Edinburgh’s parks are an asset much loved by all residents because they serve as great venues for summer events. I am therefore pleased that the Council Parks department has begun to consult on an Events in Parks Manifesto. I am keen to ensure that the manifesto recognises how all parks can be used for vibrant and enjoyable events balanced with the needs of local residents and their environmental concerns.
Edinburgh can proudly say that its has a large cycling community and is a prime destination on the National Cycle Network. We enjoy good paths and motorists who are generally respectful. Like many cyclists I still feel much can be done to make cycling easier and safer for a relatively small cost compared with the overall transport budget.
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. 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 Coucils website, and there is a leaflet here.
Please note, the closing date for feedback is Monday 16 December 2013.
Kezia Dugdale MSP and I are backing the Edinburgh Evening News Save our Stations campaign in response to the news that Police Scotland intends to close eight police station front desks across Edinburgh, after Justice Secretary, Kenny MacAskill MSP ordered a review of public counter provision. To sign the Evening News petition against the plance, follow the instructions at http://bit.ly/1bCr94x or print and complete this petition form:
In Edinburgh East operations at Craigmillar are due to be transferred to the new East Neighbourhood Centre and there are proposals to cut the opening hours at Portobello. Kezia is formulating a response to the review and she is seeking your comments on the plans via a survey which you can complete here:
Create your free online surveys with SurveyMonkey , the world’s leading questionnaire tool.
For further information, head to http://bit.ly/1bCr94x.
Watching the Shard
Sitting for several days this month in a Bill Committee I have had a wonderful view of London’s latest addition to the skyline. The window opposite had the Shard in its centre. As with all new buildings this has been controversial but I have to admit I am a fan. The play of different light conditions has been fascinating; sometimes it looks opaque, in other lights almost transparent. Lights sparkle in it as daylight fades. Partly because of the way the Thames bends, the Shard looks remarkably close from a variety of places in the city. Pity though that the cost of going to the top has been set so high.
‘One Billion Rising’ and debating sexual violence in conflict.
An innovation in Westminster Parliament procedure since 2010 is the Backbench Business Committee which has dedicated debating time made available for subjects chosen by backbenchers. Sometimes there are votes, although often not, but there is no direct impact on Government policy. It can put pressure on Government and raise the profile of issues which are hugely important but aren’t always in the front of any Government’s mind. A few months ago for instance there was a debate on mental health which many campaigning groups hailed as being an honest opening up of a subject often hidden away. On Thursday 14th February there was 5 hours of debate on two issues around violence against women. One marked the One Billion Rising Campaign which is an international coalition of campaigners speaking out for action to tackle violence against girls and women across the world. 160 countries and over 27,000 individuals have signed up. Many events were taking place across the UK on this date. The second debate (in which I spoke) focused on the prevalence of violence in conflict zones. This is an issue which the British Government has committed itself to acting on. Significantly – I hope – William Hague and Douglas Alexander not only spoke but also stayed throughout the whole of the debate. This is one of those issues where there is a high degree of cross party consensus – but whether that actually leads to effective progress remains to be seen. See p67 http://bit.ly/WrtUJr.
The campaign against the ‘bedroom tax’ has gained momentum this month. This is only one relatively small part of the Government’s Welfare Reforms, but is very significant for the individuals involved. In cash terms people in Edinburgh affected are typically being asked to find around £50 per month towards rent payments (if they have one ‘spare’ bedroom). Ed Miliband focussed on this at one PMQs session this month, the matter featured heavily in DWP questions on 28th January, and at Scottish Questions on 13th February. I used housing availability figures for Edinburgh to illustrate the problem and asked Michael Moore to revere these plans. Read Hansard from p5 http://bit.ly/15ixonn, or watch the session at http://bit.ly/WhGW1t. I expanded on this in a press release: http://bit.ly/V9NcH1. The other day I heard a good example of the way this is affecting constituents when I met a couple who, after six years of waiting in unsuitable accommodation for a wheelchair accessible house, had finally been able to move to a two bedroomed ground floor flat which met their needs. The wife is able to get in and out of the property fairly easily and the space makes it possible not just to move around but store equipment – but they are required to pay more to make up the difference in Housing Benefit. I hope that they stand a reasonable chance of securing a ‘discretionary housing payment’ to help them meet the rent, since the Council has said people with chronic disabilities and illness will be among those prioritised for these payments. Edinburgh Council has also agreed to put additional money towards such payments to ‘top up’ what is coming from the DWP. Judging rightly that if they don’t do this, extra costs are likely to be incurred in chasing up rent arrears if people can’t meet the shortfall. But in terms of ‘saving the public purse’ this in fact simply shifts costs from central to local government – not really a saving at all. There were some signs last week that Iain Duncan Smith might be looking again at the position for disabled people – almost as if he had just not realised there might be a problem until now, although all of this was argued over in the original debates. Responsible local authorities are taking steps to mitigate the impact over and above the discretionary payments. Although there is a very real shortage of smaller properties, council and housing association landlords can adapt allocation policies to give priority to people wanting to move – on the other hand this could simply make it even slower for people waiting to get a tenancy. One of the main reasons why Edinburgh council lets 2 bedroom properties to single people was the mismatch between applicants (the majority of whom are singles) and the available property sizes (the majority of which having 2 bedrooms). Building or buying more properties would also help, but to make rents affordable there has to be subsidy and the level of funding to councils and housing associations from the Scottish Government has fallen in the last couple of years. New builds in Scotland dropped from 7900 a year two years ago to 3400 now – and some of these are fairly expensive ‘mid market’ rents – which bar applications from tenants who claim Housing Benefit.
