July 2012 enewsletter | edition 22

Sheila Gilmore MP Header

Westminster Report

New Legislation

Following the Queen’s Speech two new bits of legislation have started the legislative process in the House of Commons. One is the Enterprise & Regulatory Reform Bill which includes the formal establishment of the Green Investment Bank (which arguably isn’t a bank, won’t have much to invest and may not be very green) in addition to changes to Employment Tribunals, which will introduce more conciliation and mediation to the process. The ‘wilder fringe’ ideas of Beecroft which I covered last month are not part of this Bill, nevertheless ‘deregulation’ was a major theme from Government backbenchers during the Second Reading debate on 11th June.

The other new Bill is the Electoral Registration & Administration Bill which introduces ‘individual registration’ of voters. At the moment registration forms are filled in by one member of a household on behalf of the whole household. The proposed system would also require people to show some proof of identity such as national insurance number when registering. There have been many concerns that this could lead to a substantial drop in the number of people registered to vote. This may be particularly so in places, like Edinburgh city centre, where there is a very mobile population and many multi-occupied flats. Registration is already very low there. The draft Bill was looked at by the Political & Constitutional Reform Select Committee which suggested several changes, the Government subsequently applied. Concerns remain and I spoke on this at the Second Hearing on 13th June (See http://bit.ly/Qpor4j).

More debate on Disability Issues

I attended a short Westminster Hall debate secured by a Labour colleague on the impact of the Work Capability Assessment (the assessment for eligibility for Employment and Support Allowance). This test has proved particularly problematic for people with fluctuating conditions like Parkinson’s. In these half hour debates speeches are only made by the person who applied for the debate and the Minister charged with replying. However I was able to make a couple of brief interventions. This debate brought out some interesting points, not least Minister Grayling’s statement that the ‘Gold Standard Review’ was underway, as previously promised. Previous questioning of the Minister had failed to get a date for this work. This Review will be looking particularly at proposals which have come from charities for a different way of assessing fluctuating conditions as well as ‘mental health and cognitive’ conditions.

Much of the debate on ESA has been around the WCA test, but this debate also touched on what happens to people who are placed in what is now called the Work Related Activity Group. This is for people who are not at the time of the test ‘fit for work’ but who are expected to recover in time. Parkinson’s is a particularly problematic condition in this respect. At the moment there is no cure and although the rate of impact differs greatly the concept of ‘returning to fitness’ may be problematic for many who will still be subject to repeated tests. Many people would welcome assistance to return to some sort of work but they report that in practice very little help is given. I’m keen to follow up the experiences of Parkinson’s sufferers in Scotland and plan to have a meeting with Scottish members of Parkinson’s UK over the summer. (Watch the debate here http://bit.ly/LEP7zD.)

Parkinson's UK

On the following day I spoke in an Opposition Day debate on Disability and Social Care. This was wide ranging and considered benefits changes, the cost of care and what is happening to Remploy factories. Among other things I referred to a Report prepared by Learning Disability Alliance Scotland called ‘Worse Off!’ (see http://bit.ly/MD7Gzy) which had looked at the likely impact of the proposed tests for the new ‘Personal Independence Benefit’ by applying the proposed ‘test’ to real people and showing how the changes might affect them. See the debate at http://bit.ly/LEPmuq.

Many questions

No success at PMQs this month, but several opportunities at Departmental questions of various types. At Scottish Questions I got the chance to return to the issue raised by my colleague Kezia Dugdale MSP about the re-badging of existing jobs as apprenticeships. The Minister agreed with our concerns. Sadly you don’t get a second follow-up question as I would like to have pointed out that there are similar concerns about the apprenticeships in England, boasted of by the Government he supports. McDonald’s for example renamed their new starts as apprentices and claimed for the training they would have done anyway. A spokesman from the firm stated in the Sunday Times a few months ago that they had created no new jobs with this money. See the question here: p4 http://bit.ly/LEPmuq.

I make a particular effort to be in both DWP and Treasury questions as these are the areas where I’m trying to concentrate. This month I managed to get questions in at both sessions although I hadn’t been successful in the ‘draw’. My question to the DWP was about the lack of hard information about work experience for young people. At Treasury questions I asked the Government to U turn on the withdrawal of Working Tax Credits for low paid couples working less than 24hours a week using, a real local example of how employers are increasingly offering short hours. See p13 http://bit.ly/Qpvsly and p13 http://bit.ly/Qpvw4S.)

Aung San Suu Kyi

Aung San Suu Kyi

The Burmese democracy campaigner spoke to a packed Westminster Hall last Thursday afternoon. She is the first non-head of state to be accorded this honour. We live in a society where we are free to be as cynical as we like about voting and politics, but hearing a speech like this is a salutary reminder of how important but fragile democracy is.

