Why we should close the gap between rich and poor, in seven pictures (and two cats)

Originally posted on A Fair Say:

Blog Action DayToday (16 October 2014) is Blog Action Day. Thousands of bloggers around the world are talking about inequality. Here’s our contribution: a collection of pictures, which explain why we need to Close the Gap between rich and poor in the UK.

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What price a home?

What value do we put on housing? Or, to ask the question in a more precise manner, what price do we put on everyone having access to a home?

East London residents stage sit in protest near Olympic parkAccording to the late Pope John Paul II:

“A house is much more than a simple roof over one’s head. The place where a person creates and lives out his or her life, also serves to found, in some way, that person’s deepest identity and his or her relations with others.”

The Son of Man may have no place to lay his head, but in the sixth wealthiest nation on the planet, can we not find ways to ensure that everyone has access to a place to call home?

Take Jasmine Stone, a single parent from East London:

“My daughter was 13 months old when I received the eviction notice. I was living in a hostel in Stratford, London E15. The letter said that we had two months to get out. We were homeless; that’s why we were in the hostel in the first place. We didn’t have anywhere else to go. There were 210 other young women living there. Now it’s luxury flats. The council said they would rehouse us, but it turned out they were threatening to move us hundreds of miles away, to Manchester, Hastings and Birmingham. We grew up in Newham. No one on low wages or benefits, or even an average income, can afford to live here.”

Jasmine’s response, along with a number of other homeless single mothers was to form the Focus E15 campaign group – and to occupy one of almost 2,000 boarded up flats on the Carpenters Estate in Newham. As Jasmine says:

“The boarded-up house we have opened is in beautiful condition. It has running water, a power shower, working gas and electricity. Just by adding a sofa, table and chairs and some plants, we have turned this house into a home, and solved the housing crisis for one of the 6,500 rough sleepers or thousands of other homeless people in London.”

In a campaign that some have come to see as embodying the capital’s housing crisis in miniature, the women are calling for the estate to be repopulated with those in housing need, for the “decanting” of existing tenants to stop immediately and for demolition to end.

Newham says that it has been planning to regenerate the estate for more than a decade, but that after consultation with residents, it decided it was too expensive to renovate and a decision was taken to demolish and redevelop the site as part of a local “metropolitan masterplan”.

The £1 million micro-flat

31m Mayfair flatJust a few miles across London, a studio flat that is smaller than a double garage was recently put on the market for nearly £1m. The “micro-flat”, in the heart of Mayfair, is just 334 square feet, with a bed in the living room and a small kitchen and bathroom. The estate agents believe it would be perfect for a student.

“It would provide the perfect Mayfair pad for an overseas student studying in London from a wealthy family, or a socialite who wants a Mayfair address but at a lower cost.”

The Alice in Wonderland world of ‘affordable rents’

The response is surely to build more ‘affordable’ homes. Yet, in the Alice in Wonderland world of housing, ‘affordable’ no longer seems to mean what it says.

Development on the site of the Royal Mail’s Mount Pleasant sorting office in central LondonA flagship development of nearly 700 apartments on the site of the Royal Mail’s Mount Pleasant sorting office in central London has just been given planning permission. 98 are due to be at ‘affordable rents’ – but it was recently revealed that in this case ‘affordable’ means £1,690 for a one bed flat or up to £2,800 a month for a four bedroom flat. According to a rule of thumb that housing costs should represent a third of income to be considered affordable, their family income would need to be around £100,000.

Yet there is an alternative, if we would but look across the channel to Germany. Germans have never fallen for our fixation with home ownership, but have instead always been happy with long-term renting. Now, in the face of upward pressure on private rents, the German government has stepped in to introduce rent controls.  According to the German Justice Minister Heiko Maas:

“The rent cap will help keep rents affordable for average earners. Rent increases of 30 or 40 percent in some urban areas are simply unacceptable.”

What chance of something similar happening here?

In the crazy upside down world of London’s housing market, a home is now a commodity that the super-rich buy, like fine wine or art. For the likes of Jasmine, and thousands like her, the prospect of being able to secure an affordable place to call home in the city of her birth is seemingly a vanishing possibility.