Another small success on Personal Independence Payment regulations
I reported last month that on 21st January the Work and Pensions Select Committee had a session with the Disability Minister on the implementation of Personal Independence Payment (PIP). One of the issues the Minister was pressed on was the fact that the final draft regulations did not include a reference to whether someone could carry out an activity ‘safely, reliably, repeatedly and in a reasonable time period’. The Government initially wanted to put this in guidance only, not in regulations, but announced a change of heart earlier this month. This will now be included in regulations. This will help a lot of people who can sometimes manage to do things like ‘move 50 metres’ but at other times are exhausted part way and have to stop. This phrase will apply to all activities, not just mobility. The Government has not made any decision to change the distance for ‘higher rate mobility’ under PIP to 20 metres from the 50 mentioned in the original drafts, but still it shows that campaigning does work!
The Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill
The second reading of this Bill took place on 5th February. There are some consequential issues applying in Scotland but primarily this legislation applies to England and Wales. The Scottish Government has indicated an intention to legislate on this subject but has not actually done so to date. All parties had a free vote. This has been a controversial issue and I received correspondence from constituents on both sides of the debate. I voted in favour of the Bill. I know that some constituents have very strong contrary views, and are concerned that this legislation will have profound social consequences. I know there is no consensus on this, but that is an aspect of democratic debate.
What are the big policy issues this month?
Every month I receive hundreds of emails and letters from constituents about a wide range of policy issues. The top three issues over the last month have been the Energy Bill, the Justice and Security Bill and the If Campaign on international development.
The previous Labour Government set ambitious targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050. To meet this target we will have to completely decarbonise our electricity generation, and the Government’s Energy Bill – introduced to parliament late last year – presented an opportunity to put this commitment into law. Unfortunately, Ministers have deferred a decision until after the next election, in effect kicking the issue into the long grass. This uncertainty means investment in renewable energy will continue to drop. The UK will miss out on green jobs and growth as a result. Labour has tabled an amendment to the bill that would reinsert this decarbonisation commitment. I can assure constituents that I will be voting in favour of it when the bill returns to the House of Commons at report stage. You can keep up to date with progress at http://bit.ly/15itWZK.
Justice and Security Bill
This bill will allow for greater use of what are called Closed Material Proceedings (CMPs) where evidence used is sensitive or would pose a threat to public safety if it were heard in open court. While I acknowledge that openness and transparency must remain a central tenet of our justice system, I accept that there are certain limited circumstances where these principles should be deviated from. However my Labour colleagues and I believe that the bill as it stands does not contain sufficient safeguards to ensure CMPs are only used as a means of last resort. My Labour colleagues in the Lords amended the bill to provide for such safeguards but these changes were overturned when the bill passed through its committee stage in the commons. A similar amendment has been re-tabled for commons report stage and I can assure you that I will be voting in support of it. Again you can keep up to date http://bit.ly/15itY3S.
There has been real progress in recent years in addressing global poverty under the framework of the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). I am proud that the previous Labour Government played its part by trebling aid spending so as to work towards the international standard of spending 0.7% of Gross National Income (GNI) on aid. However there needs to be renewed international efforts to build on the achievements of the MDGs and make progress on areas like gender equality, maternal health, climate change and food security. The UK has a real opportunity to pursue this as President of the G8 in 2013 and the If campaign – currently supported by over 100 charities – has called for the Government to do precisely this. I also support the campaign’s calls for more action on tax avoidance by multinational companies so that developing countries can build their own tax base and move away from a dependency on aid. Next month I will meet with pupils at Preston Street Primary School to speak to them about the campaign. I’ll collect artwork and written letters they have produced and present them to the Government in due course.
Scots Together, a collective energy switching initiative aims to get a better deal on energy prices for people living in Scotland by buying energy together, launched on 18 February and runs until 17 March. Collective switching involves getting people together to review their electricity and gas tariffs to ensure they are on the best deal they can get. While Scots Together will primarily be promoted in the South East Scotland area, it is open to everyone living in Scotland. Anyone who pays a household electricity and/or gas bill in Scotland can join Scots Together. The biggest saving in the UK so far is a jaw-dropping £786 a year for one member in Edinburgh! Householders will be offered up to three options through the switch, meaning a bespoke service for each individual. The options cover: · The price obtained through the collective switch auction (there’s an offer for prepayment meters too) · A comparison of the whole market provided by uSwitch · A greener tariff. Full details can be found at http://www.scotstogether.com/how-it-works/
‘Half term’ at Westminster is an opportunity to catch up with visits and events in the Constituency.
One visit I made was to see something of the work being done by the Prince’s Trust to help young people get ready for employment. Throughout 2011/12 the Trust supported over 5,000 disadvantaged young people in Scotland, with almost 4,000 achieving and sustaining positive outcomes such as education, training, employment or self-employment. Particularly impressive were the Young Ambassadors and Job Ambassadors who use their experience to pass on to others – they provide ‘peer education’ rather than hearing from adults whose lives may seem totally different.
