Monthly Archives: November 2013

Stir Up Sunday

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Last Sunday was Stir Up Sunday – the day we are meant to make our Christmas puddings. Of course, the Sunday before Advent is officially known as Christ the King, and although the old collect is no longer part of the new liturgy, the post-Communion prayer starts “Stir up, O Lord…”

But I’m not here to discuss Anglican liturgy! As it was Christ the King on Sunday, the leader of the service in my church asked the congregation to think about what might happen if we had a new king. What should the king be like, what would we like to tell the king, and what would we like the king to do? A really strong theme emerged, suggesting that the king should know what it was like to be an ordinary person, rather than a rich person. People suggested he should come and see what our lives were like, to live on a low income for a while, to understand what it is like when you can’t pay the bills.

Without realising, I reckon we summed up the incarnation, what it means that Christ is King. Because Jesus left the riches and wonder of heaven, and made his dwelling among us (John 1:14). Jesus lived among ordinary people, experienced human life in all its fullness and saw what our lives are like. This is our king!

In the run up to Christmas especially, we think about the nature of this king’s birth. This shows up more about how Jesus identifies with humanity. It is pretty difficult for mere mortals to have much of an idea what it was like to leave heaven and live on earth, though some song-writers have a go, for example “Sacred infant, all divine, what a tender love was thine, thus to come from highest bliss down to such a world as this”. But, with the understanding that God had a choice in the circumstances of this earthly birth, we can recognise their significance and have an idea what that might have been like. Jesus was not born to wealthy parents with a high status in society, but to an unmarried teenage mother with a fiancé who nearly disowned her. He was not born in a palace fit for a king, but in the space reserved for the animals, sleeping not in a crib but in a trough. And within two years of his birth, Jesus had become a refugee, fleeing to Egypt in fear of his life.

In giving up heavenly glory, Jesus didn’t try to replace it with whatever worldly glory might be available. Instead, God chose to identify with the poor, the lowly, the outcast and the refugee. For me, this is just one example of God’s intrinsic bias towards the poor, those without a voice, without power. This is the nature of Christ the King. Our king “did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death – even death on a cross!” Philippians 2:6-8.

If this is our king, and the example we should follow, then perhaps it is still Stir Up Sunday after all.

Another Tax Scandal

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How much tax do you pay? Do you even know? Do you begrudge it or willingly contribute to the public services which benefit us all? Attitudes to tax have undergone rather a transformation in recent years, starting with campaigns by NGOs like Christian Aid. And these days, cuts in public services brought about by the government’s austerity politics don’t sit well with revelations about multi-national corporations’ tax dodging.

So now, tax isn’t dull and boring, or even taboo anymore. It’s on everyone’s lips, it’s making people angry, it’s considered a matter of justice. And what we’re really worked up about is the fact that some big companies, which seem to be doing pretty well for themselves, operating in the UK , benefitting from our infrastructure, aren’t paying any tax. They aren’t giving anything back. Google, Starbucks, Amazon, by clever accounting, have avoided their tax responsibility, while hard-pressed citizens are contributing while their wages are frozen and their hours are cut.

I watched a film last week which showed up how the UK is at the heart of global financial markets and at the heart of systematic global tax dodging. “The UK Gold” is an award-winning film by Mark Donne and Joe Morris and uncovers what is going on under our noses in the City of London.

The film shows, that as the British Empire disappeared, outposts remained in places like the Cayman Islands, Bermuda and British Virgin Islands. Here, laws are passed which are much more for the benefit of other people than the local residents, allowing businesses to record activity there which happens elsewhere. Profits are recorded where tax rates are low or non-existent, et voila! The tax haven is born.

But it doesn’t stop there. For me, the real scandal is not what goes on in a far-off sea, but what happens much closer to home. Most companies in the FTSE 100 index have subsidiaries in tax havens. It is these links in the Caribbean, Singapore and Hong Kong which make the City of London so desirable. Whatever the government might say, the City of London has no interest in closing tax loopholes or opening up tax havens to greater scrutiny, or shutting down their existence altogether. And the City of London is pretty good at protecting its own interests.

