August 2014 Newsletter

portcullisbanner_Copy.2.1.1Westminster Report

Bad IschlDomestic UK politics may have been winding down in July (except here in Scotland, of course) but internationally there has been an alarming spiral of violence. During July I was listening to Radio 4’s five minute daily slot ‘counting down’ from the Sarajevo assassination to the outbreak of World War 1. With our historical knowledge, the counterpoint of the events following the assassination at Sarajevo with ordinary news items such as suffragette demonstrations, concerts and sporting events, and Irish problems bubbling up, is poignant. But there are also frightening parallels 100 years on when so many people are facing the horrors of conflict. Many constituents have been in contact with me appalled by the grossly disproportionate response of the Israel incursion into Gaza. The killing continues in Syria and Iraq, while Ukraine remains fragile.

I recently visited the summer villa of Emperor Franz Joseph in Bad Ischl, where he signed the declaration of war on Serbia. If he, or indeed other world leaders, had known what would follow would they have made different decisions? Part of my holiday reading has been a new book on the run up to WWI by Margaret McMillan. ‘The War that Ended Peace’ and what struck me was the confidence of many political leaders that they would be able to resolve matters diplomatically as they had in previous crises. But instead they fell off a cliff. (To avoid sounding like the class swot, I had lots of lighter holiday reading also!)

‘Office time’ on Employment and Support Allowance
As I mentioned last month, people often ask why the MPs aren’t in the Commons chamber all the time to listen to and speak in debates. Although I’m one of the most active MPs in this regard – I spoke in three separate debates on social security and welfare reform over the last month (see here, here and here) – I still think it’s important that we have ‘office time’ to do research on policies that we want to see changed. One of my main focuses is Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) – the main benefit for those who can’t work as a result of ill health or a disability – and the results of my office time were highlighted on three separate occasions last month.

My main concern with ESA is that too many claimants are being incorrectly assessed as ‘Fit for Work’ and refused benefit. Last month the Minister who was then responsible for this policy, Mike Penning (who has since been reshuffled to the Home Office), admitted that over 700,000 applicants were waiting for an assessment. At the time he tried to suggest this had been an issue under the last Labour Government, but when I looked into this, I discovered that the backlog was a mere 28,300 when the current Coalition Government took over in May 2010! I highlighted this in a letter to him on 3 July, and when I receive a response from his successor Mark Harper I’ll post it on my website.

I’ve also used my office time to write to the UK Statistics Authority over the figures the Department for Work and Pensions publish on ESA. I believe the number of incorrect decisions is being artificially supressed as only statistics on the number of successful appeals to judges are published – overturn figures for informal appeals (officially referred to as ‘reconsiderations’) to civil servants are not. Last month I secured a commitment from the Department that they will start to publish this information by the end of this year, and I issued a press release on 9 July, which was picked up by Third Force News.

Finally I followed up a debate I led on the support given to ESA applicants during the reconsideration process last month with a further letter to Mike Penning on 7 July. While people are entitled to claim ESA at a reduced ‘assessment rate’ when they initially apply, their only option during the reconsideration period – which claimants have to go through if they want to appeal – is to claim Jobseekers Allowance. In the debate the Minister claimed that Jobcentre Staff should relax requirements placed on those challenging ESA refusals so that sick and disabled people aren’t sanctioned for not looking for work. However I’ve had a lot of evidence that this isn’t happening on the ground, leaving vulnerable people without any income for periods between seven and ten weeks. I’ll post any reply I receive on my website.

News in Brief
Guide Dogs receptionOn 2 July I lent my support for a campaign by the charity Guide Dogs to make sure all new buses have audio visual (AV) next stop announcements, which are vital for blind and partially sighted bus travellers.

Later that day I met up with my constituent Julie Rattray, who is a Cancer Research UK ambassador. CRUK are campaigning to beat cancer sooner, so that in 20 years’ time three quarters of people who are diagnosed survive.

