The following letter was published in the Times today (4 December):
Sir, Yesterday was the closing date for the Financial Conduct Authority’s (FCA) consultation on tightening up consumer credit regulation. We write to urge the FCA to take robust action to prevent payday companies lending irresponsibly to people on low incomes. Payday and other high-cost lenders are creating a tidal wave of misery by lending money to people who cannot afford the repayments, trapping them in a cycle of debt and poverty. At a time when many people are really feeling the pinch, irresponsible lending risks pushing them over the edge, and causing serious and long-term damage to their finances, families and health.
Irresponsible lending practices also risk further undermining the roll-out of exacerbating hardship under Universal Credit — a central plank of the Government’s welfare reform programme — if payday and other irresponsible lenders exploit the move from fortnightly to monthly payment
Repeated calls for greater self-regulation by the high-cost lending industry have fallen on deaf ears.
The high-cost lending industry has proved to be incapable of effective self-regulation – it is now time for Government and regulators to step in and offer consumers the real protection against irresponsible lending practices that they deserve.
We urge the FCA to introduce — and properly enforce — regulations to: Stop payday lenders giving loans to people who can’t realistically afford to pay them back. Stop them rolling over loans and creating spiralling debt. Stop hidden or excessive charges. Stop them raiding borrowers’ bank accounts without their knowledge and leaving them in hardship. Stop irresponsible advertising and instead provide clear and transparent information. And require lenders to promote free and independent debt advice, and ensure they co-operate with other services to help people get out of debt.
Niall Cooper, Church Action on Poverty;
Right Rev John Packer, Bishop of Ripon and Leeds;
Right Rev Steven Croft, Bishop of Sheffield;
Helen O’Brien, Caritas Social Action Network;
Matt Barlow, Christians Against Poverty;
Rev Dr Michael Jagessar, Moderator of the United Reformed Church General Assembly;
Rev Stephen Keyworth, Baptist Union of Great Britain
If we are to celebrate the birth of the Homeless God, we must surely seek to understand the true face of what life without a home means in 2013, and sleeping rough is only part of it.
Is it time one of our most beloved and iconic Advent/Christmas traditions – the Nativity Scene – had a makeover? But beyond the schmaltz and faux crib, stable and animals, can we really face the fact that God’s was born into a homeless family?
A couple of years ago, an alternative nativity scene which portrayed Mary and Joseph as twenty first century homeless people caused a stir with residents of a North Devon village. The life-size scene, in the window of a derelict shop on Chulmleigh’s Fore Street, showed two faceless adults huddled round a fire in an urban back-alley while the baby Jesus lies sleeping in a shopping basket.
The scene was completed by a cardboard box containing sleeping bags, copies of the Big Issue strewn across the floor and a brick wall with graffiti reading “What if God was one of us?” Alongside was Jesus’ quote from Matthew’s gospel: “Foxes have holes and birds have nests, but the son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”
On the same tack, but in somewhat more calculated fashion, the Railway Children charity placed nine Nativity cribs in high profile locations across London, as part of a hard-hitting campaign designed to highlight the plight of thousands of children surviving on Britain’s streets without care. The nine cribs represented the fact that there are just nine beds available nationwide, for the estimated 100,000 children who end up living rough each year, 30,000 of which are aged 12 or younger.
More incongruously, a 53-year-old man with nowhere to sleep on Saturday night was reported to have decided to warm himself up by stealing the three wise men’s garments from a full-size nativity scene standing in the centre of Essen in western Germany.
How do you respond to that? What if it happened to a Nativity Scene near you? How dare an actual homeless man desecrated or steal clothes from the Holy Homeless Family!
But what indeed, if Christ was born into a squalid squat, abandoned house, or empty caravan on the outskirts of your village, town or city?
Alastair Sloan recently took to task the sponsored sleep-out – a favourite fundraising strategy of many homelessness charities (and churches) up and down the country – in excoriorating terms: “Jollies under the stars, making a mattress from cardboard and bedding down – these Bear Grylls excursions just perpetuate the myth that homelessness is about rough sleeping, and is therefore a much smaller problem than it really is.”