What price a Good Society, in which reasonably priced homes where people can flourish are available for everyone who needs them?

 

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A UK Common Weal? Reframing the future of the UK for the common good

Is the future of UK to be dominated by a narrow English nationalism, or by a wider vision of a more socially just, generous and egalitarian family of nations?

All of us firstIs it possible to learn from the huge grassroots political energy generated within Scotland over the past few months and re-frame the debate about the future of the UK, not in terms of competing nationalisms, but of a shared concern for social justice and the common good?

Whilst most of us were only just waking up to the news of the No vote on Friday morning, the Prime Minister had already fired the first salvo in what may turn out to be an even bigger battle for the future of the UK.

Home rule for EnglandFar from a generous statesmanlike intervention to assuage the feelings of the Scots, who had only narrowly voted to stay within the UK, David Cameron’s response was driven by an appeal to English nationalism: ‘English votes for English laws’ – or ‘Home Rule for England’ as the Daily Mail helpfully put it. In one move, a debate about the future of Scotland and of the UK as a whole, has been reframed in terms of what is good for England.

So which vision for the UK will win out? One dominated by a narrow English nationalism, or one informed by a wider vision of a more socially just, generous and egalitarian family of nations?

Beyond the binary of Yes/No, the clear message from the Referendum is that the Scots are fed up with the old ways of doing politics at Westminster. What appeared to energize many Scots was a passion for a new politics build on principles of equality and social justice just as much as a thirst for independence per se.

As Paul Mason and Lesley Riddoch have both observed the real energy behind the Yes campaign’s success in galvanizing popular opinion across Scotland was not so much the SNP as a series of much more grassroots non-nationalist groups. Thousands of previously uninvolved Scots have entered a world of greater awareness, involvement and readiness to act in the political arena thanks not to the SNP, but to the Radical Independence Campaign, National Collective, Women for Independence, Business for Scotland and Common Weal.

common weal all same all differentThe approach taken by Common Weal is based on the simple question – where in the world can we find nations which have done things better than they’re currently done in Scotland and what can we learn from them? Many of these examples come from the Nordic countries but examples are drawn from everywhere from Latin America to Asia.

The desire for an end to the politics of the ‘Westminster elite’, an end to ever increasing inequality, and for a return of power to local communities is widely shared across the UK.

allofusfirstIs it now possible to learn from the huge grassroots political energy and engagement generated within Scotland over the past few months?

What would it take to develop a similar grassroots political movement that draws on the energies of local communities across the UK, and is framed in terms of a positive vision for our four nations rooted in principles of social justice, solidarity, subsidiarity and the common good?

 

 

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Re-uniting the UK: 10 reasons for moving the UK’s Parliament north

Houses-of-ParliamentEarlier this week I floated the idea of moving Parliament from its current location closer to the geographic centre of the United Kingdom.  Here are ten reasons why it make sense:

1. Re-uniting and re-imaging the UK in a post-referendum world
The institutions which have held the UK together for the past three centuries are broken. The United Kingdom is no longer united, even if Scotland votes No tomorrow. If the UK is to have a future, it can only be on the basis of re-imagining what it means to be the UK in the 21st Century. 

Could there be anything with more symbolic power to re-unite the UK than moving Parliament to a new home at the centre of the United Kingdom?

2. Devolution, although essential, isn’t enough to heal the anger
The evidence from Scotland is that devolving powers (though welcome in its own right) serves only increases alienation and anger with Westminster. The risk is further devolution to the nations and English regions, without any change at the centre, will only serve to exacerbate this trend.

The only way to address the anger with the Westminster domination of politics is to transform the institution at its heart: The UK Parliament.

3. Taking Parliament out of the hands of the ‘Westminster elite’
One of the strongest complaints not just in Scotland, but across the rest of the country is that the UK is run by and for the benefit of a ‘Westminster elite.’ What better way of wresting it from the hands of a (real or perceived) elite than to move it from Westminster? Of course this alone won’t be enough to break the power of the elite, but a geographical change of perspective could provide a driving force for reshaping UK politics more generally.