Gordon AikmanAnd on 9 July I met up with another campaigning constituent – Gordon Aikman. As I mentioned in my last newsletter, Gordon has been diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease. He’s already raised more than £40,000 for MND Scotland – a charity that funds and promotes research into the disease and provides support to people affected (you can donate here). He’s now campaigning for more Government money for research and support, and you can back his campaign at gordonsfightback.com.

Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Bill
DRIP BillOn 10 July the Government announced that it was bringing forward a new law to require companies like mobile phone and internet firms to retain data on when, where and with whom people communicate for between six months and two years. This sort of data is used by the police and intelligence agencies to investigate organised crime, terrorism and online child abuse.

In April the European Court of Justice declared that the EU Data Retention Directive was too widely drawn. As a result the UK regulations that permitted data retention in the UK were also struck down, despite the fact that they were much narrower and more proportionate than the Directive itself. The so-called DRIP Bill will reintroduce these requirements.

The Government announcement came such a short time before the summer recess that the bill was rushed through over just three days. This did however allow my party to secure a series of concessions, including an independent review of the legal framework governing data access and interception, extra checks and balances, and a ‘sunset clause’ that means this new law will expire in 2016.

Over 130 constituents asked me to oppose this new law, but I concluded that it is appropriate to take steps to reinstate the limited powers which were being already being exercised. This wasn’t a decision I reached lightly, and I am more than happy to discuss this in writing or in person with any constituents who remain concerned.

Sanctions Report Finally Published
Last year the DWP commissioned a report into the operation of sanctions on people receiving Job Seekers Allowance and taking part in the Work Programme. This has been long awaited but was only published on the very last day of the parliamentary ‘term’. The remit was restricted and it was not a thorough review of the sanctioning process, as called for by many including the Work & Pensions Select Committee. One of its conclusions was that some claimants lacked understanding of the process and reasons for sanctioning. This was particularly true for more vulnerable groups and those with ‘specific barriers to work.’ The DWP has accepted the recommendation for improving communications, rewriting letters etc., so hopefully they will get on with this. Some of the recommendations are only accepted ‘in principle’ which is worrying.

While better communications will help, there remains a serious concern about the circumstances in which some people are receiving sanctions, the increasing numbers being sanctioned and the financial and health impact on those affected.

Personal Independence Payment assessment review
Personal Independence Payment is gradually replacing Disability Living Allowance as the main benefit to help people with the additional costs of living with a disability. PIP was introduced for new claimants in April 2013 and existing DLA claimants will begin to be reassessed in October 2015. Eventually the Government expect 170,000 people to lose all support and 160,000 to be awarded PIP at a lower level to DLA. My party and I voted against these plans when they were proposed by the current Government, but unfortunately they were pushed through.

Ministers have now launched an independent review of the PIP assessment process and anyone can submit evidence up to 5 September. I will focus on the delays people are facing before they are given a decision on whether they qualify for support, which is driving vulnerable people to real hardship. However I’d be keen to hear from constituents about their experience of the assessment process – please email me at sheila.gilmore.mp@parliament.uk.

Constituency Report

Baileyfield: Modern ‘colonies’ for Portobello?
I had the opportunity to see the proposals coming forward from Aldi and Crudens for the former Scottish Power site at Baileyfield. As many people will know, there have been a number of planning applications for this site. Initially there was a proposal for a very large supermarket against which there was a vigorous community campaign , which was successful not just at the Council’s Planning Committee but also at appeal (given that apparently most of the big supermarket chains are moving away from very large stores, Portobello was clearly ahead of the curve here). Next came an application for over 700 flats which was also refused. A third iteration with slightly fewer flats and slightly reduced height, got to the stage of a public exhibition but went no further. It featured a now fairly standard layout of large flatted blocks set amidst car parking and sterile landscaping. I remember saying at the exhibition how good it would be if the developers would look around at some examples of Edinburgh style building, like the traditional ‘colonies’ which combine density with individuality. I’ve written about colonies before, so I was pleased to see that the latest proposals are for only around 250 housing units, of which half would be flats and half ‘modern colonies’. There is of also a plan for an ALDI store fronting on the High Street (beside the Kwikfit). On the whole I think this is a lot more promising than what went before, but I realise that as with all planning issues there will be different views. The formal application has not yet been submitted.