The UK Gold shows a vicar from Hackney trying to get elected to one of the wards in the square mile of the City of London. The City has its own authority, its own version of democracy (where businesses have far more votes than residents), even its own police and Lord Mayor (not Boris Johnson!). And just to make sure government doesn’t do anything silly like pass a law which might allow some of the trillions of pounds which pass through the city actually benefit the rest of the country, it has its own special seat in the House of Commons and House of Lords. Not a democratically elected seat, but a special one, right next to the Speaker, called the City Remembrancer, so he (and it will be a he) can whisper in the Speaker’s ear and lobby for vested interest in the very heart of our instruments of democracy. I don’t suppose the enormous wealth of the City of London will be included in restrictions on funds spent on lobbying on election issues within 12 months of an election in the proposed gagging law

I had a mix of emotions after the film – ranging from weary cynicism that the world was ever thus, through a despair of impotence, to indignant rage that we are being fleeced right under our very noses. But Billy Bragg, speaking from the mainstage at Greenbelt, said that cynicism is our biggest enemy, and organisations like Christian Aid and Oxfam mean that our rage can be put to work, rather than leaving us impotent.

Things are changing. Crown Dependencies and Overseas Independent Territories have had to sign agreements to disclose information to tax officers and not keep it secret. This came about under the pressure of the Enough Food for Everyone If campaign. David Cameron recently announced that the real (“beneficial”) ownership of countries will have to be recorded and the list made available to the public in the UK. This has been the subject of Christian Aid’s latest campaign. Uncovering the secrecy is the first step to holding businesses and people to account, and campaigning is making a difference in this area. You can join Christian Aid’s campaign to make the beneficial ownership information public in the rest of the Europe here. And we can keep talking, blogging, asking, writing to our MPs, keeping the tax on the agenda. Because that money has been stolen from us, from our public services. And not just in this country, but all round the world. Christian Aid estimates that $160 billion is lost to poor countries every year – much, much more than they receive in overseas aid, and that really is a scandal.

Solving food poverty in Liverpool

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I spent this afternoon at a really interesting conference organised by Can Cook searching for solutions to food poverty in Liverpool. There is so much amazing work going on in the city to support people and help them, from a comprehensive network of food banks to initiatives in schools and communities to help people learn to cook and make nutritious meals on a budget. Many of us at the conference are shocked at the increasing numbers of people relying on food aid – the number of people accessing Trussell Trust foodbanks has tripled this year. How did we come to this in the 7th richest nation in the world in the 21st Century?

Even those of us who work in food banks know that they can and should only and always be emergency support for people in crisis, and should not become embedded in our culture. Thinking long-term, I’m impressed by the cooking projects in the city, teaching skills, building community, providing resources. Equipping people is necessary if we want to tackle poverty. Lots of us would like to see the tinned and dried food provided in a food bank food parcel added to with fresh food, and some food banks have successfully incorporated fresh food into what they give out. The idea of food aid + was described by Can Cook. They have asked chefs to create 10 meals with just 15 ingredients, and suggest we could ask for these ingredients to be donated by the public in the same way that food items are donated now. I foresee logistical difficulties, but it sounds good in principle.

But I don’t think any of this gets to the heart of the matter. It does not answer the question ‘how did we come to this?’ The bottom line is that people are relying on food aid because they do not have enough money to buy food to feed their families. And sometimes people don’t have enough money to buy gas or electricity to cook said food or warm their homes. This is what we need to address. The reasons are varied and complex, including debt, benefit delays, benefit changes and sanctions, the rising cost of living, and not least new pressures on household budgets from the bedroom tax (sorry, withdrawal of the spare room subsidy) and council tax contributions. But as someone said this afternoon, one of the reasons is certainly not national poverty. The UK is a rich country, and the problem is inequality.

I read with horror that David Cameron has recently given a speech saying that austerity is the new normal.  Austerity is a big con, and a façade for the deliberate shrinking of the state. While services are being cut and support for the vulnerable in society is being removed, there is still enough money in the treasury for tax cuts for the richest and for businesses. People with mental health problems and disabilities find their benefits are stopped for failing to jump through enough hoops, while businesses are happily avoiding paying between £45 and £100 billion in tax jumping through as many tax loopholes as their accountants can find, according to Church Action on Poverty.  Where is the commitment to a Living Wage, so that people who are in work can actually afford a reasonable lifestyle without relying on state or food bank top ups?

