What the DWP didn’t want you to know…

Originally posted on A Fair Say:

Job centre plusChurch Action on Poverty uncovers new Government research which reveals millions of pensioners and working age families losing out as more than £10 billion in benefits go unclaimed.

The Department for Work and Pensions research report, published without comment in June, reveals shocking figures for the numbers of people missing out on pensions and other social security they are entitled to.

This is believed to be the first time the Government has released details of the amount of benefits which go unclaimed since 2010, and reveal a sorry picture of millions of people losing out on the benefits they are entitled to.

  • More than a third of eligible pensioners (between 1.2 -1.4 million people) missed out on receiving Pension Credit during 2013/014 and the total unclaimed came to between £2.5 and £3.3 billion.
  • Jobseeker’s Allowance was the worst performing benefit. The report estimated that more than 650,000 families (at least…

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Who pays the price?

What would an economy truly built on solidarity look like?

solidarityWhat do low paid workers in Britain and Greece have in common? On the surface, not a great deal.

Whatever our thoughts as on-lookers to the latest episode of the on-going Greek tragedy, we might be forgiven for breathing a big sigh of relief ‘at least not us.’ But that might be cold comfort, if you are one of the million working families who are still struggling to make ends meet.

The growth of working poverty

As it was revealed this week, almost two thirds of children living in poverty in the UK are now doing so in a family where someone is in work. A poll last year by the UK’s leading union Unite, found that one in three workers on the minimum wage cannot afford to shop where they work, and one in five young workers on a minimum wage admitted to have resorted to a food bank over the past year.

Hence the growing support in the Church and more widely for the Living Wage campaign. As John Sentamu, Archbishop of York said at the launch of the Living Wage Commission report last year, “Working, and still living in poverty, is a national scandal. If the Government now commits to making this hope a reality, we can take a major step towards ending the strain on all of our consciences.”

Living Wage: Beware false imitations

Living WageBut beware false imitations. George Osborne’s announcement in the Budget of a substantial increase in the National Minimum Wage is undoubtedly good news – but as the Living Wage Foundation has made clear, Living Wage it is not. An increase from £6.50 to £7.20 is clearly welcome, but a real Living Wage would be at least £7.85 an hour – and £9.15 in London.

But whilst the Chancellor claims he wants to “put hard-working people first”, he is offering increased wages with one hand – and taking it away far greater sums with the other. Even the Daily Mail reported that Tax Credits had been ‘slashed’ in the budget – precisely the bit of the benefits system specifically targeted at supplementing the wages for low paid families who struggle most to ‘make work pay.’

According to the independent Institute for Fiscal Studies, three million of the lowest paid families will be on average £1,000 a year worse off. Yet again, it is the poorest who have been asked to pay the highest price for tackling the deficit.

Excluding a small number of the very wealthiest, the richest half of households have yet again escaped largely scot free. In fact, anyone rich enough to be able to pass on a £1 million home to their children will pay no tax whatsoever. Cutting inheritance tax will mean happy days for the top 10 per cent.

The Grecian tragedy: Unpayable debt, untold poverty

greek_debt_chappatteAnd this brings me to Greece. As with the UK and the wider global economic crash, the essence of the Greek tragedy is that the banks lent too much. Greece is now suffering under a burden of unpayable debt. The International Monetary Fund (IMF), not known for its sympathy, has reported that Greece would face an unsustainable level of debt by 2030 even if it signs up to the full package of tax and spending reforms demanded of it.

It is now generally agreed that Greece has experienced an economic crisis on the scale of the US Great Depression of the 1930s.

But who is being asked to pay the price? Not the banks or institutional investors, who have lent untold billions. And certainly not the relatively wealthy Germans and other northern Europeans, who have shown remarkable disinterest in the plight of their struggling Greek counter-parts.

How bad are things for the people of Greece?

Unemployment in GreeceIn the five years from 2008 to 2013, Greeks became on average 40% poorer. Jobs are increasingly difficult to come by in Greece – especially for the young. While a quarter of the population are out of work, youth unemployment is running much higher. Half of those under 25 are out of work. In some regions of western Greece, the youth unemployment rate is well above 60%.