4. Reshaping how politics is done
A new building in a new location could help re-shape politics away from the adversarial bear-pit of the Palace of Westminster, and help establish a more transparent, consensual political culture, no longer bound by centuries of tradition and procedure at Westminster.

If you doubt the power of architecture to shape a more open and transparent political culture, visit the Reichstag in Berlin.

5. Reinvigorating the economy of the North
Relocating the UK Parliament (even without moving most of the institutions of Whitehall) to the North would provide a huge economic boost to whichever city and region it moved to. Not just the construction of a new Parliament building, and offices for hundreds of Parliamentarians and their staff, but the knock on impact in terms of the relocation of lobbyists, think tanks and the like.

6. Reducing the power of the City of London
Moving Parliament to the North would not break the power of the City of London, but it would reduce its power over politics. A geographic separation of two hundred miles would provide a useful ‘distance’ between corporate and political power.

Two of our strongest competitors, the US and Germany, function very well with Government and finance in separate cities: Washington and New York; Berlin and Frankfurt.

7. Rebalancing power away from London
London is rightly a global city that the UK can be proud of, but its relation with the rest of the UK is increasingly toxic. The concentration on London politics, art, sport and media is detrimental to the cultural, political and economic life of the nation as a whole. As a result, too much of current public discourse and policy making serves only to confuse what is in London’s interest with what is in the UK’s interest.

8. Reducing London’s over-heated economy
Arguably London and Londoners will be the biggest beneficiaries of the relocation of Parliament. One of London’s most pressing problems itself is its overheated economy. Land and house prices are simply too high. Moving Parliament and all that goes with it (lobbyists, think tanks etc) would help reduce the overheating.

No long the seat of a working Parliament (other than for ceremonial occasions) the Palace of Westminster could become one of London’s principle tourist attractions.

9. Its perfectly possible: The Germans have already done it
ReichstagIf anyone thinks its simply not possible to move the institutions of Government 200 miles north – well the Germans have already done it. An historically divided nation was brought together by the relocation of the German federal parliament 300 miles from Bonn to Berlin. With the advent of HS2 in particular, it will be perfectly feasible to do the same in the UK: Manchester, Leeds and Liverpool will be as close to central London as much of outer London and the South East.

10. Parliament needs to move in any case
The Palace of Westminster is in need of major refurbishment, which means that both Houses of Parliament will need to relocate whilst the work is undertaken in the next few years. Under plans currently being considered by MPs, this could be for a period of up to five years.

Why not take this historic opportunity to move North on a trial basis?

A number of MPs (not just from the North), including Frank Field (Birkenhead) and Gavin Shuker (Luton) have already floated the idea of moving Parliament north.  So why not do it?

You know it makes sense…

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Challenging the metropolitan elite: Lets move Parliament to the centre of the UK

The biggest threat to the UK isn’t Scotland but a metropolitan elite.  Some of my Scottish colleagues may demur, but for me the real problem the UK is facing is a metropolitan elite, increasingly out of touch with the rest of the UK.

Houses-of-ParliamentI was struck by a comment from a ‘Yes’ voter that Scotland’s problem was that as just 8.4% of UK population, Scots suffered because Government favoured the interests of the other 91.6%.  That’s certainly not what it looks or feels like sat in the North of England, nor I suspect its what it feels like in Wales, Cornwall or much of the rest of the UK.

For me, the real problem that many of us share is a sense of disenfranchisement by a hollowed out democractic and political process run from the a city at the south-eastern periphery of these islands (London).  Not that folk in London think they are at the periphery (whatever the hard geographic facts might say):  London, of course, is at ‘the centre of national life.’

But London itself is code.  The ‘London’ at the centre of national life does not include the majority of the population of Greater London, many of whom almost certainly feel as excluded from access to power as the rest of us.

No, the UK is effectively governed by a small metropolitan elite, concentrated almost entirely withn the twin cities of Westminster and the City of London (but with useful scholarly outposts in Oxford, Cambridge and Eton).