Royal Society MP Pairing
Last autumn I wrote about the Royal Society scheme where MPs and scientists were ‘paired’. My ‘pair’ came to Westminster in October and during this recess we did the ‘return match’. I had the opportunity to hear from a number of researchers, largely in the Nursing Studies department of the University. Nurse education is a hot potato at the moment with some people suggesting that the move to degree level training for nurses has been a mistake. We discussed that issue , but I also heard about some of the research being done. One example was a project to encourage mothers of young children to reduce ‘secondary smoke ‘ in the home – something I hope will get taken up across the country. Another important piece of work was looking at the follow on care for people who have had a period in the Intensive Care Unit, the medium to long term consequences of which are not well understood. Hopefully this will lead to improvements in practice based on evidence.
Dumbiedykes & Prestonfield
Visits to groups in these areas share some of the practical consequences of the much debated ‘challenges of an ageing population’. I was in Dumbiedykes to talk with residents who are campaigning for the restoration of a direct bus route to the Southside. The ‘old’ Dumbiedykes was an integral part of the Southside, and Dumbiedykes Road ran all the way up to join St Leonard’s Hill. The road link was cut with the redevelopment in the 1960s, but for many people their social networks remain in that direction, hence the need for a bus. Many older residents find the hills are a real barrier. In the picture here the building directly behind the pram is now the Braidwood Centre where we met. There’s another link between Dumbiedykes and Prestonfield, besides both having a high proportion of older residents. Many of the people rehoused to the new Prestonfield estate in the 1930s came from the Southside/Dumbiedykes area. The specific issue I was in Prestonfield to talk about with the Neighbourhood Centre as well as the Tenants’ and Residents’ Group was the difficulty many of their older people have in qualifying for showers. Despite the lip service paid to the importance of ‘prevention’ and enabling people to stay in their own homes, the eligibility criteria for help with getting a shower has been raised substantially in recent years. This is an illustration of the pressures faced by councils in trying to provide social care which I have written about previously. My response to Alex Neil’s comments in The Herald: http://bit.ly/Wrr5Im; and a previous blog post http://bit.ly/HjSYtl discuss the issue. Even where tenants were getting a whole new bathroom as part of the council’s modernisation programme, the Council has insisted that wet floor showers (which the council prefers to shower cabinets) could only be installed if the tenant were assessed and met the very high level of need under the criteria. A concession was finally made about 18 months ago that showers would be given if requested by tenants in sheltered housing. In somewhere like Prestonfield, however, there are many very elderly tenants who are just as much in need who do not live in sheltered housing. As the area is due to be included in the bathroom modernisation programme in the coming year, we thought this was an appropriate time to raise this issue yet again, bearing in mind that there is a new council administration. One lady I met who lives in a ground floor flat was 85, had multiple health problems and had been a council tenant for 60 years, but had been advised that ‘modernisation’ would only provide an overbath shower despite her being unable to climb in. We also agreed to approach the Council about the need to review the eligibility criteria more generally, and the lack of any proper appeal structure when people are refused adaptations.
Around the Constituency
‘New Blueprint for the Royal Mile’
The Council’s planning department has produced a draft ‘Royal Mile Action Plan’. In it are suggestions such as reducing ‘tartan tat’, making more of the street traffic free, and banning double decker buses (both tourist and ordinary services). What about the needs and opinions of the many local residents? How are they being involved in this? Not enough says the Old Town Community Council! There’s an opportunity to make your voice heard on this and other Old Town issues as the Old Town Community Council is hosting an event to encourage greater community participation and constructive debate. The OTCC wants to gather views and develop ideas about how to improve the area. The previous meeting proved to be both informative and useful for all who attended in identifying problems and developing solutions. If you want to attend head along to Augustine United Church Hall, George IV Bridge, on Monday March 11th from 7pm – 9.30pm (doors open 6.30pm) Further public exhibitions on the Caltongate plans are due to be held on Thursday 14th March between 11am and 8pm and Saturday 16th March between 10am and 12.30pm at the Canongate Venture building.
Learning Mandarin at Leith Academy
I had the chance to meet a group of Leith Academy pupils who had won a place in the finals of a schools Mandarin speaking competition held at the British Museum in London. Although they didn’t win, getting to the finals was a tremendous achievement. The girls (they were all girls as it happened) were a credit to their school. In the photo above the group were ready for a joint performance. Immaculate Kahembwe also took part in the individual category of the competition.
A Street Audit in Craigentinny
On Saturday 26th January I went out with Councillor Alex Lunn and a group of local residents to ‘walk the streets’ around Craigentinny Town Centre. This was organised by the Craigentinny/Duddingston Neighbourhood Partnership and supported by an organisation called ‘Living Streets’. The group came up with priority recommendations for actions: Short term: 1. Implement an effective litter management regime including strategies to tackle dog fouling and fly-tipping. 2. Implement an effective weed management regime, including timing spraying to achieve the maximum effect and following this up with weed removal. 3. Cut back overgrown vegetation to ensure that pedestrian passage is safe and unimpeded. Longer term: 1. Repair the disintegrating wall around Craigentinny Primary School. 2. Increase street light provision on Loaning Road. 3. Develop an effective strategy and action plan that will resolve the problem of pavement and double parking, particularly on Loganlea Gardens. There were other recommendations too & now the Report goes to the City Council. Whether this was all worthwhile depends on what action is actually taken by those who have the power to do it.