George Katrougalos, the Greek deputy interior minister is reported as saying that austerity had “practically destroyed Greece: We have lost one-fourth of our GDP, practically one in three people are unemployed, half the population is around or below the threshold of poverty.”

As in the UK, so also in Europe: It is the poorest and most vulnerable who are forced to pay the price of wider economic failure. As the Old Testament prophets understood, unchecked debt gives undue power to the lender and ineluctable results in the poor getting poorer.

Solidarity: The basis of the Good Society

Pope FrancisChristian faith – and the founding fathers of the European Union – hold a much bolder vision: That of a Good Society: A society in which, rather than simply extracting ever greater wealth from the poor, the rich exercise solidarity with their fellow citizens and human beings.

As Pope Francis has said “No one can remain insensitive to the inequalities that persist in the world … I would like to make an appeal to those in possession of greater resources, to public authorities and to all people of good will who are working for social justice: never tire of working for a more just world, marked by greater solidarity”

Seven years on from the global economic crash of 2008, is it not time for those on above average incomes in the UK, Germany and across Europe to show a little bit more solidarity to those suffering the most from the consequences of an economic crisis not of their making?

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Manchester deserves real democracy

niallcooper:

Good questions from Ian Chishall, in relation to the plans for our first unelected elected Mayor of Greater Manchester…

Originally posted on ianchisnall:

untitled (210)The decision by the combined Councils in Greater Manchester to choose who the interim Mayor for the region should be to cover the period until a public election can take place in 2017 shows how little respect these powerful politicians have for the people who elect them. Elections for directly elected Mayors and Police and Crime Commissioners (the new Mayor will also be the regions PCC) in other areas have returned a significant number of Independent candidates. As a result of the process planned for Greater Manchester, their first Mayor will be a Labour Party member whether the residents of Manchester wish this or not. This is a travesty and it is time our Political Parties stopped treated their constituents as Pavlovs dogs, turning out to vote every few years, with no involvement in between elections. One of the major challenges is the cost of elections and referenda at a time…

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Another world is possible…

Hope and optimismHope and optimism in spite of present difficulties…

A week on from the General Election and we’re all still adjusting to the new and unexpected reality of a majority Conservative Government. What are our sources of hope and optimism, and what have we to offer to the millions of ordinary people even now struggling to make ends meet?

What are we to make of the £12 billion cuts to benefits?

First, the bad news. Whatever your view on the Election result itself, anyone with an interest in tackling poverty must surely be concerned at the new Government’s commitment to cut a further £12 billion from the benefits budget. Given that pensions are explicitly excluded, this amounts to a cut of roughly ten percent of the budget for working age households – or, as the Lib Dems calculated, a cut of £1,500 a year from the incomes of eight million families.

How will the Government make these cuts? Do they even intend to do so? Which benefits will be cut? Who will be affected and who spared? The problem at the moment is that no one knows. Not even, apparently, the Government itself.

In spite of intense pressure to spell out how they would make such dramatic cuts, the Prime Minister refused to give any details. And Iain Duncan Smith, now reinstalled as Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, explicitly stated that no decisions have yet been made as to where the cuts will fall.

Troublingly, since last Thursday, there has been press speculation that the Conservatives never actually expected that they would have to make £12 billion of cuts. As Conservative commentator Tim Montgomerie argues in the Times today:

“If the Tories got back into No 10 they expected to trade away most of the “right-wing” policies in coalition negotiations. I’m particularly thinking of the housing association right-to-buy, £12 billion of welfare cuts, slashing of inheritance tax and the introduction of a British Bill of Rights. They’re now stuck with them.”

Whither One Nation Conservatism?

On a more optimistic note, since the Election, the Prime Minister has sought to re-assert his commitment to One Nation and Compassionate Conservatism. According to Fraser Nelson of the Spectator:

“One Nation Toryism now whispers: ‘Finish Universal Credit! Tear up the old welfare system that trapped so many! Make sure work pays far more for those at the bottom’. One Nation Toryism now means thinking urgently about why so many have been left behind by this economic recovery, and what can be done for them.”