His language might have been a bit strong, but his fundamental point holds true: Rough sleeping is the tip of the iceberg. It doesn’t begin to cover the extraordinary scope of homelessness. Each year homelessness affects around 400,000 people.
Imagine if “experiencing homelessness” was sold to you as it really is. Most homeless people do not sleep in the street. You would most likely be sofa surfing, squatting, staying in hostels or being passed around B&Bs by the local council.
Tens of thousands more homeless live in filthy squats, far out of reach of help. Hundreds of thousands more float from sofa to sofa, the legion of “hidden homeless.”
And countless thousands more may have a roof over their head, but hardly a place they can call home. With house prices now soaring above where they were before the economic crash, home ownership is moving ever further out of the reach of many families. In London and other parts of the country, over-crowding is now rife, with one in nine of the capital’s dwellings having too few bedrooms for their occupants – and in Newham, the figure is a shocking one in four.
Ceecee’s experience is far from uncommon: ‘I live in a one bedroom ground floor flat with my two boys who are aged three and eight. When I went to the council to ask how long it could take for me to move, they told me to turn my living room into a bedroom. I don’t know what to do because I’ve been doing everything and three years later I’m still here.’
It was not for nothing that the UN Special Rapporteur, Rachel Rolnik found on her visit to the UK in September that “Increasingly, people [in the UK] appear to be facing difficulties in accessing adequate, affordable, well-located and insecure housing.”
In spite of the brickbats she received for her efforts, her conclusion is worthy of repeating: “The right to housing is not about a roof anywhere, at any cost, without any social ties. It is not about reshuffling people according to a snapshot of the number of bedrooms at a given night. It is about enabling environments for people to maintain their family and community bonds, their local schools, work places and health services allowing them to exercise all other rights, like education, work, food or health.”
I’m sure, if the Holy Family were discovered in a back alley near you this Christmas, their response would be “Amen to that.”
To download resources for Poverty and Homelessness Action Week (25 January – 2 February 2014) visit www.actionweek.org.uk
Debt is now big business – and everyone is affected. Debt damages many people’s lives – and all the more so if you are already struggling on a low income. Church Action on Poverty’s latest report, Drowning in Debt, highlights the on-going injustices of modern day usury.
Take mum-of-five Donna, a member of our local partner organisation, Thrive in Stockton on Tees: “Everyone I know has doorstep lenders – family, friends. You don’t have the money to save when you’ve got children or you’re on benefits so you go to these places. But then you’re paying a thousand pounds for a second-hand washer. Our fridge freezer is reconditioned. But it will still cost us just under a grand. I had bailiffs coming to the door, and red letters all the time. I was scared to answer the phone. I was getting depressed. They threatened to come and take my goods from me if I didn’t pay. I was frightened. You’d get loan sharks in my neighbourhood coming to your door. You fall into it. They seem to target Christmas time, when they know people struggle. So you’re going to take that money just to give your kids a good Christmas.”
There has been an explosion in the market for payday loans in the last five years, since the credit crunch started to take its toll in the UK. However the problem of extortionate money lending has been around for a long time. Loan sharks have been operating in the UK for decades, preying on the most poor and vulnerable people and perpetuating the cycle of poverty.
When I first started campaigning on what is euphemistically called ‘high cost credit’, the bad boys on the block were doorstep lenders charging interest rates in excess of 170%apr. But more than one million people every month now take out ‘payday loans’ – short term loans typically in the region of £2-300 – at interest rates of up to a shocking 5,500% apr. Payday lenders are not only growing rapidly, but are also hugely profitable. In September, Wonga, the market leader, reported pre-tax profits of £84.5m for 2012, an increase of over a third on the previous year.
The repayments on a month-long payday loan can start off at an affordable rate, but quickly become unmanageable when payments cannot be made on time and loans are ‘rolled-over’ from one month to the next. People who borrow a few hundred pounds can end up paying back thousands. Half of the people who take out payday loans find that they cannot afford the repayments leading them to take out further loans and spiral into unmanageable debt.
For many people, borrow is the only way to pay for everyday expenditure on food, birthdays, school uniforms, Christmas, let alone a new cooker, or a weeks’ holiday once in a while. A recent survey commissioned by Which? revealed that 400,000 people are using payday loans to pay for food and fuel bills and 240,000 people are using the loans simply to pay off existing debts.