Lochend Secret Garden
Lochend GardenThis month I had the delight of attending the AGM and Open Day of the Lochend Secret Garden, now in its third season. The range of flowers and produce was impressive. This success is all down to the hard work of the Steering committee and all the people who are gardening here. Not content with the original garden the group is extending its activities into new challenges. A strip of grass in Lochend Quadrant is being turned into ‘The Orchard’ – from plain grass (picture) to this (second picture). If you are inspired by this example, why not contact the Council to ask about doing something similar, or contact one of your local councillors?

Save our Southside meeting report
On Sunday 20th July, over 70 Southsiders attended a meeting organised by myself, the Southside Association and Sarah Boyack MSP to discuss a community response to the flurry of applications for student accommodation in the area. The purpose of the meeting was not to discuss each application but to get residents thinking about the Southside they would like to see developed. Residents overwhelmingly said they want to live side by side students, but numbers need to be rebalanced with more affordable family housing being developed. Notes from the meeting have been circulated to those in attendance, and are available on my website.

After the initial meeting many residents said they are keen to form a working group to further discuss their response, and think about how they communicate it to planners, the University and developers. Residents are due to meet again on Wednesday 20th August from 7.00pm in the Grey Room, Nelson Hall.

Lutton Court Appeal Allowed
On Wednesday morning the Scottish Government Reporter with responsibility for determining the Lutton Court appeal published his report and decision, allowing the appeal developers submitted after the Council refused the application. Residents in the area are devastated and I am hugely disappointed. This was a key test of the Council’s policy which has failed, having massive consequences for the Southside. The appeal process was conducted on paper which gives the developer much greater opportunity to make its case, while residents are unable to ensure their concerns are truly heard by the Scottish Government reporter. More could have been done to involve them, starting with having an accompanied site visit. I would like to see Planning Officials urgently review its policy and guidance on student accommodation so it can better manage the flurry of applications recently submitted.

Dumbiedykes Bus: “Use it or lose it”
Bus service 60I am delighted to announce that a new bus service, 60, serving the Dumbiedykes and Southside, will start on Monday 25th August. The service will run throughout the day Monday to Friday on a half hourly basis. After years of campaigning, residents will finally see the return of a service, which will be a real boon for the elderly and those who struggle to get up the Pleasance. The service was cut several years ago because there was insufficient usage, however community leaders are spreading the “use it or lose it” message to make sure that the service cannot be cut in the future. Those over 60 can use their concessionary card but must make sure they are ‘beeped’ onto the bus so that numbers are recorded.

Events in Parks Decision Due Soon
On 26 August the Council’s Transport and Environment Committee, will make a decision whether or not to charge market rents to commercial enterprises who use public parks, and seek to limit the length of time events can be held in a park, including the Meadows. Friends of the Meadows & Bruntsfield Links has been running a petition for much of the summer which will be submitted in advance of the meeting. As I reported last month, I share residents concern the intensive use of the park is damaging the Meadows which struggles to recover every year. FOMBL are calling for events to be limited to a maximum 15 days so that they can continue to go ahead but the park has time to regenerate. To sign the petition, head to www.ipetitions.com/petition/fombl.

Post Referendum BBC Radio 4 ‘Any Questions’ Invitations
I’ve received a bundle of invitations from Greyfriars Kirk to hand to constituents who are keen to attend the recording of Any Questions on Friday, 19th September, the day after the referendum. Doors open from 6.30pm and you can turn up on the day to see if you can get a seat at the recording, however if you would like an invitation, please email me your details.

Local Development Plan consultation begins
As I mentioned in my previous newsletter the City of Edinburgh Council recently approved the Second Development Plan. The new Development Plan Scheme is available to view online or in Council libraries. You can make written representations on the Second Proposed Plan from 22 August to 3 October 2014. For more information head to edinburgh.gov.uk/localdevelopmentplan.

