I’d like to take this opportunity to wish you a peaceful and joyous festive period. While we take a break and spend time with family, we must remember some friends and neighbours are less fortunate. Keep them in mind during the holiday season, especially if the cold weather sets in.
The fantastic artwork featured here was kindly produced by the students and tutors at Orcadia Creative Learning Centre and will appear on my 2013 Christmas card. The Christmas card will now be distributed to 10,000 Edinburgh East households, spreading a bit of Christmas sparkle.
Located at Windsor Place, Portobello, the learning centre puts on an impressive range of communication based activities for young people with learning difficulties including arts, amateur dramatics, percussion and mime puppetry to encourage students to participate in interactive communication. Students attend from all over Edinburgh and the Lothians.
Orcadia and their dedicated staff and volunteers, ensure that day to day experiences for these children and young people is expressive and engaging. Fundraising is key to ensure that the centre can continue to offer these services. The trampolining room – which can be hired for children’s parties – provides a much needed income stream and this year the centre is being supported by Sainsbury’s Portobello.
The Orcadia website is currently under construction, but you can register for the mailing list at orcadiacentre.org.uk.
Back in May it was pointed out that the Government appeared to have run out of legislative steam with a very thin Queen’s Speech. As it turned out the most contentious Bill, on Lobbying, wasn’t even in the Speech. But the role of Parliament is also to monitor the impact of previous legislation and budgets.
The cost of living has gone due a substantial drop in real wages for many. This has been the focus of a number of debates. The Government’s own Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission has described the Government’s ‘fiscal consolidation’ as regressive in its impact, and on 19th November I asked Nick Clegg about whether he would agreed with one of the Commission’s recommendations to shift the childcare subsidy higher rate taxpayers enjoy to support low earners. Later the same day in a debate on the impact of the Government’s policies on women I made a speech where I pointed out that for low earners the increase in income tax thresholds had been cancelled out by reductions in tax credits and frozen child benefit payments.
Personal Independence Payment – More Haste Less Speed!
Disability Living Allowance is paid to help people cope with the additional costs of living with a disability. In 2010 the Government announced it was to be replaced by a new benefit – Personal Independence Payment – for which the budget would be cut by £2 billion. Initially all new claims made from last month were to be for PIP rather than DLA, but the Department for Work and Pensions announced that this would only happen in certain parts of the country because pilots showed the assessment process was taking longer than expected. I wrote for the Huffington Post about why this is happening and the impact on disabled people.
More Issues with Employment & Support Allowance
While DLA – and in the future PIP – is paid to people regardless of whether they are in or out of work, Employment and Support Allowance is the main ‘income replacement’ benefit for those who cannot work due to a health condition or disability. I’ve been concerned that too many people are being assessed as fit for work when they’re clearly unable to do so. This month I’ve discovered that figures on the number of people awarded ESA have been artificially inflated by taking into account the results of informal appeals against refusals, masking the failings in the assessment. You can read more about this on my website.
This comes on top of the Government’s failure to publish further key data in October, which was picked up by the Third Force News. The Scottish voluntary sector newspaper also published a letter I sent in highlighting the growing number of people refused both ESA and Jobseekers Allowance.
Since their election the Government have reduced the flexibility that Jobcentre Plus advisers have in deciding whether Jobseekers Allowance claimants should have their benefits stopped and sanction periods have increased. As a result there was a sharp rise in the number of people being sanctioned when figures were published earlier this month. While I accept that people in receipt of JSA should be expected to look for work, I’ve come across several examples of people who should never have been sanctioned if common sense had prevailed. I’ve set these out, along with what I think needs to change, on my website.
In September Ed Miliband announced that Labour would scrap the Bedroom Tax if it wins the 2015 General Election. On 12 November we held an ‘Opposition Day’ debate on this proposal, with a vote at the end. This was so over-subscribed with speakers on the Labour side that time ran out before several of us were able to speak, although I did manage to get a few interventions in. You can read the whole debate here. There was also a debate on this subject in the Commons ante-chamber Westminster Hall the week before, in which I was able to make a full speech – see here. Evidence is piling up that the supposed savings on this policy are outweighed by the additional costs, often placed on local councils. In addition to the growing costs of both paying and administering Discretionary Housing Payments (a small pot of money that comes nowhere near mitigating the worst effects of this policy), arrears of rent are causing serious problems for councils and housing associations.
COSLA (the umbrella group for Scottish Local Authorities) has published evidence arguing that the cost will outweigh the saving and the Centre for Housing Policy at York University published similar evidence based on the experience of four housing providers in the north of England.