A Lidl in Portobello?
The site of the former Land Rover garage at the corner of Wakefield Avenue has been lying empty for a while now. The Lidl chain is proposing to build a store here. This is currently at the ‘pre application consultation’ stage but I am currently gathering comments for a submission. The main concerns being increased traffic given the proximity of the busy Seafield Junction. Send your views to me on firstname.lastname@example.org. Full details are available at www.lidlcraigentinny.co.uk.
Protecting the Meadows – are there too many events?
The annual application by the ‘Lady boys of Bangkok’ to use the Meadows during the Festival has gone in. While the promoters have already started to sell tickets for their annual festival show, the area of the Meadows where the showground is based is still recovering from last August. The City of Edinburgh Council has now sought urgent comments on proposals to hold the event in the same place this year. Events on the park have added to the variety and vibrancy of the festival season, but concerns remain about the health of the land and the damage following the event. You can see my objection on my website at http://www.sheilagilmore.co.uk/protecting-the-meadows-are-there-too-many-events/. If you live around the Meadows and would like to get involved with the ‘Friends of the Meadows’ there is going to be a public meeting on the use of barbecues on Monday 18th March (7.30pm) at the Pillar Hall, Barclay Viewforth Church. Read their newsletter http://www.fombl.org.uk/nl33.pdf.
Review of the Craigmillar Urban Regeneration Framework
The Council is undertaking a review of the Craigmillar Urban Design Framework. A review document has been prepared on the basis of feedback received at a drop-in day held in October 2012. The review sets out options for change which residents are entitled to contribute to. I’ve prepared a draft of my comments; please request a copy if you would like to see the themes I will discuss. The deadline for comments is 5pm on Friday 29th March 2013 before which I will publish my final response at http://www.sheilagilmore.co.uk/craigmillar-urban-design-framework-review/.
Young People’s Taster Sessions and Consultation Event
CLD are linking up with Edinburgh Leisure, CLD’s Open All Hours provision and the Craigentinny and Duddingston Neighbourhood Partnership, to offer a free activities based evening with the opportunity for young people to have a say about issues that affect them, using voting pads.
A group of young people have helped to organise this event with CLD staff and hope to produce a presentation of the results for the Craigentinny and Duddingston Neighbourhood Partnership. If you want to go along, doors open from 6.30pm on Friday 8th March.
Castlebrae Community High School
The response of the Council’s Children & Families Department to the consultation on the proposed closure of the school was published on Thursday 21st February. The report is available at http://bit.ly/15QeOnT. The report responds to the various points submitted by parents and local residents. I regret the report still reaches a conclusion to recommend closure. The Councillors will meet to make a final decision on this on March 14th. The Council is still looking at the school in isolation from the wider issues of economic and housing regeneration in Craigmillar. There is a welcome commitment to re-energise the regeneration process, but this should be a chance to look at education in this context rather than taking decisions which will have long term consequences in the future. I have prepared some initial comments which I have now passed to Council colleagues. You can see this on my website at http://www.sheilagilmore.co.uk/castlebrae-consultation-outcome-report/.
Dates for your Diary
Friday 8th March – Young People’s Taster Sessions and Consultation Event – Meadowbank Stadium – from 6.30pm til 9.00pm Monday, 11th March – Old Town Community Council Community Engagement event – Augustine United Church Hall, George IV Bridge, – from 7pm – 9.30pm (doors open 6.30pm) Thursday, 14th March – Caltongate exhibition – 11.00am to 8.00pm – Canongate Venture, New Street Thursday 14th March – City of Edinburgh Council Full Meeting including decision on Castlebrae Community High School – from 10am – watch live at http://www.edinburgh.public-i.tv/core/ Saturday, 16th March – Caltongate exhibition – 10.00am to 12.30pm – Canongate Venture building. Sunday 17th March – Deadline to take part in ScotsTogether – further details in main body and at www.scotstogether.com Monday 18th March – Friends of the Meadows and Bruntsfield Links monthly meeting – from 7.30pm – Barclay Viewforth Church
Happy New Year! With Christmas and New Year it has been a while since my last Report at the end of November.
Unusually this week even Central London saw some fairly thick snow, prompting Mayor Boris to cast doubt on climate change theories. To be fair, he still voiced support for measures such as insulation on fuel economy grounds, but he does not seem to have understood the difference between ‘climate’ and ‘weather’.
This month we have had a lot of talk about referenda on Scotland and Europe. January was also the month when the Chancellor hoped he had sprung a trap for the opposition on benefits and tax credits uprating. More on both below.
The quirks of questions
Sometimes you spend a long time trying to craft the perfect question to a Minister in one of the Departmental question sessions, only to find you are not called, and even if called , that no-one takes any notice. On Wednesday 18th December I stayed in the Chamber after PMQs to hear the Defence Secretary’s Statement on Afghanistan. Defence and foreign affairs are not areas I have chosen to specialise in, and while they are extremely important it is sensible to focus one’s energies at Westminster. However being there, I decided to ask a question, about womens’ and girls’ rights and education. Being a statement, if you ‘stick it out’, exercising by jumping up and down between each question and answer, you generally get taken – last on our side in this case. But my more spur of the moment question featured in the Independent’s report of the session!