Edmonstone Development
Several applications to develop the Edmonstone estate have now been to committee to be determined. Developers propose building on this land which is in the ‘greenbelt’ and is currently dangerously unstable due to the underground mine workings. One application, for residential dwellings, was refused at committee on 30 July, while proposals for a cemetery and crematorium were granted on Wednesday. I fear that the application may have been a Trojan horse to allow further development on this part of the Greenbelt.

Revised Waste and Recycling
I have received a number of enquiries about how the revisions to waste recycling service will affect them. To encourage more recycling and to make the chore simpler, most recyclables will soon go straight into your green wheelie, with a new grey wheelie being provided for domestic waste. Full details of the rollout, and the streets affected are on the Council’s website.

Awards for All Scotland Reopens for Applications
Awards for All Scotland reopened to applications on 4th August 2014. The BIG Lottery Fund in Scotland took the decision to pause Awards for All Scotland to new applications from 9th May until 4th August to focus on assessing and administering grants related to building a legacy from the Commonwealth Games.

Awards will be prioritised for projects where beneficiaries are mainly BME, disabled, LGBT, older or carers. For details on the scheme, head to biglotteryfund.org.uk/awardsforallscotland.

Dates for Your Diary

Be Arty Be HealthyWednesday, 20th August – St Margarets House (151 London Road) Redevelopment Pre-application Exhibition – from 4-8 pm – Piershill Library – for more information enter 14/02137/PAN at bit.ly/10KV9iP

Wednesday 20th August – Save Our Southside: working group meeting – from 7.00pm – Grey Room, Nelson Hall

Tuesday, 2nd September – deadline to register to vote in the referendum – details and forms available at www.lothian-vjb.gov.uk

Wednesday, 3rd September – deadline to register to vote by post in the referendum – details and forms available at www.lothian-vjb.gov.uk

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December 2013 and January 2014 Newsletter

Sheila Gilmore MP Header

Westminster report

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

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

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

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

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

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

Food_banks_graph_2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Constituency Report

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

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

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

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

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

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

To_review_the_Local_Development_Plan_proposals_in_your_area_head_to

To review the proposals for your area click here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Interview with Scottish Churches Parliamentary Office

This interview was first published by the Scottish Churches Parliamentary Office on 30 April 2013 under the title There have been changes, but you can’t take your foot off the pedal. I have reproduced it in full below.

Growing up in a family with a strong allegiance to the Labour party, Sheila Gilmore’s childhood was most definitely political. Her eventual involvement in student politics and the women’s movement (particularly the setting up of the Edinburgh Rape Crisis Centre in the early 1970s) merely cemented the “born and bred in the bones stuff” that comes with growing up having political discussions in the home, particularly with her father, a staunch Labour supporter. Nevertheless, Sheila and her father’s view on Labour policies were not necessarily always the same; when Sheila was a student, she was appalled that the Labour party was even considering supporting the war in Vietnam. However, in 2003, “we had a bit of a set-to when my dad was saying how dreadful it was that Blair had supported Bush in Iraq – it was quite an interesting turnaround, I don’t know what it is, when you’re actively involved you feel more obliged to perhaps defend the sometimes indefensible.”

As a Labour MP on the opposition benches in the UK Parliament, Sheila is not prepared to defend the Government’s actions on welfare reform. She is also frustrated at the way in which language is used to “fuel panic”. “I hate the word welfare; I try not to use it. In itself it should be a neutral word, but it’s attracted a meaning that’s not always seen in a good light. We used to talk about social security and I had someone come up to me recently who was quite angry, asking ‘why are our pensions being lumped in with ‘welfare’? We’ve paid for this’… He was, rightly I think, unhappy about the growing assumptions.” She is well aware that spending on benefits has risen in recent years, but the inclusion of pensions (including state pensions) in the Department for Work and Pensions’ welfare bill has been entirely “for political reasons… to make the point about DWP spending being out of control.” Sheila gives one example of a headline claiming: “900,000 people who had been on incapacity benefit had dropped their claim when they were asked to attend an assessment, and then the rest of the article goes on to suggest that people were ‘at it’ for years…”. Sheila then explains the various means by which people find themselves on Employment and Support Allowance, but the biggest explanation for new claims not getting to the assessment stage is that people are claiming for a short period of sickness and then are no longer eligible for the benefit as they have recovered. “Now I’ve taken probably about five minutes to explain that. How do you compete with a headline? What will have stuck in people’s heads is the headline, which is then repeated on the TV… Then you wonder why, when MORI goes out and asks people ‘do you think welfare should be cut back?’, people say yes.” This is something that obviously causes Sheila angst: “It’s more than just rhetoric. It’s misuse of statistics. It’s appalling and, unless you have experience of going through it, you probably have no notion of having to claim anything so don’t necessarily know…”