Carers Week

In all the many events I get invited to there are some which jolt you out of complacency (the choice of potential meetings and events some days is truly bewildering). A Carers’ Week event on Monday 18th June at Westminster did that for me. Billed as ‘speed-networking’ – presumably to attract busy MPs – it was an opportunity to meet a variety of carers and carer organisations.

Carers week

I found myself staying longer than I’d originally intended because the stories were so gripping. One woman had spent several years caring for her father and an uncle who had both suffered from Parkinson’s. She then got involved in a local Parkinson’s’ Society only to have her husband struck down by the same illness. She cared for him at home for 16 years. He is now in residential care. Not only did her husband have to stop work early but she too had to leave work at age 52. Her own health has been affected and family income reduced by her early withdrawal from paid work. She needed to spend her savings adapting the house to meet her husband’s needs. She is now topping up her husband’s care home fees from her own pension.

At the other end of the age range I met a young woman who at age 16 became the main carer for her sister and her mother when her mother suffered a stroke. She had to leave school to do it. Now in her early 20s her mother is recovering a bit and she is trying to find some employment but she is finding that employers focus on the ‘gap’ in her qualifications and CV and do not rate her experience – as the household organiser, as advocate, in demonstrating responsibility and reliability. I’m sure if she could get through to the interview stage employers would soon snap her up, as her confidence and poise was remarkable.

Every year there is an outpouring of cross party sympathy from MPs towards carers. But there are huge differences of approach – at one of the ‘tables’ I networked with a Tory MP this came home to me when this MP declared that the problem was that ‘care’ was too expensive due to over regulation. Proponents of this view believe we should drive down costs and the ‘problem’ of social care will be solved. Seeing what has happened to home care Edinburgh, where the council has employed a policy of driving down costs through tendering makes me disagree profoundly with that opinion.

Constituency Report

Craigmillar Books for Babies – five years of activities ahead, and remembering Helen Crummy

Craigmillar Books for BabiesI am delighted to hear that the Craigmillar Literacy Trust has received a Big Lottery Fund award to facilitate Books for Babies activities over the next five years. Craigmillar Books for Babies is an early literacy project based in the area which works with mums, dads & carers with children under 3. The scheme promotes reading as a worthwhile activity to enhance children’s development. As a keen reader I am thrilled that the project is receiving this funding, which will now have the resources to approach families and young people in Craigmillar who might not usually engage with the projects. The full programme of summer events is available at www.craigmillarbooksforbabies.org.uk. I intend to drop into a Rhymetimes session over the summer.

On a similar note, members of the community in Craigmillar are seeking to erect a figurative statue created and erected outside the new East Neighbourhood Office and rename Craigmillar Library in her memory when it is opened. It is so important to the community in Craigmillar that we remember Helen’s work – not simply because she should be commemorated for all she fought for, but so that her legacy will continue inspire others, including the children that will benefit from the Craigmillar Books for Babies programme. She was determined that the people of Craigmillar should have access to the same opportunities in art, drama, and music as people from any other area of the city, and should be duly commemorated. I have written to the Neighbourhood Manager in support of the proposals; if you wish to view my letter, click here: http://bit.ly/LB21N0.

Innertube map 2012

I’m pleased to hear that ELGT, The Bike Station and the People’s Postcode Trust have started work to promote and enhance Edinburgh’s cycleways and off-road paths over the summer. Groups have already been out clearing fly tipping and tackling invasive species along many of the paths, so everyone can take advantage of the network over the next few months. I am also pleased that last year’s highly successful Postcode Challenge Treasure Hunt on Wheels will return on Sunday 1st July. For details of the work and the treasure hunt, go to: http://bit.ly/NwETwi.

I Love cycling and Innertube Map

Bike-related events are in full swing this time of year, and while I couldn’t attend Spokes’ bicycle breakfast on 20th June, I made sure I joined in totalpolitics call to get as many MPs as possible joining the I Love Cycling campaign – you can see my pledge here: http://bit.ly/N00IHj.

Protecting Guide Dogs

New figures that were released in June showed attacks on guide dogs are at an all time high and now running at an average of eight a month. The government is currently consulting on compulsory microchipping but has said its preferred option is to microchip puppies only. Under this plan, it would take 10 to 15 years before all dogs are microchipped. I have joined the campaign organised by Guide Dogs UK which calls for action to protect guide dogs from attacks by other dogs. Compulsory microchipping is one step that would make a real difference. Ultimately campaigners are calling for changes in the law so an attack on an assistance dog is treated as seriously as an attack on a person because the harm caused to the dog seriously impairs the freedom of the owner.

