was pleased to attend the inaugural meeting of two community councils in the Constituency — Northfield and Willowbrae & Old Town – which have now been reformed. Both have a good mix of new and more experienced members and will shortly have their websites and community notice boards up and running. Meetings are open to the public and you can get further details about meetings in your area at www.edinburghnp.org.uk/community-councils.

Meadow Lane Student Accommodation
Meadow_LaneOn 23rd April I attended the public exhibition of the University of Edinburgh’s proposals for student accommodation on the land between the back of the Georgian tenements on Buccleuch Place and Meadow Lane. New build is proposed for ground which is largely carparking and garages, and the tenement buildings are also to be refurbished for student accommodation. This site falls within an area close to one of the main University campus areas, and within council planning policy guidelines use for student housing is deemed more acceptable than if it were elsewhere. Several local residents viewing these proposals when I was at the exhibition were clearly worried about the density, the height and the possible loss of light to residential blocks. As far as design is concerned the new build is proposed to be ‘modern’ (possibly like the student housing at Archer’s Hall nearby) which apparently city planners favour (to those holding the exhibition told us). If you have a view you can respond to this consultation by contacting edin@jmarchitects.net. There will be further opportunity to object when a formal application is made.

Stanley Place Student Accommodation
Last month I wrote about plans for student accommodation along the East Coast Main Line in the Abbeyhill area. Following feedback from local residents I wrote objecting to the application. In the two weeks after the plans were published I received many letters of objection from local residents, and it is fair to say the local community is very much opposed to the proposal. The most recent application for residential dwellings, determined in 2009, was refused by the planning authority because the scale and mass of the proposal would fill virtually the whole site and my objection again reflects these concerns.

I have also written to Council colleagues to ask that the licensing and planning departments look at policies surrounding application for HMOs and student accommodation so that such development is more evenly spread across the city.

Launch of the UK’s first City Car Club Electric Vehicle
ECCIOn Tuesday 22nd April Councillor Lesley Hinds & I attended the launch of the City Car Club’s first electric car which is available to car club members just outside the University of Edinburgh’s Centre for Carbon Innovation (ECCI) at High School Yards. As a car club member myself I am looking forward to trying it out – or at least I was until I was told it was an ‘automatic’ which I haven’t yet mastered! The Car Club is expanding in Edinburgh and is a great option in a city like this citycarclub.co.uk.

Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh Public Transport Link Survey
Earlier in April Edinburgh Coach Lines announced it would no longer run service 328/329 along the Royal Infirmary Public Transport Link via Greendykes Road. That service ran on a circuitous route serving Musselburgh, Tranent, Elphinstone and Dalkeith.

328When the road was first planned it was hoped buses would use the link to serve the new hospital via a regenerated Craigmillar. I’ve written to Lothian Buses asking them to extend the existing 14 and 21 services along the road to the hospital, but to date they have said the route wouldn’t make commercial sense. I’m therefore keen to hear your thoughts on the matter to gauge demand for a service from Edinburgh East residents. If you have views on the use of this road I’d be delighted if you would complete my survey.

Dates for your Diary
Saturday 10th May – Portobello Pottery Kiln Celebration Day – from 2.00pm – Bridge Street – music and stalls, with the chance for children to make their own brick. If you haven’t yet seen the outstanding brickwork of the kiln, please make this your opportunity to view it.

Saturday 24th May & Sunday 25th May – Duddingston Village Festival – Duddingston Village – see the programme at duddingstonfestival.weebly.com

For a list of events in Holyrood Park until the end of June, and any restricted access arrangements, head to goo.gl/aWoqvE

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PIP: IDS needs to get a grip

Today I’ve written for Progress on the huge delays disabled people are experiencing when applying for Personal Independence Payment. I’ve reproduced my article in full below.

It is almost a textbook example of how not to do government. Today my colleagues and I on the work and pensions select committee have released a report on the performance of the DWP, and the roll-out of personal independence payment stood out for its incompetence.

PIP replaces disability living allowance for people of working age, and is intended to help with the additional costs of living with a disability.

This change took effect for new claimants in June 2013. Systematic reassessment of existing DLA claimants will not start until October 2015, but in certain areas anyone who turns 16 or reports a change in circumstances, or whose time-limited award ends, will have to apply for PIP (so-called ‘natural reassessment’).

By the time both processes are complete in 2018, the Department for Work and Pensions expects 450,000 existing DLA claimants to lose all support, while 510,000 will receive PIP but at a lower level than DLA.