However, she thinks that the issue which has resonated with people is the ‘bedroom tax': the changes to housing benefit which lead to payments being cut for people deemed to be over-occupying properties based on the number of residents compared to the number of bedrooms. This, Sheila thinks, has “made people sit up and think.” While the legislation was going through, “the housing organisations tried very hard -it was they who coined the term ‘bedroom tax’- the Government say that it was the Labour party who coined the term but I have to say we can’t actually take credit for that!”, but Sheila thinks that it is only recently that this issue has really caught people’s attention. “It’s not addressing the correct problem. There is a problem that there has been a rise in housing benefit payments, which has doubled in ten years, and actually is expected to keep rising despite all of the reforms. My analysis is that it has had a lot to do with the huge expansion in the private rented sector over the past ten years.” The real issue, Sheila notes, is not that there are people claiming housing benefit for extravagant housing, and living beyond their means; it is that there is a lack of affordable housing to move into, and more and more people are being pushed into the private rented sector, which in turn is pushing the amount of housing benefit paid, up. Sheila observes that the total amount that the Government spends on housing, subsidising housing in one way or another, relative to national income, probably hasn’t changed that much in the last 30 or 40 years. However, she notes that the proportion of funding spent on investment in housing stock has fallen from around 80% to 20%, whilst the amount spent on “income subsidy”, assisting people to pay their rent, has shifted from around 20% to 80% of the total housing budget: “public spending hasn’t changed very much in real terms, but it looks as if the benefits side of it has spiralled uncontrollably, unsustainably. I think there is a strong argument for investing in the assets.” Sheila recently conducted some research of her own, looking into the number of one-bedroomed properties available in Edinburgh for rent (either from the council or housing associations) and found that there were 24 one bedroomed properties (5 of which were sheltered) available at the time. The system in Edinburgh allows prospective tenants to bid for properties that they are interested in, and one had received over 900 bids. “Those numbers are eye-boggling really. It makes it very real. … We do have a big issue with houses in short supply in Edinburgh. Not everyone who is applying for housing who doesn’t have a council house at the moment is homeless, in the sense of not having a roof over their head, but many are living in insecure properties.”

However, Sheila recognises that there is still a crucial issue which is often overlooked in this debate, which is not just how many bedrooms your house has; but what social ties you have in the area in which you currently live: “people want to stay in the area in which they have all their social networks, whatever that is, whether its friends, local church, if that’s your social network – people don’t want the upheaval of going somewhere else and starting again. It’s not good for people’s mental wellbeing.” This is something which has been somewhat lost in the panic regarding the need for people to downsize or find alternative accommodation or face a shortfall in rent every month. How people are covering the often unavoidable shortfalls is another area of concern for Sheila: “we’ve seen the growth of pay-day lending institutions as well. People seem to be managing to find rented accommodation even with the reduction in the amount of benefit to cover it, so they’re not literally out on the street, but you have to ask how they’re meeting that, and are they meeting it through cutting back on other things, or by repeatedly borrowing a bit more to keep going, but in the end that can be a very expensive way of meeting that.”