Property Conservation developments

Many of you will have read that the Director of City Development has been suspended from his post as the Statutory Notice investigation continues (see http://bbc.in/LPoX9G). Mr Anderson was responsible for overseeing the City Development department when it held responsibility for Property Conservation across the city. Back when I started receiving complaints, and before the investigation started, constituents and I experienced considerable delays when any complaints or simple queries were raised. At the time I didn’t feel that the department was handling the complaints properly or acknowledging that there were problems with the system. In light of the managerial suspension, I have written to Sue Bruce, Chief Executive of the City of Edinburgh Council, to highlight that many concerns were raised in advance of the investigation. The Leader of the Council, Cllr Andrew Burns, has also indicated that reports due before Policy and Strategy Committee in August will highlight how the Council will deal with the current problems and outline how a new service will function.

Campaign for High Speed Rail (CfHSR) update

Together with other Edinburgh MPs I am calling on Edinburgh residents to show their support for high speed rail. The Spectator has recently predicted that the Government is set to make a U-turn on its commitment to build HS2. It asserted that there was ‘a lack of enthusiasm among the people it was supposed to impress: northerners, Midlanders and business.’ Once the second phase of this major infrastructure project is complete, the Edinburgh to London journey will be cut by an hour to 3 hours 30 minutes, benefitting Edinburgh and Scotland as a whole. Scottish MPs have been calling on the Government to build the second phase beyond Leeds and Manchester and on to Edinburgh and Glasgow and it would be a disaster if the project were dropped altogether. HS2 will benefit Scotland from the outset, and today we are encouraging Edinburgh residents to show their support by going to www.campaignforhsr.com/signup

Southside buses update

Having written in the May edition about the re-routing of the number 2 away from St Leonard’s Street, I thought it might be welcome news that Lothian Buses has made further changes in the city centre to serve the Lauriston and University areas. For over 18 years there has been no direct bus linking Newington, the Southside and Tollcross, however, from the 24th June, the number 47 has been re-routed to serve the area. The 47 will run from Surgeon’s Hall via Nicolson Square, Potterrow, Lauriston Place, Tollcross, Festival Square and Lothian Rd to rejoin its former route at the West End. This will be the first time in decades that a bus will link Newington, Southside and Tollcross, and I am sure it will be a welcome amenity. The new route also provides a route to the West End which avoids the tramworks! The revised timetable is available at http://bit.ly/Or3fO6.

Bongo Lives!

Late last month, I was very relieved to hear that one of Holyrood’s best loved institutions has been given a reprieve. I’m referring to the Bongo Club of course – after months of campaigning and petitioning the University of Edinburgh, the Bongo Club has had its lease extended for the Hogmanay period and into 2013. The extra time will allow the management of the club space to continue trading through the crucial festival period, before the management finds new premises. For the thousands of people who visit the Bongo Club every year and those who appreciate its value to the city, the news will be very welcome.

Over the summer months

Since the regulated period of the local elections ended I have been on a number of roving surgeries in Lochend, the Southside, and in the City Centre. When I hold a roving surgery I write directly to constituents and ask if they would like a visit, instead of advertising my usual surgeries which require constituents having to come and see me. Folk that I meet really enjoy the opportunity to raise their concerns in their own home. Holding the surgeries also means that individuals with mobility issues can speak to me without the worry of having to plan a journey. I intend to hold a few more roving surgeries over the summer – if you would like me to visit your street, please contact me on 0131 661 7522 sheila.gilmore.mp@parliament.uk.

Dates for your diary

Saturday 30 June – Craigmillar Olympic Fun Day – 12:00-16:00 – off Niddrie Mains Road at Wauchope Terrace – more details at http://bit.ly/LrXRTo.

Saturday 30 June – Pride Scotia Rally and March – from 13:00 – meet at the City Chambers Quadrant, Royal Mile – further details at http://www.pride-scotia.org/

Sunday 1st July – Postcode Challenge Treasure Hunt on Wheels – 13:00-16:00 – for full details see http://bit.ly/NwETwi.

From Monday 2nd July to 14th July Tuesday 3rd July –Bus Stop Lottery Photography Project Exhibition – free exhibition 10:00-16:00 – Craigmillar Community Arts Centre, Newcraighall Road

Tuesday 3rd July – The Welfare Reform Bill – What is it? Is it Right? Is it necessary? What can you do? –1830 onwards – Northfield Community Centre, Northfield Road.

