Domestic 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
On 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.
And 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
On 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 email@example.com.
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
This 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”
I 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.
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
Wednesday, 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