But this is one part of government policy where the Coalition is for the most part holding firm and refusing to change. There is doubt that the Prime Minister understands the impact of his own policies. At Prime Minister’s Questions on 27 November, in answer to a question from my colleague Andy McDonald from Middlesbrough, David Cameron claimed that all disabled people needing a spare room were exempt, which they are not!
The Scottish Government has now made additional money available for Discretionary Housing Payments, which although welcome, further reduces any ‘savings’ across Government. If readers know of anyone who may have been refused a payment earlier in the year, please encourage them to claim again. Forms can be found on the Council website.
Speaking out in the media
One of my many roles in Westminster is Parliamentary Private Secretary to Michael Dugher MP, Labour’s Shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office. Michael is always on the look-out for Government waste and hypocrisy, and I often take responsibility for providing comment for the national media. So when it emerged that David Cameron used a tax cut to slash his own Downing Street energy bill by £400, I highlighted his opposition to Labour’s price freeze in the Daily Mirror and wrote a piece for LabourList. Then when the Prime Minister’s staffer Craig Oliver helped get election strategist Lynton Crosby through the back door of Number 10, I spoke in the Mirror about his links to big tobacco firms. When it emerged the Conservatives had been deleting pre-2010 speeches and press releases from their website, I popped up in the BBC, Guardian and Telegraph.
Protect our Post Offices
Over the last month I’ve received over 100 postcards from constituents concerned about the future of the post office network following the Government’s decision to privatise Royal Mail. This was one of the many reasons I and my Labour colleagues opposed privatisation. It will be important that Ministers do all they can to ensure the network survives in the future. Some people use a Post Office Card Account to accesses benefits and pensions – renewing this contract would boost the network’s chances of survival significantly. For more information head to the National Federation of SubPostmasters website.
Lutton Court student accommodation
In October Buile Developments Limited submitted plans to demolish the former Lutton Court Gall & Inglis printworks building, and construct accommodation for 240 students. In my submission calling on city planners to reject the proposals I referred to statistics obtained from the 2011 census which indicated that the student population here is already 49%. The additional 240 students will result in the student population increasing from 194 to 434, or 68% of all residents well above the City of Edinburgh Council’s policy requiring planners to ensure that accommodation for students is limited to 30% of housing provision in one particular area.
Students contribute to the diversity and vibrancy of the Southside but constituents – including students living nearby – are concerned this proposal will lead to too high a concentration. The Council’s own planning guidance acknowledges that it is not the existence of students which is problematic; nonetheless, where there is an excessive presence this places undue pressure on existing residents and community relations. The student population is highly transient and can lead to less stable communities. Edinburgh has flourished having a strong community of permanent residents in its centre and I want this to continue. There are many other uses for this site, such as affordable housing which is in such short supply. The full submission is on my website.
Fibre Broadband Rollout
I frequently receive enquiries from local residents looking to set up small businesses from home, and those who are eagerly awaiting fibre broadband to be turned on in their street. All of the exchanges which serve Edinburgh East are ‘accepting orders’ for fibre broadband which means that those who want the ultra-fast internet service can buy it if they wish to do so. The Portobello exchange was one of the first in Edinburgh to be upgraded, while others including the Abbeyhill exchange, which I recently visited, had to wait a short while until deemed commercially viable. Super-fast broadband is an essential tool for local businesses, but it is very much a necessity for families in the 40,000 households across Edinburgh East – whether it is used for homework, working from home, or simply streaming an episode of Doctor Who. At the visit engineers showed me how the powerful connections are carried across Edinburgh.
The Abbeyhill fibre broadband roll-out will serve 13,500 local homes and businesses when it is complete. By the end of next spring, more than 178,000 homes and businesses in the capital will benefit from the upgrades. BT has invested £2.5bn in the rollout.
In September I published my submission on the plans to erect a Lidl store at the former Stratstone Land Rover showroom near to the Seafield junction. Last week members of the Development Management Sub-committee decided to reject the proposals on the basis other sites are preferable and the applicant had not sufficiently demonstrated the proposal addressed a retail deficiency in the area.
Southside Advertising Success
More than a year ago Southside residents wrote to myself and Southside Newington Councillors as billboards had been erected at Holyrood Park Bowling Club, violating views of Arthur’s Seat and Salisbury Crags. In partnership with Forest Media Group, the bowling club submitted applications to erect three hoardings along the road. The first was approved without objection (there is no need to notify neighbours about advertising hoardings); while the second billboard erected was larger than the Council had agreed and enforcement action was taken. The third board was found to be on located on Council land, and local Councillors have now agreed to request that the board be removed. Local residents who worked tirelessly to petition Councillors and officers should be congratulated for their hard work and persistence!