In previous generations usury – charging interest on lending money – was viewed as a sin and strongly condemned by the Church. The Israelites’ exile and enslavement in Egypt was a direct consequence of debt and economic misfortune “Our money is all spent.. There is nothing left… Buy us and our land in exchange for food. We with our land will become slaves to Pharaoh.. “
Now is the time for the Church to speak out about this modern day usury.
Current legislation in the UK offers vulnerable customers virtually no protection against unscrupulous or extortionate moneylenders. Interest rate ceilings apply in various forms in Germany, France, many US states, Canada, and Australia. Yet to date, the Government has resisted calls for the introduction of an interest rate ceiling in the UK.
Please send a message to the new Financial Conduct Authority asking them to make lenders behave responsibly http://action.church-poverty.org.uk/ea-action/action?ea.client.id=128&ea.campaign.id=22647
But beyond tighter regulation, what can be done? How can cheap credit be made available to those who need it most?
Credit Unions – mutual savings and loan cooperatives – provide a fantastic vehicle for mobilising the savings and assets of the whole community in an equitable and inclusive way. Walk down virtually any high street in Ireland, and you are likely to see the offices of the local Credit Union. In many areas in the UK churches have played a leading role in supporting the development of Credit Unions, providing space for weekly collection points, volunteers, committee members, and actively encouraging their own churches to join. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, is looking for the churches to champion their cause.
So have you joined your local credit union yet?
As ‘Jo’ said at a CAP event more than a decade ago: “People are still trapped in debt and poverty. When will change come?”
This autumn sees the launch of an exciting new partnership between the Iona Community, Church Action on Poverty, Christian Aid Scotland, the Poverty Truth Commission and others – seeking to find ways to ‘close the gap’ between rich and poor in Glasgow, and more widely across the UK.
The ‘Close the Gap’ programme will see to demonstrate that by mobilising churches, grassroots groups and others to take effective and focused action, it is possible to achieve significant institutional change which will contribute to narrowing the gap between rich and poor in Scotland.
Kenny McBride has been employed as the Project worker, 3 days a week for the next 12 months. Kenny has taken up this role following a time with Oxfam’s UK Poverty Programme where he was responsible for the launch of the Oxfam Humankind Index. He is also working with local entrepreneurs to develop The Ethical Network, a new organisation for companies who want business to be better.
Drawing on the knowledge and expertise of local people, and CAP, Christian Aid and Iona’s wider networks across the country, as well as globally, the project will specifically focus on the question of how to reduce the cost of everyday essentials – food, fuel, finance, furniture, funerals, phones…
Whereas traditional ‘anti-poverty’ strategies focus on boosting people’s incomes, is it possible to find ways of tackling poverty by reducing household costs?
Whilst many people on low incomes are undoubtedly struggling to make ends meet, this does not mean that they do not purchase goods and services – but it does mean that the can ill afford to pay over the odds for them. Yet perversely, because of the way the markets for food, fuel, finance (and many other goods and services) are currently structured, people on the lowest incomes frequently end up paying ‘over the odds’.
Save the Children have estimated the cost of the ‘Poverty Premium’ for the average low income household to be up to £1,200 per annum. Assuming at least 30,000 low income households in Glasgow are affected, this would mean that Glaswegian families are collectively paying over the odds to the tune of at least £36 million each year for essential goods and services.
With incomes stagnant, benefit levels being cut in real terms over the next three years and the cost of essential goods and services (notably food and fuel) escalating, this is a price that families can ill afford to pay. The impact, not just in terms of their ability to manage financially, but more widely in terms of stress, health (including mental health) and relationships will be substantial.
Food, fuel and finance are currently predominantly provided by the private sector, but at significantly higher cost than to other higher income groups: This amounts to a prima facie case of market failure. In fact, this was the conclusion of a Competition Commission Inquiry into doorstep lending as far back as 2006: In the absence of effective competition, or affordable alternatives, doorstep lending companies were making excess profits – estimated at the time to be at least £70 million a year – at the expense of low income consumers.