I seem to have had a very ‘dry’ spell in terms of getting questions in the various ‘ballots’ for Oral Questions in the last few weeks, not for want of trying. But I’ve had a bit of success in ‘bobbing’ (the ‘technical’ term for trying to ‘catch the speaker’s eye even if you haven’t been drawn for a question). Here’s some I have had:
1. I had my first PMQ in several months on 5th December asking the Prime Minister a question about tax relief on pension contributions.
“Q11.  Sheila Gilmore (Edinburgh East) (Lab): Whatever announcements the Chancellor makes on pension tax relief shortly, is it not a fact that when this Government came to power, they made changes to pension tax relief that gave a tax cut of £1.6 billion to people earning more than £150,000? [Interruption] I see that the Chancellor has to give the Prime Minister his crib sheet.
The Prime Minister: I am afraid the Hon. Lady is wrong. We inherited a plan to raise £4 billion in taxes from the wealthiest people, and we raised that further. My Right Hon. Friend the Chancellor will make some further announcements in a moment.”
The point behind this question is that when Labour introduced the 50p tax rate, they made a change to pension tax relief so that people paying that higher rate of tax did not also automatically get 50p tax relief on every pound put away in a pension. On taking office, the Coalition Government changed this so that ‘full’ relief was given to higher rate tax payers. As so often happens at PMQs the Chancellor had to lean over to whisper an answer to the PM (hence the comment about crib sheets). See p11 http://bit.ly/WdlAAz.
2. 5th December was a particularly busy day as I had a Select Committee meeting in the morning, met with a constituent who had been on a tour for a rather brisk cup of tea, then asked my PMQ. I also had been drawn for a short debate in Westminster Hall on ESA issues (see below) and in between was the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement, where I asked the Chancellor a question about figures the Government keeps quoting for job creation (more on jobs figures later). See p35 http://bit.ly/WdlAAz.
3. On 6th December I had a question to the Department of the Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA) on low energy lighting – a most unsatisfactory response. (more later on this issue) http://bit.ly/Wdp3Pi and the same morning DWP minister Steve Webb made a formal statement on benefit uprating where I had a chance to put a question to him (see p32 http://bit.ly/Wdp3Pi)
4. Monday 10th December was the day for DWP questions. I wasn’t drawn but I was called on a question about the Work Programme which is the Government’s flagship employability scheme. The first published statistics had been published about 10 days before this, and showed that the scheme had not met the targets the Government had set for its first year. For nearly 18 months we had been told that no information could be given about outcomes until the first results had been statistically verified. However, the Government didn’t like its own statistics they accompanied them with unverified reports from some of the programme operators stating that actually some 200,000 people had ‘started’ jobs. My question was about this. See p13 http://bit.ly/WdpeKF.
Following this session, the Disability Minister (Esther McVey) was called to answer an Urgent Question about further redundancies at Remploy Factories. After the initial question and answer other people have an opportunity to ask questions, and I asked the Minister to stop the process given that most of the people in the first round of redundancies hadn’t been found jobs. See p32 http://bit.ly/WdpeKF.
5. The following day I got in another question about the Work Programme, this time at Treasury Questions. See p6 http://bit.ly/WdpeKF.
6. I don’t often ask questions on local government (because it is devolved) but housing remains a passion of mine and I asked a Christmas themed question on 17th December:
Sheila Gilmore (Edinburgh East) (Lab): There are 2,000 households with children in bed and breakfasts, 880 for more than six weeks. There is room at the inn, but no cooking facilities for Christmas, and the price is an increase in housing benefit. What do the Minister’s colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions say about that?
Mr Foster: The Hon. Lady fails to acknowledge the significant reduction in the number of children in those circumstances under this Government. I nevertheless accept it is important that we do everything we possibly can to assist these families. That is why we are taking action with the relevant council and why we are making £390 million available to assist with the changes in welfare benefit, which her Government never did.
(The point of course, is that the £390m – called Discretionary Housing payments – is only necessary because of the cuts being made and will in no way make the ends meet. The Labour Government didn’t need discretionary payments because it wasn’t making such cuts in the first place. The trouble with oral questions like this is that you don’t get in for another bite at the cherry even when you believe the Minister to be wrong! See p5 http://bit.ly/Wdmv3G.
7. On 8th January I asked the Deputy Prime Minister whether he would support the 60,000 people who have signed ‘Pat’s Petition’ asking for a ‘cumulative impact assessment’ to be carried out of the effects of all the various welfare reform measures on disabled people. His response was to repeat the DWP line ‘when did the Labour Government carry out such an assessment’ – but the real issue is that at no time did the Labour Government carry out such a raft of changes over a limited period. See p9 http://bit.ly/WdmcpH.
The Wintry Autumn Statement
The Chancellor’s Autumn Statement slipped back to 5th December this year. It wasn’t only the weather that was cold by then, so was the economy. Growth has been much slower than predicted in 2010 when the Coalition announced its Emergency Budget and Comprehensive Spending Review (June and October 2010 respectively).There are conflicting views as to why this happened, nevertheless it is a fact the economy is flatlining. The Office of Budget Responsibility report of the Pre-budget predicted growth would be 2.5% in 2011 and 2.75% in 2012, (based on the policy initiatives of the previous Government).