As a female MP at Westminster, Sheila is often asked whether it is still a boys’ club – to which she responds “I don’t think I’m being naïve in saying that, at least on our side of the House, I don’t feel it hugely so, but it may be just simply because the number of women has grown and that has had its own impact and effect, so it’s not as crass as it would have been. You know, when you read about someone like Shirley Williams when she became an MP and the type of atmosphere there was then was very different. So I think we are making progress, but slowly.” In the Labour Party at Westminster, around 31% of MPs are women, which Sheila admits is by no means ideal, but it is a situation that is improving. As someone who was very active in the women’s movement in the 1970s, when asked for her assessment of the progress made since then, Sheila is cautiously positive: “There has been a lot of progress and we mustn’t forget that, because sometimes you can get very despondent and think that nothing’s changed, and it was all for nothing. Even just the language that people use; people do behave differently. While there are some obstacles, the opportunities are greater. The expectations of young women coming out of school and college are different. Now, some of them sometimes find that the real world is not quite so welcoming as they have perhaps been educated to expect, and it comes as a bit of a rude shock when things aren’t quite in place. There have been changes, but you can’t take your foot off the pedal.”

Turning to the question of Scottish independence, which is at the forefront of all discussions about Scottish politics currently, Sheila is a firm supporter of devolution, a process which she feels “was never a closed book, and it is something that needs to keep evolving…” One example of this is the Scotland Act 2012, which passed through the UK Parliament last year, but which has left Sheila frustrated at the slow rate at which change will take place. She singles out the power for the Scottish Parliament to raise taxation, which won’t take effect until 2016: “Now why it takes so long to do that I don’t know, but broadly what it does is it gives the Scottish Parliament more borrowing powers, and an ability to raise taxes. … There’ll still be an element of grant coming from Westminster…but there’ll be an amount which the Scottish Parliament will be required to set and will be then dependent on collecting. So that’s coming. Now personally, I would much rather it was coming quicker because it seems to have disappeared from the public consciousness… hardly anyone is talking about the additional powers that are coming. Now maybe some people think that they are genuinely still not enough, that’s a point of view, but I think we should be clear that the path is already underway, and in fact the same Act that gives those extra powers enables further tax powers to be given to the Scottish Parliament without additional legislation… I think we’re already on the road and sometimes the debate is sometimes framed to suggest that either it is independence or the status quo as has been since 1999, and that is not the case – I think that shows that there is capacity to move further, but I am keen to see people to start discussing what they want to do with the powers and how they think it will enable or change Scotland.”

Discussion is obviously important to Sheila. She already has a relationship with some local church groups:” I meet quite regularly with a group in Portobello, a Peace and Justice group that several denominations are involved in”, and she recently spoke at Sacred Heart in Lauriston on welfare issues. However, Sheila notes that it does depend on the issue: she is honest in saying that “I’ve had disagreements with some churches and church people on things like same sex marriage of late, but I don’t think you should fall out with people because you disagree on certain issues but probably agree and can work together on others.” However, she recognises that with some people, “there are some points where there are genuine disagreements and that’s fair enough.”

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We might be over 50, but us older lady MPs are still worth listening to

Last week I contributed to a collection of essays produced by the International Longevity Centre-UK to mark International Women’s Day on Friday 8th March. I’ve reproduced my piece below, and it also appeared in the Daily Telegraph online on Monday.

Those of us who got involved in the heady days of ‘women’s liberation’ are now in or approaching retirement. Have we changed so much inside? I don’t think so, and so we are ideally placed to understand our issues and fight our own corner.

One of my corners is politics. There is an interesting story line currently running in Doonesbury. Our ‘veteran campaigner’ arrives to work in Senator Elizabeth Warren’s Washington office. The friendly bright young staffer asks if she is the senator’s mother. On hearing she is joining the staff the young woman says that, yes, the Senator is keen on diversity and knows the old are people too.

House of CommonsOne of the best kept secrets in parliament is the number of 50+ women MPs there are. In the 2010 intake of Labour women MPs there are quite a lot of us. In fact, in the first two and a half years of our parliamentary careers becoming a grandmother was a far more common experience for the ‘women of 2010’ than having a baby.

We brought a huge wealth of experiences: from the personal ones of bringing up children, balancing work and caring responsibilities; to a range of work experiences. A number of us have been councillors, often in senior positions, and we have among us trade union officials, senior council officials, managers of Citizens’ Advice Bureaus, lawyers, and accountants. And among the Tory 2010 intake there are also a number of the ‘new’ MPs but not ‘new minted’ vintage.