A privately educated, Oxbridge elite

social_mobilityAs the recent report of the Social Mobility Task Force rather bluntly concluded: Elitism so embedded in Britain that it could be called “social engineering.”   The report’s 70 pages conclusively demonstrate the extent to which the ‘nations institutions’ (almost all based in London of course) are dominated by a privately schooled and Oxbridge elite.

Only 7% of members of the public attended a private school. But 71% of senior judges, 62% of senior officers in the armed forces, 55% of permanent secretaries in Whitehall, 53% of senior diplomats, 50% of members of the House of Lords and 45% of public body chairs did so.

Oxbridge graduates also have a stranglehold on top jobs. They comprise less than 1% of the public as a whole, but 75% of senior judges, 59% of cabinet ministers, 57% of permanent secretaries, 50% of diplomats, 47% of newspaper columnists, 44% of public body chairs, 38% of members of the House of Lords, 33% of BBC executives, 33% of shadow cabinet ministers, 24% of MPs and 12% of those on the Sunday Times Rich List.

If you want to thoroughly depress yourself, the Guardian has very helpfully given a detailed datablog outlining the reach of this elite into pretty much every corner of public life.  And, yes, should you ask, half of all Church of England Bishops are also privately educated.

The Westminster village: A wider metropolitan groupthink

Eton-school-boys-make-the-007But the UK’s metropolitan bias runs much deeper than where people went to school.  The bulk of the UK’s so-called ‘national institutions’ and ‘public debate’ is hermetically sealed within a tiny Westminster village, with a radius of about 2 miles, to the effective the exclusion of the rest of the UK.

I’ve lost track of the number of times I have been invited to policy seminars, report launches or other ‘national’ conferences which start at 9.30am (or worse still ‘breakfast briefings’ at 8.30am) – all on the assumption that ‘everyone’ lives or works in central London. Although it might come as a surprise to those locked into a metropolitan world-view, only an eighth of the UK’s population live in London – and 87.5% dont.

But that doesn’t stop the metropolitan elite from claiming that ‘national’ is the same as ‘London-based’ and anything located anywhere else in the UK can be passed off with the moniker ‘regional.’  It is telling how our mental mind maps are warped by London-centric thinking – when actually London is in geographic terms very much at the south-eastern periphery of the UK.

An overbalanced economy

IPPR transport infrastructure spendingEconomically, the UK is equally unbalanced in favour of London.  The London economy (and the City of London economy within it) can either be seen as the powerhouse engine of the UK economy, or alternatively as a huge suction engine, sucking in wealth, talent and investment.  The IPPR North think tank (note: as opposed to the London-based IPPR, which is simply ‘IPPR’ its Northern equivalent has to be given the regional moniker), has exposed the London-bias within Government spending – most notably in relation to transport infrastructure.

As an aside, I’m always amused how the HS2 railway is described by metropolitan types as a key strategy in ‘rebalancing’ the economy – when it starts in London – and doesn’t even directly connect the North of England with Europe (which would be a far more attractive and useful proposition).

And the UK economy is vastly more unbalanced towards the capital than most of our stronger European competitors.  Whilst London’s economy is at least ten times bigger than any other UK city, Germany, Holland, Sweden have far less unbalanced economies.  In Germany’s case, there are seven cities with a comparable (or even larger) GDP as its capital, Berlin.

A symbolic rebalancing: Lets move Parliament to the centre of the UK

What could be a better symbol of a rebalancing of the UK than moving Parliament to the geographic heart of the UK?

I’m not especially arguing the case for Manchester.  For those with memories long enough to remember the ‘Eileen Bilton’ advert that ran on TV for a number of years, Warrington-Runcorn is Britain’s most central location.  So let’s move Parliament there.

Reichstag

Germany moved its Parliament 500km from Bonn to Berlin as a symbolic act to heal a divided nation. What about the UK?