Is it possible for the markets for food, fuel and finance to be enabled to work more effectively for people on low incomes, or is it possible to develop alternative approaches which will provide access to goods and services at more affordable rates?
Is it possible to develop effective business or alternative models for delivering food, fuel and finance to people on low incomes which are both affordable and sustainable?
Are the successful ways that groups are already reducing the ‘Poverty Premium’ locally, which could be reproduced across Glasgow and more widely across Scotland?
What role can existing businesses, social enterprises, cooperatives, faith, public and third sector organisations and communities themselves play in developing and delivering solutions, and solutions which can be replicated at sufficient scale to address the scale of the problem?
What changes, if any, in regulation, legislation, funding regimes or business models are needed?
These are some of the questions we will be exploring in a series of roundtable events and meetings over the next 12 months.
Key to this process will be listening to and giving a voice to those directly affected. Contrary to the growing view that people on low-incomes are dysfunctional, dependent shirkers and skivers, Church Action on Poverty’s experience over the last 30 years has proved again and again that people in poverty not only understand the root causes of their problems, but are highly effective at creating lasting solutions to them.
Over the last 30 years, Church Action on Poverty has worked alongside thousands of people from some of the poorest, most neglected communities across the UK, supporting, educating and empowering individuals to effect change from within. Instead of imposing policies or top-down solutions, we use radical, participatory tools that help people in poverty access power and education, creating a network of grassroots social change that continues to grow.
We will be working closely with the Poverty Truth Commission, whose motto ‘Nothing About Us Without Us is For Us’ will also be a central tenet of the work of the Close the Gap project. And equally exciting will be the prospect of linking up with and learning from Christian Aid partner organisations who are working on similar issues of food, fuel or finance in other parts of the world.
Lastly, we will be seeking to use the good offices of the Scottish Churches Parliamentary Office, the Church of Scotland and Scottish Episcopal Church, to bring key ‘powerholders’ to the table to explore solutions to the Poverty Premium face to face with those who experience its injustice on a daily basis.
At the end of the year we will be holding an event to celebrate the outcomes of the project with all our partners – and to build support for taking forward the best ideas which have emerged during the project. Watch this space!
To find out more contact:
Poverty Project Worker – Closing The Gap
The Iona Community
4th Floor, Savoy House, 140 Sauchiehall Street Glasgow G2 3DH
Tel 0141 332 6343
I’m proud of the Welfare State. More than that, I’m proud to live in a country which can count the creation of the modern Welfare State as one of its finest achievements. And I’m proud that one of its key founding principles in 1945 was to establish a safety net to end the ‘Giant Evil’ of want (or hunger).
For the past 70 years, most of us have grown up safe in the assumption that if we fall on hard times, the welfare safety net will provide a cushion to prevent us becoming hungry or destitute.
Whilst the Department for Work and Pensions continues to assert that the benefits system provides a ‘safety net for essentials such as food’, the evidence increasingly does not support this claim. Sadly, for tens of thousands of UK citizens, that safety net is no longer in place. And as a consequence, food poverty and increasing hunger is having a devastating impact upon low-income families and individuals in the UK.
As one person who gave evidence to the Greater Manchester Poverty Commission last year said: “I have to cut down on basic living expenses as it is. I stay in bed to keep warm, especially in winter as I can’t afford to put the heating on. The bleakness of this week to week is having an impact on my mental/physical. I have had to get occasional food parcels from the food and support drop in service.”
Or take Jack, a single mother, bringing up a young child on housing benefit and child support. After selling all of her possessions to pay off debts she was left with just a bed and a sofa and a few items that were later donated by friends. She lives on a food budget of £10 per week. Sacrifices she makes to save money include never using the heating; taking out excess light bulbs and not having a freezer or tumble drier. She buys basic products and avoids meat and dairy products as they are too expensive. Her local food bank is able to provide nappies and five items of food each week.
On reading an article in The Independent she was shocked to find that nine of the sixteen criteria that class a child as being in poverty applied to her own son, including: not having outdoor space to play; not having two pairs of shoes; and not having meat or dairy in his diet. “It was a shock to me. I thought, my child is in poverty, and I wondered if I was a bad mother.”