The Government has made a lot of the ‘deficit’ having been reduced by a quarter but this has to be viewed in the context of their original plan to eliminate the deficit by 2015. To achieve this, the reduction by now would have had to be closer to one half. The target has now been pushed back to 2017.
As a result of this, government borrowing is rising faster than predicted. In the run up to the Autumn Statement many commentators pointed to a big hole opening up in Government finances which could involve drastic further spending cuts. (For anyone wanting to follow up on these arguments a report called Fiscal Fallout published in November 2011 by the Social Market Foundation and the Royal Society of Arts is a good place to start).
In the event, the Chancellor deliberately put off a decision about further departmental spending cuts to the next spending review, but he found savings by limiting the uprating of benefits and tax credits by 1% over the next three years.
Since the autumn statement prospects haven’t improved much. Just this week we have the news that GDP fell by 0.3% in the last three months of 2012.
Employment Figures and the Work Programme
When criticised on the economy the Government points to the fact that unemployment has been falling and that ‘1 million’ new private sector jobs have been created since the General Election. One of their justifications for cutting back the public sector was that this would ‘free up’ the private sector to grow. These figures are causing considerable comment among economists and business commentators, since usually a recession and low growth is accompanied by reduced employment.
I have been pursuing this issue with both the Prime Minister and other Ministers at question sessions and in debates over the last year. By the beginning of 2011 the Prime Minister claimed 500,000 new private sector jobs had been created since the election. Arguably many of these were the result of the stimulus measures of the Labour Government. The 1.2 million quoted towards the end of 2012 include that earlier 500,000 which suggests growth in jobs has actually slowed up. ONS statistics show that around 170,000 of these result from a reclassification of FE college jobs as private rather than public sector. Given the increase in tendering out of public sector functions to the private sector, it is possible that there are other jobs like this. More recently, the Guardian newspaper published an analysis which showed that of the 500,000 new private sector jobs appearing in the statistics for the year to November 2012, at least one fifth appeared to be unpaid work experience placements. See The Guardian data blog: http://bit.ly/XG7NOy.
Many of the new jobs are part time jobs. I have always been a great advocate of part time and flexible working but there appears to be increasing numbers of people who are not choosing this, rather it is a necessity. Part of the explanation may be down to structural changes in business and the labour market which may not change anytime soon. Retail has moved from the old 5 and a half day opening to a seven day week with extended hours. The amount of ‘footfall’ does not increase in line with the hours, so the workforce gets spread over the time, with ‘flexible’ hours matching busy times. One result of this increase in part time work is more workers must claim tax credits and housing benefit, so explaining the ‘shocking rise’ the Government made much of in the Uprating Debate (see more below).
When asked what it is doing about unemployment the Government refers to its ‘flagship’ employability service, the Work Programme. This was to bring together all previous types of employment support into one for those unemployed for 12 months or more (less for young people and those coming off Incapacity Benefit). This we were told would be the biggest, the cheapest and the best such programme ever. For the first 18 months DWP Ministers refused to give any interim outcome data on the ground that it had to be properly verified first (and forbade the providers from doing so either). Shortly before Christmas results revealed the first year target had not been met after 14 months of ‘outcomes’. Early days, said Ministers, and anyway there had been some 200,000 job starts, conveniently announced by the ‘trade association’ for the providers. But why should we now suddenly be expected to believe such unverified data when we were told before how misleading that could be?
Employability programmes of course do not create jobs and in many sectors of the economy there isn’t increased demand for more staff. The Government is very keen to talk about how cheap its employability programme is, but that is the underlying problem. This may seem an odd thing to say given that the programme overall is a huge ‘spend’, but the amount being paid per person (and that only after a job is sustained) is actually relatively low. The Work & Pensions Select Committee is carrying out an investigation into what actually is happening with these programmes. We were promised these would be highly personalised and intensive, but this seems far from the experience of some constituents I have spoken to. If anyone has experience of the Work Programme or knows someone who has, I would be pleased to hear from them.
Or is it ‘referendums’? Apparently the latter is now accepted as correct, just as these have now moved from ‘rare’ in our constitution to fairly frequent. This month the Westminster Parliament debated and passed the order necessary to pass referendum holding powers to the Scottish Parliament on the basis of the ‘Edinburgh Agreement’.
On Wednesday 23 January David Cameron was welcomed into PMQs by cheering and Tories waving order papers, following his much trailed Europe Speech promising a Referendum, probably in 2017 if the Tories win the 2015 election. However the cheers were more muted whenever Cameron indicated that he was hoping to be able to campaign for a ‘staying in’ vote. If the Prime Minister hoped his speech could ‘park’ the issue for a while, that is certainly not the case.