But not a mention from Fraser as to how that can be squared with loping ten percent of the benefits budget – which props up the incomes of people in low paid work, just as much as those with no work.

Tim Montgomerie, co-founder amongst other things of the Centre for Social Justice – and a powerful advocate of Compassionate Conservatism – argues that David Cameron is to become a truly one nation prime minister he will also have to exercise the freedom given to him by virtue of the fact that he has fought his last general election:

“I hope he exercises it on behalf of the unpropertied and those famous hard-working families who can’t afford further cuts to their benefits. But would the parliamentary Tory party let him? I hope we’ll get the chance to find out.”

Many of us are scared

In the meantime, many are scared at the prospects of a Conservative government, now unfettered by the ‘moderating influence’ of a centre-ground coalition partner. As Rev Mike Walsh has powerfully articulated, in his open letter to the Prime Minister (now shared by more than 100,000 people on social media):

“Many of us are scared. Scared of what your policies will do to our communities and families. Scared of what will happen to our health service and our schools. Scared of losing our family homes for the sake of a few quid saving from the bedroom tax, or not being able to heat our home and have enough left to buy food.

I don’t disagree with you that the best way out of poverty is to work, nor do I think that people should get something for nothing and expect the tax-payer to support people indefinitely if they are able to work. Who would think that that was ok and fair?

But your party’s policies on these issues, couched in terms of reducing the deficit and balancing the books, don’t seem to take into account the social and human cost of such actions.”

So where can we find sources of hope in spite of present difficulties?

What are the hopes, visions and narratives which will connect and inspire people? What stories do we need to tell to convince people that another world is possible, and that they can play a part in bringing it about?

Hearing the cry of the poor: A community of faith?

Can we find hope as a community of faith, committed to living out God’s bias to the Poor? The narratives of liberation theology, biblically rooted (as in the Poverty and Social Justice Bible): As a Christian it is right, and our duty, to speak up for the poorest and most vulnerable – whether or not this changes anything. Prophetic naming of injustice is itself an act of faith and discipleship.

These are the values embodied and embedded in what Church Action on Poverty is and what it does – but are shared much more widely amongst the community of faith that is the Church. In a society which has seemingly lost its moral compass, can we become be a beacon for an alternative set of values?

Speaking truth to power: A community of witness?

Can we find hope as a community of witness? Can we offer a voice to those who are normally voiceless and marginalised: That this is both an intrinsically valuable thing in itself, and a challenge both to our ‘normal’ understanding of the world and of powerholders in church and wider society.

Speaking truth to power: Both in the sense of giving a voice to people in poverty, and through campaigns, challenging politicians to think and act differently. Even if no policy change is achieved, this ‘act of witness’ is intrinsically valuable.

In some ways, the more these values are resisted, the stronger the appeal becomes. To be bound together by presenting a counter-cultural challenge to the powers of the world is a strong bonding force. Prophetic statements and actions, can be powerful means of rallying people to a cause – ‘huddling together’ when the world appears to be against you. Many religious communities have long traditions of surviving periods of exile/persecution through collective acts of solidarity/resistance.

Change Agents: A community of change?

But can we inspire hope that real change is possible? Are we brave enough to offer an invitation to become part of an inspired and inspiring community of people, gathered together and resourced, to bring about positive change in our own churches, communities and more widely, to achieve transformational change at personal, local and national levels?

What would it take for Church Action on Poverty – or, indeed, the Church in its widest sense – to become not just a community of faith, witness and solidarity, but a community of change agents? A community which seeks to embody the change we want to bring about? A community which offers hope and inspiration to its members, the church and the wider community?

For change to come, it is first us that we need to change. Can we ‘be the change’ we want to bring about? Can we overcome the ‘learned powerlessness’ which would have us believe deep down that change isn’t possible? Or that, even if change is possible, it is because of the actions of someone else – but not mine.

Recovering prophetic imagination

As times get harder, do we have a vision of developing a much stronger identity as a community of faith and witness which is consciously counter-cultural to the prevailing spirit of individualism and consumerism? Is there a way of doing this which at the same time enlists the middle class to the cause of tackling poverty and inequality?