Today’s speech by the Chancellor re-inforces the assumption that effectively the only purpose of welfare is to promote hard work. More generally, public debate has become increasingly polarized, leading to unhealthy and misleading arguments setting so-called ‘strivers’ against co-called ‘shirkers.’ Welfare itself has almost become a dirty word.
As Christians, we must not only challenge any such attempts to sow social division – we must re-assert the positive and enduring role of the Welfare State, and reclaim the vision of it providing a safety net to protect all people from the Giant Evil of hunger and destitution.
To be sure, the Welfare State needs to move with the times to meet the demands of the 21st century. What form the safety net should take in 2013, as opposed to 1945, is rightly a matter for public debate, but it should be difficult for anyone to argue against the essential premise that the state needs to put in place measures to ensure that no one should go hungry.
A good starting point for this debate is the principle of the Minimum Income Standard. This is defined as an income which is sufficient to enable any household to live according to a ‘low cost but acceptable’ standard established on the basis of the social norms of the day – including having the means to afford a nutritionally balanced diet.
Pretty much all the research to date points to the fact that benefit levels are currently set below the Minimum Income Standard for the vast majority of households, and that over time benefit levels need to rise – rather than fall – in real terms to reach this threshold.
But even if the principle of increasing benefit levels to attain the Minimum Income Standard is not accepted, it is hard to sustain the case for a system which currently forces hundreds of thousands to subsist on incomes significantly below existing benefit levels.
So as we move towards the General Election it is time for those of us in the Churches to initiative a grown-up debate with our fellow citizens, politicians and the media about how to reclaim the role of the welfare state in ending – yet again – the spectres of hunger and destitution that stalk the most vulnerable members of our society.
Standing in solidarity with those suffering from an economic crisis not of their making
On Monday morning, 30 September, members of the Faith Network for Manchester and Church Action on Poverty will be bearing witness at the Conservative Christian Fellowship prayer breakfast, being held on the theme of Psalm 146:7: He upholds the cause of the oppressed and gives food to the hungry
Thousands of people across Manchester – and hundreds of thousands nationally – are now living on or below the breadline, as a result of recession, rising prices and austerity. Spending cuts have disproportionately impacted on the lives of some of the poorest and most vulnerable in society. More than 500,000 people were forced to turn to foodbanks to feed themselves last year. The numbers have risen again since April, as the impact of benefit cuts start to bite.
“These have been bleak times. Since April, my income cut in two, I now rely on approximately £50 per week – that’s to buy food, pay three utility bills, TV license and other essentials. I also try to buy my daughter, who is in Foster Care, little bits every week. I couldn’t go on a visit without taking her some small gifts. I feel worthless most of the time, nothing but shame, walking about in shoes that have seen better days and clothes on my back that I can’t recall when I bought.” Anonymous, Greater Manchester
“My depression has worsened considerably, and the reduced amount I have to spend on food is affecting my diabetes and blood pressure. I also have more frequent panic attacks when thinking about our finances.” CAB client, Greater Manchester
“I have to cut down on basic living expenses as it is. I stay in bed to keep warm, especially in winter as I can’t afford to put the heating on. The bleakness of this week to week is having an impact on my mental and physical health. I’m trying to find somewhere else to live, but so far have not been able to find anywhere affordable in this area. I have had to get occasional food parcels from the food and support drop-in service.” CAB client, Greater Manchester
We will gather as members of faith communities in Manchester, not in protest, but to bear witness to the human cost being borne by people who bear no responsibility for our current economic crisis.
Whatever your faith or political affiliation, we ask that you acknowledge this reality, and do whatever is in your power to ensure that the poorest and most vulnerable are not forced to bear an intolerable burden.
Today’s report from the Taxpayers Alliance, ‘Work for the Dole’ spreads more myths, lies and misinformation about poverty.
Another excuse for the media to re-run headlines about millions of workshy benefit scroungers choosing a lifestyle of poverty - far from the reality of life for those struggling to make ends meet and struggling to find work amidst the longest and deepest recession in more than 70 years.