Yet will you find us among the lists of ‘rising stars’ or ‘ones to watch’?

Almost certainly not. These tend to be the 20- and 30-somethings, often also usefully photogenic. Now I have the greatest of respect for many of these ‘young Turkesses’, but the more mature among us have something to offer too. Nor can we just blame the media.

The political parties themselves do little to counter this view, just look at who gets early promotion and who gets put forward for media, especially TV work. Yes, there are some exceptions. I was delighted when one of the 2010 ‘more mature’ cohort got a front bench shadow post recently. Margaret Hodge (not of course a newbie) is coming into her own as Chair of the Public Accounts Committee. No wonder voters don’t see politicians as ‘people like them’ when they only see a selected ‘type’.

Of course we need the young, but we also need a proper mix – and the frustrating thing is that mix is actually there. There’s a lot of criticism about all MPs these days being professionals, moving seamlessly from researcher to MP. And yes, they exist, but there are lots more of us besides.

Nowadays men in politics suffer from some of the same issues. There were plenty of 50+ men in the new 2010 group (I was going to say ‘new men’ but that might be going too far!), but for the most part you wouldn’t know that. However, there is still a particular issue for older women. An older man may still be seen as distinguished. What’s the comparable term for women?

So one of the best things political parties can do for older women is value us and use us. We represent the vast army of older women who are out there, many still working, others now being the core volunteers keeping charities, residents’ groups and churches going. Recognising the women MPs will help get recognition for all.

We don’t need to be pigeonholed into just talking about ‘older women’s issues’ (we have plenty of other experiences). But there are issues we need to champion, not least social care, where women are not just those needing care but are also so often the carers. The rising pension age is creating problems for those not fit to continue work, many of whom will find any savings they have being used up as they encounter the increasingly means tested benefit system.

However, we also have plenty of views on other things, from defence to the economy.

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Out of committee

From March till the end of May much of my time at Westminster has been spent on the Committee looking clause by clause at the Welfare Reform Bill. This is the third ‘Public Bill Committee’ I’ve been on in my first year at Westminster, and simultaneously the most satisfying and the most frustrating, as well as being the longest. Satisfying because it’s a subject I know a reasonable amount about and felt therefore I could contribute effectively – frustrating because the Coalition majority on the committee (including two LibDems) ensured that nothing we proposed got accepted!

One of the advantages of being in opposition is that as a backbencher you are positively encouraged to speak. I’ve been told stories of what it was like in Government by some old hands. One MP elected in 2005 described how she was busy studying the paperwork for her first committee and the whip asked her what she was doing – ‘you don’t need to do all that’ she was told – her job was to be there not talk!

Some of the Government backbenchers did speak and make interventions – sometimes I think we ‘wound them up’ to doing it (not sure if that pleased their Whip whose task it is to get through the business as ‘efficiently’ as possible). What this showed – and indeed came through from the speeches of the Government Front bench as well – was that there are some profound differences in view about the role of ‘welfare’ in our society.

Committee Corridor in House of Commons

Committee Corridor in House of Commons

At Westminster, Bill Committees are set up on an ‘ad hoc’ basis and sit very intensively over a relatively short timescale – two sessions each Tuesday and Thursday. Our longest session ran from 4pm to 11.30pm (on top of a morning session that day of two and a half hours. )!

So if nothing gets changed is there any point? We have raised the key arguments – and will certainly come back later to say ‘we told you so’. The Minister kept saying the Bill was like a ‘bookcase’ ie just a framework and the detail (‘the books’) would come later in regulations. However we did get Ministers to place certain undertakings on record which we’ll definitely be returning to. And although the response at Committee stage has been to turn down our amendments there is still hope that the Government may – if enough pressure is applied – come back with some changes itself at Report stage or in the House of Lords. For example the cancer charity Macmillan (with other groups in the field) is still active with its campaign called ‘Put the Fair into Welfare’ pushing on a couple of issues in particular. The Coalition Government has proved willing to concede on other issues. I hope these may be a couple of others.

For more infor on the work of the full committee http://goo.gl/Vhco8.

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