As I write this, I can already hear the noise of the metropolitan types scoffing:  The very idea of moving the institutions of Government 200 miles north!  Impossible!  It could never be done!  And why would we want to?

Well, the Germans did it, so why can’t we?

As a means of bringing together an historically deeply divided nation, Germany moved its Parliament 600 kilometres east, from Bonn to Berlin.  We only have to move ours 300 kilometres.

So why not?

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Areia Blanca: A latter day Naboth’s vineyard

Luanda

The worlds most expensive city – not Tokyo or New York – but Luanda, Angola..

What images come to mind when you think of wealth and poverty in Africa and the UK? Is development always good news for the poor? And is it time to move beyond our old ideas of a ‘rich North’ and ‘poor South’?

In August, I was privileged to accompany a delegation of Greater Manchester church leaders to spend time with some of Christian Aid’s partner organisations in Angola to seek answers to these questions…

Angola is far removed from the stereotypical image of an African ‘basket-case’ economy. Luanda, its capital, is a fantastic, bustling city, bursting at the seams with a population of around 5 million people – virtually a third of the country’s total population. After a disastrous 25 year civil war, over the past decade it has been enjoying a fabulous economic boom, due to Angola’s significant wealth in oil and diamonds.

But wealth comes at a cost. Forget Tokyo, Dubai or New York – according to international research, Luanda is now the most expensive city to live in anywhere in the world. A meal at an ‘inexpensive’ restaurant will set you back 20 US dollars, and a one bed apartment in the city centre will set you back an astonishing $3,500 (£2,100) a month. Yet an estimated two-thirds of the people living there exist on less than $2 a day…

Bordering the Atlantic, the city’s bay area is home to some of its most conspicuous wealth – and poverty – side by side. For some, the homes of the poor in ‘informal neighbourhoods’ are a chaotic eyesore, and an impediment to further development. Ramshackle houses, squeezed tight together, they are gradually being ‘replaced’ with more ‘high class’ developments, skyscraper offices, shiny four star hotels and luxury apartments.

Areia Blanca: A modern day Naboth’s vineyard

Areia Blanca

Just a stone’s throw from Angola’s new Parliament building

Barely a stone’s throw from the gleaming new Parliament building being built on the Luandan seafront, we visited a community of people who had been forcibly evicted from their homes on the aptly described Areia Blanca (White Sands) bay for just this reason.

Eighteen months ago the Government sent helicopters, bulldozers, police and military to clear the homes of this small fishing community. Several people died in the three days it took to complete the eviction. The remnants of the community have spent the past year and a half struggling to survive in tiny fly infested shacks built from tin, cardboard and whatever else they could lay their hands no, on a thin strip of beach, with no sanitation and surrounded by rubbish. The community is slowly, but literally dying, as disease takes its toll. We squeezed past one room hovels with people lying sick and too ill to move, and turned down invitations to intrude on the private grief of family whose father had died just that morning. Yet their plight is seemingly invisible to the city authorities, intent on clearing the bay for more luxury homes and hotels.

Jesus de Nazare, Areia Blanca

No sense of irony: ‘Jesus de Nazare’ fishing boat at Areia Blanca

Sitting with the dispossessed of Areia Blanca my mind went back to a time I had spent more than twenty years ago to Silvertown, at the heart of London’s Docklands; and more recently to Hulme and Ancoats on the edge of Manchester city centre. They may not have been cleared with the same degree of brutality, but their communities suffered a similar fate all the same. ‘Development’ and ‘regeneration’ has come at the expense of the dispossession and dismantling of low income communities who were not judged to ‘fit’ with the new image the city wanted to project to the world: Their land had become too valuable for them to remain. Their ‘regeneration’ could only come at the expense of their own removal.

These in turn are echoes of the story of Naboth’s vineyard (1 Kings 21). Naboth’s bad luck was that his vineyard was close to the palace of King Ahab of Samaria – and Ahab coveted his land. Naboth refused, and paid for it with his life. Yet another story of the rich dispossessing the poor of the little that they have.

For Naboth, read Areia Blanca, Ancoats, Hulme or Silvertown. In the race for ‘development’ the poorest of the poor are, seemingly, always expendable.