National Cycle Network Upgrade
Edinburgh can proudly say that it has a large cycling community and is a prime destination on the National Cycle Network. I’m therefore pleased the Council is working in partnership with Sustrans to deliver an upgrade of National Cycle Network Route 1 (NCN1) between the Meadows and the Innocent Tunnel cycle path. Included on the Council’s ‘Family Network’, the route is part of a network of cycle routes for younger or less confident cyclists. More information about Cycle Route Proposal for Meadows to Innocent Path can be found on the Council’s website, and there is a leaflet here.
Recruitment and Skills Centre Launch
On 22nd November I attended the official launch of the Recruitment & Skills Centre at Kinnaird Park. The centre is a partnership between the management of Kinnaird Park (British Land), the City of Edinburgh Council, DWP and Cyrenians. Its aim is to help employers get the right people and job seekers get the jobs. Already up and running, it has helped the recent recruitment processes for the Range and River Island. Most convincingly we heard from some of the successful new employees. The Centre will also be assisting other employers such as Edinburgh Trams. It also aims to help smaller employers who often lack the time to run a recruitment process and may be wary about making the wrong appointment. There is also an exciting link with local high schools. It is so important to ensure that young people are not leaving school with neither further education or a job ahead of them.
Portobello Basics Bank Food Bank
This month I visited volunteers who run the Portobello Basics Bank, not a new form of money banking, but a Food Bank. This is staffed by volunteers every Tuesday 10.00am til 1.00pm in Wilson Memorial Church. People are referred by advice agencies, social workers and others. As well as food they are offered free teas and coffee. This help is provided on a temporary basis (normally no more than 6 weeks) but signposting and advice is given to try to resolve the underlying problem. If you are interested in volunteering or able to donate supplies contact Rev Ralph Dunn (Wilson Memorial Church) on 0131 669 6636. The work is much needed and appreciated, but the continuing growth of food banks is worrying. There are a now believed to be over 600 such banks operating in the UK.
The Prime Minister’s stock response to questions on this is to say ‘food bank use went up 10 fold under Labour’. Based on Trussell Trust figures this is true; however the original number was very very small number, times that by ten and that is still a small number. Trussell helped 4000 people in 2005, which rose to 41,000 in 2010. By 2012/13 the number was 347,000 and in the period from April to September 2013 the number was already 350,000. These numbers don’t include the growing number of non-Trussell Trust banks like the Portobello one.
Unprompted by me the Portobello volunteers described DWP ‘sanctions’ as a frequent cause of referral (see my thoughts above).
Do you know an older person who is lonely or isolated? Do you have time and energy to volunteer to ‘make the connection’ with someone in this position? Recently I met with people from the Community Connecting project who told me about some of the success stories , encouraging people who have become wary of going out and about alone, perhaps after illness, and who need a ‘bit of a hand’ to get back in touch with old friends and interests. The service is free in south east Edinburgh to anyone over 65 – contact the organisation at 7 West Adam Street, on firstname.lastname@example.org or call 0131 558 3728. To volunteer contact the Volunteer Centre, 3rd Floor, 24 Torphichen Street.
Student Stop Aids Campaign
On Saturday 2nd November I spoke in Edinburgh at a conference of students from across the UK who are campaigning to stop the spread of Aids worldwide. They had asked me to come along to give them tips about effective ‘lobbying’ of politicians. Their enthusiasm and commitment was impressive.
Dates for Your Diary
- Saturday 30th November – Southside Community Centre St Andrew’s Ceilidh: Dancing, Sing-a-Long, & Hot Food B.Y.O.B.- 7.30pm —10.30pm – Tickets £8, Under 14s £5, Family £20 from Southside Community Centre
- Tuesday 3 December – Southside Association and Community Centre Carol Service and Festive Lights Ceremony – Lights to be switched on by Sarah Boyack MSP & service led by Rev Alex MacDonald, Buccleuch Free Church – from 6pm
- Saturday 7 December – Portobello Amnesty International showing of ‘The Echo of Pain of the Many’ – Portobello Baptist Church Café, 189 Portobello High Street – 2pm – more details at www.facebook.com/events/385606264905631/
- Saturday 7 December – Portobello Christmas Market – Brighton Park, off Brighton Place, Portobello – 9.30am to 1pm – stallholders list
- Saturday 7 December – Christmas Craft Fair – Craigmillar Community Arts Centre, 58 Newcraighall Road (Fort Kinnaird) – 1.00pm–4.00pm