Interesting reflections on the Good Society theme from Sheffield…
The 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.
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If 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
- 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
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?
Church Action on Poverty
A functioning safety net not food handouts is the true long-term solution to food poverty and hunger.
Today’s Feeding Britain report has again highlighted the role of benefit delays and sanctions in creating food poverty and hunger. But the scale of the problem is much greater than even Feeding Britain admits to. For far, far too many people, far from providing security against hunger, the ‘Welfare Safety net’ is itself a contributory factor in creating insecurity and destitution. The Welfare Safety net is in urgent need of repair.
Whilst the Feeding Britain initiative is welcome, it must itself only be a short term response. Food handouts surely cannot be a long-term response to the problem of food poverty and hunger in the sixth wealthiest nation on the planet. Even in the so-called ‘developing world’ mass feeding programmes and food aid is only ever seen as a short term emergency response.
The test of the next Government (if not of the current one), is not whether it is effective at enabling its citizens to be fed with surplus food handouts, but whether it has reduced the need for people to turn to food handouts in the first place. For this to be a reality, what people need more than anything else is a fully functioning welfare safety net.
As the recent Emergency Use Only report from Oxfam and others showed, the principle reason for people turning to foodbanks is a sudden loss or drop in income. Sadly, whilst the benefits system was originally designed to cushion people from such shocks, and prevent a drop in income leading to destitution, the current reality is somewhat different.
Most people continue to believe that the Welfare State provides a safety net when you fall on hard times. Yet for literally millions of people, the experience is quite different.
For a variety of reasons – bureaucratic, administrative and policy – increasing numbers of people are being left out of pocket – or literally destitute.
Whilst recognising that benefits are never on their own going to solve poverty (and almost certainly aren’t going to be increased in the current political or economic climate), it is surely not unreasonable to expect the benefits system to prevent people quite literally going hungry?
Below is a list of 15 holes in the Welfare Safety net which currently leave significant numbers of people at serious risk of destitution. These holes urgently need to be plugged.
Worryingly, although the numbers affected run into hundreds of thousands (or in the case over delays in assessment of eligibility for Personal Independence Payments, 1.7 million people), there are numerous holes for which no reliable research or data exists.
|Type of hole||Why does this come about||Numbers affected|
|Delays in assessment of PIPs||Sixth month delays in assessments for Personal Independence Payments. PIP is also a passport to other benefits, therefore delays mean that some claimants are also missing out on other benefits.||1.7 million people previously on DLA|
|Delays in assessment for ESA||People waiting for assessments for employment and support allowance (ESA). Delays and wrong decisions in Atos’s work conducting controversial fitness-to-work assessments have caused distress to vulnerable people.||712,000, including 394,000 new claimants, 234,000 ESA recipients whose reassessments have been delayed, 84,000 still on incapacity benefit yet to be moved to ESA.|
|Transition between ESA and JSA||Gap between being refused ESA and being able to claim JSA – made worse by the fact that you can’t start a JSA claim until you are judged to be eligible for work, and Advisors who turn down ESA claims are not required to advise a fresh JSA claim||249,000 previously on ESA had been assessed as fit for work by Sept 2013. No stats currently available on how many have subsequently claimed JSA or how long without money in meantime.|
|Loss of JSA or ESA benefit due to sanction||Increasingly routine use of sanctions to deprive JSA (and ESA) claimants of any income for up to 3 months (or even 3 years) at a time. Undue pressure on Jobcentre staff to sanction, and some evidence of harassment to withdraw appeals. Over a third of all decisions were to close the JSA claim completely because the claimant judged to be not actively seeking work.||871,000 JSA sanctions during 2013 – up around fourfold since 2006. 4,500 people in Greater Manchester alone had JSA sanctions of at least 3 months from Oct 12 – Dec 13.|
|Underpayment of benefits||Underpayment of benefits has increased by £600m since 2005/6 to £1.6billion, including payments of Income support, JSA, Pensioner Credit and Housing Benefit||Not identified. Total loss £1.6 billion in 2012/13|
|Extended waiting time before applying for JSA||Extension of ‘waiting days’ before it is possible to claim JSA from 3 to 7 days, and further time lag to receiving payment||All new JSA claimants from April 2014 (check date)|
|Administrative delay in receipt of JSA||DWP does not publish official targets for processing benefit claims, but DWP business plan suggests that 90% of JSA claims and 85% of ESA claims should be cleared within 16 days. Not clear if this takes account of delays due to either claimant error or requests for further information to substantiate a claim.||Unidentified numbers of new JSA and ESA claimants.|
|Time lag in payment of Universal Credit||Most claimants will have to wait up to six weeks to receive their first Universal Credit payment, as a result of the extended waiting period and UC being paid monthly in arrears.||Potentially all new Universal Credit claimants|
|Knock on loss of benefits and risk of homelessness||Housing Benefit payments stopped as a result of Benefit Sanctions – immediately causing rent arrears and risk of eviction||No stats on numbers affected, nor on numbers made homeless as result|
|Suspension of benefits||Routine suspension of benefits by BA staff while potential fraud etc is investigated – no presumption of innocence until proven guilty…|
|STBA (waiting for benefits)||Short term benefit advance payments not applied for or received when they should have been||Any stats on numbers potentially eligible v nos who actually claim?|
|Hardship payments (sanctioned)||Hardship payments for people sanctioned not applied for or received when they should have been||No statistics available|
|ESA ‘mandatory reconsideration’||If you think ESA assessment is wrong, there is no automatic payment of ESA during first internal reconsideration||Possible stats on numbers and lengths of time for reconsideration?|
|Tax Credits||Difficult to get mistakes rectified, back-payment not until end of financial year, no emergency payments to cover losses||Possible stats on underpayments, back payments etc?|
|Local Welfare Assistance Schemes||Since the abolition of the Social Fund, welfare assistance has been localised to local authorities – but it is unclear how effective many local schemes are in preventing a need for short term assistance turning into a crisis – or whether the Local Welfare Assistance Schemes will survive the next round of Government cuts. Where then will people turn when their cooker breaks?||Potential to compare numbers assisted in last year of Social Fund with nos helped under LWAS (though are any central figures collected?)|
Commenting on the publication of the All Party Parliamentary Inquiry into Food Poverty and Hunger today, Director of Church Action on Poverty, Niall Cooper said:
Frank Field, Bishop Tim Thornton and the Inquiry team are to be congratulated for a serious and thorough examination of the underlying reasons for the huge growth in food poverty and hunger in recent years.