The most striking comment of the afternoon, for me, was a remark about free school meals, during a presentation about the School Food Plan. In schools where universal free school meals were piloted, levels of attainment across all economic backgrounds improved. In other words, even children who might be expected to be well fed already benefitted from free school meals. But even more strikingly, the biggest improvements were observed for the poorest children. Not surprising, you say, but actually, these were the children who were already entitled to free school meals. So it wasn’t the introduction of free school meals which made the difference for these children, but the universality of the benefit. This is a demonstration of the difference that can be made when we truly work together for the good of all, for the common good.

As much as we complain about other people, there is nothing worse for mental health than a social desert. The more connected we are to family and community, the less likely we are to experience heart attacks, strokes, cancer and depression. Connected people sleep better at night. They live longer. They consistently report being happier.

Funny how you notice more examples of the same thing once your attention has been drawn to it. After Kate Pickett’s lecture talked about how people with more friends get fewer colds, I came across the above quote in an article in the Guardian about making people’s wellbeing the key element in city design.

Democracy held to ransom by business interests

Democracy held to ransom by business interests

George Monbiot on how corporate interests have a grip on politics. No wonder the government is so keen on its new “gagging bill”:

It’s hardly surprising that the lobbying bill – now stalled by the House of Lords – offered almost no checks on the power of corporate lobbyists, while hog-tying the charities who criticise them. But it’s not just that ministers are not discouraged from hobnobbing with corporate executives: they are now obliged to do so.

Close the Gap

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After my last post about Kate Pickett’s lecture on the Spirit Level, Liam Purcell from Church Action on Poverty told me that their current campaign to Close the Gap was inspired by this research. I’ve been following and supporting this campaign, so I thought I would write a piece all about it.

The Spirit Level investigates how the relationship between a country’s economic growth and the health and wellbeing of its citizens breaks down once a country reaches a certain level of income. The UK has reached this level – until the recession the UK was getting richer but not healthier or happier. Other things were making a difference, and the Spirit Level research demonstrates that differences in income inequality between countries can account for differences in health and wellbeing. Not only this, but reducing income inequality brings benefits not only for the poorest people in a society, but for every sector of the population.

Church Action on Poverty is campaigning to Close the Gap between rich and poor. This would not only transform the lives of those on the lowest incomes, people who Church Action on Poverty works with on a regular basis, but would also make our whole society fairer, happier, healthier and safer. The campaign focuses on four areas: fair taxes, fair pay, fair prices and fair say.

Fair Taxes

Anyone who knows me IRL knows I’ve been campaigning with Church Action on Poverty and Christian Aid on tax since the tax bus came to town! We’ve all been pretty annoyed that Starbucks, Google and Amazon, to name but a few, seem to be able to operate and make profits in this country without paying their fair contribution to the infrastructure which makes their operations possible. Christian Aid also offers a perspective from poorer countries. If we need company taxes to help our economy, how much more important are they in countries with smaller incomes and bigger needs? Tax was a key part of the recent IF campaign, calling for the closure of tax havens loopholes, disclosure of information between tax jurisdictions, and a public register of who really owns companies (beneficial ownership) so money can’t be hidden and citizens can hold businesses to account. We have really put tax on the table, and just in the last few days, the Prime Minister announced that the UK would publish a register of beneficial ownership and that this register would be public and not just for the tax office. Now Europe and the US needs to follow suit.

More needs to be done to close loopholes and tax havens, and Church Action on Poverty is asking for a re-think on tax. It is part of belonging together to contribute to the welfare of all. This is true for businesses and individuals, and we need to build a fair and transparent taxation system that reflects this attitude. If you want to see more about how the UK is still hiding money and how companies in the City of London are not paying their fair share, come and see the film The UK Gold, being screened in Liverpool on 21st November 2013.