In the face of a many reasons for pessimistic, is this the time to reengage with the task of ‘prophetic imagination’? Can we more consciously and explicitly draw on the traditions of faith and the sources of inspiration to create and live out new narratives of hope and optimism in spite of present difficulties?

Can we live up to the challenge of living and acting as if another world is possible?

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Dogs that don’t bark in the night, middle class welfare and other Election heresies…

heresyI am always interested in the issues that don’t appear in Election debates, and the questions which politicians chose not to ask. Take, for example, the issue of middle class welfare…

As I write this the outcome of the General Election is far from clear. So, if a Green/SNP/Plaid Cymru coalition sweeps to power on 8th May on a joint pledge to abolish inequality within 100 days, you can safely ignore everything below. Failing that…

Even before the election campaign proper got started, the Churches were simultaneously under attack and praised for speaking out in favour of the ‘Common Good.’   “Get your noses out of politics”, was the familiar refrain from some quarters.  But in the words of Archbishop John Sentamu

“For Jesus, the head of Caesar may be on the coin, but all things belong to God. So giving must be first to the Lord and Caesar may get what God permits Caesar to take! To suggest that some areas of life are off-limits for the Almighty is at best ignorant and at worst heretical.”

That said, there do still seem to be some topics which remain heretical even for the churches to discuss.

We’re all too aware that the benefits bill is apparently “out of control.”   Politicians and newspapers have been telling us this for years. But who would have known that almost half of the ‘benefits bill’ is actually goes to pensioners, and that unemployment benefits spent on the so called ‘shirkers’ account for less than 2 ½ pence in every pound of welfare spending?

middle classBut what about middle class welfare?

Unless I’ve missed it, politicians, political commentators and newspaper proprietors haven’t been jumping up and down about the billions spent each year on subsidising the lives of those who already have it good.

If you earn enough to be a higher rate taxpayer (that’s over £42,000), you are eligible for ‘higher rate pension tax relief.’ In simple terms, that means that if you save £100 into a pension, you only have to pay in £60 and the Government puts in the other £40. If you are an ordinary rate taxpayer, you have to put in £80 to save £100 – and if you’re don’t earn enough to pay tax, then you have to put the full £100 in to save £100. This tax loophole for the relatively wealthy costs the rest of us £7 billion a year – more than the total cost of benefits paid to the unemployed.

Then there is Housing Benefit – allegedly a benefit for ‘the poor’ – and one of the fastest growing areas of the benefits bill. In fact, £9 billion of Housing Benefit is now paid out directly into the pockets of private landlords. Many are respectable, to be sure, but plenty have been taking advantage of booming house prices by pushing up rents to sky high levels – and effectively profiteering at the taxpayers expense.

And just in case your smugly sitting there thinking ‘none of this applies to me’ – if you are a homeowner, you too (and yes, me too) benefit from middle class welfare, in the form of completely untaxed – and unearned – earnings from the growth in house prices.   Even in the middle of the worst recession for more than seventy years, the ‘value’ of housing has continued to increase in many parts of the country. In London alone, house prices are now more than 40% higher than they were in 2008 – up over 13% in the last year – to an average of £464,000. In simple terms, this means that every homeowner in London is now on average £180,000 wealthier than at the start of the economic crisis. And of course, those lucky enough to own more expensive properties will have seen the value of their properties increase by much greater amounts.

So never mind taxing the windfall house-prices-up2profits of the energy companies, what about taxing the windfall profits of homeowners, who have seen gains of hundreds of thousands of pounds over the exact same period that others have seen their real incomes and benefits squeezed?

In case any of you shriek – how could I possibly pay that – you would only pay the tax at the point when you sell the property and realise the gain. It’s a simple tax, its called capital gains tax, and it already exists on second properties. So why not on people’s first homes?   It’s a tax that would, in all likelihood, raise billions of pounds a year, and do away with the need for any further cuts in the ‘welfare’ budget.

But it would, of course, offend the millions of ‘hard working’ homeowners, whose votes the political parties are seeking to sway.