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Global wealth and local poverty: The latest evidence

Two stories from today’s news reinforce the picture of gross inequalities and growing contrasts in the fortunes of global rich and local poor.  Things can only get better?

north_southStory One: “Soaring property prices and confident stock markets help swell ranks of global super-rich.” 

More than 1.7 million people joined the ranks of the global super-rich last year.  To qualify as ‘super-rich’ requires ‘investable assets’ of more than $1 million (£600,000) – not including your main home, art collection or vintage car(s).

In Britain the numbers in this elite ‘club’ went up by more than 10 percent just in the past 12 months, to 527,000.  This equates to just under one percent of the total population.   Unsurprisingly, the majority of Britons joining the club have done so as a result of rising property prices.

Just in case you think the UK is an exception, the total number of ‘High Net Worth Individuals’ is a record 13.7 million worldwide.  Just four countries – the US, Germany, Japan – and China – are home to 60 percent of them, with Asia-Pacific the fastest growing region.

And their total net worth is forecast to grow by a further $11.7 trillion over the next 3 years…

Story two: “major study shows UK poverty doubled in 30 years.”

Meanwhile, back in Blighty, the most detailed study ever of poverty in the UK has revealed that the number of British households falling below the minimum living standards has more than doubled in the past 30 years.

The Poverty and Social Exclusion project, led by Bristol University, has found amongst a wealth of other things, that:

  • one third of households go without three or more ‘basic necessities of life’
  • 5.5 million adults go without essential clothing
  • 2.5 million children live in damp homes
  • 1.5 million children live in households who can’t afford to heat them
  • one in five adults have to borrow to pay for day to day needs.
  • a majority of children experiencing multiple deprivation are in a family with someone in work.

And finally: But for the welfare state the UK would be THE most unequal advanced western economy in the world.

And just to cheer you up further, I was at a presentation this morning on ‘the economics of inequality’ at which Ruth Lupton of Manchester University showed the following slide – which reveals that, but for the welfare state, the UK would be the number one most unequal developed western economy.

Inequality in advanced western economies - prior to tax and welfare transfers

Before taking into account the redistributive effects of taxation and benefits, the UK ranks more unequal than our 18 nearest competitor developed nations – more unequal even than the United States.  Ruth’s full presentation is available here.

Just one more reason to speak up as loudly and clearly as we can in defence of taxation and the welfare state…

 

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Breadline Britain: Why I’m angry

Below the BreadlineThere are few things that make me genuinely angry, but this week has been one of them.

On Monday, Church Action on Poverty, Oxfam and Trussell Trust published Below the Breadline – an expose of crisis of food poverty and hunger that increasing numbers are facing across the UK. Channel 4’s Breadline Kids did exactly the same thing.

But what have the political classes been discussing this week? Not why so many people are going hungry, but a tweet.

MPs, columnists, and today, the Deputy Prime Minister have been lining up to fulminate about the outrageous fact that Oxfam tweeted an image of the Perfect Storm. No matter that it only had ten words on it. No matter that it didn’t anywhere on the tweet say (or even imply) that the Coalition is responsible for the perfect storm. No matter that it is actually based on a well argued and reasoned Oxfam report published two years ago.  No matter that all the things listed in the ‘Perfect Storm’ (unemployment, zero-hours contracts, high prices, benefit cuts and childcare costs are patently things which people in poverty are self-evidently struggling with).  Which of these is a charity committed to tackling poverty in the UK not expected (or allowed) to mention?

But what of the scandalous fact that a million people had to turn to foodbanks to be fed in the sixth wealthiest country on the planet?

As one of the principle authors of Below the Breadline, I am not angry on my own part, but for the way in which the artificial storm blown up over a single tweet has obscured a debate about the real issue that Oxfam, Church Action on Poverty, Trussell Trust and indeed Channel 4, were seeking to highlight this week.

People are going without food, and all some politicians and commentators care about is a tweet.  