Welfare Reform Debates
I have taken part in several debates on this subject over the last couple of months. The biggest was the Welfare Uprating (Make Labour Look like the Party for Skiving Fat Slobs) Bill (Andrew Rawnsley’s words in the Observer). This was announced by the Chancellor in the Autumn Statement now infamously, introduced by another reference to people heading off to work watching their non-working neighbours with the blinds drawn. The Chancellor, as well as saving money, saw this as a trap for Labour. The big justification was that ‘benefits’ had risen 20% since 2007 while wages had risen only 11%. Over a longer timescale, a different picture emerges with unemployment benefit having fallen from 21% of average earnings in 1979 to under 11% now. Two thirds of those affected turned out to be people in work (through the impact on tax credits, housing benefit, maternity pay and statutory sick pay). Nor had those on tax credits benefited from the 5.2% benefit increase last year (based of course on very high inflation that year) because for the last two years they haven’t been increased in line with inflation. Despite all the talk of making work pay tax credits had already been squeezed. Clearly stung by the criticism that the 1% uprating was hitting people in work, Iain Duncan Smith launched an attack on the whole idea of tax credits (despite the fact that his Universal Credit will be doing a similar thing, if less generously) and quoted figures for increases in spend which were shown to be wholly wrong by Channel 4’s FactCheck. Despite this, Ministers went on quoting these wrong figures throughout the debate.
Actually in my case, it was less a matter of taking part in the debate as ‘waiting to speak but not being called’. Numbers wanting to speak on this exceeded time on both days given for debate. I posted my notes for the speech I would have made on my website: http://www.sheilagilmore.co.uk/the-welfare-uprating-debate-and-what-i-would-have-said/.
ESA Reassessments – Westminster Hall – 5 December
I had secured a half hour debate on the frequency of people being reassessed for Employment & Support Allowance. These short debates are basically 15 minutes to put a case and then 15 minutes for the Minister to respond. They are good for making a more detailed critique of a particular issue, which is very difficult in the bigger ‘set piece’ debates in the main Chamber. Sometimes – although not on this occasion – you can even extract a promise of change or at least investigation on the part of a Minister. See from p99 http://bit.ly/WdlAAz.
Disabled people and carers – Westminster Hall – 18 December
This was again a much oversubscribed debate, on the Opposition side anyway. This was a 90 minute debate, but speeches of backbenchers (other than the MP who had obtained the debate) were limited to 4 minutes, with only two Government backbench speakers. This debate covered a wide range of issues around the changes being made to benefits for disabled people and for carers. See from p99 http://bit.ly/Wdln0c.
Atos Work Capability Assessments
On Thursday 17th January a three hour ‘backbench chosen’ debate took place on the assessments for Employment & Support Allowance. This is an issue which I have been doing a lot of work on. Not a voting or decision making debate but one which I think demonstrated the wide range of concerns there are about a system which is placing too many people in the wrong category. Significantly those Government backbenchers who spoke were critical too. Only the Minister defended the process. Speeches again were severely time limited but at least I got my few minutes worth. See p37 http://bit.ly/WdjTTy.
Bedroom Tax – 23rd January
Yet another heavily subscribed 90 minute debate. This time not a single Government backbencher came in to listen or speak. Most speakers could have spoken for far longer than we had the chance to do (another 4 minute limit). Although this change was considerably debated a year ago, it is only recently that it has become ‘real’ to those affected as letters are now being sent by council and housing association landlords to affected tenants. Most MPs are getting a lot of constituent enquiries about this, and most are astonished that even people with adapted houses or disabilities aren’t exempted. But as I said over a year ago, it’s not just such extreme cases that need attention; why should a spare room be seen as an unreasonable luxury? The amount many constituents will lose puts the 1% uprating in the shade (although virtually all will be affected by that as well!) One constituent I’ve spoken to with a second ‘single’ bedroom will be losing £50 a month. Even if a move could be found, moving itself is a costly business. I think, perhaps more than any other measure, this one is bringing it home to people that the Government’s welfare ‘reforms’ are hitting lots of ordinary people. Read my speech from p99 http://bit.ly/WdhvMy.
Personal Independence Payment Regulations
In December the Government announced the final draft Regulations for the new benefit which will be replacing DLA. The Minister also announced a slowing of the move for existing claimants. Originally scheduled to start in spring 2014 the majority of current DLA claimants will not be assessed for PIP until after October 2015. Around 500,000 existing claimants will be reassessed before that date, for instance if their renewal date falls in this period, or their circumstances change. The Government’s own figures show that 170,000 people are expected to lose benefit by 2015 and 450,000 by 2018. The Minister was in front of the Select Committee on 21st January for over two hours talking about the regulations, and confusingly told us we should ignore the projections for after 2015 because they were ‘speculation’ – despite having been published by her Department. You can view the session at http://bit.ly/Wz4CZB and I have put more information about PIP on my website http://www.sheilagilmore.co.uk/welfare-reform-and-its-impact-on-disabled-people-and-carers/.
January also saw the publication of the delayed White Paper on proposals for a new flat rate state pension to start from 2017 (this could be a busy year!). The Work & Pensions Select Committee will be scrutinising the draft Bill next month, so I will report more then. One big question is whether the Pensions Minister has managed to ‘square the circle’ of producing a fairer system within the current spending projections (as the Treasury apparently demanded). If you have questions or views on this please get in touch.
Last week I did a video for Pensions Week on the government’s proposals for private pensions. In particular I talked about why its risk-sharing scheme design would need its own legal framework and how that might affect employers. To watch the video go to http://bit.ly/Wdtlq2.
Low Energy Lightbulbs
Sadly the constituent who originally brought this issue to my attention died suddenly just after Christmas. My condolences go to her husband, family and friends who will miss her terribly. The best tribute I can pay is to continue the campaign, and ensure that her calls are answered.