So, who now is for the Common Good?

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SNP annexation of Manchester welcome

Today’s surprise announcement from Nicola Sturgeon that, in the event of the SNP they would seek to nego

tiate for Manchester to be annexed to Scotland is welcome news for all Mancunians.

Manchester has been under the yolk of Westminster for far too long, its high time we joined with our Northern neighbours in a Greater Celtic Powerhouse.

As part of the deal, Ms Sturgeon proposed to move the production of Iron Bru to Salford, and opening at least three whiskey distilleries bringing an immediate 200 extra jobs to the region.

In other good news in an increasingly unpredictable Election campaign: Ed Balls promised to reintroduce an 85% top rate tax, the Lib Dems confirmed rumours of a new Palace Bedroom Tax, on all domestic palaces with more than 50 spare bedrooms, and George Osborne revealed plans to close down the biggest 10 global Tax Havens – starting with the City of London.

It’s only April 1, and the General Election campaign is already starting to get interesting. Who would believe it?

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A Good Society (1) – A Question of Aspiration

niallcooper:

Interesting reflections on the Good Society theme from Sheffield…

Originally posted on PXI - Reflections on the Cross:

Gill Dascombe and Gill Newton visiting PXI Gill Dascombe and Gill Newton on their visit to PXI

This weekend PXI welcomed visitors from the wider Methodist Church. Gill Dascombe (Vice President of Conference) and Gill Newton (Chair of District) spent a busy Saturday with us, sampling the Space to Grow and Quiet Space activities at Yew Lane, before moving on the Mount Tabor and a discussion about “What Makes a Good Society?”.

The twenty or so of us who took part in the discussions about A Good Society spent time exploring and answering questions like:

  • What would A Good Society look like in 2020?
  • What single change would you make to help make A Good Society?
  • What could you do in order to “be the change you want to see?”

Big questions for a group with ages ranging from under eleven to sixty plus – but from the conversations we discovered some really interesting things about…

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Drowning in Debt: MPs back call to end the rent-to-own rip-off

Originally posted on A Fair Say:

Drowning in DebtThe All Party Parliamentary Group on debt and personal finance has today called on the Financial Conduct Authority to launch an investigation into the so called ‘Rent-to-own’ market, dominated by Brighthouse and Perfecthomes.  Not before time.

In September 2013, Church Action on Poverty published the findings of our own investigation into the ‘Rent to Own’ market, which revealed that since the financial crisis in 2007 it has been boom times for the likes of Brighthouse.

The rent-to-own (RTO) sector has more than doubled its pre-tax profits over the last three years,from £9.83 million to £19.7million, by selling basic appliances, furniture, and white goods to hard-up families at inflated prices and sky high interest rates.
In 2013 we highlighted the example of a six-seater sofa from Sofaland which cost £660 – compared with £2,113 for an equivalent item from BrightHouse.  Add on BrightHouse’s 64.7% interest, and this sofa ends…

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Tackling Tax Dodging: A 2020 Vision of the Good Society…

TDBlargeIf I asked you to share your hope and vision for 2020 what would it be? A land flowing with milk and honey? A shimmering city set on a hill? These may have worked for the old testament prophets, but what can we realistically hope for in what can seem like a hopelessly divided and fallen world?

Add your voice to the Tax Dodging Bill campaign here

The global economy frequently appears to lack a clear moral dimension. Whilst it has generated great wealth, this has been at the expense of also creating growing inequality.

Oxfam reminded the World Economic Forum in January, the richest one percent of the world’s population are on track to have amassed more wealth than the remaining 99% in just two years’ time.

As the Church of Scotland’s report on the Purposes of Economic Activity concluded back in 2012,

“For many years we have been creating an economy where the dominant values are greed and fear. It is an economy in which the weak and the vulnerable suffer disproportionately and where non-renewable natural resources are squandered. We need to re-think what kind of people we want to be and what kind of society we want to live in.”

So is it realistic to dream of an economy that is in service to every human being irrespective of their wealth or the market value of their labour? And if we are to have such dreams, how can we possibly start to turn them into reality?