Wednesday 4th August 2012 – Free Holyrood Wellbeing Walks (summer programme) – from 13:00 – every Wednesday until 8th August – book on 0131 652 8150

Thursday 5th August 2012– Edmesh 25th Anniversary Garden Party –13:00-14:00 – Duddingston Kirk, Duddingston Village – Edinburgh ME self-help group anniversary meeting, further details available at: http://bit.ly/Or0z2T.

Saturday 7th July– Portobello Organic Market – 9.30-13.30 – Brighton Park – full list of stalls can be found here: http://bit.ly/LCVBx5.

Saturday 28th July– Donkeyfield Community Orchard Workday – from 10:00 – Donkeyfield orchard near Brunstane Rail Station – further details at http://bit.ly/LrYoET

Craigmillar Books for Babies – summer programme available at www.craigmillarbooksforbabies.org.uk/whatson.htm.

Friday 10th August– Portobello and Craigmillar Family Summer Bash – 13:00-16:00 – Jack Kane Centre, Niddrie Mains Road – all activities are free

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How can we fairly assess people’s capability for work?

On Tuesday I led a half-hour Westminster Hall debate on the Work Capability Assessment (WCA) – the test people have to undergo to get the new sickness benefit Employment and Support Allowance (ESA). I regularly hear stories about people being assessed as fit for work who then have this decision overturned on appeal (the most recent figures show one in three appeals are successful) – thus this issue has attracted lots of attention.

There was a long debate on this subject last month where a broad range of concerns were aired, so I decided to focus on one specific area – the descriptors for mental, intellectual and cognitive function that are used in the face to face assessment that most applicants undergo.

I emphasised the importance of getting these descriptors right, noting that 35 per cent of people going through the assessment were recorded as having a mental or behavioural condition as their primary condition – the largest single group of ESA claimants.

Back in 2010 the Government’s independent reviewer of the WCA, Professor Malcolm Harrrington, asked three charities – Mencap, Mind and the National Autistic Society – to provide recommendations on refining these descriptors. They produced a report in April 2011 and Professor Harrington endorsed this in November of the same year.

The charities argued that the current descriptors measure just one aspect of an applicant’s condition, or try to include more than one aspect on a single linear scale. For example the severity, frequency and fluctuations of a condition are often conflated into the one descriptor.

The charities proposed new dynamic descriptors that take separate account of different aspects of applicant’s conditions. However the Government have rejected these recommendations, arguing there isn’t sufficient evidence the current descriptors aren’t working or that the proposed descriptors would work better. While they have proposed a ‘gold standard review’ to look into this, the charities involved expressed concern that this has yet to materialise. I expressed concern in the debate that the Government might be using this as a cover to kick the issue into the long grass.

People with disabilitiesIn responding the Minister Chris Grayling said some things I welcome. He confirmed the whole ESA process has no financial targets – the words he used were ‘it’s about saving lives, not saving money’. He also said he had no problem with more people being put in the ESA support group (where recipients get more financial support) as opposed to the work-related activity group (where people are required to attend training and undertake voluntary work etc).

However the Minister went on to argue that the charities hadn’t actually done what they were asked to do. He said they were asked to make recommendations to improve the descriptors, but instead they made proposals that he claimed would involve amending all the other descriptors (such as those for physical conditions), redoing the department’s computer systems, and retraining all their staff. Again he emphasised the lack of evidence to back up the charities’ proposals.

He indicated that a similar report on the descriptors had now been produced for fluctuating conditions more broadly, and that both these recommendations and those on mental health would be put through the gold standard process soon. When I pushed the Minister on a timescale, he said it was his intention to complete this process in the next few months.

My reaction? Firstly I’d question the Minister’s suggestion that the new descriptors would require such a fundamental overhaul of the WCA process. Moreover Chris Grayling’s suggestion that the charities overstepped the mark ignores the fact that they clearly think that the current system puts simplicity before getting the right result, and that tweaking the wording falls short of the more profound change necessary. He also dismissed the fact that the charities’ position was backed up by both an independent panel of experts – the scrutiny group – and Professor Harrington himself (to whom the Minister normally pays the highest respect).

I’m glad I drew a commitment to get the gold standard process up and running quickly. If work needs to be done, it should be done sooner rather than later, as the longer we wait the more people are going to be wrongly assessed as fit for work.

On a related note the Work and Pensions Select Committee (of which I am a member) recently produced a report on the Government’s new Personal Independence Payment – the replacement for Disability Living Allowance. We emphasised the importance of getting the assessment for this test right first time. My Westminster Hall debate has simply reinforced this message.

This article first appeared on Total Politics on Thursday 15 April.

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