Our call for a Parliamentary Inquiry in the Walking the Breadline report back in May 2013 has been vindicated. The report confirms what people have been telling for the past 18 months: There is a very real crisis of food poverty and hunger across the UK, the like of which we have not seen in most of our lifetimes, and never expected to see in what is still one of the wealthiest countries on the planet.
This issue of ensuring all our citizens are fed transcends party politics. It is not an issue of left or right, but of basic humanity. It is now time for both Government and Opposition to go beyond scoring political points, and to take seriously the question of how we as a nation ensure that no one need go to bed hungry.
It is no longer possible to deny the scale of the problem, nor the many and complex reasons for it – including chronic low pay, benefit problems and benefit sanctions.
The Parliamentary Inquiry makes many serious recommendations, and it is encumbant on politicians to come up with a serious response.
Advent may be a time of hope and expectation – but it is also for many a time of dread. As the thermometer starts to plummet, increasing numbers of people are faced with the unenviable ‘choice:’ To heat or eat?
For some, this is quite literally, a matter of life and death.
In the freezing weather of 2012, 31,000 people in the UK died unnecessarily – 10,000 due to cold homes.
The increasing cost of energy in the UK has regularly hit the headlines over recent years. Combined with the economic downturn, cuts to benefits, and lower wages, rising prices have contributed to a significant increase in fuel poverty. People are unable to adequately heat their homes; they have to make the choice whether to heat their homes or put food on the table, and in some cases they can’t afford to pay for the energy it would take to cook their food.
Living in a cold home affects children’s educational attainment, emotional wellbeing, and resilience. In adults, it increases the risk of heart attacks and strokes; exacerbates colds, flu, rheumatism and arthritis, and severely undercuts mental health. Social isolation is increased (you can’t invite friends back to a home like a fridge), and elderly people are particularly vulnerable. It’s not a small problem either: almost 4 million households in the UK are in fuel poverty.
Take Jamie and Karen from Manchester. Both struggle with health problems, as does one of their three young children. They have prepayment meters for both gas and electricity, and spend at least £40 a week on energy. They made enquiries about having their expensive prepayment meters removed, but failed the credit check required by fuel companies. They have also built up arrears on their energy account well in excess of £500, which also prevents them from switching to another energy supplier and a cheaper tariff.
One in six energy customers pay for their energy via a prepayment meter – and pay over the odds for doing so. Households with prepayment meters pay on average £253 more per year than those who pay by direct debit. This is the reality of the ‘Poverty Premium’: The basic injustice that those with the least end up being charged the most for many essential goods and services – not just energy, but insurance, furniture and household goods – and for access to money (credit) itself.
Save the Children estimate that the Poverty Premium paid by low-income households can be as much as £1,280 a year.
This is an expense that Jamie and Karen – and thousands like them – cannot ill afford to pay.
In 1988, two Christians, scandalised by the Poverty Premium founded a not-for-profit energy supply company, Ebico (www.ebico.org.uk). Unlike every other energy company, Ebico charges the same price to everybody regardless of whether they pay by prepayment meter or direct debit. Ebico also has no standing charge for both gas and electricity throughout Britain, and this significantly reduces the bills of low-use customers.
Over the next two years Church Action on Poverty will be exploring other practical ways of reducing the Poverty Premium in relation to food, fuel or finance. If these costs could be reduced by even £10 a week, it would make a huge difference to household budgets calculated to the last penny.
Meanwhile, as you look expectantly forward to a tasty roast turkey (or a healthy nut roast) in a warm and toasty home this Christmas, remember those who struggle to afford either.
Food, fuel and finance: Tackling the Poverty Premium is published by Church Action on Poverty in conjunction with the Iona Community and Faith in Community Scotland and others on 8 December. www.church-poverty.org.uk
With thanks to Alison Webster for some of the research and contents of this blog.
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?
“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?
“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
Just 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.
A 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?
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?
Is 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.
Far 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.
The 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.
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?