And just for the record, and the Deputy Prime Minister’s benefit, Below the Breadline is not an attack on the Government’s austerity programme. It isn’t actually an attack on the Government at all.

Below the Breadline is a cry for an informed and adult debate about how we tackle the crisis of food poverty and hunger in the UK.

I’m not asking for politicians of any colour to agree with everything we said in the report. But I would hope that they would at least be willing to engage with the real questions – and want to come up with real answers for the thousands of families who can’t look forward to being able to put a meal on the table for their kids this weekend.

At the moment, it feels like we’re a million miles from that.

And that’s what makes me angry.

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Below the Breadline and the Perfect Storm: Speaking truth to power

Below the BreadlineOn Monday, our latest report on food poverty and hunger – hit the headlines again. Published jointly with Oxfam and Trussell Trust, Below the Breadline highlights the further escalation in the numbers of people requiring emergency food aid over the past year – and the increasingly threadbare nature of the supposed welfare safety net.

Its publication was timed to coincide with Channel 4’s excellent Breadline Kids documentary, broadcast on Monday evening (and still available on 4oD). Breadline Kids tells the true story of food poverty and hunger from the perspective of children and young people. And whilst I’m proud of Below the Breadline, to be honest, the young people’s testimonies have far more power to convey the true awfulness of what food poverty and hunger means to those who experience it at firsthand.

Our task as churches is not only to pull people out of the river, but to ask who or what is throwing them in in the first place.

Both Below the Breadline and Breadline Kids are unashamedly hard hitting. We are facing a situation in which increasing numbers of families and children are going hungry – a fact attested to by churches, foodbanks, advice agencies, public health officers in every corner of the UK. Watching Breadline Kids makes is extremely uncomfortable. And neither is Below the Breadline intended to be a comfortable read.

Church Action on Poverty, like Oxfam, is a resolutely non-party political organisation – but we do have a duty to draw attention to the hardship suffered by poor people we work with in the UK.

How and why is it that, in the sixth wealthiest country on the planet, children are going to bed hungry?

Alongside the heroic work of foodbanks, what is the proper role of the state in preventing hunger? What happened to the idea of the welfare safety net? Alongside the long-term impacts of economic crisis, recession, low pay and rising prices and debts, what have been the impacts of the Government’s welfare reforms, and austerity measures?   What part do sanctions, benefit delays and administrative errors play?

These are rightly questions which as individuals, charities and churches we have a moral duty to ask – and to seek answers to. To ask such questions is not a sign of ‘political partisanship’ but of basic moral duty and concern for human dignity.

Church Action on Poverty is driven by a passionate belief in the dignity of all human beings.  A belief that has been central to Christian belief for the past 2,000 years and an idea that has helped shape the development of the modern British state and society.

We have a proud tradition in this country of concern for the plight of the poor and the vulnerable. It could be described as one of the core values of what it is to be British.

If any of us fell on hard times, through misfortune, sickness, unemployment, low pay or yes, even though an act of rashness, misjudgement or stupidity on our part, we would hope that, failing all else, the safety net would prevent us – or our families, friends or children – slipping into destitution and hunger. Even the Victorian poor law and the dreaded workhouse guarantee that. And slaying the giant evil of want was part of the founding vision of the modern welfare state.

Below the Breadline calls on all political parties to re-commit to the principle of the welfare safety net, and to come up with a workable programme for radically reducing the numbers who need to go to food banks.

To be sure, the shape of the safety net needs to look different in 2014 than it did in 1997 or 1979, let alone 1945. But I have heard no politician of any political party say that there is no longer a need for a safety net.

Different political parties can rightly have different views on how to tackle poverty and hunger, but to claim that any attempts to raise the issue of food poverty and hunger is somehow ‘too political’ demeans politics, and does a huge disservice to those going hungry.

The argument is not about party politics but about how we tackle poverty and hunger together, and about the proper role of faith, charity and Government (of any political persuasion) in this task.

The question fundamentally comes down to this: Do we want to live in a civilised society which ensures that no one need go hungry in the sixth richest country on the planet, or do we not?