The main issue our report highlights is the long delays people are facing before they are given a decision on their eligibility. Take my constituent Jane, for example. She suffers from Huntingdon’s Disease and applied for PIP in September. Although she had a face-to-face assessment on 18 November, she was told on 14 February that it would be another six weeks before she got a decision. This means the process will have taken six months from start to finish, and could last longer if Jane is refused and chooses to appeal.

We recommend that DWP invoke penalty clauses in its contracts with Atos and Capita – who carry out the face-to-face assessments – and clear the existing backlog before it rolls out natural reassessment to different parts of the country.

But why have these delays arisen in the first place?

It starts with the fact that the decision to abolish DLA and replace it with PIP was driven by a desire to save money. ‘Justifications’ for needing a new benefit were crafted to fit. The DWP has come to believe its own propaganda, claiming far too many people were receiving DLA without time limits or assessments. This in turn has driven the shape of the new processes and what the contractors have been asked to do.

Then, fatally, the DWP failed to properly pilot the assessment process. Although new claims opened in the north of England in April 2013, this was only two months before PIP went live nationwide. Within weeks we were told that far more people were being called in for face-to-face assessments than expected, because the initial forms proved to be badly designed. In addition each assessment was taking twice as long as expected and all assessments were being audited internally, raising questions about skills and training.

All of these issues could have been ironed out with a proper pilot.

My committee raised doubts about this in advance, but these were brushed off. Our new report should put ministers in no doubt about the scale of the problem they face – Iain Duncan Smith and his department need to get a grip.

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Iain Duncan Smith: Using Disabled People as Guinea Pigs Since June 2013

A couple of days ago I blogged for The Huffington Post on the (slow) rollout of Personal Independence Payment. I’ve reproduced my piece in full below.

My constituent Jane suffers from Huntingdon’s Disease. In September she applied for Personal Independence Payment – the benefit the government introduced following their abolition of Disability Living Allowance – which is intended to help people with the extra costs they face as a result of living with disabilities.

She had a face-to-face assessment with one of the government’s contractors – Atos Healthcare Ltd – on 18 November. By the end of January her application was still with Atos. On 14 February she was told her application had now been returned to the Department for Work and Pensions, but it would be another six weeks before she got the decision. That will mean the process will have taken six months from start to finish.

If Jane gets an award, her payments will be backdated to September, but if her application is refused and she appeals, there could be further months of uncertainty.

Jane is a single parent with five children. Anxiety and depression is common in sufferers of Huntingdon’s, but my constituent’s state of health is worsening as a result of the delays. In her own words “I am struggling with everyday life, it’s always on my mind”.

Delays, delays and more delays
This is by no means the longest period of delay being reported by other PIP claimants, and it’s not just a problem for Atos – already notorious for their role in Employment and Support Allowance assessments – but also for the government’s other contractor Capita.

The delays are clear from the government’s own interim management figures, which show that by December 2013, 220,300 applications had been submitted (excluding claims for terminal illnesses) but only 34,200 awards had been made.

Ministers stated that their expectation before the system “went live” was that processing of claims would take 12-15 weeks. It is taking at least twice as long for most.

Pilot? What pilot?
PIP has been available to new claimants since June 2013. Most of those who are currently on DLA will not go through the reassessment process until October 2015. However those whose award runs out before that date or whose circumstances change will still be called in, potentially piling delay upon delay.

There was a pilot in some parts of the north of England, but this ran for only two months before the new benefit went live nationwide. The Work and Pensions Select Committee – of which I’m a member – raised doubts about such a short pilot in advance, but our concerns were brushed off. One oddity is the contrast with Universal Credit, where the roll out has been slowed to a snail’s pace.

Excuses, excuses
In December the disabilities minister told the Select Committee that all assessments were being internally audited by the providers before being passed back to the DWP. That suggests a lack of confidence in the training provided by contactors – something the government should have realised was an issue when Atos and Capita were tendering for this work.

Then in February the secretary of state, Iain Duncan Smith, he argued that PIP was being rolled out “carefully” and they were adjusting the process as they went along. Given the experience of people like Jane, I’m afraid this just doesn’t wash.

The reality is that disabled people are being used as guinea pigs because of the government’s total failure to properly pilot the PIP application process and ensure its contractors were up to the job. IDS and his ministers should be ashamed.

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