On 22 January the City of Edinburgh Council’s new Petitions Committee heard its second petition from Dumbiedykes residents calling for a public transport link from the area to the Southside. In November I met with residents to discuss the absence of a suitable service and suggested that they establish the petition which has now been heard. Due to the steep gradient out of the ‘Holyrood Valley’ residents in the area face a 45 minute journey via George Street to get to the Southside to visit the doctor’s surgery, pick up some messages, or access community facilities. Needless to say this causes great difficulty for the elderly, people with mobility problems and parents with small children. Many families in the area maintain strong links with the Southside, having moved from the area when Dumbiedykes was built.
Social isolation has increased since the area lost its direct link a few years ago. Councillors also heard that new student accommodation is being built in the area increasing the need for a connection to the south of the city.
The Dumbiedykes community organised a strong campaign and worked tirelessly to get this matter heard. Their hard work has paid off with Councillors calling on officials to explore all options and produce a series of reports due before the next two meetings of the Transport and Environment Committee. Officials must now think creatively (and economically) to provide a service – either by establishing a new route altogether, or work with Lothian buses to divert existing services.
Santa Comes to Craigmillar Books for Babies
On the Saturday before Christmas I popped in to the new Craigmillar Library to see the Christmas Books for Babies event. It was packed with babies & toddlers and mums & dads. Santa came with his sack – full of books of course! This was the third such event in the week which were all packed out! (Future school planners please note there seems to be no lack of babies in the area!)
If you haven’t been to the new Library it is well worth a visit. The library is equipped with plenty of computers, a fantastic collection of books and audio books for all ages. The addition of a new cafe and comfy public seating area means that you can take a moment to enjoy a quick break. Buses 2, 14, 21, and 30 stop just outside so the new library is easy to get to whether you’re coming from Newcraighall, or Prestonfield. The 42 stops nearby providing connections from Duddingston and Northfield.
I was rather impressed to be told that registrations were up 20% in the first three weeks of opening the library. Details of the library can be found at http://bit.ly/Wz43z6.
On Saturday 5th January I was delighted to meet the City of Edinburgh Basketball Club and watch their senior men’s match against Glasgow Rocks. The team is based in Portobello. Along with MSP Kez Dugdale, Councillor Maureen Child, Council Leader Andrew Burns, and Portobello High Head Teacher Peigi McArthur, we saw an exciting match where the local team ran the Glasgow professional team very close (61-72). The match was the culmination of a one day ‘Basketball Festival’. The Club has a whole range of activities from the ‘Sunday Hoops’ (8-10 years) upwards. To join in, or find out about future matches go to http://www.cityofedinburghbasketball.net.
Swap Starbucks for Serenity
Boycotting Starbucks for their tax and employment practices? Likely to be near the Canongate? I strongly suggest you try the Serenity Cafe in Jackson’s Entry, running between the Canongate and Holyrood Road (near the Tun). Serenity Cafe is a social enterprise set up as part of a project for people recovering from addictions. As well as the cafe it’s a base for a large number of drug and alcohol free activities, including music and art. If you are looking for a place for a relaxing coffee or snack give it a try – and know you are helping a small bit of the real ‘big society’.
Castlebrae High School
The formal consultation on the closure proposal ended on 7th December and you can see my submission on my website at http://www.sheilagilmore.co.uk/castlebrae-community-high-school-consultation-response/.
The Council meeting which will make a decision on this takes place in March and the campaign is far from over. Save the Brae have been meeting with Councillors, several of whom, from all parties, have been on visits in the last few weeks. The campaign also sent a very good presentation to all Councillors which clearly showed the important links between the regeneration of Craigmillar and the need for a school.
Portobello High School
The consultation on whether the Council should take a ‘private bill’ to the Scottish Parliament to allow the new school to be built on a part of Portobello Park closes on 31st January. There have been several exhibitions, and two large public meetings of over 300 people each, showing the strong interest there is in the issue. If you haven’t yet made your voice heard, depending when you are reading this, there may still be time to respond, whatever your view is. If you haven’t completed the survey, please do so before 5pm on Thursday, 31st January.
http://bit.ly/VPCfIi. You can see my submission on my website at http://www.sheilagilmore.co.uk/portobello-high-school-private-bill-the-school-must-be-built-on-the-park/
The new developers have stated that they will be responding to the consultation which took place before Christmas, and will be bringing forward their new proposals for the southern part of the site in March – so watch this space.
Hillcrest Housing Association held a public exhibition/consultation on their plans for part of the former Eastern General hospital site. Developing this site has been slower than anticipated and current plans differ in layout from those previously granted consent. I went along to see the plans on Thursday 24th January. There will be a small number of properties for sale, but most will be for rent (the balance between ‘low’ and ‘mid market’ rent is still to be agreed) My initial view is that there are too many flats, but that is possibly not a material planning consideration, and is driven largely by the cost issue in a climate where the amount of money coming from the Scottish Government to housing associations has reduced. I will be making some comments and will post my letter on my website when I do so.
Dates for your Diary
5pm, Thursday 31st January – deadline to submit comments to the City of Edinburgh Council proposal to take a Private Bill to the Scottish Parliament – complete the survey at http://bit.ly/VPCfIi.
From Wednesday 6th February – Bridgend Growing Communities: An introduction to growing your own food – for full details contact Hollie on 0131 664 0555 or email@example.com