Fair Pay

Did you know that this week is Living Wage week? Do you even know what a Living Wage is? It is calculated independently of governments in this country by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (yes, originally the chocolate guy) and is the hourly rate someone working full-time would need to be paid in order to reach what the public considers to be an acceptable standard of living. At £7.65 an hour (£8.80 in London) it is considerably more than the minimum wage of £6.31 (no London rate).

Those who criticise the Living Wage suggest that it would be too expensive to implement and would put people out of business. The first thing response is to remind people that the Living Wage is voluntary and functions as a standard to aspire to. But in case you think that is a cop out, from the reading I’ve done, those organisations which have implemented it have found that improvements in productivity and reductions in sick pay have more than outweighed the cost. I guess it depends how low your starting point is, but the same argument was raised when the minimum wage was introduced, and there was no corresponding increase in businesses going to the wall.

In fact, introducing a Living Wage looks like it would actually save the government money. A new report from think tanks IPPR and the Resolution Foundation suggests that paying everyone at least the living wage would save the government £2.2 billion a year because of a reduction of in-work benefits and an increase in tax and NI contributions, even taking into account the fact that it would be spending more on paying public sector workers. This is something that has vexed me for a while. The Government is effectively subsidising industries which pay low wages, which includes in particular retail and care. There are plenty businesses in these sectors making handsome profits. By topping up low pay, the Government makes low pay a sustainable option and allows it to continue, while supermarkets (for example) continue to rake it in. The solution is not to cut in-work benefits but improve pay, as is beautifully described in this article by Polly Toynbee. She also says “For the long term, power needs to flow back towards the utterly powerless employee. A German-style seat on the board, as well as on the remuneration committee, helps contain top greed…Companies should be obliged to publish their pay ratios, from top to bottom.”

This is the second strand of Church Action on Poverty’s fair pay demand. We need to question whether huge salaries paid to anyone are justified or acceptable. It is not just a question of whether someone is worth it, but rather is it fair or just that in our society there is such discrepancy in pay. There needs to be a shift in attitudes so that pay ratios between the highest and lowest paid workers of 100:1 or even 200:1 are no longer acceptable.

Fair prices

Working with people on low incomes as a debt adviser has really opened my eyes to just how expensive it is to be poor. My dual fuel, pay by direct debit, paperless billing discounts are not available to someone who has to use a pre-pay gas or electricity meter because they are having difficulty meeting their bills. The weekly shop is also much more expensive if you have no transport to the big out-of-town supermarket and have to rely on local shops. Even the buy two get one free offers are out of reach on a low income, never mind carrying all that extra stuff home on the bus!

Another big issue is the cost of credit, significantly more if you are on a low income, and harder to obtain. This is why door-step lenders, payday loan companies and hire-purchase businesses are thriving, because if there’s nowhere else to borrow money and your washing machine has packed in, what else are you going to do? The cost of borrowing like this is astronomical, there is no limit on the fees and charges added on by lenders, and very little checking up on whether a borrower has the ability to repay. If you get behind with your repayments, or “roll-over” your loan for another month, the debts very quickly mount up and become unmanageable and unpayable.

Church Action on Poverty is calling on businesses to stop charging premium rates to their poorest customers and instead introduce social tariffs. United Utilities, water providers in the north west, already do this, and it is an enormous help to some of the people who have come for debt advice. Church Action on Poverty is also calling for a cap on the overall charges which can be levied by lending companies. Regulation for payday lenders is being discussed right now, so if you want to add your voice to calls for fairer lending, you can sign this petition.

Fair Say

How easy it has been for society to slowly but definitely increase the gap between rich and poor, and make life more and more difficult for those at the bottom of the heap. It is easy because those at the bottom lack power. Those with the money not only have power over business and policy decisions, but also over what you get to hear about, what gets discussed in the media, and the way we think about those who have not. Church Action on Poverty works with poor communities, not just to alleviate their needs, but also to give them a voice, to be able to advocate for themselves and bring about their own transformation.

I know I sound like an old-school leftie, battling against the hegemony of the establishment, as if we were lost in 1984 (the novel not the year) with the thought police. But I challenge you to read that report I mentioned in the last post – Poverty: Truth and Lies. And when you’ve read it, then tell me that those in power are not controlling the discourse.