It is precisely for this reason that a number of Christian agencies and Church leaders have thrown their weight behind a new campaign to persuade political parties to get serious about tackling tax dodging if they get elected in May.

Tax dodging by wealthy individuals and corporations is estimated to cost the UK at least £60 billion a year, and the world’s poorest countries an estimated $160 billion – more than the entire global aid budget. People have witnessed exposé after exposé of large multinational companies and wealthy individuals dodging their basic civic duty to pay their fair share of tax. As a result, those least culpable are hit hardest by declining public services and living standards.

Tackling tax dodging won’t bring forth a land flowing with milk and honey (well, not by 2020 at least), but it would go some way to preventing the rich concealing their wealth from tax authorities – whether in the UK or in the global South – and re-balancing the economy in favour of poorer communities the world over.

As a group of church leaders said at the launch of the Tax Dodging Act campaign in January:

Paying tax reflects our commitment to the society in which we live and work. It also provides the funding for good social services and infrastructure. Spent well, taxes provide a common insurance and make society fairer and more secure. People matter more than profits but every year, billions of pounds are lost through corporate tax dodging. The law needs to change so that the loopholes which allow big corporations to avoid paying their fair share of tax can be closed. We urge each of the UK’s political parties to make a commitment to introduce legislation within the first 100 days of the new parliament, to bring the law into line with people’s expectations.”

More than eight in ten of British adults regard tax avoidance by large companies as ‘morally wrong, even if it is legal’, according to a ComRes poll for Christian Aid in November 2014. Almost as many told pollsters it was important to them that ‘large UK companies pay their fair share of tax in developing countries in which they operate’.

We need a Tax Dodging Bill to tackle corporate tax dodging, and to make tax fair. The potential benefits are huge. It is estimated that the Tax Dodging Bill could generate at least £3.6 billion more a year in tax to fight poverty in the UK, and at the same time redirect potentially billions towards tackling poverty in the world’s poorer countries.

A 2020 Vision of the Good Society if ever there was one…

Read more about the 2020 Vision of the Good Society at www.churcheselection.org.uk

tax-dodging-billWe’re calling for a law that will:

  • Make it harder for big companies to dodge UK taxes and ensure they’re not getting unfair tax breaks
  • Ensure UK tax rules don’t encourage big companies to avoid tax in developing countries
  • Make the UK tax regime more transparent and tougher on tax dodging.

Add your voice to the Tax Dodging Bill campaign at: http://taxdodgingbill.org.uk/#signup

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A Good news General Election?

Four months to the day elections1from the General Election, how do we respond to Jesus’ challenge in 2015 Britain?

When Jesus began his ministry, he announced that he had come to bring good news to the poor and to proclaim the year of the Lord, the year of Jubilee when wealth will be redistributed (Luke 4:18, 19). Jesus spent most of his time among the poorest of the land, teaching, healing and restoring them to full inclusion in their community. Jesus directly confronted the economic inequality of his day.

One of the most refreshing things about Pope Francis is the way in which he has placed this message at the centre of his ministry:

“Christians are called to confront the poverty of our brothers and sisters, to touch it, to make it our own and to take practical steps to alleviate it.”

What are the inequalities we need to confront today? But more than that, do we have a vision of the kind of ‘Good Society’ we would want to live in, and help to bring about? In a world characterised by increasing individualism, can we find ways of reconciling our own interests with those of others, within a broader vision of the ‘Good Society? In what ways is our quality of life connected together, or our wellbeing and happiness connected with that of others? What connects poverty in the UK and in the ‘global south?’ What are we to make of the growth of food poverty and hunger on our own doorstep? How can we listen to and amplify the voices and stories of those directly affected by the myths and stigma associated with poverty?

Whatever answers we may come up with, is it not worth debating such fundamental issues – issues which take us far beyond mere party politics to the very foundations upon which our society is built?

Can we build a Good Society together in 2015?

If you haven’t already done so, why not download the resources to reflect on these issues on Church Action on Poverty Sunday – 15 February 2015?

Niall Cooper
Director
Church Action on Poverty

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