An ecumenical vision for Europe?

OECUMENEWhat has Europe ever done for us? This may seem like a bit of an abstract question, but is probably the most important one we will all be asked to answer this year, in the forthcoming European Union Referendum.

Is the UK’s future inside the European Union, or outside? Do we see ourselves fundamentally as Europeans, or hold on to a vision of Great Britain ruling the waves as a free and sovereign nation? And as Christians, do we make this choice on the basis of our own narrow self-interest, or out of a larger vision of solidarity?

Is it possible to retain a specific and distinct local identity whilst being part of a greater ecumenical vision? And let we forget, the root meaning of oecumene is not about church unity but a vision of the ‘whole inhabited earth.’ Continue reading

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Good news for the rich?

LiberationA Lenten reflection….

We know (or think we know) what Good News for the Poor looks like. But is there an equivalent Good News for the Rich? We know the Bible is pretty unequivocal in its condemnation of poverty, but what has it got to say about the problem of wealth?

Far from ‘rich-bashing’ Jesus’ message was of liberation for the rich – just as it was of liberation for the poor.

Its so hard being wealthy today… Even a million doesn’t go that far any more. In fact, the once-princely sum is now the average house price in 4,735 streets in London, according to the website Zoopla. In Sloane Gardens, Chelsea, £1 million will only buy you a one-bedroom flat. Continue reading

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What the DWP didn’t want you to know…

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

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

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

Interesting reflections on the Good Society theme from Sheffield…

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

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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