Written by a successful and ‘award winning’ entrepreneur with a physics degree from Oxford – and clearly very little if any experience of the reality of life on the dole – the report rehashes old myths about poverty, old statistics and even older examples of the worst extreme of workfare from the America, which in many cases have already been abandoned in the US and already been trialed and found wanting in the UK.
Same old myths about poverty
The starting premise of the report was the same old myth (beloved of the Taxpayers Alliance) that the welfare bill is ‘out of control’ because of the ‘huge sums’ spent on benefits for the workshy. Never mind that more than three-quarters of the benefits bill goes to pensioners, children and disabled people. Never mind that Jobseekers’ Allowance accounts for less than 3% of the total welfare bill – and has been more or less at the same level for the best part of two decades. Never mind that of the ’5 million workless people’ targeted for Workfare, more than two-thirds are actually too sick or ill to work. Never mind that half of those actually on Jobseekers Allowance already find work within 13 weeks. Never mind that the welfare state is already undergoing its biggest upheaval in a generation, with the introduction of the Universal Credit – which is already designed to simply the benefits system and make work pay. Never mind that £18 billion has already been cut from the benefits bill, leaving many people struggling to make ends meet. And never mind that more than half a million people were forced to turn to foodbanks last year – almost half as a result of failings in the welfare system.
Same old stories of US workfare
And the idea that we have anything positive to learn from the failed US workfare programmes from the 1990s is frankly laughable. Never mind that one of the schemes singled out in the Taxpayers Alliance report was so extreme and moralistic that it included cutting benefits for ‘unmarried parents.’ Never mind that a whole swathe of UK politicians, civil servants and policy wonks spent much of the 1990s and early 2000s visited the programmes in the US and concluded that they were too harsh, too judgemental, and had no relevence in the UK. Never mind that the Mandatory Work Programme introduced by the Coalition was not only deeply unpopular not just by those forced onto it but also by many employers, but that (as the report itself admits) the DWP’s own evaluation found that the programme actually had a negative impact on work outcomes for participants.
Same old failure to actually talk to or engage with the real lives of people struggling to make ends meet
But what makes me most angry, is that this is yet another report written ‘about’ the poor without any effort to engage with them as human beings, any effort to talk to them about the reality of their daily lives, any understanding of just how competitive the jobs market is (with in many parts of the country 20, 30 or more people chasing every job), any understanding of the barriers that many people face, any knowledge of the actual workings of the benefits system – and just how harsh and punitive it is already – with over 80,000 people sanctioned (aka made destitute) from Jobseekers Allowance in just one month last year (the DWP haven’t published the actual figures for sanctions since last autumn, presumably because the numbers are too high to make public).
Today I heard just one more story of the kind of reality that the Taxpayers Alliance wouldn’t want to include in their report – because it would undermine the cosy myths about life on the dole. The son of a member of staff currently on Jobseekers Allowance (£55 a week in case you didn’t know), desperate to get a job, actually managed to get a job interview yesterday. Having spent £20 of his own money to get there (the company refused to pay his travel expenses), he only found out halfway through the interview that the ‘job’ was not actually paid – but was ‘commission only.’ Such knocks are routine for those struggling. To then be labelled ‘workshy’ is an insult to hard to bear.
If the Taxpayers Alliance wanted to do anything useful or constructive, they should have engaged with these realities – and come up with proposals for how to encourage employers to take on people who are long-term unemployed, who have been failed by the education system, or who face additional barriers (eg disability, caring responsibilities, a criminal record etc) which make it far harder for them to find work.
But hey. The Taxpayers Alliance don’t let facts, or the actual reality of life on the breadline, get in the way of another good story to bash people who are struggling to make ends meet over the head with.
Having been brought up a Methodist, I can’t ever quite get away from thinking of September as the start of the New Year. The next 12 (or more precisely 20) months are likely to tell us a lot about what sort of society we are – and want to be – on these British Isles of ours.
As the 2015 General Election creeps ever closer, the shape of the political debates which will frame the next twenty months are starting to be mapped out. I’m sure we will see much more of this as the annual party political conference season gets under way at the end of the month. And the omens are not looking good..
Over the summer, the Home Office kicked off a deliberately provocative campaign to target illegal immigrants, with mobile billboards touring London announcing “In the UK illegally? Go home or face arrest” and high profile arrests of ‘alleged’ illegal immigrants at tube and train stations.