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Launching the Good Society Conversation

Listening to the periphery at the heart of Westminster

Good Society Converstaion launch, May 2014There was something intensely symbolic and powerful about yesterday’s launch of the Good Society Conversation by Churches Together in Britain and Ireland and Church Action on Poverty:

Eighty people packed into the Cardinal Hume Centre’s children’s centre, a stone’s throw from Westminster’s power places – Parliament, Whitehall, Abbey and Cathedral – yet somehow a million miles away from the formalities of what now passes for conventional ‘report launches’ or political debate.

Good Society conversations always start with listening at the periphery

As Cardinal Nichols eloquently said in his keynote speech, ‘The Good Society conversations always start with listening at the periphery. But the periphery is not always geographically distant, but rather people or places which feel distant from power.’

And the huge energy in the room came precisely from listening to the stories and voices of those living and working in the peripheries:

Kim Mathews, manager of STAK at Good Society Conversation launchKim Mathews, centre manager of St Austell’s Community Kitchen in Cornwall – a thriving café at the heart of the community, bursting at the seams, offering an extended family of friendship and support to those who would otherwise be isolated. “What makes for a Good Society: Respecting and caring for one another.”

Andi Smith, minister of Saltley Methodist Church, who responded to the realisation that women in their diverse community in Birmingham had nowhere to meet together, by helping to establish the ‘Remnants’ group: Local women, Muslim, Christian and of no particular faith, sewing together, learning new skills, but above all listening to, sharing and affirming each others’ stories. “People from different backgrounds help us see what we can’t see in ourselves, but the truth is that the church has not learned enough from projects like Remnants.”

Paula Tabakin, member of All Souls Church, Belfast with her partner and young daughter – a community in which she feels ‘beloved’, a church offering spiritual refuge to people who are hurt and excluded elsewhere.

Margaret Reynolds, longstanding Church Action on Poverty community activist from Meadowell, North Tyneside, recounting a forty year struggle – in the face of the failures of successive Governments – to bring hope to her extended family and community. And now, in face of absent local politicians, herself standing in the council elections to represent the community she lives in.

Out of such people, stories and communities is a Good Society fashioned

The Good Society: All people are of fundamentally intrinsic worth – an antidote to a society which values people only for what they are worth

Is such a vision of the Good Society the antidote to the hollowed out conversations and failed politics – of left and right – of recent years? Such was the challenge posed by Maurice Glasman, ex-community organiser and living wage campaigner – and now enobled member of the House of Lords? “If we are to forge the Common Good we need to learn to live with tensions and face up to the arguments in a relational way. We need to challenge elites and build a politics based on people who represent communities where they live.”

Faith traditions are well placed to take on this challenge, because we have a radically different notion of human value and the Good Society, according to Elizabeth Oldfield, director of the think tank Theos: “Unlike others who value people only in terms of wealth, work, education or ‘hotness’, we believe that people are fundamentally of intrinsic worth.”

The Good Society: A potential to fill a void in politics and public services

Echoing all that had gone before, Caroline Slocock of Civil Exchange, endorsed the call: “Our task is to fashion a new politics and language of the Common Good. The Good Society conversation has the potential to fill a void in politics and public services.”

So what are your thoughts on the Good Society?

Churches Together in Britain and Ireland and Church Action on Poverty will be gathering the stories and views of all those who take part in the Good Society Conversation together over the coming months. These will help to inform what the Churches say together nationally in the run up to the UK General Election – but the Good Society is also something that all of us have a stake in just as importantly in our own neighbourhoods, villages, towns and cities across Britain and Ireland.

The Good Society Conversation: Now its over to you…

Good SocietyThe Good Society report and website explores what these questions mean to ordinary folk in seven communities across the UK – but now is the time for you to take part…

If you were to have a local ‘Good Society’ conversation with someone in your community tomorrow, who would it be? Which periphery would you start from, and who else – church leaders, politicians or others – might you invite to join in?

Download the handy guide to holding your own Good Society Conversation – and let us know how you get on!

www.agoodsociety.org

 

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