A flurry of faith leaders publicly condemned the actions including Patrick Lynch, the Roman Catholic Bishop for Migration, stating that “This mobile billboard campaign is a very inappropriate way to discourage illegal immigrants from staying in the UK, not least because the message that is often received is that all immigrants and foreigners are unwelcome in the UK.”
Sadly, all the indications are that the reason for the campaign was much more to do with party politics than persuading anyone to ‘go home.’ Even if no one actually leaves the country as a result, the campaign will have achieved its aim: A series of headlines which show the Conservatives are ‘tough on immigration’ designed to encourage erstwhile UKIP supporters to ‘return’ to the Tory fold, and vote Conservative at the forthcoming European and General Elections instead.
Worryingly, the signs are that what passes for ‘debate’ about the future of welfare in this country is also being shaped not so much by the needs of people in poverty – but by the pressure on politicians to be seen to ‘act tough on scroungers.’ And expect more tough talk over the coming weeks and months.
The troubling fact is that by their constant repetition, the lies that ‘everyone on poverty are lazy and feckless – and that the welfare system only encourages them in their idleness’ are have a profound and corrosive effect on public opinion. All the signs are that, even as the cuts to welfare are starting to bite, support for welfare spending appears to be declining.
When politicians use language designed to drive a wedge between so called ‘Strivers and Shirkers’ beware.
It is based on a cold political calculation that it will win more votes than lose them – and will paint the opposition party into a corner where, if it stands up for those at the bottom, it risks being seen as a party ‘on the side of shirkers.’
It is into this toxic political climate that the leaders of the Free Churches – the URC, Methodists, Baptists and Church of Scotland – are speaking, when they denounce in forthright terms the comfortable myths – and downright lies – about poverty, which we are repeatedly told by politicians and sections of the press.
It is not an easy or comfortable place to be in, when you are repeatedly called to challenge senior politicians (from the Prime Minister downwards) over their seeming willingness to play politics with the lives of people who are suffering real hardship in the face of years of recession, economic crisis and spending cuts.
This autumn will see the publication of a major new report from Churches Together in Britain and Ireland on the theme of the ‘Good Society.’ People of faith and no faith in a range of communities up and down the UK were asked to define for themselves what they understood to be the marks of a Good Society. You’ll have to wait for the publication of the report to know what they said – but the question goes to the heart of this debate.
What are the marks of a ‘Good Society’?
How do we treat people who are marginalised, socially or economically, by reason of their class, gender, race, religion or immigration status in a Good Society? How do we carry our common life together – from the streetlevel right up to national political debate – in a way which is consistent with and condusive of a Good Society?
And how are we to conduct ourselves as Christians and as the Church in ways which bear witness to our own beliefs about a Good Society?
Surely this is not a task that those called to Christian discipleship can turn away from. In that wonderful phrase coined by the Quakers, as Christians we are called to ‘speak truth to power.’ Or in the words of Luther, ‘Here I am, I can do no other.’
Listening to a recital of Martin Luther King’s historic speech on Radio 4 this morning, 50 years to the day today, I am willing to admit that I was moved to tears…
Moved to tears, not just by the powerful words themselves, but by the list of people the BBC had put together to recite the words – Maya Angelou, Doreen Lawrence, Joan Baez, Mary Robinson, the Dalai Lama, Malala, Stevie Wonder… Men and women who have followed in Luther King’s footsteps, and put themselves on the line in the global fight for justice and dignity.
Men and women who cannot be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character. Outstanding role models for all of us to look up to and to aspire to follow.
Many have followed that long road over the past 50 years – but it is a journey not yet ended. Injustice and oppression of many forms remain – and not just in the US but across the world – including close to home within the UK.
To honour the memory of Martin Luther King, we cannot simply look back and celebrate That Speech – or the many achievements of the civil rights movement and other comparable struggles over the past half century.
To honour Martin Luther King, we must take forward the baton ourselves. Which are the injustices we are prepared to put ourselves on the line for; what are the struggles we are prepared to engage in; and what are the dreams for ourselves, our children, our nation and our world that we are prepared to put our name to?